May 12, 2014
06. Joshua, Bible, Old Testament
Aaron, Abraham, Amorite, Balaam, Balak, Beor, Bible, Canaan, Canaanite, Eleazar, Esau, Euphrates, Gaash, Gibeah, Girgashite, Hamor, Hittite, Hivite, Isaac, Jacob, Jebusite, Jericho, Jordan, Joseph, Joshua, Moab, Moses, Nahor, Old Testament, Perizzite, Seir, Shechem, Terah, Timnathserah, Zippor
I mentioned in my post about Joshua 1 that, according to Collins, “key points in this [Deuteronomistic History] are marked by speeches. A speech by Joshua in Joshua 1 marks the beginning of the conquest, and another in Joshua 23 marks its conclusion” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.94-95).
That’s pretty much the ground covered in Joshua 23.
Years have passed in peace and, now old, Joshua calls together all the elders. Strangely, he tells them that he has “allotted to you as an inheritance for your tribes those nations that remain, along with all the nations that I have already cut off” (Josh. 23:4). Strange because for all the talk of peace for many years and the end of the conquest, it’s quite clear that there’s plenty of warring left to do if the Israelites are to accomplish their stated goals.
But at least he promises God’s support in the remaining conqueration.
Was Joshua’s task not to take the whole of the land promised to the Israelites? Why did he not finish? It seems like the author(s) was dealing with a conflict between the rhetoric of the story being set down and the reality they lived in.
I also think that the idea of ‘work left to do’ might serve another purpose. In the context of a land half-occupied by Assyrians and soon-to-be overtaken by Babylonians, I can well imagine that the people may have wanted to read: “The Lord your God will push them back before you, and drive them out of your sight; and you shall possess their land, as the Lord your God promised you” (Josh. 23:5).
Assuming that the authors are writing with purpose, Collins writes:
The need for fidelity to “all that is written in the law of Moses” is also emphasized in Joshua 23, the farewell speech of Joshua. Joshua concedes that the Canaanites have not been wiped out and warns against intermarriage with them (23:12-13). The prohibition of intermarriage is found already in Deuteronomy 7 with reference to the seven peoples of the land. It did not necessarily apply to all peoples. Some distinctions between Gentiles were possible. Deuteronomy 23 distinguishes between the Ammonites and Moabites, who may not be admitted to the assemble of the Lord “even to the tenth generation,” and the Edomites and Egyptians, who may be admitted after the third. The thrust of Deuteronomy, however, is to maintain a distinct identity, and this could be threatened by intermarriage with any Gentiles. After the Babylonian exile, moreover, a significant part of the Jewish people lived outside the land of Israel, and the need for boundaries over against the Gentiles became more urgent. In this context, distinctions between Ammonites and Edomites lost its significance and all intermarriage was discouraged. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.106)
Joshua then passes on to a summary of the story so far, starting with Abraham’s entry into Canaan, through Isaac, Jacob and Esau, Jacob going into Egypt, Moses and Aaron leading the people back out, and then fighting loads of people. There’s even a mention of Balaam (though his donkey is, sadly, absent).
The new covenant
As Brant Clements points out, Joshua speaks directly on God’s behalf, tripping only once in Josh. 24:7, where he reverts to the third person.
Mostly, the speech serves to reinforce that all the Israelite victories have been God’s, and that it was God’s hand who guided them through the last couple hundred years of their history. At the end of this, Joshua asks the people not to serve other gods, even if their fathers did. The people agree.
Joshua then reminds them that if they serve other gods, God will “consume you” (Josh. 24:20). The people promise a second time.
Finally, Joshua reminds them that by giving their word they serve as a witness against themselves if they ever backtrack. The people promise a third time.
The implication is that the people had the choice, at this point, between following God or not doing so, that it is this promise that binds them (and not the promises made earlier to Moses). This is reinforced when Joshua finishes my making “a covenant with the people that day, and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem” (Josh. 24:25).
I’ve been theorizing throughout this book that Joshua may have once been a prophet/founder figure competing with the Moses-based cult. I don’t think it gets any clearer than it does here, where Joshua appears to go through all the same motions as Moses with no real acknowledgement that it’s been done before (despite the mention of Moses in the historical summary).
He even, after giving the statutes and ordinances, write his own “book of the law of God” (Josh. 24:26).
