Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Nasso: Bamidbar (Numbers) 4:21 – Ch. 7

"Subject matter in the Bible is often arranged and linked together by a process of thought and, in particular, word association, probably originally designed as an aid to memory".1   This principle is well illustrated in Parashat Nasso. There is no need to look far and wide in the Parasha's three and a half chapters for a unifying theme. It is apparent.  In spite of the assortment of different and seemingly unrelated subjects that the Parasha presents, the root of "nasso" pops up in a number of places and in different connotations.

Bamidbar 4:22 says: "Lift the heads of the sons of Gershon…" (literal translation). "Lift" here is "nasso", of the root n.s.a (noon, sin, alef), which we have already encountered in previous portions, and several times in the same context of taking a census in last week’s Parasha (of the leaders of the sons of Israel 1:2, and of the Kohathites 4:2)2. Although the English translations use the imperative form ("take" or "lift"), in actual fact, this is not what the Hebrew text says. The form “nasso” which is used here as a charge, is more like the English present progressive, rendering “nasso” almost as, "lifting up".  This unusual usage in an address form (cf. 3:40 in last week's Parasha, where the usual imperative form "sa" was used) serves to call attention to this verb and lends it the character of a noun.

Let us follow "nasso" throughout our Parasha, and examine its usages within the contexts of the different topics presented.  The reason for the census as it applies to the Gershonites is given as: "This is the service of the families of the Gershonites, in serving and in bearing burdens ["masa"]… they shall bear ["venas'ou"] the curtains of the tabernacle, and the tent of meeting, its covering, and the covering of sealskin that is above upon it, and the screen for the door of the tent of meeting… At the commandment of Aaron and his sons shall be all the service of the sons of the Gershonites, in all their burden ["masa'am"], and in all their service; and you shall appoint unto them the charge of all their burden ["masa'am"]” (4:24,25,27 italics added). 

"Lifting" and "bearing a burden" or a “charge” are all rooted in n.s.a, which describes the essence of the Gershonites' service in the Mishkan. The Meraris' census, on the other hand, is not qualified by the verb n.s.a, but rather by “pakod”, which is translated as "number" but basically means to “attend or visit" (it was also used in this form in last week’s Parasha in relationship to the census of the army, ch. 2). Yet the Meraris’ work is also described as "a charge of their burden" (v. 31), which is, once again, "masa". Altogether the essence of the Levites' service may, therefore, be summarized as: "All those that were numbered of the Levites… everyone that entered in to do the work of service, and the work of bearing burdens ["masa"] in the tent of meeting… every one that entered in to do his work of service, and the work of his burden ["masa'o"] in the tent of meeting… they were numbered by the hand of Moses, each according to his service and his burden…" (4: 46, 47,49 italics added). The ultimate purpose of "bearing" these "burdens" (literally “carrying” or “lifting”), was in order to "lift high” or “elevate” (same root – n.s.a) the One to Whom the Levites were rendering these rites. 

The next section where the root n.s.a makes an appearance is at the very end of the "law of jealousy" (5:11-31), as it is called (or “Sota” – ‘sinning woman’), which is the inspection of possible adultery on the part of a married woman. If and when proven that the wife has transgressed in such a manner, and after having gone through the various rites enumerated, she was to "bear ["tisa"] her iniquity" (v. 31, italics added). Whereas the priests’ duties in "bearing the burdens" of the Mishkan were of the more 'uplifting' kind, here "nasso" connotes 'carrying' a heavy burden of guilt.

The issue of "lifting" comes up again in the famous priestly or Aaronic blessing or benediction, which seals chapter 6. Toward the end of the blessing, we read: "YHVH lift up ["yisa"] His face upon you and give you peace" (v. 26, italics added), which is an altogether different application of the root n.s.a, touching Elohim and His relationship with His People. Notice that the whole benediction is written in the second person singular, implying that each individual within the Nation is being addressed. "Yisa YHVH panav", the lifting of YHVH's face, or countenance "toward you" or "upon you" indicates favor, acceptance, and turning toward the object of the benediction (as we have already seen in the past, regarding the meaning of "face" - "panim"), thus instilling hope in one’s heart. 

Finally, chapter 7 is dedicated in its entirety to the offerings brought for the dedication of the Mishkan (or "Ohel Mo'ed") by the "princes" or "leaders", the "nesi'im", those who are "lifted up" (verses 2,3). Each of those “leaders” is called “nassi” - “one who is elevated”. Because of the specific conjugation that is used for this noun, its literal translation should be, “one who is elevate-able”. In other words, the leaders were not merely the heads of their tribes by virtue of birth. Not at all! In order to be in their lofty positions, they had to be equal to these positions - proving their faithfulness and leadership capabilities. 

“Nesi’im” is also plural for “cloud”. In Proverbs, we find this word used metaphorically: “Whoever falsely boasts of giving is like clouds and wind without rain” (Proverbs 25:14, italics added). In 1st Peter the same imagery is used regarding those “who walk according to the flesh in the lust of uncleanness and despise authority…. These are wells without water, clouds carried by a tempest, for whom is reserved the blackness of darkness forever” (2:10, 17 italics added). 

