Judges 4-5: On the dangers of camping equipment

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Judges 4 and Judges 5 retell essentially the same story – that of our only female judge, Deborah. The story in Judge 4 is told in prose form, while the story in Judge 5 is a song/poem supposedly sung by two of the principle characters as a summary of the events that have recently transpired. In that sense, it’s quite like Miriam’s song in Exodus 15.

Since the two cover much of the same ground, I will be following the Judges 4 account and only reference Judges 5 as interests me at the relevant points in the story.

The story takes up after Ehud’s death (skipping over poor Shamgar and his ox-goad), when God sells the people into the hands of King Jabin of the Canaanites. King Jabin, as I am certain you recall, was killed by Joshua in Josh. 11:10-11.

But not so fast, contradiction thumpers! Claude Mariottini has an alternative explanation:

In Joshua 11:1-14 Jabin appears as the king of Hazor who formed a confederacy of Canaanite kings to fight against Joshua and the people of Israel. In Judges 4:2, Jabin appears as a king of Canaan whose kingdom was in Hazor. For this reason, scholars believe that Jabin was a throne name for the kings of Hazor.

Or, of course, it’s possible that the author(s) of Joshua simply ascribed to him all the heroic conquest-related deeds that they’d heard of, which included some that had originally been told of local heroes, called ‘judges’ in this book.

This King Jabin has been oppressing the Israelites for 20 years with the help of his commander, Sisera. It is Sisera who plays the part of arch-nemesis to our intrepid heroes in these chapters, and he is certainly a worthy opponent. We are told that Sisera had nine hundred iron chariots! Nine hundred! Iron chariots, if you’ll remember from Judges 1:19, are the super weapon that even an army with God on its side can’t stand against.

The Song of Deborah is a little less clear on the aggressor-victim dichotomy, perhaps having been spared, by virtue of its poetic flow, the editing hand that has been making all these heroic stories conform to the ‘a) the people sin, b) God leaves them, c) God takes pity, d) a judge rises, e) the judge brings peace, f) it all starts again’ narrative pattern.

And so we are told of God marching out, causing the mountains to quake before him. And we’re told of the caravans ceasing in the days of Shamgar (yes, he does get a mention in Judges 5, though the preceding chapter seems never to have heard of him), implying perhaps that it was the Israelites who were raiding caravans.

It’s not clear and, frankly, the language is so awkward that I had trouble following it. It’s Collins who clued me in that there might be a difference between the two accounts:

According to Judges 4, the Lord delivered Israel into the hand of King Jabin of Hazor. One might assume, then, that Jabin was the oppressor. The song in chapter 5, however, gives a different impression, as it boasts that the Israelites were successfully plundering the caravan routes. The battle that ensued was not a war of liberation but simply a clash between two groups that had competing economic interests. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p. 110)

Enter Deborah

We are told of Deborah, Ephraimite prophetess and the wife of Lappidoth. We are told that she was “judging Israel at that time” (Judges 4:4) from under a palm between Ramah and Bethel, where the people would come to her for judgement.

I noted as I was reading that the situation looks just like a government seating, in which a leader (a king, chief, or elder) would hear petitions and arbitrate. But it struck me that this was being done under a palm tree – not in a courthouse, or a divan, or even at the city gates.

It changed the tone, and the image I got was less “sanctioned official of the law” and more “wise woman in the woods who has popular authority but not legal authority.” Claude Mariottini seems to agree:

Since Deborah would not have fit into the traditional social and legal structures of Israel and since she could not act as a judge at the city gate, she probably performed her role at another place and in another setting: under a palm tree.

It’s strange, both that she is unique as a female judge and that she seems to be operating outside of the normal social structure. In the words of God himself:

Verily, I have never divined what it was about the ancient Jews’ rigidly patriarchal polygamous society that made it so hard for its female chattel to succeed therein; Especially since women were regarded as clean, uncursed, and fit to appear in public nearly three-quarters of the time. (The Last Testament, Javerbaum. p.120)

Deborah summons Barak, a military leader. Whatever her seat under the palm tree may suggest, her ability to muster Israel’s armies certainly does give her an aura of formally recognized authority.

