June 21, 2007

Breadcrumb: No more smashing!

Deut. 10:1-5 talks about the second set of stone tablets. Moses smashed the first set after seeing the Israelites worshipping the golden calf. That first set, he had carried down the mountain by hand. Perhaps this is the reason that the second set was housed in a wooden ark. Carried this way, it would be impossible, or at least much more difficult, to destroy them again. No doubt God wanted the tablets to remain intact as long as possible, and Moses in fact points them out during his speech. ("... [I] put the tables in the ark which I had made; and there they be, as the LORD commanded me." Deut. 10:5, KJV)

June 20, 2007

Breadcrumb: What was it for?

Deut. 8:1-5 talks about the Israelites' wandering in the desert for forty years. No doubt, at some point the Israelites must have asked themselves, "why are we doing this?" The answer comes in Deut. 8: to humble and test them. In other words, the long years of wandering, thirst, and hunger were all an elaborate proving ground, to cull out those who would not keep God's commands. By the time they reached Canaan, theoretically the worst trouble-makers had been killed in the various fires, plagues, and attacks the Israelites faced on their journeys.

June 19, 2007

Deuteronomy 8-10: You think you're so worthy?

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

Today's passage covers a reminder to remember God and his power; a recap of the incident with the golden calf and the ten commandments; and a reminder of the major commandments God requires the Israelites keep.

These three chapters, Deut. 8-10, are a reminder that the Israelites were not as amazing as they gave themselves credit for. A brief summary of the main argument: you (the Israelites) are a stubborn, stiff-necked, rebellious people. Despite that, God has done wonderful things for you and brought you to a bountiful land, which you will conquer and possess. He does this not because of your righteousness, but because of the wickedness of the people already living there. Therefore, when you possess the land and live luxuriously, remember God and keep his commandments, lest you be destroyed.

The first thing we notice about this argument is that the Israelites, despite being God's chosen people, were not particularly righteous or holy, at least not according to Moses. He reminds them of their many acts of rebellion, most particularly of the incident with the golden calf. (Ex. 32) Moses reminds them that God wanted to destroy the entire people for this act of rebellion, and it was only through his, Moses', intervention that the people are alive at all.

Nor was the golden calf the only time the Israelites rebelled against God. Deut. 9:22-24 reminds them of other instances: Taberah (Num. 11:1-3), Massah (Ex. 17:1-7), Kibrothhattaavah (Num. 11:4-35), and Kadeshbarnea (Num. 13-14). Moses makes a point of reminding the people that they are "a stiffnecked people." (Deut. 9:6) Over and over during the time of their wanderings, the Israelites constantly challenged God and complained about their conditions. Despite God's miracles and signs, it seems that the Israelites were always comparing their harsh life in the wilderness to the stable life as bondsmen in Egypt.

Because of all this complaining and rebellion, the Israelites would seem unlikely candidates to possess the land of Canaan. And, in fact, the text confirms that this is so. Deut. 9:4-6 tells the Israelites that the reason they are about to possess the land, currently inhabited by nations much stronger than they are, is not because of their own righteousness. Instead, it is because of the wickedness of the nations already living there. The Israelites may be rebellious and stiff-necked, in other words, but the Canaanite nations were more-so.

This reminder of the nations' wickedness provides yet another opportunity for Moses to remind the people to keep to God's commandments and ways. After all, if God decided to wipe out the Canaanite nations, God could equally decide to destroy the Israelites if they don't keep God's commandments.

One would think, with all this emphasis on conquest and destruction, that the Israelites would certainly want to keep God's laws. What possible reason could they have for forgetting the God who brought them out of Egypt and into Canaan. The answer can be summed up in one word: decadence.

Deut. 8:6-20 paints a picture of the Israelites living in Canaan: eating the abundant crops, living in good houses, rich, and prosperous. In this situation, several generations after the conquest, the Israelites might start thinking to themselves that they were the ones who did it all; they built their wealth through their own means. It is in fact very common for people, raised from humble circumstances, to forget their benefactors, or for their children to believe that their family had always lived in luxury. This decadent lifestyle, Moses warns, could cause the Israelites to forget about God entirely, and to believe that they possess their wonderful land and riches because they deserve it.

Moses admonishes the Israelites to remember God and to keep his commandments. Deut. 10:12-22 gives a capsule summary of the things God requires: "to fear the LORD thy God, to walk in all his ways, and to love him, and to serve the LORD thy God with all they heart and with all they soul, to keep the commandments of the LORD, and his statutes, which I command thee this day for thy good." (Deut. 10:12-13, KJV) Furthermore, God requires that they continue the tradition of circumcision, love strangers, and worship God alone in completely monotheism. The text reminds them that God is lord of both heavens and earth (Deut. 10:14) and that he chose the Israelites (Deut. 10:15) and did "great and terrible things, which thine eyes have seen." (Deut. 10:21) In other words, God has given the Israelites everything they possess, and requires only that the Israelites remember their benefactor and praise him accordingly.