Let us return now to Umberto Cassuto, who makes the following point: "The book of Bamidbar is arranged chiefly after such a fashion… with various items being included because of a similarity of thought, or phrases recurring in the chapters concerned…"4, as, indeed, is the case of the root n.s.a. Cassuto incorporates other examples from our Parasha: "The laws applying to the suspected adulteress (5:11-31) succeed by those treating the Nazirite (6:1-21), after which is appended the formula for the priestly blessing (6:22-27)".  Preceding the law of the suspected adulteress, which focuses on a "man's wife [who] trespasses a trespass [“uma'ala bo ma'al”], are the laws of the guilt offering, where we encounter the phrase "to do a trespass/commit unfaithfulness ["li'm'ol ma'al"] against YHVH" (5:6 italics added).  Before we continue to follow our ‘chain’, let us pause to look at the verb “ma’al”. A common noun that stems from the same root is “m’eel”, which simply means a “robe”. Thus, it infers that “trespass” is a form of deception, as it is rooted an attempt to cover up one’s actions. By contrast, we read in Yishayahu (Isaiah) 61:10: “…For He [YHVH] has clothed me with the garments of salvation; He has covered me with the robe – m’eel - of righteousness…”

Back to Bamidbar 5:18, where it says about the alleged adulteress: "And the priest shall set the woman before YHVH, and let the hair of the woman's head go loose - u'fara" (italics added). In 6:5 it says concerning the Nazirite: "He shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow long - "pera". Both u'fara and pera share the root p/f.r.a (pey/fey, resh, ayin). Surprisingly this edict conveys a similarity between the Nazarite and the alleged adulteress. However, there are also similarities shared by the Nazarite and the high priest, both of whom are not to touch the dead (cf. 6:6 to Lev. 21:11), being the reason why the Priestly Blessing is appended to this chapter which deals with the Nazirite's laws. Another connection is found in 6:3: "he shall separate himself from wine and similar drink; he shall drink neither vinegar made from wine nor vinegar made from similar drink; neither shall he drink any grape juice, nor eat fresh grapes or raisins". Immediately after Aaron's sons, Nadav and Avihu, kindled the strange fire which brought about their demise, Aaron and his other sons are charged in Leviticus 10:9:  "Do not drink wine or intoxicating drink, you, nor your sons with you, when you go into the tabernacle of meeting, lest you die. It shall be a statute forever throughout your generations". 

Within the specifications of the laws of guilt offering and compensation, mentioned in 5:5-10, the topic of confession - "viduy" - comes up (v. 7). This is not the first time we encounter this topic. In fact, we have already examined the term in Parashat Vayikra (Lev. 1-5, e.g., 5:5). Sefer Ha-hinukh sheds further light on this issue: "The verbal confession of guilt provides an indication that the sinner truly believes that all his deeds are revealed and known to the Lord, blessed be He, and he will not deny the omnipresence of the All-seeing. Again, by verbally specifying the sin and regretting it, he will be more careful in the future not to stumble thereon. After he has said with his mouth… he will as a result, become reconciled with His maker. The good God who desires the welfare of His creatures guided them in this path through which they would gain merit".5 Similarly, we read in 1st John: "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1:9). Hirsh notes that the form of the Hebrew verb "to confess," "hitvadeh", conjugated as it is (in the "hitpa'el" form) “…indicates that the confession consists of man speaking to himself, admonishing his [own] conscience".

In Vayikra 27:1 (Parashat B'chu'kotai) the taking of oaths drew our attention because of the unique Hebrew term "taking a vow". Here this term is used again:  "Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: 'When either a man or woman consecrates an offering to take the vow of a Nazirite, to separate himself YHVH". "Consecrates" here is "yaflee" – of the root p.l.a (pey, lamed, alef (the same root in a slightly different form is used in Bamidbar 15:3 for the same action. There it is "paleh"). This root, as we noted recently, means "wonder" or "to do wonders". Hence, what is "wonderous" about taking an oath? This week's Haftara deals with the annunciation of Shimshon's birth, who was called to be a Nazarite from birth. There, this root is used twice, although not directly in connection with the Nazarite vow. When Shimshon's father, Mano'ach, asks the angel/messenger who appeared (originally) before his wife as to his name, the latter responded with a question: "Why do you ask My name, seeing it is wonderful – pel'ee?" (Judges 18:13). In the next verse, we read: "So Manoah took the young goat with the grain offering, and offered it upon the rock to YHVH. And He did a wondrous thing – hiflee - while Manoah and his wife looked on". The "wonderful" name or the messenger, who acted "wondrously", may divulge His identity as the One who later on was known as the "Wonderful Counselor" of Yisha'ya'hu 9:6. "Is anything too hard for YHVH?" of B'resheet 18:14, reads in the original, "is anything too wonderful – hayipa'le – for YHVH". These words were spoken following Sarah's laughter when she heard the promise that she was to give birth to a son. This chain of words of the root p.l.a may not throw more light on what is said at the opening of chapter 6 of Bamidbar, but it certainly confirms Prof. Cassuto's, regarding "similarity of thought, or phrases recurring in the chapters concerned", and in fact in the entire Scriptures. Thus, it is another device that illustrates the connectedness of all the various parts of Elohim's Word, making it an ongoing organic aggregate.

