1 Chronicles 4-5: The Tribal Histories

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In these two chapters, we get something of an infodump on the tribes of Judah, Simeon, Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh. The portions about Judah and Simeon (1 Chron. 4) seem largely taken from Joshua 15 and Joshua 19, respectively. It seems that the two tribes were rather closely related, and that Simeon was at some point absorbed into Judah.

In 1 Chron. 5, we get the Transjordan tribes: Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh (the Transjordan portion of the tribe).

Judah

We begin with the sons of Judah: Perez, Hezron, Carmi, Hur, and Shobal. Following Shobal’s line, we get Reaiah, and Reaiah’s son Jahath. Jahath was the father of Ahumai and Lahad. These, we are told, were the families of the Zorathites.

It’s clear right from here that this is a very different kind of history than the one we got a few chapters ago. This list of Judah’s sons bears little resemblance to the one we got in 1 Chron. 2:3-8. More to the point, I recognize many of the names as place names. I think it likely that this is a list of founders (mythical or otherwise) of the various settlements in Judah.

If I read the grammar correctly, we then skip over to a Hur, son of Ephrathah (the founder, or “father” of Bethlehem). He had two sons: Etam, Penuel, and Ezer. Etam’s children were Jezreel, Ishma, and Idbash (plus a daughter, Hazzelelponi), Penuel fathered Gedor, and Ezer fathered Hushah.

Ashhur, Tekoa’s father, had two wives: Helah and Naarah. Naarah gave birth to Ahuzzam, Hepher, Temeni, and Haahashtari. Helah gave birth to Zereth, Izhar, and Ethnan.

Koz fathered Anub, Zobebah, and the families of Aharhel (the son of Harum).

We start seeing a little more detail with Jabez, who “was more honorable than his brothers” (1 Chron. 4:9). His name, which means “he giveth pain,” was given to him by his mother after what appears to have been a particularly difficult labour. We are told that Jabez prayed to God to bless him, give him more land, and not hurt him. His prayer was granted, inspiring a Bruce Wilkinson book titled The Prayer of Jabez, which has been accused of flirting with the prosperity gospel (the essence of which is that praying and giving all your money to your pastor will lead to earthly prosperity).

It’s easy enough to see how this mini-story might lend itself to something like the prosperity gospel (though I can’t say that Wilkinson actually falls into that, since I haven’t read the book). However, given the cultural context and the power names were thought to have had, it seems likely that this was just a little detail meant to show that, through faith, Jabez was able to overcome the curse of his name.

Chelub was brother to Shuhah and father of Mehir, and Mehir was father of Eshton. Eshton, in turn, fathered Bethrapha, Paseah, and Tehinnah. Tehinnah fathered Irnahash. These guys were from a place called Recah.

Kenaz fathered Othniel and Seraiah. Othniel fathered Hathath and Meonothai. Meonothai fathered Ophrai. Seraiah fathered Joab, who fathered Geharashim (which, we are told, was so called because they were craftsmen – 1 Chron. 4:14).

Caleb, the son of Jephunneh (almost certainly the same Caleb as can be found in Joshua 15:13-19), had the following sons: Iru, Elah, and Naam. Elah fathered Kenaz. My New Bible Commentary points out that this Caleb’s genealogy does not link up at any point, reinforcing the notion that he was a non-Israelite who was adopted into Judah (p.373).

A Jehallelel fathered Ziph, Ziphah, Tiria, and Asarel, while an Ezrah fathered Jether, Mered, Epher, and Jalon. Mered married Bithiah, the daughter of a Pharaoh, and they produced Miriam, Shammai, and Ishbah (Ishbah fathered Eshtemoa). Mered also had a Jewish wife, who bore Jered (who fathered Gedor), Heber (who fathered Soco), and Jekuthiel (who fathered Zanoah).

Someone by the name of Hodiah married a sister of Naham. Their sons were the fathers of Keilah the Garmite and Eshtemoa the Maacathite.

A Shimon fathered Amnon, Rinnah, Benhanan, and Tilon. Ishi fathered Zoheth and Benzoheth (a rather strange arrangement, given that “Benzoheth” would mean “son of Zoheth”).

Shelah, Judah’s son, fathered Er (father of Lecah), Laadah (father of Mareshah), and the families of the linen workers of Bethashbea.

