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!


gl. said...

oh my gosh! i love this chapter! you're right; why hasn't anyone done a painting of the dead quail? even the brick testament carefully avoids it.

Michael5000 said...

Actually, the Brick Testament DOES cover this story. Here is a link.

chuckdaddy2000 said...

Yahweh is coming off as quite fickle. Giving Miriam leprocy?

And Moses married an African?