Torah Commentary – “Double Portion: Final Instructions” – Mattot – Tribes – Mas’ei – Stages – July 14, 2018



Numbers 30:2[1]-32:42
Jeremiah 1:1-2:3



Numbers 33:1-36:13
Jeremiah 2:4-28; 3:4 (A); 2:4-28; 4:1-2 (S)


“Double Portion: Final Instructions”

by Mark Huey

This week as the Book of Numbers comes to a close, its final two Torah readings give the generation of Joshua some final instructions before embarking on the invasion of Canaan. Recall that after the trauma associated with the sin of Baal-peor was tragically resolved, a census was conducted, to number the survivors of the plague, followed by the transfer of Moses’ authority to Joshua (Numbers 27:15-23). This was followed by a reiteration of various daily offerings and sacrifices (Numbers 28:1-29:40).

In our two Torah portions for this week, Moses was instructed to remind the Israelites about the seriousness of personal vows (Numbers 30:1-16), the proper military means to address the chronic threat from the Midianites (Numbers 31:1-24), and how to handle the request of the tribes of Reuben and Gad to settle the land east of the Jordan River (Numbers 32:1-42). There is then a textual review of the forty-two different encampments during the nearly forty-year sojourn through the desert (Numbers 33:1-49). Next, the means to equitably distribute the territory to the twelve tribes of Israel, by lot, to settle forty-two cities with special attention to the Levitical priesthood, and the establishment of six additional cities of refuge to deal with unintentional deaths (Numbers 33:50-35:34)—adds considerably to maintaining an orderly transition from the plains of Moab, once the Promised Land is conquered. Finally, the Lord gave Moses some explicit instructions on how to handle the issue presented earlier by the daughters of Zelophehad (Numbers 36:1-13). Obviously, Moses knew that his days were numbered and that the Lord had already told him he was not going to be allowed to enter into the Promised Land (Numbers 20:12-13), because of his presumptuous actions at the waters of Meribah. As the leader of Israel, Moses’ intention was to fulfill his mission to communicate the word of the Lord before expiring.

With so much to elucidate to those who survived the arduous journey, modern-day students of God’s Word may think that they have a “double portion” blessing, of reviewing these key instructions—so that they might learn from them and properly apply them in the modern era.

One aspect of our Torah selection concerns the issue of wives or daughters making vows, and the ability for the father to cancel these vows. It is not as easy for modern readers to understand the importance of this, because we live in a time when women have an unbelievable amount of rights, responsibilities, and opportunities that the ancients did not have. The very fact that women would largely even be able to make binding oaths on behalf of a family, must be recognized here. The instructions, regarding a husband or father being able to cancel the word of a wife or daughter, need to be understood first in the context of Ancient Israel in the Ancient Near East. Today, in a definitively egalitarian post-resurrection era (Galatians 3:28; Colossians 2:11), where husbands and wives are to serve one another as co-leaders of the home in mutual submission (Ephesians 5:21), looking out for one another, these instructions should be more readily applied with that in mind:

“Then Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes of the sons of Israel, saying, ‘This is the word which the LORD has commanded. If a man makes a vow to the LORD, or takes an oath to bind himself with a binding obligation, he shall not violate his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth. Also if a woman makes a vow to the LORD, and binds herself by an obligation in her father’s house in her youth, and her father hears her vow and her obligation by which she has bound herself, and her father says nothing to her, then all her vows shall stand and every obligation by which she has bound herself shall stand. But if her father should forbid her on the day he hears of it, none of her vows or her obligations by which she has bound herself shall stand; and the LORD will forgive her because her father had forbidden her. However, if she should marry while under her vows or the rash statement of her lips by which she has bound herself, and her husband hears of it and says nothing to her on the day he hears it, then her vows shall stand and her obligations by which she has bound herself shall stand. But if on the day her husband hears of it, he forbids her, then he shall annul her vow which she is under and the rash statement of her lips by which she has bound herself; and the LORD will forgive her. But the vow of a widow or of a divorced woman, everything by which she has bound herself, shall stand against her. However, if she vowed in her husband’s house, or bound herself by an obligation with an oath, and her husband heard it, but said nothing to her and did not forbid her, then all her vows shall stand and every obligation by which she bound herself shall stand. But if her husband indeed annuls them on the day he hears them, then whatever proceeds out of her lips concerning her vows or concerning the obligation of herself shall not stand; her husband has annulled them, and the LORD will forgive her. Every vow and every binding oath to humble herself, her husband may confirm it or her husband may annul it. But if her husband indeed says nothing to her from day to day, then he confirms all her vows or all her obligations which are on her; he has confirmed them, because he said nothing to her on the day he heard them. But if he indeed annuls them after he has heard them, then he shall bear her guilt.’ These are the statutes which the LORD commanded Moses, as between a man and his wife, and as between a father and his daughter, while she is in her youth in her father’s house” (Numbers 30:1-16).

