Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Deuteronomy: Endless More Weasel Speech

Hello again, and welcome once more to the Bible, where we are moving through the Book of Deuteronomy. My apologies for there being a bit of a delay in making this post; much of this book seems to consist of speeches Moses gives to Israel repeating the events of the previous three books, with a few points of disagreement with those accounts thrown in to muddy the waters. It’s been a touch difficult deciding how to present this section without falling into dull repetition, plus some time is taken up cross-referencing back to the previous accounts to verify the points where the speeches differ from what we’ve already been told.

So when we left of, Moses had just finished the first such speech, which lasted most of the first four chapters of the book. In between that one and the next, he takes the time to designate three cities in the lands that had been claimed by the Reubenites, Gadites, and Manassites as cities of refuge (the nature of which I discussed in a previous entry).

Then Moses gathers the people up to deliver another speech. It’s interesting that the narration specifically identifies this speech as occurring after the Israelites had taken possession of the lands of Sihon and Og, because that kind of contradicts part of the speech itself. As Moses is just starting to get rolling, we get this line:

Deu 5:2 Yahweh our god made a covenant with us in Horeb. 3 Not with our fathers did Yahweh make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today.”

If you recall, the events at Mount Horeb took place forty years earlier. Also, it’s very specifically pointed out – in fact, it’s pretty important to the story – that the reason for those forty years is to make sure that everybody who was alive and of age at that time (except Joshua and Caleb) would be dead by the time they reached the promised land. There’s even a point made of saying in Numbers that Moses conducted a census and verified that yes, in fact, everyone from that generation was dead. So once again, somebody is full of shit.

Though I suppose it could just be a weird phrasing of the idea that, while the covenant was made with their fathers, it also applies to all of them as well. Whatever.

Moses then goes on to repeat the Ten Commandments (the ones we think of as the Ten Commandments, not the ones the Bible actually calls the Ten Commandments). And he repeats the idea that the reason god talks to him and not to anyone else is that the people had asked not to hear god’s voice for fear that it would kill them. This is followed by a long, repetitive, and rambling statement about keeping God’s commandments, repeating them to yourselves and your children day and night, and writing them on your door frames and gate posts (really thorough indoctrination requires constant reinforcement, after all). Of course there’s the usual stuff about serving and loving only Yahweh and no other gods, because if they stray, God will get pissed and destroy them. Oh, and look, a handy admonition not to put God to any tests (wouldn’t want the inevitable failures to tip them off that it’s a delusion, after all).

As the speech progresses in a more martial and racist direction, Moses instructs the people not to show any mercy to or make any treaties with any of the people they are getting ready to invade. This includes the coded “devoted to destruction” language demanding that they make human sacrifices of all of them. Also, this bit:

Deu 7:3 You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, 4 for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of Yahweh would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly.”

There’s a subtle thing in there. Take a moment to reread it and see if you pick it up. I’ll give you a hint: this is supposed to be a quote directly from Moses’ speech, and not a section in which he claims to be conveying to the people a direct quote from God. Notice that he talks about God’s actions in the third person in the last sentence (“…and he would destroy you…”), so there’s no reason to think that earlier portions of the passage are meant to be interpreted as God speaking rather than Moses.

Reread it again. Have you spotted what I’m getting at yet?

OK, let’s check. Notice the phrase “…for they would turn your sons away from following me…” Again, Moses isn’t quoting God here. It kind of reads like a little slip-up in which Moses reveals that it’s him, and not God, that the people have been following all along. I checked online for several different translations, and they all translate that phrase pretty much the same, so it’s not just an artifact of the translation I’m using either.

Meh. Maybe I’m overthinking it, but if people are expected to dedicate their lives to what’s contained in this book, then I think the details matter.

The speech goes on (and on… and on…) from there. Much of it is a harangue, alternating between telling the people that they have to keep God’s commandments, telling them they have to destroy the people they’re invading and all of their idols, and reminding them of the horrors God will inflict on them if they stray from his commands (especially as regards worshipping other gods).

He then spends some time making clear to them that they’re all really awful people, and the only reason God is doing all this stuff for them is because 1) he promised their ancestors, and 2) everybody else is even worse. Part of this takes the form of recounting all the stupid shit the Israelites had done to piss off God on their journey from Egypt, a history lesson that includes Moses taking credit for building the ark of the covenant (according to Exodus 37:1, it was a craftsman named Bezalel).

Really, this theme gets pounded for chapter after chapter after chapter. You’d be amazed how many times Moses can find of restating the same three basic concepts (love and obey God, destroy everyone currently in the promised lands along with their religious sites, and God will punish you if you stray). It’s unbearably tiresome, and I really feel sorry for any poor schmucks who might have had to sit through listening to this speech.

