1 Kings 15-16: A House Divided

Leave a comment

The following chapters take us into the first few decades after the deaths of Rehoboam and Jeroboam. Important dates are given as references to the Xth year of the other half’s king’s reign – an interesting relational dating system that could only work in a divided monarchy. By necessity, this means that we skip around in the chronology a little. The story begins in Judah for Abijam and Asa, then moves up into Israel for Nadab, Baasha, Elah, Zimri, Omri, and Ahab.

Abijam

Abijam came to power in the 18th year of Jeroboam’s reign, and ruled a total of three years. His mother was Maacah, the daughter of Abishalom, who seems to be identified by some with Absalom, making Maacah David’s granddaughter.

Of Abijam’s reign, we’re told only that he failed to live up to David’s greatness – though at least here, for once, the narrator admits that David’s greatness was slightly complicated by that whole Uriah business (1 Kgs 15:5). We also learn that hostilities continued between Israel and Judah during his reign, with the rather out-of-place verse: “Now there was war between Rehoboam and Jeroboam all the days of his life” (1 Kgs 15:6). It may be possible to explain away by seeing Rehoboam as a reference to his family rather than to the individual, but this seems a stretch. Given that the wording is very similar to 1 Kgs 14:30 and that the verse is not found here in the Septuagint, it seems likely that it’s inclusion here was in error.

No information is given about the circumstances of Abijam’s death, but he only ruled for three years.

Asa

Asa gets the best assessment of anyone in these two chapters. He is crowned king in the 20th year of Jeroboam and ruled for a rather impressive forty-one years. Weirdly, though he is described as Abijam’s son, his mother is also Maacah, the daughter of Abishalom. Either this is an extraordinary coincidence, terribly incestuous, or there’s an error somewhere – it could be that Maacah’s name is duplicated, or that Asa and Abijam were brothers.

The narrator’s principal definition of an awesome king is that Asa cracked down a bit on non-approved cultic practices. Namely, he put away the male cultic prostitutes (no word on the female ones), and removed his mother from her position as Queen Mother because she had commissioned an Asherah – which Asa had cut down and burned. He also brought votive gifts to the Temple, both his own and some from his father. His only failing was that he didn’t take down the high places.

During Asa’s reign, the king of Israel – Baasha, whom we’ll learn about shortly – built Ramah, barring the border between the two nations and apparently serving a defensive function. Given its proximity to Jerusalem (about 8km, or 4 miles), this may have been an aggressive structure as well, or at least perceived as such. In response, Asa took all the silver and gold from both Temple and palace treasuries, and brought it to King Benhadad of Syria. It seems that Benhadad had been supporting Baasha, but he was successfully bribed to switch sides – conquering Ijon, Dan, Abelbethmaacah, all of Chinneroth, and all of Naphtali.

Defeated, Baasha stopped building Ramah. It’s also implied that, as a consequence of this defeat, he dwelt in Tirzah – suggesting that perhaps he was building Ramah with the intention of moving Israel’s capitol there and had to retreat back to Tirzah, which we know from 1 Kgs 14:17 was the current capitol. Once Baasha had retreated, Asa ordered all of Judah (“none was exempt” – 1 Kgs 15:22) to carry away the stones and timber of Ramah, using them instead to build Geba in Benjamin and Mizpah. It seems that few lessons were learned regarding the dangers of conscription.

In his old age, Asa suffered from diseased feet, which my New Bible Commentary speculates may have been dropsy (p.340). After his death, he was succeeded by his son, Jehoshaphat.

Israel

Nadab

Back in Israel, Jeroboam was succeeded by his son, Nadab, in the second year of Asa’s reign. The narrator found him unworthy, and so, apparently, did others. He only managed to rule for two years before Baasha, the son of Ahijah of Issachar, revolted and killed Nadab at Gibbethon. It’s not spelled out, but since we are told that Gibbethon belonged to Philistia, it seems probable that Baasha took advantage of the battle to turn on his king.

Baasha

Baasha was crowned in the third year of Asa’s reign, and his first act as king was to slaughter all the remaining members of Jeroboam’s house – not an uncommon practice when trying to found a new dynasty. He ruled a total of twenty-four years, with Tirzah as his capitol. Of course, our narrator was no fan.

