Joshua 22: Premature copying

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Satisfied with the conquest and ready to retire, Joshua calls up Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh. He thanks them for sticking around as they had promised to Moses back in Numbers 32 and, with that, sends them home.

It doesn’t take long before there’s trouble, however. Once they get home, the three Transjordan tribes build themselves a nice big altar.

Given the focus of the Deuteronomistic Histories on the centralization of worship, this is obviously a rather big mistake. Or, at least, it seems so. When the rest of the Israelites hear about it, they quickly muster at Shiloh, ready to get back to the holy war-making that had only too recently ended.

JoshuaPhinehas goes on ahead, accompanied by ten chiefs (one from each of the remaining tribes). You may remember Phinehas, by the way, from Numbers 25 where he murdered two lovers for being of different ethnicities. By doing so, he stopped a plague that God had sent to the people and was rewarded with a perpetual priesthood for himself and his descendants. Lovely stuff.

So here he is again, rushing to defend the faith. Only this time, it seems that he’s angered too quickly. The Transjordan tribes defend their altar, saying that it isn’t real, it’s just a replica. They had no intention of ever using it to make sacrifices (knowing that this is only to be done at the tabernacle). Rather, they made it as a “witness.” They were concerned, they explain, that “in time to come your children might say to our children, ‘what have you to do with the Lord, the God of Israel? For the Lord has made the Jordan as a boundary between us and you'” (Deut. 22:24-25).

It’s hard to imagine how building a second altar, explicitly breaking God’s law (even if they never planned to actually use it), would serve this purpose. It’s more likely, I think, that the story is used as justification for the continued existence of an altar that the author grew up near and has fond childhood memories of.

It’s also strange, given the context of a time when God is explicitly speaking to the people, that they would fear that the other tribe might (falsely) read God’s purpose in geographical design. It makes me think of all the instances of people doing precisely this today, like a hateful old man claiming that Haiti’s earthquake was divine punishment, or the idea that pain in childbirth must be a consequence of sin.

The Transjordan tribes’ concern is even stranger because Deuteronomy has, so far, been pretty easy-going as far as who can participate in worship. As long as your testicles are uncrushed, foreigners generally seem to be accepted within the congregation. We see this, for example, in Deut. 23:7-8.

Either way, the inclusion of Phinehas here has me scratching my head a little. In Numbers 25, his jumping in to defend the purity of the faith was seen as an unambiguous good. Here, however, that very same attitude gets him into trouble (sort of – he’s never punished or anything, but it’s clear that he was wrong and it’s implied that he goes home rebuked). I wonder if the author(s) of this passage used him on purpose as a jab at the hard-lining ethics of Numbers. It’s not an open criticism, obviously, since Phinehas isn’t punished or explicitly scolded, but it does feel implied.

Regardless, the explanation is accepted and the Israelites go home satisfied.

There are a few remaining details that I thought I’d mention:

When asking the Transjordan tribes why they have built their altar, Phinehas&co ask them to consider what happened when Achan disobeyed God in Joshua 7. In that chapter, he is referred to as Achan son of Carmi in Josh. 7:1, and then Achan son of Zerah in Josh. 7:24. Here, he is listed once again as Achan son of Zerah (Josh. 22:20).

When Phinehas&co meet with the Transjordan tribes, they do actually talk first rather than just rushing in with their spears. (Good thing, too.) Rather than just kill the tribes for their perceived heresy, they first offer a compromise: “If your land is unclean, pass over into the Lord’s land where the Lord’s tabernale stands, and take for yourselves a possession among us” (Josh. 22:19). It’s an interesting concept – that the land itself might be corruptive (and not, say, the locals, since Phinehas has amply demonstrated what he does to people who allow themselves to be corrupted by locals).

In the King James Version, Josh. 22:22 refers to God as “God of gods.” In my RSV, the line goes: “The Mighty One, God, the Lord!” Does anyone know enough Hebrew to comment on what the original text says?

