Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Blog Sabbath

Another landmark! With tonight's post, I completed the Book of Numbers, the fourth book of the Bible.

After I started on this project in July 2006, I managed only six entries before taking an unplanned 5 1/2 month hiatus. Okay, that was lame. But since I fired things back up again in February, I've been on task every Sunday night, pretty much just like clockwork. I've been happy about that.

Now, though, I think it's time for an official Michael Reads the Bible Blog Sabbath. I'm going to take November and December off from the project. I'll be back in the first week of January, we'll do some brief review, and then we'll start the new year in the fresh terrain of Deuteronomy.

Thanks to those few of you who are reading along as I go. I know that you are out there, and that makes the whole thing more fun and interesting for me.

Best, and see you in the new year,

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.

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!

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Numbers 22 - 24: Balak and Balaam

Rembrant, Balaam and the Ass.The Israelites are starting to become a regional power, and other inhabitants of the region are getting nervous. In particular, the king of Moab, one Balak son of Zippor, sees the Israelites coming and is scared silly. There are a lot of them, and they represent both a military threat and an ecological threat -- they, with their animals, could lay waste to the land simply by feeding and watering themselves.

Balak reaches into his bag of tricks and sends a messenger east to an oracle named Balaam, who lives near the Euphrates, asking him to come to Moab and lay a curse on the newcomers. Balaam, surprisingly, worships and receives his visions from God, the God of Abraham (unlike Pharoah's magicians, for instance, who seemed to derive their power from a lesser competitor), and wants to talk to him before responding to Balak. God, of course, tells him not to mess with the Israelites, so Balaam sends word back that he won't be able to take the commission.

Hearing this, the king sends a high-power delegation with the authority to offer serious money if Balaam will come back and lay down this curse. Balaam talks to God again, and this time God tells him to return with the men to Balak. Obviously, he has something in mind.

The Famous Donkey Story

So we come to the story of Balaam's Donkey. It's a popular story, and the subject of many paintings. That's probably in part because people (and painters) like stories about animals, but it probably has meaning that resonates for people, too. Unfortunately, I may be missing some or all of the point. I can recognize a few themes that seem to resonate, sure. But the tale, in context, doesn't make a lick of sense.

Gustav Jaeger, Balaam and the Angel
What happens is, at a narrow place in the road a mighty angel blocks the way. The donkey sees the angel and stops, but Balaam doesn't understand why the donkey is stopping, and beats it. This happens three times. After the third beating, God lets the donkey talk, and it says exactly what you would expect: "hey, Balaam, why do you keep beating me?"
22:29 Balaam answered the donkey, "You have made a fool of me! If I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now."
30 The donkey said to Balaam, "Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?"
"No," he said.

At this point, the angel reveals himself to Balaam, and tells him that he has been wrong to beat his donkey. "I have come here to oppose you because your path is a reckless one before me. The donkey saw me and turned away from me these three times. If she had not turned away, I would certainly have killed you by now, but I would have spared her." (32-33) Balaam offers to turn back, but the angel says no, keep going, we've got something planned.
Pieter Pieterszoon Lastman, Balaam's Donkey.So, there's a nice little theme here of having humility and listening to those less powerful than yourself. Plus, the donkey gets a pretty good line. But, as I said, the story doesn't really make any sense in context.

The problem is, since God had already told Balaam to go back to Balak, his path is anything but a reckless one. He's already doing what God told him, and has no reason to be expecting divine intervention. Apparently, the angel hadn't got the memo on the whole Balaam project.

Balaam's Oracles

Over the next few days, Balaam turns out to be a huge disappointment to Balak. They go to a high place where they can see a portion of the Israelite host. Balaam has Balak build seven alters, and they sacrifice a bull and a ram on each of them. Then, Balaam leaves to commune briefly with God, coming back with a blessing for the Israelites instead of a curse. King Balak figures maybe they weren't standing in the right place, and tries again the next day on another hill. Again, they build alters, sacrifice 14 animals, but Balaam ends up blessing the Israelites again. Same thing happens on the third day.

By now, Balak is hopping mad. He sends Balaam home without paying him. Balaam takes this in stride, but before he leaves he makes a colorful prophecy predicting Israelite ascendence and the destruction of Edom, Moab, Sheth, and the other local kingdoms. Then, Balaam goes home, and Balak went his own way. (24:25)

Balaam, from the Nuremburg Chronicle.This entire episode, three chapters long, is an interesting digression. Since mid-Genesis, the narrative chapters of the Bible have all been told from an firmly Israelite implied point of view. The story of Balak and Balaam, however, is something that happens not to the Israelites, or within their camp, but because of them. No Israelite would have known about these events as they were happening. Coming as it does immediately after the chronicles of the first Israelite military successes, the story implies a broadening of scope. God's people are starting to have an impact on the wider world.

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?