Jokim and the men of Cozeba, Joash, and Saraph ruled in Moab, but returned to Lehem. They were the potters and inhabitants of Netaim and Gederah, and lived there to work for the king. My New Bible Commentary brings up an interesting note: “Archeology has shown that the potter’s craft was hereditary” (p.373). The more you know.

Simeon

For the second part of 1 Chron. 4, we turn to Simeon. I noted above that Simeon was apparently absorbed into Judah at some point. It’s a point that many of my sources claim without commentary or explanation. A fact that I found rather frustrating.

It took a little bit of a digging, but I started to find some textual clues. For example, Genesis 49:5-7 links Simeon with Levi – the landless priestly tribe – and promises to “divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel.” By the time we get to Moses’s blessing in Deut. 33, Simeon is absent entirely.

As for its absorption into Judah, specifically, we can turn to Joshua 15:26-32, where several of Simeon’s towns are listed as being allotted to Judah.

The final piece comes from this very chapter. When the towns of Simeon are listed, the passage ends by stating that: “These were their cities until David reigned” (1 Chron. 4:32). I find that this one small verse is solidifying the perception of David that I got through reading 1-2 Samuel and 1 Kings – that he was a local warlord who came to control his tribe and, from there, continued his warlord-y activities. Evidently, that seems to have included an ongoing campaign against surrounding tribes.

We also learn in 1 Samuel 27:6 that David came into possession of Ziklag, one of the towns we will see listed as those belonging to Simeon.

From this, it seems rather clear that Simeon had ceased to be a distinct group long before the Chronicler came to write his account (despite the fact that they seemed to have maintained some kind of separate identity, at least for a while, as “they kept a genealogical record” – 1 Chron. 4:33). So why would the Chronicler bother to include them in his treatment of the tribes? The obvious answer is that the first portion of Chronicles is meant to present an ideal Israel, of which Simeon is a part.

As with Judah, the genealogy is clearly not meant to be such. We begin with a list of sons which deviates rather significantly from what we’ve seen before. Here, Simeon’s sons are Nemuel, Jamin, Jarib, Zerah, and Shaul. In Genesis 46:10, Nemuel is Jemuel, Jarib seems to be Jachin, Zerah seems to be Zohar, Ohad is added, and only Jamin and Shaul remain unchanged.

The next connection is unclear, as we are told that “Shallum was his son” (1 Chron. 4:25), but the “his” is not identified. From there, Shallum’s son is Mibsam, who fathered Mishma.

The sons of Mishma are Hammuel, Zaccur, and Shimei (though the grammar makes it possible that this is a lineage, Mishma to Hammuel to Zaccur to Shimei). Shimei had 16 sons and 6 daughters, but his brothers didn’t have many children, “nor did all their family multiply like the men of Judah” (1 Chron. 4:27). We see this represented in Numbers where, in the first census, the tribe held 59,300 men capable of fighting (Num. 1:22-23), whereas by the time of the second census, they had only 22,200 (Num. 26:12-14).

The text goes on to list their cities, which roughly corresponds to their allotment in Jos. 19:2-8: Beersheba, Moladah, Hazarshual, Bilhah (appearing as Balah in Joshua), Ezem, Tolad (appearing as Eltolad in Joshua), Bethuel (appearing as Bethul in Joshua), Hormah, Ziklag, Bethmarcaboth, Hazarsusim (appearing as Hazarsusah in Joshua), Bethbiri (possibly corresponding to Joshua’s Bethlebaoth), and Shaaraim (possibly corresponding to Joshua’s Sharuhen), which they controlled until David’s reign. This list is only missing Sheba from Joshua’s version.

Next come their villages, which again corresponds to Jos. 19:2-8: Etam (which does not appear in Joshua), Ain, Rimmon, Tochen (which does not appear in Joshua), and Ashan. The Joshua version also adds a town called Ether, making the count five here and four in Joshua.

While the tribe of Simeon, as a whole, was shrinking, some families seem to have been doing all right. The following princes’ houses “increased greatly” (1 Chron. 4:38: Meshobab, Jamlech, Joshah son of Amaziah, Joel, Jehu son of Joshibiah (the son of Seraiah son of Asiel), Elioenai, Jaakobah, Jeshohaiah, Asaiah, Adiel, Jesimiel, Benaiah, and Ziza son of Shiphi (the son of Allon son Jedaiah son of Shimri son of Shemaiah).

