Numbers 27: Succession Planning

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Way back in the halcyon days of last Friday, we found out that Zelophehad, son of Hepher, son of Gilead, son of Machir, son of Manasseh had only daughters: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. 

Daughters of Zelophehad by Bonnie Lee Roth

Daughters of Zelophehad by Bonnie Lee Roth

Given the clearly agnatic inheritance assumptions we’ve seen modelled thus far, it seems that this would be the end of the Hepherites. But Zelophehad’s daughters, upset that their father’s name should end, ask Moses to grant them their father’s inheritance.

Moses decides to bring their case before God, who writes up some quick inheritance laws to help out in just such a situation:

  • If a man has no sons, his daughters should receive the inheritance.
  • If he has no children at all, the inheritance goes to his brothers.
  • If he has no brothers either, it should go to his father’s brothers.
  • If his father also had no brothers, it should go to “his kinsman that is next to him of his family” (v.11).

I find it interesting that this didn’t carry forward in many Christian countries, as fans of Downton Abbey well know (read this great article for an explanation of how that came about).

Noa(h)

David Plotz named his daughter Noa after this chapter. Of the name he writes:

In English, the girl’s name Noa sounds identical to the name of Noah the ark builder. But in Hebrew, they’re totally distinct names, spelled and pronounced very differently. Noa the girl is pronounced “No-a,” just as we say it. But Noah the boy is “No-ach” in Hebrew, making it a much harsher sounding name.

Yet the spelling distinction doesn’t exist in my text, nor in any other that I’ve found through a quick BibleHub comparison. In both the cases of Zelophehad’s daughter and the guy who got so drunk that he passed out naked, my Bible has “Noah” with an H.

It’s not a particularly important point, but I do find it interesting.

Sin

When explaining that their father died without sons, the women say that he: “died in the wilderness; he was not among the company of those who gathered themselves together against the Lord in the company of Korah, but died for his own sin” (v.3).

So what was that sin?

The emphasis on “his own sin” seems to suggest that he didn’t fall under the collective punishment that came with the 40 year wilderness sentence. According to the JewishEncyclopedia, rabbinical literature seems to favour the theory that Zelophehad was the Sabbath-breaker from Numbers 15. Blogger Dovbear has a great explanation of the argument in favour of this association.

Another tradition has it that Zelophehad was one of the gun-jumpers who decided to dismiss God’s 40 year sentence and headed into Canaan without permission in Numbers 14.

Sneak Peek

Once he’s done dealing with the uppity women, God sends Moses up to the mountain of Abarim, from which he can see the promised land. After this, Moses will die because of his rock abuse in Numbers 20.

David Plotz asks:

Is this very cruel or very kind? Is it excruciating for Moses to have to see what he wants more than anything in the world but cannot have? Or is this gaze consolation for a dying man? I can’t decide.

Moses begs God to appoint a successor, “that the congregation of the Lord may not be as sheep which have no shepherd” (v.17). Interestingly, Moses has a son, so the leadership – at least at this point – is clearly not hereditary. (Unless Moses’ kids are excluded because of their mixed heritage?)

It’s not quite a meritocracy, either. Joshua, son of Nun, is chosen because he is “a man in whom is the spirit” (v.18). In other words, he gets to be the leader because he has the same prophetic status as Moses.

But despite clearly being a very theocratic system, it’s not a system ruled by clerics/priests, exactly. Though he is to “stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall inquire for him by the judgement of the Urim before the Lord” (v.21).

This could mean, as some interpretations have it, that Joshua has the option of consulting Eleazar whenever he doesn’t know what to do. But it could also mean that he must consult Eleazar before making big decisions, functionally putting the high priest above the secular monarch.

Numbers 20: Hitting rocks

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After such a long time without much narration, Numbers 20 is something of a glut.

It opens as the Israelites are arriving in the Desert of Zin, staying in Kadesh. You may remember the Israelite arrival in Kadesh from such passages as Numbers 13:26. It’s possible that it takes them 40 years to get through the wilderness because they’re going in circles. Another possibility is that this section is intended as a summary, temporally placing the events to follow.

At some point around this time, Miriam dies and is buried – all in a single sentence. It doesn’t seem like much, but it’s rather significant that her death is recorded at all, given that she is a woman. Between this, her song in Exodus 15:20-21, and her statement in Numbers 12:1-2 that God also talks to her, it suggests to me that she may have been a fairly important folk character at some point before all these stories were put together in the configuration that we use today.

Water from the stone

The people, ever whiny, are now complaining that they are all dying of thirst. Can you believe it? As if mortals even need to drink, pshaw…

Moses' Canteen, by ReverendFun

Moses’ Canteen, by ReverendFun

They bring it up to Moses, and they ask him why he would even bother bringing them out of Egypt if he’s just going to have them – and their livestock – die of thirst. They also, as a side note, ask why they should have ever been brought into a place with “no grain or figs, grapevines or pomegranates” (v.5), which may be specific, but I can understand the general spirit of the complaint.

Moses and Aaron head into the tent of meeting for a quick consult with God, who tells them to “take the staff” (v.8) and gather all the people together. They are then to speak to a particular rock, and it will start gushing water.

By the phrasing, I got the impression that Moses is to use Aaron’s blooming rod from Numbers 17.

