The Israelite ex-slaves won their first battle, but it was a close call. The tribe of Amalek attacked them in the wilderness between Egypt and Mt. Sinai, in the book of Exodus/Shemot. Moses asked his aide, Joshua, to choose some men to fight back. They eventually defeated the Amalekites only because Moses was sitting on a hill above, holding up the staff of God with the the help of two men.1 It was an ad-hoc battle; none of the Israelite men had been organized or prepared.
But when the Israelites leave Mt. Sinai in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, over a year later, they are heading for the southern border of Canaan, only an 11-day march away.2 And this time they expect to be the ones doing the attacking, as they began the process of conquering the “promised land”—with God’s help.
The first Torah portion in the book of Numbers, also called Bemidbar (“in the wilderness of”)3 describes the organization of the Israelites into formations for marching and camping. God tells Moses:
“Take a head-count of the whole congregation of the sons of Israel by their clans, by their ancestral houses, by counting the names of every male, head by head. From age 20 years and above, everyone going out in the tzava of Israel, you shall enroll them for their tzava, you and Aaron.” (Numbers/Bemidbar 1:2-3)
tzava (צָבָא) = army, troop; military service. (This noun was later extended to include any community of people engaged in organized service for a specific purpose. But in the bible from Genesis through Malachi, it always refers either to human military troops, or to God’s organization of the stars or divine forces.4)
“Everyone going into the tzava” turns out to be all the adult men of every tribe except Levi. As Moses and his committee count the adult men in each tribe, the Torah introduces the total with:
… every male from the age of 20 years and above, everyone going out in the tzava: those enrolled from the tribe of …5
This week’s Torah portion lists twelve tribes going out in the tzava; it splits the tribe of Joseph into two tribes, named after his two sons Efrayim and Menasheh. That makes Levi the thirteenth tribe of Israelites.
However, the tribe of Levi you shall not enroll, and you shall not count their heads among the sons of Israel. (Numbers 1:49)
Are the Levite men excused from military service? Not quite. Instead of being assigned to battalions, they are assigned to guard duty.
Enroll the Levites over the Dwelling-Place of the Testimony, and over all the equipment that belongs to it. They shall carry the Dwelling-Place and all its equipment, and they themselves shall attend to it, and they shall camp surrounding the Dwelling-Place. (Numbers 1:50)
The “Dwelling-Place” (mishkan, מִשְׁכַּן ) is God’s part-time residence, also called the Tent of Meeting since Moses receives the instructions from God there. This tent contains the most sacred objects: the ark, the menorah, the bread table, and the incense altar. The priests must wrap these sacred objects when it is time to move, since even Levites may not see them.
The Levites actually camp outside the walls of the courtyard around the tent, to make sure that no one from the other tribes gets too close at the wrong time.
When pulling out, the Levites shall take down the Dwelling-Place, and when setting up camp, the Levites shall erect it. But an unauthorized person who comes close shall be put to death. (Numbers 1:51)
The Torah portion Bemidbar does not say who is responsible for putting an interloper to death. The Talmud suggests that the death would be “at the hand of Heaven”,6 but the only example in the Torah of a mysterious death of a trespasser is in Leviticus/Vayikra, when two newly ordained priests, Nadav and Avihu, bring unauthorized incense all the way into the Holy of Holies at the back of the tent.7
Then are the Levites themselves responsible for putting an interloper to death? Perhaps. Later in the book of Numbers, some Midianite women of Moab entice Israelite men into worshiping their local god. The God of Israel is enraged and punishes the Israelites the usual way, with an indiscriminate plague. Then a Shimonite man and a Midianite woman enter the Tent of Meeting to fornicate, and a Levite named Pinchas runs in and skewers them. Levites are supposed to serve in the courtyard around the tent, not inside the tent itself. But the epidemic abruptly ends, and God rewards Pinchas with priesthood.8
This episode correlates with the next instruction in this week’s Torah portion:
And the Israelites shall camp, each man in his camp, and each man in his division, for their tzava. But the Levites shall camp surrounding the Dwelling-Place of the Testimony, so that the rage of God will not fall on the congregation of the Israelites; and the Levites shall guard the custody of the Dwelling Place of the Testimony. (Numbers 1:52-53)
If an unauthorized person got too close to God’s Dwelling-Place, or even entered it, God’s anger would be triggered, and that would trigger an epidemic. Although the God-character in the Torah wants the Israelites to take over Canaan, this character has an anger management problem. (See my post Pinchas: Aromatherapy.) Therefore the Levites get their own military service: guarding the Dwelling-Place of God, who is a loose cannon.