To memorialise this new covenant, Joshua places a great stone under the oak in the sanctuary at Shechem (Josh. 24:26). The reference to anything being “in the sanctuary” feels rather anachronistic. Apologists online seem mostly to argue that the oak is in the same field as the ark, but it sounds an awful lot like there is an actual sanctuary at Shechem at this point, one where Joshua was known as the covenant-bringer, not Moses.
My study Bible does corroborate that Shechem had some covenant-related importance: “The Canaanite god worshiped at Shechem was called Baal-, or El-Berith, “god of the covenant” (Jg. 9.4,46). The city thus had covenant associations for the Canaanites as well as the Israelites” (p.292).
According to Victor Matthews, this story became important for the later Samaritans:
Instead, they [the Samaritans] declared Mount Gerizim near Shechem to be their place of worship (see Gen 12:6-7 and Josh 24 for events justifying their position). The Samaritans took advantage of Alexander’s political goodwill to construct an alternative temple on Mount Gerizim around 330 B.C. (Manners & Customs of the Bible, p.165).
Interestingly, this isn’t the first time that the oak at Shechem is mentioned. In Genesis 35:4, it is where Jacob buries all his household idols at God’s command.
At 110, Joshua dies and is buried on his land at Timnathserah.
Joseph’s bones – which had been brought up out of Egypt – are finally buried at Shechem, on the land that Jacob bought in Gen. 33:18-19.
Eleazar dies and is buried at Gibeah.
May 5, 2014
06. Joshua, Bible, Old Testament
Aaron, Abiezer, Achsah, Achshaph, Achzib, Adadah, Adamah, Adaminekeb, Addar, Adithaim, Adullam, Adummim, Ahiman, Aijalon, Ain, Akrabbim, Allammelech, Almon, Amad, Amam, Ammonite, Amorite, Anab, Anaharath, Anak, Anakim, Anathoth, Anim, Aphek, Aphekah, Arab, Arabah, Arba, Archite, Aroer, Ashan, Ashdod, Asher, Ashkelon, Ashnah, Ashtaroth, Asriel, Ataroth, Atarothaddar, Avvim, Azekah, Azmon, Aznothtabor, Baalah, Baalath, Baalathbeer, Baalgad, Balaam, Balah, Bamothbaal, Bashan, Bealoth, Beeroth, Beersheba, Beeshterah, Beneberak, Benjamin, Beor, Beten, Beth-hoglah, Beth-horom, Beth-shaen, Beth-shean, Beth-shemesh, Bethanath, Bethanoth, Betharabah, Betharabahb, Bethaven, Bethbaalmeon, Bethdagon, Bethel, Bethemek, Bethjeshimoth, Bethlebaoth, Bethlehem, Bethmarcaboth, Bethpazzez, Bethpelet, Bethpeor, Bethtappuah, Bethul, Bethzur, Bezer, Bible, Biziothiah, Bozkath, Cabbon, Cabul, Caleb, Canaanite, Carmel, Chepharammoni, Chesalon, Chesil, Chesulloth, Chinnereth, Chislothtabor, Chitlish, Dabbesheth, Daberath, Dan, Dannah, Debir, Dibon, Dilan, Dimnah, Dimonah, Dor, Dumah, Ebez, Ebron, Eder, Edom, Edrei, Eglon, Ekron, Eleazar, Elon, Elteke, Eltekeh, Eltekon, Eltolad, Emek-keziz, Enam, Endor, Engannim, Engedi, Enhaddah, Enhazor, Enrogel, Enshemesh, Entappuah, Ephraim, Eshan, Eshtaol, Eshtemoa, Eshtemon, Esthaol, Ether, Ethkazin, Evi, Exem, Ezem, Gad, Gath, Gath-hepher, Gathrimmon, Gaza, Geba, Gebalite, Gederah, Gederoth, Gederothaim, Gedor, Gershonite, Geshurite, Gezer, Gibbethon, Gibeah, Gibeon, Gilead, Gilgal, Giloh, Golan, Goshen, Great