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Course on the Pentateuch – Exegesis of Numbers 1 and 2 – Analysis of the text

20 And the children of Reuben, Israel’s eldest son, by their generations, after their families, by the house of their fathers, according to the number of the names, by their polls, every male from twenty years old and upward, all that were able to go forth to war; 21 Those that were numbered of them, even of the tribe of Reuben, were forty and six thousand and five hundred. 22 Of the children of Simeon, by their generations, after their families, by the house of their fathers, those that were numbered of them, according to the number of the names, by their polls, every male from twenty years old and upward, all that were able to go forth to war;23 Those that were numbered of them, even of the tribe of Simeon, were fifty and nine thousand and three hundred.24 Of the children of Gad, by their generations, after their families, by the house of their fathers, according to the number of the names, from twenty years old and upward, all that were able to go forth to war;25 Those that were numbered of them, even of the tribe of Gad, were forty and five thousand six hundred and fifty.26 Of the children of Judah, by their generations, after their families, by the house of their fathers, according to the number of the names, from twenty years old and upward, all that were able to go forth to war;27 Those that were numbered of them, even of the tribe of Judah, were threescore and fourteen thousand and six hundred. 28 Of the children of Issachar, by their generations, after their families, by the house of their fathers, according to the number of the names, from twenty years old and upward, all that were able to go forth to war; 29 Those that were numbered of them, even of the tribe of Issachar, were fifty and four thousand and four hundred. 30 Of the children of Zebulun, by their generations, after their families, by the house of their fathers, according to the number of the names, from twenty years old and upward, all that were able to go forth to war; 31 Those that were numbered of them, even of the tribe of Zebulun, were fifty and seven thousand and four hundred. 32 Of the children of Joseph, namely, of the children of Ephraim, by their generations, after their families, by the house of their fathers, according to the number of the names, from twenty years old and upward, all that were able to go forth to war; 33 Those that were numbered of them, even of the tribe of Ephraim, were forty thousand and five hundred.34 Of the children of Manasseh, by their generations, after their families, by the house of their fathers, according to the number of the names, from twenty years old and upward, all that were able to go forth to war; 35 Those that were numbered of them, even of the tribe of Manasseh, were thirty and two thousand and two hundred. 36 Of the children of Benjamin, by their generations, after their families, by the house of their fathers, according to the number of the names, from twenty years old and upward, all that were able to go forth to war; 37 Those that were numbered of them, even of the tribe of Benjamin, were thirty and five thousand and four hundred. 38 Of the children of Dan, by their generations, after their families, by the house of their fathers, according to the number of the names, from twenty years old and upward, all that were able to go forth to war;39 Those that were numbered of them, even of the tribe of Dan, were threescore and two thousand and seven hundred.40 Of the children of Asher, by their generations, after their families, by the house of their fathers, according to the number of the names, from twenty years old and upward, all that were able to go forth to war;41 Those that were numbered of them, even of the tribe of Asher, were forty and one thousand and five hundred. 42 Of the children of Naphtali, throughout their generations, after their families, by the house of their fathers, according to the number of the names, from twenty years old and upward, all that were able to go forth to war; 43 Those that were numbered of them, even of the tribe of Naphtali, were fifty and three thousand and four hundred.

44 These are those that were numbered, which Moses and Aaron numbered, and the princes of Israel, being twelve men: each one was for the house of his fathers. 45 So were all those that were numbered of the children of Israel, by the house of their fathers, from twenty years old and upward, all that were able to go forth to war in Israel; 46 Even all they that were numbered were six hundred thousand and three thousand and five hundred and fifty.

To reach the number of twelve, the tribe of Joseph is divided into two tribes: Ephraim and Manasse (see Gen 48:5) The only element that diverges from the whole of the text – very stereotypical – is the description of Ruben, presented as the firstborn (see Genesis 29:32). He will also be the one who will propose to his brothers not to kill Joseph, but to throw him into a cistern with the intention of bringing him back to his father (Gen 37).

The text has a Hebrew word very dear to the priestly authors of Genesis, who use it from the beginning of the story: toledoth. The term comes from the root yalad and means to generate, hence the noun toledoth (feminine plural) which means both generations and also family history (for example ad in Genesis, where it is found at the beginning of the family history of Joseph).

Borgonovo (Torah a Storiografie dell’Antico Testamento) whose text we follow as the basis for the course on the Pentateuch, rightly observes that the names of the tribes reflect, geographically, the area around Judea with some encroachment to the north and east. I don’t think that this description is accidental. It could reflect the political interests of King Josiah, at the time of which this clearly propagandistic text could be placed. It would justify the royal claims to recapture part of the ancient kingdom of David. The epic and exorbitant character of the figures representing the count of the Israelites would fit perfectly with this ideological goal. The priestly author could have taken this text and inserted it in the final phase of the Pentateuch editing.

The phrase all that were able to go forth to war repeated fourteen times in the chapter is part of the stereotypical style of the chapter and has no warlike significance. Here we aren’t describing Israel going to war, but Israel gathered around the Temple of Jerusalem worship. In fact, the pedagogically repeated phraseology is very similar to a liturgical ritual.

Simone Venturini

Scrittore

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