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Table of contents :
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OUT of STEP with GOD Orthodox Christian Reflections on
The Book of Numbers
patrick henry reardon
a nc i e n t fa i t h pu bl i s h i ng c h e s t e r t on, i n di a n a
Out of Step with God: Orthodox Christian Reflections on the Book of Numbers © Copyright 2019 by Patrick Henry Reardon All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, scanning, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher. Published by Ancient Faith Publishing P.O. Box 748 Chesterton, IN 46304 Printed in the United States of America ISBN 978-1-944967-66-6
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CONTENTS Introduction 1 5 Numbers 1 1 13 Excursus: “Thousands” 17
Numbers 2 1 20 Numbers 3 1 23 Excursus: The Structure of the March 27
Numbers 4 Numbers 5 Numbers 6 Numbers 7 Numbers 8 Numbers 9 Numbers 10 Numbers 11 Numbers 12
1 30 1 33 1 37 1 40 1 43 1 47 1 50 1 55 1 62
Excursus: Moses and Job 64
Numbers 13 Numbers 14 Numbers 15 Numbers 16
1 69 1 74 1 80 1 86
Excursus: The Growth of Aaron 92
Numbers 17 1 95 Excursus: Aaron’s Staff and the Preacher 96
Numbers 18 1 99 Numbers 19 1 102 Numbers 20 1 105 Excursus: Understanding Anger 109
Numbers 21 1 112 Excursus: The Bible’s Classical Impulse 117
Numbers 22 1 121 Numbers 23 1 127 Numbers 24 1 129 Excursus: The Postmodernist 130
Numbers 25 1 134 Numbers 26 1 136 Numbers 27 1 138 Numbers 28 1 140 Numbers 29 1 142 Numbers 30 1 145 Numbers 31 1 147 Numbers 32 1 150 Numbers 33 1 153 Numbers 34 1 155 Numbers 35 1 157 Numbers 36 1 160 A Further Reflection 1 162
INTRODUCTION 2 Numbers is the fourth book of the Torah, those “five scrolls” (Pentateuch in Greek), those “five fifths of the Law” (hamishshah humshe ha-Torah) traditionally ascribed to Moses. The material in the Torah is quite varied, but the Book of Numbers, compared with the others, has been called “in some respects, the most miscellaneous” (Robert Alter). For all that, getting started on Numbers can be a bit tough. For the taste of the modern reader, the book begins . . . well, slow. Our modern reader, however, if he manages to fight his way through the lengthy census in the first ten or so chapters, is likely to find Numbers more engaging than the books immediately before and after it, namely, Leviticus and Deuteronomy; Numbers certainly contains the most stories of the three. Indeed, the colorful accounts in Numbers, once they get started, are as fascinating and memorable as any in the Bible. Numbers is the saga of a journey; all the events are set within the context of travel. It is not a travelogue, nonetheless; the Israelites are not tourists. The account in Numbers fits more comfortably, rather, in the category of “migration literature,” of which the closest modern example may be The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck. (His sustained biblical allusions, on nearly every page, prove that Steinbeck was very aware of this.) Most of this travel in Numbers takes place in the desert. Indeed, in the book’s Hebrew text, the first word (and title) is Bemidbar,
out of step with god literally “in the desert.” What we have here is an account of Israel’s odyssey, throughout forty years, from Sinai to the eastern border of Canaan, the land of promise. That was the formative period of which the Lord declared, Forty years long I was grieved with that generation, And said, “They do always stray in their hearts, And they do not know My ways.” So I swore in My wrath, “They shall not enter My rest” (Ps 95/94:10–11) In the first extant Christian commentary on this psalm, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews explained the permanent moral significance of Israel’s journey in the desert: Now with whom was [God] angry forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose corpses dropped in the desert? And to whom did He swear that they should not enter His rest, but to those who did not obey? So we see that they could not enter because of unbelief. Therefore, since there is still a promise of entering His rest, let us become fearful (phobethomen) lest any of you seem to have come short of it. . . . Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall according to the same example of disobedience. (Heb 3:17— 4:1, 11, emphasis added) In classical literature our closest parallel to the Book of Numbers is, arguably, Virgil’s Aeneid, which recounts the long journey of the defeated Trojans to their eventual settlement in Italy as the ancestors of the Romans. Both narratives are foundational sagas of their respective nations. Both the Israelites and the Romans came
from elsewhere—the one from slavery and the other from military defeat—to conquer and occupy a new territory. The Aeneid and the Book of Numbers are the accounts of their journeys—the one across the sea and the other through the desert. A comparison of the two works may be profitable by offering a contrast. Whereas the Trojans, as they made their difficult way to Italy, normally exercised courage and wisdom (the exception being that brief dalliance in Carthage), the Israelites consistently made a mess of the journey; over and over, they found themselves out of step with God. They kept pursuing moral culs-de-sac until almost all of them perished; they conferred a new dimension on the term “dead end.” Even after forty years, at the very doorway into the Promised Land, the priest Phinehas was obliged to make one final purge of the population (Num. 25:4–6; Sirach 45:23). Numbers is, in short, an account of frailties and infidelities. Consequently, it is also a narrative of warning. In the biblical references to Israel’s ancient desert trial, Christians mainly found admonitions about what not to do. Beginning with Stephen’s sermon, the apostolic preaching remembered the desert wandering as a time of moral and spiritual failure (Acts 7:36–43; 13:17–18). In addition to the exegesis of Psalm 95 in the Epistle to the Hebrews, we remember Paul’s exhortation to the Corinthians: “Now these things,” he wrote, “were made our examples, so that we should not lust after evil things as they also lusted” (1 Cor. 10:6).
Structure The opening four chapters of Numbers are the record of a census, the first of two contained in this book. Indeed, these two censuses are necessary because of the failures and infidelities recorded in this book. The first census is a count of the Israelites who departed from Egypt at the exodus, whereas the second, found in chapter 26, is
out of step with god a list of those who are actually ready, forty years later, to enter the land of Canaan. Although the totals of each census are roughly equal (about six hundred thousand—see Ex. 12:37–38; Num. 11:21), these two lists contain only three names in common: Moses, Joshua, and Caleb. When the second census was made, all the other adult Israelites had perished in the wilderness. The two censuses—at the beginning and end of the book—provide its most basic literary framework: chapters 1—25 tell the story of that earlier generation that left Egypt, while chapters 26—36 tell of the later generation who would enter the Promised Land with Joshua. This unequal division of chapters indicates the book’s fundamental narrative outline. In addition, one detects other structural elements that are not based on the division by generation but on the various stages of the journey. Thus, chapters 1—10 form a unit concerned with the people’s encampment at the foot of Mount Sinai. A second unit consists of the story of the people’s travels from Mount Sinai to Kadesh-barnea in chapters 10—12. Chapters 13—19 make up a third section, which chronicles the events associated with Kadesh- barnea. The fourth unit, chapters 20—21, tells of the journey from Kadesh-barnea to the Plains of Moab. The sixth part, by far the book’s longest, narrates Israel’s final trial on the Plains of Moab. This final section sets the stage for the Book of Deuteronomy. Besides its own internal structure, the Book of Numbers also fits into a larger framework that includes the Books of Exodus and Leviticus. The time frame of the Book of Numbers, beginning at Mount Sinai and ending in the land of Moab, is the period of the forty years that the Israelites spent wandering in the desert, covering all the time between Egypt and the Promised Land.
Theology The history recorded in this book is more than a plain chronicle, however. It is history told with a view to illustrating the theological significance of the events, a significance derived from God’s providential governance of Israel during the period under consideration. The Greek name for this book, Arithmoi (obviously the root of arithmetic), means “Numbers,” which has remained the common name also in English. This name indicates much of the book’s contents, for it begins with a census of the Israelites, a census filling the first four chapters. Numbers is also an appropriate name in a more general sense, inasmuch as the book has extensive recourse to mathematics in the determination of calendars, the parceling of the Promised Land, the quantities associated with the rituals of sacrifice, and even the division of the war spoils. In short, this is a work inspired by a sense of measure and dimension. Hence, the reader will feel that he has entered a fairly and proportionately ordered world. (He also may bear in mind that proportion was a major concern of Leviticus 27, the biblical chapter immediately preceding the Book of Numbers.) This preoccupation with measure also links the Book of Numbers with the Bible’s Wisdom books, where we find the same concern for proportion and moral symmetry. Like classical philosophy in general, the Wisdom Literature of the Bible regards measure (metron) as the most readily discernible sign of wisdom. This was first perceived in wise men themselves, those whose judgment could be trusted, because they were seen to weigh all considerations, to balance conflicting ideas and interests, and thus to reach decisions proportioned to both justice and fact. The path of wisdom was always associated with due measure and proper proportion. Excess, on the other hand, was perceived as the mark of chaos and disorder. Just as a sound, solid house was recognized in its proportion,
out of step with god order, and distribution, so a sound, disciplined, well-regulated life was discerned in the traits of moderation and due measure. Measure, on the other hand, was assessed in accepted units, or “numbers” (arithmoi). The acceptance of limits was fundamental to good order, and limitation itself implied mathematics; things are limited by number. This insight led philosophers like Pythagoras to regard numbers as the basis of reality. Since the world itself manifests such measurement, Hebrew wise men likewise reasoned that the Creator must provide the source and root of the wisdom He has placed in the structure of the world. He alone discerns the “arithmetic” of things. Throughout the Book of Numbers, as we shall see, the Israelites manifest a sustained disposition toward chaos and self-destruction. To counter this trend, God imposes “numbers” on them—restrictions, restraints, and attention to limits. We will see this imposition of numbers right from the first verses of the first chapter. It was the Lord’s presence with Israel that made this nation a holy people, so the book is first concerned with the people, even down to listing them. This first chapter gives a rough census of all the Israelite tribes except Levi, the priestly tribe.
Author I began by ascribing this book—indeed, the whole Torah—to the authorship of Moses. This ascription is found everywhere in Jewish and Christian literature. Moses’ authorship of the Torah, including Numbers, however, is not so easy, matter-of-fact, and simple as, say, Hemingway’s authorship of For Whom the Bell Tolls. Moses had help. Everywhere in the Pentateuch we find evidence of contributing and editing hands at work during the long post-Mosaic history of Israel. For instance, even the strictest defender of the Torah’s Mosaic authorship must account for the last eight verses of Deuteronomy,
which describe the author’s death. Likewise, certain verses in Genesis also indicate a later hand in the text, such as the comments that “the Canaanite was then in the land” (12:6) and “there was yet no king in Israel” (36:31). We are also told that Abraham came from Ur of the Chaldees, although the Chaldees arrived at Ur a long time after the time of Moses. In addition to this internal evidence, there is also the biblical account of a discovery of “the Law of the Lord” in the temple at Jerusalem during the time of King Josiah in the late seventh century. From very early times that document was identified (by St. Jerome, for example), as a whole or in part, with the Book of Deuteronomy. If this identification is valid and the original form of Deuteronomy had a separate history unfamiliar to those who discovered it in the late seventh century, this is evidence that the arrangement of “five books” is considerably later than Moses. I am not alone in regarding Moses as the author of the Pentateuch in a more general sense. Perhaps we may call it a “seminal sense,” meaning that its theological and radical unity grew from the revelation originally made to Moses. I believe it to be a mistake, however, to discount the evidence for the later editorial work of Ezra and others in the formation of the canonical text as it has come down to us. Because I believe the development and transmission of the Pentateuch involved a long and complicated process, I will refer to the author of Numbers, in this commentary, simply as “the author.” And I will offer a further reflection on this subject in a final section of the present work.
A Note on the Translations In this book, all translations from original languages are my own, including the text of Holy Scripture. In those places where it appears
out of step with god appropriate and instructive to do so, I cite the text in its underlying language. Although this commentary is mainly based on the Hebrew Bible transmitted in the Masoretic tradition, ample respect is shown to the canonical Greek text, the Septuagint (LXX), represented in the earliest Christian manuscripts. I rely on the standard published editions: Kittel and the Stuttgartensia for the Masoretic text (MT), Rahlfs for the Septuagint. I use the Hebrew text of Rashi’s commentary in the Jerusalem edition published by Rabbi Silbermann in 1934 and the popular Bialik text of the Mishnah in six volumes. Citations of the Greek text of Josephus are from the Loeb Classical Library edition.
NUMBERS 1 2 Here begins the first census in the Book of Numbers (chapters 1—4). These opening verses (1–16) provide the list of leaders, from each tribe, who will supervise the first census. Like the Bible’s various prophetic books, Numbers begins with a precise chronological reference that contains no fewer than three ordinal references: “Now the Lord spoke to Moses in the Wilderness of Sinai in the tabernacle of testimony, on the first day of the second month in the second year after their departure from the land of Egypt” (v. 1). The book begins, then, with a date, indicating that thirteen months have elapsed since the first Passover. The second verse, in turn, requires a census, a counting “according to the number of their names” (bemispar shemoth). Verse 3 then specifies the ages by the computation of the years, “from twenty years old and above.” Thus, there are three different uses of numbers in the first three verses of this book, and a sustained interest in calculation sets its tone. After these introductory verses, the rest of the chapter has three parts: first, a list of the tribal leaders who will conduct the survey of the tribes (vv. 5–19); second, the results of the survey itself (vv. 20–46); and third, an explanation of why the Levites are not included in this census (vv. 47–54). The large and central part of this chapter is the first census,
out of step with god which is clearly made for military purposes, since it concentrates on the males eligible for warfare. Josephus recognized the military purpose of this survey: “Now when the things pertaining to legislation seemed to [Moses] to be in good order, he undertook a survey of the army, with a view to preparing for battles” (The Antiquities of the Jews [hereafter Antiquities] 3.12.4, 287). In addition to the practical function served by this census, it is legitimate to inquire about the theological significance of the book’s beginning, with four whole chapters dedicated to this theme. Why does the Word of God go to the trouble of providing a list of the totals of each of Israel’s tribes? If, as the Apostle Paul says, all these things were written for our instruction (Rom. 15:4), what lesson did the Holy Spirit intend when He caused these lists to be recorded three millennia ago? I believe we may consider three points in this respect: First, this opening census confirms a truth about the biblical God—namely, that He accounts for all things. If not a sparrow falls to the ground without His notice (Matt. 10:29), certainly He knows each Israelite who faltered in the wilderness. This census, accordingly, is a record of His judgments, and as such it symbolizes and prefigures the inspection to be made at the end of time, when the thrones are set and the books are opened. Second, these numbers of the various tribes serve to memorialize those who perished in the wilderness. The God who numbers the very hairs of our heads did not permit to be obliterated from memory those who had witnessed His wonders in Egypt and Sinai. Those Israelites were, after all, the eyewitnesses of the great deeds of redemption, the magnalia Dei: the plagues visited on Egypt, the deliverance at the Red Sea, the giving of the Law, the falling of the manna, and all the rest. This was the people that saw the Nile turned to blood and whose nostrils were offended by the rotting
carcasses of a million frogs. These were the people—recorded by their fathers’ houses—who observed the first Passover in the land of their captivity. Although these six hundred thousand were counted unworthy to enter the Promised Land, the Lord in His mercy deigned to enter their memory into the Sacred Scriptures. The Medieval rabbi, Rashi, commented: “He counts them from time to time, because they are dear to Him” (on Num. 1:1). Third, these lists serve to replace the tombstones of those who died in the desert. Though they all lay in myriad unmarked tombs, their memory is enshrined here in letters more lasting than stone. During the more than three thousand years that have elapsed since the last of them succumbed to the heat and fatigue of the wilderness, their memory has survived through the patient labor of Jewish and Christian copyists. Thus, the reader of the Book of Numbers enters this story, as it were, through the arched gateway of a cemetery, to stroll among the tombs and observe this vast company at rest in their serried ranks. If he reads the text closely, he may hear the voice of the recording angel who reports to the Almighty, “All present and accounted for, Sir.” In the final part of the chapter (vv. 47–54) Moses is instructed not to calculate the house of Levi with the rest of the tribes, because they are not to fight within the army. The Levites will have a census of their own in chapter 3. It is traditional to see in these verses the origin of the custom of clerical exemption from military service, an exemption naturally giving rise to moral reflections on the incompatibility of the military and clerical professions. To assess the value and pertinence of such reflections, it will be useful to look at certain features of this exemption:
out of step with god First, the reason given for releasing the ministers of the altar from military service is the fact that they are already occupied with carrying the tabernacle and its appurtenances, chiefly the ark of the covenant. As the soldiers march with their weapons in hand, the priestly tribe is busy handling the instruments of worship and sacrifice. As we shall see in the next chapter, the tabernacle of testimony is to be borne in the very center of the marching troop, and the Levites are to surround it as a sort of cordon of protection. They are not armed, but they are charged with protecting this very center of Israel’s life and identity. This “clerical exemption” from military service is, therefore, a symbolic provision, indicating the correct structure and order of Israel’s existence. It is literally hieratic in nature, expressing less an ethical principle than a sacramental intuition. Second, because of its sacramental symbolism, the clerical exemption from combat is far from absolute in practice. Perhaps the most obvious evidence of this limitation comes during the period of the Maccabees, when a priestly family actually leads the forces of Israel against its oppressors. Third, although the Levites were not charged to fight against Israel’s enemies, they certainly do, on occasion, fight against the Israelites themselves! Indeed, the Book of Exodus already told how, in the incident of the golden calf, the Levites slaughtered a large number of their fellow citizens in order to preserve the moral integrity of the people (32:26–29), and in chapter 25 of the present book, Phineas, the grandson of Aaron, will lead a similar bloody assault for the same purpose. Indeed, the second census will not be conducted until after that purging. Thus, the biblical exemption of the Levites from military service does not necessarily suggest an affinity between the clerical ministry and pacifism. Indeed, the memory of Levi himself would render such an
affinity improbable. We recall that he was a patriarch overly disposed to spill blood (Gen. 34:25–31). At the very end of his life, Jacob lamented the bellicose dispositions of Levi and Simeon (Gen. 49:5–7). In sum, there is scant biblical evidence for the suggestion that “priests don’t fight.”
2 Excursus “THOUSANDS” Commentators have often remarked on the extraordinary numbers indicated in this first chapter, mentioning that, if these numbers of warriors are taken at face value, then Israel certainly had the largest army in the ancient world and could easily—with or without weapons—have defeated the combined forces of both Egypt and Babylon. Indeed, Alexander the Great conquered much of the world, from the Danube to the Indus Rivers, with an army only a fraction of the size of the army indicated here in Numbers. Moreover, how do we explain that the Israelites in the desert felt themselves outnumbered by the Canaanites? The archaeology of Palestine during the second millennium before Christ indicates a population much smaller than Israel’s, if the figures in the Book of Numbers are correct. Indeed, if the size of Moses’ army was really as large as is indicated in this book—six hundred thousand—then the major miracle at the Exodus was God’s deliverance of the largest group of abject cowards ever assembled on the earth! It is important to understand that the difficulty with these figures is overwhelming. If Israel really did have a fighting force of six hundred thousand, its total population would have been between
out of step with god two and two and a half million. So large a crowd, walking eight abreast, would have stretched down the entire length of the Sinai Peninsula and back up again, not counting their animals and baggage. Indeed, one questions how Moses managed to communicate with a procession of people 350 miles long. In addition, we also know (from 3:40–42) that the number of Israel’s firstborn sons was 22,273. If, however, the total number of its adult men was six hundred thousand, this means that each man had twenty-six brothers, not counting sisters. This figure suggests extraordinary birth rates, far beyond anything considered normal in Holy Scripture. In short, we have ample reason to suspect that something is seriously amiss in the population figures in the Book of Numbers. Solutions to this problem have not been lacking. Some have suggested, for instance, that somehow an extra zero has managed to slip into these figures, requiring us to correct them down to ten percent. In this way, the number of warriors in Israel would have been 60,355 (still a very large force for the time) within the population of 200,000–250,000. This solution may at first seem reasonable, unless we bear in mind that it is postulated on Arabic numerals, which include the zero. The zero as a decimal digit, however, did not make its appearance in mathematics until AD 876 (in India), roughly two thousand years after the Exodus! To gain a more realistic assessment of the situation, however, it is useful to bear in mind that the Hebrew word for “thousand,” ’eleph, is actually a subdivision of a tribe, the numerical count of which varied a great deal but seldom came to a full thousand. In the context of this chapter ’eleph indicates a military unit, comparable to our “battalion,” “regiment,” “squadron,” or “brigade.” The numerical force of any of these units may vary a great deal, and this is also true of ’eleph. If this military context is borne in mind,
the very high numbers of troops in this chapter are rendered much more plausible than at first seems to be the case. All such suggestions remain hypothetical and, in varying degrees, problematic. Whatever their value, there is no escaping the serious historical difficulties involved in understanding the word ’eleph, as used in Numbers, to mean “thousand.”
NUMBERS 2 2 As the Israelite tribes journeyed through the wilderness, they really marched. Which is to say, they walked in martial ranks, both of these words derived from the name Mars, the Roman god of war. We speak of that era as a period of “wandering” in the desert, but this wandering was marked by an internal structure of great cohesion and purpose. The wandering Israelites were—as God’s people must ever be—a company of warriors. Consequently, the organization of Israel in the desert was arranged along martial lines, an arrangement that should not surprise us in light of the military interest of the census in the preceding chapter. As in any military expedition, it was imperative to know just where the various forces were stationed and where it was feasible, if need be, to deploy them. We find this imperative at play in the present chapter. Indeed, it seems to have been the major determining factor of Israel’s physical organization. Whereas the previous chapter had recorded the troop strength of each tribe, the present chapter strategically distributes that strength. In addition, each tribe was answerable to a single commander, identified in every instance (vv. 3, 5, 7, 10, 12, 14, 18, 20, 22, 25, 27, 29). No good military leader would be satisfied with less organization. The military formation was elaborate: The tabernacle of God’s presence, Israel’s theological hearth, was placed in the center (v. 2),
and around it all the tribes were gathered in a sort of square for its protection (compare Ezek. 48:30–35). The priests and Levites, naturally, were positioned nearest to the tabernacle, the care of the latter being their chief charge. In fact, the strategic position of each large unit was made visible by its corresponding ensign, which served as a symbol of every soldier’s position and direction on the field (vv. 2, 3, 10, 17, 18, 25, 31, 34; compare 1:52). Later rabbinic sources suggested attractive features of these flags. Thus, Ibn Ezra pictured each flag as bearing an image symbolic of a particular tribe, much as we find in Jacob’s prophecies in Genesis 49: a lion for Judah, a serpent for Dan, a ship for Zebulon, and so forth. Equally attractive was Rashi’s suggestion that the colors of the flags corresponded to the twelve precious stones on the pectoral mounting worn by the high priest. He also cited older Jewish sources, according to whom the twelve tribes assumed the same formation around the tabernacle as their corresponding twelve patriarchs assumed when they carried the funeral bier of Jacob. As the people marched eastward, with the entrance of the tabernacle facing forward, the foremost troop was formed by the largest of the tribes, Judah, flanked by Zebulon and Issachar (vv. 3–9). Directly behind this large formation marched Aaron and the other priests, forming the immediate front guard of the tabernacle (3:38). To the south of the tabernacle, forming the right flank of Israel’s total force, were placed the tribes of Gad, Reuben, and Simeon (vv. 10–16). To their immediate left, forming the southern guard of the tabernacle, marched the Koathite Levites (3:29). We should particularly note that the Reubenites (including Dathan and Abiram) marched and camped adjacent to the Koathites (including Korah) on the south side of the army (vv. 10–11). This arrangement would, in due course, provide opportunity for the two
out of step with god groups to share the grievances they had respecting the leadership of Moses and Aaron. In due course these groups of Reubenites and Levites would join forces in rebellion against Moses and Aaron in chapter 16. To the west, directly behind the tabernacle, were the Gershomite Levites (3:23), behind whom marched—as the rear guard of the whole force—the tribes of Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin (vv. 18–24). On the north side, forming the left flank of Israel’s force, were the tribes of Dan, Naphtali, and Asher (vv. 25–31), directly south of whom—guarding the north side of the tabernacle—marched the Merarite Levites (3:35). If the overall arrangement of the Israelite march served a military purpose, it did not exclude other aspects, particularly of a theological nature. This is arguably clearest in the case of Judah, destined to be the royal tribe (Gen. 49:8–12) from which, in due course, the Messiah would come. Judah, accordingly, is placed to the east (v. 3), the direction of the rising sun, a position blessed with myriad attendant symbolisms.
