Numbers 13: Return of the Nephilim

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Being now so close to Canaan, Moses can’t help but take a little peek. So he chooses 12 scouts – one from each tribe minus Levi because the Levites apparently don’t have to do anything related to the mundane world. The people chosen to be scouts are “all of them men who were heads of the people of Israel” (v.3), though the list doesn’t match the list of leaders presented in Numbers 1.

  • Of the tribe of Reuben, Shammua the son of Zaccur;
  •  Of the tribe of Simeon, Shaphat the son of Hori;
  • Of the tribe of Judah, Caleb the son of Jephunneh;
  • Of the tribe of Issachar, Igal the son of Joseph;
  • Of the tribe of Joseph – Ephraim branch, Oshea the son of Nun;
  • Of the tribe of Joseph – Manasseh branch, Gaddi the son of Susi;
  • Of the tribe of Benjamin, Palti the son of Raphu;
  • Of the tribe of Zebulun, Gaddiel the son of Sodi;
  • Of the tribe of Dan, Ammiel the son of Gemalli;
  • Of the tribe of Asher, Sethur the son of Michael;
  • Of the tribe of Naphtali, Nahbi the son of Vophsi;
  • Of the tribe of Gad, Geuel the son of Machi.

He then specifically calls “Oshea the son of Nun Jehoshua” (or, as my Study Bible has it, “Hoshea the son of Nun Joshua”). I would have assumed that this would be the same person as Oshea the son of Nun, but then why is be being called again separately? There’s no indication that he’s to be the leader of the scouts, or that he’s being singled out for any particular purpose. The name is merely repeated (with the alteration to the father’s name). Is he a thirteenth scout? Or does the text just really want to highlight that Joshua is one of the dudes going?

The Scouting

Possible scouting path

Possible scouting path

The 12 scouts head out and seem to make a good tour, visiting such sites as the wilderness of Zin, Rehob, Hamath, the Negeb, Hebron, and the valley of Eshcol.. I found this neat map on the Generation World ministry website that illustrates the path the scouts may have followed.

As a little archeological side note, the text claims that Hebron was built seven years before Zoan in Egypt. According to my Study Bible: “Zoan or Tanis [was] rebuilt as the Hyksos capital around 1700 B.C.” (p.180).

If we accept the date of the exodus as somewhere around 1450 B.C., that would put Hebron at between 200-300 years old at this point in the narrative.

Numbers 13 - Abraham Schloss bis ZionAnyways, so the scouts find lots of nice things, including a single cluster of grapes so great that they had to carry it “on a pole between two of them” (v.23), as well as pomegranates and figs. They also encounter descendants of Anak: Ahiman, Sheshai, and Talmai. Though I’m not sure how they know their names unless they approached them, and it seems implausible that they approached them given that they are set up as hostiles.

The whole trip takes 40 days (of course it does). When they return, they can’t stop gushing about how awesome Canaan is. They describe it as “flow[ing] with milk and honey” (v.27), a turn of phrase first used in Exodus 3:8, where God promises to bring  the Israelites out of Egypt and “unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey.”

But it’s not all positive. The scouts also report that the people there are strong, and that their cities are large and fortified. Plus, the descendants of Anak are there and, well, you know how they are.

Speaking of the current inhabitants, the scouts report that:

  • The Amalekites are in the Negeb.
  • The Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites are in the hill country.
  • The Canaanites are by the sea and along the Jordan river.

You will remember the Amalekites from their subduing in the battles of Genesis 14, and from their chronologically confused battle with Joshua in Exodus 17.

Getting Antsy

But then Caleb, Judah’s scouting representative, steps in and calls for the Israelites to “go up at once, and occupy it [Canaan]; for we are well able to overcome it” (v.30).

Numbers 13 - Nephilim Skeleton

Note: This was an entry in an image editing contest. No Nephilim skeletons have yet been found.

The other scouts disagree, and they bring “and evil report of the land which they had spied out” (v.32). David Plotz adds the detail that Joshua did not join them, but I’m not seeing anything like that in my text.

The “evil report” is that the land “devours its inhabitants” (v.32), and the people living there (the ones being devoured?) are giants. These giants are Nephilim – the ones we saw way back in Genesis 6:4 and who are now being called the sons of Anak, “who came from the Nephilim” (v.33). In the hyperbole we’re accustomed to seeing in the Bible, these Nephilim are described as so tall that “we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them” (v.33).