So Moses takes the staff. He and Aaron do as instructed right up until they are before the rock, at which point Moses strikes the rock twice with his staff, instead of just trying to chat with it. The spring that he creates is called Meribah, which, according to my Study Bible, apparently means “contention.”

God gets pissed, saying:

Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them. (v.12)

Which is interesting because this story implies that God decides in this moment not to allow Moses to enter Canaan. However, back in Numbers 14, he made a sweeping statement that none who had come out of Egypt as adults should live to see Canaan, naming only Caleb and Joshua as the exceptions. So while this story clearly implies that Moses is excluded from entering the promised land because he failed to follow God’s instructions, it seems that his fate had already been decided anyway.

It seems, also, that there is some debate as to just what, exactly, was Moses’ crime. My immediate impression was that it was Moses’ failure to follow God’s instructions, but there’s also a little issue of the words he uses when smacking the rock. He says to the gathered people:

Hear now, you rebels; shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock? (v.10)

Not only does it sound rather like he’s rubbing it in everyone’s faces, he’s also saying “we,” as in, he’s including himself as an active agent in the miracle. His crime could well be hubris.

Water From The Rock, wall painting in a Roman Catacomb, 4th century AD

Water From The Rock, wall painting in a Roman Catacomb, 4th century AD

In The New Illustrated Companion to the Bible, J.R. Porter addresses the issue thusly:

Moses and Aaron both died outside the Promised Land of Canaan. This was an undeniable fact of Israelite tradition, but it was felt that some explanation was needed as to why these two great figures had not shared in the fulfillment of God’s promise to the people. […] In Numbers 20, Moses and Aaron repeat the miraculous provision of water from the rock at Meribah (Kadesh), after which God tells them: “Because you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them” (Num. 20.12). The reason for this is unclear. Perhaps Moses and Aaron were guilty of presumption by not giving God credit for the miracle (Num. 20.10). It may be that the story is deliberately vague about the offense so that Moses and Aaron are not incriminated too greatly. In any case, much care is taken to preserve the brothers’ reputation. (p.60)

It’s interesting to note that the “drawing water from stone” story seems to be a repeat of Exodus 17:1-7. Only, in that story, God did tell Moses to strike the stone with his staff. The ensuing spring was given two names – Massah and Meribah, clearly amalgamating the origin stories of two separate sites (whereas this chapter excludes the former).

The rest of Exodus 17 is about a battle against the Amalekites, lead by Joshua. Both narratives seem to be out of place in that portion of the story.

Edom’s refusal

Moving on, Moses sends messengers to the king of Edom asking for passage through their territory. Their offer is presented as being very reasonable, perhaps to accentuate the unfairness of the Edomite refusal. Perhaps representing the same animosity that we saw in the Jacob and Esau narrative beginning in Genesis 25.

Anyways, the Edomites refuse, forcing the Israelites to find an alternative route.

Aaron’s death

Coming out of Kadesh, they get to Mount Hor. While there, God tells Moses and Aaron that Aaron is about to die, so they should head up the mountain along with Aaron’s son, Eleazar. Once at the top, Aaron should remove his priestly vestments and put them on Eleazer – passing the baton, as it were.

Having learned their lesson at Melbah, they follow God’s instructions properly. The Israelites mourn Aaron for 30 days.

Exodus 17: Drawing water from a stone

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The Hebrews continue on their way and make camp in Rephidim. Unfortunately, there’s no water and, in customary fashion, the Hebrews start to whine. Moses the Middle Manager takes their complaints to God. God tells Moses to march in front of the Israelites smugly, making sure all the elders are watching, and strike a rock with his magic rod.

This causes the rock to split open and water to come out, satisfying the Hebrews for the time being. My study bible points out that “water lies below the limestone surface in the region of Sinai.” So we see another attempt to find a naturalistic explanation for a literal reading.

Battle with the Amalekites

The Jews defeating Amalek's army by Adolf Fedyes, 1915

The Jews defeating Amalek’s army by Adolf Fedyes, 1915

There are Amalekites in them thar hills and Moses has a mind to exterminate. He sends Joshua in to fight them while he works his magic. The last time we saw the Amalekites, they were being conquered by the warring factions in Genesis 14.

While Joshua is on the ground fighting, Moses climbs a hill with Aaron and some guy named Hur. As long as he keeps his arms in the air, the Israelites are winning the battle; but if he lowers them, the Amalekites start to win. Predictably, he starts to get tired, so he takes a seat and Aaron and Hur hold his arms up for him until the Amalekites are defeated.

There’s no indication why Moses has to do this. If it was a test of his dedication, why should it continue to work if his friends are holding his hands up for him? Isn’t that cheating? It seems like God just decided to make Moses do a funny chicken dance for his own amusement.

Finally, “Joshua mowed down Am’alek and his people with the edge of the sword” (Exod. 17:13). Not that despite this violent imagery, the authors neglected to record the reasons for the battle.

Well, regardless, God tells Moses that he will “utterly blot out the remembrance of Am’alek from under heaven” (Exod. 17:14), which evidently hasn’t happened yet since, well, you’re reading all about them right now. Moses even anticipates this failure when he says that “the Lord will have war with Am’alek from generation to generation” (Exod. 17:16).

Not that I’m complaining. Genocide is a rather ugly thing and I’d really rather it not happen. But I do still think that follow-through is a desirable character trait in a deity.