Fr. James' Lectionary

The Lectionary is both a reading program for completing all of Holy Scripture on a one year schedule, and a daily comment on a portion of the day's reading wedded to a poem to give an added perspective on the theme.

Location: Amherst, Virginia, United States

Monday, April 04, 2005

Moses, Moses, Take a Census

Daily Readings
Psalm 54 + Numbers 1 + Leviticus 21 +Matthew 10

Verse for the Day
Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Matthew 10:40

Daily Text Numbers 1:1-3

The LORD spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they had come out of the land of Egypt, saying: 2Take a census of the whole congregation of Israelites, in their clans, by ancestral houses, according to the number of names, every male individually; 3from twenty years old and upward, everyone in Israel able to go to war. You and Aaron shall enroll them, company by company.

Moses, Moses, Take a census
A month after the set up of the tabernacle in Exodus 40, the story picks up in the Book of Numbers. There is repeated a census that was noted in Exodus 38 and it probably is the same census. In the census we come up with a total number of fighting age men of 603, 550 and that number agrees with the one in Exodus 38:26. This number of roughly 600,000 men under arms is consistent, wherever it comes up. There does not seem to be any artifice about it. However, 600,000 men age 20 and up would suggest an aggregation of 2,000,000 people. Could the Sinai desert support so many? How would they communicate? How would they move in a relatively constricted space? No one knows. Who in the world would want to fight with such a gigantic force?

In 1957 Mendenhall suggested the following possibility. The word for thousands in Hebrew is elef and the numbers are written thus: 46 elef 500, 46,500. Is it possible that elef which means thousands, did not mean that exactly in ancient times? Could it have meant, say, ‘contingents’ or a grouping of some kind? If so, the numbers might become understandable. For example, the tribe of Reuben has 46 elef 500 men. If that were read 46 contingents 500 men the numbers would become more manageable. The total number of fighting men would then be 5, 550 giving us a total number of people on this wilderness journey of about 20,000. It is still a very large number of folks to be on trek, but the army’s size is consonant with armies of other peoples at that time. Also, communication would be possible with 20,000—with 2, 000,000 one can only conjecture. Such a scheme for understanding these numbers allows the contemporary person to both grapple with reasonable images and take the tradition of the text seriously, as well [Cf. Plaut, The Torah, p.1034]. It doesn’t resolve the difficulties, but it offers an alternative way of thinking.

He Counts Them
A.K. Blank

The Lord of Hosts He counts them, counts them every hour,
Each single, irreplaceable dear head,
Beloved ones in freedom and in sin;
He numbers them amongst the living and the dead.

And when to each the moment of His giving comes,
The moment of indwelling in each compassed soul,
He counts, that love should not except
The least and most unworthy from life’s goal.

That none be missing then, His love
Each solitary life to number and to count
Remmebers, fearing one be strayed
When the Shechinah rests upon the mount.


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