April 29, 2007

Breadcrumb: Media hysteria, Israelite style

Today, we are well aware that our news media may be exaggerating the severity of natural or man-made disasters. We know that media have biases and that eyewitness reports may not be substantially unreliable. Unfortunately, it seems the Israelites did not know this. When the scouting party returned from Canaan, 40 days after they set out, the spoke of a beautiful and bounteous land. On the other hand, they also reported that the inhabitants were giants. (Num. 13:25-33) Who could have known the scouts were just exaggerating?

April 28, 2007

Breadcrumb: Forty years, indeed!

For those who say the Israelites travelled in the desert for forty years before reaching Canaan, think again. By Num. 13, it is slightly over two years since they set out from Egypt, including a one-year stopover at Mount Sinai. However, it is in this chapter that the Israelites approach Canaan and send men to scout it. This is hardly the 40-year trek most of us are familiar with! The Israelites knew where Canaan was the whole time. On the other hand, they were not allowed to enter it. The knowledge that the land was there but inaccessible must have been enough to make them wish they were lost.

April 26, 2007

Numbers 11-13: With a friend like this...

Today's reading is Numbers 11-13 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the Lord sending fire into the camp; the Lord sending quail upon the Israelites' complaining; Miriam and Aaron's opposition to Moses' new wife, and the consequences that result from the conflict; the scouting of Canaan; and the report of that scouting.

In today's readings, we have a classic case of the proverb, "with friends like these, who needs enemies?" Not once, not twice, but three times, people complain and God exacts vengeance that is apparently far beyond the crime.

The first instance is also the shortest, in Num. 11:1-3. In brief, the people complain, the Lord becomes angry and sends fire to burn the outskirts of the camp, Moses prays to the Lord to stop it, and the fire abates.

The second episode, Num. 11:4-34, is about food. The Israelites, now two years out of Egypt, yearn for the food of that land. Manna simply isn't enough for them anymore. Moses, after a bit of self-pitying complaining himself, prays to God. God finally agrees to give the Israelites quail for a month. Indeed, God sends a huge storm of quail to the land, three feet high and a day's walk in every direction out of the camp. The people gather it up by the bushel, bring it back to camp, and before their first meal can even be digested, promptly become sick with a great plague.

Finally, in Num. 12:1-15, Aaron and Miriam, Moses' siblings, are angry at Moses' Ethiopian wife. God calls Moses, Aaron, and Miriam before the tabernacle and reminds the complainers that Moses is not even a regular prophet, but someone to whom God speaks "mouth to mouth." When God's cloud lifts after delivering the chastisement, Miriam discovers she has leprosy, which is not relieved until Aaron intercedes with Moses and Moses intercedes with God. Even so, Miriam needed to spend seven days outside the camp before her ordeal was complete.

At this point, the practical reader may be forgiven for asking, "what the heck was God thinking?" The Israelites complain, certainly, but does that warrant the punishment God is meting out upon them: fire, plague, and disease? For the second episode in particular, God seems to answer the Israelites' prayers, only to twist the reward into a punishment. In the case of Miriam and Aaron, perhaps they were only concerned about their brother, lord commander of nearly two million people. Is this enough to deserve leprosy?

On the other hand, all these punishments were terrestrial in nature. Fire, plague, and disease were no doubt routine parts of life in the camp. Living in a tent city, surrounded by open flame, with poor sanitation conditions, these "punishments" were bound to happen. The second case seems particularly apt: if God did manage to bring gigantic flocks of quail to the camp, and these birds could not be preserved properly, they would no doubt make their eaters sick. Today we are well aware of the dangers of eating undercooked or rotten meat. While no doubt the ancient Israelites were similarly aware, their yearning for meat may have overpowered their common sense.

When we combine these two facts, that God's punishments seem unexpectedly harsh and that certain catastrophes were bound to happen in the camp, we have a clearer picture of what may have happened. The Israelites suffer a terrible fire that burns the outskirts of the camp and look to place blame on someone. Obviously, a fire of this magnitude must have been driven by God, they think. They cast about for a reason for God's anger and realize that they have been complaining a lot lately. Ah ha, think the Israelites, God was angry with our complaints! Case closed.

But the case is, of course, not closed. The people ask for meat, and God graciously provides. However, before the people can finish consuming it, they are struck with the plague. Plagues must come from God, so yet again the people cast about for a reason God is angry. Searching their recent actions, they realize they have removed a lot of quail from the area around the camp, so God must be angry at their gluttony. Yet again, God is blamed for what might, today, be attributed to poor sanitation or improper storage techniques.

