Sunday, October 14, 2007

Numbers 25-30: Interlude

Tonight's reading starts off like a real rip-snorter: While Israel was staying in Shittim, the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women. After that issue is dealt with, however, the bulk of the next few chapters is taken up by the least narrative kinds of Old Testament writing we've seen so far; with restatements of laws, and other administrative business. Even the sexual immorality is just another itteration of a very familiar pattern: Israelites disobey, God punishes, Moses intercedes, God relents. The most interesting bits of tonight's text deal with gender relations, as we get some new thoughts on the rights of women.

Numbers 25: God isn't crazy about the sexual immorality, but the big problem is that the new girlfriends are inviting Israelite guys out for dinner and a sacrifice to Baal, and the guys are saying yes. God is very angry about this. Moses gives the word to the clan chiefs that anyone who sacrificed to Baal must be put to death.

At this point, a minor Israelite leader with an unfortunate sense of timing brings his new girlfriend home to the tent, walking right past Moses and the assembly. Oops. Aaron's grandson, Phinehas, grabs his spear, charges into the tent, and dispatches the lovers with a single blow. God recognizes this as a righteous deed, and the plague is stopped (which is a surprise to the leader, as it had never been mentioned that a plague had started). It had killed 24,000.

Two pieces of fallout from this incident. First, God singles out Phinehas as an especially righteous man, due to his zeal to uphold community standards, and declares that succession to the priesthood will pass through him. Secondly, because the unfortunate girlfriend was a Midianite, God instructs Moses to "Treat the Midiantes as enemies and kill them." This will be important next week.

[note: with all of the sex and violence in this chapter, I thought it would be a favorite subject for painters. But I can't find a thing. See the Brick Testament, always, for visuals.]

Numbers 26: God tells Moses to take another census of men 20 or older, but clan and sub-clan. The total number is 601,730, plus 23,000 Levites who are counted seperately for legal reasons. Given that this does not include women, children, young adults, or slaves and servants, my estimation that the travelling strength of the Israelites was about 2 million is clearly pretty modest.

None of the people counted at this census, the text claims, was present for the previous census (Numbers 2). That earlier count was taken before Israelite misbehavior led to the punishment of 40 years in the desert. The adult Israelites at that time were told they would never see the Promised Land, and now apparently they have all died off, replaced by the younger generation. The only ones over 40 are Caleb and Joshua, who were exempted from the punishment, as well as Moses himself and Aaron's son Eleazar.

Numbers 27: Three daughters of Zelophehad, a man who died without sons, come to Moses and argue that they should be allowed to inherit his property. Moses, as always, takes the question straight to his boss. God says yes, absolutely, the girls are right. If a man has no sons, his daughters should be his heirs. (No daughters? Then his brothers. No brothers? Then his uncles.)

God also tells Moses his life is getting close to its end. He suggests a formal ceremony to establish that Joshua will be the official leader of the Israelites when the time comes. And so the ceremony is held.

Numbers 28 & 29: Immediately following is a reitteration of some of the laws that we saw earlier, in Exodus and Leviticus. Their reappearance here is somewhat mysterious, unless we are to take them as instructions through Moses to Joshua, the new "shepard" of the Israelites. And if that was true, we would expect the laws that got reitterated to be the very most important ones, right? The closest to God's heart? Perhaps the traditional Ten Commandments?

Nope. Here are the laws that are repeated in Numbers 28 & 29:

  • The required daily animal sacrifices.
  • The required Sabbath sacrifices.
  • Required monthly sacrifices.
  • Sacrifices required on the various special holidays.

I have never gone into the details of sacrifice requirements before and will not now. They are highly specific and legalistic, and pretty alien to most modern religious practice. I'll just give you a quick taste, from Numbers 29:

26 " 'On the fifth day prepare nine bulls, two rams and fourteen male lambs a year old, all without defect. 27 With the bulls, rams and lambs, prepare their grain offerings and drink offerings according to the number specified. 28 Include one male goat as a sin offering, in addition to the regular burnt offering with its grain offering and drink offering.
I should admit that I haven't checked to make sure the sacrifice requirements here are consistent with the ones given at the beginning of Numbers. God might be reitterating, or might be making adjustments. Whatever.

Numbers 30: Moses issues a new law, which might be his last, concerning the making of oaths. The core of the law is simple -- when a man makes an oath, he is required to keep it. But what of women?

Here's the deal with women and oaths. If the woman lives with her father, the father has the option when he first learns about the oath to nullify it. Same goes for a husband. Women who are divorced or widowed -- the only independent singles in Israelite society -- are held to their oaths, just as a man would be.

Next Week: War! Vengeance! Further clarification of female inheritance laws!

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