Numbers 27: Succession Planning

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Way back in the halcyon days of last Friday, we found out that Zelophehad, son of Hepher, son of Gilead, son of Machir, son of Manasseh had only daughters: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. 

Daughters of Zelophehad by Bonnie Lee Roth

Daughters of Zelophehad by Bonnie Lee Roth

Given the clearly agnatic inheritance assumptions we’ve seen modelled thus far, it seems that this would be the end of the Hepherites. But Zelophehad’s daughters, upset that their father’s name should end, ask Moses to grant them their father’s inheritance.

Moses decides to bring their case before God, who writes up some quick inheritance laws to help out in just such a situation:

  • If a man has no sons, his daughters should receive the inheritance.
  • If he has no children at all, the inheritance goes to his brothers.
  • If he has no brothers either, it should go to his father’s brothers.
  • If his father also had no brothers, it should go to “his kinsman that is next to him of his family” (v.11).

I find it interesting that this didn’t carry forward in many Christian countries, as fans of Downton Abbey well know (read this great article for an explanation of how that came about).

Noa(h)

David Plotz named his daughter Noa after this chapter. Of the name he writes:

In English, the girl’s name Noa sounds identical to the name of Noah the ark builder. But in Hebrew, they’re totally distinct names, spelled and pronounced very differently. Noa the girl is pronounced “No-a,” just as we say it. But Noah the boy is “No-ach” in Hebrew, making it a much harsher sounding name.

Yet the spelling distinction doesn’t exist in my text, nor in any other that I’ve found through a quick BibleHub comparison. In both the cases of Zelophehad’s daughter and the guy who got so drunk that he passed out naked, my Bible has “Noah” with an H.

It’s not a particularly important point, but I do find it interesting.

Sin

When explaining that their father died without sons, the women say that he: “died in the wilderness; he was not among the company of those who gathered themselves together against the Lord in the company of Korah, but died for his own sin” (v.3).

So what was that sin?

The emphasis on “his own sin” seems to suggest that he didn’t fall under the collective punishment that came with the 40 year wilderness sentence. According to the JewishEncyclopedia, rabbinical literature seems to favour the theory that Zelophehad was the Sabbath-breaker from Numbers 15. Blogger Dovbear has a great explanation of the argument in favour of this association.

Another tradition has it that Zelophehad was one of the gun-jumpers who decided to dismiss God’s 40 year sentence and headed into Canaan without permission in Numbers 14.

Sneak Peek

Once he’s done dealing with the uppity women, God sends Moses up to the mountain of Abarim, from which he can see the promised land. After this, Moses will die because of his rock abuse in Numbers 20.

David Plotz asks:

Is this very cruel or very kind? Is it excruciating for Moses to have to see what he wants more than anything in the world but cannot have? Or is this gaze consolation for a dying man? I can’t decide.

Moses begs God to appoint a successor, “that the congregation of the Lord may not be as sheep which have no shepherd” (v.17). Interestingly, Moses has a son, so the leadership – at least at this point – is clearly not hereditary. (Unless Moses’ kids are excluded because of their mixed heritage?)

It’s not quite a meritocracy, either. Joshua, son of Nun, is chosen because he is “a man in whom is the spirit” (v.18). In other words, he gets to be the leader because he has the same prophetic status as Moses.

But despite clearly being a very theocratic system, it’s not a system ruled by clerics/priests, exactly. Though he is to “stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall inquire for him by the judgement of the Urim before the Lord” (v.21).

This could mean, as some interpretations have it, that Joshua has the option of consulting Eleazar whenever he doesn’t know what to do. But it could also mean that he must consult Eleazar before making big decisions, functionally putting the high priest above the secular monarch.

Numbers 26: Census Do-Over

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Between the plagues, food poisoning, gaping chasms, spontaneous combustions, etc, the usefulness of the census taken in Numbers 1 is rather obsolete. As we near the end of our journey, God decides that it’s time to take another head count of eligible soldiers.

The other purpose for conducting the census is to help with dividing up the lands once they get into Canaan. This seems a little pre-emptive to me, but what do I know. There’s also some talk of lots. If I’m interpreting v.53-56 correctly, all the head of house names are to go in a big hat, and the lot will be used to decide which spot each should get.

We’re also reminded that none of the men counted were adults when they originally left Egypt with Moses and Aaron (those guys having all since died), with the exception of Caleb, son of Jephunneh, and Joshua, son of Nun.

Reuben

Reuben, if you remember, was the eldest of Israel’s sons. Unfortunately for him, a little indiscretion lost him his primacy. He had four sons:

  • Hanoch, sire of the Hanochites
  • Pallu (or Phallu), sire of the Palluites
  • Hezron, sire of the Hezronites
  • Carmi, sire of the Carmites

Pallu’s son, Eliab, had three sons: Nemuel, Dathan, and Abiram. We’re reminded that these are the Dathan and Abiram who rebelled with Korah back in Numbers 16. We’re told here that Dathan and Abiram were killed along with Korah, though their deaths weren’t mentioned.

There’s also a little note telling us that “the children of Korah died not” (v.11). This seems to contradict what we were told in Numbers 16:31-32:

As soon as he finished saying all this, the ground under them split apart and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their households, and all those associated with Korah, together with their possessions.

Granted, his children aren’t specifically mentioned, but it does seem implied.

The total number of Reubenites eligible for military service is 43,730.

Simeon

Back in Genesis 46, the Simeon’s sons are named as: Jemuel, Jamin, Ohad, Jachin, Zohar, and Shaul. Here, however, the list is:

  • Nemuel, sire of the Nemuelites
  • Jamin, sire of the Jaminites
  • Jachin, sire of the Jachinites
  • Zerah, sire of the Zarhites
  • Shaul, sire of the Shaulites

For whatever reason, the lines of Jemuel, Ohad, and Zohar seem not to have survived, and Simeon apparently picked up Nemuel and Zerah somewhere.

I find it interesting that Jemuel and Nemuel, and Zohar and Zerah are quite similar. I wonder if these are equivalents from two different narrative traditions.

The total number of Simeonites eligible for military service is 22,200.

Gad

We get some more name funkiness with Gad. According to Genesis 46, his sons are: Ziphion, Haggi, Shuni, Ezbon, Eri, Arodi, and Areli. Here, however, they are:

  • Zephon, sire of the Zephonites
  • Haggi, sire of the Haggites
  • Shuni, sire of the Shunites
  • Ozni, sire of the Oznites
  • Eri, sire of the Erites
  • Arod, sire of the Arodites
  • Areli, sire of the Arelites

The lists seem to match, but quite a few spellings have changed.