In these three chapters, therefore, Moses traces the progression of the Israelite mindset from rebellion to decadence, and he asks them to shun the latter. If they worship and follow God, they will thrive. If not, they will be destroyed. Through it all, the Israelites seem less like a chosen people than a rebellious rabble, who nevertheless will be given rewards because of promises made to their forefathers and because other nations are even worse than they are.

It hardly seems to be a promising beginning to the conquest of Canaan, but perhaps it's what the Israelites needed to hear.

June 17, 2007

Breadcrumb: Shock and Awe

Deut. 7 tells the Israelites how they must deal with the Canaanite nations when they conquer the land. It can be summed up pretty simply, "utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them." (Deut. 7:2) They must not marry into those nations or serve their gods. In fact, they must destroy the nations' altars and break their idols. A redundant, if particularly effective, line is Deut. 7:23: "But the LORD thy God shall deliver them unto thee, and shall destroy them with a mighty destruction, until they be destroyed." Really, there's not much room for misunderstanding in that.

June 16, 2007

Breadcrumb: It only works once

Deut. 5:1-5 reminds the Israelites that God made his covenant with them, the living people Moses addresses, and not with their forefathers. This is meant to bring immediacy to the laws: they are not archaic and outdated but present and meaningful. Of course, this only applies to the people present during Moses' speech. For the rest of us, three thousand years later, it is archaic and outdated. This is one of the reasons Jews at Passover are supposed to speak about the Exodus as though they themselves went through it, not their forefathers.

June 15, 2007

Deuteronomy 5-7: Hear O Israel

Today's reading is Deuteronomy 5-7 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers a recap of the ten commandments; the commandment to love God; and the commands Israel will use when conquering the nations living in Canaan.

Shema Israel, Adonai elohanu, Adonai ehad. These are the beginning of what many people consider the most important prayer in Judaism, appropriately called the Shema ("hear"). Observant Jews recite this prayer twice daily. The first parts of the Shema are found in today's readings, Deut. 6:4-9. (The rest of the Shema is Deut. 11:13-21 and Num. 15:37-41.) Let us therefore take a moment to consider these verses as well as the ones that come after it in the rest of Deut. 6.

Deut. 6:4 reads, in the KJV, "Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD," but is more commonly translated (here, for instance) as "Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One." This second translation better reflects the parallelism in the Hebrew. Regardless of which translation you use, the meaning is clear: the Israelites are a monotheistic people, worshipping only one God. One of the major difficulties in early Christian theology, in fact, was reconciling this verse with Trinitarianism, the idea of God the Father, God the Son (Jesus), and God the Holy Spirit. For Jews (and later for Muslims), this is a moot point: there is only one God.

Verse 5 reads, "And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might." This threefold repetition is both beautiful and useful: it shows that it is not enough to love God with only one part of the body. Intellectual love is useless without emotional love, and both are worthless without action that reflects them. To me, this is the essential meaning of this passage. The text commands the Israelites to love God all three ways: with the mind, the emotions, and with actions.

Verses 6 to 9 give concrete commands for the Israelites, all of them applying to "these words," in the narrow sense meaning these particular verses but in the wider sense meaning the Bible as a whole. Among the commands are to teach them to your children, talk to them at home and outside, morning and evening, to bind them on your hand and between your eyes, and to write them on the doorposts and gates of your home. Even today, Jews do these things, which has led rise to traditions some gentiles consider strange, such as the teffilin (phylacteries) Jewish men wear on their foreheads and around their arms during prayer, and the mezuzah (pl. mezuzot) affixed to the front doorway in many Jewish homes.

More generally, however, these verses together inform the Israelites that they must be thinking about "these words" all the time. Though the letter of the law states, for example, to speak them morning and evening (Deut. 6:7), this does not mean they can forget about them for the rest of the day. Instead, the phrasing of these verses indicate that the Israelites, and their Jewish descendants, must constantly be thinking and reflecting on the Bible as they go about their daily business. Furthermore, they must teach their children to think in a similar way.

The rest of Deut. 6 is not part of the Shema but continues in this theme. Verses 10-12 remind the Israelites that once they enter Canaan and possess the land, they must not forget God. In fact, even the act of possessing the land will be God's work, as the Israelites will have cities they did not build, houses full of goods they did not fill, wells they did not dig, vineyards and olive trees they did not plant, and so on. In other words, God is about to give them the possessions of other nations for their own, and he pre-emptively warns them not to become decadent and forget the source of all their newfound bounty.

