The order of tribal sacrifices: Parashat Naso (Numbers 4:21-7:89)
The phrase nonoverlapping magisteria (NOMA) sounds complicated and intimidating, but in fact the concept advocated by Stephen J. Gould, the late, celebrated historian of science, represents a big idea that speaks to one of society’s major topics of discussion.
Gould argued that science and religion do not contradict one another; rather, they do not intersect in the first place. Science and religion simply ask different questions, he said. You expect, therefore, different answers.
So, what happens when we pose both sets of questions, the scientific and the religious, to our Torah? Religion asks, “What does God mean to convey?” Science asks, “What do the biblical authors — understood to be human — mean to convey?”
This week’s portion, Naso, describes priestly proscriptions, the broad strokes of the Hebrew calendar, the ordeal of the wife suspected of adultery and the Nazirite vow. It also outlines the procession of the tribes in relation to the sacrificial offerings for the dedication of the altar.
In the procession, a representative of each tribe offers a sacrifice on a given day, and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the sequence represents a hierarchy. But if so, it’s not obvious what is behind the hierarchy.
One might expect the order to reflect the birth order of sons of Jacob, who gave their names to the tribes, starting with Reuben and ending with Benjamin. Alternatively, the section might start with tribes bearing the names of Jacob’s most beloved sons, Joseph or Benjamin.
Instead, we start with the tribe of Judah, fourth in the birth order.
A nonreligious reading of Judah’s prominence argues that this section of Torah was written after the destruction of the 10 tribes of Israel by the Assyrians in 722 B.C.E, at a time when only the tribe of Judah and the remnants of the tribe of Levi survived.
Now, the text describes the wanderings in the desert, a period of time long before the Assyrians and one in which all 13 tribes (Joseph’s sons each merited a half-tribe, raising the number to 13) existed. But it was written, so the scientific reading argues, centuries later in the court or the country of Judah, when the tribe of Judah was the last one standing.
According to the scientific reading of this passage, Judean (that is, Jewish) authors effectively wrote themselves into the most prominent positions — for example, King David’s outstanding prominence in the Bible and Judah’s pride of place in the dedication of the altar, here in Naso.
The religious reader looks for a different explanation for the processional order. The 16th- century commentator Moses Alshech takes Judah’s right to prominence at face value. King David would merely embody Judah’s tribal prerogative, already evident here in the desert long before his reign. Actually, Judah’s tribal right to leadership is clear even earlier, at his father’s deathbed blessing, described at the close of the Book of Genesis: “Judah, your brothers will recognize you … your father’s sons will bow down to you” (Genesis 49:8).
So, according to Alshech, Judah sacrifices first, “because the king is first to bow his head in prayer and the last to raise it back up. … The greater one is, the more humility one displays before one’s Maker.”
Rashi also notes the unexpected order, and he attributes jealousy to the brothers, because they, too, puzzle over it and seem to imagine that the order of sacrifice implies a hierarchy among them. The representative of the tribe of Reuben, the oldest of the brothers, complains to Moses: “If I’m going to be upstaged by my little brother, at least allow me to go second!” (Rashi’s comment to Numbers 7:18). Then the story seems to add insult to injury, when position No. 2 goes to … Issachar!
Scientific, or nonreligious, readings really do diverge fundamentally from religious ones in their core assumptions and approaches. Nevertheless, they converge here, in one of the driest sections of Naso, around a shared textual “irritant,” despite Gould’s premise. Both modes of thought overlap — just a bit — in querying the order of tribal sacrifices.
And even more than that, both modes of thought, the scientific and religious, find their solutions in the realm of human frailty. The scientific questioner concludes that later writers need to impose their own story on the entire narrative of Israel, presumably to validate their survival and stewardship of the covenant. Meanwhile, the religious reading immediately responds to the natural vulnerabilities of tribal power plays with echoes of sibling rivalry.
No reading can overcome or ignore the human impulses that shape our religion or our literary heritage.
Joshua Holo is dean of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Jack H. Skirball Campus in Los Angeles.