1 Chronicles 1-2: The Never-ending List

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They say it’s important to begin a story in media res, start with a bang, start with something that will grip your audience and leave them salivating for more.

The Chronicler took this advice and decided to do the precise opposite. And so we begin 1 Chronicles with what is little more than an incredibly tedious list of names. This isn’t even like Genesis, where at least “the begats” were interspersed with narrative. No, not here. Our very first paragraph is composed of thirteen names and one conjunction. It certainly does set a tone!

There are, of course, many theories as to why the Chronicler should choose to begin this way. My study Bible argues that the genealogies are provided to “make it clear that he [the Chronicler] was dealing with the true Chosen People.” Personally, I liked James Pate’s thought that:

I Chronicles may have genealogies as a way to affirm a societal structure in post-exilic Israel and to connect it with pre-exilic Israel, to tell Israel who she is, and to convey that God is preserving God’s people, notwithstanding the exile.  There were a lot of people-groups that became lost once they went into exile, but I Chronicles may be trying to demonstrate that Israel did not.

In the beginning…

To being our journey, the Chronicler condenses all of Genesis 5 into these names: “Adam, Seth, Enosh; Kenan, Mahalalel, Jared; Enoch, Methuselah, Lamech; Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth” (1 Chronicles 1:1-4).

Here, Brant Clements notes that this is first mention of Adam that we’ve seen since Genesis 5:5, and that he will not be mentioned again in the Old Testament. “Adam actually featured more strongly in the New Testament. The ancient Hebrews didn’t put much emphasis on him at all.” It’s a very interesting observation, and clearly an indication of theological evolution. I hope that we get to find out some more about that when we finally reach the New Testament (in, oh, about five years).

Up until Noah, this is a list of generational patriarchs, a direct line from father to son to grandson, and so on. But abruptly, without any indication of change, it presents us with three brothers: Shem, Ham, and Japheth, the sons of Noah.

That’s because it’s with Noah’s sons that we see our first ethnic branching.

The sons of Japheth: According to my study Bible, the sons of Japheth represent Indo-European populations. The section is taken from Genesis 10, and the sons are Gomer, Magog, Madai, Javan, Tubal, Meshech, and Tiras.

In the next generation, the sons of Gomer are Ashkenaz, Diphath (who appears as Riphath in Gen. 10:3), and Togarmah. The sons of Javan are Elishah, Tarshish, Kittim, and Rodanim (who appears as Dodanim in Gen. 10:4).

It’s worth noting that Javan (literally Ionia) represents the Greeks. According to James Pate, the discrepancy between Dodanim (Gen. 10:4) and Rodanim (1 Chron. 1:7) may be due simply to the fact that the “d” and “r” sounds are represented in Hebrew with letters that look similar and may have been confused at some point by some hapless copier. Pate goes on to propose another possibility:

Relying on Mefaresh’s interpretation, which is based on Genesis Rabbah 37:1, the Artscroll says that, when Israel sins, the people-group subjugates Israel and is called the Rodanim, from the Hebrew root r-d-h, which means ruling or oppressing.  If Israel controls the people-group, however, the people-group is called the Dodanim, for it is telling Israel that she is its friend, or dod.

Of course, this presents a number of problems, but it’s certainly an interesting proposition.

The sons of Ham: Ham’s sons are Cush, Egypt, Put, and Canaan. In the next generation, the sons of Cush are Seba, Havilah, Sabta, Raama (here spelled without an ‘h’ at the end, though he has one later in the same verse, as well as in Gen. 10:7), and Sabteca. We are also told that Cush was the father of Nimrod, who “began to be a mighty one in the earth” (1 Chron. 1:10). In the generation after that, we have the sons of Raamah: Sheba and Dedan.

Back up the line to Egypt, his sons were Ludim, Anamim, Lehabim, Naphtuhim, Pathrusim, Casluhim (whom the Chronicler tells us fathered the Philistines), and Caphtorim.

Next comes Canaan, for whom the pretence of personification is dropped. Rather than naming his sons, we are told instead that he was the father of Sidon, Heth, the Jebusites, the Amorites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, the Arkites, the Sinites, the Arvadites, the Zemarites, and the Hamathites.

The sons of Shem: The final son of Noah is the sire of the Semitic group, the population from which Abraham will emerge. The sons of Shem are Elam, Asshur, Arpachshad, Lud, Aram, Uz, Hul, Gether, and Meshech (who appears as Mash in Gen. 10:23). This is either an error or deviates quite a bit from the Genesis 10 version, in which Uz, Hul, Gether, and Mash are the sons of Aram, and the grandsons of Shem.

