Numbers 33: The recap

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In this chapter, we get a recap of the journey so far. It’s long and about as exciting as washing the dishes when you’ve finished your last audiobook. We do, however, find out that Aaron was 123 years old when he died. So that’s… something.

Here’s your cliff’s notes image:

In the plains of Moab, God tells Moses to tell the people to “drive out” all the people they meet on the other side of the river, and to destroy all of their religious symbols and buildings. Once this is done, they should divide the land by lot (in accordance with the size of each tribe/sub-tribe/family).

But, God warns, you must make sure to fully stamp out the indigenous population, otherwise you’re going to have to deal with them being “pricks in your eyes, and thorns in your sides” (v.55). Plus, if they don’t totally wipe out the local population, God “shall do unto you, as I thought to do unto them” (v.56) (both quotes from the KJV because it sounds better and doesn’t alter the meaning).

On deserving it

David Plotz sees purpose in this plodding chapter:

Had the chapter skipped the travelogue and begun with God’s fearsome instructions, it would seem brutal.  The 40-year-itinerary—the weary, heartbreaking journey—serves as a reminder to the Israelites of their suffering, and, more importantly, as a justification for conquest. Why is it all right to sack and destroy another civilization? Why is it fair to seize land and settle it? Because of what the Israelites endured, that’s why. The 40-year accounting explains Israel. It says: You’ve earned it.

That may indeed have been the purpose of this summary, but it’s terrible ethics (not to mention a dangerous precedent to set – what’s to stop the Canaanites from doing their own decades-long dispossession dance and then coming right back, ready with their deserving?).

Exodus 1: Rebellious Midwives

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There’s a new king in Egypt and he’s concerned about the Hebrew population growth. This isn’t entirely unwarranted since the Hebrew women are having, on average, 51.6 children each. One might assume that the Egyptians were circulating videos like this one on EgyptTube.

Pharaoh decrees the drowning of every new male offspring among the Israelites by Michiel van der Borch, 1332

Pharaoh decrees the drowning of every new male offspring among the Israelites by Michiel van der Borch, 1332

So this pharaoh is concerned that if the Hebrew population keeps expanding, they might fight on the non-Egyptian side in a war against Egypt, or they might “escape from the land” (Exod. 1:10). So the rhetoric is slightly different from what one hears at the modern TeaParty rally…

His solution to the ‘Hebrew problem’ is to set “taskmasters over them to afflict them with heavy burdens” (Exod. 1:11). He has them build the cities of Pithom and Ramses. But this doesn’t seem to work. “The more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad” (Exod. 1:12).

Since making them “serve with rigor” (Exod. 1:14) didn’t curb the Hebrew population, he goes to the midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, and tells them to kill all the male babies they deliver. I just want to take a moment to point out that there is a Hebrew population large enough to get Pharaoh’s knickers in a twist and there’s only two, two, midwives to service them all. This is a serious midwife shortage!

Well, Shiphrah and Puah are decent human beings – or, you know, they “feared God” (Exod. 1:17), cause being afraid is really the only reason not to kill babies – and they spare the boys. The Pharaoh catches on pretty quickly and asks the midwives what’s going on, to which they reply: “The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and are delivered before the midwife comes to them” (Exod. 1:19), which is just absolutely brilliant! Perhaps if Pharaoh didn’t work them with such rigour, they wouldn’t be so vigorous!

God’s so happy that Shiphrah and Puah fear him that he gives them families. This isn’t a reward for saving all the babies, this is just because they fear him sufficiently. Blwerk!

Pharaoh decides to step things up a notch and he commands all his people to throw any baby boys born to the Hebrews into the Nile, allowing only the girls to live.

David Plotz has an interesting article over at Blogging the Bible about this chapter. He finds it interesting that the Hebrew people are enslaved after Joseph’s brothers enslave him, and how the Egyptian sons will be killed after they kill the Hebrew sons… He also brings up an interesting observation that totally flew by me – that the word “slave” isn’t mentioned anywhere in this chapter. The Hebrews are worked hard, but they aren’t called slaves. He finds this strange considering how liberally the word is used elsewhere in the text.