May 31, 2007

Breadcrumb: Do you promise?

In Num. 32, the tribes of Gad and Reuben approach Moses and ask whether they can inherit the lands east of the Jordan river, instead of crossing it with the rest of the Israelites. Moses fumes at them, accusing them of being as bad as the scouts in Num. 13-14, who put the Israelites off the idea of even entering Canaan. No, the tribe leaders, say. We will go with you into battle, but we will leave our women, children, and cattle in fortified cities west of the Jordan. Moses eventually agrees to this arrangement, but only after the tribes promise... three times.

May 30, 2007

Numbers 31-32: What did I do to you?

Today's reading is Numbers 31-32 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the war against the Midianites; the division of the spoils from that war; and the agreement made between Moses and the tribes of Reuben and Gad to inhabit the trans-Jordan lands.

At first glance, Num. 31 looks like just another chapter from the long chronicle of the Israelite wars of conquest. The Israelites go in, kill the Midianites, and divide up their spoils. An open-and-shut case, to the casual reader. However, once we begin looking at the details of this war, we realize that none of it makes sense. From the reason for the war to the division of the spoils, the reader seems to be tossed into a world twists that make absolutely no sense.

Let us begin with the war's targets, the Midianites. If we turn back a few chapters, to Num. 25, we will recall two incidents. The first, in Num. 25:1-5, recounts how the Moabite women seduced the sons of Israel and led them to idol-worship. The second, Num. 25:6-15, describes how Zimri (a Simeonite prince) and Cozbi (the daughter of a Midianite prince) walked in front of the tabernacle and will killed by Phineas, son of the high priest. Just so we are absolutely clear, there is no mention of the Midianite women other than Cozbi. It was the Moabites, not the Midianites, who were involved in fornication and idol-worship. Though we may want to assume the Midianites were also involved in these activities -- indeed, it is the only way Num. 31 makes any sense -- the text does not tell us this. Nonetheless, God tells Israel to go to war against the Midianites.

Before leaving the Midianites, my thoughtful readers might remember another episode, this one from Exodus. In Ex. 2, Moses flees the wrath of Pharaoh after he slew an Egyptian taskmaster. Where did he flee? Midian. Not only that, but he married a Midianite woman, and had a Midianite priest, Jethro, as a father-in-law. (Ex. 3:1) Not only that, but Jethro was the one who set up the Israelite system of judges so that Moses would not need to bear the burden of judging all the Isrealites' law cases. (Ex. 18) We would think that because of this, Moses would have a soft spot in his heart for the Midianites. But, as the text makes clear, this is not so.

Moses picks out 12,000 fighting men, 1,000 from each tribe, to wage war. Along with them, he sends Phineas, son of Eleazar the high priest. The text has already established in Num. 25 that Phineas is a fighting man, as well as a priest. Moses sent him, along with the "holy instruments and trumpets" to ensure the Israelites' victory. (Num. 31:3-6)

The Israelite warriors are, to say the least, brutal. They kill all the men of Midian and their five kings. They capture their women and children. They claim all their goods as spoils of war. They burn their cities and castles. In short, they do a fine job of ensuring the Midianites will never be a problem again. (Num. 31:7-12)

The text notes that they also kill Balaam, son of Beor. (Num. 31:8) The last time we encountered Balaam, son of Beor, was in Num. 22-24. For those who don't remember, here is a brief recap of that story: Balak, king of Midian (who is not, we should note, listed among the five kings of Midian in Num. 31) had seen the incoming Israelite army and asked Balaam to curse them. Though Balaam at first refused to come, since God had blessed the Israelites, he eventually was persuaded and even encountered an angel along the way to visit Balak. Though Balak repeatedly asked Balaam to curse the Israelites, Balaam blessed them a half-dozen times and foretold the destruction of Midian and the other non-Israelite nations in the region. Balaam was absolutely loyal to God. And yet, in Num. 31:8, the text points out specifically that he was killed in the war.

So, the Israelite soldiers, weary from a long day of slaughter and arson, return to the camp. There, they meet Moses. We might expect that Moses would be pleased that the soldiers were so thorough, but in fact, he is angry. He is not angry because the soldiers were so brutal, which we might expect, but because they were not brutal enough! Moses commands the soldiers to kill all the male children and every woman who has slept with a man. The virgins, he explains graciously, "keep alive for yourselves." (Num. 31:13-18)

Now surely after doing God's work, at Moses' command, killing not only the Midianite men but the women and male children as well, the Israelite soldiers would be welcomed back into the camp with open arms. But this is, again, not the case. Moses instructs them that they must stay outside the camp for seven days to purify themselves and their belongings. The old rules about being around dead bodies (Num. 19) still need to be obeyed, even by decorated soldiers. (Num. 31:19-24)

Finally, the moment every soldier has been waiting for, the division of the spoils. Moses commands that the spoils (675,000 sheep, 72,000 cattle, 61,000 donkeys, and 32,000 virgin girls) be divided in two halves, the first going to the soldiers and the other going to the rest of the congregation. This, I'm certainly, would seem very fair to the warriors, who after all did all the fighting, though less fair to the other 600,000 Israelites, who didn't. Furthermore, the tithes for these two groups are different. The soldiers need only give one out of every five hundred heads as a tithe; the congregation must give one out of every fifty. (Num. 31:25-47)

While this is just another way of honouring the soldiers, we note one interesting fact from this division: the priests receive about 350 virgin Moabite girls, the soldiers about 16,000 (that's more than one per soldier, remember), and the congregation in general another 16,000 (about one for every 35 men). (Num. 31: 35; 31:40; 31:47) Recall that the entire reason the Israelites were fighting the Midianites in the first place was because their women had seduced the Israelite men into adultery and idol-worship. Why, we must ask ourselves, are the Israelites allowing themselves to fall into the same trap? Just because the virgins didn't seduce the Israelite men until now doesn't mean they won't do so in the future.

