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Friday Bible Blogging - Numbers 11 to Numbers 20

This entry is part of a series. For a listing of all entries in the series, go to the Index. Unless otherwise noted, all Bible quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).

BibleThis week's entry marks a minor milestone. I have now reviewed 137 verses. Using the Catholic verse count of 1334, that puts me at just over 10% of the way into this project. That still leaves me a way to go, but that's at least a noticeable dent.

These chapters cover a portion of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness. The stories aren't very familiar ones. I paid attention in Sunday school and listened to all the Bible readings during mass, but these stories weren't the regular ones that we heard.


Numbers, Chapter 11

Chapter 11 got right into God's wrath with the opening verse, "1 Now when the people complained in the hearing of the Lord about their misfortunes, the Lord heard it and his anger was kindled. Then the fire of the Lord burned against them, and consumed some outlying parts of the camp. 2 But the people cried out to Moses; and Moses prayed to the Lord, and the fire abated." There are actually two things from that passage that strike me. Most obviously is the cruelty of God. A few of the Israelites complained, and God began indiscriminately killing people in outlying parts of the camp until Moses could calm him down. But more subtly, it was "when the people complained in the hearing of the Lord". It shows that their physical proximity to God is what allowed Him to hear them - not very omniscient.

Then the people began complaining about their food situation - they were getting tired of eating manna and wanted some real meat. Moses got frustrated with the people's constant complaining, and asked God to either help him or put him to death so that he wouldn't have to deal with it anymore. God's response was to gather up the elders, and "take some of the spirit that is on you [Moses] and put it on them [the elders]", so that they could share his burden.

And then it was time for God to deal with the complainers. And he did it in the most petty, vindictive, and violent way you can imagine. First, "a wind went out from the Lord, and it brought quails from the sea and let them fall beside the camp, about a day's journey on this side and a day's journey on the other side, all around the camp, about two cubits deep on the ground." i.e. You want meat, I'll give you meat. Keep in mind that two cubits is roughly three feet. But then, "while the meat was still between their teeth, before it was consumed, the anger of the Lord was kindled against the people, and the Lord struck the people with a very great plague." He just went ahead and killed them anyway.


Numbers, Chapter 12

This was a short chapter on some squabbling over power. Aaron and his wife, Miriam, confronted Moses over his position. They pointed out that the Lord had spoken through others, so why was Moses over everybody? The Lord heard this, and punished Miriam by turning her "leprous, as white as snow." Fortunately for her, it wasn't a permanent condition, and after seven days of being shut out from the camp, she was allowed back in. Out of respect for her, the camp stayed put until she was able to rejoin.

The sexism in the Bible is so gratuitous that you almost begin to miss seeing it, but notice that only Miriam was punished, not Aaron.


Numbers, Chapter 13

The Israelites sent out a group of spies to get their first look at the promised land, their mission lasting for forty days (of course). The first spies to report told how wonderful the land was, but that it was also inhabited by strong people. The next spies to report, afraid that the Israelites wouldn't be able to conquer the people already living there, gave a negative report of the promised land to cool the people's enthusiasm.


Numbers, Chapter 14

After hearing the negative report, the Israelites were disheartened, and wondered why they'd gone through all the troubles they had if they were just going to be defeated in a new land. They wanted to pick a new leader and return to Egypt. Moses and Aaron of course stayed faithful to God, as did a few others, but the majority were on the verge of revolt. God appeared at the Tent of Meeting, and was about to destroy the Israelites because of their lack of faith. But Moses pleaded with God on their behalf, and finally convinced God to spare them because it would hurt His reputation with the Egyptians and other nations. This isn't an image of God that's so great and mighty that he's above worldly concerns. This is a God who cares what others think of him.

But God wasn't done with the Israelites, yet. For their impertinence, God vowed that all the living Israelites would die in the wilderness, and that it would be their children who would enter the promised land. They would be forced to wander for forty years. Only the handful who remained faithful would be spared that fate. As for the spies who incited the uprising, they were killed by an unspecified plague.

A few Israelites, thinking they could make things right by trying to invade the promised land, were doomed because they went without the ark of the covenant to defend them, and were defeated in battle.


Numbers, Chapter 15

Most of this chapter is details on sacrifices and rituals the Israelites are to perform once they reach the promised land (the ones that don't die in the wilderness). To be honest, there have been many sacrifices specified in what I've read so far, that my eyes begin to glaze over a bit when I get to another batch of them. This one included oxen, rams, lambs, hins of oil and wine, ephahs of choice flour, bulls, and on and on.

