Torah Ecology: Naso (Num. 4:21-7:89)

Naso wraps up the numbering sequence that introduced us to the Book of Numbers and concludes with genealogies and the numbers of gifts and animals for sacrifice brought by the princes of Israel for the dedication of the desert Tabernacle.

The numbering and valuing is interrupted with detailed and lengthy narratives of the Sota, a woman who is unfaithful or whose husband thinks she is unfaithful, and the Nazir, one who takes a vow of consecration to the Lord. I begin from the premise that this apparent interruption to the narrative was deliberately positioned in this exact spot for a reason. Furthermore, the Sota and the Nazir were specifically chosen and placed in proximity to each other for a reason.

I’ll start with the second, easier, issue first, the relationship between these two segments, the Sota and the Nazir. Here’s what I notice:

  • Consecration. The Sota potentially de-consecrated herself if she broke her marriage vows in secret (or if her husband imagines that she did so). The consecrated Nazir “fulfills” or ends his period of consecration through a prescribed set of rituals.
  • The first action, unfaithfulness, if it happened, was impulsive and secretive. The second, consecration as a Nazir and fulfillment of the vow, was conscious, purposeful and public.
  • The consequences of suspected impulsive action and the consequences of conscious, purposeful action both involve hair. In the first instance, the hair is “loosed.” In the second, it first is allowed to grow, then is shaved and burned.
  • The Sota who proves innocent is ready to conceive. The Nazir who has not fulfilled his days cannot expose himself to contact with a dead body.
  • The Sota offers only a meal offering without frankincense and without oil. The Nazir offers a yearling lamb, a yearly ewe-lamb, a ram and cakes of fine flour mingled with oil and drink offerings.

It seems to me that these segments are inversely parallel, one person shamed after acting impulsively to break a vow, the other honored after purposefully fulfilling a vow. It is, perhaps, reflective of the two sides of covenant, also represented at Mts. Ebal and Gerizim (Deut. 28), similarly inversely parallel.

AFAR/DUST

עָפָר (afar), according to Strong’s, is “dry earth, dust.” In the creation story, it is material for the human body — and as food for the serpent, a punishment. In the Tabernacle, it is the mixture of dirt on the floor around the altar mixed with the blood of sacrifice. In Leviticus, it is dried mud or mortar for bricks. In I Kings it is loose earth on the surface of the ground or the debris of a ruined city. In Deuteronomy, it’s a sandstorm. In Habbakuk, the material for siege works. It is earth particles sometimes associated with abundance, more often with commonness, worthlessness or humiliation. It is ashes, earth, ground, powder or rubbish. Sometimes afar is “clay,” but most often it is loose, granular.

Why is this word of interest here? Because afar is what is used in the drink for the Sota to determine her guilt or innocence. For the “bitter water,” the priest takes afar from the floor of the Tabernacle and mixes it with water. The woman’s belly will swell up and her “thigh waste away” if she is guilty. If she does not experience these symptoms, she is declared innocent.

The associations are primarily negative: punishment, humiliation, worthlessness, rubbish. On the other hand, G-d fashions Adam from afar, this loose earth, breathing into Adam G-d’s own breath, the breath of life. Afar has a dual valence, corresponding to the dual possibility for the Sota: guilt or…innocence. A humiliated woman or the crown of G-d’s creation.

WHY THIS INSERT

Returning to the first question, why these inserts, the Sota and the Nazir, between the numbers and valuations? And why are these inversely parallel passages followed by the beautiful “priestly blessing?” And I’m not yet sure of the answer to that question. Perhaps as my study of Numbers continues, the overall structure and meaning will reveal itself.

Ideas? Would like to hear from you!