Now, the Nephilim in Genesis had been given as an example of the corruption that ran rampant in the antediluvian period, and were one of the reasons why God decided to kill everyone except for Noah and his family. So what are they doing still around?

One blogger read this appearance back into Genesis 6:4 – “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward” (emphasis mine). According to that person, the “also afterward” refers to the period after the flood. It still doesn’t explain how they survived the flood that killed “everything that is on the earth” (Gen. 6:17), but it does seem to suggest that, at least at some point, someone involved in the production of the Bible may have had the same concerns.

Though the whole discussion may not matter. When the text says that the other scouts gave an “evil report,” does that mean that the report was bad news, or does it mean that they are lying? Are they exaggerating the dangers presented by the inhabitants of Canaan as an argument against Caleb’s gung-ho enthusiasm, or are they merely reminding Caleb of how bloody tall the current occupants of the land are? And if they are lying, what is their motivation?

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.

Exodus 6: Moses gets a pep talk

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At the end of the last chapter, everyone was upset with Moses for being a poop-disturber, and Moses was upset with God for not delivering the Hebrews like he said he would. The chapter break was right in the middle of the exchange, so now we get to pick up with God’s response.

God sends Aaron to meet Moses in the desert by Marc Chagall, 1966

God sends Aaron to meet Moses in the desert by Marc Chagall, 1966

God says to Moses: “Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh; for with a strong hand he will send them out, yea, with a strong hand he will drive them out of his land” (Exod. 6:1). Now, I haven’t gotten to that part yet, so I fully accept the possibility that I might be wrong, but doesn’t Pharaoh chase the Israelites to get them back? That’s not exactly the same thing as driving them out.

God, worried that Moses may have forgotten who he was, repeats (again) that he’s  the god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and then tells Moses that, when he appeared to the patriarchs, it was by the name El Shaddai, and that they didn’t know his new name of YHWH. But is that true?

In Genesis 22:14, when Abraham has just been stopped from murdering his son, he calls the altar Jehovahjireh (rendered as “the Lord will provide” in my RSV). How could this be unless Abraham know the name YHWH?

Back to the story, God tells Moses again that he’s here to free all the Hebrews and that Moses should go to them and tell them, again, that God is totally good for that whole freedom thing he promised. You know, ’cause that worked right well the first time.

So Moses goes again to the Hebrews and tells them all these things and, surprisingly, they aren’t nearly as excited as they were the first time. “Fool me once…” and all that. Or, you know, they just didn’t listen “because of their broken spirit and their cruel bondage” (Exod. 6:9).

Not to be deterred, God tells Moses to go back to Pharaoh and tell him to let the Hebrews out of Egypt. Moses refuses again, protesting that Pharaoh would never listen to him because of his “uncircumcised lips.” No, I’m not joking. It’s right there in Exodus 6:12. Now, to be fair, this is apparently an expression that would translate to our “sealed lips.” Still, though, the imagery is hilarious. I’m going to start using this whenever I’m feeling tongue-tied. “Oops, sorry, I guess my lips are really uncircumcised tonight!”

Moses’ uncircumcised lips aside, God puts him and Aaron in charge of bringing the Hebrews out of Egypt.

And now for something completely different…

Thought that genealogies were a Genesis thing? Sorry to disappoint you!

The sons of Reuben: Hanoch, Pallu, Hezron, and Carmi.

The sons of Simeon: Jemuel, Jamin, Ohad, Jachin, Zohar, and Shaul (the son of a Canaanite woman).

The sons of Levi: Gershon, Kohath, and Merari. (Additional note, Levi died at 137.)

  • The sons of Gershon: Libni and Shimi.
  • The sons of Kohath: Amram, Izhar, Hebron, and Uzziel. (Additional note, Kohath died at 133.)
  • The sons of Merari: Mahali and Mushi.
  • Kohath’s son Amram married his father’s sister (eeeew), named Jochebed, and they had Aaron and Moses. The incestuous Amram died at 137.
  • The sons of Izhar: Korah, Nepheg, and Zichri.
  • The sons of Uzziel: Mishael, Elzaphan, and Zithri.
  • Aaron married Elisheba, daughter of Amminadab, sister of Naashon. Their children are Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar.
  • The sons of Korah: Assir, Elkanah, and Abiasaph.
  • Aaron’s son Eleazar married one of the daughters of Putiel, and they had Phinehas.