Verses 13-16 further this idea, telling the Israelites not to worship other gods, because God is jealous. The text reminds them that they already tempted God once, at Massah (a reference to Ex. 17). In fact, the Israelites had already tempted God quite a bit, as we saw in the closing essay for Numbers. God is therefore admonishing the Israelites to keep the commandments and therefore be able to live well.

The end of the chapter, verses 20-25, deal with the inevitable question, "why?" Why do we have all these commandments? Why do we have to follow them? The answer, an Israelite father should say to his child, is that we were slaves in Egypt, and God brought us out with signs and wonders, and brought us to Canaan. This same God, who did all these great and wonderful things, commanded us to keep these laws, and therefore we're going to keep them. He was not only good to us, but terrible to our enemies, and we don't want to make him mad.

In short, then, this chapter is a reminder for the Israelites about to enter a new land that they must not forget their benefactor. God knew that the Israelites had a short attention span and were liable to lapse into idolatry and foreign religions, which in fact they eventually did. God sets forth this verse to stave off the rebellion and to ensure the Israelites remember who brought them to Canaan in the first place.

June 14, 2007

Breadcrumb: Written in stone

Deut. 4:2 reads as follows in the KJV: "Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you." It is this verse that is at the heart of so much controversy between Jews and Christians. In fact, Jesus refers to it in Matt. 5:17, when he says, "Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil." Jews consider that Jesus, and especially his disciple Paul, removed many important commands from Moses' laws; Christians believe that the law has been rendered void by Jesus' sacrifice.

June 13, 2007

Breadcrumb: Gigantic!

In Deut. 3:11, the text tells us that Og, King of Bashan, whom the Israelites killed, was the last remaining giant on earth. In fact, his iron bed was approximately thirteen feet long and six feet wide. The giants had been mentioned before, as far back as Gen. 6 (where they are called nephilim), and were the children of angels and human women. However, the time of legends ends with Moses and the death of Og, the last giant. The only person who might compare in later texts is Goliath. (1 Sam. 17)

June 12, 2007

Deuteronomy 3-4: Rhetorical question

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

Today's passage covers the defeat of Og, King of Bashan; the division of the lands east of the Jordan river; God's command that Moses will not enter Canaan; a reminder to obey the commandments and shun idol-worship; a review of what will happen if they don't; a recap of the cities of refuge; and an introduction to the law.

If, when we reached the end of the book of Numbers, we asked ourselves, "why should we follow all these commandments," we would be forced to answer, "because God says so." Indeed, most of the commandments put forth in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers are issued as edicts with little if any explanation. The Israelites and their descendants are forced to accept that because God is wise and just, so too are his commands, and they must place their trust in him.

Once we reach Deuteronomy, however, we are presented with the very explanations we have been lacking previously in the text. In Deut. 4, for example, Moses deals with the prohibition against idol-worship. In fact, this chapter is masterfully written in rhetorical style, flowing from one point to the next in a logical and compelling discourse.

Earlier in the chapter (Deut. 4:1-9), Moses repeated his plea for the Israelites to obey the commandments. He reminded them of the fate of the Baalpeor worshipers (Num. 25), who were utterly destroyed. He further tells them that if the Israelites do uphold the commandments, other nations will marvel at their wisdom, greatness, and justice.

Now, from verse 10 to 14, Moses reminds the Israelites where they got these laws, at Mount Horeb. (Ex. 34) In fact, Moses seems slightly confused on this point, since it appears he is in fact referring to the giving of the ten commandments at Mount Sinai. (Ex. 19-20) At Mount Horeb, Moses saw the countenance of God, but at Mount Sinai, the entire Israelite people heard God speaking from the midst of the fire. Moses paints the picture in detail, reminding them of the burning fire and the thick darkness.

Continuing on his theme, Moses points out, "You saw no form of any kind the day the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire." (Deut. 4:15, NIV) Because of this fact, the Israelites do not know what God looks like, and thus should not make any idols, which all would have a form. Moses enumerates the various types of idols, all common in the ancient Mediterranean, the Israelites must avoid: idols in the form of men, women, beasts, birds, insects, or fish. He also tells them not to worship the heavens. All these things, Moses reminds the people, God gave to all the nations and thus is would be a perversion for the nations to worship them. (Deut. 4:15-19)

So far, Moses has used highly evocative imagery and compelling logic: even if the Israelites wished to erect and idol of God, they would not know what shape to build it. This is the reason that, to this day, Jewish synagogues do not contain images of any sort, and instead they keep the Torah scrolls as the central focus.

