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!


Sarah said...

Whatever did Moses do wrong? Well, God told him to speak to the rock, and he spoke to the assembly instead. And God didn't say anything about tapping the rock with the staff (though that's what he did last time, right?) I think your guess is right, that it's an example of Moses making out like it was the priesthood providing the water, instead of God. Instead of saying "oh you ungrateful wretches, do we have to do everything for you" and tapping the rock with his magic wand, he should have said "oh rock, the Lord wishes you to give forth water so that Israel may drink," and then when it happened, said, "see oh Israel, how great is the power and care of the Lord." Still, I do feel bad for Moses. He's been such a tool through all of this.

chuckdaddy2000 said...

Alright, this is a little off-topic. But, what do you recommend as a snappy comeback for someone who says homosexuality is wrong b/c 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 w/ some ideas, but I thought I should go to the source for the snappiest come uppance.