In the next generation, Arpachshad was the father of Shelah, who in turn was the father of Eber. Eber had two sons: Peleg and Joktan. Joktan was the father of Almodad, Sheleph, Hazarmaveth, Jerah, Hadoram, Uzal, Diklah, Ebal (given as Obal in Gen. 10:28), Abimael, Sheba, Ophir, Havilah, and Jobab.

Father of sand, father of stars

We move next to Abraham, who is descended from Shem by way of Arpachshad, Shelah, Eber, Peleg, Reu, Serug, Nahor, and Terah. This portion is lifted from Genesis 11:10-26. Abraham had two sons: Isaac and Ishmael.

The sons of Ishmael: This section is lifted from Gen. 25:12-16. I’ve always found it an interesting twist that Ishmael should be the first born, yet did not inherit divine attention. We see this motif a great deal in Genesis, of younger sons usurping their older brothers. It would be nice to have an explanation for this, though I suppose it could be as simple as inversion of expectation making for psychologically satisfying (and entertaining) stories. Ishmael, of course, sired the Arabic people.

Ishmael was the father of Nebaioth, Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, Mishma, Dumah, Massa, Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish, and Kedemah.

A painting of Abraham's departure, by József Molnár 1849

A painting of Abraham’s departure, by József Molnár 1849

The sons of Keturah: Though 1 Chron. 1:28 implied that Abraham only had Ishmael and Isaac, we know from Gen. 25:1-4 that Abraham remarried after his wife Sarah’s death, a woman named Keturah. Here (1 Chron. 1:32), she is demoted to the status of concubine.

Through her, Abraham was the father of Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah. In the next generation, Jokshan fathered Sheba and Dedan (the same two sons given to Raamah in 1 Chron. 1:9). Jokshan’s brother, Midian, fathered Ephah, Epher, Hanoch, Abida, and Eldaah.

The sons of Isaac: We next move over to Abraham’s son by his first wife, Sarah. Isaac had two sons, Esau and Israel. Esau is the progenitor of the Edomites. Israel was born with the name of Jacob, but received the name Israel after an encounter with the Divine. While Genesis used the two names inconsistently, he is here referred to only as Israel.

Esau’s sons were: Eliphaz, Reuel, Jeush, Jalam, and Korah. In the next generation, Eliphaz fathered Teman, Omar, Zephi (appears as Zepho in Gen. 36:11), Gatam, Kenaz, Timna, and Amalek. Reuel fathered Nahath, Zerah, Shammah, and Mizzah. These are taken from Genesis 36:10-14, where Timna appears as a concubine of Eliphaz, not as his son, and she is the mother of Amalek.

The sons of Seir: We run into a difficulty here, since this is the first mention of a Seir. So where is he meant to fit? My study Bible notes that Seir is “another name for Edom”, referencing Gen. 36:8, and in Gen. 36:20, we learn of a Seir the Horite who lived in Edom. Yet none of this helps to explain how Seir is meant to fit into this genealogy.

In any case, Mystery Seir’s sons are Lotan, Shobal, Zibeon, Anah, Dishon, Ezer, and Dishan. He also had a daughter, named as a full sister of Lotan, by the name of Timna.

In the next generation, Lotan fathered Hori and Homam (appearing as Hemam in Gen. 36:22). Shobal fathered Alian (appearing as Alvan in Gen. 36:23), Manahath, Ebal, Shephi (appearing as Shepho in Gen. 36:23), and Onam. Zibeon fathered Aiah and Anah (he either fathered a daughter by the same name, or there is some confusion – in Gen. 36:2, Zibeon had a daughter named Anah, who married Esau). Anah (Seir’s son, not Zibeon’s) fathered Dishon. And Dishon (again, Seir’s son) fathered Hamran (appearing as Hemdan in Gen. 36:26), Eshban, Ithran, and Cheran. Ezer fathered Bilhan, Zaavan, and Jaakan (appearing as Akan in Gen. 36:27). Dishan fathered Uz and Aran.

The kings of Edom: Before Israel had a king of its own, Edom had plenty. This record may be compared to Gen. 36:31-43. They begin with Bela son of Beor, who ruled from Dinhabah. When he did, Jobab son of Zerah, of Bozrah, took over. After him came Husham, of the lands of the Temanites. Then Hadad son of Bedad, who defeated Midian and ruled from Avith. Then came Samlah of Masrekah. Then Shaul of Rehoboth. Then Baalhanan son of Achbor. Then another Hadad (appearing as Hadar in Gen. 36:39), whose city was Pai (which appears as Pau in Gen. 36:39) and whose wife was Mehetabel daughter of Matred, daughter of Mezahab.

