This parasha begins just after one of the most sudden and vividly gruesome events in the book of Numbers – when the deputy high priest Pinhas (or Phinehas in English) violently skewered an Israelite leader and his aristocratic Midianite fiancée with a spear, by surprise in their tent, as a public execution. This couple were prominent representatives of a dangerous apostasy (a ‘falling-away’ from godliness = the opposite of a revival) that was happening in Israel just before the people were about to cross the River Jordan into their promised land. To provoke God’s wrath against His own people, Moabite and Midianite women were deliberately seducing Israelite men and then persuading them to worship the idol of Baal-Peor. Pinhas’ actions stopped God’s plague of judgement, and earned for him a divine promise of the high priesthood in Israel always being descended from him.
However, Israel still had to go to war against the Midianites to punish their former allies for this betrayal of trust and religious loyalty. The war is described later in chapter 31, and the first step in preparation for this was to take a full census of the twelve tribes – all of the Israelite men who were able to go out to war (chapter 26). Another benefit of this census was being able to work out the relative sizes of each tribe, so that territory in the promised land could be distributed to each tribe in proportion to the number of people they each had. As part of this census, one particular family of five sisters established a legal precedent in Israel that daughters were able to receive ancestral inheritance if they had no brothers (27:1-11).
The author of Numbers also decided that three other matters should be mentioned as well, before describing the battle with the Midianites in chapter 31. The third matter was the rules about how to fulfil vows, but that is outside our parasha for this week (chapter 30). The first matter was God’s warning to Moses that he was going to die before the people crossed over the Jordan River into their promised land, and when Moses asked God to appoint a successor for him as leader of Israel, God chose Joshua, who had been the general in charge of Israel’s battles for the past forty years (27:12-23; see Exodus 17:8-16). Strangely, Joshua is not mentioned in the war with Midian that followed.
The second matter that is included here in this parenthesis, though, initially seems out of place in the context of apostasy and warfare and inheritance. Chapters 28 and 29 give the most detailed description of the sacrifices required every day and week and month and yearly festival, even down to how much flour mixed with oil should be offered up with each lamb or ram or bull. It can be easy to get bored with the repeated details of every single offering, but this is a place where it helps to focus in on what is different between the different feasts, and particularly the number of bulls.
Israel had three annual pilgrimage festivals when all men were required to travel to the central sanctuary to worship God together (Exodus 23:14-17) – Passover, Pentecost/Weeks, and Tabernacles. Offerings for both Passover and Pentecost specify “two bulls, one ram, and seven male lambs” (daily for the seven days of Passover), whereas the Feast of Trumpets and Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) only have “one bull, one ram, and seven male lambs”. The offerings for pilgrimage feasts had to be seen to be more significant than other festivals. We would expect offerings for the third pilgrimage feast of Tabernacles to mirror the first two. Instead, each day of Tabernacles doubles the number of rams and male lambs to “two” and “fourteen” respectively. Clearly Tabernacles is being emphasised even above the other two pilgrimage feasts, but rather than requiring (2×2 =) four bulls daily for the eight days of Tabernacles, the number of bulls is much higher. The first day must have thirteen bulls offered, followed by twelve for the second day, and so on, down to seven for the seventh day, and then just one bull on the final eighth day of Tabernacles, along with just “one ram and seven male lambs”.
The mathematics might seem random and confusing, but the traditional interpretation of the rabbis is quite remarkable. They point out that adding up 13+12+11+10+9+8+7 comes to a total of 70, which is the number of nations God created at the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11), corresponding to the number of the sons of Israel who later went down into Egypt (Genesis 46; compare Deuteronomy 32:8-9). This was why Jesus sent out seventy disciples after sending out the twelve (Luke 9:1; 10:1) – representing mission to the Gentiles that would come after mission to Israel. Effectively, the doubling of the rams and lambs signifies the importance of this festival for both Gentiles and Israel, and the seventy bulls of the first seven days are meant to represent the seventy nations of the world. On this festival, Israel must sacrifice a bull for every other nation first, and then on the eighth day they can finally offer one bull for themselves, along with just the normal number of rams and lambs.
It is no surprise, therefore, that in Zechariah chapter 14 after the Messiah has arrived to rescue Israel from the armies of all nations, all nations must come up to Jerusalem once a year to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. This feast will continue to have significance even after the Messiah is reigning on earth over all nations. But more than that, the order of the bulls is designed to reach its complete number on the seventh day, and Paul likewise observes in Romans 11:25-26 “that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fulness of the nations has come in; and so all Israel will be saved”. Once the Great Commission has been completed, and every nation of the world has heard the “good news of the kingdom” (Matthew 24:14), then “the kingdom will be restored to Israel” (Acts 1:6-8), and “the end will come” – Jesus will reign on earth over a new humanity of (one) Jewish and (many) Gentile nations, united in Messiah and inheriting their promised lands all over the earth.
God felt it was important that Moses and Israel be taught about His good purposes for all nations, before He sent them to punish their treacherous Midianite allies. Their sacrificial relationship with God was meant to illustrate and prepare for God’s work of salvation among the Gentiles, long after this temporary judgement had been carried out. As Gentiles, let us now work diligently to bring the good news to the final remaining nations of the world, and also pray earnestly for the restoration of Israel to their spiritual inheritance in Messiah Yeshua.
The European Coalition for Israel is a unique grassroots movement, which is seeking to promote better relations between Europe and Israel through advocacy and education. More information: www.ec4i.org