During Baasha’s reign, there was a new prophet: Jehu, son of Hanani. He was no fan of Baasha either. He prophesies that God is displeased that Baasha is no better than his predecessors and, as punishment, will see his house utterly destroyed.

Elah

In the 26th year of Asa, Elah inherited the crown of Israel from his father. Unfortunately, his reign was troubled from the start. While he was getting plastered, Zimri – the commander of half of Elah’s chariots – murdered him. It seems significant that Zimri commanded only half of the chariots – I’m not sure if this would have been common practice, or if this is meant to signify that there were already divisions happening.

Either way, Elah was deposed in the 27th year of Asa.

Zimri

While clearly a go-getter, Zimri failed to get all his ducks in a row before taking the crown through murder. After only seven days, during which he just barely had time to murder every male kin and friend of Baasha’s dynasty, he fell.

Elah’s troops had been encamped at Gibbethon, perhaps continuing the conflict that saw Nadab’s death. When they heard of Elah’s murder, they made their commander, Omri, king. Omri brought the army back to Tirzah and besieged the city. Clearly seeing that he wasn’t going to hold on to the power he’d only just taken, Zimri set the citadel of the king’s house on fire, with himself inside.

Just as a point of interest, the term used for the men associated with Baasha’s dynasty in 1 Kgs 16:11 in the King James Bible is “one that pisseth against a wall.” This is, apparently, how men are to be defined by people who clearly never met a woman who does a lot of hiking or camping.

Amri, by Guillaume Rouille, 1553

Amri, by Guillaume Rouille, 1553

Omri

Despite having the support of the soldiers under his command, Omri’s transition was not particularly smooth. Half of Israel followed Tibni, son of Ginath. While Omri defeated Tibni, the fact that Zimri’s rise and fall occured in the 27th year of Asa yet Omri’s reign is not said to have begun until the 31st year of Asa, it seems that the conflict between the two men lasted four years.

We’re told that Omri reigned a total of twelve years, six of which were in Tirzah. Yet to make the numbers of work, four of those years would have been the years of civil war, giving him only two solid years in Tirzah. After that, he bought land from a man named Shemer for two talents of silver, and built on it the city of Samaria. Not only was this the new capitol of Israel, Israel itself soon came to be known as Samaria.

Despite the text’s assessment of Omri as evil, he seems to have been quite important. From Micah 6:16, it seems that he was known for instituting some kind of legal reform, though no details are preserved. Omri is also the first Hebrew king for which we have direct non-biblical evidence:

The Moabite Stone, which was discovered in 1868, tells of the conflict between Mesha, king of Moab, and Omri, who humbled Moab for many years but was eventually defeated (ANET, 321). The inscription is remarkable for the similarty it shows between the religion of Moab and that of Israel. Mesha acts at the behest of his god, Chemosh, just as the Israelites act at the behest of YHWH. Most remarkable is that Mesha boasts of having slaughtered every man, woman, and child in Nebo, “for I had devoted them to destruction for (the god) Ashtar-Chemosh.” Omri’s son, Ahab, is mentioned in the Monolith Inscription of the Assyrian king Shalmaneser as having contributed two thousand chariots and ten thousand foot soldiers to an Aramean coalition that halted an Assyrian advance (ANET, 279). Assyrian records continued to refer to Israel as “the house of Omri” long after Omri’s descendants had ceased to rule. Omri and Ahab were kings to be reckoned with. There is much more evidence outside the Bible for their power and influence than was the case with Solomon. (Collins, A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.137,138)

Ahab

In the 38th year of Asa, Omri was succeeded by his son, Ahab. Though described by the text as just the absolute worst, Ahab seems to have been able to maintain a bit of stability in the unstable nation of Israel, ruling for an impressive twenty-two years. He was married to a woman named Jezebel, whose name should be familiar to any cultural Christian. She was the daughter of King Ethbaal of Sidonia and, through her, Ahab came to serve Baal. Not only does he make an Asherah, he also builds a temple for Baal in Samaria. As in the case of his father, we have an independent attestation of Ahab’s existence.