Though I'm certain it made sense to the Israelites at the time, the passage of millennia seems to have confused issues so that all we can do is scratch our heads and ask, "huh?"

May 29, 2007

Breadcrumb: On the first day of Sukkot, my congregation gave to me

Num. 29:12-38 lists the offerings that must be given every day during the Feast of Tabernacles (known today as Sukkot). On the first day, the offering is 13 bullocks, 2 rams, 14 lambs, quite a bit of wine, and flour mixed with oil. Also, there was a sacrifice of a kid goat as a sin offering, and the daily offerings I mentioned yesterday. Every subsequent day, with the exception of the 8th (last) day, the offering remains the same except that the number of bullocks decreases by one (to 7 bullocks on the 7th day). It's like a backwards Christmas carol.

May 28, 2007

Breadcrumb: Today's breakfast is...

Num. 28:1-8 describes the offers that must be sacrificed at the tabernacle every single day: two yearling lambs (one in the morning, one in the evening), each with 1/4 hin of wine (about 1L) and 1/10 ephah of flour (about 2 L) mixed with 1/4 hin of oil (about 1 L). In other words, breakfast for the priests was lamb, bread, and wine, and so was dinner. Of course, the Israelites brought a fair amount of other sacrifices, but the priests were guaranteed at least this much. It might not be our ideal breakfast, but it's certainly better than cold pizza and beer.

May 27, 2007

Numbers 28-30: I spoke too soon

Numbers 28-30: I spoke too soon

Today's reading is Numbers 28-30 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the offerings that must be made daily, weekly, monthly, and on holidays; and the circumstances under which vows are binding.

In the last essay, I spoke about the moderately progressive stance the Bible took in relation to women's rights. Specifically, I talked about how the book of Numbers allowed daughters to inherit property so long as their father died without sons. I mentioned that for an ancient, patriarchal culture, this was in fact a significant amount of power for a woman to wield.

Unfortunately, I must now retract some of my praise.

Num. 30 speaks about vows and the conditions under which they are binding. For men, the situation is simple: all vows are binding, period. (Num. 30:2) You would think that this situation would be true of women as well, but you would be mistaken. Num. 30:3-5 speaks about a unmarried woman living in her father's house. In this case, if her father forbids (NIV) or disallows (KJV) her vow, then the vow is voided. There is a parallel situation for married women: if her husband disallows her vow, it is considered void. (Num. 30:6-8) To clarify, a husband may void absolutely any vow or oath his wife makes. (Num. 30:13) Only widows and divorcees can unconditionally offer vows, just as men can. (Num. 30:9)

Admittedly, there is one small redeeming feature in this situation: a father's or husband's silence is treated as tacit approval. (Num. 30:4; 30:7; 30:11) That is, if a father hears the vow and doesn't immediately reject it, it is binding. Also, if a father or husband waits several days before voiding his daughter's or wife's vows, the vow is still considered binding. (Num. 30:14-15)

In the last essay, I considered the Israelite stance on female inheritance to be progressive. This attitude towards female vows is not regressive, merely a reflection of the ancient Mediterranean's attitudes towards women. The Israelites are, in short, products of their times. In most ancient, medieval, and even some modern cultures, women were considered the property of their fathers (if they are not married) or husbands (if they are). The man of the household, the pater familias in Roman terms, had complete control over the members of his family and the household slaves. Women often had, at least in theory, no say in who they married, where they lived, or their husband's public affairs.

In this context, it should come as no surprise that women were not allowed to have the final say over which of their vows were binding. If a father realized that his daughter's vow ran counter to his own idea of what was best for his family, he could countermand her. It was assumed that the man of the house was more engaged in public affairs than his daughter or spouse, and thus he better understood what was good for her. In modern legal terms, we might call this a fiduciary relationship, where the one person is assumed to look out for the best interest of his charge.

The concept of female inheritance, discussed in the last essay, actually disrupts the natural cycle of events, when we consider women in this light. If the public domain belongs to men, and men are assumed to know what is best for their family, then women should not be allowed to own their own property. Who is looking out for her wellbeing? Who can help her if she makes the wrong decision? If a woman owns property, no matter how much she wants to protect her father's name and inheritance, she is suddenly thrust into a sphere, the public sphere, that she supposedly does not understand.

Only widows and divorcees can make unconditionally binding vows. They are not under the household of any man, and thus have no one to contradict them. However, we must look at the situations of these women. Though a woman could be widowed at any time of her life, it is probably safe to assume that most widows were older women. Especially after the Israelites were done fighting their wars of conquest, most men would die, at least theoretically, as the result of illness or old age. Thus, a widow would herself be an older woman of experience, one who had watched her husband conduct business dealings and, again theoretically, better understood how they worked.

The case is similar with divorcees. Though the text has not yet discussed the conditions under which a woman could gain a divorce from her husband, it was more common than under Christian law, but still moderately rare. In Judaism, a woman is allowed to ask for a divorce at any time, but it is the man who grants it. He can divorce his wife for any reason or no reason at all. However, there are times when a woman can gain a divorce against the will of her husband, such as when the husband has been neglectful or adulterous. Furthermore, a man who divorces his wife must, under most circumstances, give her money or property. Thus a divorcee, like a widow, owns property and has had some encounters with the public realm.

When all is said and done, however, where do we stand on this issue? Do we applaud the Bible for its progressive stance towards female inheritance, or do we shun it for its contemporary attitude towards female oaths? In the twenty-first century western world, women's oaths are considered just as binding as men's, and it seems unnatural or unfair to us for the situation to be otherwise. But this has only been the case in very recent years, no more than a century. For most of history, women have been firmly under the rule of their pater familias, and the Bible merely reflects this fact. While we cannot praise its attitude, neither can we condemn it. It was, in this case, simply a reflection of the times.

