Sunday, September 30, 2012

Bible Commentary - Deuteronomy 1

In this chapter, Moses begins recounting the history of Israel, beginning with their departure from Mount Sinai.

It's exciting to be starting a new book.  I'm excited; are you excited?  You should be, I mean think of all the laws we're going to get to read about.  The best part is that this entire book is 100% Moses talking.  The entire book is just one speech after another.  I should really stop before I scare off my entire audience (which is not very large to begin with).

Starting in verse 1, we can see that this book is set right at the conclusion of Numbers, with Moses and the Israelites camping "across the Jordan", to the east.  We can also see that it is the fortieth year, right at the end of their 40 years of wandering in the desert.

Starting in verse 6, Moses begins his oration by reminding us of their journey from Horeb to the promised land.  Horeb is the same place as Mount Sinai, and the terms are used interchangeably (for instance, Horeb was used in Ex 3:1, Ex 17:6, Ex 33:6).  It's interesting that he begins at Horeb/Sinai, because that is where the covenant between God and Israel was first formed.  This oration, then, is a brief history of Israel since entering the covenant.

This is also part of the standard Hittite suzerain treaty I mentioned in my introduction to Deuteronomy.  Generally these treaties would begin with an account of the history between the lord and the vassal, providing an explanation or background for why the vassal is in debt to its lord and expounding on the general virtue, greatness, majesty, etc. of the lord.

In Deuteronomy, it has the dual purpose of establishing the sins of the Israelites and the generous mercy of the LORD.  This, in addition to the LORD's continuing protection of Israel, is the basis of the LORD's claim on their allegiance.

Overall, the story here is greatly abbreviated when you compare it to Exodus.  There are only a handful of episodes included here, such as the appointment of leaders (v. 9-15 here, cf. Ex 18), and most significantly the refusal of the people to enter the promised land, from Num 13-14.

This chapter contains a bit of a reversal compared to the story in Num 13.  In Num 13:2, the LORD commands Moses to send the 12 spies.  In v. 22, Moses says that the Israelites proposed to him to send the spies.  I think this is meant to go along with the polemical style I talked about in my introduction.  Moses is trying to assign full responsibility to the people, so that they would not try to blame the LORD for what resulted.  Note how lovingly the LORD is depicted here, carrying the Israelites through the wilderness "just as a man carries his son".  This loving concern heightens the sense of Israelite treachery when they refuse to trust the LORD and take the land to which he was leading them.

Overall, while this chapter leaves out a lot of the story from Exodus and Numbers, what it does include largely agrees with what we had read there.  The language is very different, but there are not really any big discrepancies and this chapter doesn't really add anything to the Exodus/Numbers account.

Bible Commentary - Deuteronomy Introduction

Welcome to Deuteronomy, the fifth and final book of the Pentateuch.  :)

Deuteronomy is Greek for "second law", and that's precisely what it is: Moses giving us a second recounting of the Law.

Deuteronomy follows in the footsteps of the earlier books of the Pentateuch and it has the same variegated style: there's some history, exhortation, laws, poetry, prophecies, a song and dance routine, etc (well, everything but that last part).  It's a real production.

More significantly, Deuteronomy follows the Hittite structure of a suzerain/vassal treaty, reaffirming the covenant between Israel and the LORD*.  This is really what ties it all together as all of the songs and poems and laws and warnings are really about encouraging the Israelites to follow the LORD and defining their relationship to him.  The history establishes their past, what the LORD has done for the nation.  Their fathers' rebellion and punishment in the desert is a warning to obey the LORD.  All of this can best be understood as a restatement of the covenant for a new generation.  I will reference the various portions of the suzerainty treaty format as we progress through the chapters of Deuteronomy.

I think it's important to put Deuteronomy in context of the larger biblical history.  Genesis is the book of introductions, giving us the history of the world with Adam, Eve and so on, then the beginning of the covenant with Abraham and God, leading up to the Israelite migration to Egypt.  Exodus gives us the exodus from Egypt, as the Israelites are suddenly and miraculously freed from slavery and led on a journey towards the promised land.  Exodus ends with a long, elaborate description of the tabernacle and its construction.  Leviticus is a legal interlude, teaching us how to offer sacrifices and many rituals related to the priestly duty, plus some other stuff that isn't related.  Numbers continues with the story from Exodus, as the first generation sins against the LORD by refusing to take the promised land.  They are condemned to die in the wilderness and that a new generation would arise to take the promised land.  Moses is also condemned to never enter the promised land because of his own sin.  Forty years pass and the nation marches upon the promised land once more, defeat two Amorite kings and now encamp on the plains of Moab east of the Jordan, ready to claim their inheritance.

Deuteronomy as a book is entirely composed of Moses giving warnings, exhortation and commands to the people because the LORD forbids him to enter the land.  Therefore this book takes place outside of the promised land and contains little, if any, of a direct story.  We can also understand why Moses is recounting the law and history of Israel, because this new generation is possibly not familiar with it.  This also explains the polemical style, because Moses is speaking directly to the people who are about to cross over.

Stylistically, Deuteronomy is very different from the earlier books of the Pentateuch.  The polemical style is one aspect, which emphasizes a mixture of first and second person as Moses recounts what "I said to you".  This is strange to a lot of readers at first, because I just said that this is for a new generation who weren't present when these earlier events occurred.  The reason Moses is using a second-person narrative is to heighten the immediacy and responsibility for what happened to the current generation.  That is, if Moses were recounting it in third person, "I said to your fathers..." then the current generation is given a chance to disavow their past and claim innocence.  The style here is intended to be a bit more accusational, saying "You have sinned in this way, but the LORD has shown you mercy; therefore obey the LORD and his commandments".

It makes a stronger demand on the listener to be positioned within the story, and it also connects the listener more strongly with the past.  To use a second-person narrative places the listener within those past events to show how strongly their current position is tied to their past.

In addition, we should understand that this is another aspect of the communal nature of Israelite society.  It is a single nation both in the prior history and the "present" history to Moses's audience.  Moses isn't addressing a specific person, he is addressing a people, and while the composition of that people changes over time, it is still the same nation throughout its history.

This polemical style is presented most ironically in Deut 5:2-3 when Moses says, "The LORD our God made a covenant with us at Horeb.  The LORD did not make this covenant with our fathers, but with us, all those of us ourselves."  This is not literally true if we think that the covenant was made with their fathers, who died in the wilderness.  I don't think that's the right way to view it, because what Moses is trying to do is establish the covenant as a multi-generational treaty.  If you think of the covenant as something established with your fathers, then when your fathers die, the covenant dies with them.  That's why to Moses and his listeners, the covenant is established with you, because that's the only way the covenant can endure from generation to generation, as it was originally intended (among other references, see Ex 12:24 to 12:27 which establishes the permanence of the Passover from generation to generation).

Another difference between Deuteronomy and the other books is that Deuteronomy is largely forward-looking, preparing the Israelites for their possession of the promised land.  If Numbers is a book that employs militaristic language and stories to show their preparedness for the coming battles, Deuteronomy is a book that prepares the Israelites for their occupation and settlement of the promised land.  For example, there is a recurring phrase in Deuteronomy, "the place which the LORD God will choose for his name to dwell" (Deut 12:11) and minor variations on the same theme.  This phrase occurs around 20 times in Deuteronomy and it signifies the future location of the temple.

This is really significant so I will take a moment to explain.  The tabernacle is literally a tent, a portable structure that is broken down and reassembled as needs be, while the Israelites march for years through the Arabian desert.  When the Israelites permanently settle in the promised land, it is unlikely that the tabernacle will need to move anymore and a permanent structure becomes both possible and desirable.  It is possible they could just set the tabernacle down somewhere, or they could build a new structure altogether.  Either way, the location of the temple will have significant political and religious ramifications as it would establish a major power center in Israel.

It should be evident to my readers that this is yet another element of the "settlement and occupation" theme in Deuteronomy.  There would have been no concern for a permanent residence of the tabernacle when wandering in the desert, because the whole nation had no permanent residence.  So it is actually quite rational that Moses would start planning for this eventuality now, on the eve of their invasion and the end of his life.

Generally speaking, liberal scholars typically consider this phrase is a veiled reference to the temple in Jerusalem.  I.e. that Deuteronomy, written after the construction of the temple, has these thinly veiled references inserted to help validate the existence of the temple itself.  Therefore the religious figures of that time could take Deuteronomy (a book secretly of their own invention) as proof that the temple (their center of authority) was validated by God.  A power play, essentially.

I think I have shown above why this theory is extraneous.  The entire nation of Israel is transitioning from a nomadic pastoral existence to a much more static farming society with small bits of urbanization including numerous Levitical cities taken from the other cities of the Israelites (Num 35:8: "each shall give some of his cities to the Levites...").  There are many other provisions related to this new static existence, such as the various laws on inheritances and the division of the land we saw in Num 34-36, and many more in Deuteronomy itself.  It is only natural that, with everything else shifting towards a more permanent basis, the tabernacle itself would transform into something more enduring.  In my opinion, it is unnecessary to draw upon priestly collusion to explain this shift in tone.

Overall, there is a lot of similarity between Deuteronomy and sections of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers.  I will try to point out the parts that are similar, differences between these sections, and whenever we encounter an entirely new section in Deuteronomy.  And with that, I will begin the last book of the Pentateuch.

