Deuteronomy 32: God’s chart topper

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At the end of the last chapter, Moses gathered together all the elders and officers of Israel to teach them God’s new song. This, finally, is that song.

It begins in the usual way: With a description of how awesome and totally cool God is, but everything goes wrong and it’s always someone else’s fault. The people didn’t respect him enough, so “they are no longer his children because of their blemish” (Deut. 32:5). While the sentiment is reversed within a couple lines, where Moses rhetorically asks: “Is he not your father, who created you, who made you and established you?” (Deut. 32:6) – which is it’s own little parental mindfuck – I find it rather horrifying that God would go there. I mean, a god turning away from a people who aren’t worshipping him properly is all well and good, but if he’s to use the parental imagery, he loses the right to keep pulling this “I turn away from you, you are no longer my children” stuff.

Moses and the Promised Land, by Joni Ware, 2009

Moses and the Promised Land, by Joni Ware, 2009

In his description of how God created the people, Moses sings about the sons of men, and how God “fixed the bounds of the peoples according tot he number of the sons of God” (Deut. 32:8). According to my study Bible, this line is supposed to mean that God allows other members of the heavenly court to govern the other nations, while God sees to Israel personally. Given that other parts of this very song come off very monotheistic, I really wish we had a more explicit cosmology to look at.

Moses then goes on to talk about how God took care of Jacob, making him “suck honey out of the rock, and oil out of the flinty rock” (Deut. 32:13) – a miracle, obviously, but also some very maternal imagery. Given that God is later conflated with a Rock (my study Bible capitalizes the word), it certainly makes it seem like God is playing the part of a Mother Goddess figure, nursing Jacob at the breast of the land. All of this is doubly interesting because I can’t recall anything in Genesis that would give an indication of this sort of relationship – except that it is Jacob’s descendent who are the tribal founders, making Jacob the founder of the whole nation.

Moses then goes on to talk about a Jeshurun, which from the context appears to be a anthropomorphism of Israel, who grows fat and complacent, eventually forsaking God. Ironically, Jeshurun apparently means “the Upright One,” according to my study Bible.

Then, he “stirred him [God] to jealousy with strange gods” (Deut. 32:16). I find all the references to God’s jealousy quite interesting. I have a friend in a poly relationship who once explained to me that jealousy comes from a lack of self-confidence, from feeling insecure in your position in a relationship. In other words, if you feel (consciously or subconsciously) that you are not worthy enough for your partner, you react with jealousy when you see your partner in a situation where they might encounter someone better. So take of that what you will.

With Jeshurun being such a meanie, God decides that he will provoke him back by sending a “foolish nation” (Deut. 32:21) after the Israelites, to heap evils on them and kill them – even “the suckling child” (Deut. 32:25). So there’s that mercy and ‘slow to anger’ stuff he’s been talking about. In fact, it seems that the only thing preventing him from destroying the people entirely is that the nations he sends in to do his dirty work might come to think that they achieved their victories for themselves, rather than crediting God with being so totally awesome.

God will also rub it all in a bit. When the people have been conquered, he will ask them Where are your gods now? “Let them rise up and help you, let them be your protection!” (Deut. 32:38).

Then God goes on for a bit about what a gross, vindictive jerk he is.

Go up the mountain

With the song finished, God sends Moses up to Abarim, Mount Nebo, to look down on the Promised Land. Once there, he will die, as Aaron died, because they “broke faith with me [God] at the waters of Meribath-kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin; because you did not revere me as holy in the midst of the people of Israel” (Deut. 32:51).

Meribath-kadesh seems to be yet another name for Massah and Meribah from the stories we saw in Exodus 17 and Numbers 20.

Numbers 33: The recap

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In this chapter, we get a recap of the journey so far. It’s long and about as exciting as washing the dishes when you’ve finished your last audiobook. We do, however, find out that Aaron was 123 years old when he died. So that’s… something.

Here’s your cliff’s notes image:

In the plains of Moab, God tells Moses to tell the people to “drive out” all the people they meet on the other side of the river, and to destroy all of their religious symbols and buildings. Once this is done, they should divide the land by lot (in accordance with the size of each tribe/sub-tribe/family).

But, God warns, you must make sure to fully stamp out the indigenous population, otherwise you’re going to have to deal with them being “pricks in your eyes, and thorns in your sides” (v.55). Plus, if they don’t totally wipe out the local population, God “shall do unto you, as I thought to do unto them” (v.56) (both quotes from the KJV because it sounds better and doesn’t alter the meaning).

On deserving it

David Plotz sees purpose in this plodding chapter:

Had the chapter skipped the travelogue and begun with God’s fearsome instructions, it would seem brutal.  The 40-year-itinerary—the weary, heartbreaking journey—serves as a reminder to the Israelites of their suffering, and, more importantly, as a justification for conquest. Why is it all right to sack and destroy another civilization? Why is it fair to seize land and settle it? Because of what the Israelites endured, that’s why. The 40-year accounting explains Israel. It says: You’ve earned it.

That may indeed have been the purpose of this summary, but it’s terrible ethics (not to mention a dangerous precedent to set – what’s to stop the Canaanites from doing their own decades-long dispossession dance and then coming right back, ready with their deserving?).

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.