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“From First-Born to Levites in the Wilderness”
By Dr. Marvin Sweeney, AJRCA Professor of Tanakh
Parshat Bamidbar focuses especially on the organization of the tribes of Israel as they prepare to leave Mt. Sinai for their journey through the wilderness to the promised land of Israel. A special feature of this parashah is the focus on the role of the Levites as the caretakers of the wilderness Mishkan. Although they will not formally be designated as a priestly tribe until Numbers 17-18, it is clear from various texts throughout the Torah, such as the instructions for building the Mishkan (Exodus 25-30; 35-40), the incident of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32-34), and the instructions concerning Temple offerings and other holy matters (Leviticus), that the Levites are destined to assume this sacred role. It is therefore natural that they oversee the wilderness Mishkan placed at the center of Israel in their liturgical march through the wilderness.
A particularly interesting feature of this parshah is G-d’s thrice repeated statement to Moses concerning the priestly status of the Levites, viz., “And I indeed have taken the Levites from the midst of the people of Israel in place of all the first-born, those who breach the womb, from the people of Israel, and they shall be priests for Me. For all the first-born are Mine. On the day that I struck down all the first-born of the land of Egypt, I sanctified for Myself all the first-born of Israel, human and animal. They shall be for Me. I am ha-Shem.” (Cf. Numbers 3:40-41; 3:44-45).
Apparently, the first-born of Israel, all who breach the womb, were the original priesthood of Israel before the Levites assumed the role. Such a reality is signaled by the law in Exodus 34:19-21, “All who breach the womb are mine, as are all your livestock that are remembered with a breach birth, whether cattle or sheep. And the breach birth of an ass you shall redeem with a sheep, and if you don’t redeem it, you shall break its neck. All the breach births of your sons you shall redeem.” The narrative concerning the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22 apparently points to this practice so that Isaac, the first-born of Sarah, will serve ha-Shem and carry on the covenant. The prophet Samuel, first-born to Hannah and her Ephraimite husband, Elkanah, appears to be an example of such practice (1 Samuel 1). Once he was weaned, he was taken to the Shiloh sanctuary to be raised for service as a priest. Although traditional exegesis claims that Elkanah’s Ephraimitic status refers only to his residence based on his identification as a Levite in 1 Chronicles 6:12-13, Chronicles is known as a work that often corrects problems presented by the text of Samuel and Kings. In this case, identifying Elkanah and Samuel as Levites resolved the problem of Elkanah’s Ephraimite identity in 1 Samuel 1:1. Nevertheless, the Hertz Humash indicates that the first-born of Israel in fact originally served as priests in Rabbinic thought, but disqualified themselves for the priesthood by worshipping the Golden Calf in Exodus 32-34. The Levites, on the other hand, demonstrated their devotion to G-d by purging Israel of those who kissed the Golden Calf.
We have seen instances of change in our religious leadership from antiquity to the present. The Levites supplanted the first-born to serve as the priesthood of Israel; the Rabbis supplanted the priesthood to serve as the teachers and judges of Israel; and in the Enlightenment period, the Rabbis began to expand their functions to serve as pulpit Rabbis, following in many respects the patterns of Protestant ministers and Catholic priests in Germany and elsewhere in Europe and beyond. Today, the Rabbinate is in flux once again. Although some will continue to serve as pulpit Rabbis, others serve as counselors, federation and institute administrators, directors of social service organizations, attorneys, medical doctors, and other roles. Like our ancestors in the wilderness, we live in a changing world. We must be prepared for it by adapting traditional roles to the needs and challenges of our times.