* JEDP theorists will disagree with this point, but it is far beyond my scope to properly analyze the relative merits of these two theories.  There are many good sources on this topic and I would encourage any interested readers in looking elsewhere.  For instance, here.  Essentially, the JEDP theorists emphasize the patchwork composition as evidence that it comes from multiple authors or layers of composition.  Traditional scholars emphasize the treaty/covenantal form and explain the patchwork appearance as modern sensibilities being misapplied to a genuine text.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Bible Commentary - Numbers 36

In this final chapter of Numbers, the daughters of Zelophehad are instructed to marry within their tribe to maintain their tribe's inheritance.

This chapter continues on the theme of allocating the promised land.  Chapter 34 dealt with the boundaries and distribution of the land, chapter 35 dealt with the Levitical cities (their allotment within the land) and this chapter deals with a technicality resulting from the earlier pleas of the daughters of Zelophehad concerning their father's inheritance (I commentated this in detail in Num 27).  I would recommend reading my commentary on Num 27 because in it, I discuss the concept of inheritance, how that was understood in Israelite society, and how it relates to Zelophehad's daughters.  The basic idea is that with no sons, the property of Zelophehad goes to his daughters to help carry on his estate and his "name" amongst his family.  One of the principles of inheritance is that the property of the wife is given to her husband, and this chapter is largely how we figure that out.

The leaders of Manasseh are complaining that if Zelophehad's daughters marry outside of Manasseh, then Zelophehad's property will be permanently given to that other tribe.  The tribal inheritances are meant to be permanent (you did read my commentary on Num 27 right?), so transferring property from one tribe to another breaks that permanence.

Normally this isn't a problem, since normally sons inherit the property of their fathers.  As a male, the property remains within their own family and therefore the tribal boundaries are maintained even if they marry women from other tribes (we can reason from this chapter that this was normally allowed).  This only becomes a problem when a woman inherit her father's land and ergo pass it on to her husband.

Moses responds by agreeing to close this loophole.  Any woman who inherits property from her father must marry within her father's tribe.  This serves the dual role of preserving her father's name amongst his brothers (as per Num 27) and preserving the land within the larger tribe, consistent with the apportionment of Num 34.

This is really only a technicality, but it teaches us a lot about how the Israelites treated inheritances between women and men.  In fact, this chapter is the basis of a lot of what I said in my commentary on Num 27, since cross-referencing these two chapters with Num 34 gives a much more complete picture than just reading Num 27 alone.

And with that, we conclude the book of Numbers.  The Israelites are now encamped in the plains of Moab adjacent to the Jordan river, opposite Jericho.  They are preparing for the invasion with Moses detailing many laws related to the land, which is uniquely relevant given their impending invasion.  However, we are not yet ready to conquer the promised land.  Next we are going to read the book of Deuteronomy as Moses just keeps talking.  I kid you not: 34 chapters of Moses talking virtually non-stop.  I'm not going to steal my own thunder and give the introduction to Deuteronomy here, however: onward!

Bible Commentary - Numbers 35

In this chapter, the LORD establishes the ordinances of the cities of refuge and how to judge murderers.

This chapter establishes a couple different things that are related, but distinct.  First, it establishes that the Levites will live in cities, and the general distribution of those cities.  Second, it establishes the provision of "cities of refuge", which are to be a subset of the Levitical cities.  Third, it establishes the process whereby those who accidentally kill someone may flee to a city of refuge and be protected from retributive execution. I will discuss these in order.

First, the Levitical cities.  This is something that has already been foreshadowed at least once, in Lev 25:32-34, which says that the property in the cities of the Levites cannot be sold and always reverts to them in the year of the Jubilee.  It didn't say what the Levitical cities were, that is described here, so hopefully my readers now understand the context of that passage.  More generally, we have known for some time that the Levites did not have an inheritance in the land; their inheritance is the "tithes of the sons of Israel", though more metaphorically we could say that the inheritance of the Levites is the LORD and their service to him.  This is established in Num 18:23-24 with foundations elsewhere in the Pentateuch.

Given that the Levites do not have an inheritance of land, they still need somewhere to live, and that's how the idea of Levitical cities seems to emerge.  They are also given a small pastureland for their animals, but clearly the Levites are neither intended nor permitted to own large blocks of land, which would allow them to farm or raise animals.  This basically prohibits them from operating in the normal Israelite economy as they are expected to service the tabernacle professionally.

This raises an interesting question: what will the Levites do once the tabernacle has been settled in the promised land?  Currently their assignment is to carry the tabernacle from place to place and construct or deconstruct it as required.  Once in the promised land, it is very unlikely that this kind of service will be required, and yet here (and elsewhere) provision is being made for the permanent employment under the priests.  This is not a question I can address here, but consider it a loose end that will have to be tied up somewhere down the line, and we will discuss this again when the time comes.

Anyway, the Levites now have 48 cities taken from the land of the other tribes.  The Levitical cities are distributed according to the size of each tribe, so that more cities are taken from the larger tribes and fewer cities are taken from the smaller ones.  This is fairly consistent with how Moses distributed land to the tribes in the prior chapter, giving more land to the larger and less land to the smaller.

Another interesting aspect of the Levitical cities is that it shows a slowly emerging urbanization.  The vast majority of the Israelites will dwell in the countryside, away from the cities, but this is like the first flowers of spring: cities will become larger and more important as time passes.  We have seen other cities before, like Heshbon the city of Sihon, or the cities built by the Reubenites and Gadites to house their women and children.  In fact, the spies in Num 13 reported that the cities in the promised land were "large" and had great walls.  In such a volatile region, this is a military necessity (and the Israelites' invasion itself underlines the importance of such preparations).  In the future, we will see the Israelites build many more cities to defend themselves, but their economy will always remain tied to the land.

Second, out of these 48 cities, 6 of them are cities of refuge as explained here.  This was also foreshadowed when we read Ex 21:13, which says that when someone accidentally kills a person, the LORD "will appoint you a place to which he may flee".  This chapter takes that and establishes in much more detail where that "place" will be and what happens to a murderer when he gets there.  The cities of refuge are all taken from the Levitical cities, which is interesting.  We don't really know much about the Levitical cities or have reason to think of them as being special, but since the Levites are semi-priests, I think these cities are vaguely associated with the LORD.  So I think fleeing to a Levitical city has the undertone of fleeing to the LORD, or seeking divine protection as well as human.

More significantly, this helps establish the Levites as judicial administrators.  The Levites would be chiefly responsible for protecting all those who seek refuge in their cities and would probably also be involved in the legal process of determining the guilt or innocence of anyone who seeks refuge.  Similarly, "the manslayer" must remain in the city of refuge until the death of the high priest, which doesn't give the priests more authority per se, but it intertwines the judicial system with the religious system.

As a minor note, half of the cities of refuge go on the east side of the Jordan (v. 14).  This helps to accommodate the needs of Transjordan, especially since it is a large and sparsely populated region.  It also shows that administering Transjordan is going to complicate whatever system of government develops in this new homeland since any government is going to be at least partially fragmented across these two states.

Third, we are given the procedure for handling "the manslayer", a person who accidentally kills another and flees from "the blood avenger" to a city of refuge.  This process is also an expansion on Ex 21:13 which says that "if [the murderer] did not lie in wait", then he may flee to a city of refuge.  The key characteristic is that it must not have been pre-meditated and not malicious or intentional.  This chapter expands that one verse into many, giving us a lot more detail.  It is mostly self-descriptive, so I won't comment on too much.  What it seems to boil down to is intent.  It doesn't matter if you kill someone with iron, stone, wood or even just hitting that person with your fist.  If you do it "with enmity" then you will be put to death and have no recourse to the cities of refuge.

If you kill someone accidentally (by e.g. dropping a large stone off your roof and then discovering someone was standing underneath), then you must flee to a city of refuge.  You will be brought from there to "the congregation" where you are judged guilty or innocent.  The "blood avenger", a relative of the murdered person, is there as your accuser and prosecutor.  If you are found innocent, you are still sent back to the city of refuge where you must live until the high priest dies, and then you can return to your property (i.e. inheritance).  It is unclear to me how someone would survive in the city of refuge, since the Israelites are chiefly agricultural.  He would probably need to find work with the Levites, or else have relatives come and give him food.  I don't really know, I imagine it must have been difficult, since the manslayer would not have had access to the tithes that sustain the Levites.  Since you have to stay until the high priest dies, that could be years or even decades.  This must have been very challenging.

I'm not sure if I have talked about "blood avengers" before, but basically Israel does not have a police force. There is no FBI to track down criminals.  All justice is citizen justice here.  How this relates to murder is that if someone kills your relative, it is your duty to track that person down and kill him.  That "tracking down" thing is the "blood avenger" of this chapter.  Among other things, it highlights once again the significance of familial ties, because if you get murdered, it is your family's duty to avenge your death.  If you have no family or a weak family, then nobody will seek to avenge you.  This shows the vast significance of family, and also the power that strong, large families have over weak ones, because if you have the protection of a large clan, then you can sometimes predate on weaker ones without retribution, unless your own family stops you (for political reasons or otherwise).

It is also very significant that Israel doesn't have a professional police force.  Justice is dealt with on a personal basis and mediated through tribal elders, as we can see here and elsewhere (this is one reason why tribal elders are brought in to handle subdividing the land and the census, Num 34 and Num 1 respectively).  Tribal elders are probably also expected to maintain peace within their tribes and prevent the kind of abuse I described above when strong families abuse weak ones.  In fact, there was no professional police force in America until the late 19th century, early 20th century, largely coinciding with industrialization.  Before that, the police force existed on a semi-professional or unpaid basis, so the police was much more closely integrated with the population being policed.  My hypothesis is that as Israel urbanizes, it will also adopt more formalized legal and judicial systems, but this might not be documented in the bible.

