2 Kings 10: Taking care of the competition

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We have a rather gruesome chapter here as Jehu, newly become king of Israel, solidifies his position. He begins with Ahab’s seventy sons (a number no dou bt inflated by counting all male descendants, including grandsons, though still rather impressive). Jehu writes to the rulers and elders of Samaria, as well as to the guardians of these princelings (I’m assuming that not all of them were underaged, though presumably a fair number would have been. He asks them to select the best of Ahab’s descendants and set him up on Ahab’s throne to fight in Samaria’s defense.

The rulers, elders, and guardians are rightly wary of this, since Jehu has just assassinated two kings. What chance would a brand new, untried king have? So instead of setting up a new king, which would only lead to war and sieges (we saw just how terrible those can be in 2 Kings 7: 24-31), they throw themselves at Jehu’s mercy. They will do anything he asks, they say, except instate a new king.

In his second letter, Jehu accepts the leaders’ submission and asks that they behead all of Ahab’s sons (again, this could refer to any male descendant) and bring them to Jezreel the next day.

The scene is a powerful one. The sons were “with the great men of the city, who were bringing them up” (2 Kgs 10:6), people they trusted, when Jehu’s letter arrived. Suddenly, the leaders turned on their charges, killing them and filling baskets with their heads. When they are brought to him, Jehu leaves the heads in heaps at the city gates overnight. The next morning, he addresses the Israelites, taking responsibility for killing Joram but reminding them that they were the ones who had killed his descendants. He reminded them, too, that Elijah had predicted that this would happen to Ahab’s dynasty (1 Kgs 21:21)… and his followers. And with that, it seems that he killed all of them as well (“So Jehu slew all that remained of the house of Ahab in Jezreel, all his great men, and his familiar friends, and his priests, until he left him none remaining” – 2 Kgs 10:11).

Not quite done yet, he came to Betheked of the Shepherds, where he found the kinsmen of the (now slain) king of Judah, Ahaziah. They were on their way to Samaria to visit their king, as well as the “royal princes and the sons of the queen mother” (2 Kgs 10:13) – which I take to mean Jezebel and the recently murdered seventy sons.

Jehu orders his followers to take the travellers alive. Which, we’re told, they do, but only in order to bring them to a pit. There, they murder all forty-two of them. This was, apparently, what Jehu had in mind when he told them to “take them alive.”

Though the reasoning isn’t explained in the text, King Ahaziah was the son of Athaliah, who was related to Ahab and possibly Jezebel – she was either their daughter, or possibly Ahab’s sister (2 Kgs 8:26 only tells us that she was a daughter of Ahab’s dynasty). So I’m seeing the argument being made that the whole dynasty of Judah was made complicit in Ahab and Jezebel’s sins through their unfortunate marriage alliance.

Cultic Concerns

After all this bloodshed, Jehu meets up with Jehonadab, the son of Rechab. They great each other, and it seems that Jehu asks Jehonadab if he’s on board with Jehu’s “cleansing” of Israel. Not to give away too many spoilers, but it seems that we’ll learn about the Rechabites later on (such as 1 Chr. 2:55). According to my Study Bible, they “fiercely maintained the old desert way of life, believing that only thus could they properly worship the Lord.” It makes sense, then, that Jehu would approach a man who appears to be their leader for help as he turns his attentions to wiping out the worship of Baal in Israel.

Possible depiction of Jehu giving tribute to King Shalmaneser III, on the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III from Nimrud, c.827BCE

Possible depiction of Jehu giving tribute to King Shalmaneser III, on the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III from Nimrud, c.827BCE

It seems that tradition also gives the two men more of a relationship. My New Bible Commentary cites a reference in Josephus (Ant. ix.6.6) to Jehu and Jehonadab being “friends of long standing” (p.355).

When Jehonadab answers that his goals align with Jehu’s, Jehu stretches out his hand and lifts Jehonadab onto his chariot. Together, they ride off into the sunset so that Jehonadab can see Jehu’s “zeal for the Lord” (2 Kgs 10:16). Presumably with Jehonadab watching, he rode all the way to Samaria and, there, killed Ahab’s remaining supporters.

With that done, Jehu assembles all the people and announces: “Ahab served Baal a little; but Jehu will serve him much” (2 Kgs 10:18). He calls for all the prophets, priests, and worshippers of Baal to attend a great sacrifice he’ll be hosting. We’re quickly informed, however, that it was all a trick (though, if you’re anything like me, you’ve already guessed as much from Jehu’s weasel-y words – he’ll serve Baal much, eh?).