The total number of Gad’s descendants eligible for military service is 40,500.

Judah

Judah’s story matches up with the genealogy in Genesis 46. I guess they kept better records, or something. His sons were:

  • Er (deceased, no kids)
  • Onan (deceased, no kids)
  • Shelah, sire of the Shelanites
  • Pharez, sire of the Pharzites
  • Zerah, sire of the Zarhites

We get some further subdivision with the sons of Pharez:

  • Hezron, sire of the Hezronites
  • Hamul, sire of the Hamulites

Total eligible soldiers from Judah: 76,500.

Issachar

Issachar’s sons, according to Genesis 46, are Tola, Phuvah, Job, and Shimron. Once again, there’s quite substantial differences. His sons here are:

  • Tola, sire of the Tolaites
  • Pua, sire of the Punites
  • Jashub, sire of the Jashubites
  • Shimron, sire of the Shimronites

Again, the names are kinda similar, just enough to suggest that they come from different oral traditions.

Total descendants of Issachar eligible for military service: 64,300.

Zebulun

Zebulun’s family kept better records. In both versions, his sons are:

  • Sered, sire of the Sardites
  • Elon, sire of the Elonites
  • Jahleel, sire of the Jahleelites

There are 60,500 eligible soldiers among the Zebulunites.

Joseph

Joseph, of course, had two sons: Manasseh and Ephraim. Both are kinda sorta heads of their own tribes, depending on how the count is made.

Manasseh’s sons are:

  • Machir, sire of the Machirites

Machir, in turn, fathered Gilead, sire of the Gileadites.

Gilead’s sons are:

  • Jeezer, sire of the Jeezerites
  • Helek, sire of the Helekites
  • Asriel, sire of the Asrielites
  • Shechem, sire of the Shechemites
  • Shemida, sire of the Shemidaites
  • Hepher, sire of the Hepherites

It’s unclear through which of these sons the Gileadites are counted.

Hepher also had a son: Zelophehad. Unfortunately, Zelophehad only had daughters:

  • Mahlah
  • Noah
  • Hoglah
  • Milcah
  • Tirzah

So if the line of Hepher is getting named as a land recipient, that implies that there’s some way for these women to pass their father’s land to their own children.

Total soldier-able descendants of Manasseh: 52,700.

Ephraim’s sons are:

  • Shuthelah, sire of the Shuthalhites
  • Becher, sire of the Bachrites
  • Tahan, sire of the Tahanites

Shuthelah sired Eran, who sired the Eranites. Did Shuthelah have other sons, or are all Shuthalhites also Eranites and vice versa?

There are 32,500 eligible soldiers among the descendants of Ephraim.

Benjamin

With Benjamin, we get some genealogical issues. Benjamin’s sons are:

  • Bela, sire of the Belaites
  • Ashbel, sire of the Ashbelites
  • Ahiram, sire of the Ahiramites
  • Shupham, sire of the Shuphamites
  • Hupham, sire of the Huphamites

Only Bela (named Belah) and Ashbel are found in Genesis 46, listed along with their brothers: Becher, Gera, Naaman, Ehi, Rosh, Muppim, Huppim, and Ard.

Then, from Bela, we get his sons:

  • Ard, sire of the Ardites
  • Naaman, sire of the Naamites

Notice that both of these were listed as Benjamin’s sons, not his grandsons, in Genesis 46.

The total military contingent provided by the tribe of Benjamin is 45,600.

Dan

In Genesis 46, Dan’s only son is named Hushim. Here, of course, his son’s name is Shuham (sire of the Shuhamites).

Descendants of Dan, you only had one name to remember! Sheesh!

Total descendants of Dan eligible for military service: 64,400.

Asher

In Genesis 46, Asher’s children are named Jimnah, Ishuah, Ishni, Beriah, and a daughter named Serah. Here, his children are named:

  • Jimna, sire of the Jimnites
  • Jesui, sire of the Jesuites
  • Beriah, sire of the Beriites
  • Sarah

Back in Genesis 46, Beriah’s sons are Heber and Malchiel, which matches the names given here (sires of the Heberites and Malchielites, respectively).

Not that I’m complaining, but I find it interesting that Serah/Sarah is named in both genealogies, especially given that there’s no mention of anything special about her. She’s not sire to any sub-tribe, so there’s really no reason to mention her in this census.

I’m apparently not the only one to be confused. It seems that some early midrash composers felt that she wouldn’t be mentioned unless there was something pretty special about her, so there’s a fairly substantial collection of fanfic that’s been written about her.

The total number of Asher’s descendants who are eligible for military service is 53,400.

Naphtali

Naphtali’s sons are:

  • Jahzeel, sire of the Jahzeelites
  • Guni, sire of the Gunites
  • Jezer, sire of the Jezerites
  • Shillem, sire of the Shillemites

The total number of eligible soldiers among the descendants of Naphtali is 45,400.

Adding them up

That’s a total of 601,730, only 1,820 fewer people than counted in the last census. That’s a pretty amazing reproduction rate, considering the fact that God’s been killing these people by the thousands for a few years now.

What’s interesting to me is to compare the two censii and see how the various tribes made out. Reuben, Gad, Ephraim, and Naphtali all saw a reduction, mostly in the 2,000-8,000 range.

Some tribes actually grew, albeit modestly: Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Benjamin, Dan, and Asher.

But the really surprising ones are Simeon and Joseph. Simeon, apparently, really ticked God off, because at 37,100, they took the heaviest losses. As for Joseph, Manasseh and Ephraim appear to have traded places, with Manasseh going from 32,200 to 52,700, and Ephraim going from 40,500 to 32,500. A rather impressive feat from Manasseh!

Levi

The Levites, not being eligible for receiving land, are counted separately. They are divided into three groups, after Levi’s sons:

  • Gershon, sire of the Gershonites
  • Kohath, sire of the Kohathites
  • Merari, sire of the Merarites

We’re also given a list of “the families of the Levites” (v.58), though there’s not indication of how they are connected to the original three branches:

  • Libnites
  • Hebronites
  • Mahlites
  • Mushites
  • Korathites

We’re also told that Kohath had one son, Amram, who married his aunt, Jochebed. They are the parents of Aaron, Moses, and Miriam.

Aaron’s sons are Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar. The first two, of course, were killed in Leviticus 10.

While the rest of the tribes are counted by how useful they’d be as soldiers, Levites are counted for that whole weird redemption business we heard about in Numbers 3. Because of this, all Levite males a month old or over are counted. Yet still, the total only comes to 23,000.