The same is true of Miriam. When the people see that Miriam has leprosy, they realize that she must have done something truly wrong. She is, after all, Moses' and Aaron's brother. Reflecting in the incident, they realize that she has been very vocal about Moses' new wife, the Ethiopian. Putting one and one together, the people realize that it is not a good idea to criticize the man who speaks with God, and this must be the reason Miriam was stricken.

In all cases, we have a strange sort of circular logic. Something bad happens, which in the Israelites' minds can only be the result of God, so they look for a cause and find one. In a camp of two million people, there would almost always be someone doing something against the rules written in Leviticus, so it would only be a matter of time before the Hebrews found the culprit and blamed them for their hardships. Unfortunately, this is a self-perpetuating prophecy, because any time a natural disaster hit the camp, the process would repeat itself.

We moderns can look at this situation and feel superior. After all, we know that plagues are caused by viruses and bacteria and fires are generally created from well-known sources. On the other hand, when things go wrong, we still look for people to blame. Even today, fundamentalists sometimes still play the "God hates our society" trump card. One needs only look as far as the response to hurricane Katrina to prove this point.

April 20, 2007

Breadcrumb: Yes, you too

Num. 9:6-14 asks, "if someone is ritually unclean or travelling far from home, are they still required to keep the Passover?" The answer is an unequivocal "yes!" God specifically states that both people defiled by dead bodies, who normally would not take part in the daily activities of the community, and people far from home with no access to their kin must keep the Passover. And he takes a moment to remind his people that if they are not ritually unclean or travelling, and decide not to keep the Passover anyway, they will be excommunicated. Just in case it hasn't been mentioned enough already.

April 19, 2007

Breadcrumb: How old?

Num. 8:24-26 says that Levites aged 25-50 would serve in the tabernacle. Num. 3, however, said that it was only men 30-50 who served. What was the real starting age, 25 or 30? What did they do for those five years from 25-30? Rashi theorized that there was a five-year apprenticeship period before the Levite men could be fully-trained tabernacle attendants. It makes sense that there was a training period required before the Levites could be trusted with the holy equipment, especially if the alternative is saying that the Bible is wrong. Who would say something like that?

April 18, 2007

Numbers 8-10: Wagons away

Today's reading is Numbers 8-10 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the commandment to set up lamps in the tabernacle; the setting apart of the Levites; the first Passover; God's cloud above the tabernacle; the commandment to make silver trumpets; and the Israelites' departure from Sinai.

Imagine the scenario: you've got about two million men, women, and children camped at the base of a mountain. You need to get them all moving in some semblance of order so that they all reach their destination in fighting condition. Furthermore, you have no cell phones, no loudspeakers, no walkie-talkies, no live-coverage broadcast CNN feeds. In fact, you have no modern communication equipment whatsoever. So how do you do it? This is the precise question that arises in Num. 9-10.

The first thing you're going to need is a sign that it's time to pack up and head out. If you left it up to a single man, people might claim he was despotic. After all, the Israelites just left Egypt, where they were under the iron hand of the Pharaoh. The last thing they wanted once they were free was to be ruled by yet another arbitrary commander. On the other hand, if you left the movements up to a committee, they might be camped at Sinai for twenty years while waiting for "the opportune moment."

So they Israelites did what any good, religious, ancient people would do: they trusted God. Unlike many other ancient civilizations, however, God rose to the challenge and answered. God materialized in the form of a cloud over the tabernacle, at the centre of the Israelite camp. When it was time to stay put, the cloud remained hovering over the tabernacle. When it was time to move out, the cloud lifted up and floated over to the new location for the camp. It was that simple: cloud down, stay where you are; cloud on the move, you'd better follow it. (Num. 9:15-23)

I's well and good that the cloud was the signal to move, but if everyone moved at once, there would be chaos in the camps. We've seen the mayhem that can erupt at super-sale days at Future Shop; imagine that multiplied several hundred thousand times. So the Israelites needed a signal on a slightly smaller scale, something more manageable.

Enter Num. 10:1-10. In these verses, God commands the Israelites to build two silver trumpets to sound the assembly and the march. One blast on the trumpet meant it was time for the eastern camps to set out. Two blasts meant the southern camps should follow them. (Num. 10:5-6) There is no indication for the signals for the western and northern camps; we'll just have to assume they worked things out for themselves.

Trumpets were traditional tools to gather assemblies and signal the hour of departure. In the late 15th century, a pilgrim by the name of Pietro Casola noted that on his pilgrimage from Venice to Jerusalem, the ship's captain used trumpets to call the pilgrims back to the ship or to announce imminent departures. So at least two and a half millennia after the Israelites' departure from Sinai, trumpets were still being used in the way God indicated. That's lasting value.

