Judges 6-8: Gideon’s 300

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Israel was at rest for forty years, presumably under Deborah as judge. At the end of that time, the cycle resets and God gives the Israelites over to Midian for seven years. The Midianites, who are suddenly joined by the Amalekites and miscellaneous eastern peoples, harass the Israelites so much that they build “dens” (Judges 6:2) in the mountains – defensible caves and strongholds. They harass the Israelites, and come through with so many people and cattle that they are “like locusts” (Judges 6:5), both in number and in the effect they have on the land. They’ve apparently bounced back quite admirably from the culling they received Num. 31:7, 16-17.

The situation is so terrible that it prompts God to give a big lecture and then he appoints his new judge, Gideon.

Gideon’s appointment story reminded me a lot of Moses’s call from Exodus 3. First, there’s the presence of Midianites (though in Moses’s case, of course, he was rather friendly with them). But the real connection is that Gideon is the first “hero” called since Moses who goes through the refusal stage of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. The idea behind the refusal is that only a narcissist would accept becoming God’s Special BFF without protest. An initial refusal of the position demonstrates humility, therefore signifying to the audience that the hero is worthy of the position.

Gideon is visited by a figure who is alternately God and an angel of God – something we saw a bit of in Genesis, such as Gen. 16:10-11 and Gen. 22:11, then again in Balaam’s story in Numbers 22, and then not again until Judges.

This angel sits under an oak at Ophrah, on land belonging to Joash the Abiezrite. Gideon, his son, was beating out wheat in the wine press instead of out in the open “to hide it from the Midianites” (Judges 6:11).

Right from the start, Gideon challenges God. When the angel tells him that “the Lord is with you” (Judges 6:12), Gideon asks how that can be when the situation is so terrible. What happened, he asks, to the great deeds of the exodus? To which God replies, “do not I send you?” (Judges 6:14). That got a good chuckle out!

Gideon proceeds to make various excuses for why he can’t possibly be the deliverer of the Israelites – the Abiezrites are the weakest clan in Manasseh, and he has the lowest status within it. It reminded me of all the excuses Moses made when faced with a similar situation. God, however, still maintains that Gideon will do fine because he will have God at his side.

Still unsure, Gideon (who clearly never read Deut. 6:16) proposes a test and asks the angel/God to hang around for a bit. He runs off and prepares a meal, then brings it back to the where the angel/God is still waiting under the tree, offering the meal. God tells him to put the meal on a rock and to pour broth over it. That done, God touches it with the tip of his staff and it bursts into flame. The miraculous fire at the time of the call is another connection to the Moses story – and I wonder if the pouring of the broth over the food is intended to give the miracle a little more oomph, since it would pre-emptively shoot down any objections that perhaps Gideon’s meatloaf is just so dry that it spontaneously combusts like underbrush in a drought. Though the parameters of the test were never stated, this seems to satisfy Gideon – for now.

Unfortunately, it satisfies him too well, and Gideon freaks out as it dawns on him that he has seen God face-to-face (this being a death sentence, as per Exod. 33:20). God reassures him – “Peace be to you; do not fear, you shall not die” (Judges 6:23).

Altar Real Estate

Like the patriarchs of Genesis, Gideon builds an altar that “to this day still stands at Ophrah” (Judges 6:24) on the spot where he communed with God. Details like this and the references to the “angel of the Lord” make me wonder if this story may not have originated from the same tradition that later birthed Genesis. Certainly, it seems that the bulk of the story comes from a very different set of traditions than the other books we’ve read so far.

Now that God has his altar at Ophrah, he asks Gideon to pull down his father’s altar to Ball and cut down his father’s Asherah – two separate monuments to two separate gods located on the same real estate.

The wording is a little confusing, but it seems that Gideon uses one of his father’s bulls to do this work, then builds (another?) altar to God, then sacrifices a second of his father’s bulls using the wood from the Asherah. I’m not sure whether these are two separate bulls, or if Joash’s second best bull is being used to both purposes.

I was somewhat shocked that God would ask Gideon to use the wood from the Asherah to build the sacrificial pyre since it would have been consecrated to another God. There’s no mention of, for example, reusing the materials from Baal’s altar in the building of the new one. I haven’t looked into it, but I’ve heard whispers that Asherah may have been proto-God’s consort before Judaism got all monotheistic. I’m just using a little wild conjecture but, if that’s the case, is it possible that using wood from an Asherah was at one time part of how sacrifices were supposed to be made to God, at least in a particular region?

Gideon, who seems to be depicted truly as the “least” (Judges 6:15). When we first see him, he is working in hiding, then demurs from God’s call, and now is willing destroy his father’s altars only under the cover at night for fear of his family and the townsfolk.

In the morning, the townsfolk see what happen and tell Joash to bring out his son. Despite the fact that Gideon had worked at night for fear of his family and the fact that the altars were his fathers, Joash seems quite firmly on Team Gideon.

