Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Numbers: Apologies for the Tedium

Howdy howdy! Welcome back to my little Bible blog. I hope you’re enjoying yourself as we wade through the Book of Numbers.

In my last installment we enjoyed a bit of excitement, as Moses put down a rebellion against his and Aaron’s leadership with the help of God and at the cost of a mere fifteen thousand lives. I’d like to say things will be just as riveting today, but as usual when the Bible takes a break from sex and killing it just falls back on giving rules (which usually also have to do with sex and killing).

And not even new rules, this time. God speaks to Aaron reminding him that he and his sons will have responsibility for the sanctuary and the priesthood, and that the tribe of Levi are to keep guard over them and the tabernacle (but can’t enter the sanctuary lest they die). I find this passage contained in there kind of amusing.

“Num 18:6 And behold, I have taken your brothers the Levites from among the people of Israel. They are a gift to you, given to Yahweh, to do the service of the tent of meeting.”

Now if you’ve been following along, the Levites were never a gift given to God. He claimed them for himself, as a ransom for the firstborn whom he had also claimed for himself. At no point did the Israelites offer them to him as a gift, nor was it ever implied that their consent was required for God to take them. Just a little bit of spin doctoring on God’s part here.

After reminding Aaron of the role of the Levites, God goes on to remind him that the priests are entitled to a portion of the food offerings, and who in their households are allowed to eat it. He also explicitly states that this includes the firstborn that are given to God, but that they are to redeem (sell back) firstborn people. Now, if you recall, back in Exodus when God first claimed that the firstborn are to be given to him, he set the redemption price for firstborn people as a lamb a year old. In this section, though, he sets the price at 5 shekels of silver. I guess Moses started to realize that when you’re carting around a million people, the number of lambs you’d end up with is kind of impractical for one family to manage and decided that operating on a cash basis would be more convenient.

It’s also pointed out that when the Israelites are given their land, the priests won’t be given a portion of it, because God is supposed to be their portion of the Israelite inheritance (well, that and all the free shit the Israelites are already compelled to give them).

There’s some discussion about the Levites being given a tithe from the products of Israel as payment for their service in the tent of meeting. It also says that the Levites do that service so that the rest of Israel don’t have to come near the tent of meeting “lest they bear their sin and die.” In earlier passages, there had been references to outsiders dying if they came near the tent, and I had assumed “outsiders” meant non-Israelites. Apparently it includes all the Israelites as well, except for the Levites.

It’s then pointed out that since the Levites get the tithe, they also will not have an inheritance from among the people of Israel. And the Levites also have to give a tithe to the priests, from the tithe they themselves receive from the people.

This is all exceedingly dull and repetitive, especially if your last name isn’t some variation on Levi.

Then we move on to instructions for one of Aaron’s sons to sacrifice a red heifer outside the camp, with a lot of specifics about washing up afterwards and disposing of the ashes, for no particular reason given other than God instructed him to. We’re told that this is a perpetual statute for the people of Israel and for strangers who sojourn among them, even though there’s no instruction on why to do it, when to do it, and how often to do it.

After that, we get some expansion on how being in contact with dead bodies makes people and objects unclean. And then, finally, back to something resembling story.

The Israelites arrive in a land called Zin, and “stayed in” the city of Kadesh, and while they’re there Aaron’s wife Miriam dies. I feel the need to point out again that the Israelites, according to the Bible, number over six hundred thousand men of fighting age. So with women and children factored in, you’re looking at probably a million and a half  to two million people. A little poking about online indicates that the largest city in the world at that time (which was not Kadesh) had an estimated population of well under two hundred thousand people.

When a band of refugees arrives at a city, and is over ten times the population of that city, they don’t “stay in” the city. They overwhelm the city, its population, and its infrastructure, and devastate the agricultural lands for miles around. The arrival of the Israelites in Kadesh would have been the greatest disaster the city had ever seen. And the Bible just says that the Israelites “stayed at” Kadesh.

Something here smells like bullshit. At the very least, the number of Israelites cruising around.

So anyway, there’s not enough water for the Israelites to drink, and once again they start bitching at Moses for dragging them out of their cushy lives (of slavery) in Egypt to die of thirst. Moses and Aaron then went to the tent of meeting to prostrate themselves before God, who instructs them to take their staff and strike a rock with it, which will cause it to spew out enough water for everyone. So they do.

“Num 20:10 Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them ‘Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?’ 11 And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock. 12 And Yahweh said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.’”

So now we know why Moses won’t get to see the promised land (spoiler for those who don’t know the story already – Moses dies before they get there): because he failed to give God credit for this one particular miracle.

So anyway, that’s enough for today. I’m afraid it was kinda tedious, at least in my own mind, so I apologize for that. Hope y’all remain well, and catch you next time!

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