Sunday, August 26, 2012

Bible Commentary - Numbers 21

In this chapter, the Israelites enter battle with several nations on the outskirts of the promised land.

This chapter begins with a new conflict.  Having been denied passage by the Edomites, we are told that "the Canaanite" fought against Israel.  The Canaanites are a patchwork collection of tribes that primarily run along the Mediterranean coastline.  We are told in Gen 10:19 that the Canaanites extend from Sidon (a city on the coastline, north of the promised land) to Gaza, which is also on the coast in southern Israel, towards Sodom and Gomorrah which are in the plains of the Jordan somewhere, giving them control of most of the promised land into which the Israelites are eventually heading.

These are the descendants of Canaan, son of Ham.  They are not closely related to the Israelites, and as we can see their conflict begins very quickly.  Notably, Israel is not invading up through the (Canaanite-controlled) coastline; as v. 4 points out, Israel is heading out, around Edom and through the desert, to invade the promised land from the east.  So the Canaanites are not defending; they are attacking in some form of a preliminary strike, anticipating the Israelite threat.  It goes poorly for them, as the LORD supports Israel and they defeat the Canaanites, destroying "their cities".  That is, the cities under the king of Arad; this is only one of the many Canaanite mini-kingdoms.

The people move on, and the complaining resumes.  In verse 5, the people complain that there is no food nor water, and then remembering that they are given supernatural manna, say that they dislike the manna.  It seems like the LORD simply can't do anything right in their eyes.  In response, the LORD punishes them by sending "fiery serpents", with "fiery" referring to either: the pain felt upon being bitten, the red color of inflammation from being bitten, or lastly the red/orange color of the snake itself.  I think the epithet is more likely to refer to their poisonous character, because the same sentence refers to "many people of Israel" dying from the bites.

The people realize their mistake and repent; in response, rather than take away the snakes, the LORD instructs Moses to craft a bronze snake and put it up on a standard where it could be seen by everyone, and looking at this bronze image would heal them from the snake venom (if not symptom-free, at least they would live).

This is a peculiar account for a few reasons, but the biggest is that it appears as if the LORD instructed Moses to create an idol, contrary to the command in Ex 20:4.  The bronze or copper color of the serpent is likely intended to mimic the "fiery" character of the snakes plaguing the Israelites.  Also, there doesn't appear to be any worship or offerings to the snake, which suggests that while it appears to be a graven image, it is not treated as symbolic of any particular deity, and thus is not an idol in the strict sense.

Even if we can (tenuously) conclude that it is not any sort of an idol, there is still a lingering perplexity why this is the form of protection that the LORD crafts for his people.  Compared to the plagues of Egypt, for instance, and in that case the LORD dealt with the various plagues of insects/frogs by driving them off or slaying them.  In this case, the snakes remain to torment the people, but if they look at a graven image of a snake, then they are healed from death.

It is also unusual that the LORD punishes them with serpents, as this is the first time a serpent has been mentioned since Ex 7 when Aaron and Pharaoh's court magicians turned their staves into snakes.  Given what we have read so far, it is possible that the serpents of this story are intended to hearken back to the serpent of Gen 3, which led Eve and Adam into sin.  As I discussed then, the snake is a biblical symbol for Satan, but since there are many snakes here it is probable they are meant to be something related to the devil: demons, or possibly sins.  It would be fitting for the snakes to symbolize sin here, since they are sent as a punishment for the people sinning against the LORD.

But if that is correct, then it still leaves me wondering why the bronze serpent is put upon a standard and held aloft, and how that would heal the people of the snake bites.  With the Passover, we can see clear connections between the blood on the doorways, the sacrificial system of Leviticus, and healing the curse from Gen 3.  This chapter also takes us back to Gen 3 by re-using the serpent, and that leads us to the conclusion that the bronze serpent is somehow symbolic for the same healing as the Passover, though in a different way.

The bronze serpent certainly shares the unity of the Passover; in the Passover, each family was to sacrifice a single male lamb.  So while there were many lambs slain, the emphasis is on "one" because we are not given a total number that must have been, or were, slain.  Here, there is literally one bronze serpent that is held aloft.  The Passover emphasizes substitutionary atonement, while this passage emphasizes "looking upon" the serpent to be healed, which doesn't necessarily imply that the "sin" (i.e. poison) is transferred to the serpent, but somehow awareness of the bronze serpent is sufficient to bring about healing.

