Numbers 33: The recap

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

Here’s your cliff’s notes image:

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

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

On deserving it

David Plotz sees purpose in this plodding chapter:

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

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

Numbers 26: Census Do-Over

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Between the plagues, food poisoning, gaping chasms, spontaneous combustions, etc, the usefulness of the census taken in Numbers 1 is rather obsolete. As we near the end of our journey, God decides that it’s time to take another head count of eligible soldiers.

The other purpose for conducting the census is to help with dividing up the lands once they get into Canaan. This seems a little pre-emptive to me, but what do I know. There’s also some talk of lots. If I’m interpreting v.53-56 correctly, all the head of house names are to go in a big hat, and the lot will be used to decide which spot each should get.

We’re also reminded that none of the men counted were adults when they originally left Egypt with Moses and Aaron (those guys having all since died), with the exception of Caleb, son of Jephunneh, and Joshua, son of Nun.

Reuben

Reuben, if you remember, was the eldest of Israel’s sons. Unfortunately for him, a little indiscretion lost him his primacy. He had four sons:

  • Hanoch, sire of the Hanochites
  • Pallu (or Phallu), sire of the Palluites
  • Hezron, sire of the Hezronites
  • Carmi, sire of the Carmites

Pallu’s son, Eliab, had three sons: Nemuel, Dathan, and Abiram. We’re reminded that these are the Dathan and Abiram who rebelled with Korah back in Numbers 16. We’re told here that Dathan and Abiram were killed along with Korah, though their deaths weren’t mentioned.

There’s also a little note telling us that “the children of Korah died not” (v.11). This seems to contradict what we were told in Numbers 16:31-32:

As soon as he finished saying all this, the ground under them split apart and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their households, and all those associated with Korah, together with their possessions.

Granted, his children aren’t specifically mentioned, but it does seem implied.

The total number of Reubenites eligible for military service is 43,730.

Simeon

Back in Genesis 46, the Simeon’s sons are named as: Jemuel, Jamin, Ohad, Jachin, Zohar, and Shaul. Here, however, the list is:

  • Nemuel, sire of the Nemuelites
  • Jamin, sire of the Jaminites
  • Jachin, sire of the Jachinites
  • Zerah, sire of the Zarhites
  • Shaul, sire of the Shaulites

For whatever reason, the lines of Jemuel, Ohad, and Zohar seem not to have survived, and Simeon apparently picked up Nemuel and Zerah somewhere.

I find it interesting that Jemuel and Nemuel, and Zohar and Zerah are quite similar. I wonder if these are equivalents from two different narrative traditions.

The total number of Simeonites eligible for military service is 22,200.

Gad

We get some more name funkiness with Gad. According to Genesis 46, his sons are: Ziphion, Haggi, Shuni, Ezbon, Eri, Arodi, and Areli. Here, however, they are:

  • Zephon, sire of the Zephonites
  • Haggi, sire of the Haggites
  • Shuni, sire of the Shunites
  • Ozni, sire of the Oznites
  • Eri, sire of the Erites
  • Arod, sire of the Arodites
  • Areli, sire of the Arelites

The lists seem to match, but quite a few spellings have changed.

The total number of Gad’s descendants eligible for military service is 40,500.

Judah

Judah’s story matches up with the genealogy in Genesis 46. I guess they kept better records, or something. His sons were:

  • Er (deceased, no kids)
  • Onan (deceased, no kids)
  • Shelah, sire of the Shelanites
  • Pharez, sire of the Pharzites
  • Zerah, sire of the Zarhites

We get some further subdivision with the sons of Pharez:

  • Hezron, sire of the Hezronites
  • Hamul, sire of the Hamulites

Total eligible soldiers from Judah: 76,500.

Issachar

Issachar’s sons, according to Genesis 46, are Tola, Phuvah, Job, and Shimron. Once again, there’s quite substantial differences. His sons here are:

  • Tola, sire of the Tolaites
  • Pua, sire of the Punites
  • Jashub, sire of the Jashubites
  • Shimron, sire of the Shimronites

Again, the names are kinda similar, just enough to suggest that they come from different oral traditions.

Total descendants of Issachar eligible for military service: 64,300.

Zebulun

Zebulun’s family kept better records. In both versions, his sons are:

  • Sered, sire of the Sardites
  • Elon, sire of the Elonites
  • Jahleel, sire of the Jahleelites

There are 60,500 eligible soldiers among the Zebulunites.

Joseph

Joseph, of course, had two sons: Manasseh and Ephraim. Both are kinda sorta heads of their own tribes, depending on how the count is made.

Manasseh’s sons are:

  • Machir, sire of the Machirites

Machir, in turn, fathered Gilead, sire of the Gileadites.

Gilead’s sons are:

  • Jeezer, sire of the Jeezerites
  • Helek, sire of the Helekites
  • Asriel, sire of the Asrielites
  • Shechem, sire of the Shechemites
  • Shemida, sire of the Shemidaites
  • Hepher, sire of the Hepherites

It’s unclear through which of these sons the Gileadites are counted.