NUMBERS 3 2 We may distinguish four parts in the present chapter: 1. a small listing of the Aaronic family itself, the priestly household to whose service the rest of the Levitical tribe is assigned (vv. 1–4); 2. a general description of the duties of the Levites (vv. 5–13); 3. an initial and large census of the tribe of Levi (vv. 14–39); 4. an outline for the financial provision for the Levites (vv. 40–51). In this chapter too, of course, the preoccupation is with “numbers” (vv. 15, 16, 22, 28, 34, 39, 40, 42), a preoccupation carried over, at the end, to financial considerations (vv. 47–50). First, this chapter speaks of Aaron’s sons (vv. 1–4), a discourse that must include, and even start with, the tragedy attendant on the unfaithful ministry of the two oldest of those sons, Nadab and Abihu (v. 4), whose sin is recounted in Leviticus 10:1–2 and Numbers 26:61. This tragedy was a very sobering experience for Israel and served to brace the spirits of the remaining priests. For instance, when we consider the later zeal of Phineas, the nephew of Nadab and Abihu, it is reasonable to think that his zeal came, in part at least, from his fearful reaction to the tragedy of his uncles. In any case, Nadab and Abihu died without offspring, leaving only Eleazar and Ithamar to carry on the Aaronic line. We recall that Nadab and Abihu perished for their failure to observe the correct ritual. They had done a thing “unauthorized”
out of step with god (zara). Their punishment stands as a perpetual warning with respect to the Lord’s views on private liturgical innovation. The Levites’ custody of the instruments of worship (v. 10) was intended to guarantee that that sort of thing did not happen again. An important aspect of this ministry is that of custodianship (shamar mishmeret, “guard duty”) over the precincts of the sanctuary. Indeed, this component of the ordained ministry remains perpetually valid for the people of God, those charged to stand guard over the gifts of God. These gifts include, first of all, the Gospel itself, which must be protected against heresy, but also includes the Sacraments and the actual texts of Holy Scripture. During times of persecution the Christian Church sees a special malice in the sin of the traditores, those who hand over the Sacred Scriptures, the liturgical books, or the sacred vessels of the altar to the enemies of God. Second, just as the firstfruits of all products belonged by right to the service of God, the sons of Levi were regarded as the firstborn sons of Israel and therefore devoted entirely to God’s service (vv. 11–12, 41, 45–46). This analogy indicates that there was a sacrificial quality to the lives of those who served in the sanctuary, which was the place of sacrifice. The Levites, the non-Aaronic members of the Levitical tribe, were “given” to assist Aaron and his sons in the ministry. This term “given,” netunim, became the name of certain ministers within the Levitical order at the time of the restoration of the temple after the Babylonian captivity (Ezra 2:43, 58, 70; 7:7, 24; 8:17, 20; Neh. 3:26, 31; 7:46, 60, 73; 10:28; 11:3, 21), but here the term appears to refer to all the Levites, who are also said to be “given” to the Lord (8:16). The early Christians thought of their own order of deacons (diakonoi, “servants”) as the New Testament’s correspondence to the Old Testament order of Levites (see Clement of Rome 40.1–5). Third comes the census of Levi (vv. 14–39), the clerical family
that marched closest to the tabernacle of the divine presence. The census of the Levites is twofold: first, a counting of all the males of at least one month in age (vv. 14–39) and, second, a census of those Levites who, having reached the age of thirty, are qualified to participate in the Levitical ministry (4:1–49). There are two reasons children are included in this initial census: First, unlike the census in the previous chapter, this census has nothing to do with military service. Second, because the tribe of Levi did not defect when all the other adults in Israel did in the incident of the golden calf, the Levites did not fall under the “death curse” imposed on the rest of Israel’s adults. Hence, when they are counted, the children are counted too. This initial census of the Levites divides their three groups (v. 17), assigning specific duties to each. Unlike chapter 4, which stresses the “labor” (‘aboda) of the Levites, the present census concentrates on their “guard duty” (mishmeret). Of these two censuses, the present one is the larger, since in principle all Levites stood guard. Contrast the totals of these two censuses by comparing 3:39 with 4:48. This census first traces the descendants of Levi (vv. 18–20), a lineage corresponding to Exodus 6 and later reflected in 1 Chronicles 5 and 23. Each division of the tribe of Levi was assigned to carry and care for specified instruments for the worship in the tabernacle (vv. 25–26, 31, 36–37). Like the other tribes, which were divided into four groups to form a square around the tabernacle, the sons of Levi were divided into four to form a small square inside the larger one (vv. 23, 29, 35, 38). This arrangement itself is symmetric and related to the theme of numbers. In this last reference (v. 38) we observe that among the sons of Levi, Moses and Aaron and his sons occupied the position of honor, to the east, nearest the tribe of Judah. This arrangement would
out of step with god eventually be expressed by the establishment of the temple in the tribe of Judah so that this latter tribe, especially its king, would become the chosen protectors of the priesthood. This will become a large theme in the Book of Chronicles. This census reminds us that the Old Testament priesthood was one of biological inheritance in which sons succeeded and were trained by their fathers. This ministry was one of trust and duty and included the safeguarding of the instruments and appointments for the maintenance of Israel’s sacrificial cult (v. 8). The fourth part of this chapter (vv. 40–51) provides for the physical maintenance of the Levites and their families. Although this provision is set in the context of the desert, its references to money indicate that a later setting is presumed—perhaps the period of the Judges, Saul, and David—after the conquest but before the temple. This is one of several places in the Pentateuch where the subject matter presupposes a social context later that Moses. In this arrangement, the Levites are portrayed as replacing— substituting for—the firstborn sons among the other tribes. The established ransom of the firstborn sons (see Ex. 13:2; 22:29–30; 34:19–20; Lev. 27:26–27) is applied to these Levites who “stand in for” them in the service of God (vv. 11–13, 40–43). When the calculations are made, the sum of Israel’s firstborn sons is 273 higher than the sum of the Levites (compare vv. 39 and 43). This surplus number is taken to represent the Aaronic household (vv. 44–51). When the lives of these firstborn are “redeemed,” that redemption is calculated in terms of a tax of five shekels per head in support of the Levitical families (see 18:15–18). The actual value of these shekels at the time is wholly a matter of speculation. Nor is there any indication how the tax was collected. Beyond these details, the principle involved is very clear: because
the Levites ministered on behalf of Israel, Israel as a whole assumed their support as a duty. This is a highly specialized instance of what sociologists call “the division of labor”: because the labor of the Levites, which is the detailed subject of the next chapter, removed them from the opportunity to support their families in other ways, the whole congregation of Israel was obliged to see to their sustenance. Obviously this principle is also maintained in the New Testament ministries of the apostles and their missionary teams (1 Cor. 9:1–14).
2 Excursus THE STRUCTURE OF THE MARCH This march of the people of God through the desert indicates the structure of their pilgrimage throughout the ages: First, with respect to the Church as a whole, all her aspects are centered on the presence of the Lord in her midst. This presence of God is the Church’s core and center, the protected concentration of her being. This living center is made up of the Divine Mysteries: the confessed and unaltered Faith once given to the saints, the integrity of her sacraments, the canon of her Scriptures, the inviolable purity of the Tradition by which she is defined. The Church lives from that precious nucleus, which is to be safeguarded at all costs. If that living and life-giving center does not “hold,” we are no longer the people of God. It may appear, for a while, that we are more “successful” in some respects. If we abandon, for instance, certain components of our inherited worship in order to make the worship more accessible to our contemporaries, it is possible that
out of step with god our membership will initially grow, because we make better contact with the religious aspirations of the world around us. This experience of success, however, is deceptive, and even dangerous. In due course we will learn that we have betrayed our identity in the Lord by permitting the world to change the Church, whereas it is the vocation of the Church to transform the world. It is impossible for the people of God to transform the world by giving up its own form. The Church, it is true, may move more slowly and deliberately if she is cautious not to lose her identifying center. This, however, is a small price to pay for integrity and the maintenance of identity. Some have remarked that apologetics is the most dangerous part of Christian thought, and the reason for this is simple. Apologetics is the discipline of making the Gospel accessible to the world’s understanding. This discipline is a necessary and important aspect of evangelism. There remains the ongoing danger, however, that our efforts to make the Gospel more accessible to unbelievers may, if only by inadvertence, alter some important and essential dimension of the Gospel. The modern world, for instance, taking its cue from the expectations of the physical sciences, is fond of logical coherence and symmetry. Christians should reflect, however, that this preference represents nothing more than a bias. The most significant “forms” in this world, after all, are not symmetric. A sonnet, for instance, is generally compounded from an octet and a sestet, not two sets of seven lines each. The vitality of the sonnet depends, in some measure, on the tension between two unequal parts: an octet and a sestet. That is to say, the vitality of the sonnet is related to the asymmetry of its composition. The vitality we enjoy in sonnets we also hope to find in symphonies and sunsets. Virtually every major heresy condemned by the early Church
took its rise in the effort to render the Gospel accessible to unbelievers. To return to the imagery of our metaphor, this activity directed to the world outside the Church runs the constant danger of putting the core of the Divine Mysteries in peril. Second, what is true for the people of God as a whole is also true of each believer. He, too, must keep inviolate his center, that core of his being where he is in communion with God. He must permit no outside influence to deflect his attention from that center. It is imperative that he should engage in no activity, even intellectual and imaginative activity, which would endanger that spiritual center. The believer must maintain the flame that burns before God in the tabernacle of the heart. He must see that an inner core of Levites stands vigilant over that living center of his being.
NUMBERS 4 2 The duties of the Levitical ministry were apportioned among their three clans. The tasks in this chapter all have to do with carrying the tabernacle and its myriad instruments and appointments from place to place. Each time the Israelites moved, the tabernacle had to be disassembled and packed up, and each time they arrived at a new place, it was necessary to reassemble everything again. Accordingly, this chapter breaks into four sections. The first three treat the duties of the three Levitical families, the heirs of Levi’s three sons: Kohath (vv. 1–20), Gershon (vv. 21–28), and Merari (vv. 29–33). The fourth section (vv. 34–49) is a summary of the Levitical census. In the distribution of the labor, the first place is given to the Kohathites, the descendants of Levi’s second son (Ex. 6:16). The primacy of this clan was surely determined by the fact that Amram, the father of Moses and Aaron, belonged to it (Ex. 6:18, 20), so it was more closely related to the priestly family itself (vv. 2–4). The task of the Kohathites was to carry the sacred vessels associated immediately with the ritual of the tabernacle. Even this, however, they were unable to do until the priests themselves had properly wrapped and prepared everything according to a very detailed prescription (vv. 5–14). Only under the careful supervision of Eleazar, the older of Aaron’s two remaining sons, could the Kohathites presume to carry this great burden (v. 15).
The task of the sons of Kohath, then, was plain and uncomplicated: they were simply to bear the burden of Israel’s holiness, embodied in the tabernacle and its contents. Theirs was a patient labor. Indeed, they were explicitly prohibited from looking at the things they carried on their shoulders; in addition, all these things were to be covered over and concealed from view. The Kohathites thus represent all of those human souls who bear through history the mystery of holiness that abides among the people of God. Such saints are keenly aware of the mystery they carry, even though they may spend their lives without the leisure or opportunity to gaze upon the beauty they bear. These myriad Kohathites, who carry through their lives the hidden core of God’s presence among us, form the very backbone of Christian history. Without them, in fact, there would be no Christian history, precisely because they are the ones who carry it. Without the children of Kohath, the people of God would long ago have perished in the wilderness. The next place in the Levitical order was held by the Gershonites (vv. 21–28), the descendants of Levi’s eldest son, who were charged with carrying the various drapes, veils, and hangings of the tabernacle. Ithamar, Aaron’s younger son, supervised this work. The clan of Merari, Levi’s youngest son, was to carry the more solid parts of the tabernacle, the sections made of wood and metal (vv. 29–33). This task was also to be supervised by Ithamar. In the instructions given to the sons of Gershon and Merari, we see nothing of the sense of caution directed to the Kohathites. The reason for this is obvious: the Gershonites and Merarites carried the various components of the tabernacle itself, not the items concealed within. That is to say, the burdens carried by these two families were not dangerous to look upon; they did not represent the sacred mysteries but were simply the coverings of those mysteries.
out of step with god Consequently, the vocations of these two tribes were not thought of as especially “dangerous,” whereas the vocation of the Kohathites was constantly surrounded with peril. This consideration indicates, I believe, the symbolism of the vocation of the Gershonites and Merarites: because their work was a step removed from proximity to what is intrinsically holy, it was safer in the sense of being more secular, as it were, and less spiritual. In other words, it ran a smaller spiritual risk. Another example of vocations may illustrate this difference: if we think of a road builder, it is obvious that his calling is spiritually less dangerous than that of a poet or musical composer. The road builder merely lays down a path over which men and their animals will walk. What he accomplishes may be—and sometimes is—of great significance, but it does not directly touch the human soul. The musical composer and the poet, on the other hand, directly and immediately touch the human soul. They give structure to the way human beings look at the world, thus conferring spiritual shape on those who listen to their poetry and music. The same distinction is discernible if we compare the vocations of the teacher and the longshoreman. The teacher may be damned forever to hell for offenses a longshoreman will never be in a position to commit. In summary, the more “spiritual” a person’s calling, the greater spiritual risk he runs. By such a standard, the most dangerous vocations in the world are those of governing and pastoring. This is why ancient thinkers, such as Cicero and St. John Chrysostom, were careful to caution those who would either govern or pastor. After the duties of each of the Levitical clans are listed, the fourth and final part of this chapter (vv. 34–49) gives the census of each clan and the total of all of them.
NUMBERS 5 2 These next two chapters give various prescriptions, partly repeating the Holiness Code in Leviticus 17—26. The present chapter has three parts: first, statutes about exclusion (vv. 1–4); second, rules for confession and restitution (vv. 5–10); and third, provisions for trial by ordeal (vv. 11–31). First, then, are the statutes about exclusion. In accordance with this book’s concern with proportion and due order, this section begins with the “cleanliness” of the camp, the marked term referring to both hygienic and religious considerations (vv. 2–4). These prescribed expulsions from the camp did not involve a removal of citizenship; those affected by the statutes did not cease to be members of the congregation. Their condition, nonetheless, and a solicitude for the welfare of the congregation, required that they should be treated in a special way that involved a measure of exclusion. The holiness and well-being of God’s people in this world have ever required exclusionary canons of this sort, analogous to the laws of quarantine by which other societies are protected from harm. The notion of “infection” covers a wide application of pathologies, whether moral, psychological, intellectual, or physical (see 1 Cor. 5:7–13; 2 Cor. 6:16–18; Rev. 21:27). As long as we are in this world, healthy societies will necessarily resort to censure and exclusion from time to time. Much as hospitals contain isolation units, the Church has canons
out of step with god and pastoral provisions to safeguard Her general membership from the toxic influences of those who violate charity, truth, justice, and good order. Pastors should take these provisions very seriously. I confess to having seen a number of examples of both parishes and monasteries where life became nearly unbearable by reason of the pastor’s failure to impose the discipline necessary to curtail such abuses. A pastor’s first responsibility is discernment, and the most elementary form of pastoral discernment is the ability to distinguish between a sheep and a wolf. It is sad to say—but also honest—that many a pastor who went out to retrieve what he understood to be a lost sheep instead returned to the flock carrying a wolf on his shoulders. The second part of this chapter (vv. 5–10) provides the rules for repentance and restoration that follow those of exclusion (vv. 1–4). We observe that such repentance and restoration also involve an open, audible confession of the offense (v. 7), a confession explicit enough to determine the size of the restitution and the nature of the sacrifice offered for its atonement. This confession is official in the sense that the established priesthood receives it. Even in the Old Testament, therefore, the priest served as a Father Confessor. In both the Old Testament and the New, the priest represents the qahal, the ekklesia, God’s people in assembly. The priest, in both covenants, is the man designated to receive the repentance of the sinner on behalf of the Church. Reconciliation with the Church—whether in the Old Testament or the New—is an integral part of one’s reconciliation with God. Indeed, our Lord told us not to bring our offerings to Him until we are reconciled to one another. No one can bypass the Church in order to “go directly to God,” because God did not set it up that way; He conferred on the Church, and more specifically the pastoral ministry of the Church, the authority to bind and loose.
This is the reason that an explicit confession of one’s sins is required of the sinner, in both the Old Testament and the New (see 1 John 1:9). If a person imagines he will be forgiven his sins without that confession (or, at least, endeavoring to make that confession), he has a theology of sin and atonement very different from that of the Bible. Third, and perhaps most bewildering to the modern mind, is a provision for trial by ordeal (vv. 11–31). A certain affinity of symbolism may be the connecting line between the foregoing rules of restitution and these ensuing regulations for trial by ordeal. Once again the nature of the alleged offense is made known to the priest (verse v. 15). Indeed, the ritual itself required the use of “holy water” (mayim qedoshim—v. 17), which was mixed with the very dust from the floor of the sanctuary. The sanctuary, as is clear, sanctified everything that it contained, including the dust. In context, it seems, God Himself was thought to punish the woman who failed this test, evidently by the curse of barrenness (vv. 27–28). The passage does not indicate that she was stoned to death, the usual punishment for adultery proven in court (Lev. 20:10). This biblical example expresses a persuasion of the validity of trial by ordeal. Attested as early as Hammurabi’s Code and the Code of Ur-Nummu, this kind of trial—at least implicitly—invoked divine intervention to establish someone’s guilt or innocence. Apart from the explicit warrant conveyed in the present biblical text, such a trial could easily become a tempting of God (see Matt. 4:6–7). For this reason we find efforts to resist it at various times in Christian history. For instance, among the Franks it was abolished by Louis the Pious in 829. Two forms of it—trials by fire and water—were prohibited by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. Nonetheless, we still find instances of its application as recently as the early eighteenth century. Modern readers are familiar with this
out of step with god practice through popular novels like Jo Beverley’s Lord of Midnight. In one sense, I think, the present text lies at the very fringes of biblical religion. In the narrative parts of Holy Scripture, no evidence suggests that the ritual prescribed here was much in use. It should probably be regarded as having no sustained significance in biblical theology. We are likely correct in lumping it with the early Christian practice of baptism for the dead (1 Cor. 15:29). We may add that even this ritual was not without its interest in quantity and proportion. The measuring device mentioned, the ephah (v. 15), seems to have contained about seven pints.
NUMBERS 6 2 This chapter, the second of two containing regulations pertinent to holiness, is made up of two parts of unequal length. The first part is a collection of laws pertaining to a special consecratory vow (vv. 1–21), and the second contains a prayer of priestly blessing (vv. 22–27). This chapter’s consecratory vow created what Israel called a nazir, a person of either sex who was dedicated to the service of God in a special way for a specified length of time. The present chapter is the only place in the Torah where this consecration is mentioned. The nazir was “consecrated to the Lord” in the sense that he was set apart from the normal life of men, a separation that meant holiness (qadosh—vv. 5, 8) and was an illustration of Israel’s own consecration to the Lord as a special people set apart. A characteristic of the nazir’s discipline was that, like the priest in the time of his own service at the altar, he refrained from drinking fermented beverages and from handling dead bodies. That is to say, during the period covered by the vow, the nazir lived a life analogous to the priesthood (vv. 3–4, 6–7). As a sign of his consecration, the nazir’s hair was not trimmed during the time covered by the vow (v. 5), a regulation that may have prompted some candidates, prior to the vow, to shave their heads (see Acts 21:24). When the determined time of the nazir’s vow was finished, the
out of step with god event was marked by appropriate and specified sacrifices (vv. 13–17), followed by the shaving of the head, the hair being burned with one of the sacrifices (v. 18). In one instance of which we know, Samson, the nazir’s consecration was for life (Judg. 13:2–7), a tragic instance suggesting why the vocation was rare. The priestly prayer of benediction that follows these rubrics is a general blessing not related to the nazir (vv. 22–27). So why does it appear at this place? It closes off a long section of the Torah, a collection of mainly legal material concerning the priesthood, extending from Leviticus 1 through the present chapter. The next chapter (Num. 7:1) will return to the day when Moses set up the tabernacle at the end of the Book of Exodus (40:17). Then, the movement of the story will continue for the next few chapters, proceeding from that date and preparing for the first movement of the camp and the tabernacle fifty days later (Num. 10:11). Thus, the priestly blessing prescribed in these verses completes the ritual prescribed for the priesthood, much as the blessing itself seems to have served as a final blessing—both in Judaism and among some Christians—at the end of liturgical services (see Lev. 9:22). According to these verses, it is the duty of the priest to pronounce God’s benediction over God’s people. The work of the priest is to bless. When priests bless God’s people, God also blesses His people (v. 27). The wording of the blessing itself is theologically rich. It is significant that the Torah, which strictly insists that no one can see God’s face and live, nonetheless asks that the light of the divine face should shine on His servants. At the end of every liturgical service in the Old Testament, over the span of many centuries, it was the responsibility of the priest to beseech the light of God’s countenance over Israel.
This is, in fact, a prayer for the Incarnation, in which “the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness . . . has shone in our hearts unto the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). This was the blessing that accompanied every sacrifice offered by the hands of the Aaronic priesthood. Thus, the entire priestly ministry of the Old Testament—every oblation, every holocaust, every peace offering, every prayer, every hymn—was pointed to the light of the Incarnation, in which the divine glory is revealed in the face of Christ. Every time that benediction was pronounced over Israel, it was a pleading for the Word to become flesh and dwell among us, that we might see His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.
NUMBERS 7 2 This chapter returns to the narrative sequence broken off at the end of the Book of Exodus. The reader finds himself at the scene of the dedication of the tabernacle, described in Exodus 40:1–32. The tabernacle, with its altar, has been consecrated by the outpouring of God’s presence and is ready to receive Israel’s first offerings. One of the longest passages in Holy Scripture (eighty-nine verses), this chapter covers the offerings made on behalf of Israel’s “princes,” meaning the tribal leaders (nasi’ im, the very word translated as “captains” in chapter 2). This word, an ancient and generic name for any leader of a tribal people, especially has reference to the kind of leadership exercised in the setting of the desert. Thus we find it used to designate the leaders of those who lived in the Negev Desert, such as the Midianites (Numbers 25; Josh. 13:21) and the Arabs (Gen. 17:20 [where the number is also twelve!]). The title corresponds rather exactly to the later Arabic sheik. These nasi’im brought the first offerings to be sacrificed after the construction of the tabernacle was completed (v. 1), and their number—twelve—shows that the nasi’im served as representatives of the respective tribes (vv. 2–3). It is instructive that the theological (and now—since Moses—political) unity of God’s people does not destroy their tribal character. Indeed, the preservation of a “tribal” identity is in some sense eternal (see Rev. 5:9). These tribal offerings, made over twelve consecutive days, begin
with the tribe of Judah (v. 12), which, as we have had occasion to remark, already enjoyed the primacy prophesied and promised by Jacob (Gen. 49:8–12). The names of the nasi’im in this chapter correspond exactly to those in chapters 1 and 2. The order here, however, corresponds to the martial list in chapter 2 rather than the patriarchal ranking in chapter 1. Thus, Issachar follows Judah, and so on. Once again, we observe in this chapter’s list the same care for numerical precision that we have seen all along in this book. We note especially its sustained recourse to the shekel, the standard unit of weight for metals (passim, but see especially vv. 84–86). Since the offering of every tribe was identical to the others, it is reasonable to inquire why the sacred text goes into such repeated detail when each offering is listed. Three ideas suggest themselves in this respect: First, this is an official record, much like the list of gifts recorded in the archives of a parish church; it required exactness. Second, this attention to detail is a way of emphasizing the integrity (and, apparently, equality, for all the gifts are equal) of every tribe. Third, this detailed listing gives the reader the leisure to enjoy the procession as each unit, with considerable solemnity, presents itself. The literary style follows a liturgical and military manner, as it were, giving the reader the impression of being present at the event. The style resembles a military muster, in the course of which each unit leader says exactly the same words as the others (“All present and accounted for, sir!”). The author is obviously not in a hurry to get through this list, nor should the reader be. Much the same sense is conveyed in the Book of Revelation, which contains a detailed accounting of the twelve tribes in the scene where they are all sealed on their foreheads. Exactly the same refrain appears for each of the tribes, so the effect is a kind of litany
out of step with god (Rev. 7:1–8). Both passages—Numbers and Revelation—contain the pronounced feeling of a liturgical procession. The gifts of Israel’s tribal leaders are borne two-by-two on six wagons, each of which is drawn by two oxen (v. 3). Pairings of this sort are not surprising if we bear in mind, once again, the image of a liturgical procession, in which it has long been common to march two-by-two. Memory reverts to the animals walking by pairs into Noah’s ark. One thinks also of the sending forth of the apostles two-by-two. The people of God, we are reminded, do not waltz into heaven. On the contrary, the saints go marching in. At the end of this long and impressive procession, Moses goes before the Lord in the tabernacle to listen to His voice (qol) proceeding from the “mercy seat” (kaphoreth; see Ex. 25:17–22) over the ark of the covenant (v. 89). As the place where the Lord gave instruction to Moses, the kaphoreth replaced the burning bush and Mount Sinai.