Numbers 25: What happens in Shittim stays in Shittim

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We’ve seen passages that have been interesting, and we’ve seen passages that have been profoundly boring. We’ve seen passages that have been refreshingly progressive, and, sadly, we’ve seen passages that have been horrifyingly xenophobic. Numbers 25 is the latter.

So the Israelites are loitering around in Shittim, bored, not much going on, and some of them start chasing after the local Moabite girls. These girls, they run with different gods and make theistic infidelity look mighty attractive, so the Israelites start sacrificing to the Moabite gods, specifically Baal.

God, of course, is mighty angry. He commands Moses to slaughter all the chiefs, killing them in place of their people. Moses, either disobeying God or deciding to play the over-achiever, calls up all his judges and tells them to each kill all of their men who have hung out with Baal.

The Midianite woman

Numbers 25 - CozbyWhile all this is going on – or possibly after – a Simeonite man by the name of Zimri, son of Salu, brought a Midianite woman to meet his family (presumably as a wife?). Her name was Cozbi – spelled with a Z and I to avoid confusion – daughter of Zur, prince among the Midianites.

This throws Phinehas, grandson of Aaron through Eleazar, into a rage. He leaves the Israelites to their weeping at the tent of meeting and follows Zimri back to his tent. There, presumably while Zimri and Cozbi were playing a Barry White album, Phinehas stabs them both with a spear.

This, of course, is very pleasing unto the Lord, and God decides to stop the heretofore unmentioned plague that he’d sent to kill the Israelites – but not before 24,000 people had already died.

So there’s some biblical morality for you – kill people, placate God.

As a reward for his double homicide, Phinehas is ensured a perpetual priesthood for himself and his descendants.

Just to round off the day, God tells Moses to go kill Midianites, “for they have harassed you with their wiles” (v.18). I’ve met a few cat-callers in the street who seem to have taken this view, and it ain’t pretty.

Wait, what happened to the Moabite women?

The story of how the Lord was angered by the Midianites, by Barbara Griffiths

The story of how the Lord was angered by the Midianites, by Barbara Griffiths

You may have noticed that we went from complaining about Moabite women to, very suddenly, being concerned about Midianite women. So what’s going on with that?

Well, seems like it’s political, yet again.

Way back in Exodus 2, Moses met and married a Midianite woman named Zipporah. This already led to some contention in Numbers 12. I think that the authors wanted to make very clear that – at least in this – What Would Moses Do does not apply.

As a closing note, Collins makes a very interesting point in A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible:

The Phinehas story underlines some of the fundamental tensions in the Priestly tradition. On the one hand, that tradition was characterized by respect for life, human and animal, as is shown by the prohibition against eating meat with the blood, and the account of creation in Genesis 1. On the other hand, the violence of Phinehas, like the summary executions of dissidents like Korah, shows an attitude of intolerance, where the demands of purity and holiness take precedence over human life. The intolerance shown in this story has its root in the certitude of Phinehas and those he represents that their way is God’s way. (p.83)

Numbers 23-24: Balak’s rather unsuccessful attempts at cursing

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In these chapters, we continue with the comedic repetition structure that seems to mark Balaam’s narrative.

When we last saw Balaam, God had allowed him to respond to Balak, king of the Moabites. At the very end of Numbers 22, Balak takes Balaam to a place that my RSV calls Bamoth-Baal, but that the KJV has as “the high places of Baal” (Num. 22:41). I’m not finding any confirmation that this is significant, but I find it interesting that Balaam seems so intent on hearing from YHWH, yet Balak is leading him to a place that is named after (and presumably has once been consecrated to) Baal. It’s like, disappointed with Balaam’s previous response, Balak is hoping that a different God will get him a different answer.

Once there, Balaam tells Balak to build seven altars and to provide seven bulls and seven rams. Once each altar had been broken in with a bull and ram each, Balaam wanders off to meet with God.

The First Oracle

God put the words right into Balaam’s mouth for him to take back to Balak. The prophecy begins with a retelling of what’s happened so far – of Balak asking Balaam to curse Israel, and Balaam refusing because he would not – or could not -curse anyone independently of God’s power (and, therefore, of God’s will).

The prophecy describes the Israelites as “a people dwelling alone, and not reckoning itself among the nations!” (v.9). I get the whole “chosen people” thing, but this looks an awful lot like nationalism – something I’ve always been very uncomfortable with.

Balaam then prays that he should “die the death of the righteous” so that his “end be like this” (v.10). It seems that he is defining the Israelites as specially blessed, and envisioning that he, too, could be similarly blessed if he dies righteously.

Balak is understandably upset to get this response. There he was, thinking he’d finally won Balaam over and would be getting that fancy new curse he wanted, and yet here’s Balaam blessing the Israelites instead! Talk about a bait and switch!

The Second Oracle

Thinking that a different vantage point might yield different results, Balak takes Balaam to a new spot – the field of Zophim, at the top of Pisgah. There, he once again builds seven altars and sacrifices a bull and a ram at each. Once again, Balaam tells Balak to wait by the altars while he goes off in search of God.

This time, the prophecy addresses Balak directly, calling him to rise and listen. He tells Balak that God is not human, and therefore does not lie or repent. Of course, we’ve seen him change his mind and repent several times. In fact, despite this present claim, we’ve seen a whole lot of God flying into a violent rage and his prophet du jour having to talk him down. Once again, we see a disconnect between the claimed character of God and his demonstrated character. Were this any other book, I’d call unreliable narrator!

The prophecy then goes on to say that God has blessed the Israelites – being that he is so in-capricious, he’s not about to change his mind about that (you know, until they ask him for quail again).

The Israelites are, therefore, protected. God is so strong – as strong as a wild ox, if you like the RSV, or as strong as a unicorn, if you prefer the whimsy of the KJV – that no curse could work against them.

The strength of a unicorn

The strength of a unicorn

A note on the unicorns: Apparently, this is a Septuagint issue. The Greek translation of the Hebrew word re’em was monokeros – one-horned. According to Wikipedia, this interpretation made sense to the KJV translators since unicorns are legendary for the impossibility of their taming.

According to the JewishEncyclopedia, this translation was later revised to “wild ox” given the etymological and contextual similarity to the Assyrian rimu: “which is often used as a metaphor of strength, and is depicted as a powerful, fierce, wild, or mountain bull with large horns.”

The prophecy continues by saying that God has made Israel so powerful that:

As a lioness it rises up
and as a lion it lifts itself;
it does not lie down till it devours the prey,
and drinks the blood of the slain. (Num. 23:24)

The imagery is certainly gruesome, but it’s also quite poetic.