May 26, 2007

Breadcrumb: Church and State

In Num. 27:16-23, Moses appoints Joshua as his successor. However, Joshua does not receive all of Moses' power. Instead, the command of the Israelite nation will be shared between Joshua and Eleazar, the high priest. Joshua must consult with Eleazar, who in turn will ask God to make decisions for the people. This is one of the first instances in the Bible where we have the beginnings of a separation between church and state, supreme religious power and supreme secular power. While Joshua must still consult with Eleazar and make his decisions in tandem with the priest, there will no longer be another Moses, who wielded both religious and secular power.

May 25, 2007

Breadcrumb: A few reminders

The census in Num. 26 is generally what we would expect: long lists of tribes, lineages, and head counts. However, there are a few references to earlier episodes in the text, just so that people might orient themselves. For example, Num. 26:9 refers to Dathan and Abiram, who were swallowed in an earthquake in Num. 16. Num. 26:19 refers to Er and Onan, Judah's sons who died in Canaan. This sordid incident, involving incest and deceit, took place in Gen. 38. Think of this as a Cole's Notes version of the earlier parts of the Pentateuch, reminding the Israelites of their history while presenting the dry numbers.

May 24, 2007

Numbers 26-27: To my daughters, I leave...

Today's reading is Numbers 26-27 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the second census of the Israelite tribes; the case of Zelophehad's daughters' inheritance; and Joshua's selection as Moses' successor.

Since our ancestors' ancestors developed the concept of private property, one question has been raised on repeated occasions: "who gets my stuff when I die?" In most patriarchal cultures, including ancient Judaism and medieval Christianity, the answer is traditionally, "my sons."

There are two major variants of patriarchal property inheritance. First is primogeniture, by which the eldest son inherits everything and the younger sons are left to fend for themselves. The other variant is partible inheritance, by which all sons inherit part of the father's wealth, theoretically in equal shares. Though it has not been stated explicitly in the text thus far, it seems that the ancient Israelites favoured partible inheritance, with each son gaining a portion of his father's wealth upon his death.

This system works fine most of the time. The main upset, for obvious reasons, is when a man dies without sons.

This is precisely the situation in Num. 26-27. In Num. 26:33, part of the census data, we learn that Zelophehad, a man of the tribe of Manasseh, died with five daughters but no sons. Num. 27:1-11 picks up the story. Zeolphehad's daughters -- Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah -- ask Eleazar the high priest for the right to inherit their father's property, since he had no sons. They make it clear that Zelophehad died in the wilderness, was not associated with the traitor Korah (see Num. 16), and had no sons. They ask Eleazar, "Why should the name of our father be done away from among his family, because he hath no son? Give unto us therefore a possession among the brethren of our father." (Num. 27:4)

Moses brings the case before God, who sides with Zelophehad's daughters. He tells Moses that the daughters shall inherit their father's property instead of his other relatives. (Num. 27:5-7)

God then proceeds to list the chain of inheritance if there are no sons, for the Israelites to use as general guidelines. If a man dies without sons, his property shall pass to his daughters. If he has no daughters, it will pass to his brothers. If he has no brothers, it passes to his father's brothers (ie: his uncles). If his father has no brothers, it passes to his nearest kinsman. (Num. 27:8-11)

We are left with a situation where, if women don't have equal rights, they at least have some rights. According to Biblical law, they are allowed to inherit and own property if they have no brothers when their father dies. Though this may seem like a small concession to today's feminist-conscious society, it was in fact a major accomplishment for ancient women. In many ancient and medieval cultures, women could not inherit from their fathers. The only woman who might own property was a widow, who occasionally inherited her husband's wealth. In many cultures, even if a father died with daughters and no sons, his property would pass to his brothers, kinsmen, or even the state.

One reason for this lack of female inheritance was that women were considered the property, or at least the wards, of the men in their lives. Young, unmarried women were under the protection of their fathers. Married women were under their husbands. At no point in a woman's life, with the possible exception of widowhood, was she considered a person in her own right, able to make her own decisions and manage her own affairs. It is telling that even until the early 20th century, women were not allowed to vote in most western, "developed" countries. It was assumed that whoever their husband voted for, they also supported.

Looking at the historical context, we can begin to understand why women were considered nearly non-entities (or at least, non-public entities). Power and wealth were firmly in the hands of men. Family lineage passed from father to son. If women were allowed to share power and inherit, there would suddenly be many disputes. What if a woman wanted her children to carry her family's name, and not her husband's? What if she tried to overpower her husband? What if she withheld her own wealth from her husbands, leaving her rich and him poor? These were all valid concerns in a society where the public domain was the almost-exclusive domain of men.

Things are obviously different in today's society. Most people in the first world would be appalled to see sexist favouritism in terms of inheritance and power. We expect our women to inherit as much as their brothers (barring family disputes having nothing to do with gender). Women can vote, hold public office, and manage their own money. Many women today maintain their maiden name instead of adopting their husband's, and many children have hyphenated last names, carrying both their mother's and father's family names. Most of my readers will agree, I hope, that these are positive changes, showing a trend towards gender equality.

But, before we become too smug, we must remember that these changes are incredibly recent, taking place in the life spans of many people still alive today. My grandparents can remember when women did not have the right to vote. My parents might remember when a woman was not allowed to own a credit card. Many countries, including the U.S., have still never had a female head of state.

The trend has begun, and accelerated, towards gender equality. And its roots might lie as far back as Num. 27.

May 23, 2007

Breadcrumb: Warrior-priests

In Num. 25:6-18, an Israelite man brings his belle, a Midianite woman, near the tabernacle. Phineas, son of Eleazar (the new high priest and son of Aaron), promptly grabs a javelin and runs them both through. Though this might seem a little brutal on the part of a priest, it did stop a plague that God had sent, which had already killed 24,000 people, and it prevented God from killing the entire congregation... again. Remember that Israelite priests were supposed to perform animal sacrifices on a near-daily basis, so the murder of two heretics would likely have not been too far a stretch for Phineas. He is, after all, merely enacting God's justice.