NUMBERS 8 2 The present chapter, concerned with miscellaneous regulations regarding the Levites, begins with the subject of ritual lamps in the sanctuary (vv. 1–4; Ex. 25:31–40; Lev. 24:2–4), which were maintained by the Levites. The lampstand—Hebrew menorah—described here (v. 4) has already been mentioned in this book (3:31; 4:9). It had seven lamps and was constructed so as to suggest a sort of tree, with the flames themselves portrayed as fruits springing from flowers. The original and primary purpose of such lamps was simple illumination in enclosed areas such as temples—places not readily open to sunlight. As these lamps, nonetheless, were actual fires burning within sacred precincts, it was inevitable that a sacred significance would be attached to them. Shining in the darkness of the sanctuary, for example, the flames on the menorah came to be likened to the seven eyes—the omniscience—of God (Zech. 4:1–4; Rev. 1:14; 5:6). Following the hint given by Flavius Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews 3.6.7), more than one religious philosopher has remarked that a lamp or candle is simply the human substitute for the sun. To light a candle is to imitate the sunrise. Consequently, such a flame would naturally assume in the human imagination the mystic symbolisms associated with the sun itself. For this reason, there are probably few religions in the world that forego the use of sacred lamps, and the Christian religion is emphatically not among them (see Acts 20:8).
out of step with god Nor is the religion of heaven itself deprived of this blessing. Indeed, for a correct understanding of the Old Testament’s tabernacle, it is imperative to remember that it was crafted on the heavenly model that Moses, in a mystic vision, beheld when he was on the mountain (Ex. 25:40; Heb. 8:5; 9:23). And the heavenly sanctuary, which Moses beheld on the mountain, most certainly contained (and still contains!) sacred lamps (v. 4). These heavenly lamps, moreover, were among the first things that the Apostle John looked upon when, like Moses, he was privileged to gaze into the heavenly sanctuary (Rev. 1:12; 4:5). Furthermore, the author of Hebrews, in his description of Moses’ tabernacle, spoke of these lamps before anything else (9:2). Following the treatment of the menorah come lengthy instructions for the consecration of the Levites (vv. 5–22). Four points seem especially worthy of note in this section: First, the Levites are chosen “from among the children of Israel” (v. 6), meaning that they represent Israel in their special ministry to the worship. The Levites are lifted up as a dedicatory offering (v. 11). This is the reason “the children of Israel shall lay their hands on the Levites” (v. 10), just as the Levites lay their hands on the animals sacrificed on their behalf. Both cases provide a substitution: as the offering of the bulls makes atonement for the Levites, so the offering of the Levites makes atonement for Israel. Second, the dedication of the firstborn sons, which figured so prominently in the theology of the paschal lambs, is extended by metaphor to pertain to the Levites. They take the place of Israel’s firstborn sons, a substitution indicating the sacrificial nature of their ministry (vv. 14–19). Third, the material of this section invites comparison with the ceremonies of dedication for the priests in Leviticus 8. The two rites are obviously similar—a feature to be expected—but they are also
different. A notable point of difference is found in the end results of the dedications themselves: whereas the priests are initiated into the realm of holiness (qodesh; Lev. 8:10, 11, 12, 15, 30), the Levites are initiated only in the category of “purification” or “cleanness” (tihar; vv. 7–8). Thus, the Levites are qualified to stand and minister in the holy place, but they may not directly touch those objects that render the place holy. Fourth, the age limits given here for the service of the Levites— between twenty-five and fifty (v. 24)—are different from the ages given in Numbers 4:3, a discrepancy perhaps best explained as interpreting the latter text as referring to the age for military service, as distinct from sanctuary service. The significance of this difference is clear if we bear in mind that the Levites were especially charged with two tasks: the guarding of the holy place and the bearing of burdens pertaining to the holy place. This latter responsibility was assumed only by those Levites in their prime, whereas those Levites on either side of that prime age shared the duty of guarding the holy place. It is worth remarking that the sacred text itself varies somewhat on the proper limits of that prime age, whether (as in the present text) as beginning at age twenty-five or thirty or even twenty (see 1 Chr. 23:24; 2 Chr. 31:17; Ezra 3:8). These differences probably reflect different historical periods and the changes of ministerial needs at various periods. From the perspective of the sociology of religion, the very existence of the Levites indicates a special development in Israel’s “division of labor.” Holy Scripture does not regard a special class of consecrated men to care for the physical aspects of the worship as something at odds with the principle that all of Israel was a consecrated, priestly people. On the contrary, the particular needs of the worship required that certain individuals should be consecrated in special ways.
out of step with god This special consecration is found among the people of God at all times. For instance, Clement of Rome, writing near the end of the first century, saw the ministry of the Levites expressed in the Church in the ministry of the deacons. Others in the Church, over the centuries, have been set aside for worship by special rites of consecration. One thinks of the tonsuring of monks and nuns as examples of such consecrations.
NUMBERS 9 2 There are two parts to this chapter: First, an auxiliary ordinance answers a specific problem that arose in connection with Israel’s second annual celebration of the Passover (vv. 1–14). Second, there is an account of the fiery cloud that accompanied Israel’s journey through the desert (vv. 15–23). Israel now celebrates the second Passover. A whole year has elapsed since their escape from Egypt. As in the case of the first Passover, this text conveys certain concerns of ritual. This material, however, is by way of supplement to the ritual material already prescribed in Exodus 12 and Leviticus 23. The situation described in verses 6–8 introduces a good example of case law. This law, too, is not ascribed to the jurisprudence of Moses but to divine revelation. This is true case law, because it applies not only to the immediate context but to all analogous situations in the future (v. 10). Those whose contact with dead bodies precluded their participation in the Passover Seder are accorded permission to celebrate that feast a month later. This particular case law addresses two concerns: the need for a compassionate flexibility for the Israelite who was ritually contaminated and the need to reaffirm the requirement of ritual purity. The concession made for such persons is extended to those on a journey among unbelievers (v. 10). One recalls the reluctance of Jesus’ enemies to enter the house of Pilate and so defile themselves
out of step with god from sharing the Passover (John 18:28). Failure to observe these rules meant that a person was “cut off” from the community of Israel. Whether or not this expression meant capital punishment, it certainly meant excommunication, so that the offender was no longer part of the congregation of the saved. To be separated from the congregation of the saved is, after all, far worse than simply to be killed. The person “cut off” from Israel was on his own; he was no longer part of salvation history. Especially, such a one must “bear his own sin”—nishsha’ ‘avon. He is no longer part of the covenant, in which is found the remission of sins. He is like Cain, who must wander the earth as a stranger. This teaching remains a point of principle throughout the Bible: remission of sins is provided within the covenant community. One finds salvation by his incorporation into that covenant communion. Otherwise, he is really on his own and must bear his own sins. Resident aliens were permitted to observe this and other liturgical feasts of Israel, since they were also obliged to observe Israel’s weekly day of rest, the Sabbath, and Israel’s annual day of fasting, the Day of Atonement (v. 14). The second part of this chapter (vv. 15–23) features a description of the cloud and pillar of fire. During all its time in the desert, Israel was guided by the pillar of cloud and fire, which was now settled over the tabernacle (vv. 15–16). These two verses evoke the imagery of Exodus 40:2 and 34–38, emphasizing God’s presence in Israel. The Hebrew verbs here are in the imperfect tense, denoting continued or repeated action. They convey the sense that the cloud/pillar presence became normal for Israel. Now, however, that image is associated with the tabernacle, not the mountain. Indeed, God is soon to move His people away from the mountain. In verses 17–23 the message shifts to a concern about complete
obedience to God’s guidance. The Lord’s people were led not only by the fixed, firm, unchanging strictures of the Torah but also by the immediate, mysterious, and applied guidance of the God who was beyond all discernible law. Both forms of guidance were integral to the life of Israel. Both pertained to the “command of the Lord” (‘al pi Adonai; five times in vv. 18, 20, 23). Israel recognized no possibility of conflict between God’s will fixed in the Torah and the more fluid guidance He provided in the cloud and pillar. The divine guidance in the lives of the faithful is ever thus. At no point is God’s revealed will in conflict with the fixed and determined order by which men are ever to be governed, but also at no time is a man justified simply by observing those fixed and permanent norms of the Law. God always guides His people in these two ways. God’s governance of His people is both horizontal and vertical. His horizontal governance means the written Law transmitted down through time. His vertical guidance is the immediate direction given by His Spirit, symbolized in the cloud and pillar. We may think of these two realities as Word and Spirit.
NUMBERS 10 2 After celebrating its second Passover at the base of Mount Sinai, and having received guidance by the movement of the fiery cloud, Israel prepares to leave for the long trek through the desert. Before making its departure, nonetheless, the chosen people receive one more directive—to fashion two silver trumpets to be sounded whenever the whole camp was to receive specific instructions relative to the variations in its march. The first part of this chapter (vv. 1–10) prescribes how the trumpets will be used during the march through the wilderness. They were to be sounded for general assemblies (v. 3) as well as special meetings of the elders (v. 4). In short, all manner of directions could be conveyed by the various blasts and blowing of the trumpets. These included military directions (v. 9) and even liturgical use (v. 10). The trumpeters were the priests (v. 8). According to Josephus (Antiquities 3.12.6), the trumpets were less than a cubit in length—perhaps twenty inches. Crafted of beaten silver, they are not to be confused with the ram’s horn, or shophar. Two further considerations pertain to these silver trumpets: First, employed to direct the movement of Israel through the desert, the trumpets assisted and supplemented the general guidance provided by the fiery cloud (9:15–23). Thus, Israel benefited from two complementary forms of guidance: the fiery cloud, which came
directly from God, and the trumpets, which came through human mediation. The Bible perceives no conflict between the two. Perhaps the fiery cloud can be called “charismatic,” inasmuch at its guidance is immediately divine, and the trumpets may be thought of as “institutional,” because their construction is fixed, permanent, and subject to human decision. Second, these trumpets, which will play such significant roles in the future life of Israel long after the wandering through the wilderness—even being assumed into the liturgical rites of the temple—were derived from a technology not originally intended for God’s service. Originally crafted by a descendant of Cain (see Gen. 4:21), musical instruments did not look very promising when first we learned of them. Moreover, there has often been something a bit problematic about such music, morally considered. When King Nebuchadnezzar employed “the sound of the horn, flute, harp, lyre, and psaltery, in symphony with all kinds of music” (Dan. 3:5) for his idolatrous purposes, it was not the last instance when instrumental music served to deflect men from the worship of the true God. Yet, in fact, God rather early designated musical instruments as appropriate to His own worship in the tabernacle and the temple. And, once again, in the final book of the Bible we find heaven to be a place resonating with the sounds of trumpet and harp. As an added irony, furthermore, instrumental music is limited so exclusively to heaven that the damned are forever deprived of it! The sinful descendants of Cain, the very inventors of harp and flute, will never hear them again, inasmuch as the “sound of harpists, musicians, flutists, and trumpeters shall not be heard in you anymore” (Rev. 18:22). These things are now reserved for the blessed. The regulations regarding the trumpets (vv. 1–10) bring to a close the first major section of Numbers, covering the year that Israel
out of step with god encamped in the valley below Mount Sinai. The second part of this chapter (vv. 11–28) begins the next large section of Numbers: the journey to Kadesh-barnea (10:11—12:16). This section covers two subjects: the departure from Sinai (vv. 11–28) and a story concerning Moses’ in-laws (vv. 29–36). Instructed by the cloud, the Israelites depart from Mount Sinai eleven months after their arrival there and almost fourteen months after the crossing of the Red Sea. Nineteen days have elapsed since the census with which this book began. The chosen people move to Paran, to the north of Sinai, a desert region somewhat south of Kadesh. The cloud, we are told, settles at Paran (v. 2), but the journey to Paran is not described until the following two chapters. One by one, the various tribal standards of the Israelites are lifted, signaling each tribe to break camp and fall in place in the march (vv. 14–28). We have observed the care taken in this book to portray the Israelites—even as they wandered through a trackless wilderness—as a tightly organized group. The entire populace marched as one, tribe by tribe, everyone aware of his responsibilities and his place in the formation. It was like a military expedition. Israel, that is to say, thought of itself as an “organized religion.” Indeed, this picture indicates an important point of ecclesiology: the Almighty does not favor a haphazard, disorganized style for His people. In both the Old Testament and the New, the Church is described as a living organism, not a shapeless mass of individuals. From the perspective of its immediate context, we recognize that such discipline was necessary to the people’s survival in the desert. As we shall see in the ensuing chapters, this organization was crucial, because the Israelites tended to be scofflaws. Through the next two chapters we will find no fewer than three crises of authority,
each connected with a site along the way. Rebellious Israel, we may well believe, might not have survived in the wilderness without the sustained discipline of its organized life. The third part of this chapter (vv. 29–32) tells of the Midianite in-laws of Moses. Since they were more familiar with the desert, Moses pleaded with them to remain in the company of Israel. From the reference in Judges 1:16, it appears that they acceded to Moses’ request. With respect to this incident, we observe that Moses wanted to benefit from his in-laws’ greater familiarity with the geography of the region. This is significant: since Israel, as we know, was to be guided by the fiery cloud, one might have concluded that recourse to human guidance through the desert would be superfluous. Indeed, even some of the Israelites may have thought so. In every age, after all, there have been those who regarded human knowledge and guidance with suspicion when divine knowledge and guidance were at hand. It is instructive, therefore, to observe that Moses did not share that view. Even as Israel was to be led by the divine cloud, Moses did not disregard the merely human guidance derived from an advanced knowledge of geography. He did not regard recourse to such knowledge as a challenge to—or rival of—divine help. In this respect we recall an incident in which Reuel (Jethro), the father of Hobab, provided Moses an important practical lesson in delegation and time management (Exodus 18). These two examples indicate a more general principle—namely, that the legitimacy of human knowledge is not vitiated by the availability of divine knowledge. Just as Moses learned geography and time management from his wife’s family, the people of God should not hesitate to benefit from merely human knowledge. It is legitimate to mention such human resources as medicine and astronomy.
out of step with god Just as prayer for the sick does not preclude recourse to the modern arts of healing, so the liturgical calendar of the Church should not fail to take advantage of the modern world’s more accurate knowledge of astronomy. In this chapter’s final section (vv. 33–36), the fiery cloud is said to be “over” (‘al) the people, as distinct from going “before” (lifne) them. This change of expression indicates that the cloud is not only a guide but also a protection for Israel. God’s presence with the people shelters them as well as leads them. According to the psalmist, He is “in the midst of Israel” and also guides Israel (Ps. 47 :9, 14; see also 22 :2–4). Therefore, he says to the Lord, “I am continually with You; You hold me by my right hand. You will guide me with Your counsel” (Ps. 72 :23–24). Both guidance and protection are included in the Lord’s pledge to His Church: “Lo, I am with you always, to the end of the world” (Matt. 28:20). The chapter closes with the acclamations of Moses whenever the ark was lifted for the march and set down again at the end of it. These acclamations, which frame the journey, were later adapted, modified, and assumed into the Psalter, to be sung during Israel’s liturgical processions (see Ps. 68 : 1; 132 :8).
NUMBERS 11 2 Although it is tightly crafted as a coherent and complex narrative, this chapter is usefully broken into four parts for the purpose of analysis: The first part (vv. 1–9) describes the people’s discontent as they wander in the desert. The object of the complaint, once again (see Exodus 16), is the food available in the desert. The second part (vv. 10–23) tells of Moses’ complaint and the Lord’s response. The third part (vv. 24–30) gives an account of the Spirit poured out on the appointed elders, and the fourth (vv. 31–35) narrates how the Lord dealt with the people’s discontent in the beginning of the chapter. Throughout this chapter, the reader senses—beyond the incidents themselves—that something more radical is amiss with the Israelites in the desert, as though the author were preparing him for worse developments yet to come. As soon as the people start out on their journey, a kind of rebellion sets in—the first of several that will test the divine patience over the next forty years. It would appear that some of the Israelites, having spent the previous eleven months encamped in the desert at the foot of Mount Sinai, were ready for a change of scenery when the time came to move. When, at the end of the previous chapter, they found themselves at Paran, a place arguably worse than where they had been before, these hopes were dashed. The ensuing “murmuring” that forced itself on the ears of both the Lord and Moses introduces the
out of step with god narrative in the present chapter. This English word “murmur,” the mere pronunciation of which forces the mouth and throat to imitate the very sound of the thing, signifies a hopeless, powerless discontent that we correctly associate with the selfishness of childhood. It is an extension of a baby’s indistinct cry for the relief of its undefined needs, but in the present case it contains one further element beyond the cry of the infant. It conveys a general note of blame. The murmurer is not only complaining; he is implicitly blaming somebody for his discontent. Worse still, the act of murmuring does not quite find its way to explicit words, much less clear ideas. As the sound itself indicates, there is something frustratingly inarticulate about murmuring. It is extremely difficult to get a handle on the thing. Thus, murmuring is the most distressing of sounds. Even God cannot endure it (v. 1), and His burning wrath, earlier experienced by the Egyptians, will soon be felt by Israel. Only the prayer of Moses, once again acting as Israel’s intercessor, is able to spare the chosen people (vv. 2–3). Whereas the people’s first complaint about lack of food in Exodus 16 brought them the blessing of the manna, in the present case the manna itself is the occasion for the murmuring! In other words, the people show themselves ungrateful for the divine (and miraculous!) provision. Hence, the present chapter will end badly for the Israelites. The people’s complaint, which brings forth the two responses that hold our chapter together, had to do with their unvarying diet of manna, the miraculous food that had sustained them at every meal, every day, for a full eleven months. Some of the folks hankered after a more varied fare (v. 5). When the people complain to Moses, Moses complains to God (vv. 11–15). His prayer is truly desperate: he would rather die
than continue to carry the burden of six hundred thousand souls! Moses feels squeezed from all directions, because everything seems to depend on him. No matter what goes wrong, it immediately becomes his problem. Using an ironic metaphor he speaks of “nursing” the people, as though he were responsible for feeding six hundred thousand screaming infants. There are two problems in this chapter: the people’s problem and Moses’ problem. The Lord will deal with Moses’ problem first by instituting the ministry of the judges (vv. 16–17). These seventy are drawn from the recognized elders of Israel and will participate in the same Spirit that fills Moses. This new ministry is not identical with the administrative service found in Exodus 18:25–26. It is true charismatic leadership, pertaining to spiritual matters. Bearing the people’s burdens with Moses, these men become the antecedents of those charismatic judges who will appear in the book called by that name. Once Moses’ problem is addressed, the Lord turns to the people’s problem (vv. 18–23). They will eat fresh meat every day for a whole month, until it starts to come out of their noses (vv. 19–20). They will begin to hate this diet! Moses can hardly believe his ears at this prediction (vv. 21–22), but the Lord warns him, “You’ll see!” (v. 23). The third section of this chapter (vv. 24–30) describes the outpouring of the Spirit on the seventy appointed elders. The presence of the Spirit on these men is apparently discerned in their ecstatic behavior, designated here as “prophesying.” It is difficult to identify this behavior more accurately, nor does this matter form a concern for the author. It suffices to say that the Israelites were able to perceive in these men some quality that enabled them to speak for God. The qualifying phenomenon is described as temporary (v. 25), but the status of the chosen elders is permanent. The outpouring of the Spirit was not limited to the men actually
out of step with god assembled at the tabernacle. Two others, though designated to be included in that group, failed to appear in the assembly as appointed. It happened, however, that this failure made no difference to their participation in the Spirit (v. 26). This participation in the Spirit extended to young Joshua, the understudy of Moses (v. 28), who perhaps feared that things were rather getting out of hand—individuals were off somewhere else in the camp, engaged in ecstatic phenomena. Throughout the Bible’s treatment of him, Joshua is invariably portrayed as a man of consummate devotion, earnestness, and zeal. It may be the case that some perceived lack of attention to proper “form” in the present context—the failure of Eldad and Medad to be where they were supposed to be—represented for Joshua a kind of structural failure, the sort of thing that suggests disorder and chaos. He expected the Spirit to be conferred in the proper contextual setting, not haphazardly, as it were, and outside of divinely established protocol. He was uncomfortable in a situation not governed by recognizable form. We note that the Bible does not criticize Joshua for this concern, inasmuch as it represented a godly caution and proper respect for appointed structures. Moses, however, took Joshua’s reaction as overly cautious in the present case. In the view of Moses, there simply could not be an excess in God’s gift of the Spirit (v. 29). He wished that all God’s people were so richly endowed. Christian theology regards this wish of Moses as fulfilled on Pentecost morning, when all those gathered in the Upper Room were filled with the Holy Spirit. This response of Moses to the concern of Joshua should be understood as an insistence that no leader of God’s people must be jealous of those with whom the Lord deigns to share the Holy Spirit. The fourth and closing part of this chapter (vv. 31–35) describes
the miraculous catch of quail, the Lord’s answer to the people’s complaint about their excessively bland diet. Several points should be made about these five verses: First, the recurrence of the word ruah, translated here as “wind.” When this chapter began, there were two problems, we recall: a problem about food and a problem about leadership. Now we see that the Lord has dealt with both problems the same way—namely, through the ruah. In the first case, the problem of leadership, the Lord sent the ruah on the seventy elders (vv. 17, 25, 26, 29). Now the ruah brings in the birds to satisfy the people’s craving (v. 31). Because we are obliged to translate the word ruah very differently in the two places, it would be easy not to notice that the same word is used in each instance. Indeed, in both cases, the ruah is ascribed to “the Lord.” This is the second time that the people have been fed in the desert from a large flock of quail (see Ex. 16:13). The quail is apparently the coturnix vulgaris known to ornithology. This bird migrates annually from eastern Europe and western Asia to north Africa for the warmer climate, but against a southerly wind it quickly grows weary and is blown off course to fall in the desert. This phenomenon, known even today, was described by Aristotle. He observed that some birds migrate in August, some in September. They are always fatter when they migrate from cold countries, as the quail [ortychs] is fatter in the autumn than in the spring . . . The quails, when they begin their flight, if the weather is fine and the wind from the north, go in pairs and have a successful flight. If the wind is from the south, it goes very hard with them, and their flight is slow, for this wind is very moist and heavy. . . . They
out of step with god fly badly, on account of their weight, for their body is large. They therefore make a noise as they fly, because it is laborious for them (Aristotle, De Historia Animalium 8.14.4–5). This is what we find here in Numbers. The very exhausted quails, who have flown south from Greece and Asia Minor, are described as flying at an altitude of only two cubits, between six and seven feet off the ground. They are easily caught in nets or even by hand. A single person is said to catch ten homers of them—about thirty-eight bushels—in just two days. That is a lot of meat, enough to satisfy the Lord’s prediction that they would eat meat for a whole month. The Israelites spread the carcasses of the birds on the sand to be dried out by the sun. The birds were eaten raw, not cooked—a sort of quail jerky. Herodotus describes this practice in Egypt: “Quails and ducks and small birds are salted and eaten raw” (Herodotus 2.77). As it happened, however, many Israelites became sick. The reference to a “plague” may indicate food poisoning. Whatever the cause, many of the people died, so they named the place Kibroth Hattaavah, “graves of craving.” As is the case so often in the desert, the place has never been identified by archaeologists. The very name of the place, however, indicates Israel’s interpretation of the event: they saw this plague as punishment for their own cravings and the murmuring with which they complained to God. God gave them, in fact, exactly what they asked for. It was yet another example of those “answered prayers,” as they were called by St. Teresa of Avila and, of all people, Truman Capote: prayers we should not have made, because they were made without regard to God’s will; we receive things that are bad for us! Such prayers are made in selfishness and with the impulse to use God for our
own ends, without regard to His will. It is no blessing when God answers such prayers. As we shall see in the next chapter, murmuring, besides being unbearable, is contagious! After a year or so in the desert, Israel’s psychological state was already becoming critical.
NUMBERS 12 2 This chapter concludes the first travel narrative in Numbers. It also continues, from the previous chapter, the theme of challenges against Israel’s established leadership, this time portraying Aaron and Miriam as conspirators against Moses. The material breaks in half, distributing two subjects: first, the challenge of Aaron and Miriam (vv. 1–8); second, the Lord’s response to that challenge (vv. 9–16). First, the challenge: Supported by her brother, Miriam conceives a dislike for their Ethiopian (Aithiopissa in the LXX) sister-in-law, Zipporah (Midian is Cushan in Hab. 3:7). The two of them vent their displeasure on Moses himself. It is interesting to speculate on the source of the problem. For example, we know that Moses was very much under the counsel of Reul (or Hobab), his father-in-law and the father of Zipporah, and perhaps jealousies arose in that respect. Whatever the initial point of contention, however, it is clear that the grievance of Aaron and Miriam was directed at Moses. Specifically the two began to wonder out loud whether they weren’t at least as important as Moses himself (v. 2). Aaron, after all, not Moses, was the high priest, and Miriam was a recognized prophetess (Ex. 20:15), so why should Moses have all the authority? Moses, being a meek man (v. 3; Exodus 3:11; 4:10–13), was disposed to overlook the affront, but the Lord was not. For the pair
of complainers He had a thing or two to say relative to the special position and authority of Moses as the chosen intimate of the divine counsels (vv. 6–8). We especially observe Moses’ designation as the Lord’s “servant.” The Hebrew term ’eved was rendered therapon in Greek and, among the early Christians, became virtually a proper term designating Moses. Our earliest example is Hebrews 3:5: “Moses indeed was faithful in all His house as a servant [therapon].” For the early Christians, Moses remained a permanent minister in God’s house. This is an important assertion of the role of Moses in the Church. He is the therapon, the servant of the temple, and from the beginning this is how Christians regarded Moses. Near the end of the first century, Clement of Rome wrote to the rebellious congregation at Corinth: “Envy brought down Dathan and Abiram alive to Hades, through the sedition which they excited against God’s servant Moses [pros ton theraponta tou Theou Mousen]” (4.12). Quoting our text here in Numbers 12:7–8, Clement later speaks of “the blessed Moses, a faithful servant in all his house”—ho makarios pistos therapon en holo to oiko Mouses (43.1). Clement uses this noun three other times to refer to Moses (51.3, 5; 53.5). It refers to Moses also in Pseudo-Barnabas 14.4. Thus, we find the word used seven times in Christian literature prior to about AD 110, and each time it refers to Moses. Even as the author of Hebrews contrasts Jesus and Moses, he is careful not to permit this contrast to reflect badly on Moses. He is called a “faithful minister” (pistos therapon). This expression, used also by Clement, comes directly from the LXX of Numbers 12:7. In addition to being reprimanded, Miriam was struck with leprosy, which perhaps suggests that she had been the original instigator of the problem (v. 10). From this affliction she was delivered through the intercession of Moses (vv. 13–15).
out of step with god We may observe two points of irony here: First, the skin of Miriam, who complained about her dark-skinned sister-in-law, becomes as white as snow! Second, in Aaron’s plea with Moses to intercede for their sister, Miriam, he thereby acknowledges the special ministry and service of Moses.
