Sunday, July 19, 2020

Was the nasi position hereditary?

No less than three different lists of nesiim appear in the book of Bemidbar.

In Bemidbar 2-7, the twelve tribal leaders are listed.

In Bemidbar 13, the twelve spies are listed, and described as nesiim. However, it would not make sense to send the tribal leader on an unofficial mission to hostile territory, so we may presume these were prominent people, but not the official leaders of each tribe. Indeed, the names all differ from Bemidbar 2-7.

In Bemidbar 34, the twelve tribal leaders are listed again. Once again, these names differ from the previous lists (Kalev ben Yefuneh was a spy and now is a leader; I have not checked closely, but I think he's the only overlap).

It makes sense that the names in Bemidbar 34 differ from Bemidbar 13, since the spies except Yehoshua and Kalev all died. It also makes sense that the names in Bemidbar 34 differ from Bemidbar 2-7, since 38 years have passed and the previous generation of leaders have all died.

What is noteworthy, though, is that the fathers of each leader in Bemidbar 34 are not the same as the names in Bemidbar 2-7. That suggests that the position of tribal nasi was not hereditary at this time.

Peor and the golden calf

After the war with Midian, God commanded to divide the captive people and animals between the warriors, the people, the Levites, and a "terumah for Hashem" to the kohanim. However, the non-living spoils did not need to be divided (Bemidbar 31:53). Nevertheless, the princes decided on their own to offer the captured gold to the mishkan. Why did they do this, and why only the gold?

The war with Midian was in retaliation for Midian's role in the Baal Peor episode. This episode was very similar to the golden calf episode. Both involved idolatry as well as dissolute behavior. Both had a plague break out as punishment. In both the uncorrupted religious leaders (Moshe and Pinchas) had people killed.

With the golden calf, the people took their gold and decided to make it into an idol. I think that when the princes here dedicated their gold to the mishkan, they were making a statement: "This time is not like the previous time. This time, we are not using our gold to make an idol, instead we are using it to serve God. The people sinned, but now we are taking responsibility and fixing that ourselves."

(As I wrote in the past, I think with the Golden Calf too the people eventually made a gesture of repentance.)