The set up is clearly meant to be read humorously, a point reinforced by what seems to be a play on words. My New Bible Commentary says that, in Hebrew, the word used here to mean “served” is very close to a word meaning “destroyed”. “To a person not paying attention, the words would sound alike” (p.356). I think we can assume that Jehu may have been smirking while he delivered this little speech.

Baal’s followers all came and filled his temple. They brought out special vestments and everything.

Jehu and Jehonadab addressed the throng, making sure that only Baal worshippers were present. Jehu presided over the sacrifices while, outside eighty soldiers guarded the exits with instructions not to let any of the Baal worshippers escape (if any did, the punishment was death).

When the sacrifice is done, Jehu gives the order and his soldiers rush in, slaughtering all the worshippers. Done, they brought out “the pillar that was in the house of Baal” (2 Kgs 10:26), presumably an object of some sacral significance, and burned it. After tearing down Baal’s temple, they made it into a latrine.

A Retrospective

Jehu may have wiped out the worship of Baal from Israel, but he still failed at achieving proper cultic purity. What this means, of course, is that he failed to tear down Jeroboam’s golden calves, located in Bethel and Dan.

This is a sore point for the Deuteronomist, for whom idolatry was a focus. It seems likely, however, that the charge is anachronistic. There’s little evidence that the YHWH cult at the time had rejected the use of idols. If we expand that to include symbolic imagery (I’ve seen the argument made that the golden calves were not meant to represent YHWH, but rather to form a seat on which he was to sit – much as the cherubim function in Solomon’s temple), we have a fair bit of evidence to the contrary.

It’s also possible that the later Deuteronomist condemnation of the calves had its roots at this time, in which case we seem to be looking at competing geographic variations of the YHWH cult. The Jerusalem/Judah variation seems to have begun forming a more rigid, urban, centralized, top-down cultic structure, and may well have seen the more rural, disparate, folk-based Israelite variation as a serious threat.

The text tells us that God told Jehu that, because of this oversight, his dynasty would only last four generations before it, too, would fall. The construction, “the Lord said to Jehu” (2 Kgs 10:30) struck me. For the last little while, God’s messages have all either been issued to prophets or relayed through them, suggesting that the messages were connected to stories about those prophets. Here, however, the prophet is omitted. To me, this suggested that the author of this chapter was not referencing a pre-existing tradition, but rather adding in new material.

In this case, the author would have known that Jehu’s dynasty would fall in four generations, and sought an explanation. After all, the Jehu material so far casts him as a sincere and zealous worshipper (I’m a little too cynical to take that slant at face value, since getting rid of the Baal worshippers would have also meant getting rid of a lot of potentially influential competitors, many of whom may have enjoyed the support of the previous royal dynasty, while solidifying Jehu’s control over the YHWHist base – especially when we see his two named supporters being Elisha and Jehonadab, both apparently religious leaders). That a fall was to come would have required some explanation, and the calves were convenient scape-cattle. And, of course, the message suits the Deuteronomist’s motives quite neatly.

The final few verses give us some more of the chronology. We learn that pieces of Israel were being shaved off as Hazael, the Syrian king, seems to have been taking advantage of Israel’s political upheaval. It seems that, in this time, Israel lost everything east of the Jordan to Syria.

Jehu held onto Israel (or, at least, parts of it) for 28 years before he was succeeded by his son, Jehoahaz.

Judges 10-12: Of bastards, bandits, and child sacrifice

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Abimelech is never, as far as I can tell, explicitly called a judge. He is included in the book of Judges, but his narrative could have been intended as a follow-up to Gideon’s story. Here, Judges 10 begins: “After Abimelech there arose to deliver Israel […]” (Judges 10:1). This phrasing is a little ambiguous. Does it mean that the sentence will finish by naming the judge who follows the judge Abimelech, or does it mean that Israel needed saving after Abimelech was through with it?

It’s important because our interpretation informs our idea of what it means to be a judge – is the important point that the individual be a leader appointed by God, or merely a leader?

Following Abimelech, we hear of two judges, called “minor” because they lack the stories of the main judges named in the book:

  1. Tola, son of Puah son of Dodo. Though of Issachar, he lived in Ephraim’s territory. He was judge for 23 years.
  2. Jair of Gilead was judge for 22 years. He had thirty sons who rode thirty asses (*gigglesnort*) and had thirty cities, called Havvothjair.

