Numbers 9-10: Blowing the horns

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In the first month of the second year since they came out of Egypt, God decides that it’s time to remind the Israelites about celebrating Passover – you know, that time that God murdered a whole bunch of children – on the 14th.

But we get half a story in which some men had become “unclean” by touching a dead body. No word on whose body – it’s really just a set up for Moses to go to God for a revision of the Passover requirement. God amends his requirement by making an allowance for people – like the men – who have recently had contact with a dead body. They are excused from celebrating Passover in the first month, but must celebrate it on the 14th of the second month instead.

This same allowance is made for those “afar off on a journey” (v.10), which seems to presuppose a settled population.

I find this passage rather interesting, theologically speaking. It tells me that God’s law is not immutable, but rather is subject to change and refinement as new situations are encountered. So when believers say that they are anti-abortion, anti-contraception, anti-stem cell research, anti-homosexual marriage, anti-evolution, etc because the Bible says so (to the extent that it actually does), it seems that they are ignoring the precedent of continued revelation.

Then again, a situation where any power-hungry con-artist can claim to be a recipient of revelation in the Mosaic sense scares the holy bejeezus out of me.

The last note on the Passover is that it is also a requirement for the sojourners – the non-Hebrews in Israel. As usual, I can’t help but note my distaste for religious laws that are forced on people outside the denomination, but in this case there’s an added frightening dimension – we read in Exodus 12:48 that “when a stranger shall sojourn with you and would keep the passover to the Lord, let all his males be circumcised, then he may come near and keep it […] But no uncircumcised person shall eat of it.” That’s right, folks: Anyone who wants to live in Israel – due to the mix of passover laws – must get a part of his penis cut off.

Bronze Aged GPS

Travelling back in time again to the day the tabernacle was set up, God’s cloud pillar takes up residence over the tent of testimony, and it looks like fire at night so it could still be seen. As we’ve read several times already, when the cloud moves, the people move. We then get a really long passage about how the people followed the cloud even when it stood in place for a long time, and even when it moved quickly. Kind of like a really long game of Red Light / Green Light.

The silver trumpets

God tells Moses to make two silver trumpets. These are to be used to summon the congregation, as well as for breaking up camp. If both trumpets are blown, all the men have to gather at the entrance of the tent of meeting. But if only one is blown, then only the tribal leaders meet.

Image source unknown

Image source unknown

Aaron and sons are to be the trumpet-blowers and the trumpeting is a “perpetual statute.”

Using a trumpet to call the whole population together makes no sense whatsoever for a settled population, which would be spread out over too great a distance. But when we discussed how people “on a journey” are to participate in the Passover in Numbers 9:10, it made no sense in a nomadic context. I’m finding the books from Exodus onwards to be an interesting hodge-podge of passages that were clearly written at a much later date than the events they purport to describe, yet some are more ambiguous – either originally from a nomadic period in Hebrew history, or added in an attempt at verisimilitude.

But back to the trumpets, they can be blown for all sorts of reasons, from signalling the beginning  of the month, signalling an appointed feast, whenever a burnt or peace offering is made, or even just “on the day of your gladness” (v.10).

They are also to be brought along and blown when the Israelites go to war “in your land against the adversary who oppresses you” (v.9). Who is this referring to? The earliest “adversary” to oppress the Israelites in their own land that I can think of would be the Assyrians, starting around the 8th century BCE. So, prophecy or a really late composition date?

Moving out

On the 20th day of the 2nd month of the second year (which, according to my Study Bible, would put it at 11 months after the arrival at Sinai and 19 days after the census – p.176), the God’s cloud finally moves and the people follow it – going from the wilderness of Sinai to the wilderness of Paran.

