1 Chronicles 8: False Start

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For this penultimate genealogical chapter, we turn back to Benjamin. The tribe has already been covered in 1 Chron. 7:6-12, and there seems to be considerable discussion as to why it should then be repeated here (one theory being that the chapter 7 version was originally intended to be about Zebulun and Dan, but was made to be about Benjamin through corruption).

Assuming that the chapter 7 version really is meant to be about Benjamin, the first thing that stands out is that the construction is different here. In chapter 7, the lineage followed a “the sons of A were…” formula, whereas here, we get a “A fathered B” formula. There’s no reason for the Chronicler to switch back and forth between these formulas, unless the Chronicler is simply copying whatever is being used by his source materials. This, alone, strongly suggests that two separate sources are being used for each of these lineages. (I mean, the fact that that the two contain rather extreme variants makes this rather conclusive, but I thought the note about formulas was rather interesting.)

Another detail worth noting is that the chapter 7 version had more commonalities with Gen. 46:21, whereas the version we get here seems more similar to Num. 26:38-41. Even so, there are more differences than common points. It seems that the Benjaminites were either terrible record keepers, or perhaps a certain usurping dynasty did a little expunging when it came into power.

We begin with Benjamin’s sons: Bela, Ashbel, Aharah, Nohah, and Rapha. Bela and Ashbel both appear in Num. 26:38, but the rest of the names, from either list, don’t match. My New Bible Commentary makes an interesting observation here: The construction in this passage names “Bela his first-born” (1 Chron. 8:1), whereas in 1 Chron. 7:6, we got “Bela, Becher, and Jediael.” According to the Commentary, “In Hebrew, ‘Becher’ and ‘firstborn’ have the same consonants” (p.375). It’s possible, therefore, that the source the Chronicler used in chapter 7 (evidently the same source as was used in Genesis 46:21) incorrectly interpreted the title of “first-born” as a proper name, the same of a second son.

We next move down through Bela (the only son of Benjamin who is named in all four of our lineages!), whose sons were: Addar, Gera, Abihud, Abishua, Naaman, Ahoah, Gera, Shephuphan, and Huram.

It’s perhaps getting redundant to point out that the sons of Bela bear no resemblance whatsoever to the sons listed in 1 Chron. 7:7. We do a little better in Num. 26:40, where his sons are named Ard and Naaman (Ard might be a corruption, or vice versa, of Addar, and Naaman is present in both lists).

The inclusion of two sons named Gera is likely yet another scribal error.

Ehud

We next come to the sons of Ehud. This, of course, poses a problem since no Ehud has been mentioned so far. According to my New Bible Commentary, this might be caused by a mistake similar to the one that birthed Becher. Abihud, named in 1 Chron. 8:3, may have originally been two separate words, which would replace “Abihud” with “[Gera] the father of Ehud” (p.375).

Some commentaries identify him as the left-handed Ehud the Benjaminite, who was the son of Gera, named in Judges 3:15. This would, of course, require that Ehud be Gera’s son, which would in turn require the assumption I mentioned above regarding Abihud.

The descendants of Ehud lived in Geba, and were taken into exile to Manahath. His sons were: Naaman, Ahijah, and Gera (of which the text says “Gera, that is, Heglam” – 1 Chron. 8:7). Gera fathered Uzza and Ahihud.

Shaharaim

From Ehud, we move on to someone named Shaharaim, whose connection to Benjamin’s lineage is not stated. We are told that he had sons in Moab, after he had sent away his wives, Hushim and Baara.

Benjamin and Joseph

Benjamin and Joseph

We might wonder what Shaharaim was doing raising a family in Moab, rather than in the Benjaminite tribal lands. The obvious answer was that he was escaping a famine, just like Elimelech in Ruth 1:1. We see the same famine-driven movements a few times in Genesis, as well.

More perplexing is the phrase “after he had sent away Hushim and Baara his wives” (1 Chron. 8:8). James Pate provides a few possible explanations, but I think that the most compelling is that he divorced Hushim and Baara, then later took a new wife (perhaps a Moabite) with whom he had children in Moab.

We then learn that he had sons with Hodesh, his wife (presumably the one he married after divorcing Hushim and Baara). These sons were: Jobab, Zibia, Mesha, Malcam, Jeuz, Sachia, and Mirmah. The name ‘Mesha’ stood out at me, since it’s the name of the king recorded in the Mesha Stele. It seems that Shaharaim was giving his sons good Moabite names.