Balak, of course, isn’t happy with this prophecy either. If the first oracle can be interpreted as blessing the Israelites, this one certainly can! But, of course, the schmuck of our little slapstick has to have a third try. Once again, he tells Balaam to come to yet another spot – to the top of Peor – in the hopes that this new place “will please God that you may curse them for me from there” (Num. 23:27).

The Third Oracle

The song and dance of the seven altars and the seven sacrifices of bulls and rams has to be performed in the new spot. But this time, Balaam doesn’t bother to head off in search of omens, God makes a house-call.

As Brant Clements, of Both Saint and Cynic, points out, this change has literary significance:

In comedy there is a rule of threes. 1. An event is told. 2. The event is repeated, establishing a pattern. 3. The pattern is broken, to comic effect. The pattern being broken can also serve a dramatic effect. In the case of Balaam the third iteration turns a comic tale serious.

This time, God addresses Balaam rather than using him as a mouthpiece. He calls to him, as he called to Balak in the second oracle. There’s a listing of name, ties, and status. In the midst of this, God hints at the prophetic process, describing Balaam’s experience of visions as a “falling down, but having his eyes uncovered” (Num. 24:4). This seems to suggest a sort of ecstatic trance.

During this, Balaam is described as one “who sees the vision of the Almighty” (Num. 24:4). According to J.R. Porter in The New Illustrated Companion to the Bible, this may be significant:

Fragmentary Aramaic texts of the ninth century BCE from Deir Alla refer to a Balaam who, as in the Hebrew Scriptures, was the son of Beor. He is said to have a vision of a disaster that befalls his city, at which he weeps. This revelation is received from an assembly of divine beings described as Shaddin, which recalls the title Shaddai, “Almighty,” an archaic name for God in the Hebrew Scriptures. The name Shaddai occurs more than once in the biblical story of Balaam, for example in Numbers 24.4. (p.61)

Then we get some lovely compliments about how nice the Israelite tents are, and there’s a bunch of flowery comparisons. In the middle of all of that, we are told that the Israelite king “shall be higher than Agag” (Num. 24:7). Agag is the name of the Amalekite king featured in 1 Samuel 15:33. This leads to three possibilities that I can see/find:

  1. There are two different kings by the same name.
  2. The text, written long after the events it purports to describe, contains an anachronism.
  3. “Agag” is not the name of a king but, rather, a standing title among Amalekite rulers.

Then we get a bunch of fluff about God being super strong (like a unicorn!), and how he can crush people’s bones and nom on nations, yadda yadda.

To close the prophecy, God says that all who bless Israel will also be blessed, and all who curse it shall likewise be cursed.

This, of course, needles at Balak’s nerves, so much so that “he struck his hands together” (Num.24:10). According to my Study Bible, clapping was “a gesture of anger and reproach” (p.196). Keep that in mind the next time you enjoy (or don’t enjoy) a live performance.

Balak tells Balaam that he had promised to “honor” Balaam for his services, “but the Lord has held you back from honor” (Num. 24:11). That’s quite an interesting perspective. He then tells Balaam to leave.

The Fourth Oracle

Rather than leave, Balaam launches straight into his fourth oracle, introducing it by saying to Balak: “Come, I will let you know what this people will do to your people in the latter days” (Num. 24:14).

Notice that the pattern is broken again here. For his fourth oracle, Balaam no longer requires altars and sacrifices. This one, as they say, is on the house.

It begins, again, with a listing of Balaam’s ties and titles, using language that’s nearly identical to the opening of the third oracle. Then it gets a little kooky.

The language is a little purple, but the essence of it is that, at some time in the future, “a star shall come forth out of Jacob [Israel]” (Num. 24:17) – it’s given a royal slant when the line is repeated but with sceptre in place of star. This star will crush, kill, destroy the following groups/places:

  • Moabites
  • The sons of Sheth
  • Edomites
  • Seir – which, given the text, seems to be an enemy of Edom, yet my Study Bible claims that these are just two names for the same group (p.197)
  • Amalekites
  • Kenites

There’s a weird verse asking how long Asshur would take Kain captive, and another saying that ships will come from Kittim to afflict Asshur and Eber. My Study Bible is entirely useless here, making excuses about how “the meaning of these verses is obscure, owing to the uncertainty of the names” (p.197).

Having finished with the curse, Balak packs up his toys and heads home.

According to Collins in A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, this final oracle has been imbued with some messianic significance:

In the Hellenistic and Roman periods, this oracle was taken as a messianic prediction. The leader of the last Jewish revolt against Rome, in 132-135 C.E., Simon Bar Kosiba, was hailed by Rabbi Akiba as the messiah foretold in this oracle. Because of this, he is known in Jewish tradition as Bar Kokhba (literally, “son of the star”). (p.82)

Assuming, for the sake of funsies, that this is a retroactive prophecy – set in the past, yet “foretelling” current/recent events – it sounds a whole lot like political propaganda. If I had to venture a guess, I would say that a king wanted to solidify his claim to the throne, so he commissioned the writing of some prophetic historical fiction to “predict” himself, thereby legitimizing his rule. The author chose Balaam, a seer that people were clearly talking about – given the Deir Alla inscription – in the same way that people today will often write predictions and ascribe them to Nostradamus.

Numbers 22: Talking out of his ass

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This chapter reminds me a lot of a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book, except that the instructions have all disappeared.

The easy-peasy version of the story has a king getting antsy at the approaching Israelites, so he calls on a magician, Balaam, to curse them. Balaam refuses, and the king asks him again. This time, God tells Balaam to go. Balaam obeys, but God suddenly changes his mind and there’s a humorous episode involving an ass, and the  Balaam submits his final refusal to aid the king against the Israelites.

God’s sudden change of mind makes very little sense unless we realize that this chapter is actually a proto-Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book written, unfortunately, before the use of page numbering. (Or, you know, two separate traditions have been melded, or its an attempt at – as my Study Bible so quaintly puts it – “oriental humor.”)

The Moabite king

While the Hebrews are camping in the plains of Moab, the Moabite king Balak, son of Zippor, starts to get nervous. He’s heart about their defeat of the Amorites and, justifiably, isn’t sure he wants them hanging around his territories.

To deal with the situation, he sends messengers to Balaam, son of Beor. The messengers ask Balaam to use his super awesome magical powers to curse the Hebrews, “since they are too mighty for [Balak]” (v.6). Balaam does seem to be a magician of some renown: “he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed.” Interestingly, though the effect would be the same, Balak has asked for his enemies to be cursed rather than himself to be blessed – something that may be a smart move if Balaam is getting his power from the God of the Hebrews.

