Our parasha this week is called bemidbar, meaning “In the wilderness.” This is the first portion to explore as we enter into the book of Numbers; we will see that Israel is finally preparing to leave Mt. Sinai,and heading over to the promised land.
Now, to make sure we don’t get lost in the details, let’s take a moment to see the big picture in the Torah so far: in Genesis, God promised that Abraham’s descendants would inherit the land of Israel. However, because of a famine, they all went to Egypt (with God’s blessing) and remained there. In Exodus, Israel became slaves in Egypt, so God brought them out, and took them to Mt. Sinai in the wilderness. This is where He prepared them to live in the promised land: He gives them His laws, and also told them to build a tabernacle so that He could dwell in their midst. However, there was an issue: When we come to the end of Exodus, after the Tabernacle was built, it says that God spoke from the Tent of Meeting, but Moses was unable to enter it because of God’s holiness. There was a divide. This is where Leviticus steps in. Leviticus essentially provides the instructions for Israel and the Levites to remain ritually and morally pure in order to be able to dwell in God’s presence. So finally, in the opening verse of Numbers, we see that the issue was resolved: it says “Then the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting” (Num 1:1). So now Moses can enter the presence of God.
So, now that Israel’s spiritual state is in a good place, they begin to start moving so they could physically enter the promised land.
Now, we are not entirely sure where Mt. Sinai is, but we know the general region. The walk for Israel should have taken a total of 4–5 days. However, they don’t enter in 4-5 days. Instead, Because of their rebellion at the border of Canaan, Israel will remain in the wilderness for another forty years. And so, the Book of Numbers records Israel’s experience in the Wilderness.
And in a real sense, this “40-years in the wilderness” becomes a type of “training ground” for Israel. During this time, Israel faces many trials, both from the outside, like needing provisions (water or food) or military warfare (protection from different nations), and also from the inside, like rebellion amongst the people against their leadership.
And we find that, in the midst of every trial or difficulty, Israel is presented with two paths: one is to accept God’s revelation, where Israel learns to trust and obey God. For example, when Israel was bitten by poisonous snakes, Moses was told to put one bronze serpent up on a poll, and whoever would look on it would be healed. This becomes a type of the Messiah, and through this revelation, the faith of Israel grew. The second path is rebellion, where they reject God’s instructions. This is also found several times throughout the book. And what is interesting is that we see cases where people who were once faithful, now rebel against God, like Moses when he struck the rock. We also see cases where people who were once rebellious, like Aaron, become faithful leaders as they abide by God’s instructions.
So the book of Numbers is a good reminder of the graciousness of God: that whatever rebellion we have in our past, the Lord is faithful to restore us, and that our life of obedience could start today. But it is also a book of warnings. Just like Paul warned the church in Corinth: “Let him who thinks he stands take heed [or be cautious] that he does not fall” (1 Cor 10:12), so Numbers reminds us that none of us are exempt from becoming proud and thinking we are independent of the Lord. Therefore, Numbers calls us stay vigilant in listening to God’s revelation and remaining obedient to the path and lifestyle that Yeshua calls “Narrow.”
Now, our opening parasha, bemidbar, includes Numbers 1:1–4:20. Here, Israel is getting ready to leave Mt. Sinai and head to Canaan. And, if you have ever been kept up late wondering “Why is the book of Numbers called ‘Numbers’” we are going to find out right now.
As the book of Numbers opens, God tells Moses and Aaron to take a census, to count the number of people from every tribe 20 years and older in order to see who can fight for Israel’s military. The reason was for protection; we see this repeated phrase over and over: “From twenty years old and upward, whoever was able to go out to war.” This is why the book is called “Numbers.”
However, there was one tribe who was left out of this first census. The Levites.
On the one hand, we may think “Wow, they are so lucky! They don’t need to fight in war!” However, the reason they were set apart was for an equally important purpose: they would take care of the Tabernacle so that God’s presence could remain in Israel’s midst. Not only would they care for the Tabernacle (Num 1:51), but they encamped around the Tabernacle “so that there will be no wrath on the congregation of the sons of Israel” (Num 1:53). You see, the Levites were the guards for God’s holiness: they protected impurity from getting in, and as a result, they protected the people from judgment. They were a bridge between the people and God, which sets the example of our heavenly High Priest, the Messiah.
While there are many things to learn from this parasha, we see an important reminder here: everybody has a calling from God. You see, all of Israel was set apart for God’s glory, but within Israel, the Levites had a specific duty and task. And if you break it down even more, different families of the priests had different responsibilities. In the same way, while all of us have been called in a general sense to know the Lord,and to be a light, we also have specific gifts to grow the Body of the Messiah: whether it is serving, teaching, leadership; parasha bemidbar counts everybody in the camp, and this is a reminder that none of us are to fade into the background, but we are to discover our gifts to use them. Therefore, let us embrace our gifts and diligently serve the Lord, and draw closer to His presence to fulfill our purpose in building His Kingdom.