Sidon, Hadashah, Haeleph, Halhul, Hali, Hammath, Hammon, Hammothdor, Hannathon, Hapharaim, Hazar-gaddah, Hazarshual, Hazarsusah, Hazor, Hazor-hadattah, Hebron, Helek, Heleph, Helkath, Hepher, Heshbon, Heshmon, Hezron, Hinnom, Hoglah, Holon, Horem, Hormah, Hosah, Hukkok, Humtah, Hur, Ibleam, Idalah, Iim, Iphtah, Iphtah-el, Iron, Irpeel, Irshemesh, Issachar, Ithlah, Ithnan, Jabneel, Jagur, Jahaz, Jahzah, Jair, Janim, Janoah, Japhia, Japhletite, Jarmuth, Jattir, Jazer, Jebus, Jebusite, Jehud, Jephunneh, Jericho, Jerusalem, Jezreel, Jokdeam, Jokneam, Joktheel, Joppa, Jordan, Joseph, Joshua, Judah, Juttah, Kabzeel, Kadesh, Kadeshbarnea, Kain, Kanah, Karka, Kartah, Kartan, Kattath, Kedemoth, Kedesh, Keilah, Kenaz, Kenizzite, Kerioth-hezron, Kibzaim, Kinah, Kiriath-jearim, Kiriathaim, Kiriatharba, Kiriathbaal, Kiriathsannah, Kiriathsepher, Kishion, Kohathite, Lachish, Lahmam, Lakkum, Lebanon, Lebaoth, Lebo-hamath, Leshem, Levi, Libnah, Lower Beth-horon, Luz, Maacathite, Maarath, Machir, Machirite, Madmannah, Mahalab, Mahanaim, Mahlah, Makkedah, Manasseh, Maon, Maralah, Mareshah, Mearah, Medeba, Megiddo, Mejarkon, Mephaath, Merarite, Michmethath, Middin, Midian, Migdalel, Migdalgad, Milcah, Mishal, Misrephothmaim, Mizpeh, Moladah, Moses, Mount Baalah, Mount Ephron, Mount Hermon, Mount Jearim, Mount Seir, Naamah, Naarah, Nahalal, Naphath, Naphtali, Neah, Negeb, Neiel, Nephtoah, Nexib, Nibshan, Noah, Nun, Og, Old Testament, Ophni, Ophrah, Othniel, Parah, Perizzite, Philistine, Pisgah, Rabbah, Rabbith, Rakkath, Rakkon, Ramah, Ramoth, Reba, Rehob, Rekem, Remeth, Rephaim, Reuben, Rimmon, Salecah, Sansannah, Sarid, Sepher, Sexacah, Shaalabbin, Shaaraim, Shahazumah, Shamir, Sharuhen, Sheba, Shechem, Shema, Shemida, Sheshai, Shihor, Shihorlibnath, Shikkeron, Shilhim, Shiloh, Shimron, Shion, Shunem, Sibmah, Sidonian, Sihon, Simeon, Socoh, Stone of Bohan, Taanach, Taanath-shiloh, Tabor, Talmai, Tanaach, Tappuah, Taralah, Telem, Timnah, Timnathserah, Tirzah, Tyre, Ummah, Upper Beth-horon, Valley of Achor, Valley of Jazreel, Wadi Arnon, Wadi Kanah, Wadi of Egypt, Wilderness of Zin, Zaanannim, Zanoah, Zebulun, Zela, Zelophehad, Zemaraim, Zenan, Zer, Zerethshahar, Ziddim, Ziklag, Zior, Ziph, Zorah, Zur
Always a bit of a Debbie Downer, God begins by telling Joshua that he’s getting old and that there is still much land to be conquered. He then proceeds to list these lands in Josh. 13:2-6.
The narrator follows up by describing the boundaries of the land under Israelite control on the east side of the Jordan, reminding us once more about how Moses defeated King Og and King Sihon (will he ever stop going on about that?). We are told that the Israelites had failed to drive out the Geshurites and Maacathites, who still live within Israel “to this day” (Josh. 13:13).
The actual allocation sections are a little scattered, so I’ll deal with the content out of order. In Josh. 18, Joshua tells the tribes who still require lands to each send out three men to scout the land and write descriptions of it. When they return, Joshua will use a lottery system to divide it among the tribes. This all takes place at Shiloh.
Because the place names are extremely boring, I will just list verse references plus any detail that happens to attract my interest. Here are the tribal allocations:
Judah: Josh. 15:1-12, 20-63. Though God had promised to Joshua that no one would be able to stand against him (Josh. 1:5), the people of Judah were not able to drive out the Jebusites, who were the people living in Jerusalem. Because of this, “the Jebusites live with the people of Judah in Jerusalem to this day” (Josh. 15:63).