That said, there is a big difference between the Passover, which must be remembered every year and is a core element of the covenant, and this chapter which is a single, non-repeated incident.  For that reason, I don't think it's fair to put these two practices on the same level, because they're not.  I only think it's worth mentioning them both because this chapter, by its use of serpents and very unusual symbolism, seems to demand a bit more careful analysis than a lot of the other various plagues and incidents we have seen so far, especially in Numbers (which is primarily a narrative book).

Moving on, the people head out and going around to the east of Moab, and then north into the land of the Amorites.  Moab, like Edom, is a kingdom that is blood-related to Israel, because Moab is descended from Lot, the cousin of Abraham.  They aren't given much mention here, but we can be confident that Israel will not invade Moab for that reason.  On a related note, the Ammonites in this passage are the sons of Ben-Ammi, one of the two sons of Lot and the "brother" of Moab.  Israel will also avoid hostilities with Ammon for that reason.  There are a few brief poems in here which I think are pretty interesting, but not significant enough to be worth any comments here.

Much more significantly is what happens next, as Israel engages in battle with Sihon and Og, two kings of the Amorites, slays them and kills most of their people.  Unlike the Moabites, the Amorites are not related to Jacob or Abraham.  Rather, we are told in Gen 10:16 that "the Amorite" is a son of Canaan.  The bible (and most historians) treat them as separate groups, listing them separately, but we can hypothesize some sort of familial connection between the Amorites and the Canaanites.  Certainly both groups share a deep hostility to Israel, and that results in the battles we see here.

Also, note that the land of the Amorites described here is east of the Jordan, and therefore falls outside of the promised land.  That's why Moses is willing to negotiate passage with them rather than attacking them outright.  Similar to the Moabites, the Amorites refuse this offer, and probably for the same reasons, fearing both betrayal (that Israel would attack once within the land, gaining a superior strategic position) and theft of water.  Since the Amorites are not related to Israel, Moses is willing to engage them in battle, unlike the prior chapter.

This leaves Israel in the interesting position of possessing land outside of the promised land, which had been there objective, and they have every appearance of settling this windfall property.  This has some interesting implications both politically and theologically, since it is the promised land that is central to the Abrahamic covenant.  What does it mean for some Israelites to live outside of that promised inheritance, and how will the other tribes react?  The answer to that we will find later in the story.

For now, I want to emphasize two things.  First, we can see that taking these lands was a military necessity as the Israelite tribes wished to move into the promised land.  Though they were not promised the lands east of the Jordan, they were forced to conquer them by the former inhabitants.  But now that they have conquered these lands, there are unforeseen consequences, as the Israelite nation begins to grapple with their future.  This will be a lingering issue from what was an intermediate cause.

Second, these are two of the first serious military engagements by the Israelites.  Previously they had battled the Amalekites (Ex 17) and the Canaanites (Num 20), but now they have slain two kings, destroyed their kingdoms, and taken the land for themselves, which is a much more significant action.  It also foreshadows the broader conflict as they enter the promised land and take on the many nations therein.  We will see these initial conquests mentioned quite a few times as a sort of "pep rally" to boost the Israelite morale, which shows us that however briefly the battles are described, they must have involved significant numbers of combatants or been otherwise noteworthy.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Bible Commentary - Numbers 20

In this chapter, the people complain and Moses sins in Meribah, Edom resists the passage of Israel, and Aaron dies.

This chapter continues with the story, abruptly ending the Levitical interlude of chapters 18-19.  When discussing chapter 17, I said that it ended the "Rebellion Arc", which is true in the sense that they have largely stopped challenging Moses and Aaron, but as we can see they are still complaining and sinning against the LORD.  In this chapter, the issue is lack of water, which reminds us that they are, in fact, traveling through a desert.

On a minor note, I find it amusing how the people say "if only we had perished when our brothers perished before the LORD", referring to the deaths of Korah and his followers.  This is pretty ironic considering the LORD killed them for their rebellion, so now they are basically saying they wish they had rebelled.  This shows us that the survivors still hold Korah, Dathan and Abiram in high regard and honor them in spite of their shameful behavior and subsequent punishment.  This is not a good omen for Israel's future.

More significantly, this chapter contains the first and only sin of Moses and Aaron, which is hard to notice at first: Moses strikes the rock with his staff, rather than speaking to the rock.  Compare the command in v. 8 with Moses's action in v. 11.  Interestingly, the last time Moses was commanded to bring water from a rock, in Ex 17:6, he was told to strike the rock with his staff; in this case, he is told to take his staff and speak to the rock, but in both events he strikes the rock with his staff.  Aaron appears to be indicted by complicity with Moses's actions, even though we aren't told of Aaron actually doing anything other than being there and helping to "gather the assembly".