However, just because there is no police force doesn't mean that justice is unregulated.  In fact, these verses are the legal code by which the people are expected to live.  That's why it's called the Law of Moses, because it literally is the law for this young nation.  Today, we have "other laws" to govern such issues, so in America (and elsewhere) we do not look to the bible for judicial instructions.  But the Israelites did not have "other laws"; if it's not written here, then it is not a law for them, though we have seen cultural customs show up in many places.  In fact, the blood avenger is a cultural custom that is referenced here but never explained.  So I shouldn't make it sound as if they were totally unregulated, but I want to make it clear to my (modern, industrialized) readers that life in ancient Israel is vastly different from modern, industrialized life.  If you're reading this on the internet, then you probably do not live in a society similar to ancient Israel.  :)

In conclusion, "blood pollutes the land".  That's why the provisions dealing with murder are so strict.  Only the shedding of blood can atone for blood.  And justice is not segregated off to a professional police force: it is the responsibility of the "congregation" as a whole to "judge between the slayer and the blood avenger according to these ordinances" (v. 24).

Bible Commentary - Numbers 34

In this chapter, the LORD assigns the boundaries of the promised land and then assigns the tribal leaders to oversee the division of the land.

This chapter is directly related to verses 50-56 of the last chapter, both having to do with the possession of the land.  The last chapter warned the Israelites to destroy all the inhabitants of the land they take, while this chapter is a much more mundane description of the borders that they are to claim and the leaders who should oversee the distribution of the land.

Keep in mind, the Israelites have not actually taken the land, so any distribution at this point is purely hypothetical (i.e. when we conquer the land, this part will go to Judah, this part will go to Issachar, etc).

As in the last chapter, this chapter also contains many obscure names of geographic locations that have since been lost to history.  Some of the names are more prominent, like Kadesh-barnea, but others (like Ziphron, Shepham, or Hazaraddar) are only mentioned here in the entire bible.  If you have difficulty understanding exactly where the borders lie, you aren't alone: since these names are lost to time, it is largely impossible to figure out the precise borders.  But we can figure out the approximate borders by anchoring off the larger, more prominent names.  This was impossible to do in some parts of the desert journey from Num 33 because in the desert, there are no prominent names.  The borders of Israel are much easier to trace.

Generally speaking, the borders laid out here put Israel from sea to sea, covering the expanse between the Mediterranean and the Dead Sea, stretching north up to the Sea of Galilee, here called the Sea of Kinnereth.  It extends a bit further north, and a bit further south, and then that's it.  The precise contours of the northern and southern borders are the hardest to pin down.  The southern border in particular, being in a desert, would have been porous and imprecise in any case.

Furthermore, it is unlikely that Israel's real borders ever aligned with these stipulated borders, simply because the vagaries of warfare through the ages gave them more or less territory in differing times.  At some points Israel's borders extended far beyond this stipulated range and their political domination even further.  But then in other times, Israel itself was a province of other empires and held only the land they were given.

Even in the "present time" when the text was written, Israel controls a substantial block of territory east of the Jordan, outside of the normative promised land.  Even if this chapter dictates the proper boundaries of the promised land, it is unlikely that the Israelites will ever fully conform to it given political and military pressure from all directions, both internally between the tribes and externally between nations.

Still, this chapter gives us a good idea where the Israelites plan to attack, and we can observe how the physical reality matches up with this abstract goal.

Second, this chapter contains a list of names who were responsible to oversee the distribution of the land between the tribes, and possibly also within each tribe.  The whole process is led by Eleazar and Joshua, as the national leaders, and then one tribal leader from each of the ten tribes who settle west of the Jordan.  Reuben and Gad do not have tribal representatives because they are not apportioned any land west of the Jordan.  Manasseh is given a tribal representative for the half-tribe that settles west, but obviously would not have been given land for the half-tribe that settled east of the Jordan.

Of the ten names, the only one we have heard before is Caleb son of Jephunneh, who represents Judah like he has several times before.  While some of the names are repeated elsewhere in the bible, they are listed as having different fathers and are usually from other time periods.  Therefore none of these nine men (the ten, minus Caleb) are ever spoken of before or after this one chapter.  These men clearly must have been important in their time to be leaders over entire tribes, but they are not significant to the larger bible.

The leadership structure, picking one leader from each tribe, is similar to the census and probably for similar reasons.  Moses and the LORD wish to avoid any disputes over the propriety of the apportionment, and choosing a leader from each tribe guarantees equal representation.  Also, the leaders of each tribe are more familiar with their own people and can help organize the sub-division of the land within their own tribe.  They can also communicate decisions back to their people when those decisions are made by the committee of leaders.

So it makes sense to do things this way, but is not otherwise notable.

Bible Commentary - Numbers 33

In this chapter, the author recounts the journey of Israel from Egypt to their camp on the east bank of the Jordan, opposite Jericho.

This chapter is basically the end of the Numbers story.  There are three chapters that follow, but they are more of an appendix than anything else, covering a few miscellaneous topics related to the division of the land.

The structure of this chapter also shows that it is a conclusion of sorts, as we metaphorically walk through the journey from its beginning in Egypt to its end (so far) on the borders of the promised land, east of the Jordan.  We really have gone quite a ways, both the Israelites in the story and you, the readers of this commentary.  We began this journey two books ago when the Israelites were suddenly and precipitously dropped into freedom, sent wandering through the Middle Eastern desert in search of a home.  Back then Moses was incredibly insecure and reluctant to lead the Israelites.  We have seen him grow tremendously as he is now a very authoritative figure.  Back then the Israelites were rebellious, worshiped other gods and sought to return to slavery in Egypt.  I guess not everything has changed.

The Israelites started their journey with the first Passover, which we read about in Ex 12.  Many of the names in the journey should be familiar to us: they started out in Rameses (Ex 12:37), journeyed through Succoth (Ex 12:37) and turned back to Pi-hahiroth (Ex 14:2).  Then they passed through the sea (Ex 14:22), camped at Marah (Ex 15:23) and Elim (Ex 15:27).  They journeyed to Rephidim (Ex 17:1) where they fought the Amalekites.  From there they travel to Kibroth-hattaavah, the "graves of longing" where the people died from their lust (Num 11:34), and went on to Hazeroth (Num 11:35).

Then there's a long series of names we have never seen before, before the people reach Kadesh (Num 20:1).  Aaron dies and the people march on through a few more obscure campsites before reaching Moab and the Jordan.

Overall, I think this chapter is kinda like a genealogy.  It contains a list of dozens of obscure names (like Rissah or Kehelathah) that never appear before or after in the bible, or even non-biblical sources.  Generally, the majority of these sites have not, and cannot, be positively identified because there is simply no other material that cross-references their locations.  The reason why I think this is like a genealogy is that it is a long list of obscure names that is usually of profound interest to scholars and linguists, while of little interest or significance to people like us who are reading the bible for personal study.

As a result, I don't think there's much in this chapter worth discussing.  Some of the names can be cross-referenced to various stories (like what I did above), but rather than teach us anything new, this chapter is really just a reminder of the past and should be a time of reflection.

Verse 50 breaks off from the "journeys of the sons of Israel" and gives us the command that all the inhabitants of Canaan must be killed, their idolatrous religions destroyed, and the land distributed by lot.

I will start with a minor point and then move on to the more interesting subject.  The discussion of inheriting the land by lot is similar to Num 26:52-56, which similarly divided the land by lot, according to the "number of names".  We can imagine the land will be divided both into tribes by size, but within each tribe individual clans would receive land by the number of names, and within each clan individual families would receive land by the number of names.  So it is a hierarchical breakdown that is scaled by the number of people in each unit, but then randomized (drawn by lot) to ensure that everyone is treated equally.

Moving on to the more significant point, I think this is the first time the Israelites have been commanded to destroy the Canaanites, but for various reasons we could have seen it coming.  For one, God said that the descendants of Abraham would not return to Canaan until the fourth generation because the "sin of the Amorite is not yet complete" (Gen 15:16).  This means that the return of the Israelites is a means of punishment for the sins of the "Amorite", i.e. the inhabitants of Canaan.

For another, we have seen numerous battles as the Israelites head towards Canaan, starting with the Amalekites in Ex 17 and continuing with the two Amorite kings in Num 21 and the Midianites more recently in Num 31.  Also, the LORD deliberately took the Israelites through the desert, rather than the more populous coastal road, because "the people might change their minds when they see war, and return to Egypt" (Ex 13:17).  I discussed on several occasions the militaristic language of Numbers itself, such as the military census of Num 1 and the trumpets of Num 10.  All of these things show a heightened expectation of warfare.

So while this is the first time we are told the Canaanites must be exterminated completely, it shouldn't entirely surprise us.  After all, the Midianites were effectively exterminated when the Israelites slew all their males.  The risk of leaving any Canaanites alive is presented here as well: "they will trouble you in the land in which you live" (v. 55), because of the exact same reason as the Midianites: the idolatry of the natives would guide the Israelites into a syncretic idolatry of their own.  This should also not surprise us, because the Israelites have struggled with syncretic idolatry for nearly their whole history, starting definitively with the golden calf of Ex 32, but probably while in Egypt too (it is very likely the Israelites worshiped Egyptian gods while in slavery).