Somewhat out of place in this narrative, we get a note about a man named Hiel of Bethel who rebuilt Jericho. We’re told that the foundation of the city came at the cost of his first-born son, Abiram, and that the gates were built at the cost of his youngest son, Segub. This is all, says the narrative, a fulfilment of Joshua’s prophecy, given in Joshua 6:29. The most charitable reading has the two boys either having their deaths attributed to the construction (as we saw Bathsheba’s first son’s death attributed to David’s sin in 2 Samuel 12), or perhaps both sons assisted in the construction and died accidentally. There’s no reason to assume that Joshua’s prophecy predicted a future event, as opposed to Joshua’s prophecy, written after the events, describing events that it full well knew would come later when Jericho was rebuilt.

A third possibility, and perhaps the likeliest, was that these were ritual killings, human sacrifices intended to bless the construction. These sorts of sacrifices (both human and animal) have been found in much of the world, and knowledge of them survived in folk mythology even longer (as we see in this German legend). The Encyclopedia of Death and Dying quotes a book by Nigel Davies:

In the sanctuary in Gezer were found two burnt skeletons of six-year-old children and the skulls of two adolescents that had been sawn in two. At Meggido a girl of fifteen had been killed and buried in the foundations of a large structure. Excavations show that the practice of interring children under new buildings was widespread and some were evidently buried alive. (Davies, Nigel. Human Sacrifice in History and Today. New York: William Morrow and Co., 1981, p. 61)

Deuteronomy 10-11: Circumcised Hearts

4 Comments

The scribe who makes poor partitioning decisions strikes again, and Deuteronomy 10 opens in the middle of the Golden Calf story from the last chapter. In this version of the story, Moses takes the credit for making the stone tables (blank, for God to write on) and the ark (Deut. 10:3). I’m sure that, if he were still alive, Bezazel would have loved to hear that.

Moses then talks about going to Moserah, where he says that Aaron died. He may be losing his memory a mite in his old age, though, since Num. 20:27-28 and Num. 33:38 are quite clear that Aaron died on mount Hor.

There’s some issues with the itinerary, as well. Deut. 10:6-7 has the journey going Beeroth Bene-jaakan > Moserah > Gudgodah > Jotbathah. Numbers 33:31-33, on the other hand, had the journey go Moseroth > Benejaakan > Horhagidgad > Jotbathah. Moses may be a fine prophet, but he’d be a terrible travel agent. I’m sure there’s a joke in there somewhere about this explaining the whole ’40 years in the desert’ thing, too, but I think that dead horse has been well-flogged.

According to Moses, it’s at Jotbathah that God “set apart the tribe of Levi to carry the ark of the covenant of the Lord, to stand before the Lord to minister to him and to bless in his name” (Deut. 10:8). Of course, he’d done this way back in Numbers 3 (and arguably as early as Exodus 32:28-29), long before Aaron died and the people arrived at Jotbathah.

Flaws aside, the historical review we’ve just gotten is Moses’s way of setting the stage. He is explaining, in essence, why his listeners should care about what follows.

The Rules

Now that his listeners know why they should care about this God character and what he has to say, Moses moves on to give them some of God’s rules.

I was somewhat shocked that Moses begins his recitation of the rules by saying: “And if you will obey my commandments which I command you this day” (Deut. 11:13). Am I reading too much into this? Because it looks an awful lot like Moses is conflating himself (and his authority) with God – the same hubris that may or may not have spelled his death in Numbers 20 (depending on variation and interpretation, of course).

Moses and the Burning Bush, Bréviaire de Paris dit Bréviaire dit de Charles V [Breviarium Parisiense]

Moses and the Burning Bush, Bréviaire de Paris dit Bréviaire dit de Charles V [Breviarium Parisiense]

Moses next gives the reasons why the people should pay attention to and follow God’s/his rules. Firstly, because it’s “for your good” (Deut. 10:13). Of course, this brings to mind a twist of the Euthyphro dilemma – are the rules good for the people in their own right, or because of the punishment/reward system that God himself has created? Of course, that question is largely answered in Deut. 11, when we hear about all the nice things that the people will get in return for following the rules (v.8-12), and the punishments for failing to do so (v.16-17).