When she summons Barak son of Abinoam, of the tribe of Naphtali, she tells him in the prose version to gather together soldiers from Naphtali and Zebulun.

In the verse, she has him summon Ephraim, Benjamin, Machir (apparently another name for Manasseh), Zebulun, Issachar, and Naphtali. The Transjordan tribes, Reuben and Gilead (apparently another name for Gad), and the coastal tribes of Dan and Asher refused to come. Judah, Simeon, and Levi get no mention at all.

And then there’s Meroz. According to Collins:

The song singles out the otherwise unknown Meroz to be cursed, because its inhabitants did not come to the aid of the Lord. The song suggests that there was an alliance of tribes who worshipped YHWH. There was some obligation of mutual defense, but there are no sanctions against the tribes that did not show up, with the exception of Meroz (which may not have been a tribe at all). The alliance did not extend to all twelve tribes. The omission of Judah is significant. The bond between Judah and the northern tribes was weak, and this eventually led to the separation of the two kingdoms after the death of Solomon.

Judah is included in the Blessing of Moses in Deuteronomy 33, but there Simeon is missing. It would seem that the number twelve was not as stable in the premonarchic period as is often supposed. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.104)

As long as you follow

When given his instructions, Barak is unsure. He says: “If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go” (Judges 4:8).

According to Claude Mariottini, all of this has to do with the belief that God is with Deborah:

Barak was so convinced that Deborah was sent by God that he refused to go into battle without her presence, since her presence with the army would insure the presence of God with Israel and victory against the enemies.

In response, Deborah agrees to go, but she tells Barak that “the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman” (Judges 4:9). This, according to Mariottini, is so unthinkable that it would constitute proof that God really was involved in the victory.

It’s strange, because my impression when reading was the tonal opposite of what Mariottini sees. In my mind, Barak’s request that Deborah come along was a challenge – he was essentially challenging her legitimacy as a leader when, as a woman, she would not even be going into battle. She rebukes him, not only agreeing to go into battle, but then also taking away (by virtue of her connections with the Big Office) his glory in the endeavour, putting the victory into female hands.

It was the “the road on which you are going” phrasing that framed it for me, I think. What could that refer to, if not to Barak’s questioning of God/Deborah’s will in the matter, and his imposition of conditions upon his obedience to God/Deborah’s command?

Either way, they head off with their army (whatever its tribal composition), and Sisera takes the bait. In the Judges 5 version, a storm causes the Kishon river to sweep away Sisera’s army (presumably miring those terrifying iron chariots).

Seeing the tide of battle and river turn against him, Sisera jumps down from his chariot and runs off on foot.

In Jael’s tent

We are told of Heber the Kenite. Here, again, we are told that the Kenites are descended from Moses’s father-in-law (here called Hobab, which agrees with Num. 10:29. He is called Reuel in Exod. 2:18-21, and Jethro in Exod. 3:1, 4:18, 18:1, and 18:5). This matches their stated origin in Judges 1:16, though it creates problems in light of their clearly pre-dating Hobab (as they were mentioned in Gen. 15:18-21).

Jael and Sisera, by Artemisia Gentileschi

Jael and Sisera, by Artemisia Gentileschi

This Heber has separated from the rest of the Kenites and settled near Kedesh, where the battle is taking place. We are told, also, that there was peace between Heber and King Jabin, so when Sisera saw their camp, he must have thought that he would find asylum.

Instead of meeting Heber, however, he met Heber’s wife, Jael. She invites him into her tent and, in the Judges 4 version, hides him under a rug.

Before long, Sisera asks her for a drink of water, and she brings him milk instead (in both version of the story). In the poetic version, she also brings him “curds in a lordly bowl” (Judges 5:25). Sisera then asks her to stand guard at the door and to tell anyone who asks that she is alone.

