The Torah portion for this Shabbat will bring us to the conclusion of BaMidbar, Numbers – the fourth of the five books comprising the Torah. If you’d like to follow along, you may open your Bibles to Numbers chapter 33, as we summarize chapters 33 through 36. This Torah portion is entitled Masei (“Journeys”), because it opens with a list of the various journeys undertaken by the Sons of Israel (42 in all) between our leaving the city of Ra’amses in Egypt and arrival at Jericho.
First, notice with me the startling statement that comes halfway through verse 3 and into verse 4: …on the next day after the Passover the sons of Israel started out boldly in the sight of all the Egyptians, while the Egyptians were burying all their first-born whom the Lord had struck down among them.
We didn’t just leave Egypt, we left while the funeral was going on! What a bizarre scene that must have been, and what is lamentable is that it was the repeated hard-heartedness of Pharaoh that brought disaster on his people. That tenth plague was not unavoidable. Nor was the ninth or eight or even the first. When the God of Israel speaks, you do well to heed His voice.
Section I: Egypt to Jericho (33:5-49)
And so chapter 33 gives us a recap, a thumbnail sketch of our journeys. Along the way there were incidents, some of which were very unpleasant. Verse 8 describes our encampment at Marah, and that’s where the waters were bitter and we complained to Moses, who at the Lord’s direction threw a tree into the water and it became clean and deliciously drinkable (cf. Exodus 15:22-25). Verse 9 mentions our encampment at the oasis of Elim, with its twelve lovely springs and seventy date palms. Verse 14 notes our encampment at Rephidim, and that was where we had no water to drink and again complained and threatened Moses. There God provided water for us from the rock! At Kibbroth Hattavah, which is named in verse 16, we again grew impatient and complained about the lack of meat, and were given quail to eat. That’s where the Sons of Israel got greedy and started hoarding the birds and God struck many people down.
In verses 37-39 we are reminded of our encampment at Mt. Hor in the region of Moserah, near the border of the Edomites, and that was where Aaron was called home. Adonai summoned Moses, Aaron and Aaron’s son, Eleazar, up to the mountain. There Moses transferred Aaron’s priestly garments to Eleazar, and there, on the mountain, Aaron died. Eleazar alone came back down off Mt. Hor with Moses.
There’s a rather cryptic statement in verse 40, Now the Canaanite, the king of Arad who lived in the Negev in the land of Canaan, heard of the coming of the sons of Israel.
So what? That’s it? Well, if you were to go back to Numbers chapter 21 you would learn that this particular Canaanite king had attacked Israel and took some of them captive. Israel took a vow, asking Him to deliver those Canaanites into their hands, and God answered that prayer in the affirmative, and we destroyed those cities. The name of the place was changed from Arad to Hormah – meaning, “devoted to destruction”.
Verses 41 to 49 sum up the journeys from Mt. Hor to Jericho, and you all know what happened at Jericho, I hope. But let me ask a question:
What’s up with the list?
Why this long, rather repetitive list of place names? “They journeyed from A and camped at B. They journeyed from P and camped at Q…” and so on? To some people this kind of passage has all the excitement and thrill of, say, a genealogy. Let me assure you there’s are some very good reasons for this list, and it starts with this: This is history! Maybe it’s not exciting to you because it isn’t your history, but we are talking about verifiable geographic sites, and recorded movement that could be verified any time anyone wants to re-trace the Exodus and the Wilderness Wandering. This is the kind of thing that separates a factual, historical document from mythology. In the first place, with just a few notable exceptions, most mythologies exaggerate numbers greatly, and the “heroes” are generally presented as either faultless, or else their flaw is so glaring as to challenge credulity. Look at the book of Numbers, by contrast. Our people are presented neither as flawless, nor as ridiculously caricatured. Moses also is shown in a realistic and genuine light. He was a reluctant leader with human flaws and frailties, but with great faith in God. And then you have these long, seemingly tedious lists of names, numbers and details. But it’s these “boring” little details that help establish the Torah’s historical reliability. And to Israel the Torah would be as the U.S. Constitution, Bill of Rights, and Declaration of Independence are to us. It is a record of our history!
The Revolutionary War might not hold much fascination for someone in Uzbekistan. And even for Americans, the idea of reading the journals of soldiers or recorded numbers of infantry or minute details of military engagements can seem dry. But it is those details that enable us to reconstruct the events and analyze their significance. And the annals of that great war are available, and you can point to those cities, that bridge, those fields, that mill, that river – and those who have done their homework can tell you who fought there, how long the battle raged, how many died, which army was victorious, and how that particular battle contributed to the overall War for Independence. Don’t think for one minute that the list of Israel’s travels and encampments is unimportant! Those willing to go back in the Scriptures and find the significance of the place names and how the events there affected Israel’s future will be blessed tremendously! Or you can just skip over it, as so many do, and miss out on what God intended.
