Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Numbers: 40 Years!

Welcome back to my exploration of the Book of Numbers. In this posting, we’ll be talking about one of the most famous numbers in the Bible: 40. As in, the forty years that the Jews spent wandering in the wilderness between Egypt and Canaan.

This story starts with the Jews now encamped in the wilderness of Paran.

“Num 13:1 Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying 2 ‘Send men to spy out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel. From each tribe of their fathers you shall send a man, every one a chief among them.’”

So, pursuant to God’s orders, Moses gathers up men from each tribe (including his buddy Joshua), and sends them to spy out the land that God is supposed to be giving them and bring back some of the fruits for proof of how good the land is. So off they go, and they spy about for forty days, and they return with some grapes, pomegranates, and figs.

Everyone gathers around to hear what they have to say. It starts out well enough, talking about how good, fertile and hospitable the land is. But then they get to the people, and the report goes downhill. Most of them claim that the people who live there are too strong for the Israelites to overcome, and that they live in fortified cities which they wouldn’t be able to conquer. They even go so far as to claim that there are Nephilim (no more explanation of what they are here than when they appeared in Exodus) living there, and giants next to whom the Israelites would only seem as large as grasshoppers.

Then the Israelites start whining and moaning about how God has brought them here just to have them killed in a hopeless war. And of the spies, only two (Joshua and Caleb) are telling people that God will help them overcome their enemies, so they should keep going to the land he promised them. But nobody is willing to listen to those two, and the mob starts working themselves up to the point where they start threatening to stone Moses and Aaron to death and head back to Egypt.

At this point, “the glory of Yahweh” (whatever the hell that means) appears at the tent of meeting and God starts talking to Moses. He tells Moses that he’s tired of putting up with all this rebellion from the people, and he’s going to just kill them all and use only Moses’ descendants to create that great nation he keeps talking about.

But Moses pleads on behalf of the people, not by appealing to God’s goodness and mercy (for which there has been very little evidence) but to his ego (for which there has been plenty). The argument is that if God kills the Israelites, the Egyptians and other people in the area will hear about it and make fun of God for being too weak to bring his people into the land he promised them. Moses follows that up with some judicious application of lips to divine buttocks, and lo and behold God relents.

But all is not well. While he does agree not to just kill the people outright, God is still pissed. So he declares that none of the men who rebelled will live to see the land he promised them. To that end, God declares that the Israelites must remain in the wilderness for forty years, until all the men over twenty who rebelled against him had died. Only then would he take the Israelites into the land promised them. He further promises that Joshua and Caleb, who had remained faithful, would live to see the promised land.

Then he killed the spies who’d brought the bad report. You know… the men he had personally ordered to go and spy, presumably already knowing what they would see since he’s supposed to be omniscient and all.

So when Moses told the people God’s decree (ummm… in the scene as described, they were all gathered around Moses during the conversation. Couldn’t they hear it themselves?), they belatedly decide that they’re going to do as they were first told and try to go into the promised land. As opposed to what they were just told about not being allowed to do so. And so, despite Moses’ warning that God wouldn’t protect them if they go now, they try to invade and get their asses kicked by the combined forces of the Amelekites and Canaanites.

This seems like a good time in the narrative for God to talk to Moses about how, once the Israelites come into the promised land, when they make offerings on the altar they should accompany them with grain and wine. And to talk about how to offer bread. And to reiterate rules about making offerings to atone for unintentional sins. Actually, it’s kind of a shitty and random place in the narrative for this conversation, but it’s where it happens nonetheless.

Last bit for this post:

“Num 15:32 While the peoples of Israel were in the wilderness they found a man gather sticks on the Sabbath day. 33 And those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moses and Aaron and all the congregations. 34 They put him in custody, because it had not been made clear what should be done to him. 35 And Yahweh said to Moses, ‘The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.’ 36 And all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him to death with stones, as Yahweh commanded Moses.”

Stoned him to death. For gathering sticks.

Now, I’m a little fuzzy on why they didn’t think it was clear what they were supposed to do with this guy. I mean, it’s been stated pretty clearly on several occasions before now that people who work on the Sabbath are supposed to be put to death. Were they not sure whether gathering sticks counted as work? Or was it uncertain whether the guy was an Israelite or not (it’s not stated in the passage, and if he wasn’t then the Judaic law would presumably not apply). Or maybe they were suffering pangs of conscience over the fact that it’s a stupid, cruel, and unjust law, and so they were uncertain whether they were actually supposed to follow through on it.

Either way, apparently it’s “just” to kill someone for a situation where it was ambiguous whether they were actually breaking a law for which there was a death penalty. Even leaving aside that it’s fucking stupid to require death for breaking that law in the first place.

OK, I lied. That wasn’t quite the last bit. I’ll also toss in the next brief random command to wear tassels with blue cords on “the corners” of your garments, throughout all generations, as a reminder to follow God’s commands and not “whore after” one’s own eyes and one’s own heart.

That’ll be it for this post. Y’all take care!

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