The chiefs of Edom were Timna, Aliah (appearing as Alvah in Gen. 36:40), Jetheth, Oholibamah, Elah, Pinon, Kenaz, Teman, Mibzar, Magdiel, and Iram.

The sons of Israel: These are, of course, our twelve tribes. Israel fathered Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Dan, Joseph, Benjamin, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher. This is, of course, parallel to Genesis 35:22-26.

Focus on Judah

The next few chapters cover will cover each individual tribe in excruciating detail. But we begin with Judah, who fathered Er, Onan, and Shelah, via Bathshua the Canaanite.

God killed Er for wickedness (and Onan, but not mentioned here), which leads to Judah impregnating Er’s wife, Tamar, himself. This produced two more sons: Perez and Zerah. This rather sordid story can be found in Genesis 38.

In the next generation, Perez fathered Hezron and Hamul (this corresponds to Gen. 46:12). His brother, Zerah, fathered Zimri (appearing as Zabdi in Jos. 7:1), Ethan, Heman, Calcol, and Dara. If several of these names seem familiar, it might be because they appear in 1 Kings 4:31, as the men of great wisdom to which Solomon is favourably compared. Except, of course, that the version in Kings describes them as the sons of Mahol, not Zerah.

We then skip to a Carmi, who fathers Achar. Achar is described as “the troubler of Israel” (1 Chron. 2:7). Carmi’s link to the rest of the genealogy is omitted, and the description of Achar as “the troubler of Israel” suggests a story with which the reader ought to be familiar. One possibility is that Achar is the Achan from Joshua 7, who cursed the Hebrew army by keeping some of the spoils of war. He is identified in Jos. 7:1 as “the son of Carmi, the son of Zabdi, the son of Zerah, from the tribe of Judah.” This would explain his inclusion here. Except, of course, that it completely screws up the timeline of the Hebrews’ sojourn in Egypt.

In very next verse, we return to the explicit relations with Ethan, who fathered Azariah.

The sons of Perez: Back over to the line of Perez, we move down through his son, Hezron, who fathered Jerahmeel, Ram, and Chelubai. Much later, we learn that Hezron, at the age of sixty, married the daughter of Machir (the father of Gilead). Through her, he had a final son named Segub, who fathered Jair. Jair controlled 23 cities in Gilead until Geshur and Aram conquered a bunch of them.

In the next generation, Ram fathered Amminadab, who fathered Nahshon (described here as the “prince of the sons of Judah” – 1 Chron. 2:10). Through Nahshon, we get Salma (who appears as Salmon in Ruth 4:18-22), through whom we get Boaz (the love interest of the book of Ruth), and through him Obed. Then, through Obed, we get Jesse.

The sons of Jesse: Jesse fathered Eliab, Abinadab, Shimea, Nethanel, Raddai, Ozem, and David. Though only these seven sons are listed here, 1 Sam. 16:10-11 and 1 Sam. 17:12 both explicitly state that he had eight (of which David was the youngest).

He also had daughters: Zeruiah and Abigail. Zeruiah gave birth to some rather plot critical characters: Abishai, Joab, and Asahel, who play a fairly important part in 2 Samuel and 1 Kings. Abigail married Jether the Ishmaelite (named Ithra the Israelite in 2 Sam. 17:25), and bore Amasa. It’s interesting that the children of David’s sisters should be worth mentioning, but not those of his brothers.

 

The sons of Jerahmeel: The narrative is jumping around quite a bit, making it difficult to follow. We now bounce back to Jerahmeel, Hezron’s eldest. Jerahmeel is a bit difficult, since he is listed specifically as being a member of the tribe of Judah here, yet 1 Sam. 27:10 and 1 Sam. 30:29 refer to the Jerahmeelites as if they were a separate, non-Israelite, group. To smooth this over, my New Bible Commentary argues that “it is much simpler to suppose that the descendants of Jerahmeel, who in any case were settled in the south of Judea, retained their nomadic habits longer, and so in the days of David were reckoned separately from the rest of Judah” (p.372).

Jerahmeel fathered Ram, Bunah, Oren, Ozem, and Ahijah. In the next generation, Ram fathered Maaz, Jamin, and Eker.

Jerahmeel also had a second wife, Atarah, who bore Onam. Onam fathered Shammai and Jada. Shammai fathered Nadab and Abishur. Abishur married a woman named Abihail, and they had Ahban and Molid. Nadab fathered Seled (who died childless) and Apparim, who fathered Ishi. Ishi fathered Sheshan, who fathered Ahlai.

Despite what I said just above, we are told that Sheshan had no sons (this isn’t necessarily a contradiction, as Ahlai might either have died young or been born after the events I am about to relate). To continue his line, he married his daughter to his Egyptian slave, Jarha, and they had Attai.