Reuben: Josh. 13:15-23. Amid the listing of territories, we are reminded that the Israelites killed Balaam, “who practiced divination” (Josh. 13:22). This was, if you remember, a totally awkward twist from Numbers 31.
Gad: Josh. 13:24-28. In Josh. 13:27, we are told that Gad gets “the rest of the kingdom of King Sihon. This conflicts with Josh. 13:21, where we are told that Reuben is to receive “all the kingdom of King Sihon.” The biblical penchant for exaggeration is all well and good, but probably a terrible idea when relating tribal land allocations…
Manasseh (eastern half/Machir): Josh. 13:29-31, 17:3-6. In Josh. 17, we are reminded of Zelophehad’s daughters – Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah – who are to receive an inheritance in their own right. Here, the women are given their lands.
Manasseh (western half): Josh. 17:7-13. Once more, the Israelites are unable to kill off all the native inhabitants, so that the Manassites have to wait until they strong enough to enslave the Canaanites.
Ephraim: Josh. 16:1-10. Once again, we are told that they were unable to drive some people out – the Canaanites of Gezer remain and, we are told, have been enslaved.
Benjamin: Josh. 18:11-26.
Simeon: Josh. 19:1-9. Though the apportioning of land was supposed to have been fair, for some reason Joseph had given too much to Judah. So when he gets to Simeon, he doesn’t have enough territory to give and has to carve pieces out from Judah and give them over. Mastermind Joshua strikes again. You’d think he’d have planned ahead a little…
Zebulun: Josh. 19:10-16.
Issachar: Josh. 19:17-23. Excavations began on what is believed to be Anaharath, one of Issachar’s towns, somewhat recently!
Asher: Josh. 19:24-31.
Naphtali: Josh. 19:32-39.
Dan: Josh. 19:40-48. We are told that Dan took land from Leshem, renaming it “Dan” after their ancestor. Unfortunately, they are given Zorah and Eshtaol, which had already been given to Judah back in Josh. 15:33. Poor Joshua just cannot wrap his head around how this stuff works…
Levi: Josh. 21:1-45. Though they get no territory per se, the Levites do get cities, as well as a little pasture land. A portion of the Kohathites are given thirteen towns from Judah, Simeon, and Benjamin. The rest of the Kohathites get ten towns from Ephraim, Dan, and Manasseh. The Gershonites get thirteen towns from Issachar, Asher, Naphtali, and Manasseh. The Merarites get twelve towns from Reuben, Gad, and Zebulun. We are told that Caleb had been given the fields and villages of one of the towns now being given to the Levites.
Caleb and Joshua
Caleb: Josh. 14:6-15, 15:13-19. You’ll remember Caleb has the scout who (with or without Joshua) stood against the other scouts in their position that the Israelites should not rush into the Promised Land. I can’t recall if Moses promised him his own land as a reward at the time, but the text here says that he did. And so, while Joshua is drawing all his lots, Caleb approaches and demands his reward. Though he is 85 years old now, he claims that he is still strong enough to fight and, therefore, would like to be granted the hill country where he had initially seen the Anakim (the giants he saw in Numbers 13). Joshua agrees, giving him Hebron – previously named Kiriatharba. The Arba in the name is the “greatest man among the Anakim” (Josh. 14:15). Incidentally, there’s a discussion over at Remnant of Giants about whether “Anakim” here should refer to a specific group of people, or whether it is used more broadly as a term for giants.
We have to wait until the next chapter and half of Judah’s allotment before we find out what happens next. Caleb heads up to Hebron and defeats Anak’s three sons, Sheshai, Ahiman, and Talmai. Having now a taste for blood, he heads off to fight Debir, offering his daughter, Achsah, as a wife for anyone who conquers it for him. Othniel son of Kenaz, Caleb’s brother, takes him up on the offer and marries his niece. She tells her new husband to ask her father for a field and they are given some land in the Negeb. Later, while dismounting a donkey (presumably not an unflattering nickname for Othniel), she asks her father for water springs as well. Caleb gives her a few.
It’s a cute story, but we were told in Josh. 11:21 that it was Joshua who had defeated the Anakim in Hebron and Debir.
Joshua: Josh. 19:49-51. Now that all the lands are distributed, God tells the Israelites to give Joshua some land, too. I love this little detail – we are specifically told that the Israelites gave Joshua his land (on God’s command), just in case anyone dared to wonder if perhaps Joshua was skimming a little from the top for himself! Of course, we’re also told that he specifically asked for the town they gave him, so it still feels a little like a stacked deck. Either way, he receives Timnathserah, which is in his tribe’s – Ephraim – land.