Moses continues in Deut. 4:25-28, telling the Israelites what will happen if, in future generations, they begin worshipping idols. Specifically, they will "utterly perish" (KJV) from Canaan and will be scattered among other nations, a minority amongst a heathen oppressor. Furthermore, the Israelites will be forced to serve heathens' idols, which were constructed by men.

The contrast between the pagans' idols and the Israelites' God is explicit: "There you will worship man-made gods of wood and stone, which cannot see or hear or eat or smell." (Deut. 4:28, NIV) The Israelites listening to Moses at this juncture must surely be comparing these man-made idols to the God who revealed himself at Mount Horeb, as Moses just reminded them. They must be thinking of their descendants in the future, urging them across time and space to return to God.

Moses takes this into account. He goes on in verse 29 to 31 to say that if the Israelites at that time, scattered amongst the heathens, honestly seek God and wish to return to him, they will be heard, and God will not forsake them. This is precisely the message to which the Jews in Diaspora turned for two thousand years, and which many say was fulfilled in 1948 with the founding of the state of Israel. Moses' message, so vivid and powerful, was used as a justification for hope for centuries.

Moses concludes by reminding the Israelites that there is no God as powerful as theirs, who spoke to them from the fire and took them out of Egypt from the midst of the Egyptians. (Deut. 4:32-39) It is as if he is allaying the fears of the Israelites, who might be asking how it is possible that, in a future Diaspora, God would be able to save them. God was able to rescue them from a foreign nation once, Moses seems to be saying, and could certainly do it again. God has both the compassion and the means to act upon it.

Moses finishes in Deut. 4:40 by returning to his original point, keep God's commandments. He has come full circle, from the reasons for the injunctions against idol-worship, to the consequences if they are ignored, to God's power to both forgive and rescue the Israelites if they turn away. But wouldn't it be far better, Moses says, if they kept the commandments in the first place and avoided the Diaspora? Moses makes a compelling case, even if he is ignored by later generations, we we will see in the books of Kings and Chronicles.

June 11, 2007

Breadcrumb: Sound familiar?

In Deut. 2:24-37, God tells Moses to fight Sihon the Amorite and his people. This incident was originally recounted in Num. 21:21-35. In both cases, Moses first sends messengers asking for safe passage through Sihon's land. In both cases, Sihon refuses. However, while the Num. version merely says that Sihon would not let the Israelites pass, the Deut. version explains further, "the LORD thy God hardened his spirit, and made his heart obstinate, that he might deliver him into thy hand." (Deut. 2:30, KJV) In other words, God intervened with Sihon exactly the same way he had with Pharaoh. Who knows what might have happened if Sihon had been allowed to say, "sure, go ahead"?

June 10, 2007

Breadcrumb: The better part of valour

Several times in Deut. 2, God informs Moses that he should keep his sword sheathed around certain nations. In Deut. 2:2-7, it's the children of Esau who dwell in Seir. In verses 9-12, it's the Moabites. In verses 16-23, it's the children of Ammon. In each case, God informs Moses that he has not given any of these lands to the Israelites, so they should step lightly past until reaching Canaan. No doubt it was frustrating for 600,000 soldiers to be continually told not to fight, but at least they'd be well-rested for their eminent invasion.

June 09, 2007

Deuteronomy 1-2: Have we been here before?

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

Today's passage covers the beginning of Moses' narration: of the command to leave Horeb; the appointment of leaders; the sending out of spies and the Israelites' rebellion because of their report; of the wanderings in the desert; and of the defeat of Sihon.

My more attentive readers might remember many of the episodes mentioned in the previous paragraph. In fact, almost all of them take place in the book of Numbers (one or two occur in Exodus). The book of Deuteronomy consists of a narration, given by Moses, just before the Israelites enter the land of Canaan. It is written in first-person and recaps many of the incidents we are already familiar with.

However, in the same way that eye-witness testimony may sometimes differ from forensics reports, so too does Moses' account of the various trials and triumphs differ from the third-person account given in Exodus and Numbers. Let us take a few examples and see how Moses diverges from the previous stories.

One incident that occurs in Deut. 1:9-18 and Ex. 18:13-26 involves the appointment of judges. In both cases, Moses appoints judges in a hierarchy over the people: over thousands, hundreds, and tens, so that he would have a lighter burden. Previously, he had been judging all the cases himself; now he would only judge the most difficult ones. On this matter, the texts are consistent.