May 22, 2007

Breadcrumb: Bring me their heads!

After all of Balaam's praise of the Israelites, it seems some of them can't live up to their reputation. In Num. 25:1-5, we learn that Israelites had been seduced by Moabite women and, through them, Moabite gods, particularly Baal of Peor. They offered sacrifices and prayers to these gods. God, the Israelite God, was understandably annoyed. God commands Moses to have the leaders ("heads" in the text) of this Baal movement killed and exposed in broad daylight. Moses dutifully informs the judges to carry out justice, which they do, and God is appeased. However, we can't help but note that the Israelites seem to be particularly fickle where their faith is concerned.

May 21, 2007

Numbers 23-25: The power of good public relations

Today's reading is Numbers 23-25 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers Balaam's oracles to Balak; the Moabite seduction of the Israelites; and Phineas' murder of an Israelite man and Midianite woman.

Last essay, I spoke about Balaam, the presumably-Moabite prophet, who journeyed to visit King Balak of the Moabites. Balak ordered Balaam to curse the Israelites, camped at the outskirts of his lands after conquering many of the neighbouring kingdoms. Balaam, however, was under orders from God not to say anything other than what God told him to.

In Num. 23 and 24, we read the prophecies and poems Balaam spoke, and the results are about what we might expect. Instead of cursing Israel, Balaam blesses them. Balak, understandably angry at having his will thwarted, tells Balaam to do it again, and again Balaam blesses them. This happens a number of times, until Balaam finally predicts the destruction of Moab, Edom, Seir, Amalek, Kenite, Asshur, and Eber. (Num. 24:15-24) Finally, Balak realizes he won't get his curse and leaves, as does Balaam, each towards his own home.

Balaam's poems are beautiful, full of metaphor and imagery. No doubt the translated text before me does not do justice to the original language. On the other hand, we can still appreciate the imagery, for example, of Israel like a lion waiting to devour its prey. (Num. 23:24, 24:9) It is precisely this type of imagery that struck fear into the hearts of enemy kings as they saw an army six hundred thousand strong waitting on their doorstep.

Of course, some things need not be conveyed in poetic imagery. In terms of the Israelite army's numbers and strength, the sight of their camp was enough. Balak already knew the strength of the Hebrews when he summoned Balaam. Even a foolish king would need to pause in consideration at an army of that size nearing his lands. Strength of numbers and military prowess are the sort of things that can be assessed by an enemy commander long before the first battle is ever fought. No matter how powerful the poem, and no matter how skilfully conveyed, Balaam's warnings about these particular issues would be, at most, a supplement to what Balak already knew.

Balaam does not stop at the tangible, visible strengths of the Israelites, however. He goes on to say that God favours them and has blessed them. In the second oracle, Balaam says this about God and his relationship with the Israelites:

19. God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent: hath he said, and shall he not do it? or hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good?
20. Behold, I have received commandment to bless: and he hath blessed; and I cannot reverse it.
21. He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither hath he seen perverseness in Israel: the LORD his God is with him, and the shout of a king is among them.
22. God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn.
23. Surely there is no enchantment against Jacob, neither is there any divination against Israel: according to this time it shall be said of Jacob and of Israel, What hath God wrought! (Num. 23:19-23, KJV)

I highly encourage my readers to review this passage in the NIV as well, which is much more readable to a modern audience.

A number of things jump out at us from this oracle, jarring in its opposition to what we have been reading in the rest of Numbers. First, in verse 19, Balaam says that God never lies or repents, and that he always follows through on his promises. We have seen throughout Numbers that this is not true, thankfully for the Israelites. God has repeatedly threatened to wipe out the entire Israelite nation, and it is only through Moses' intervention that God does not. God has not "made good" on his threats, despite what Balaam claims.

Next, we read that God has not observed iniquity or perverseness in Israel. ("Misfortune" and "misery" in the NIV) This is, yet again, twisting the truth. Despite Moses' mollifying words, God repeatedly becomes angry at the Israelites and sends fire and plague to torment them. As a brief recap of the highlights, he sends fire and plague in Num. 11, an earthquake, fire, and plague in Num. 16 (killing 14,700), and denies them entry to the promised land in Num. 14. It certainly seems like God has found iniquity and perverseness aplenty among his chosen people.

But, and this is the important part, all those plagues and fires are within the people. In the eyes of outsiders, the Israelites are one big, happy, conquering family. In the same way that many dysfunctional families appear perfectly content to strangers, so too with the problems of Israel. No matter how many times God threatens to punish or destroy his people, it is an internal conflict.

It is as though the Israelites have two images, one which they present to themselves, and one which they present to others. Among themselves, Moses may rave that they are a stiff-necked people, always complaining and never living up to God's standards. Even God may threaten them on occasion, to keep them in line. To others, however, there is no ambiguity. The Israelites are blessed, God's chosen people, and woe to any other nation who forgets it. No matter how bad the Israelites have been, they are still more blessed than their enemies.

This is why Balaam's message seems so strange after the long string of complaints and threats which occupied the bulk of the text in Numbers. Balaam is not of the people, nor is Balak. They don't need to know about Israel's internal squabbles. All they need to know is that the six hundred thousand warriors preparing to invade are blessed, special, and more powerful than their own armies. It is, incidentally, the exact same reasoning that led to modern news networks having two feeds, one domestic and one international.

