1 Chronicles 6: The Levitical Line

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We next turn our attentions to the tribe of Levi. It’s worth noting both how detailed a treatment they get compared to the other tribes, and the fact that they are placed in the very middle of the genealogies, just as they were physically placed in the middle of the camp in Numbers 2. It’s hard to ignore the symbolism.

Roughly speaking, the narrative begins with the priestly genealogies, then discusses the temple musicians, and ends by looking at the territories under direct Levitical control.

The genealogy portion seems to be based on Exodus 6:16-25, but with some variations.

The sons of Levi are: Gershom, Kohath, and Merari. There’s some duplication of information as each section serves a different purpose that sometimes requires the same information. However, since my purpose is different than the Chronicler’s, I’ll be condensing a little.

The sons of Kohath are: Amram, Izhar, Hebron, and Uzziel. From Amram came Aaron, Moses, and Miriam. From Aaron, we get Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar. From this point, we follow Eleazar down in a direct line:

  1. Phinehas
  2. Abishua
  3. Bukki
  4. Uzzi
  5. Zerahiah
  6. Meraioth
  7. Amariah
  8. Ahitub
  9. Zadok
  10. Ahimaaz
  11. Azariah: According to 1 Kgs 4:2, Azariah was Zadok’s son, not his grandson. However, this wouldn’t be the first time that “son” might have been used simply to mean “a descendant of.”
  12. Johanan
  13. Azariah: The text specifies that he was priest when Solomon built the temple.
  14. Amariah
  15. Ahitub
  16. Zadok
  17. Shallum
  18. Hilkiah
  19. Azariah
  20. Seraiah
  21. Jehozadak: The text indicates that he was taken into exile by Nebuchadnezzar after the fall of Jerusalem.
Aaron, from the Frauenkirche, Dresden

Aaron, from the Frauenkirche, Dresden

There is apparently some discussion as to whether or not Zadok (#9 on this list) was really of Levitical descent. Apparently, the Jebusite Hypothesis argues that Zadok was a priest in Jerusalem, serving the Jebusite god El Elyon, when it was conquered by David. Further, it argues that David may have appointed him as high priest as an appeasement to the conquered residents of the city (not only offering some continuity of leadership, but also bridging David’s god and their own).

In support of this, the similarity between Zadok’s name and the names of pre-Israelite inhabitants of Jerusalem is pointed out (for example, Melchizedek in Gen. 14:18 and Adonizedek in Jos. 10:1).

Some apparently also cite his role in Nathan and Bathsheba’s conspiracy to place Solomon on the throne, instead of Adonijah (1 Kgs 2). The argument goes that Solomon, born in Jerusalem, would have been preferred over Adonijah, who was born in Hebron.

The second lineage of Kohath: We also get a secondary list of the sons of Kohath, which is clearly not the same as above, beginning with Amminadab, and tracing down:

  1. Korah
  2. Assir
  3. Elkanah
  4. Ebiasaph (appearing as Abiasaph in Ex. 6:24)
  5. Assir
  6. Tahath
  7. Uriel
  8. Uzziah
  9. Shaul

A few sources I looked at suggested that Amminadab might be an error here (albeit a strange one). Drawing from Exodus 6:21, they argue that Izhar may have been meant instead, which would certainly make a lot more sense.

We then get a list of descendants of someone named Elkanah, who is clearly not the Elkanah who was a descendant of Kohath. The grammar is a little fudgy, but it looks like he had two sons: Amasai and Ahimoth. Then, through Ahimoth, we get:

  1. Elkanah
  2. Zophai
  3. Nahath
  4. Eliab
  5. Jeroham
  6. Elkanah

The sons of Samuel: In 1 Chron. 6:28, switch briefly over to a Samuel, who is presumably the Samuel of 1-2 Samuel, and meant to be related to the just-named Elkanah. This works for a little while, since 1 Samuel 1:1 names Samuel’s father Elkanah, and his grandfather Jeroham. It breaks down after that, however, as Jeroham is the son of Elihu, who is the son of Tohu, who is the son of Zuph. (A genealogy that matches better occurs below, in the discussion of musicians.)