He faces the mob, and he says: “If he [Baal] is a god, let him content for himself” (Judges 6:31) – a message that I truly wish were preached from the pulpit a bit more often. It seems to work because the townsfolk are not mentioned again.

Even though Joash is the one who says this, we are told that this is how Gideon earns his new name – Jerubbaal, which means “Let Baal content against him” (Judges 6:32).

On this name, my study Bible says:

The explanation given of the name Jerubbaal is not the natural one; the bearer of such a name was certainly a worshiper of Baal, not an antagonist.

This leads me to wonder if perhaps this portion of the story wasn’t invented to explain away a name that was associated with Gideon.

Abbie from Better Than Esdras asks, in a similar vein, if perhaps Gideon might not have originated as a Canaanite folk hero.

The Battle

With enemies amassing, “the Spirit of the Lord took possession of Gideon” (Judges 6:34), which I assume is just another way of saying that he girded his loins.

Gideon calls out to Asher, Zebulun, Naphtali, and the rest of Manassehfor help. Before moving out, however, Gideon wants to make absolutely sure that God will be with him. Rather than simply asking for confirmation, he instead sets up a new test.

First, Gideon sets out a fleece of wool and tells God that, in the morning, the fleece should be wet with dew but not the ground around it. On the second morning, the fleece should be dry while the ground is wet. God abides.

Convinced, Gideon/Jerubbaal assembles his army and gets ready to head out. This time, it’s God’s turn to have reservations. He’s concerned that the gathered army of 32,000 men is too impressive – when they win, they will surely think that it was their number that won the battle and not God.

God would like the defeat of the Midianites (who are sporadically accompanied by Amalekites and assorted eastern peoples) to be an obvious miracle, so he proposes tests to reduce the number of soldiers in Gideon’s army.

  1. Anyone who is fearful is told to head home. This leaves only 10,000 soldiers, but the number is still too high for God’s liking.
  2. God has Gideon send the soldiers down to the river and take a drink. Those who lap at the water with their tongues like a dog may remain, while those who kneel to drink must go home. This leaves the 300 most savage and uncivilized Israelites – Gideon’s very own 300.

Timid Gideon who prefers hiding in wine presses and in the dark of night is woken in the wee hours and told to attack. Anticipating that he’ll object, God pre-empts any further testing and just tells Gideon to take his servant, Purah, and eavesdrop on the Midianite camp.

There, Gideon overhears two men talking. One of them has had a dream wherein a cake of barley bread tumbled into camp and crushed a tent. His friend interprets the dream, seeing the barley bread as a stand-in for Joshua’s sword. Because nothing says “sword” like a loaf of bread shaped to tumble.

My study Bible helpfully supplements this interpretation – the barley bread is a symbol of a settled, agrarian society (the Israelites), while the tent symbolises a nomadic culture (which the Midianites apparently are).

What follows is a bit of trickery – or, at least, I read it as such. I get the sense from both Better Than Esdras (where it is described as “SO WEIRD”) and Both Saint and Cynic (who refers to the Israelite army being “armed with pottery jars” but makes no reference to their purpose) that perhaps this is not the obvious interpretation I thought it was.

The Israelites position themselves in companies on different sides of the Midianite encampment perimeter. They all carry trumpets and torches, but the torches are kept inside jars. Once they are in position, they smash the jars and blow the trumpets. In my interpretation, the strategy here is to use the jars to hide the light from the torches during the approach (depending on the shape of these jars, it could allow for a focused beam of light so that the soldiers can see where they are going without being seen by the Midianites). When they smash the jars, the torches are revealed. Combined with their positions and the blowing of the trumpets, they would give the illusion that their number is far greater, which is what scares the Midianites, prompting them to flee.

The text implies that all the Midianites flee and that there is no actual battle at this point.

Ephraim’s Victory

With the Midianites fleeing, Gideon sends word to Ephraim to kill off the deserters coming their way. The Ephraimites manage to capture two Midianite chieftains, Oreb and Zeeb. They kill Oreb at a rock of the same name, and Zeeb at a winepress of the same name.

But all of this happens after something of a river-hopping chase. Being unfamiliar with the geography, I noticed nothing strange about the description of the movements. Abbie, from Better Than Esdras, however, did a little more research than I:

The Midianites flee. The average reader wouldn’t realize it, but the OSE [Oxford Study Bible] editors note that the places they flee to are all east of the Jordan (outside of Canaan). If you’ve been paying ANY attention you’ll know all the action has taken place in Ephraim, west of the Jordan. So, logically, the Midianites have crossed the Jordan. TAKE NOTE OF THIS.