It is certainly clear from Numbers ch. 30, that the issue of making vows is quite serious, and no one is to make any sort of rash commitment to God. Centuries later in His Sermon on the Mount, Yeshua the Messiah issued the following instruction to those listening. He quantitatively advised against people making any vows, likely because of their human inability to fully keep them:

“Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT MAKE FALSE VOWS, BUT SHALL FULFILL YOUR VOWS TO THE LORD’ [Leviticus 19:2; Numbers 30:3; Deuteronomy 23:22]. But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is THE CITY OF THE GREAT KING [Psalm 48:2]. Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything beyond these is of evil” (Matthew 5:33-37).

The need, to watch one’s lips or mouth, and the words, statements, commitments—and yes, even oaths and vows which are made—is absolutely imperative. Instructions such as the following, from the Book of Proverbs and James the Just, give us some key warnings of the potential pitfalls of the tongue:

“He who speaks truth tells what is right, but a false witness, deceit. There is one who speaks rashly like the thrusts of a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. Truthful lips will be established forever, but a lying tongue is only for a moment” (Proverbs 12:17-19).

“This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God” (James 1:19-20).

Following the issue of oath taking, our Torah reading turns to how the Ancient Israelites would affectively deal with the ongoing threat of the Midianites, who continued to want to impede their progress as they were preparing to enter the Promised Land. Here with the explicit instructions of the Lord, the proper way to go to war with His blessing is detailed:

“Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Take full vengeance for the sons of Israel on the Midianites; afterward you will be gathered to your people.’ Moses spoke to the people, saying, ‘Arm men from among you for the war, that they may go against Midian to execute the LORD’s vengeance on Midian. A thousand from each tribe of all the tribes of Israel you shall send to the war.’ So there were furnished from the thousands of Israel, a thousand from each tribe, twelve thousand armed for war. Moses sent them, a thousand from each tribe, to the war, and Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest, to the war with them, and the holy vessels and the trumpets for the alarm in his hand. So they made war against Midian, just as the LORD had commanded Moses, and they killed every male. They killed the kings of Midian along with the rest of their slain: Evi and Rekem and Zur and Hur and Reba, the five kings of Midian; they also killed Balaam the son of Beor with the sword. The sons of Israel captured the women of Midian and their little ones; and all their cattle and all their flocks and all their goods they plundered. Then they burned all their cities where they lived and all their camps with fire. They took all the spoil and all the prey, both of man and of beast. They brought the captives and the prey and the spoil to Moses, and to Eleazar the priest and to the congregation of the sons of Israel, to the camp at the plains of Moab, which are by the Jordan opposite Jericho. Moses and Eleazar the priest and all the leaders of the congregation went out to meet them outside the camp. Moses was angry with the officers of the army, the captains of thousands and the captains of hundreds, who had come from service in the war. And Moses said to them, ‘Have you spared all the women? Behold, these caused the sons of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to trespass against the LORD in the matter of Peor, so the plague was among the congregation of the LORD’” (Numbers 31:1-16).