Brian Shwimmer (of the University of Manitoba’s Department of Anthropology) addresses this in the broader context of inheritance:

Inheritance by daughters imposed a particular difficulty, which is acknowledged in several biblical passages. After Moses first promulgates the rule (Numbers), he is confronted with a problem: if females inherit land from their fathers they will pass it on to their children and therefore into the patrimony of another tribe or lineage. His solution is to institute a parallel cousin marriage regulation. Thus a woman who inherits from her father is to marry her father’s brother’s son so that property will automatically be retained within the wider patriline. A second mechanism for maintaining the continuity of lineage holdings was to marry inheriting daughters to household slaves. Since these dependants had no partilineages of their own, their children were by default incorporated into their mothers’ lineages. The arrangement of marriages to slaves created a number of segments that originated with female rather than male founders (see I Chronicles 2:34-36 for an example.) This institution directly mirrors a solution to the reverse problem of a daughterless family among the Akan, a matrilineal people of West Africa.

The reference to Numbers, of course, relates to the daughters of Zelophehad, whose story can be found in Numbers 27 and Numbers 36.

Attai fathered Nathan, who fathered Zabad, who fathered Ephlal, who fathered Obed, who fathered Jehu, who fathered Azariah, who fathered Helez, who fathered Eleasah, who fathered Sismai, who fathered Shallum, who fathered Jekamiah, who fathered Elishama.

After all that, we move back up the line to Onam’s second son, Jada, who fathered Jether (who died childless) and Jonathan. Jonathan fathered Peleth and Zaza.

A Tale of Two Calebs

I am moving the two sections about Calebs to the bottom for special treatment. The first originally began with 1 Chron. 2:18. The mention of a Caleb is rather odd. It appears to be yet another sui genesis dynasty. In looking for more information, I am finding that the consensus makes Caleb a variant spelling of Chelubai, making him the son of Hezron, grandson of Perez. Except that that Caleb will be mentioned later on, leaving this one still without explanation.

Whoever he is, this Caleb married a woman named Azubah. The verse (1 Chron. 2:18) is rather difficult to parse out, suggesting that Caleb had sons with both Azubah and Jerioth. My interpretation was that this might refer to an arrangement similar to the one used by Abraham in Genesis 16. My New Bible Commentary, however, argues that “either Jerioth was another name of Azubah, or there is a textual corruption” (p.372). The Commentary goes on to suggest that the original wording might have had Azubah give birth to a daughter, Jerioth, who in turn had the sons who will shortly be listed. In any case, Caleb had the following sons: Jesher, Shobab, and Ardon. After Azubah died, Caleb married Ephrath (later listed as Ephrathah, compare 1 Chron. 2:19 to 1 Chron. 2:24), who gave birth to Hur.

Caleb, who apparently lived up to his name (kelev means “dog”), impregnated his father’s wife, Ephrathah – though he at least waited until his father was dead. Through her, he fathered Ashhur, who fathered Tekoa. (There is no mention of either of them being put to death, which would be required by Leviticus 20:11.)

In the next generation, Hur fathered Uri, and Uri fathered Bezalel. This appears to be the same as Bezaleel, named in Exodus 31:2.

Further down (I’m putting it here for convenience), we will get another section headed: “The sons of Caleb the brother of Jerahmeel” (1 Chron. 2:42). The two genealogies are different, though my New Bible Commentary insists that the names here are meant to supplement the ones above. To me, this suggests that either Caleb was a quasi-mythic figure in a few different spots, each with their own traditions that had to be amalgamated, or there were a few different Calebs that somehow became conflated.

In any case, the Caleb specifically identified as the brother of Jerahmeel fathered Mareshah, who fathered Ziph and Hebron. Hebron fathered Korah, Tappuah, Tekem, and Shema. Shema fathered Raham, who fathered Jorekeam. While Rekem fathered Shammai. Shammai fathered Maon, who fathered Bethzur.

This Caleb also had a concubine named Ephah, who bore Haran, Moza, and Gazez. Haran also fathered a Gazez, though hopefully a different one.

There is another sui genesis patriarch listed among the descendants of Caleb: Jahdai. Jahdai fathered Regem, Jotham, Geshan, Pelet, Ephah, and Shaaph.

Caleb had yet another concubine, this one named Maacah. She bore Sheber and Tirhanah. We are told that she was also the mother of Shaaph (if the same as above, the implications are even more headache-inducing). Shaaph fathered Madmannah and Sheva. Sheva fathered Macbenah, and was the father of Gibea.