Anyhow, I think I’ve actually written enough today, and I need to take a break while I figure out what else in his speech might actually be worth singling out. And if it ever ends – I’ve read up through Chapter 12 and it’s still going strong, still saying the same things over and over.

So until the next time, you be well and take care!

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Deuteronomy: Weasel Speech

Hello hello! Welcome once more to my Bible blog. We’ve slogged our way through the first four books of the Bible, and this is the first installment on the fifth book: Deuteronomy.

Now, Deuteronomy starts out with a long, multi-chapter speech supposedly delivered by Moses himself to Israel as they were on the banks of the Jordan prior to crossing into their promised land. Much of it is recap of their journey so far, though there are some points of disagreement between the speech and the stories recorded in the previous books. And the ways in which they disagree can tell you something about Moses’ character.

For example, when he talks about the time when they were on Mount Horeb and he appointed chiefs to settle all the lesser disputes in the camp because there were too many people for him to handle alone, he completely leaves out the part where it was his father-in-law’s idea. Although, since at this point in the story the Israelites had just finished slaughtering his father-in-law’s entire people (the Midianites) down to the women and children, perhaps it didn’t seem like the time to be giving him credit.

Then a few verses later in the speech, he talks about the time when they sent spies into Canaan, and the bad report the spies brought back caused them to balk at entering the promised land. Here are Moses’ words on the subject:

“Deut 1:22 Then all of you came near me and said ‘Let us send men before us, that they may explore the land for us and bring us word again of the way by which we must go up and the cities into which we shall come.’ 23 The thing seemed good to me, and I took twelve men from you, one from each tribe. 24 And they turned and went up into the hill country and came to the Valley of Eschol and spied it out.”

Compare that to the account of the same event in Numbers.

“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 in Moses’ account, the people begged him to send spies, and he agreed and picked twelve men on his own initiative. In the Numbers account, God initiates the order to Moses to send the spies, and specifies twelve chiefs. Who’s right? There’s no way to say. But there’s definitely some blame shifting going on here. And it actually kinda matters which is true in evaluating the character of God and of Moses. And no matter which is true, the contradiction means that at least one of the books is now rendered an unreliable narrative.

Moving on, Moses recounts some of the journeys up until the forty years was up and the cursed generation had all died out. Then he skips right past the genocidal mass human sacrifice of the people of Arad to recount the defeat of King Sihon and his people the Amorites. If you recall, Moses had sent messages to Sihon asking to cross his land. Sihon had refused, and sent his army out to attack the Israelites. Israel won, and genocided the Amorites. Moses adds some interesting details in his recounting of events.

Deu 2:31  But Sihon the king off Heshbon would not let us pass by him, for Yahweh your god hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate, that he might give him into you hand as he is this day 31 And Yahweh said to me ,’Behold, I have begun to give Sihon and his land over to you. Begin to take possession, that you may occupy his land.’”

So now Moses claims that the reason Sihon attacked Israel is because God took away that free will thingy that Christians like to go on about. Also, you may recall that, at the end of Numbers, the Israelites were all set to leave this land behind and cross the Jordan into the promised land. But the Reubenites and Gadites decided they would rather stay since they’d already conquered the people here, and Moses had to negotiate with them to secure the use of their soldiers across the Jordan. So here in this Deuteronomy passage, we basically have Moses taking that negotiated result of intertribal politics and claiming “Oh, that’s totally what God ordered us to do in the first place!”

Either Moses in this speech is full of shit, or the author of Numbers is.

Moses continues on to describe the defeat of King Og, in which he uses the phrase “devoted to destruction” (which you may remember from our discussion of Leviticus 27: 28-29 is the Biblical code phrase for human sacrifice) to describe the genocide of Og’s people, again down to the women and children. From there he claims to have commanded the distribution of the conquered lands to the Reubenites, Gadites, and half tribe of Manasseh, which as we’ve already discussed was a concession they forced from him in negotiation rather than something he could be said to have commanded.

For a further example of weasel speech, Moses continues on to talk of his being forbidden to cross the Jordan into the promised land and his exchange with God on the matter:

Deu 3:25 ‘Please let me go over and see the good land beyond the Jordan, that good hill country and Lebanon.’ 26 But Yahweh was angry with me because of you and would not listen to me. And Yahweh said to me ‘Enough from you; do not speak to me of this matter again.’”

Moses is claiming that it is the fault of the Israelite people that God is angry with him and won’t let him cross the Jordan, as opposed to God’s supposed own words on the matter:

Num 20:12 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.’”

