Parashat Behaalotecha – Erev Shabbat 12 June 2020
Week of 7-13 June 2020
Torah portion: Numbers 8:1-12:16 Haftarah: Zech. 2:14-4:7
Theme: Service and Status
In Parashat Behaalotecha, we find references to the Levites, including their status and their service. As Jacob Milgrom explains, the Levites have been assigned the duties of guarding and removing the Tabernacle, but they must first be ritually qualified. Numbers 8 describes the purification rites that the Levites must undergo before they can serve. These rites involve sprinkling, laundering, shaving the body, laying on of hands, and the offering of animal sacrifices (Num 8:6-13).
As a result of this cleansing ritual, the Levites are set apart from the ordinary Israelites. The Lord instructs Moses: “Thus you shall separate the Levites from among the other Israelites, and the Levites shall be mine”. (Num 8:14) The Lord then assigns the Levites to the priests: “Moreover, I have given the Levites as a gift to Aaron and his sons from among the Israelites, to do the service for the Israelites at the tent of meeting”. (Num 8:19) We observe a clear hierarchical order of priests, Levites and Israelites. Saul Olyan calls it a “triadic construction” with each group having a distinct rank and privileges. While the priests officiate at the altar and conduct sacrificial rites including blood sprinkling and fat burning, the Levites are prohibited from officiating at the altar (cf. 18:3-4). Milgrom notes: “they may only transport the dismantled Tabernacle and its sacred objects after they are covered by the priests”.
As described above, the status and service of the Levites seem well-defined within a fixed hierarchical order. Nevertheless, other passages in the Hebrew Bible indicate that the Levites’ status and service were more fluid. Milgrom notes that by the time of David, the Levites “no longer had to transport the Tabernacle and its sancta but were responsible for the maintenance of the Temple, the preparation of sacrificial ingredients, the guarding of the Temple, and the musical liturgy (1 Chron. 23:28–31)”. In some passages, the Levites are considered equal to the priests, as Olyan points out: “According to Deuteronomy and related materials, all males of the whole tribe of Levi are priests and may function as such (Deut 18:1-8)”. Merrilyn Mansfield suggests that the women who served at the door of the tabernacle (in Ex 38:8 and 1 Sam 2:22) did so in a Levitical capacity since the word Tsaba’ which is used to describe the women’s service is also used to describe the period of service for the Levites in and around the tabernacle (Num 8:24).
These different perspectives concerning the Levites suggest that ideas about service and status can change. The texts invite us to be flexible in thinking about religious rank and function. Everyone is invited to serve the Lord. The challenge is to be inclusive, rather than privileging a hierarchy which excludes or marginalizes others from serving the Lord to the best of their abilities and gifts.
For Reflection and Discussion: Are service and status inevitably linked, or is status irrelevant to service?
Bibliography: Milgrom, J. JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers (Philadelphia: 2003);Olyan, S. Rites and Rank. Hierarchy in Biblical Representations of Cult (Princeton: 2000); Mansfield, M. “The Ministering Women and their Mirrors: the Puzzle of Exodus 38:8” (www.academia.edu)