Killing all the natives is a matter of survival for the Israelites.  If they do not, and get ensnared in the "sin of the Amorite", then the Israelites must be punished in the exact same way that "the Amorite" would be punished.  "As I plan to do to them, so I will do to you" (v. 56).  This risk is emphasized in verses 52-53, which discuss the inhabitants' many "figured stones", "molten images" and "high places", the many centers of idolatrous worship.  The LORD used similar terms in Lev 26 when he threatened the Israelites will grim destruction if they "do not obey me and do not carry out all these commandments".  In that chapter he spoke of destroying the Israelites' "high places", "incense altars", and "idols", which are symbols of their adoption of Canaanite worship.  That chapter is a very detailed description of what the Israelites will suffer if they do not destroy the Canaanites.

This leads us to roughly two conclusions.  First, the native inhabitants will definitely fight back against the Israelites, as the limited resources of the land force an inevitable conflict between the invading Israelites and the local Canaanites.  This isn't so much a battle for land to live in as it's a battle over the scarce resources, soil, grass and water, of this semi-arid region.  The Israelites have prepared for this conflict and at this point it seems unavoidable.

However, just because a conflict is inevitable, and presuming an Israelite victory, doesn't mean that the Canaanites will be wiped out completely.  It is possible that only some of the Canaanites will be killed, with the rest either maintaining their territory or integrating into Israelite society (whether through marriage or slavery).  This is what the LORD is warning against.

Second, any surviving Canaanites will "infect" the Israelites with idolatry and turn people away from the LORD.  We know the Canaanites worship idols and we know that the Israelites have a strong tendency to also worship idols, even without other people to encourage them.  We also know that the Moabites led the Israelites into idolatry earlier in Num 25, which is exactly the risk as they move into Canaan.  If the Israelites allow this to happen then they will lose their sovereign protection through the covenant and furthermore, incur the wrath of the LORD, as they were warned in Lev 26.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Bible Commentary - Numbers 32

In this chapter, Reuben, Gad and half the tribe of Manasseh ask to settle east of the Jordan.

Back in Num 21, the Israelites conquered the lands of Sihon and Og, two Amorite kings, who dwelt east of the Jordan.  When I discussed this in my commentary on Num 21, I called it a "windfall", that Israel conquered these lands almost accidentally on their way to the promised land that is west of the Jordan.  That leaves them with two uncomfortable options: 1) depart from the land and leave it uninhabited for others to claim, 2) settle in the land, but outside of the promised land.  It should come as little surprise to us, having conquered this large hunk of real estate, that they should not abandon it.

The Reubenites, Gadites and half of Manasseh (usually called the half-tribe of Manasseh) decide to stay in the eastern land because it suits their livestock.  It is an expansive and dry land, unsuitable for farming, but it makes good rotational or nomadic grazing.  That is why the tribes with more livestock want it.

Even if I disregard the theological implications of living outside the promised land, we can see right away that their request is causing some political difficulties.  Moses thinks these tribes are trying to shirk their responsibility to help conquer the promised land.  If they settle east of the Jordan, then the other tribes would have helped conquer their new homeland, but they would not, in turn, help conquer the promised land.  It also fractures the unity of the nation because they are all supposed to be fighting together for the common good of all twelve tribes.  While the tribes are naturally fractious, Moses is trying to hold them together, so he refuses to let them settle in the land east of the Jordan unless they promise to help conquer Canaan.

Moses specifically compares them to the rebellion in Num 14 with the twelve spies, because by refusing to enter the promised land they are discouraging the rest of the people from what they all anticipate to be an arduous and challenging military campaign.

In the end, the two and a half tribes agree to enter and fight in Canaan, so long as they can build cities for their women and children.  I can only presume these cities would have small (male) garrisons as well, but not so many men as to substantially weaken the force they send across the river.

That's pretty much it for this chapter, but the Reubenites and Gadites will remain on the other side of the Jordan for most of Israel's history as a result, so this is a short story with long consequences.

From a theological perspective, living outside of the promised land is metaphorical for living outside of the covenant and the promise of God.  So it certainly appears like a dire choice.  However, Moses (and we presume, the LORD) is willing to agree to it and he calls it their "possession before the LORD" (v. 22).  This suggests that they aren't living outside of the covenant or the inheritance of Abraham, it is simply relocated for them in accordance with their request.  Nevertheless, they will have to deal with some stigma for living outside of the borders of Israel, so we will see a few small conflicts spawn from this in the future.

Bible Commentary - Numbers 31

In this chapter, the Israelites exact revenge upon the Midianites.

Just like that, the digression into Levitical law is over and we abruptly return to the story.  Balaam's prophecy back in Num 24 told us that the Israelites would "crush" the Moabites "in days to come".  Since this prophecy also predicted the rising scepter of Israel (i.e. some emerging king or power), it is suggestive that this prophecy is speaking of the distant future.  However, here we can see that the Midianites (who have been closely associated with the Moabites) are going to be destroyed right now.

Just to give everyone an idea of how weak the Midianites are, the Israelites only send 12,000 men out of their total force of 600,000 and these twelve divisions manage to kill five kings of Midian and take 32,000 female prisoners after killing all the men (young and old) and all the older women.  So they probably conquered a population of at least 100,000, probably between 100K and 200K.

Still, with Israel only sending about 2% of their overall force and devastating Midian, that gives us some idea of why Balak felt he had to resort to witchcraft.  Ironically, the Midianites are only being attacked now as revenge for their attempted witchcraft and more significantly, "deceiving" the Israelites in the "matter of Peor".  We also discover that Balaam was responsible for guiding the Moabites into this treachery, and the Israelites kill him in retaliation.  This is interesting because if you read Num 25, there is no mention of Balaam at all and from having read Num 22-24, I would have thought that Balaam wasn't such a bad guy.  I mean sure, the LORD rebukes him when he first started off for Moab, even threatened to kill him a few times, but by the time we reach the three blessings and the prophecy, Balaam seems to get along with the LORD just fine.

Towards the end, Balak refused to pay Balaam because Balaam didn't do what Balak wanted.  It appears that after the prophecy, Balaam tried to earn his pay by counseling the Moabites to lead the Israelites into idolatry.  We have no indication whether Balaam was paid any money, but here we can see the Israelite retribution for Balaam's part in all this.

This is a tough chapter to write about because as we can see, the Israelites end up killing lots of women and children under the direction of the LORD and Moses.  I alluded to this when I discussed progressive revelation back in Ex 6.  In that case I was referring to the book of Joshua, but this is along the same lines.  It is a genocidal war that is fought for a couple reasons.  Unlike Joshua, Midian is not within the boundaries of the promised land, so there is no inherent conflict between the two; only a conflict borne out of Midian's fear of the Israelites.

However, the Midianites tried to lead the Israelites into sin.  Since the women were primarily involved with this (by inviting the Israelites into pagan orgies, essentially), that is why Moses specifically commands for the women to be killed.  The men (and boys) are killed to prevent the nation from ever regrowing and becoming a new threat to Israel.  This is a total war, and in a total war everyone is a combatant.  The Moabites and Midianites had already shown that they were hostile to Israel, so fighting back is their best option.

More significantly, the LORD is commanding that the Midianites be slain because of their sin.  So in that respect, this is similar to the punishment of Sodom and Gomorrah except that vengeance of being wrought through the Israelites rather than through divine intervention of the angels.  The children may not be responsible for the sin, but just like the children of Sodom and the children of Dathan and Abiram, they die because of the sins of their fathers.  It's not fair, but it's how the world works, both then and now.

Perhaps the bigger question is why the virgin women were allowed to live.  There are two reasons.  First, they were not involved with the sin of Peor, so they are disassociated from that sin.  Second, because a women becomes part of her husbands family upon marriage, the women can be "integrated" into Israel, after that fashion.  The men cannot, because the men of Midian will always remain in their "own household" apart from Israel, and will therefore always be a threat.

I feel like I should say more on this subject, but I don't know what else to say.  A lot of people tend to have an emotional response along the lines of "what the Israelites did was wrong", and by extension the LORD was commanding them to do something morally wrong (and ergo, the LORD himself commits a moral wrong).  This is a very difficult accusation to defend since it borders so closely with the truth.  At the end of the day, I think the most meaningful thing I can say is that the LORD has the authority to punish sin, and that is what he is doing here, just like Sodom.

Other than that, we can also see that the spoils of war are divided evenly between the 12,000 men who went out and the congregation who stayed behind.  This means that the men who went out would receive far more per capita, but the people who remained behind also profit from their victory.  This is because the men who went out to fight did so as representatives of the whole nation, so it's only fair that the whole nation benefit, but at the same time the men who went out took much more personal risk, so they are rewarded for it.

We also see that a small portion of the goods are given to the priests and Levites respectively, like a small tithe (but far less than 10%).  The soldiers are also expected to remain outside the camp and purify themselves, which is a requirement if a person goes near a dead body from Num 19:11.  Num 19 also contains the requirement that the men wash themselves with the water for impurity.

Lastly, the officers make a donation to the tabernacle because not a single Israelite died during the battle.  This is remarkable when you consider the thousands of men they killed, but it's not entirely outlandish.  Remember that Simeon and Levi killed an entire town of people (the Shechemites).  In that case, it was an ambush and the men were not in a physical condition to fight back, so realistically anyone proficient with a sword could have done the same.  As another point, one can also consider the battle of Thermopylae, which was recently made into a movie, where 300-1000 men held off a Persian army of well over 100,000 for several days.  Alexander the Great made himself famous through the ingenious deployment of phalanx units, defeating vastly larger armies time after time.  If you think about it physically, an army of 100,000 men takes up an incredible amount of space, so only a tiny number of men are going to be on the front line in battle at any given moment of time.  This creates opportunities for smaller units to defeat larger armies by massing local force superiority even if outnumbered in the larger battlefield.