Lastly, I think that David Plotz made a very interesting point about how portable this passage makes the worship of God:

This is a very important moment for Judaism, and perhaps for all religions. It marks the end of Judaism as a faith bounded by place. From now on, it can go anywhere. […] The moment when a religion creates its first copy is, in some sense, when it starts being a religion. Until now, God has literally been with all the Israelites. He travels with them in the tabernacle, and they are together inside the holy ground of the camp. Now that the tribes are scattering across Israel, they face the problem of how to keep God with them everywhere. On the west side of the Jordan, they will abide near the tabernacle and hold on to  their direct connection to God. But the trans-Jordan tribes needed to create a substitute for that tabernacle (just as all Jews had to create a substitute after the Temple was destroyed 2,000 years ago). So, the altar by the riverside marks the birth of Judaism as a worldwide religion: From now on, the Israelites can travel and stay away from the tabernacle, because they can create a copy. They can take God wherever they go. And so can we.

If we assume an authorship date around the time of King Josiah, we do have some scattering of the Israelites and the Babylonian Exile itself less than half a century later. It seems that this passage shows a softening of the “centralized worship” stance, perhaps an understanding of what distant Israelites felt they needed to do in order to stay connected to their shared god.

It’s nice. I like it.

Deuteronomy 4: The pep rally

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Moses starts off the chapter by reminding the Israelites to keep all the ordinances that they’ve been given, and that doing so will ensure their peace in the promised land. It wouldn’t be the Bible with all carrot and no stick, so he reminds them that they’ve seen what God does to people who fail. The ones who are still around to listen to this speech have so far squeaked by: “you who held fast to the Lord your God are all alive this day” (v.4).

Then Moses does something that he hasn’t done before – he praises the ordinances themselves. In the past, the ordinances are not (as far as I can remember) ever said to be good. They are merely commanded, and must be obeyed due to God’s power in enforcing them. This time, the ordinances themselves are praised:

Keep them [the ordinances] and do them; for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and ordinances so righteous as all this law which I set before you this day? (v.6-8)

The Euthyphro Dilemma, named after its explanation in Plato’s play Euthyphro, is the question: “Is the good loved by the gods because it is good, or is it good because it is loved by the gods?” In other words, should the Israelites follow the ordinances merely because God says so, or should they follow them because they are good in their own right?

Up until this point, the answer has been rather clear. God is mighty, God has done nice things for the Israelites, so the Israelites should follow his rules. But Deuteronomy seems to be coming from a rather radically different theological perspective.

This is reinforced later when we get what I think may be the first reference to love as something that God feels, rather than just something he demands from the Israelites: “And because he loved your fathers and chose their descendants after them” (v.37). The fact that God loves the Israelites (in addition to having chosen them, saved them, and shown them mercy), he is deserving of worship.

Of course, this isn’t a love that I would recognize as such since it’s paired with the fear of a god who is “a devouring fire, a jealous God” (v.24).

Idolatry

Moses then goes into a bit about idolatry. Spoilers: it’s bad. He reminds the Israelites that God has appeared to them as a mountain that “burned with fire to the heart of heaven, wrapped in darkness, cloud, and gloom” (v.12). To attempt to capture God in any “earthly” form would be a huge no-no.

The Moses window, by Lawrence Staint, installed in the Washington National Cathedral

The Moses window, by Lawrence Staint, installed in the Washington National Cathedral

The fact that the Israelites “saw no form on the day that the Lord spoke to you at Horeb” (v.15) is the reason why he should never be captured in any depiction.

Moses also makes a special prohibition against the worship of “the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven” (v.19). We know, of course, that making idols in the form of humans or animals was common at the time (the Egyptians, for example, are rather known for their nifty anthropomorphic deities). That heavenly bodies would get a special mention as well suggests to me that there must have been a rather lively astrological cult around that time as well.

