Deuteronomy 32: God’s chart topper

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At the end of the last chapter, Moses gathered together all the elders and officers of Israel to teach them God’s new song. This, finally, is that song.

It begins in the usual way: With a description of how awesome and totally cool God is, but everything goes wrong and it’s always someone else’s fault. The people didn’t respect him enough, so “they are no longer his children because of their blemish” (Deut. 32:5). While the sentiment is reversed within a couple lines, where Moses rhetorically asks: “Is he not your father, who created you, who made you and established you?” (Deut. 32:6) – which is it’s own little parental mindfuck – I find it rather horrifying that God would go there. I mean, a god turning away from a people who aren’t worshipping him properly is all well and good, but if he’s to use the parental imagery, he loses the right to keep pulling this “I turn away from you, you are no longer my children” stuff.

Moses and the Promised Land, by Joni Ware, 2009

Moses and the Promised Land, by Joni Ware, 2009

In his description of how God created the people, Moses sings about the sons of men, and how God “fixed the bounds of the peoples according tot he number of the sons of God” (Deut. 32:8). According to my study Bible, this line is supposed to mean that God allows other members of the heavenly court to govern the other nations, while God sees to Israel personally. Given that other parts of this very song come off very monotheistic, I really wish we had a more explicit cosmology to look at.

Moses then goes on to talk about how God took care of Jacob, making him “suck honey out of the rock, and oil out of the flinty rock” (Deut. 32:13) – a miracle, obviously, but also some very maternal imagery. Given that God is later conflated with a Rock (my study Bible capitalizes the word), it certainly makes it seem like God is playing the part of a Mother Goddess figure, nursing Jacob at the breast of the land. All of this is doubly interesting because I can’t recall anything in Genesis that would give an indication of this sort of relationship – except that it is Jacob’s descendent who are the tribal founders, making Jacob the founder of the whole nation.

Moses then goes on to talk about a Jeshurun, which from the context appears to be a anthropomorphism of Israel, who grows fat and complacent, eventually forsaking God. Ironically, Jeshurun apparently means “the Upright One,” according to my study Bible.

Then, he “stirred him [God] to jealousy with strange gods” (Deut. 32:16). I find all the references to God’s jealousy quite interesting. I have a friend in a poly relationship who once explained to me that jealousy comes from a lack of self-confidence, from feeling insecure in your position in a relationship. In other words, if you feel (consciously or subconsciously) that you are not worthy enough for your partner, you react with jealousy when you see your partner in a situation where they might encounter someone better. So take of that what you will.

With Jeshurun being such a meanie, God decides that he will provoke him back by sending a “foolish nation” (Deut. 32:21) after the Israelites, to heap evils on them and kill them – even “the suckling child” (Deut. 32:25). So there’s that mercy and ‘slow to anger’ stuff he’s been talking about. In fact, it seems that the only thing preventing him from destroying the people entirely is that the nations he sends in to do his dirty work might come to think that they achieved their victories for themselves, rather than crediting God with being so totally awesome.

God will also rub it all in a bit. When the people have been conquered, he will ask them Where are your gods now? “Let them rise up and help you, let them be your protection!” (Deut. 32:38).

Then God goes on for a bit about what a gross, vindictive jerk he is.

Go up the mountain

With the song finished, God sends Moses up to Abarim, Mount Nebo, to look down on the Promised Land. Once there, he will die, as Aaron died, because they “broke faith with me [God] at the waters of Meribath-kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin; because you did not revere me as holy in the midst of the people of Israel” (Deut. 32:51).

Meribath-kadesh seems to be yet another name for Massah and Meribah from the stories we saw in Exodus 17 and Numbers 20.

Numbers 34: Redistribution of wealth

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It’s not even theirs yet, but the Israelites have decided that it’s already time to start planning how they will divvy up the loot. There’s a relevant saying, something about chickens hatching.

They begin by setting out the boundaries of the ideal Israelite country:

  1. The southern side should include some of the wilderness of Zin, along the border of Edom. The boundary will start in the east from the southern tip of the Salt Sea (which some translations give as the Dead Sea), then south of Akrabbim, cross the wilderness of Zin, and south of Kadeshbarnea. From there, it should go on to Hazaraddar, and then on from Azmon to the Brook of Egypt (which may be the Nile, or something else, who knows?), ending at the Mediterranean.
  2. The western boundary should be the coast of the Mediterranean.
  3. The northern side should run from the Mediterranean to Mount Hor (which is confusing because the Mount Hor we’ve been reading about is to the south of Canaan. Apparently, there are two of them?). From there, the boundary goes out to the entrance of Hamath, ending at Zedad. It then goes to Ziphron, ending at Hazarenan.
  4. The eastern boundary should run from Hazarenan to Shepham, then down to Riblah (on the east side of Ain), and then along the slopes east of the Sea of Chinnereth (which some translations give as the Sea of Galilea). Then hit should head down along the Jordan and end at the Salt/Dead Sea.

According to my Study Bible, the northern border wasn’t actually reached until the time of David – citing 2 Sam. 8:3-14 and 1 Kg. 8:65 (p.210). If true, that leaves us with two options: Either the boundaries presented here are an accidental anachronism written by someone living after the time of David, or the boundaries were written in/modified to legitimize Israelite claims to those lands.

