Sunday, September 7, 2014

Chiasmus in Numbers Chapter 8

Today while I was reading in Numbers I noticed a rather interesting chiastic structure in Chapter 8. I noticed it because at the beginning and end of the chapter are four verses of material seemingly unrelated to the rest of the chapter. Even though the four verses at the beginning and the four verses at the end are unrelated to each other, the fact that both of them were there in the chapter, and about the same length made me think, "Well that's unusually symmetric!"

Which immediately made me think, "Wait. Symmetric. This wasn't an accident there's structure to this chapter." And by noticing that structure it prompted me to look for more structure and then uncover a rich chiasmus that I never knew about. I did a cursoury search and I haven't found anyone who lists Numbers 8 as a chiasmus so I hope Biblical scholars haven't missed this rather interesting example of a chiastic structure.

The first four and the last four verses function as bookends to the main structure found in verses 5-22, and tie it in with the rest of the material. This chapter contains several pronunciations by the Lord to Moses as the Lord spoke to Moses from the mercy seat beginning in the last verse of chapter 7. The structure of the chiasmus is used in an intelligent way to not only report what the Lord said, but also to teach the symbolism of it.

Below I give a breakdown of the chiasmus found in Numbers 8. I use letters in brackets to indicate the different chiastic levels. Parallel words or phrases are underlined and important terms are highlighted (if you are reading this in Feedly then you may need to click through and read it on my blog to see the highlights). At the end I will explain why I highlighted certain passages. Verse numbers are preserved.

[Left Bookend]
1 And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying,
2 Speak unto Aaron, and say unto him, When thou lightest the lamps, the seven lamps shall give light over against the candlestick.
3 And Aaron did so; he lighted the lamps thereof over against the candlestick, as the Lord commanded Moses.
4 And this work of the candlestick was of beaten gold, unto the shaft thereof, unto the flowers thereof, was beaten work: according unto the pattern which the Lord had shewed Moses, so he made the candlestick.

[A] 5 ¶And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying,
[B] 6 Take the Levites from among the children of Israel, and cleanse them.
[C] 7 And thus shalt thou do unto them, to cleanse them:
[D] Sprinkle water of purifying upon them, and let them shave all their flesh, and let them wash their clothes, and so make themselves clean.
[D'] 8 Then let them take a young bullock with his meat offering, even fine flour mingled with oil, and another young bullock shalt thou take for a sin offering.
[E] 9 And thou shalt bring the Levites before the tabernacle of the congregation: and thou shalt gather the whole assembly of the children of Israel together:
[E'] 10 And thou shalt bring the Levites before the Lord: and the children of Israel shall put their hands upon the Levites:
[F] 11 And Aaron shall offer the Levites before the Lord for an offering of the children of Israel, that they may execute the service of the Lord. 12 And the Levites shall lay their hands upon the heads of the bullocks: and thou shalt offer the one for a sin offering, and the other for a burnt offering, unto the Lord, to make an atonement for the Levites. 13 And thou shalt set the Levites before Aaron, and before his sons, and offer them for an offering unto the Lord.
[G] 14 Thus shalt thou separate the Levites from among the children of Israel:
[H] and the Levites shall be mine.
[I] 15 And after that shall the Levites go in to do the service of the tabernacle of the congregation: and thou shalt cleanse them, and offer them for an offering. 16 For they are wholly given unto me from among the children of Israel;
[X] instead of such as open every womb, even instead of the firstborn of all the children of Israel,
[I] have I taken them unto me. 17 For all the firstborn of the children of Israel are mine, both man and beast: on the day that I smote every firstborn in the land of Egypt
[H] I sanctified them for myself.
[G] 18 And I have taken the Levites for all the firstborn of the children of Israel.
[F] 19 And I have given the Levites as a gift to Aaron and to his sons from among the children of Israel, to do the service of the children of Israel in the tabernacle of the congregation, and to make an atonement for the children of Israel: that there be no plague among the children of Israel, when the children of Israel come nigh unto the sanctuary.
[E] 20 And Moses, and Aaron, and all the congregation of the children of Israel, did to the Levites according unto all that the Lord commanded Moses concerning the Levites,
[E'] so did the children of Israel unto them.
[D] 21 And the Levites were purified, and they washed their clothes;
[D'] and Aaron offered them as an offering before the Lord; and Aaron made an atonement for them
[C] to cleanse them.
[B] 22 And after that went the Levites in to do their service in the tabernacle of the congregation before Aaron, and before his sons:
[A] as the Lord had commanded Moses concerning the Levites, so did they unto them.

[Right Bookend]
23 ¶And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying,
24 This is it that belongeth unto the Levites: from twenty and five years old and upward they shall go in to wait upon the service of the tabernacle of the congregation:
25 And from the age of fifty years they shall cease waiting upon the service thereof, and shall serve no more:
26 But shall minister with their brethren in the tabernacle of the congregation, to keep the charge, and shall do no service. Thus shalt thou do unto the Levites touching their charge.

By laying it out in this way we see the structure and purpose of the ceremony and the symbolism involved. The Lord explains his reason for having the Levites offered as an offering to Him. They are in place of all the firstborn (i.e. those who would inherit the birthright) of all of Israel. This shows that even though the children of Israel were saved from Egypt they did not lose their birthright. But it took an offering in place of their firstborn to keep their birthright.

Also what is interesting is at the inflection point (marked by [X]) there is a subtle shift in the language. Before the inflection point things are offered, given and done by the people ("Take the Levites", "thus shalt thou do", "Aaron shall offer", "thou shalt set", "Thus shalt thou separate", and "they are wholly given unto me"), but afterwards it is the Lord that takes, gives and does ("have I taken them unto me", "I sanctified them for myself", "I have taken", and "I have given"). This shows the two part structure of covenants, and the covenant people. The Levites are offered, the children of Israel perform acts and offer sacrifices, the priests and high priest (Aaron) offer, set and separate. But in the end it is the Lord who does, sanctifies, cleanses, and gives.

There are many other lessons that can be gleaned from this symbol rich chapter, but I will leave it here for now. Is there any thing that you noticed that is particularly striking? Perhaps some time I will break down [F] and show the correlation between the different offerings and the corresponding verses later on.


Michaela Stephens said...

Nice job on this! I know I always feel extra smart when I notice chiasmus someplace that I hadn't seen before.

Since the middle of the chiasmus is always the main point of emphasis, it is cool to see that right in the middle, the point is that the firstborn are devoted to God. I think that is supposed to be a testimony and type of Christ's status of firstborn and the only-Begotten Son of the Father.

Quantumleap42 said...

Thanks, Michaela. There are other things we can use this chiasmus for, including understanding how we relate to the priesthood, and how the priesthood is intended to point us to the atoning sacrifice.

I especially like how the flip at the inflection point teaches us about consecration and our relation to God.