Hepher also had a son: Zelophehad. Unfortunately, Zelophehad only had daughters:

  • Mahlah
  • Noah
  • Hoglah
  • Milcah
  • Tirzah

So if the line of Hepher is getting named as a land recipient, that implies that there’s some way for these women to pass their father’s land to their own children.

Total soldier-able descendants of Manasseh: 52,700.

Ephraim’s sons are:

  • Shuthelah, sire of the Shuthalhites
  • Becher, sire of the Bachrites
  • Tahan, sire of the Tahanites

Shuthelah sired Eran, who sired the Eranites. Did Shuthelah have other sons, or are all Shuthalhites also Eranites and vice versa?

There are 32,500 eligible soldiers among the descendants of Ephraim.

Benjamin

With Benjamin, we get some genealogical issues. Benjamin’s sons are:

  • Bela, sire of the Belaites
  • Ashbel, sire of the Ashbelites
  • Ahiram, sire of the Ahiramites
  • Shupham, sire of the Shuphamites
  • Hupham, sire of the Huphamites

Only Bela (named Belah) and Ashbel are found in Genesis 46, listed along with their brothers: Becher, Gera, Naaman, Ehi, Rosh, Muppim, Huppim, and Ard.

Then, from Bela, we get his sons:

  • Ard, sire of the Ardites
  • Naaman, sire of the Naamites

Notice that both of these were listed as Benjamin’s sons, not his grandsons, in Genesis 46.

The total military contingent provided by the tribe of Benjamin is 45,600.

Dan

In Genesis 46, Dan’s only son is named Hushim. Here, of course, his son’s name is Shuham (sire of the Shuhamites).

Descendants of Dan, you only had one name to remember! Sheesh!

Total descendants of Dan eligible for military service: 64,400.

Asher

In Genesis 46, Asher’s children are named Jimnah, Ishuah, Ishni, Beriah, and a daughter named Serah. Here, his children are named:

  • Jimna, sire of the Jimnites
  • Jesui, sire of the Jesuites
  • Beriah, sire of the Beriites
  • Sarah

Back in Genesis 46, Beriah’s sons are Heber and Malchiel, which matches the names given here (sires of the Heberites and Malchielites, respectively).

Not that I’m complaining, but I find it interesting that Serah/Sarah is named in both genealogies, especially given that there’s no mention of anything special about her. She’s not sire to any sub-tribe, so there’s really no reason to mention her in this census.

I’m apparently not the only one to be confused. It seems that some early midrash composers felt that she wouldn’t be mentioned unless there was something pretty special about her, so there’s a fairly substantial collection of fanfic that’s been written about her.

The total number of Asher’s descendants who are eligible for military service is 53,400.

Naphtali

Naphtali’s sons are:

  • Jahzeel, sire of the Jahzeelites
  • Guni, sire of the Gunites
  • Jezer, sire of the Jezerites
  • Shillem, sire of the Shillemites

The total number of eligible soldiers among the descendants of Naphtali is 45,400.

Adding them up

That’s a total of 601,730, only 1,820 fewer people than counted in the last census. That’s a pretty amazing reproduction rate, considering the fact that God’s been killing these people by the thousands for a few years now.

What’s interesting to me is to compare the two censii and see how the various tribes made out. Reuben, Gad, Ephraim, and Naphtali all saw a reduction, mostly in the 2,000-8,000 range.

Some tribes actually grew, albeit modestly: Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Benjamin, Dan, and Asher.

But the really surprising ones are Simeon and Joseph. Simeon, apparently, really ticked God off, because at 37,100, they took the heaviest losses. As for Joseph, Manasseh and Ephraim appear to have traded places, with Manasseh going from 32,200 to 52,700, and Ephraim going from 40,500 to 32,500. A rather impressive feat from Manasseh!

Levi

The Levites, not being eligible for receiving land, are counted separately. They are divided into three groups, after Levi’s sons:

  • Gershon, sire of the Gershonites
  • Kohath, sire of the Kohathites
  • Merari, sire of the Merarites

We’re also given a list of “the families of the Levites” (v.58), though there’s not indication of how they are connected to the original three branches:

  • Libnites
  • Hebronites
  • Mahlites
  • Mushites
  • Korathites

We’re also told that Kohath had one son, Amram, who married his aunt, Jochebed. They are the parents of Aaron, Moses, and Miriam.

Aaron’s sons are Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar. The first two, of course, were killed in Leviticus 10.

While the rest of the tribes are counted by how useful they’d be as soldiers, Levites are counted for that whole weird redemption business we heard about in Numbers 3. Because of this, all Levite males a month old or over are counted. Yet still, the total only comes to 23,000.

Numbers 22: Talking out of his ass

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

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

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

The Moabite king

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Balaam refuses the king’s request

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

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

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

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

Balaam returns with the messengers

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

Balaam and his Ass, by Rembrandt, 1626

Balaam and his Ass, by Rembrandt, 1626

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meeting Balak

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

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

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

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

Who was Balaam?

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

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

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

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