Further, since Zuph is specifically named as an Ephraimite, we have to do a bit of juggling to make him also a Levite. It’s not impossible, since we could imagine a Levitical line living in Ephraim’s territory being identified by their geographical location rather than tribal descent. It’s worth noting that there were Kohathite territories within Ephraim (listed later in 1 Chron. 6:66-69).

In this case, however, there are too many pieces that don’t fit. It seems that, the Chronicler (who at least one of his sources) wished to shoe-horn Samuel into the Levitical line to excuse the fact that he was performing cultic duties. The problem with that, though, is that Samuel is seen making burnt offerings (for example, 1 Sam. 7:10), so why not place him directly in the Aaronic line? And why not mention in 1 Samuel that he was of Levitical descent?

In any case, the sons of Samuel are listed, in order, as Joel and Abijah.

The sons of Gershom are: Libni and Shimei. Gershom, by the way, is sometimes spelled Gershon. Given the phonetic similarity, I’m assuming this is just an error, and I will use the two forms interchangeably. Gershom traces the line down through Libni:

  1. Jahath
  2. Zimmah
  3. Joah
  4. Iddo
  5. Zerah
  6. Jeatherai

The sons of Merari are:  Mahli and Mushi. Going down through Mahli, we get:

  1. Libni
  2. Shimei
  3. Uzzah
  4. Shimei
  5. Uzzah
  6. Shimea
  7. Haggiah
  8. Asaiah

Musicians

David is credited with founding the musical portion of the tabernacle service (or, at least, with reforming the system). When he initially brought the ark to Jerusalem, he appointed to “[minister] with son before the tabernacle of the tent of meeting” (1 Chron. 6:32). When Solomon built the temple, they moved with the ark.

The lineages are presented in reverse order. I’ll re-arrange them as a descent just to make the lineages more comparable to the ones we had above. Keeping in mind that it is the final member of the line who was appointed by David. I’ve bolded the appointees.

From the Kohathites:

  1. Israel
  2. Levi
  3. Kohath
  4. Izhar
  5. Korah
  6. Ebiasaph
  7. Assir
  8. Tahath
  9. Zephaniah
  10. Azariah
  11. Joel
  12. Elkanah
  13. Amasai
  14. Mahath
  15. Elkanah
  16. Zuph
  17. Toah
  18. Eliel
  19. Jeroham
  20. Elkanah
  21. Samuel
  22. Joel
  23. Heman the singer

If the Samuel listed as Heman’s grandfather is meant to be the Samuel who went around anointing Israel’s first few kings, the lineage matches much better than the one we got in 1 Chron. 6:25-28. The only differences are easily attributable to phonetic variations or scribal sloppiness (Eliel is listed as Elihu in 1 Samuel 1:1, and Toah as Tohu).

A second musician, Asaph, is identified as Heman’s brother in 1 Chron. 6:39. However, given the differences in the lineage, it seems probable that the term is meant to mean “brother in craft,” rather than as a description of a blood tie. His lineage is as follows:

  1. Levi
  2. Gershom
  3. Jahath
  4. Shimei
  5. Zimmah
  6. Ethan
  7. Adaiah
  8. Zerah
  9. Ethni
  10. Malchijah
  11. Baaseiah
  12. Michael
  13. Shimea
  14. Berechiah
  15. Asaph

The obvious problem here is that generations are skipped. Gershom’s sons are Libni and Shimei in 1 Chron. 6:17. Jahath isn’t listed until 1 Chron. 6:20, as the son of Libni (Gershom’s grandson). Shimei is missing from the 1 Chron. 6:20 version. After that, the comparison breaks down entirely, as the 1 Chron. 6:21 version continues with Joah, while this list continues through Ethan.