He also had some sons by his earlier wife, Hushim: Abitub and Elpaal. Elpaal fathered Eber, Misham, and Shemed. Shemed is said to have built Ono and Lod.

Other Expat Benjaminites

Beriah and Shema are named, though disconnected from the previous lineage. I initially thought them further sons of Elpaal, but the grammar is rather tricky. Of them, we learn that they lived in Aijalon, and that they (or their descendants) fought against the people of Gath, which would mean Philistines.

The list continues, shifting to a different formula. In this one, we get a list of names first, then we are told whose sons they are. It’s a rather annoying way of presenting information, I must say! In any case, the sons of Beriah are: Ahio, Shashak, Jeremoth, Zebadiah, Arad, Eder, Michael, Ishpah, and Joha.

We then move back up to the sons of Elpaal, perhaps further sons or perhaps we are dealing with a different Elpaal: Zebadiah, Meshullam, Hizki, Heber, Ishmerai, Izliah, and Jobab.

Disconnected from Shaharaim’s lineage, we get the sons of Shimei: Jakim, Zichri, Zabdi, Elienai, Zillethai, Eliel, Adaiah, Beraiah, and Shimrah.

Then the sons of Shashak: Ishpan, Eber, Eliel, ABdon, Zichri, Hanan, Hananiah, Elam, Anthothijah, Iphdeiah, and Penuel.

Jeroham’s sons were: Shamsherai, Shehariah, Athaliah, Jaareshiah, Elijah, and Zichri. These, we are told, lived in Jerusalem.  (Perhaps along with the Jebusites, as per Judges 1:21, or perhaps during the Davidic dynasty, or perhaps even in post-exilic times – it’s rather impossible to situation the lineage in time.)

Living in Gibeon, we get Jeiel – named the father of Gibeon – and his wife Maacah. Their sons are: Abdon, Zur, Kish, Baal, Nadab, Gedor, Ahio, Zecher, and Mikloth. Mikloth fathered Shimeah.

There’s an odd verse here: “Now these also dwelt opposite their kinsmen in Jerusalem, with their kinsmen” (1 Chron. 8:33). It seems odd that this should refer to Jeiel’s family, right after we are told that they were living in Gibeon. One possibility is that the sons moved to Jerusalem from Gibeon. Another is that Gibeon is geographically quite close to Jerusalem, and perhaps either fell under Jerusalem’s authority, or there was at least a good deal of traffic between the two towns. Yet another is that this verse is meant to apply to the next lineage, and not to Jeiel’s.

The Genealogy of Saul

In the final section of the chapter, we learn the lineage of Saul, beginning with Ner, who fathered Kish, who fathered Saul (1 Chron. 8:33). This contradicts 1 Sam. 9:1, where Kish is the son of Abiel. Further, if we look to 1 Sam. 14:51, we find Kish and Ner listed as brothers, both the sons of Abiel.

Another detail worth pointing out is that 1 Sam. 9:1 goes further back. It begins with Aphiah, who fathers Becorath, who fathers Zeror, who fathers Abiel, and only then do we get to Kish. Did the Chronicler not have access to those additional generations? Or did he choose not to include them?

The sons of Saul are listed as: Jonathan, Malchishua, Abinadab, and Eshbaal. In 1 Sam. 14:49, Saul’s sons are listed as: Jonathan, Ishvi, and Malchishua. This could be an error, or perhaps Ishvi was another of Eshbaal’s names; a nickname, for example. It could also be an error that Abinadab is omitted, or perhaps he died young and the author didn’t find him worth listing. This latter view is supported by 1 Samuel 31:6, where we learn that Saul and his “three” sons died on the battlefield. Either Abinadab was added to 1 Chron. 8:33 by error, or he was dead prior to the events of 1 Sam. 31:6 (or otherwise out of the picture, but I feel like David’s account would require an explanation for bypassing Abinadab in the succession).

Jonathan fathered Meribbaal, who fathered Micah. Micah fathered Pithon, Melech, Tarea, and Ahaz. Ahaz fathered Jehoaddah, who fathered Alemeth Azmaveth, and Zimri. Zimri fathered Moza, and Moza fathered Binea. Binea fathered Raphah, who fathered Eleasah, who fathered Azel. Azel’s sons are: Azrikam, Bocheru, Ishmael, Sheariah, Obadiah, and Hanan.

