Deuteronomy 1-3: Recapping with a slightly faulty memory

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Deuteronomy picks up the story from the end of Numbers. The Israelites are hanging out in Moab, on the wrong side of the Jordan, getting some last minute instructions from Moses. Before getting into the ordinances, however, Moses decides to make sure that everyone is up to speed on what’s happened so far.

Moses recalls feeling rather overwhelmed with the duties of being the leader, and he tells the story of selecting tribal leaders (and sub-leaders) to help him. He does not mention the involvement of his father-in-law (then called Jethro) – as told in Exodus 18 – where he notices that Moses seems a little tightly-wound and recommends that he do some delegating. We also don’t get the details from Numbers 11, with the prophesying and the involvement of Joshua.

But where this narrative does flesh things out a bit is with the instructions that Moses gave to his new judges during the delegation. In particular, he instructs them to judge “righteously,” whether between two Israelites or an Israelite and a non, whether when judging a “small” man or a “great” one, etc. They are also not to “be afraid of the face of man, for the judgement is God’s” (Deut. 1:17), which I take to mean that they shouldn’t allow fear repercussions (social, political, physical, etc) to influence the judgement rendered. Overall, these are great ideas in principle, though, of course, nearly impossible to enforce.

He also tells them that they are to come to him if the cases are too hard, and Moses will consult with God on their behalf. It’s not specified whether that means that they are to come to Moses specifically, or whether they are to come to whomever happens to be the leader or prophet at the time. The implications of either interpretation are rather important.

The Scouts

When Moses retells the story of the scouts, he gets a rather important detail wrong, and then it cascades from there.

He tells the Israelites about how “all of you came near me, and said, ‘Let us send men before us, that they may explore the land for us'” (Deut. 1:22). But if you’ll remember, back in Numbers 13, it was God who told Moses to send the scouts, saying: “Send men to spy out the land of Canaan” (Num. 13:1-2).

Why the difference?

Stained glass found in the Mt. Nebo Presbyterian Church

Stained glass found in the Mt. Nebo Presbyterian Church

One clue may be in Moses’ response. In Deuteronomy, he agreed to send the scouts, for “the thing seemed good to me” (Deut. 1:23).

The sin that condemns all the people to spend 40 years in the wilderness is still that they were scared by the scout’s report. In Numbers 13, we read about the “evil report” that the scouts brought back, but I noted then that it was unclear whether the “evil” part of the report was that it was untrue or whether it was just bad news.

The two books agree that Canaan is wonderful and has some nice fruit, but the Israelites say: “The people are greater and taller than we; the cities are great and fortified up to heaven; and moreover we have seen the sons of the Anakim there” (Deut. 1:28).

Granted, they could simply be repeating what the lying scouts told them, but it seems to me now as it seemed to me in Numbers – that the scouts are punished for telling the truth because doing so makes the people falter. By warning them of what’s to come, they are guilty of introducing doubt where there should only be blind faith in God’s ability to win any war he pleases. So it matters whether it was the Israelites who had sent the scouts or God (because if God sent the scouts and then punished them for doing as instructed, it’d create a really tough situation for his PR team).

What’s really interesting here, though, is how the passage seems to be a continuation of Numbers 14. I had noticed then that when God lists the people who will be spared, he only lists Caleb and Joshua. He doesn’t mention either Moses or Aaron who, at that point in the narrative, were still goodies in God’s books.

We had to wait until much later, Numbers 20, for Moses to commit the sin that is explicit said to be the reason why he will be barred from entering Canaan. Yet here, Moses agrees with the Numbers 14 narrative that he is not an exception to the punishment:

The Lord was angry with me also on your account, and said, ‘You also shall not go in there’ (Deut. 1:37)

Moses plays the Blame Game in Deut. 3:26, as well:

But the Lord was angry with me on your account, and would not hearken to me.

Though, of course, it was entirely his own actions that damned him in Numbers 20.

I also find it interesting that, as in Numbers 14, Caleb’s exception to the punishment is mentioned first, and Joshua’s comes later, almost as an afterthought. In every instance where Joshua has appeared so far (except, tellingly, in Numbers 13 where he is listed as being among the scouts but his name is spelled quite differently), he feels added in – like a later editor had the book of Joshua and wanted to legitimize his leadership by giving him a history of associations with Moses. (I discuss this at greater lengths in this post about Joshua.)

Whom to kill, whom to spare

Moses retells the story of why the Israelites had to go around – rather than through – Edom. In Numbers 20:14-21, the Israelites sent messengers to Edom asking for passage. When Edom refused, they were forced to go around. In Deuteronomy 2:4-5, God was worried that the Israelites might spook Edom, and asked them to go around as a courtesy.

There’s a speech in there about how the Israelites are related to the Edomites (Jacob, patriarch of the Israelites, and Esau, grandsire of the Edomites, were brothers), so they should not harm them. Likewise, the Moabites and Ammonites are descended from Lot and should also be left alone.

In both cases, we are also told that they are living in lands that God has given them, so those lands are rightfully theirs.

David Plotz sees this as an explanation for why the Moabites were not punished – but the Midianites were – in Numbers 25, though women of both groups were caught trying to tempt the Israelites into the worship of other gods.

But not to worry, there were plenty of people that the Israelites were allowed to harass.

We get a repeat of the story from Numbers 20:14-21, where the Israelites are refused passage by the Edomites. Except that in Deuteronomy 2:26-31, the one doing the refusing is Sihon, king of the Amorites in Heshbon. This makes them fair game for harassment (and is presumably the reason why the Edomite refusal is conveniently unmentioned).

Of course, the reason given for King Sihon’s refusal is that God made him refuse:

But Sihon the king of Heshbon would not let us pass by him; for the Lord your God hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate, that he might give him into your hand, as at this day. (Deut. 2:30)

So it’s not really Sihon’s refusal that dooms his people, but rather all part of God’s original plan. But, I guess not to appear the jerk, he orchestrates things so that it looks like Sihon deserved his fate. Or, more likely, God is like a cat that just tripped – he wants to make sure that everything knows that he totally meant to do that.

The Israelites also fight with King Of of Bashan. His and Sihon’s lands are divided between the Reubenites, Gadites, and half of Manasseh.

The multitudes

When addressing the Israelites, Moses says: “The Lord your God has multiplied you, and behold, you are this day as the stars of heaven for multitude” (Deut. 1:10). Does that mean that the multitudes part of the promise to Abraham has been fulfilled?

The reference certainly seems to suggest it, yet Moses is not yet satisfied:

May the Lord, the God of your fathers, make you a thousand times as many as you are, and bless you, as he has promised you. (Deut. 1:11)

Closing business

Commenter Abbie from The King and I went through much of these chapters and found which parts of what stories were selected for retelling – and, most importantly, which sources those passages came from. Her analysis deals with the Documentary Hypothesis, which you can read more about on Wikipedia.

Her whole comment is quite interesting, so do go have a read. But in summary, she found that material is derived strictly from Exodus and Numbers, and that it seems to be “mostly drawn from chapters that have a mix of JE and P, but only containing JE references… except in ONE case… which is basically fossil rabbits in the precambrian.”

Deuteronomy 3 ends with the appointing of Joshua as Moses’ successor.

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.