These princes migrated to the better pastureland in Gedor, in lands that used to belong to the descendants of Ham. In the days of King Hezekiah of Judah, they came and destroyed the Meunim who were living there, and settled down (it seems that they had maintained a nomadic lifestyle up until that point, see the reference to tents in 1 Chron. 4:41).

Another group, or perhaps an offshoot group, went to Mount Seir. These were led by the sons of Ishi: Pelatiah, Neariah, Rephaiah, and Uzziel. There, they killed off the remnant of the Amalekites.

Reuben

Reuben’s section kicks off 1 Chron. 5. Right off the bat, we are given an explanation for why he does not appear at the head of the list despite being the first-born son of Jacob (here consistently called Israel). It is, of course, because he “polluted his father’s couch” (1 Chon. 5:1), presumably a reference to his sleeping with his father’s concubine in Gen. 35:22.

From The History of Joseph and His Brethren, illustration by Owen Jones, 1869

From The History of Joseph and His Brethren, illustration by Owen Jones, 1869

Instead, continues the Chronicler, Reuben’s special portion (a “double portion,” according to Deut. 21:15-17) transferred to the sons of Joseph. This makes little sense to me, since Joseph was not the next in line. Looking at Gen. 29-30, we see that the next children were, in order, Simeon, Levi, and Judah. Since Simeon and Levi were “scattered,” that leaves Judah as the principle inheritor (which would make sense). However, 1 Chron. 5:1 specifically states that “his birthright was given to the sons of Joseph,” who wasn’t born until Gen. 30:23-24, making him the penultimate son (Benjamin being the youngest).

The explanation is, of course, both that Joseph received a “double portion” by having both of his sons inherit as if they were his brothers, and in the fact that both Ephraim and Manasseh were large tribes in control of comparatively large patches of territory. But in the personification story, it makes little sense.

The narrative then moves on to the sons of Reuben, listed here as: Hanoch, Pallu, Hezron, and Carmi. This corresponds neatly to the list found in Num. 26:5-6, but for some reason doesn’t include the further descendants from Num. 26:7-9 (was the Chronicler not interested? Or did he not have access to the complete list?).

We then move on to the lineage of Joel, whose connection to Reuben’s genealogy is not clear, but at least the final of which was a Reubenite chieftain. It goes from Joel, to Shemaiah, to Gog, to Shimei, to Micah, to Reaiah, to Baal, and finally to Beerah, who was carried into exile by Assyria’s Tilgath-pilneser.

His (I assume this refers back to Beerah) kinsmen were Jeiel (a chief), Zechariah, and Bela. Bela was the son of Azaz, who was the son of Shema, who was the son of Joel. Perhaps the same Joel as above. Joel lived in Aroer, as far as Nebo and Baalmeon, but it seems that the group’s territory was forced east as their herds multiplied.

While Saul was king, the Reubenites fought and won against the Hagrites.

Gad

Strangely, this section does not list the sons of Gad (which can be found in Gen. 46:16), but rather goes straight into a discussion of its prominent members. Except that this doesn’t match the similar list found in Num. 26:15-18.

Here, the descendants of Gad who live “in the land of Bashan as far as Salecah” (1 Chron. 5:11) are: Joel the chief (the same as the Reubenite Joel?), Shapham, Janai, and Shaphat. They had the following kinsmen: Michael, Meshullam, Sheba, Jorai, Jacan, Zia, and Eber. These seven were the sons of Abihail, who was the son of Huri, who was the son of Jaroah, who was the son of Gilead, who was the son of Michael, who was the son of Jeshishai, who was the son of Jahdo, who was the son of Buz. Their chief seems to have been a certain Ahi son of Abdiel (who was the son of Guni).

These names were all recorded in the days of King Jotham of Judah and King Jeroboam of Israel. The importance of these men is not stated, and they were likely included simply because they were names that the Chronicler had available to him.

Just as a point of interest, it seems that the Moabite Stone (or Mesha Stele) specifically mentions the men of Gad. From this, we know that Gad was known as its own tribal identity at least in this point of time – around 840 BCE.