Finally, Caleb had a daughter, Achsah. It is on this basis this Caleb is identified with Caleb the Kenizzite, who appears, for example, in Joshua 14:6, and who also had a daughter by the same name (Jos. 15:17). The theory, if I understand it correctly, goes that he may have been an honorary Israelite, perhaps adopted into Hezron’s family.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that several of Caleb’s descendants are also the names of towns. So are we to understand that Caleb (and his lineage) founded those towns? Or that these individuals gave their names to the towns that they founded?

The sons of Hur: I am continuing this out of order, just to keep Hur in the same section as Caleb. Hur was the son of Ephrathah (called Ephrath in 1 Chron. 2:19), Caleb’s second wife. He fathered Shobal (who “fathered” Kiriath-jearim), Salma (who “fathered” Bethlehem), and Hareph (who “fathered” Beth-gader).

Shobal’s sons were Haroeh, and half of Manuhoth. Yeah, I’m scratching my head as well.

The families of Kiriath-jearim were the Ithrites, the Puthites, the Shumathites, and the Mishraites. From these came the Zorathites and the Esthaolites. The families of Bethlehem were the Netophathites, Atrothbethjoab, the Zorites, and half of the Manahathites. The families of the scribes who lived in Jabez were the Tirathites, the Shimeathites, and the Sucathites. These, we are told, were the Kenites who came from Hammath, the father of the house of Rechab.

And now I think I need to go detox my brain for a while.

Ruth 4: Buy one land, get one wife free!

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As promised, Boaz heads to the city gate – where all business is supposed to be transacted – and takes a seat. When the nearer relative comes by, Boaz accosts him and invites him to have a seat. He then finds ten city elders to sit with them, presumably to act as witnesses.

With everyone gathered together (except, you know, the actual person who currently owns the land – Naomi), Boaz explains that Naomi has returned and seeks to sell her late husband’s land. According to the laws laid out in Leviticus 25 (or, more specifically, Leviticus 25:25), Elimelech’s relatives must be given the opportunity to redeem the land, keeping it in the family. Boaz offers dibs to the nearer kin, since he is the closer relative. If he doesn’t want it, Boaz explains, then Boaz is the next in line as potential redeemer.

The nearer kin announces that he wants the land, but pulls back when Boaz adds the stipulation that buying the land also means “buying Ruth the Moabitess” (Ruth 4:5). Gross language, but the purpose, says Boaz, is to “restore the name of the dead to his inheritance.” In other words, he is attaching the rules of the Levirate marriage to the sale of the land rather than to the sibling relationship. It’s not clear what gives him the authority to do this.

Ruth, Naomi, and Obed (detail), by Simeon Solomon

Ruth, Naomi, and Obed (detail), by Simeon Solomon

The nearer kin backs down, saying that he can’t take the land if it comes with Ruth “lest I impair my own inheritance” (Ruth 4:6). It’s a little confusing, but I think the point he is making is that if Ruth has a child, then it will be officially her husband’s, but it will also be the kinsman’s son. Therefore, his own inheritance will pass into the hands of someone who is legally another man’s son. Which is all a little weird – if Ruth’s first born is considered her late husband’s, wouldn’t only subsequent children count as her new husband’s?

It may just be a “plot critical” issue, so, moving on.

The text then gives us an interesting historical lesson: “Now this was the custom in former times in Israel concerning redeeming and exchanging: to confirm a transaction, the one drew off his sandal and gave it to the other, and this was the manner of attesting in Israel” (Ruth 4:7).

This is a really weird twist on Deut. 25:9-10, which specifies that if a man refuses to impregnate his brother’s wife, in the situations where a Levirate marriage applies, she is to remove one of his sandals and spit in his face.

Here, rather than Ruth removing his sandal and spitting in his face, he removes his own sandal and hands it off to Boaz, and this is played out like it’s some sort of transaction receipt.

The transaction concluded, the elders give their blessings, which includes linking Ruth and Boaz to Tamar and Judah – another situation where a woman managed to secure a Levirate marriage by disguising/hiding herself to sexually approach her intended target.

Interestingly, while the elders heap their blessings on Boaz, they hope for his prosperity, but completely fail to mention the continuance of Elimelech’s household – which is the stated purpose of the marriage in the first place.

After Boaz “went in to” Ruth (Ruth 4:13), she bore a son named Obed. Naomi nurses her grandson (which is a rather impressive feat, by the way), and the women exclaim: “A son has been born to Naomi” (Ruth 4:17).

The women also tell Naomi that Ruth “is more to you than seven sons” (Ruth 4:15). According to Claude Mariottini, “seven sons” was a sort of generic blessing for a woman, since it falls quite safely within the “heir and a spare” requirement (and, presumably, because seven is a symbolically popular number). For her loyalty, Ruth is even better than the standard great blessing for a woman.

