Saturday, September 29, 2012

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.

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