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.

1 comment:

Arieh Sochaczevski said...

Your explanation on why the punishment was so great is almost exactly the classic arguement. You put it very eloquently though, and you also bring the relevence of the transgression much further. Many have pointed out that his sin was arrogance and pride, and taking the works of G•d onto himself, but I've not encountered a commentator who ever pointed out how that change in him was relevent to his apropriateness as a military commander.

I certainly had never considered that angle. Thank you.