Well, shit! Looks like God was pissed at Moses because of something Moses did (or rather, failed to do). In that case, it was failing to give God credit for the water he provided to the people in the wilderness, and claiming the credit for himself. But in his little farewell speech here Moses is sloughing the blame off on the Israelites (and making God look like even more of a dick) by saying God was only mad at him because the people misbehaved. Isn’t that “bearing false witness?” Moses seems to have been kind of a weasely little fuck.

The speech moves on to commanding Israel to obey the laws Moses gave them, and that they can neither add to nor subtract from those laws in the future. There’s a reminder that the only reason that God only speaks to him and not to them is because way back on Sinai the people (remember: the parents and grandparents of the people he’s actually talking to, none of whom are still alive to corroborate) asked to not have to hear God’s voice because it would kill them. He fits in a repetition of the lie that God won’t let him cross the Jordan because of the people’s actions and not his own. And he throws in admonitions not the worship idols, or else God will destroy their nation and scatter them among the other people of the earth.

Finally, Moses wraps up the speech with a long exposition about how wonderful God is and how nothing as awesome as what he’s doing for Israel has ever been done in the history of the world. Which brings us not only to the end of his speech, but also to the end of today’s post. Until the next time, y’all be well!

Friday, August 9, 2013

Numbers: It’s Finally Over!

Howdy all, good to see you once again. Or not, actually, since these are just words on a screen and I can’t actually see through them. But I hope you get the sentiment.

Anyway, we’re still in the Book of Numbers in the Old Testament of the Bible. At this point in the story, the Israelites have just obliterated the Midianite people, except for several thousand young virgin girls they kept alive as slaves. They are on the banks of the Jordan, getting ready to cross over into the land God had been promising their ancestors ever since Abraham’s days.

The heads of the Reuben and Gad tribes now come to Moses with a proposal. These two tribes have extensive herds, and they’ve noticed that the land they’re in is pretty good for grazing livestock. So their idea is that, since they’ve already conquered the fuck out of the inhabitants, they might as well stay there rather than crossing the Jordan with the rest of the Israelites. Moses is less than thrilled with this plan, since he wants the fighters from all the tribes to assist in conquering the promised land. So after a bit of haggling they reach an agreement: the Reubenite and Gadite women and children will remain behind, living in fortified cities, while the menfolk go to help in the conquest. Once the conquest is done with, the men will be allowed to return and settle down. Half of one of the other tribes (which gets referred to from here on as the half tribe of Manasseh) also takes this deal. A portion of the land, Gilead, still needed some Amorites kicked out, so they took care of that little detail as well.

Once that is dispensed with, the Bible pauses to give a “brief” (forty-nine verses) recap of all the places they had camped in their journey from Egypt to the banks of the Jordan. Then we get an order from God, delivered through Moses as per usual, that the Israelites are to completely drive out the inhabitants of the lands he’s giving them, and to destroy all of their shrines and idols. From there he moves on to delineating the borders of the lands they will inhabit. I won’t bore you with the details, since this isn’t a blog on Mideast politics.

After listing the names of all the tribal chiefs, we get some more on the Levites. Remember how it had been said several times before that the Levites wouldn’t get an inheritance of land? Well, that isn’t exactly true. God now orders that the tribes must give the Levites forty-eight cities, plus the land around them to use as pastureland, and that six of those cities will be used as “cities of refuge.”

The city of refuge is a concept that needs some explaining, but fortunately the Bible takes the time to explain the system. It has to do with the rules surrounding murder. Essentially, if someone committed a preplanned murder, then the victim’s next of kin are entitled to avenge the murder by killing him in return. But if someone killed somebody accidentally, he has the right to flee to one of the cities of refuge in order to avoid being killed. This is a death race of sorts, though, since if someone seeking to avenge the killing catches him before he gets there, they’re still allowed to kill him. If the killer manages to get to the city of refuge, the occupants of that city are obligated to keep him safe until they can put him on trial for the killing. If they rule against him, the avenger is allowed to kill him. If they rule in his favor, he’s spared from the avenger, but only as long as he remains in the city of refuge. If he sets foot outside the city, the avenger is allowed to kill him with impunity.

There is a sort of statute of limitations, however. Once whoever was high priest at the time the killer was given refuge dies, the killer is allowed to leave the city of refuge and return to his own property. Any would-be avengers are supposed to leave him alone. Using the death of the high priest as the limit seems like one of the weirdest (read, insane) rulings possible – it could mean that a killer is restricted to the city of refuge for anywhere between a day and sixty years, based on an event that has absolutely nothing to do with his crime or its severity.

God does specify that nobody can be put to death based on the testimony of only a single witness, but that once someone is convicted of murder the death penalty is the only possible option. No ransom can buy back the life of a convicted murderer.

