The Holiness of Numbers: Parashat Bamidar – Numbers 1:1-4:20.11.05.13

The Holiness of Numbers: Parashat Bamidar – Numbers 1:1-4:20               11.05.13

 

by

 

Howard Adelman

 

The Book of Numbers begins with numbers, the census of the numbers of Israelites before they enter Canaan. The first four chapters also name all the leaders of the tribes and clans and define the duties of those tribes in military terms and the role of an elite group, the Levites, in servicing the Tabernacle. The census as recorded is as follows:

 

All heads of households over 20 able to bear arms

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

LEVITES

 

 

 

 

 

Divisions

 

 

Sons of

Aaron

Clans

 

 

Reuben

46,500

Judah

Judah

74,600

 

Gershon

Libni

 

 

Simeon

59,300

 east

Issachar

54,400

 

 West

Shimei

7,500

 

Gad

45,650

 

Zebulum

57,400

186,400

Kohath

Amram

 

 

Judah

74,600

Reuben

Reuben

46,500

 

 South

Ishar

 

 

Issachar

54,400

 south

Simeon

59,300

 

 

Hebron

 

 

Zebulun

57,400

 

Gad

45,650

151,450

 

Uzziel

8,600

 

Ephraim

40,500

Ephraim

Ephraim

40,500

 

Merari

Mahli

 

 

Manasseh

32,200

 west

Mannaseh

32,200

 

 North

Mushi

6,200

 

Benjamin

35,400

 

Benjamin

35,400

108,100

Non-Levites

 

 

Dan

62,700

Dan

Dan

62,700

 

Sons of

Moses

 

 

Asher

41,500

 north

Asher

41,500

 

 

Aaron

 

 

Naphtali

53,400

 

Naphtali

53,400

157,600

East

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Age 30-50

 

 

 

 

603,550

 

 

 

603,550

one month +

22,300

625,850

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

22,000

 

Levites

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

22,273

 

 

Note the following about the census:

1. This is, by and large, a military census, a count of men of fighting age over 20 years of age and able to bear arms. Women, children under 20 years of age, and old men unable to report for active military duty are all excluded.

2. The tribes are arranged into four military divisions, with the most numerous and most powerful division located to the east, the most dangerous side; the weakest division, that of Ephraim, is located on the west facing the Mediterranean indicating naval warfare was not part of this entourage.

3. God commands that the Levites, chosen from the first born of all the tribes, who are charged with maintaining the various aspects of the tabernacle, are not included in the census with the Israelites, not with the rest of the Israelites but with the Israelites period. 1:49 reads: “Do not on any account enrol the tribe of Levi or take a census of them with the Israelites.” These are God’s chosen, the first-born of all tribes and families and taken to serve the holy of holies.

4. The Levites are counted differently, for all first-born males over the age of one month are included.

5. Further, three different numbers are given for the number of Levites, a typical rounding off to the nearest one hundred (22,300) plus two outlier numbers, a rounding off to the nearest one thousand (22,000) and then a precise number – 22,273. No precise number akin to this is provided for the tribes and divisions assigned to military duties.

 

My thesis is simple; numbers are holy. Accurate counts and allocations of those counts are critical to political, economic and particularly military purposes. Numbers in service of God, estimated at about 2.5% of the male population in the age range of 20 to 60, may be dedicated to the holy of holies, but the numbers dedicated to the secular in life may not be the holy of holies, but they are holy. The census is holy, something Stephen Harper with his ostensible reverence for traditional religion seems to have ignored when he eliminated the compulsory long form census in Canada so that we only get a two-thirds voluntary return instead of the almost complete results heretofore obtained, a result with much crucial data missing.

 

Let me offer four examples in which I was involved with the holiness of numbers. The first occasion took place just after we set up the Refugee Documentation Project at YorkUniversity, the precursor of the Centre for Refugee Studies. The Begin government of Israel in Operation Peace for the Galilee had invaded Lebanon on 6 June 1982. Recall that in addition to all the raids and terrorist attacks into northern Israel from Lebanon, the trigger for the invasion had been the assassination attempt by the Abu Nidal Organization on the life of Shlomo Argov, the Israeli Ambassador to the UK.

 

I myself had experienced the effects of these terrorist attacks when I spent a sabbatical year in Israel at the time of President Sadat’s visit. Not only were buses carrying school children, including the No. 5 bus which one of my children normally took, blown up, but the Coastal Road Massacre took place planned by Abu Jihad and perpetrated by a terrorist group landing just north of Tel Aviv by sea from Lebanon. The raid was an attempt to undermine and destroy the Egyptian-Israeli efforts to forge peace. The terrorists shot up a car and took over two buses in which eventually 38 Israeli civilians, including 13 children, were killed, and 71 were wounded. In that car that the terrorists shot up from the bus was the brilliant floutist of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, Hanoch Tel-Oren, who was my eldest daughter’s music teacher. He was an American, originally from Arkansas. My daughter was then headed towards a career as a classical flute player. Tel-Oren’s arm was shot and he lost neural control over his fingers so that it was believed at the time that he would never again play the flute.

