Numbers 9-10: Blowing the horns

Leave a comment

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

8 Comments

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…