Where applicable, this does all seem to match the genealogy given in Genesis 46. It does bear mentioning, however, that a few of these guys live longer than the 120 years God had supposedly allotted them way back in Genesis 6:3.

Back to the story

Now that we’ve established which Aaron and Moses we’re talking about, we get to hear about Moses’s uncircumcised lips (Exod. 6:30) one last time before the chapter comes to a close.

Genesis 49: "All these are the twelve tribes of Israel"

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In previous chapters, kids have been stand-ins for various nations: Esau represented the Edomites, Mizraim represented the Egyptians, Ishmael represents the “Bedouin tribes of the southern wilderness.” But now, the sons all represent different factions within the Hebrew people, commonly known as the 12 (+1) tribes of Israel.

The setup is this: On his deathbed, Jacob/Israel brings up each of his sons and issues a description of them that is *wink wink nudge nudge* indicative of their tribe’s place in later Hebrew society.

Jacob blesseth his sons by Gerard Hoet, 1728

Reuben: First-born and, therefore, stands to be the principle inheritor. However, due to a little indiscretion, loses his primacy. My study bible says that Reuben “was once a leading tribe but in early times was overcome by the Moabites.” The confusing mention of him sleeping with his step mom in Genesis 35:22 is explained here as typifying “the tribe’s moral weakness and instability.” Now, Israel found out about this little bit of incest and didn’t say anything at the time, so it must come as quite the shock to Reuben to suddenly have this thrown into his face!

Simeon and Levi: These are the two who convinced the Shechemites back in Genesis 34 to cut off their foreskins and then killed them all while they were too sore to fight back. As punishment, they won’t get a territory to themselves, but instead Jacob/Israel will “divide them” and “scatter them in Israel” (Gen. 49:7). My study bible notes that Levi became the priestly caste, while Simeon was eventually absorbed into the tribe of Judah.

Judah: Up until now, Judah has generally acted as spokesman for the family whenever Jacob/Israel isn’t around. This all makes sense now as Judah is destined to be the ruling class of the Hebrews. But Jacob/Israel imposes a time limit, saying that he shall rule until his sceptre “comes to whom it belongs” (Gen. 49:10). In the King James version, this verse makes reference to a specific individual: “The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be.” (Wiki has a brief and somewhat lacking explanation of this difference.) Once Shiloh or the true owner of the sceptre comes, there will be so much plenty that “his eyes shall be red with wine” (Gen. 49:12). Note: You know you’ve had too much when your eyes turn red.

Zebulun: Zebulun gets to live by the sea (not him personally, of course, since he is in Egypt) and “become a haven for ships” (Gen. 49:13).

Issachar: Issachar is a “strong ass” (Gen. 49:14). This may well be true, but it’s not the kind of thing one says in polite company. This is apparently a comment on their willingness to “surrender political independence in subservience to the Canaanites.”

Dan: Dan will become the judiciary caste. My study bible indicates that when he is referred to as “a serpent in the way, a viper by the path” (Gen. 49:17), the reference is to the “insidious warfare of a small tribe in its rise to power.” Oooh, burn.

Gad: Gad will be raided, but “he shall raid at [the raiders’] heels” (Gen. 49:19). According to my study bible (on which I feel I am over-relying in this chapter), this is a commendation for “bravery in repelling Ammonite and desert marauders.”

Asher: Asher gets “royal dainties” (Gen. 49:20), referring to the rich and high yield lands he gets (the coastal strip between Mount Carmel and Phoenicia, says my study bible).

Naphtali: Naphtali gets compared to a “hind let loose” (Gen. 49:21). This is supposed to have positive connotations.

Joseph: Joseph gets blessings heaped on him and is commended for having continued to fight (“Yet his bow remained unmoved”) even when “fiercely attacked” (Gen. 49:23-24). He gets the “blessings of the breasts and of the womb” (Gen. 49:25). We also get a little pun at the end, where Joseph is said to receive all these blessings for he was “separate from his brothers” (Gen. 49:26), which could be taken literally as his separation from them while he lived in Egypt, or metaphorically as being set apart from the common rabble.

Benjamin: The ‘blessing’ given for Benjamin is presented without commentary from my study bible, so interpret as ye will. “Benjamin is a ravenous wolf, in the morning devouring the prey, and at even diving the spoil” (Gen. 49:27).