Let us conclude by reviewing once again the case of the jealous husband from another angle. When Yeshua came up out of the grave on the first of the week (see John 20:1) He was acting as the fulfillment of the first [beginning) of the Omer, which was “waved for our acceptance” (see Lev. 23:11).  An omer of barley (i.e., one-tenth of an ephah, see Ex. 16:36), was also to be used as an offering by the husband who was overcome by a spirit of jealousy, and so we read in 5:15 “… the man shall bring his wife to the priest. He shall bring the offering required for her, one-tenth of an ephah [i.e., an omer] of barley meal…” (emphasis added). The priest was then to make the woman drink bitter water in order to determine whether she was innocent or not (ref. 5:17,18, 22-24, 27), with the effect of the drink on her body being such that it would disclose her true state. When on the stake, Yeshua was also given a bitter drink (gall mixed with wine), which although He did not actually drink, He did taste (see Matt. 27:34). Thus, Yeshua as the jealous husband – or representing Him (see 34:14; Deut. 6:12-16, etc.), whose wife Yisrael has gone astray (e.g., Jer. 3:6) has also become the very offering for her sin, the Priest who makes the offering (e.g., Heb. 5:10), and the One who takes upon Himself her transgression, drinking, as it were, the bitter drink in her place (see. Mat. 26:42; Mark 14:36; Luke 22:42; John 18:11). Without Yeshua's all-encompassing intervention, if the woman was found guilty, she would forever carry her guilt in a form of the curse that she brought upon herself. However, in Vayikra 20:10, it states very clearly that an adulterer and an adulteress are both to be put to death. What is the difference then, between the treatment of the adulteress that we had just read about, who was not to be put to death, and the one that was? If viewed from the more global picture, as we did above, seeing the Husband and the wife being Elohim/Messiah and Yisrael, we may conclude that this is portraying YHVH's treatment of Yisrael versus His approach to Yehuda. The former having, to all intents and purposes, "died" for her adulterous behavior, while the latter was not put to death but had to carry the burden of her sin and curse for many generations. The coming of Yisrael and Yehuda's Redeemer has, of course, completely changed this situation.

In a response letter to the above, Garret Lukas says the following: This past week I saw similarities between the Bitter Waters test and Isaiah 53 that I haven't seen before.  In Numbers 5, a guilty woman "bears (tisa, carries) her iniquity", as you pointed out.  If she is guilty, the presumption is that she'll be barren from then on.  If she is innocent, the scripture says, "She will conceive seed”.

Israel was the Wife of YHWH.  There were plenty of witnesses against her, testifying that she was unfaithful to her husband.  If she had been forced to drink the bitter waters, it was known what the outcome would be.

But Messiah Yeshua stepped in for her:  Isaiah 53:4: "Surely our sicknesses he carried (nasa) and our pains he bore (s'valam - synonym to nasa)." 53:11 "...and their iniquity he bore (yisbol)." 53:12 "and he carried (nasa) the sins of the many".

He bore her iniquity for her.  You mentioned the cup of gall mixed with wine that Yeshua tasted.  In Delitzch's Hebrew translation of Matthew 27:34, he translates gall as "m'rorot", from maror, meaning "bitter".  (What a picture of Pesach as well; just as we are commanded to eat maror at Pesach and taste the bitterness of suffering, so did he.)

One passage in Isaiah 53 that always puzzled me was verse 10.  Even though Messiah would be crushed as a trespass offering, "he will see seed (descendants)."

But reading it in light of Numbers 5, I see now that if Israel had been forced to drink the bitter waters, she would surely have been left barren. How could Messiah hope to inherit future generations of faithful followers with a barren, forsaken wife?  So, he drank the cup in her place, a Righteous One who didn't do anything wrong.


And after the suffering of Isaiah 53 is accomplished, what is spoken in Isaiah 54:1? "Sing Barren One who did not bear!  Burst forth with song, you who were not in labor!  For more are the children of the desolate wife than the sons of the married, says YHWH".

The Barren One is free to conceive seed because her husband has borne her sins and atoned for them himself.

"If it be Your desire, let this cup pass from me.  Nevertheless, not my desire, but Yours be done".

"And YHWH desired to crush him with sickness, in order to make his soul a trespass offering..."

Psalm 32:1-2 makes for an appropriate conclusion to what we have just read: Psalm 32:1-2: “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man to whom YHVH does not impute iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit”.

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