In Josh. 20, the cities of refuge are appointed. You will remember these cities from Numbers 35. We had been told that there should be six of them in total, and they are:
- Kedesh in Naphtali’s territory
- Shechem in Ephraim’s territory
- Kiriatharba (Hebron) in Judah’s territory
- Bezer in Reuben’s territory
- Ramoth in Gad’s territory
- Golan in Manasseh’s territory
The latter three had already been appointed in Deuteronomy 4.
The tribe of Joseph (composed of Manasseh and Ephraim) complain to Joshua that they are too numerous for the amount of land they were given. Joshua, who sadly lacks a head for numbers, also managed to muck up Judah’s portion (giving them too much) in Josh. 19:9. To solve the problem, Joshua sends them into the forests belonging to the Perizzites and Rephaim to clear some space for themselves.
But, reply Manasseh and Ephraim, those guys have chariots of iron! (Josh. 17:16) Joshua reassures them that they will be fine, and that they will drive out the Canaanites even though they have chariots of iron and are very strong.
November 22, 2013
04. Numbers, Bible, Old Testament
Balaam, Beor, Bible, Eleazar, Evi, Hur, Midian, Midianite, Moses, Numbers, Old Testament, Phinehas, Reba, Rekem, Zur
After having a few chapters of census and rules, we resume our narrative from Numbers 25. If you’ll remember, there was a minor scandal where Hebrew men were shacking up with Moabite women, which was leading the men to start worshipping the wrong gods. Then, suddenly, the offending women spontaneously changed their nationality and became Midianites.
I speculated at the time that it was a revisioner’s attempt to make clear that Moses having a Midianite wife should not be seen to be implicit acceptance of marriage to foreign women generally.
God, still rather sore about the whole episode, tells Moses to “avenge the people of Israel on the Midianites” (v.2).
So Moses gets together a thousand men from each tribe. Phinehas, son of Eleazar – the guy who showed us what he thought of Midianites back in Numbers 25 – was sent along with the trumpets for the alarm and the “vessels of the sanctuary” (v.6) – though, interestingly, not the ark.
Apparently, every single Midianite man (at least in that region) was slain in the battle, including the kings of Midian: Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba. They also killed Balaam, son of Beor (more on that later). Yet the Israelites themselves suffered no casualties (v.49) – presumably a little dig to reinforce God’s power to win battles that have his support.
The soldiers took the women, children, cattle, flocks, and possessions as spoils of war. They then burned down what remained of the towns and cities.
But when they bring all the spoils to Moses and Eleazar, Moses was enraged. “Have you let all the women live?” (v.15), he asks them, then commands his soldiers to kill every male child and woman who has “known man by lying with him” (v.17). He will, however, allow them to keep the little girls alive.
What’s with Balaam?
In Numbers 22, Balaam was a good guy, seeking out the instructions of the right god and refusing the curse the Israelites (even going so far as to bless them). So why is he suddenly a bad guy who is going around telling women “to act treacherously against the Lord” (v.16)?
I think that we’re seeing the same thing we saw happen in Numbers 25, where the Moabite women magically transformed into Midianites. We have a revisioner – probably a clerical person (or movement) given the tone of the changes/inserts – who is trying to make a theological point. As with the Midianite issue, this is clearly an attempt to smooth over elements of older traditions that have become distasteful.
Collins puts it thusly in A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (P and JE are hypothetical authors in the documentary hypothesis):
P adds an interesting notice in Num 31:8, 16. The Moabite women, we are told, acted on the advice of none other than Balaam, and the Israelites accordingly killed Balaam with the sword. The [P] writers were evidently uncomfortable with the idea of a “good” pagan prophet and undermine the older JE account of Balaam by this notice. It is also axiomatic for the Priestly writer that the women who tempted the Israelites must not be allowed to live. (p.83)
The massacre of the women and male children done, Moses tells every man who has “killed any person, and whoever has touched any slain” (v.19) to go purify themselves in the way stipulated in Numbers 19. In addition to purifying themselves, they must also cleanse the spoils – anything that can withstand fire must be passed through fire and then purified with the special water from Numbers 19. Anything flammable can just be washed with the special water.