This isn’t actually our first mention of our friend Jair – in Numbers 32:41, Jair – there listed as a son of Manasseh – attacked and took the villages of Ham, calling them Havvothjair.

Setting the stage

Once again, the people fall into evil, “serving the Baals and the Ashtaroth” (Judges 10:6), as well as the gods of Syria, Sidon, the Ammonites, and the Philistines. As punishment, God sells them into the hands of the Philistines and the Ammonites for 18 years, except they only oppressed the Israelites on the other side of the Jordan. But the Ammonites also cross the Jordan to fight Judah, Benjamin, and Ephraim. The narrative is a little confused/confusing.

Whatever God did, it was bad and it involved the Ammonites (and maybe the Philistines?). The people repent and beg God for help.

God, clearly claiming the moral high ground, gives an “I told you so” speech and tells them to go cry to the other gods since they seem to love them so much.

Rags to riches

Meanwhile, we learn about Jephthah. His parentage is a little confused – he is the “son of a harlot” (Judges 11:2), but his father appears to be Gilead himself.

As in Judges 1, it seems that the tribe is appearing in a personified form, here capable of having sons. Yet I’m having trouble finding any information on Gilead as a tribal entity. A quick google search is only telling me that it’s a region – not a tribe. Yet in Judges, it seems that it is used instead of Gad. This is clearly something that I will have to look into more.

Father issues aside, Jephthah, as a bastard, is cast out from his home when his ‘natural born’ brothers reach adulthood. Denied a share of his father’s inheritance, he turns to a life of crime – becoming some sort of bandit king in Tob.

Though the Ammonites make war against Israel (Judges 11:4), only Gilead seems particularly affected. Once again, we see what appears to be a local story clumsily edited to appear national.

So the elders of Gilead come to Jephthah, because for some reason he is the only person capable of defeating the Ammonites. Jephthah jumps at the change to gloat now that his brothers have come grovelling.

It’s a little unclear whose idea it is, but somehow everyone agrees that Jephthah will come to fight the Ammonites and, when he wins, he will become the leader of Gilead (Judges 11:8-10).

With that, he ties on his bandanna and moves out.

Confronting the Ammonites

Interestingly, Jephthah doesn’t just charge into battle as other judges have done. Rather, he first tries talking to the Ammonites, to understand why they are being such meanies. It reminds me of Joshua 22, where the altar-builders are asked why they’ve built the altar and given the chance to explain.

The Ammonites claim that the Israelites, on coming out of Egypt, took their land. Their campaign, then, is merely to reclaim the lands that had previously been theirs. They ask that Jephthah hand it over peaceably.

Jephthah denies their complaint, arguing that Israel hasn’t taken land from either the Moabites or the Ammonites (which would be in keeping with Deut. 2:19, 37). Rather, he explains, they asked for passage through Edom and Moab, were denied, so they went around. They stayed on the other side of the Arnon, which means that they can’t have touched the Moabites. The Israelites then sent word to King Sihon of the Amorites in Heshbon asking for passage. Rather than simply refusing, the Amorites attacked, Israel won, and they took possession of Amorite lands. It is this land, from the Arnon to the Jabbok, that they took – Amorite land, not Ammonite.

If Jephthah’s story sounds familiar, it’s probably because we saw something similar in Numbers 20-22. But not all of those chapters are quoted. In fact, if we subscribe to the Documentary Hypothesis, it seems that the authors of Jephthah had access to only one of the sources that went into Numbers 20-22.

Abbie has a discussion of the sources used up on Better Than Esdras (she even has a chart!).

Jephthah continues: The Israelites own the land that they are on because they were taken in battle and because God says so (Judges 11:23). “Will you not posses what Chemosh your god gives you to posses?” (Judges 11:24), he asks. Perhaps the question means “what would you do in our place? Wouldn’t you hold on to land given to you by your god?” Though I have also seen Jephthah’s argument interpreted to mean that they should go inhabit the land that their god is strong enough to give them rather than bothering the Israelites (in other words, make it a battle between gods rather than between people).

Regardless, it’s a bit of a strange thing to say because, according to my study Bible, “Chemosh was the god of the Moabites, not the Ammonites, whose chief god was called Milcom (or Molech)” (p.310).