The easy rebuttal would be, I am sure, that if God has created the universe, then the natural consequences of an action would be every bit as much his imposition as an active reward/punishment. For example, stealing would only victimise someone because God has created a universe in which this is so. So I suppose that you have to have at least one foot in the naturalist philosophies before this discussion is even remotely interesting.

The actual rules that Moses felt were worthy of getting another mention include the hilarious: “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of you heart” (Deut. 10:16). Even more hilarious is that my Study Bible, which has allowed so many weird passages to go unaddressed, felt that this needed an explanation: “[It] means to open the mind, to direct the will toward God” (p.228). Yes, thank you, that was rather obvious. Or, as I interpreted it, it means that the outward expressions of worship aren’t enough. They must be accompanied by an internal devotion.

But I can just imagine the Study Bible planning committee meeting when they got to this line and someone said “Yeah, people are going to notice this one…”

Another rule that gets a mention is to: “Love the sojourner therefore; for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:19). As I’ve argued before, this is a lovely sentiment – really awesome! – but what it looks like in practice is more complicated. I discussed the problem at greater length when looking at Numbers 15.

Moses also gives the rule: “by his [God’s] name you shall swear” (Deut. 10:20). I may be wrong, but I think that this may be the first positive mention of swearing in God’s name. People are described as swearing or having to swear elsewhere, such as in Numbers 5 where women suspected of adultery must swear that they will suffer physical ills if they have been adulterous, but looking strictly at the mentions of swearing in God’s name, other mentions have always been proscriptive (such as the ordinance against swearing falsely in God’s name, found in Leviticus 19).

As far as I can think of, this is the only instance where people are told that they must swear, if they are to swear, in God’s name.

At the end of Deut. 10, Moses tells the people: “Your fathers went down to Egypt seventy persons; and now the Lord your God has made you as the stars of heaven for multitude” (v.22). It seems that Moses considers the promise to Abraham to be fulfilled at this point, either as the people sit on the border looking into the Promised Land, or at least once they’ve taken hold of it.

Dathan & Abiram

It wouldn’t be the Bible without a bit of gloating over fallen enemies. In Deut. 11, Moses reminds his audience of what happened to Dathan and Abiram, two of the men who rebelled way back in Numbers 16.

What’s really interesting about this passage is that the Numbers 16 version begins to tell a story about three rebels, Dathan, Abiram, and Korah. About midway through, Dathan and Abiram just disappear, and the rest of the chapter is all about Korah and Korah’s followers getting their comeuppance.

Here, however, Dathan and Abiram are the only rebels mentioned, with Korah nowhere in sight.

It’s a good reminder that, while I’ve been thinking of Deuteronomy as the latest of the Pentateuch books, the Bible is just not quite that simple. While the history recaps of the last few chapters have made clear that the authors of Deuteronomy had access to many of the same stories that we’ve covered in previous books, the errors make it clear that they did not have the texts as we have them now.

Abby, a commenter posting on the King and I project, brings this back around to the documentary hypothesis:

“You know what he did for you in the wilderness as you journeyed to this place, and what he did to Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab, son of Reuben, when the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them in the sight of all Israel, together with their households and the tents and every living thing in their company.”
YEP thats a retelling of the J story, absent ANY detail from P’s.

In other words, the authors of Deuteronomy had a proto-Numbers, or perhaps just an isolated story, that hadn’t yet received a Korah injection.

I find it fascinating to think of the Bible as a living culture composed of many living units, each going through their lives, changing, growing, and coming together to form the whole that we’ve (some of us, at least) come to believe is a fossilized whole – written in stone, sometimes literally.

System of Magic

In Deut. 11, Moses compares Egypt to the Promised Land. While Egypt required irrigation – which involved watering crops through some amount of manual labour – God will take charge of crop watering in the Promised Land. Suddenly, God is wearing the mantle of a fertility/rain deity, promising a land that “drinks water by the rain from heaven, a land which the Lord your God cares for” (v.11-12). If God is displeased, he will “shut up the heavens, so that there be no rain, and the land yield no fruit” (v.17).