David Plotz, upon reading this chapter, responds:
What is particularly poignant is that Moses himself seems to know that this massacre of innocents is wrong. He orders his death squads to stay outside of camp after they finish their butchery. They need a week away from the Tabernacle to purify themselves. The Bible never mentions such a quarantine for Israelite soldiers after other battles. But, as Moses recognizes, these killings are not war, they are murder, and they defile his people.
Well, that’s partly true. We haven’t seen it specified that soldiers who kill in battle should be purified, but Numbers 19:16 does say: Whoever in the open field touches one who is slain with a sword, or a dead body, or a bone of a man, or a grave, shall be unclean seven days.” How easy is it for a soldier, in the middle of a battlefield, to kill someone without touching them?
So while it may not be explicit that the purification Moses is ordering in Numbers 31 is just part of the normal post-battle routine, I don’t think that it can be discounted as such either.
Since we’re on the subject of ‘things David Plotz writes,’ he also has a very interesting discussion of the apparent reversal in this chapter:
Let’s pause for a second to consider Moses’ rage, which I find almost incomprehensible. For most of the last three books, Moses has been restraining God. The Lord loses his temper with His disobedient people, and Moses persuades Him to show mercy. But God is on the sidelines during the Midianite slaughter: It is Moses who’s bloodthirsty. Where does his new anger come from? Is it the fury of a frustrated old man who’s been barred from his Promised Land? Is it the homicidal megalomania that descends on so many dictators who hold power too long?
As usual, he’s taking the text at face value. That’s fine, but I think it misses the more likely reason for the reversal – to show Moses himself siding against exogamy. If anyone used the story of Moses’ wife as a sort of hadith to argue that exogamy is permissible, having him come down so strongly against it here would put an end to that.
I also think it needs to be noted that, even if we’re taking the text at face value, there’s still an important difference between this narrative and the narratives where Moses calms God down. When God flies into a rage, it’s against the Israelites, and Moses is therefore protecting his own in-group. But in this case, the war is with the Midianites. Another reasonable interpretation would be, simply, that Moses couldn’t give a flying fonkey about members of the out-group.
Dividing the booty
God gives Moses the rules for dividing up spoils of war (would that mean that he’s making the booty call? – ugh, even I’m embarrassed by that one…).
It’s a fairly decent system: The spoils are divided into two equal halves, one half to be distributed among the soldiers, and one half to go to the general community. The Levites get 1/50th of the community share, and the high priest alone gets 1/500th of the soldiers’ share. What this looks like in actual numbers is:
- Sheep: 675,000 total, 337,500 to soldiers and the community each, 675 to Eleazar, 6,750 to the Levites.
- Cattle: 72,000 total, 36,000 to soldiers and the community each, 72 to Eleazar, 720 to the Levites.
- Donkeys: 61,000 total, 30,500 to soldiers and the community each, 61 to Eleazar, 610 to the Levites.
- Virgin girls: 32,000 total, 16,500 to soldiers and the community each, 32 to Eleazar, 320 to the Levites.
In addition to this, we’re told that Eleazar also received 16,750 shekels.
The share that’s to be given to Eleazar the high priest is referred to in my RSV as “the Lord’s share.” In the King James, it’s called the “heave offering.” In my journeys across the vast lands of the internet, I’ve found quite a few atheists interpreting this chapter (particularly v.40) as a demand for human sacrifice. You can see this illustrated over at BibleSlam, where the author writes: “The LORD’s share was given as a ‘heave offering,’ which implies that 32 human virgins were sacrificed.”
Having now read the chapter, all I can say is “bwuh?”
The context makes it abundantly clear that Eleazar’s share is just that, Eleazar’s share. I’m not saying that what’s about to happen to his 32 virgin girls is good, but it sure ain’t sacrifice.
Heck, even the “implies” of “heave offering” is silly, since the heave offering is the portion that the priests get to take home with them after it’s waved around in front of God for a bit. It’s specifically the part that isn’t burned – as illustrated by Exodus 29:27-28.
So yeah, there’s a whole lot going on in this chapter that’s pretty horrible, but human sacrifice isn’t one of them.
November 1, 2013
04. Numbers, Bible, Old Testament
Agag, Amalekite, Asshur, Baal, Balaam, Balak, Bamothbaal, Beor, Bible, Eber, Edom, Kain, Kenite, Kittim, Moabite, Numbers, Old Testament, Peor, Pisgah, Seir, Sheth, Zippor, Zophim
In these chapters, we continue with the comedic repetition structure that seems to mark Balaam’s narrative.