Azel also had a brother, Eshek, who fathered Ulam, Jeush, and Eliphelet. Ulam fathered (directly or indirectly, sons and grandsons) 150 mighty warriors).

It’s worth noting that there is a son of Saul named Ishbosheth in 2 Sam. 2:8 and elsewhere. Ishbosheth would be translated as “man of shame”, as opposed to Eshbaal, which would be “man of Baal.” The son of Jonathan named Meribbaal (“Baal contends”) here is apparently the same person as Jonathan’s son Mephibosheth (“From the mouth of shame”), appearing in 2 Sam. 4:4 and elsewhere.

The reason for the author of 2 Samuel to altar these names is theological, concealing the honouring of Baal in the names of the sons of Israel’s first anointed king, and the beloved of the second. It seems clear that Saul and Jonathan worshipped Baal, instead of or as well as YHWH, and that the author of Samuel wanted to fudge that over.

That much is obvious, but the more interesting question is why the Chronicler would keep the original names intact. He could be working with a different source, one that hadn’t bowdlerized the names.

Another possibility is that the Chronicler views David as the true first king of Israel, the perfect monarch to which all others must be compared. It’s “Golden Age” thinking, where there was a perfect time when everything was set up the way God wanted it, and that we fell from that state of grace. The existence of prior YHWH-approved king complicates that narrative, especially if our archetypal king overthrew that original dynasty in a coup.

This provides the motivation to disparage Saul and his dynasty, to deny its legitimacy and therefore to argue that David was actually the first true YHWH-approved king. Keeping hints that the Saulide dynasty worshipped Baal certainly achieves that purpose, if subtly.

Judges 1-2: Introduction to the judge cycle

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Judges opens up with a listing of tribal conquests in the Promised Land. There’s evidence of an editor’s hand in trying to place Judges as a continuation from the Book of Joshua (I assume that’s the Deuteronomist editor, given the way it’s done), but it’s sloppy. Even as a translation, it’s quite clear where the older portions are coming through.

For example, Judges begins with “after the death of Joshua” (Judges 1:1), but what follows is totally its own thing. The language is different, the tone is different. It’s abundantly clear that an editor, trying to upcycle old stories to make his theological point, simply glued that fraction of a sentence onto the beginning of the text to situate it in the broader historical narrative. You can still see the seams, however, as the sentence continues with the Israelites asking God “Who shall go up first for us against the Canaanites, to fight against them?” If this were really the work of a single historian taking down the narrative as it was, the people would have no cause to ask this as Joshua was the first to go up against the Canaanites. It’s done, that part of the story should be over.

Well, here, the answer is Judah. Which is another interesting detail – for a couple sentences, Judah is not a tribe but a person, as he was back in Genesis. It was a tremendous lightbulb moment for me as I saw these three separate layers shine, like looking at pysanki. You have the oldest portion of the story, where the tribes are personified as people who have personalities, deeds, familial relationships. Then you have the middling portion where tribes act independently, trying to carve little territories out for themselves. Finally, you have the newest portion, the portion from whatever region where Joshua is a folk hero, and you have his narrative made grander, his tribe’s history made into the history of all the tribes.

Judah asks “Simeon his brother” (Judges 1:3) to help him fight for the land he’s been allotted and, in return, he will help Simeon in his own lands. My study Bible notes that “the tribe of Simeon plays no significant role in the later history of Israel. Not mentioned in the Song of Deborah (5.2-31), it was probably entirely absorbed by Judah at an early day” (p.293). In other words, it seems likely that this story of the two brothers helping each other out likely came out of the memory of their intertwined history.

Together, the brothers defeat Adonibezek, who is apparently some sort of leader among the Canaanites and Perizzites. Having defeated him, the brothers then cut off his thumbs and big toes. This is apparently the thing to do with subject kings because Adonibezek, the very opposite of a sore loser, says that he used to have 70 thumbless and big toe-less kings eating his table scraps and that he is now, himself, brought as low. They bring him to Jerusalem and he dies.

Tribal Conquests (sort of)

The personification of the tribes ends, and the story continues by referring to “the men of Judah” (Judges 1:8). These men fight against Jerusalem (where they, curiously, had brought Adonibezek) and, taking it, set it on fire. They then go after the Canaanites living in Hebron. We start to see how this narrative was once independent of the Joshua account, rather than a continuation of it – Hebron was taken by Joshua in Josh. 10:36-37.

