Sunday, December 30, 2007

Deuteronomy 1 - 8: The Farewell Speech Begins

We're back. MRTB is rested, refreshed, and ready to venture further into the mysteries of the Old Testament. But first:

Procedural Notes

I blog for lots of reasons. I enjoy writing, and I like the thinking that you have to do when you're writing regularly. The communities that develop around blogs has been a huge and unanticipated bonus; it gets harder and harder to distinguish between "blog friends" and "real life friends," with the important exception that I always know what members of the latter group look like.

The original reason I started keeping blogs, though, was to light a fire under my long-term projects. Whether it's my reading list, my "Great Films" project, my quilting goals, or -- of course -- reading the Bible, blogging about it backs me into a corner. I've got to stick with my projects, or I'll look like an idiot. More of an idiot, anyway.

The problem is this: you reach a point where, between all of the projects and the write-ups, you start to have trouble getting enough sleep. I've reached that point, and need to do some cutting back. Am I going to abandon the Bible project? Absolutely not. It's a great project! But, it's not a very popular blog. It just doesn't get read very much, and it hardly gets comments at all. At the end of the day, there's just not enough happening to justify the amount of time I've put into it.

So with that in mind, for now I am going to continue but strip things down a little. Here's the plan:

  • No More Art. Finding the images has been fun and rewarding, but time-consuming; basically, it's been a whole side-project of its own. For now, we'll be text-only.
  • Bigger Bites. I've been averaging about four chapters per entry recently. I'm going to try to bump that up to six or seven chapters per entry.
  • Less Detail. It's hard, because there is just SO MUCH that's interesting. But I bet nobody will complain if I back off on some of the detail.
  • Schedule? I'm not sure if I want to stick to the Sunday night schedule or not. We'll see.

So that's the plan. Let's roll.

"Today, I consider myself the luckiest prophet on the face of this Earth."

The first 33 of Deuteronomy's 34 chapters -- I snuck a peek ahead -- turns out to be Moses' long goodbye speech. Chapter 34 describes his death. Since most of what he wants to talk about seems to be the events described in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, as well as the laws that were revealed in those chapters, there is clearly going to be some review going on.

Deut 1 - 3: How Did We Get Here?

You know those guys who show up at athletic events with signs referencing a single Biblical verse, hoping that they'll be caught on camera so that the entire viewing audience will be struck with curiosity and crack open the family Bible? They pick out verses that they think summarize their personal religious philosophy especially well, of course. Well, I often stumble across verses that are so incidental, so trivial, so devoid of spiritual insight, such obvious candidates for removal if the Bible had ever been edited, that the absurdist in me wants to slap them on a sign and head for the stadium. Such is the case with Deuteronomy 1:2, which reads as follows:

(It takes eleven days to go from Horeb to Kadesh Barnea by the Mount Seir road.)

But I digress. In the first three chapters of Deuteronomy, Moses recounts the events of Numbers 10 - 36, from the point when the Israelites broke camp at Mt. Sinai. Despite that a full generation has passed since that time, he lays it on pretty thick with the guilt trips, continually reminding the assembly of times they let him, and God, down. Presumably, he is thinking of their parents, but what the heck. He's a very old guy by now, and likely a bit confused.

Deut 4 - 6: The Law

It looks like there is going to be a lot of recap of the law here in Deuteronomy. For now, Moses speaks generally about the greatness of God, the importance of obedience of God and of the Law, and the prohibition of idols. Also, the Ten Commandments are repeated, in exactly the same wording as they were originally presented back in Exodus 20. Particularly dogged readers might recall that I challenged the importance of these particular 10 injunctions back then, pointing out that there is nothing in particular in Exodus to indicate that they are any more crucial than the many other laws before and after them. That they are set aside and highlighted here in Deuteronomy pretty much shoots down that criticism.

Deut 7: Imperial Israel

Moses assures the Israelites again that God will deliver the Promised Land, as long as they honor him and his laws. They are, as we have seen before, not expected to be gracious to their defeated enemies. Make no treaty with them, exhorts Moses, and show them no mercy. (2) Their leaders are not only to be killed, but to have their names wipe[d] out from under heaven. (24) Their religious buildings and monuments are to be destroyed utterly, of course, but the people themselves are pretty much marked for slaughter as well: The Lord your God will send the hornet among them until even the survivors who hide from you have perished. (20)

Deut 8: Encore!

Chapter 8 discusses, again, how important it is to follow the law, to remember that God freed the nation from slavery and therefore deserves and expects submission to his will. This is the main point that Moses is making in his speech, of course -- the Israelites do not have the strongest of track records, obedience-wise, and he knows that this is his last shot at whipping them into shape. So, with the speech only one-quarter done, I'm guessing this is not the last time he will reiterate the point.

Next Time: Before television, a crowd could sit still while they were being read the legal code.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Blog Sabbath

Another landmark! With tonight's post, I completed the Book of Numbers, the fourth book of the Bible.

After I started on this project in July 2006, I managed only six entries before taking an unplanned 5 1/2 month hiatus. Okay, that was lame. But since I fired things back up again in February, I've been on task every Sunday night, pretty much just like clockwork. I've been happy about that.

Now, though, I think it's time for an official Michael Reads the Bible Blog Sabbath. I'm going to take November and December off from the project. I'll be back in the first week of January, we'll do some brief review, and then we'll start the new year in the fresh terrain of Deuteronomy.

Thanks to those few of you who are reading along as I go. I know that you are out there, and that makes the whole thing more fun and interesting for me.

Best, and see you in the new year,

Numbers 31 - 36: On the Brink of the Promised Land

Numbers 31: The Horror

Numbers 31 is the most disturbing chapter of the Bible that I have read so far.

You may remember that last week, in Chapter 25, God killed 24,000 Israelites by plague because some of the men had been having sex with Midianite, or Moabite, women, and more significantly worshipping the Midianite god. Now, I don't know about you, but this seemed a touch draconian to me. But, the sex and especially the worshipping was clearly in violation of The Laws, which had been repeated and repeated and repeated to the Israelites, who furthermore have had every opportunity to see that God means business. So, the plague business seemed excessive but technically justifiable.

What offense had the Midianites committed? Basically, they had been friendly. They were willing to date people from backgrounds other then their own. And they invited newcomers to the area to a non-denominational religious observance. They might as well have been in Welcome Wagon.

The first sentence of tonight's reading, then, is a bit of a shocker: 1 The Lord said to Moses, 2 "Take vengeance on the Midianites for the Israelites." Say what? Vengeance? For what? It was the Israelites who broke their own laws.

Well, it's certainly the Israelites who attack the Midianites. Winning the battle, they proceed to kill every adult male of the kingdom, including the leadership. They capture the women and children, burn the towns and villages, and bring the livestock and everything of value back to the camp.

Moses, not surprisingly, is furious. But wait. He's not furious about the slaughter. He's furious about the mercy. 15 "Have you allowed all the women to live?" he asks. After all, they were the ones who lured the poor Israelite men into sin in the first place, right? So, after ordering his soldiers kill all of the Midianite boys, Moses utters this supremely creepy line: "And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who who has never slept with a man." (18)

But wait, again! Eleazar, the new high priest, is standing by! Will he bring a voice of sanity and prevent this senseless slaughter? Well, no. He speaks up, but it's to warn everyone to wash their loot properly, so that all of the booty is in a state of ritual cleanliness. The second half of the chapter, then, is an accounting of how many animals (including sheep, cattle, donkeys, and "people") and how much treasure was brought in by this military adventure, and how it was divvied up among the Israelites.

Now, I don't want to belabor the obvious, here, but this chapter does not depict God (or for that matter, our distant intellectual forbearers) acting in a way that is very palletable to modern people. Longtime readers might remember that one of the original questions I set out to explore in this project was "Is God good?" Well, whether or not you believe, as many do, that all goodness ultimately derives from God, it is hard to describe his actions in Numbers 31 -- or those of his representative, Moses -- as resembling goodness in any way.

Whatever else this portion of the Bible is, it is a fragmentary historical record of the real actions of real people. They were people who lived in an often violent time and place, where a person of my own sentimental morality probably wouldn't have lasted long. But by their own account, what they did here was to ambush and slaughter their neighbors, people who had been receptive and friendly to them and who represented no physical threat. It doesn't endear me to them.