Once all the blessings (to the extent that they are such) are dispensed, Jacob/Israel repeats his wish to be buried at Machpelah (the family burial plot that Abraham bought in Genesis 23).

And with that, he “drew up his feet into the bed, and breathed his last, and was gathered to his people” (Gen. 49:33).

Genesis 46: Hebrew moving day!

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The meeting of Jacob and Joseph in Egypt by William Brassey Hole

The meeting of Jacob and Joseph in Egypt by William Brassey Hole

Before heading into Egypt, Jacob/Israel makes a quick pit stop in Beersheba to chat with God. “Jacob, Jacob,” begins God, apparently forgetting all about Genesis 35:10 and 32:28.

God tells Jacob/Israel not to worry about going into Egypt, for “I will also bring you up again” (Gen. 46:4). Spoiler alert: He doesn’t. My study bible tries to explain away the lie by saying that Jacob/Israel technically lives on in his descendants, who are then brought out of Egypt. But let’s get real – would an old man concerned about a big move really interpret God’s statement in that way?

The sons of Jacob/Israel

And now we get another genealogy. At least this time, they did try to make it fit with the story by positioning it as a list of dudes who are entering Egypt (making me feel something like a border guard, honestly).

Jacob/Israel’s descendants by Leah:

  • Reuben’s sons: Hanoch, Phallu, Hezron, and Carmi.
  • Simeon’s sons: Jemuel, Jamin, Ohad, Jachin, Zohar, and Shaul (this later being the son of a Canaanite woman).
  • Levi’s sons: Gershon, Kohath, and Merari.
  • Judah’s sons: Shelah, Pharez, and Zerah (plus Er and Onan, who have died). The sons of Pharez are: Hezron and Hamul.
  • Issachar’s sons: Tola, Phuvah, Job, and Shimron.
  • Zebulun’s sons: Sered, Elon, and Jahleel.

Zebulun, by the way, always makes me think of Zabulon, the leader of the Day Watch in Sergei Lukyanenko’s Night Watch series. Just sayin’.

Jacob/Israel’s sons by Zilpah:

  • Gad’s sons: Ziphion, Haggi, Shuni, Ezbon, Eri, Arodi, and Areli.
  • Asher’s kids: Jimnah, Ishuah, Ishni, Beriah, and a daughter named Serah. Beriah’s sons: Heber and Malchiel.

Jacob/Israel’s sons by Rachel:

  • Joseph’s sons: Manasseh and Ephraim.
  • Benjamin’s sons: Belah, Becher, Ashbel, Gera, Naaman, Ehi, Rosh, Muppim, Huppim, and Ard.

Jacob/Israel’s sons by Bilhah:

  • Dan’s son: Hushim.
  • Naphtali’s sons: Jahzeel, Guni, Jezer, and Shillem.

We’re also given a bit of math. We’re told how many people are in each of Jacob/Israel’s wives’ parties, so of course I had to double check!

  • Leah’s party: Bible says 33 (including Dinah). My count is also 33. So far so good!
  • Zilpah’s party: Bible says 16, but I count 17. The only way I get the same number as the Bible is if I discount Serah, who is female. But then, shouldn’t we have discounted Dinah as well?
  • Rachel’s party: Bible says 14. The only way I get the right number is if I discount Rachel (for being dead), but then I would have to ignore Genesis 46:27 that says that we’re to tack Joseph and his sons on to the very end.
  • Bilhah’s party: Bible says 7. I get 8.

At the end of this, we’re told that we should come out with 66 people. We add to this Jacob/Israel himself, and then Joseph&Sons who will be met with in Egypt, and we should come out to a nice auspicious 70.

Unfortunately, both the Bible’s numbers and mine add up to 70 before I ever add the four additional people! So what we end up with is a decidedly inauspicious 74.

Abominations

Judah rides out ahead to fetch Joseph so that he can meet them on the road. When Joseph and Jacob/Israel see each other, they embrace and weep. Jacob/Israel announces that he can die now that he’s seen his son.

