Remember how the Israelites were organized through Numbers 10: they were positioned by tribe around the tabernacle, living in tents and prepared for movement at any time. The tabernacle established not only their spiritual center but their geographical center as well. It didn’t matter if they were in the terrain of Sinai, Hormah or the plains of Moab; every tribe had its place around the tabernacle. Numbers 33 puts an end to that thinking. From now on, the tribes will look for their geographic center in the Promised Land itself. The tabernacle will continue to be their spiritual center, but their geographical center has been transferred to the space designated in Numbers 34:1-15.
For that reason it is essential that the Israelites understand the following:
1) The land is given by Yahweh: “I have given the land to you to possess” (Numbers 33:53). Just as they feared and acted in accordance with Yahweh’s holiness in the desert, they are to fear and act in accordance with His holiness in the land.
2) Therefore, they must rid the land of all spiritual contamination: “You shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you and destroy all their figured stones and destroy all their metal images and demolish all their high places. And you shall take possession of the land and settle in it” (Numbers 33:52-53).
3) There will be severe consequences if they do not fear Yahweh’s holiness in the land: “If you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then those of them whom you let remain shall be as barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall trouble you in the land where you dwell. And I will do to you as I thought to do to them” (Numbers 33:55-56).
4) Yahweh sets the borders of the Promised Land; they are not determined only by the Israelites’ ability to conquer it or not: “This shall be your land as defined by its borders all around” (Numbers 34:12).
5) Yahweh will determine where the tribes will live in the land: “Moses commanded the people of Israel, saying, ‘This is the land that you shall inherit by lot, which the LORD has commanded to give to the nine tribes and to the half-tribe” (Numbers 34:13).
6) Yahweh even chooses the leaders that will receive the portions of the land (Numbers 34:16-29).
7) Even the list of tribes in Numbers 34:16-29 reflects this new reality. The order of the list of tribes is unlike any that we have seen up to this point, but generally they fall in the order of their future settlement in the Promised Land from south to north (if Manasseh and Ephraim change places).
Notice too, that the Levites not only will live near the tabernacle like before but also will settle in cities throughout the Promised Land according to Numbers 35:1-8. Just as they guarded the holiness of the tabernacle, now they will guard the holiness of the land. That is why the cities of refugee are presented along with the Levitical cities – they are instructions to preserve the land’s holiness: “You shall not defile the land in which you live, in the midst of which I dwell, for I the LORD dwell in the midst of the people of Israel” (Numbers 35:34). Yahweh’s holiness is associated not only with the tabernacle and His people but with the land itself where the Israelites will live.
To maintain the integrity of the tribes in the land, they must resolve a potential problem resulting from the inheritance of Zelophehad’s daughters. When they traveled through the desert, a family from the tribe of Reuben could not move their tent to accompany the families of Naphtali; a family from Ephraim could not divorce itself from its tribe and decide to march in the front lines with the tribe of Judah. Everyone had to establish himself geographically according to his tribe and submit to their corresponding authorities for their protection. But if a woman received a land inheritance and married someone from another tribe, the land would pass to him… and to the husband’s tribe. Instead of geographical integrity by tribe, within a few generations the whole land would be a confused patchwork of alliances among different tribes, an administrative nightmare that would change and grow worse with each generation. Therefore a woman who receives a land inheritance is commanded to marry within her tribe, and: “The daughters of Zelophehad did as the LORD commanded Moses” (Numbers 36:10).
To summarize, in closing the book of Numbers in today’s reading, we open a new chapter in our understanding of Israel and sacred space that serves as a foundation for the rest of our readings from the Old Testament. Yahweh's holiness is extended from the tabernacle to all of the land where the Israelites soon will reside.