The Technicalities

The remainder of the Book of Numbers -- chapters 32 through 36 -- deals with technical and administrative issues that need to be resolved before the crossing over into the promised land. Here's an overview:

Chapter 32: A couple of the tribes actually like the Non-Promised Staging Area east of the Jordan pretty well, and ask Moses if they can stay there instead of crossing over to the Promised Land Proper. After some back-and-forth, it is settled that they can do this as long as they take part in the military conquest. (The Promised Land, remember, isn't empty. God wants the Israelites to take it from its current occupants by force: if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land, those you allow to remain will become barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides. (34:55))

Chapter 33: There is an extensive recap of the Israelite wanderings, from Egypt to the present. It's almost like a narrative map. Here's an excerpt:

25 They left Haradah and camped at Makheloth.
26 They left Makheloth and camped at Tahath.
27 They left Tahath and camped at Terah.
28 They left Terah and camped at Mithcah.
You get the idea.

Chapter 34: God tells Moses where the boundaries of the Promised Land are, and appoints a committee to divide the territory up among the various tribes.

Chapter 35: Special dispensation is made for towns for the Levites, who as you remember are the tribe of priests, and therefore won't need extensive farming or grazing lands like everyone else. "Cities of Refuge" are also set up; these are places you can run to if you have accidentally killed somebody. Once you are in a refuge city, no one is allowed to take vengeance on you before you come to trial.

Chapter 36: A question of inheritance is cleared up. You may recall from last time that, under some circumstances, women may inherit wealth. Well, what happens if a woman who owned property married outside of her tribe? No good! The wealth would change tribes! That would throw off the delicate parity among the tribes that Moses has always been at pains to reinforce. So, the decision is that women who own property can only marry within their own tribe. A nice cousin or something.

'Front piece, Book of Numbers,' written and illustrated in Northern Italy, c.1492-1460.
And so we finish up with Numbers, which is the book of.... what? It is difficult to define, because there is no particular starting point to it. It just continues on from the end of Leviticus with nine more chapters of laws and regulations, as well as the first of the two censuses from which it takes its name.

Major narrative events in Numbers include the breaking of camp at Mt. Sinai and the march to the Promised Land, the failure of nerves once the Promised Land is reached, and God's subsequent punishment, that another generation must pass before the conquest may proceed. During the famous forty years in the desert, we have seen the Israelites' strength and influence grow. No longer can kings make them go around their land the long way. Now, the Israelites go where they want to, and have clearly become a force to be reckoned with, if not downright feared, in the region.

In the last five chapters, there is a sense of preparing. As the Israelites work out some of the details of how their society will operate on the west side of the Jordan, you can all but sense the activity in the camp: plans being drawn up, livestock being brought in close to the camp, clothes and boots being repaired... and swords being sharpened. The Israelites are crossing the river, and will claim what they have been told will be their own.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Numbers 25-30: Interlude

Tonight's reading starts off like a real rip-snorter: While Israel was staying in Shittim, the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women. After that issue is dealt with, however, the bulk of the next few chapters is taken up by the least narrative kinds of Old Testament writing we've seen so far; with restatements of laws, and other administrative business. Even the sexual immorality is just another itteration of a very familiar pattern: Israelites disobey, God punishes, Moses intercedes, God relents. The most interesting bits of tonight's text deal with gender relations, as we get some new thoughts on the rights of women.

Numbers 25: God isn't crazy about the sexual immorality, but the big problem is that the new girlfriends are inviting Israelite guys out for dinner and a sacrifice to Baal, and the guys are saying yes. God is very angry about this. Moses gives the word to the clan chiefs that anyone who sacrificed to Baal must be put to death.

At this point, a minor Israelite leader with an unfortunate sense of timing brings his new girlfriend home to the tent, walking right past Moses and the assembly. Oops. Aaron's grandson, Phinehas, grabs his spear, charges into the tent, and dispatches the lovers with a single blow. God recognizes this as a righteous deed, and the plague is stopped (which is a surprise to the leader, as it had never been mentioned that a plague had started). It had killed 24,000.

Two pieces of fallout from this incident. First, God singles out Phinehas as an especially righteous man, due to his zeal to uphold community standards, and declares that succession to the priesthood will pass through him. Secondly, because the unfortunate girlfriend was a Midianite, God instructs Moses to "Treat the Midiantes as enemies and kill them." This will be important next week.

[note: with all of the sex and violence in this chapter, I thought it would be a favorite subject for painters. But I can't find a thing. See the Brick Testament, always, for visuals.]

Numbers 26: God tells Moses to take another census of men 20 or older, but clan and sub-clan. The total number is 601,730, plus 23,000 Levites who are counted seperately for legal reasons. Given that this does not include women, children, young adults, or slaves and servants, my estimation that the travelling strength of the Israelites was about 2 million is clearly pretty modest.

None of the people counted at this census, the text claims, was present for the previous census (Numbers 2). That earlier count was taken before Israelite misbehavior led to the punishment of 40 years in the desert. The adult Israelites at that time were told they would never see the Promised Land, and now apparently they have all died off, replaced by the younger generation. The only ones over 40 are Caleb and Joshua, who were exempted from the punishment, as well as Moses himself and Aaron's son Eleazar.

Numbers 27: Three daughters of Zelophehad, a man who died without sons, come to Moses and argue that they should be allowed to inherit his property. Moses, as always, takes the question straight to his boss. God says yes, absolutely, the girls are right. If a man has no sons, his daughters should be his heirs. (No daughters? Then his brothers. No brothers? Then his uncles.)

God also tells Moses his life is getting close to its end. He suggests a formal ceremony to establish that Joshua will be the official leader of the Israelites when the time comes. And so the ceremony is held.

Numbers 28 & 29: Immediately following is a reitteration of some of the laws that we saw earlier, in Exodus and Leviticus. Their reappearance here is somewhat mysterious, unless we are to take them as instructions through Moses to Joshua, the new "shepard" of the Israelites. And if that was true, we would expect the laws that got reitterated to be the very most important ones, right? The closest to God's heart? Perhaps the traditional Ten Commandments?

Nope. Here are the laws that are repeated in Numbers 28 & 29:

  • The required daily animal sacrifices.
  • The required Sabbath sacrifices.
  • Required monthly sacrifices.
  • Sacrifices required on the various special holidays.

I have never gone into the details of sacrifice requirements before and will not now. They are highly specific and legalistic, and pretty alien to most modern religious practice. I'll just give you a quick taste, from Numbers 29:

26 " 'On the fifth day prepare nine bulls, two rams and fourteen male lambs a year old, all without defect. 27 With the bulls, rams and lambs, prepare their grain offerings and drink offerings according to the number specified. 28 Include one male goat as a sin offering, in addition to the regular burnt offering with its grain offering and drink offering.
I should admit that I haven't checked to make sure the sacrifice requirements here are consistent with the ones given at the beginning of Numbers. God might be reitterating, or might be making adjustments. Whatever.

Numbers 30: Moses issues a new law, which might be his last, concerning the making of oaths. The core of the law is simple -- when a man makes an oath, he is required to keep it. But what of women?

Here's the deal with women and oaths. If the woman lives with her father, the father has the option when he first learns about the oath to nullify it. Same goes for a husband. Women who are divorced or widowed -- the only independent singles in Israelite society -- are held to their oaths, just as a man would be.

Next Week: War! Vengeance! Further clarification of female inheritance laws!

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Numbers 22 - 24: Balak and Balaam

Rembrant, Balaam and the Ass.The Israelites are starting to become a regional power, and other inhabitants of the region are getting nervous. In particular, the king of Moab, one Balak son of Zippor, sees the Israelites coming and is scared silly. There are a lot of them, and they represent both a military threat and an ecological threat -- they, with their animals, could lay waste to the land simply by feeding and watering themselves.

Balak reaches into his bag of tricks and sends a messenger east to an oracle named Balaam, who lives near the Euphrates, asking him to come to Moab and lay a curse on the newcomers. Balaam, surprisingly, worships and receives his visions from God, the God of Abraham (unlike Pharoah's magicians, for instance, who seemed to derive their power from a lesser competitor), and wants to talk to him before responding to Balak. God, of course, tells him not to mess with the Israelites, so Balaam sends word back that he won't be able to take the commission.

Hearing this, the king sends a high-power delegation with the authority to offer serious money if Balaam will come back and lay down this curse. Balaam talks to God again, and this time God tells him to return with the men to Balak. Obviously, he has something in mind.

The Famous Donkey Story

So we come to the story of Balaam's Donkey. It's a popular story, and the subject of many paintings. That's probably in part because people (and painters) like stories about animals, but it probably has meaning that resonates for people, too. Unfortunately, I may be missing some or all of the point. I can recognize a few themes that seem to resonate, sure. But the tale, in context, doesn't make a lick of sense.