Moving on from there, we get the last little story of Numbers. You recall earlier it was ruled that when a man dies without sons to inherit, his daughters can inherit instead? Well, some of the tribal heads actually thought about the implications, and came to Moses with a new wrinkle. They realized that if a woman inherited some land, then married a man from another tribe, and any sons she had would be considered members of her husband’s tribe, that meant that her land would be getting transferred from her father’s tribe to another one.

And Moses was like “Oh, shit! You’re right. I hadn’t thought of that. Ummm… ok, God says that women who inherit their father’s land aren’t allowed to marry outside their tribe.” Funny how all-knowing God hadn’t thought of that when he made the original ruling.

So anyway, the daughters of Zelophehad (for whom the original ruling had been made) were good and dutiful girls, and married within their father’s tribe.

And that’s it! We’re done with Numbers. Next stop: Deuteronomy!

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Numbers: Is it the Sexism or the Genocide?

Welcome back once again. I’m still at it: my ongoing reading of the Bible. According to my reader app, I’m now 14% of the way through it, and we find ourselves in the vicinity of Chapter 28 of the Book of Numbers. When last we left off, Moses had been informed that he was going to die soon, and God had just picked Joshua to replace Moses as leader of the Israelites. They were just on the verge of being allowed to cross the Jordan into the promised land, and there was the specter of war with the Midianites, whom God had ordered them to kill. Quite a lot of dramatic tension in the air.

So naturally the narrative takes a random detour into God’s demands for more offerings. In a very effective killing of narrative flow, we are treated to more than seventy verses, two full chapters, detailing exactly how many and which types of animals need to be slaughtered and burned (for a pleasing aroma to God) on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis as well as for special feasts like Passover, The Feast of Weeks, Feast of Trumpets, and Feast of Booths. On the plus side, that does allow you, as my readers, to skip two full chapters ahead.

Not that the narrative picks up from there – God has some things to say about vows as well. And the rules are different for men and women. The men’s rules are simple. A man makes a vow, he’s bound by it. He has to do what he promises to do.

The rules for women are more complicated. The way they work is that a woman is bound by her vows… unless their father disagrees (if they haven’t married yet), or their husband disagrees (if they are married). Under those conditions, their father or husband simply gets to veto the woman’s promises. Also, if a woman has made a vow, then later gets married, her husband gets to nullify her existing promises as well. Now as if the rule itself weren’t sexist enough, it is expressed in one of the most condescending passages it has ever been my displeasure to read:

“Num 30:8 But if, on the day that her husband comes to hear of it, he opposes her, then he makes void her vow that was on her, and the thoughtless utterance of her lips by which she bound herself. And Yahweh will forgive her.”

Thoughtless utterance of her lips?! Fucking seriously?! In the eyes of the Bible, even the most solemn vow of a woman holds no more weight than mindless babbling unless validated by a man? I’m a man, and I’m fucking offended by that attitude. This whole passage smacks of a belief that women are essentially children throughout their entire life. And based on the prevailing attitude portrayed up to this point, possibly evil children at that. Grrr!

OK, calm, finding my center. Deep breaths.

Moving on, God has one more task for Moses to complete before he dies.

“Num 31:1 Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying 2 ‘Avenge the people of Israel on the Midianites. Afterward you shall be gathered to your people.’”

Now let’s recall that the horrid offense committed by the Midianites, for which the people of Israel must avenge themselves, was to accept them, intermarry with them, and invite them to their religious ceremonies. Mostly that last part, because God had told the Israelites they weren’t allowed to join in the worship of any other gods.

Bear in mind, by the way, that Moses’ own wife is a Midianite woman, and her father had provided Moses with helpful advice in the past. Which I mention just so you can have an idea of exactly how much that goodwill is worth in the face of fanaticism.

Under Moses’ orders, the Israelites attacked the Midianites and killed every man among them, taking the women and children prisoner and plundering all of their goods and livestock. Also, you remember Balaam from that silly story about the talking donkey? The guy who obeyed God and refused to curse the Israelites when the Moabites tried to pay him off to do so? They killed him too, the ungrateful shits (Moses later claims that it was Balaam who advised the Midianites to try and convert the Israelites, though this was never actually said in the description of the event). And when they return from battle with all of their plunder, Moses is angry with them, demanding to know why they let the women and children live. Then he gives a new set of orders.

“Num 31:17 ‘Therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known a man by lying with him. 18 But all the young girls who have not known a man by lying with him keep alive for yourselves.’”

