This week we begin the fourth book in our weekly Torah readings. We covered the grand sweeps of human history in the book of Genesis. We followed the sons of Jacob into Egypt and reached the dramatic climax of the Jewish story when Pharaoh finally let God’s people go. Leviticus beat the drum for purity and sanctity standards in the priesthood and in the Tabernacle. Now, in Numbers, we will witness the establishment of order in the desert camp and the building of a great nation, albeit still in utero.
This week’s portion is Numbers 1:1 to 4:20. Numbers picks up only a month after Leviticus ends. The first ten chapters of Numbers are singularly focused on building an orderly and equal societal structure. Numbers gives the blueprint for a threefold square camp. In the innermost square stood the Tabernacle and its courtyard. Outside the Tabernacle courtyard were two concentric squares. In the inner square, the Levites lived, divided up according to families and their respective responsibilities. In the outer square, three tribes occupied each of the four sides to the square. When they got on the move, the tribes retained their marching orders. The division of Judah went first. Followed by Reuben. And then the Levites carting the sanctuary. The tribes of Dan and Ephraim pulled up the lead.
Numbers reminds us that the narrative we are following is the story of a group of former slaves. They are accustomed to living under the heavy hand of Egyptian masters. At first, freedom is more of a prospect than a reality. A society without structure does not equal freedom. That is anarchy. That is chaos. In the case of the Israelites, chaos led to the golden calf.