Section II: The Principle Behind the Conquest (33:50-56)
Then the Lord spoke to Moses in the plains of Moab by the Jordan opposite Jericho, saying, “Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘When you cross over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, and destroy all their figured stones, and destroy all their molten images and demolish all their high places; and you shall take possession of the land and live in it, for I have given the land to you to possess it. And you shall inherit the land by lot according to your families; to the larger you shall give more inheritance, and to the smaller you shall give less inheritance. Wherever the lot falls to anyone, that shall be his. You shall inherit according to the tribes of your fathers. But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then it shall come about that those whom you let remain of them will become as pricks in your eyes and as thorns in your sides, and they shall trouble you in the land in which you live. And it shall come about that as I plan to do to them, so I will do to you.’”
Did you notice that we were commanded to drive out the Canaanites? Critics of the Bible often, and predictably, claim that God’s command to destroy the Canaanites is proof that the Old Testament lacks Divine inspiration, and is purely the product of men attempting to whitewash their military conquests. But such an argument betrays a lack of actually having read the text. According to the text, we were instructed to drive out, not annihilate, the Canaanites. Now, the Canaanites, understandably, were not about to willingly pack up and leave, but they chose to fight Israel. God had promised Abraham that this land would be given to his descendants after four centuries as slaves in Egypt, and that the wickedness of the Amorites/Canaanites would by then have reached its zenith. In view of the common knowledge by this time of what Israel’s God had done in Egypt a generation earlier, to take up war against Israel was a foolish bet, and the Canaanites lost.
Now we were instructed to annihilate the Amalekites for their having attacked our caravan in a most cowardly fashion – from the rear, killing the weak and elderly, those straggling behind, including young children and their mothers. The Amalekites targeted the most vulnerable for slaughter, and incurred God’s everlasting wrath.
Now the principle in the foregoing verses is that Israel was not to assimilate the Canaanites into their society. To be sure there were proselytes, just as there had been converts made in the Exodus. We’re told in Exodus 12:38 that Israel went up out of Egypt “a mixed multitude”. This warning against allowing a continued Canaanite presence was not about ethnicity, but about not adopting the horrific cultic practices that characterized Canaanite religion. Those who worshiped Baal and the Asherahs and who practiced cultic prostitution and child-sacrifice, as was the custom of the Canaanites, were not to live in Israel’s borders. As we learned painfully in the account of Bil’aam at Ba’al of Peor, Israel’s toying with paganism led to tragedy! And lest anyone accuse God of a double-standard, He promised that if we began imitating the ways of the heathen, He would pour out His judgment on us as well; And, sadly, we did, and He did!
Section III. Apportionment of the Land (34:1 – 35:5)
Have you ever witnessed or even been part of a lengthy and painful legal battle over property? Most of us would concur with King David, who wrote, “The earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains (Psalm 24:1)”. But if my next door neighbor decided to move their fence a couple of feet into my yard, do you really think I’d just sit idly by?
This next section of parsha Masei concerned the defined borders of the nation, and the equitable apportionment of the Land upon our arrival. By the way, this is one of the reasons I frequently recommend that believers who are serious about their knowledge of the Bible purchase a Bible atlas. When Numbers 34 says that our southern border was to extend from the wilderness of Zin along the side of Edom and… extend from the end of the Salt Sea eastward, it sure helps to be able to look at a map and see what kind of real estate we’re talking about!
(Those who have the Moody Bible Atlas should check out maps 25 & 26 with this passage)
Reuben, Gad and the ½ tribe of Manasseh already had received their land allotment east of the Jordan, “toward the sunrise” (mizrachi) as the text says here, so what we’re concerned with here in chapter 34 is the allotment for the other 9 ½ tribes. Joshua and Eleazar the High Priest were to oversee this, and one man from each tribe was to handle the apportionment. Not a whole lot is said about how it was conducted here, but we are to be reminded that the sons of Israel were inheriting fields they had not sown, houses they had not had to build, flocks they had not had to develop, and they were to be thankful to God. Listen to the words of Moses in Deuteronomy 6: Then it shall come about when the Lord your God brings you into the land which He swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you, great and splendid cities which you did not build, and houses full of all good things which you did not fill, and hewn cisterns which you did not dig, vineyards and olive trees which you did not plant, and you shall eat and be satisfied, then watch yourself, lest you forget the Lord who brought you from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall reverence only the Lord your God; and you shall worship Him, and swear by His name. You shall not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who surround you … (Deuteronomy 6:10-14)
We like to think it’s been our hard work that has enabled us to have homes, cars, wardrobes, filled refrigerators, but you and I don’t have a single thing that isn’t by the grace of God. Many have worked hard but had little to show for it. I am an advocate of honest, hard work. I concur wholeheartedly with Rabbi Paul, who taught that laziness was not to be tolerated. If a man was unwilling to work, he shouldn’t expect to eat. But we are greatly mistaken if we think it is our strength or our ingenuity or our skill that has brought these blessings to us.
