Deuteronomy 9: For you are a stiff-necked people

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With the Hebrew army poisoned to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land, Moses moves on to talk about the dangers they will face therein. Specifically, the Anakites, the giants we met back in Numbers 13.  But though they are a people “strong and tall” (v.2) and live in large cities with “walls up to the sky” (v.1), God will be on the side of the Hebrews. With his help, the Hebrews will “annihilate them [the Anakites] quickly” (v.3).

As is proving to be something of a theme in Deuteronomy, Moses then reminds the people that they must never think that they are receiving the Promised Land because of any personal qualities.

If God is driving out the people of Canaan, it’s only because of their wickedness, “not because of your righteousness or your integrity” (v.5). That and his promise to the patriarchs, of course.

Return of the Bride of the Golden Calf

Never one to let a complaint drop, Moses starts listing all those times the people totally forced God to kill bunches of them by making him angry. Specifically, he goes back to that time the people made an idol in God’s honour.

In the beginning of the story, Moses says that he spent forty days (and the accompanying nights) on the mountain, during each he “ate no bread and drank no water” (v.9). The water thing is pretty impressive, but the starvation thing is within the realm of non-miraculous possibilities. Peter Janiszewski has an article up on the Obesity Panacea blog: “Generally, it appears as though humans can survive without any food for 30-40 days, as long as they are properly hydrated.” Without either, Janiszewski writes, death is likely within 10-14 days. Of course, this assumes that forty is the actual number of days and not a little hyperbolising fudging, as we’ve seen so much (doubly likely given the mystical significance of the number given).

Bible story about the dance around the golden calf, woodcut from Hartmann Schedel's Weltchronik (Nuremberg 1493)

Bible story about the dance around the golden calf, woodcut from Hartmann Schedel’s Weltchronik (Nuremberg 1493)

What I find interesting here is that Moses says that the tablets contained “all the commandments the Lord proclaimed to you on the mountain out of the fire, on the day of the assembly” (v.10). Unless I’m way off, this seems to imply that the tablets contain all the ordinances, not just the Decalogue.

Moses tells the people that God wanted to kill them all and to start the chosen people over again with his line, as he had done before with Noah. Seems a bit conceited, honestly. Perhaps a detail I would have left out in Moses’s place. There’s enough guilt-tripping in the “he wanted to kill you all” without following it up with “but he really really likes me!”

In his story, Moses heads down the mountain and finds the golden calf. He chides the people, saying that they had “turned aside quickly from the way that the Lord had commanded you” (v.16). So Moses throws a little tantrum and smashes the tablets.

Moses returns to God and goes another forty days without food or water (hopefully having a wee nibbly first). It worked, and God decided not to desert the people (though, not mentioned here, he did kill a load of them). In this account, God was also mad at Aaron, but relented after Moses prayed for him as well. This is a bit different from the account in Exodus 32, where Aaron simply lies about his involvement and is believed.

Moses then recalls how he burned the golden calf and then ground it into dust. But where in the original story he forced the people to drink it, killing them, this time he “threw the dust into a stream that flowed down the mountain” (v.21). So it’s only, only the people downstream will be poisoned.

Then Moses reminds the people that they were so mean to God at Taberah (by complaining within God’s hearing), Massah (where it was Moses himself, and not the people, who angered God), and Kibroth Hattaavah (where they asked for something other than manna to eat).

Completing the crescendo of insults, Moses finishes by telling the people that they “have been rebellious against the Lord ever since I have known you” (v.24).

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 11: Terrible parenting

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

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

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

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

Death by quail

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

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

Predictably, the people quickly start complaining again:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Delegation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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