Unwilling to act rashly, Balaam tells the messengers that he needs to sleep on it.

At some point – the context seems to indicate that this happens in a dream since, afterwards, we’re told that “Balaam rose in the morning” (v.13) – God comes to Balaam and tells him not to go with the messengers and not to curse the Hebrews.

The conversation between Balaam and God seems to indicate that Balaam is familiar with the Hebrew God. In fact, he tells his guests that he needs to take the night to consult first, “and I will bring back word to you, as the Lord speaks to me” (v.8) – suggesting (assuming that I’m not getting duped by a crappy translation) that Balaam is deliberately seeking the will of the Hebrew God. Yet the context makes it very clear that he is not an Israelite himself.

Duane Smith, of Abnormal Interests, also brings up a very interesting discussion regarding solicited versus unsolicited divination, which he refers to as omina impetrativa and omina oblativa. In the former case, a diviner will actively perform some kind of ritual with the intent of divination – such as reading the entrails of an animal or interpreting the flight of birds. In the latter case, the divination is passively received by the individual without having previously been sought.

For obvious reasons, divination through dreams – oneiromancy – is generally thought of as passive, unsolicited divination. Yet in this case, Balaam is very clearly going to bed with the explicit intention of chatting with God.

David Plotz points out that this isn’t the first time God appears in a dream to a non-Hebrew. Way back in Genesis 20, he came to Abimelech and warned him not to sleep with Sarah. In both cases, the non-Hebrews seem to obey God more readily than most of the Hebrews.

But now we get our choice: Should Balaam listen to God and refuse the king’s request? Or should he disobey God and go back with the messengers? YOU DECIDE!

Balaam refuses the king’s request

Balaam tells the messengers that God has forbidden him from going to King Balak, so they return with the message.

Balak decides to try again and he sends a second wave of messenger princes, more than before and of higher status. They arrive and ask Balaam, once again, if he could pretty please with a cherry on top come curse the Hebrews.

But Balaam refuses. No matter what the price, he won’t come so long as God doesn’t want him to. However, because he’s such a nice guy, he’ll go ahead and ask the Big Man Upstairs for permission again.

That night, God’s tune changes. Now he wants Balaam to go to Balak, only he must do exactly as God instructs.

Balaam returns with the messengers

Now there’s a gear shift. Balaam is heading back to Moab with the messengers, as God asked, but “God’s anger was kindled because he went” (v.22). Talk about mixed messages!

Balaam and his Ass, by Rembrandt, 1626

Balaam and his Ass, by Rembrandt, 1626

Then God continues his hissy fit by refusing to actually voice his concerns to Balaam directly. Instead, he just sends an angel to stand in Balaam’s donkey’s path.

The donkey, seeing the angel (that’s invisible to Balaam), turns off the road and walks in the field instead. Balaam, confused, starts whacking his ass (*gigglesnort*). In typical mythic fashion, this happens three times. The third time, the donkey opens its mouth and complains: “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” (v.28).

Balaam, acting for his part as though it’s perfectly ordinary for his donkey to sit down for a chat, goes on about what a bad-ass the donkey’s been for refusing the follow the road properly.

Just then, God’s angel reveals himself and tells Balaam that he shouldn’t be hitting his ass. You see, explains the angel, if the ass had not turned aside, he would have killed Balaam.

This is an interesting commentary on the nature of sin. As we saw in Leviticus 4, sin does not mean here what it’s come to mean these days. As Balaam puts it: “I have sinned, for I did not know that thou didst stand in the road against me” (v.34). His sin, therefore, is in not knowing that he was doing anything wrong.

The angel repeats (or says for the first time, if you’re playing the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure game properly) the instruction to do exactly as God says when Balaam gets to his meeting with Balak.

Meeting Balak

Having heard of Balaam’s arrival, Balak goes out to meet him. He asks Balaam why he didn’t come (I’m assuming that he means the first time), and Balaam basically just says “I’m here now, aren’t I?”

But Balaam repeats that he can do nothing other than what is instructed of him by God. “The word that God puts in my mouth, that must I speak” (v.38).

The two men go to Kiriath Huzoth together, where Balak sacrificed oxen and sheep. It’s unclear whether these sacrifices were made to the Hebrew God (whom Balaam is clearly soliciting) or to another (which I would assume Balak would prefer).

I’ll stop here, even though there’s a verse left. Verse 41 more properly belongs to Numbers 23, so I’ll cover it next time.

Who was Balaam?

Which gets us to the interesting question of just who, exactly, is Balaam. We know from the text that he was living in Pethor when Balak sought him out. We don’t know where Pethor might have been, by the way, though Wikipedia thinks that it might be the same place as Pitru, mentioned in ancient Assyrian records. Regardless, it seems to have been in Babylonia, and Babylonia was, according to my Study Bible, famed for its divination (p.193). In fact, according to J.R. Porter in The New Illustrated Companion to the Bible, Balaam is shown as a “typical Mesopotamian seer-priest, the kind known as baru” (p.61).

Balaam may have actually been a real person. His existence is corroborated by an inscription discovered in 1967 at Tell Deir’Alla (or, simply, Deir Alla) dating from the 8th century B.C.E. (Collins, A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.82).

The prophecies described in the Deir Alla text bear no resemblance to the ones we’re about to read in Numbers. Instead, they merely recount Balaam’s vision of a disaster that befalls his city. However, this revelation is said to have been received from an assembly of divine beings described as Shaddin, “which recalls the title Shaddai, ‘Almighty,’ an archaic name for God in the Hebrew Scriptures. The name Shaddai occurs more than once in the biblical story of Balaam, for example in Numbers 24.4″ (Porter, The New Illustrated Companion, p.61).

Numbers 21: Snakes on a plain

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It doesn’t rain unless it pours. Numbers is an odd book; a good half of the chapters are nothing but Levitical drudgery, and then we get chapters like these, where the narratives just seem to be breathlessly jammed together.

As the Hebrews are travelling through Atharim, they are attacked by the king of Arad, a Canaanite. This appears to have been a small skirmish, since we’re given no death tally and only told that he took some of the Hebrews captive.

The Hebrews then call to God for help and, while reticent to provide them with the necessities of subsistence, he seems quite happy to help when it involves killing people.

With God’s help, the Hebrews are able to “utterly destroy” the Canaanites, as well as their cities. Because of this, they name the area Hormah, which my Study Bible notes means “destruction.”

