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 14: Parting the Red Sea

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In Exodus 13, the Hebrews went to Succoth, and from there on to Etham (Exod. 13:20). Now, God tells them to go back towards Egypt and camp out in front of Pihahiroth (which, we’re told, is between Migdol and the sea, in front of Baalzephon). The locations of these places is not known, but my study bible says that they were probably Egyptian border fortresses.


It seems that the Hebrews were trapped between the sea/desert  and the Egyptian army, as implied when Pharaoh says: “They are entangled in the land; the wilderness has shut them in” (Exod. 14:3).

Pharaoh’s army engulfed by the Red Sea by Frederick Arthur Bridgman, 1900

Pharaoh’s army engulfed by the Red Sea by Frederick Arthur Bridgman, 1900

But God has a different excuse. He says that this is so that he can harden Pharaoh’s heart, causing him to chase after the Israelites and giving God the opportunity to “get glory over Pharaoh and all his host; and the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord” (Exod. 14:4).

Because, you know, “in the span of a week, something had slain their firstborn, destroyed their crops, and filled their graves with children, their rivers with blood, their homes with frogs, their streets with lions, their fields with dead livestock, their skies with darkness, and their faces with carbuncles… But it might have been just a coincidence” (The Last Testament, p.78-9).

Regardless of the Hebrews’ motives for turning back, Pharaoh gets his army ready. Unlike the Sunday School version I know, Pharaoh doesn’t suddenly regret letting the Hebrews go. Rather, he realises that they lied to him about the whole “couple days in the wilderness for a festival” thing and are actually escaping. I guess that teaching kids that God approves of lying is being a bit too literal.

When Pharaoh overtakes the Israelites and they get scared. They turn on Moses, again saying that his uppitiness has doomed them all.

I enjoyed the part where Pharaoh is preparing his army and special mention is made of the “six hundred picked chariots and all the other chariots of Egypt” (Exod. 14:7). I’ll be quoting scripture next time I get cookies!

I also rather enjoyed it when the Israelites are getting mad at Moses and they say: “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?” (Exod. 14:11). I’m assuming that this has something to do with Egyptian burial practices. Does anyone know? My study bible says nothing and either I’m Google illiterate tonight or there isn’t a whole lot of commentary out there.

Parting the Waters

God instructs Moses to raise his rod (*gigglesnort*) and wave his hands about, causing the sea to divide so that the Hebrews are able to walk across. God then hardens the Egyptians’ hearts “so that they shall go in after them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, his chariots, and his horsemen” (Exod. 14:17).

The Egyptians are slowed as their chariot wheels get bogged and, when the Hebrews are through, the waters flood back and the Egyptians are drowned such that “not so much as one of them remained” (Exod. 14:28).

This chapter has the most heart-rending line since Sarah’s death in Genesis 23: “Israel saw the Egyptians dead upon the seashore” (Exod. 14:30).

As David Plotz points out, “The moral problem, as I see it, isn’t that God is drowning the Egyptians. The Egyptians are wicked, and war is ugly. The problem is that God takes so much satisfaction in it.”

Red Sea vs Reed Sea

One vein of Bible reading takes the stories at face value, but tries to find naturalistic explanations for the miracles. So Jesus wasn’t really resurrected, he just fainted on the cross and revived later. One common explanation for the parting of the Red Sea miracle is that the Hebrews were actually at the Reed Sea, and the miracle is actually due to a mistranslation.

There’s a fairly good explanation of the theory in The Bible for Dummies, p. 105:

The reason for the discrepancy between the Red Sea and the Reed Sea is that the Hebrew Bible calls this body of water yam suf (sea of reeds), while the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, calls it thalassa erythra (red sea). Many scholars believe the Bible is referring to the Red Sea (or the Gulf of Suez), but some have suggested that it is referring to one of the many fresh-water lakes (with abundant reeds) now covered by the Suez Canal.

While there is no “reed sea,” it’s quite possible that it refers to a smaller body of water that was subject to fairly drastic tidal changes. The Egyptians, who were mired in the mud (Exod. 14:24-25) may not have been able to get out quickly enough as the tide came in.

One last little note I’d like to make is the symbolism of the episode. By using water to destroy the Egyptians, thereby paving the way for Israel to form as a nation, God is mirroring the creation of the world in Genesis 1. In both cases, creation emerges as God conquers chaos (as represented by water).