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May 8, 2013 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Bamidbar

This week we begin the book of Numbers (Bamidbar).  The Numbers portion of the JPS commentary is written by Prof. (and Rabbi) Jacob Milgrom.

The most interesting thing about Milgrom’s discussion of this week’s Torah portion is his discussion of the laws of the Levites and the first-born. The Torah makes it clear that God shall “take” the Levites in place of the first-born (3:12) but adds that when God smote the first-born of Egypt, “I consecrated every first-born in Israel” (3:13).

Why is God so obsessed with the first-born?  Is this just another nonrational decree?

Milgrom points out that some pagans were obsessed with the first-born too, in a different way. Some Mesopotamian cities make the first-born inherit the family idols or (in Milgrom’s words) “care for the burial and worship of his deceased parents”.  So here the Torah is sharply deviating from some pagan customs.

Maybe the Torah’s devaluation of the first-born (not just here, but in Genesis where first-borns Ishmael, Esau and Reuben lose family leadership to their younger brothers) is part of its devaluation of paganism- an attempt to say to the idol-worshippers, “you think that the first-born is so special, but not only can our God smite him, our God can hire the first-born to do religious work, and THEN demote the first-born and choose someone else to do that stuff.”


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