May 20, 2007

Breadcrumb: Bite me

In Num. 21:4-9, the people complain... again. Yet again, their perpetual complaint is that they have no food or water. God once more becomes annoyed at them and sends serpents in the camp, which bite and kill many people. The people, properly chastised, ask Moses to intercede for them, and he does. God tells him to build a "fiery serpent" (Moses opts for brass), put it on a pole, and any bitten person who looks at it will be cured. Moses does so and thus saves many of his people. This is just another reminder that God works in mysterious, and sometimes material, ways.

May 19, 2007

Breadcrumb: What book?

Num. 21:14 makes passing reference to the "Book of the Wars of the Lord." We know absolutely nothing about this book other than its mention in the Bible. It seems to have been a factual accounting of the early Israelite wars. Unfortunately, the book has been lost and does not exist today. This is not, however, the only Biblical reference to external sources. It reminds us that for the ancient Israelites, the Bible was just one of several texts used to recount their history.

May 18, 2007

Numbers 21-22: A change of perspective

Today's reading is Numbers 21-22 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the destruction of Arad; God's sending of snakes to the Israelites and their recovery from them; the Israelites' journey to Moab; the defeat and destruction of Sihon, king of the Amorites, and Og, king of Bashan; and the request of Balak, king of Moab, for Balaam to curse the Israelites, and the resulting story.

With the modern stereotypes of Jews as neurotic bankers and Christians as "turn the other cheek" altruists, it is sometimes difficult to remember that these nations were born from a group of potent warriors. Num. 21-22 reminds us of the militaristic history of the Israelites, as they move ever closer to the promised land, conquering nation upon nation along the way.

In Num. 21, the Israelites conquer and defeat the Canaanites under King Arad (Num. 21:1-3), the Amorites under King Sihon (Num. 21:21-31), and the Bashanites under King Og (Num. 21:32-35). Nor do the Israelites go for half-measures. When they conquer a people, they stay conquered, generally because they are dead. We read that Israel "utterly destroyed" the Canaanites and their cities. (Num. 21:3) They killed King Sihon, possessed all his land, and lived in his cities, especially the city of Heshbon, Sihon's capital. (Num. 21:24-26) Finally, they killed King Og, his sons, and his people until "there was none left him alive," and possessed his cities as well. (Num. 21:35) In other words, these were a ruthless conquering nation, fully prepared to destroy anyone who got in their way.

It comes as no surprise, then, that King Balak of Moab was a little nervous when he saw the Israelites massing on his borders.

Balak knew that he was outnumbered. He knew what the Israelites had done to the Amorites, and wanted any advantage he could get to avoid sharing their fate. So he did what any sensible ancient king would have done: he tried to engage the favour of the Gods. (Num. 22:2-6)

Specifically, he sent messengers to Balaam, son of Beor, asking him to curse the Israelites. We do not actually know very much about Balaam. He seems to have been a prophet, and was likely not an Israelites, but that is all we know from this section of the text. On the other hand, he seems sufficiently experienced that the king of Moab, when looking for a way to turn the tide of battle against the Israelites, asked for his help.

To return to our narrative, Balak sends noble messengers with gifts to Balaam, asking him to curse the Israelites. Balaam does not respond immediately, but asks his guests to stay the night, to give him time to commune with God. While this might seem strange from a non-Israelite, God does in fact visit Balaam, telling him neither to go with the messengers nor to curse the Israelites, for they are blessed. Balaam conveys this conversation to Balak's messengers, who leave. (Num. 22:7-14)

Balak isn't finished with Balaam, however. He sends more messengers, these ones honourable princes laden with gifts and promises of great wealth and great prestige, if only Balaan will curse the Israelites. Balaam again asks them to stay the night, and again communes with God. This time, God tells him to go with the messengers, but only to speak the words that God tells him. Balaam dutifully does so. (Num. 22:15-21)

However, God has a sudden change of heart. As soon as Balaam gets underway, riding his donkey, God becomes angry that he left. He sends out an angel, sword in hand, to block the road, which the donkey can see but Balaam can't. The donkey, quite sensibly, tries to turn away from the flaming angel, but Balaam hits him three times. (Num. 22:22-27)

Here is where the story becomes truly bizarre: the donkey speaks to Balaam, asking what he has done to cause Balaam to hit him. (Num. 22:28-30) The only other talking animal in the entirety of the Old Testament is the serpent from Gen. 2-3. Though talking animals are very common in other folkloric traditions, they are exceedingly rare in the Bible. This has led numerous Biblical scholars to view this entire episode as a vision, as opposed to an actual event, even though there are none of the traditional references to a vision in the text. If it were actuality, and not a vision, I suspect Balaam would be far more perturbed at his donkey suddenly developing the ability to speak.

To return to our narrative, however, God finally opens Balaam's eyes, so that he sees the angel. Balaam prostrates himself, asks for forgiveness, and offers to return home. The angel, instead, tells him to continue on to Balak, but only to speak the words that he, the angel, tells him. (Num. 22:31-36) The chapter ends with Balaam and Balak united at Kirjathhuzoth (KJV; Kiriath Huzoth in the NIV), on mount Baal, looking down on the Israelite people. (Num. 22:37-41)

I should note at this cliff-hanger that this is one of the few incidents in the Old Testament told entirely from the perspective of a non-Israelite. (I count Adam, Noah, etc. as proto-Israelites.) We have had a few others in Genesis, such chapter 20, one of the several "she's my sister, not my wife" incidents (the others being in Gen. 12 and 26). It is especially interesting to note that people other than the Israelites recognized God as the supreme being and treated him accordingly. Balaam certainly had a healthy respect for the Lord, despite his non-Israelite nationality.

Of course, it might simply be that Balaam would have a healthy respect for the God of any conquering nation at his doorstep. It's just good sense.

May 17, 2007

Breadcrumb: Do these ashes look clean?

