We’ve been wandering in the desert of Leviticus for what seems like 40 years, but it looks like we’re finally ready to get back into the Exodus narrative. Numbers 7 picks up where Exodus 40:17 left off.

If you’ll remember, Moses had just built the tabernacle. We pick up the story later that same day, with each of the tribal leaders bringing covered wagons and oxen (for a total of 6 wagons and 12 oxen) for the Levites to use while moving the tabernacle.

  • The Gershonites get two wagons and four oxen.
  • The sons of Merari get four wagons and eight oxen.
  • The Kohathites get none, because the sacred stuff of the inner sanctuary must be carried on their shoulders.

With that done, each of the leaders takes turns making the following offerings:

  • 1 silver plate weighing 130 shekels, full of fine flour mixed with oil for a cereal offering.
  • 1 silver basin weighing 70 shekels, also full of fine flour as above.
  • 1 gold dish of ten shekels, full of incense.
  • 1 young bull, 1 ram, and 1 year-old male lamb for burnt offerings.
  • 1 male goat for a sin offering.
  • 2 oxen, 5 rams, 5 male goats, and 5 male year-old lambs for peace offerings.

(As a side note, we see the specification that the shekels are “of the sanctuary,” which implies a fairly late composition date for the text – certainly far later than the events it purports to describe. We discussed this in more detail when we read Leviticus 27.)

Now, each leader makes the same set of offering, each one on a different day. In case you’re curious, that’s a total of 252 animals killed in a 12 day period. And yet the people are sticking to eating bug poop for some reason…

So here’s the order of offerings:

  1. Nahshon, son of Amminadab, leader of Judah.
  2. Nethanel, son of Zuar, leader of Issachar.
  3. Eliab, son of Helon, leader of Zebulun.
  4. Elizur, son of Shedeur, leader of Reuben.
  5. Shelumiel, son of Zurishaddai, leader of Simeon.
  6. Eliasaph, son of Deuel, leader of Gad.
  7. Elishama, son of Ammihud, leader of Ephraim.
  8. Gamaliel, son of Pedahzur, leader of Manasseh.
  9. Abidan, son of Gideoni, leader of Benjamin.
  10. Ahiezer, son of Ammishaddai, leader of Dan.
  11. Pagiel, son of Ocran, leader of Asher.
  12. Ahira, son of Enan, leader of Naphtali.

In true biblical tradition, we’re given the full list of offerings with each tribe – even though it’s the exact same list each time – and then once more as a summary of what all the tribes gave, just for good measure.

A note on holiness and consecration

We read about the ordination of the priests in Leviticus 8. In Numbers 8, we read about how they are consecrated – meaning that they are made sacred, which allows them to approach the holy areas and objects.

Replica of the Ark of the Covenant, George Washington Masonic National Memorial. Photo by Ben Schumin, 2006

Replica of the Ark of the Covenant, George Washington Masonic National Memorial. Photo by Ben Schumin, 2006

These days, we tend to associate the word “holy” with “good,” but that’s a fairly modern notion. When the Bible is talking about “holy,” it’s talking about “power” – specifically, supernatural power. This is what Raiders of the Lost Ark was drawing on.

Not to give too many spoilers, but when the ark was opened, Indy yells at Marion to close her eyes – because seeing the power of the ark would destroy her (as it destroys the Nazis). Marion and Indy are the good guys, and an understanding of “holy” as something that is righteous or morally good wouldn’t have allowed the ark to harm them. Instead, the ending would have played out more like the trial by ordeal that we saw in Numbers 5, in which the holy object would either kill the morally bad or preserve the morally good.

This is why we are told that, without the barrier of consecrated Levites, the Israelites would suffer a plague if they approach the sanctuary (v.19).

This sounds rather evil to my humanist sensibilities, but I think that the ancient Israelites would have seen it in the same way as we might see a nuclear power station. Only “consecrated” people may approach (people who have the right training and are wearing the right protection). If a lay person were just to walk in and start fiddling with stuff, they’d probably die – or at least get very sick. This notion of supernatural power does seem to strip God of agency, though. He is power, and contact with the wrong people would kill them whether he wants it to or not.

Make of that what you will.

The consecration of the priests

To consecrate your priest, do as follows:

  1. Sprinkle the “water of expiation” on them.
  2. Have them shave their entire body.
  3. Wash their clothes and their bodies.
  4. Fetch two young bulls and a cereal offering.
  5. Present the priest to the entire people, before the tent of meeting. At this time, all the people (all of them – all 603,550 of them, assuming that “people” refers to adult men) should come up and lay their hands on the new priests. This step could take a while.
  6. Aaron – or, I would assume, whoever happens to be high priest – should present the Levites as a wave offering. (Remember that wave offerings are not the offerings that get set on fire – a source of much relief to Levites through the ages, I am sure).
  7. The new priests should now lay their hands on the heads of the bulls.
  8. One bull should be offered as a sin offering, and the other as a burnt offering.

I think that the symbolism of most of these steps is pretty obvious, but step #2 does seem to confuse a few people. I’ve seen a couple commentaries asking why the priests have to shave their whole bodies, and what’s so evil about hair anyway. My assumption would be that hair is seen as a symbol of adulthood (within a couple days of birth, most babies are fairly hairless – at least as far as their bodies are concerned), so my assumption is that the point would be to make the priest “new” again, to give them a symbolic fresh start. We saw this same idea when we covered the Nazirite vow in Numbers 6 – if they are contaminated while under the vow, the Nazirite must shave their head and start growing it again from scratch.

Interestingly, this chapter gives the term of service to the sanctuary for Levites as being from age 25 to 50 (with some duties outside of the sanctuary after 50 – no retirement for these guys, I’m afraid), whereas the census of eligible Levites taken in Numbers 4 didn’t begin counting them until age 30. I’m assuming that this is due to the inclusion of two separate traditions, but it seems like something that would have been reflected by the practice at the time of the text’s composition…