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?).

Exodus 15: Songs of praise

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Miriam by Sir Edward Burne-Jones, 1872

Miriam by Sir Edward Burne-Jones, 1872

Now that they are out of Egypt and the Egyptians are dead, the Hebrews take some time to sing their praises to God.

The first song is quite long and we’re told that it was sung by “Moses and the people of Israel” (Exod. 15:1). What’s interesting about this song is that it never thanks God for delivering the people from Egypt. Instead, the focus is all on how “the Lord is a man of war” (Exod. 15:3), with a right hand that “shatters the enemy” (Exod. 15:6).

The closest the song comes to acknowledging their new-found freedom is when they sing about being lead into Canaan, where God puts the fear of, well, God into the people of Philistia, Edom, Moab, and Canaan (Exod. 15:14-16).

It’s a brutal song that glorifies violent resolutions to diplomatic conflict.

One interesting verse goes: “Who is like thee, O Lord, among the gods?” (Exod. 15:11). The existence  of other gods appears to be assumed, and the distinction is merely made that God is the most powerful. Passages like these make it clear that the early Hebrews were henotheists.

Miriam’s timbrel

Miriam is described as Aaron’s sister, which would presumably make her Moses’ sister as well. Tradition has Miriam as the sister who watched over baby Moses when their mother placed him in the reeds back in Exodus 2. She’s also described here as a prophetess.

Miriam grabs a timbrel and leads the Hebrew women in a song of their own, which is much shorter and, according to my study bible, from a much older tradition. Even so, it covers the same ground as the first.


The Hebrews start off their journey through the wilderness of Shur, but start to get a bit desperate after three days without finding water. When they finally find some at Marah, the water tastes bitter. If playing Oregon Trail has taught me anything, it’s that there’s typhoid in them thar water sources!

Not to worry, though, because God shows Moses a tree that, when dunked in the water, purifies it and makes it taste sweet.

We close our chapter as the Hebrews make their camp at Elim – a lovely place with twelve springs and seventy palm trees!