If in God we live and move and have our being, what makes us think we have our “stuff” outside of Him?
In chapter 35, verses 1-5 the people are commanded to provide cities within each tribe to live in. The tribe of Levi, as you may recall, did not receive a land allotment. Adonai declared that He Himself would be their portion. But that does not mean that the Levites were to be homeless! Each tribe was responsible to provide adequately for the Levites in their midst. There were to be cities reserved for them to live in. This was not little matter. Those Levites served on their behalf before God. To fail to provide for them would be like stealing: using their services but failing to compensate them. If God forbade us to muzzle an ox while it was working, how much less the servants of the Living God? The Levites were also to be afforded pasture lands for the many flocks needed for service at the Mishkan, and it was very specific: two thousand cubits in each direction from the wall of the city.
Section IV. Distinguishing Manslaughter from Murder (35:6-34)
Numbers 35:9-12 Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall select for yourselves cities to be your cities of refuge, that the manslayer who has killed any person unintentionally may flee there. And the cities shall be to you as a refuge from the avenger, so that the manslayer may not die until he stands before the congregation for trial…’”
Those Levitical cities were to include six cities (three east of the Jordan and three west of the Jordan) set aside specifically as “Cities of Refuge”. It was incumbent upon Israel to make ethical and legal distinctions between manslaughter and murder. The former is accidental (though may involve negligence), while the latter involves malice and intent. However horrifically stupid it may be for a parent to leave their child strapped in a car in hot weather while they go shopping (or to lecture a class at the university) and forget about them, it is a mistake to call that “murder” – in spite of media sentimentality.
If a man accidentally caused another man’s death, there were to be cities established in each region to which he could flee, lest the family of the victim take matters into their own hands and seek revenge and become guilty of murder themselves.
The verses which follow make clear distinctions about what does constitute murder. What we find is that anyone who wielded a hard object, such as a stone, or a wooden object or iron object in their hands, and intentionally and maliciously struck the person, that is to be considered murder. If they flee to one of the cities of refuge, they will still have to stand trial before the High Priest and the people of the city and the avenging family. If they are found guilty – and that had to be by more than one witness – he was to be put to death, and it was the family of the victim that would have that responsibility, and it was not an option. Capital punishment for murder is the biblical standard all the way from Genesis 9:6 to Revelation 21:8.
Human beings bear the image of God, and as such our life is to be regarded as sacred and to be protected, nurtured and cherished. If you willfully take a human life you forfeit your own. That is the principle. There are practicalities, as well. Historically, the threat of capital punishment has always been a deterrent to rampant killing. Some modernists question the effectiveness of deterrent. Actually, anyone who has kids understands the redemptive power of genuine threat of punishment for wrongdoing. In Deuteronomy chapters 13 and 19 God mandated severe punishment for certain crimes (one of which was perjury) and specifically says that people will hear of it and be afraid and never again do such an evil thing.
Section V. Equity and Tribal Integrity (36:1-13)
Our Torah portion ends with an admonition that daughters not be cheated of their inheritance if there was no son born to the family. They were to be guaranteed the retention of their family estate. But lest there be transference of lands between tribes (something prohibited by God), the daughters (in this case the daughters of one Zelophehad) were required to marry within the tribe. The last thing we needed was inter-tribal hostilities over land.
Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that the end of the journey means the end of responsibility. But as in the case of Israel’s journeys and entrance into the Land of Promise, that’s where the real work begins – the work of pursuing justice and trustworthy administration. The next time you’re in a major transition in your life you may want to remember that. Arriving in a new place, or a new position, or a new stage in life hardly means the end of meaningful and diligent work. Keep at it! Do whatever it is that God has given you to do with excellence! Don’t let that line go slack only to have the kite come crashing down. Allow the tension of serving God and doing your very best remain, and you’ll fly high and straight.