“Take with you from each tribe someone who is head of a clan. These are the men to take with you: From Reuben, Elizur the son of Shedeur…”-Numbers 1:4-5
The census procedures outlined for us in the Book of Numbers reveal to us the typical structure of Hebrew society.
Here’s how it worked:
First, the name of the tribe is called out.
Second, the current ruler of the tribe is called out.
Third, the name of the clan of the many clans that make up the tribe is called out.
And that’s it!
Let’s see this formula in action by looking at the first example given to us in verse 4.
“From Reuben, Elizur the son of Shedeur…”
First, Reuben is the name of the tribe and NOT the individual person being called out here (although the tribe is named after an individual person).
Recall that Reuben was the first born son of Jacob and thus the founder of the tribe Reuben.
Reuben had several sons each who would each go on to start his own family that grew into a clan.
Second, Elizur is the name of the current leader of his clan.
Third, Shedeur is the name of the clan.
A lot of folks will misunderstand the phrase “son of ….” and think it means that Elizur is really the biological son of Shedeur.
Although that could be the situation, more often than not, that was NOT the case.
Here Shedeur was the name of a large clan and Elizur was its leader.
So if we were to render verse 4 in an easy-to-understand manner that accurately portrays the social reality of the time, it could be translated as follows:
“Call out Elizur, leader of the clan of Sheduer, which is one of the clans of the tribe of Reuben…”
There are two important Hebrew words here you need to know.
The first word is MISHPACHAH.
Many English Bibles will translate MISHPACHAH as “family” but that’s not accurate.
A better and more accurate translation would be “clan“.
Defining a clan can be a bit difficult.
A clan is not really small enough to be considered a “family” and it’s not big enough to be considered a “tribe“.
It’s somewhere in between a family and a tribe.
The second Hebrew word I want to introduce is NASI.
NASI is referring to the leader of one of the 12 tribes of Israel.
It’s sometimes translated as “prince” in English.
The whole idea in Numbers chapter one is that Moses and Aaron are delegating the census-taking to the leaders of each tribe.
So in the example we looked at, we can see that Elizur, leader of the clan of Shedeur, is also the leader of the tribe of Reuben.
In the beginning, when the first tribal leader Reuben died, it was one of his sons (who were also clan leaders) that became the top dog.
How was it decided which son would take over?
Usually, it was the firstborn who became the tribal leader.
It didn’t always work out that way though.
As we all know, life can be quite unpredictable.
Sometimes the firstborn wasn’t mentally fit to be a leader or maybe he had died due to illness or in some cases he was assassinated as the clans struggled for dominance over each other.
We can see this phenomenon in the Muslim world in the Middle East today.
In Elizur’s case, most likely his clan was singled out because it was the most powerful clan within the Tribe of Reuben.
Human nature being what it is, there was usually a lot of scheming and subversive actions that took place which sometimes turned traditions and customs upside down.
I would say Yeshua’s birth was one of those events that turned not only Jewish society but the whole world upside down.
Published in Jerusalem, Israel on Tuesday, August 15th, 2017 at Ben Ami Cafe