Monday, October 01, 2007

Numbers 21: Most Typical Early Old Testament Chapter?

It has been since May, and since Exodus 23, since I've devoted a post to just a single chapter. But tonight, we're just going to focus on Numbers 21, for two reasons. The practical reason is that I sidetracked myself with the whole Amateur Theologian business and then had a hoppin' weekend, so I just want to get back on track. The content-related reason is that there is a ton going on in this episodic chapter. It is a little reminiscent of early Genesis, where sweeping events were alluded to in just a few sentences. On the other hand, it also covers some themes that have become very familiar over the last 72 pages (in my book), since Moses became the boss of this recklessly willful tribe.

To bring us up to date: The Israelites broke camp at Mt. Sinai, but because they didn't trust God to help them win the Promised Land they were condemned to wander the desert for forty years. They periodically start carping about their terrible lot, and Moses has to either call on God for a miracle to get them back in line, or plead with God not to smoke their disobedient asses on the spot. Refused passage across the lands of the powerful King of Edom, the Israelites were forced to back down and wander elsewhere. And Aaron, Moses' brother and the original high priest, died.

Numbers 21, By the Numbers.

Verses 1-3 The King of Arad hears that the Israelites are coming his way. Let's look at this through his eyes: two million nomadic herders are approaching his kingdom with their beasts. This represents a substantial threat to his people, who could well be eaten, drank, and grazed literally out of house and home. At the same time, the Israelites must look like pretty easy pickings, with no fortifications and their ostentatiously gold-plated religious equipment. The King of Arad, moreover, is not living in an especially sentimental or warm-hearted cultural milieu, know what I'm sayin'? He attacks, and captures some of the Israelites.

Dore,The Brazen SerpentThe Israelites call upon God, and promise to destroy the Kingdom of Arad if he will help. And by "destroy" (according to the footnotes) they mean something like "immolate in a sacrifice to God." God goes along with this, and so the people and cities of Arad are "completely" destroyed. The whole episode is covered tersely, in four sentences.

Verses 4-9 Still circling around Edom, the people -- surprise! -- resume their bitching about the lack of water, the bad food, and Moses' leadership in general. God responds, this time, not with food and water, but with venomous snakes. This changes the Israelites' tune in a real hurry, and soon they are begging Moses to talk to God about the venomous snake problem. God gives Moses some unexpected instructions: to craft a snake out of bronze, and stick it on a pole. Anyone who looks at the snake, lives. (cf. The Golden Calf. Or not.)

This is surely at least the twentieth time that the Israelites have been either spared or punished for their complaining through miraculous means. Memories were apparently shorter back then.

Michelangelo, The Brazen SerpentVerses 10-20 The Israelites wander in the desert for a while; the text traces their route, and offers a few bits of trivia about places along the way (including everyone's favorite Biblical well, Beer). There is also an offhand quotation from something called The Book of the Wars of the Lord, a very evocative title for a text that is (according to an interesting Wiki article) no longer extant.

Verses 21-31 The Israelites approach another kingdom, Amor, and make the same offer that they did at Edom: let us through your lands, and we'll stay on the road and not drink from the wells. The Amorite king, Sihon, doesn't merely rebuff them but attacks them in force. Bad move. The Israelites whup on them. Instead of sacrificing the captured cities to God, though, this Tissot, The Conquest of the Amoritestime they occupy the cities and settle in, thus establishing a territorial base for the first time. (Interestingly, God is not said to have helped in the battle this time. Perhaps the Israelites were able to win this one on their own.)

Verses 32 - 35 Fresh from the conquest of Amor, the Israelites take on the neighboring kingdom of Bashan. God explicitly gets back in the mix, here, and offers up King Og and his soldiers to them. They defeat him, his sons, and his entire army, leaving no survivors. The lands of Bashan are annexed to the land controlled by the Israelites.

There is a lot going on in this chapter. Up at the top of this post, I described it as typical of the Israelites' wanderings, and so it is with the minor rebellion and its punishment, with the wandering of the desert, and with the dust-ups with regional neighbors. And yet in retrospect, the establishment of an Israelite-controlled territory, and the increasing military success of our scrappy tribesmen, seems like it might be a bit of a turning point. Only way to find out is to read on.

Next Week: Who is this Balaam guy, anyway?


chuckdaddy said...

Alright amateur theologian/ pro-geographer... Where is all this happening? Have historians been able to get specific w/ this?

Anonymous said...

yeah, we just covered a bit of this in an anthropology class I'm taking. Verses 21-31 are referring to a city called Tel-Hesban (or Heshbon)it's in the Madaba plains in Jordan