It makes God look an awful lot like other sorts of sky gods, like Hadad (who, according to wikipedia, could also be referred to as Ba’al).

There’s another interesting bit later on where Moses says that he “set before you this day a blessing and a curse” (Deut. 11:26). The blessing, of course, is all the good stuff that will happen for following the rules. The curse is the opposite. But then Moses starts talking about taking the blessing and setting it on one mountain, and setting the curse on another mountain, as through they were physical objects that would be carried around by the people.

We’ve seen similar ways of imagining blessings/curses before, such as in Genesis 27. In that story, Isaac confuses his two sons and accidentally gives his blessing to the wrong one. Even once the error is exposed, the blessing has been unleashed and therefore can’t be recalled.

Numbers 26: Census Do-Over

Leave a comment

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 16: Vive la liberté!

Leave a comment

In this chapter, we see the melding of two separate rebellions: That of Korah the Levite fighting for more cultic privileges, and that of Dathan and Abiram, descendants of Reuben, questioning Moses’ leadership. As a result, the narrative bounces back and forth a bit and it can be a little confusing.

The leader of the Levite rebellion is Korah, son of Izhar, son of Kohath, son of Levi.

The Reubenite rebellion is a bit tougher to figure out. I think that the leaders are Dathan and Abiram, brothers, sons of Eliab, son of Reuben – and that they were also joined by On, son of Peleth, son of Reuben. But On is never mentioned again. So then I thought of the possibility that Dathan and Abiram are not brothers, that Dathan is the son of Eliab and Abiram the son of On. I don’t think that’s really supported, though, and I can’t find anyone online who agrees with that interpretation. So I think that On was just cobbled in.

Rebel arguments

Since there are two rebellions, there are two major complaints. From Korah and the Levites:

All the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them; why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord? (v.3)

We saw a hint of this in Numbers 11, where Moses delegates some of his prophetic duties. Joshua, not understanding what was going on, interpreted the prophesying by people other than Moses as a threat to Moses’ authority. In that instance, Moses defends himself by wishing that God would “put his spirit upon them” (Num. 11:29) but, sadly, it isn’t so and he (and his inner circle) must bear the burden alone. Here, Korah seems to be challenging this idea from a different angle.

Having been raised a Quaker (sort of), Korah’s arguments resonate for me theologically. How interesting, then, to see God’s reaction.

As Collins points out in A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, we saw in Numbers 8 the description of a harmonious relationship between the Aaronide priests and the Levites (p.77), but this story gives us a hint at the discontent that must have cropped up at least occasionally. Numbers 16 is all about the Aaronide re-assertion of dominance.

Then there are the Reubenites. Their complaint is as follows:

Is it a small thing that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, that you must also make yourself a prince over us? (v.13)

First of all, up until now, “land of milk and honey” has always been used to describe the promised land, yet the Reubenite use of it to describe Egypt here emphasises just how awful their wilderness experiences have been. Not only that, but God’s just announced that all of these people are going to die in the wilderness, that they will never again have a stable home or livelihood which, slaves though they apparently were, they at least had in Egypt.

And to add insult to injury, Moses has seemingly crowned himself their king, and all who desire self-governance (which was kinda the point of leaving Egypt, no?) so far have been killed in rather horrible ways.

I really can’t help but be sympathetic to the arguments here.

Moses’ arguments

Moses asks of the Levites: Isn’t it enough that you get to service the tabernacle and minister to the congregation? Of course, this misses the point. Taken at face value, neither the Levites nor the Reubenites are complaining that they, personally, don’t have more power, but rather that Moses and Aaron have too much. Turning it into a greed thing is, frankly, really reminiscent of what Fox News does with opinions they don’t agree with.

Even if he’s right, even if Korah, Dathan, and Abiram really are concerned only with their own personal greed, their stated complaint is still a valid one, and Moses fails to address it.