Gustav Jaeger, Balaam and the Angel
What happens is, at a narrow place in the road a mighty angel blocks the way. The donkey sees the angel and stops, but Balaam doesn't understand why the donkey is stopping, and beats it. This happens three times. After the third beating, God lets the donkey talk, and it says exactly what you would expect: "hey, Balaam, why do you keep beating me?"
22:29 Balaam answered the donkey, "You have made a fool of me! If I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now."
30 The donkey said to Balaam, "Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?"
"No," he said.

At this point, the angel reveals himself to Balaam, and tells him that he has been wrong to beat his donkey. "I have come here to oppose you because your path is a reckless one before me. The donkey saw me and turned away from me these three times. If she had not turned away, I would certainly have killed you by now, but I would have spared her." (32-33) Balaam offers to turn back, but the angel says no, keep going, we've got something planned.
Pieter Pieterszoon Lastman, Balaam's Donkey.So, there's a nice little theme here of having humility and listening to those less powerful than yourself. Plus, the donkey gets a pretty good line. But, as I said, the story doesn't really make any sense in context.

The problem is, since God had already told Balaam to go back to Balak, his path is anything but a reckless one. He's already doing what God told him, and has no reason to be expecting divine intervention. Apparently, the angel hadn't got the memo on the whole Balaam project.

Balaam's Oracles

Over the next few days, Balaam turns out to be a huge disappointment to Balak. They go to a high place where they can see a portion of the Israelite host. Balaam has Balak build seven alters, and they sacrifice a bull and a ram on each of them. Then, Balaam leaves to commune briefly with God, coming back with a blessing for the Israelites instead of a curse. King Balak figures maybe they weren't standing in the right place, and tries again the next day on another hill. Again, they build alters, sacrifice 14 animals, but Balaam ends up blessing the Israelites again. Same thing happens on the third day.

By now, Balak is hopping mad. He sends Balaam home without paying him. Balaam takes this in stride, but before he leaves he makes a colorful prophecy predicting Israelite ascendence and the destruction of Edom, Moab, Sheth, and the other local kingdoms. Then, Balaam goes home, and Balak went his own way. (24:25)

Balaam, from the Nuremburg Chronicle.This entire episode, three chapters long, is an interesting digression. Since mid-Genesis, the narrative chapters of the Bible have all been told from an firmly Israelite implied point of view. The story of Balak and Balaam, however, is something that happens not to the Israelites, or within their camp, but because of them. No Israelite would have known about these events as they were happening. Coming as it does immediately after the chronicles of the first Israelite military successes, the story implies a broadening of scope. God's people are starting to have an impact on the wider world.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Numbers 21: Most Typical Early Old Testament Chapter?

It has been since May, and since Exodus 23, since I've devoted a post to just a single chapter. But tonight, we're just going to focus on Numbers 21, for two reasons. The practical reason is that I sidetracked myself with the whole Amateur Theologian business and then had a hoppin' weekend, so I just want to get back on track. The content-related reason is that there is a ton going on in this episodic chapter. It is a little reminiscent of early Genesis, where sweeping events were alluded to in just a few sentences. On the other hand, it also covers some themes that have become very familiar over the last 72 pages (in my book), since Moses became the boss of this recklessly willful tribe.

To bring us up to date: The Israelites broke camp at Mt. Sinai, but because they didn't trust God to help them win the Promised Land they were condemned to wander the desert for forty years. They periodically start carping about their terrible lot, and Moses has to either call on God for a miracle to get them back in line, or plead with God not to smoke their disobedient asses on the spot. Refused passage across the lands of the powerful King of Edom, the Israelites were forced to back down and wander elsewhere. And Aaron, Moses' brother and the original high priest, died.

Numbers 21, By the Numbers.

Verses 1-3 The King of Arad hears that the Israelites are coming his way. Let's look at this through his eyes: two million nomadic herders are approaching his kingdom with their beasts. This represents a substantial threat to his people, who could well be eaten, drank, and grazed literally out of house and home. At the same time, the Israelites must look like pretty easy pickings, with no fortifications and their ostentatiously gold-plated religious equipment. The King of Arad, moreover, is not living in an especially sentimental or warm-hearted cultural milieu, know what I'm sayin'? He attacks, and captures some of the Israelites.

Dore,The Brazen SerpentThe Israelites call upon God, and promise to destroy the Kingdom of Arad if he will help. And by "destroy" (according to the footnotes) they mean something like "immolate in a sacrifice to God." God goes along with this, and so the people and cities of Arad are "completely" destroyed. The whole episode is covered tersely, in four sentences.

Verses 4-9 Still circling around Edom, the people -- surprise! -- resume their bitching about the lack of water, the bad food, and Moses' leadership in general. God responds, this time, not with food and water, but with venomous snakes. This changes the Israelites' tune in a real hurry, and soon they are begging Moses to talk to God about the venomous snake problem. God gives Moses some unexpected instructions: to craft a snake out of bronze, and stick it on a pole. Anyone who looks at the snake, lives. (cf. The Golden Calf. Or not.)

This is surely at least the twentieth time that the Israelites have been either spared or punished for their complaining through miraculous means. Memories were apparently shorter back then.

Michelangelo, The Brazen SerpentVerses 10-20 The Israelites wander in the desert for a while; the text traces their route, and offers a few bits of trivia about places along the way (including everyone's favorite Biblical well, Beer). There is also an offhand quotation from something called The Book of the Wars of the Lord, a very evocative title for a text that is (according to an interesting Wiki article) no longer extant.

Verses 21-31 The Israelites approach another kingdom, Amor, and make the same offer that they did at Edom: let us through your lands, and we'll stay on the road and not drink from the wells. The Amorite king, Sihon, doesn't merely rebuff them but attacks them in force. Bad move. The Israelites whup on them. Instead of sacrificing the captured cities to God, though, this Tissot, The Conquest of the Amoritestime they occupy the cities and settle in, thus establishing a territorial base for the first time. (Interestingly, God is not said to have helped in the battle this time. Perhaps the Israelites were able to win this one on their own.)

Verses 32 - 35 Fresh from the conquest of Amor, the Israelites take on the neighboring kingdom of Bashan. God explicitly gets back in the mix, here, and offers up King Og and his soldiers to them. They defeat him, his sons, and his entire army, leaving no survivors. The lands of Bashan are annexed to the land controlled by the Israelites.

There is a lot going on in this chapter. Up at the top of this post, I described it as typical of the Israelites' wanderings, and so it is with the minor rebellion and its punishment, with the wandering of the desert, and with the dust-ups with regional neighbors. And yet in retrospect, the establishment of an Israelite-controlled territory, and the increasing military success of our scrappy tribesmen, seems like it might be a bit of a turning point. Only way to find out is to read on.

Next Week: Who is this Balaam guy, anyway?

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Ask the Amateur Theologian!

"What's this?" you're wondering. Well, there was a question left on last week's post that is central enough to the whole MRTB, uh, mission that it seemed worth a post of its own. So, figuring that a change of format is a pretty risk-free move for a blog that only has two regular readers anyway, we're going to push tonight's reading back a few days and use the regular Sunday night space for the world debut episode of....

Ask the Amateur Theologian!

Is Homosexuality Bad?

ChuckDaddy2000, of Portland, Oregon, asks:

What do you recommend as a snappy comeback for someone who says homosexuality is wrong because it goes against the Bible? I've heard before, "Yeah, and the bible also says you shouldn't grow beards or eat oysters." First off, when did the bible say this (I remember something about shellfish, nothing about beards). And, do you have a better line? Your blog has helped me with some ideas, but I thought I should go to the source for the snappiest comeuppance.

Dear ChuckDaddy,

First of all, it is extremely important to remember that The Amateur Theologian has only read the first tenth or so of the Bible. For all we know, the book of Joshua begins with an injunction to disregard all that has gone before. For all we know, there are whole chapters of Matthew where Jesus says repeatedly that God hates gay people, and that they are going to hell, every one of them.

Having said that, let's take a look at what we've got so far:

The creation stories in Exodus certainly imply a natural order in which males and females are to be paired off. God's displeasure with the inhabitants of Sodom might imply a problem with homosexuality -- it's often cited as such -- but the evidence is really pretty thin there. Much more to the point is Leviticus 18, which includes male homosexual intercourse on a list of sexual taboos, and Leviticus 20, which assigns it the death penalty.

It is always fun to parse. What about a male homosexual relationship in which anal intercourse is avoided? What about lesbian relationships, of whatever sexual intensity? These questions are not addressed, which is to say that neither is forbidden, and this in a text which in other contexts goes into great detail as to exactly which behaviors are and are not acceptable. Still, I would have to say that the balance of evidence implies that the category of "other homosexual relationships" is not exactly encouraged by Old Testament law.