[She then quotes Judges 7:24-25]

See any problems? The Ephraimites are trying to prevent the Midianites from crossing the Jordan… and apparently they succeed (the fords are held, right?) But the Midianites, we know from their locations, just crossed the river. Major, major contradictions here. And then what is up with the king’s heads? Which side of the river are they even headed towards? HAHAHA.

How to solve these contradictions? Sift out the sources. After a lot of puzzlement, here is my FINAL ANSWER. I believe that the main text of chapter 7 ends abruptly partway through verse 22. Then, 7:22b-7:24 is a short bridge, drawn from several fragments. Finally, 7:25-8:3 is a cohesive insert. The text beginning 8:4 apparently continues the main story from Chapter 7.

The chieftains dispatched, the Ephraimites turn on Gideon, angry that they were not called in to the war efforts earlier. Gideon mollifies them by arguing that the capture of Oreb and Zeeb was a greater victory than the ruse at the Midianite camp.

Zebah and Zalmunna

Gideon and his 300 men pursue two more chieftains, Zebah and Zalmunna (or, more likely, origin stories for locations known as Oreb and Zeeb got associated with the story of Gideon’s triumph over Midian and something to do with two kings, and we’re seeing two very different versions of the same story).

Bataille de Gédéon contre les Madianites, by Nicolas Poussin, 1625-1626

Bataille de Gédéon contre les Madianites, by Nicolas Poussin, 1625-1626

The soldiers are exhausted, so they stop at Succoth and ask for bread. The residents of Succoth refuse, saying that Gideon hasn’t yet caught Zebah and Zalmunna (which I see some people interpret as a taunt, though I saw it as choosing the side they anticipate will be the winner, having seen how much smaller Gideon’s army is). Furious, Gideon tells them that he’s busy right now, but when the chieftains are caught, he’ll come back and flay the people of Succoth with thorns and briars.

Still hungry, the Israelites stop in Penuel and the same thing happens, only this time Gideon says that he will return and break down their tower.

Eventually, the 301 Israelites catch up to Zebah, Zalmunna, and their 15,000 men in Karkor. Gideon’s army attacks and wins. This is clearly not the timid Gideon we’ve seen so far who hides in the shadows. Rather, the Gideon of this portion of the story resembles more the Israelite-hero-who-kills-everything archetype we’ve seen so much of.

He returns to Succoth with his two prisoners and confronts a young man they find from the city. The young man – under what conditions it is not described – gives up the names of Succoth’s 77 elders. Gideon confronts the elders, presenting his captive chieftains, and then “taught the men of Succoth” (Judges 8:16) by flaying them, as promised, with his thorns and briars. He then moves on to Penuel and takes down their tower, slaying their men too, for good measure.

I think it’s rather clear that there was a story in which Gideon asked for help from a town, was rejected, and then got revenge, though different areas had attributed it to different towns. These two divergent threads were then stitched back into the same narrative by the Judges editor.

Having shown off Zebah and Zalmunna to his enemies, Gideon then questions them about men they killed at Tabor. To chieftains confess to having killed them, and Gideon reveals that “they were my brothers, the sons of my mother” (Judges 8:19). Wait, what??

According to J.R. Porter:

[Gideon] seems to have been originally a simple folk-hero of a small clan group, who was remembered as one who upheld the fundamental social institution of the blood-feud by slaughtering the two kings of Midian who had killed his brothers (Judg. 8.18-21). (The New Illustrated Companion to the Bible, p. 68)

In other words, there seems to have been a story where, instead of being called by God to liberate the Israelites, Gideon was instead on a personal quest for revenge. I wonder if Gideon and Jerubbaal might not have originally been separate figures who were combined at some point, and then given an origin story that better fit with the Judges pattern of judges being elected to free Israel from the hands of some enemy.

That the story had originally been of revenge rather that freedom is the only way that I can see to explain his reaction when the chieftains confess to the killing: “if you had saved them alive, I would not slay you” (Judges 8:19). I don’t think we have any example of the hero from a freedom narrative sparing the enemy leaders, but in the context of a blood feud, Gideon would have no basis for killing them if his brothers still lived.

At first, Gideon tells his eldest son, Jether, to kill the chieftains (wait, if he was the “least” in his family back in Judges 6, does that mean that his status was lower, even, than his own son? How on earth did literalphilia ever become a thing?). Jether, taking after his dad, refuses, and the text tells us that it’s because he was so young. Surprisingly, he is not stricken down or killed for his refusal, and Gideon simply does the job himself.

Monarchy and Heresy

Having seen him in action, the Israelites ask Gideon to become their king, and for his position to be hereditary. Gideon refuses (Judges 8:23).

He does, however, ask a favour of his soldiers – he asks them all to give him the gold earrings they had taken from their enemies, who have suddenly transformed from Midianites to Ishmaelites. These, he melts down with the crescent jewellery he’d taken from the Midianite kings, and uses the gold to build an ephod. This he sets up in Ophrah, presumably near the (two) altar(s) he made for God.