While we are not given any details for this battle, it is possible that something similar happened here.  In particular, when a panic breaks out in a larger army, it can quickly turn into a rout which destroys any possibility of fighting back.  As it turns out, one of the biggest advantages of having a larger army is that it demoralizes your opponent, increasing the likelihood they will retreat and thereby be defeated.  I will give more examples when we read through more biblical battles.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Bible Commentary - Numbers 30

In this chapter, Moses tells the nation rules concerning vows, particularly relating to women.

I had wanted to write up this chapter yesterday, but I really struggled to keep up with the topical shift.  This chapter really has almost nothing to do with the previous chapter, which was about the sacrifices to be made at various festivals.  That chapter was written in the style of Leviticus: numerical, procedural and precise; the subject matter was also very priestly, relating specifically to sacrifices and festivals (which would have been hosted at the tabernacle, the center of priestly authority).

This chapter, while still a legal discussion, is much more about social law than religious law (of course, everything here is religious to some extent, but the focus of this chapter is on governing personal behavior not otherwise connected with religious life).  This chapter has no numbers, no offerings and no priests involved.  This chapter is definitely a statement of law, however, so it has that in common with the previous chapter.  Before moving on, I'll just say that this rapid shift between topics is characteristic of the Pentateuch and we have seen it time after time in the chapters and books we have covered so far.  I have said on a few occasions that the author "does as he pleases" and if he chooses to rapidly change topics, then that's what will be.  But it is worth paying attention to, because the structure of the text reveals the structure of the mind who wrote it.

Moving on.  This chapter is ostensibly about vows, but in reality it is really more a discussion of the authority that a father/husband has over the words of his daughter/wife.  This isn't the first time we have seen this principle in effect.  We have seen several occasions where the wives or daughters of men were punished or rewarded for the deeds of those men.  For instance, at one point Lot offered to give his two daughters to an angry mob of townsfolk waiting to rape his angelic visitors (Gen 19).  In this situation, his daughters are left without recourse and unnamed.  Clearly Lot holds substantial, if not total, control over their lives.  Later in the same day, those same angels save Lot, his wife and his whole family from impending doom primarily because of Abraham's intercession in Gen 18.  But in that episode, we can also see that Lot's family were saved essentially because of their relation to Lot (who himself was mostly saved because he is the nephew of Abraham), and not because of anything they did or were.

Another example is the rebellion of Dathan and Abiram, whose families perished with them (Num 16).  It was not because of anything their wives or sons did that they died, but simply their relations to Dathan and Abiram.  This is because Dathan and Abiram, as the fathers of their household, have an essential control over their families both to direct their behavior and to shape their destiny.  I'm not saying that this is right or wrong, but it's certainly how the biblical author viewed such matters.

The last example I will give is the biblical commands in Ex 20:12, 21:15 and 21:17.  These are the commands to honor your mother and father, and that anyone who strikes or curses their parents shall be put to death.  In these cases, it is both the mother and father who must be honored by their children, which establishes a certain hierarchy: the children honor their mothers and fathers, wives are beholden to their husbands, and the father rules the entire clan.  For their part, men are expected to submit to their elders within their extended family, so as men grew older they were given greater esteem and power.

What we see here is that this authority extends also into the realm of vows, that a male relative can overrule any vow made by a female dependent as long as they do so upon immediately hearing of the vow for the first time.  This is similar to the principle that legal motions must be made in a timely manner.  This basically requires you to take some action (in this case, overrule a vow) at the earliest possible instance, rather than wait and overrule it later if it becomes inconvenient.  If the man delays, then he loses the right to overrule that vow and it becomes binding.

We also see a transference of male authority as a woman marries, passing out of the household of her father and into the household of her husband.  In that case, her husband has a one-time chance to annul any vow that she made before marrying him.

Overall, I think this chapter is relatively straightforward, so I don't think there's anything else I need to add.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Bible Commentary - Numbers 29

In this chapter, we conclude the listing of sacrifices required for public holidays.

I recommend reading my commentary on the prior chapter for more context, since these two chapters are inextricably linked.

As with the prior chapter, most of the sacrifices here have not been previously detailed.  For instance, if you review the instructions for the Day of Atonement from Lev 16, the priest sacrifices something like two goats and two bulls.  In this chapter, we can see that the community must offer seven male lambs, a bull, ram and male goat "besides the sin offering of atonement", which suggests that these are cumulative sacrifices on top of what has already been commanded.

Apart from the Feast of Booths, the sacrifices in this chapter and the larger festivals of the last chapter are all pretty consistent.  It seems like most of them involve sacrificing approximately one or two bulls, one ram, seven male lambs and a male goat for a sin offering (in the case of the Passover, this was offered on each day of the seven-day festival).  The eighth day of the Feast of Booths, which is a special day of assembly, returns to this formula.  I don't particularly know why they use these numbers of animals.  In particular, the variation between one and two bulls is suggestive that it involves a sacrifice on behalf of the priest and the people, like we saw in Lev 16, but that is somewhat speculative on my part.  The offering of one male goat for a sin offering is also reminiscent of the Passover, as I discussed back in Num 21, and it foreshadows all of the same things: a solitary sin offering to bring reconciliation between the people and God.  One could also argue it is intended to reference the unity of the nation.

Seven is the number of completion, so perhaps the seven male lambs are supposed to be a "fullness of sacrifices" or something roughly equivalent.

The only real exception to this pattern is the seven days of the Feast of Booths.  The Feast of Booths was instituted back in Lev 23, which suggested that the Israelites should "present an offering by fire to the LORD" but without stating exactly what that offering should be.  This chapter answers that question with a peculiar pattern.  The Israelites are to offer two rams, 14 male lambs, a single male goat, and a number of bulls that starts at 13 and decreases by one each day.  I was confused by this, so I loaded up my go-to commentary, Keil and Delitzsch (K-D).  First, K-D compare it  specifically to the Passover and Firstfruits because these three festivals were originally declared as a group in Ex 23:14-17, which suggests that the Day of Atonement and Feast of Trumpets should be dealt with separately.

Second, K-D note that the number of rams and lambs are doubled over the earlier festivals, and the number of bulls totals 70, which is 5 times greater than the earlier festivals.  That is, since the Passover sacrifices 2 bulls a day over 7 days, it totals 14.  K-D suggest that the Feast of Booths has these greater numbers because it was a celebratory festival at the end of the harvest year.  I think this explanation is reasonable, since Lev 23:40 also notes that the Israelites are to "rejoice before the LORD your God for seven days" during the festival.

Third, K-D mention that the decreasing number of sacrifices on each day is possibly intended to leave seven bulls for sacrifice on the seventh day, since seven is a special number in the bible.  This allows the total number of bulls to be seventy, while the number on the seventh day to be seven.  I think this explanation is reasonable, but in my opinion it falls in the trap that numerology in general falls into: there are too many "good explanations".

By this, what I mean is that there are many numbers in the bible that have special meaning: 1, 3, 5, 7, 10, 12 are a few examples we have seen so far.  For example, suppose the Feast of Booths required 10 bulls on each day.  Then the total would still be seventy, and 10 is also a special number so in that case K-D and everyone else could come up with a "deep and meaningful" interpretation as usual.  Or suppose the Feast of Booths required 12 bulls on 5 days, 3 bulls on the sixth day and 7 bulls on the seventh day.  Then everyone could invent a creative and meaningful interpretation for that too.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that when it is possible to come up with a valid and meaningful interpretation for any arbitrary combination of numbers, then no interpretation can ever be particularly meaningful.  It's like a Rorschach test where nearly any answer is valid, but that leaves me skeptical that even a "reasonable" interpretation can tell us more about the text than it does the interpreter.  Does the seven bulls on the seventh day signify the completion of the festival, the "completeness" of the offering, the fullness of joy in their covenant with the LORD, etc?  It could be none, it could be some, it could be all.

I think this kind of interpretational ambiguity is true of the entire bible, but nowhere is this truer than in numerology.  I also think that in many places this ambiguity is intentional, a technique to force us to examine ourselves in addition to the text, and that the bible is meant to be a struggle and not a clear-cut answer.  What makes this paradoxical is that the very source of ambiguity is numbers, which are in this case a symbol of concrete specificity.  The numbers, like the dimensions of the tabernacle, are a rigid demand for conformity, that the Israelites must do things "exactly as the LORD commanded" (Ex 39:42 and 43).  At the same time, in a search for meaning we look for patterns in the numbers, but since the numbers are never directly explained, it opens the door wide open to a shadowy world of subjective opinion and personal selectivity.

What makes this pursuit of meaning all the more entrancing is that with some numbers, like seven, the fact that it holds significance is obvious given how many times it's repeated.  It is only the search for meaning that leads us down a rabbit hole of conjecture.  The risk is to become like William Miller, wrongly predicting the return of Christ over and over, in the end resulting in the "Great Disappointment", and all based on his interpretation of numbers in the bible.  Miller, like so many figures before and since, is a symbol of numerology gone awry, stepping beyond the search for meaning and into the realm of finding meaning that, as it turns out, did not actually exist.  Miller's life, among others, is an example to me why we must tread softly where the bible is unclear.  Even when we find meaning, I think it's important to not think of it as exclusive: often the bible teaches many different lessons from the same parable.

In conclusion, I think the search for meaning is significant and should not be abandoned just because it is difficult or perilous.  To ignore the subtleties of the bible is just as great a fallacy as misinterpreting them.  Instead, it is incumbent upon us to think clearly where the bible speaks clearly and to think carefully where the bible speaks unclearly.  Second, and perhaps most importantly of all, we must interpret the bible with a prayerful heart and always seek the Lord for understanding, because the only way to genuinely understand the bible is when guided by the Holy Spirit who created it.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Bible Commentary - Numbers 28

In this chapter, the LORD reiterates the calendar of burnt offerings.