The Hagrite War

Before finishing up the record of the Transjordan tribes, the narrative turns to a description of war against the Hagrites, likely the same as was mentioned above.

The Reubenites, Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh had great warriors who did normal warrior things and had normal warrior equipment. In this account, there were 44,760 men, across the three tribes, who were ready to fight. The number is almost certainly inflated, of course.

This massive number of soldiers moved against the Hagrites. Specifically, these Hagrites: Jetur, Naphish, and Nodab. The Transjordan tribes cried out to God during the battle and, because of this (and surely not their massive numbers), they won the war. This allowed them to carry off 50,000 camels, 250,000 sheep, 2,000 donkeys, and 100,000 people. Unfortunately, the number of people they were able to carry off was diminished by the high casualties on the loser’s side, “because the war was of God” (1 Chron. 5:22).

The Hagrites seem to have been an Arab group. The name itself sounds rather like Hagar, Sarah’s handmaiden and the mother of Ishmael. That’s flimsy enough, but two of the Hagrite names (Jetur and Naphish) can be found in the list of Ishmael’s sons in Gen. 25:12-15.

The half-tribe of Manasseh

Finally, we reach the final Transjordan tribe. It might seem strange that the details about the war against the Hagrites was crowbarred in the middle, but the reason will shortly become apparent.

The description of the half-tribe of Manasseh (that would be the portion of it located in the Transjordan) begins by emphasizing just how numerous they were.

The house heads were: Epher, Ishi, Eliel, Azriel, Jeremiah, Jodaviah, and Jahdiel. These men are described as mighty warriors and famous men, despite the fact that I‘ve never heard of them.

Unfortunately, they transgressed against God by worshipping the “gods of the peoples of the land, whom God had destroyed before them: (1 Chron. 5:25). Because of this, God sent Assyria’s Pul and Tilgath-pilneser to conquer and take them into exile.

In other words, the exact opposite of what happened in the war against the Hagrites, where the people prayed to God instead of being unfaithful.

All three Transjordan tribes were taken into exile, and brought to Halah, Habor, Hara, and the river Gozan, where they live even “to this day” (1 Chron. 6:26). This list corresponds, despite the absence of Medes, to the one given in 2 Kgs 17:6 and 2 Kgs 18:11-12.

James Pate points to one possible take-away of this story: That the Transjordan tribes doomed themselves by choosing lands for themselves, rather than waiting for God’s allotment (Numbers 32). However, as he points out, the victory against the Hagrites seems to argue against this interpretation, since they were still granted victory so long as they continued to be faithful to God.

Thoughts

In reading these two chapters, I was struck by how haphazard it seems. While the author(s) of Judges and Deuteronomy each employed a predictable formula to organize their subjects, adding details here and there, these accounts present quite different kinds of information for each tribe. It feels as though the Chronicler only had access to whatever records each tribe happened to keep, the priorities of each tribe depending on its particular flavour.

Names are included without much rhyme or reason. Perhaps censuses were taken, so these were just the names the Chronicler had available.

1 Samuel 29-30: The Great Rescue

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Before we got sidetracked by Saul’s adventures in Endor, we learned that David was going out to fight with the Philistines against the Israelites. So far, David has managed to avoid the conflict of interest by lying about the victims of his raids (1 Samuel 27), but now his betrayal seems inevitable.

At no point are we given insight into David’s feelings about all of this. He seems perfectly willing to follow Achish into battle in 1 Samuel 28, and he expresses no reservations here. Rather, it is the other Philistines who complain about his presence – worried that David might turn on them during the battle, seeing this as a great strategy if David wants to reconcile himself with Saul.

After all, they say, isn’t this the David from the song?

Saul has slain his thousands,
and David his ten thousands (1 Sam. 29:5)

Achish defends David’s presence, arguing that David has shown himself to be nothing if not loyal. But, in the end, he gives in to the will of the people (and interesting parallel to Saul who, in 1 Sam. 15:22, 24, claimed that he only disobeyed God because he was afraid to go against the popular opinion – just as, here, Achish goes against his conscience for the same reason).

