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!