This next bit is a bit confusing, even with the study bible’s help. Joseph tells his family to say that they are shepherds, “for every shepherd is an abomination to the Egyptians” (Gen. 46:34). Now, when I am relying on someone’s hospitality, I try to avoid making them think that I’m an abomination…

The study bible explanation is that Joseph wants them to settle in Goshen, which would put them near him. Convincing the Egyptians that they are abominations would make them more likely to settle the Hebrews “apart in the land of Goshen.” I can’t figure out if that means that the land of Goshen is otherwise uninhabited and that settling them there would make them apart, or if this is a trick to get them a spot of land all to themselves within Goshen.

Now, granted, the Hebrews are shepherds, and I’m sure that the Egyptians would have found out about it eventually. So it makes good sense to state it right up front. But the way it’s phrased is really awkward for this interpretation.

Genesis 42: The Revenge Begins

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If your High School days were anything like mine, you probably spent a good deal of time fantasizing about some future scenario in which you’ve somehow become wildly successful. Perhaps you’re a movie star, or you suddenly discover that you have magic powers, or you invent some new operating system that makes you a billionaire several times over. The method is unimportant – what matters is that you get to come back to your school and see all the people who used to treat you badly grovel at your feet.

Genesis 42 marks the beginning of some Jewish scribe’s High School fantasy.

Back in Canaan

Canaan is suffering the same starvation that is afflicting the rest of the world, and Jacob (who isn’t called Israel a single time in this whole chapter, despite Genesis 35:10) finds out that there’s food over in Egypt. He sends ten of his sons over to buy some grain, withholding Benjamin, fearing “that harm might befall him” (Gen. 42:4). We can let it slide this time since Benjy is the baby of the family.

But the rest of the boys pack up and head off to Egypt to buy grain.

Confrontation in Egypt

Joseph's brothers come to ask for grain by the unknown illustrator of Lillie A. Faris's 'Standard Bible Story Readers,' 1925-1928

Joseph’s brothers come to ask for grain by the unknown illustrator of Lillie A. Faris’s ‘Standard Bible Story Readers,’ 1925-1928

This is where the High School fantasy begins. The brothers arrive in Egypt and come to the governor (who, for some reason, appears to be overseeing all cases of grain exchange for a country in which everyone in the whole world is coming for grain). They prostrate themselves, not knowing that the governor is actually Joseph and that they are unwittingly fulfilling his dream/prophecy.

By this time, Joseph has learned to speak Egyptian and he’s using a translator to talk to his brothers. He recognizes them, but they do not recognize him. It’s all very Shakespearian in its silliness.

The brothers explain that they want to buy grain for their family back in Canaan, but Joseph keeps insisting that they’re actually spies come to Egypt to scope out any weaknesses (a legitimate concern, says my study bible, for the Egyptian frontier faced Canaan and was vulnerable to attack). The brothers insist that they are just there to buy grain. Joseph insists that they are spies. This argument continues for longer than is rhetorically necessary.

To prove that they aren’t in fact spies, the brothers explain that they are on a mission for their father and that they are ten of twelve sons. One son remained with dad and one son has died. Joseph holds Simeon hostage and sends the rest of the brothers back to get Benjamin. Bringing Benjamin would confirm their story. I’m really not sure how this would work – why would someone lie about having a brother? Couldn’t they just as easily be ten spies with a brother at home as ten traders with a brother at home?

But the brothers really aren’t in a position to contradict Joseph.

Here’s where it gets rather quirky. The brothers see some similarities between selling their one sibling to the Egyptians and leaving their second sibling as a hostage with the self-same people. They talk amongst themselves about this, wondering if this is punishment for their behaviour towards Joseph all those years ago. Reuben, who had nay-sayed at the time, takes the opportunity to land an “I told you so.” Unbeknownst to them, the Egyptian governor is Joseph and can understand their Hebrew perfectly.

The brothers return to Canaan

Joseph sells the grain to the brothers and sends them on their way, along with provisions for their journey and, secretly, all the money they had come with for grain-buying.

On the way home, one of the brothers opens a sack of grain to feed his ass (*immature giggle*) and finds his money bag intact. He tells the others and “at this their hearts failed them” (Gen. 42:28).

When they get to Canaan, they get to tell their father some bad news for a second time. The penning scribe, in all his rhetorical wisdom, chooses at this point to quote the brothers explaining the whole situation to their father. Had I been an editor at the time, I could have easily whittled this door-stop of a book down to a fraction of its current size. Just saying.