This chapter reminds us of the various sacrifices that have been commanded in various parts of the bible.  In particular, it mentions: the daily offering, the weekly Sabbath offering, the monthly offering (more on this below), the Passover and the Feast of Weeks.  The next chapter will conclude with the Feast of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) and lastly, the Feast of Booths (Sukkot).  These two chapters should be viewed as one long dialogue and between them they list all of the significant festivals of the Hebrew year.  I mention this because the first chapter would look incomplete if we saw that it only contained the festivals up through the Feast of Weeks.

Anyway, we can observe right away that this chapter is very similar to Lev 23 (I would recommend reading my commentary on this chapter for background) in how it lays out all of the festivals, even using the same order, which appears to be chronological.  This chapter starts by listing the offerings that are made all year round: the daily, weekly and monthly offerings.  Then it lists the annual offerings, starting at the beginning of the year with Passover and ending in the next chapter with the Feast of Booths.  Virtually everything is the same between these two chapters.

Lev 23 is a list of the "appointed feasts" of Israel, while the current chapter is a list of the various scheduled sacrifices to be made at the tabernacle.  For this reason, the list in Lev 23 does not include the ordained sacrifices for each celebration, while this chapter does.  What's more interesting is that what sacrifice Lev 23 does mention, for the Feast of Weeks, does not match the sacrifices described in this chapter.  Lev 23:12-13 mentions sacrificing a single male lamb with some oil, grain and wine, while this chapter includes a variety of sacrifices for the same feast: two bulls, a ram, seven male lambs and a male goat, plus the customary grain, oil and wine in varying quantities.

It's not clear to me why there is a discrepancy: perhaps this chapter is expanding or revising on the sacrifices mentioned in Lev 23.  As I said, Lev 23 is not intended as a reference guide to the sacrifices for these festivals: it's pretty clear this chapter is the reference guide, which makes its subject matter highly Levitical (which is true of other parts of Numbers as well, like Num 18-19.  So this chapter and the chapter to follow are both Levitical-style chapters.

As we can see these two lists here and in Lev 23 are substantially the same, which goes to show that every single festival involves animal sacrifice.  There are many reasons for this.  Animal sacrifice is part of the ritual of atonement through the shedding of blood.  As a semi-nomadic society, they have lots of livestock which makes these sacrifices convenient.

Also, many of these festivals are meant to be celebrations, in particular the Feast of Trumpets, the Feast of Weeks (or first fruits) and the Feast of Booths.  Most recently in Num 25 we saw that religious celebrations and feasts (i.e. the eating of large meals and particularly meat) are tightly integrated.  Therefore we can definitely conclude that these various celebrations involved lots of sacrifices.  I should be clear, however, that the sacrifices in these chapters are burnt offerings which would not be eaten by the public at large.  A small portion is given to the priest, but that's it.  Rather, the burnt offerings would be accompanied by large quantities of peace offerings and freewill offerings which would be consumed by the celebrants.  The burnt offering was probably intended as "God's portion" of the feast, in some fashion.

For all of these reasons and possibly more, the rituals of the tabernacle are dominated by animal sacrifice.  The list in this chapter has two additions compared to the list in Lev 23: the daily offerings and the monthly offerings.  The weekly offerings coincide with the Sabbath, which is considered one of the ordained festivals in Lev 23.  More specifically, it is a "day of sacred assembly", when the people are commanded to gather together in celebration.  The daily offerings were commanded back in Ex 29:38-42, so while it's not in the Lev 23 list, it is not new to us.

What's more interesting then is the commanded monthly offering, on the first of each month, which coincides with the new moon (since the Hebrews used a lunar calendar), henceforth known as "new moon offerings" for that reason.  I think this is interesting for two main reasons.

First, the word for "month" here and elsewhere is "chodesh".  This word means "new moon" or "month" interchangeably and is derived from "chadesh" which means "to be new," "to rebuild".

"Chodesh" is used frequently in the bible, starting in Gen 7:11 and continuing nearly everywhere you see the word "month".  The reason I find this interesting is that we are never specifically told that Israel runs on a lunar calendar, it is simply baked into the language that their word for month is "new moon".  The NASB sometimes translates "chodesh" as "month", as in Gen 7:11, and sometimes as "new moon", as in Num 29:6, 1 Samuel 20:5, simply depending on the context.  1 Sam 20:5 is a good example because in that chapter, David says "Behold, tomorrow is the chodesh".  Obviously David isn't saying "the month is tomorrow", he is saying the new moon, signifying the beginning of a new month, is tomorrow.  What makes this verse even more apt is that David is specifically discussing the new moon festival, which is the subject of the present chapter.

Second, this is the first time we have heard of the new moon sacrifices, and these sacrifices are never formally instituted anywhere else in the OT.  This chapter is just a list of offerings that only mentions it incidentally.  What I mean is that this chapter, must like Lev 23, is a summary and listing of various things.  It is not commanding the Israelites to hold new moon sacrifices, just as it is not commanding them to obey the Sabbath: the command to obey the Sabbath was written elsewhere, first in Ex 16 and second in Ex 20.  This chapter simply reminds the Israelites of what they have already been commanded.  Since the new moon festival is listed here with everything else, I believe that it must have been already part of Hebrew society.  This again shows the cultural assumptions in the text, that readers are simply expected to know about the new moon festivals at the beginning of every month.  It's possible it was commanded by the LORD in some non-biblical text (which has since been lost), or it is a cultural tradition that existed outside of the Jewish faith that was then adopted in.  Also note that Num 10:10 refers to the new moon festival, which I didn't notice at the time.

When I wrote my commentary on Lev 23, I said that I would put off writing a comprehensive guide to the sacrificial calendar, and one thing I had in mind was the new moon offerings which are first described in this chapter.  I think this is the definitive list for the Pentateuch (basically everything in this chapter and the next), but I will hold off on creating a reference list of scriptures until the very end of Deuteronomy.  Also note that there are additional festivals outside of the Pentateuch (Purim, Hanukkah), but the Pentateuch is different in that it makes a fairly complete set as you progress from Passover through Yom Kippur and Sukkot.

Lastly, this chapter institutes what appears to be a new group of sacrifices for the Passover, which previously involved the sacrifice of a male lamb for each family (established in Ex 12, revised in Num 9), but now it also involves a set of communal offerings that are not for any particular family or individual.  Rather, these sacrifices would probably be made on behalf of the nation.  Other than that, the sacrifices don't seem particularly noteworthy.  My readers can probably observe that the sacrifices are very similar from one festival to the next.  While the particular amount of lambs, goats, bulls, grain, wine or oil may change, we can clearly see that the sacrifice system (and by inference, Israelite agriculture) is concentrating around these handful of crops and livestock.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Bible Commentary - Numbers 27

In this chapter the daughters of Zelophehad are granted their father's inheritance and Joshua is appointed to succeed Moses.

The first half of this chapter, concerning the daughters of Zelophehad, is a challenge to the culture of male inheritance.  It is difficult to nail down exactly what their traditions entail, but we can observe a few things from the text so far.

1) In the life of Jacob, only his sons had an inheritance.  To wit, we know that he had a daughter, Dinah, while his entire inheritance was given to his twelve sons.  So it appears that a man's daughters inherit his estate only if that man has no sons, which is what v. 8 says.

2) The eldest son is given a double portion of the estate, which is otherwise distributed equally between the sons of all ages.  In the case of Jacob, the double portion was taken from Reuben and given to Joseph because of the former's indiscretion and the latter's exemplary behavior.

3) The promised land is given to the sons of Jacob as a permanent inheritance.  This is modeled after the inheritance structure normally passed down from father to son, but with a religious undertone because it's part of the covenant between God and Abraham.  Possessing the land, and passing it down to one's sons, is therefore both an economic and spiritual act, just as the covenant with God is a spiritual covenant that guarantees material blessing (for instance, Lev 26:1-13 which highlights both the material and spiritual blessings of following the LORD's covenant).

4) Women are not given their father's inheritance because when they marry, they become part of their husband's family.  It's not that women don't get an inheritance, it's that they don't get one from the family of their birth; they receive an inheritance from their husband's family through marriage.  Furthermore, because women become part of their husband's family, all of their possessions become part of their husband's wealth.  We see a vague reference to this in Gen 31 when Rachel and Leah say that "Do we still have any portion or inheritance in our father's house? ... All the wealth which God has taken away from our father belongs to us and our children".

In context, remember that Jacob had taken Laban's wealth by shepherding his flock and receiving all the speckled or striped animals.  Also remember Laban had no sons, so we can guess his inheritance would go to his daughters for that reason.  However, his daughters say that he "entirely consumed" his wealth and deprived them of their proper inheritance.  Therefore Jacob was justified in taking Laban's wealth.  The inference is that the inheritance of Rachel and Leah is given to Jacob.

This third point is at the heart of the complaint lodged by Mahlah et al: "Why should the name of our father be withdrawn from among his family because he had no son?" (v. 4).  The essence of this complaint is that the promised land is a permanent inheritance for both the tribes of Israel and the individual families and men in the tribe.  What the daughters of Zelophehad are saying is that if their father's inheritance were given to e.g. his brothers or the tribe at large, then his "name", i.e. his estate or the family of people descending from him, would be wiped out and therefore he would not have a permanent inheritance anymore.