When we last saw Balaam, God had allowed him to respond to Balak, king of the Moabites. At the very end of Numbers 22, Balak takes Balaam to a place that my RSV calls Bamoth-Baal, but that the KJV has as “the high places of Baal” (Num. 22:41). I’m not finding any confirmation that this is significant, but I find it interesting that Balaam seems so intent on hearing from YHWH, yet Balak is leading him to a place that is named after (and presumably has once been consecrated to) Baal. It’s like, disappointed with Balaam’s previous response, Balak is hoping that a different God will get him a different answer.
Once there, Balaam tells Balak to build seven altars and to provide seven bulls and seven rams. Once each altar had been broken in with a bull and ram each, Balaam wanders off to meet with God.
The First Oracle
God put the words right into Balaam’s mouth for him to take back to Balak. The prophecy begins with a retelling of what’s happened so far – of Balak asking Balaam to curse Israel, and Balaam refusing because he would not – or could not -curse anyone independently of God’s power (and, therefore, of God’s will).
The prophecy describes the Israelites as “a people dwelling alone, and not reckoning itself among the nations!” (v.9). I get the whole “chosen people” thing, but this looks an awful lot like nationalism – something I’ve always been very uncomfortable with.
Balaam then prays that he should “die the death of the righteous” so that his “end be like this” (v.10). It seems that he is defining the Israelites as specially blessed, and envisioning that he, too, could be similarly blessed if he dies righteously.
Balak is understandably upset to get this response. There he was, thinking he’d finally won Balaam over and would be getting that fancy new curse he wanted, and yet here’s Balaam blessing the Israelites instead! Talk about a bait and switch!
The Second Oracle
Thinking that a different vantage point might yield different results, Balak takes Balaam to a new spot – the field of Zophim, at the top of Pisgah. There, he once again builds seven altars and sacrifices a bull and a ram at each. Once again, Balaam tells Balak to wait by the altars while he goes off in search of God.
This time, the prophecy addresses Balak directly, calling him to rise and listen. He tells Balak that God is not human, and therefore does not lie or repent. Of course, we’ve seen him change his mind and repent several times. In fact, despite this present claim, we’ve seen a whole lot of God flying into a violent rage and his prophet du jour having to talk him down. Once again, we see a disconnect between the claimed character of God and his demonstrated character. Were this any other book, I’d call unreliable narrator!
The prophecy then goes on to say that God has blessed the Israelites – being that he is so in-capricious, he’s not about to change his mind about that (you know, until they ask him for quail again).
The Israelites are, therefore, protected. God is so strong – as strong as a wild ox, if you like the RSV, or as strong as a unicorn, if you prefer the whimsy of the KJV – that no curse could work against them.
The strength of a unicorn
A note on the unicorns: Apparently, this is a Septuagint issue. The Greek translation of the Hebrew word re’em was monokeros – one-horned. According to Wikipedia, this interpretation made sense to the KJV translators since unicorns are legendary for the impossibility of their taming.
According to the JewishEncyclopedia, this translation was later revised to “wild ox” given the etymological and contextual similarity to the Assyrian rimu: “which is often used as a metaphor of strength, and is depicted as a powerful, fierce, wild, or mountain bull with large horns.”
The prophecy continues by saying that God has made Israel so powerful that:
As a lioness it rises up
and as a lion it lifts itself;
it does not lie down till it devours the prey,
and drinks the blood of the slain. (Num. 23:24)
The imagery is certainly gruesome, but it’s also quite poetic.
Balak, of course, isn’t happy with this prophecy either. If the first oracle can be interpreted as blessing the Israelites, this one certainly can! But, of course, the schmuck of our little slapstick has to have a third try. Once again, he tells Balaam to come to yet another spot – to the top of Peor – in the hopes that this new place “will please God that you may curse them for me from there” (Num. 23:27).
The Third Oracle
The song and dance of the seven altars and the seven sacrifices of bulls and rams has to be performed in the new spot. But this time, Balaam doesn’t bother to head off in search of omens, God makes a house-call.
As Brant Clements, of Both Saint and Cynic, points out, this change has literary significance:
In comedy there is a rule of threes. 1. An event is told. 2. The event is repeated, establishing a pattern. 3. The pattern is broken, to comic effect. The pattern being broken can also serve a dramatic effect. In the case of Balaam the third iteration turns a comic tale serious.
