Thursday, July 25, 2013

Numbers: Who’s in Charge Around Here?

Well, I’m back again. I’d apologize, but if you’re here too I’m going to assume you feel you’re getting something out of it. So no apology necessary!

Back to the Book of Numbers. We’d just finished getting through the reason why God made the Israelites wander in the wilderness for forty years, followed by their getting spanked by the Canaanites and Amalekites.

Now, for some odd reason, a group of Israelites had become disillusioned with Moses’ leadership. So a Levite named Korah and some Reubenites named Dathan, Abiram, and On gathered up about 250 well respected men from the people to go and confront Moses. And basically their argument was that all the Israelites were God’s chosen people, so what made Moses think he was so special that he should put himself above them and make all the rules? I wonder how it could be that they’ve missed all the times when God was directly manifesting and speaking to Moses face-to-face. Perhaps all the evidence for that was somewhat less convincing in person than the Bible likes to pretend that it was.

Anyhow, Moses seizes the initiative by claiming that God himself will show them who his chosen guy is if they’ll just come back tomorrow and do a little test of Moses’ devising. And this test will be that all of them will come to Yahweh tomorrow with their censers, and burn incense, and God will pick the one he wants. These guys then actually kind of prove that they wouldn’t have been competent to take over as leaders anyway, because they agree to these terms. Except Dathan and Abiram, who basically refuse to grant that Moses even has authority to put them to this test.

So the next day everybody gathers outside the tent of meeting, and the two hundred fifty men who were subjecting themselves to the test lit up their censers. Then the ill-defined “glory of the Lord” appears and starts talking to Moses and Aaron (again, tellingly, only to them and not the hundreds of witnesses standing around). And what he tells them is to separate themselves from the rest of the crowd, because he’s about to destroy them all. But Moses and Aaron throw themselves on the ground and beg God not to destroy everybody for the sins of a few. So God tells them instead to tell everyone to move away from the dwellings of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.

So Moses gets up and heads down to where Dathan and Abiram are camped (recall that they had refused to come to his little test), where he warns everyone to get away from their tents. Dathan and Abiram come out with their families (it’s specifically stated that their wives and children are with them) to see what all the hubbub is about. At this point Moses announces that the proof that God has chosen him to lead will be that these people will go straight to Sheol (the Jewish afterlife, kinda like the Greek Hades that is a physical underworld) without dying first. And then the ground opens up and swallows them, and all their belonging and people (i.e. their wives and kids, and servants too).

Then, to put a capstone on the whole proceeding, a blast of fire from Yahweh kills all the two hundred fifty men who had come to do the censer test. Then God tells Moses to collect all of the censers and use the metal to create a cover for the altar as a reminder to the people that only the descendants of Aaron are fit to offer incense to God.

So one might think that puts an end to the episode. But one would be wrong.

“Num 16:41 But on the next day all the congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and against Aaron, saying ‘You have killed the people of Yahweh.’”

So once again, the “glory of Yahweh” appears at the tent of meeting, and God tells Aaron and Moses to separate themselves from the crowd because he’s going to destroy them (sense a pattern here?). God then starts killing people with a plague, and 14,700 people die before Aaron rushes out among them with a censer full of incense and puts a stop to it.

All of this is very curious when you think about it. None of the people here, at least as described in the Bible, actually questioned whether they were supposed to obey God. They questioned whether Moses was truly God’s representative, and blamed Moses’ leadership for the bad things that happened. It’s almost as if they hadn’t seen any actual evidence of God living among them and transmitting commands through Moses.

Which means that all of this could have been resolved very easily by God manifesting in a clearly evident way and saying “Dudes, I’m really here, and I’m really talking to Moses, so listen to him. If he does something I don’t want, I’ll smack him down myself” Instead, without providing any more manifestation to the people, he just fucking kills thousands of people. Not for questioning God, but for questioning Moses.

It kinda reads like Moses and his followers viciously put down a rebellion in the camp, perhaps with a bit of deceptive theatricality thrown in, then wrote a bunch of God bullshit into the story to make it look like it was divinely ordained and accomplished. Even assuming anything like this ever actually happened, this episode was never about obeying God, but about obeying Moses. And it took the deaths of 14,950 people (plus an unknown number of additional women and children) to establish that Moses was in charge. His position was secured by naked, lethal force.

So now that the killing is done for the moment, God decides to give one more proof as to who really holds his favor. This one is kinda unique in that nobody has to die. He tells Moses to tell the people that the head of each of the tribes should give him a staff with their name carved on it, and Aaron should do the same. Then he should put them into the tent of meeting, in front of the ark of the testimony and the staff of the man he chooses to be his priest will sprout.

So Moses goes out and gives the orders, and gathers up the staves. Then he puts them in the tent of meeting (you know, that part of the tabernacle that nobody but Moses and Aaron are allowed to go, so you totally know that this is completely on the up-and-up). And the next morning when he brings them all out, Aaron’s staff has sprouted buds and blossoms and almonds. And God then tells Moses to put Aaron’s staff in front of the tent of the testimony as a symbol to show the rebels that they should shut up about who’s in charge.

Well, that was fun! Certainly a pickup from the accountancy of the early portions of this book. I can hardly wait for the pearls of divine wisdom that will surely be revealed in the next section of Numbers. And of course I will be happy to bring them to you in all their glory. Until then, be well.

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