The tribes move out as follows:

  1. Judah, led by Nahshon, son of Amminadab.
  2. Issachar, led by Nethanel, son of Zuar.
  3. Zebulun, led by Eliab, son of Helon.
  4. The sons of Gershon.
  5. The sons of Merari.
  6. Reuben, led by Elizur, son of Shedeur.
  7. Simeon, led by Shelumiel, son of Zurishaddai.
  8. Gad, led by Eliasaph, son of Deuel.
  9. The sons of Kohath.
  10. Ephraim, led by Elishama, son of Ammihud.
  11. Manasseh, led by Gamaliel, son of Pedahzur.
  12. Benjamin, led by Abidan, son of Gideoni.
  13. Dan, led by Ahiezer, son of Ammishaddai.
  14. Asher, led by Pagiel, son of Ocran.
  15. Naphtali, led by Ahira, son of Enan.

In Numbers 2, we read that all the Levites would travel along with the tabernacle in the centre of the column. Yet in this list, we can clearly see that the sons of Gershon and Merari are quite a bit ahead of the Kohathites.

In any case, we’re told that the Hebrews walked for the next three days. Whenever they set out, Moses says:

Arise, O Lord, and let thy enemies be scattered; and let them that hate thee flee before thee.

And whenever they stop, Moses says:

Return, O Lord, to the ten thousand thousands of Israel.

Trouble with the in-laws

In the middle of all this, we get a quick partial narrative of Moses conversing with his father-in-law, here called Hobab, son of Reuel the Midianite, though his name is Jethro in:

And his name is Reuel in Exodus 2:18-21.

Well, in any case, his name is Hobab now. So Hobab tells Moses that he doesn’t want to go on with the Israelites, but instead would like to go back to his homeland and be with his kindred.

Moses argues that he must come along – “for you know how we are to encamp in the wilderness, and you will serve as eyes for us” (v.31). Most translations have this as “you know where we should camp,” which changes the meaning quite a bit, and creates a rather large theological issue given all the blathering about God’s cloud being their GPS. Of course, saying that they need Hobab so that they know how to camp isn’t much better, since they’ve been camping for two years now and really should have the hang of it. I don’t quite see poor Hobab having to go out to 603,550 tents every evening to show them how to pitch.

It also creates an additional problem of narrative consistency. Hobab – or, rather, Jethro – has already left. In Exodus 18:27, we read:

Then Moses let his father-in-law depart, and he went his way to his own country.

Moses continues to argue that if Hobab tags along, he will get all the same benefits from God as the Israelites. You know, like spending another 38 years in the desert eating nothing but bug poop and the occasional quail (yet to come), and likely dying before they ever get anywhere even remotely Promised (also yet to come). Yaaaay….

If I had to venture a guess, between the lack of narrative consistency and the unique name, I would assume that this little passage is from a much older tradition – one that did not include God’s cloud leading the people. Somehow, it made its way into the middle of this text, perhaps even cut out from somewhere else since the narrative doesn’t seem to have an ending – we’re never told whether Hobab was convinced by Moses’ arguments or not.

Exodus 18: Jethro comes to visit

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Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro (who has graduated to being a character worthy of a consistent name, for now), hears that Moses is in the area and stops by for a visit. He also brings Moses’ wife and sons, who were apparently sent out of Egypt ahead of the exodus at some point.

Jethro and Zipporah return by William Artaud

Jethro and Zipporah return by William Artaud

Now, Moses and the Hebrews are taking 40 years for a journey that should only take them a matter of days. If they’re lost, why doesn’t Jethro give them a hand? And if they aren’t lost, what kind of pace are they setting that would take so long?

A spot of worship

Moses catches Jethro up on the whole “escape from Egypt” thing, and all the miracles and plagues that entailed. Jethro is suitable impressed and declares that God “is greater than all gods” (Exod. 18:11) – an assessment that is problematic for monotheists, but a perfectly reasonable thing for a henotheist to say.

All present agree that God is awesome and decide to make a sacrifice.

Moses delegates

During his visit, Jethro sees that Moses is spending all his time acting as judge to arbiter every little dispute among the Hebrews (no wonder it’s taking them so long to cross the wilderness!). Jethro sees this and suggests that it’s inefficient to have Moses judge all cases. Rather, he suggests that Moses delegate.

