This week’s parashah seems to be full of contradictions.
I’m going to look at just one of them, the cloud over the Tabernacle and how it guides the Israelites through the wilderness. Perhaps I should call it the Cloud with a capital C, because this is a Cloud that’s concealing a light too bright to look at, the kavod of YHWH.
You remember it from the story of the exodus. It looks like a cloud by day, but at night, when it’s darker, you can see the fire inside the Cloud:
YHWH was going in front of them, by day in a pillar of Cloud, to guide them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire, to give light for them, so they could go night and day. (Exod 13:21)
The same thing happens at the very end of Exodus, when the pillar of Cloud unrolls and becomes a roof. In Exod 40:34, precisely when the Tabernacle came on line, the Cloud covered it. Then we’re given a sneak preview of the future:
36 When the Cloud would lift off the Tabernacle, the Israelites would go on the march, for all their travels. 37 But if it did not lift off, they would not march until it did.
At that point, as we saw, you could Choose Your Own Adventure™ and jump immediately to Numbers, but even those who followed the confusing path through Leviticus to get here have now reached the same place. The Tabernacle has been inaugurated (again, the Numbers way), and the Israelites are ready to march off from Sinai toward Canaan.
This week, our story picks up those last few verses of Exodus in Num 9:15 by telling us again — in a repetitive resumption — that
on the day the Tabernacle was set up, the Cloud covered the Tabernacle … and in the evening there would be an appearance of fire over the Tabernacle until morning.
If you’re wondering why the Israelites were in such a bad mood through most of this desert journey, vv. 19–21 provide the answer:
19 When the Cloud stayed over the Tabernacle for a long time, the Israelites would keep the obligation imposed on them by YHWH and not march on. 20 But sometimes the Cloud would stay over the Tabernacle for just a few days. At YHWH’s command they would camp, and at YHWH’s command they would march. 21 Sometimes the Cloud would just stay overnight and lift off in the morning, and they would march; or it might stay for a day and a night and then lift off, and they would march.
Are you kidding me? Whenever the Cloud lifted, the Israelites would have to break camp and march after it, whether it was two days or a month or a year. Think about it: You’re camped in the middle of nowhere (that’s what מדבר midbar means in Biblical Hebrew, not a desert like the Sahara but a deserted location) and at any moment, for 39 years, that Cloud lifts and you’ve got to get moving right away.
On the plus side, at least the Cloud is leading you exactly where you’re supposed to go and you don’t have to worry about directions in this trackless wilderness.
Or do you? Because at the end of Numbers 10, Moses says asks “Hobab son of Reuel the Midianite,” his father-in-law (a/k/a Jethro), to come with them.
Since Midian (more or less northwestern Saudi Arabia of our day) is much closer to this part of the world than Egypt is, Moses’s father-in-law presumably knows his way around. But he refuses to join them. In v. 31, Moses makes the reason for his request explicit:
Please don’t leave us, because you know where we should camp in the wilderness, and you can be our eyes.
Interestingly, v. 33 simply continues, “And they marched for three days from the mountain of YHWH.” It doesn’t say explicitly whether he stayed with them to guide them or not.
In any case, we have eyes of our own, and this is what we see:
- Moses begs his father-in-law to stay with the Israelites so they will know where to camp.
- The Israelites always camped wherever the Cloud stopped.
Who are you gonna believe, Moses, your father-in-law or the Cloud of Glory?
Repeat: The Cloud knows exactly where the Israelites should camp in the wilderness. In fact, they must camp exactly where the Cloud tells them, and following the Cloud guides them through the wilderness to their next campsite. Why, then, does Moses need Hobab to guide them through the wilderness?
The 13th interpretive rule of Rabbi Ishmael to the rescue! When you find two verses that contradict each other, you look for a third verse that will show you how to reconcile the other two.
When we read on in this week’s parashah, we find Miriam and Aaron very upset because Moses has married a Nubian woman. You can read the gossipy details in your Bibles; what matters now is that
- YHWH came down in a pillar of cloud (v. 5)
- YHWH spoke angrily to Miriam and Aaron (vv. 6–8)
- YHWH “went off” and “the Cloud swerved off the Tent” (vv. 9–10)
But … the Israelites do not decamp in this situation, because Miriam was struck with tzara’at (“leprosy,” but not really). Instead, “Miriam was shut out of the camp for seven days and the people did not march off until she was readmitted” (v. 15).
You follow me, of course. In this case, the Cloud moving away from the tent was not to tell the Israelites, as Numbers 9 would suggest, that they should march after it. Instead, the Cloud just moves away from the Tent and (I guess?) hangs out for a while. So I’m suggesting that the way to reconcile being guided through the wilderness by following the tent and being guided by following Hobab is as follows.
Moses is worried. Moses knows that God has a temper and can lose it and might decide at any moment that he’s had enough and he’s going to leave the Israelites stuck in the middle of nowhere. Moses wants Hobab to stay with them as a backup plan, so the Israelites can still guide themselves through the wilderness if the Cloud goes off in a huff and leaves them stranded.
That didn’t happen, but nonetheless things did not go according to plan; we’ll talk about that next week.