Judges 1 - Chariots of IronThen Judah goes off and conquers some other people in other places. One of them is the city of Ekron. This city was allotted to Judah in Josh. 13:3, but was also allotted to Dan in Josh. 19:43. Here, it seems to have reverted back to Judah.

The only place where Judah fails, according to the text, is in the plain. Unfortunately, they are not able to defeat them because “they had chariots of iron” (Judges 1:19). You’ll recall, of course, that Manasseh and Ephraim encountered chariots of iron in Josh. 17:16, and had concerns that they might not be able to beat such superweapons. In that story, Joshua reminds them that they have God on their side and therefore even chariots (though they may be of iron!) pose no threat. Clearly, that was a theological insert by our busy little editor rather than a testament to God’s actual power, because Judah is unable to stand against them though that very same Lord was with him (Judges 1:19).

Over at Daylight Atheism, Adam Lee tries to understand this passage’s significance in understanding the evolution of religious belief:

On the other hand, it may just be that this verse was written when Yahweh was regarded as a local deity, supernaturally powerful but not invincible. In this respect, the biblical authors might have conceived of him as similar to the ancient Greek gods, who according to the Iliad could be wounded by humans. Iron chariots, in the world of the the Ancient Near East, were the most technologically advanced weapon of war in existence. They seem to have played a decisive role in conflicts like the Battle of Qarqar in 850 BCE, when an alliance of smaller kingdoms (including King Ahab of Israel, whom the Bible’s authors reviled) fended off an invasion by the regional superpower of Assyria.

It’s possible that the Bible’s original authors imagined God as not powerful enough to overcome this technology, and that the dogma of his total omnipotence was a later innovation. (By Judges chapter 4, God seems to have acquired the ability to defeat chariots.) If so, this verse might be a fossil of that earlier belief, preserved in the text like a prehistoric insect in amber. As a part of modern Judeo-Christian theology it’s like a puzzle piece that doesn’t fit, but if we take a more rational view of the Bible as a collection of human-written and human-compiled documents, verses like this may provide valuable clues about its origin and evolution.

What follows is something of a change in tone. While Judah gets about half a chapter narrating its various successes (and one failure), the rest of the tribes are not quite so celebrated:

  • Benjamin fails to drive our the Jebusites in Jerusalem so that they must live together “to this day” (Judges 1:21) – apparently Judah’s conquest of the city in Judges 1:8 didn’t help.
  • Manasseh fails to conquer a bunch of places, but at least the Israelites are later able to enslave those natives (Judges 1:27-28).
  • Zebulun likewise fails a bunch, but enslaves the people later (Judges 1:30).
  • The same for Naphtali (Judges 1:33).
  • Ephraim fails, but has to live with the natives without getting to force them into labour (Judges 1:29).
  • Likewise for Asher (Judges 1:31-32).
  • Dan is pushed off the plain and into the hills by the Amorites, but Joseph (that would be the combined tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim) come along to harass and enslave them (Judges 1:34-36).

It’s implied that all the tribes had some successes and some failures, yet for some reason much is made of Judah’s successes while none are mentioned for the others. I found this strange, and it only got stranger when I read my study Bible notes and found out that Judah’s successes may actually be the work of our old friend the editor: “The account of their [Gaza, Ashkelon, and Ekron] capture is almost certainly unhistorical; the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint) says specifically that Judah “did not” take them” (p.294).

In light of the theological point being set up by this chapter, it would make far more sense for Judah to receive the same treatment as the other tribes. And yet, they are given many successes (and, possibly, even some of their failures were alter edited into successes). It makes little sense, and it’s hard to imagine why the editor included it at all.

Itty Bitty Stories

The first chapter of Judges includes a few extra stories. The story of Caleb offering up his daughter, Achsah, to any man who takes Debir is taken almost verbatim from Josh. 15:13-19. If you remember, Caleb’s nephew, Othniel son of Kenaz, takes him up on the offer. Once he and Achsah are married, she tells him to petition her father for a field. The granting of the field is skipped over, but having gotten it, Achsah then asks for some springs to go along with it (which she does while dismounting a donkey in both versions, which is a rather random detail to be considered important enough to include in both versions!), and Caleb grants them.