The Israelite men from the other twelve tribes are enrolled in the army from age 20 and over. But the Levite men are enrolled from the ages of 30 to 50.9
Take a head-count of the sons of Kehat among the sons of Levi, by their clans, by their ancestral houses, from age 30 years and above up to 50 years, everyone who comes for tzava, to do tasks at the Tent of Meeting. (Numbers 4:2-3)
The Kehatites are assigned the duty of carrying the sacred objects from inside the Dwelling Place from one campsite to the next. Next week’s Torah portion, Naso, assigns porterage duties to the other two branches of the Levite tribe. Each list of duties begins the same way as the first.
The traditional interpretation is that age limit of 30 to 50 years applied only to Levite porterage duties, and after age 50 these men still guarded the gates, as well as singing, collecting tithes, and instructing younger Levites.10 Rashi11 explained that while a 20-year-old is strong enough to fight, the strength to carry heavy objects is not fully developed until age 30. After age 50, a man’s strength begins to diminish again.
But the Torah says three times that Levites age 30 to 50 comprise “everyone who comes for tzava, to do tasks at the Tent of Meeting.” Since tzava means military service, this must refer to the task of guard duty at the Tent of Meeting.
Soldiers in an army must use weapons, obey commands, and distinguish whether their targets are members of the designated enemy. The maturity and strength of a 20-year-old are sufficient.
Guards of God’s Dwelling Place would also carry weapons and be able to distinguish between insiders and interlopers. In addition, they would need the ability to calibrate their warnings and actions to fit various situations, and to sense when the threat is urgent enough to risk an intervention that might be out of bounds, like Pinchas’ skewering. No wonder this week’s portion set the lower limit at 30.
Then why is the upper limit age 50? Was the Torah concerned about premature senility?
I doubt it. What I have noticed in my own life is that many, though not all, people become less strict in their fifties or sixties. We learn to accept the things that go wrong, and we forgive more easily. We are better than ever at reasoning with potential trespassers, but less likely to shoot them. We grow into a type of maturity that does not suit the severity of the religious rules in this part of the bible.
That is why I would make a poor guard for any strictly designated holy space, and a poor guardian of received religious tradition. Yet I keep studying Torah and I keep writing this blog. It is a calling. I interpret the angry, immature God-character who often appears in the Torah as a reflection of limitations in the humans who struggled to turn divine inspiration into stories and a code of rules. But I also seek out the inspirations behind the text, and the God behind the God-character.
I am glad I am disqualified, on several counts, from being enrolled in the military service of Levites.
- Exodus 17:8-13.
- Deuteronomy 1:2. In Numbers 13:25-14:35, God dooms the Israelites to spend another 38 years in the wilderness before they cross into Canaan at a different border.
- Each weekly reading in the first five books of the bible is named after an important word in its first sentence (codified by Moses ben Maimon, a.k.a. Rambam or Maimonides, in the 12th century CE.) The name of the first portion in the book is also the name of the book. The book of Numbers/Bemidbar begins: Then God spoke to Moses bemidbar Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting … Since bemidbar (“in the wilderness of”) is the construct form of the word bamidbar (“in the wilderness”), both Bemidbar and Bamidbar are used to name the book and the portion.
- Examples of God’s tzava are Genesis 2:1, in which tzava refers to stars, and Exodus 7:4, in which tzava refers to God’s power to make miracles. See my post Haftarat Bo—Jeremiah: The Ruler of All Armies on the name of God that includes the word Tzevaot, צְבָאוֹת, the plural of tzava.
- Numbers 1:20-21 (Reuven), 1:22-23 (Shimon), 1:24-25 (Gad), 1:26-27 (Judah), 1:28-29 (Yissakhar), 1:30-31 (Zevulun), 1:32-33 (Efrayim), 1:34-35 (Menasheh), 1:36-67 (Binyamin), 1:38-39 (Dan), 1:40-41 (Asheir), and 1:42-43 (Naftali).
- Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 84a.
- See my post Shemini: Fire Meets Fire.
- Numbers 25:6-15. See my post Balak & Pinchas: How to Stop a Plague, Part 1.
- Levites are counted twice in this Torah portion. First all male Levites at least one month old are counted, and then declared official substitutes at the sanctuary for all non-Levite firstborn sons. (Numbers 3:14-16, 3:39-51.) The second count is for Levite men age 30-50 to engage in porterage duty.
- See my post Beha-alotkha & Ezra: Retirement Age.
- Rashi is the acronym of 11th-century rabbi and commentator Shlomoh Yitzchaki.