In Judges 4, Sisera is exhausted (presumably from his battle and subsequent flight from such), and he falls asleep. Jael takes the opportunity to jam a tent peg into his skull with a hammer so hard that the peg comes out the other side and is driven into the ground. Even more badass, she apparently does it while he is awake in the Judges 5:27 account.

Having murdered Sisera, Jael goes out to meet Barak and shows him the body. For this, she is the “most blessed of women” (Judges 5:24), and fulfils Deborah’s earlier prophecy.

There are a few difficulties with Jael’s story. For one thing, I’m pretty sure that murdering their military commander qualifies as a violation of a peace agreement. Not only that, but she murdered a guest in her home – something that seems rather clearly to be a huge no-no in her cultural milieu. It seems that she opportunistically chose to back the winners. None of this is addressed in the text, she is simply lauded for her actions. It’s hard to wonder how this could be, except that her actions benefit Israel.

Claude Mariottini takes a different view:

However, Sisera’s action was a violation of Ancient Near Eastern traditions. Sisera’s action was a violation of Heber’s family and dishonored Jael by entering her tent. As a man, Sisera should had approached Heber and not his wife.

[…]

From the perspective of the writer of Judges, Jael’s action was justified. Since Sisera had already violated Jael’s honor, Jael’s act could be seen as a vindication of her honor. The killing of Sisera was one way by which she eliminated the threat to her clan and avenged the violation of her tent.

Sisera’s mother

The final portion of the story is mentioned only in the Judges 5 poetic version: We get Sisera’s mother fretting that her son still hasn’t returned, but comforting herself by imagining that he must be busy dividing the spoils – and, she thinks, “a maiden or two for every man” (Judges 5:30).

It’s rather horrendous that a woman is thinking so callously of the abuse and rape that she imagines others of her gender must presently be subjected to. Of course, in the poem, I suppose it’s meant to be funny – while she imagines her son nailing some captive women, it is in fact a woman who is nailing him.

The poem ends with her thinking about all the lovely spoils that her son will be bringing back for her.

Final notes

Claude Mariottini pointed out something interesting: that the only two women we’ve seen called prophets so far – Deborah and Miriam – both have songs. Deborah’s is, of course, in Judges 5, and Miriam’s is in Exodus 15.

I notice, also, that both songs seem to be quite a bit older than texts surrounding them, and that both appear to be somewhat fragmentary. It’s interesting to consider that perhaps Canaanite culture was once far more female-friendly, and that the strongly patriarchal elements came later. Perhaps.

I should also mention that Claude Mariottini (who has clearly been a huge help to me in my reading of these two chapters!) has a post about the use of the term “judge” in this book – what it does mean, what it doesn’t mean, and what it may mean. If I tried to explain it here, I’d only be quoting the whole thing, so I’ll link to it instead.

Lastly, Jeremy Myers has a post up on Till He Comes that asks whether the Song of Deborah in Judges 5 might not be sexually suggestive. He uses a translation that is quite different from mine, but largely focuses on the juxtaposition between Jael “penetrating” Sisera (with a phallic tent peg) and Sisera’s mother guessing that he must be running late because he’s so busy “penetrating” all those lovely captive ladies.

Deuteronomy 33: More blessings

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Before he passes, Moses gives his final blessings to each of the twelve tribes. We saw a father on his deathbed giving blessings to his sons back in Genesis 27 when Isaac did it. Then we saw a transitional form in Genesis 49, where Jacob blessed his own sons who also happened to be the patriarchs of each of the twelve tribes. In that chapter, the blessing given to each son was both personal and meant to be understood for the tribe he represented as well. The process is complete here, where Moses offers his blessing directly to the tribal identity.

The Death of Moses, from the Jami al-Tawarikh, 1307

The Death of Muhammad, from the Jami al-Tawarikh, 1307

It’s fairly standard, starting with a with a bit about how awesome God is, then blesses each tribe in turn, and finishes up with how great God is.

But there are some interesting bits. The biggest is, of course, that Simeon is missing. The twelve tribes are: Reuben, Judah, Levi, Benjamin, Joseph (with both Ephraim and Manasseh mentioned), Zebulun, Gad, Dan, Naphtali, and Asher. So what happened to Simeon?