The Ishmaelites, if you’ll remember, are the descendants of Abraham’s first son, Ishmael, whom he abandoned in the wilderness. He is considered by Muslims to be the father of Arabs. It struck me that the text should associate these Ishmaelites with crescents twice, that symbol being today associated with Islam.

Wikipedia confounds any conclusions I might draw from this, however, as it seems to have been a symbol in use around the Ancient Near East.

The building of the ephod turns out to be a rather bad idea because “all Israel played the harlot after it, there, and it became a snare to Gideon and to his family” (Judges 8:27).

Thing is, we have no idea what an ephod is.

Brant Clements discusses the object:

Previously we encountered the word in reference to a priestly garment (Exodus 25:7). That doesn’t seem to be what Gideon made.No, Gideon made some kind of object of worship (an idol). I suspect that, like the priestly garment, it may have been used for divination, but that’s just speculation on my part. Whatever it was, Gideon’s ephod was problematic because people worshiped it.

The Israelites have forty years of rest under Gideon, during which time he has seventy sons via many wives. One, Abimelech, was born of a concubine. We’ll hear more about him later.

When Gideon dies, the Israelites turn to Baalberith as their god.

Numbers 31: But keep the virgins for yourselves

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After having a few chapters of census and rules, we resume our narrative from Numbers 25. If you’ll remember, there was a minor scandal where Hebrew men were shacking up with Moabite women, which was leading the men to start worshipping the wrong gods. Then, suddenly, the offending women spontaneously changed their nationality and became Midianites.

I speculated at the time that it was a revisioner’s attempt to make clear that Moses having a Midianite wife should not be seen to be implicit acceptance of marriage to foreign women generally.

God, still rather sore about the whole episode, tells Moses to “avenge the people of Israel on the Midianites” (v.2).

The Story of Moses and the Midianites by Barbara Griffiths

The Story of Moses and the Midianites by Barbara Griffiths

So Moses gets together a thousand men from each tribe. Phinehas, son of Eleazar – the guy who showed us what he thought of Midianites back in Numbers 25 – was sent along with the trumpets for the alarm and the  “vessels of the sanctuary” (v.6) – though, interestingly, not the ark.

Apparently, every single Midianite man (at least in that region) was slain in the battle, including the kings of Midian: Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba. They also killed Balaam, son of Beor (more on that later). Yet the Israelites themselves suffered no casualties (v.49) – presumably a little dig to reinforce God’s power to win battles that have his support.

The soldiers took the women, children, cattle, flocks, and possessions as spoils of war. They then burned down what remained of the towns and cities.

But when they bring all the spoils to Moses and Eleazar, Moses was enraged. “Have you let all the women live?” (v.15), he asks them, then commands his soldiers to kill every male child and woman who has “known man by lying with him” (v.17). He will, however, allow them to keep the little girls alive.

What’s with Balaam?

In Numbers 22, Balaam was a good guy, seeking out the instructions of the right god and refusing the curse the Israelites (even going so far as to bless them). So why is he suddenly a bad guy who is going around telling women “to act treacherously against the Lord” (v.16)?

I think that we’re seeing the same thing we saw happen in Numbers 25, where the Moabite women magically transformed into Midianites. We have a revisioner – probably a clerical person (or movement) given the tone of the changes/inserts – who is trying to make a theological point. As with the Midianite issue, this is clearly an attempt to smooth over elements of older traditions that have become distasteful.

Collins puts it thusly in A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (P and JE are hypothetical authors in the documentary hypothesis):

P adds an interesting notice in Num 31:8, 16. The Moabite women, we are told, acted on the advice of none other than Balaam, and the Israelites accordingly killed Balaam with the sword. The [P] writers were evidently uncomfortable with the idea of a “good” pagan prophet and undermine the older JE account of Balaam by this notice. It is also axiomatic for the Priestly writer that the women who tempted the Israelites must not be allowed to live. (p.83)

Purification

The massacre of the women and male children done, Moses tells every man who has “killed any person, and whoever has touched any slain” (v.19) to go purify themselves in the way stipulated in Numbers 19. In addition to purifying themselves, they must also cleanse the spoils – anything that can withstand fire must be passed through fire and then purified with the special water from Numbers 19. Anything flammable can just be washed with the special water.

David Plotz, upon reading this chapter, responds:

What is particularly poignant is that Moses himself seems to know that this massacre of innocents is wrong. He orders his death squads to stay outside of camp after they finish their butchery. They need a week away from the Tabernacle to purify themselves. The Bible never mentions such a quarantine for Israelite soldiers after other battles. But, as Moses recognizes, these killings are not war, they are murder, and they defile his people.

Well, that’s partly true. We haven’t seen it specified that soldiers who kill in battle should be purified, but Numbers 19:16 does say: Whoever in the open field touches one who is slain with a sword, or a dead body, or a bone of a man, or a grave, shall be unclean seven days.” How easy is it for a soldier, in the middle of a battlefield, to kill someone without touching them?