We’re also told that the Kenites, which either includes Moses’s father-in-law or who are descended from Moses’s father-in-law (Judges 1:16 – I’m unclear on how to read the passage), went along with Judah into the Negeb and, there, they settled together. My study Bible notes that “the Kenites were a nomadic tribe closely allied to the Hebrews” (p.294). This is not the first time we’ve heard of them: In Genesis, God tells Abraham that his descendants will be given the land that currently belongs to the Kenites, among others (Gen. 15:18-21). The only other mention I can find of them is in Numbers, where Balak has a weird prophecy that involves a Kenite city being burned and the people taken captive (Num. 24:21-22). This is certainly the first time I’ve ever heard them mentioned in relation to Moses or his father-in-law.

The final story involves the tribe of Joseph (which appears as a whole tribe, not divided into Ephraim and Manasseh) going after a city named Luz. They send out spies who hang around outside the city until they see a man coming out. They accost him, saying that if he shows them how to enter, they will spare him (apparently the gate is cleverly hidden, bear with me). The man agrees, Joseph’s army destroys the city, and somehow it gets renamed Bethel. The man leaves with his family and heads into Hittite territory, where he founds a new city and names it Luz, presumably for good luck. “That is its name to this day” (Judges 1:26).

The moral of the story

If you’re confused as to why we’ve just spent half a chapter hearing about Israelite failures, Judges 2 provides your answer. An “angel of the Lord” (Judges 2:2 – who is also the Lord himself?) appears to someone and says that he brought the Israelites out of Egypt on the condition that they “make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall break down their altars” (Judges 2:2). Their failure to adequately perform is the reason that so many natives remain among them. Further, the punishment of this is that “their gods shall be a snare to you” (Judges 2:3).

It’s all rather silly. They are supposed to need God to destroy the natives, but they didn’t destroy the natives, so they’ll be punished by being unable to destroy the natives. Further, the punishment for fraternizing with the enemy is having lots of temptations to fraternize with the enemy. It reminds me of the Garden of Eden story. It’s clear that this passage is an editorial insert that seeks to a) explain the continued presence of non-Hebrews in Israel despite all the “promised land” rhetoric, b) provide a moral context for the stories that are to follow, and c) set up a pattern to explain any contemporary social ills, particularly in relation to foreign peoples.

So Joshua – who is suddenly alive again, praise the Lord! – dismisses the people and everything is okay until the generation that had seen God’s works died off. The next generation, however, started serving the Baals and the Ashtaroth (Judges 2:13). This begins a cycle in which God turns against the people, selling them into the hands of the enemy du jour, then cools off a bit and raises up a judge save them, then the judge dies and the people return to their wicked ways, so God throws a fit and sells them into the hands of the next enemy. This is, I am given to understand, the pattern we will see repeated throughout Judges.

The backstory out of the way, I believe we should be seeing our first judge on Monday!

Joshua 11-12: The king(s) in the north

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Having heard of, but not learned from, the Israelite conquests in the south, Jabin king of Hazor decides to form a new defensive pact with Jobab king of Madon and the unnamed kings of Shimron, Achshaph, the northern hill country, the Arabah south of Chinneroth, the lowlands, and Naphothdor. Altogether, he calls in Canaanites, Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, and Hivites, and they all encamp “at the waters of Merom, to fight with Israel” (Josh. 11:5).

God gives Joshua a quick pep talk, reminding him not to be afraid, oh and also to make sure that he hamstrings all the enemies’ horses and burns their chariots. Joshua and his army barely have to lift a finger until after the battle is over because God rushes ahead and smites all their enemies, scattering whatever survivors remain. Then Joshua and his men spring into action, hamstringing all the horses (seriously?) and burning all the chariots.

These seem like strange details to add, especially given how many times they are repeated. I still don’t understand why the horses needed to be hamstrung rather than, say, simply killed, but Victor Matthews provides some possible explanation for the burning of the chariots:

Israelites also used bronze weapons, but their lack of metallurgical knowledge, and the Philistine monopoly over the tin trade, probably forced many of their soldiers to use slings and farm implements to defend themselves. Some iron weapons were undoubtedly captured during raids by Israelite forces, but without the knowledge of metallurgy to repair and fabricate new weapons out of scrap metal, they would have become useless eventually. This may explain why the forces under Joshua chose to burn the chariots of the northern coalition of Canaanite kings rather than use them themselves (Josh 11:9). The Israelites could not repair the chariots, and they did not want to leave them behind for Canaanites to use against them in the future. Also, the chariots would have been of little use to Israelite bands operating out of the rugged hill country. (Manners & Customs in the Bible, p.59-60)

On to Hazor

Having removed the feet of the king of Hazor (get it? defeated? de-feeted? Oh, I slay me!), Joshua turns his sword toward the city itself – killing all its inhabitants and burning it down to the ground.