My study Bible says: “In its present form it probably comes from the early period of the monarchy, though it may reflect slightly earlier tribal circumstances. Simeon, for example, is not mentioned, perhaps because the tribe had already disappeared” (p.259). There may be a hint of this in Jacob’s “blessing” of them, where he says of Simeon and Levi: “I will divide them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel” (Gen. 49:7).

Which brings me to Levi, who are described in the Gen. 49:5-7 blessing as being very aggressive and warlike – clearly different from the scholar/priest/teacher role they are given in Deut. 33:10. So it seems like we had two very war-like tribes who were destroyed, losing all of their land. Simeon simply vanished, while Levi carved out a new place for itself, supported by the other tribes.

If you’re reading along with a King James, you’ll notice a reference to a unicorn. There’s a brief discussion of the matter at Sansblogue that may be of interest.

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?).

Numbers 26: Census Do-Over

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Between the plagues, food poisoning, gaping chasms, spontaneous combustions, etc, the usefulness of the census taken in Numbers 1 is rather obsolete. As we near the end of our journey, God decides that it’s time to take another head count of eligible soldiers.

The other purpose for conducting the census is to help with dividing up the lands once they get into Canaan. This seems a little pre-emptive to me, but what do I know. There’s also some talk of lots. If I’m interpreting v.53-56 correctly, all the head of house names are to go in a big hat, and the lot will be used to decide which spot each should get.

We’re also reminded that none of the men counted were adults when they originally left Egypt with Moses and Aaron (those guys having all since died), with the exception of Caleb, son of Jephunneh, and Joshua, son of Nun.

Reuben

Reuben, if you remember, was the eldest of Israel’s sons. Unfortunately for him, a little indiscretion lost him his primacy. He had four sons:

  • Hanoch, sire of the Hanochites
  • Pallu (or Phallu), sire of the Palluites
  • Hezron, sire of the Hezronites
  • Carmi, sire of the Carmites

Pallu’s son, Eliab, had three sons: Nemuel, Dathan, and Abiram. We’re reminded that these are the Dathan and Abiram who rebelled with Korah back in Numbers 16. We’re told here that Dathan and Abiram were killed along with Korah, though their deaths weren’t mentioned.

There’s also a little note telling us that “the children of Korah died not” (v.11). This seems to contradict what we were told in Numbers 16:31-32:

As soon as he finished saying all this, the ground under them split apart and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their households, and all those associated with Korah, together with their possessions.

Granted, his children aren’t specifically mentioned, but it does seem implied.

The total number of Reubenites eligible for military service is 43,730.

Simeon

Back in Genesis 46, the Simeon’s sons are named as: Jemuel, Jamin, Ohad, Jachin, Zohar, and Shaul. Here, however, the list is:

  • Nemuel, sire of the Nemuelites
  • Jamin, sire of the Jaminites
  • Jachin, sire of the Jachinites
  • Zerah, sire of the Zarhites
  • Shaul, sire of the Shaulites

For whatever reason, the lines of Jemuel, Ohad, and Zohar seem not to have survived, and Simeon apparently picked up Nemuel and Zerah somewhere.

I find it interesting that Jemuel and Nemuel, and Zohar and Zerah are quite similar. I wonder if these are equivalents from two different narrative traditions.

The total number of Simeonites eligible for military service is 22,200.

Gad

We get some more name funkiness with Gad. According to Genesis 46, his sons are: Ziphion, Haggi, Shuni, Ezbon, Eri, Arodi, and Areli. Here, however, they are:

  • Zephon, sire of the Zephonites
  • Haggi, sire of the Haggites
  • Shuni, sire of the Shunites
  • Ozni, sire of the Oznites
  • Eri, sire of the Erites
  • Arod, sire of the Arodites
  • Areli, sire of the Arelites

The lists seem to match, but quite a few spellings have changed.

The total number of Gad’s descendants eligible for military service is 40,500.