See, that’s what we like to call a war crime. But setting aside modern legal definitions, I invite you to imagine the Midianite perspective. A massive horde of people shows up out of the blue. You’re scared at first, but over the course of a few years things settle down. You start to make a few friends among the newcomers. Some of your neighbors marry some of them. Maybe you marry one, or your daughter does. You invite them to church, because hey, that’s what neighbors do. Then one day out of the blue, they explode into an orgy of violence, killing everyone you know and love, including the children. And if you’re a young girl, you’re forced to spend the rest of your life serving (and almost certainly in a sexual capacity) the monsters who slaughtered your mother, father, and brothers.

And the bastards who did this get to be considered heroes because they were acting on the orders of the malevolent, imaginary specter we call God? I don’t think so.

The remainder of the chapter is dedicated to listing all the gold, silver, animals, and human beings plundered by the Israelites, and how the spoils were divided up (with, of course, the requisite portion of gold, silver, animals, and human beings given to the priests as God’s portion). It’s kind of sickening if you dwell on it, and so I won’t.

In fact, I think I’m going to go ahead and call this today’s stopping point. Numbers is going to drag on for a bit, still, so there’s at least one more full post ahead before we move on to the next book. In the meantime, you all be well and take care.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Numbers: Screw Interfaith Marriage; We Prefer Murder!

Welcome back. Hope you’ve enjoyed yourself so far, and will continue to do so. Let’s dive in, shall we?

When we’d left off, the Israelites were in the land of Moab, after completely wiping out four other kingdoms. We’d had a humorous interlude with a donkey, and a story about princes trying to bribe a diviner to curse the Israelites, only to have God use that diviner to sing their praises instead. Today, we get into a few entertaining details about Israelite life in Moab.

Seems they kinda settled down a bit near Peor, and some of them even started getting friendly with the locals. Some of them even met some local girls they liked and started to intermarry (or, as the Bible likes to describe it, they “began to whore after the daughters of Moab”). And some of them even started going to the locals’ religious observances to their god, Baal. Bet you know what’s coming… well, in the general sense – the specifics may be surprising.

God gets angry at the people over this, and orders Moses to have the chiefs hang any of their people who attended Baal’s services. And of course, that’s what they do. And then we proceed to this charming story:

“Num 25:6 And behold, one of the people of Israel came and brought a Midianite woman to his family, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the whole congregation, while they were weeping in the entrance of the tent of meeting. 7 When Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose and left the congregation and took a spear in his hand 8 and went after the man of Israel into the chamber and pierced both of them, the man of Israel and the woman through her belly. Thus the plague on the people of Israel was stopped. 9 Nevertheless, those who died by the plague were twenty-four thousand.”

God is vastly impressed with Phinehas’ demonstration of devotion, and takes Moses aside to tell him that Phinehas has earned a perpetual priesthood for himself and all of his descendants. So if you have any questions as to what the Biblical view is on marrying outside the faith, let’s recap the story here. A man marries a woman of a different faith. Phinehas breaks into this man’s home and murders both the man and his wife while they’re in the act of making love, and God says Phinehas is the hero of this story.

Can anyone think of any other circumstance where a man who murders people in their beds is considered a hero?

Oh, and from a storytelling perspective, that plague that Phinehas’ murder stopped in its tracks? It was never mentioned until we’re told that his murder stopped it. So there’s that.

Afterwards, God also orders Moses to harass and kill the Midianites for trying to beguile the Israelites.

Now, content aside, things are really rolling here. We’ve had wars, mass human sacrifices, comedic asides with talking donkeys, dire prophecies, sex, and murder. Now God has just issued a war order. We have some serious momentum, and I’m on pins and needles to see what’s going to happen next…

Aw, fuck, it’s another census.

The Bible then takes forty-six mind-numbing verses to deliver the following census results:

Reubenites: 43,730

Simeonites: 22,200

Gadites: 40,500

Judahites: 76,500

Issacharites: 64,300

Zebulunites: 60,500

Josephites: 52,700

Ephraimites: 32,500

Benjaminites: 45,600

Danites: 64,400

Asherites: 53,400

Naphtalites: 45,400

Total: 601,730

God then tells Moses that when they get to the promised land, the land will be divided among the tribes according to their sizes, which they will then divide up among their people by lot.

Then the Levites get listed separately, at 23,000, and we’re told again that they will not get a land division for inheritance.

At this point it is stated that, except for Joshua and Caleb, none of the people counted in this census were left from the census conducted at Sinai, because that entire generation has died out. This is the first hint we get that a substantial amount of time has passed. In fact, by implication, it’s now been forty years since God forced the Israelites to start wandering in the wilderness because they rebelled after the spies returned from Canaan.