Following Jethro’s advice, Moses appoints judges. “Ever great matter they shall bring to you, but any small matter they shall decide themselves” (Exod. 18:22).

And then Jethro goes home. Hopefully, Moses didn’t forget to ask for directions.

Exodus 3: The Hero’s Call

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According to Joseph Campbell, the hero’s journey begins with a call:

This first stage of the mythological journey – which we have designated the “call to adventure” – signifies that destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual center of gravity from within the pale of his society to a zone unknown. The Hero With A Thousand Faces, p.58.

It would be unseemly for our current hero to accept his task too readily. The hero’s task is very great and only a narcissist would feel equal to it. This is why a common component of the call is the refusal. It’s a token act of modesty that makes the hero worthy, in the eyes of the reader, of the task.

On the mountain of God

Moses and the Burning Bush by Sebastien Bourdon, 1642-1645

Moses and the Burning Bush by Sebastien Bourdon, 1642-1645

In this chapter, Moses is taking care of his father-in-law’s flock (who is now named Jethro instead of Reuel) when he accidentally stumbles on Horeb (sometimes called Sinai), the “mountain of God” (Exod. 3:1). The location of Horeb/Sinai is unknown, but my study bible says that “tradition places it in the eastern part of the Sinaitic Peninsula” and theorizes that it “was probably a Midianite sacred place.”

God appears to Moses “in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush” and though “the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed” (Exod. 3:2). Back to Joseph Campbell, he writes in Hero With A Thousand Faces that: “there is an atmosphere of irresistible fascination about the figure that appears suddenly as guide, marking a new period, a new stage, in the biography” (p.55).

Moses is all like “Wuh?!” and takes a good look at this burning-yet-not-burned shrubbery, at which point God calls out to him.

God tells Moses not to approach, but to remove his shoes “for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Exod. 3:5).This raises the question of what makes a site holy. Is it because God is there? In which case, are all the places he ‘touches down’ holy? This is certainly possible since the patriarchs like Abraham built shrines wherever they talked to God (no mention of any shoe removal, though). Alternatively, did God choose to appear at this site because it was already holy? If this is the case, do the Midianites also worship the God of the Hebrews, or is God respecting another deity’s special turf? Or, to use the Euthyphro phrasing, is the site holy because God is there, or is God there because it is holy?

In any case, Moses hides his face because he’s afraid to look at God.

The Quest

God announces to Moses that he’s “come down to deliver [my people] out of the hand of the Egyptians.” He intends to lead them to “a land flowing with milk and honey” – to the place that currently belongs to “the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites” (Exod. 3:8). But that doesn’t seem so nice, moving the Hebs out of one land belonging to others and into another land belonging to others. Unless…

Oh no…

Leaving this ominous little verse aside for a moment, God gets down to business: “I will send you to Pharaoh, that you may bring forth my people, the sons of Israel, out of Egypt” (Exod. 3:10).

The Refusal

Moses: Who am I to tell Pharaoh what to do?

God: I’ll be with you, so you’ll have my cred.

Moses: But if I tell the Hebs that God has sent me, they’ll ask me which god I’m talking about! [A statement that seems to “assume a polytheistic environment; thus he must know the identity of the God who is dealing with him,” according to my study bible.]

God: I am who I am. [Or, YHWH, which may also translate to the third person, or “He causes to be.] Now stop yer winging and go tell the Hebs what I’ve told you. They’ll listen.

God gives further instructions: The elders of the Hebrews should go to Pharaoh and ask for three days off so that they can go into the wilderness and sacrifice to their god. This is after making his intention to lead the Israelites out of Egypt quite clear. In other words, God is telling the Hebrews to lie.