Of course, trumpets could be used for other reasons, and in fact they were. Num. 10:9-10 notes several other times the trumpets should be blown: when going to war, on days of gladness, of days of solemnity, at the beginning of the month, over burnt offerings, and over peace offerings. Or, to paraphrase, there was a lot of trumpet-blowing in the Israelite camp. Especially given that there were daily burnt offerings at the tabernacle, the sound of trumpets would have been nearly as ubiquitous in the Israelite camp as church bells are in a modern European town. It's a good thing God make sure to tell Moses that the blast for journeying should be different from the other ones.

Where were we? Ah, yes. The cloud had lifted, the trumpets had been sounded, and it was time to hitch up the wagons and head out.

Of course, the Israelites had been camped at Sinai for a long time. They arrived in the third month after the Exodus (Ex. 19:1), and didn't leave until nearly a year later. (Num. 10:11 -- the twentieth day of the second month of the second year after the Exodus) They were layabout homebodies by this point, comfortable where they were.

Because of this long sedentary period, God decided it might be best not to tax the Israelites' walking legs too much and only took them on a three-day journey before settling down on the tabernacle again. (Num. 10:33) After all, a journey of forty years begins with a single step. Or, in this case, a single three-day trek. They Israelites would have plenty of time to complain about pebbles in their sandals later. For now, it was best to get them used to walking without straining them overmuch.

In the end, then, Moses had a decent system in place to get the Israelites up and moving: look for the cloud's departure, sound the trumpets, and get the camp moving, hopefully not for too long. Of course, it still must have been fairly chaotic the first few times the Israelites decided to march. There's only so much you can do with two million people and a limited budget. On the other hand, things are easier when you've got God on your side.

April 16, 2007

Breadcrumb: And the grand total is...

In case you missed the first twelve times the gifts were announced in Num. 7, verses 84-88 gives a total of everything that was given by the various tribes. You would think that this would be a simple matter of multiplying the gift of any individual tribe by twelve, but apparently some ancient Israelites had trouble with simple arithmetic. Or, possibly, the Levites just liked to gloat about how much stuff they'd gotten.

April 15, 2007

Breadcrumb: Stingy, much?

Num. 7:1-5 describes how the twelve leaders of the twelve tribes of Israelites, the very same leaders who donated the silver plates, golden dishes, and myriad animals, pooled their resources to give a gift to the Levites. Together, they managed to find the money to donate six covered wagons and twelve oxen to pull them. By quick calculation, that makes one ox and half a wagon per leader. You'd think that, knowing what was coming, these guys could have managed something a little more elaborate. On the other hand, maybe they were really nice wagons.

April 14, 2007

Numbers 7: What'll ya give me?

Today's reading is Numbers 7 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the gifts given by the various tribal leaders at the dedication of the tabernacle.

For a pre-industrial society, it certainly looks as though someone had fed the text in Num. 7 through a word processor and pressed "copy / paste" a dozen times. Starting with verse 12, the chapter is a recounting of the gifts given by each of the leaders of the twelve Israelite tribes upon the dedication of the tabernacle. The Levites didn't contribute anything, as they were the recipients. The only problem is that this chapter will make your eyes glaze over, because each tribe gave exactly the same gifts.

"What were these gifts?" I hear my astute readers asking. Here are the gifts given by each tribe, in the order they are presented in the text:

- one silver charger (KJV, "plate" in NIV) weighing 130 shekels (about 3 1/4 lbs), filled with flour and oil for a grain offering
- one silver bowl (KJV, "sprinkling bowl" in NIV) weighing 70 shekels (about 1 3/4 lbs), filled with flour and oil for a grain offering
- one gold spoon (KJV, "dish" in NIV) weighing 10 shekels (about 4 oz) filled with incense
- animals for a burnt offering: one young bull, one ram, and one lamb a year old
- animals for a sin offering: one goat kid
- animals for a peace offering: two oxen, five rams, five male goals, and five lambs a year old

For each tribe, the text tells us the day the offering was given – only one tribe per day. It also tells us the leader of that tribe. Then it recounts the gifts mentioned above. Finally, it reminds us of the leader's name and that this was his offering. For the record, let me be clear one more time that every single tribe offered the gifts just listed, in the same order, without any variation.

Can you imagine how boring it is to read this twelve times in a row?

In my mind, there are two key questions that arise from this chapter. First, why would anyone need twelve silver plates or twelve gold dishes? Second, even if someone did need twelve silver plates, why do we need to list each and every one, instead of just providing the totals?

Let us begin with the first question. Why would anyone, even the priests, need so many dishes? Presumably, they would be used in the service of the tabernacle. Yet how many incense dishes could a single priest want? Certainly they wouldn't need to have twelve bowls of incense going at the same time. Furthermore, unlike some college friends of mine, we can only assume the priests would not be letting the used dishes lie around in the sink until there were none left and they had to wash them all. After all, these are holy dishes, and it wouldn't do to have them sitting around growing mould. It only makes sense that the priests would wash each dish after using it.