Judah

Judah’s story matches up with the genealogy in Genesis 46. I guess they kept better records, or something. His sons were:

  • Er (deceased, no kids)
  • Onan (deceased, no kids)
  • Shelah, sire of the Shelanites
  • Pharez, sire of the Pharzites
  • Zerah, sire of the Zarhites

We get some further subdivision with the sons of Pharez:

  • Hezron, sire of the Hezronites
  • Hamul, sire of the Hamulites

Total eligible soldiers from Judah: 76,500.

Issachar

Issachar’s sons, according to Genesis 46, are Tola, Phuvah, Job, and Shimron. Once again, there’s quite substantial differences. His sons here are:

  • Tola, sire of the Tolaites
  • Pua, sire of the Punites
  • Jashub, sire of the Jashubites
  • Shimron, sire of the Shimronites

Again, the names are kinda similar, just enough to suggest that they come from different oral traditions.

Total descendants of Issachar eligible for military service: 64,300.

Zebulun

Zebulun’s family kept better records. In both versions, his sons are:

  • Sered, sire of the Sardites
  • Elon, sire of the Elonites
  • Jahleel, sire of the Jahleelites

There are 60,500 eligible soldiers among the Zebulunites.

Joseph

Joseph, of course, had two sons: Manasseh and Ephraim. Both are kinda sorta heads of their own tribes, depending on how the count is made.

Manasseh’s sons are:

  • Machir, sire of the Machirites

Machir, in turn, fathered Gilead, sire of the Gileadites.

Gilead’s sons are:

  • Jeezer, sire of the Jeezerites
  • Helek, sire of the Helekites
  • Asriel, sire of the Asrielites
  • Shechem, sire of the Shechemites
  • Shemida, sire of the Shemidaites
  • Hepher, sire of the Hepherites

It’s unclear through which of these sons the Gileadites are counted.

Hepher also had a son: Zelophehad. Unfortunately, Zelophehad only had daughters:

  • Mahlah
  • Noah
  • Hoglah
  • Milcah
  • Tirzah

So if the line of Hepher is getting named as a land recipient, that implies that there’s some way for these women to pass their father’s land to their own children.

Total soldier-able descendants of Manasseh: 52,700.

Ephraim’s sons are:

  • Shuthelah, sire of the Shuthalhites
  • Becher, sire of the Bachrites
  • Tahan, sire of the Tahanites

Shuthelah sired Eran, who sired the Eranites. Did Shuthelah have other sons, or are all Shuthalhites also Eranites and vice versa?

There are 32,500 eligible soldiers among the descendants of Ephraim.

Benjamin

With Benjamin, we get some genealogical issues. Benjamin’s sons are:

  • Bela, sire of the Belaites
  • Ashbel, sire of the Ashbelites
  • Ahiram, sire of the Ahiramites
  • Shupham, sire of the Shuphamites
  • Hupham, sire of the Huphamites

Only Bela (named Belah) and Ashbel are found in Genesis 46, listed along with their brothers: Becher, Gera, Naaman, Ehi, Rosh, Muppim, Huppim, and Ard.

Then, from Bela, we get his sons:

  • Ard, sire of the Ardites
  • Naaman, sire of the Naamites

Notice that both of these were listed as Benjamin’s sons, not his grandsons, in Genesis 46.

The total military contingent provided by the tribe of Benjamin is 45,600.

Dan

In Genesis 46, Dan’s only son is named Hushim. Here, of course, his son’s name is Shuham (sire of the Shuhamites).

Descendants of Dan, you only had one name to remember! Sheesh!

Total descendants of Dan eligible for military service: 64,400.

Asher

In Genesis 46, Asher’s children are named Jimnah, Ishuah, Ishni, Beriah, and a daughter named Serah. Here, his children are named:

  • Jimna, sire of the Jimnites
  • Jesui, sire of the Jesuites
  • Beriah, sire of the Beriites
  • Sarah

Back in Genesis 46, Beriah’s sons are Heber and Malchiel, which matches the names given here (sires of the Heberites and Malchielites, respectively).