“As they emptied their sacks, behold, every man’s bundle of money was in his sack; and when they and their father saw their bundles of money, they were dismayed” (Gen. 42:35). Yeah, except that this already happened in Genesis 42:37-38. So did it happen at a lodging place during travel, or did it happen once they get home?

Jacob gets pretty upset that he’s lost Joseph and then Simeon and now may lost Benjamin as well. Reuben tries to convince him to take Joseph at his word, offering the lives of his own two sons if he should fail to return Simeon and Benjamin (Gen. 42:37). One might argue that his sons’ lives are not his to bargain with, but that would be a decidedly un-Biblical view.

But even the prospect of possibly slaying two children isn’t enough to entice Jacob. “My son shall not go down with you, for his brother is dead, and he only is left” (Gen. 42:38). To which his ten other sons surely respond: “What are we? Chop suey?”

Genesis 37: Joseph is sold into slavery

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We’re getting back into the Sunday School ready stories here.

The story begins when Joseph is 17 years old. Israel/ Jacob (whose name switches back and fourth throughout the chapter) felt that using his other sons as a meatshield for Joseph wasn’t quite clear enough. In his infinite wisdom as patriarch of the Bible, he also decides to dress Joseph better than all his brothers, giving him a long robe with sleeves (which was a whole lot more material than each of the other sons got) so that his favouritism could be rubbed into everyone’s faces every day.

The Dreams

The Dreams of Joseph by Raphael, 1518-1519

The Dreams of Joseph by Raphael, 1518-1519

Joseph has a dream that he and his brothers were binding sheaves in the field when, suddenly, his sheaf rose and stood upright. The other sheaves gathered around it and bowed down to his sheaf.

The meatshield and robe incidents didn’t quite hammer things home enough. So Joseph decides to tell his brother all about his less-than-ambiguous dream. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t endear him to them.

Not content to leave it at that, Joseph has another dream in which the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to him. This time, even Israel/Jacob is rather peeved. “What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall I and your mother and your brothers indeed come to bow ourselves to the ground before you?” (Gen. 37:10). Keep in mind that his mother died in Genesis 35. But I guess that they needed someone to be the sun and/or moon, so she gets to zombie-grovel.

Whoop, down the well!

Joseph’s brothers are all out tending dad’s flocks and Israel/Jacob asks him to go out and find them, then report back. We aren’t told Joseph is hanging around at home while all his brothers are working…

Then we get a totally weird and unnecessary detail: Joseph expects his brothers to be in Shechem, but when he gets there he’s told that they’ve moved on to Dothan. So Joseph continues on his way. This is not in any way important to the plot.

His brothers, who are pretty miffed by now, see Joseph coming and start talking about killing him. “We shall say that a wild beast has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams” (Gen. 37:20). Nyaaah, I’ll kill him, see? The ol’ dreamer won’t be dreamin’ no more, see?

But Reuben, Leah’s eldest, suggestions that they just dump him into a pit rather than kill him. Secretly, he’s thinking that he’ll come back later and save him once the other brothers aren’t looking.

The brothers agree and, when Joseph arrives, take off his robe (the fancy one, with sleeves) and dump him in the pit.

Sold into slavery

Joseph’s brothers are sitting around having a meal when they see an Ishmaelite caravan going by, selling stuff between Gilead and Egypt (and, of course, we need a list of the stuff they’re selling). Judah speaks up, asking: “What profit is it if we slay our brother and conceal his blood?” (Gen. 37:26). Never mind that Reuben already convinced them not to kill Joseph…

Judah’s big idea is that they sell Joseph to the Ishmaelites.

Suddenly, the Ishmaelites miraculously turned into Midianite traders! It’s a miracle! Or a mistake! One or the other, anyway. It’s not really important who they sell Joseph to…

Point is, they pull him out of the pit and sell him to the Ishmaelite (wait, we’re back to Ishmaelites now?). Because we must keep a running account book of possessions, Joseph is sold for twenty shekels of silver.

And frankly, who hasn’t thought of selling a sibling to Ishmaelites? If Shel Silverstein is any kind of authority, I hear that this is rather common among kids burdened with live-in siblings.

And that is how Joseph ends up in Egypt.

Breaking the news

Reuben, who was apparently somewhere else while his brothers were earning their silver, arrives at the pit and sees that Joseph is gone. He’s rather nettled that his plan has been foiled.