Moses's frustration is palpable, as he verbally reproaches the Israelites.  I think this is the first time he has spoken harshly against the people, in spite of how many times they have rebelled against him and the LORD.    In many instances, Moses replying to the people and challenging them, but never insulting them.  In many other occasions, he asks the LORD for mercy on their behalf, such as Ex 32, Num 12 (praying for Miriam), Num 14, and probably more instances if I searched.

So Moses is getting frustrated, and I can understand why because I'm getting frustrated with the people too. Unfortunately, that frustration leads him to act differently than the LORD commanded him, but it seems like a really minor issue so I wouldn't expect it to be treated severely.  And yet it is; because of this misstep, the LORD will no longer bring Aaron and Moses into the promised land: they will die in the wilderness.  This is really astonishing for such a small mistake, but I think it is significant because it extends the principle we have seen before in e.g. Lev 21, that those people who dwell in the presence of the LORD are held to higher standards than the people who do not.  Priests are restrained from going near dead bodies, but the high priest cannot even rend his garments (as a sign of grief).

The nation is forbidden from entering the promised land because they rebelled against Moses, were going to kill him and return to Egypt.  That is a very serious crime.  Moses rebelled against the LORD by striking the rock instead of speaking to it, and he is given the same punishment not because his crime is so severe, but because his responsibility and authority is so great.

What makes this story confusing is that the LORD honors Moses by bringing forth water, while at the same time rebuking Moses for disobeying his command.  This is surprising, because one would think that the LORD would refuse to perform miracles on Moses's behalf if Moses were disobeying the LORD.  And yet, here he does.  I'm not sure what to think about this.  I know the people needed water; though they are complaining and acting without faith, they are correct in stating their need for water.  So I believe the LORD wished to give them water, and he chose Moses to be the conduit for this miracle.

The question is, should Moses's mistake disrupt this plan?  More generally, should the sins of people who have been given true assignments by the LORD disrupt or destroy those assignments?  Personally, I don't think there is a simple yes or no answer to that.  In this case, the answer appears to be no, as the LORD fulfills the miracle despite Moses's sin.  On the other hand, Moses and Aaron are henceforth denied entrance to the promised land, which is a far more significant blow to their destinies.  So I don't think there's a clear answer.  Moses definitely suffers for this sin, but his punishment is not total: he still leads the nation to the border of the promised land and is honored in other ways.

Next, we are told that Moses wishes to lead the people through Edom, on their way towards the promised land.  Edom is the nation south of ancient Israel, while to the north and west are the Canaanite tribes.  We already knew that the LORD directed the people to take the Red Sea coast, heading south into the Arabian Peninsula.  Now we can see they are heading north, out of the Peninsula, and towards the promised land.  Strikingly, there has been no mention of 40 years in the wilderness, nor will there be any mention of it until the next census is taken.

This is a really surprising (to me) omission.  The 40 years in the wilderness represents the metaphorical and literal death of a generation because they rebelled against the LORD and it is left almost entirely out of this account, which is the primary account of the wilderness travels*.  Basically the text goes from the LORD condemning Israel to 40 years of wandering, to a brief Levitical section, to an account of Israel's return to the promised land (beginning in this chapter).  My best guess is that the "40 year gap" is between the end of chapter 14/beginning of chapter 15, though it could possibly also be at the end of chapter 17.  Both of these are junctures where the text shifts from a narrative section to a legal section, and whenever you see a sudden shift in the subject or context of the passage, that is a hint that some sort of temporal discontinuity just occurred.  Chapter 15 begins with laws dealing with the promised land itself (see Num 15:2, "when you enter the land where you are to live..."), which I remarked at the time was very peculiar to be positioned directly after the judgment of chapter 14.

One plausible explanation is that these are not only different subjects, but they are recorded at very different times.  Perhaps chapter 15 happens after the 40 years, and is therefore more suitable for the grand entrance to Canaan, rather than the humiliating departure.  This would require the account of Korah's rebellion et al. to also be some arbitrary time into, or just after, the 40 years of wandering.  In my opinion, that is also plausible, since we aren't given any definitive connection between Korah's rebellion and the stories arcs before or after it.  That said, Korah's rebellion is topically related to what happens before the 40 years of wandering, in particular the rebellion of chapter 14 itself, since all of these events show the stubbornness of the Israelite nation.

It's also possible the "40 year gap" is at the end of chapter 17/beginning of chapter 18, when the next major Levitical section occurs.  I think this is plausible, but I think the 14/15 disjunction has more explanatory power, because reading chapters 14 and 15 as a continuous narrative is simply disconcerting.