Not only did Israel choose warriors from each of the tribes, but they were instructed to have the blessings of Phinehas, the son of the high priest Eleazar, with the holy vessels and trumpets accompanying the assault upon Midian. As is later noted, the overwhelming victory by Israel decimating the Midianites was achieved without suffering any mortal casualties (Numbers 31:49), and they received a victor’s booty (Numbers 31:33-47) that was huge and equitably distributed to the valiant warriors (Numbers 31:27). Interestingly in an aside, it is noted that Balaam, the prophet for hire, apparently advised Balak to send the Moabite women into the Israelite camp in order for the people to curse themselves by their licentious and lascivious acts and worship of idols (Numbers 31:16). However, one discovers that Balaam, perhaps frustrated by his inability to curse Israel but rather bless them, was now found among the dead Midianites, having been thrust through by an Israelite sword (Numbers 31:8). The great lesson to learn is that the Holy One’s justice is absolute, and that those who oppose His will are going to eventually be justly judged for their indiscretions.

After the unconditional victory over the Midianites, there is a lengthy description of how Moses handled the request of the tribes of Reuben and Gad to locate their herds of livestock on the east side of the Jordan, before the conquest of the Promised Land would be completed. The following depicts some recollections about their predecessors, and how the Lord was adamant that all twelve tribes collaborate to first secure the territory before the settlement is finalized:

“Now the sons of Reuben and the sons of Gad had an exceedingly large number of livestock. So when they saw the land of Jazer and the land of Gilead, that it was indeed a place suitable for livestock, the sons of Gad and the sons of Reuben came and spoke to Moses and to Eleazar the priest and to the leaders of the congregation, saying, ‘Ataroth, Dibon, Jazer, Nimrah, Heshbon, Elealeh, Sebam, Nebo and Beon, the land which the LORD conquered before the congregation of Israel, is a land for livestock, and your servants have livestock.’ They said, ‘If we have found favor in your sight, let this land be given to your servants as a possession; do not take us across the Jordan.’ But Moses said to the sons of Gad and to the sons of Reuben, ‘Shall your brothers go to war while you yourselves sit here? Now why are you discouraging the sons of Israel from crossing over into the land which the LORD has given them? This is what your fathers did when I sent them from Kadesh-barnea to see the land. For when they went up to the valley of Eshcol and saw the land, they discouraged the sons of Israel so that they did not go into the land which the LORD had given them. So the LORD’s anger burned in that day, and He swore, saying, “None of the men who came up from Egypt, from twenty years old and upward, shall see the land which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob; for they did not follow Me fully, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite and Joshua the son of Nun, for they have followed the LORD fully.” So the LORD’s anger burned against Israel, and He made them wander in the wilderness forty years, until the entire generation of those who had done evil in the sight of the LORD was destroyed. Now behold, you have risen up in your fathers’ place, a brood of sinful men, to add still more to the burning anger of the LORD against Israel. For if you turn away from following Him, He will once more abandon them in the wilderness, and you will destroy all these people.’ Then they came near to him and said, ‘We will build here sheepfolds for our livestock and cities for our little ones; but we ourselves will be armed ready to go before the sons of Israel, until we have brought them to their place, while our little ones live in the fortified cities because of the inhabitants of the land. We will not return to our homes until every one of the sons of Israel has possessed his inheritance. For we will not have an inheritance with them on the other side of the Jordan and beyond, because our inheritance has fallen to us on this side of the Jordan toward the east.’ So Moses said to them, ‘If you will do this, if you will arm yourselves before the LORD for the war, and all of you armed men cross over the Jordan before the LORD until He has driven His enemies out from before Him, and the land is subdued before the LORD, then afterward you shall return and be free of obligation toward the LORD and toward Israel, and this land shall be yours for a possession before the LORD. But if you will not do so, behold, you have sinned against the LORD, and be sure your sin will find you out. Build yourselves cities for your little ones, and sheepfolds for your sheep, and do what you have promised.’ The sons of Gad and the sons of Reuben spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Your servants will do just as my lord commands. Our little ones, our wives, our livestock and all our cattle shall remain there in the cities of Gilead; while your servants, everyone who is armed for war, will cross over in the presence of the LORD to battle, just as my lord says’” (Numbers 32:1-27).