They then decide to kill a goat (which I could have sworn was a sheep in my Sunday school lessons) and dip Joseph’s robe in its blood. They bring the bloodied robe to Israel/Jacob and tell him that a wild beast has eaten Joseph. Jacob apparently doesn’t notice that the robe is perfectly intact and yet somehow drenched in blood. Apparently, the wild beasts around Dothan aim exclusively for the head.

In response, Israel/Jacob decides to put sackcloth around his “loins.” He’s so upset that he says he will never recover, and will instead: “go down to Sheol to my son, mourning” (Gen. 37:35). Little point of fact, this is the first mention of any kind of afterlife. Notice that it isn’t heaven or hell, but rather a place where the dead go as shadows. It’s similar to the concept of Hades – a dreary, dark place where the dead live. It’s interesting to see the evolution of afterlife theology…

Back to the story, we’re told that the Midianites sold Joseph to the Egyptian pharaoh’s captain of the guard, Potiphar. The Ishmaelites have apparently disappeared once again.

Genesis 35: The Death of Rachel and Isaac, the Birth of Benjamin, and Incest

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This is one of those chapters where the authors really want to move on to the next interesting episode, but feel the need to cover a few plot points first. Due to lack of interest, they plough through at an inappropriate speed.

God tells Jacob (who is still being called Jacob for some reason, despite having been renamed in Genesis 32) to go to Bethel and to make an altar to God there. So Jacob instructs his household to “put away the foreign gods that are among you, and purify yourselves” (Gen. 35:2). This raises the question of how many gods are supposed to exist. I realize that the word “gods” in this context probably refers to idols, but there’s no indication that they are false idols. It seems far more consistent with the text to interpret God as the tribal god of Jacob’s people, one of many gods. Certainly, his frequent reference to a heavenly “we” would suggest this interpretation.

So they take all their gods, as well as their earrings (earrings, according to my study bible, being magical amulets that belonged to foreign idolatry), and bury them under a tree.

Jacob had previously been concerned that the Canaanites would be pretty angry given his sons’ slaughter of the Shechemites, so God causes a “terror”to fall upon the cities along their path (Gen. 35:5). Does that make God the original terrorist?

In case, Jacob arrives at Luz – which is called Luz (although there is a note in the text saying that, by Luz, they actually mean Bethel) here, despite being called Bethel earlier in this chapter (Gen. 35:1) and having renamed it Bethel in Genesis 28:19. This is all in addition to the fact that it was simply called Bethel in Genesis 12:8 and 13:3. There is a little note in the text indicating that, by Luz, they actually mean Bethel. So why not just call it Bethel? This, folks, is why you should always get a proofreader when starting a religion!

None of this really matters anyway because Jacob renames the place again to Elbethel (Gen. 35:7).

While they were there, we’re told that Rebekah’s nurse, Deborah, died.

Renamed… again

God appears to Jacob again and says: “Your name is Jacob; no longer shall your name be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name” (Genesis 35:10). Perhaps God felt the need to do this because the name didn’t really stick the first time.

God goes into his whole benediction again, telling Jacob that he shall be the father of nations and kings, and he shall have all the land that’s been given to Abraham and Isaac. To commemorate the occasion, Jacob (yes, he’s still being called Jacob) decides to call the place Bethel.

No, really. I couldn’t make this up if I tried.

Rachel dies

The Death of Rachel by Francesco Furini

The Death of Rachel by Francesco Furini

The household gets back on the road when Rachel goes into labour. The labour is hard, but she’s able to name her baby Benoni, or Son of my sorrow. “But his father called his name Benjamin” (Gen. 35:18), or Son of the right hand or Son of the South.

Now, okay, granted that Benjamin is a good deal chipper than Benoni. I’ll definitely let Jacob have that. But when your wife dies giving birth to your child and, with her dying breath, tells you what to name him, proper decorum dictates that you keep that name. Seriously.

And the way the episode is presented, with Rachel naming the baby literally with her dying breath, “but his father called his name Benjamin.” Just like that. Abrupt, and totally without consideration for his wife’s (his favourite wife) wishes.

Jacob, who suddenly switches back to being called Israel, moves on both literally and figuratively.

Oh, also, Reuben totally sleeps with his step-mom Bilhah and Israel hears about it. BAM!

We’re given another list of Jacob’s wives and kids, with Benjamin included. Then Isaac dies and Esau and Jacob (back to Jacob) bury him.

The end.

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