I’ve been lulled into a false sense of interest over the last few chapters, what with all the huge grapes, and the giants, and the plagues. Just then, bam, again with the ordinances.

In this case, we’re getting more rules about sacrifices. God wants a side of cereal and wine added to his offerings  of lamb, ram, or bull (in different proportions for different types of sacrifices).

The chapter mentions several times that the rules apply to both natives and “sojourners,” such as:

One law and one ordinance shall be for you and for the stranger who sojourns with you. (v.16)

That’s all well and good for secular laws, but not so good for cultic ordinances. At least we’re given an “if” statement: He is only required to obey these sacrificial laws if “he wishes to offer an offering” (v.14). In other words, if you choose to give a gift, here’s God’s registry. That’s a whole lot nicer than what we’ve seen previously, such as Numbers 9:14, where sojourners are required to celebrate Passover.

We also get a reminder about the sacrifice of the first fruits (when they first arrive in Canaan, and then the first of each harvest thence forth).

Then there’s some specifying about who gets to be forgiven, when, and how. There are instructions for repentance when the sin was collective (the priest makes the atonement on behalf of the congregation), and for when an individual person has sinned (the priest makes the atonement on their behalf). So long as the sin was unwittingly committed, they will be forgiven.

If, however, the sin was intentional, the individual is to be “utterly cut off” from his people (v. 31). The problem,  of course, being how does one distinguish between intentional and unintentional sin? If the punishment is social, either God is telling the people how to arbiter in each case or there’s some fallible human (or group of humans) who get to make that call.

This is doubly frightening when it is applied to both native and sojourner, and when the accused is described as one who “reviles the Lord” (v.30). This is, of course, all rhetoric used to describe people who break theocratic blasphemy laws. It’s these sorts of things that are being said about atheist bloggers, like Asif Mohiuddin. And, because the law is to be applied to both natives and sojourners, “but this isn’t even my religion” isn’t a defence.

Scary stuff. But it gets worse.

The sabbath-breaker

So the Israelites are just walking along in the wilderness, totally minding their own business, when they stumble upon this guy gathering sticks, but it’s totally the Sabbath. So they nab him and bring him to Moses and Aaron, and they ask Moses what should be done with him.

The Sabbath-Breaker Stoned, by James Tissot, c.1896–1902

The Sabbath-Breaker Stoned, by James Tissot, c.1896–1902

Moses nips over for a quick consult with God, who says that the man should be put to death. More specifically, the whole congregation should take him outside of camp and stone him to death.

Okay, so, few problems with this.

First, it doesn’t even say that the man was an Israelite. It says:

While the people of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the sabbath day. (v.32)

This implies that the Hebrews are on the move and they come upon someone who is not part of their group. Then they kill him because he’s not following their religious laws. Not only that, but even when we’re talking about the laws that apply to outsiders of the faith, it’s only sojourners in the land of the Hebrews. They are still outside of Canaan, so this isn’t even someone breaking the ol’ “when in Rome” cliché.

But even if the man is Israelite and he knew of the prohibition, the punishment is completely disproportionate to the crime.

Second, the command that the man be killed should be contrasted with Exodus 31:14, where the punishment for working on the sabbath is described as:

Every one who profanes it shall be put to death; whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people.

All this time, I’ve assumed that “cut off from his people” was close enough to a death sentence in the sense that an exiled individual is going to have a tough time surviving in that time and that part of the world (heck, it’s hard enough these days). But it seems that it’s actually a euphemism for killing the person in more direct means. Has it meant that all along?

So not getting circumcised, having a rare steak, and making the wrong perfume all get the death penalty?

Of tassels

In closing, we get a bit about wearing tassels on all the corners of their clothing (each to contain a blue thread). According to my Study Bible, this is an ancient custom that is being reinterpreted, here, as a reminder of God’s law (p.184).

These tassels are still worn by some Jews on the corners of their prayer shawls, and are called tzitzit.

As an interesting side note, the tassels must contain a blue thread – but “blue” may not be the best way to describe its colour. A relatively recent archeological find may let us peek at what the exact shade may have looked like. As one of the people involved in the project has it:

“Tekhelet is the color of the sky,” Dr. Koren said in his laboratory. “It’s not the color of the sky as we know it; it’s the color of sky at midnight.” He paused and added, “It’s when you are all alone at night that you reach out to God, and that is what tekhelet reminds you of.”

Also, the dye may have been extremely expensive:

The dye was also prohibitively expensive to make: hundreds of snails were used to make even a small batch, and some in ancient times claimed it was worth 20 times its weight in gold.

If this is correct, the tassels rule may have been quite a meaningful sign of devotion.

Read the full New York Times article about the find.

And, of course, we get a final bit about how the people are to follow the commandments of God and “not to follow after your own heart and your own eyes, which you are inclined to go after wantonly” (v.39).

This is a rather strange thing for God to say since, only a chapter ago, he was complaining that the people were not following their eyes:

How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs which I have wrought among them? (Num. 14:11)

In that instance, his argument was that he should be obeyed because he has shown himself to be the most powerful. So what does it mean for him to change his tune now? How could following one’s eyes lead one to disobey the commandments if not because they lead one to see another god with greater power? It feels a bit like God is hedging his bets, you know, just in case some young upstart deity comes traipsing through the neighbourhood.