So why the need for twelve silver plates, twelve silver bowls, and twelve golden dishes? The short answer probably is, "there wasn't such a need, but all the tribes wanted to feel equal." Some wise priest probably remembered the time he came home from a hard day of manual labour under the Egyptians with a few presents for his kids. Even though he picked up presents he thought would be suitable for each child, the squabbling started immediately: "I wanted to the crooked twig!" "Why did she get the brick with chicken-scratch?" It's enough to make even an even-tempered priest take all the presents back and send the children to bed without any sacrificial goat.

Of course, in the "offerings at the temple" game, the prize is not who received the best gift, but who gave the best gift. To avoid inter-tribe fighting, then, Aaron probably circulated a memo telling the tribe leaders what they would be expected to give. Little did they know they would all be giving the exact same thing! Sure, some of the tribes at the end, like Asher (11th day) or Naphtali (12th day) probably put one and one together and realized what was happening, but by that time it was probably too late to change their own gifts. So everyone gave the same thing. That way, Judah would never be able to gloat to Dan about the time they, mighty Judah, gave a two-foot-high ivory drinking horn to the tabernacle, when all Dan was able to give was a coupon for the world's first Walmart.

The flip-side to this situation is therefore our second question: if everyone gave the same thing, what is the point of writing everyone's name next to their contribution? This probably has more to do with name recognition. If you ever want to make a child happy, find them a book where the main character shares their name. They will read it again and again, telling you "their" adventure. Similarly, we always pay more attention to newspaper articles when they are about us, or at least mention us. Even a passing reference to you in an article could make a page-8, 4-inch article about composting more interesting than the front-page main feature. In short: we like reading about ourselves.

This principle held true, we can only assume, for the ancient Israelites. They could look at this mind-numblingly boring chapter and read it with fervent interest because their tribe was mentioned in it. Not only that, but their chief stands out prominently. He's mentioned not once, but twice! If that's not enough to make a common peon interested, I don't know what is. (Well, aside from sex and violence, I mean.)

So, to wrap up: why did the tabernacle need so many silver and gold dishes? It didn't, but it was easier than decades of inter-tribe squabbling over who got to donate the gold incense holder and who got to donate the steel meat-hooks. Why did each tribe need to be mentioned individually? Because otherwise, no one would ever read this chapter.

April 13, 2007

Breadcrumb: What for?

Num. 6:1-32 describes the various requirements of Nazarites, or Hebrew ascetics. In summary, they must abstain from drinking wine and eating grapes, cutting their hair, and being near graveyards or the dead. You would think that with this sort of a vow, there would be some powerful rewards as an accompaniment. However, the text only states, "All the days of his separation he is holy unto the LORD." (Num. 6:8, KJV) I have no idea what this means, and I'm fairly certain the ancient Israelites didn't either. On the other hand, more holiness is better than less holiness, so there were probably some people who took the vows anyway, just to be on the safe side.

April 12, 2007

Breadcrumb: Don't tell God, tell him!

In Judaism, a person who wrongs another person must confess the sin he has committed and offer recompense to the injured party. (Num. 5:5-10) Furthermore, he not only has to make restitution for the amount of the wrong, but he needs to add another 20% just to show that there are no hard feelings. If the man is dead, the guilty party must give the restitution to the victim's family. If the victim has no family, the restitution is given as a contribution to the priests instead. As I've said before, it was a good life to be a priest.

April 11, 2007

Numbers 5-6: Two-timing witch!

Today's reading is Numbers 5-6 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers a few laws for the purity of the camp; some laws for the restitution of wrongs; a ritual designed to uncover adulterous wives; regulations for Nazarites; and a priestly blessing.

Your wife has been acting strange lately. She says she's working late at the office, but she's not making any extra income. She says she's at her friends' house, but her friend is out of town. She buys little gifts, but never gives them to you. In short, you're beginning to feel that there's some funny business going on. Unfortunately, you can't prove it, and your wife claims she's the soul of innocence. What do you do?

People have been trying to prove cases of adultery for as long as there has been adultery, which is probably as long as there have been monogamous relationships. Today, these issues are dealt with by the courts. In ancient Israel they were dealt with by the priesthood.

Numbers 5:11-31 is an extended instruction manual for what to do when a husband suspects, but cannot prove, that his wife is being unfaithful. Here's a short version:
The jealous husband takes his wife and a barley offering to the tabernacle. The priest then takes the woman, uncovers her hair, and has her hold the offering. Meanwhile, he mixes some holy water with dust from the tabernacle floor. He then tells the woman that if she has been faithful, the bitter water won't hurt her, but if she has, it will "make thy belly to swell, and thy thigh to rot" (Num. 5:22, KJV). She says, "amen." The priest writes down these words on a scroll and then washes them into the water. He offers the barley on the altar, then the woman drinks the water. Assuming she's pure, she'll be fine. If she's guilty, she receives the effects of the curse.