Waaay back in Numbers 14:39-45, we heard of a different battle in which some of the Hebrews run up into the hill country and are attacked by the Amalekites and Canaanites. In that battle, the Hebrews are destroyed and their remainder pursued “even to Hormah” (Num. 14:45).

The similarities between the two stories are interesting: the initial defeat at the hands of Canaanites, and the mention of Hormah. A possible interpretation of this Numbers 21 story is that it is a continuation, explaining what happened after the Hebrews (whether the initial group or the larger group following) arrived at Hormah and retaliated.

Enter the serpents

From Mount Hor, the Hebrews set out to go around Edom (having been denied through-passage in Numbers 20). On the way, however, the people start griping again about the lack of variety in their diet. As punishment, God sends “fiery serpents” (v.6) among them, the poison killing everyone bitten.

Moses and the Brazen Serpent, by Sébastien Bourdon, 1653-1654

Moses and the Brazen Serpent, by Sébastien Bourdon, 1653-1654

Moses prays on behalf of the people and God, once again, relents. However, while sending miracles that kill masses of people is easy-peasy for God, removing them seems to be a bit on the “rock so heavy even God cannot lift it” side of things, so he needs Moses to perform some magic.

To pull this one off, Moses must build an idol – specifically, a bronze serpent set on a pole. Anyone who has been bitten and sees the idol will survive.

I think that this is a similar situation to the Golden Calf story. Indeed, we’ll see in 2 Kings 18:4 that this idol – later called Nehushtan – was considered in violation of the cultic prohibitions and was destroyed.

According to J.R. Porter:

This is the origin of the bronze serpent that stood in the Temple of Jerusalem. It was originally a symbol of Canaanite religion, but is here attributed to Moses, although its original significance as part of a cult involving serpent worship has been neutralized. (The New Illustrated Companion to the Bible, p.61)

The symbolism of the serpent as a sign of healing was not at all uncommon in the Near East. The Rod of Asclepius is probably the one most people are familiar with (even if they don’t know the name), though there are plenty of other examples.

I think it’s probable that this symbol was in circulation and somehow got included in Hebrew cultic iconography. At some point, the icon was associated with Moses, and this story made it into Numbers. At some later point, there was an iconoclast crackdown and the idol was destroyed.

It seems to me that the bronze serpent is quite clearly a violation of the Exodus 20:4 prohibition of idolatry. Even if the idol is commissioned by God, it’s still an idol (and, one might argue, all idols are commissioned by a god or gods).

Brant Clemens of Both Saint and Cynic explains that “idolatry has been defined as the sin of mistaking the good for the best.” To extrapolate, the idol – at the time of its creation – is seen as merely an earthly tool for God’s use, not a conduit or representation of God himself. Once this changed and people started worshipping the idol, it was destroyed.

Interesting side-note, Brant also mentioned that “the snake on the pole is used in Christian art (and preaching, I’m sure) as a figure of Christ on the cross.” This was totally new to me but, when I was searching for images to use for this post, I had no trouble finding examples of it.

Numbers 21 - Serpent Christ

Journey to Moab

We haven’t had a proper son in quite a while, and someone apparently realized that they weren’t meeting quota. Through the rest of this chapter, we get three of them, all up next to each other like it’s perfectly normal to stuff all the songs in one place or something.

A long section of the chapter simply lists the pit-stops taken by the travellers:

  1. Oboth
  2. Iye Abarim, west of Moab
  3. The Zered Valley
  4. Alongside the Arnon, which is the border between Moab and the Amorites
  5. Quite interlude to quote a poem from the lost Book of the Wars of the Lord
  6. Beer, which means “well,” where the people break into song about how awesome wells are
  7. The wilderness of Mattanah
  8. Nahaliel
  9. Bamoth
  10. The valley in Moab where the top of Pisgah overlooks the wasteland

Defeat of Sihon and Og

In a near-identical passage to their request of the king of Edom in Numbers 20, the Hebrews ask Sihon, king of the Amorites, for permission to pass through his territories.

Once again, they are refused. This time, however, the refusal apparently comes with a rather brutal and – if the text is to be taken at face value – totally uncalled for attack.

Sihon and his army find the Hebrews at Jahaz, where the Hebrews retaliate and conquer his lands “from the Arnon to the Jabbok” (v.24). But they are stopped at the Ammonite border because they have hard, protective shells.

Then we get our third, and final, song of the chapter, which goes on about how woe’d and destroyed the enemies of the Hebrews are, and how the Israelites have settled in the lands that they formerly owned.

After their victory, Moses sends spies to Jazer and the Israelites drive out the Amorite residents. They then head up toward Bashan and fight against the army of King Og at the battle of Edrei, which the Hebrews win.

Numbers 20: Hitting rocks

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After such a long time without much narration, Numbers 20 is something of a glut.

It opens as the Israelites are arriving in the Desert of Zin, staying in Kadesh. You may remember the Israelite arrival in Kadesh from such passages as Numbers 13:26. It’s possible that it takes them 40 years to get through the wilderness because they’re going in circles. Another possibility is that this section is intended as a summary, temporally placing the events to follow.

At some point around this time, Miriam dies and is buried – all in a single sentence. It doesn’t seem like much, but it’s rather significant that her death is recorded at all, given that she is a woman. Between this, her song in Exodus 15:20-21, and her statement in Numbers 12:1-2 that God also talks to her, it suggests to me that she may have been a fairly important folk character at some point before all these stories were put together in the configuration that we use today.

Water from the stone

The people, ever whiny, are now complaining that they are all dying of thirst. Can you believe it? As if mortals even need to drink, pshaw…

Moses' Canteen, by ReverendFun

Moses’ Canteen, by ReverendFun

They bring it up to Moses, and they ask him why he would even bother bringing them out of Egypt if he’s just going to have them – and their livestock – die of thirst. They also, as a side note, ask why they should have ever been brought into a place with “no grain or figs, grapevines or pomegranates” (v.5), which may be specific, but I can understand the general spirit of the complaint.

Moses and Aaron head into the tent of meeting for a quick consult with God, who tells them to “take the staff” (v.8) and gather all the people together. They are then to speak to a particular rock, and it will start gushing water.

By the phrasing, I got the impression that Moses is to use Aaron’s blooming rod from Numbers 17.

So Moses takes the staff. He and Aaron do as instructed right up until they are before the rock, at which point Moses strikes the rock twice with his staff, instead of just trying to chat with it. The spring that he creates is called Meribah, which, according to my Study Bible, apparently means “contention.”