2 Excursus MOSES AND JOB The patriarchal setting of the Book of Job prompted some rabbis to speculate that Moses himself was its author (Talmud, Baba Bathra 14b). Although nobody today, as far as I know, holds that opinion, it is not without its attraction, especially if one considers certain affinities between Moses and Job. Most notable among these, perhaps, is the shared meekness of the two men. Both could be called ‘anav, a Hebrew word signifying poverty of spirit. This adjective is often translated as “poor,” but it indicates a spiritual quality, better rendered as “meek.” Thus, Job appears to include himself when he speaks of the ‘anevei ’ares, “the meek of the land” (Job 24:4). Meekness certainly describes the patience with which the man of Uz accepts his sufferings, particularly the psychological pain inflicted by his three so-called comforters. These self-righteous men, who are the very opposite of meek, bring this quality of Job into sharper prominence. As for Moses, we are told he was ‘anav me’od mikkol ha’adam, “meek beyond all men” (Num. 12:3). The meekness of Moses, I suppose, was most obvious when he endured the sundry complaints
of those cantankerous Israelites, who daily burdened his life in the desert. In this respect, we should observe that both Moses and Job are portrayed not as giants on the earth, but as ordinary men, frail human beings. Each of them is introduced simply as a “man,” an ’ ish. As though foretelling Job’s story as a whole, this noun is the first word used to describe him: ’ ish hayah, “a man there was.” Not a champion, not a hero, just a man. The same noun, ’ ish, is used of Moses in the very place where he is called “meek.” The verse begins, weha’ ish Mosheh ‘anav, “the man Moses was meek” (Num. 12:3). This description of “the man Moses” comes between two stories in which his desert compatriots put his patience severely to the test. So hard was the first trial that Moses complained to God, “Why have You afflicted Your servant? Why have I not found favor in Your sight that You should lay on me the burden of all these people?” (Num. 11:11). This problem is barely settled when Moses next finds himself challenged by his brother and sister, who demand to know, “Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us also?” This is the setting in which “the man Moses was meek beyond all mankind.” The Lord’s response to the complaint of Aaron and Miriam bears close inspection and should be compared with the response He gives to the comforters of Job. We will examine the two cases together. I want to do this according to the Greek text, where the parallels between the two accounts—as I hope to demonstrate—are intentionally crafted by the translator of Job. Prior to our comparison of these two stories, it is necessary to comment briefly about the various Greek nouns used to translate the Hebrew word ‘eved, “servant.” The translators of our Greek Old Testament were familiar with different kinds of servants, after all,
out of step with god and they recognized those differences in the ways they rendered the single underlying Hebrew noun. For example, the word ‘eved—“servant”—when it refers to Moses (Ex. 4:10 and many other places) or Job (Job 1:8; 2:3 and so forth), is almost never translated as doulos, “slave,” a noun suggesting a state of bondage. The Greek translators generally did not consider this a word appropriate to speak of Moses and Job. (The sole exception is Moses in Mal. 4:4/LXX 3:24.) Another Greek word for “servant” is pais, a noun more suggestive of a house servant. Although the Book of Exodus does not apply this term to Moses, the Book of Job uses it to speak of Job at the book’s beginning (Job 1:8). A third way of translating the Hebrew ‘eved is therapon, a noun suggesting greater intimacy with the master, such as an attendant or a companion in arms. In classical literature Patroclus, for instance, was the therapon of Achilles. Because the service of a therapon was free, no Greek would have confused him with a doulos, or “slave.” In the Greek Old Testament the preferred term for Moses is therapon (e.g., Ex. 4:10; Num. 12:7; WSol 10:16). So much is this the case that in our earliest Christian literature, this term was reserved exclusively for Moses (Heb. 3:5; Clement of Rome 4:12; 43:1; 51:3; Pseudo-Barnabas 14:4). Although, as we have seen, the Book of Job begins by calling him God’s pais, by the end of the book he has become God’s therapon. (I follow the codices Vaticanus and Sinaiticus, which are more consistent on this point.) Why this change? The reason, I believe, is the translator’s recognition of a likeness to Moses in the final scene of Job’s vindication before his three accusers. This scene reminded the translator of the episode in which the Lord vindicated Moses against Aaron and Miriam. We are ready now to compare these stories; I propose to do
so with four observations. First, in both the stories God begins by appearing on the scene and revealing Himself. In the Moses account we are told, “the Lord came down in the pillar of cloud and stood in the door of the tabernacle and called Aaron and Miriam” (Num. 12:5). In the corresponding narrative of Job, we read, “Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind” (Job 38:1). Second, in each case the Lord, having revealed Himself, vindicates His faithful servant against his accusers. Thus, we are told, the Lord speaks face to face with “My servant Moses,” inasmuch as “he is faithful in all My house.” We note here the significant expression “My servant Moses”—ho therapon Mou Moyses. The same words are repeated when the Lord interrogates Aaron and Miriam: “Why then were you not afraid to speak against My servant Moses?” (Num. 12:8). Using this identical expression, the Lord is equally displeased with Job’s challenger, Eliphaz the Temanite: “My wrath is aroused against you and your two friends, for you have not spoken right of Me, as My servant Job [ho therapon Mou Iob]” (Job 42:7). Job, who began as God’s pais, is now identified as God’s therapon. The quality of Job’s service to God has undergone a transformation since the beginning of the book. He has now become, like Moses, the intimate of God. Third, both Moses and Job intercede with the Lord on behalf of their critics. Thus, Moses pleads for the healing of Miriam (Num. 12:13). In the case of Job, the Lord instructs Eliphaz, “go to My servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt offering; and My servant Job shall pray for you. For I will accept him, lest I deal with you according to your folly; because you have not spoken right of Me, as My servant Job” (Job 42:8). Here the word therapon is found three more times, as though to make sure that the reader does not miss Job’s correspondence to Moses. Both are intercessors. Fourth, in both stories the designation of God’s therapon comes
out of step with god from the Lord Himself: “My servant.” Only God can identify His close associate, His companion in arms. The highest testimony the Lord gives of His faithful servant Job—after his severe trials—is to liken him to Moses.
NUMBERS 13 2 Although these next two chapters, which begin the third part of Numbers, move the story to a different place—Kadesh- barnea—they maintain the same theme as the previous two chapters: rebellion! Indeed, the culminating rebellion recorded here changes the direction of the story as a whole. The story has now reached the point at which Israel should begin its invasion of the land of Canaan. The military census taken at the book’s beginning was preparatory to such a campaign. It was for this decisive hour that the Lord had prepared His people. It was the very reason He brought them out of Egypt. At this critical time, nonetheless, the faith of the Israelites is found deficient. Their spies, returning from reconnoitering the Promised Land, paint such a bleak picture of Israel’s military prospects that the people decide not to invade! For the author of Numbers, this is the ultimate and decisive rebellion. The people had complained in chapter 11, and Moses’ brother and sister rebelled against him in chapter 12. In these next two chapters, however, the spirit of rebellion is taken to its limit, when the people and their leaders conspire to abandon God’s plan and to return to Egypt! They must suffer the fate of the man who puts his hand to the plow but then turns back (Luke 9:62). Plows are not designed to go backward. Since the people refuse to enter Canaan, and the Lord will not
out of step with god countenance a return to Egypt, the entire sinful generation is condemned to die in the desert. The first part of chapter 13 is a list of the spies sent to reconnoiter the land (vv. 1–16). We observe that these twelve men are designated as “leaders,” nasi’ im. The word as used here does not, as in earlier chapters, mean the ruling heads of the tribes. On the contrary, these are younger, more agile men with skills specific to their purpose. Since theirs was an especially important service, the failure of ten of them is all the more deplorable. In fact, they will be the first to die, as a kind of down payment on the punishment that awaits the rest of the people. The Bible, in recording their names, brings their memory into an everlasting shame. The story continues with an account of the journey of the spies (vv. 17–24). The forty days of their trip (a number we suspect to be symbolic) probably embraced all of July (vv. 20, 25). Moses, in his instructions to the group, makes little reference to topography, mentioning only the land immediately adjacent: the Negev Desert and the hill country. It is not surprising that Moses demonstrates no clear picture of the “lay of the land.” Indeed, this is the reason for sending the spies. Such reconnoitering is essentially a military exercise to determine the strengths, assets, and positions of those forces an invading army must face (vv. 18–19). As in so many examples of martial reconnoitering, however, Israel’s spies are instructed to bring back information beyond that of purely military interest (v. 20). This, too, was normal. One recalls that Alexander the Great, on his vast expedition to the east, took with him a large retinue of botanists, zoologists, cartologists, and other scientists so that none of his acquired information would be lost to posterity. (Readers of Patrick O’Brien’s marvelous adventure
stories will recall that Stephen Maturin performed an identical service when he traveled in the campaigns of Jack Aubrey.) Going out during the summer grape harvest, the spies went over the desert of Zin, southwest of the Dead Sea. They traveled all the way north to the Beqa’ Valley in the region of Phoenicia (v. 21). Along that way, they came to Hebron, some twenty miles south of Jerusalem (v. 22). The author refers to the construction of this ancient city in the late eighteenth century. Unfortunately, the spies are overly impressed with the size of some of the city walls. In their report, they will refer to the gigantic Anakim whom history had long associated with the place and who had created considerable problems even for Egypt at an earlier period (v. 28). They also list other peoples who would resist invasion (v. 29), thoroughly discouraging the Israelites from attempting it (vv. 31–33; Deut. 2:11, 20; 3:11; 1 Sam. 17:11). The obvious exaggerations about the physical size of the Canaanites undoubtedly came from the height of their walled cities, which the spies could only imagine as having been constructed by giants. Modern archaeology has shown that some of these city walls were, in fact, up to fifty feet high and fifteen feet thick, posing obstacles that would be formidable to an untrained force inexperienced in siege works. (The presumption that high walls mean tall inhabitants was also made by the Greeks, referring to the walls of the Cyclops.) We come next to the report of the spies (vv. 25–33), including the “minority report” of Joshua and Caleb. Part of this espionage report consisted of the impressive grapes and other fruits representative of the land’s notable fertility (vv. 23–27). This part of their report was very positive. The spies’ assessment of the military situation, nonetheless, was downright dismal. The only bright spot was the minority report of Caleb (v. 30).
out of step with god The sin recorded in these two chapters is that of rebellious disobedience: The spies had been sent out to make an assessment of the task that the Lord had laid on the people. It was not their place to veto what God had commanded. In questioning the divine commandment itself, these spies were repeating the ancient error of Eve, who dallied with temptation even when God’s will had been clearly expressed. In particular, these spies were afraid of the “giants”—the Anakim—inhabiting the land. Caleb, one of the two who gave a minority report about Canaan, was especially distressed on this point. Indeed, the sight of those giants had simply inspired him to become a giant-slayer. These Anakim, a Semitic tribe of unusually tall people, lived in the southern portion of the land of Canaan and were very familiar to its disgruntled neighbors. The Egyptians, for example, who knew all about the Anakim, certainly did not like them; they left us our earliest reference to these giants on an execration text from the dawn of the second millennium. Such texts are inscriptions on shard pieces containing the names of Egypt’s adversaries; those shards are fragments of pottery, originally inscribed with appropriate curses against enemies. Thus adorned, the pottery was ritually broken, to exorcise and annul, as it were, the military might of the foe. On one of those Egyptian shards is written a curse against “the ruler of Iy-‘anaq” and his confederates. These Anakim were the descendants of Arba, the father of Anak (Josh. 15:13). Arba is described as “the greatest man among the Anakim” (14:15). For this reason, their major city was named “the city of Arba,” Kirjath-Arba (21:11). Although that same place was known to the Israelites as Hebron, to this day the Arabic name for it, Deir el-Arba‘ in, recalls the earlier Canaanite tradition.
For many years, Caleb resented the bitter experience narrated in the present chapter of Numbers. A full generation later, when Joshua assumed command of the Israelites and accomplished what the Lord had commanded in the first place, Caleb was given the task of attacking and conquering the three sons of Anak: Ahinam, Sheshai, and Talmai (Josh. 15:14; Judg. 1:10). These were the very tribes that had earlier struck such fear into the hearts of his companions (Num. 13:22). To his family was given the city of Kirjath-Arba, renamed Hebron. One suspects that Caleb insisted on this arrangement. He had long had a score to settle with those giants. Caleb thus became the first example of a giant-slayer, and we speculate that David thought of him when, a few centuries later, he advanced to meet Goliath.
NUMBERS 14 2 The theme of rebellion continues. Starting with the murmuring in chapter 11 and the defiance of Aaron and Miriam in chapter 12, rebellion now reaches a definitive high point in the present chapter, when the Israelites determine to be guided by the “majority report” of the spies in chapter 12. They vote not to enter the Holy Land! The response of the people to the report of the spies is rather what we might expect, given the continuous spirit of rebellion and murmuring that we have seen in the narrative up till now. We recall that the Israelites undertook their flight from Egypt not for the purpose of wandering in the wilderness, but in order to migrate to the Land of Promise. In this refusal to enter the Promised Land, therefore, the Israelites are thwarting the intent of the Exodus itself. To this murmuring, the people add a kind of “death wish”: “If only we had died in this wilderness!” (v. 2). We are often told to be careful what we wish for, and the present instance is such a case. It is the supreme irony of this chapter that the Lord gives the people exactly what they want: “‘As I live,’ says the Lord, ‘just as you have spoken in My hearing, so I will do to you: the carcasses of you who have complained against Me shall fall in this wilderness’” (vv. 28–29). Israel’s entire current generation of adults, save for Joshua and Caleb (vv. 6, 24, 30), will never see the Promised Land. They will all die and be interred in the desert.
Their big mistake, of course, was to vote on the matter. When the Lord delivered Israel from Egypt, He gave no directives respecting a popular vote. God did not intend Israel’s deliverance to be an exercise in democratic government. The Lord cares no more for rule by majority vote than he does for any other expression of sinful disobedience. The rebellion in the present chapter, therefore, is open and general, involving “the whole congregation.” It marks Israel’s major and definitive apostasy. This rebellion is also expressed in the discussion about electing a new ruler who will return the people to the house of bondage (v. 4). In this aspiration, the Israelites choose an extreme form of “congregationalism.” Abandoning the leadership that God chose for them, they want someone who will facilitate what they want to do. Their example remains a permanent warning to the people of God: “the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables” (2 Tim. 4:3–4). Near the end of the first Christian century, Clement of Rome would cite this example of rebellion in his argument to the church at Corinth, where the congregation had deposed their authorized leaders in order to pick pastors more sympathetic to their preferences. This chapter records two responses to the rebellion of the people: First, Moses and Aaron prostrate before them—a gesture of humility and intercession, a gesture appropriate to the gravity of the situation (v. 5). The author does not elaborate or explain. Second, Joshua and Caleb rip their clothing (v. 6), a mark of extreme distress. The situation is charged with physical danger (v. 10). Only the intercession of Moses restrains the Lord from destroying all of them immediately and on the spot (vv. 11–20).
out of step with god The gravity of the offense here is linked to Israel’s experience of God’s power up till now. If, after so many “signs,” so many manifestations of His might and His mercy, Israel still remains unbelieving, then the offense is simply too much, and a chance for repentance is denied (vv. 11, 22–23, 40–45; Heb. 6:3–6). In an apparition of His glory, the Lord responds to the people’s rebellious murmuring (vv. 10b–25). According to Exodus 24:17, the glory of the Lord is “like a devouring fire” (compare Heb. 12:29). This experience is identical to that of Aaron and Miriam in their own rebellion (Num. 12:5). The Lord’s reprimand is directed at Israel’s lack of faith, in spite of the numerous “signs” of power that the people had witnessed (v. 11). Twice the Lord asks, “How long?” The people’s continued murmuring amounts to rebellion against the Sinai covenant (v. 4). Israel’s unbelief, in spite of the signs, manifests hardness of heart. The gospels give us a significant parallel to this story: “But although [Jesus] had done so many signs before them, they did not believe in Him” (John 12:37). The Lord’s initial impulse—if the expression be permitted—is to destroy the mass of the people at once (v. 12; compare Ex. 32:9–10). Moses responds, however, “Lord, this would not look good down in Egypt” (v. 13; see Deut. 32:26–27). To those “outside,” the Lord’s sudden destruction of His people would be hard to reconcile with what they had heard of His omnipotence (vv. 15–16) and mercy (v. 18). That is to say, Israel’s abrupt destruction would publish a false message. It would discredit the Lord Himself. In short, Moses is inspired here by the desire that whatever God does should be understood as Self-revelation. Moses thus regards this entire history as significant not only to Israel but to the rest of the world. This is an important consideration in the theology of the Exodus: right from the beginning—even as it was taking
place—Moses understood the Exodus and the Covenant to be universally significant, bearing a message for all mankind. We observe that on this basis Moses pleads for mercy (vv. 17–19): let mercy prevail over anger, because mercy is at the heart of the mystery of the Exodus (see Ex. 34:6–7). Moses’ prayer is efficacious, inasmuch as the entire people will not be destroyed at once. They will live out their natural span of life, but the adults, with two exceptions, will not enter the Promised Land (vv. 22–23). Thus Israel, as an historical people, is preserved. Even as He punishes Israel, the Lord maintains His covenanted fidelity. This is the pattern of punishment and promise under which we live in this world, even to the present day. The “ten times” of verse 22 is understood in the Talmud to refer to ten occasions on which Israel tested the Lord in the wilderness: at the Red Sea (Ex. 14:11–12); at Marah (15:23); in the wilderness of Zin (16:2); twice at Kadesh (16:20, 27); at Rephidim (17:2–7); at Sinai (chapter 32); at Taberah (Num. 11:1); at Kibroth-hattaavah (11:4–15); and here in Numbers 13—14. This chapter contains a second version of the Lord’s response to the people’s rebellion (vv. 26–38). This section substantially repeats the preceding (vv. 20–25), but we discern some new elements that take up particular items in that rebellion itself: First, the author draws attention to the irony that the people’s earlier wish—to perish in the wilderness (v. 2)—will be granted (vv. 28–29). The Lord declares that He was paying attention when the people spoke: “I have heard the murmurings of the children of Israel” (v. 27). Second, the punishment pronounced on the people is expressed as a matter of prophecy: ne’um Adonai, or “oracle of the Lord” (v. 28). This formula is common in the prophets (see Is. 3:15; 14:22, 23; 17:3, 6; 19:4; 22:25; 30:1; 31:9; 37:34; 41:14; 32:10, 12; 49:18;
out of step with god 52:52; 54:17; 55:8; 56:8; 59:20; 66:2, 17, 22). This prophetic formula is especially favored in the Book of Jeremiah, where it occurs 162 times. Indeed, a striking historical parallel exists between the narrative in the chapter and the context of Jeremiah’s prophecy of Jerusalem’s destruction. In each case Israel was facing the loss of an entire generation—a period of forty years (vv. 34–35). The time in the desert will find a correspondence in the time Israel spends in captivity. As the “next generation” of wandering Israelites will enter the Promised Land, so the following generation of exiled Israelites will return to the Promised Land. Third, the author emphasizes another irony: Just as the Israelites, facing the prospect of invasion, feared for the fate of their children (v. 3), so now God promises that these same children will invade and take possession of the Promised Land (v. 31). Fourth, this section ends with the fate of the ten men responsible for the espionage majority report. They are to die immediately (vv. 36–37). The final part of this chapter (vv. 39–45) tells how the Israelites managed to exploit their tragic situation to make it yield yet one more catastrophe. Having disobeyed the Lord’s command to enter the Promised Land, they next refused His judgment that they should stay out of the Promised Land. Failing to act on His promise, they then proceed to act without His promise. Presumption is joined to disobedience. This presumption essentially consists in Israel’s refusal to accept the divine judgment. Endeavoring to accomplish without divine help what they had refused to accomplish with divine help, the people compound their failure by a silly attempt at self-justification. It is as though Israel must explore every possible opportunity for rebellion. This story reminds the reader that salvation is time-sensitive. It is
always a matter of “today.” Psalm 94 , which is devoted to this period of Israel’s history, asserts this aspect of the people’s experience in the desert: “Today, if you will hear His voice.” Israel’s sin in the final section of this chapter is the presumption that a “yesterday” is still good enough. History, however, had passed on, and a new “today” brought new responsibilities. There could be no going back. With respect to the motive of the people in this final story, it appears that they suffered from the mistaken belief that the simple confession of their sinfulness (v. 40) was an adequate atonement for their sins. In fact, however, an adequate atonement for those sins was quite beyond their power to make. They imagined that salvation was within their own determination. They fancied they could somehow undo the evil they had done, thereby escaping God’s judgment on that evil and His resolve that the evildoers would be punished for it. In fact, their frustrated attempt to enter the Promised Land— in spite of God’s determination that they should not—served only to compound their predicament. It proved they were very far from repentance. God was not with them, because they were not with God (vv. 42–43). Archaeologists are not in accord about the location of Hormah (v. 45). However, the meaning of the name—“place of the ban”— adequately indicates its theological significance. As the site of Israel’s destruction, it foreshadows the rest of the book.
NUMBERS 15 2 More legislation relative to sacrifice interrupts the narrative flow of Numbers once again. Since the rules in this chapter (vv. 1–12) were applicable only to those who would actually live in the Holy Land, and since the previous chapter made it clear that none of the current generation would do so, the context of the material bears a heavy weight of irony. The following consideration may explain and warrant this irony: after the stern condemnation at the end of the previous chapter, especially its declaration that none of the living adults would enter the Promised Land, there was some danger that the Promised Land would be forgotten altogether. Since no living adult would ever see it, why should they even think about it? Yet, at this point the serene voice of God announces, “When you come into the land . . . which I will give you . . .” That is to say, the Promised Land still lies infallibly in Israel’s future. Indeed, this sustained promise of the Land, a promise now applicable solely to Israel’s next generation, instructed the Israelites to think more seriously about that rising generation. It would discourage them from indulging the “right now” aspect of their behavior and their expectations. The nature of the promise, that is to say, would have a maturing effect on their minds: a concern for the generation that would follow them. These rules, then, which pertained to a later time and had no
current relevance, were a reaffirmation of Israel’s hope. The insertion of these regulations into the narrative confirmed the constancy of the Lord; they were an implied declaration that nothing in Him had changed, and they announced the continuation of the Sinai covenant. They indirectly indicated the future wealth and well- being of the Lord’s people. With respect to the agricultural basis of this future prosperity, our text speaks of grain, wine, and oil (vv. 4–12). These three elements pertain to the threefold cycle of harvests in the Holy Land: grains in May and June, grapes in August and September, and olives in October. In addition, a provision applies these rules to any guests and sojourners who were to live in the midst of Israel (vv. 13–16). Thus this chapter subtly indicates, in germinal form, an interest in non- Israelites, those who would join themselves to the chosen people. This reference serves as a faint suggestion of a larger and later history. Israel had only recently been a sojourning people in Egypt, where they had been taken in so that they might not starve. It is expected that they will show a similar hospitality to strangers who may wish to live among them, and the provisions of this chapter explicitly pertain to such sojourners. This quiet, unassuming provision may be regarded as the initial seed—a small germ, as it were—of Israel’s later service to the nations. It should be viewed as part of a larger narrative—the story of the Lord’s concern for all humanity. Although Israel, at this point in the story, does not yet perceive its massive place in human history, that place is already indicated in the opening chapter of Genesis, Israel’s account of the origins of the world. Adam was no Jew. Eve was no Israelite, nor were Enoch and Noah. Yet, prior to the calling of Abraham and the covenant with Moses, God had manifested His redemptive concern for those more ancient representatives of humanity.
out of step with god That redemptive concern was an underlying presupposition for the rest of the biblical story, a layer lying just below the surface of salvation history. It rose to the surface from time to time, as it did in the case of Melchizedek. In the present chapter of Numbers it again shows itself in the provision for those Gentiles who shared— as sojourners—in the life of Israel. In addition to the fruit of the land, Israel’s sacrificial system also had a place for the fruits of human labor, specifically dough and baked goods (vv. 17–21). The present chapter further distinguishes between sins of ignorance and inadvertence, for which atonement is readily made (vv. 22–29), and deliberate sins of malice (vv. 30–31). This distinction is followed by an example that illustrates what is meant by a deliberate sin (vv. 32–36). Sins of ignorance and inadvertence (vv. 22–29), since they do not involve deliberate malice, are dealt with more easily, but they are not completely ignored. It is good that provision is made for their atonement, because they apparently outnumber the more deliberate sins. Since man lives in the presence of the all-holy God, there are doubtless myriad ways in which he daily falls short: He makes decisions, even important decisions, without appealing to the divine wisdom. He assumes burdens without seeking divine strength. He forgets to trust in the God in whose presence his entire life is lived. Indeed, he often walks unmindful of that presence. Thus, he grows accustomed to the pretense that his life is his own. It slips his mind that all that he has comes from God. He neglects thanksgiving. The burdens and responsibilities of life distract him from its purpose or cause him to disregard the divine glory that surrounds him. He walks about, oblivious oftentimes of who he is, where he comes from, or to whom he is responsible. These are the common sins of ignorance and inadvertence.
