40 years and the Long March

Numbers 8:1-12:16
June 11, 2011

Today’s portion is about nation-building
Exodus 18:13 and Numbers 11:16.

In October 1934, China was in a bitter civil war. The Communist forces in southern China were being defeated. .

They engaged in the epic Long March. They retreated to the northwest of China. In 368 days, they covered 6,000 miles, crossed 12 provinces, 18 mountain ranges and half a dozen rivers. The Reds engaged in 15 major battles and some 300 skirmishes. They began with 100,000 troops, they ended with 50,000 troops.

At Yenan, they were met by Communist armies from the north. At Yenan, the Reds set up an “independent” state within China. They founded schools, engaged in land reform, organized cooperatives. The Communists provided political structure, founded an economy, and organized a grassroot military. They set up a state in advance of the 1949 People’s Republic.

The lack of human rights is a discussion for another day.

The Israelites engaged in a similar type of nation building in the Wilderness. In Numbers 11, we read that God tells Moses to appoint 70 elders.

The Commentators say that these elders replaced the elders appointed in Exodus The elders from Exodus were killed for misbehavior and disloyalty and lack of faith. Following the incident with the Golden Calf, the Levites slew 3000 people. A plague followed. The fire at Tabera killed more people. None of the elders appointed in Exodus were left.

I suggest a different view, based only on the text. The elders appointed in Exodus had a judicial role. Jethro observes Moses judging all day. Jethro says, “You are going to kill yourself at this pace.”

Moses---not God---appoints leaders, chiefs of thousands, hundreds, fifties, tens. According to Artscroll, there are four criteria for these leaders: (1) men of accomplishment; (2) God fearing; (3) men of truth; (4) who despise money.

These leaders are to be independent of financial pressure and not likely to be corrupted. They are appointed by a mortal--Moses--on suggestion of another mortal--Jethro.

In Numbers, God tells Moses to select “70 elders of Israel” who “have experience as elders and officers of the people.”

They gather at the Tent of Meeting. God comes down in a cloud. God transfers some of Moses’ prophetic powers to the 70. Their authority flows from God. They have experience as “elders and officers” of the people.

They share leadership with Moses. They are leaders ordained by God. The 70 do not replace the judges from Exodus. Instead the constitute a new ranch of government---the administrative branch--the bureaucracy.

After the story of the spies next week (Sh’lach Lecha), the next 38 years of history vanish from the record. During this time, I suggest, the institutions of Israelite society mature.

Moses continues as the executive and the legislative. The judiciary, established by Moses in Exodus, continues. The bureaucracy was established in today’s portion. Towards the end of the 40 years in the Wilderness, an aggressive military is organized.

At the end of the 40 years, we have a state in waiting, a society ready to cross the Jordan.

In the 40 years in the Wilderness, we have 42 encampments. It is our Long March. Our Yenan.