Besides, continues Jephthah, do the Ammonites think themselves better than Balak son of Zippor (who, here, is either the king of Moab or the son of a king, though I don’t believe that any mention was made of this in Balak’s story in Numbers 22-24). Balak didn’t go to war against Israel, so why do the Ammorites think that they have the right to?

Jephthah’s final argument is that Israel has now been living in the area for three hundred years, so why have the Ammorites waited so long to lay claim to it? So much time has passed that they can now be considered aggressors, not defenders. I found this argument a little shocking given the relationship between modern Israel and Palestine, and I wonder how this passage is received by those involved in that conflict.

The Ammorites are having nothing of Jephthah’s arguments. So at this point, “the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah” (Judges 11:29), prompting him to go on the attack.

Predictably, he fights the Ammonites and wins “with a very great slaughter” (Judges 11:33).

Jephthah’s daughter

When he is filled with the Spirit of the Lord, Jephthah vows that if he is successful in his campaign, he will offer up as a sacrifice the first person who comes out of his house to green him when he returns (Judges 11:30-31).

Lament of Jephthah's Daughter, by Narcisse Diaz de la Pena, 1846

Lament of Jephthah’s Daughter, by Narcisse Diaz de la Pena, 1846

When he returns, the first person he sees is his daughter – an only child – who emerges dancing with a timbrel to greet him. Jephthah, in his grief, rends his clothes. His daughter reassures him, insisting that he must fulfil his vow. Only, she asks for two months in which to wander the mountains with her companions and bewail her virginity.

At the end of the two months, she returns and Jephthah fulfils his vow. It is in her honour that, says the text, “the daughters of Israel went year by year to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year” (Judges 11:40).

In reading about this chapter, I’ve come across the argument that this story was intended to serve as a warning against making rash vows. However, he makes his vow after he is entered by the Spirit of the Lord.

As Collins puts it:

While the story in Judges certainly appreciates the tragedy of the outcome, there is no hint that Jephthah did wrong either by making the vow (for which he was rewarded with victory) or in fulfilling it. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p. 112)

It seems to me that the story serves simply to explain the origins of a particular holiday – the four days a year that women in Israel honour Jephthah’s daughter’s virginity (bemoaned because, as a virgin, she has had no children and therefore her death marks the end of Jephthah’s line).

The story also seems to take for granted that human sacrifice is a thing that is done, despite later condemnations of the practice. Abraham and Isaac’s story suggests the same, though in that story the human sacrifice is made unnecessary by replacing the victim with an animal.

That is, of course, if sacrifice is really what is meant here. There are some who argue that the “sacrifice” was that Jephthah’s daughter would be consecrated as a nun, though I don’t know if there is any evidence for virginal/celibate female monastic orders in ancient Palestine. Tim Bulkeley provides an explanation of this argument. Personally, I think it’s a bit of a stretch motivated by a desire to bring this story in line with later theology.

Ephraim at it again

As in Gideon’s story in Judges 8:1, Ephraim is angry that Jephthah fought the Ammonites without them. Unlike Gideon, who had simply attacked, Jephthah claims that he did actually ask for help, but that the Ephraimites had refused to come to Gilead’s aid while they were being harassed. It is because Ephraim hadn’t protected Gilead that Jephthah had had to take care of business himself.

That’s the first we’re hearing of this, of course. Perhaps in the first the Ephraimites are hearing of it too! I suspect that the editor of Jephthah’s story added this detail to justify his later actions.

Because, unlike Gideon who mollified Ephraim, Jephthah just goes ahead and attacks them.

During the attack, the Gileadites guard all the fords on the Jordan, preventing the Ephraimites from escaping. Anyone who attempted to cross the ford would be questioned, asked if they were Ephraimites. If they said no, they were then asked to prove it by saying “Shibboleth” (or “ear of grain”). Since the Ephraimites apparently speak a different dialect, they are unable to pronounce the ‘sh-‘ and instead say “Sibboleth,” betraying their identity. It’s quite a little bit of linguistic detail!

All told, the Gileadites kill 42,000 Ephraimites – or, as Victor Matthews argues, they kill “forty-two eleph of the enemies. Though most translations render this as forty-two “thousand,” an eleph is more likely a designation for a military unit” (Manners & Customs in the Bible, p.59). Either way, quite a high number.