Moses warns the Israelites that if they, or any of their descendants, mess up and “act corruptly” by making graven images or failing to obey the ordinances, they will be killed and driven out from Canaan. Of course, this is pretty much what King Josiah – who “found” and probably commissioned much of Deuteronomy – was seeing. His reign began less than a hundred years after the northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians.

But there’s a hopeful note there too: Once scattered, the people will turn back to God, and “he will not fail you or destroy you or forget the covenant with your fathers which he swore to them” (v.31).

This somewhat mirrors what King Josiah was experiencing. By the time he came to power, the Assyrian empire was starting to collapse, leaving a power vacuum in the Near East. It was thanks to this that “Jerusalem was able to govern itself for the time being without foreign intervention” (Wikipedia).

It seems to me that Deuteronomy is an attempt to understand and interpret the fact of foreign occupation and the belief of being a chosen people of God. Such a situation leaves only two options to the faithful: Either God is not nearly as powerful as he claims, or we’ve done something to make him turn his back on us. Clearly, Josiah’s camp chose the latter. It’s no stretch, then, to interpret a return of self-agency as a return of favour. (With the added bonus that interpreting political events in this light serves to reinforce adherence to those behaviours approved of by the State.)

Monotheism

I’ve pointed out a few times that God talks about himself as the “best,” rather than the “only.” If anything, he seems rather anxious in some passages that the people might not be wow’d enough by his magicks, so they might find some other more powerful god to worship.

In Deuteronomy, we see yet another theological shift. For the first time, we start talking about actual monotheism: “Know therefore this day, and lay it to your heart, that the Lord is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other” (v.39).

The cities of refuge

Moses reiterates the instructions from Numbers 35 regarding cities of refuge. If you remember, these are to be havens for people who have committed manslaughter (killing someone accidentally).

We had found out in Numbers 35 that there were to be a total of six such cities, three on either side of the Jordan. Since the east side is already conquered, Moses takes the opportunity to appoint the cities:

  • Bezer, in the wilderness, in the lands of the Reubenites;
  • Ramoth, in Gilead, in the lands of the Gadites;
  • Golan, in Bashan, in the land of the Manassites.

It’s strange to think that unintentional killing would not only be so common, but that it also would be so unforgiven by the victims’ kin. Of course, in a tribal society like Ancient Israel, not avenging one’s kin would be a betrayal. In this case, simply passing a court ruling of manslaughter would not dissuade the avenger without bringing in some religious magicks (in this case, Numbers 35 uses the death of the current high priest as the slate cleanser).

The boast

Then, very suddenly, the writing shifts. Up until v.44, the chapter has been narrated in Moses’ voice, as though he were giving a speech and it was being quoted.

But now, the narrative has very suddenly reverted to the third person narrator that we’ve been seeing so far in the other books. The narrator is just there to tell us, once again, about how the Israelites totally killed King Sihon and King Og – the two kings of the Amorites.

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 23-24: Balak’s rather unsuccessful attempts at cursing

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In these chapters, we continue with the comedic repetition structure that seems to mark Balaam’s narrative.

When we last saw Balaam, God had allowed him to respond to Balak, king of the Moabites. At the very end of Numbers 22, Balak takes Balaam to a place that my RSV calls Bamoth-Baal, but that the KJV has as “the high places of Baal” (Num. 22:41). I’m not finding any confirmation that this is significant, but I find it interesting that Balaam seems so intent on hearing from YHWH, yet Balak is leading him to a place that is named after (and presumably has once been consecrated to) Baal. It’s like, disappointed with Balaam’s previous response, Balak is hoping that a different God will get him a different answer.

Once there, Balaam tells Balak to build seven altars and to provide seven bulls and seven rams. Once each altar had been broken in with a bull and ram each, Balaam wanders off to meet with God.

The First Oracle

God put the words right into Balaam’s mouth for him to take back to Balak. The prophecy begins with a retelling of what’s happened so far – of Balak asking Balaam to curse Israel, and Balaam refusing because he would not – or could not -curse anyone independently of God’s power (and, therefore, of God’s will).