God gets pissed, saying:

Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them. (v.12)

Which is interesting because this story implies that God decides in this moment not to allow Moses to enter Canaan. However, back in Numbers 14, he made a sweeping statement that none who had come out of Egypt as adults should live to see Canaan, naming only Caleb and Joshua as the exceptions. So while this story clearly implies that Moses is excluded from entering the promised land because he failed to follow God’s instructions, it seems that his fate had already been decided anyway.

It seems, also, that there is some debate as to just what, exactly, was Moses’ crime. My immediate impression was that it was Moses’ failure to follow God’s instructions, but there’s also a little issue of the words he uses when smacking the rock. He says to the gathered people:

Hear now, you rebels; shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock? (v.10)

Not only does it sound rather like he’s rubbing it in everyone’s faces, he’s also saying “we,” as in, he’s including himself as an active agent in the miracle. His crime could well be hubris.

Water From The Rock, wall painting in a Roman Catacomb, 4th century AD

Water From The Rock, wall painting in a Roman Catacomb, 4th century AD

In The New Illustrated Companion to the Bible, J.R. Porter addresses the issue thusly:

Moses and Aaron both died outside the Promised Land of Canaan. This was an undeniable fact of Israelite tradition, but it was felt that some explanation was needed as to why these two great figures had not shared in the fulfillment of God’s promise to the people. […] In Numbers 20, Moses and Aaron repeat the miraculous provision of water from the rock at Meribah (Kadesh), after which God tells them: “Because you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them” (Num. 20.12). The reason for this is unclear. Perhaps Moses and Aaron were guilty of presumption by not giving God credit for the miracle (Num. 20.10). It may be that the story is deliberately vague about the offense so that Moses and Aaron are not incriminated too greatly. In any case, much care is taken to preserve the brothers’ reputation. (p.60)

It’s interesting to note that the “drawing water from stone” story seems to be a repeat of Exodus 17:1-7. Only, in that story, God did tell Moses to strike the stone with his staff. The ensuing spring was given two names – Massah and Meribah, clearly amalgamating the origin stories of two separate sites (whereas this chapter excludes the former).

The rest of Exodus 17 is about a battle against the Amalekites, lead by Joshua. Both narratives seem to be out of place in that portion of the story.

Edom’s refusal

Moving on, Moses sends messengers to the king of Edom asking for passage through their territory. Their offer is presented as being very reasonable, perhaps to accentuate the unfairness of the Edomite refusal. Perhaps representing the same animosity that we saw in the Jacob and Esau narrative beginning in Genesis 25.

Anyways, the Edomites refuse, forcing the Israelites to find an alternative route.

Aaron’s death

Coming out of Kadesh, they get to Mount Hor. While there, God tells Moses and Aaron that Aaron is about to die, so they should head up the mountain along with Aaron’s son, Eleazar. Once at the top, Aaron should remove his priestly vestments and put them on Eleazer – passing the baton, as it were.

Having learned their lesson at Melbah, they follow God’s instructions properly. The Israelites mourn Aaron for 30 days.

Numbers 19: Blood sprinkles

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Both Saint and Cynic put up a post recently (well, 2.5 months ago, but it counts as “recently” in Biblical time) called “The Bible Wasn’t Written To You.” The TL;DR version is that the Bible was written within a particular cultural context, and it isn’t reasonable for a 21st century ready to pop it open in the hopes of finding a note written just for you by God. “The Bible isn’t a horoscope. The Bible isn’t a fortune cookie. The Bible wasn’t written to you.”

The Inspector, by Karen Liebowitz

The Inspector, by Karen Liebowitz

Numbers 19 illustrates this point perfectly.

The chapter opens with instructions for making the “water for impurity.” The ritual involves finding an unblemished red heifer that has never born a yoke. Eleazar is then to take her outside the camp and kill her, then sprinkle her blood toward the front of the tent of meeting seven times. The heifer carcass must then be burned (within Eleazar’s sight), along with her skin, flesh, blood, and poop. The priest is then to cast cedarwood, hyssop, and “scarlet stuff” into the heifer’s pyre.

Using hyssop makes some sense. It’s an antiseptic plant, so the symbolic value is fairly obvious (same for the use of garlic, for example). Even so, there is some question as to whether the term is actually referring to the modern hyssop. Cedar wood has similarly been historically used in healing and for spiritual protection. Both are, apparently, quite fragrant – certainly an added bonus in religious ritual if my childhood Sunday coughs are any indication.

The priest should then wash his clothes and bathe. He can then re-enter the camp, but will still be considered unclean for the rest of the day.

A man who is clean should come out and gather up all the heifer ashes and keep them in a clean place outside of came. This is where people should go when they need to use the “water for impurity.” The one who does the ash gathering also has to wash his clothes, and he is unclean for the rest of the day as well.

Contact with the dead

Anyone who touches a dead body is considered unclean for seven days. Notice the repetition of the number 7, evidently considered significant.

The contaminated person must cleanse himself with the heifer water on third day, or else he will not become clean on the seventh.

Interestingly, the gender of the corpse is specified. Apparently, all of this only applies to people who have touched “the body of [a] man who has died” (v.13).

If a man dies inside a tent, anyone who is in the tent is considered unclean for seven days. Likewise, any open vessel is considered unclean. Both of these rules make a lot of sense for hygienic reasons. I’ve heard it said that comparatively few Jews died of the Black Death in part as a result of their cultic hygiene requirements. Of course, that didn’t stop plenty of them from dying of separate, but related, causes.

Out in the open, you have to actually touch the body (or bone, or grave) to become unclean.

If made unclean, the individual is to take some of the heifer ashes and mix it with running water. They are then to dip some hyssop into the water and sprinkle it on the contaminated tent and all its furnishings, plus any people who had been there. For the poor guy who stubbed his toe on a partially buried bone, he’s got to have the hyssop-and-ash water sprinkled on him as well.

On the seventh day after contact, the individual is to wash his clothes and bathe in water (as opposed to?), and he’ll be clean by evening.

If an individual is made unclean and doesn’t go through the cleansing ritual, he is to be cut off from his people, since his presence adds renegade points to his whole community. If our conclusions from Numbers 15 are correct, that means that the person is to be killed. There seems to be a lot of potential for vicious cycles if no blemishless red heifers happen to be available…

To finish up the chapter, we’re told that anyone who touches the heifer water is unclean until the evening, and that anything or anyone an unclean person touches is likewise unclean until evening.