Not that I’m complaining, but I find it interesting that Serah/Sarah is named in both genealogies, especially given that there’s no mention of anything special about her. She’s not sire to any sub-tribe, so there’s really no reason to mention her in this census.

I’m apparently not the only one to be confused. It seems that some early midrash composers felt that she wouldn’t be mentioned unless there was something pretty special about her, so there’s a fairly substantial collection of fanfic that’s been written about her.

The total number of Asher’s descendants who are eligible for military service is 53,400.

Naphtali

Naphtali’s sons are:

  • Jahzeel, sire of the Jahzeelites
  • Guni, sire of the Gunites
  • Jezer, sire of the Jezerites
  • Shillem, sire of the Shillemites

The total number of eligible soldiers among the descendants of Naphtali is 45,400.

Adding them up

That’s a total of 601,730, only 1,820 fewer people than counted in the last census. That’s a pretty amazing reproduction rate, considering the fact that God’s been killing these people by the thousands for a few years now.

What’s interesting to me is to compare the two censii and see how the various tribes made out. Reuben, Gad, Ephraim, and Naphtali all saw a reduction, mostly in the 2,000-8,000 range.

Some tribes actually grew, albeit modestly: Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Benjamin, Dan, and Asher.

But the really surprising ones are Simeon and Joseph. Simeon, apparently, really ticked God off, because at 37,100, they took the heaviest losses. As for Joseph, Manasseh and Ephraim appear to have traded places, with Manasseh going from 32,200 to 52,700, and Ephraim going from 40,500 to 32,500. A rather impressive feat from Manasseh!

Levi

The Levites, not being eligible for receiving land, are counted separately. They are divided into three groups, after Levi’s sons:

  • Gershon, sire of the Gershonites
  • Kohath, sire of the Kohathites
  • Merari, sire of the Merarites

We’re also given a list of “the families of the Levites” (v.58), though there’s not indication of how they are connected to the original three branches:

  • Libnites
  • Hebronites
  • Mahlites
  • Mushites
  • Korathites

We’re also told that Kohath had one son, Amram, who married his aunt, Jochebed. They are the parents of Aaron, Moses, and Miriam.

Aaron’s sons are Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar. The first two, of course, were killed in Leviticus 10.

While the rest of the tribes are counted by how useful they’d be as soldiers, Levites are counted for that whole weird redemption business we heard about in Numbers 3. Because of this, all Levite males a month old or over are counted. Yet still, the total only comes to 23,000.

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.

Exodus 40: Putting the pedal to the metal

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God can’t help himself. He just has to micro-manage and gives some last minute instructions for setting up the tabernacle, and he makes Moses write down every single step he takes in arranging the furniture and the curtains just to make sure that nothing is missed or placed in a way that clashes with the principles of feng shui.

Next, God confirms that Aaron is to be his high priest (and his descendants after him). A questionable choice after the Golden Calf incident (in which Aaron not only built the thing, he also lied about it afterwards). He hardly seems to be the most competent spiritual leader.

Have you ever wondered how much time the Hebrews have spent at Sinai/Horeb? We’ve had talk about 40 days here and 40 days there, but according to my Study Bible, that’s just “a round number for an indefinitely long time” (p.109), so I haven’t bothered trying to get an estimate. In this chapter, however, we’re told specifically that Moses puts the tabernacle together on the first day of the first month of the second year (Exod. 40:17). Many chapters ago, we read that the Hebrews arrived at Sinai/Horeb “on the third new moon after the people of Israel had gone forth out of the land of Egypt” (Exod. 19:1). Ergo, it’s been 9 months. BAM! Question answered.

Do you walk with the Lord?

Exodus 40In this chapter, we also get a description of how God is leading the Hebrews. He is presenting himself over the tabernacle in the form of a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (Exod. 40:38), so the people walk when they see him and stop when they don’t. This is the same system they were using way back in 13:21. I guess God’s had some time to cool off and no longer needs to get an angel to lead them since he “will not go up among you, lest I consume you in the way” (Exod. 33:3).