The chapter closed with the story of a man who had been caught gathering sticks on the sabbath. The Israelites took him to God to see what was to be done with him, and God replied, "The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him outside the camp." For gathering sticks.

Lest they forget the Lord's commandments, God directed the Israelites to "make fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations and to put a blue cord on the fringe at each corner" as a reminder.


Numbers, Chapter 16

This chapter contained another story of rebellion. This time, it was "Korah son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi". He challenged Moses's authority on the grounds that "All the congregation are holy, every one of them", so who was Moses to put himself above everybody else? A few other Israelites complained that Moses hadn't really rescued them, but only brought them out of Egypt so that they could die in the wilderness.

Moses directed the dissenters to bring censers with incense to the tent of meeting, where they would allow the Lord to choose who was to lead them. The outcome was predictable. God wanted to kill the entire congregation. Moses bargained with him. And in the end, God only killed the dissenters. For the leaders, "The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, along with their households--everyone who belonged to Korah and all their goods. 33 So they with all that belonged to them went down alive into Sheol; the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly." Just a few verses earlier it was specified that this included their wives, children, and little ones (note the implication that wives and children were property). For the remainder of the dissenters, "fire came out from the Lord" and burned them all alive. Their censers, now holy from contact with the Lord's fire, were hammered into a covering for the altar.

The following day, the Israelites were on the verge of revolt again. They blamed Moses for the death of Korah and the others. God's wrath was again ignited, and he began another indiscriminate killing spree. Moses had Aaron take a censer, put incense in it, light it from the fire of the altar, and dash into the crowd. This stopped the killing, but only after 14,700 people had died.


Numbers, Chapter 17

Chapter 17 was very short. It was, according to the New Oxford Annotated Bible (NOAB), a retelling of a myth common from that area. The heads of each of the tribes brought their staffs to Moses. He put them in the tent of meeting, and the staff of Aaron blossomed overnight, marking Aaron as the chosen one.


Numbers, Chapter 18

This chapter contained instructions to Aaron and his sons. It detailed all the offerings from the people that the priests were allowed to keep for themselves, and those that must still be given to the Lord on the altar. A portion of what the priests kept was to also go to the Levites.

I tend to not be very cynical. Even though I doubt much of what's in the Bible, I tend to think that it's mostly a result of myths expanding as they were retold over the generations. But out of what I've read so far, this chapter was the one that seemed most likely to have been written for less than noble purposes. I could just imagine a group of priests getting together to write these verses, guaranteeing that they would always have plenty to live off of.


Numbers, Chapter 19

The Lord gave Moses and Aaron a new statute. They were to sacrifice and burn a red heifer, along with cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson material. Then they were to gather the ashes to keep them "for the water for cleansing." The ashes would be mixed with running water, and used to purify anybody who had come in contact with a corpse, a bone, a grave, or basically anything associated with a dead person. The mix could also be used on tents and other objects that had been associated with a person's death.


Numbers, Chapter 20

After briefly mentioning Miriam's death, these verses repeated some of the same events as from Exodus, perhaps coming from a slightly different tradition. This included Moses striking a rock to bring out water. There was also a passage where the king of Edom refused to allow the Israelites to pass through his land.

At the end of the chapter, God informed Moses and Aaron that Aaron wasn't going to be allowed into the promised land "because you rebelled against my command at the waters of Meribah." God had Moses, Aaron, and Aaron's son, Eleazar, climb to the top of Mount Hor. There, in the sight of all the people, Moses stripped Aaron of his vestments and put them on Eleazar, after which Aaron died on top of the mountain.


---

I made a note after reading Leviticus that it really presented God in a bad light. But these chapters from Numbers really show a cruel, petty, capricious, and violent deity.

I mentioned in my discussion of Chapter 18 that those verses seemed like they could have been written by a group of priests wanting to legitimize their power. I didn't mention it above, but the chapters on conflicts over leadership struck me in a similar way. It was implying that people shouldn't question the power structure, because it was the way God intended it. I can just imagine how this mindset could be used as a tool for oppression, for example, propping up the divine right of kings to rule over countries.

There was something else I was struck by reading these chapters. I mentioned something similar in my review of Left Behind. The characters in these stories just didn't behave like you would expect real people to behave. In real life, people question religion and priests because, to be frank, there's no evidence to support religion's claims. But in these stories, God is living among the people, making his presence known daily, and inflicting punishments on a fairly regular basis. How many miraculous punishments would it take to convince somebody to quit pissing off the pillar of fire hanging out in the middle of the camp?


New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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