OK, that brings us to the question of whether Old Testament law really matters. The "beards and oysters" argument makes the proposition that, if there are specific laws in the Old Testament that the vast majority of people routinely flout, than picking other laws out for enforcement or moral judgement is invalid. Leviticus 19 prohibits cutting beards (and most haircuts), Leviticus 11 prohibits shellfish (and pork), and Leviticus 18 prohibits homosexual intercourse; if you fail to take either of the first two seriously, what grounds do you have to worry about the third? This is a powerful argument. Its only real weakness is that Leviticus 20 death penalty, which could be construed as elevating the homosexual taboo to a level of seriousness above the others.

However, as colorful as haircuts, pigs, and shellfish are as examples of routinely ignored Old Testament prohibitions (private land ownership would be another good one, by the way), they are really small potatoes. Easily the most important aspect of Old Testament law -- again, as far as I have read -- is the sacrifice system. Above all else, God wants you to understand what animals you need to surrender to the priests, and how, in order to keep yourself in a state of ritual cleanliness. Far more space and detail is lavished on this aspect of the Law than on anything else. So, The Amateur Theologian would have a hard time respecting the reasoning of someone who was citing God's instructions to Moses regarding homosexuality, unless that person was also rigorously keeping up with his or her sacrificial obligations.

This gets cloudy, however, since most Christians believe that the sacrifice of Jesus Christ took care of everyone's sacrificial obligations in perpetuity. So let's go down a notch, and look at the aspect of Old Testament law that gets the most attention, repetition, and clarification, after the sacrifice system. That would be the necessity of keeping the Sabbath, which even gets a mention in the traditional Ten Commandments. There is no ambiguity on this point; anyone who performs work on the Sabbath must die. You will recall the story from a few weeks back of a man caught gathering wood on the Sabbath, whom God condemned to an especially grizzly public execution.

So, ChuckDaddy2000, my response to your question, based on my reading so far, would be this -- Old Testament law does indeed condemn homosexuality. However, it also condemns breaking the Sabbath, and to a far greater extent. This suggests that we should comdemn homosexuals, at the very most, to the same extent that we condemn those who work on Sunday. Or who work around the house on Sunday. Or who make purchases on Sunday. For all of these things, the Bible says in no uncertain terms, the punishment is death.

If YOU have a question for the Amateur Theologian, knock yourself out! I'll do my best.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Numbers 18 - 20: Tough Times for Moses

Poor Moses. He never asked for this job, remember. He has led his people out of Egypt, shown them dozens of miracles over the course of the last two years, has introduced a legal code, a civil order, a religious praxis, and a system of justice, and supervised a military victory, and all they ever do is quack at him. And now, just about the time he might have looked forward to putting his feet on in the Promised Land, he's going to get three pieces of very bad news.

Numbers 18: Priests gotta eat, too

What was already pretty apparent earlier is made crystal clear here -- all of those many, many offerings of grain, oil, flour, and various varieties of meat are, in addition to being sacrifices to God, also food for the priests. As with all other elements of the sacrifice system, this is spelled out in great detail, but that's the essence. With a few exceptions, after the sacrifice, the sacred offering is food for the Levites.

Similarly, the tithe that is to be offered to God? Well, God kind of uses that to pay the Levites for their service. You, Joe Israelite, give it to God c/o the Levites, and then God gives it back to the Levites. Happens so fast you don't see a thing. Levites have to tithe too, and that goes directly to the high priests, Aaron and his sons. Via God, of course.

I'm being snotty, of course. It's easy to be snotty, since the sacrificial system in question has been out of practice for so long. Since the rituals carry no emotional weight, it is easy to see them as a way for an educated, powerful minority to skim the best grub and line its pockets in return for performing ritual tasks that were hard to learn but easy to master, and didn't involve much hard work. Oh, and don't approach our workplace, or ye shall surely die.
But it may just be that any religious system has this look from the outside. After all, most religious systems require a staff, and the staff's got to eat too. You could scold a society for letting its religious figures lead a lavish lifestyle, but then you could scold a society for forcing its religious figures to lead lives of poverty, too. It's easy to scold.

Numbers 19: You'll Feel Clean as a Whistle, After Bathing in Cow Soot

Remember the various laws of ritual cleanliness and uncleanliness? You don't? Well, it was a long time ago. You can study up here.

In Numbers 19, God adds a new stipulation. Actually, a new product: to become clean again after any uncleanliness related to contact with a dead person, you need to wash yourself with the "Water of Cleansing." It also needs to be sprinkled around a tent where someone has died.

Here's the recipe:

  • Slaughter one red cow in the presence of the high priest.

  • Have the high priest sprinkle cow blood seven times towards the Tabernacle, with his finger.

  • Burn whole cow to ashes. Add cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet wool while burning.

  • Take ashes from above, and cover bottom of a standard jar.

  • Add fresh water and shake or stir.
Caution: products sold under similar names at your local grociers may not use this recipe!

Numbers 20: The Three Bummers

Bummer #1

Moses' sister Miriam, who you might remember was turned white for complaining about Moses' wife a few months back, now dies. There Miriam died and was buried, reads the text. (1) We infer that Moses must have been saddened.

Bummer #2

He doesn't have much time to think about it before the next crisis, which is of course a new round of grumbling and complaining among the people. They are thirsty. The solution is going to be a repeat of Exodus 17, when Moses struck a rock and it produced water. But let's take a closer look, because there are some interesting consequences this time.

Here's what God tells Moses to do:

7 The LORD said to Moses, 8 "Take the staff, and you and your brother Aaron gather the assembly together. Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water. You will bring water out of the rock for the community so they and their livestock can drink."
And here's what Moses does:

9 So Moses took the staff from the LORD's presence, just as he commanded him. 10 He and Aaron gathered the assembly together in front of the rock and Moses said to them, "Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?" 11 Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank.
OK, stop.

Go back and compare the two again.

Does it seem like Moses did what God told him to?

What do you think?


Here's what happens next:

12 But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, "Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them."
Wow! Me, I didn't see that coming. And I'm still not sure I understand it. Maybe because Moses implies that he and Aaron are producing the water, rather than God? I dunno. Anybody see something I don't?

Least Conclusive Bible Story Ever

Moses sends a letter to the king of Edom. It tells of the troubles that the Israelites have suffered, makes clear their good intentions, and requests permission to cut across Edomite territory. Moses promises that they will stay out of the fields, and won't eat anything or even drink from the wells.

The king of Edom (perhaps wisely -- remember again that the Israelites are 2 million strong) says "no."

The Israelites send another letter that says something like "Oh, please! We'll stay on the main road, and we really won't drink your water!"

The king of Edom says "no."

So the Israelites have to go someplace else instead.

The Tomb of Aaron: a shrine said to rest on the gravesite of Aaron, on a mountain thought maybe to be Biblical Mt. Hor. Bummer #3

Aaron dies. His position and garments are transferred to his son Eleazar, and he goes up to the top of Mt. Hor, and dies.

So again, poor Moses. He has lost both of his siblings in a couple of days, and, in being banned from reaching the Promised Land, has learned that he'll never been able to retire. Losing the face-off with Edom probably hasn't made him feel like the most effective leader in the area, either. He has to be feeling kind of down.

Next Week: Who knows? It looks action-packed, and there's a bunch of names I've never heard of. Numbers is heatin' up!

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Numbers 15 - 17: Back to Camp

Last week we saw a flurry of action as the Israelites arrived at the land promised to them by God, but then chickened out when they saw that the current occupants were well armed, well fortified, and, well, big. This lack of faith angered God, who decreed that they must therefore wander the desert for forty years before they could enter the promised land. With impeccable reasoning, the Israelites decided to attack without God's support the people they were too scared to attack with God's support the day before. Predictably, they were put to rout and fled back to Moses.

This week, it is more or less back to sitting around in the camp, as God clarifies some points of law and continues to help Moses with the various insurrections that pop up every five minutes or so.

Numbers 15

In Numbers 15, God adds a kind of supplementary surtax of grain, flour, and oil on animal offerings, and either clarifies or appends the sacrificial procedure if an individual or the community is to sin unintentionally. I will continue my policy of not going into the details of the sacrifice system, except to note again that it is elaborate, complicated, and not a little wonkish. Next time you find yourself thinking that legalistic language and thinking is an invention of our times, read -- well, read Dickens' Bleak House, then read these first books of the Old Testament, up to and including Numbers 15.