There is one rather confusing detail here, though. We’re told at several points through the story that God is physically present among the people when there’s a cloud hanging around the tabernacle. But in Exod. 33:9, we’re told that “when Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend.” In other words, God and Moses hang out together in the tabernacle.

But in this chapter, we’re told that “Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting, because the cloud abode upon it” (Exod. 40:35). Unless God hasn’t forgiven the Hebrews and that’s why he’s refusing to chat with Moses now! Oh my goodness, I think I’ve solved it!

Exodus 24: Signing on the dotted line

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When I first started this project, I was sitting at home waiting to go into labour and I had nothing but time on my hands. Then I had a super easy newborn who slept all the time, so I was able to write a lot. Then the kid started crawling and being able to sit in one spot long enough just to read (let alone think and write about) a chapter of the Bible became next to impossible. But I’d like to get back in the swing of things. I’ll be taking it easy and trying not to push myself too hard, since I don’t want to burn out, but I do want to “git er done.” So I will try to publish one chapter per week and we’ll see how that goes. 

We’re finally done (for now) going through the contract, and it’s time for both parties to sign on the dotted line.

But first, we need a little recap about the whole “Moses alone shall come near to the Lord” (Exod. 24:2) thing, and Moses telling the people about the ordinances. When he’s done, we’re told that the people agree to follow all the rules, and Moses wrote them all down.

“I have to do this, man. We splashed blood over it!”

Moses and the elders see God by Jacopo Amiconi

Moses and the elders see God by Jacopo Amiconi

The first step is for Moses to build an altar and twelve pillars, which obviously represent the twelve tribes. Next, the young men of the people sacrificed oxen. Moses took half the oxen blood and splashed it on the altar, and took the other half and threw it all over the Hebrews.

This mutual blood bathing seals the deal. The idea of blood having special significance in the making of contracts can still be seen today in the popular image of signing a contract with the Devil in one’s own blood (as we see, for example, in Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus). I tried to get an article talking about this, but the five seconds I allotted to Google search for something just gave me several pages of “Why is there blood in my stool?” and “The significance of blood in stool,” so I gave up.

Heading back up

If splashing blood around is one way to sign a contract, breaking bread is another. So Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and seventy of Israel’s best fogeys head up the mountain and “saw the God of Israel” (Exod. 24:10), though my Study Bible notes: “The leaders did not see God directly; they saw only the lower part of his heavenly throne-room – the sapphire pavement (the firmament) above which the Lord was enthroned” (p.98). In other words, it was a nice day and they saw the sky. OooooOOOOoooo….

We’re told that God “did not lay his hands” (Exod. 24:11) on the people, which is nice of him, I guess… We get a repeat of “they beheld God” (Exod. 24:11), and then everyone eats and drinks.

Now it gets a little complicated. We’re told that Moses and Joshua go up the mountain together, leaving Aaron and Hur in charge. Then we’re told that six days pass before God calls Moses up the mountain to hang out for forty days and forty nights, and there’s no mention of Joshua.

As I see it, there are two possibly interpretations:

  1. The first mention of Moses going up the mountain is the same act as the second mention, but there’s some poetic repetition happening.
  2. Or, there are two separate traditions being cobbled together, one in which Moses and Joshua go up together and one in which Moses goes up alone.

I haven’t read ahead, but Joshua is kinda famous so I know we’ll be getting his story later on. I wonder if the oral tradition about the folk hero Joshua included a bit about him getting to meet God on Mt. Sinai – with or without Moses – and this was grafted onto the oral tradition about Moses getting the tables of stone.

That would be my guess, anyway.

Regardless, now I have an image of God sitting around on the top off the mountain for 47 days smoking so much weed that he’s creating this magical cloud cover.

Final note on the ordinances

In A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, Collins comments on the tone of the ordinances we’ve just been sloshing through:

These laws were formulated in a settled agrarian community; they are not the laws of nomads wandering in the wildness. (p.70)

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.