However, a discrepancy emerges when we look for the reason why Moses appointed these judges. In Deut., Moses says, "And I spake to you at that time, saying, I am not able to bear you myself alone. The LORD your God hath multiplied you, and, behold, ye are this day as the stars of heaven for the multitude.... How can I myself alone bear your cumbrance, and your burden, and your strife?" (Deut. 1:9-12) In this version, it seems like Moses was the sole instigator of the change. Suffering under the burden of a heavy command, he finally gave up and charged the people with picking out their wise men, whom Moses would appoint as leaders.

Unfortunately, this misses a great deal of context. If we return to Ex. 18, we realize that it was not Moses but his father-in-law Jethro who suggested the appointment of judges. Jethro sees Moses working hard all day long judging cases alone, and says, "The thing that thou doest is not good. Thou will surely wear away, both thou, and this people that is with thee: for this thing is too heavy for thee; thou art not able to perform it thyself alone." (Ex. 18:17-18) He goes on to suggest, should God be amenable, that Moses appoint the judges and only deal himself with the hard cases. Moses agrees and does as his father-in-law suggests.

There is thus a subtle but important difference between the two versions. In the Exodus version, Moses is fallible but amenable to good suggestions. Though he initially wears himself out judging cases, he understands that Jethro's suggestion is a good one and implements it. He is not alone in his decisions. In the Deuteronomy version, however, there is no mention of Jethro at all. Moses, not Jethro, points out the heavy burden of the court cases and seeks, alone, to correct it. We may never know whether Moses did not want to give credit to another person for what was obviously a successful system of judges, or whether forty years of wandering had dulled his memories and he honestly forgot his father-in-law's involvement. Whichever is the reason, the Deuteronomy text seems far more self-aggrandizing.

The situation continues with Deut. 1:19-25, which discusses the sending out of scouts. When this episode was originally presented in Num. 13, it was God who asked Moses to send the scouts. In the Deut. version, Moses tells the people to possess the land but the people asked for scouts. Moses agrees with them and sends the scouts. There is no mention of God.

One verse, in the aftermath of the scouts' report, deserves special mention. As we remember, the people rebelled because of the scouts' report of giants in Canaan and God punished them by forbidding any of them from entering the land. (This is also presented in Num. 14.) Deut. 1:37, talking about this, reads, "Also the LORD was angry with me for your sakes, saying, Thou also shalt not go in thither."

Nothing could be further from the truth. Moses was indeed forbidden from entering the land of Canaan, but not at this juncture. In Num. 14, God doesn't say anything about whether Moses will lead the people into the promised land. Instead, Moses is forbidden in Num. 20, after he ignores God's command to speak to a rock to get water and instead speaks to the people and strikes the rock. God wasn't angry with Moses for the sake of the Israelites, but for his own sake. Moses disobeyed God, and was punished accordingly. (For a much more detailed analysis of this event, see my previous essay.)

Here we have, not just a minor case of forgetting, but a deliberate shift of blame. In fact, throughout Numbers, God tells Moses he will kill the Israelites and cause him, Moses, to become a mighty nation. He loves Moses in spite of the Israelites' bad behaviour. For Moses now, in Deut., to blame them for his own punishment is unfair to say the least. The Israelites were in enough trouble without Moses blaming them for things they didn't do.

June 08, 2007

Final Reflections on Numbers

The book of Numbers is a study in contrasts. On the one hand are routine records of travel, such as the censuses (Num. 1-2 and 26) and the itinerary (Num. 33). On the other are episodes of high drama, such as Miriam and Aaron's opposition to Moses (Num. 12) or the wars of conquest (Num. 21, 31) On one hand are laws, such as the test for a faithful wife (Num. 5), rules for sacrifices (Num. 15, 28-29), or the water of cleansing (Num. 19). On the other, there is rebellion against those laws (Num. 25, for example). In the end, the text charts in broad brushstrokes the journey of the Israelites for forty years, from the time they left Mount Sinai to their arrival on the borders of Canaan, poised for conquest.

One recurring theme, found again and again, is that the Israelites rebel against God, and God punishes them. To give a very brief summary of the highlights:

- Num. 11:1-3, the people complain, and God sends a fire to consume the outskirts of the camp. Moses intercedes on their behalf and stops the fire.
- Num. 11:4-34, the people complain that they have no meat. Moses and God are both mad, but God eventually sends enough quail to pile three feet high, for a day's walk all around the camp. As the Israelites eat it for the first time, God sends a "very great" plague against them.
- Num. 12:1-15, Miriam and Aaron oppose Moses' Ethiopian wife. God tells them that Moses is no ordinary prophet and they should not doubt him. God then afflicts Miriam with leprosy, which only ends when Aaron intercedes with Moses, who intercedes with God.
- Num. 14:1-45, upon the scouts' report that there are giants in Canaan, the people rebel and don't want to enter. God wants to kill the entire congregation, but Moses intercedes on their behalf and God agrees to pardon them. Instead, he forbids the people from entering the land and charges them with wandering in the desert for 40 years. The people try to enter anyway, and die in the ensuing battle. The scouts who brought the negative report die by plague.
- Num. 16:1-40, Korah the Levite, Dathan and Abiram the Reubenites, and 250 men claim that Moses and Aaron are setting themselves apart as holier than the rest of the community. God threatens to kill the entire community of Israel, but Moses intercedes on their behalf. God instead sends an earthquake to kill Korah, Dathan, and Abiram and fire to kill their 250 followers.
- Num. 16:41-50, in response to the incident just mentioned, the congregation complains and God threatens to destroy them all. Moses tells Aaron to make atonement for the congregation, which he does, stopping God's plague, which had so far killed 14,700 people.
- Num. 20:1-13, the people complain that there is no water. God tells Moses and Aaron to speak to a rock. They instead put on airs and strike the rock. For their insubordination, God tells Moses and Aaron that they will never enter Canaan.
- Num. 21:5-9, the people complain that there is no bread or water. God sends serpents to kill many people. Moses intercedes on their behalf, and God tells him how to cure those who have been wounded.
- Num. 25:1-5, the people have been practising adultery with Moabite women and worshipping their gods. God is angry at them and commands Moses to kill the ring-leaders, which he does.
- Num. 25:6-18, an Israelite man brings his Midianite girlfriend before the tabernacle. Phineas, son of the high priest, runs them both through with a javelin, thus ending the plague that had already killed 24,000 Israelites. God commands the Israelites to kill the Midianites.

For those who are counting, that's ten instances of rebellion in fifteen chapters. Looking at the list, we would almost be forced to ask, "did the Israelites do anything but complain?"

However, this is a glib assessment. Looked at another way, these fifteen chapters cover the course of forty years, which makes the average one rebellion every four years. True, this is still not a stellar track record for a holy people of God, but it is far from a perpetual state of rebellion. In fact, it's probably on-par with most societies.

We must ask ourselves, then, why the text choses to focus on these relatively uncommon occurrences. Why focus on the times of trouble, when the Israelites seem to have been fairly loyal for the majority of the time? The answer is likely, "rebellion makes more interesting reading." While there are certainly people who would be interested in reading long lists of, "things went well; nothing to report," these are not the sorts of records that usually endure.

To put it another way, if you read any history textbook, about any era, you are likely to think the entirety of a nation's history involves wars and conflicts. This is naturally what people tend to write about when writing history. Similarly with the redactors of the Bible: they chose to focus on the times of conflict, because these are both the most interesting and the most edifying. If you want to teach your people how to act, it is far easier to show them what not to do and the consequences if they do it.

In short, then, Numbers might be misleading. Reading it through, the Israelites seem to be constantly complaining and unhappy. God seems to be constantly threatening to destroy them or sending all manner of natural disasters to thin the populace. On the other hand, if we look at the testimony of the Moabite prophet Balaam (Num. 22-24), we remember that the Israelites were blessed and God's chosen people. No matter the occasional uprisings, they persevered and arrived at the entrance to Canaan.

And now, in Deuteronomy, Moses is about to give us a book-long recap of everything we've done to date.

June 07, 2007

Breadcrumb: You can have it, but...

Some of my readers might remember the case of Zelophehad's daughters. (Num. 26-27) In brief, Zelophehad died without male heirs, and his daughters asked to inherit his land instead. After consulting with God, Moses agreed. Now the tables are turned again, as the leaders of Manasseh (Zelophehad's tribe) asked Moses what would happen if the daughters married into other tribes and thus their property would be lost to Manasseh. This time, Moses takes the side of the tribal chiefs and rules that any woman who owns property must marry within her own tribe. In the end, we are reminded that it all comes down to the movement of property.

June 06, 2007

Breadcrumb: He said, she said

According to Num. 35:30, murderers must be put to death. Given the somewhat primitive forensic techniques available to the ancient Israelites, this was usually done based on witness testimony. However, the Israelites realized that animosity between two people could lead to false accusations and false testimony. Thus, the text requires that to convict and execute a murderer, there must be at least two witnesses; one isn't enough. Given that the penalty for murder is death, this is actually a fairly practical safeguard to prevent false convictions.

June 05, 2007

Numbers 35-36: Nowhere to run to?

Today's reading is Numbers 35-36 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the commandment to give Canaanite towns to the Levites; the laws regarding cities of refuge; and the continuation of the case of Zelophehad's daughters' inheritance.