It is the women who gathered around Naomi and welcomed her home in Ruth 1:19-20, and it is the women who celebrate with her here. Once again, this is a woman’s story, and time is actually spent on the relationships between women in the neighbourhood – something that’s been almost entirely lacking up until now.

Genealogy

In the final portion of Ruth, we are told that Perez, the son born of Tamar and Judah in Genesis 38, was the father of Hezron, who fathered Ram, who fathered Amminadab, who fathered Nahshon, who fathered Salmon, who fathered Boaz.

Boaz fathered Obed, who fathered Jesse, who fathered David.

So the story of Ruth and Boaz is linked to both Tamar and Judah (as the elders reference in Ruth 4:12, though without indication that they know Boaz’s parentage), and to David (yes, that David, the one who will one day be king).

The significance of the genealogy is apparently quite debated:

Some scholars argue that this genealogy is the starting point for the story of Ruth. On this reading, the purpose of the book is to put a positive spin on the fact that David’s great-grandmother is a Moabite, by showing how she won the Lord’s favour. But Ruth is not a political story. David is only mentioned at the end, in a virtual appendix. It seems much more likely that the genealogies were added secondarily, to justify the inclusion of the story about a Moabite woman in the scriptures of Israel. (Collins, A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.270)

The timeline of the genealogy doesn’t make too much sense within the biblical narrative. Even if we assume that each generation did not have kids until they were 50 years old, and we assume that Perez spent most of his life in Egypt (which I think is being very generous), it would still place Boaz’s birth in Egypt, since we are told that the Israelites spent ~400 years there (Exodus 12:40). Not only that, but Boaz does not seem a newcomer in Bethlehem. There has been time for a settling, a famine, and a return… This story makes far more sense if we assume that Israel’s founding was a slow process of mini-migrations and assimilation, rather than great exodus event.

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.

Numbers 7-8: Offerings and Consecrations

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We’ve been wandering in the desert of Leviticus for what seems like 40 years, but it looks like we’re finally ready to get back into the Exodus narrative. Numbers 7 picks up where Exodus 40:17 left off.

If you’ll remember, Moses had just built the tabernacle. We pick up the story later that same day, with each of the tribal leaders bringing covered wagons and oxen (for a total of 6 wagons and 12 oxen) for the Levites to use while moving the tabernacle.

  • The Gershonites get two wagons and four oxen.
  • The sons of Merari get four wagons and eight oxen.
  • The Kohathites get none, because the sacred stuff of the inner sanctuary must be carried on their shoulders.

With that done, each of the leaders takes turns making the following offerings:

  • 1 silver plate weighing 130 shekels, full of fine flour mixed with oil for a cereal offering.
  • 1 silver basin weighing 70 shekels, also full of fine flour as above.
  • 1 gold dish of ten shekels, full of incense.
  • 1 young bull, 1 ram, and 1 year-old male lamb for burnt offerings.
  • 1 male goat for a sin offering.
  • 2 oxen, 5 rams, 5 male goats, and 5 male year-old lambs for peace offerings.

(As a side note, we see the specification that the shekels are “of the sanctuary,” which implies a fairly late composition date for the text – certainly far later than the events it purports to describe. We discussed this in more detail when we read Leviticus 27.)

Now, each leader makes the same set of offering, each one on a different day. In case you’re curious, that’s a total of 252 animals killed in a 12 day period. And yet the people are sticking to eating bug poop for some reason…

So here’s the order of offerings:

  1. Nahshon, son of Amminadab, leader of Judah.
  2. Nethanel, son of Zuar, leader of Issachar.
  3. Eliab, son of Helon, leader of Zebulun.
  4. Elizur, son of Shedeur, leader of Reuben.
  5. Shelumiel, son of Zurishaddai, leader of Simeon.
  6. Eliasaph, son of Deuel, leader of Gad.
  7. Elishama, son of Ammihud, leader of Ephraim.
  8. Gamaliel, son of Pedahzur, leader of Manasseh.
  9. Abidan, son of Gideoni, leader of Benjamin.
  10. Ahiezer, son of Ammishaddai, leader of Dan.
  11. Pagiel, son of Ocran, leader of Asher.
  12. Ahira, son of Enan, leader of Naphtali.

In true biblical tradition, we’re given the full list of offerings with each tribe – even though it’s the exact same list each time – and then once more as a summary of what all the tribes gave, just for good measure.

A note on holiness and consecration

We read about the ordination of the priests in Leviticus 8. In Numbers 8, we read about how they are consecrated – meaning that they are made sacred, which allows them to approach the holy areas and objects.