One thing we realize about this ritual is that it has absolutely no physical relationship to the act of adultery, other than the consequence of the curse. Today, when we want to find evidence of a crime, we look for evidence, even circumstantial evidence. We want to convince other people by force of reason, or at least by force of emotion, that the woman was up to no good. The ancient Israelites did not do this. Their ultimate test was not the strength of evidence, but the revealing power of God. God knows everything, and is capable of everything. Therefore, if there was any wrongdoing here, and the wife agreed to suffer the consequences if she's guilty, God would certainly reveal any sin.

This is, incidentally, very similar to the medieval idea of "trial by combat." The theory behind trial by combat was that God would cause the person in the right to gain victory in single combat. The winner was, by definition, chosen by God and therefore deserved to win the court case.

The flip-side to this "divine revelation" method of justice, of course, is that it doesn't work if you don't believe in the system. As outsiders looking in, we can imagine all sorts of scenarios where the water-dust-and-ink mixture would cause problems, none of which involve a woman actually being unfaithful. In fact, we would probably say that any effect would be dependent on the woman's constitution, the presence or lack of poisons in the dust and ink, and the quantity of contaminants in the water. If the ink were made with gall nuts, copper sulfate, and gum arabic (reference here), we can expect that ingesting it would create some physical symptoms in the woman. Though I am no doctor, I suspect that some of these materials might very well cause stomach problems, if not infertility. This site mentions some harmful effects of ingesting copper sulfate, for example.

Undoubtedly the ancient Israelites knew about these potential health problems. Even if they did not have chemical analysis, surely someone must have discovered, early in the Israelites' history, "drinking bits of metal mixed in water isn't good for you." Given the six-hundred-thousand men in the Israelite camp, there were surely a good number of them who understood some basic medical principals like, "don't eat the dirt on the floor."

Why, then, did the women agree to perform the task of drinking potentially-harmful materials? One reason might be that they assumed God would save them if they were actually innocent. After all, the priest assured them that if they were guiltless, the bitter water wouldn't have any effect. In a faithful, religious society -- which the ancient Israelite camp probably was -- this would likely have been enough assurance for most women.

Another reason might have been more social. Couples who need to deal with accusations of adultery are full of conflict and stress. It might have simply been easier for the woman to subject herself to the bitter water than to continually listen to her husband accuse her. Or, in a particularly dominant relationship, the husband may have forced his wife to undergo the ritual.

At least one benefit may have derived from this ritual. Unlike, for example, the medieval and Renaissance witch-hunts, if a woman didn't react to the bitter water, she was declared innocent. In many ancient, medieval, and even modern institutions, it is sometimes difficult to be proven innocent; there are only degrees of guilt. At least in ancient Israel, if the woman survived drinking water with ink and dust in it, she could point and laugh at her husband's unfounded jealousy. Of course, if the result was a false negative, she'd probably be a lot more careful with her lover in the future, which is just as good.

April 10, 2007

Breacrumb: Don't touch that!

The Kohathites were in charge of carrying the various important furniture of the tabernacle. (Num. 4:1-20) However, they were not allowed to actually see any of this furniture. Instead, Aaron and his sons carefully prepared everything so that the Kohathites would only see the various cloth coverings of the instruments. If a Kohathite accidentally saw any of the furniture he was carrying, he would die. It gives a whole new meaning to "workplace hazards."

April 09, 2007

Breadcrumb: I'll trade you

The Levites worked in the tabernacle as a replacement for the firstborn of all the rest of the tribes of Israel. That way, all the other tribes could continue intact, while the Levite tribe also continued as a cohesive unit. At the time of the census, there were 22,000 male Levites (Num. 4:39) and 22,273 male first-born children from the other tribes (Num. 4:43). God's solution for dealing with the surplus was to tax the Israelites 5 shekels each for the 273 first-borns, or 1,365 shekels overall. This money was – can you guess? – given to Aaron and his sons. (Num. 4:44-51) Some people seem to have all the luck.

April 08, 2007

Numbers 3-4: Nice work if you can get it

Today's reading is Numbers 3-4 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the numbers and duties of the Levite families.

It must have been nice to be a Levite in ancient Israel. They didn't need to go to war; they got to camp right near the tabernacle of God; and they only worked twenty years of their lives.

Let's backtrack just a moment and remind ourselves of the basics.