The heifer

Apparently, some Jewish groups have interpreted this chapter to mean that a third temple cannot be built without a red heifer (though why they would single this little bit out and attach so much meaning to it is beyond me), and there seem to be efforts to breed red heifers for the purpose.

Some Christian groups, believing that Jesus won’t visit the neighbourhood again until the temple is rebuilt, are apparently helping out.

This all bodes wonderfully for the peace and stability of Israel, of course.

Numbers 18: Isn’t it Aaronic?

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At the end of Numbers 17, the people asked if they were all going to die because of their proximity to the ark of the covenant. Within the context of the Numbers 17 story, it didn’t make much sense. But here in Numbers 18, we get the answer: No, you won’t die. Because the Aaronic priests will bear that “iniquity” on your behalf.

The rest of the chapter is all about the symbiotic (sorta) relationship between the Levitical priests and the Aaronic ones.

Moses and Aaron, by Barthel Beham, 1526

Moses and Aaron, by Barthel Beham, 1526

Specifically, the Levites are to minister to the Aaronides, while the Aaronides minister to the ark. It’s also specified that all offerings made to God belong to the priests. I find it rather convenient that, during this portion of the chapter, God is speaking directly to Aaron.

Redemption prices are set for offerings made to God. The prices are in “the shekel of the sanctuary” (v.16). We’ve discussed previously that this specification as to the value of the shekel suggests a much later composition (or editing) date than traditionally believed. The only interesting thing about the list is that firstling cows, sheep, and goats can’t be redeemed because “they are holy” (v.17). This seems to follow what we got in Leviticus 27 (though here specific species are identified).

The last bit God tells Aaron is that Levites are not to own land, and therefore have no inheritance to pass on to their children. Instead, their children are to be supported by their share of the offerings made to God. As God puts it: “I am your portion and your inheritance” (v.20).

Turning back to Moses (without such a smooth transition, suggesting the melding of two separate narratives), God explains that Levites get to keep all the offerings made as tithes, but that they must make a tithe on the tithes, which goes to the Aaronide priests.

It’s a long chapter, but it’s light on content, so that’s for today! Class dismissed!

Numbers 17: Blooming rods

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God is rather spooked by all the recent rebellions, so he decides to settle the matter once and for all (again). He could have opted to improve worker conditions, raise minimum wage, or institute universal health care, but instead he goes for the single most “I haven’t put any thought into this at all” gesture a deity can make – he gets his people flowers.

But first, a word on all these rebellions. David Plotz identifies two possible explanations for the seemingly bottomless lack of faith of the Hebrews. Either they:

  1. are a faithless, cynical skeptic
  2. didn’t actually witness the events that you are supposed to have witnessed.

I agree with him that these are the only two explanations if the narrative is being read as… well… a narrative. But there’s a third option that I think is far more likely.

Throughout my reading of the Moses cycle, I get the impression that there must have been some proto-folk tale about the faithless people rebelling against Moses/God. In myth-talk, we might say that all of these stories are getting at the same myth-truth – that it is in human nature to be rebellious against divine authority (that’s my best guess, anyway. The great thing about myth-truth is that it’s so open to interpretation!).

My assumption would be that each individual shrine/community would be putting their own spin on the story, and on how Moses/God/Aaron gotcha’d the people and showed them all what’s what. Next, some poor schmuck of a scribe is handed all of these stories and told: “All of these happened. Figure out how and in what order.” So this guy tries to arrange them sequentially, adds a few bits about God getting really frustrated that the people just don’t seem to be getting the message, et voila! A somewhat tedious listing of a bunch of people behaving in grossly improbably ways!

But if we go back to a more literal reading, the constant state of discontent is actually rather concerning. As the author of A Skeptic’s Journey points out, we’ve come a long way from the songs of celebration as Israel first came out of Egypt. Since then, “there has been no happiness recorded from the people of Israel.”

Back to the flowers

The people have seen a lot of miracles so far – everything from the first born of every single Egyptian dying overnight to the ground opening up and swallowing hole the enemies of Moses – but none of that has left a lasting impression. So God really pulls out all the stops and gets ready for the miracle that will convince everyone that he truly is a God worthy of worship.

Aaron's rod in bloom, by a master of the Marienkirche Stained-glass Panels, Germany, late 14th century

Aaron’s rod in bloom, by a master of the Marienkirche Stained-glass Panels, Germany, late 14th century

He instructs Moses to collect a staff from the heads of each of the 12 tribes, with Aaron standing in as leader for the Levites (and, I would assume, with Ephraim and Manasseh amalgamated for the purposes of this exercise). He then places these staffs before the ark of the covenant and leaves them to marinate overnight.

When the leaders return the next day, Aaron’s staff has blossomed and sprouted almonds. This is apparently God’s way of saying “I choo-choo-choose you!”

(To the men in my audience: If your rod suddenly starts blossoming and growing almonds, please do not just assume that it makes you God’s favoured one. Instead, you should a) wash more frequently, and b) consult your doctor as soon as possible.)

The blooming rod is henceforth to be displayed before the ark of the covenant – “to be kept as a sign for the rebels, that you may make an end of their murmurings against me, lest they die” (v.10). Because it just wouldn’t be God talking without a threat to kill people.

My Study Bible tells me that “folk traditions of other peoples contain stories of blossoming rods, clubs, or spears” (p.187), though the only ones I was able to think of off hand or to find in a quick Google search are clearly inspired by the biblical story:

  • The Glastonbury Thorn refers to a story about how Joseph of Arimathea thrust his staff into the ground when he reached Glastonbury and it sprouted, growing into a hawthorn tree.
  • A poet by the name of Tannhäuser went to Rome to receive absolution from Pope Urban IV. The pope refused, saying that forgiveness was as unlikely as his staff blooming. Of course, three days later, Urban’s staff really does, in fact, bloom, but Tannhäuser is nowhere to be found.

And that’s all I was able to come up with. Does anyone else know of a story that involves a staff blooming?

In the meantime, it’s in my Study Bible so I’ll just have to take it on faith that it’s true. After all, if the Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.

Are we going to die?

Then comes the straggler, a little portion of the story that makes very little sense in the context. The people are suddenly terrified that they are going to die because “every one who comes near, who comes near to the tabernacle of the Lord, shall die” (v.13).

In the context of the blooming rod, the only sense I could make of this story is if the tribal leaders came and laid their own rods before the ark, thereby being too close to the tabernacle. Now that they are convinced of God’s power, they are suddenly afraid of what will happen to them.

But I peaked ahead to Numbers 18 and I think that this may just be an issue with where the chapter divides were inserted. You’ll see what I mean.

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