On Hazor, my study Bible indicates that it “was one of the largest cities of Galilee. Excavations have impressively demonstrated its importance in antiquity and confirmed the fact that it was captured at about the time indicated in this narrative” (p.277).

On the subject, Collins writes:

Similar results were obtained at Jericho and Ai, the two showpieces of the conquest in Joshua. Neither was a walled city in the Late Bronze period. Of nearly twenty [page break] identifiable sites that were captured in the biblical account, only two, Hazor and Bethel, have yielded archaeological evidence of destruction at the appropriate period. Ironically, Hazor is said to be still in Canaanite hands in Judges 4-5. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.96-98)

With Hazor out of the way, they move on to a bunch of other cities. These, however, they do not burn  to the ground. Rather, they kill all the people but keep the stuff for themselves. As if to fudge over that this is a clear violation of the rules governing holy war laid out in Deut. 20, the narrator tells us that in doing this, Joshua “left nothing undone of all that the Lord had commanded Moses” (Josh. 11:15).

Victory of Joshua over the Amalekites, by Nicolas Poussin, c.1625

Victory of Joshua over the Amalekites, by Nicolas Poussin, c.1625

I also noticed that the narrative construction seems to flip-flop between this God>Moses>Joshua chain and the Moses>Joshua chain that we get, for example, in Josh. 11:12 (“[…] as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded”).

We are told that God “hardened” the hearts of the enemies so that they should seek to fight rather than make peace as Gibeon did, but I have to wonder, whose hearts did he harden, really? According to God’s instructions to the Israelites, they are forbidden from making peace, and have done so only when tricked into it. The consistency of the natives’ hearts seems somewhat irrelevant, given that God has already commanded that they all be slaughtered.

As a final note, we are told that Joshua also managed to kill most of the Anakim (except those in Gaza, Gath, and Ashdod), fulfilling the promise made in Deut. 9:3. If you’ll remember, the Anakim were first met by the Israelite scouting party way back in Numbers 13.

That done, Joshua was finished “and the land had rest from war” (Josh. 11:23). With that, I am given to understand that the narrative portion of Joshua is essentially over. Booo!

Summaries

According to Collins, the Deuteronomistic Histories favour certain narrative devices, such as speeches and narrative summaries (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.94-95). We’ve seen this, of course, in Deuteronomy. Most notably, all of Deut. 1-3 is a recap of Moses’s story.

The summary begins with Moses’s exploits on the eastern side of the Jordan, describing his defeating of King Sihon of Heshbon and King Og of Bashan, because we cannot ever be allowed to forget that Moses beat these two guys. Like, ever. These lands, we are told once again, were given over to the Reubenites, the Gadites, and half the tribe of Manasseh.

The rest of the chapter covers Joshua’s exploits, who are helpfully listed:

  1. The king of Jericho
  2. The king of Ai (which we are told once more is next to Bethel)
  3. The king of Jerusalem
  4. The king of Hebron
  5. The king of Jarmuth
  6. The king of Lachish
  7. The king of Eglon
  8. The king of Gezer
  9. The king of Debir
  10. The king of Geder
  11. The king of Hormah
  12. The king of Arad
  13. The king of Libnah
  14. The king of Adullam
  15. The king of Makkedah
  16. The king of Bethel
  17. The king of Tappuah
  18. The king of Hepher
  19. The king of Aphek
  20. The king of Lasharon
  21. The king of Madon
  22. The king of Hazor
  23. The king of Shimron-meron
  24. The king of Achshaph
  25. The king of Taanach
  26. The king of Megiddo
  27. The king of Kedesh
  28. The king of Jokneam in Carmel
  29. The king of Dor in Naphath-dor
  30. The king of Goiim in Galilee (which my study Bible tells me is Gilgal’s Greek name)
  31. The king of Tirzah

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 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.