A few more minor judges

Jephthah rules for six years before he dies. He is followed by three more minor judges:

  1. Ibzan of Bethlehem, who is said to have had thirty sons and thirty daughters, all of whom he married to people outside of his own clan. He was judge for seven years.
  2. Elon the Zebulunite was judge for ten years.
  3. Abdon, the son of Hillel the Pirathonite, had forty sons and thirty grandsons who, altogether, rode on seventy asses. He was judge for 8 years.

I don’t know what the significance is of the asses in the record of Abdon and Jair. Does anyone have any ideas?

Deuteronomy 4: The pep rally

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Moses starts off the chapter by reminding the Israelites to keep all the ordinances that they’ve been given, and that doing so will ensure their peace in the promised land. It wouldn’t be the Bible with all carrot and no stick, so he reminds them that they’ve seen what God does to people who fail. The ones who are still around to listen to this speech have so far squeaked by: “you who held fast to the Lord your God are all alive this day” (v.4).

Then Moses does something that he hasn’t done before – he praises the ordinances themselves. In the past, the ordinances are not (as far as I can remember) ever said to be good. They are merely commanded, and must be obeyed due to God’s power in enforcing them. This time, the ordinances themselves are praised:

Keep them [the ordinances] and do them; for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and ordinances so righteous as all this law which I set before you this day? (v.6-8)

The Euthyphro Dilemma, named after its explanation in Plato’s play Euthyphro, is the question: “Is the good loved by the gods because it is good, or is it good because it is loved by the gods?” In other words, should the Israelites follow the ordinances merely because God says so, or should they follow them because they are good in their own right?

Up until this point, the answer has been rather clear. God is mighty, God has done nice things for the Israelites, so the Israelites should follow his rules. But Deuteronomy seems to be coming from a rather radically different theological perspective.

This is reinforced later when we get what I think may be the first reference to love as something that God feels, rather than just something he demands from the Israelites: “And because he loved your fathers and chose their descendants after them” (v.37). The fact that God loves the Israelites (in addition to having chosen them, saved them, and shown them mercy), he is deserving of worship.

Of course, this isn’t a love that I would recognize as such since it’s paired with the fear of a god who is “a devouring fire, a jealous God” (v.24).

Idolatry

Moses then goes into a bit about idolatry. Spoilers: it’s bad. He reminds the Israelites that God has appeared to them as a mountain that “burned with fire to the heart of heaven, wrapped in darkness, cloud, and gloom” (v.12). To attempt to capture God in any “earthly” form would be a huge no-no.

The Moses window, by Lawrence Staint, installed in the Washington National Cathedral

The Moses window, by Lawrence Staint, installed in the Washington National Cathedral

The fact that the Israelites “saw no form on the day that the Lord spoke to you at Horeb” (v.15) is the reason why he should never be captured in any depiction.

Moses also makes a special prohibition against the worship of “the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven” (v.19). We know, of course, that making idols in the form of humans or animals was common at the time (the Egyptians, for example, are rather known for their nifty anthropomorphic deities). That heavenly bodies would get a special mention as well suggests to me that there must have been a rather lively astrological cult around that time as well.

Moses warns the Israelites that if they, or any of their descendants, mess up and “act corruptly” by making graven images or failing to obey the ordinances, they will be killed and driven out from Canaan. Of course, this is pretty much what King Josiah – who “found” and probably commissioned much of Deuteronomy – was seeing. His reign began less than a hundred years after the northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians.

But there’s a hopeful note there too: Once scattered, the people will turn back to God, and “he will not fail you or destroy you or forget the covenant with your fathers which he swore to them” (v.31).

This somewhat mirrors what King Josiah was experiencing. By the time he came to power, the Assyrian empire was starting to collapse, leaving a power vacuum in the Near East. It was thanks to this that “Jerusalem was able to govern itself for the time being without foreign intervention” (Wikipedia).

It seems to me that Deuteronomy is an attempt to understand and interpret the fact of foreign occupation and the belief of being a chosen people of God. Such a situation leaves only two options to the faithful: Either God is not nearly as powerful as he claims, or we’ve done something to make him turn his back on us. Clearly, Josiah’s camp chose the latter. It’s no stretch, then, to interpret a return of self-agency as a return of favour. (With the added bonus that interpreting political events in this light serves to reinforce adherence to those behaviours approved of by the State.)