David protests using much the same language as he used when defending himself to Saul in 1 Samuel 24 and 1 Samuel 26, but ultimately gives in and heads back to Ziklag, conveniently spared the faux pas of having to fight against his own people (over whom he will son be king, no less!).

The common argument about this story is that it gives David an out. He was apparently known to have defected to the Philistines, and trying to erase that historical detail would have proved impossible. What was possible, however, was at least keeping him away from the battle in which his chief nemesis dies, exonerating David from any intentional power play.

David versus the Amalekites

When David gets back to Ziklag, he finds that the town has been raided by Amalekites and burned, the women (including David’s two wives, Ahinoam and Abigail) taken captive.

David rescues the captives, Maciejowski Bible, c.1250

David rescues the captives, Maciejowski Bible, c.1250

This apparently has a rather profound effect on morale, because David’s followers start talking about stoning him. Which seems a little extreme, but perhaps the rationale is that they wouldn’t have left their families undefended if David had not taken them out to fight with the Philistines. To defend himself, we are told that David “strengthened himself in the Lord his God” (1 Sam. 30:6). It’s not really clear what this means, but perhaps he invoked their belief in God (and his position as God’s chosen) to dissuade the people from mutiny.

As he’s been doing a lot before making major decisions (even when they seem as clear cut as “shall I rescue my wives?”), David calls for Abiathar to consult God. Should he pursue the bandits, he asks? Of course, God says yes, so David marches out with his 600 fighting men.

Some of them appear to be getting a little on in years, because 200 of them simply can’t go on after they reach Besor. David carries on with his remaining 400 men. This will be important later.

On their way, they encounter a starving Egyptian. They feed him – apparently quite well – and find out that he is the servant of one of the Amalekites, left behind after he had fallen sick. According to the Egyptian, Ziklag was not the only place hit, the Amalekites had also raided the Negeb of the Cherethites, areas belonging to Judah, and the Negeb of Caleb. He agrees to lead David to the raiders.

He does so and David smites all except for 400 who manage to flee.

Everything and everyone taken is recovered from the Amalekites, plus a good deal of spoil. Not a bad run, all told.

When David’s army rejoins with the 200 men they had left behind at Besor, the 400 who had gone on start grumbling that they shouldn’t have to share the spoils with people who didn’t even fight. Heck, they don’t even want to return their property (except for women and children, which is a concession I’m glad they made).

David argues that those who fight in the battle and those who stay behind to guard the baggage are both important, and both deserve a share of the spoils. He makes this an ordinance that is to apply to all Israel henceforth, though it isn’t clear on what authority he does this.

Once he returns to Ziklag, David sends part of the spoils out to various elders of Judah, smoothing any concerns over his allegiance and presumably paving the way for their support when it comes time to select a new king of Israel.

How many times can an Amalekite die?

It’s been pointed out that the Amalekites are utterly killed on several occasions. There are a couple possible explanations for this.

Reconciling Samuel’s slaughter of the Amalekites with Saul’s is rather easy, as it could be that Samuel’s list is not of his personal achievements in battle, but rather of the achievements of Israel/God while under his spiritual leadership.

For Saul and David, it could be that we’re dealing with hyperbole. It’s not like the authors of the Bible are totally unfamiliar with the technique.

It could also be that we’re dealing with a subset of Amalekites, not the entire people. We’ve seen this before, particularly in censuses, where the term “people” is used when only the adult men are meant. So in 1 Samuel 15: 7-8, it could well be that the “all the people” Saul kills refers only to the men currently on that battlefield. This might well exclude the raiding party for David.

Judges 1-2: Introduction to the judge cycle

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

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

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

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

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

Tribal Conquests (sort of)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Itty Bitty Stories

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

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

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

The moral of the story

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

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

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

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

Joshua 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

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 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.

Numbers 14: The people are revolting!

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When we finished up last time, the scouts (minus Caleb) were making an “evil report” about all the nasty stuff awaiting the Israelites in Canaan.

Frightened, the people start to question Moses and Aaron’s leadership. Believing that they have no future ahead of them, they regret that they will be dying in the wilderness rather than in their own homes back in Egypt – an understandable concern given the realities of burial and remembrance for the dead in nomadic societies, combined with the emphasis on ancestors and genealogies that we’ve seen so far in our story.