Moses then gets approached by the daughters of some guy named Zelophehad. It seems that Zipperhead died without any sons, only daughters, and they wanted to know if their family would be getting a land allotment. So Moses checked with God, who told him that yes, they would receive one, and furthermore went on to say that it would now be a statute that if a man died without any sons to inherit, his daughters would be next in line to inherit, followed by other male relatives (brothers, fathers, etc.).

Next, God tells Moses to up on the mountain of Abarim, where he could view the land he had promised Israel, and then die (recall that Moses was told that he would not be allowed to enter the land – God is just giving him a glimpse before he dies). Moses asks God to appoint a successor for him to lead the people, and God picks Moses’ longtime assistant Joshua (what a coincidence!). This is the same Joshua who was among the people sent to spy out Canaan forty years earlier, and who spoke up in favor of relying on God and invading at that time.

He’s instructed to take Joshua and stand him up in front of the people and the priests to invest his authority in him. Oddly enough, he’s instructed to have the priests consult the judgment of the Urim (I had to look it up – they’re divination tools) about Joshua before God. Why the heck would they need to do that, if they have God standing right there to tell them anything they might need to know? It seems like a ridiculous instruction.

But anyway, Moses then goes through this little ceremony to designate his successor. But he isn’t actually going off to die yet; there’s more stuff to get to first. But this post has gone on long enough for today, so we’ll get to it next time. Hope you all remain well until then!

Monday, August 5, 2013

Numbers: Donkeys, Curses, and Blessings

Hello, and I hope this entry (and all of my entries, really) finds you safe and well. Welcome back to my Bible blog, where we have gotten as far as the Israelites wandering the wilderness in the Book of Numbers.

We find the Israelites wandering from the well at Beer (not a well of Beer), stopping at a few places before arriving at a valley in the land of Moab overlooking the desert. From there, Moses sent a message to king Sihon of the Amorites asking permission to cross his lands. Perhaps having heard what had happened to the folk in Arad, Sihon told them what they could do with themselves, and sent his army to drive them away.

This didn’t work out too well for the Amorites. Israel defeated their army, then proceeded to go and occupy all their cities. Nothing is said of what was done with the inhabitants of those cities, but precedent is not in favor of merciful treatment. Then for some odd reason we get a snippet of a ballad about how Sihon had once defeated the king of Moab. I suppose to try and point out how impressive it was for Israel to have defeated a successful warrior like him or something.

I guess after this point the Israelites were kinda feeling their oats. They dispensed with the pretense of asking people permission to cross their lands, and just flat-out invaded the lands of Jazer and Bashan. The Bible claims that they completely annihilated the army of king Og of Bashan, leaving no survivors.

After obliterating four small kingdoms, the Israelites continued out onto the plains of Moab. And the people of Moab were, understandably, pissing themselves over it. What comes next is one of the more… interesting (a word that here could also mean “psychotic”) stories thus far.

There’s this famous diviner, sorcerer, whatever, named Balaam. And Balak, the son of Moab’s king, comes up with the desperate idea that if they can convince Balaam to place a curse on the invading Israelites, it might weaken them enough that they can be defeated. So he gets together with the elders of Midian to send a delegation to ask Balaam to do just that.

When the delegation speaks to Balaam, his response amounts to “Let me check with God about that.” And that night, God appears to him, and Balaam explains what they want him to do. God tells Balaam not to go with them, and that he can’t curse the Israelites because God has blessed them. So the next morning, Balaam gives the delegates the news that God has refused him permission to go with them. So far, all pretty straightforward (remarkably so, given that God had previously claimed that Moses is the only person to whom he speaks in a straightforward manner).

When he heard this news, Balak put together a larger delegation of more important men, and sent them back to Balaam to tell him they will give him anything he wants if he’ll come and curse the Israelites for them. Balaam tells them that there’s nothing they could pay him to make him go against God’s orders, but if they stay the night he’ll see if God has anything more to say on the subject. And this is where things turn kinda fucked up.

“Num 22:20 And God came to Balaam at night and said to him, ‘if the men have come to call you, rise, go with them; but only do what I tell you.’ 21 So Balaam rose in the morning and saddled his donkey and went with the princes of Moab. 22 But God’s anger was kindled because he went, and the angel of Yahweh took his stand in the way as his adversary. Now he was riding on the donkey, and his two servants were with him.”

Now, is God being a dick, or is he straight schizo here? He orders Belaam to go with the princes of Moab, and then gets pissed at him when he does it! Then he sends an angel to fuck with Balaam as a result.