They easily pass into other semi-deliberate offenses: The ears linger too long at gossip. The eyes dally for a bit with shameful immodesty. The tongue slips at the precipice separating truth from lies. Although none of these sins may involve malice, they are all unworthy of those made in God’s image and destined to behold His glory. To acknowledge such offenses in worship—to beg for their forgiveness—at least serves to remind man that there is more to his life than he commonly imagines. Indeed, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). The sins of inadvertence are contrasted with malicious or intentional sins, which are described as committed “with high hand” (beyad rama). Such sins are characterized by gravity of offense (“broke His commandment”), sufficient reflection (“disdained the Word of the Lord”), and full consent (“reviles the Lord”). Later (Western) theologians would call them “mortal” sins (from the Latin mors, meaning “death”), because they bring death to the soul (see 1 John 5:16–17). A story immediately follows which exemplifies such a sin: the account of a man who deliberately and resolutely violated the Sabbath (vv. 32–36). Inasmuch as the observance of the Sabbath was the distinguishing and identifying mark of the people of Israel, this man’s offense effectively “cut him off” (karat) from the society of God’s people. The choice was his. It was a high-handed sin, for which the penalty was death. Even without the death penalty, however, such a person was already “cut off” from the congregation of God’s people. He was no longer part of the society of salvation. The practical consequence of this separation is that such a one “bears the guilt.” That is to say, he no longer partakes of the covenant whereby God deals with sin. Such a man is “on his own.” He does not partake of the reconciliation that the Lord of the Covenant provides for His people. God’s
out of step with god wrath no longer bypasses these sins (9:13), nor does His mercy cover them over. Such a sinner is entirely on his own, with no means of dealing with his guilt. The full context of this chapter—its sequence after the previous two chapters—indicates the gravity of Israel’s refusal to enter the Promised Land: de facto, all of Israel was cut off from Israel! The adults among them, with few exceptions, had forfeited the blessings of the covenant, forswearing the land promised to Abraham. Theirs was a high-handed sin. Thus, the man who gathered sticks on the Sabbath became the first of that unfaithful generation that perished in the wilderness. The final section of this chapter (vv. 37–41) concerns the special tassels and ribbons at the corners of the four-sided outer cloak (beged) worn by the Israelites (see Matt. 9:20). It would seem that God’s people always need tangible, visible reminders of their duty, and the tassel serves as such a reminder: “that you may look upon it and remember all the commandments of the Lord . . . that you may remember and do all My commandments” (Num. 15:39). These tassels invite four considerations: First, their general biblical context as reminders of the covenant. Indeed, according to Holy Scripture, the Lord Himself declared His reliance on reminders of this sort: “The rainbow shall be in the cloud, and I will look on it to remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh on the earth” (Gen. 9:16). The provision in the present chapter finds a parallel in Deuteronomy 22:12—“You shall make tassels on the four corners of the clothing with which you cover yourself.” Second, their immediate and specific context in the present chapter. Just as the author drew attention to Israel’s sins of inadvertence
(vv. 25–29) by way of avoiding the more grievous sin of apostasy (vv. 31–36), so the present prescription encourages a constant vigilance against even sins of inadvertence. The mandate of wearing these tassels, then, pertains to the entire context of Israel’s recent infidelity, for which the people would be punished for the next forty years. Third, the moral and psychological effort involved in this prescription. The reminding evoked by these tassels was to be the antidote to following one’s own spontaneous impulses and distractions—“so that you do not follow the harlotry to which your own heart and your own eyes are inclined.” Since the eyes may lead to distractions in the heart, the reminders prescribed in this chapter are visual. They would assist in the sustained moral effort of mindfulness and deliberate intentionality. Fourth, the theological symbolism of the blue color of these tassels. Blue, the natural symbol of heaven, was the color most associated with Israel’s worship. It was the color of the loops holding up the curtains in front of the tabernacle (Ex. 26:4; 36:11) and of several parts of the adornment of the high priest (28:21, 28, 31; 29:22; 39:31). Blue cloth also covered the ark, the table of the showbread, the lamp stand, the altar of incense, and other appointments of the sanctuary (Num. 4:4–7, 9, 11–12). That is to say, the color blue, adorning the garment of the Israelites, served to remind them who they were—namely, a holy people, a nation of priests (v. 40; Ex. 19:6; Lev. 11:44). As St. Augustine designated the sundry sacrifices prescribed in the Mosaic Law as “Old Testament sacraments,” perhaps these tassels may be said to have served as “Old Testament sacramentals.” This means that God used them much as He uses holy water and icons in the Christian Church: to influence the mind, imagination, and behavior of His people.
NUMBERS 16 2 Because of the several recent crises, including God’s judgment that no adults then alive would enter the Promised Land, it is perhaps not surprising that ongoing ill will and dissent brewed among the Israelites, the sorts of feelings spawned by despair. As the executive leadership of Moses had been challenged previously, the present chapter describes a challenge to the priestly leadership of Aaron. It records two rebellions combined into a single narrative, a combination perhaps caused by their proximity in time. (This is often the case in the history of rebellions.) Close attention to the text, however, permits the reader to distinguish between them. The rebellion of Korah, a Levite (chiefly vv. 1–11, 16–24, 27, 35–43; Jude 11), was apparently directed against Aaron (vv. 9–11) and involved the demand that the privileges of the priesthood be extended to all the sons of Levi. The rebellion of the Reubenites, Dathan and Abiram (1, 12–15, 25–34; Ps. 105 :16–18), appears to have been aimed more directly at the leadership of Moses. The joining of these two rebellions is readily explained by the fact that the Reubenites (including Dathan and Abiram) marched and camped adjacent to the Koathites (including Korah) on the south side of the army (2:10–11, 27–29). This arrangement provided the opportunity for the two groups to share their grievances about the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Clearly, both groups felt diminished by that leadership.
Reuben was, after all, the eldest of Jacob’s sons, so why (in the minds of the Reubenites) were they treated as second class? As for the Koathites, who shared with Moses and Aaron the distinction of being children of Levi, they wondered why these two enjoyed an exclusive ascendancy in Israel. That is to say, some bad chemistry evidently developed as these two groups talked with one another in camp. These two stories were early joined, doubtless because of their common theme: both rebellions were spawned by a democratic, leveling impulse, impatient of hierarchical authority derived directly from God. This is clearest in the remarks of Korah, who appealed explicitly to “the priesthood of all believers” (Ex. 19:6) as a political principle to deny the ranking authority of the Aaronic priesthood: “You take too much upon yourselves, for all the congregation is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” After all, had not the previous chapter indicated that all Israelites are holy? (15:40; Ex. 19:6). However it may have been related to the rebellion of Korah, the insurrection of the Reubenites seems to have been of a somewhat different complexion. Dathan and Abiram appreciated the gravity of their plight. They fully realized that they were already doomed, in fact, to perish in the wilderness. In spite of Moses’ earlier pledge to take them all to the Promised Land, it was now clear that they would all die in the desert (vv. 12–14). Their rebellion, on the other hand, far from removing their doom, only rendered it immediate (vv. 23–34). In this sense, there was something suicidal about it. To Korah and the rebellious Levites Moses proposes a “trial by incense,” as it were (vv. 5–7, 16–18), which will prove a disaster for the rebels (v. 35). Indeed, the censers used by these rebellious Levites were afterward to be beaten into a bronze memorial to warn
out of step with god anyone in the future who might be tempted to pursue their example (vv. 36–43). This “trial by incense” readily puts the reader in mind of the story of Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10:1–17. The similarities between these two stories are several: First, the word used for “censer,” mahta, refers to a personal censer, not to a furnishing of the tabernacle. Second, the incense offering is rejected in both cases. Third, both stories end badly for the presumptuous parties. In the case of Nadab and Abihu we read, “So fire went out from the Lord and devoured them, and they died before the Lord” (Lev. 10:2). In the case of Korah’s company, we are told, “And a fire came out from the Lord and consumed the two hundred and fifty men who were offering incense” (Num. 16:35). The sin of Korah—his rebellion against the priesthood of Aaron—was founded on a false concept of that priesthood. To Korah’s way of thinking, the priesthood appeared as a social and political advantage; it provided a status of honor, respect, and power. Within that frame of value and reference, Korah concluded that Aaron was not worthier than he of such a status. Korah’s aspiration, therefore, was ambitious in its motive. In effect, he assessed the things of God according to worldly and selfish standards, regarding the priesthood in terms of prestige and power. Korah was unmindful of the most elementary truth about the priesthood: “And no man takes this honor to himself, but he who is called by God, like Aaron” (Heb. 5:4). His sin was essentially that of Simon Magus, who attempted to purchase the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:18–19). Both Korah and Simon Magus treated the spiritual gift as a kind of commodity, evaluating it on a worldly scale. This sin is what made them unworthy of it. The punishment of Korah’s sin demonstrates its gravity. He and
his associates misunderstood the ways of God in a truly radical fashion. Indeed, their punishment is a symbol of damnation itself: they are so radically different from God that they are cast away from His presence. Satan subjected even Jesus to the temptation of using His special status for individual and worldly advantage: “Then the devil took Him up into the holy city, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, ‘If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down’” (Matt. 4:5–6). In rejecting this temptation, Jesus modeled the correct response to any gospel minister tempted to regard his ministry in terms of or power, prestige, or personal advantage. The moral warning contained in this story has always served to guide the pastoral ministry of the Christian Church, which has from time to time been afflicted with such democratizing rebellions against priestly authority derived from the apostles. A rather early example occurred in the church at Corinth toward the end of the first century, when the local congregation arose and attempted to depose the ministers that the apostles had set over them. The congregation was addressed by Clement, the third bishop of Rome, in a letter that the early Christians were careful to preserve. It reads, in part: Surely it is well for a man to confess his sins rather than harden his heart as the hearts of those who were hardened who rebelled against Moses the servant of God. Their condemnation was made plain. For they went down to Hell alive, and death was their shepherd. (Clement of Rome, To the Corinthians 51.3–4) The final section of this chapter (vv. 41–50; in the Hebrew text, 17:6–15) describes Aaron’s atonement for the rebellion of the people.
out of step with god Although the bronze plates covering the altar—beaten plates made from the censers of the rebellious Levites—were placed there to remind the Israelites of the gravity of rebellion, they seem to have missed the message. Those plates reminded them solely of the loss of their friends, for which they blamed Moses and Aaron. Although they had just witnessed the severe penalty suffered on account of rebellious murmuring, they resolve to give murmuring one more try! What could account for their obtuseness? Despair, I suspect. At this lowest stage of their desert wandering, the Israelites were a truly desperate lot. It was as though the entire people, finally realizing that none of them would ever leave the desert alive, were seized by an impulse to end it all. In other words, this latest rebellion bears the marks of a kind of suicide pact. At this point, the cloud of the divine glory once again appears— the final time it will be mentioned in this book—covering the tabernacle (v. 42), and the Lord’s voice threatens the people with full destruction. Moses and Aaron immediately begin to intercede for them (v. 45), and Aaron offers incense on their behalf (v. 46; see also Lev. 15:12). This is the only place in Holy Scripture where a sacrifice is said to assuage the “wrath of the Lord.” Indeed, this is the kind of language that the Bible tends strictly to avoid. God’s Word often speaks of His wrath, and it frequently prescribes the offering of sacrifice, but the Bible is careful to keep the two things separate, lest it ever be thought that the offering of sacrifice has something to do with appeasing the anger of God. This is, most emphatically, not a biblical idea. It is most significant, therefore, that in the present text, what “atones” the anger of God is not the shedding of sacrificial blood but the offering of incense, which is a symbol of prayer (vv. 44–50; Ps. 140 :2; Rev. 5:8; 8:3–4).
Aaron’s intervention on behalf of the people is only partly effective, as a plague has already been unleashed on the offenders (vv. 47–48). Three further comments are in order with respect to this action of Aaron: First, the author portrays a clear contrast between his offering of incense and the incense offered by the rebellious Kohathites. Second, the prompt action of Aaron, taking his place between the living and dead, stands in strong contrast with what he did, and failed to do, in the earlier incident of the golden calf. Third, with respect to their concepts of the priesthood, Aaron and Korah are clearly distinguished. For Korah, the priesthood was something that distinguished the chosen ones from the others; it held a status of power and prestige. For Aaron, on the other hand, the priesthood was a ministry of service to the people in their sin. Aaron did not separate himself from the rebels; he went among them to save them from their self-inflicted punishment. In other words, Korah stressed that every priest is chosen from among men, whereas in the mind of Aaron such a one was to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins (Heb. 5:1). At the beginning of this chapter, the premise of the rebellion was the thesis that all Israel was holy—not just the priests. As the chapter has progressed, however, the Israelites have shown themselves to be anything but holy. They claimed holiness as a status, whereas it is more properly regarded as a calling and a challenge. “You are holy” must not be separated from “Be holy!”
out of step with god 2 Excursus THE GROWTH OF A ARON Two parallel scenes in the Pentateuch indicate the spiritual growth of Aaron over the years of Israel’s desert wandering. Standing in opposition to one another in the general structure of the Torah, each scene also contains further elements of internal contrast. The earlier story is preserved in Exodus 32, which describes the incident of the golden calf. Aaron, in that episode, appears as a craven and double-minded hireling and no shepherd. At the people’s first idolatrous impulse, in fact, he accedes to their wishes, telling them to hand over their jewelry, which he then uses to construct a molded calf. Although very involved in the people’s sin, Aaron never admits his association in their guilt. He becomes, rather, a classical example of a sinner rationalizing an infidelity, pretending his is not an act of apostasy but an example (as the saying goes) of “accepting people where they are.” Aaron does not love them enough to resist them. Then, taken to task by his brother for this complicity, Aaron shamelessly denies his fault. “You know the people,” he tells Moses. “They are set on evil.” In a line of supreme mockery, the cowardly Aaron tries to minimize his involvement by claiming, “I cast [the gold] into the fire, and this calf came out.” He is portrayed as a truly unsuitable priest. Within the structure of this story, Aaron is dramatically contrasted with Moses: At the very moment he is down in the valley, enabling the infidelity of the Israelites, faithful Moses stands on top of the mountain, praying to the Lord to spare His people. The prayer of Moses prevails.
This contrast between Moses and Aaron highlights an additional irony: at the time the restless Israelites in the valley had been plotting their rebellion, Moses had been receiving the Lord’s detailed instructions concerning Aaron’s priesthood (Ex. 28—31). That is to say, even as his priesthood was in the process of formation, Aaron already proved himself unqualified for it. Even as his vestments were being designed, Aaron showed himself unworthy to wear them. In pointed contrast to this early portrayal of Aaron stands a later scene in Numbers 16. In the latter case we find a much improved Aaron, who has now become a genuine high priest with “compassion on those who are ignorant and going astray, since he himself is also subject to weakness” (Heb. 5:2). As the Israelites in the later scene are being punished by plague for their most recent rebellion—thousands of them dying in a single day—Aaron takes up his priestly censer and runs down among them, placing his body between the dead and the living and “making atonement for the people.” The sacred text tells us, “he stood between the dead and the living; so the plague was stopped” (v. 48). In this riveting scene, Aaron is not contrasted with Moses. On the contrary, the two brothers are now at one in their concern for the people. When the Lord tells them, “Get away from among this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment,” Moses and Aaron alike fall on their faces in joint intercessory prayer. In the earlier story, Moses had made that prayer alone while his brother was complicit in the people’s sin, but now the two brothers are in complete harmony. The tension of the earlier story is resolved: “So Aaron returned to Moses at the door of the tabernacle of meeting, for the plague had stopped” (v. 50). The internal contrast in this second account is between Aaron and a Levite named Korah. Forgetting that “no man takes this honor to himself, but he who is called by God, just as Aaron was”
out of step with god (Heb. 5:4), Korah coveted the priestly office as a position of honor and power, both for himself and his household. So in the rebellion Korah and his family were the first to be punished: “the ground split apart under them, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, with their households and all the men with Korah, with all their goods. So they and all those with them went down alive into the pit; the earth closed over them, and they perished from among the assembly” (vv. 31–33). If we compare Korah’s sin with the earlier infidelity of Aaron, it appears to be far worse. Whereas Aaron’s had been the failing of a weak and unworthy man, Korah’s is the more terrible offense of malice, pride, and deliberate rebellion.
NUMBERS 17 2 This short chapter covers the aftermath of the recent twofold revolt. The purpose of the ordeal and miracle of the twelve rods was to determine, in as clear a way as possible, exactly where the authority in Israel was to be recognized. In short, there was to be No More Murmuring (vv. 5, 10)! The “incense test” is followed by the “rod test.” Whereas the former vindication of Aaron’s priesthood began with rebellion on the part of its challengers, this one comes entirely from a divine initiative. The Hebrew word for “rod” in this chapter is matteh, which in fact means both “staff” and “tribe.” On the rod of Aaron was to be inscribed the name of Aaron himself (v. 3). Aaron’s rod had, of course, the advantage of experience, if the expression is allowed. That is to say, we readers already know the sorts of things that Aaron’s rod could do, such as turn into a snake and eat up the other rods (Ex. 7:9–15). We are not surprised by the outcome of the present ordeal. The other rods in this story never had a chance. The overnight blossoming of an almond tree was not uncommon, and in fact Jeremiah (1:12) would later take it as symbolic of the swiftness of the divine judgment. The miracle in this chapter, of course, is that we are not talking about an almond tree, but a dead piece of wood.
out of step with god Anyway, the miracle produces in the Israelites a sudden change of attitude (vv. 12–13). Since the desert narrative records no further challenges to the Aaronic priesthood, we infer that the present vindication of it was completely effective. It was henceforth understood that God alone could choose who would approach Him (Heb. 5:4). All of the rods were symbols of authority, for such is a normal meaning of the rod in Holy Scripture. Only the priestly rod, however—the symbol of priestly authority—is the bearer of beauty and nourishment: “the rod of Aaron, of the house of Levi, had sprouted and put forth buds, had produced blossoms and yielded ripe almonds” (v. 8). Unlike the other rods, which symbolized only authority, the rod of Aaron actually brings forth goodness and life. It was the work of the priesthood to conduct Israel in the pursuit of beauty and life; it was a budding rod, a fruitful and benevolent authority. Aaron’s rod is not intended to beat Israel into submission, but to beautify and to feed them. Now that the primacy of Aaron’s household has been established so clearly, the next chapter will contain more rules for the Aaronic priesthood.
2 Excursus A ARON’S STAFF AND THE PREACHER Inasmuch as Holy Scripture ascribes to the staff of Aaron such diverse wonders, it is hardly remarkable that Christian readers, over the centuries, have looked upon it as the bearer of numerous mysteries. It is not my intention to question any of those traditional
interpretations, but I am especially partial to the view that Aaron’s staff represents the pastoral office in general and the ministry of preaching in particular. Applied to the pastoral ministry of preaching, the staff of Aaron represents the authority with which the preacher proclaims the Word. The Christian pulpit is not the forum for the sharing of a preacher’s ideas, not even his theological exegetical ideas. It is the place from which the seed of the Word is sown. What is conveyed in the preaching must be nothing other than the gospel itself. Thus, some months after evangelizing the Macedonians, Paul wrote to them, “we preached to you the gospel of God” (1 Thess. 2:9). Paul sums up that experience: “when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which also effectively works in you who believe” (2:13). The staff of Aaron is more than a sign of his authority, however; it is the channel of power. Indeed, this is what distinguishes the matteh of Aaron from the other tribal staffs of Israel. Two narratives, in particular, illustrate the power of Aaron’s priestly staff: the encounter with Pharaoh in the Book of Exodus and the test in the tabernacle in the Book of Numbers. Each of these incidents, I will argue, demonstrates an aspect of the preaching ministry. First, Aaron’s staff is powerful against the satanic forces represented in the rule of Pharaoh. Even before Egypt was visited with a single plague, that matteh became a snake and devoured the staffs of the sorcerers (Ex. 7:8–12). Then, through the same instrument the Lord visited Egypt with the plagues of frogs and lice (8:5, 16, 17). If, then, we understand Aaron’s staff to symbolize the ministry of preaching, the account in Exodus indicates the aggressive, confrontational, and apologetical aspects of the preacher’s task. His message must be ever “mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting
out of step with god down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:4–5). Second, Aaron’s rod is the bearer of both beauty and nourishment, because we read of it that it produced blossoms and ripe almonds (Num. 17:8). I understand those blossoms to indicate the rhetorical skill in which the gospel is conveyed. Aaron’s staff is not employed to hit people over the head but to attract their adherence by the beauty of the gospel and the sweetness of conscientious persuasion. The Lord compares His Word to honey, after all. So, wrote Gregory the Theologian, the preacher does not use force or violence but the lure of wisdom. The ripe almonds on Aaron’s rod I take to mean the spiritual nourishment provided by pastoral preaching. If the content of the sermon really is the Word of God, then it really will be that by which man lives. It will accomplish what God has promised with respect to His Word: For as the rain comes down, and the snow from heaven, And do not return there, But water the earth, And make it bring forth and bud, That it may give seed to the sower And bread to the eater, So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; It shall not return to Me void, But it shall accomplish what I please, And it shall prosper in that for which I sent it. (Is. 55:10–11)
NUMBERS 18 2 God does not often address Aaron directly—only here (vv. 1, 20) and in Leviticus 10:8. Two subjects are covered in this chapter: the task of standing guard over the holy place (vv. 1–7) and the offerings particularly pertinent to the Levitical and priestly families (vv. 8–32). The instructions conveyed in this chapter begin with the solemn charge to Aaron and his sons regarding their full responsibility for the sanctuary, the priesthood, and the worship (vv. 1–7). These instructions answer the question about approaching the holy things, the very serious question posed in the final verse of the previous chapter: “Is anybody safe in the presence of Israel’s God?” The answer is given in the present chapter. The priests and Levites “stand guard” over the tabernacle, its appointments, and the sacred vessels used in the worship. This custody, however, is intended less to defend the holy things than to safeguard the other Israelites, who may thoughtlessly approach where they shouldn’t (vv. 3–5). The priests and Levites stand sentinel for the protection of Israel. The previous chapter, in which thousands of Israelites perished, demonstrated the need for that protection. Worship in the Bible is never really “safe.” The atmosphere of the burning bush tends to prevail throughout, and biblical history records later incidents in which a needed reminder was given on the point (for instance, 2 Sam. 6:6–7).
out of step with god The provisions in verses 1–7 served two purposes: First, the Israelites could safely approach the Lord in His sanctuary, without fear that they would perish. Only the priests and Levites were in danger. Second, these provisions reminded the priests and Levites that theirs was a true ministry, a work of service, for the benefit of God’s people. They were to stand between the Lord and the sinners, as Aaron did in the previous chapter. They were the servants, not the lords, of Israel. We recognize in these provisions several important lessons for the people of God at all times: First, the ministers of the Church are governed by the purpose given here in Numbers. Paul described them when he wrote: “Let a man so consider us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor. 4:1). It is significant that he enunciated this thesis specifically to the Church at Corinth. Second, Christians should be cautious about the dangers of assuming responsibilities for which they are not suited. Thus they are told, “My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment” (James 3:1). Teachers in the Church are also “stewards of the mysteries of God.” The teaching vocation in the Church is full of spiritual dangers for the teacher. Third, Christians are summoned to regard highly the service of their teachers and other ministers especially appointed to serve them. In the New Testament it is not difficult to discern that certain Corinthians in particular were deficient in this respect. Indeed, the sins of the Corinthian Christians should be compared with the offenses of the Israelites recorded here in Numbers: jealousy, arrogance, and presumption. It is no wonder that Paul, when he reprimanded them for such attitudes, drew their attention to the sins of Israel in the wilderness (1 Corinthians 10).
Fourth, the provisions in Numbers 18 were directed to the proper structure and order of Israel’s worship. In his exhortation to the Christians at Corinth, Paul reminds them of the need for such order: “Let all things be done decently and in order”—euschemonos kai kata taxsin (1 Cor. 14:40). Of the various offerings reserved for the priestly family, some could be eaten by all ritually pure members of the family (vv. 11–13), while some were reserved for the male members of the family (vv. 9–10). The metaphor “covenant of salt” (berith melah—v. 19) perhaps invokes the preservative qualities of salt, implying that the covenant is perpetual. As all Israel was obliged to tithe to the tribe of Levi, the latter was obliged to tithe to the Aaronic family (vv. 26–28).