The prophecy describes the Israelites as “a people dwelling alone, and not reckoning itself among the nations!” (v.9). I get the whole “chosen people” thing, but this looks an awful lot like nationalism – something I’ve always been very uncomfortable with.

Balaam then prays that he should “die the death of the righteous” so that his “end be like this” (v.10). It seems that he is defining the Israelites as specially blessed, and envisioning that he, too, could be similarly blessed if he dies righteously.

Balak is understandably upset to get this response. There he was, thinking he’d finally won Balaam over and would be getting that fancy new curse he wanted, and yet here’s Balaam blessing the Israelites instead! Talk about a bait and switch!

The Second Oracle

Thinking that a different vantage point might yield different results, Balak takes Balaam to a new spot – the field of Zophim, at the top of Pisgah. There, he once again builds seven altars and sacrifices a bull and a ram at each. Once again, Balaam tells Balak to wait by the altars while he goes off in search of God.

This time, the prophecy addresses Balak directly, calling him to rise and listen. He tells Balak that God is not human, and therefore does not lie or repent. Of course, we’ve seen him change his mind and repent several times. In fact, despite this present claim, we’ve seen a whole lot of God flying into a violent rage and his prophet du jour having to talk him down. Once again, we see a disconnect between the claimed character of God and his demonstrated character. Were this any other book, I’d call unreliable narrator!

The prophecy then goes on to say that God has blessed the Israelites – being that he is so in-capricious, he’s not about to change his mind about that (you know, until they ask him for quail again).

The Israelites are, therefore, protected. God is so strong – as strong as a wild ox, if you like the RSV, or as strong as a unicorn, if you prefer the whimsy of the KJV – that no curse could work against them.

The strength of a unicorn

The strength of a unicorn

A note on the unicorns: Apparently, this is a Septuagint issue. The Greek translation of the Hebrew word re’em was monokeros – one-horned. According to Wikipedia, this interpretation made sense to the KJV translators since unicorns are legendary for the impossibility of their taming.

According to the JewishEncyclopedia, this translation was later revised to “wild ox” given the etymological and contextual similarity to the Assyrian rimu: “which is often used as a metaphor of strength, and is depicted as a powerful, fierce, wild, or mountain bull with large horns.”

The prophecy continues by saying that God has made Israel so powerful that:

As a lioness it rises up
and as a lion it lifts itself;
it does not lie down till it devours the prey,
and drinks the blood of the slain. (Num. 23:24)

The imagery is certainly gruesome, but it’s also quite poetic.

Balak, of course, isn’t happy with this prophecy either. If the first oracle can be interpreted as blessing the Israelites, this one certainly can! But, of course, the schmuck of our little slapstick has to have a third try. Once again, he tells Balaam to come to yet another spot – to the top of Peor – in the hopes that this new place “will please God that you may curse them for me from there” (Num. 23:27).

The Third Oracle

The song and dance of the seven altars and the seven sacrifices of bulls and rams has to be performed in the new spot. But this time, Balaam doesn’t bother to head off in search of omens, God makes a house-call.

As Brant Clements, of Both Saint and Cynic, points out, this change has literary significance:

In comedy there is a rule of threes. 1. An event is told. 2. The event is repeated, establishing a pattern. 3. The pattern is broken, to comic effect. The pattern being broken can also serve a dramatic effect. In the case of Balaam the third iteration turns a comic tale serious.

This time, God addresses Balaam rather than using him as a mouthpiece. He calls to him, as he called to Balak in the second oracle. There’s a listing of name, ties, and status. In the midst of this, God hints at the prophetic process, describing Balaam’s experience of visions as a “falling down, but having his eyes uncovered” (Num. 24:4). This seems to suggest a sort of ecstatic trance.