So Balaam is traveling along on his donkey (the entourage of princes seemingly forgotten for the moment by the narration), when the angel appears in the middle of the road bearing a sword. But here’s the kicker: the donkey can see the angel, but Balaam can’t. So the donkey shies away off the road and Balaam hits it to drive it back onto the road. Then the angel moves ahead to a place where the road passes between two walled vineyards, and appears in the middle of the road again. The donkey shies away again, and pins Balaam’s leg against one of the walls. Once more Balaam strikes the donkey to get it moving. Finally, the angel moves ahead to a spot where the road is so closed in that there’s nowhere to go to either side, and once more spooks the poor donkey. Since the animal can’t go anywhere, it just lies down in the middle of the road. Balaam, still ignorant of the angel’s existence and therefore thinking his donkey is just being ornery, gets pissed and hits the donkey with his staff.

Does this bullshit sound incredibly petty to anyone else?

So now the angel has Balaam stopped on the road. Time to reveal itself, right? Well no, not really. It’s time to give the donkey the ability to talk.

God “opened the mouth of the donkey” so that she could talk, and she asks Balaam why he kept hitting her. And Balaam, apparently completely unfazed by the fact that his donkey has started talking (I guess it was a perfectly ordinary occurrence back in the day - even the donkey seems to take it in stride), replies that she had been making a fool of him with her balking, and that if he’d had a sword with him he’d have killed her by now. She complains that he should know something is up, because he’s been riding her forever and she never behaved like that before, which he concedes.

So now, finally, the God allows Balaam to see the angel. And Balaam throws himself on the ground to grovel a bit. The angel demands to know why he was hitting his donkey, since if the donkey hadn’t kept turning aside the angel would have killed Balaam and let the donkey live. How fucking dumb is that? If you piss off God (by doing what he told you to do), he’ll send an angel to kill you… unless you have a perceptive and skittish donkey? What the hell?

Balaam offers to turn back, if his going with the princes was pissing God off so much. But the angel tells him to go with them, and only say what God tells him to say. Which is exactly what was happening before the angel intervened with all his spook-the-donkey bullshit!

Actually, it occurs to me that I’m being a bit unfair. After all, I kinda grew up in a culture that insists this book is serious business, and has to be approached seriously. But look at this story. It’s wholly ridiculous, and advances the narrative in exactly no way whatsoever. It’s farce. This story must be intended as a humorous interlude. And if you take it as comedy, it makes a lot more sense.

When all of this is done with, Balaam continues his journey and Balak comes to meet him at the city of Moab. Balak bitches about Balaam not coming the first time, and Balaam basically tells him “Well, I’m here now, and I just want to warn you that I’m not going to do anything against God’s orders.” Balak seems to pretty much blow off that warning, and takes Balaam to a place where he can see a portion of the Israelite horde, and asks him to curse them.

Balaam tells Balak to prepare seven altars and offer a bull and a ram on each one while he steps aside to consult with God. And God spoke to Balaam and told him what to say. So Balaam goes back to Balak and recites a poem about how great Israel is and how he can’t curse anyone that God won’t curse. Balak is kind of irritated by this, because he says that he brought Balaam to curse Israel and be blessed them instead. Balaam defends it by saying he’s only saying what God gave him to say.

Then Balak comes up with the brilliant idea that maybe if he takes Balaam to a different place where he can see a different portion of the Israelite masses, he can curse them there. So they move someplace else, and repeat the rigmarole with the altars and offerings and Balaam stepping aside to consult with God. Once again, God gives him some poetry to recite. This time it includes some lines comparing Israel to a lioness that won’t rest until it consumes its prey. Balak is starting to sound kind of alarmed, and is like “Hey! If you’re not going to curse them, at least refrain from blessing them!” Balaam, again, says he can only do what God tells him to do.

Then, because he’s either a congenital idiot or really desperate, Balak decides that if they try doing all this at yet another location overlooking yet another group of Israelites, maybe Balaam will curse them there. Unsurprisingly, this goes about as well as the first two times. And this time, God doesn’t bother waiting for Balaam to step aside for consultation and directly possesses him (or, as the Bible phrases it, “the Spirit of God came upon him”) to deliver his poetry. And this poem is practically a verbal orgasm about how wonderful Israel is, and how beautiful it is to see their tents all arrayed together… oh, and how God is going to help them crush, mangle, and dismember their enemies. It ends by saying that blessed are those who bless Israel, and cursed are those who curse it.

Needless to say, Balak is displeased, and bitches Balaam out. Balaam reminds him once again that he told his messengers before that he wouldn’t do anything other than what God ordered him to. Then he delivers another little poetic oracle about how the lands of all the princes who Balak sent to him are pretty much doomed before leaving to go home.

