Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Numbers: A Break in the Action

Hello, hello! Welcome back to the Bible, and in particular today the Book of Numbers. We’d just finished talking about the oath of Nazirites, and now we’re moving on to the blessing Aaron is instructed to say over the Israelites. Of course like all the other instructions, this is something that God tells Moses to tell someone else. Here’s the blessing, which should be familiar to most Christians (and at this point I will again refer you to my post titled “Exodus: Name Shame,” to explain why you will be seeing the word “Yahweh” in place of what might be the more familiar “the Lord).

“Num 6:24 Yahweh bless you and keep you; 25 Yahweh make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; 26 Yahweh lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.”

I find it amusing, simply because the stated purpose of this blessing is to “put my name upon the people of Israel,” but the silly translation convention of substituting “the LORD” for “Yahweh” serves to actually strip God’s name out of the blessing.

So after the sidetrack into random blessings and rules, the narrative returns to the numbers theme. In this case, the numbers have to do with the offerings made by the tribal chiefs upon the blessing of the tabernacle. The first of these offerings, offered by the chiefs as a group, consists of twelve oxen and six carts, which Moses distributes for the Levites to use in transporting the tabernacle. The Kohathites get none of them, because they have charge of the smallish implements that are to be transported on their backs rather than in carts.

Then there’s a second set of tribal offerings, which God instructs Moses to have the chiefs bring in at one day intervals.

“Num 7:12 He who offered his offering the first day was Nahshon the son of Amminadab, of the tribe of Judah. 13 And his offering was one silver plate whose weight was 130 shekels, on silver basin of 70 shekels, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, both of them full of fine flour mixed with pot for a grain offering; 14 one golden dish of 10 shekels, full of incense; 15 one bull from the her, one ram, one male lamb a year old, for a burnt offering; 16 one male goat for a sin offering; 17 and for the sacrifice of peace offerings, two oxen, five rams, five male goats, and five male lambs a year old. This was the offering of Nahshon the son of Amminadab.”

Now, the chiefs of the other eleven tribes give exactly identical offerings. A fact which the Bible might have conveyed with a simple list if it were written by sane and rational people. But since that would put the reader in danger of easily understanding simple facts, possibly without even falling asleep while reading them, the authors instead chose instead to repeat the above six verses, changing only the names, eleven more fucking times.

So in the end we get twelve silver plates, twelve silver basins (2,400 shekels of silver altogether), twelve golden dishes (120 shekels of gold value), twelve bulls, twelve rams, twelve lambs, and twelve goats for sin offerings, and twenty-four bulls, sixty rams, sixty male goats, and sixty male lambs for sin offerings spread out over twelve days. Remember that, depending on the type of sacrifice, the blood of each of those animals is supposed to be either splashed on the altar or poured out at its base. Try to imagine all the blood that had to be poured out on and around the altar. Just try. Really.

Then after a random instruction about lighting the lamps on the lampstand, we move on to the consecration of the Levites. This involves a cleansing ceremony in which the Levites are required to completely shave their bodies, wash themselves and their clothes, and of course offer an animal to be killed at the altar. Then God gives instruction that the Levites should serve in the temple from the age of twenty-five to fifty (even though earlier when he instructed Moses to take a census of Levites who would serve in the temple, he specified their ages from thirty to fifty). After fifty they would retire from active service in the temple, but could still perform guard duty outside.

After this, we come to the celebration of the Passover. This establishes that a year has passed since the Israelites left Egypt, and they are still camped at Sinai. Also, it’s pointed out that people who are in a state of uncleanness (for example, from touching a dead body) at the time of Passover are barred from participating, but are required to perform it at the same time a month later after they are clean.

Then there’s a long-winded repetition of the discussion on how a cloud settled over the tabernacle, and whenever the cloud rested there the Israelites would remain encamped, and whenever it lifted up and moved, the Israelites would march. This seems a little out of order, since they still have another order to receive and carry out before they actually start marching. This is the construction of a pair of silver trumpets, which God gives instructions about when and for what reasons they’re supposed to be blown. This includes blowing them to signal the Israelites to start marching.

But now, finally, on the twentieth day of the second month of the second year of their freedom from Egypt, they pack up and leave Sinai. Of course, even though we’ve already been told what order the Israelites are supposed to march in, we get a recounting here of what order they march in.

Then there’s recounted a conversation between Moses and Hobab, the son of Moses’ father-in-law Reuel (guess he got tired of being called Jethro and went back to being Reuel). Moses asks Hobab to go with them, but Hobab wants to go home and remain with his people. Moses asks him to reconsider, because they need him to show them where to camp because he knows the area better. Weren’t we just told that the cloud of God was doing the job of showing them when and where to camp? Doesn’t Moses think God is capable of doing that job reliably? Regardless, they set out and it’s never said whether Hobab agrees to go with them or not. But maybe not, because then we get this confusing passage.

“Num 10:33 So they set out from the mount of Yahweh three days’ journey. And the ark of the covenant of Yahweh went before them three days’ journey, to seek out a resting place for them. 34 And the cloud of Yahweh was over them by day, whenever they set out from the camp. 35 And whenever the ark set out, Moses said ‘Arise, O Lord, and let your enemies be scattered, and let those who hate you flee before you.’ 36 And when it rested he said “Return, O Lord, to the ten thousand thousands of Israel.’”

Am I the only one who now has an image in his head of the ark levitating up and flying ahead of the Israelites to scout like one of those surveillance droids Darth Maul sent out to locate the Jedi on Tattooine in the The Phantom Menace?

Yes, I’m a geek.

Anyway, I think that’s enough for today. Sorry if it was kinda dull, but even the Bible can take the occasional break from saying truly outrageous stuff. Don’t worry; in the next post it picks up the pace as we start talking about the initial stages of the journey from Sinai. Until then, take care!

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