It was bound to happen sooner or later. You're up on your ladder one day, adding some stones to your silo, when you accidentally drop one. Bad luck! Someone wasn't paying attention to the old proverb about not walking under ladders and thump! The rock landed right on his head and killed him. You had no ill will for this man; maybe you never even met him before. But he's dead all the same, and his family is going to send their avenger of blood after you. What do you do?

If you're an ancient Israelite living after the conquest of Canaan, you decide that discretion is the better part of valour and run away. Specifically, you run away to one of the six cities of refuge, which provide specifically for cases like yours.

Perhaps some backtracking is in order.

In Num. 35, God commands the Israelites to set aside forty-eight cities and their suburbs for Levite use. (Num. 35:1-8) These cities are to be scattered throughout the Israelite lands. Among them, God specifically says to appoint six of these forty-eight cities to act as "cities of refuge," where people guilty of manslaughter may hide from "avengers of blood" while awaiting trial. (Num. 35:9-15) These six cities will be split, three on the main, Western side of the Jordan river, and three on the trans-Jordan, Eastern side.

The procedure, according to the text (Num. 35:16-28), worked as follows: if a man was guilty of manslaughter, he had permission to flee to one of the six cities of refuge. There, he would await trial by "the congregation," who would judge between him and the avenger of blood. If he is found guilty of murder, he must be killed. If, however, he is only found guilty of manslaughter, he is allowed to stay in the city of refuge, safe from the avenger of blood. In fact, he must stay in the city of refuge until the death of the high priest. After that, he is allowed to return to his own property. If he leaves before the high priest dies, his can be killed by the avenger of blood without penalty to the latter.

Some people might point out a few flaws in this system. First, how to we know who is guilty of manslaughter, as opposed to murder? Thankfully, at least in this case, the text helps us. Num. 35:16-23 provides the distinction. Murder is when someone kills another by striking him with an iron object, a stone, a wooden object, or with malice aforethought or hostility. Manslaughter occurs when the strike (barehanded or with a stone) is accidental, unintentional, and without hostility. Obviously, the lines between these two categories can become blurred, especially when it comes to intent and motivation. Hence the necessity to have a trial to hear both sides of the case, the killer's and the avenger's.

The next problem is the time limit involved. The position of high priest was at least somewhat hereditary, given over to Aaron's descendants. Unlike the modern system of papal election, which almost by necessity elects an elderly person to the office of pope, an Israelite high priest might be relatively young. Assuming the office was passed from father to son, a son might have twenty, thirty, or more years of service as high priest before passing it along to his son. This is, understandably, quite a long time for someone to wait in a city of refuge, far from his lands and his family. This might be the reason for the clause saying that anyone who leaves the city of refuge early is at the mercy of the avenger of blood. (Num. 35:26-28) Not everyone would have the mental stamina to remain in a city of refuge if the high priest was relatively young and showed no signs of premature death.

Finally, we must point to the avenger of blood himself. Ancient Israelite culture is far from the only one to contain this concept. The idea is that one of the victim's family members is allowed to avenge his slain kinsman, generally by killing the murderer. The obvious pitfall to this method is one of escalation. I kill your brother; you kill me; my brother kills you; and so forth. In some cultures, such as the medieval Saxons and Franks, this could escalate into full-scale feud. Many cultures included some built-in method to stem the tide of blood before it became a river. The Franks, for example, allowed the murderer to pay the victim's family in compensation. The ancient Israelites, on the other hand, set clear boundaries for when and where an avenger of death was allowed to engage in vendetta: cases of murder as judged by the congregation, or cases of manslaughter when the perpetrator left the city of refuge before the death of the high priest.

In short, this seems at least in theory to be a workable system. To return to our original example, of our poor stone-mason who accidentally finds himself with blood on his hands, we could offer him this advice: run to the nearest city of refuge, hope that the congregation judges that this was a case of manslaughter, and stay there. And don't worry about your next harvest; if you go go home to finish your silo, you might find yourself dead before you get there.

June 04, 2007

Breadcrumb: Playing fair

In Num. 34:16-29, Moses (at God's command, of course) appoints the men who will be in charge of dividing Canaanite land to the tribes after the conquest. Namely, the people responsible are Eleazar (the high priest), Joshua (the new commander), and one man, mentioned by name, from each tribe that will camp west of the Jordan river. Though Moses established that the tribes would receive land by lot and according to their population, these men were no doubt necessary to ensure fair play and to deal with all the details arising from settling over a million people in a new land.

June 03, 2007

Breadcrumb: By the way, he died

Amid the long lists of place-names, Num. 33:37-39 provides a short aside to tell us that Aaron died. You would think, given that he was the high priest and 123 years old at his death, this would have been marked by more than a few verses thrust into the middle of an unrelated list. Instead, the text picks up right away with more of the itinerary. It seems that Aaron's death only warranted a footnote in the Biblical annals.