Late in the chapter, there is a little story of a man who is caught gathering wood on the Sabbath. He is brought to Moses, who asks God what to do with him. According to God's wishes, he is taken outside of the camp, and his friends and neighbors throw rocks at him until he dies an agonizing death of organ rupture and internal bleeding. The inviolability of the Sabbath is underscored yet again.

Following this, a new rule: The followers of God are to attach tassels to all of the corners of their garmets with blue cord, to remind them of God's commandments. This would seem to be one of the many commandments that are not widely followed today.

Numbers 16

A few of the tribal leaders, along with 250 elders, object to Moses and Aaron's rule of the community. "The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is with them," they say. Why should Moses get to boss everyone around?

Just as when, a few chapters ago, the Israelites lost faith and refused to enter the promised land, God determines he will snuff everybody but Moses and Aaron. And, as before, Moses talks him out of it, with the reasoning that it would be unfair to kill everybody for the sins of "one man" (or 250 men, really). He warns everybody to back away from the ringleaders, who are isolated standing with their wives, children and little ones at the entrances to their tents. The ground opens up under these families, and they fall screaming into these sudden pits and are buried alive. Fire descends from the sky and torches the other 250 advocates of democratizing the decision-making process.

The next day, people are angry about what has happened, and complain to Moses that he has killed the Lord's people. But as a crowd gathers, God manifests himself and again tells Moses and Aaron to get out of camp, because he is now well and truly pissed and is going to wipe everybody out. Moses instead sends Aaron to go among the people and make a sacrifice of atonement, which does the trick and stops the plague after only, um, 14,700 people have died.

Numbers 16 is a tough chapter to swallow for an American with any civic ideals whatsoever. It has a powerful message of, if you don't like the way your community is being led, shut up. If somebody else speaks up and is killed for it, hold your tongue, or you will be killed too. It's a poor fit with our theory of government.

Numbers 17

God approaches Moses with an unusual plan for resolving the constant rebellions that have been cropping up over the last year. A leader from each of the twelve tribes, including Aaron for the house of Levi, provides a staff with his name written on it. The twelve staves are placed overnight in the Tabernacle, with the understanding that God will choose a single leader for the Israelites, and that man's staff will sprout. When Moses go to the alter the next morning, it is Aaron's staff that has not only sprouted but... budded, blossomed, and produced almonds. (8)

The other eleven leaders get their staves back, but Aaron's staff is placed

in front of the Testimony, to be kept as a sign to the rebellious. This will put an end to their grumbling against me.... (10)

Does it work? Are the Israelites reassured, by this show of miracle, of the wisdom and sureity of God's design? Do they resolve to put their negativity behind them and support Aaron in all his decisions from here on out?

Probably not. Here's how the chapter ends:

12 The Israelites said to Moses, "We will die! We are lost, we are all lost! 13 Anyone who even comes near the tabernacle of the LORD will die. Are we all going to die?"
I'm probably reading too much into this, but it seems like a pretty poignant passage. These people have been blasted by war, plague, and all manner of supernatural destructive forces, and seem to be subject to divine vengeance if they so much as question a leader who is bent on wandering the desert for the next four decades. They are traumatized, and scared to death.

What might happen next to make the Israelites feel better about their lot?

Next Week: More laws about sacrifice and cleanliness! (Then, our story resumes.)

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Numbers 11 - 14: The Famous "Two Years in the Desert" Come to an End

We left off last week with the Israelites striking their camp at Mt. Sinai, where they have been holed up for two years while God provided Moses with a full complement of civil laws, religious rituals, and organizational principles. These are people who have been liberated from Egyptian slavery and been saved from starvation, competing tribes, and the perils of dehydration by divine intervention. They have lived with the physical embodiment of God in their midst for a couple of years, and now are being led by God himself to claim a highly desirable national territory he has promised them. Obviously, the mood is going to be reverent, upbeat, and positive, right?

Numbers 11: Grumble, Grumble, Grumble (reprise)

Wrong. Just as when they first left Egypt, the Israelites begin to complain. To be fair, they are crossing the Sinai on foot, and certainly without air conditioning, but still. The complaining begins in the first verse of Numbers 11, and God is not in the mood. He sends down fire on the outskirts of the camp; it is unclear whether there are any casualties (although The Brick Testament sure thinks there were), but there is certainly some property damage.

Well, you would think, that ought to shut them up. But no. The Israelites, not realizing that the very phrase "manna from heaven" will come to mean "something really great," start bitching about the manna. "If only we had meat to eat!" they gripe. "But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!" (5-6)

Neither God nor Moses has any patience for this. Moses complains to God in an exasperated speech (11 - 15)which can be read as quite sarcastic and funny: "Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth? Why do you tell me to carry them in my arms...?"

God responds in a way that many humans would. If the Israelites want meat that bad, he says, he'll give 'em meat all right. Lots of meat. He'll give 'em meat "for a whole month -- until it comes out of your nostrils and you loathe it -- because you have rejected the Lord...." (20) Moses, wondering if there is enough meat in all of the flocks and herds to pull off this trick, asks God if this isn't really impossible.

In response, an amazing thing happens. God answers with a sarcastic question: "Is the Lord's arm too short?" (23) The answer is clearly "no," as in "no, it's not impossible." But it is startling that God responds this way. He's usually presented as so dignified. (I imagine Moses saying "So then it's possible?" and God saying, "Hey, do bears shit in the woods?")

The next day, quail begin to fall all around the camp. They fall about a meter deep. There is plenty of quail to eat. Presumably, the desert landscape develops a peculiar odor after a few days. Also, while the Israelites are enjoying the third or fourth day of their big quail feast, God strikes them with a severe plague -- not the last thing you might expect when there are great heaps of rotting animals for as far as the eye can see. [As an aside -- it's hard to tell what is going to inspire an artist. I would think that the quail plague would be a GREAT subject for a painting, wouldn't you? But I can't find a thing.]

Numbers 12: Sibling Rivalry

Aaron, the high priest and Moses' brother, starts griping with their sister Miriam about Moses. There is some loose talk in camp about how Moses' relationship with God isn't all that; after all, God has spoken through the two of them, too. They are also peeved for some reason that Moses married a "Cushite," or African, woman.
God, Moses, Mariam, Aaron.
God isn't pleased. He calls them to task, and explains both exactly how this prophecy thing works, and how Moses is unique:

"When a prophet of the LORD is among you, I reveal myself to him in visions, I speak to him in dreams.
7 But this is not true of my servant Moses; he is faithful in all my house.
8 With him I speak face to face, clearly and not in riddles; he sees the form of the LORD."
Then he gives Miriam a form of leprosy that turns her white as snow, which is kind of ironic considering she is in trouble for carping about Moses' wife, a black woman. Aaron has what is probably the good sense to appeal to God through Moses rather than directly, with the memorable line "Do not let her be like a stillborn infant coming from its mother's womb with its flesh half eaten away!" (12) Moses asks God to have mercy on her, and he relents; she can spend her seven days of uncleanliness outside the camp, and she'll be fine.

Numbers 13: You've Got to Know the Territory

Nicolas Poussin. Autumn. The Grapes from the Promised Land. 1660-1664. As the Israelites approach the promised land, they send out a scouting party to bring back some hard intel on the land and the people who are living there. The party is comprised of one young leader from each tribe, including a kid named Caleb. They go forth and do the Lewis and Clark thing, and return after forty days with botanical specimens and eyewitness accounts. The two-years-and-change of wandering in the desert is near its end!

But wait! Some gentle readers may be thinking "Hold on. Didn't they wander the desert for longer than that...?" And how right you are!

Here's what happens. The scouting party makes its report, to the effect that the promised land is really, really great, but the people who live there are many, strong, fortified, and really, really big. We seemed like grasshoppers next to them, they say. Caleb says "no problem, God is on our side, let's rumble." But everybody else in the scouting party says "forget it, it would be suicide to attack these people."

Numbers 14: Crisis and Resolution. And Crisis.

The Israelites lose their nerve, and -- as is their wont -- fall to complaining and cursing Moses for bringing them to this terrible pass. They start the process of choosing a leader who will lead them back into slavery in Egypt. Caleb and Joshua, Moses' assistant, try to talk to the people, but they are ignored, and an argument breaks out about whether to stone Moses, Aaron, Caleb, and Joshua to death.

At this point, God manifests in the Tabernacle, and he is not pleased. He asks Moses, rhetorically, "How long will [the Israelites] refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the miraculous signs I have performed among them?" Given that everything must surely still smell like rotting quail, it is a more than fair question. And God has had enough. He tells Moses that he is going to destroy the Israelites by plague, and start over with just Moses' family.