So while it may not be explicit that the purification Moses is ordering in Numbers 31 is just part of the normal post-battle routine, I don’t think that it can be discounted as such either.

Since we’re on the subject of ‘things David Plotz writes,’ he also has a very interesting discussion of the apparent reversal in this chapter:

Let’s pause for a second to consider Moses’ rage, which I find almost incomprehensible. For most of the last three books, Moses has been restraining God. The Lord loses his temper with His disobedient people, and Moses persuades Him to show mercy. But God is on the sidelines during the Midianite slaughter: It is Moses who’s bloodthirsty. Where does his new anger come from? Is it the fury of a frustrated old man who’s been barred from his Promised Land? Is it the homicidal megalomania that descends on so many dictators who hold power too long?

As usual, he’s taking the text at face value. That’s fine, but I think it misses the more likely reason for the reversal – to show Moses himself siding against exogamy. If anyone used the story of Moses’ wife as a sort of hadith to argue that exogamy is permissible, having him come down so strongly against it here would put an end to that.

I also think it needs to be noted that, even if we’re taking the text at face value, there’s still an important difference between this narrative and the narratives where Moses calms God down. When God flies into a rage, it’s against the Israelites, and Moses is therefore protecting his own in-group. But in this case, the war is with the Midianites. Another reasonable interpretation would be, simply, that Moses couldn’t give a flying fonkey about members of the out-group.

Dividing the booty

God gives Moses the rules for dividing up spoils of war (would that mean that he’s making the booty call? – ugh, even I’m embarrassed by that one…).

It’s a fairly decent system: The spoils are divided into two equal halves, one half to be distributed among the soldiers, and one half to go to the general community. The Levites get 1/50th of the community share, and the high priest alone gets 1/500th of the soldiers’ share. What this looks like in actual numbers is:

  • Sheep: 675,000 total, 337,500 to soldiers and the community each, 675 to Eleazar, 6,750 to the Levites.
  • Cattle: 72,000 total, 36,000 to soldiers and the community each, 72 to Eleazar, 720 to the Levites.
  • Donkeys: 61,000 total, 30,500 to soldiers and the community each, 61 to Eleazar, 610 to the Levites.
  • Virgin girls: 32,000 total, 16,500 to soldiers and the community each, 32 to Eleazar, 320 to the Levites.

In addition to this, we’re told that Eleazar also received 16,750 shekels.

The share that’s to be given to Eleazar the high priest is referred to in my RSV as “the Lord’s share.” In the King James, it’s called the “heave offering.” In my journeys across the vast lands of the internet, I’ve found quite a few atheists interpreting this chapter (particularly v.40) as a demand for human sacrifice. You can see this illustrated over at BibleSlam, where the author writes: “The LORD’s share was given as a ‘heave offering,’ which implies that 32 human virgins were sacrificed.”

Having now read the chapter, all I can say is “bwuh?”

The context makes it abundantly clear that Eleazar’s share is just that, Eleazar’s share. I’m not saying that what’s about to happen to his 32 virgin girls is good, but it sure ain’t sacrifice.

Heck, even the “implies” of “heave offering” is silly, since the heave offering is the portion that the priests get to take home with them after it’s waved around in front of God for a bit. It’s specifically the part that isn’t burned – as illustrated by Exodus 29:27-28.

So yeah, there’s a whole lot going on in this chapter that’s pretty horrible, but human sacrifice isn’t one of them.

Numbers 25: What happens in Shittim stays in Shittim

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We’ve seen passages that have been interesting, and we’ve seen passages that have been profoundly boring. We’ve seen passages that have been refreshingly progressive, and, sadly, we’ve seen passages that have been horrifyingly xenophobic. Numbers 25 is the latter.

So the Israelites are loitering around in Shittim, bored, not much going on, and some of them start chasing after the local Moabite girls. These girls, they run with different gods and make theistic infidelity look mighty attractive, so the Israelites start sacrificing to the Moabite gods, specifically Baal.

God, of course, is mighty angry. He commands Moses to slaughter all the chiefs, killing them in place of their people. Moses, either disobeying God or deciding to play the over-achiever, calls up all his judges and tells them to each kill all of their men who have hung out with Baal.

The Midianite woman

Numbers 25 - CozbyWhile all this is going on – or possibly after – a Simeonite man by the name of Zimri, son of Salu, brought a Midianite woman to meet his family (presumably as a wife?). Her name was Cozbi – spelled with a Z and I to avoid confusion – daughter of Zur, prince among the Midianites.

This throws Phinehas, grandson of Aaron through Eleazar, into a rage. He leaves the Israelites to their weeping at the tent of meeting and follows Zimri back to his tent. There, presumably while Zimri and Cozbi were playing a Barry White album, Phinehas stabs them both with a spear.

