Reading the Bible as Literature
Week Seven: Numbers 3-Numbers 17
How much more wandering in the desert must we put up with? These poor Israelites, no wonder they continue to whine and gripe every few decades. Can you imagine years and years of the nomad lifestyle, in regions of the Middle East where it is nearly impossible to find food and drink? Perhaps it is no wonder that Moses faces a couple of uprisings in this part of their journey, nor that god becomes severely exasperated again with the Israelites griping. Despite a lot of tedious rules and even more tedious moaning and groaning from the people, this part of Numbers also explores important histories, such as the introduction of Caleb and the Judeans, the role of the various tribes within the priesthood (servants, ministers, etc.), and reminders about the superiority (or at least historically retrospective explanations for such) of certain tribes over others, e.g. the fall of the eldest tribe, Reuben.
Uprisings: Over the course of a forty-year period, Moses and Aaron face two uprisings from the people, most of whom are getting pretty tired of waiting for god (and Moses) to deliver on their promises. The first uprising comes from the tribe Korah and is essentially a religious rebellion. God has favored the Levites and placed them in charge of the church, including anything to do with ministry or the tabernacle. Priests become the most powerful people in the tribe, capable of both forgiving sins and casting judgments, as well as treating the sick, etc. This doesn’t sit well with the Korah people, who feel left out; so they rise up against Aaron but are quickly struck down by god (indeed, god causes the earth to open up and swallow them). The second uprising is a political one, started by the Reubenites. Reuben was the first/eldest tribe and thus would normally hold some kind of honor among the tribes, but as has already been described, they were “prophesied” to fall in stature. Their uprising against Moses and Aaron, here, reflects their attempt to regain stature and some control, perhaps total control, of the tribes. They fail completely and will never rise to prominence again.
Racism, Jealousy, and Pride: One of the seemingly random parts of Numbers occurs in Chapter 12. Miriam and Aaron, though we are to understand it’s probably Miriam, become jealous of Moses’s wife, an Ethiopian woman (Zipporah – Exodus 2:21). We were told earlier that he took for a wife a Cushite/Arabian woman, and here we learn that Miriam, an Israeli woman, finds that problematic. Because of her reaction, which seems borne out of jealousy and pride (that a woman from another culture is wife to the most powerful Israeli leader), god afflicts her with leprosy and forces her out for 7 days. This is an interesting turn of events as, earlier, god had commanded his people not to inter-marry; however, he has also suggested numerous exceptions relating to “strangers” and “ignorance.” In other words, if someone not of the tribe can be taught and is willing to convert, then perhaps an exception can be made. This scenario would certainly apply to Moses’s wife. So, the lesson here must be not to let pride and jealousy control our opinions or actions (after all, god catches them “gossiping”).
Almost to The Promised Land: Moses and Aaron lead the Israelites around for another few decades, and after much disrespect from the Israelites, god essentially promises to make them wander for another forty years before they find a permanent settlement. Naturally, the people get pretty upset about this. While they settle in Kadesh for 38 years, so the people at least have a “homeland” of sorts, they can essentially see “the promised land” is within reach, and yet they cannot get there. One scout from each of the 12 tribes is sent out to explore and to discover if they have indeed reached the “land of milk and honey.” They have come pretty close, but this promised land is already inhabited, and by a powerful tribe; indeed, the people are so powerful they are described as “giants,” next to whom the Israelites seem like “grasshoppers.” Alas, while Joshua and Caleb, the heroes of the northern and southern tribes respectively, argue that the Israelites should push ahead and claim the land, they are overruled, and the promised land remains just out of reach. So close, yet so far away!
OTHER INTERESTING BITS
Hell Sheol: In this part of the bible, we see the first iteration of hell, which is called “Sheol.” When god strikes down the Korahs’ uprising, he casts the tribes into a pit. This pit is essentially the early Hebrew understanding of hell. It was not the hell many think of today, with a devil and torturous punishments; instead, it is a joyless nothingness, a dark pit where virtually everyone save for a select few, chosen by god, will go after death.
Ignorance: Among the many laws outlined in this part of Numbers (aren’t we done with those yet?) is another mention of how to treat strangers. This has become a common theme in the last two books of the bible, so we should probably take it seriously as a major philosophical tenant. In this case, god tells his people that the ignorance of strangers will be forgiven because, after all, they could not know any better. An interesting thought to kick around, particularly when we hear people making arguments about who will be “saved” or not (this is often reduced to who is or is not baptized, with “strangers” to Christianity getting the severely short end of the stick).
Heroes: Earlier, we were introduced to Joshua, a military hero from the northern Israeli tribes. In this section of Numbers, we are introduced to the southern tribes’ counter-part, Caleb. He hails from the Judean region, which has an interesting history (and future – including pending civil war), as one of the direct descendants of Israel (Jacob). Caleb and Joshua both wanted to enter the Promised Land and take it from the giants when all other tribes resisted. They lose that argument, but god rewards their faith with honor (a long and powerful succession).