NUMBERS 19 2 Since Israel’s original adult population is condemned to die in the wilderness, deaths would be occurring pretty often over the forty years of the desert wandering. There would be deaths every day and a constant digging of graves. In chapter 17 alone, nearly fifteen thousand people died from earthquake and plague. Since ritual contamination ensued on any contact with a corpse, we realize that a large number of Israelites—on any given day—was ritually unclean (Lev. 5:2; 11:8, 24–25; 21:1–4; Num. 5:2; 6:6–12; 9:6–7, 10–11) and in need of purification. The present chapter, which addresses the problem, provides a simple process for purification. The material falls into two parts: the rite of the red heifer (vv. 1–10) and the application of the “water of impurity” (vv. 11–22). The heifer is slaughtered outside the camp (v. 3), like other offerings for purification (Lev. 14:1–9, 49–53). Also like other offerings for purification, the victim is entirely consumed by fire (v. 4; Ex. 29:14; Lev. 4:11; 8:17; 16:27). To the fire is added a cedar stick, hyssop, and scarlet cloth (v. 6), the same elements associated with the cleansing of lepers (Lev. 14:4, 6, 49, 51–52). As though to suggest that the ritual of the red heifer will serve for Israel’s future generations (v. 10), it is first assigned to Aaron’s successor (v. 4). Aaron, in any case, must in no wise incur impurity. In texts like the present chapter, death is understood to convey
contamination because of its close association with Adam’s rebellion against the Lord. It was through sin that death entered man’s experience. It is not wrong, therefore, to inquire whether the final and definitive remedy for sin—the sacrificial death of Christ—may be prefigured in the ritual of the red heifer. Initial points of comparison would include the killing of the heifer outside the camp. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, consequently, refers to the rite of the red heifer, comparing it to the sacrifice of Christ: For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? (Heb. 9:13–14; see also 13:11–13) Other Christians, even from earliest times, have explored the symbolic possibilities of the red heifer. The earliest extant of these, an anonymous writer who assumed the name of St. Barnabas, compared the red heifer to the red cord hung from the window of Rahab at Jericho and the scarlet wool used by the High Priest. All these he understood to symbolize the sacrificial blood of Christ. This author wrote: And what do you suppose is the type involved here, in that He ordered Israel those men in whom sins are rendered perfect should offer a heifer. And when they had killed it, to burn it, and that then the children should take its ashes and put them in a container, and that scarlet wool should be wrapped around a piece of wool—Observe the type of the Cross again, and the
out of step with god scarlet wool and the hyssop—and thus the children should sprinkle each person to cleanse them of sins? Understand what is said with such simplicity. The heifer is Jesus. Those sinful men who offered it are those who presented Him for slaughter. These men are no more. No more the glory of sinners! Those who sprinkle are children, the very ones who preach to us forgiveness of sins and purification of the heart. To them He entrusted the proclamation of the Gospel. They are twelve in number, representing the tribes. (Pseudo-Barnabas 8.1–3) After introducing, in connection with the heifer, the lustral water, Numbers 19 goes on to speak of the need of such purification in the case of someone who touches a dead body (vv. 11–14) or even a grave (v. 16). This discussion about water prepares the reader for the story about a lack of water in the next chapter.
NUMBERS 20 2 This chapter divides into three recognizable parts. The first (vv. 1–13) narrates the incident of the water at Meribah, prefaced by the people’s arrival at Kadesh-barnea and the death of Miriam. The second tells of the confrontation with the Edomites (vv. 14–21), and the third narrates the death of Aaron (vv. 22–29). As the first verse provides neither the year nor day of the story’s context, the chronology must be conjectural. It is reasonable to suppose the events in this chapter took place during the fortieth year of Israel’s desert wanderings. The deaths of Miriam and Aaron indicate that the original pilgrims of the Exodus are disappearing from the scene. The people find themselves in the desert of Zin, a region sparsely inhabited by wandering nomadic tribes. It formed the southern border to the land of Edom, just south of Canaan (Num. 34:3; Josh. 15:1) and included the Negev. This new drought provokes more murmuring and a rebellious spirit (vv. 2–5). If, as we have supposed, these events took place toward the end of Israel’s stay at Kadesh, the people have been gone from Egypt nearly forty years. Still, it is the same old complaint: why did Moses insist on taking everybody out of that lovely, wonderful land, Egypt, and bringing them out here in the desert to die of thirst? The whole fault lies with Moses and his brother Aaron. It is instructive to reflect that Israel, so severely punished for the
out of step with god rebellions recorded in chapters 16—18, has learned precious little of the perils of murmuring and rebellion. Indeed, the present uprising is described in terms identical to those describing the incidents of the golden calf (Ex. 32:1) and Korah (16:3, 19, 42). The people “contend,” exactly as in the account of the water at Rephidim (Ex. 17:2; see also Gen. 26:20). Once again the prayer of these brothers (v. 6) is answered by God’s instruction for remedying the problem (vv. 7–8). The “rod” is not identified, but the proximity of this story to that in chapter 17 prompts us to identify it as the miraculous rod of Aaron. The “his” describing it can refer to either man. Ancient Hebrew legend identified the “rock” in this passage with the rock in Exodus 17, a stone that actually traveled along with the people through the desert. The Apostle Paul identified that rock for us, remarking that “all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ” (1 Cor. 10:4 [author’s emphasis]). The Lord’s sudden wrath against Moses and Aaron (v. 12) apparently responds to their lack of faith (“because you did not believe Me”), perhaps indicated by Moses’ striking the rock twice (v. 11). In fact, the text does not even say that Moses was to strike the rock at all; he was to take the rod and “speak” to the rock. The text remains, anyway, a bit obscure, prompting various speculations from earliest times. Our earliest comment on the point is Psalm 106 :32–33— “They were provocative at the waters of Meribah / So it went ill with Moses on account of them; / Because they rebelled against His Spirit, / So that he spoke rashly with his lips.” Having incurred the Lord’s wrath, neither Moses nor Aaron will be with the Israelites when they enter the land of Canaan (v. 24). The site of this incident gave it the name Meribah, meaning “strife.”
It is worth remarking that Moses does not complain about the Lord’s judgment on his own ministry; he does not murmur at not being permitted to enter the Promised Land. Moses accepts the judgment of God, rather, and continues on his way, evidently aware of himself only as an unworthy servant. This story overflows with irony. For example, having refused to enter the Holy Land, which abounded with various fruits (13:23– 24), the people now complain of not finding these fruits in the desert (v. 5). Another point of irony is the fact that the Lord does not punish their rebellion in the present instance. They are already condemned to die in the wilderness, so why lay a further burden on them? (See Psalm 78 :38.) In the second part of this chapter, Israel seeks permission to travel through the territory of Edom, using the royal highway (vv. 14–17), a traditional caravan road running north from Israel’s present position at Kadesh. Edom declines the request, thus discounting its ancient blood ties to Israel (vv. 18–21). In his request to the Edomites, Moses advances two lines of persuasion: First, he appeals to the fraternity between Edom and Israel (v. 14), who are the respective descendants of Esau and Jacob. A good brother, Moses reasons, would want to aid his kinsman in the hour of distress (vv. 15–16). This line of argument is especially persuasive in those societies where ties of blood are stronger than those of geography. Second, Moses restricts his request solely to the use of the regular caravan route, the same road to which traders between Damascus and the Gulf of Aqaba normally had access. Edom, Moses argues, would not be inconvenienced. Edom’s rejection of this diplomatic request—made twice—is accompanied by an open military threat. Having no divine mandate
out of step with god to fight the Edomites, Israel backs down and seeks another route to Canaan (v. 21). This was not Edom’s last offense against Israel. According to the Prophet Amos in the eighth century, the Edomites, having “cast off all pity” (Amos 1:11), were involved in the international slave trade (1:6, 9). Edom’s most memorable offenses, however, occurred when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem in 587. At that time they rejoiced at the city’s downfall (Lam. 4:21), exploiting its misfortune in a vengeful way (Ezek. 25:12). Most serious of all was the vile complicity of the Edomites in the demolition of Solomon’s temple, an outrage for which they are explicitly blamed in 1 Esdras 4:45. This final offense likewise inspired a line of Psalm 136 , a lament composed in captivity “by the rivers of Babylon” (v. 1) where the exiles sat and wept, remembering Zion. Reflecting on the holy city’s recent, ruthless destruction, the psalmist bitterly recalled Edom’s share in the matter: “Remember, O Lord, against the sons of Edom / The day of Jerusalem, / Who said, ‘Raze it, raze it, / To its very foundation!’” (v. 7). One book of the Old Testament is devoted entirely to the moral shortcomings of the Edomites: the prophecy of Obadiah. With all this “bad press” against them, the Edomites were fortunate to benefit from an injunction addressed to Israel in Deuteronomy: “You shall not abhor the Edomite, for he is your brother” (23:7). The final section of this chapter (vv. 22–29) speaks of the death of Aaron and the transmission of the priesthood to his son, Eleazar. These events took place at Mount Hor, identified by Josephus (Antiquities 4.4.7) as “the mount of the prophet Aaron,” Jebel Nebi Harun in Arabic. By his death prior to the entrance into the Holy Land, Aaron pays the price for the “rebellion” spoken of earlier in this chapter
(vv. 10, 24). His eldest surviving son, Eleazar, succeeds him, receiving the ministry by the transfer of the sacred Aaronic vestments (see Ex. 29:29–30; Lev. 8:7–9). This death takes place on the first day of the fifth month of the fortieth year after the Exodus, when Aaron is 123 years old (Num. 33:38–39; see also Ex. 7:7). His burial on Mount Hor is not mentioned, but Israel laments Aaron’s passing for a whole month. Israel, seeing Eleazar clothed in the priestly vestments, knows that Aaron has died. His was the first of many such deaths, because “there were many priests, because they were prevented by death from continuing” (Heb. 7:23). At the same time, the transferal of the priesthood to Eleazar is a sign of hope, indicating the Lord’s fidelity to the covenant.
2 Excursus UNDERSTANDING ANGER Anger is troublesome. Among Christians striving seriously to live the mandates of the gospel, I wager that anger is the sin most often mentioned in the Sacrament of Confession. Alas, it also has a remarkably long shelf life. High among the problems attending anger is this: in the classical inventories of the passions, anger is the only one with no opposite impulse. Each of the other passions is paired with a reciprocal antithesis: love is matched by hatred, desire by aversion, hope by despair, fear by boldness, and joy by sorrow. Only anger stands by itself, with no corresponding emotive pull in the opposite direction (see Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica Ia IIae q. 25, art. 3). If
out of step with god you get angry, you’re just stuck with it until it goes away! A second problem with anger is that it is not, in every instance, a thing to be avoided. This is hardly surprising, since the morally proper object (finis) of anger is justice. Indeed, I venture the suggestion that life in this world presents occasions when the refusal to become angry is likely a moral defect. A third problem with anger is that some Christians entertain unreasonable expectations with respect to it. For instance, in confession they repent of “correcting children in anger.” I admit, of course, that children can be (and sometimes are) emotionally harmed by parental displays of anger, and none of us would say that this is a good thing. On the other hand, it is hardly preferable for children to grow up with no experienced memory of anger as an expected response to bad behavior. Since anger exists for the pursuit of justice, it is not a bad thing for children to witness appropriate displays of it. One of the most common misunderstandings about anger is the assumption that at some point in our experience of irritation it is morally permissible to blow our stacks—some kind of righteous “boiling point,” as it were, at which anger is automatically justifiable. We differ among ourselves about where that point should be placed, but most of us implicitly conjecture that such a point does exist. That is to say, we presume that nobody—not even God— should require us to tolerate an unlimited amount of provocation. At some notch in our strained endurance, we presume, anger becomes a righteous response. This presumption is illusory. The righteousness of righteous anger is qualitative, not quantitative: it is determined by its formal and final cause, which is justice, not by the measure of irritation that arouses it. Anger does not become righteous by reason of its accumulated provocations. I know it is painful to hear this—and
no less painful to say it—but there is no point in our cultivation of patience where “I’ve had enough” becomes the rallying cry of righteousness. Offhand I think of two biblical stories that demonstrate this point. The first concerns Moses, about whom the Psalmist said that the Israelites “became provocative at the waters of Meribah, and it went badly for Moses on their account.” What, exactly, did Moses do? “He spoke rashly with his lips” (Ps. 106 :32). Having endured the ceaseless murmurings of the Israelites for forty years, Moses finally declared, “I’ve had enough!” Commanded by the Lord to “speak to the rock before their eyes,” Moses “said to them, ‘Hear now, you rebels! Must we bring water for you out of this rock?’ Then Moses lifted his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod” (Num. 20:7–11). That was it—the single offense that kept Moses from entering the Holy Land. If ever a man might be excused for blowing his stack, I would have imagined, it was certainly Moses at the waters of Meribah. Obviously, however, the Lord took a different view. The second example concerns David, when he was sorely provoked by Nabal (1 Samuel 25). Having used up his entire stock of patience with Saul in the previous chapter, David suddenly found himself without inner spiritual resources when confronted with the moral obtuseness of a man whose own wife described him as a worthless fool. In this particular case, the Lord used that wife, Abigail, to prevent David from following through with his rash and angry threat. Otherwise, surely David would have sinned like Moses, and like Moses he would have been punished. As the anger of Moses kept him from leading Israel into the Promised Land, David’s anger might have kept him from occupying Israel’s throne.
NUMBERS 21 2 Four subjects fill this chapter: the Second Battle of Hormah (vv. 1–3), the brazen serpent (vv. 4–9), the journey to Moab (vv. 10–20), and the war against Sihon and Og (vv. 21–35). As we saw in the previous chapter, Israel is running out of choices with respect to its journey. If they are ever to enter the Promised Land, it will be necessary to pass through somebody’s territory. Their neighbors also realize this, and they are becoming understandably anxious. Tensions are on the rise. These tensions are especially acute toward the south of Canaan, the area adjacent to Israel’s current encampment. Thirty-eight years earlier, after the Lord condemned the Israelites to perish in the wilderness (14:10–38), they had rebelliously attempted to invade Canaan, contrary to the divine command. The Canaanites defeated them at a place (or perhaps a more extensive region) they called Hormah, “destruction” (14:39–45). Now, nearly four decades later, a local Canaanite leader in Arad decides to hit Israel with a preemptive strike, in order to discourage the newcomers from any thought of entering the land. Although Israel’s counterattack was entirely successful (v. 3), the place would be troublesome for Israel in the future (see Josh. 12:14; Judg. 1:16–17). Arad’s name is still borne by a large mound (or tell) in the region east of Beersheba. Clearly Israel has reached a turning point in this Second Battle
of Hormah. A whole generation has passed, and this is the first military victory over the Canaanites. We should observe that this change in Israel’s fortunes follows on the death of Aaron (see 33:38–40). This is largely a new generation, eager not to repeat the errors of their parents. Indeed, Israel’s rededication to the Lord, indicated by the vow taken just prior to the conflict (vv. 2–3), stands in contrast to the rebellion embodied in the earlier battle. Israel is starting to become a new people. The second part of this chapter (vv. 4–9) begins when the Israelites move further east and south to skirt the territory of the uncooperative Edomites. Their recent discouragement leads to the incident of the brazen serpent (vv. 5–9). The “fiery” (saraph, the root of the word “seraphim,” by the way) serpents are so called by the effects of their bite, whether a fever or a painful inflammation. It is curious that this incident took place near Punon (33:42), where large copper mines were situated at the time (Late Bronze Age), and it is certainly worth remarking that the excavations at Lachish, to the west, uncovered a bronze image of a snake dating from exactly this period! In due course, King Hezekiah was obliged to destroy this copper image, because the Israelites of the eighth century had started to treat it like an idol (2 Kin. 18:4). The true significance of the brazen serpent is explained in two later biblical passages. The first is Wisdom of Solomon 16:5–7: For when the fierce rage of beasts came upon these, they were destroyed with the biting of crooked serpents. But thy wrath endured not forever, but they were troubled for a short time for their correction, having a sign of salvation to put them in remembrance of the commandment of thy law. For he that
out of step with god turned to it was not healed by that which he saw, but by thee the Savior of all. The great irony of the serpent is this: the serpent was our tempter. The serpent, then, symbolizes man’s fall. God, as the “Savior of all,” assumes an image associated with sin itself. The brazen serpent, then, became a type or prophecy of the Incarnation, in which God’s Son assumed the likeness of our sinful flesh in order to redeem us. The Jews, then, in looking at the serpent in faith, were in fact looking forward to Christ, who was symbolized in that image. The second text is John 3:14–17: And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. The expression “be lifted up,” used by our Lord in His discourse with Nicodemus, is repeated halfway through John’s Gospel, again with reference to the Crucifixion: “‘And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.’ This He said, signifying by what death He would die” (12:32–33). In addition to being a reference to the Crucifixion, the expression “lifted up” also alludes to a prophecy of God’s Suffering Servant: “Behold, My Servant will prosper; He shall be lifted up and glorified exceedingly” (Is. 52:13, LXX). As this text makes clear, the Lord’s lifting up refers not only to His Crucifixion but also to His exaltation in glory.
The third section of this chapter (vv. 10–20) describes the further journey of the Israelites around the territory of Edom and their turn northwest to the land of the Moabites. This section, in fact, gets a bit ahead of the story; that is to say, the events in the next section (the battles with Sihon and Og) presumably took place after verse 13. Evidently, the author wanted to describe, in one piece, the entire journey of Israel to the Plains of Moab before backtracking to tell of the opposition of the Amorites and Bashanites. The Israelites, having skirted southeastward to avoid the territory of the Edomites, turned northward again and arrived at Wadi Zered, which separated Edom from Moab. This wadi, known today as Wadi el-Hesa, meaning “stream of the willow,” flows westward into the Dead Sea. (The narrative of verses 21–35 fits in chronologically at this point.) Then, continuing northward but remaining well to the east (in order to avoid the land of the Moabites), Israel eventually arrived at the Arnon River, which flows westward into the Dead Sea (vv. 12–16). Although the valley floor of the Arnon is only about 120 feet wide, its surface is two miles wide. The use of the plural—“wadis of the Arnon”—indicates that this river is really a larger water system consisting of extensive tributaries and a fourfold mouth of entrance into the Dead Sea. In any case, Israel crossed over to the north bank of the Arnon and stopped on the northeastern outskirts of Moab, the capital of which was Ar. Here they abode long enough to dig a well (vv. 16–17). In connection with this well the author includes snatches of two ancient songs about wells. It is instructive that the Israelites are now starting to sing, because the days of their wanderings are nearly over. The old generation is nearly gone. Indeed, Israel’s next moral problem—dalliances with Moabite girls—will involve the newer generation, not the old-timers.
out of step with god The crossing of the Arnon introduces the fourth part of this chapter (vv. 21–35). Israel, having no quarrel with the Amorites, seeks permission to travel westward through their territory. The Amorite king, from his capital at Heshbon, ruled over the territory east of the Dead Sea and the Jordan Valley, in a land extending from the Arnon in the south to the Jabbok in the north. He meets Israel’s request with a show of force but is easily defeated. Indeed, Israel actually seizes a portion of the territory. This victory gives Israel its first piece of real estate, but they are still east of the Jordan. This territory, thus conquered from the Amorites, had but recently belonged to the Moabites (vv. 25–29). Years later the Amorites would demand the return of this land, and Jephthe would be obliged to remind them that it had never really belonged to them anyway (Judg. 11:4–27). The defeat of Sihon is celebrated in song, specifically Psalm 134 :11 and 135 :19. Numerous other biblical texts refer to his downfall (Deut. 1:4; 2:24; 3:2; 4:46; 31:4; Josh. 2:10; 9:10; 12:2; 13:10, 21, 27; Judg. 11:19; Jer. 48:45). Having conquered part of the Amorite kingdom, Israel continues its northward march, proceeding parallel to the Jordan River, always looking for a westward passage across the Jordan into Canaan. Thus they arrive at the land of Bashan, a mountainous region east of the Jordan and extending up to the Golan Heights and Mount Hermon. At the southern extremity of the land of Bashan stands Mount Nebo. Here the Israelites arrive and settle for awhile. They have already conquered some land east of the Jordan, which they will in due course annex to the Promised Land. From this point on, Moses no longer asks permission to cross anyone’s territory. He moves, rather, to a policy of conquest, one of his earlier victims being Og, the king of Bashan (vv. 31–35). Given the mammoth dimensions of Og’s sarcophagus—9 cubits by 4
cubits (Deut. 3:11)—he was, apparently, an opponent of frightening size. It is no wonder that Moses needed reassurance (v. 34)! In biblical memory, Sihon and Og are often mentioned together. Indeed, their inclusion in the Church’s weekly recitation of the Psalter has had the effect of making them two of the most famous men in history! In biblical imagery, Sihon and Og represent whatever impedes the soul from entering the Promised Land. Understood in this way, all believers do daily battle with them.
2 Excursus THE BIBLE’S CLASSICAL IMPULSE We all admit that war is a bad thing, but let us also concede that pitching a battle has the merit, from time to time, of bringing forth good poetry. Is there some communion between the two? I don’t mean, of course, that the literary possibilities offered by the prospect of combat are normally computed in the casus belli. It is not as though Agamemnon and his friends, conferring on a recent affront from the Trojans, turned at length to a poet sitting over in the corner and asked, “Well, what about it, Homer? If we go lay siege to Troy, do you think you could do a thing or two with it?” Nor is it reasonable to suppose that one of the commanders at Balaclava, stymied by the superior position of the Russians, suddenly blurted out, “Well, chaps, it’s only half a league onward. Why don’t we just send the Thirteenth Hussars down there right in the face of their artillery? I say, Tennyson old thing, that should get the old literary juices flowing, what?”
out of step with god When I suggest a communion of battle and poetry I mean, rather, what Keats had in mind when he wrote of “the clanging harp of war.” Literary history testifies to a mysterious affinity between the marching tramp of armies and the pen’s long marshalling of measured lines. In each case a true cadence echoes, the resolute and disciplined falling of feet, pushing on toward the settlement of a thesis. It seems a thing of nature, then, that when reasonable men perceive this or that affront to lie beyond endurance—when they feel compelled to steel their souls for the terrible ordeal of combat and put into ordered thought the reasons that compel them to draw the sword—they also take hold of the pen, often enough, to record in words of elegance the destiny, the drama, and even the dogma of their enterprise. Such has been the case in every tribe and tongue. This plain fact does not imply, of course, that the value of the poetry thus produced is necessarily proportioned to the weight of the conflict that produced it. That notion is absurd on its face. Not every great and significant war produced even a single line of memorable verse, whereas on occasion the muse has been overly generous toward the most insignificant battles ever fought. The example I have in mind comes from Numbers 21:27–30: Come to Heshbon, let it be built; Let the city of Sihon be repaired. For fire came forth from Heshbon, A flame from the city of Sihon; It consumed Ar of Moab, The lords of the heights of the Arnon. Woe to you, O Moab! You have perished, you people of Chemosh! He has given his sons as fugitives, And his daughters into captivity,
To Sihon king of the Amorites. But we have shot at them; Heshbon has perished as far as Dibon. Then we laid waste even unto Nophah, To the very reaches of Medeba. Now the most remarkable feature of this poem is that it was inspired by the Amorites’ defeat of Moab just slightly before Israel arrived on the scene, in the thirteenth century, and in turn defeated the Amorites. That is to say, this is not a poem about a battle of Israel but about a war between two pagan peoples, the Moabites and the Amorites (21:26). Unlike, say, Exodus 15:1–18 and Judges 5:2–31, this is not a poem about Israel’s military history, nor does it pertain to the Bible’s explicit theological themes. That war, strictly speaking, had nothing directly to do with Israel. The historian reasonably inquires then, what impulse directed the inspired author of Numbers to insert into the sacred text this little piece of pagan military poetry? I can think of only one reason: It was a good poem about a real war, earlier waged in territory that had recently fallen to Israel’s inheritance. It made no difference that the war itself was not waged by Israel, nor that the poem was not written by an Israelite. It sufficed that this was a really good, robust composition about a known trial of arms that took place in a territory eventually inherited by Israel. Its insertion in the Bible provided for Israel a link with earlier history and literature. These pagan verses, then, much like the secular aphorisms inserted into the Book of Proverbs, served to broaden the Bible’s historical vista. Israel took care to preserve this Amorite poem for the same reason that Irish monks, as they copied the sagas of Greece and Rome, perceived that the epic quality of that literature
out of step with god raised it to a level of universal interest and sympathy. That is to say, the impulse prompting the assumption of this little poem into Holy Scripture was what we may call classical, and it reveals a bit of God’s own take on the matter.