Monotheism

I’ve pointed out a few times that God talks about himself as the “best,” rather than the “only.” If anything, he seems rather anxious in some passages that the people might not be wow’d enough by his magicks, so they might find some other more powerful god to worship.

In Deuteronomy, we see yet another theological shift. For the first time, we start talking about actual monotheism: “Know therefore this day, and lay it to your heart, that the Lord is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other” (v.39).

The cities of refuge

Moses reiterates the instructions from Numbers 35 regarding cities of refuge. If you remember, these are to be havens for people who have committed manslaughter (killing someone accidentally).

We had found out in Numbers 35 that there were to be a total of six such cities, three on either side of the Jordan. Since the east side is already conquered, Moses takes the opportunity to appoint the cities:

  • Bezer, in the wilderness, in the lands of the Reubenites;
  • Ramoth, in Gilead, in the lands of the Gadites;
  • Golan, in Bashan, in the land of the Manassites.

It’s strange to think that unintentional killing would not only be so common, but that it also would be so unforgiven by the victims’ kin. Of course, in a tribal society like Ancient Israel, not avenging one’s kin would be a betrayal. In this case, simply passing a court ruling of manslaughter would not dissuade the avenger without bringing in some religious magicks (in this case, Numbers 35 uses the death of the current high priest as the slate cleanser).

The boast

Then, very suddenly, the writing shifts. Up until v.44, the chapter has been narrated in Moses’ voice, as though he were giving a speech and it was being quoted.

But now, the narrative has very suddenly reverted to the third person narrator that we’ve been seeing so far in the other books. The narrator is just there to tell us, once again, about how the Israelites totally killed King Sihon and King Og – the two kings of the Amorites.

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 22: Talking out of his ass

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This chapter reminds me a lot of a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book, except that the instructions have all disappeared.

The easy-peasy version of the story has a king getting antsy at the approaching Israelites, so he calls on a magician, Balaam, to curse them. Balaam refuses, and the king asks him again. This time, God tells Balaam to go. Balaam obeys, but God suddenly changes his mind and there’s a humorous episode involving an ass, and the  Balaam submits his final refusal to aid the king against the Israelites.

God’s sudden change of mind makes very little sense unless we realize that this chapter is actually a proto-Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book written, unfortunately, before the use of page numbering. (Or, you know, two separate traditions have been melded, or its an attempt at – as my Study Bible so quaintly puts it – “oriental humor.”)

The Moabite king

While the Hebrews are camping in the plains of Moab, the Moabite king Balak, son of Zippor, starts to get nervous. He’s heart about their defeat of the Amorites and, justifiably, isn’t sure he wants them hanging around his territories.

To deal with the situation, he sends messengers to Balaam, son of Beor. The messengers ask Balaam to use his super awesome magical powers to curse the Hebrews, “since they are too mighty for [Balak]” (v.6). Balaam does seem to be a magician of some renown: “he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed.” Interestingly, though the effect would be the same, Balak has asked for his enemies to be cursed rather than himself to be blessed – something that may be a smart move if Balaam is getting his power from the God of the Hebrews.

Unwilling to act rashly, Balaam tells the messengers that he needs to sleep on it.

At some point – the context seems to indicate that this happens in a dream since, afterwards, we’re told that “Balaam rose in the morning” (v.13) – God comes to Balaam and tells him not to go with the messengers and not to curse the Hebrews.

The conversation between Balaam and God seems to indicate that Balaam is familiar with the Hebrew God. In fact, he tells his guests that he needs to take the night to consult first, “and I will bring back word to you, as the Lord speaks to me” (v.8) – suggesting (assuming that I’m not getting duped by a crappy translation) that Balaam is deliberately seeking the will of the Hebrew God. Yet the context makes it very clear that he is not an Israelite himself.

Duane Smith, of Abnormal Interests, also brings up a very interesting discussion regarding solicited versus unsolicited divination, which he refers to as omina impetrativa and omina oblativa. In the former case, a diviner will actively perform some kind of ritual with the intent of divination – such as reading the entrails of an animal or interpreting the flight of birds. In the latter case, the divination is passively received by the individual without having previously been sought.

For obvious reasons, divination through dreams – oneiromancy – is generally thought of as passive, unsolicited divination. Yet in this case, Balaam is very clearly going to bed with the explicit intention of chatting with God.

