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Each week throughout this series, Eric Orozco will be posting his reaction to the text, teaching and men’s reading plan.
In addition to the talks, readings and blog posts, we’ll be hosting several meetups around the city throughout the week. These informal gatherings will be a place for us to gather and build relationships while we discuss what we are thinking and learning through the series. Meetup times and locations will updated weekly on Facebook.
Of course, if you haven’t heard this week’s talk by Wes, you can check it out here.
Here’s this week’s post by Eric Orozco:
Lift up the head of 603,550 Men
“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,’Take a census of all the congregation of the people of Israel, by clans, by fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, every male, head by head.’”
– Numbers 1:1-2
That opening cracks me up. You can’t help already knowing where things are headed, right? God’s command is to sum the numbers. And Oh Numbers does. For these opening four chapters, we will plod through lists of numbers and sums. Several lists of them. Some figures repeated twice… You know, just because.
But I am actually giddy about the hidden gems we may uncover in our opening chapters. Shocked? I’m not kidding. I heartily jumped at the chance to blog about this book, not because I have a background in Hebrew literature and language. Why? Because Numbers is just that good. If you think Numbers is boring as hell, obviously, you haven’t really read the book.
I will admit that I’m probably not going to throw you much of a rope yet for these first four chapters, these laborious chapters of the censuses (censi?). Let me nonetheless point out something I find quite interesting. How would your reading of these chapters change if I was to tell you that, in the Hebrew original, the exact words for the opening above are these?:
“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,’Lift up the head of all the congregation of the people of Israel, by clans, by fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, every male, skull by skull.’”
– Numbers 1:1-2, from Hebrew, literally
“Lift up the head of all the congregation of all the children of Israel”?… Don’t just count it. Lift up its head!… Literally, that’s what it says!
The words “Lift up your heads!” are probably familiar to you, since they are part of a bridge in a song that we sometimes sing during worship, “Lift High” by Steve Fee and Eddie Kirkland. Their song probably borrows that command from Luke 21:28, which is what Jesus tells us to do when we see Him coming in glory, “because then you will know that your redemption is at hand”.
Interestingly, Exodus 30:12-16 tells us that a census (a “lifting up the head” in Hebrew) is also a redemption process. God’s prescriptions to conduct a census actually redeem the individuals counted with a half-shekel offering. A half-shekel is given as a memorial offering to the Lord for every individual male 20 years or older, “to make atonement for your souls”.
But there is something else suggestive about the language. Normally, in the Hebrew Bible, when you “lift up the head” of someone, you are raising that individual from a lower status up to a higher status. The exact sense of the phrase is that you are “raising (that person or thing) to greatness”. “Raise to greatness” is the command! That’s why David in Psalm 24:7 commands the city gates to “lift up your heads” so that the King of glory can enter through
“Lift up your heads, O gates!
And be lifted up, O ancient doors,
that the King of glory may come in.”
– Psalm 24:7
David wants the gates to become so great and so worthy – raised high enough, in other words – so that the King has an entry to the city worthy of His glory. The same phrase recurs in Joseph’s jail-time interpretation of the dreams of Pharaoh’s chief butler and chief baker in Genesis verses 40:13 and 40:19. If you can recall that story, both the butler and the baker each figuratively had their “head raised up” from the hold, but, uhm, tragically for the baker, the rest of his body didn’t follow upward.
All that to say: these censuses are not just about summing people! These enumerations are thoughtful about people in more ways than counting them. Numbers help you see the structure. I want to challenge you to join me in uncovering the number of ways these censuses and their accompanying instructions are benefiting the wandering tribes of Israel – in any way you can think of: socially, hygienically, militarily, emotionally, ethically or spiritually. Join a meetup group and pool your collective intelligence to attack this. Diagram the encampments described. Play with the sums… What can they tell you about all those men and all those beasts and all those firstborns? Theorize. INDUCT. Leave no creative trail untrod! Be prepared to be sent spinning into other areas of Scripture for answers. Give yourselves license to think expansively.
(Fair warning to the math-inclined: there are dramas and huge questions and provocations in the sums… Bring us your math wizardry if you can deal it!)
I promise that, if you give these chapters some patient thought, you will find many surprising takeaways that will bring you insight about leadership and a mountain of subjects. God is not telling Moses: “Sum the people, dear Moses, so I can hear their number.” Before I began my
studies in Biblical interpretation in the New Testament period, that was my tonal impression of God’s commands to Israel in the Mosaic Law, and, yes, I initially found these passages boring, burdensome, and even unapproachable at places. But then I discovered the wealth of insight and base knowledge that Jesus and the New Testament writers derived from Biblical passages we utterly neglect.
Here at the beginning of Numbers, which is probably one of those places for many, I’m just going to take an educated guess and offer that God already knows what the census numbers will be. What He is after, more than anything, is to raise His people to greatness. Look carefully at how He is doing this…