The first two errors can be fairly easily explained either as accidental errors, or as the Chronicler finding himself with a list containing a lovely symbolically resonant fourteen generations between Levi and Asaph, yet finding that it does not quite match his other source. He may have sacrificed Libni in order to include Shimei while still preserving the desired number of generations.

The final error also isn’t too difficult to explain, as there is nothing to say that Zimmah had only one son. His eldest might well have been Joah, while Asaph was descended from a secondary branch.

From the Merarites: The Merarites put forward one appointee, Ethan. His lineage goes:

  1. Levi
  2. Merari
  3. Mushi
  4. Mahli
  5. Shemer
  6. Bani
  7. Amzi
  8. Hilkiah
  9. Amaziah
  10. Hashabiah
  11. Malluch
  12. Abdi
  13. Kishi
  14. Ethan

The sons of Aaron: But only descendants of Aaron were allowed to make offerings, at least in the Chronicler’s time. His lineage is repeated down to Ahimaaz, and is identical to the one in 1 Chron. 6:4-8.

Levitical Territories

In 1 Chron. 6:54, the narrative moves into a discussion of the territories controlled by the tribe of Levi. This list corresponds largely to the one in Joshua 21, even presenting them in the same order (first to the Kohathites, then the Gershonites, then the Merarites).

Kohathite Cities: To the Kohathites, specifically the descendants of Aaron, Judah provided the following cities of refuge: Hebron, Libnah, Jattir, Eshtemoa, Hilen, Debir, Ashan, and Beth-shemesh. An added detail is given about Hebron: While the Levites get the town’s surrounding pasture lands, the fields and villages belong to Caleb son of Jephunneh.

Simeon won’t be listed here as a contributing tribe, but Ashan is allotted to them in Jos. 19:7. This suggests that Simeon had already been absorbed by Judah by the time the Chronicler’s source was written.

From Benjamin, the Kohathites received: Geba, Alameth, and Anathoth.

At this point, the text tells us that the Kohathites control 13 towns (1 Chron. 6:60), but the actual count reveals only 11. By comparing the list to Jos. 21:13-19, we can assume that Juttah and Gibeon were accidentally dropped by the Chronicler (or a subsequent scribe).

There appears to be a corruption of the text in 1 Chron. 6:61. The corresponding spot in Joshua is Jos. 21:5, where we learn that the Kohathites receive ten further towns from Ephraim, Dan, and the half-tribe of Manasseh. The towns are not named in either location.

From Ephraim, they received Shechem, Gezer, Jokmeam, Beth-horon, Aijalon, and Gathrimmon.

The cities contributed by Dan aren’t listed, but  Jos. 21:23-24 names both Aijalon and Gathrimmon as coming from Dan. This seems to be another scribal error.

From the half-tribe of Manasseh, they received Aner and Bileam.

Gershomite Cities: Gershom received thirteen cities from Issachar, Asher, Naphtali, and Manasseh.

From the half-tribe of Manasseh, they received: Golan in Bashan, and Ashtaroth. From Issachar, they received Kedesh, Daberath, Ramoth, and Anem. From Asher, they received Mashal, Abdon, Hukok, and Rehob. And from Naphtali, they received Kedesh in Galilee, Hammon, and Kiriathaim.

Merarite Cities: Merari received twelve cities from Reuben, Gad, and Zebulun.

From Zebulun, they received Rimmono and Tabor. In the Transjordan, they received from Reuben: Bezer, Jahzah, Kedemoth, and Mephaath. From Gad, they received Ramoth in Gilead, Mahanaim, Heshbon, and Jazer.

I only get a count of ten cities, rather than the twelve claimed, but there is some grammatical weirdness around 1 Chron. 6:78 that could account for the discrepancy.

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?

Joshua 13-21: Land allotments, oh my!

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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.