Maintaining a possession in the promised land is part of the covenant, so giving Zelophehad's inheritance to his daughters is necessary to help maintain the covenant to Zelophehad.  Keep in mind that they are primarily asking about the distribution of land and not Zelophehad's inheritance of animals, gold, etc., because those are a temporary inheritance while the land is meant as a permanent inheritance as I've discussed on many prior occasions.  Verse 7: "You shall surely give them a hereditary possession among their father's brothers".

In summary, the covenant of Abraham is a covenant to both the nation but also to the individuals within that nation, so the LORD is taking steps to protect their inheritance at large as well as the inheritance to a single man, Zelophehad.

In response, the LORD grants their request and specifies the order of inheritance in case a man has no sons. This order of inheritance is probably very similar to what they were already practicing, except that daughters can now inherit a man's estate before it goes to his brothers, etc.

The second half of this chapter tells us that Moses will die before entering the promised land, as we already knew.  The LORD appoints Joshua to follow Moses, which should not surprise us either.  He has a long and distinguished history by this point, having commanded the military against the Amalekites (Ex 17), served Moses as his attendant (Ex 24:13, Ex 33:11, Num 11:28), and was one of the two faithful spies (Num 14:6 et al.).

All of these factors combine to make Joshua an excellent candidate for succeeding Moses as the leader of Israel.  His military training will enable him to lead Israel into battle.  He is also one of the only two surviving Israelites to see the promised land, giving him valuable insight for the coming battles.  His service to Moses gives him experience needed to administrate the nation as a judge.  His experience dwelling in the tent of the LORD (Ex 33:11) means he can interact with the LORD and govern the nation spiritually as well.

Also, Joshua is "a man in whom is the spirit" (v. 18), so he should prove to be an excellent leader indeed.  So Joshua is commissioned and should be ready to lead the nation when they enter the warfare of the promised land itself.  That story, however, does not begin until we reach the book of Joshua.  For now, Moses will remain the dominant figure in Israel and will remain so for the rest of the Pentateuch until his death in Deuteronomy 34 at the very end of the book.

Bible Commentary - Numbers 26

In this chapter, the LORD commands a second census and all of the men of the prior census are gone.

This second census is how we can be sure that 40 years have passed.  Before now, we were not specifically told that the 40 years were over, but in this chapter we can see that "among these there was not a man of those who were numbered by Moses and Aaron the priest" (v. 64), so the entirety of the past generation have died and the new generation has arisen to conquer the promised land.  This is confirmed by their recent arrival at the Jordan river, across from the promised land.

From this, we can see that this particular census has all of the purposes of the last one (military planning primarily, see Num 1 for more on that).  We are also told that the land shall be divided proportionally to the size of each tribe, as the larger tribe gets a larger share of land.  This gives us another purpose of the census, using the size of each tribe to allocate the promised land.  We are also told the land is assigned by lot (i.e. randomization).  I think this is meant to emphasize the equality of the tribes and to ensure that the stronger tribes cannot muscle into the better land.  That wouldn't be fair because the promised land was given to all the sons of Jacob equally.

In addition, this census is intended to show us that the entire past generation has died.  Without counting everyone, it would have been impossible to confirm.  In conclusion, we now know that the Israelites are ready to invade the promised land since the LORD's curse of the last generation has been fulfilled.

There is a separate census for the Levites, as was done in Num 1, and probably also for the same reason.  This time there isn't any comparison of the Levites and the firstborn, probably because the Israelites already paid the random for their firstborn.  Or it's possible they pay a ransom again and we just aren't told.  See Num 3 for the previous Levitical census.

In this chapter, we are not given a breakdown by clan for the Levites, only the total number of Levites.  The number is virtually unchanged at 23,000 exactly (from 22,273).  It's important to mention that since the Levites were not included in the census of those over 20 years old, they were possibly not slain in the wilderness.  Verses 63-65 seem to imply that a generation of Levites also died in the wilderness, but Num 14:29 specifically says "from twenty years old and upward", which was not true for the Levitical census.  Also, there was no representative of the Levites among the twelve spies, while Num 14:34 says "according to the number of days which you spied out the land...", but the Levites did not spy out the land.

The exclusivity of v. 65 seems to indicate that there were also no survivors of the Levites: "And not a man was left of them, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun".  On the other hand, we know that Eleazar is still alive, so it's possible that the priests and their servants, the Levites, are excluded from the rest of the nation.  The separate census certainly supports this viewpoint.

With all that context, this chapter is relatively straightforward.  We can see that the structure of the census is nearly the same, except that we aren't told the twelve leaders who oversee the census.  In Num 1:4-15 we are given a set of leaders who oversee the first census.  In this census we are not given a set of leaders, but we can guess that Moses probably appointed leaders like last time.  Like last time, Reuben is listed as the first tribe and Simeon is the second.  In fact, the entire list of tribes is in the same order, except that Manasseh is now listed before Ephraim.  I discuss this more below.

Another minor difference between this chapter and the census of Num 1 is that this chapter includes a few reminders.  For instance, v. 9-11 reminds us of the rebellion of Dathan and Abiram, sons of Reuben.  This rebellion hadn't happened before the first census.  Verse 11 tells us that the sons of Korah didn't die, which means that they did not follow their father in the rebellion.  This is really surprising in a culture with such a strong emphasis on paternal authority.

Verse 19 reminds us that Er and Onan, sons of Judah, died in Canaan.  Verse 33 is an interesting side note that some particular fellow, Zelophehad, has five daughters and no sons.  This is not relevant to anything previously, but we will hear about the daughters of Zelophehad in the next chapter.  More broadly, this chapter contains small genealogies for each tribe, while Num 1 was simply a list of each tribe and the number of men.  So there are lots of small differences, but the overall effect is nearly the same.

What I would like to discuss now is the results of the census, and to compare these numbers to the census of Num 1.  The overall population of Israel is virtually the same as before, down about 1,500 out of roughly 600,000.  As before, the math is precisely correct so you don't need to double check for mistakes.  The individual tribes are also mostly the same: Reuben changed from 46K to 43K, Gad changed from 45K to 40K, Judah changed from 74K to 76K, etc.

The most significant change is Simeon dropped from 59K to 22K, losing two thirds of its total population.  We have not seen any event that specifically targeted Simeon, so this drop is difficult to explain.  There have been several plagues on Israel (the plague of snakes, the plague of the Num 25, etc), but none of these targeted Simeon in particular.  The only interesting reference to Simeon I can find is that in Num 25:14 tells us Zimri was a leader of Simeon.  It's possible that Simeon was more substantially involved in the sin of Peor and therefore suffered excessively from the plague that followed.  I don't have any other explanation.

There's some other minor variation (Benjamin becomes smaller, etc), but the only other thing I want to discuss is the reversal of Manasseh and Ephraim.  Ephraim loses about 8,000 men in this census, dropping from 40K to 32K.  Manasseh grows from 32K to 52K, and is the largest gainer of all the tribes at +20K.  Their positions in the list of tribes is reversed, which possibly means that Manasseh is now leading the third division.  Previously (Num 2:18) Ephraim was leader of the third division, but since the order of the census matched the order of the camps, Manasseh is listed as the leader of the third division in this chapter.

Manasseh is possibly the leader of the third division and gained 20,000 men.  Both of these factors indicate a rise in Manasseh's power and a diminishing of Ephraim.  I said in my commentary on Num 1 and 2 that Ephraim remains militarily significant, and that is still correct: Ephraim becomes one of the most significant tribes in Israel's future.  What is foreshadowed here is the growing significance of Manasseh.  The sons of Makir (also written as Machir) and Gilead in particular are notable for their power.  It is possible the region of Gilead is named after the man Gilead, son of Makir.  In the future, many sons of Makir settle in the region named Gilead.  Gilead (as a region) is mentioned going all the way back to Gen 31, which suggests that Makir named his son after the region, and not vice versa.

Either way, the overall pattern of this census is that Israel has largely not changed since the last census.  A whole generation has been wiped out, but the nation has not been destroyed and is ready to invade the promised land.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Bible Commentary - Numbers 25

In this chapter, the Midianites (i.e. Moabites) lure the Israelites into worshiping Baal and sexual immorality.

First, a quick note: the Midianites and the Moabites are grouped together in this chapter.  We also saw this in Num 22:7 when "the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian departed...", but I didn't mention it then because it's largely immaterial to the story.  It still is, but I figure it could get confusing if people think they are two separate nations but the bible considers them equivalent.

Anyway, while it's not obvious, this chapter is a continuation of the story of Balaam because what is happening is Balak is trying to attack Israel again.  Before, he sought to curse Israel and thereby defeat them, and that failed because the LORD protected Israel.  Now he is trying to attack Israel by "deceiving" them into committing idolatry and sexual immorality, which would strip them of their divine protection.  It's a clever strategy, really: if the LORD is protecting them, then the most logical place to attack is to fracture their relationship with the LORD.

What it tells us about the Israelites is that they remain deeply immature and disinclined to follow the LORD.  This is 40 years after the rebellion of Ex 32 and after the spies returned an unfavorable report of the promised land in Num 13-14.  While the punishment of this chapter is less severe, the offenses are pretty bad.  Bowing down to other gods and sacrificing to other gods violates the ten commandments of Ex 20.  They additionally commit sexual immorality with Moabite women (verse 1).  All of this probably points to their history: before Moses, the Israelites probably worshiped many of the gods of Egypt.  Arguably one of the big reasons why the Israelites were taken out of Egypt was to separate them from these many gods whom they worshiped.