Replica of the Ark of the Covenant, George Washington Masonic National Memorial. Photo by Ben Schumin, 2006

Replica of the Ark of the Covenant, George Washington Masonic National Memorial. Photo by Ben Schumin, 2006

These days, we tend to associate the word “holy” with “good,” but that’s a fairly modern notion. When the Bible is talking about “holy,” it’s talking about “power” – specifically, supernatural power. This is what Raiders of the Lost Ark was drawing on.

Not to give too many spoilers, but when the ark was opened, Indy yells at Marion to close her eyes – because seeing the power of the ark would destroy her (as it destroys the Nazis). Marion and Indy are the good guys, and an understanding of “holy” as something that is righteous or morally good wouldn’t have allowed the ark to harm them. Instead, the ending would have played out more like the trial by ordeal that we saw in Numbers 5, in which the holy object would either kill the morally bad or preserve the morally good.

This is why we are told that, without the barrier of consecrated Levites, the Israelites would suffer a plague if they approach the sanctuary (v.19).

This sounds rather evil to my humanist sensibilities, but I think that the ancient Israelites would have seen it in the same way as we might see a nuclear power station. Only “consecrated” people may approach (people who have the right training and are wearing the right protection). If a lay person were just to walk in and start fiddling with stuff, they’d probably die – or at least get very sick. This notion of supernatural power does seem to strip God of agency, though. He is power, and contact with the wrong people would kill them whether he wants it to or not.

Make of that what you will.

The consecration of the priests

To consecrate your priest, do as follows:

  1. Sprinkle the “water of expiation” on them.
  2. Have them shave their entire body.
  3. Wash their clothes and their bodies.
  4. Fetch two young bulls and a cereal offering.
  5. Present the priest to the entire people, before the tent of meeting. At this time, all the people (all of them – all 603,550 of them, assuming that “people” refers to adult men) should come up and lay their hands on the new priests. This step could take a while.
  6. Aaron – or, I would assume, whoever happens to be high priest – should present the Levites as a wave offering. (Remember that wave offerings are not the offerings that get set on fire – a source of much relief to Levites through the ages, I am sure).
  7. The new priests should now lay their hands on the heads of the bulls.
  8. One bull should be offered as a sin offering, and the other as a burnt offering.

I think that the symbolism of most of these steps is pretty obvious, but step #2 does seem to confuse a few people. I’ve seen a couple commentaries asking why the priests have to shave their whole bodies, and what’s so evil about hair anyway. My assumption would be that hair is seen as a symbol of adulthood (within a couple days of birth, most babies are fairly hairless – at least as far as their bodies are concerned), so my assumption is that the point would be to make the priest “new” again, to give them a symbolic fresh start. We saw this same idea when we covered the Nazirite vow in Numbers 6 – if they are contaminated while under the vow, the Nazirite must shave their head and start growing it again from scratch.

Interestingly, this chapter gives the term of service to the sanctuary for Levites as being from age 25 to 50 (with some duties outside of the sanctuary after 50 – no retirement for these guys, I’m afraid), whereas the census of eligible Levites taken in Numbers 4 didn’t begin counting them until age 30. I’m assuming that this is due to the inclusion of two separate traditions, but it seems like something that would have been reflected by the practice at the time of the text’s composition…

Numbers 1-2: Sitting in his counting house, counting….

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As we get closer to Canaan, God needs a head count of all the “soldier-ready” people he has at his disposal. Looking at this chapter from a modern, cultural Christian vantage point, I find it rather troubling. Shouldn’t God already know how many people he has? Why does he need Moses to actually go out and physically count them? Well, for whatever reason, he does and so off goes Moses.

Since – as we shall soon see – there’s a whole lot of people to count. So God tells Moses to enlist the help of a representative from each tribe – the head of the ‘primary household,’ or, in biblical terms, “the head of the house of his fathers” (v.4). Since all of these helpers are listed, I figured I’d just lump them in with the population list and get it all over with at once:

  1. Tribe of Reuben, represented by Elizur son of Shadeur, has 46,500 members.
  2. Tribe of Simeon, represented by Shelumiel son of Zurishaddai, has 59,300 members.
  3. Tribe of Judah, represented by Nahshon son of Amminadab, has 74,600 members.
  4. Tribe of Issachar, represented by Nethaneel son of Zuar, has 54,400 members.
  5. Tribe of Zebulun, represented by Eliab son of Helon, has 57,400 members.
  6. Tribe of Joseph (through his son Ephraim), represented by Elishama son of Ammihud, has 40,500 members.
  7. Tribe of Joseph (through Manasseh), represented by Gamaliel son of Pedahzur, has 32,200 members.
  8. Tribe of Benjamin, represented by Abidan son of Gideoni, has 35,400 members.
  9. Tribe of Dan, represented by Ahiezer son of Ammishaddai, has 62,700 members.
  10. Tribe of Asher, represented by Pagiel son of Ocran, has 41,500 members.
  11. Tribe of Gad, represented by Eliasaph son of Deuel, has 45, 650 members.
  12. Tribe of Naphtali, represented by Ahira son of Enan, has 53,400 members.

