Sunday, October 21, 2007

Numbers 31 - 36: On the Brink of the Promised Land

Numbers 31: The Horror

Numbers 31 is the most disturbing chapter of the Bible that I have read so far.

You may remember that last week, in Chapter 25, God killed 24,000 Israelites by plague because some of the men had been having sex with Midianite, or Moabite, women, and more significantly worshipping the Midianite god. Now, I don't know about you, but this seemed a touch draconian to me. But, the sex and especially the worshipping was clearly in violation of The Laws, which had been repeated and repeated and repeated to the Israelites, who furthermore have had every opportunity to see that God means business. So, the plague business seemed excessive but technically justifiable.

What offense had the Midianites committed? Basically, they had been friendly. They were willing to date people from backgrounds other then their own. And they invited newcomers to the area to a non-denominational religious observance. They might as well have been in Welcome Wagon.

The first sentence of tonight's reading, then, is a bit of a shocker: 1 The Lord said to Moses, 2 "Take vengeance on the Midianites for the Israelites." Say what? Vengeance? For what? It was the Israelites who broke their own laws.

Well, it's certainly the Israelites who attack the Midianites. Winning the battle, they proceed to kill every adult male of the kingdom, including the leadership. They capture the women and children, burn the towns and villages, and bring the livestock and everything of value back to the camp.

Moses, not surprisingly, is furious. But wait. He's not furious about the slaughter. He's furious about the mercy. 15 "Have you allowed all the women to live?" he asks. After all, they were the ones who lured the poor Israelite men into sin in the first place, right? So, after ordering his soldiers kill all of the Midianite boys, Moses utters this supremely creepy line: "And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who who has never slept with a man." (18)

But wait, again! Eleazar, the new high priest, is standing by! Will he bring a voice of sanity and prevent this senseless slaughter? Well, no. He speaks up, but it's to warn everyone to wash their loot properly, so that all of the booty is in a state of ritual cleanliness. The second half of the chapter, then, is an accounting of how many animals (including sheep, cattle, donkeys, and "people") and how much treasure was brought in by this military adventure, and how it was divvied up among the Israelites.

Now, I don't want to belabor the obvious, here, but this chapter does not depict God (or for that matter, our distant intellectual forbearers) acting in a way that is very palletable to modern people. Longtime readers might remember that one of the original questions I set out to explore in this project was "Is God good?" Well, whether or not you believe, as many do, that all goodness ultimately derives from God, it is hard to describe his actions in Numbers 31 -- or those of his representative, Moses -- as resembling goodness in any way.

Whatever else this portion of the Bible is, it is a fragmentary historical record of the real actions of real people. They were people who lived in an often violent time and place, where a person of my own sentimental morality probably wouldn't have lasted long. But by their own account, what they did here was to ambush and slaughter their neighbors, people who had been receptive and friendly to them and who represented no physical threat. It doesn't endear me to them.

The Technicalities

The remainder of the Book of Numbers -- chapters 32 through 36 -- deals with technical and administrative issues that need to be resolved before the crossing over into the promised land. Here's an overview:

Chapter 32: A couple of the tribes actually like the Non-Promised Staging Area east of the Jordan pretty well, and ask Moses if they can stay there instead of crossing over to the Promised Land Proper. After some back-and-forth, it is settled that they can do this as long as they take part in the military conquest. (The Promised Land, remember, isn't empty. God wants the Israelites to take it from its current occupants by force: if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land, those you allow to remain will become barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides. (34:55))

Chapter 33: There is an extensive recap of the Israelite wanderings, from Egypt to the present. It's almost like a narrative map. Here's an excerpt:

25 They left Haradah and camped at Makheloth.
26 They left Makheloth and camped at Tahath.
27 They left Tahath and camped at Terah.
28 They left Terah and camped at Mithcah.
You get the idea.

Chapter 34: God tells Moses where the boundaries of the Promised Land are, and appoints a committee to divide the territory up among the various tribes.

Chapter 35: Special dispensation is made for towns for the Levites, who as you remember are the tribe of priests, and therefore won't need extensive farming or grazing lands like everyone else. "Cities of Refuge" are also set up; these are places you can run to if you have accidentally killed somebody. Once you are in a refuge city, no one is allowed to take vengeance on you before you come to trial.

Chapter 36: A question of inheritance is cleared up. You may recall from last time that, under some circumstances, women may inherit wealth. Well, what happens if a woman who owned property married outside of her tribe? No good! The wealth would change tribes! That would throw off the delicate parity among the tribes that Moses has always been at pains to reinforce. So, the decision is that women who own property can only marry within their own tribe. A nice cousin or something.

'Front piece, Book of Numbers,' written and illustrated in Northern Italy, c.1492-1460.
And so we finish up with Numbers, which is the book of.... what? It is difficult to define, because there is no particular starting point to it. It just continues on from the end of Leviticus with nine more chapters of laws and regulations, as well as the first of the two censuses from which it takes its name.

Major narrative events in Numbers include the breaking of camp at Mt. Sinai and the march to the Promised Land, the failure of nerves once the Promised Land is reached, and God's subsequent punishment, that another generation must pass before the conquest may proceed. During the famous forty years in the desert, we have seen the Israelites' strength and influence grow. No longer can kings make them go around their land the long way. Now, the Israelites go where they want to, and have clearly become a force to be reckoned with, if not downright feared, in the region.

In the last five chapters, there is a sense of preparing. As the Israelites work out some of the details of how their society will operate on the west side of the Jordan, you can all but sense the activity in the camp: plans being drawn up, livestock being brought in close to the camp, clothes and boots being repaired... and swords being sharpened. The Israelites are crossing the river, and will claim what they have been told will be their own.


Jennifer said...

What? With that cliff-hanger you're going to leave us waiting for months?

Sheesh. It's like. . . tv taking a break for the summer or something. ;-)

chuckdaddy said...

Those freaky Moab bitches had it coming!!!

Rebel said...

Yeah, the old testament is tough to stomach. Since the first time I read it, I've found that vs. 34:55 explains just a ton about Israel's problems. They didn't kill *everyone* and there have been 'barbs in their side' ever since. Not saying they should have killed everyone... but it's a very prophetic verse.

Sour Flower said...

About killing the women -- did you see 31:16? Far from being "friendly" they were agents of destruction. Balaam knew the Moabites could not win fighting Israel, but the people could obviously be led to self destruct. AND to be brutally practical just what would you do with a great group of women who probably hated your guts for killing their men and enslaving them?