Once again, a very interesting conversation between Moses and God occurs. Moses argues with God. And it is not a humble prayer, either; in fact, Moses uses reason on God. "You can't do that," he argues (I'm paraphrasing). "You made a big show of power to the Egyptians when you brought these people out of slavery. Everybody in the greater Middle East knows that you have been physically present in their camp, what with the pillar of fire and all. If you give up on them now, everybody will say you failed. They'll think you couldn't pull off giving them the land you promised them, so you killed them instead."

Then, having told God that he hadn't really thought this through, Moses uses God's own words against him. Again, a paraphrase: "You always say you are slow to anger, and full of love and forgiveness. Right? Right?" Then, he cites a precedent: "You've been letting them off the hook ever since we left Egypt; shouldn't you let them off the hook this time too?"

I don't know if the Bible's intended message is that you and I should feel empowered to match words with God, but Moses not only gets away with it, he gets what he asks for. God spares the Israelites. Instead of mass extermination, their punishment is to be... wait for it... wait for it... that they have to wander the desert for 40 more years before they can go to the promised land! Oh, except for the members of the search party, the ones (other than Caleb and Joshua) who came back with such a negative report. They get killed by plague.

The Israelites, too chicken to invade the promised land when God told them to, react almost predictably when God tells them they won't be allowed to for another 40 years. They invade the promised land. Moses waits for them back at the Tabernacle, and after a brisk and solid spanking at the hands of the Amalekites and Canaanites, the survivors filter back into camp with their tails between their legs. No doubt after a lesson like that, they'll settle down and behave from here on out.

Next week: I have no idea. I'm now quite a bit further into the Bible than I've ever read before, and I can't tell what's coming next from the section headings. It's kind of exciting!

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Numbers 5 - 10: Administrative Notes as Sacred Text

Let me be blunt: this journey is not selling me on the idea that the Bible is great literature. When I started, I had the idea that, as a mature reader, I would find a certain stark poetry, a majesty, a kind of in the very prose. And you know? maybe I shall, as we get further and further away from Genesis.

This second section of Numbers, though, reads less like a work of literature and more like assorted memos and receipts pulled randomly out of Moses' file cabinet. It is thick, as has been most of Leviticus and Numbers, with details that were doubtless important to the Israelites and to anyone adhering to the sacrifice system. It's hard to see much contemporary relevance for this stuff, however.

Here are the various topics covered:

Numbers 5Numbers 7:24 - 19:8 -- MS in Hebrew on vellum, Nablus (Shechem) or Damascus, 13th c.(?)

  • On God's command, people who have potentially contagious diseases or who have been around dead bodies are quarantined away from the main area of the camp.
  • In a summary statement that, it seems to me, may sit a little uncomfortably with earlier edicts, God creates a simple system of torts: if one person wrongs another, they must pay back the amount of the wrong plus twenty percent.

  • God tells Moses what the procedure is when a man suspects his wife of infidelity. It is complicated and full of oaths, curses, and ceremony, but it boils down to this: the priest gives the woman a poison to drink that will "cause bitter suffering." (24) If she has really been fooling around, it will distend her abdomen and render her sterile. If she is innocent, she'll be fine. (In case you think that this system is a tad misogynist, you should know that the accusing husband pays a price, too. He must give the priest two quarts of flour as a fee-for-service.)

Numbers 6

  • Instructions on how to be a Nazirite. Dietary restrictions for Nazirites. Rules about how a Nazarite should keep his hair, and what sacrificial rituals and hair care procedures are called for should someone die suddenly in the presence of a Nazirite. What to do when a Nazirite is no longer a Nazirite.

    Oh, what's a Nazirite? Well, it doesn't say. It appears to be someone who has taken some kind of temporary or permanent vow of religious service. Like a monk, perhaps? I checked my Oxford Companion to the Bible, which says that no one is sure, but a Nazirite was probably someone who took some kind of temporary or permanent vow of religious service. So, encouraging news about my reading comprehension, but not especially helpful otherwise.
  • God gives Moses a three-line blessing that Aaron and his sons (Aaron and his boys are the priests, remember) are to use to bless the Israelites. He are the first three lines:

24 The LORD bless you and keep you;
25 the LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you;
26 the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace.

Hey! I recognize that! That's the "Benediction" that the minister always gives at the end of the Presbyterian service -- or at least that our minister did, when I was growing up. Even though we weren't Israelites!

Numbers 7

  • The Tabernacle is dedicated. In what may well be the most stultifying book of the Bible, the ceremonial offerings of each of the twelve tribal leaders is enumerated, right down to how many shekels the bowls and plates weighed and how many of each kind of critter was brought. Day after day, each clan leader in turn brings in his offering, and a receipt-like list of the bounty is recited. Except, here's the thing: all of the offerings are exactly the same. I imagine that this is the point -- look! all of the tribes gave exactly the same amount! But it sure makes for some tedious reading.

  • The chapter ends with a helpful summary of the total contribution, which is of course any of the individual contributions multiplied by twelve. It's like reading Moses' own ledger.

Numbers 8

  • There is a brief passage about getting the Tabernacle lampstands into their correct positions.

  • The Levite tribe, which you may recall was set aside en masse for religious service in Numbers 3, are formally dedicated into their new rule.

Numbers 9

  • The Israelites celebrate Passover, but a question comes up about whether people who are ritually unclean should be taking part. Moses, consistently shown as having a direct line to God, says "Hang on, I'll ask." [Actually, "Wait until I find out what the Lord commands concerning you."] God obligingly clarifies the point.

Numbers 10

  • God tells Moses to have two special silver trumpets made, to be used in calling assemblies, coordinating mass movements, signalling attacks during warfare, and of course during sacrificial rituals.
And now, back to our story!

Since Exodus 18 or so -- for two years and change for the Israelites, or since early May, in MRTB time -- the Israelites have been camped at Mt. Sinai. Moses has been having a lot of conversations with God, and there have been several events in camp, such as the Golden Calf debacle, the building of the Tabernacle, and the census, but we haven't really had what you would call a "narrative flow."

It looks like that's all about to change. I know this partially from the intriguing headings in The Brick Testament, which resumes regular coverage at Numbers 11. But also, in Numbers 9 and 10 the Israelites are basically packing to go. Numbers 9, looking ahead, explains that after the Tabernacle was completed, the presence of God (a cloud by day, fire by night) settled above it. If the presence of God began moving, the Israelites would then strike camp and follow it until it settled in a new location, and set up camp there. If the presence stuck around in a single place for a long time, the camp would settle in; if it moved again a few days later, it was time to hit the road again. Numbers 10 explains in detail which order the various tribes marched in -- recall, again, that these little marches involve a couple millions of people -- and who was in charge of each division.

So, with Mt. Sinai in their metaphorical rear-view mirror, our refugees from Egypt are back on the march:

33 So they set out from the mountain of the LORD and traveled for three
days. The ark of the covenant of the LORD went before them during those three
days to find them a place to rest.
Are all their troubles over? Will they be able to settle peacefully into their promised land? I'm pretty sure not.

Next Week: For people with a physical manifestation of God in the middle of their camp, the Israelites sure seem like a skeptical bunch.

P.S.: Back to the narrative means back to subjects that painters have historically been interested in, which means we can get some decent blog art going again.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Numbers 1-4: Counting Off

[Today's entry has unusual formating, and no pictures. I'm on vacation, and writing from a pretty minimal interface. Bible study under field conditions.]


The Book of Numbers begins with God giving Moses some more instructions. We are given some time context: two years and two months have gone by since the Israelites fled Egypt. Presumably, they are still parked underneath Mt. Sinai in what has now become a fairly established encampment.

God's instructions in early Numbers are organizational in nature. First, he requires a census of the Israelites, according to their clan membership. The census results are presented in stultifying detail; in sum, the Israelites number 603,550. Oh wait, that doesn't include one of the twelve tribes, the Levites. Oh, and another little thing: that number is just males over twenty who are eligible for military service. That would make the actual number at least two million, making the Israelites (as I kept mentioning back in Exodus) much, much more numerous than they loom in the popular imagination. Or at least MY imagination.


What's up with the Levites? Well, they are counted differently (all males over a month old = 22,000; men 30-50, 8580) and assigned, en masse, to tending the Tabernacle. They become essentially an entire caste of priest's assistants, and are charged with the responsibility of guarding, assembling, disassembling, and transporting all of Israel's holy relics. Sub-clans within the Levites are all doled out specific areas of responsibility, so that pretty much every piece of the Tabernacle has an assigned caretaker. Very specific instructions regarding transportation of the most important relics are also enumerated here.