This, of course, is very pleasing unto the Lord, and God decides to stop the heretofore unmentioned plague that he’d sent to kill the Israelites – but not before 24,000 people had already died.

So there’s some biblical morality for you – kill people, placate God.

As a reward for his double homicide, Phinehas is ensured a perpetual priesthood for himself and his descendants.

Just to round off the day, God tells Moses to go kill Midianites, “for they have harassed you with their wiles” (v.18). I’ve met a few cat-callers in the street who seem to have taken this view, and it ain’t pretty.

Wait, what happened to the Moabite women?

The story of how the Lord was angered by the Midianites, by Barbara Griffiths

The story of how the Lord was angered by the Midianites, by Barbara Griffiths

You may have noticed that we went from complaining about Moabite women to, very suddenly, being concerned about Midianite women. So what’s going on with that?

Well, seems like it’s political, yet again.

Way back in Exodus 2, Moses met and married a Midianite woman named Zipporah. This already led to some contention in Numbers 12. I think that the authors wanted to make very clear that – at least in this – What Would Moses Do does not apply.

As a closing note, Collins makes a very interesting point in A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible:

The Phinehas story underlines some of the fundamental tensions in the Priestly tradition. On the one hand, that tradition was characterized by respect for life, human and animal, as is shown by the prohibition against eating meat with the blood, and the account of creation in Genesis 1. On the other hand, the violence of Phinehas, like the summary executions of dissidents like Korah, shows an attitude of intolerance, where the demands of purity and holiness take precedence over human life. The intolerance shown in this story has its root in the certitude of Phinehas and those he represents that their way is God’s way. (p.83)

Numbers 12: Aaron gets away with everything… again

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One day, Miriam and Aaron (Moses’ siblings) approach Moses to complain about “that Cushite woman whom he had married” (v.1).

Before we go any further, it’s worth noting that Zipporah, Moses’ wife, is described as a Midianite in Exodus 2:15-22, not a Cushite. I’m seeing a bunch of attempts at explaining this away, such as my Study Bible saying: “The term Cushite apparently includes Midianites and other Arabic peoples” (p.179). The “apparently” used here seems to mean “that way it’s not a contradiction.”

Davis, who has also often tried to smooth over the Bible’s rough patches, adds: “‘Cushite’ has been interpreted as ‘African,’ although Cush might be another word for Midian. Was Zipporah black? Was there a second wife? The Bible doesn’t really say” (Don’t Know Much About the Bible, p.138).

I find it interesting that both assume that we are not understanding the words correctly, rather than that two separate traditions were melded and the continuity checker was asleep at his desk.

That’s the first half of the first verse discussed. Shall we carry on?

So why were they complaining? Before I read the chapter, I wondered if the complaint was about some personal grievance with Zipporah as an individual, and she is only referred to as “that Cushite woman” as a description. As in, “that woman in the blue dress stole the pineapple.” But then we get the second half of the verse, and it minces no words about why Miriam and Aaron don’t like her: “for he [Moses] had married a Cushite woman.” That’s it. This is a race/ethnicity issue.

But also questions of leadership

Then the race issue is completely dropped and Miriam and Aaron start complaining about Moses being the leader. “Has he [the Lord] not spoken through us also?” (v.2) In other words, they’re getting to chat with God too, they are also spiritual leaders (remember Miriam and the songs of praise?). So why is Moses getting all the recognition?

Moses, confronted about his Cushite wife, from the Vatopedi monastery, 10th cent

Moses, confronted about his Cushite wife, from the Vatopedi monastery, 10th cent

I made a post a few months ago comparing Moses and Abraham, where I mentioned the similarities between Sarah and Inanna. Reading this chapter and, specifically, Miriam’s apparent claim to prophecy makes me think that maybe she and Sarah both have a history in the oral tradition as, if not goddesses, at least some form of cultic archetype. Specifically, my Study Bible talked about the age of the tradition that seems to be behind Miriam’s second song of praise in Exodus 15.

I’ve also talked before about my interest in Aaron as a possible rival prophet (or, at least, a rival tradition) that became amalgamated with the Moses cycle. Now I’m wondering if the same thing might not have happened to Miriam.

But that’s all pretty pure arm-chair speculation, and uninformed speculation at that. So let’s move on.

The narrator starts off by defending Moses, calling him “very meek” – “more than all the men that were on the face of the earth” (v.3).

For most of biblical tradition – and many people still believe this – Moses has been considered the author of the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). Obviously, verse 3 has long been very troubling. Or, as my Study Bible puts it: “This verse is an age-old stumbling-block to the belief that Moses wrote the whole Pentateuch” (p.174). I mean, either the statement is true, in which case we have a paradox (someone who is meek would never say that they are the meekest person on earth), or it’s not true, in which case we have to take a second look at everything else Moses has claimed. Either way, it doesn’t look good.

