“When the Tabernacle is to set out, the Levites shall take it down, and when the Tabernacle is to be pitched, the Levites shall set it up; any outsider who encroaches shall be put to death. The Israelites shall encamp troop by troop, each man with his division and each under his standard. The Levites, however, shall camp around the Tabernacle of the Pact, that wrath may not strike the Israelite community; the Levites shall stand guard around the Tabernacle of the Pact” (Num 1: 51-53).
How does one prepare for the wilderness, a place of anxiety and romance, independence and intense dependence? A review of the word “midbar” in a Concordance offers us a range of biblical verses that speak of primal love and terror in a wasteland of flash floods, vicious animals, deep darkness and despair. One cannot ever completely prepare for it. Readers of the Book of Numbers will understand the book better if wilderness is studied as an actual character. The natural world the Israelites face was harsh and unforgiving. It makes and breaks people. One scholar notes that there is not one recorded birth in its pages but plenty of deaths, thousands in fact
T. S. Eliot’s “Waste Land” helps us imagine the hardships of such a place: “…I was neither/Living nor dead, and I knew nothing/Looking into the heart of light, the silence.”
The first ten chapters of Numbers put mechanisms in place to manage this wilderness. Numbers opens with a census to determine a credible army for protection. The camp is divided by tribe and flag with a strategic formation with every pause in the trek. Organization accompanied by intense vigilance was needed to fight the chaos of the wilderness. Discipline of this magnitude is captured magnificently by Amitav Gosh in his historical fiction, The Glass Palace, about British rubber plantations tended by in Burma before the Second World War:
“This is my little empire...I made it. I took it from the jungle and molded it into what I wanted it to be. Now that it’s mine, I take good care of it. There’s law, there’s order, everything is well run. Looking at it you would think that everything here is tame, domesticated, that all the parts have been fitted carefully together. But it’s when you try to make the whole machine work that you discover that every bit of it is fighting back. It has nothing to do with me or with rights and wrongs. I could make this the best run little kingdom in the world and it would still fight back. It’s nature; the nature that made these trees and the nature that made us.”
The fight to conquer nature was constant so their sources of spiritual inspiration needed to be. It is for this reason that the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, lay at the center of the camp, the beating heart of the wilderness venture. On its altar were the tears and the joys of this impossible journey.
Where is your spiritual center when chaos surrounds you?
Dr. Erica Brown is associate professor at the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at The George Washington University
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