by R. Gil Student
The longest chapter in the Torah is also the most repetitive. Twelve times, Num. 7 tells us in detail that the nasi (prince) of each tribe brought the same exact inaugural sacrifice as all the other nesi’im. The repetition is tedious and problematic. Why waste all that precious textual space on the same information? This has bothered me for years but I recently saw a very interesting explanation.
Ramban (ad loc., v. 2) quotes the midrashic explanation that each nasi had unique intentions. Even though they brought the same sacrifices, they each had different reasons for doing so. Ramban begins with his own interpretation before offering two variations on the midrashic approach. Dr. Yaakov Elman summarizes the Ramban as follows (“An Excess of Offerings?” in Mitokh Ha-Ohel, p. 323):
The Ramban provides three explanations for why the nesi’im brought the of errors that they did, which can also serve to explain why the Torah took pains to list them. The first is that Hashem wanted to honor each nasi equally; in order to do this, the Torah gives each of them “equal time,” so to speak, and doesn’t start with Nachshon and then add a phrase, “and so for all of them.” Rather, the Torah described each offering in the same detail as each of the others–even at the cost of having some precede the others. In order to emphasize their equality, the offerings are summarized at the end.
The second, midrashic answer the Ramban gives is that even though all the offerings were identical, each reflected the particular intent of the nasi who offered it. Finally, the Ramban cites a midrash that relates each offering to the history of each tribe “until messianic times.”
I never found any of these explanations satisfactory. Why couldn’t the Torah have described the nasi offering and said that each nasi brought it, then listing them all by name? That would have implied equality, provided the same information and saved dozens of verses.
R. Yitzchak Abarbanel (ad loc., p. 27a), before providing the midrashic explanation that he considers elegant, offers what he believes is the true explanation. Abarbanel suggests, without any textual evidence, that the nesi’im decided in advance, as a show of unity, that they would all bring the same sacrifices. This would prevent jealousy and fighting.
This does not seem to me answer the question adequately. Again, why is each set of sacrifices listed separately, leading to excessive repetition? I don’t think there can be a peshat answer to this question. Because the text is silent, we can only speculate about its intent. Abarbanel speculates about a back story of agreement among the nesi’im, the midrash speculates (or relays a tradition) about a back story of individual intent. Ramban’s first explanation about equality is closest to peshat because it contains no back story. But it still speculates about the text’s intent, in my opinion unsuccessfully answering the question.
After literally decades of thinking about this, I recently found an answer that I find satisfactory in a Christian commentary. Gordon Wenham writes (Tyndale Old Testament Commentary, Numbers, p. 105):
What was the point in bringing these particular gifts when the altar was dedicated, and why are they described in such detail? Hebrew narrative, even in ritual texts, tends to be sparing in its use of words.
The altar was the focal point of daily worship, and it was therefore appropriate that when it was dedicated a representative from each tribe should offer all the regular sacrifices. It set a precedent and demonstrated that the worship was for every tribe and supported by every tribe.
After Leviticus’ extensive treatment of the role of the kohanim in sacrifices and the more recent discussion of the priestly blessing, readers might think that the ordinary Jew has no portion in the centralized worship of God. This tribal inauguration teaches us that every tribe has a part in the daily sacrifices. Every Jew can open the Torah and point to their own tribe’s sacrifices.
The repetition of the princes’ sacrifices emphasizes the universal Jewish connection to the sacrificial order.