God then calls all three siblings to the entrance of the tent of meeting, and there he lectures to them about Moses being in a separate class:

If there is a prophet among you, I the Lord make myself known to him in a vision, I speak with him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses; he is entrusted with all my house. With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in dark speech; and he beholds the form of the Lord. (v.6-8)

So if he talks to prophets in dreams and he talks to Moses clearly, where does that leave Miriam and Aaron? Yes, he’s appearing as a pillar of smoke rather than taking the anthropomorphic form that Moses has apparently seen, but he’s also speaking rather clearly and there’s no indication that Miriam and Aaron are asleep.

What’s going on? Is he rebuking them, or is he agreeing that they really do deserve to be in an elevated class? Because there seems to be a contradiction between what he’s saying and how he’s saying it.

The punishment

God (or, rather, his smoke pillar) suddenly disappears, and the siblings discover that Miriam is leprous – “white as snow” (v.10). Aaron is conspicuously unharmed.

Still, he begs Moses for mercy and Moses asks God to heal Miriam. But God replies: “If her father had but spit in her face, should she not be shamed seven days” (v.14). Spitting in the face is a pretty common curse, so the comparison here is to Miriam having been cursed by her authority figure (or, more charitably, a close family relative).

Because of this, Miriam must be excluded from the camp for seven days. To their credit, the Israelites wait for her to get better before moving out of Hazeroth and going to the wilderness of Paran (which they already did in Numbers 10:12, but whatever).

David Plotz brought up a really interesting point that I wanted to share:

Also, my friend Aryeh Tepper points out that Miriam’s punishment for complaining about Moses’ African wife perfectly fits the crime: She mutters about the wife’s black skin, so God covers her skin with “snow-white scales.”

Well, that’s nice, and it’s certainly an interesting thought. However, as we’ll see later in Numbers, God isn’t too keen on interracial (or, at least, intercultural) marriage either. In fact, an argument could easily be made that Miriam was merely trying to uphold God’s own standards, and not letting Moses get away with being “a law unto himself.”

Also, God never responded specifically to the charge against Moses marrying a non-Israelite. I mean, sure, he blusters on about Miriam and Aaron daring to question Moses in any way, but his response seems far more focused on the issue of leadership than marriage.

And, lastly, nowhere does it say that Zipporah’s skin is black (at least as far as I can recall – correct me if wrong, please), or any darker than Moses’ own skin. We know only that she is a Midianite/Cushite, and the passages I quoted at the beginning of this post make it rather clear that we seem to want to be rather flexible with those designations.

I think that this punishment is much simpler than that. I think that leprosy (including house mold) was simply seen as an outer expression of an inner sin. In this case, Miriam’s sin was in questioning Moses’ authority.

It’s also very much worth noting that, as with the Golden Calf incident, Aaron is at the very centre of a kerfuffle and everyone gets punished except for him. Talk about nepotism!

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.

Genesis 39: In which Joseph is much favoured by God

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After a brief interlude, we’re back to the story of Joseph.

Joseph succeeds

Joseph was bought from the Ishmaelites (or possibly the Midianites, who knows?) by Potiphar, captain of the pharaoh’s guard. “The Lord was with Joseph” (Gen. 39:2), so everything he touches prospers. Potiphar sees this and puts Joseph in charge of the whole household.

Joseph with Potiphar's wife by Hendrick van Balen

Joseph with Potiphar’s wife by Hendrick van Balen

Everything is going swimmingly and everyone’s happy, until Potiphar’s wife goes all cougar on Joseph’s “handsome and good-looking” (Gen. 39:6) self. Day after day, she propositions him, but Joseph always refuses.

One day, she grabs him by his clothes and asks him again to have sex with her. In a move that would make a Hollywood RomCom proud, he jumps out of his clothes and runs away, leaving this poor desperate housewife alone with her love’s clothes in her hand. Comedy gold.

Having just been dissed, Potiphar’s wife gets her revenge by telling everyone that Joseph came in to rape her, but she screamed and he ran away. She uses the clothes he left behind as proof. Potiphar is enraged and has him put in the king’s prison.

This story is remarkably similar to an Egyptian story, referred to as the “Tale of Two Brothers.” It’s not far-fetched to imagine that two cultures might have independently come up with the same plotline, but it’s also possible that some Jews were once living in Egypt or traded with Egyptians and incorporated the myth into their own canon.

Joseph fails, but succeeds anyway

Despite being in jail, Joseph still manages to get on everyone’s good side (this guy is the ultimate Gary Stu). The jailer hands over the managing of all the other prisoners to Joseph.

David Plotz, over at Blogging the Bible, points out that Joseph is the first man in the Bible to resist sexual temptation.