ChariotsBecause 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.

The Remainder

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:

  1. Kedesh in Naphtali’s territory
  2. Shechem in Ephraim’s territory
  3. Kiriatharba (Hebron) in Judah’s territory
  4. Bezer in Reuben’s territory
  5. Ramoth in Gad’s territory
  6. 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.

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

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

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

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

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

On to Hazor

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

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

On the subject, Collins writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summaries

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

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

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

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

Joshua 9: Joshua continues to display questionable judgement

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A bunch of kings in the area start getting nervous about Joshua’s inept bungling into conquest, and start talking about forming an alliance. Then that narrative is suddenly dropped (to be resumed in the next chapter) in favour of the one involving the Gibeonites (who will also make a reappearance in the next chapter).

The Gibeonites, you see, have figured out that Joshua has the ark – think of it like the nuclear arsenal of the ancient world. So long as Joshua has God on his side, they can’t hope to fight him and survive – the only option is to join him. But there’s a problem, Deut. 20:15-16 forbids the Israelites from becoming friendly with anyone currently living in the Promised Land. So the Gibeonites, probably reflecting for about half a moment on Joshua’s decision-making skills so far, decide that a little trickery is worth a try.

Joshua 3They dress themselves in rags and worn-out shoes, they fill their bags with stale and moldy food, they probably even roll around in the dust a bit to complete the effect.

They then go to Joshua and introduce themselves as emissaries from a distant land, showing him their worn gear as proof of their long journey (though Gibeon itself is a mere seven miles away from Ai, according to my study Bible, p.273). Joshua, choosing not to consider that he hasn’t been in the area long enough for emissaries to have been sent from much further than the real Gibeon and apparently unwilling to check in with God or, heaven’s forbid, check a map, strikes an alliance with the Gibeonites.

It takes him three whole days to finally come back with a “heeeey, wait a minute!” But when he does, it’s too late. The alliance has been struck and he can’t back out of it now.

Joshua, displaying once again that he is not the leader of the Israelites because of any personal intelligence that recommends him above his fellows, confronts the Gibeonites and asks them “Why did you deceive us?” (Josh. 9:22). Like, really? He needed to ask after just burning Jericho and Ai to the ground, slaughtering every living thing (except the trees)?

Realizing that he can’t slaughter the Gibeonites, Joshua does the next best thing: he enslaves them. Henceforth, they shall be responsible for the hewing of wood and the drawing of water for the as-yet-non-existent Temple.

EDIT: According to Paul Davidson of Is That In The Bible?, it appears that Gibeon was not inhabited during the late Bronze Age.

Deuteronomy 29-30: The sealing of the covenant

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In these two chapters, Moses concludes his treatise. Once again, he summarizes the journey so far and the sorts of awesome works God has used to demonstrate his power, including the fact that they’ve been wandering in the desert for forty years without their clothes or sandals wearing out. Personally, I’d say that might be more indicative of losing a couple calendars, time warps, accidentally entering the Fey lands, or perhaps a testament to the quality of pre-WalMartization clothing.

There’s another mention of conquering lands from King Sihon of Heshbon and Og of Bashan, giving their lands to the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh.

Coming to the present, the people are gathered at Mount Horeb to swear to the covenant, which will be binding not only on them, but also those who are not present (I assume he means the descendants).

A Poisonous Root

Moses reminds the people to beware of anyone who approaches the covenant without full commitment, “lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit” (Deut. 29:18).

The Olive Trees, by Vincent van Gogh, 1889

The Olive Trees, by Vincent van Gogh, 1889

Further, no one should think that simply agreeing to the covenant is enough, that they’ve done their good deed, and can then continue to “walk in the stubbornness of my heart” (Deut. 29:19).