The Levites were the only tribe of Israel not counted in the census of Num. 1-2. Instead, they have their own census, recounted in Num. 3-4. The tribe of Levites is broken down into three main groups, corresponding to the three sons of Levi, the tribe's progenitor. These three groups are the Gershonites (from Gershon), the Kohathites (from Kohath) and the Merarites (from Merari). Altogether, the males of these families one month and older number 22,000. Each group has a leader, as we saw in the census for Num. 1-2.

Furthermore, each group was assigned a particular duty, which generally involved carrying the various instruments of the tabernacle. Without going into too much detail, the Gershonites were in charge mainly of the fabric implements, such as the hangings, curtains, and coverings. (Num. 3:25-26, Num. 4:24-26) The Kohathites were in charge of the big furniture: the ark, table, candlestick, and altars. (Num. 3:31, Num. 4:4-15) Finally, the Merarites were in charge of the infrastructure: bars, pillars, sockets, and so forth. (Num. 3:36-37, Num. 4:31-32) For a recap of all these various implements, refer back to the last half of Exodus, which describes them in far more detail than anyone could possibly want to know.

Let us examine, for a moment, these duties. The first thing we learn is that all the men aged 30-50 were supposed to serve in the tabernacle. (Num. 4:3, 4:23, 4:30) This might seem like a long time. However, we must also look at the number of men involved. At the time this census was taken, there were 8,580 Levite men aged 30-50. (Num. 4:48-49) Broken down, there were about 2,500-3,200 men of the appropriate age per family group. (Num. 4:35-36, 4:39-40, 4:43-44) So several thousand men were in charge of the various pieces of equipment associated with the tabernacle.

Remember that the duties of these men were, essentially, carrying around this equipment. The Gershonites and Merarites may even have needed to set up the various implements. (The Kohathites could not set up the various tabernacle furniture, on pain of death. That job was left to the sons of Aaron.) Surely, however, it did not take eight thousand men to set up the tabernacle. A few dozen would surely have sufficed to set up and take down everything within a few hours, or a day at most. Assuming the Levites had good carts, they may have needed a hundred or two people to carry everything, and this is probably a high-ball figure. We are therefore left with several thousand redundant men.

Furthermore, we don't know what the Levites did when the tabernacle was set up and stationary. Once everything was in place, the priests took over and conducted the actual business of God. The Levites were left to twiddle their thumbs and tell ghost stories, I suppose.

Speaking of redundant, we have no idea what the rest of the Levites did. I am speaking, of course, of the Levite men not aged 30-50 and all the Levite women. We have no real indication of what they did during their copious free time of not fighting and not serving at the tabernacle. One can only assume that they did something, but the text gives us no indication as to what this "something" might have been.

This leaves us, therefore, in the situation of having an entire tribe of people, potentially as many as 45,000 people, who were for the most part redundant. Only a fraction of them actually worked in the tabernacle, and only a fraction of them were probably working at any given time. The rest, most likely, got to gloat to the other tribes about their light workload and their exemption from war. Like the title says, it's a cushy life if you can get it.

April 06, 2007

Breadcrumb: It's the size that counts

One benefit of having a census of the Israelite nation is that we know which tribes were the most numerous. The biggest tribe, according to the text, was Judah, with 74,600 warriors. (Num. 1:26-27) The smallest was Manasseh, at a measly 32,200, less than half Judah's size. (Num. 1:34-35) Though we actually know very little more about the members of the tribes, we can only assume that many of the other tribes would be annoyed at Judah whenever the inter-tribe Olympics came around and Judah could afford to field more competitors. Or perhaps I'm mixing mythologies.

April 05, 2007

Breadcrumb: Draft dodgers

We read several times in Num. 1-2 that the census of warriors did not include the Levite tribe, because they were guardians of the tabernacle. It was an important job: anyone else who tried to carry the tabernacle would be put to death. (Num. 1:51) On the other hand, I can only imagine that some of the warriors, in the middle of a fierce battle, would be annoyed by these hereditary draft-dodgers, living the cushy life of burning incense and eating sacrificed animals. At least, until they remembered Aaron's sons, who were killed by God for burning the wrong incense the first day on the job. (Lev. 10)

April 04, 2007

Numbers 1-2: Roll call!

Today's reading is Numbers 1-2 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers a census of the various Israelite tribes, listing the number of adult men per tribe, their leader, and where they camped.

The summary I just gave is essentially the entire two chapters. The two chapters consist of statistics that would cause social historians to drool but make the rest of us to sink into a glassy-eyed stupor. However, way back in Genesis I was able to tease some meaning out of the genealogical tables, and I'm certainly going to try to do my best to make some sense out of these chapters as well.