NUMBERS 22 2 The present chapter inaugurates a new section of Numbers, chapters 22—24. Israel’s hosts now encamp on “the plains of Moab,” that Moabite territory north of the Arnon (v. 1). This is the site for the rest of Numbers and all of Deuteronomy. From this position, looking directly west, they have before them a wide and impressive vista. On their immediate right are the brown hills of Bashan, slightly to the left of which the viewers are able to trace the long, serpentine, green valley of the Jordan, on the opposite bank of which, but slightly to the right, stands the city of Jericho. The same viewers, turning a bit to their left but still looking ahead, gaze on the northern fringe of the Dead Sea, the lowest geological point on the earth. It is at this point that the Jordan empties into the Dead Sea. A few degrees further right, on a clear day, they can behold outlines of Jerusalem. Humanly speaking, everything would seem ready for Israel’s crossing of the Jordan, but other trials and an entire book of the Bible—Deuteronomy—will precede that great event. The first of these trials comes from the Moabites, whose settled territory sits to Israel’s immediate south, exactly ninety degrees to the left of those gazing over the Jordan. The Moabites, having recently been defeated by the Amorites, are rather impressed by Israel, the newcomer now victorious over those
out of step with god same Amorites (vv. 2–3). Balak, the Moabite king, eager for a bit of help from on high, seeks the spiritual assistance of Balaam, evidently a well-known diviner, urging him to come and curse Israel (v. 6). Balaam will be the more notable character in chapters 22—24. Although it was long supposed that the material in the Balaam stories came to the Bible from without, only since 1967 has this hypothesis been strengthened by concrete evidence. That was the year archaeologists discovered a relevant text at Tell Deir ‘Alla (the biblical Sukkoth), on the Jordan’s east bank, near its confluence with the River Jabbok. The Deir text, painted on (now fragmented) walls plastered with lime, appears to have been composed sometime during the ninth through eighth centuries BC. It describes how Balaam, Son of Beor, received a nocturnal message from the gods, who expressed their displeasure. On the next morning he delivered that message to the people. The Deir text demonstrates that: (1) Balaam was known as a prophet in exactly that locale where the Bible places him, and (2) he received a divine message at night and delivered it in the morning. These features bear a striking resemblance to the biblical picture of Balaam. In the biblical narrative Balak, the Moabite king, must be introduced first, since he is the one who summons Balaam. Recently set free from the dominance of Sihon and the Amorites, Balak is afraid of falling victim to the obviously superior Israel. Throughout this narrative, we observe two facts about Balak: First, he recognizes the political value of religion. For Balak, the divine is a politically useful force, and he is prompt to exploit its blessings. He tells Balaam, “I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed” (v. 6). This is an eerie paraphrase of God’s promise to Abraham: “I will bless those who
bless you, and I will curse him who curses you” (Gen. 12:3). In the case of Abraham, this was a promise to be met with faith. Balak, however, is not a man of faith. He makes use of religious forces for political purposes, but he is not the least disposed to follow the obedience of faith. Second, this political pursuit shows Balak to be uncommonly stubborn. Already in the present chapter we see him unwilling to take no for an answer. Throughout this story of Balaam, we will find him extremely persistent, as though imagining reality was malleable to the force of his will. This persistence will prove his undoing. Balak is obliged to send a considerable distance to summon Balaam, who lived far, far north at Pethor (called Pitru in Assyrian records), a city on the west bank of the Euphrates, some twelve miles south of Carchemish (v. 5). Divinely instructed to do so, Balaam declines the summons to come and curse Israel (vv. 7–14). At this point he seems not to have been a bad man, and it is interesting to observe his knowledge of Israel and even the name of Israel’s God. He recognizes that this God is not one to trifle with. It is unfortunate for him that he does not persevere with that recognition. Persistent Balak determines to summon Balaam a second time, enhancing the quality of his delegation (vv. 15–17). The prophet, by divine instruction, accepts his second summons and prepares to make the journey south to the Plains of Moab. Nonetheless, the Lord may already have sensed some inner infidelity in Balaam, because He becomes angry and sends an angel with a sword to convey one last warning message to Balaam (v. 22). At this point Holy Scripture introduces arguably the most interesting character in the whole Balaam story—the donkey, who is able to see reality a great deal better than this professional “seer”! Comparative literature provides an analog to Balaam’s donkey
out of step with god in Xanthus, one of the horses belonging to Achilles. According to Homer, the goddess Hera gave the power of speech to Xanthus in order to inform Achilles of his coming death (Iliad 19.407–417). This literary parallel consists in more than two talking equines, however. In the cases of both Balaam and Achilles, the respective beasts are able to see the unseen and to convey warnings to their owners. Moreover, between the story of Balaam and his donkey and the account of Balaam and Balak, there are significant parallels; what the donkey is to Balaam, Balaam is to Balak. Balaam’s triple urging of the donkey (vv. 23–27) finds its parallel in Balak’s threefold urging of Balaam (vv. 41; 23:13, 27). Each case records a movement to a different location, as though such a move would solve the problem. The prophet’s exasperation with the donkey (v. 29) corresponds to Balak’s exasperation with the prophet (24:1–11). The spiritual blindness of Balaam foreshadows the spiritual blindness of Balak. By the time the donkey speaks to Balaam, the latter has become so angry that he apparently fails to notice the incongruity of his being addressed by an animal! As it happens, the donkey is the truly sensible character in the story. She does not explain to Balaam the reasons for her unusual behavior; she simply asks him to consult his experience of her service over many years. Only when he answers the donkey sensibly do Balaam’s eyes open to see what had been perfectly visible to the donkey all along. And when he sees what the donkey saw, Balaam adopts the donkey’s posture: prostration (vv. 27, 31). When he proceeds with his southward journey, Balaam’s encounter with the donkey puts this prophet on guard against deception. It prepares him for the much greater visions he will soon receive. Duly chastened by the encounter with the angel, and having acquired a new respect for his donkey, Balaam eventually arrives
at Moab, and Balak takes him to a height from which he can gaze down on the assembled hosts of Israel. The initial encounter between Balaam and Balak establishes a contrast between the two. Although the king is eager for the soothsayer to get started speaking sooth, he takes the time to remonstrate with him about delaying his trip to Moab. Balaam, for his part, is still dubious about the whole venture. Although the king of Moab eagerly seeks and pays for his services, the soothsayer is not so confident His Majesty will be pleased with the product. Balaam has all along been of divided mind about putting himself at the service of his host. Indeed, he would never have come to Moab except by divine guidance; his reason certainly did not recommend it. Consequently, at each stage of his dealings with Balak, Balaam feels it necessary to mention his misgivings about the project. In contrast to Balaam’s caution stands Balak’s enthusiasm. Difficult to discourage, the king pays no attention to the doubts of his seer. He is so confident of the outcome that he refuses to consider the possibility of failure. Balak combines boundless assurance and a fixed idea—a dangerous mixture if not diluted with a heavy dose of objective counsel. In his fixed idea, Balak is like Captain Ahab in Melville’s Moby Dick. In the irrationality of his unfounded confidence, he resembles Somerset Maugham’s “Hairless Mexican.” It is arguable that no man is so dangerous as someone who places irrational confidence in a fixed idea. It is worse if the man is a king. Our Teacher gives a warning in this respect: “Or what king, going to make war against another king, does not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand?” (Luke 14:31). In this story of Balaam and Balak, nevertheless, the conflict between reasonable caution and irrational confidence is more than a moral parable. It forms the moral setting for the author’s theological
out of step with god and historical thesis: the true director of this is drama is the Lord, who guides Balaam to accept the summons of Balak. The author is not content with a moral warning. His message asserts, in addition, that the Lord of history uses men like Balak to accomplish His purposes. Balak becomes, as it were, a new Pharaoh and a new Esau, to whose well-deserved disadvantage the Lord proceeds to manifest His wonders. In the fulfillment of what he plans, God is prepared to take such stumbling blocks as Barak and use them as stepping stones. Balak becomes what St. Paul calls a vessel of wrath made for destruction (Rom. 9:22).
NUMBERS 23 2 These next two chapters contain four oracles of Balaam relative to Israel, each of them set in a liturgical context, complete with the offering of sacrifice. The words of the oracles come from the Lord Himself (vv. 5, 16). The first oracle (vv. 8–10), called a “parable” (mashal—v. 7), testifies to the futility of defying God, even by religious means such as blessing and cursing. In a mystic vision Balaam sees that more is going on than meets the eye in Israel’s sudden appearance in this time and place. More is happening than human force can control or explain. Even this pagan and unworthy prophet can discern that God’s secret purposes are at work, such as only a fool would undertake to resist. Israel, says Balaam, is not like other nations (v. 9). Needless to say, this is not what Balak had in mind to hear (v. 11), and the Moabite king, evidently of the opinion that a change of view might be helpful to his cause, takes Balaam up to a higher place and asks him to give it a go from a new angle, as it were, a fresher approach to the situation (v. 14). From Balak’s perspective, this new angle is no help at all. Indeed, it simply amplifies the former message, insisting on the inevitability of God’s purpose respecting Israel (vv. 18–24). Completely frustrated, Balak wants to cancel the whole performance (v. 25), but the show must go on, says Balaam (v. 26). It is too late to stop. All right, answers Balak, let’s try to find a third
out of step with god angle from which to view the thing. So everyone prepares to go through the whole complicated process once again (vv. 27–30). We behold Balak’s bewilderment as he continues to imagine that the gist of prophecy consists in changing one’s perspective and looking at things from a different angle. This frustrating exercise is also part of the Lord’s plan, so He permits the charade to continue. This next message will be of a piece with the other two.
NUMBERS 24 2 Unlike Balak, Balaam has the situation figured out. He knows that it is hopeless; Israel cannot be cursed. Balaam turns his back, therefore, and stares into the wilderness; he will not look at Israel (v. 1). Even there, however, and apparently in a mystic trance (v. 4), he beholds the hosts of the Israelites, and the Holy Spirit of prophecy descends upon him. This new “parable” (mashal—v. 3), the most solemn hitherto (vv. 5–9), invokes the lion symbolism that Jacob had used of Judah (v. 9; Gen. 49:9) and the imagery of the water and trees of Paradise (v. 6; Gen. 2:9–10). Barak, naturally quite exasperated by now (v. 10), orders Balaam to leave at once (v. 11). The latter, however, after defending himself (vv. 12–14), has one more parable “for the road,” as it were, one that Balak did not seek. Indeed, this final prophecy is a multiple parable (mashal—vv. 15, 20, 21, 23), a prophecy in parts, in which Balaam announces what Moab and its neighbors may expect of the Israelites in the years to come. The star rising from Jacob (v. 17) is, of course, the Star of David and refers to the Messianic line of David’s sons. Just as it was the pagan prophet Balaam who first saw this star in a mystic vision, it was the pagan sages who beheld its coming with their own eyes (Matt. 2:2, 7, 9, 10). The Christian interpretation of this star was recognized early:
out of step with god And that He should rise as a star from the see of Abraham, Moses demonstrated ahead of time when he said, “A star shall arise from Jacob, and a leader from Israel”; and another Scripture says, “Behold a Man, the East is His name.” Accordingly, when a star arose in heaven at the time of His birth, as is recorded in the memoirs of the Apostles, the Magi from Arabia, recognizing the sign by this, came and adored Him. (Justin Martyr, The Dialogue With Trypho 106) And again: Therefore there is one and the same God, who was proclaimed by the prophets and announced by the Gospel; and His Son, who was of the fruit of David’s body, that is, of the Virgin descended from David, and Emmanuel; whose star Balaam also prophesied, “A star shall arise out of Jacob, and a leader shall arise in Israel.” But Matthew says that the Magi, coming from the east, exclaimed, “For we have seen His star in the east and are come to adore Him”; and having been led by the star into the house of Jacob, to Emmanuel, they showed by the gifts that they offered Him just whom they were adoring. (Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3.9.2)
2 Excursus THE POSTMODERNIST Few statements, I confess, render my mind more uneasy than the simple declaration, “Well, it all depends on how you look
at it.” When I hear this sentence, a sudden, anxious impulse at the back of the brain sends out the general warning, “Caution! You are about to hear something unbelievably stupid.” This response on my part is not natural, of course, in the sense of being a thing of nature. Such a reaction is hardly to be explained by the genes. No, mine is a truly “conditioned reflex” produced by years of monotonous reruns of raw nonsense. After about the millionth time of hearing someone say, “It all depends on how you look at it,” followed immediately by some ridiculous assertion, the conditioned memory simply links the two things together as components of a whole. Not only is my reaction not natural, it is also not rational. That is to say, there is no logical or necessary connection between statements of unbelievable stupidity and the affirmation, “It all depends on how you look at it.” The two things are not logically related. They are connected only in my experience. Moreover, not only is my reaction not natural and not logical, sometimes it is also unwarranted. It is an obvious fact that many things in life do depend entirely on perspective. For instance, the famous Mediterranean cloud that Elijah beheld from Mount Carmel was not really the size of a man’s hand. It was a great deal larger, or Elijah could not have seen it. Making the cloud the size of a man’s hand depended entirely on “how you look at it.” The relative size of Elijah’s cloud truly was a matter of perspective. Phidias demonstrated this sense of perspective very well in the design of the Parthenon. When we visitors climb through the entrance to the Acropolis at Athens, we look across toward the Parthenon on the other side, and we see a building that appears to be perfectly symmetric. (Indeed, unless we deliberately pay heed to the fact, we may not even notice that we are looking at the Parthenon at an angle, not straight on. Phidias had no intention of our looking
out of step with god at it straight on.) From our perspective on the opposite side of the Acropolis, all the columns supporting the Parthenon appear to be the same size. That is the way Phidias designed it to be seen. When we walk over and inspect the building more closely, however, it looks very different; the columns are of various sizes. They appear to be the same size only when viewed from the vectored perspective at the entrance to the Acropolis. This effect is simply art, and in art it is undeniably true that “it all depends on how you look at it.” Why, then, do I react so unnaturally and illogically to unqualified declarations of this statement? As I indicated above, my response comes from a burdened memory. “It all depends on how you look at it” has become, in my experience, an all-purpose antecedent from which nearly any conclusion, no matter how ludicrous, can be drawn. As I have heard it, the expression most often means, “There is no such thing as truth; everything is point of view.” Or, “We cannot know reality; we can only tell our stories.” There is nothing beyond interpretation, in other words. Reality is open to interpretation, but it does not convey truth. Truth itself is relative—nothing so rock solid as the Parthenon. The only reality, according to this theory, is personal or corporate narrative. Even if truth exists, we cannot know it, because every perspective is angled from a personal vantage or a shared point of view. Although this absolutist claim for perspective is so modern as to be called Postmodern, it is not without its precedents in the past. Among the ancients who contended, as a point of dogma, that “it all depends on how you look at it” was King Balak of Moab. This monarch combined a boundless confidence in the power of perspective with a dogged determination, no matter what the cost, to get the angle “just so.” Balak knew exactly what he wanted to be seen, and he was persuaded that it would surely be seen, if only he could arrange the proper point of view.
This is the spirit behind Balak’s pathetic attempts to make Balaam look at Israel’s army “just so.” Three times he insists that Balaam stand here or stand there, on each occasion gaining a different viewpoint. Balak knows what he wants Balaam to behold, and if he can get Balaam standing in exactly the right place, he will behold it (Num. 23:3, 13, 27). After all, truth, as everyone knows, enjoys no independent existence. It all depends on how you look at it. Balak’s effort doesn’t work, of course. Poor, disappointing Balaam keeps seeing what he sees. No matter which direction he turns, before him stand the awesome, invincible forces of Israel still holding the field, utterly undeniable, powerful as the Parthenon. No slanting of the story, no contrived vectoring of the light can vanquish the irreducible claims of the truth, and at last Balak pleads with Balaam to break it off, please, and go home (24:10–11).
NUMBERS 25 2 After the previous three chapters about Balaam, and especially in view of the latter’s enthusiastic prophecies regarding Israel’s great expectations, we may have anticipated immediate success for the chosen people. Alas, however, a serious moral lapse is going to delay even further Israel’s entrance into the Promised Land. More sadly, this lapse seems to have befallen the younger people, the very ones who were to replace the generation that perished in the wilderness. The incident in this chapter takes place at Shittim, the Hebrew for “acacia groves,” a wooded area east of the Jordan. It was from there that Joshua would in due time send the spies to investigate the Holy Land (Josh. 2:1). This moral lapse, following so suddenly on the oracles of Balaam and narrated immediately after his departure, is not related to Balaam in this text, but Balaam certainly receives the blame for it a few chapters later: “Look, these women caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to trespass against the Lord in the incident of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the Lord” (21:16). This moral depravity of Balaam is really the only context in which he is remembered in the New Testament (2 Pet. 2:5; Rev. 2:14). Israel’s failing in the present circumstance began as fornication with Moabite women and proceeded to idolatry with Moabite gods
(vv. 1–2). Indeed, in popular religion in this part of the world, the two were sometimes hard to keep separate. The Lord’s reaction, to the surprise of no one who had been reflecting on recent events, was not favorable (v. 3). Since the idol worship and sexual immorality of the Moabites were typical of the atmosphere into which Israel would soon be immersed, it was important to deal with the problem decisively. “Decisively,” in fact, is exactly the adverb we want here. Coming from the Latin de-cido, meaning “to cut off,” it generally refers to the cutting off of discussion. Sometimes, nonetheless, cutting off discussion is more rapidly reached by cutting off the heads of those who continue the discussion. This was the approach adopted in the present instance (vv. 4–5). Phineas, the son of Eleazar and grandson of Aaron, exemplified the pursuit of righteousness in this matter. He was certainly a decisive sort of priest, with a pronounced tendency to executive decisions. Phineas reacted in response to sinful activity of a particularly flagrant nature (v. 6): a couple evidently thought that, because their families were well placed and well connected, they were exempt from the common discipline, the universal moral law, and the authority of the priesthood. Phineas “decided” to clarify the situation for them (vv. 14–15). This reasonable and highly commendable action of Phineas determined that Israel’s priestly succession would pass to and through his own sons (vv. 10–13; see also 1 Chr. 5:30–34; Ps. 106 :30; WSir 45:23–26; 1Mc 2:26, 54).
NUMBERS 26 2 The census at the beginning of this book was taken forty years earlier and counted a population that by now has disappeared. An entire generation has died in the wilderness, replaced by its children, and these already have children and, doubtless, even grandchildren of their own. Therefore, it is time for a new census before Israel moves again, this time across the Jordan into the Promised Land. Thus, the narrative of the Book of Numbers lies between two demographic lists. Moreover, the direct purpose of the present census is to determine the demographic figures necessary for the coming distribution of the Promised Land. It is no accident, therefore, that an outline of inheritance laws in the next chapter follows the census in this chapter. Israel is exactly at the point when its existence will soon pass from migratory to sedentary, and it is the proper context for matching needs with resources. This census will indicate the territorial needs of each tribe. The census complete, the distribution of the Promised Land is to be done by a double method of casting lots and maintaining equity in the distribution. With such great disproportion in the size of the inheriting tribes, this process is bound to be both complicated and difficult (vv. 52–56). Comparing the figures in this census with the earlier one in Numbers, we observe that some of the tribes have declined slightly,
a thing not surprising in view of the extreme rigors of the desert. For instance, respecting the tribe of Reuben, one may compare the figure in verse 7 with Numbers 1:21. The tribe of Simeon, we note, has diminished by more than half (v. 14; 1:23), a circumstance that may explain why Judah eventually absorbed this tribe. Other tribes have declined as well: Zebulon (v. 27; 1:31), Ephraim (v. 37; 1:33), and Naphtali (v. 50; 1:43). Other tribes have actually grown. For instance, the tribe of Judah, eventually the royal tribe and of which we have already discerned an increasing prominence, has grown slightly (v. 22; 1:27), as have Dan (v. 43; 1:39), Issachar (v. 25; 1:29), and Asher (v. 47; 1:41). Even more pronounced is the growth of Benjamin (v. 41; 1:37). Manasseh has almost doubled in size (v. 34; 1:35), a fact that will explain why half of this tribe will settle on the east side of the Jordan. Unlike the earlier census (1:49), this one does count the Levites, but care is still taken to keep their census separate from that of the other tribes (v. 62; compare with 1:47). Eventually there will be some discussion about female inheritance in families that produced no male heirs. For this reason, two cases are mentioned in the present chapter (vv. 33, 46).
NUMBERS 27 2 This chapter is divided between two subjects: the ordinances governing inheritances in the Promised Land (vv. 1–11) and the choice of a successor to replace Moses and lead God’s people to the west side of the Jordan (vv. 12–23). Each section begins with a short story. In the story introducing the first topic, five sisters, the only offspring of a man who had died a natural death in the wilderness, approach Moses to complain that, if the current laws limiting the inheritance of real estate were enforced, their own father’s memory would be obliterated from Israel’s history (vv. 3–4). The resolution of this problem, by which these five women may obtain the inheritance of their dead father, was not prompted by an impulse to treat men and women equally in the inheritance laws. Had this been the case, their own treatment would not be regarded as an exception. On the contrary, the sole interest governing this decision was the preservation of the memory of these sisters’ father, not a concern for the women themselves. It would be widely off the mark, therefore, to interpret this account as some sort of early version of “women’s rights.” The resolution of this individual case also provided the context for further legal determinations respecting the inheritance of property. In every instance considered here, the governing principle of inheritance was proximity in blood relationship (vv. 8–11). The goal
sought in this legislation was to maintain real estate attached to the family. That is to say, the major preoccupation in these rules was to guarantee that a family’s inheritance really meant something concrete. It meant solid, indestructible, landed property. With regard to the five young ladies that presented the problem in the first place, we know from Joshua 17:3–6 that they really did inherit, in the name of their father, land west of the Jordan. At least two of these women left their names to cities in the Holy Land. In this chapter’s second story the Lord tells Moses to climb the Abarim Mountains in order to see the land that he will never enter. These heights, which include Mount Nebo, rise on the western slopes of the plateau of Moab (vv. 12–14). In response Moses seeks from the Lord someone to succeed himself (vv. 16–17). In implementing the Lord’s choice of Joshua, we may especially observe its reliance on the priesthood of Aaron’s family (vv. 19, 21, 22). Like many successions in the Bible, it is transmitted by the laying-on of hands (vv. 18, 23). Still, this succession is not hereditary but charismatic (v. 20). Even the successor of Moses, Joshua, did not receive the former’s full authority, much less his historical role. Strictly speaking, Moses was irreplaceable.
NUMBERS 28 2 Outside of any logical sequence that we can recognize, two chapters follow with regulations on the sanctification of time: the day, the week, the month, and the year. The first rule has to do with the two daily offerings of yearling lambs, one in the morning and the other at evening (vv. 3–8; Ex. 29:38–42). These two daily sacrifices, the one to consecrate the passage of light into darkness and the other to dedicate the passage of darkness into light, were Israel’s minimum requirement of daily sacrificial worship. These times of daily sacrifice became, for all Jews everywhere, special times of prayer each day known as “the hours of prayer” (see Acts 3:1; 10:2–3, 30). In this way each day was to be sanctified. This custom, detached from the temple sacrifices and handed down since the time of the apostles, forms the two daily canonical hours in traditional churches of both East and West: Matins (Orthros) in the morning and Vespers in the evening. The same discipline was also approved by the Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century. Martin Luther, for example, provided for daily services in church (a full hour in length for each!), complete with two daily sermons on the Bible, while in England Thomas Cranmer provided the format and content of both services—Morning Prayer and Evensong—in The Book of Common Prayer. After the two daily sacrifices, the sacred text turns next to the
sanctification of the week through the observance of the Sabbath (vv. 9–10). The details of the daily sacrifice are repeated for this weekly sacrifice, indicating that on the Sabbath the daily sacrifice was simply doubled. Then comes the sanctification of the month, at the beginning of each new moon. This is time’s next larger unit, and the sacrifice is much larger and more elaborate (vv. 11–15). Next the Scripture turns to the sacrifices associated with special feast days, in which the year itself is sanctified through the observance of the annual calendar. The first chief feasts in this cycle are Passover, Unleavened Bread (vv. 16–25), and Pentecost (vv. 26–31). In this chapter, then, we observe the original outline of the daily, weekly, and annual services of worship that the Christian calendar inherited from Judaism. We observe that the component not taken over by the Christian Church was the special observance of services for each month. Was this a reluctance born of Colossians 2:16 (“So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or Sabbaths”)? The solar month, after all, is the most artificial and unnatural division of time, while the lunar month, being more closely tied to biological cycles, is the most open to nature worship, especially the fertility cults. The lunar cycle is literally a “menstrual” cycle (from mensis, the Latin for “month”). For instance, we observe this association in the ancient statuary of the Ephesian Diana with her t wenty-eight breasts, one for each day of the lunar month.
NUMBERS 29 2 This chapter, continuing the theme of the sanctification of time, moves from spring to autumn. In Israel’s ancient calendar, as reflected in this and the previous chapter, we observe a concentration of focus on spring and autumn, the two “transitional” seasons, moving from cold to warm and from warm to cold, from darkness to light and from light to darkness. These seasons, then, serve as the annual representations of each day’s morning and evening. The sundry feasts associated with these two seasons become a kind of annual Matins and Vespers. The autumnal “seventh month” (Tishri) is the exact correspondent to our own word “September” (from the Latin septem, meaning “seven.”) In fact, the ancient month Tishri overlaps September and October. As the seventh month, Tishri is the most important and sacred month. As we see in the present chapter, three feasts are associated with it: The first is the Feast of the Trumpet, which heralds the month itself (v. 1). In later days, this trumpet announced the new year; the day was then called Rosh Hashanah, “the head of the year”— that is, New Year’s Day. In addition to the daily, weekly, and monthly sacrifices, special sacrifices are associated with this feast itself (vv. 2–6). It is worth remarking that the Orthodox Church still begins
the liturgical year on the first day of the Roman calendar’s seventh month—September (now our ninth month)—and calls it “the crown of the year.” Obviously, neither Jews nor Christians see a discrepancy with beginning the new year in the seventh month! The prescribed blowing of the trumpet is reminiscent of the blowing of the trumpet associated with Joshua’s storming of Jericho to begin the conquest of the Holy Land. It is passing curious that the Orthodox Church also celebrates Joshua’s Feast on September 1. Because this beginning of autumn falls on the first day of the seventh month (v. 1), its prescriptions specify that the appointed sacrifices be done in addition to the regular sacrifices designated for each month (v. 6). The autumnal season goes on to include Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (vv. 7–11), which always falls on the tenth day of Tishri. (See Acts 27:9. If, as we are justified in suspecting, this was the year AD 59, then the Day of Atonement was October 5.) Requiring an extra day of rest, this feast has a Sabbath quality. Finally comes the Feast of Tabernacles, Sukkoth (vv. 12–40), which lasts an entire week and requires more detailed instructions. This feast, always occurring in the seventh month, also has about it a kind of Sabbath character in the sense that it involves a time of rest (vv. 12, 35). During the course of the week-long Feast of Tabernacles, the number of bullocks sacrificed on each day gradually diminishes. Thirteen are offered on the first day (v. 13), twelve on the second day (v. 17), eleven on the third day (v. 20), and so on (verses 23, 26, 29, 32), finishing with only one bullock on the eighth day (v. 36). That is to say, this feast has about it a quality of “winding down,” as it were. The sacred text specifies that these “set feasts” (v. 39) do not exhaust the potential for Israel’s piety as represented in the appointed
out of step with god sacrifices. Additional “freewill offerings” could and should be given, as the fervor of the people would dictate. Nor does this list of feast days preclude the addition of others at later times, such as Purim during the Persian era and Hanukkah during the Greek period.
