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.

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