This is actually quite a good point and something that made me rather cynical when I worked for not-for-profits. Generally, people in my sector (at least in my corner of the sector) earned less than their for-profit or public sector doubles. I noticed that a lot of my co-workers, particularly the higher ups, seemed to think that they were earning their brownie points by working in the sector, so they didn’t have to do other little acts of kindness – like treat the people at the bottom of the totem pole with respect and fairness, or not steal people’s labelled lunches from the common refrigerator (seriously, what is someone making $100K+ doing stealing the lunch of someone who makes under $30K??).

It reminds me a bit of the famous compassion study.

Anyways, point is that I do like that Moses makes clear that simply making a big show of faith is not enough, commitment must be demonstrated by action.

I also find it notable that Moses tells the whole congregation to “beware” of those who are this way (and though I haven’t mentioned it, this includes people who might worship other gods, not just hypocrites). In doing so, it becomes the whole community’s responsibility to be on the lookout for evil or lapsing. Obviously, this isn’t something I like at all. I am all for an individual being held accountable for his stated beliefs, but all the stuff we’ve been getting about worship and the relationship with God being a communal action makes me very nervous – particularly as someone who is of a minority belief in my geographical area.

Then there’s a passage I’m a bit confused about. In Deut. 29:29, Moses says: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God; but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law.”

According to David Plotz, the distinction being made is between an individual’s private thoughts and his outward actions:

The Israelites don’t believe in thought crime! The community must punish public wrongdoing. But God will take care of private sin and bad thoughts. This is, you could argue, the first right to privacy.

My study Bible, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to see this at all:

The secret things refer to the divine wisdom beyond man’s ken; the revealed things are the teachings set forth in Deuteronomy. (p.254)

Which I take to mean a distinction between the mysteries of spirituality and that which God has revealed to his people. I’m not sure that I understand how this interpretation is supposed to fit in the context, and I’m inclined to take Plotz’s interpretation.

More Carrots, More Sticks

Unable to help himself, it seems, Moses returns with the carrot and the stick. Follow all the commandments and everything will be completely, utterly, stupendously awesome. Interestingly, the description of how awesome it will be in Deut. 30:1-10 seems to presuppose a people in exile, rather than a people coming into awesome for the first time.

Remember, God made the promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that he would bring their descendants to greatness. Never was it assumed that they were great at the time (and with only ~70 people heading down into Egypt and the slavery that followed, they could hardly be considered to be as numerous as the stars!). Then there was slavery, then there was walking in the desert for forty years eating nothing but manna and poisoned quail. There’s no call for all this “return” and “restore” language.

This passage also doesn’t describe a whole people moving from one place to another. The language suggests a scattering – “if your outcasts are in the uttermost part of heaven” – and a calling back – “from there the Lord your God will gather you, and from there he will fetch you” (Deut. 30:4).

And there’s there obligatory “if you don’t follow the commandments” threats. Namely, that Israel will be pulverized so bad that they’ll resemble Soddom and Gomorrah, or Admah and Zeboim.

I had to look up the latter two because I couldn’t recall a destruction of any Admah or Zeboim. If my Google-fu can be trusted, my memory was correct. The cities have come into the narrative twice, but in very different contexts:

  1. Gen. 10:19 – They are used as geographical markers to describe the borders of Canaan.
  2. Gen. 14:2 – They are on Sodom and Gomorrah’s side in the totally contextless and very confusing battle against Chedorlaomer.

But apparently there exists some alternative tradition in which they are also named among the destroyed cities.

Look, I’ve made it easy for you

Closing up, Moses argues that the people now have the Law, it’s been given to them. It isn’t far off in heaven or across the sea, it’s not inaccessible. Therefore, there is only the choice to either follow it or not, with no excuse not to. “I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil” (Deut. 30:15).

Which makes perfect sense from a Hebrew, “chosen people” perspective, but I wonder how Christians view this passage given how many people have lived and died with the Law literally being across the sea and totally inaccessible. From the perspective of a missionary religion, this passage is much more difficult.

