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Friday Bible Blogging - Numbers 31 to Numbers 36

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).

BibleChapters 31 through 36 are the final chapters of Numbers. There was another atrocity, continuation of the wandering narrative, and rules and details for the Israelites for once they crossed the Jordan into the promised land.

Numbers, Chapter 31

This chapter started off with God starting a war, "The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2 'Avenge the Israelites on the Midianites; afterwards you shall be gathered to your people.' " So the Israelites attacked, killed all the men, burned down the villages, plundered all their wealth, and kidnapped all the women and children. Moses was upset with the soldiers, but not for the reasons you might hope. He was mad because it was the Midianite women who had caused the problems described back in Chapter 25. His commanded corrective action was horrific, "17 Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known a man by sleeping with him. 18 But all the young girls who have not known a man by sleeping with him, keep alive for yourselves." Wholesale slaughter of women and children, while keeping only virgin girls so that they could have their way with them. And just a few verses later when God talked to Moses, He wasn't upset at all with those events. In fact, when giving directions on how to divide the spoils of war, God included people in those instructions, "27 Divide the booty into two parts, between the warriors who went out to battle and all the congregation. 28 From the share of the warriors who went out to battle, set aside as tribute for the Lord one item out of every five hundred, whether persons, oxen, donkeys, sheep, or goats." A few verses later, we learn that they had kidnapped 32,000 virgin women.

The chapter closed with a little more bragging about the conquest. Not a single Israelite warrior had been killed, and they plundered "sixteen thousand seven hundred and fifty shekels" worth of gold to offer to the priests, in addition to what they'd kept for themselves.

Numbers, Chapter 32

Some of the Hebrews, the Reubenites and the Gadites, who owned a lot of cattle, saw that the land they were currently in was very good for grazing, and decided they'd rather settle there than continue on to the promised land. When they first approached Moses to ask if they could stay there, Moses was upset that they'd abandon their fellow Israelites when it came time to conquer the promised land. After reminding them of the spies that came back with the false bad report of the promised land, prompting the 40 years of wandering, he laid a guilt trip on them, "14 And now you, a brood of sinners, have risen in place of your fathers, to increase the Lord's fierce anger against Israel! 15 If you turn away from following him, he will again abandon them in the wilderness; and you will destroy all this people." After vowing that they would fight with Israel when the time came, the Gadites and the Reubenites were allowed to settle where they were. And just to finish out the story, they went out and conquered a few neighboring towns and villages to expand their territory.

Numbers, Chapter 33

This was one of the most boring chapters yet. Here's how it started out.

1 These are the stages by which the Israelites went out of the land of Egypt in military formation under the leadership of Moses and Aaron. 2 Moses wrote down their starting points, stage by stage, by command of the Lord; and these are their stages according to their starting places.

And when the writer wrote stage by stage, he meant it. Here are just a few verses out of around 30 detailing the Israelites wandering.

10 They set out from Elim and camped by the Red Sea. 11 They set out from the Red Sea and camped in the wilderness of Sin. 12 They set out from the wilderness of Sin and camped at Dophkah.

The only highlight in the midst of all that was briefly mentioning Aaron's death on top of Mount Hor.

There was one other interesting comment from the beginning of the chapter. When describing the Passover slaughter of the Egyptian first born, the latter half of verse 4 stated, "The Lord executed judgements even against their gods." This is a holdover from Judaism's polytheistic roots, and a pretty explicit admission that the writer(s) of Numbers believed multiple gods to exist.

The chapter closed with the Lord giving Moses instructions on what the Israelites were to do once they crossed over the Jordan River into Canaan. Basically, destroy everything from the people that were living there before, and don't let any of the previous inhabitants stick around, "if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then those whom you let remain shall be as barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides; they shall trouble you in the land where you are settling. 56 And I will do to you as I thought to do to them." They were also reminded to divy up all the land fairly between the tribes.

Numbers, Chapter 34

This chapter described in detail the boundaries of the land that the Israelites were to control, along with the names of the people who were to aportion the land to the tribes.

Numbers, Chapter 35

This chapter contained various rules for the Israelites for after they had entered the promised land. First were instructions on the land that the tribes would have to give up to give to the Levites, and the dimensions of that land in relation to the towns. The Levites were also to receive 48 towns, 6 of those being towns of refuge. The rest of the chapter dealt with slayings, when they should be considered accidental, and when they were murder. Murderers were to be executed. People who killed accidentally were allowed to flee to one of the reguge cities. But here was an aspect that seems foreign to modern readers. It seems that it was expected that whenever somebody was killed, one of their family members would want to enact vengeance. The Bible referred to them as "the avenger of blood". In the case of a murder, "The avenger of blood is the one who shall put the murderer to death; when they meet, the avenger of blood shall execute the sentence." But even if a person was killed accidentally, it was still expected that the victim's family would want vengeance. That's the purpose of the refuge cities. So long as the killer was in a reguge city, they were off limits to the avenger of blood. They were to stay in the reguge city until the high priest died, presumably providing enough time for the family of the victim to calm down. "26 But if the slayer shall at any time go outside the bounds of the original city of refuge, 27 and is found by the avenger of blood outside the bounds of the city of refuge, and is killed by the avenger, no blood-guilt shall be incurred."

According to the New Oxford Annotated Bible, there was one other reason for the slayer staying in the refuge city. Killing a person created a type of pollution of the land, even if the killing was accidental. Putting killers into the refuge cities helped to isolate their polluting influence from the rest of the land. When the high priest died, his death somehow took away that polluting effect.

There was at least one good rule - nobody could be put to death for murder based on the account of a single eye witness.

Numbers, Chapter 36

Recall Chapter 27, where God directed that women that had no brothers could inherit the family's land from their father. Well, it just wouldn't be the Bible if it wasn't sexist, so this chapter put some constraints on those women. A few of the men were worried that if those women married into other tribes, the women's original tribe would lose that land. So, God made a new rule, "Every daughter who possesses an inheritance in any tribe of the Israelites shall marry one from the clan of her father's tribe, so that all Israelites may continue to possess their ancestral inheritance."


That's one more book down. To repeat a bit of what I wrote last week, the Book of Numbers really doesn't present a good god at all. God acted cruelly towards the Israelites, told the Israelites to enact cruel punishments against each other, and called for the utter destruction of peoples who got in their way. And in one instance, indirectly through Moses, the Israelites were told to kill all of their captives from one conquest except virgin girls so that they could keep them for themselves. There were also breaks in continuity and other signs that the book was made by combining multiple prior sources, along with hints of Judaism's polytheistic origins. And of course, there were more animal sacrifices. And there was also a talking donkey.

There were some interesting parts and even a few good rules, but overall, this book made me glad that it's all myths and legends, and not describing a real deity. What is troubling, though, is thinking about how many people throughout history have had to suffer because of what was written in this book.

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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