This time, God addresses Balaam rather than using him as a mouthpiece. He calls to him, as he called to Balak in the second oracle. There’s a listing of name, ties, and status. In the midst of this, God hints at the prophetic process, describing Balaam’s experience of visions as a “falling down, but having his eyes uncovered” (Num. 24:4). This seems to suggest a sort of ecstatic trance.
During this, Balaam is described as one “who sees the vision of the Almighty” (Num. 24:4). According to J.R. Porter in The New Illustrated Companion to the Bible, this may be significant:
Fragmentary Aramaic texts of the ninth century BCE from Deir Alla refer to a Balaam who, as in the Hebrew Scriptures, was the son of Beor. He is said to have a vision of a disaster that befalls his city, at which he weeps. This revelation is 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. (p.61)
Then we get some lovely compliments about how nice the Israelite tents are, and there’s a bunch of flowery comparisons. In the middle of all of that, we are told that the Israelite king “shall be higher than Agag” (Num. 24:7). Agag is the name of the Amalekite king featured in 1 Samuel 15:33. This leads to three possibilities that I can see/find:
- There are two different kings by the same name.
- The text, written long after the events it purports to describe, contains an anachronism.
- “Agag” is not the name of a king but, rather, a standing title among Amalekite rulers.
Then we get a bunch of fluff about God being super strong (like a unicorn!), and how he can crush people’s bones and nom on nations, yadda yadda.
To close the prophecy, God says that all who bless Israel will also be blessed, and all who curse it shall likewise be cursed.
This, of course, needles at Balak’s nerves, so much so that “he struck his hands together” (Num.24:10). According to my Study Bible, clapping was “a gesture of anger and reproach” (p.196). Keep that in mind the next time you enjoy (or don’t enjoy) a live performance.
Balak tells Balaam that he had promised to “honor” Balaam for his services, “but the Lord has held you back from honor” (Num. 24:11). That’s quite an interesting perspective. He then tells Balaam to leave.
The Fourth Oracle
Rather than leave, Balaam launches straight into his fourth oracle, introducing it by saying to Balak: “Come, I will let you know what this people will do to your people in the latter days” (Num. 24:14).
Notice that the pattern is broken again here. For his fourth oracle, Balaam no longer requires altars and sacrifices. This one, as they say, is on the house.
It begins, again, with a listing of Balaam’s ties and titles, using language that’s nearly identical to the opening of the third oracle. Then it gets a little kooky.
The language is a little purple, but the essence of it is that, at some time in the future, “a star shall come forth out of Jacob [Israel]” (Num. 24:17) – it’s given a royal slant when the line is repeated but with sceptre in place of star. This star will crush, kill, destroy the following groups/places:
- The sons of Sheth
- Seir – which, given the text, seems to be an enemy of Edom, yet my Study Bible claims that these are just two names for the same group (p.197)
There’s a weird verse asking how long Asshur would take Kain captive, and another saying that ships will come from Kittim to afflict Asshur and Eber. My Study Bible is entirely useless here, making excuses about how “the meaning of these verses is obscure, owing to the uncertainty of the names” (p.197).
Having finished with the curse, Balak packs up his toys and heads home.
According to Collins in A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, this final oracle has been imbued with some messianic significance:
In the Hellenistic and Roman periods, this oracle was taken as a messianic prediction. The leader of the last Jewish revolt against Rome, in 132-135 C.E., Simon Bar Kosiba, was hailed by Rabbi Akiba as the messiah foretold in this oracle. Because of this, he is known in Jewish tradition as Bar Kokhba (literally, “son of the star”). (p.82)
Assuming, for the sake of funsies, that this is a retroactive prophecy – set in the past, yet “foretelling” current/recent events – it sounds a whole lot like political propaganda. If I had to venture a guess, I would say that a king wanted to solidify his claim to the throne, so he commissioned the writing of some prophetic historical fiction to “predict” himself, thereby legitimizing his rule. The author chose Balaam, a seer that people were clearly talking about – given the Deir Alla inscription – in the same way that people today will often write predictions and ascribe them to Nostradamus.
October 28, 2013
04. Numbers, Bible, Old Testament
Amaw, Amorite, Arnon, Balaam, Balak, Beor, Bible, Jericho, Jordan, Kiriath Huzoth, Midian, Moab, Numbers, Old Testament, Pethor, Zippo
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
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.
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).