 

His fourteen year old son, Omri, who was already a clarinettist in the Jerusalem Youth Orchestra, was asleep in the back seat of the family station wagon; he was shot in the head and died instantly. My daughter, Shonagh, had grown close to both Hanoch and his wife, Sharon, also a floutist, and all the children. (They had seven in total but, if my memory is correct, they had five at that time.) In reaction to the trauma, my daughter, who was then two years older than Omri, never picked up the flute to play again. Recently, I tried to talk to her about the incident and she had only the scarcest memory of it. Shonagh became a painter in Israel and remains a painter now living in New York and well known for her pop-surrealist art.

Israel published a figure in late June 1982 that 19,000 had been displaced or been made homeless by the invasion. OXFAM UK published a figure in full page ads in the British newspapers appealing for funds and stating that 600,000 had been made homeless. In my research work I had become convinced that accurate figures of numbers of refugees could be obtained if proper scientific methods are applied. We went first to Israel and then got into Lebanon to test our hypothesis. We did not actually have to undertake a count as we thought. There were already twelve different counts – one by the Palestinian Teachers Association that was the most detailed, another by the Municipal Association of Lebanese Teachers. The Israeli count had been undertaken by a highly reputable scholar from TelAviUniversity who studied Bedouin. Unfortunately, his count contained an arithmetic error by 10,000; discovering that error won our way into Lebanon. As we also learned, in the effort to complete the study quickly, he had missed some pockets of refugees. The numbers of homeless in south Lebanon before the bombardment of the Palestinian camps in Beirut was really 40,000 but still far from the figure of 600,000 that OXFAM UK had published.

 

All of the twelve counts had been well done but each contained some errors and a few methodological problems, but the counts were easily reconciled to yield a correct figure that was subsequently used by all sides as well as by international agencies. The OXFAM figure of 600,000 had come from a distorted version of a report the Red Cross had published that 600,000 had been affected by the war. The Red Cross had, in fact, the most accurate figure of 40,000 homeless, though they were slightly embarrassed by their methodology – they counted the kitchen kits they distributed and multiplied by three.    

 

In another occasion to indicate the holiness of accurate figures, at the time of the multilateral peace talks, the Centre for Refugee Studies was asked by the Canadian government that was gavelling those talks to provide an accurate figure of the number of Palestinian refugees. The problem was that everyone knew that the original numbers of registered refugees with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency of 920,000 was inflated because of double counting and other problems. No one seemed to know the degree of inflation. A very ideologically-based count had been attempted in Joan Peters’ 1984 book, From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict over Palestine. She had argued that the number of Palestinian Aabs who left Palestine in the 1948 war totalled only 540,000. Her figures were proven to be as fallacious as the original UNRWA figures and her methodological errors more heinous. We came up with a figure of 705,000 but subsequently came to the conclusion that the figure of 720,000 by the demographer, Janet Abu-Lughhod, was probably the more accurate one. That figure was the base line used by the states involved in the multilateral talks.

 

A third case involved the Rwandan genocide. An international consortium of 19 international agencies and 18 states had contracted with Astri Suhrke, the Norwegian scholar, and myself to write a report on the role of the international community in the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. As part of that process, we tried to get some sense of an accurate figure of those moderate Hutus and Tutsis who had been slaughtered in just over ten weeks. We proceeded by largely auditing various counts that had been undertaken, though we did participate in one actual count of the numbers buried in a mass grave at Butare and counted 18,463 corpses. Our total came out to almost one million but in an international meeting in Geneva, in examining all the counts, it was agreed to use a figure of 800,000 slaughtered until a fuller, more comprehensive and more accurate count was obtained.

 

The fourth case was an offshoot of the Rwanda genocide. In 1996, the war had spread to Zaire, subsequently the Democratic Government of the Congo. When the Kabila forces backed by Rwanda and Uganda overran the refugee camps in Zaire, claims were made that a second genocide had been perpetrated and that 600,000 had died. These figures were based on the grossly inflated figures of those in the refugee camps, camps that were under the control of the ex-FAR and the militias who had participated in the Rwandan genocide. The figures were grossly inflated to obtain much greater humanitarian aid that could be sold on the black market and used to buy more arms.  As we tried to document (though 20,000-40,000 may have died – an enormous sum in itself), the figure of 600,000 was preposterous and a complete chimera as was the claim of a second genocide.

 

What about the numbers in Numbers? Are they fabrications intended to instil fear in the enemies of the Israelites or are they accurate figures? I am not a demographer. Nor am I a biblical scholar. Without a lot more research, I will not attempt to assess whether the numbers are or are not accurate. What I will claim is that numbers are holy and the foundation of the whole scientific realm of empirical accuracy. Holiness belongs to the secular as well as the sacred realm even if at the centre of the sacred realm is the holy of holies.  

 

As the mathematician Blaise Pascal who invented probability theory has written, numbers, however, holy have their limits. Numbers produce their own paradoxes. If an even number is defined as all numbers divided by two and an odd number is defined as every even number, plus one, is infinity an even or an odd number. There are similar paradoxes about zero. “We know the existence and nature of the finite, because we also are finite and have extension. We know the existence of the infinite, and are ignorant of its nature, because it has extension like us, but not limits like us. But we know neither the existence nor the nature of God, because He has neither extension nor limits.” At the extremes of the secular realm we find paradoxes, whether about those extremes or God who belongs beyond the extremes. When you get to the extremes or beyond them, reason is impotent. However, in the enormous secular realm between, there is a holy commandment – “Get your numbers straight.”

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