That’s it for Balaam’s part in this story, so I think it’s a good place to break for the day. Hope y’all continue to be well, and I’ll catch you next time.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Numbers: The Israelites’ First Genocide

Welcome back, dear reader.

I gotta say, I’m pretty dissatisfied with my last post. I feel like I wasted most of it on tediously repetitious stuff. Admittedly, that was partly due to the material I had to work with, but I was still disappointed with the product. So my apologies once again.

Returning to Numbers, we are once again moving forward with the journey of the Israelites through the wilderness. And as we discussed toward the end of the last post, the Israelites had just dropped in on the city of Kadesh, and Moses had been punished for not giving God enough (as in all) credit. At this point Moses wants to move the Israelites on from Kadesh into the land of Edom, so he sends a message to the king of Edom asking permission to pass through his territory.

For some funny reason, the king of Edom doesn’t want two million people (i.e. probably more than the population of his kingdom) traipsing across his lands, so he says no. There’s a bit of back and forth, with Moses promising that they won’t try to leave the road or eat their food. The king of Edom says that if they try to cross his lands he will send his army to attack them, but Moses keeps trying to persuade him. It’s only when the king actually sends his army out that Moses gives up on the plan and heads off in another direction.

So the Israelites wander on toward someplace called Mount Hor. And when they get to the mountain, God tells Moses that it’s time for Aaron to die. He orders Moses to take Aaron and his son Eleazar up onto the mountain and have Aaron give his high priest robes to his son before dying. So they do, and Aaron dies, and then supposedly the people of Israel wept for thirty days. I’m guessing more of a period of official mourning, since the constant rebellions suggest at least a good portion of the people wouldn’t have been all that sorry to see him go.

Meanwhile, the king of Arad (a Canaanite, which in Biblical terms means evil) had heard that a metric fuckton of Israelites were getting ready to pass through his lands, so he attacked them and ended up taking some captive.

“Num 21:1 And Israel vowed a vow to Yahweh and said ‘If you will indeed give this people into my hand, then I will devote their cities to destruction.’”

Now if you’ve been paying attention all along, then you may be beginning to suspect the implication of that vow. And I’ll clarify it a little for you by saying that the footnotes give an alternative translation of the phrase “I will devote their cities to destruction,” as “I will set aside their cities as an offering to Yahweh.”

The Israelites are promising that if God helps them defeat Arad, then they will offer every single one of them as human sacrifices.

“Num 21:3 And Yahweh heeded the voice of Israel, and gave over the Canaanites, and they devoted them and their cities to destruction. So the name of the place was called Hormah.”

Clearly God liked the deal, because he helped them win and they did in fact sacrifice the inhabitants of the cities of Arad to him. And aside from being an example of mass human sacrifice, you know what else it was?


That’s the last we hear about Arad, too. The Bible, which dedicated almost fifty verses to describing how much fucking loot the various tribes gifted to God to sanctify his little murder temple, and hundreds of verses gushing about said temple’s decorations, tosses off the destruction and bloody sacrifice of an entire people with a whole three verses. Truly it is the Good Book.


Moving on, the Israelites head out from Mount Hor to try and circle around Edom. But the people get impatient with the length of the journey, and the fact that they’re still eating the same damn thing every meal of every day, and so they start bitching at Moses once again.

So God provided them with some new and tasty food to break up the monotony.

Nah, I’m just fucking with you. He sent poisonous snakes to bite and kill a bunch of them. You didn’t expect anything different, did you? Haven’t you been paying attention?

So the people go back to Moses to grovel and beg him to ask God to save them from the snakes. So Moses prays to God, and God saves them from the snakes. But the method he chooses is… odd.

“Num 21:8 And Yahweh said to Moses ‘Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.’ 9 So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.”

I seem to remember something about not making idols and worshipping them. It’s supposed to be a pretty important commandment, in fact. But here you have God commanding them to create an idol, and by gazing upon it they are saved from a punishment God himself imposed. Does this make any damn sense to anyone? It’s almost like he’s tempting them to start worshipping this new idol and start believing it’s more powerful than Yahweh (possibly as a prelude to killing another load of them). Or like the Israelites really did worship multiple gods, and someone just did kind of a crappy job of scrubbing them out of the literature once singular Yahweh worship became dominant.

There really is a lot in this book that smacks of poor attempts to cover up stuff. Either that, or complete nonsense. Take your pick.

Next the Israelites set out from Mount Hor, and we get a bunch of places where they camped in their route near the borders of Moab. One of the places was called Beer (which some readers may consider the holiest thing in this book :P ), and there they found a well and sang  song about it.

And since we’re next going to be getting into some more wars, which could take a bit of space to write about, I’m gonna go ahead and call this today’s stopping point. Until next we meet, be well!