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This week we begin to read from the fourth book of the Torah, known in English as the “Book of Numbers” because it begins with the command to count the Israelites—to take a census. In Hebrew this book is known by its first significant word, bamidbar, “in the wilderness.” Bamidbar is always read just before Shavuot, the festival of the giving of the Torah, and it is the culmination of the counting of the Omer, so it’s fitting that the reading of Bamidbar, with its description of the census, occurs as the Omer count comes close to its end.
The Torah speaks about counting the Israelites in a strange way. Hebrew has a number of verbs that mean “to count”: limnot, lispor, lachshov, lifkod. However, in Bamidbar it uses the phrase se’u et rosh, literally, “lift the head.” Earlier this week I read a d’rash by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of England, who explained this idiom using a homiletic analysis but didn’t mention its actual etymological origin, which shows its fascinating pedigree and reveals just how closely the ancient Jews were tied to other cultures.
The origin of the idiom is I think best explained by Umberto Cassuto, who sees the biblical census in the context of certain middle eastern cultures, especially Babylonian. Cassuto notes that the use of the term “lift the head” corresponds to the Akkadian cognate meaning “crown (or raising) of the head” (šaqû ša re-ši), and it’s even found in the non-semitic Sumerian phrase, saĝ il2. In those languages it’s clearly a term connected with censuses. Cassuto maintains that, in Mesopotamia, the census had “religious significance, due apparently … to the fact that the census was considered a sin, implying, as it were, lack of faith in the deity; therefore, it was necessary to associate it with a ceremony of atonement and cleansing from sin.”1
This is the third census in only a year. The first census occurred while the Israelites were at Mt. Sinai when Moses has received instructions from God regarding the construction of the mishkan and its furnishings and the second was in connection with the mishkan tax. Counting people—taking a census—in the Bible could be fraught with danger, especially if it was not done at God’s direction. This is undoubtedly a result of the influence of the nearby Mesopotamian cultures. This belief is clearly shown in the description of the first census in Exodus:
The Lord spoke to Moses saying: “When you take a census of the Israelite people according to their enrollment, each shall pay the Lord a ransom for himself on being enrolled, that no plague may come upon them through their being enrolled.” (Exod. 30:11)
In a chapter titled, “The Sin of a Census,” James G. Frazer discusses the aversion to counting people common in many cultures, including the peoples of Africa, the Pacific, and Europe.2 The superstition against counting people was linked to attracting bad luck and causing fear that evil spirits will hear and cause the death of some of them. This sentiment is precisely what we see in the second part of verse 11, where reference is made to a “plague.”
Despite its likely Mesopotamian origins, our view of verse 11 should not be interpreted as a statement that taking a census in itself would be the source of a sin, which if not expiated (or “ransomed”), would bring on a “plague.” Except for the Levites and firstborn, censuses were for military duty. The purpose of this particular census was to enumerate potential warriors who would be involved in taking human life, which is the sin that would require atonement (cf. Num. 31:49–50, where the Israelite warriors, after a campaign against the Midianites, make an additional offering of their share of the spoils “to make atonement for our souls before the Lord”). It’s unclear what is meant by “plague,” but it may refer to outbreaks of communicable diseases in crowded military encampments rather than an illness affecting the general population. The reluctance for counting people is still present in Judaism; traditional Jews use a non-numeric method in counting people to determine the presence of a minyan.3
The description of the census in Bamidbar is accompanied by no instruction that those counted were to pay a “ransom” or otherwise expiate their sin. Here, Moses is instructed to enumerate all Israel, tribe by tribe, who are twenty years or older and capable of bearing arms. The Levites alone were exempt from military duty and had to be ritually clean to attend to their services in the sanctuary (contact with the dead would render a Levite ritually impure). Here again there is no provision that they atone for any sin in connection with the censuses taken of them. In Bamidbar we see the results of a census having a large scope. Counted were all Israel except the Levites, and then, separately, the Levites, the first-born, and the Kohathite tribe of the Levites, who are singled out for special duties.
Scripture records other censuses, enumerations for army enrollment, under various leaders of Israel. None of these were followed by any punishment, nor does any reference to the need for expiation for them exist. The sole exception is David’s census (2 Sam. 24) where a “pestilence” was responsible for the death of 70,000. The reasoning behind the punishment for that census was that it might have been self-serving rather than to meet God’s purposes.
Nowadays we deal with a census every ten years and, as the Bible predicts, they actually result in plagues that closely follow—only they’re known as congressional redistricting.
1. Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Books of Exodus, Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1987, p. 393.
2. James G. Frazer, Folklore in the Old Testament, New York: Avenel Books, 1988 reprint, p. 307.
3. Frequently used is “not one,” “not two,” ... but that’s still numeric. The most common method uses a ten-word verse, one word recited for each person. There are several verses employed in this way, usually drawn from Psalms. The most popular is Hosheah et amecha, u’varech et nachla’techa, uriem v’na’asem ad ha’olam. (Save Your people, bless Your possession, shepherd them, and carry them forever.) Ps. 28:9.
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