During this, Balaam is described as one “who sees the vision of the Almighty” (Num. 24:4). According to J.R. Porter in The New Illustrated Companion to the Bible, this may be significant:

Fragmentary Aramaic texts of the ninth century BCE from Deir Alla refer to a Balaam who, as in the Hebrew Scriptures, was the son of Beor. He is said to have a vision of a disaster that befalls his city, at which he weeps. This revelation is received from an assembly of divine beings described as Shaddin, which recalls the title Shaddai, “Almighty,” an archaic name for God in the Hebrew Scriptures. The name Shaddai occurs more than once in the biblical story of Balaam, for example in Numbers 24.4. (p.61)

Then we get some lovely compliments about how nice the Israelite tents are, and there’s a bunch of flowery comparisons. In the middle of all of that, we are told that the Israelite king “shall be higher than Agag” (Num. 24:7). Agag is the name of the Amalekite king featured in 1 Samuel 15:33. This leads to three possibilities that I can see/find:

  1. There are two different kings by the same name.
  2. The text, written long after the events it purports to describe, contains an anachronism.
  3. “Agag” is not the name of a king but, rather, a standing title among Amalekite rulers.

Then we get a bunch of fluff about God being super strong (like a unicorn!), and how he can crush people’s bones and nom on nations, yadda yadda.

To close the prophecy, God says that all who bless Israel will also be blessed, and all who curse it shall likewise be cursed.

This, of course, needles at Balak’s nerves, so much so that “he struck his hands together” (Num.24:10). According to my Study Bible, clapping was “a gesture of anger and reproach” (p.196). Keep that in mind the next time you enjoy (or don’t enjoy) a live performance.

Balak tells Balaam that he had promised to “honor” Balaam for his services, “but the Lord has held you back from honor” (Num. 24:11). That’s quite an interesting perspective. He then tells Balaam to leave.

The Fourth Oracle

Rather than leave, Balaam launches straight into his fourth oracle, introducing it by saying to Balak: “Come, I will let you know what this people will do to your people in the latter days” (Num. 24:14).

Notice that the pattern is broken again here. For his fourth oracle, Balaam no longer requires altars and sacrifices. This one, as they say, is on the house.

It begins, again, with a listing of Balaam’s ties and titles, using language that’s nearly identical to the opening of the third oracle. Then it gets a little kooky.

The language is a little purple, but the essence of it is that, at some time in the future, “a star shall come forth out of Jacob [Israel]” (Num. 24:17) – it’s given a royal slant when the line is repeated but with sceptre in place of star. This star will crush, kill, destroy the following groups/places:

  • Moabites
  • The sons of Sheth
  • Edomites
  • Seir – which, given the text, seems to be an enemy of Edom, yet my Study Bible claims that these are just two names for the same group (p.197)
  • Amalekites
  • Kenites

There’s a weird verse asking how long Asshur would take Kain captive, and another saying that ships will come from Kittim to afflict Asshur and Eber. My Study Bible is entirely useless here, making excuses about how “the meaning of these verses is obscure, owing to the uncertainty of the names” (p.197).

Having finished with the curse, Balak packs up his toys and heads home.

According to Collins in A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, this final oracle has been imbued with some messianic significance:

In the Hellenistic and Roman periods, this oracle was taken as a messianic prediction. The leader of the last Jewish revolt against Rome, in 132-135 C.E., Simon Bar Kosiba, was hailed by Rabbi Akiba as the messiah foretold in this oracle. Because of this, he is known in Jewish tradition as Bar Kokhba (literally, “son of the star”). (p.82)

Assuming, for the sake of funsies, that this is a retroactive prophecy – set in the past, yet “foretelling” current/recent events – it sounds a whole lot like political propaganda. If I had to venture a guess, I would say that a king wanted to solidify his claim to the throne, so he commissioned the writing of some prophetic historical fiction to “predict” himself, thereby legitimizing his rule. The author chose Balaam, a seer that people were clearly talking about – given the Deir Alla inscription – in the same way that people today will often write predictions and ascribe them to Nostradamus.