Num. 19 is occupied primarily with a ritual to create a water of cleansing and how it is to be used. In short, a red heifer must be burnt with cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet, and the remaining ashes are mixed with water to provide the purifying water. This water is sprinkled on a man who has touched a dead body, in order to purify him. If someone refuses to undergo the purification, he must be excommunicated. (KJV: "cut off from among the congregation") Yet again, flaunting God's laws is not generally advisable.

May 16, 2007

Breadcrumb: A tenth of a tenth is...

In Num. 18:21-29, we learn that the Levites will receive tithes from the rest of the Israelite tribes. These tithes consist of the best of the Israelite crops and herds: the first fruits, the best grains, the firstborn animals, and so on. However, the Levites must themselves tithe a tenth of their share--the best tenth, obviously--to the priests. Thus, the priests receive the best 1% of all the food and drink in Israel. Because the Levites themselves tithe to the priests, they are able to enjoy the remaining 9% without sin. (Num. 18:32)

May 15, 2007

Numbers 18-20: Overreacting?

Today's reading is Numbers 18-20 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the duties for priests and Levites; the portions of the offerings they may receive; a ritual for making a water of cleaning and its use; proscriptions against touching dead bodies; the incident of the Water of Meribah; an encounter with the king of Edom; and the deaths of Aaron and Miriam.

In these readings, Moses suffers a number of severe blows. First, he loses his two siblings. Miriam dies in a single verse: Num. 20:1. In its entirety in the KJV, it reads, "Then came the children of Israel, even the whole congregation, into the desert of Zin in the first month: and the people abode in Kadesh; and Miriam died there, and was buried there." Miriam's death doesn't even warrant a complete verse to itself, but is incorporated into the mundane wanderings of the Israelites.

In fact, we haven't heard much from Miriam. The last time the text mentioned her was in Num. 12, when she opposed Moses on account of his new wife and was stricken with leprosy. Unlike Aaron, Miriam plays a very small part in the text, albeit a larger one than any woman since Genesis, when women were front-and-center, along with the men.

Aaron also dies in these readings. (Num. 20:23-29) Because Aaron was high priest, more attention is devoted to the transfer of his power to his son, Eleazar. In a ritual set out by God, Moses takes Aaron and Eleazar to the top of Mouth Hor. There, he strips Aaron of his clothing--presumably his priestly garments, described at length in Ex. 28 and 39--and places them on Eleazar. This takes place in the full sight of the congregation, so that the power transfer might be a public event. Once this is done, Aaron dies on the mountain and Moses and Eleazar descend. The congregation mourns for Aaron for thirty days.

Moses loses more than his two siblings, however. He also loses his chance to see the promised land, where he has been leading the people for forty years.

Earlier in Num. 20, the Israelites are complaining. Again. This time, they complain that there is no water and that they will die. They ask, yet again, why Moses brought them out of Egypt to a place without food or drink. (Num. 20:2-5) Moses and Aaron ask God what to do about this. God replies that they should take their staff and go together before a rock. They should speak to it in front of the congregation of Israel, and the rock will bring forth water. (Num. 20:6-8)

Things begin smoothly enough. Moses takes his staff and, along with Aaron, goes before the congregation in front of the rock. But here they deviate from God's plan. Instead of speaking to the rock, they instead speak to the people of Israel, saying, "Hear now, ye rebels; must we fetch you water out of this rock?" (Num. 20:10, KJV) Then Moses strikes the rock twice with his staff. Water pours forth from the rock, and the people and their animals drink. These waters are named "the water of Meribah." (Num. 20:9-11; 20:13)

However, God does not stand for this injustice. He tells Moses and Aaron, "Because ye believed me not, to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring this congregation into the land which I have given then." (Num. 20:12, KJV) In other words, because they disobeyed the lord, they would not be allowed access to the holy land.

On the surface, this seems profoundly unfair. Moses has been the protagonist of our story since Exodus, and has been a loyal and faithful servant to God for that entire time. Yes, he complained on occasion. Yes, he had his moments of self-doubt. But whenever he came before the people, he always spoke the word of God. Not only that, he saved the Israelite people from God's threat of destruction numerous times. If Aaron could be forgiven the incident with the golden calf (Ex. 32), surely Moses could be forgiven hitting a rock instead of speaking to it?

But perhaps God isn't overreacting after all. The people had recently complained that Moses and Aaron were putting on airs, considering themselves holier than the rest of the community. (Num. 16) At the time, God was fully behind Moses and Aaron. He said they were holier than the rest of the community and brought supernatural destruction on anyone who said otherwise. Moses and Aaron were humble supplicants before God, and God answered them.

Here, however, Moses and Aaron are no longer humble. When they stand before the rock, they do not say that it is God's work that brings forth the water. Instead, they ask, "must we fetch you water out of this rock?" (Num. 20:10, KJV, emphasis mine) We, not God. They take the credit for the miracle that occurs, putting themselves on the same level as God.

Moses has never done this before. In the past, he has always made certain to credit God with the miracles the Israelites observed, both good and bad. Moses understood that he was the lord's instrument. Here in Num. 20, it seems he has forgotten this. God realizes that Moses is beginning to raise himself up, to consider himself on par with God himself. Who knows what he will do if he enters the new land, at the head of six hundred thousand fighting men. If he disobeys God for as simple a matter as bringing forth water from a rock, how can God trust him to lead his army into battle at the right time? How can God be sure he won't try to install himself as a king over the Israelites?

Therefore, even though it seems at first that God is overreacting, he does have good reasons for preventing Moses from leading the Hebrews into the promised land. Moses' mistake wasn't striking the rock, but self-glorification. Moses forgot, just for a moment, the source of his power, and paid the price for that mistake.

May 14, 2007

Breadcrumb: Kill the man, save the coal

I mentioned that in Num. 16:35, God sends a fire to kill the 250 followers of Korah. However, though God obviously doesn't care about the people, he does care about the censers they brought with them and the coals within the censers. God asserts that they are both holy, and commands Eleazar (Aaron's son and a priest) to scatter the fire and to beat the censers into gold plates and use them to cover the altar as a reminder that no one but Aaron's sons may approach the tabernacle. (Num. 16:36-40) I suppose this shows where God's priorities lay.

