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 33: The recap

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In this chapter, we get a recap of the journey so far. It’s long and about as exciting as washing the dishes when you’ve finished your last audiobook. We do, however, find out that Aaron was 123 years old when he died. So that’s… something.

Here’s your cliff’s notes image:

In the plains of Moab, God tells Moses to tell the people to “drive out” all the people they meet on the other side of the river, and to destroy all of their religious symbols and buildings. Once this is done, they should divide the land by lot (in accordance with the size of each tribe/sub-tribe/family).

But, God warns, you must make sure to fully stamp out the indigenous population, otherwise you’re going to have to deal with them being “pricks in your eyes, and thorns in your sides” (v.55). Plus, if they don’t totally wipe out the local population, God “shall do unto you, as I thought to do unto them” (v.56) (both quotes from the KJV because it sounds better and doesn’t alter the meaning).

On deserving it

David Plotz sees purpose in this plodding chapter:

Had the chapter skipped the travelogue and begun with God’s fearsome instructions, it would seem brutal.  The 40-year-itinerary—the weary, heartbreaking journey—serves as a reminder to the Israelites of their suffering, and, more importantly, as a justification for conquest. Why is it all right to sack and destroy another civilization? Why is it fair to seize land and settle it? Because of what the Israelites endured, that’s why. The 40-year accounting explains Israel. It says: You’ve earned it.

That may indeed have been the purpose of this summary, but it’s terrible ethics (not to mention a dangerous precedent to set – what’s to stop the Canaanites from doing their own decades-long dispossession dance and then coming right back, ready with their deserving?).

Numbers 12: Aaron gets away with everything… again

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One day, Miriam and Aaron (Moses’ siblings) approach Moses to complain about “that Cushite woman whom he had married” (v.1).

Before we go any further, it’s worth noting that Zipporah, Moses’ wife, is described as a Midianite in Exodus 2:15-22, not a Cushite. I’m seeing a bunch of attempts at explaining this away, such as my Study Bible saying: “The term Cushite apparently includes Midianites and other Arabic peoples” (p.179). The “apparently” used here seems to mean “that way it’s not a contradiction.”

Davis, who has also often tried to smooth over the Bible’s rough patches, adds: “‘Cushite’ has been interpreted as ‘African,’ although Cush might be another word for Midian. Was Zipporah black? Was there a second wife? The Bible doesn’t really say” (Don’t Know Much About the Bible, p.138).

I find it interesting that both assume that we are not understanding the words correctly, rather than that two separate traditions were melded and the continuity checker was asleep at his desk.

That’s the first half of the first verse discussed. Shall we carry on?

So why were they complaining? Before I read the chapter, I wondered if the complaint was about some personal grievance with Zipporah as an individual, and she is only referred to as “that Cushite woman” as a description. As in, “that woman in the blue dress stole the pineapple.” But then we get the second half of the verse, and it minces no words about why Miriam and Aaron don’t like her: “for he [Moses] had married a Cushite woman.” That’s it. This is a race/ethnicity issue.

But also questions of leadership

Then the race issue is completely dropped and Miriam and Aaron start complaining about Moses being the leader. “Has he [the Lord] not spoken through us also?” (v.2) In other words, they’re getting to chat with God too, they are also spiritual leaders (remember Miriam and the songs of praise?). So why is Moses getting all the recognition?

Moses, confronted about his Cushite wife, from the Vatopedi monastery, 10th cent

Moses, confronted about his Cushite wife, from the Vatopedi monastery, 10th cent

I made a post a few months ago comparing Moses and Abraham, where I mentioned the similarities between Sarah and Inanna. Reading this chapter and, specifically, Miriam’s apparent claim to prophecy makes me think that maybe she and Sarah both have a history in the oral tradition as, if not goddesses, at least some form of cultic archetype. Specifically, my Study Bible talked about the age of the tradition that seems to be behind Miriam’s second song of praise in Exodus 15.

I’ve also talked before about my interest in Aaron as a possible rival prophet (or, at least, a rival tradition) that became amalgamated with the Moses cycle. Now I’m wondering if the same thing might not have happened to Miriam.

But that’s all pretty pure arm-chair speculation, and uninformed speculation at that. So let’s move on.

The narrator starts off by defending Moses, calling him “very meek” – “more than all the men that were on the face of the earth” (v.3).

For most of biblical tradition – and many people still believe this – Moses has been considered the author of the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). Obviously, verse 3 has long been very troubling. Or, as my Study Bible puts it: “This verse is an age-old stumbling-block to the belief that Moses wrote the whole Pentateuch” (p.174). I mean, either the statement is true, in which case we have a paradox (someone who is meek would never say that they are the meekest person on earth), or it’s not true, in which case we have to take a second look at everything else Moses has claimed. Either way, it doesn’t look good.

