“We are lost, all of us are lost!  Whoever so much as comes near the Lord’s Tabernacle will die.  Alas, we are doomed!”  (Numbers 17:28)

The rebellions narrated earlier in this parsha were directed primarily against the priestly leadership of Aaron. The punishment of the rebels was intended to answer this challenge and establish the authority of the established priestly caste. However, it is typical of the deteriorating morale that we witness in the book of Numbers that the people draw from these punishments a different lesson: that they face a dire, mortal threat from the presence of the Sanctuary.  Having overreached in their assumption that the holiness of all Israel gives priestly access to any member, they now exaggerate the danger of any approach to the tabernacle whatsoever.

The verses that follow (18:1-7) not only clarify what constitutes encroachment, but place responsibility for enforcing it on the priestly and Levitical guards. If they fail to prevent encroachment, it is they, not the people, who will be punished.

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