I don’t know if there’s any significance to this, but the tribes are listed in the same order when the representatives are given as when the numbers are given – except for the tribe of Gad. Gad appears 11th in line in the first list, but 3rd in the second.

Another interesting detail here is that the Levites are not counted (they are in charge of the tabernacle and, therefore, not eligible as soldiers – which one might say is a sweet deal until one remembers the consequences of not lighting the incense properly. I’m not sure which is actually the more dangerous profession!). But because it’s really important to keep the number of tribes listed at 12, Joseph’s tribe is split in two.

That’s a lotta people!

At 603,550 people – counting only the men 20 years and older – that’s a whole lot of people. For an idea of what these numbers might mean, BibleSlam compares it to the numbers currently in the United States Armed Forces.

Numbers 1Not only is it a lot of people, it’s an impossible number of people. Keep in mind that we started with only 70 Hebrews just 400 years ago. So what’s going on here?

An easy explanation would be that this is supposed to be a miracle, reflecting God’s promise to Abraham about having as many descendants as there are grains of dust or stars in the sky, with a secondary miracle of God being able to sustain such numbers in the wilderness for so long.

My Study Bible has a possible alternative – that the Hebrew word translated as thousand “is an old term for a subsection of a tribe, based on the procedures for military muster employed by other ancient peoples” (p. 161). In other words, the actual number of men in the group is the second number presented, and the first number indicates how many “units” that number is divided into. For example, the tribe of Reuben has only 500 men, who are divided into 46 subsections. This gives us a much more reasonable total of 5,550 men.

The interpretation of the word as meaning an actual thousand may come from later, in the monarchy  period, when the size of a military unit was standardized to one thousand men.

This still leaves the problem of the nicely rounded numbers. If this were the record of a real census, rather than just ballpark estimates, we’d expect to see more variety.

A note on genre

Commenter Brian Hitt over at The King and I pointed out how similar this chapter is to Book 2 of the Iliad. He notes:

I learned that the purpose of this boring section comes from the medium of the Iliad’s telling. It was part of an oral tradition in which epic poems such as the Homeric Epics were performed by a bard for a gathering of people, often as part of a festival. The bard would list the contributions of the particular people groups (tribes if you will) so that his audience could say “Yeah! That’s us! Go you guys!” and feel connected to the story through their ancestors.

Some suggest that the bard wouldn’t include the entire list in every performance of the epic, it would be personalized for the audience. When the epic eventually got written down, all the different verses listing all the different tribes got included for completeness (reminds me of the extreme inclusiveness of the OT).

The ancient Israelites certainly had an oral tradition as well. I think we discussed how we get glimpses of it in Genesis. I wonder if the purpose of Numbers 1 was similar. To me this seems to point to genre conventions of ancient literature/folklore that were shared throughout the Mediterranean.

Food for thought.

Location, location, location

In Numbers 2, we get to find out that each tribe has a specific spot around the tabernacle. The Levites, who called ‘shotgun,’ get to be in the centre, of course. This is a replacement of the earlier tradition we saw in Exodus 33:7, where the tent of meeting was pitched outside of camp rather than in its centre.

Rather than list all the tribes again, I found this nifty graphic that makes the locations quite clear:

12TribesEncampment

 

I wondered why these locations, in particular, were assigned to each tribe, and I wondered if maybe it reflected their later territorial positions in relation to, say, Jerusalem once they’ve settled in Israel.

If you were to draw north-south/east-west axes with Jerusalem in the centre, here’s how the territorial distribution would look:

  • North-west quadrant: Benjamin, Ephraim, Manasseh, Zebulun, Asher.
  • North-east quadrant: Nephtali, Dan, Issachar, Manasseh, Benjamin, Gad.
  • South-west quadrant: Judah, Simeon.
  • South-east quadrant: Reuben.

Some connections match up, but it looks like statistical noise to me. So I’m back to square one on the great Camp Set-Up Mystery. Anyone have any answers?

When they travel, they have to move in the following order:

  1. The east group goes first.
  2. Then the south group.
  3. The Levites with the tabernacle travel in the middle.
  4. Then the west group.
  5. And the north group brings up the rear.