That’s morally iffy enough, but in this case God knows it won’t work anyway: “I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless compelled by a mighty hand” (Exod. 3:19). So basically, God just feels like making people lie. Just cause…

Not content to end there, God doesn’t want his peeps to start off empty handed. “Each woman shall ask of her neighbor, and of her who sojourns in her house, jewelry of silver and of gold, and clothing, and you shall put them on your sons and on your daughters; thus you shall despoil the Egyptians” (Exod. 3:22). If you’re lying anyway, you may as well steal too.

Exodus 2: Saving Baby Moses

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Scenes from the life of Moses by Sandro Botticelli, 1481-1482

Scenes from the life of Moses by Sandro Botticelli, 1481-1482

At the end of the last chapter, Pharaoh has ordered his subjects to kill all male Hebrew newborns. So when a woman in the line of Levi gives birth to a boy, she’s justifiably concerned. She hides him for three months, but then can’t hide him any more. The timing is fairly realistic, at least in comparison to my own son. By 3-4 months, babies tend to need a lot more entertainment and you can’t just keep them tucked away in a closet any more.

So this Levite woman comes up with a rather ingenious plan (or has the best luck ever). She takes her baby and puts him in a basket, and then sends the basket floating down the river.

The basket is found by Pharaoh’s daughter, who recognizes that the baby is Hebrew but takes pity on him and adopts him, naming him Moses. The name is, again, somewhat realistic. “Moses” is a common Egyptian name – or rather, part of one. It would usually be combined with the name of a god to mean “X is born.” The most well known figure with the name is probably Tutmosis III, who uses the name Moses in combination with the name of the god Thoth. Alternatively, the Bible indicates that an Egyptian woman named the baby with a Hebrew word meaning “to draw” – as in, she drew him out of the water (Exod. 2:10).

Murder of the Egyptian

When Moses grows up, he sees an Egyptian beating up one of his fellow Hebs. So he “looked this way and that, and seeing no one he killed the Egyptian” (Exod. 2:12).

Putting aside the question of morality, this is premeditated murder. This is not something he does in the heat of the moment (like Charlton Heston’s depiction in 10 Commandments). Rather, Moses makes sure that no one is looking before he strikes. Is the Hebrew victim even still around? Or did Moses go so far as to stick around or even follow the Egyptian home?

In any case, Moses goes out the next day and sees two Hebrews fighting each other. So he asks one of them why he is hitting his fellow, and the Hebrew responds by asking Moses: “Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” (Exod. 2:14). This is an excellent question because this situation mirrors the other. In both cases, one man is beating up another. The only difference is that one of the aggressors is of the same ethnic group as Moses while the other is not. It’s telling that Moses reacts by killing the “other,” but only asks a question of the Hebrew.

But the response tips off Moses that his crime is known. At this point, Moses either sticks around anyway for a while, or he and Pharaoh find out at the same time, because: “When Pharaoh heard of [the murder], he sought to kill Moses. But Moses fled from Pharaoh” (Exod: 2:15).

Moses meets his shiksa

To escape from the law, Moses flees to Midian. Midian, by the way, is just south of Canaan, on the other side of the Sinai peninsula from Egypt. That means that Moses does essentially the same journey here in one sentence that will later take him forty years.

Once in Midian, Moses loiters near a well.

I think you can guess what comes next…

Reuel, the priest of Midian, has seven daughters, and these girls are coming to the well to water their flock. For some unknown reason, the local shepherds are giving them a hard time, so of course Moses steps in and helps them. As a reward, he gets to move in with Reuel and marry Zipporah, one of the seven daughters.

So what advice does the Bible have for would-be suitors? This story and that of Rebekah and Rachel suggest that if you are having trouble finding yourself a little lady, you ought to hang out around wells.

Zipporah and Moses have a son named Gershom.

Meanwhile, back in Egypt…

The king of Egypt dies, but conditions don’t improve for the Hebs under the new ruler. God hears his people “groaning” and gets ready for fix things.

… to fix things that are his fault. Let’s not forget that God sent the Hebrews to Egypt (by starving them out of Canaan) so that they would become oppressed. But nice of him to decide to fix things afterwards, though.