I talked about sacrificing to idols a bit in Lev 17.  In particular, that chapter prohibited any sacrifice that was not brought before the tent of the LORD, and I speculated that this prohibition is intended to precisely stop this kind of behavior.  It is essentially a hedonistic feast that combines three elements: eating sacrificed animals, worshiping the god to whom it was offered and sexual immorality.  The LORD intends to replace this with offerings made in the Levitical system, before the tabernacle, to direct the people's worship towards himself.

The point I'm trying to make is not "sexual immorality is bad", we can all figure that out.  The point I'm trying to make is the inherent connection that we see here because the "sacrifices of their gods", "the people ate" and "bowed down to their gods" (all from v. 2).  I don't think people in our time naturally associate feasts with worshiping a particular god, but that appears to be the way of things in this time.

Anyway, the LORD is enraged and commands that "all the leaders" be executed.  We are only given the example of a single man, Zimri, who is slain for his idolatry, because he brought a Midianite woman (probably to have sex) while the rest of the congregation is "weeping at the doorway of the tent of meeting", so this presents a fairly strong contrast to us.  Incidentally, there is also a plague that kills 24,000, similar to the plague that broke out in Num 16.

As a whole, this chapter approximately continues the escalation of sin, although it is not the same as the rebellions against Moses we saw before.  What's perhaps most striking about this chapter is the jealousy of Phinehas, who strikes down Zimri, a leader of Israel.  So far the only people who seemed to have zeal for the LORD were Moses, Joshua and Caleb.  So Phinehas is also marked for success because of his actions.

The long term effect of this episode is that it further engenders hostility between Moab and Israel, although we had already seen a prediction of this hostility from Balaam in the prior chapter.  The LORD calls it "hostility", "tricks", and they "deceived you".  This hostility will continue for generations to greater and lesser extents.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Bible Commentary - Numbers 24

In this chapter, Balaam concludes with his third and final blessing, and then also issues a prophecy concerning the future.

This chapter continues directly where the last one left off, but it also adds some interesting details.  It tells us that Balaam "did not go as at other times to seek omens", which clearly suggests that he was using standard divination techniques to make his previous prophecies.  I had already hinted at this when I said the animal sacrifices could have been used for entrail divination, and this chapter seems to confirm it.

Even more interesting, this chapter also says that the spirit of God came upon Balaam, which is a surprisingly strong validation of the Aramite prophet.  This suggests to me that previously Balaam was attempting to resist the LORD, but the LORD overpowered his attempts to curse Israel.  Now it seems that Balaam "saw that it pleased the LORD to bless Israel", and he decides to allow this to happen.  When he agrees to bless Israel, the LORD comes upon him in an even stronger way, and he issues his third blessing.  This blessing seems largely consistent with the last two and it uses similar language, speaking of the LORD as the "horns of the wild ox" on Israel's behalf, and Israel is again compared with a lion.  He concludes by repeating part of Abraham's blessing (Gen 12:3), though this is probably just a standard formula and not intended to recall that earlier blessing.

Balak responds by refusing to pay him, which I guess makes sense considering he was hired to pronounce a curse.

Balaam concludes with a different kind of prophecy.  The first three prophecies were pretty straightforward "bless Israel" rants with no real predictive element.  This prophecy, on the other hand, is "what this people will do... in the days to come."  I am treating this fourth prophecy separately because Balak groups the first three prophecies together in v. 10 when he says "you have persisted in blessing them these three times".  So while the fourth prophecy can be considering a blessing in some sense, it is different thematically (emphasizing future predictions and less of a formal blessing) and it is separated from the first three blessings by the events of verses 10-13, which serves as sort of a short conclusion to the story.

That said, the fourth prophecy is definitely the most interesting in my opinion because it contains so much more predictive content.  The first prediction is that a star, or scepter, would rise out of Israel.  This is evidently a reference to some emerging king, whose rule is characterized by the prophecies that follow.  The "scepter" reminds me of Gen 49:10 which also talks about a scepter "not depart"ing from Judah.  However, the underlying Hebrew word "shebet" is used broadly in the OT to refer to a "rod", "staff", "scepter" (in this case), or "tribe/clan".  The last usage is an implied reference, as the rod refers to rulership over a tribe, so the OT will sometimes speak of the twelve "rods" of Israel.  For example, see Gen 49:28, Ex 24:4 or Ex 28:21 (among others) for this usage.

The word "star" here is "kokab" and it is used less frequently in the OT to refer to both "star" literally or "prince" figuratively.  We saw this second usage in Gen 37:9 when Joseph dreamed that 11 stars bowed down to him, where those stars symbolized his brothers (the princes of Israel, one could say).  This same word "kokab" is used to refer to angels in other places, such as Job 38:7.  All of these usages tie together in the sense of "rising power", shining and brightness.  "Rising star" is an aspirational term that probably has similar meaning to the same phrase in modern English.  Both of these expressions refer to a royal power rising out of Israel.

In verse 17 we see that this royal power will "crush" Moab, which is a reversal of Balak's purpose.  He had tried to curse Israel, but Israel was blessed instead and now Moab is facing the prospect of defeat by Israel, which had been Balak's fear.    I had mentioned back in my commentary on Num 22 that there would be a growing conflict between Moab and Israel, and that's predicted here in Num 24 as well.  I feel like this conflict was one of Balak's own creation as he sought a "strike first" policy against Israel; from this prophecy we can see how badly this policy will turn out for Moab.

On a related note, v. 18 tells us that Edom will also be conquered by the rising scepter of Israel.  Similar to Moab, Edom has positioned itself with a lot of hostility towards Israel, prohibiting them passage into the promised land back in Num 20.

Amalek, like Moab and Edom, resisted the Israelites and was the first nation to fight against them in Ex 17 when they were still in the Sinai.  In that same chapter Israel was commanded to fight against Amalek until destruction and the fall of Amalek is reaffirmed here.
Seir is a nation that hasn't had any hostile relations with Israel yet, but they are included as a "possession" here.  Both Seir and the Kenites are small nations that often fall into the orbit of the larger, powerful nations around them.  I think the reference to Seir is not so much divine punishment for any wrongs they have committed as much as it's a general statement about future Israel's regional hegemony.

The reference to the Kenites, on the other hand, is a prediction of the rising power of Asshur (i.e. Assyria).  Assyria has not been talked about much yet, but it will be a serious power in later times.

The final prediction here is that ships would come from Kittim (Cyprus in some translations) and conquer Asshur and Eber.  Eber is not easy to identify, but from Gen 10 and 11 we can see that there was a person named Eber who was one of the descendants of Shem and a distant ancestor of Abraham.  Either way, Eber is not a significant figure/nation, as he is only referenced here and in the Genesis genealogy (which is itself duplicated in 1 Chronicles).  So this part of the prophecy is not biblically significant, while it's historical significance is more debatable.

So in conclusion, we can see a couple trends in this prophecy.  One obvious trend is God retaliating against Israel's enemies with dire futures for Amalek, Edom and Moab.  Another trend is the rising power of Israel as they become a regional force, conquering Moab, Edom and Seir, three of their neighbors.  The last trend is the future rise of Assyria which will conquer the Kenites at one point but suffer from the Cypriots at another point.  All of these trends will be factors in Israelite history and influence the biblical texts that we will later read.

And with that, the story of Balaam is over.

Bible Commentary - Numbers 23

In this chapter, Balaam issues his first two prophecies concerning Israel.

After the long, long introduction of the last chapter, this chapter is now relatively straightforward.  Having departed for the "high places", i.e. the religious centers of Moab, Balaam is now ready to begin the process of cursing Israel.  They construct seven altars (seven being the number of completion or fullness) and make some offerings.  It is possible the animal entrails were used for divination in this case, although the text does not directly mention it.

The contents of the prophecies also does not seem noteworthy to me.  They are both written in the standard poetic form and it's basically just the LORD lavishing praise on Israel.  As I said before, this is probably intended to encourage Israel for the coming battles as they invade the promised land.

What's more interesting to me is the dynamic between Balaam, Balak and the LORD.  In particular, Balak and the LORD seem to be positioned opposite of one another, with Balak seeking to curse Israel while the LORD overrides him by putting words into the mouth of Balaam, the prophet.  Balaam is stuck in the middle between his desire for money and his insistence that he must speak the words that "the LORD puts in my mouth".  In the end, the LORD appears to win out, possibly due to the threatening angel of the last chapter.  What's interesting about this is that Balaam is one of the few, maybe the only, true prophet who is not an Israelite.  There are lots of false prophets who are not Israelite, but here we can see that the LORD is indeed putting words into Balaam's mouth and I can't think of any other time something like this happens.

In response to these blessings, we see Balak's rising anger at his failed attempts to curse Israel.  Balaam appears helpless in response, repeatedly citing that he can only speak what the LORD gives him.  We can immediately see that this answer does not assuage Balak, who is himself caught between the hapless prophet and his own immense fear of the Israelites.  They try moving to different locations to see if they could possibly curse them somewhere else.  The first time they move, in v. 13, it seems the intent was to see only "the extreme end of them and will not see all of them", because perhaps it's easier to curse a few people than to curse many people.  Repeating the ritual with the seven altars, this approach clearly doesn't work as Balaam's second blessing is longer and richer than the first.

Balaam gets even more angry, and this time tries to relocate to the "top of Peor".  This is probably one of their most sacred high places, because in Num 25 we are told there is a "Baal of Peor".  Also, the top of Peor "overlooks the wasteland", so this is a dominating vista.  Balak probably expects that relocating here would give him access to more spiritual power as this is probably one of their most sacred shrines.  To see the results of this third, final attempt, we will have to read the next chapter, but I'll give you a hint: it doesn't work.