Of course, the point of this story is that the people aren’t trusting God, they’ve lost confidence that he’ll be able to pull off the whole Canaan thing. From a Small Gods perspective, it makes total sense that God would be really upset by this lack of faith since it would, literally, diminish his power (and himself!). It also makes sense in a cultural context where gods are worthy of worship based on their displays of power, which makes “we’re just not sure you can pull this off” mean effectively the same thing as “I’m planning to cheat on you, Barbara.”

Over and over again, we’ve seen that the narrative’s emphasis is on God’s power, not his goodness, love, or any other trait. This only makes sense in a henotheistic context. Also, from a relationship standpoint, it seems that God is putting his eggs in the wrong basket. A relationship that is based on one party always outperforming the competition is on inherently shaky ground. I think that it might have been better for God if it had focused instead on developing a relationship of mutual respect and understanding. Just as an example, anticipating that his people – as mortals – would need to eat and not waiting until they beg him for food to provide it. Another example would be to then not slaughter a whole bunch of them when they ask for some variety in their diet. Obviously, it’s not ideal to base a relationship solely on material gifts, but that would certainly have been a better start than simply reminding the people on a regular basis of how easily he can make their heads go squishy.

But David Plotz points out that the focus on God’s experience of the events may be missing the point for the humans:

But can you blame them? One of the lessons of the Iraq occupation is that people who’ve been oppressed for generations are not immediately ready for tolerant, rational self-government. They have habits of violence and intolerance and suspicion of authority that can’t be shrugged off in a moment. The Israelites were in bondage for 400 years, enslaved to brutal dictators: It’s unreasonable to expect them to immediately govern themselves and trust in God. God abandoned them for 20 generations, and He expects them to count on Him after a few months. I understand the Israelites’ fears—they needed, perhaps, a gentler God.

In any case, they decide to choose a new leader and return to Egypt.

Of course, Moses and Aaron come to God’s defence – and this time they are joined by Joshua, son of Nun, and Caleb, son of Jephunneh. Moses and Aaron fall on their faces while Caleb and Joshua take up clothes-rending duty and tell the people that the land they had spied out really is quite lovely.

Gone off the deep end a little, the people respond by agreeing to “stone them with stones” (v.10), which seems rather more dignified than being stoned with, say, aubergines, but nonetheless rather unpleasant.

God has a say

God’s not about to let a bunch of hooligans harm his BFF, so his “glory” swoops down to the tent of meeting.

Moses and the Messengers from Canaan, by Giovanni Lanfranco, 1621-1624

Moses and the Messengers from Canaan, by Giovanni Lanfranco, 1621-1624

“How long will this people despise me?” (v.11), he asks Moses. It’s a bit needy, isn’t it? I mean, putting it into human terms, this question really isn’t very flattering. The guy has just spend pages upon pages giving the people a huge set of rules, many of which seem to have no purpose other than making sure that the Israelites can’t have any non-Israelite friends. Then, nearly every time the people ask him for anything or disobey any of this huge number of commandments (including ones they don’t even know about yet), he slaughters them in rather horrible ways. With the exception of manna, the only thing he’s done for them in return so far is promise that things will be different once they get to his house. And yet, the people who’ve seen his house say that it’s a death trap. Is it really unreasonable for the people to start having some doubts? Maybe, instead of whining to Moses that he isn’t being loved on enough, God could, I don’t know, maybe send the people a box of chocolates? Preferably not ones infected with a “very great plague” (Num. 11:33).

True to form, God proceeds quickly to threats: “I will strike them with the pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they” (v.12).

So yeah, why don’t the people trust God? Because he sees people as utterly disposable and his go-to reaction to not getting everything his way is to massacre everyone and start over with a new family.

Moses’ counter-argument

Moses comes back with a response that says a whole lot about the dynamic – and characters – at play:

  1. If you kill them now, everyone is going to assume that you killed them off because you weren’t able to make good on your promises.
  2. You keep telling us that you are “slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression” (v.18) – quoting God’s own words from Exodus 34:5-8 – so how about acting like it?

Right, so God is terribly concerned about keeping up appearances, and even Moses can see that there’s a disjoint between God’s displayed character and the way he describes himself.