The first thing we need to know about the census is who commissioned it and why. The answers, respectively, are "God" and "to know how many warriors were in the camp." Though it might seem strange at first that God was the one who requested the census, this should not be particularly surprising. After all, almost half the book of Exodus and the entire book of Leviticus was a prolonged monologue by God, explaining what the Hebrews needed to do. It shouldn't be particularly surprising that God has asked the Israelites to perform yet another task for him, nor that they did it.

The reason behind the census is slightly more interesting. Most modern censuses (censi?) are commissioned for tax purposes. Even the eleventh-century Domesday Book, the first census of Norman Britain, was done for this reason. If you know how many people are living in your lands and what they own, then you know how many taxes you're entitled to and consequently whether you're being short-changed. The Israelite census was done for a corollary reason: warriors. In the same way that modern censuses can be used to determine who is eligible for a draft, the Israelite census determined how many able-bodied men there were in the Hebrew camp. The census specifically counted "from twenty years old and upward, all that are able to go forth to war in Israel." (Num. 1:3, KJV)

Why, we might ask at this juncture, did the Israelites need to know how many warriors were in the camp? Aren't the Jews a race of scholars, often stereotyped today by Woody Allen: timid, neurotic, and mildly bumbling? That is certainly true, at least today. But three thousand years ago, the Jews (or, at the time, the Hebrews) were a warrior race. In the four hundred years of their captivity in Egypt, other races had moved in to their old real estate. The Hebrews were on their way back home, and they needed to oust the squatters, who quite logically considered the land as theirs. The Hebrews, in other words, were about to have a war on their hands.

It is good, therefore, that the Israelites had so many warriors in their camp. If the numbers presented in chapters 1-2 can be trusted, there were a lot of Israelite men, twenty years and older, able to go into battle. Over six thousand, in fact. Specifically, 603,550. And that's not even counting the Levites, whom we'll be discussing in the next essay. They didn't count in the census because they were priests, not warriors.

So, imagine now that you have six hundred thousand grown men able to go to war in your nation. Adding women and children to the total, and we probably need to double or even triple that number. Now imagine you've got to move them in some semblance of order through a desert to stage a war of conquest. You don't have cell phones, walky-talkies, or any other modern communication devices. Yet somehow you've got to get them from point A to point B with all those warriors still in fighting condition.

This is where the second and third pieces of information provided in the census become vital, namely, who was in charge and where did they all live? The information is provided in chapter 2, along with a recap of the numbers by tribe.

The names of the leaders of each tribe are important as a reminder of who has absolute responsibility. Certainly, Moses had the direct ear of God and Aaron was the high priest. But they had 600,000 people to care for, and that's a lot for any two men to handle. So they delegated to the heads of tribes, who only needed to handle 30-75,000 men. No doubt these delegated even further, but the text doesn't bother with the details. The point is that if the tribe of Asher was camped south of the tabernacle, when they should be camping north, Moses knew who to speak to.

And, while we're on the subject, how did the tribe of Asher know to camp south of the tabernacle in the first place? This information is also provided in Num. 2. Specifically, we find out that the tribes of Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun were camped east of the tabernacle and marched out first. After them were the tribes of Reuben, Simeon, and Gad, who camped south of the tabernacle. Then came the tabernacle itself, in the keeping of the Levites. Behind that were the tribes of Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin, who camped westwards. Finally, bringing up the rearguard were the tribes of Dan, Asher, and Naptali, who camped to the north. Each of these four groups contained between a hundred thousand and two hundred thousand men. You never know when you might be on Jeopardy and find this information useful.

So where does this leave us? We know that there were a lot of people in the Israelite nation. We know that many of them were warriors, and that they were kept in line by twelve men. We know that at least the rudiments of a marching order were in place by the time they left Sinai. At least, we know all this if we believe the text. The fact that there is no archaeological record for such a large movement of people is, as always, completely beside the point when talking about a literal interpretation of the Bible.

April 03, 2007

Final Reflections on Leviticus

Congratulations! If you've made it this far in our trek through the Bible, you have now officially made it through the most boring book. It's all downhill from here.

What is it about Leviticus that makes so many people, even seasoned Biblical scholars, groan when they hear that they will now need to read it? Why is it the most notoriously boring chapter in the entire Bible? And is this reputation valid?

To answer the first set of questions, we must note that Leviticus is a law book. Like many other law books, it is precise, detailed, and consequently not a lot of fun to read. Most people don't read other ancient law codes, such as the laws of Hamurabi, for their personal enjoyment. On the other hand, many people read the Bible as a means of spiritual enlightenment or religious practice. Therefore, they are forced to encounter this law code.