June 02, 2007

Numbers 33-34: Who's got the map?

Today's reading is Numbers 33-34 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers a review of the Israelite wanderings; the borders of Canaan; and appointments of the officers who will divide the land.

To a casual reader without a map, today's readings are mind-bogglingly boring. In terms of formulaism and repetition, these passages rank alongside the genealogical tables from earlier books of the Bible. Num. 33 consists almost entirely of a Coles Notes version of the Israelite wanderings, charting the names of the places the Israelites have stayed during their forty-year trek. Num. 34 traces the borders of Canaan, soon to be conquered by the Israelites. Really, that's practical all there is in these two chapters. Yet I have a thousand words to fill, and I shall certainly try to find something interesting to say about them.

The first thing we need when charting the Israelite wanderings is a map. Though good maps are elusive on the internet, I have found a few that may be useful in understanding this chapter. First, this one from the Later Day Saints. It helpfully provides not only a charted course through the wilderness, but also annotations and verse references. This map from Bible.ca also traces the Israelites' trek. This one, from the same source, is a slightly-less useful map of the land of Canaan itself. The Bible Atlas from Painsley.org.uk provides a number of helpful maps, including the Sinai desert (though no charted course) and two maps of the land of Canaan. Finally, this map of Canaan from Biblestudy.org is quite large and has a number of the cities mentioned thus far in the text.

Now that we're oriented, we can take a look at the wanderings themselves. One thing that we notice is that most of these lands have appeared in the text before. Though Num. 33 doesn't generally tell us the stories behind the encampments, it does list the place-names. With the marvels of modern search-engine technology, it is a simple matter to find the reference stories. However, even in the earlier chapters, the wanderings seemed to act mostly as bookends. They were useful for orienting us in time and place, but otherwise could be comfortably ignored by most readers.

Looking at this long list of place-names, we are forced to ask ourselves, "why are they here?" Just like the genealogical tables, they were certainly important to the redactors, even if most modern readers feel more at ease skimming over them until they reach the action sections again.

The first potential reason is also the most straightforward: it was a way of keeping records. In fact, Num. 33:2 tells us that Moses himself kept this itinerary for the people at God's command. All cultures feel the need to record the past, whether in a written or oral tradition. Even today, many people trace their families back in elaborate family trees or tables, usually with little more reason than curiosity and a desire to remember their own past.

There are other explanations, however. One of them is a sense of national pride. By looking at the long list of places their ancestors had visited and occasionally conquered, the Israelites in Canaan could feel a sense of pride and accomplishment. They could look back and know that their ancestors were hardy and persevering. This was obviously a useful emotion to evoke in a people about to undergo yet more trials.

Another reason for the itinerary is to give a sense of justification to the Israelite conquest. The Israelites didn't stop just anywhere to live, they had a destination. Even if it took them forty years to reach Canaan, they knew where they were going and would not settle for less. The places they passed along the way all serve to elaborate on the number of options the Israelites faced and dismissed, all trying to reach the lands of their forefathers. Remember that during the time of the Exodus, these lands were inhabited by dozens of different nations, all of whom claimed it as their home. After the conquest, the Israelites would need a reason to justify their invasion, which is partially provided by this list.

(As an interesting aside, the same mentality was re-enacted in the 20th century. In 1903, the British offered Jews the state of Uganda to be their homeland. The Sixth Zionist Congress was split over the proposal and the Russian Jews who would have benefited from the state rejected the idea. The Seventh Zionist Congress rejected the offer two years later.)

Finally, the itinerary may have formed an early sort of travel guide. Many Medieval pilgrims' narratives contain only a bare-bones list of where they travelled on their pilgrimage, with the intent of allowing later pilgrims to follow in their footsteps. Similarly, a studious traveller with a good map could trace the route taken by his ancestors across the desert. No doubt there are numerous tour companies today who offer just such a trip.

While the list itself is staggeringly boring, then, it does point to some of the motivations of the author. Whether as a justification, an inheritance, or a record for posterity, the list of the Israelites' travelling had its uses. And now, let us skim our eyes forward and hope for some action scenes.

June 01, 2007

Breadcrumb: That was fast

In Num. 32:33-42, we read about the cities the tribes of Reuben and Gad built east of the Jordan river. The text seems to imply that the cities were built before the Israelites crossed the Jordan and invaded Canaan, since the Reubenite and Gadite women were supposed to be living in them while the men led the war campaign. However, the Gadites built seven cities and the Reubenites built six. How long, we must ask ourselves, did it take them to build these cities? Did they have time to build before they crossed the Jordan? Or is the text simply mixing things together, out of chronological order?