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.)

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