To further Leviticus' reputation as a boring text, it isn't particularly relevant. The first seven chapters are devoted to animal sacrifice, which is no longer practised by Jews and was never practised by Christians. Other chapters deal with infectious diseases, whether in people, clothing, or houses. Today, most people faced with an infectious disease turn to their doctor for a diagnosis, not their priest. The chapters about holidays are relevant for Jews, but not for Christians. Some laws are simply neglected today, even by generally religious people, such as those in Lev. 19 against wearing clothing made of two types of material or shaving sideburns. In other words, most of the book no longer applies to Jews' or Christians' daily lives. It is, essentially, an obsolete law code, designed for a pre-industrial, agricultural society.

Of course, this does not stop some people, both Jewish and Christian, from trying to apply portions of Leviticus to modern life. Jews still follow the dietary restrictions laid out in Lev. 11 and the holidays listed in Lev. 23. And a great deal of ink has been spilled over the laws about sex in Lev. 18, specifically the laws against male homosexuality. There are a few laws in Lev. 19 that prohibit wizards or enchanters, which have often been used to malign modern new-age religions like Wicca. But for the most part, these dubiously relevant verses are a tiny minority of the total book. While there may be one or two nuggets of potentially useful information, it requires a great deal of digging to find them.

It doesn't help that Leviticus is nestled in the middle of two action-packed books, Exodus and Numbers. In Exodus, we have the ten plagues, the parting of the red sea, the story of the golden calf, and the ten commandments. Numbers (once past the initial ten chapters, which are also fairly boring) gives us rebellion and opposition, miracles, and war. Though less well-known than Genesis and Exodus, the stories in Numbers can be just as exciting.

Leviticus is unfortunately sandwiched between these two books, largely for chronological reasons. In the middle of Exodus, the Israelites arrive at Mount Sinai, and they don't leave until the beginning of Numbers. This is when the Israelites receive the laws, and so for chronological reasons the laws are included in a separate book, called Leviticus. It's an inconvenient disruption to the narrative for anyone reading straight through, as we are, but it makes sense in the greater scheme of the chronological Biblical record.

Now that we have examined the reasons most people consider the book of Leviticus boring (namely: it is an outdated law code with dubious connections to modern life, and it interrupts the flow of the narrative), the question remains: is that reputation valid? Is it really as bad as everyone makes it out to be?

Each reader will have to decide for themselves, but in my opinion it has a few shining moments. There are a few truly bizarre rituals, such as the one for cleansing people from leprosy (Lev. 14), and a few interesting episodes, such as the holy murder of Aaron's sons (Lev. 10). They are few and far between, certainly, but they provide entertainment in an otherwise dull book.

Also, when approached as a law code, the book provides a wonderful window on an ancient race. It shows us what they considered important, which issues troubled them, and how they lived their daily lives. This sort of information is invaluable to social historians, who try to reconstruct how people lived in historical societies. If we approach the book of Leviticus with the question, "how did these people live?" or "how were their lives and values different from ours?" we will glean much more value from the text than asking the question "what happened next?" It's all a matter of attitude.

That said, I am glad the book is over and done with. I mentioned that the first ten books of Numbers are also fairly boring, and there will unfortunately be a slog through at least five more essays before we reach the part where the narrative starts up again, but at least we're done the hard part. We've made it through the book that causes even evangelists to throw up their hands in frustration (except when using certain verses for their own purposes, of course), and we've arrived at the end with our minds relatively unscathed. So, I say again, congratulations. Next stop: Numbers.

April 02, 2007

Breadcrumb: How much is that baby in the window?

Lev. 27 discusses how to redeem various things that have been dedicated to the lord. Among these things are "people." (Lev. 27:1-8) In a manner reminiscent of other ancient and medieval law codes, the text gives a monetary value for various types of people, divided by age and gender. The most valuable people, monetarily, are men between the ages of 20 and 60, valued at 50 silver shekels. Females of the same age are only worth 30 shekels. The least valuable members are girls aged 1 month to 5 years, valued at only 3 shekels. Throughout the passage, men are more valuable than women, and adults in the prime of life are more valuable than children or the elderly.

Contrarily, in the early-medieval laws of the Salian Franks, pregnant women are the most valuable, followed by boys under ten, women of childbearing age, and free Frankish men in the king's service. Ordinary, free Frankish men were only worth a third of the value of their female counterparts of childbearing age. If only the Israelite women had waited a few centuries, they would have found themselves much more highly valued.

April 01, 2007

Breadcrumb: I'll repent on my deathbed?

Lev. 26:40-45 provides a ray of hope in an otherwise dismal half-chapter. After enumerating the consequences of disobedience (see yesterday's essay for more on this), God informs the Israelites that even if they have sinned, they can still find redemption in God's eyes. He tells them that if they humble themselves and accept their just punishment, God will remember the covenant he made with their forefathers and maintain it. There is hope that even dispersed in the land of their enemies, God would still return them to their rightful country. This passage, in part, is what sustained the Jews through their 2000-year Diaspora from Israel.