One would think that after experiencing the total victory over the Midianites, the children of Israel would understand the blessings of unified actions. But after the dialogue between Moses and those of Reuben and Gad, the realization that conquering Canaan with a full compliment from every tribe was critical for accomplishing the goal. Hence, the negotiation was agreed upon, with the Reubenites and Gadites agreeing to fight for the Promised Land with their distant cousins, before their final resettlement on the east side of the Jordan River. The lesson to be learned, even today, is that God’s purposes for the Creation will be fulfilled when His people are unified with one mission to complete His work, through the guidance and direction of His Spirit:

“There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-6).

Perhaps for historical and recorded verification purposes, Numbers ch. 33 essentially gives the details of the itinerary of Israel, with some nuances of what had taken place over the previous nearly forty year sojourn from Egypt to the plains of Moab overlooking the Jordan River. At this point, the command to utterly destroy the inhabitants of the Canaan and decimate their idols, in order to cleanse and possess the Promised Land is described, as well as the distribution of the territory by lot:

“Then the LORD spoke to Moses in the plains of Moab by the Jordan opposite Jericho, saying, ‘Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, “When you cross over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, and destroy all their figured stones, and destroy all their molten images and demolish all their high places; and you shall take possession of the land and live in it, for I have given the land to you to possess it. You shall inherit the land by lot according to your families; to the larger you shall give more inheritance, and to the smaller you shall give less inheritance. Wherever the lot falls to anyone, that shall be his. You shall inherit according to the tribes of your fathers. But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then it shall come about that those whom you let remain of them will become as pricks in your eyes and as thorns in your sides, and they will trouble you in the land in which you live. And as I plan to do to them, so I will do to you”’” (Numbers 33:50-56).

Of course the key, to a successful occupation of the Promised Land, was for Israel to adhere to the Lord’s commands. Yet as was the case since the taking of the Promised Land, the Lord’s people had not been totally faithful to follow His instructions. The consequences of the propensity to disobey is certainly epitomized by the universal principle that people will reap what they sow. Is there a lesson to be learned?

Our Torah reading includes some explicit instructions the Levites, who were not to receive an inheritance of land because of their responsibilities to exclusively serve the Almighty (Numbers 18:20-21), were to instead be taken care of. Here the six cities of refuge are described in detail:

“Now the LORD spoke to Moses in the plains of Moab by the Jordan opposite Jericho, saying, ‘Command the sons of Israel that they give to the Levites from the inheritance of their possession cities to live in; and you shall give to the Levites pasture lands around the cities. The cities shall be theirs to live in; and their pasture lands shall be for their cattle and for their herds and for all their beasts. The pasture lands of the cities which you shall give to the Levites shall extend from the wall of the city outward a thousand cubits around. You shall also measure outside the city on the east side two thousand cubits, and on the south side two thousand cubits, and on the west side two thousand cubits, and on the north side two thousand cubits, with the city in the center. This shall become theirs as pasture lands for the cities. The cities which you shall give to the Levites shall be the six cities of refuge, which you shall give for the manslayer to flee to; and in addition to them you shall give forty-two cities. All the cities which you shall give to the Levites shall be forty-eight cities, together with their pasture lands. As for the cities which you shall give from the possession of the sons of Israel, you shall take more from the larger and you shall take less from the smaller; each shall give some of his cities to the Levites in proportion to his possession which he inherits’” (Numbers 35:1-8).