Moses’ only defence is that he hasn’t taken his position for himself, but rather that it has been thrust upon him by God:

Hereby you shall know that the Lord has sent me to do all these works, and that it has not been of my own accord. (v.28).

True, Moses has been shown to protest the responsibility a few times – notably with the delegation of elders in Numbers 11 and his original reticence in Exodus 3. But the zeal with which God comes to the defence of any who question Moses’ authority (such as Numbers 12) should certainly be concerning to anyone.

That God is in support of this elitist power structure is hardly comforting.

The test

Moses proposes a test to show who has God’s backing. The Levites and Aaron are all to bring their censers – lit and prepared – to the tent of meeting the next day. There’s no real rules for this test, they just have to show up.

And they do.

Moses and Korah, by Brother Maciej, 1466

Moses and Korah, by Brother Maciej, 1466

And God whispers to Moses and Aaron that they should stand apart from the rest of the Hebrew people so that they aren’t killed along with the rest. But the people overhear him and they freak out: “Shall one man sin, and wilt thou be angry with all the congregation?” (v.22).

For once, God chooses to listen to someone other than Moses and revises his plan. Instead, he tells Moses to tell the congregation to stand away from the homes of the rebels.

Then the earth opens up and swallows “their households and all the men that belong to Korath” (v.32). That would include “their wives, their sons, and their little ones” (v.27). Two hundred and fifty “people” in all, plus their families.

As Owen Ball and David Wong put it: “God listened carefully to their complaints, weighed their points, then made the earth eat them alive.”

They are described as having gone “down alive into Sheol” (v.30).

This is the third time we get a reference to Sheol, by the way. The first two, in Genesis 37 and Genesis 44, are both in the context of Jacob/Israel mourning for his son Joseph and saying that he will have to go to Sheol in sorrow (the second time in fear that Benjamin has also died). Several translations have replaced sheol with “grave.”

According to Victor Matthews in Manners & Customs of the Bible, explains that Sheol is a land of the dead inhabited by both the good – as we see in the case of Jacob/Israel – and the evil – as we see here (p.70).

The greater rebellion

God then tells Moses to tell Eleazar (Aaron’s son) to collect the censers the Levite rebels had brought and to hammer them into plate coverings for the altar. They’ve been offered before God, making them holy, so this is a convenient (and non-sacrilegious) way of reusing the metal. Added bonus, they can serve as a warning that “no one who is not a priest, who is not of the descendants of Aaron, should draw near to burn incense before the Lord, lest he become as Korah and as his company” (v.40).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the people aren’t particularly happy with the heavy-handed control tactics God seems fond of using and, the next day, the people are complaining again, this time that Moses and Aaron have “killed the people of the Lord” (v.41).

But God just doesn’t seem to get that people don’t respond well to “do as I say or I’ll kill you all” rule, so he comes down and tells Moses and Aaron to stand apart from the people so that they don’t get hit when he kills them all.

Moses tells Aaron to get his censer and carry it into the congregation, making atonement for them. Already, the people are dying of the plague, but it abates when Aaron comes with the censer. In the end, 14,700 people died, not counting the original 250 who were with Korah.

I’ll hazard to guess that this plague story was appended to the Korah rebellion because of the common feature of the censers.

Not a single ass was given

Earlier in the story, when the rebels were presenting their case, Moses turns to God and says:

Do not respect their offering. I have not taken one ass from them, and I have not harmed one of them. (v.15)

I would have assumed that the offering bit would have referred to the incense in the censers, except that it comes right after the part where Moses tells Dathan and Abiram to be there or be square and they refuse. It could, instead, be a jump back to Korah, in which case the brother of one of the competitors is telling the judge not to let the other guys win, which… yeah.

The ass bit probably refers to bribery. According to the information on Biblehub, it would be customary to present one’s leader with a horse to ride. Saying that he hasn’t taken an ass from them would be a way of saying “I haven’t taken so much as a penny in bribes.”

But why would he say that he hasn’t harmed them? Unless he’s trying to prove that he’s being fair and hand’s off-y, so the ball’s totally in God’s court to decide what to do with them?

I really don’t know, and there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of commentary on this bit. Any bright ideas?