I have complained several times in these pages about references to all first-born males being "redeemed," or dedicated to God, and not having a clue what that means. Well, it turns out that it doesn't matter. The assignment of the Levites to Tabernacle duty is IN PLACE OF the first-born redemption (although a small amount of silver has to exchange hands to balance the books on this score).


Numbers 2 is all about camp layout. The Tabernacle goes in the center, with the Levites protecting its periphery. From it, various of the clans are assigned to sectors in the north, south, east, and west of the camp. Why is this important? Does the disposition of the various clans have some sort of symbolic weight? I dunno. Lacking this insight, I can't claim that Numbers 2, or for that matter any of tonight's four chapters, is a real gripping read.

Next Week: Applied Biblical Law!

Monday, August 13, 2007

Leviticus 23 - 27: If you thought there might be more laws, you are on the right track.

Today's reading brings us to the end of Leviticus, which means we are a whopping 60% of the way through the Pentateuch! Or, um, 1/13 of the way through the books of the Old Testament. Or, slightly more optimistically, 10.4% of the way through the Bible by page count. An exciting landmark by any measure. Or maybe not.

Leviticus 23: Holidays

God reaffirms yet again the importance of the Sabbath -- remember, we are still in the middle of God's long dictation of rules and laws to Moses -- and then lists the official holidays that he wants people to celebrate. These include some I've heard of, like Passover and the Day of Atonement, and several I haven't, like the Feast of Firstfruits, the Feast of Weeks, the Feast of Trumpets, and the Feast of Tabernacles. There are also some instructions about what to do at each feast. For instance, the Feast of Trumpets is to be celebrated with trumpet music. And sacrifices, of course.

Leviticus 24: Oil, Bread, and Stones

The first half of this chapter directs that the lamp of the Tabernacle always be tended, full of olive oil, and burning, and that bread always be laid out on the Tabernacle table, for God but to be eaten by the priests.

The second half of the chapter breaks off of God's dictation to tell a short story from life in the camp. During a fight, a young man "blasphemes the Name with a curse." He is brought to Moses. God tells Moses that "anyone who blasphemes the name of the Lord must be put to death." He is to be taken out of the camp, everyone who witnessed his transgression is to put their hands on his head, and then the entire community must stone him. ("Stoning" has such a quaint old-fashioned ring that it is worth considering its nature. It involves being rendered helpless and then having a large group of your neighbors and acquaintances throw rocks at you until you die. It's not a nice way to go.)

This is another instance where I find the familiar but shapeless language of the Bible quite maddening. This business of blasphemy is clearly a very important issue. But what exactly does it involve? Are we to consider that the utterance of the phrase "Goddammit!" warrants the death penalty? That seems pretty goofy from my perch in 2007's North America, but it's a reasonable interpretation. Or, is the crime to break an oath that has been sworn on the name of God? Or the actual invoking of a curse, as one might with a different deity say "May you rot in hell, Odin!"? The Bible tells us in no uncertain terms that this is an important subject, but doesn't really give us the detail we need to act on the news.

Leviticus 25: More bad news for the Real Estate market

God tells Moses that, in addition to the Sabbath Day, there is to be a Sabbath Year. Every seventh year, the land is not to be worked. You can harvest whatever grows on it naturally, but you can't plow or plant.

Now that's pretty standard agricultural practice, leaving land fallow occasionally to replenish its nutrients. But there's something more, something I have never heard of before, something that I am not surprised that conservative Christians downplay: The Year of Jubilee.
Jubilee year comes after every seventh Sabbath year; i.e. every fiftieth year. It is another Sabbath year, but God enjoins Moses not to worry about going two years without planting; he will make the year before the seventh Sabbath year so fruitful that they will be able to put aside three years worth of food.

During Jubilee year, all property is restored to its original owners. If you sold your land ten years after the last Jubilee, you get it back now. If you sold it last year, you get it back now. Which means that, according to God's law, YOU CAN NOT BUY OR SELL LAND. All you can do is contract a lease of between one and 49 years, from now to the next Jubilee.

There are exceptions. You can sell lots in a walled city permanently, or lots in the towns of the Levites, one of the 12 Hebrew tribes. But otherwise, land stays permanently in the ownership of a single family. Interesting, isn't it! And directly counter to the very foundation of modern economies! And almost never mentioned!

During the Year of Jubilee, people who have declined into poverty over the previous decades get a fresh start. Hebrews who have had to hire themselves out in servitude to other Hebrews -- Leviticus 25 prohibits either keeping another Hebrew as a slave or its modern equivalent, loaning money to them at interest -- get their land back, and their independence as well. The slate is wiped clean for another 50 years.
Leviticus 26: Why to be Good

In this chapter, God tells Moses what will happen to a society where people follow his orders, and what will happen to a society where people don't. This is one of the first points at which I have really been impressed with the oft-cited poetic language of the Bible, so I'll give you a few samples. First, here's what will happen to a people who obey God's dictates:

3 'If you follow my decrees and are careful to obey my commands, 4 I will send you rain in its season, and the ground will yield its crops and the trees of the field their fruit. 5 Your threshing will continue until grape harvest and the grape harvest will continue until planting, and you will eat all the food you want and live in safety in your land.
6 'I will grant peace in the land, and you will lie down and no one will make you afraid. I will remove savage beasts from the land, and the sword will not pass through your country. 7 You will pursue your enemies, and they will fall by the sword before you. 8 Five of you will chase a hundred, and a hundred of you will chase ten thousand, and your enemies will fall by the sword before you.
Now, here's what will happen to people who don't, as a kind of warning shot:

14 'But if you will not listen to me and carry out all these commands, 15 and if you reject my decrees and abhor my laws and fail to carry out all my commands and so violate my covenant, 16 then I will do this to you: I will bring upon you sudden terror, wasting diseases and fever that will destroy your sight and drain away your life. You will plant seed in vain, because your enemies will eat it.
17 I will set my face against you so that you will be defeated by your enemies; those who hate you will rule over you, and you will flee even when no one is pursuing you.
18 " 'If after all this you will not listen to me, I will punish you for your sins seven times over. 19 I will break down your stubborn pride and make the sky above you like iron and the ground beneath you like bronze. 20 Your strength will be spent in vain, because your soil will not yield its crops, nor will the trees of the land yield their fruit.
And if they persist in their disobedience, things really get rough:

27 'If in spite of this you still do not listen to me but continue to be hostile toward me, 28 then in my anger I will be hostile toward you, and I myself will punish you for your sins seven times over. 29 You will eat the flesh of your sons and the flesh of your daughters. 30 I will destroy your high places, cut down your incense altars and pile your dead bodies on the lifeless forms of your idols, and I will abhor you. 31 I will turn your cities into ruins and lay waste your sanctuaries, and I will take no delight in the pleasing aroma of your offerings. 32 I will lay waste the land, so that your enemies who live there will be appalled. 33 I will scatter you among the nations and will draw out my sword and pursue you. Your land will be laid waste, and your cities will lie in ruins. 34 Then the land will enjoy its sabbath years all the time that it lies desolate and you are in the country of your enemies; then the land will rest and enjoy its sabbaths. 35 All the time that it lies desolate, the land will have the rest it did not have during the sabbaths you lived in it.
This puts me in mind of the late Jerry Falwell's pronouncement that the attacks of September 2001 were America's punishment for homosexuality and what-not. Dr. Falwell was being speculative at best, but such an equation would not be wildly out of line with the laws and actions of the Old Testament God.

Leviticus 27: Redemption

I still haven't figured out what the hell "redeeming" is all about. The word seems to be used differently in different places. The gist of the thing seems to be that every first-born animal belongs to God (through his agents in the priesthood), and that a tenth of all crops, herds, and so on are to be dedicated to God as well. That much, and various technical footnotes explained in this chapter, I can understand. But then, every firstborn human son is apparently supposed to belong to God, too, and I'm not sure how that works. Also, this chapter talks about how much it costs to dedicate adult men and women to the Lord, without explaining what that means. So, the language here is a little fuzzy.

Leviticus Roundup

Leviticus offers some surprises and frustrations. Among the frustrations is the jumbled and often repetitious presentation of the law. It is on the whole coherent and consistent, but there is no discernable organizing principle. Also, it sometimes seems to count rely on the reader already understanding the specifics. We're apparently supposed to already know what constitutes blasphemy or redemption, for instance. In other instances, though, we are given far MORE detail than a modern reader needs. "Don't have sex with your immediate relatives" doesn't require as much detailed elaboration these days as it gets in Leviticus. On the other hand, considering the various intramural hijinks in Genesis, maybe an itemized list made sense at the time.