David Plotz points out that this isn’t the first time God appears in a dream to a non-Hebrew. Way back in Genesis 20, he came to Abimelech and warned him not to sleep with Sarah. In both cases, the non-Hebrews seem to obey God more readily than most of the Hebrews.

But now we get our choice: Should Balaam listen to God and refuse the king’s request? Or should he disobey God and go back with the messengers? YOU DECIDE!

Balaam refuses the king’s request

Balaam tells the messengers that God has forbidden him from going to King Balak, so they return with the message.

Balak decides to try again and he sends a second wave of messenger princes, more than before and of higher status. They arrive and ask Balaam, once again, if he could pretty please with a cherry on top come curse the Hebrews.

But Balaam refuses. No matter what the price, he won’t come so long as God doesn’t want him to. However, because he’s such a nice guy, he’ll go ahead and ask the Big Man Upstairs for permission again.

That night, God’s tune changes. Now he wants Balaam to go to Balak, only he must do exactly as God instructs.

Balaam returns with the messengers

Now there’s a gear shift. Balaam is heading back to Moab with the messengers, as God asked, but “God’s anger was kindled because he went” (v.22). Talk about mixed messages!

Balaam and his Ass, by Rembrandt, 1626

Balaam and his Ass, by Rembrandt, 1626

Then God continues his hissy fit by refusing to actually voice his concerns to Balaam directly. Instead, he just sends an angel to stand in Balaam’s donkey’s path.

The donkey, seeing the angel (that’s invisible to Balaam), turns off the road and walks in the field instead. Balaam, confused, starts whacking his ass (*gigglesnort*). In typical mythic fashion, this happens three times. The third time, the donkey opens its mouth and complains: “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” (v.28).

Balaam, acting for his part as though it’s perfectly ordinary for his donkey to sit down for a chat, goes on about what a bad-ass the donkey’s been for refusing the follow the road properly.

Just then, God’s angel reveals himself and tells Balaam that he shouldn’t be hitting his ass. You see, explains the angel, if the ass had not turned aside, he would have killed Balaam.

This is an interesting commentary on the nature of sin. As we saw in Leviticus 4, sin does not mean here what it’s come to mean these days. As Balaam puts it: “I have sinned, for I did not know that thou didst stand in the road against me” (v.34). His sin, therefore, is in not knowing that he was doing anything wrong.

The angel repeats (or says for the first time, if you’re playing the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure game properly) the instruction to do exactly as God says when Balaam gets to his meeting with Balak.

Meeting Balak

Having heard of Balaam’s arrival, Balak goes out to meet him. He asks Balaam why he didn’t come (I’m assuming that he means the first time), and Balaam basically just says “I’m here now, aren’t I?”

But Balaam repeats that he can do nothing other than what is instructed of him by God. “The word that God puts in my mouth, that must I speak” (v.38).

The two men go to Kiriath Huzoth together, where Balak sacrificed oxen and sheep. It’s unclear whether these sacrifices were made to the Hebrew God (whom Balaam is clearly soliciting) or to another (which I would assume Balak would prefer).

I’ll stop here, even though there’s a verse left. Verse 41 more properly belongs to Numbers 23, so I’ll cover it next time.

Who was Balaam?

Which gets us to the interesting question of just who, exactly, is Balaam. We know from the text that he was living in Pethor when Balak sought him out. We don’t know where Pethor might have been, by the way, though Wikipedia thinks that it might be the same place as Pitru, mentioned in ancient Assyrian records. Regardless, it seems to have been in Babylonia, and Babylonia was, according to my Study Bible, famed for its divination (p.193). In fact, according to J.R. Porter in The New Illustrated Companion to the Bible, Balaam is shown as a “typical Mesopotamian seer-priest, the kind known as baru” (p.61).

Balaam may have actually been a real person. His existence is corroborated by an inscription discovered in 1967 at Tell Deir’Alla (or, simply, Deir Alla) dating from the 8th century B.C.E. (Collins, A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.82).

The prophecies described in the Deir Alla text bear no resemblance to the ones we’re about to read in Numbers. Instead, they merely recount Balaam’s vision of a disaster that befalls his city. However, this revelation is said to have been received from an assembly of divine beings described as Shaddin, “which recalls the title Shaddai, ‘Almighty,’ an archaic name for God in the Hebrew Scriptures. The name Shaddai occurs more than once in the biblical story of Balaam, for example in Numbers 24.4″ (Porter, The New Illustrated Companion, p.61).

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.