I do know that there’s been some wrangling to make sins “not count” for people who had never been in contact with “the right religion” and therefore had no ability to make an informed choice. I would also include in that lot people who grew up with their own religions – such as some of my Muslim friends – and who would therefore have heard of Christianity in a very different context (when they finally did).

Also, has Moses even read the ordinances? Most of them aren’t too bad, but one thing I hear often from devout Jews is that keeping them is extremely hard, especially if you add in the difficulty of even knowing what they are some of the time (like the extent that the prohibition against boiling a kid in its mother’s milk should be applied, or how to understand the prohibition against making others work on the Sabbath in a modern context). To reduce it to a simple matter of choice isn’t exactly honest.

There’s also some conflating of Moses and God in this passage. In telling the people to follow the Law, Moses says: “For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you” (Deut. 30:11). Is Moses merely describing his role as the relater of the laws, or is there really some conflation?

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 32: The eager beavers

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While hanging out in Gilead, along the east bank of the Jordan river, representatives of the tribes of Gad and Reuben come to Moses, Eleazar, and the other tribal leaders. They point out that the lands they’re in now are actually kinda nice, and they’d really be rather quite content to just stay here.

Moses shames Gad and Reuben for letting “your brethren go to the war while you sit here” (v.6). He asks them if they would discourage the rest by bailing now, and reminds them of how their forefathers had discouraged the people after the scouting episode in Numbers 13. Remember, he says, God sentenced us to 40 years in the wilderness after that!

“Behold,” says Moses. “You have risen in your fathers’ stead, a brood of sinful men, to increase still more the fierce anger of the Lord against Israel! For if you turn away from following him, he will again abandon them in the wilderness; and you will destroy all this people” (v.14-15).

Bit much? Sure. Bad enough that David Plotz is left rather uncomfortable with the Moses character arc:

Moses’ indignation comes from nowhere and seems entirely undeserved. […] Again, it’s hard not to feel that the brilliant and humane prophet who has dominated the Torah is slipping away, and that he has suddenly become an old, angry, vindictive tyrant.

I don’t think that Plotz is being fair here. An army can’t function if soldiers keep dropping out, en masse, along the way. If all the tribes are going to get their own land, all the tribes have to fight for it. Otherwise, the first couple get to settle down, and the remaining tribes will be too few in number to continue the campaign.

Moses has, absolutely, been acting like a tyrant. But I don’t think that’s the case in this particular chapter. Rather, Moses is telling Gad and Reuben that they don’t just get to take theirs and run. They have to stick it through until everyone gets their share.

I may not agree with the whole holy war / take the land through slaughter thing, but if you’re going to do it, at least do it as a team.

The Compromise

Gad and Reuben respond with a compromise. They propose that they build fortified cities “for our little ones” (v.16) and sheepfolds for their flocks, then march out with the Israelite army. That way, at least their animals, wives, and children would be safe while they fight. “We will not return to our homes until the people of Israel have inherited each his inheritance” (v.18).

Proving that Moses is not nearly as unreasonable in this chapter as Plotz made him out to be, he agrees to this compromise. Since he won’t be crossing the Jordan personally, he conveys the deal to Eleazar and Joshua.

The punishment if Gad and Reuben fail to uphold their part of the bargain is, by the way, incredibly light as far as biblical threats go. Moses says to Eleazar and Joshua that if Reuben and Gad don’t pull through, “they shall have possessions among you in the land of Canaan” (v.30). That’s right, if they fulfil their end of the bargain, they get the nice lands that they want. If they don’t, they get the perfectly fine lands that were originally planned for them. This is “old, angry, vindictive tyrant” Plotz is so concerned about?

As you can see from the map, Manasseh also has a little patch of land over on the east side of the river. They get stuck in here, totally as if they’d been in the deal from the beginning, as Moses dedicates the lands to the three tribes. Verses 34-42 just list all the various towns that the three tribes build.

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.