Gad, Reuben, and half of Manasseh have all gotten their spots already, so they don’t have to be part of this process. The Levites are also excluded because, as with the census, they get their own chapter. For the rest, God selects a leader for each tribe to handle the assigning of lands:

  • Judah: Caleb, son of Jephunneh
  • Simeon: Shemuel, son of Ammihud
  • Benjamin: Elidad, son of Kislon
  • Dan: Bukki, son of Jogli
  • Joseph, Manasseh: Hanniel, son of Ephod
  • Joseph, Ephraim: Kemuel, son of Shiphtan
  • Zebulun: Elizaphan, son of Parnak
  • Issachar: Paltiel, son of Azzan
  • Asher: Ahihud, son of Shelomi
  • Naphtali: Pedahel, son of Ammihud

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 21: Snakes on a plain

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It doesn’t rain unless it pours. Numbers is an odd book; a good half of the chapters are nothing but Levitical drudgery, and then we get chapters like these, where the narratives just seem to be breathlessly jammed together.

As the Hebrews are travelling through Atharim, they are attacked by the king of Arad, a Canaanite. This appears to have been a small skirmish, since we’re given no death tally and only told that he took some of the Hebrews captive.

The Hebrews then call to God for help and, while reticent to provide them with the necessities of subsistence, he seems quite happy to help when it involves killing people.

With God’s help, the Hebrews are able to “utterly destroy” the Canaanites, as well as their cities. Because of this, they name the area Hormah, which my Study Bible notes means “destruction.”

Waaay back in Numbers 14:39-45, we heard of a different battle in which some of the Hebrews run up into the hill country and are attacked by the Amalekites and Canaanites. In that battle, the Hebrews are destroyed and their remainder pursued “even to Hormah” (Num. 14:45).

The similarities between the two stories are interesting: the initial defeat at the hands of Canaanites, and the mention of Hormah. A possible interpretation of this Numbers 21 story is that it is a continuation, explaining what happened after the Hebrews (whether the initial group or the larger group following) arrived at Hormah and retaliated.

Enter the serpents

From Mount Hor, the Hebrews set out to go around Edom (having been denied through-passage in Numbers 20). On the way, however, the people start griping again about the lack of variety in their diet. As punishment, God sends “fiery serpents” (v.6) among them, the poison killing everyone bitten.

Moses and the Brazen Serpent, by Sébastien Bourdon, 1653-1654

Moses and the Brazen Serpent, by Sébastien Bourdon, 1653-1654

Moses prays on behalf of the people and God, once again, relents. However, while sending miracles that kill masses of people is easy-peasy for God, removing them seems to be a bit on the “rock so heavy even God cannot lift it” side of things, so he needs Moses to perform some magic.

To pull this one off, Moses must build an idol – specifically, a bronze serpent set on a pole. Anyone who has been bitten and sees the idol will survive.

I think that this is a similar situation to the Golden Calf story. Indeed, we’ll see in 2 Kings 18:4 that this idol – later called Nehushtan – was considered in violation of the cultic prohibitions and was destroyed.

According to J.R. Porter:

This is the origin of the bronze serpent that stood in the Temple of Jerusalem. It was originally a symbol of Canaanite religion, but is here attributed to Moses, although its original significance as part of a cult involving serpent worship has been neutralized. (The New Illustrated Companion to the Bible, p.61)

The symbolism of the serpent as a sign of healing was not at all uncommon in the Near East. The Rod of Asclepius is probably the one most people are familiar with (even if they don’t know the name), though there are plenty of other examples.

I think it’s probable that this symbol was in circulation and somehow got included in Hebrew cultic iconography. At some point, the icon was associated with Moses, and this story made it into Numbers. At some later point, there was an iconoclast crackdown and the idol was destroyed.

It seems to me that the bronze serpent is quite clearly a violation of the Exodus 20:4 prohibition of idolatry. Even if the idol is commissioned by God, it’s still an idol (and, one might argue, all idols are commissioned by a god or gods).

Brant Clemens of Both Saint and Cynic explains that “idolatry has been defined as the sin of mistaking the good for the best.” To extrapolate, the idol – at the time of its creation – is seen as merely an earthly tool for God’s use, not a conduit or representation of God himself. Once this changed and people started worshipping the idol, it was destroyed.

Interesting side-note, Brant also mentioned that “the snake on the pole is used in Christian art (and preaching, I’m sure) as a figure of Christ on the cross.” This was totally new to me but, when I was searching for images to use for this post, I had no trouble finding examples of it.

Numbers 21 - Serpent Christ

Journey to Moab

We haven’t had a proper son in quite a while, and someone apparently realized that they weren’t meeting quota. Through the rest of this chapter, we get three of them, all up next to each other like it’s perfectly normal to stuff all the songs in one place or something.

A long section of the chapter simply lists the pit-stops taken by the travellers:

  1. Oboth
  2. Iye Abarim, west of Moab
  3. The Zered Valley
  4. Alongside the Arnon, which is the border between Moab and the Amorites
  5. Quite interlude to quote a poem from the lost Book of the Wars of the Lord
  6. Beer, which means “well,” where the people break into song about how awesome wells are
  7. The wilderness of Mattanah
  8. Nahaliel
  9. Bamoth
  10. The valley in Moab where the top of Pisgah overlooks the wasteland

Defeat of Sihon and Og

In a near-identical passage to their request of the king of Edom in Numbers 20, the Hebrews ask Sihon, king of the Amorites, for permission to pass through his territories.

Once again, they are refused. This time, however, the refusal apparently comes with a rather brutal and – if the text is to be taken at face value – totally uncalled for attack.

Sihon and his army find the Hebrews at Jahaz, where the Hebrews retaliate and conquer his lands “from the Arnon to the Jabbok” (v.24). But they are stopped at the Ammonite border because they have hard, protective shells.

Then we get our third, and final, song of the chapter, which goes on about how woe’d and destroyed the enemies of the Hebrews are, and how the Israelites have settled in the lands that they formerly owned.

After their victory, Moses sends spies to Jazer and the Israelites drive out the Amorite residents. They then head up toward Bashan and fight against the army of King Og at the battle of Edrei, which the Hebrews win.

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.