Anyway, Edom denies Israel passage because they fear that Israel will 1) consume all the food and water in the land, 2) Maybe leave a few hundred thousand people behind to colonize the land and drive out its current occupants.  Remember that Edom is the nation descended from Esau, who was also called Edom.  That's why v. 14 says "your brother Israel", because it's speaking of the brotherhood of Jacob and Esau.  Now the nations Israel and Edom are also metaphorically brothers.

In the end, Edom does not trust Israel to hold to their promises, and while Edom is rebuked for this in later parts of the bible, I think their fear is justified.  Just look at how many times the Israelites have complained to Moses about lacking food or water.  It is unrealistic to expect the people to avoid eating any crops or drinking water as they pass through, and while Moses offers to pay for the water, the Edomites similarly distrusted that promise.  The brotherhood of Israel and Edom is why the Israelites refused to fight and moved on when "Edom came out against [Israel] with a heavy force and with a strong hand."  It's not out of fear, it is to avoid conflict with what should have been a friendly nation.  Maybe the Edomites remember the treachery of Jacob and impute that treachery to his children.

At the very end of the chapter, Aaron dies, as we knew he would.  Eleazar is to be anointed the next high priest, which makes sense because he is the oldest living son of Aaron.  Also, chapter 19 implied that Eleazar would be the next high priest when the LORD commanded that he officiate over the red heifer sacrifice.  All things considered, this is a very orderly transition and it effectively seals the hereditary office in Aaron's bloodline.

*There is an ex post facto description of the 40 years in Deuteronomy, when Moses recounts the history of Israel, but Numbers purports to be a present-tense narrative account.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Bible Commentary - Numbers 19

In this chapter, the LORD relates to Moses the ordinances for the red heifer related to ceremonial purity.

Like many legal chapters, this chapter contains a variety of new details and extensions of laws that have been already established.  In this case, this chapter is expanding upon the Levitical laws of ceremonial purity related to dead bodies (of both animals and people).  There isn't any particular connection between this chapter and what happens before and after.  Num 18 fits into the story pretty reasonably as a response to the Israelites' fear of judgment and wrath related to their sins and the dwelling presence of the LORD, but this chapter really doesn't have to do with anything in particular that I can tell.  I have no idea why this material is presented here in Numbers rather than say, Leviticus.

Starting in verse 11, it tells us about the ceremonial impurity of anyone who touches a dead body or if someone dies in a tent.  This was first expressed in Lev 5:3, though admittedly as I read it now it is not clear at all if this verse is speaking of dead human bodies or other types of human uncleanness (such as bleeding, skin diseases, etc).  I will actually have to go back and edit some of my earlier posts (Lev 21, Num 6, Num 9) to clarify that the Levitical law doesn't precisely condemn going near a dead body as a source of ceremonial impurity.  I had misread Lev 5:2 as referring to "unclean, dead animals", i.e. that any dead thing becomes unclean.  Instead I now see that it more likely refers to "dead, unclean animals", i.e. the carcasses of unclean animals (as they are later delineated).

Rather, it does so in a very allusive fashion, first in Lev 5:2-3 (touching bodies of dead, unclean animals), and then later in Lev 21 (priests cannot go near dead bodies).  Lev 21 in particular contains a fairly strong implication that going near a body results in ceremonial impurity, but does not state it.  Num 6 continues with the same theme, specifically confirming in v. 7 that going near a body results in ceremonial impurity, and this is approximately repeated by Num 9.

To my surprise, the law is only clearly stated here, even though it has been inferred by all these prior references.  What surprises me is that this law is very much Levitical in nature and it would have fit in extremely well with the laws governing bodily emissions, mold and skin diseases.  The language and structure of these laws is very similar.  The emphasis on ceremonial washing is also very similar.  The obvious difference is the ritual usage of the red heifer ashes, which is the only place in the NASB bible where the phrase "red heifer" occurs (other translations may vary).  So this is an unusual ritual, but the use of hyssop, scarlet string and cedar wood is nearly equivalent to the ritual cleansing of skin diseases from Lev 14.  This reaffirms the similarity of this ritual and the Levitical rituals.

Most details of the ritual are pretty conventional (by OT standards); it involves slaughtering an animal and sprinkling some water to purify oneself after ceremonial impurity.  One thing that's unconventional is that only a single animal is slaughtered and the ashes are to be used multiple times by various people.  Ordinarily each person is required to offer a sacrifice in atonement for whatever they are atoning.  So this ritual, purification from the impurity related to touching dead bodies (or bones, or graves, etc) involves just a single sacrifice, though we can hypothesize this sacrifice is repeated later when the ashes are all used.