NUMBERS 30 2 From the “freewill offerings” mentioned in the previous chapter (29:39), the text transitions reasonably to the vows treated in the present one. Because the Israelites shared, with most other religious people, a positive view of vows (see Gen. 28:20–22), the subject of vows did not require a systematic or philosophical treatment. Nor would it require much legislation except for those occasions when a vow is impossible, inadvisable, or even harmful to keep. The present chapter considers such cases. That is to say, the substance of this chapter is casuistry, or case law. It also presumes the earlier biblical legislation about vows (see Lev. 5:4; 7:16–18; 22:17–25; 27:1–31; Num. 6:2–21; 15:1–10). The major principle about vows is enunciated at once: vows are morally binding (v. 1). More particularly, they are binding on a man, a male person (’ ish) who is socially and politically free to observe it. A woman, however, who is normally under male authority, represents a different set of cases. The first case involves an unmarried woman who is still under paternal authority. She is bound by such vows as her father permits (vv. 3–4); otherwise not (v. 5). Similarly, a married woman, living under the authority of a husband, must observe such vows as he approves (vv. 6–7; see also 1 Sam. 1:11); otherwise not (v. 8).
out of step with god In the case of a widow or divorced woman, who is under no male authority, her vows are treated exactly like those of a man (v. 9), unless the husband had formerly determined otherwise (vv. 10–15). The general line of reasoning in this chapter is clear: Of their very nature, vows involve supererogation, going above and beyond duty—they are added on to the existing and presupposed order of things. If they are found to be in conflict with the social order, those responsible for that order—husbands and fathers—have the authority to abrogate them. Vows are to be observed, therefore, except in those cases where they may threaten the stability of order. This line of reasoning has always guided the Church’s own discipline of vows.
NUMBERS 31 2 Except for a recent skirmish with the Amorites a few chapters ago, the armies of Israel have not been involved in much fighting for a long time. The recent oracles of Balaam, however, indicate that Israel is now a significant military power, and we know that its armies will soon cross the Jordan to conquer Canaan. Hence, it is time to review some of the rules for warfare, specifically as they pertain to prisoners and spoils. Such is the burden of the present chapter, in which, once again, a prompting narrative precedes the rules. Moses, before his death, must oversee Israel’s vengeance on the Midianites (v. 2). This task, which involves only a fraction of Israel’s forces (vv. 3–6), is explained by Numbers 25:18, where we learned of collusion between Moab and Midian in the moral seduction of young Israelites. That collusion also explains why Balaam is one of the casualties of the present conflict (v. 8). Phineas accompanies Israel’s force of twelve thousand, and the warlike priest is charged with blowing the trumpet (v. 6). The reported execution of every Midianite male (v. 7) should be understood with something less than mathematical exactness, since we know that the Midianites in the next generation will be stronger than ever (see Judges 6). This successful exercise in warfare brought certain practical problems attendant on military victory, chiefly what to do with the surviving captives and their possessions (vv. 9–12). Moses is upset
out of step with god that any enemies survived the battle (v. 14). After all, were not these the very women who had corrupted Israel’s youth just a few chapters back (v. 16)? In the end he permits only the virgins to be spared, in order to become wives for the Israelites (v. 18). The ensuing slaughter of the women and little boys rightly offends our moral sense. If it did not, we would be in sorry shape, I think; it might suggest that the Sermon on the Mount has not taken sufficient hold on our conscience. The Bible’s report of this event also cautions us, however, against elevating our moral sense in an absolute way that would challenge the holiness of God. This incident of the Moabites and Midianites was an attack on the holiness of God, and therefore it involves something more than a merely human offense. Although we correctly disapprove of killing women and children in the context of war, and more especially when the war is already over, our correct moral disapprobation is not the last word on the subject. Even when our moral judgment is correct, it is still inadequate to deal with the holiness and righteous judgments of God. In the execution of the Midianites we touch on the holiness and righteousness of God, which so transcends the moral sense of man that its activity, as exemplified here, may strike our moral sense in offensive ways. It is imperative that we ever bear in mind that God is holier than even the most moral of moral men. This is all to say that man’s morality is one thing, and a very good thing, but the holiness and righteousness of God is something infinitely more. All killing of human beings, even when blood is justly shed in combat, defiles and requires cleansing (vv. 19–20). This does not mean that the shedding of blood in these circumstances is morally wrong. On the contrary, the shedding of blood in a just war is morally correct and may even qualify as an act of charity. (What else but genuine charity for our countrymen, including our own
families and immediate neighbors, would prompt us, at the extreme risk to our own lives, to kill our enemies in combat? This perception explains why the Christian Church has always provided blessings and other prayers for the armed forces of our nations.) Still, such bloodshed falls infinitely short of the purity necessary for entering into God’s presence in worship. This is the reason the Christian Church has always prescribed a purification process, placing certain canonical, sacramental restraints on those who take the enemy’s life in warfare—not because the shedding of blood is always immoral. Following this narrative comes the rules for the disposition of persons and booty captured in war (vv. 22–40). A percentage of these spoils is dedicated to divine service, very much like the fruits of labor (vv. 41–54). This chapter’s final section displays the same concern for numerical exactness and tabulation that we have elsewhere seen in this book appropriately called Numbers.
NUMBERS 32 2 Life is soon to change for the chosen people. They have never been sedentary, not even in Egypt, where they lived as semi-nomadic shepherds. Now, however, they are to become farmers, the very type of people most tied to the land. The differences between these two ways of life (exemplified as far back as Cain and Abel) are not reducible simply to their sources of livelihood. The differences extend, rather, to the entire social structure, particularly government and systems of loyalty. Not all the Israelites are equally keen on making this transition to agriculture and vine-growing, especially those tribes that have been most successful in raising herds. These included, especially, the tribes of Reuben and Gad, which now announce their preference to remain in the good grazing land east of the Jordan (vv. 1–5). Moses’ immediate objection to this suggestion concerns Israel’s diminished military strength if its forces were to be reduced by two tribes. He likens the request of these two tribes to the earlier incident when the twelve spies brought back a discouraging word from their inspection of the Holy Land. Indeed, this discouragement is the point of the comparison (vv. 6–15; compare Judg. 5:16–17). The tribes of Gad and Reuben, by way of response, declare their intention (after securing their own families on land east of the Jordan) to remain with the invading force until all the Promised Land is conquered (vv. 16–19).
Moses agrees to this arrangement (vv. 20–24), and the two tribes repeatedly pledge their cooperation (vv. 25–27, 31–32). Moses announces the compromise to the rest of Israel’s leadership (vv. 28–30). Half the tribe of Manasseh, whose recent significant growth we have already had occasion to observe, joins the two tribes inheriting land east of the Jordan (v. 33), and the chapter ends with a list of new Israelite villages and strongholds in that territory (vv. 34–42). This chapter records the “compromise” between Moses and the petitioning tribes, with no explicit comment on its moral and theological ambivalence. This approach permits the Bible reader to reflect on it freely in the light of the biblical story as a whole. Was this a good compromise, or was it simply the accommodation accorded to an infidelity? That is to say, was Moses’ decision in this case similar to the Old Testament provision for divorce? (“Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce” [Matt. 19:8].) An initial impression suggests comparing Moses’ accommodation on this point with the accommodation Samuel later makes to the Israelites’ request for a king. That is to say, just as the Lord, through His servant Samuel, permitted Israel to adopt the monarchy—in spite of the infidelity involved in that request—so the Lord, through His servant Moses, permitted these petitioning tribes to settle east of the Jordan. Closer inspection of the text, however, indicates a problem with this parallel. In the case of the monarchy, the Lord incorporates the infidelity of the Israelites into His larger historical plan: the Messiah would be born in the lineage of Israel’s second king. We find nothing of this sort in the eastern expansion of Israel’s geography. It simply happens; the event never takes on a larger theological significance. Indeed, the Lord Himself is not even consulted in this chapter!
out of step with god A more modest, and even cautionary, approach to this question seems warranted: From patristic times, as evidenced in Origen’s Homilies on Numbers, Christians have commonly regarded those Israelites who settled east of the Jordan as something less than fully committed believers. They belonged to the people of God, but they failed to measure up to a full commitment. They are the oligopistoi—“those of little faith.” Two facts support this interpretation: First, these tribes received their inheritance not from the Lord, but from Moses (v. 33). Settling in the land of Gilead was never regarded as something God had in mind. It was their idea, and Moses, near the end of his life, did not believe it worthwhile to deny their request. Second, the tribes that settled in the land of Gilead were subject to unusually difficult pressures in the centuries to follow, as various peoples east of the Jordan, such as Nahash the Ammonite (1 Samuel 11), looked upon that rich grazing land with a covetous eye. The plight of the “easterners” became particularly acute with the ascendancy of Syria in the mid-eighth century BC. It is worth remarking that the Jews laid no claim on the land east of the Jordan in either of their two historical “restorations”—neither at the end of the Babylonian Captivity nor at the foundation of the modern state of Israel. This land, so attractive to Gad, Reuben, and half of Manasseh, was not within the borders of the land of promise. As with Moses’ concession with respect to divorce, it was proper to assert that “from the beginning it was not so.”
NUMBERS 33 2 As Israel’s long journey draws nigh to its end, the inspired author of this book thinks it an opportune time to recount the stages—since Egypt—that the chosen people have traveled (v. 1). This list is based on Moses’ own “log” of the trip, but the Lord Himself directed this recording of it (v. 2). For us readers, nonetheless, identifying each of these places is a far from certain exercise. When the desert is called a “trackless waste,” full consideration should be given to that description. Deserts and their shifting sands are notoriously deficient in stable landmarks, and this record antedates by far the art of calculating one’s precise geographical position by reference to the stars. In addition, archaeology has not been able, in every instance, to identify the place names listed in this chapter. If it did, we could confidently map out the entire period of Israel’s desert wandering. The name Sukkoth, which means “tents” or “booths,” immediately provides an illustration of our difficulty. It may be the case that this place received its name for no other reason than the fact that Israel pitched its tents there. The place names in the list in verses 5–15 correspond very closely to the account in Exodus 12:37—19:2. Dophkah (vv. 12–13), a name not included in the Book of Exodus, seems to be what is now called Serabit el Khadem, a site of turquoise mining in the south of the Sinai Peninsula. One suspects that Alush, also missing from
out of step with god Exodus, gave its name to Wadi el’esh, just south of Dophkah. Kadesh, which Israel reaches by verse 36, is not desert at all. It is a lush valley with abundant spring water. The major spring was Ain el-Qudeirat, twelve miles away from Ain Qudeis, which still preserves the name Kadesh.
NUMBERS 34 2 We may read the present chapter as a contrast with the chapter we have just finished, and this contrast pertains to both time and place. Having looked backward in the previous chapter, the inspired writer now turns his attention to the future, and as the former chapter took the measure of the desert, the present chapter will measure the Promised Land. The large territory considered in the first half of this chapter (vv. 2–15) was not all conquered during Joshua’s period of conquest. Not until the monarchy in the tenth century before Christ did Israel occupy such a large area. Nonetheless, the territory outlined here really does correspond very closely to the “Canaan” over which earlier Egyptian pharaohs had exercised dominion until the close of the fourteenth century before Christ. In this sense it would have seemed normal to Moses and his contemporaries to think of Canaan (v. 2) in these same dimensions. Having come up from the south, Moses first considered Canaan’s southern border. Under Israel’s occupation, this southern border will be the land of Edom (v. 3)—that is, a line running westward from the border of the Dead Sea to the Mediterranean (see Josh. 15:3–4; Ezek. 47:19). The Wadi el-Arish (“river of Egypt”—v. 5) serves as a kind of natural division of the Negev from the Sinai Peninsula.
out of step with god The “sea” (v. 5) and “great sea” (v. 6) are references to the Mediterranean, Israel’s natural western border. On the north a line running eastward from the Mediterranean, somewhat north of Byblos to the desert beyond Damascus, will border Israel. Zedad is northeast of Mount Hermon (vv. 7–9). Respecting the eastern border of Canaan, its northeastern corner will be Benaias (a later name derived from the Greek god, Pan), the major source of the Jordan River. Then the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan, and the Dead Sea will roughly form the natural eastern border (vv. 11–12). We note that these boundaries completely exclude the land recently claimed by Gad, Reuben, and half of Manasseh. These latter tribes, therefore, are not considered in the division of the land just circumscribed (vv. 13–15). The chapter ends by listing the names of the men charged with the division of the Holy Land (vv. 16–29).
NUMBERS 35 2 Part of the disposition of the Promised Land, a theme now continued from the previous chapter, is the arrangement for regional “cities of refuge.” These special places of sanctuary were designated for those whose lives were endangered by families seeking blood vengeance. Since these assigned cities of refuge were all priestly cities, however, the chapter begins with the disposition of the priestly cities (see also Lev. 25:32–34; Josh. 21:1–40). The tribe of Levi, the priestly tribe, was to inherit forty-eight cities, including the six cities of refuge, dispersed throughout the whole Promised Land (vv. 6–7). Pastureland in the vicinity of the priestly cities is attached to this inheritance (vv. 2–5). Most of this chapter, however, is devoted to the cities of refuge themselves (vv. 10–34). Because they were priestly cities, they had shrines and altars that would serve as precincts of sanctuary (see Ex. 21:14; 1 Kin. 1:51). Three were assigned to Canaan, three to Transjordania (v. 14). These assigned cities served two discrete purposes: First, to guarantee that no retributive action would be taken against an accused killer until a fair trial could determine whether or not his offense was intentional; and second, to provide a haven for such a one, after the trial, against those still disposed to take vengeance on him anyway. In both cases, the function of the city of refuge was to place
out of step with god rational and political restraints on the exercise of revenge. While the more obvious category involved in the institution of sanctuary is spatial (that is, the setting apart of a measured precinct), it has another dimension that may be called “temporal” (that is, the setting apart of a measured time). The institution implies an “until.” Thus, the accused could not be harmed until he was properly tried (v. 12). If granted further asylum at that trial, the accused person was safe until the death of the high priest (Josh. 20:6). In regard to the heat of avenging passion, the biblical text shows here a conspicuous respect for the therapeutic influence of time. It recognizes that time is not on the side of passion but of reason. Thus, these cities of refuge, beyond the political and judicial significance conveyed in their literal and historical sense, also possess a moral and ascetical meaning. As institutions of restraint, they represent a healthy distrust of impetuosity. They stand for the rational mind’s control over the passions, especially an avenging anger that feels itself to be righteous. This institution embodies the truth that “the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:20). Experience indicates that the passions, if not deliberately fueled and stoked, are marked by a native entropy. They resemble, in this respect, the flames often invoked to describe them. Left to themselves, the passions tend to diminish over time. Thus, wrath must act quickly, as it were, because it knows that its time is short (Rev. 12:12). Generally speaking, time is no friend to the passions. Time is on the other side—that of reason. Reason, therefore, unlike the passions, knows how to wait. Reason is the realm of thought, and thought, unlike passion, requires the discipline of time. Consequently, properly cultivated reason is “slow to anger” (Prov. 16:32; James 1:19). Furthermore, reason is a bulwark of assured self-possession.
Indeed, reason is slow precisely because it is confident. Reason can “take its time” because, unlike the passions, reason deliberately invests in time. Time is one of reason’s most interest-bearing endowments, its long-term investment. The true city of refuge, then, is the mind godly cultivated in the art of patience, cautious of the impromptu, wary of impulse, and suspicious of “quick returns.” Its manner is slow, deliberate. As a result, no blood is shed within its precincts; the avenger is restrained and sternly reprimanded at its gates.
NUMBERS 36 2 The Book of Numbers ends with a final determination about the property of five heiresses, the topic of an earlier discussion (27:1– 11). The question raised in this chapter is directed to the inheritance of this property in the event that the inheriting heiress marries outside of her own tribe (v. 3). That is to say, Moses perceives the need for a further clarification of the earlier ruling (v. 5). The solution to the difficulty is a prohibition against these heiresses, if they do claim their inheritance, marrying outside their own tribe, lest the inherited property be lost to that tribe (v. 7). This solution is consistent with the intention of the earlier disposition— namely, to preserve in integrity the inheritance of each tribe and family (v. 8). These heiresses dutifully conform to the prescribed arrangement (vv. 10–13). The last verse of this book asserts divine sanction for the decisions and judgments made throughout chapters 22—36, raising them to the same level of authority as the commandments received on Mount Sinai. The legal determination in this chapter is consistent with an overriding preoccupation in the allotment of the Promised Land among Israel’s tribes: a concern to distribute the available real estate evenly, so that no one family or group should gain—at least initially—an undue prominence or advantage over the others.
This concern is the reason why, when the land was apportioned, the task fell to representatives of all the tribes (34:16–29). These men were to guarantee an equitable distribution, based on an elementary principle: “And you shall divide the land by lot as an inheritance among your families; to the larger you shall give a larger inheritance, and to the smaller you shall give a smaller inheritance; everyone’s shall be whatever falls to him by lot. You shall inherit according to the tribes of your fathers” (33:54). This arrangement, bolstered by Israel’s jubilee rule (see Lev. 25:10–34), encouraged a rough equality of resources in Israel not only among the tribes, but also among individual households. The inspiration for this system may be described as a benign egalitarianism. It would distinguish Israel from the money-grubbing nations round about. This egalitarianism, on the whole, lasted for centuries. Even as late as the reign of Solomon (961—922 ), it could be said, “Judah and Israel dwelt safely, each man under his vine and his fig tree” (1 Kin. 4:25). Afterward, Israel’s commercial dealings with her neighbors, chiefly the Phoenicians, corroded this benign egalitarianism. We detect an early example of this corrosion in the ninth century, in the case of the seizure of Naboth’s vineyard by Ahab and Jezebel. It is worth observing that the outspoken critic of this seizure was the prophet Elijah (1 Kin. 21).
A FURTHER REFLECTION 2 Having completed the commentary on the text of Numbers, I want to visit, once more, the question of the authorship of the Pentateuch, with particular attention to its fourth book. As I mentioned in the Introduction, certain individual portions of the Pentateuch are more reasonably ascribed to writers later than Moses. In the present reflection, however, I have something a bit different in mind; I am thinking not so much of material accretions to the text, but rather of its formal understanding. It appears to me that the journey described in Numbers, in addition to its original meaning, takes on a richer significance in the light of an editing context much later than Moses. Specifically, I believe that the inherited and canonical structure of Numbers largely embodies the concerns and preoccupations of priestly scholars—indeed, theologians—writing in exile, during the sixth- century Babylonian Captivity. Nor does Numbers stand alone; it is thematically tied, not only to Leviticus, but also to the later sections of Exodus. (Indeed, if we can speak of a “seam” or “juncture” in the material, it comes in Deuteronomy.) To get at the heart of this material, we need to look closely at the Babylonian Captivity. In fact, this later period of exile of Israel on foreign soil, which lasted even longer (597/586 to 538 BC) than the forty-years’ journey described in Numbers, bore significant similarities to the people’s earlier experience in the wilderness. The simplest parallel
A Further Reflection
between them, I suppose, is this: Just as Moses’ generation, those set free from captivity in Egypt, did not, on the whole, reach the Promised Land, so the later generation exiled to Babylon did not, on the whole, return to the Promised Land. In each case, the next generation attained that blessing. This similarity stands out with the prominence of a mountain. In this respect, there is an obvious correspondence between the census in Numbers 26 (the Israelites born in the desert, who entered the Promised Land) and the census in Ezra 2 (the Israelites born in Babylon, who returned to the Promised Land). In both these lists, moreover, an obvious and special attention is given to the priestly tribe, the house of Levi. (One can hardly fail to note that the leading priest returning from Babylon has the same name as the warrior who originally led Israel into the Holy Land: Joshua, or Jeshua.)
Priestly Scribes Were it not for the contrary evidence, we might not suspect how important Israel’s priests and the whole tribe of Levi became during their exile in Babylon. The idea is surprising at first. Because of the reforms of Hezekiah in the eighth century and of Josiah in the seventh, the ritual service of the priests and Levites had been restricted to the temple in Jerusalem; they could not offer sacrifice anywhere else. For that reason, we might have anticipated, after the temple’s destruction in 587, a corresponding loss of importance for the tribe of Levi, and especially the house of Aaron. Without an altar, we would expect the priesthood to decline in importance. Clearly, however, this was not the case. On the contrary, the priests and Levites became more important during that half-century of exile, particularly as scholars and teachers of the Torah.1 When 1 Cf. George A. Barton, “Influence of the Babylonian Exile on the Religion of
out of step with god the children of Israel returned to the Holy Land, beginning in 538, the priests and Levites among them enjoyed a level of authority notably higher than they enjoyed before the exile, because they had in the intervening years made themselves sopherim, “scribes,” scholars of the Torah.2 Ezra, the scholarly priest who came from Babylon to Jerusalem in 458, was the heir of those exilic priest/scribes who flourished a century earlier. In fact, many exegetes, starting with St. Jerome (fluent in Hebrew and easily the most accomplished biblical scholar of the first Christian millennium), have suggested that God’s people received the full, integral text of the Torah from the editing hands of Ezra.
The Transcendent Model The interests, concerns, and preoccupations of the priesthood are rather prominent in Numbers; various sacrificial laws come to mind (15:1–21; 28:1—29:40), for instance, and sundry priestly duties (10:1–10; 18:1–7; 19:1–22), along with provisions for the support of Levitical families (18:8–32; 35:1–8). Aaron’s household receives particular attention: His is the only rod that blossoms (17:1–13; cf. Heb 9:3–4), and things go rather badly for those who challenge his primacy at the altar (16:1–40). Israel,” The Biblical World Vol. 37, No. 6 (June 1911), pp. 369–378; Joseph Blenkinsopp, “The Judaean Priesthood during the Neo-Babylonian and Achaemenid Periods,” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly Vol. 60, No. 1 (January 1998), pp. 25–43. 2 It is a matter of conjecture how the priesthood became such a powerful agency of leadership during the exile. I offer the following suggestion: The exile itself actually began, not in 586, but ten years earlier (before the temple was destroyed), when some of Judah’s prominent citizens were carried away to Babylon as political hostages. A number of those hostages were priests, the prophet Ezekiel being the most famous. Then, when the rest of the Judean population arrived in Babylon after the fall of Jerusalem, those priests in Babylon had already been exercising leadership over their fellow-exiles for a whole decade.
A Further Reflection
The priestly concerns of Numbers follow those of Leviticus, which is supremely the priestly book of the Old Testament. Leviticus, in turn, with its sustained emphasis on ritual and cultic purity, is the logical sequel to the completion and appointments of the tabernacle in the final chapters of Exodus. Thus, notwithstanding the many disparate elements found in the material between Exodus 36 and Aaron’s death in Numbers 20, one foundational theme gives coherence to the whole: the correct, the orthodox, worship of God, especially as it is related to the house of God. Ritual purity, feast days, sacrifices and other rites, the priestly service, vestments, ordinations, liturgical furniture and appointments, lampstands, altars, and so on—it all comes down to one thing: the proper worship of God in His house. This is clearly the dominant idea. Now, since I have placed the full, integral message of the Pentateuch, including Numbers, in the sixth century, why this concern with God’s house? How does one explain it? After all, the temple was gone—disappeared! Is there any evidence, then, that concerns about the temple still mattered to tribe of Levi, who spent a half-century in Babylon without it? Did those priestly scribes really think about the house of God any longer? I am convinced they thought of little else. In the earlier stage of the exile, even before Solomon’s temple was destroyed, an exiled priest living in Babylon, while he prayed in the Spirit on the banks of the Kabari Canal, received his first vision pertinent to the subject we are discussing. The revelation had to do with “four living creatures,” he tells us, ceaselessly moving and transcendent beings, of whom a later visionary says, “they were in the midst of God’s throne and round about it.” This priest, who no longer had access to the temple on earth, was initiated into the higher model. The date was August 4, 593 BC, the fifth day of
out of step with god the fourth month of the exile of King Jehoiakin. From that day forward, until sometime about 570, Ezekiel continued to receive and record revelations about the true sanctuary, the very house of God, the heavenly Zion, the tabernacle first revealed to the mystic eyes of Moses on Mount Sinai (Ex. 25:40; Heb. 8:5). The revelations to Ezekiel culminated in chapters 40—48, describing the temple and its worship. When he received this revelation, Ezekiel recorded every bit of it—down to the exact physical specifications— so that it would become the blueprint of the second temple, upon which, as he foresaw, the glory of God would descend (43:5). Such was the hope of Israel’s priests, as they prepared—the time thereof still unknown—for the end of the captivity and the construction of the second temple—God’s house on earth, destined in time to receive the infant Messiah, forty days after His birth.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Patrick Henry Reardon is pastor of All Saints’ Orthodox Church in Chicago, Illinois, and a senior editor of Touchstone. He is the author of Christ in the Psalms and Christ in His Saints, in addition to the books in the “Orthodox Christian Reflections” Bible commentary series. He has also written more than 500 articles, editorials, and reviews, published in Books and Culture, Touchstone, The Scottish Journal of Theology, The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, Pro Ecclesia, St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, and other journals on three continents.
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