The Shuvah Project #36 — Discipleship

New to The Shuvah Project? Find out what it is and why it’s necessary. 

They came to Jesus and found the man the demons had departed from, sitting at Jesus’ feet…

-Luke 8:35b 

Section One (Parsha Debrief):

This week’s Parsha (Numbers 1:1-4:20) contained: a census of Israel, description of duties for the Levites, details of encampment around the Tabernacle, the generations of Aaron and Moses, a census specific to the Levites, and more details regarding the Levites.

In the Midweek Reading Guide, we asked what are we, in the 21st century, supposed to learn from all these details?

There are three crucial elements in this week’s Torah portion that, when taken together, may help explain the Luke Text.

First, do you remember when we talked about the phrase “These are the generations of ” way back in Genesis? As a refresher, 

we pointed out how weird it is that the generations of Isaac “were Abraham fathered Isaac.” This isn’t the first time the Text fails to directly follow that statement with biological generations. In fact, it’s often less about offspring and more about legacy. Rabbi David Fohrman suggests, when this is the case, the Text is trying to tell us that the legacy of ___ is not what we may think.

-From Matriarchs and Patriarchs, Section One

Well, in our Torah portion we find another these are the generation of…

These are the generations of Aaron and Moses on the day that the Lord spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai.

-Numbers 3:1

Yet, if you continue reading, you’ll notice that the Text only mentions Aaron’s sons — none of which were biologically born to Moses. What then is Torah implying about legacy?

Rashi, commenting on the Midrash, suggests,

[T]hey are considered descendants of Moses because he taught them Torah. This teaches us that whoever teaches Torah to the son of his fellow man, Scripture regards it as if he had begotten him. 

-Rashi on Numbers 3:1, quoting Sanh. 19b

Interesting, right?

The Midrash is telling us something about that power of the teacher. There’s something exhilarating about learning the word of God and there’s something powerful and almost intoxicating about the relationship between a true teacher and their disciple. There’s something about that relationship that when it clicks, makes you want to become like them. But it can be a dangerous thing when it leads to loss of identity. When you, the student, forget who you are and lose yourself in the persona of your teacher.

-Rabbi David Fohrman, in Who Cares About Genealogy?

Maybe discipleship is different from imitating and emulating. 

Second, if God can count the hairs on everyone’s head, then why does God ask for a census?

Is God’s census the same as Empire’s? Rome counts people for tax purposes.

If God’s census is different, then maybe counting isn’t just about the enumeration of people.

Again, we turn to Rashi for initial insight,

Because they were dear to Him, He counted them often.

-Rashi on Numbers 1:1

Apparently, to Rashi, God’s counting is from a place of affection.

There’s more.

We tend to miss quite a bit in English. The Hebrew suggests counting isn’t just about cataloging people.

In fact, Rabbi David Fohrman shows several different Hebrew words are used throughout our Torah portion to denote counting or numbering. Moreover, those words are also used in different contexts within the same Text.

In the first three verses of Numbers, we see three separate Hebrew words for counting.

Take a census of the entire Israelite community by their clans and their ancestral houses, numbering the names of every male one by one. You and Aaron are to register those who are 20 years old or more by their military divisions—everyone who can serve in Israel’s army.

-Numbers 1:2-3, emphasis added

They are nasa’, micpar, and paqad. Nasa’ (take from above) can mean to count, but also is used to mean to lift up, bear, or carry. Micpar (numbering from above) means number. Paqad (register from above) can mean to number, but also carries with it definitions of being sought, appointed and charged.

We see these mixed uses show up in Numbers 1:49-50,

“Do not register or take a census of the tribe of Levi with the other Israelites. Appoint the Levites over the tabernacle of the testimony, all its furnishings, and everything in it. They are to bear the tabernacle and all its articles, minister to it, and camp around it.

-Numbers 1:49-50, emphasis added (nasa’ as underlined and paqad as bolded)

To which Rabbi Fohrman asks, 

Are the two meanings for each of these words related to one another? Is there a connection between counting and appointing? Is there a connection between counting and lifting/bearing?

-Rabbi David Fohrman, in Why We Count

Additionally, the idea of census or sum of all is supposed in English. More literally, the Hebrew, ro’sh, means head.

Understanding the Hebrew changes the Text entirely.