Analyzing this chapter is somewhat challenging, since the red heifer ritual is never mentioned again.  Though we can reasonably infer that it was practiced for some time, there is no textual reference to it apart from this chapter.  The symbolism seems to mostly tie this in with the Levitical purification rituals, but I don't know how much meaning we can extract from that.  I mean, it's red string, hyssop and cedar wood: I just don't see any meaningful pattern there.  We see the color red occur twice, but that color has many possible meanings so it's difficult to pin it down to any one thing.  I suppose we could say it's a thinly veiled reference to blood (and hence atonement), but we already knew that an animal sacrifice was happening, which is a direct reference to blood and atonement.  Why mysteriously hint at something that is directly referenced at the same time?

I've skimmed through a few commentaries and it seems that people's opinions are all over the place; there really doesn't seem to be any particular consensus, other than that the red heifer typifies the death of Christ.  But again, the same can be said for most, if not all, of the Levitical sacrifices, so I'm not sure how much we can confidently read into this chapter.  Maybe I'll come back and add more later, if I think of anything substantive.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Bible Commentary - Numbers 18

In this chapter, the LORD describes the compensation of the priests and Levites, which they receive instead of an inheritance in the promised land.

NB: To anyone who is following my blog, I apologize for being gone for the past couple weeks.  I was traveling internationally and now that I'm back, I will try to make up for the lost posts.

At first glance, this chapter seems like a non-sequitur to the last, because the prior chapter ends with the people fearful for their lives, and this one is talking about the role of the Levites and so forth.  If you think about it though, this chapter actually does (indirectly) answer the fears of the people.  Remember that Korah's rebellion was a challenge to the Aaronic priesthood, where Korah and the Levites sought to usurp Aaron's role in the religious system.  This results in the judgments and the fear at the end of chapter 17.

The LORD's response here is to reaffirm the Aaronic priesthood, first emphasizing the responsibility and then emphasizing the commensurate payments.  Importantly, we are taught that the priests are responsible for the "guilt in connection with the sanctuary" (v. 1), because this is what aroused the LORD's anger previously.  If the people respect the Aaronic priesthood and follow the proper protocol, they have no need to fear the "guilt" that resulted in the death of Korah and his followers.  In conclusion, "there will no longer be wrath on the sons of Israel".  (v. 5)

Next, we are told that basically everything which is given to the LORD is at least partially handed over to the priests, as compensation for their service.  This compensation is mainly from three sources: 1) most sacrificial offerings, 2) the firstfruits offerings, 3) the redemption of the firstborn.  Leviticus discusses the sacrifices and the share given to the priest in great detail.  We were told that the Levites were given in lieu of the firstborn, but now that principle is extended to include the sacrifices and redemption for firstborn animals.  For the first fruit offerings, I don't believe we were ever told what those went to, but it seems like a natural conclusion that they should be given to the priests.

Later in this chapter we are told that the priests have a fourth source of income, the tithes from the Levites.  This is important because the most consistent source of income for the Levites, the sacrifices, must be treated as holy, which means they cannot be eaten in a state of ceremonial impurity (see Lev 22).  Since a woman is ceremonially impure for either 33 or 66 days when she gives birth, going without food for that long would be a serious problem.  The tithes are therefore a consistent and dependable food source for the priest and his whole family, which is supplemented by the other sources I mentioned above.

Verse 20 concludes that the LORD is "your portion and your inheritance among the sons of Israel".  So the priests are given all of these material considerations for their service, and in exchange they do not have any inheritance within the promised land.

Next, we are told that the Levites are given a roughly similar deal.  They do not have any inheritance of land, but in exchange they are given a tithe from the people.  Similar to the priests, the Levites help bear the service of the tabernacle and protect the Israelites from the LORD's wrath, which is possibly why the Israelites are expected to pay them a tithe.  Lev 27 incidentally mentions the cost of redemption for tithes, but does not formally instituted any particular tithe.  Here we are told the tithe is the inheritance of the Levites, but again it doesn't seem to be formally instituted.  It just says that there is a tithe which is given to the Levites.  It's not clear to me if this is a reference to the tithe of Deut 12, the tithe of Deut 14, or some other tithe altogether.  All of the various tithes reference the Levites in some way, which leaves some ambiguity about how many tithes were enforced and for what purpose these tithes were used.

What we can clearly tell from here and Deuteronomy is that the nation was expected to materially support the Levites, freeing the Levites to serve the ministry of the tabernacle on behalf of the nation.  We are also given some idea of the relative size of the priesthood compared to the Levites, as the Levites are given a tithe from the whole nation (10%) while the priests are only given a tithe from the Levites (1%).