God then calls all three siblings to the entrance of the tent of meeting, and there he lectures to them about Moses being in a separate class:

If there is a prophet among you, I the Lord make myself known to him in a vision, I speak with him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses; he is entrusted with all my house. With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in dark speech; and he beholds the form of the Lord. (v.6-8)

So if he talks to prophets in dreams and he talks to Moses clearly, where does that leave Miriam and Aaron? Yes, he’s appearing as a pillar of smoke rather than taking the anthropomorphic form that Moses has apparently seen, but he’s also speaking rather clearly and there’s no indication that Miriam and Aaron are asleep.

What’s going on? Is he rebuking them, or is he agreeing that they really do deserve to be in an elevated class? Because there seems to be a contradiction between what he’s saying and how he’s saying it.

The punishment

God (or, rather, his smoke pillar) suddenly disappears, and the siblings discover that Miriam is leprous – “white as snow” (v.10). Aaron is conspicuously unharmed.

Still, he begs Moses for mercy and Moses asks God to heal Miriam. But God replies: “If her father had but spit in her face, should she not be shamed seven days” (v.14). Spitting in the face is a pretty common curse, so the comparison here is to Miriam having been cursed by her authority figure (or, more charitably, a close family relative).

Because of this, Miriam must be excluded from the camp for seven days. To their credit, the Israelites wait for her to get better before moving out of Hazeroth and going to the wilderness of Paran (which they already did in Numbers 10:12, but whatever).

David Plotz brought up a really interesting point that I wanted to share:

Also, my friend Aryeh Tepper points out that Miriam’s punishment for complaining about Moses’ African wife perfectly fits the crime: She mutters about the wife’s black skin, so God covers her skin with “snow-white scales.”

Well, that’s nice, and it’s certainly an interesting thought. However, as we’ll see later in Numbers, God isn’t too keen on interracial (or, at least, intercultural) marriage either. In fact, an argument could easily be made that Miriam was merely trying to uphold God’s own standards, and not letting Moses get away with being “a law unto himself.”

Also, God never responded specifically to the charge against Moses marrying a non-Israelite. I mean, sure, he blusters on about Miriam and Aaron daring to question Moses in any way, but his response seems far more focused on the issue of leadership than marriage.

And, lastly, nowhere does it say that Zipporah’s skin is black (at least as far as I can recall – correct me if wrong, please), or any darker than Moses’ own skin. We know only that she is a Midianite/Cushite, and the passages I quoted at the beginning of this post make it rather clear that we seem to want to be rather flexible with those designations.

I think that this punishment is much simpler than that. I think that leprosy (including house mold) was simply seen as an outer expression of an inner sin. In this case, Miriam’s sin was in questioning Moses’ authority.

It’s also very much worth noting that, as with the Golden Calf incident, Aaron is at the very centre of a kerfuffle and everyone gets punished except for him. Talk about nepotism!

Numbers 11: Terrible parenting

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This chapter has some pretty profound applicability to parenting – at least insofar as it’s a great illustration of what not to do.

So at this point, the Hebrews have been out of Egypt for about two years, and eating bug poop for most of that time. Not only that, but with all the sacrifices and burnt offerings that have been going on, they must be pretty much constantly surrounded by the succulent scent of bien cuit meat.

Having taken about all they can stand, the Hebrews complain “in the hearing of the Lord” (v.1), leading to a rather nasty hiss fit in which God all but screams: “If you don’t quite yer crying, I’ll give you something to cry about!” In what would be some rather beautiful poetic imagery if divorced from its context, God’s “anger was kindled, and the fire of the Lord burned among them, and consumed some outlying parts of the camp” (v.1).

Seeing this, Moses prays and this seems to placate God. The fires abate, and they name the place Taberah – or burning. We haven’t seen this kind of naming since Genesis. We must be getting closer to home!

Death by quail

Unfortunately, God only punished the whining, but did not address the underlying issue that had prompted it. The people are still hungry and they are still bored with eating nothing but manna for two years.

As a parent, I’d call this very bad form. When you have kids, you want to be trying to anticipate and address issues as they arise – if not earlier. If you miss it and get to the point where your kid is actively complaining, you want to resolve the issue as quickly as possible. If you wait until the kid is throwing a tantrum, everyone is going to be far too upset, frustrated, and angry to resolve the issue productively. And this is precisely what we see happening in Numbers 11.

Predictably, the people quickly start complaining again:

We remember the fish we ate in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at. (v.5-6)

The Miracle of the Quails, by the circle of Otto van Veen, c.1600

The Miracle of the Quails, by the circle of Otto van Veen, c.1600

Now, I think that we need to pause a moment and remember that in Exodus 16, whining is what got the people the manna in the first place. Then, as now, God completely failed at anticipating their needs. They were starving, they complained, and God acquiesced and gave them food. Is it any wonder that, the next time they have a need, they might think whining would work again? God’s reinforced the very behaviour he doesn’t want to see.