May 13, 2007

Breadcrumb: The Jewish afterlife

In Num. 16:30 and 16:33, the Hebrew text uses the word sheol, which the NIV translates as "the grave" and the KJV translates as "the pit." In fact, sheol is the closest the Hebrew scriptures come to an afterlife. Strong's Concordance defines sheol as "the underworld; the above of the dead." Unlike the Christian hell, which is so prevalent in theological writings, the world sheol is used only 65 times in the entire Old Testament. Quite frankly, though the concept of an afterlife exists in Judaism, it is vague and undeveloped, to the point where many Jews don't even know about it.

May 12, 2007

Numbers 16-17: Whine, whine, whine...

Today's reading is Numbers 16-17 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the rebellion by Korah, Dathan, Abiram, On, and their followers; God's response to the rebellion; the people's complaints about God's resolution; and the blossoming of Aaron's staff as a final resolution to the issue.

It could almost be a running joke, or at least a motif, in Numbers: the people complain about something, God threatens to kill them all, Moses intervenes on the people's behalf, God relents and sends a lesser punishment, and the people start complaining again. This chain of events repeats not once, but twice in the two chapters which form our readings for today. in the first case (Num. 16:1-40), the issue is that Moses and Aaron have raised themselves above the rest of the congregation, who are by God's own admission, holy. Korah the Levite, a few Reubenites, and their 250 followers want to know what's so special about Moses and his brother that warrants special treatment.

In response, Moses tells Korah and his followers to come to the tabernacle the next day with incense-filled censers, and God will show them who's holy. Furthermore, he asks Korah and his Levite followers, and I paraphrase, "isn't being separated from the rest of the people and allowed to serve in the tabernacle enough for you? Why do you also want to be priests?" (Num. 16:8-11)

God's response, however, is not so reasoned. The next day, when Korah and his followers arrive at the tabernacle, God tells Moses he is going to kill the entire congregation of Israel. (Num. 16:20) My astute readers will remember that God said exactly the same thing a mere two chapters before in Num. 14. Yet again, Moses is forced to turn aside God's wrath, and the lord settles for merely bringing an earthquake to swallow the ringleaders into the earth and a fire to consume their 250 followers. (Num. 16:31-35)

You would think this would be enough to teach the Israelites their lesson.

Instead, the congregation immediately starts complaining again. This time they are annoyed that God has killed "the people of the Lord." (Num. 16:41, KJV) Yet again, God becomes angry and threatens to kill the entire ungrateful population. (Num. 16:45) Indeed, God sends a plague that kills 14,700 people before Aaron makes the proper atonement and ends it. (Num. 16:46-50)

To make it absolutely, unequivocally clear that God has chosen the Levites to serve him, and to end this complaining once and for all, God has the leader of each tribe place a rod at the tabernacle. The next day, Aaron's rod, representing the Levite tribe, has blossomed and yielded almonds. (Num. 17:1-11) You would think this would be enough for any people, but the chapter ends with the Israelites complaining that they will all die. (Num. 17:12-13)

I see two primary issues which arise from these incidents. First, why is God so angry? Second, how could the people still be complaining?

This hardly seems like a God who is "slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion." (Num. 14:18, NIV) In the span of three chapters, God has threatened to destroy the entire Israelite population, his chosen people, three times. It is only through Moses' quick thinking that 600,000 men and their families stayed alive. And, as a punitive measure, God still killed nearly 15,000 people! This doesn't seem like the charitable, loving God of the New Testament.

We are forced to reconcile, yet again, God's words with his actions. What can we say about a god who trumpets himself as a merciful and forgiving, but who takes any opportunity to threaten his chosen people with extinction? For one thing, he certainly had good P.R. For another, actions speak louder than words. No matter what God says, he certainly seems pretty trigger-happy.

The flip-side of this argument is, "how could the Israelites have been so stupid?" They witnessed miracle upon miracle, and yet they still complain. Right after God sends fire and earthquake to destroy those who spoke against him and his prophets, they're complaining again. Were they blind?

In a similar journal to mine, Blogging the Bible, David Plotz offers two explanations for why the Israelites continue to complain. First, they may be "faithless, cynical skeptic[s]." Second, they "didn't actually witness the events [they were] supposed to have witnessed." Of the two, Plotz suggests that the latter is more reasonable, and I am inclined to agree with him. After all, there were 600,000 men in the camp along with their families. Even if the tabernacle were pretty large and all the congregation showed up to witness the miracles, it's a safe bet that most of the people would not have been able to see. Think back to the last time you went to a big parade or a popular concert without a raised stage. If you're several people back in the crowd, you're going to have a hard time seeing. And with a congregation of potentially two million people, there would be a lot of crowding.

It might just be that the Israelites didn't witness the miracles, and so were more confident in their complaints. It might be that they thought they were seeing mere trickery, as Pharaoh's magicians were able to replicate many of the early plagues. (Ex. 7-8) It might even be that they were complacent, believing that God would never hurt them.

Whatever the reason, neither side of this conflict seems particularly sympathetic. God seems like a trigger-happy tyrant, while the Israelites seem blind and foolhardy. Only Moses, poor, sweet, caught-in-the-middle Moses, seems in any way to be a sympathetic figure. Don't worry, though. His time will come.

May 11, 2007

Breadcrumb: Clothes make the man

Here's a question for all the Biblical-literalists in the audience: what are you wearing? No, I don't mean that in a sexual way, but rather based on Num. 15:37-41, you should wear tassels on the corners of your garments, each with a blue fringe. Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews still wear these tassels, they're called tzitzit. Unlike the dietary laws, which were repealed by St. Paul (Rom. 14 and elsewhere), these clothing laws were never rendered obsolete. By all rights, tzitzit should be in all the clothing stores frequented by good Christians, right next to the sign saying "no mixed blends." (Lev. 19:19)

May 10, 2007

Breadcrumb: Do you drive on the sabbath?