This whole speech makes me wonder if we humans are allowed to hold God accountable, or if this is a patriarch-only thing. One of the common arguments against atheists speaking about the immorality of the Bible (or of whatever Religious Person X claims that God thinks) is that God is the Judge, not subject to the judgement of mere humans.

I mean, sure, Moses is appointed by God to his position – as have been all the other patriarchs who have argued with him (such as Abraham). So are we to see Moses as a model for emulation, or does he have a special ball-buster dispensation? Frankly, given the brouhaha we had recently over Moses’ right to marry outside his ethnic group, I’m inclined to think that this is a special case. Still, though, I could see an argument being made.

The 40-year plan

It works, and God is convinced, but he’s not about to let the slight go unpunished. So he decrees that “none of the men who have seen my glory and my signs which I wrought in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put me to the proof these ten times and have not hearkened to my voice, shall see the land which I swore to give to their fathers” (v.22-23).

He then singles Caleb out – “because he has a different spirit and has followed me fully” (v.24) – to survive the wilderness and make it into Canaan. It’s an interesting little aside for two reasons:

He names Caleb but not Joshua, who is later said to be Moses’ successor as the leader of the Israelites. The sparing of Joshua doesn’t come up until much later (verse 30), where he is named alongside a repeat of Caleb. This suggests to me that the Caleb tradition was originally separate from the Joshua tradition, and that the two stories were later melded together.

He doesn’t name either Moses or Aaron. Were they, too, included among those who put God “to the proof”? I’m guessing that it’s more likely that the authors already knew that they wouldn’t make it into Canaan, but reading the Bible as a straight narrative, this would be a really great “bwuh??” moment for the two of them.

But who is Caleb, anyway? For all the favour he’s getting in Numbers 13-14, I don’t recall hearing his name anywhere else in the narrative, nor do I remember his name from Sunday School. So what happened to the tradition that included such lavish praise from God?

But back to the decree, it may have some logic behind it. Continuing David Plotz’s point from above that the Israelites are just coming out of an oppressive situation and therefore will have “have habits of violence and intolerance and suspicion of authority that can’t be shrugged off in a moment”:

But for the same reason, it’s very hard to argue with God’s 40-year plan. Just as it took a generation for Korea and Germany to shake off their war trauma, and as it will certainly take a generation (or more) for Iraq to trust democracy, so the Israelites needed a generation. The freed slaves would never have been able to conquer the Promised Land—they were too timid and unstable. The testing of the desert journey—the self-sufficiency it required of the young Israelites—hardened them for conquest. God is cruel but practical, ruthless for a purpose.

The “evil report”

As I noted at the very end of Numbers 13, it’s not quite clear from the text (or, at least, my translation) whether the “evil report” refers to a lie or just to bad news. If it’s a lie, there’s no motivation provided since, surely, the scouts would benefit from settlement. If it’s just bad news, then the next passage becomes rather troubling.

The spies are blamed for making the people “murmur against [Moses]” when they “brought up an evil report against the land” (v.36-37). Moses isn’t even pretending that it’s about lacking faith in God here. It’s just, straight up, he wants to be the leader and the spies’ report threatened his position. And it still isn’t clear whether their crime was lying or simply bringing back bad news.

And the fact that the Moses leads the people in a retreat “since the Amalekites and the Canaanites dwell in the valleys” (v.25) suggests that maybe the report really was accurate, and that Caleb’s gung-ho attitude in Num. 13:30 could have gotten the Israelites killed.

But it doesn’t matter. They said something that Moses didn’t like so, of course, they all die from a plague. Except for Joshua and Caleb, who are spared.

Why is Joshua spared? Only Caleb is named as having contradicted the “evil report,” yet not only is Joshua also spared when all the others are killed, he will even go on to become Moses’ successor.

Well, the people are told about the whole 40 years in the wilderness thing, so they decide to backpedal and take Caleb’s advice. They head out to the hill country, ready to start conquering Canaan. But Moses tells them that it’s too late now, they aren’t going with God (or the ark), and therefore will be killed. Sure enough, the Amalekites and Canaanites attack, defeating them, and pursuing them all the way to Hormah.

So, to recap, the spies told everyone that the people living in Canaan are too strong to defeat, and they are killed for doing so. But then the people try to enter Canaan and they find that the people living there are too strong to defeat. Sounds about right?