Reading the Bible as Literature
Week Eight: Numbers 18-Numbers 34
We are coming to the end of the books of Moses, and also the end of the tales of the tribes of Israel wandering the deserts. The next book, Deuteronomy, will leave us with the final wisdom of Moses, consisting of a number of speeches he is purported to have given. Before we can get to Moses’ farewell, however, we wade through a few more chapters of laws, rules, and customs, as well as another census and the plans for dividing “the promised land” amongst the tribes of Israel. Numbers 18-34 also tells of the death of one leader along with the rise of another, plus more complaining, some tribal warfare, and the interesting story of a famous sorcerer. One special guest also makes an appearance: the unicorn!
The King is Dead: In this part of Numbers, as the Israelites are near to Gilead and settling in their promised land, Miriam and Aaron die. Fortunately for the Israelites, Aaron and Moses entreat god for one last favor, some water. Numbers 20:10-11 recounts the story of Moses cracking rocks to discover water. Imagine, decades of leading a whiney, squabbling, ungrateful group of people through the desert, constantly performing miracle after miracle to keep them safe, fed, and sheltered, and boom. You die before the payoff. What a shame! With Aaron’s demise, however, comes the formal rise-to-power of Joshua, one of the two most acclaimed military leaders (the other being Caleb). In addition to the death of Aaron and the rise of Joshua, we are treated to another census of the people of Israel, as the tribes currently stand. Near the end of this book, we also learn how the new Israel will be divided (lots are drawn, supposedly, but it is more likely that this was reconstructed by the priests based on where each tribe settled and how rich/powerful and permanent that settlement was at the time of recording).
War, What is it Good For?: This brief part of the book of Numbers also tells of numerous squabbles between the Israelites and other tribes. It is possible that the main beef was actually between the Israelites and the Moabites, but as a familial (Hebrew-descending/sibling-like) tribe, the formal record might have been intentionally distorted. In any case, we learn that there is a rift between the Kingdoms of Israel and Edom, and between Arad and Israel, and finally between the Moabites and Israel. It seems that, as Moses and his people wandered the desert, they made a habit of taking what they wanted and ticking off a whole lot of people in the process. For this reason, the King of Moab entreats a famous sorcerer, Balaam, to curse the Israelites and bless his own people. What Moab doesn’t know, however, is that the Hebrew god has spoken with Balaam and caused him to do the exact opposite: every time Moab asks Balaam to curse the Israelites, he blesses them instead. This drives Moab absolutely nuts. Clearly, god is on the Israelites’ side, at least when they’re not complaining and/or having orgies with non-Israelite women. (Note: the story of the talking ass also comes from this section, as that ass belonged to Balaam. This is the second of only two recorded instances of talking animals in the bible; the first, of course, is the serpent in the Garden of Eden, recounted in Genesis).
Punishments: Speaking of complaints and bad sex. God comes up with a couple of interesting punishments for his people in this part. First, when the people go to Moses complaining, again, that he took them out of Egypt only to have god forsake them, god responds by sending “fiery serpents” to bite everyone. “Fiery” means poisonous, and the cure turns out to be a Serpent of Brass. This is interesting in that it perpetuates a much older mythos surrounding the serpent, one first outlined in the Book of Genesis. In the Epic of Gilgamesh and in Greek Mythology, the serpent is an important figure. Both of those ancient tales treated the serpent as a kind of god or symbol for healing and medicine, and here, too, we find that a serpent’s bite can be healed by worshiping the same, a serpent coiled on a brass rod. This reminds one of the caduceus (a symbol some doctors still use to this day). As it turns out, the Serpent of Brass was ritually honored by the Israelites for about 500 years, until all other forms of idols were eventually stamped out. God’s second punishment is a massive plague given to the Israelites as punishment for sleeping with Moabite women (whom god says are tricky, tricky!). We learn that the plague kills “four and twenty-thousand” people. That’s some serious punishment.
OTHER INTERESTING BITS
Women’s Rights: In Numbers 27, women who are the only heirs in their family speak with Moses about inheritance rights. New laws are established which indicate that all property will descend to the son, but if there are no sons, the inheritance then goes to the daughter(s). This is quite the progressive step, based on everything we’ve seen about the treatment of women thus far; however, we are soon reminded just how oppressed women are. In Numbers 30, it is decreed that all women’s “vows” (or rights/decisions, in other words) are to be determined by the father, if they are unmarried and living at home, or by their husbands. Essentially, whatever a woman wants to do must be sanctioned by her closest male relative.
God’s Wrath: The extent of god’s wrath – or, to put it more accurately, the rules of engagement for the Israelite army, reflected as god’s will—is made clear in Numbers 31. After war with the Midians, “god commands” the Israelites to kill all the men, women, and children, except for any female virgins; these young women are treated as spoils of war, to be taken by whichever Israelite man wants them. Kinda gross, ya’ll.
Unicorns: Funny how I have no recollection of reading about unicorns in the bible, and yet they’re there! Did you know unicorns actually did exist? Here’s the thing, though: they were basically buffalo. Still, it’s an interesting bit of history. The Hebrew word for unicorn was “re’em,” which derived from “urus” or “aurochs” for wild oxen. These were ancestors to our modern-day cattle. When painted in pictures, the re’em were drawn in profile, so only one horn was visible. When the Greeks encountered images and statues of this rare animal, they called it “monokeros,” or one-horn. From there, we get the Latin translation for one-horn, “unicorn.” And a legend is born. Note: some have also suggested the legend might stem from the rhinoceros, but those were native to India and thus probably not the inspiration, at least not the biblically documented inspiration, anyway.