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 19: Thunder on the mountain

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After three months of travelling, the Israelites arrive at Mount Sinai and set up camp. Once there, Moses climbs the mountain to talk to God, who makes the Israelites a deal. “Now therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all people; for all the earth is mine, and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod. 19:5-6).

Now, the language of possession, essentially reducing the Israelites to things (albeit treasured), is rather creepy from a modern perspective. Sorta reinforces that view of God as the kid with the ant farm, doesn’t it?

The Israelites don’t seem to think so. When Moses relays the message, “all the people answered together and said, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we will do’ ” (Exod. 19: 8). Much as it disturbs me to see a whole culture willingly subjecting themselves to being possessions, this is certainly a welcome break from hearing them whine.

Then, God institutes a rule about Mount Sinai: No one, be they human or beast, is to approach the mountain lest they “be put to death” (Exod. 19:12-13). This emphasises the mysterium tremendum of the sacred location.

Next, God tells Moses that in three days time he will appear to the Israelites personally. In the meantime, Moses should busy himself consecrating every individual and they should make sure that they was their clothes (probably a good idea after three months in the wilderness).

And for the feminists among my readers, please note that on the third day, God’s rule for all Israelites is: “Do not go near a woman” (Exod. 19:15). Just in case you were wondering who the Old Testament considers worthy of personhood, there’s your answer. When God addresses “the Israelites,” that’s only the ones with penises. The rest don’t count.

God’s appearance

The Ten Commandments by Isabella Colette

The Ten Commandments by Isabella Colette

“On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightenings” and “Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in a fire” (Exod. 19:16-18). If we subscribe to the theory that there’s a kernel of truth to the Exodus stories, and that they can be traced back to misunderstood naturalistic phenomena, this one’s pretty obvious. There’s a big storm, which the Israelites think is God talking to them.

We seem to get confirmation of this in the next verse, where we’re told that Moses speaks and “God answered him in thunder” (Exod. 19:19). This suggests that God isn’t speaking in a way that the Israelites can understand him, but rather that Moses is interpreting the thunder.

And when we were told in Exodus 19:12-13 that there’s a bound set around the mountain so that only Moses can approach, is this because Moses is just pretending to talk to God? Is he actually just reading the latest Harlequin novel for a bit before going down and telling the people whether God thinks lamb is best served with mint jelly or not?

In other words, does the emphasis on secrecy (or “sacredness,” if that’s the term you prefer) suggest that Moses is a conman rather than just a naif who is misinterpreting natural phenomena?

God forgets his rule

God tells Moses to bring up the priests to meet him, but Moses reminds him of the prohibition against letting anyone go near the mountain. That’s right, God issued a rule and, within three days, had already forgotten it. No matter, God asks Moses to bring up Aaron instead. Then he reminds Moses not to “let the priests and th epeople break through to come up to the Lord, lest he break out against them” (Exod. 19:24).

Points for talking about himself in the third person. But also, this really makes it look like Aaron is an accomplice, and Moses needed a story to tell the Israelites that would let him bring his brother up without all the priests and elders wanting to see God too.

Exodus 17: Drawing water from a stone

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The Hebrews continue on their way and make camp in Rephidim. Unfortunately, there’s no water and, in customary fashion, the Hebrews start to whine. Moses the Middle Manager takes their complaints to God. God tells Moses to march in front of the Israelites smugly, making sure all the elders are watching, and strike a rock with his magic rod.

This causes the rock to split open and water to come out, satisfying the Hebrews for the time being. My study bible points out that “water lies below the limestone surface in the region of Sinai.” So we see another attempt to find a naturalistic explanation for a literal reading.

Battle with the Amalekites

The Jews defeating Amalek's army by Adolf Fedyes, 1915

The Jews defeating Amalek’s army by Adolf Fedyes, 1915

There are Amalekites in them thar hills and Moses has a mind to exterminate. He sends Joshua in to fight them while he works his magic. The last time we saw the Amalekites, they were being conquered by the warring factions in Genesis 14.

While Joshua is on the ground fighting, Moses climbs a hill with Aaron and some guy named Hur. As long as he keeps his arms in the air, the Israelites are winning the battle; but if he lowers them, the Amalekites start to win. Predictably, he starts to get tired, so he takes a seat and Aaron and Hur hold his arms up for him until the Amalekites are defeated.

There’s no indication why Moses has to do this. If it was a test of his dedication, why should it continue to work if his friends are holding his hands up for him? Isn’t that cheating? It seems like God just decided to make Moses do a funny chicken dance for his own amusement.

Finally, “Joshua mowed down Am’alek and his people with the edge of the sword” (Exod. 17:13). Not that despite this violent imagery, the authors neglected to record the reasons for the battle.

Well, regardless, God tells Moses that he will “utterly blot out the remembrance of Am’alek from under heaven” (Exod. 17:14), which evidently hasn’t happened yet since, well, you’re reading all about them right now. Moses even anticipates this failure when he says that “the Lord will have war with Am’alek from generation to generation” (Exod. 17:16).

Not that I’m complaining. Genocide is a rather ugly thing and I’d really rather it not happen. But I do still think that follow-through is a desirable character trait in a deity.