For me, there were four main surprises in Leviticus:
1 - The preoccupation with sacrifice. I knew that sacrifice was important in the Old Testament, but not THIS important. What to sacrifice, and exactly where, when, and how it should be sacrificed, is without exception the greatest preoccupation of God in his conversations with Moses. It is given far more elaboration, specificity, and sheer length of discussion than any other element of law. It is certainly given more attention than, say, the Ten Commandments, back in Exodus.

(One can't help noticeing, as an aside, that the sacrifice system guarantees a rich diet of the best available foods, along with other luxuries, to a priestly class. In return, the priests perform rituals that are too complex and elaborate to be carried out by the uninitiated, but which are much less taxing than any other form of work in the community. But perhaps I'm being uncharitable.)

2 - The elaborate system of cleanliness and uncleanliness. Again, I knew it was there, but I didn't know it was so important.

3 - This whole "Year of Jubilee" thing, with its unambiguous hostility towards private land ownership -- in many ways the basis of the modern way of life.

4 - How much of what is said to be God's direct instructions to Moses regarding how human beings are supposed to live is completely ignored today. And I'm not just talking about mainstream Christianity here. There is virtually no one, no matter how extreme a fundamentalist Christian or Jew they claim to be, who is practicing the proscribed rites of the Tabernacle, or who observes the practice of the Jubilee year.

This fourth point is very interesting. It implies that God's instructions to Moses are considered null and void. But if that is the case, why is the Book of Leviticus considered part of the Bible? Are people who choose to support arguments against (for instance) homosexuality by reference to Leviticus just whistling Dixie? Or, is some of Mosaic Law still in effect? And if so, which laws? And how do we know which laws?

Maybe this will all become clear as I keep reading.

Next Week: Time to do the Numbers!

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Leviticus 19-22: Guess What! More Laws!

[New Look for the Second Year! I'm not crazy about it, but it fixes some formatting problems I've been having.]

I have what might kindly be called a “penchant for organization,” as my new co-workers have been finding out to their amusement. Sorting through jumbled binders of information about various social service programs, I recently found three that were labeled “Seniors,” “Disability,” and… wait for it… “Seniors & Disability.” My head nearly exploded on the spot.

I bring this up because the lack of any overall structure to all of this this Biblical law is kind of wearing on me. The laws are not noticeably inconsistent, really, and they are organized into short lists of ordinances that all more or less address the same sorts of issues. But then these lists are all jumbled together, with the result that there is a lot of jumping around and also a lot of repetition. I want to rewrite them in an more orderly format. Call it the Book of Laws. Chapter One would be Violent Crimes and their punishments, Chapter Two would be Property Law, and so on. However, I can’t think that this rewrite, no matter how much it clarified things, would be popular with the religious community.

So instead, we will have to forge ahead with the laws in the order in which they are given. I will continue as your guide to good behavior as explained by the God of Moses.

Leviticus 19: More Do’s and Don’ts

Many of these we have already seen elsewhere.

  • Respect Your Mom and Dad.
  • No idols.
  • Follow the sacrifice rules to a “T”.
  • Don’t harvest all of your land; leave bits at the edges for the poor and for people passing through.
  • Also, don’t pick your grapes too thoroughly; leave some for the poor and for strangers. (It strikes me – and I’m not trying to be snide here – that this is a tough mindset to achieve when farms and everything else are governed by corporate hierarchies.)

Lev. 19:11-18 lays out the essentials of decent social behavior, very clearly and without frills.

  • Don’t steal.
  • Don’t lie.
  • Don’t deceive.
  • Don’t swear falsely on god’s name.
  • Don’t rob or defraud.
  • Pay your employees on time.
  • Don’t mess with the deaf or blind.
  • Take the justice system seriously, and take care.
  • Don’t slander.
  • Don’t endanger your neighbor.
  • Don’t hate.
  • If you see someone screwing up, talk to him about it instead of implying your silent assent.
  • No revenge.

Lev. 19:19 – 31 is much different. The rules here are far more specific, for one thing. And while the 11 – 18 set could be agreed on by almost any human society, the 19 – 31 set is much more peculiar. Several of them insist on the separation of unlike things, to an almost autistic extent.

  • Don’t mate different kinds of animals. (No mules?)
  • Don’t plant two kinds of crops in the same field.
  • Don’t wear clothing woven from two different materials.
  • If you have sex with somebody else’s slave, you don’t have to be killed (i.e. it isn’t rape as such) but you will need to do some sacrificing just the same.
  • If you plant a tree, its first three years of fruit are forbidden. The fourth year, the fruit is for sacrifice. After that, bon appetite!
  • No meat with blood.
  • No practicing magic.
  • No cutting the hair on the side of your head, and no trimming your beard.
  • No tattoos.
  • No forcing your daughter to become a prostitute.
  • Observe the Sabbath.
  • No consulting magicians.

And then, Lev. 19:32 – 36 winds up with more generally agreeable exhortations to good behavior:

  • Respect old people. Get off your butt when they enter the room.
  • Don’t mistreat foreigners. Don’t distinguish between immigrants and native-born.
  • Don’t scam customers with crooked mismeasurements.
  • Follow the laws!

Stretch Break: What About the New Covenant?

Several people have asked me why I am interested in Old Testament law, since the coming of Jesus Christ in the New Testament renders it all irrelevant. The first thing I’d say about that is that I don’t know yet if the Bible really says that. It sure hasn’t said anything about it yet. So here I am, reading the scriptures of Christianity – which many, many people believe to be divinely inspired, infallible, and incapable of improvement – in the order in which they are presented.

Here, still in the early going, I encounter the rules of behavior that God decrees should govern individual behavior and social organization. Why would that not be interesting? To say that there is some problem with the way I am understanding the big picture, when am I have just been plugging away from page 1 to, um, page 89, would suggest that there is either a structural problem with the Bible itself, or a problem with the textual focus of many Christians. Maybe that’s true. I dunno. I’m sure I’ll have a stronger sense once I finish page 923.

OK, let’s get back into it.

Leviticus 20: Crimes & Punishments

So far, the laws have presented without much in the way of teeth. But now, God laws down some mandatory sentencing guidelines. Many seem kind of draconian by modern standards.

  • Sacrificing your child to Molech = death by stoning..
  • Consulting magicians = exile (which, in the Hebrew context, we can assume was a death-unless-you-get-really-lucky penalty).
  • Cursing your mother and your father = death penalty. (I am really curious on how “cursing” is defined for this one.)
  • Adultery = death penalty for two.
  • Having sex with your mother or step-mother = death penalty for both of you.
  • Having sex with your daughter-in-law = death penalty for both of you.
  • Male homosexual intercourse = death penalty for both of you.
  • Marrying both of a mother-daughter set = death by fire for all three of you.
  • Sex with an animal = death for both the human and the animal.
  • Sex with your sister or half-sister = exile for both of you.
  • Sex while a woman is menstruating = exile for both parties.
  • Sex with an aunt or sister in law = “they will die childless.” (I’m not sure how this is supposed to work.)
  • Don’t act like the neighboring tribes.
  • Pay attention to the distinction between clean and unclean animals.
  • Practicing magic = death by stoning.

Leviticus 21 & 22: Special Rules for Priests

As with last time, we round things up with some special laws for the priesthood. Many of the priestly regulations laid down after the unfortunate deaths of Aaron’s gung-ho sons are reiterated and summarized. And again, since I am pretty sure that none of the gentle readers are planning on joining the Hebrew priesthood, which has been defunct for about 1940 years, I will spare most of the details. Except for a few luridly interesting ones:

  • Priests can’t marry widows, divorcees, prostitutes, or other non-virgins. It’s a cleanliness thing.
  • Priests’ daughters who turn to prostitution, because of the shame this brings on their fathers, are to be killed by fire.
  • No one with a serious physical disability, defect, or disease can approach the sacred alter. He can otherwise participate fully in religious life, but no presenting offerings. It’s a cleanliness thing.
  • Dependant members of a priest’s household may, like the priest, eat the “holy food” of sacrifices. Anybody else who eats holy food by accident must pay the priest a restitution of 120% of the value of the food.
  • Sacrifice animals need to be healthy and unblemished. None of this getting rid of the sick and deformed animals by sacrificing them. No way! Only the best animals are appropriate for sacrifice.


Next Week: Whew! Finishing Up With Leviticus!