In Num. 15:32-36, the Israelites find a man gathering sticks in the wilderness on the sabbath. Not knowing what to do, they put him into custody and bring the case before Moses and Aaron, who bring it before God. The lord tells them to stone him, and the people do. Case closed. Except that collecting sticks on the sabbath seems a fairly minor infraction to be punished by death. The implication seems to be that he was collecting the sticks in order to make a fire, which is strictly verbotten on the Sabbath. In any event, we'll never know, because that's all the text has to say on the matter.

May 09, 2007

Numbers 14-15: Between a rock and a hard place

Today's reading is Numbers 14-15 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the people's rebellion because of the scouts' report, God's punishment of the nation because of this, instructions for supplementary offerings for unintentional sins, the stoning of a sabbath-breaker, and instructions for putting tassels on the fringes of garments.

Imagine that you're Moses. You have just received word from your scouts (Num. 13) that while the land you're supposed to conquer is exceedingly good, it is inhabited by giants who would crush your people. The people, hearing this, riot. They don't want to die, they say. They would rather have died in Egypt than in the wilderness. You try to console them, but it doesn't help. Two of your scouts, Joshua and Caleb, also try to console them by saying that with God on your side, you can't lose. But nothing seems to calm these people down. (Num. 14:1-10)

The Lord appears to you, righteously angry. He's fed up with these people, who continually doubt his power despite all the miracles he's shown them. He wants to wipe them all out and make you, Moses, into a greater nation than they ever were. (Num. 14:10-12)

And now you are left with the role, yet again, of soothing God's anger and preventing the demise of this hard-headed people.

Moses surprisingly needs to play this intermediary role a number of times. Each time, he appeals to God's sense of pride. Take, for example, Ex. 32:11-14, right after Aaron makes the golden calf for the people. Here, too, God threatens to wipe out the people. Moses stops him by saying that if he, God, wipes out the people, the Egyptians will say that God only brought the people out of Egypt in order to kill them. God realizes this is not a connection he wants the other nations to make, and relents.

The situation is similar here in Num. 14:13-19. Again he talks about the Egyptians and the other nations, and says (to paraphrase), "if you kill them all, the other nations will say that you did it because you couldn't bring them into the land you promised them." God, obviously, does not want to be seen as weak by the other nations.

Moses follows up this logic by flattering God (Num. 14:17-19). He reminds the lord of all his (the Lord's) good qualities: slow to anger, abounding in love, forgiving of sin and rebellion, and punishing of the guilty. And, so buttered up, he asks God to forgive the Hebrews.

Perhaps surprisingly, God agrees. However, he does not forgive unconditionally. He says that though he forgives the Israelites, none of the current generation will enter the new land except for Joshua and Caleb, the two loyal scouts. The rest of the people will wander in the desert for forty years, one year for each day of scouting. (Num. 14:20-35)

To Moses, this may have seemed like a reasonable compromise: the people stay alive but don't face the giants who frighten them so much. The people, however, see things differently. When Moses informs them that they will not enter the land, they mourn and agree that they have sinned. (Num. 14:39) Then, somewhat like young children, they agree to go back to the original plan and enter the land, certain that God will be on their side against the giants. Moses reminds them that their new punishment is that they will not enter the land, but they people don't listen. They rush up the hilltop, despite Moses' protestations and warnings that God would not help them, and promptly find themselves slaughtered by the Amalekites and Canaanites. (Num. 14:40-45)

What can we learn from this incident? What does it teach us about the mentality of God, Moses, and the Israelites?

First, we learn that God can be swayed by mortals. This is, of course, nothing new. Abraham bargains with God as far back as Gen. 18. Moses himself bargains with God on a number of occasions, most notably Ex. 32 (mentioned above). As I mentioned in previous essays, we cannot know whether this bargaining was part of God's plan. It is possible, though it seems unlikely, that God intended Abraham and Moses to bargain with him, and intended himself to be swayed. Perhaps this was merely a test of the men involved, not of God. On the other hand, it certainly seems as if God is changing his mind, thankfully towards the course of not slaughtering hundreds of thousands of people.

We also learn more about Moses' humility. Despite the presentation of Moses in such movies as The Ten Commandments, in which he is a haughty, prideful man, we see here that Moses is actually quite humble. After all, God is offering him the same deal he made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob: I will make from your descendants a great nation. Not only that, but to fulfill this compact, God would not even need to break his original agreement with the three patriarchs: Moses descends from them, so technically all his descendants would also be Abraham's descendants. But Moses declines. He would rather lead the Israelites, hard-headed and whiny as they are, than become the patriarch of his own race. Not everyone would choose similarly.

Finally, we learn about the Israelites themselves. In this chapter, they seem particularly inattentive and juvenile. First, they are afraid to enter the new land because of the giants that supposedly reside there. Even when Joshua and Caleb try to reassure them, they will not listen. On the other hand, when Moses tells them they cannot enter the land (which, let's face it, is what they just said they wanted), they moan and complain and say that they'll be good and enter the land. Imagine a two-year old who pushes away his mashed potatoes, but as soon as mommy takes away the plate and says he can't have it, he suddenly starts reaching for it. It's reverse psychology gone wrong, because this time they people really can't enter the land. It's forbidden. They go anyway, and they die, fulfilling their original fear of the land's inhabitants. The incident would be comical if not for the massive loss of life.

So now we know that God is a pushover, Moses won't rise to the occasion, and the Israelites are more temperamental than a toddler without an afternoon nap. Jews and Christians in the audience, aren't you glad to know these people were your ancestors?