God took on the responsibility for the Hebrews without giving any thought to human needs. At least he has some oversight – Moses is there to interface between the human and the divine. So where was Moses? Why didn’t he notice the grumbling before it turned into full-blown whining that would ignite God’s wrath? Why didn’t he intervene long before it came to this?

Well, God listens to the people complain and “the anger of the Lord blazed hotly” (v.10). He tells Moses to say to the Hebrews:

Consecrate yourselves for tomorrow, and you shall eat meat; for you have wept in the hearing of the Lord, saying, “Who will give us meat to eat? For it was well with us in Egypt.” Therefore the Lord will give you meat, and you shall eat. You shall not eat one day, or two days, or five days, or ten days, or twenty days, but a whole month, until it comes out at your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you, because you have rejected the Lord who is among you, and have wept before him, saying, “Why did we come forth out of Egypt?” (v.18-20)

Moses, having apparently forgotten about manna, is confused and can’t imagine how God could possibly accomplish this.

It’s also interesting to note how he frames his objection: “The people among whom I am number six hundred thousand on foot” (v.21). Except, no. In Numbers 1, we learned that there were 603,550 men – which makes sense given the cultural context if we’re only counting eligible soldiers. It does not  make sense if we’re counting people who need to be fed. Women, children, and the elderly also have stomachs.

Well, in any case, a big wind comes and blows the quail in from the sea. Then the quail all fall out of the sky in a big circle (a day’s walk in every direction) around the camp. Predictably, the people go out and gather a bunch of the quail. But “while the meat was yet between their teeth” (v.33), God sent a plague to kill them.

Incidentally, my Study Bible claims that this episode may be inspired by a natural phenomenon. Quails do “migrate over the region in great numbers and, when exhausted, are easily caught” (p.178).

I find it interesting that in Exodus 16, God sends quail along with the manna. Yet the quail is quickly forgotten and no one in this chapter seems to have any recollection that it ever happened.

In any case, they name the place where this happened Kibrothhattaavah – or Graves of craving – and then move on to Hazeroth. Presumably pausing to bury their dead first.


In the middle of all this, we get a little story about Moses feeling overwhelmed. He breaks down and complains to God:

Why hast thou dealt ill with thy servant? And why have I not found favor in thy sight, that thou dost lay the burden of all this people upon me? Did I conceive all this people? Did I bring them forth, that thou shouldst say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries the sucking child, to the land which thou didst sweat to give their fathers?’ Where am I to get meat to give all this people? For they weep before me and say, ‘Give us meat, that we may eat.’ I am not able to carry all this people alone, the burden is too heavy for me. If thou wilt deal thus with me, kill me at once, if I find favor in thy sight, that I may not see my wretchedness. (v.11-15).

A little on the dramatic side, but it certainly conveys the problem. And God seems sympathetic. He tells Moses to gather 70 elders – notably not the 12 tribal chiefs who were brought in to help in Numbers 1 – to the tent of meeting so that he could delegate some of Moses’ responsibilities to them. I’m assuming that this is a variation of the story where Moses appoints judges in Exodus 18:21-22.

There are times when I wish I were reading primarily from the King James Version, because it just seems like so much more fun. This is one of those times. According to the KJV, Moses’ speech includes the words: “Carry them in thy bosom, as a nursing father beareth the sucking child.” Now, when I described the culture of ancient Israel as “alien,” I did not mean that they were actually aliens. But the translators working on the KJV were clearly a little fuzzier on that point.

Well anyway, the elders gather and God takes up some of Moses’ “spirit” and puts it over the 70 elders, and which point “they prophesied” (v.24). Now that’s some strong stuff!

Apparently, not all of the elders called actually responded. Two, Eldad and Medad, stayed in the camp. We’re not told why, or why their failure to respond doesn’t seem to have earned them any reproach. But since they had been called, they were also given some of Moses’ special spirit, and so they also began to prophesy. Being inside the camp, they are witnessed by the plebs.

Joshua, son of Nun, is apparently concerned – perhaps that they may be competition for Moses. He runs to tell Moses what happens and tells him to stop them.

Moses rebukes him, saying: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!” (v.29).

At first glance, this is a rather democratic sentiment. It posits an ideal world in which everyone is a leader, and wise, and perhaps even able to interface with God. But in practice, it’s incredibly despotic. “It would be wonderful if the people could participate in their governing, but unfortunately, they just don’t have the divine mandate that I and my chosen elders have.”