Here, we’ll turn directly to the source of this teaching…

It turns out that whenever our Parsha uses the word Nasa’ in the sense of count it’s always paired with [the Hebrew for heads of the children of Isreal] – [as in] lift up the heads of the children of Israel. What a strange way of thinking about counting. [I]f I’m lifting up heads then where were the heads before I lifted them? Presumably they were looking down – which I think gives a really interesting kind of spin to the notion of what it means to count heads.

It’s almost like someone has gone from feeling downcast and now they’re looking up and counting somehow is the thing that made it happen. And if that sounds entirely farfetched to you, just think about the English word count, it really has two meanings. One in the sense of numerically counting things, the other in terms of self-worth; when somebody has self-worth they feel like they count.

Maybe the two meanings of Paqad – entrust/count – and the two meanings of Nasa’ – lift up/count – are kind of connected to each other. Maybe the idea of Paqad explains the idea of Nasa’. When I feel entrusted, have some sort of responsibility, I really do feel like I count.

-Rabbi David Fohrman, in Why We Count

Maybe it’s not that God is counting the Israelites, maybe it’s that God is helping the Israelites see that they count!

Third, the encampment details.

The book of Leviticus is about laws, yes, but if we think about it, the book has a very large focus on the laws pertaining to the Tabernacle and the persons in service to it — the Priests.

But what about non-Priesthood Israelites — the regular folk?

According to Rabbis Immanuel Shalev and David Block, Numbers is the book about God’s relationship with the rest of Israel — the regular folk.

If true, and keeping in-line with our above conversation on counting, isn’t this a brilliant way to open the book of Numbers — a procedure to let the regular folk know they matter too?

It’s as if God transitions from the holy and set apart work of tending to the Tabernacle by reminding the whole nation — every single head — they are important and have parts to play in this mission too.

Case in point, the encampment details around the Tabernacle. It’s a circle (think Knights of the Round Table-ish). God details that everyone surrounds His place of residence equally. Yet, as noted by which banners proceed in which order, everyone has a unique role to play.

Maybe God’s people are equal, but unique.

Section Two (Connection to NT + haftarah):

Taking the above as true, is it possible the Luke Text is commenting on discipleship?

To start, I want to compare this week’s Luke Text (8:26-39) to last week’s (8:22-25). Last week Jesus’ disciples were in a boat with Him and at the end of it all asked: “Who then is this (Luke 8:25)?” In contrast, the moment Jesus sets foot on the other side of the Lake, a demon-possessed man falls before Him and cries out, “Jesus, You Son of the Most High God.” That’s striking to me (Footnote #1).

Next, the man healed from the Legion of demons wants to learn from Jesus. The Text makes specific note that,

[The town people] found the man the demons had departed from, sitting at Jesus’ feet

-Luke 8:35b, emphasis added

If you have familiarity with ancient discipleship imagery, you caught that this is likely a reference to the man studying from Jesus (Footnote #2). Here’s the proof,



Lastly, think about the man pre-Jesus. He was isolated, feared, maybe even hated. I imagine those demons forced that man to wrestle with his self-worth. But, after Jesus… all that changes. After sitting at Jesus’ feet the man begs to be with his teacher longer. The man wants more. This seems akin to what Rabbi Fohrman mentioned regarding the teacher-student relationship in Section One. Yet, Jesus says no. No? But, aren’t we supposed to cling to Jesus and become just like Jesus? Instead, Jesus entrusts him with a mission of his own. Jesus helps the man feel some sort of responsibility.

That man now has self-worth and feels like he counts — and, he does!

Before you discount this possibility… think about how much this one man transforms that region (Footnote #3)!

But, I’m left wondering… was this man a disciple of Jesus?

Section Three (missing the mark):

Moses and Jesus both taught Torah.

It would seem to me that a teacher who teaches the Text equips their students to follow God while maintaining the identity of self.

So, pastors, how equipped are your students to navigate the world around them? Because imitating and emulating come dangerously close to conformity.

Section Four (real-world applications):

Discipleship is a buzz word.

Still, one thing remains evident — it involves a teacher, a student, and the Text.

Without the Text and the relationship, is it discipleship?

Next Week’s Readings: Numbers 4:21-7:89; Luke 8:40-48


  1. Now, we don’t know if the disciples were actually questioning who Jesus was… it’s entirely possible they asked this because they recognized that the whole scenario was akin to Jonah in the boat. 
  2. To make the point, Ann Spangler and Lois Tverberg titled their book as much, Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus.
  3. Ray Vander Laan’s teaching on Decapolis suggests this man changed the course of history.

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