Reflection for Bamidbar

“Among the Counted”

Luke 2:1-7
1 Corinthians 12:12-31


by Mark Huey

As we turn to the fourth book of the Torah this week, we will soon be remembering the Spring festival of Shavuot or the Feast of Weeks. Although the designation of this book as “Numbers”[1] refers to the command for Ancient Israel to take a census in preparation for entry into the Promised Land,[2] the Hebrew designation b’midbar actually means “in the wilderness.” Within Numbers or Bamidbar, the Israelites receive some significant instruction as they are readied for their inheritance. Upon reading this initial parashah, one is undoubtedly struck by the sense of how the God of Israel is intimately concerned about proper order within the camp so as to avoid confusion. Many centuries later, when having to address civility and orderliness in the ekklēsia, the Apostle Paul would observe,

“For God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the [assemblies] of the saints” (1 Corinthians 14:33).

While still in the desert, the Lord directs Moses to count the Israelite men from twenty years and older,[3] and then even gives them instructions on how they are to array themselves around the Tabernacle as they set out in their travels.[4] Specific details are given to the Levites who have been chosen to handle various duties associated with the Tabernacle and its accoutrements.[5] We see how some specific tribes, clans, and even families are delineated for specific tasks. At least as far as this Torah portion goes, there does not seem to be any voiced opposition to God’s choices for the different people. Apparently, the authority given to Moses was respected by the Israelites, as these guidelines were being relayed to them from the Lord.

It will not be until some time later that we see how some of the Israelites—particularly Korah, Dathan, and Abiram (Numbers 16:1ff)—take issue with Moses. Here in Bamidbar, the principle that the Holy One desires order for His chosen people is clearly evidenced. The Apostolic Scriptures or New Testament also has much to discuss with how there was to be orderliness and organization within the First Century communities of Messiah followers. Paul, for one, has asserted that God is a God of order—not of confusion. Within the sphere of the Corinthian assembly, he uses the metaphor of a body to describe how each person has an important role to play, which then affects the whole. The diversity of different people and their spiritual gifts is to aid the mission and effectiveness of the Believers:

“For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Messiah. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot says, ‘Because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body,’ it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. And if the ear says, ‘Because I am not an eye, I am not a part of the body,’ it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired. If they were all one member, where would the body be? But now there are many members, but one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’; or again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary; and those members of the body which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor, and our less presentable members become much more presentable, whereas our more presentable members have no need of it. But God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. Now you are Messiah’s body, and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the assembly, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, various kinds of tongues. All are not apostles, are they? All are not prophets, are they? All are not teachers, are they? All are not workers of miracles, are they? All do not have gifts of healings, do they? All do not speak with tongues, do they? All do not interpret, do they? But earnestly desire the greater gifts. And I show you a still more excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:12-31).

In this clarifying and encouraging admonishment, Paul emphasizes how the Lord is concerned about the internal makeup of the ekklēsia. God has distributed important gifts to people, in order for all to be ministered to and served. The challenge is not the availability of the gifts, but how confusion can often arise—confusion that generally comes from individuals vying for positional recognition. When people make ministering to the assembly a matter of status or prestige, rather than one of sincere service, then the Body of Messiah as a whole can be hampered. If individuals cannot learn to work together as a collective whole, then the faith community can lose its effectiveness in accomplishing the will of the Almighty.

In contrast to the Ancient Israelites in the wilderness, there was a much broader array of spiritual gifts and opportunities for service available for the First Century Believers. The accessibility to minister in some way was spread quite widely across people who were Jews, Greeks, Romans, as well as free or slave. God does not discriminate when it comes to how brothers and sisters can contribute to the assembly. In the Apostle Paul’s own case, he was not at all reserved about asserting how in the Messiah Yeshua, all are equal—regardless of ethnicity, social status, or even gender:

“For all of you who were baptized into Messiah have clothed yourselves with Messiah. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Messiah Yeshua” (Galatians 3:27-28).[6]

The Messiah event certainly did inaugurate some significant changes in how all human beings are clearly equal before their Creator. Yeshua’s work restored an equality that had been lost at the Fall (Genesis 3:16), and the Pauline letters all indicate that the able Apostle did his best to see it integrated into the different assemblies he taught and mentored. Perhaps if the First Century Messianic community had conducted its own census similar to Ancient Israel, we would be most surprised to see the diversity of the people who were embracing faith in the Messiah. What would probably surprise us the most is the large numbers of people from the lower classes and slave class—a significant indicator as to the type of ethical and moral problems we see addressed in the Apostolic epistles.

Given the emphasis on census taking in Bamidbar, we know that Joseph and Mary followed the Roman edict to register in Bethlehem, when Caesar was taking a census of his empire. The circumstances were used to see the Messiah born in the city of David:

“Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child. While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:1-7).

By Joseph and Mary following the edict to be counted, Yeshua the Messiah was born in the very humble surroundings of Bethlehem. Returning to the ancestral home, an ancient prophecy delivered by Micah was fulfilled:

“But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity. Therefore He will give them up until the time when she who is in labor has borne a child. Then the remainder of His brethren will return to the sons of Israel” (Micah 5:2-3).

Messianic Believers who study the Torah every week, desirous of obeying our Creator, sometimes need to understand that we do not need to be afraid of obeying secular government. Caesar’s census was used to ensure that Joseph and Mary would be at the right place for Yeshua’s birth. Paul placed an emphasis on obeying the governing authorities, as they provide for the civil well being:

“Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same” (Romans 13:1-3).[7]

The bigger question for us to consider when contemplating the numbering of the Ancient Israelites, or Caesar’s counting of the First Century population of his empire—is whether we will be counted among the spiritually regenerated followers of the Messiah Yeshua. This is a counting that is available to men and women from all backgrounds and all walks of life. Have you confessed your sin, repented of it, and been given a heart of flesh with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit? Can you testify of your salvation and that you are born from above?

While knowing about the proper arrangement of tribes of Israel around the ancient Tabernacle, or remembering a little about the Roman census in Judea—the most important thing is to know the Messiah Yeshua and experience His saving grace! Additionally, it is also critical to remember that once you are counted among the assembly of the faithful, you should also recognize that you have been granted important spiritual gifts which are to be properly employed for the benefit of your fellow brothers and sisters in the Lord. You are to be actively glorifying the Holy One of Israel via acts of kindness and goodness toward others!

Do not forget the admonition by Paul to earnestly desire the greater gifts! Seek the Lord so you can be a more useful vessel and a blessing to others!

NOTES

[1] The Greek Septuagint employed Arithmoi for the fourth book of the Torah, which is carried over to today’s English Bibles.

[2] Numbers 1:1-3.

[3] Numbers 1:1-56.

[4] Numbers 2:1-34.

[5] Numbers 2:47-54; 3:1-39.

[6] Paul’s statements here directly subvert an ancient Jewish prayer, in which Jewish males would thank God for not making them a pagan, a slave, or a female (t.Berachot 6:18).

For a further discussion, consult the exegesis paper on Galatians 3:28, “Biblical Equality and Today’s Messianic Movement” by J.K. McKee.

[7] Editor’s note: Romans 13:6-7 indicates how the specific issue probably facing the Roman Believers was the paying of taxes. Apparently within the Jewish community of Rome, there was some significant conflict over the paying of civil taxes, even in spite of some tax reform legislated.

Cf. James D.G. Dunn, Word Biblical Commentary: Romans 9-16, Vol 38b (Dallas: Word Books, 1988), pp 766-767.


This teaching has been excerpted from TorahScope Apostolic Scriptures Reflections by William Mark Huey