Counting…

17 May

I could comment on the unfortunate fact that it has been several months since my last posting…but I’ll just say that I really hope to make this a regular thing henceforth!

So – We enter the book of Numbers.  And we see that God has the following orders for Moses: ‘Take a census of the whole Israelite community…every male, head by head.’ The word that JPS translates ‘head’ BDB explains as ‘a skull, a head or a poll’…

Rashi: ‘head by head’ = ‘by means of [counting] shekels, a half-shekel per head’

Eh? Well…he gets this from Exodus 30: 12-16: ‘”When you take a census of the Israelite people …each shall pay the Lord a ransom for himself on being enrolled, that no plague may come upon them through their being enrolled..a half-shekel by the sanctuary weight..as an offering to the Lord..as expiation for your persons’. On this same Exodus passage, he commented: ‘

It means ‘When you wish to take the total of their number..do not count them by heads.  Rather, let each one give a half-shekel and you will count the shekalim, and you will know their number [from this].’

As for the mention of plague, Rashi says: ‘for the evil eye can affect that which has been counted, and pestilence can come upon them, as we have found in the days of David’.

This is a reference to the tale in II Sam. 24 and I Chron 21:1 [the latter has Satan prodding David to do this, rather than God] in which David gets into terrible trouble with God for counting the Israelites.

Clearly, the mention of plague in Ex. 30:12 does need explaining.  For Rashi, it’s the evil eye that explains it…because it can affect/rule the counted…but what does that mean?

Truth is that it is a big puzzle why census-taking is linked to averting a plague, and why in David’s case G is indeed angry about it, and v angry at that.  So Rashi wants to say in our Numbers passage, where (as in other census passages, e.g. I Sam. 11:8, 15:4) NO punishment results from census-taking, that the point is that it should be done in this indirect way, by means of the half-shekels, and that if done so, it’s all kosher – so that there is an actual method of counting that is stipulated in the Exodus ‘half-shekel’ passage, a method that avoids directly doing a head count.  And he clearly thinks that David/Joab erred in not making sure that this indirect method was used.

Nahmanides finds David’s vanity a likely reason for divine anger.  He thinks that the reason David got into hot water was vanity: what really nettled God was that David did the census not out of need – not because he needed an army, but because of vanity: to be able to say, ‘look how many people I rule!’

I am not clear at this point quite what Rashi means by suggesting that evil can get a grip through numbering…something to do with power…perhaps the root of the problem is that when you, as a king, number your subjects, you act as if you were in charge and not God.  Or a more superstitious thing like controlling someone by knowing their name.  But this doesn’t explain why Saul gets away with it.

Well, sorry this is so sketchy and preliminary, but anyway – that’s it for now..any thoughts much appreciated!

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