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.

1 comment:

chuckdaddy2000 said...

Finally, I thought God was never going to shut up.

And what's up w/ the silver trumpets? Now that's just random.