Concurrent with this, instructions are given about the cities of refuge to handle the issues of unintentional or accidental deaths. Capital punishment is mentioned here, because the Lord was very concerned about the Promised Land not becoming polluted by the blood of innocent life. The Lord stated that He would be dwelling in the midst of Israel:

“The congregation shall deliver the manslayer from the hand of the blood avenger, and the congregation shall restore him to his city of refuge to which he fled; and he shall live in it until the death of the high priest who was anointed with the holy oil. But if the manslayer at any time goes beyond the border of his city of refuge to which he may flee, and the blood avenger finds him outside the border of his city of refuge, and the blood avenger kills the manslayer, he will not be guilty of blood because he should have remained in his city of refuge until the death of the high priest. But after the death of the high priest the manslayer shall return to the land of his possession. These things shall be for a statutory ordinance to you throughout your generations in all your dwellings. If anyone kills a person, the murderer shall be put to death at the evidence of witnesses, but no person shall be put to death on the testimony of one witness. Moreover, you shall not take ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of death, but he shall surely be put to death. You shall not take ransom for him who has fled to his city of refuge, that he may return to live in the land before the death of the priest. So you shall not pollute the land in which you are; for blood pollutes the land and no expiation can be made for the land for the blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it. ‘You shall not defile the land in which you live, in the midst of which I dwell; for I the LORD am dwelling in the midst of the sons of Israel” (Numbers 35:24-34).

When one contemplates these specific instructions, perhaps in light of the modern-day institution of abortion, there is a serious concern about all of the innocent life which is being casually murdered, without properly respecting and adhering to the thrust of these commands. Obviously, only the Lord knows what the ramifications are for a society, which can so blatantly disrespect life. Without equivocation, may God have mercy on those who promote abortion—and by His grace, let us hope that it stops before His judgment rectifies the flagrant sin, in order to more favorably dwell among His people!

In the last set of instructions seen in our Torah reading, Moses sought the Lord’s word on how to handle the request of the daughters of Zelophedad regarding their inheritance in the Promised Land:

“And the heads of the fathers’ households of the family of the sons of Gilead, the son of Machir, the son of Manasseh, of the families of the sons of Joseph, came near and spoke before Moses and before the leaders, the heads of the fathers’ households of the sons of Israel, and they said, ‘The LORD commanded my lord to give the land by lot to the sons of Israel as an inheritance, and my lord was commanded by the LORD to give the inheritance of Zelophehad our brother to his daughters. But if they marry one of the sons of the other tribes of the sons of Israel, their inheritance will be withdrawn from the inheritance of our fathers and will be added to the inheritance of the tribe to which they belong; thus it will be withdrawn from our allotted inheritance. When the jubilee of the sons of Israel comes, then their inheritance will be added to the inheritance of the tribe to which they belong; so their inheritance will be withdrawn from the inheritance of the tribe of our fathers.’ Then Moses commanded the sons of Israel according to the word of the LORD, saying, ‘The tribe of the sons of Joseph are right in their statements. This is what the LORD has commanded concerning the daughters of Zelophehad, saying, “Let them marry whom they wish; only they must marry within the family of the tribe of their father.” Thus no inheritance of the sons of Israel shall be transferred from tribe to tribe, for the sons of Israel shall each hold to the inheritance of the tribe of his fathers. ‘Every daughter who comes into possession of an inheritance of any tribe of the sons of Israel shall be wife to one of the family of the tribe of her father, so that the sons of Israel each may possess the inheritance of his fathers. Thus no inheritance shall be transferred from one tribe to another tribe, for the tribes of the sons of Israel shall each hold to his own inheritance. Just as the LORD had commanded Moses, so the daughters of Zelophehad did’” (Numbers 36:1-10).

Apparently before the Book of Numbers comes to a close, the issue of how to deal with women’s rights, brought up earlier (Numbers 26:33), needed to be addressed with a direct word from the Lord. Perhaps by this reiteration of how to handle women equitably, the Lord began to return His people to equality among the genders that was lost in Eden (cf. Genesis 3:16). For certainly, as the Book of Numbers finally ends, there is the categorical declarative statement that:

“These are the commandments and the ordinances which the LORD commanded to the sons of Israel through Moses in the plains of Moab by the Jordan opposite Jericho”(Numbers 36:13).

May each of us learn, and take to heart, the great lessons to be learned from what the Lord requires! He constantly wants His people to be unified in the common resolve to fulfill His Word, and complete His mission for the Creation. To this end may we each faithfully serve Him, by advancing His Kingdom today, until the Messianic restoration of all things culminates! 



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