Genesis describes straight rape, attempted gay rape, father-daughter incest, coitus interruptus with dead brother’s wife, sex with wife, sex with wrong wife, sex with concubine, sex with dad’s concubine, sex with prostitute who is also daughter-in-law. In any situation in which sex is available, men seize it. What’s remarkable about Joseph? He’s the first person to resist sexual temptation.

Genesis 37: Joseph is sold into slavery

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We’re getting back into the Sunday School ready stories here.

The story begins when Joseph is 17 years old. Israel/ Jacob (whose name switches back and fourth throughout the chapter) felt that using his other sons as a meatshield for Joseph wasn’t quite clear enough. In his infinite wisdom as patriarch of the Bible, he also decides to dress Joseph better than all his brothers, giving him a long robe with sleeves (which was a whole lot more material than each of the other sons got) so that his favouritism could be rubbed into everyone’s faces every day.

The Dreams

The Dreams of Joseph by Raphael, 1518-1519

The Dreams of Joseph by Raphael, 1518-1519

Joseph has a dream that he and his brothers were binding sheaves in the field when, suddenly, his sheaf rose and stood upright. The other sheaves gathered around it and bowed down to his sheaf.

The meatshield and robe incidents didn’t quite hammer things home enough. So Joseph decides to tell his brother all about his less-than-ambiguous dream. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t endear him to them.

Not content to leave it at that, Joseph has another dream in which the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to him. This time, even Israel/Jacob is rather peeved. “What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall I and your mother and your brothers indeed come to bow ourselves to the ground before you?” (Gen. 37:10). Keep in mind that his mother died in Genesis 35. But I guess that they needed someone to be the sun and/or moon, so she gets to zombie-grovel.

Whoop, down the well!

Joseph’s brothers are all out tending dad’s flocks and Israel/Jacob asks him to go out and find them, then report back. We aren’t told Joseph is hanging around at home while all his brothers are working…

Then we get a totally weird and unnecessary detail: Joseph expects his brothers to be in Shechem, but when he gets there he’s told that they’ve moved on to Dothan. So Joseph continues on his way. This is not in any way important to the plot.

His brothers, who are pretty miffed by now, see Joseph coming and start talking about killing him. “We shall say that a wild beast has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams” (Gen. 37:20). Nyaaah, I’ll kill him, see? The ol’ dreamer won’t be dreamin’ no more, see?

But Reuben, Leah’s eldest, suggestions that they just dump him into a pit rather than kill him. Secretly, he’s thinking that he’ll come back later and save him once the other brothers aren’t looking.

The brothers agree and, when Joseph arrives, take off his robe (the fancy one, with sleeves) and dump him in the pit.

Sold into slavery

Joseph’s brothers are sitting around having a meal when they see an Ishmaelite caravan going by, selling stuff between Gilead and Egypt (and, of course, we need a list of the stuff they’re selling). Judah speaks up, asking: “What profit is it if we slay our brother and conceal his blood?” (Gen. 37:26). Never mind that Reuben already convinced them not to kill Joseph…

Judah’s big idea is that they sell Joseph to the Ishmaelites.

Suddenly, the Ishmaelites miraculously turned into Midianite traders! It’s a miracle! Or a mistake! One or the other, anyway. It’s not really important who they sell Joseph to…

Point is, they pull him out of the pit and sell him to the Ishmaelite (wait, we’re back to Ishmaelites now?). Because we must keep a running account book of possessions, Joseph is sold for twenty shekels of silver.

And frankly, who hasn’t thought of selling a sibling to Ishmaelites? If Shel Silverstein is any kind of authority, I hear that this is rather common among kids burdened with live-in siblings.

And that is how Joseph ends up in Egypt.

Breaking the news

Reuben, who was apparently somewhere else while his brothers were earning their silver, arrives at the pit and sees that Joseph is gone. He’s rather nettled that his plan has been foiled.

They then decide to kill a goat (which I could have sworn was a sheep in my Sunday school lessons) and dip Joseph’s robe in its blood. They bring the bloodied robe to Israel/Jacob and tell him that a wild beast has eaten Joseph. Jacob apparently doesn’t notice that the robe is perfectly intact and yet somehow drenched in blood. Apparently, the wild beasts around Dothan aim exclusively for the head.

In response, Israel/Jacob decides to put sackcloth around his “loins.” He’s so upset that he says he will never recover, and will instead: “go down to Sheol to my son, mourning” (Gen. 37:35). Little point of fact, this is the first mention of any kind of afterlife. Notice that it isn’t heaven or hell, but rather a place where the dead go as shadows. It’s similar to the concept of Hades – a dreary, dark place where the dead live. It’s interesting to see the evolution of afterlife theology…

Back to the story, we’re told that the Midianites sold Joseph to the Egyptian pharaoh’s captain of the guard, Potiphar. The Ishmaelites have apparently disappeared once again.