Tuibble Tuesday: Knotted, polka-dotted, twisted, beaded, braided (Numbers 4:21–7:89)

I wish I could say I’ve been busy, but I’ve just been lame. But if I finish this before Wednesday, Is till have time to get back on schedule, so let’s get to פָּרָשַׁת נשא (“Add up” portion), a kind of eccentric grab-bag of ritual law, civil law, and narrative.

The quick snarky summary: Levites have to take care of the Tabernacle when it moves, and they kick out the unclean. There’s magic dirty water you can use to curse adulteresses, if you shame them sufficiently in public. Also, there’s a way to consecrate one’s body to God. Both of these two previous processes have a surprising focus on hair. Finally, tribal offerings are presented in the most repetitive and dull way possible.


So back in the last parsha we saw that there were three houses of Levites: the Gershonites, Merariites, and Kohathites. The parsha division was in a kind of inopportune place, chopping right in between the Kohathite duties and those of the other Tabernacle servitors. The Kohathites are apparently the primary clan anyways, since they get to take care of the holy utensils, while the other two deal with rather more mundane elements of the Tabernacle, with Gershon getting linens and Merari the posts and pegs and boards and suchlike structural elements. All this is supervised by Aaron’s family, of course. Seriously, the life of a Levite who’s not of the line of kehuna (priesthood) seems to be a pretty crappy one, doomed to life as a temple servitor (on the flip side, I think they also received temple sustenance, but it’s not a job with a lot of social mobility or reward for ambition). The individual clans are also enumerated in this parsha, but after the census of the last one I’m totally tapped out on trying to ascribe any significance to numbers of Israelites except to wearily say, “yeah, all those numbers are way too big.”

Chapter 5 includes an injunction, which is probably meant to be of a piece with the camping orders way back in Chapter 2, that those suffering from the more persistent personal uncleanliness conditions (irregular menstruation, funky genital discharge, leprosy, and corpse-touching) should be kicked out of camp. So in addition to the central camp of the Tabernacle surrounded by four groups of Levites, then and three tribes in each cardinal direction, we’ve got an amorphous cloud of impure folks way out on the outskirts.

Wedged in here we have a bit of what is unmistakably civil law but surprisingly poorly contextualized. Verses 5:5–10 describe a standard plan of 120% restitution for “wrong towards a fellow man”, but is a bit nebulous about how the cost of the wrong is reckoned, or what particular sorts of wrongs this atones for. It makes a lot of sense if we’re talking about, say, stealing a quantity of some measurable object for which 120% recompense is a clear-cut concept, and fits a lot less well if the wrong is, say, kidnapping or rape or murder, where cost-commensurate recompense is at best difficult to measure and at worst completely impossible.

This is followed up with something which might well be also regarded as a civil matter, although it’s larded with a thick layer of sacred magic making such a categorization a bit uncomfortable. Because the rest of this chapter is devoted to the treatment of suspicion of adultery, and the following trial by ordeal. This is one of the older extant references to trial by ordeal, I think. But maybe I’d better step backwards and talk about adultery a bit.

This one is a difficult passage for feminist, sex-positive modern Biblical readers, because it indicates that the mere suspicion of adultery is grounds for subjecting women to public humiliation. I have the luxury of not trying to read the Bible with a feminist-friendly spin, so I can just throw a quick historical perspective on this: yes, female adultery has been regarded as extra-awful because she was supposed to be the man’s property, but even above and beyond that, Israelite society, like most ancient (or not so ancient) society, practiced primogeniture and property passed from father to son. Marriage was for a very long time largely a matter of family unification and property transfer among families. In that context, it’s important to a property-holder to make sure his heir is actually his son. That’s admittedly a silly distinction to make — if he’s raised in your family, why care if he’s got your genes? — but it’s something people are still plenty weird about and the stakes were that much harder when inheritance lines were so clear. This is a pattern pretty common among cultures, unfortunately: nobody gives a damn if a man sleeps around, because his illegitimate kids presumably don’t snarl his lines of inheritance. Unmarried women sleeping around is a shame, ’cause, hey, her kids aren’t in any inheritance lines. But married women having sex out of wedlock is Bad News, because how’s a man to know he’s got the right heirs?

So, anyways, I don’t excuse or condone that view, and find it kind of horrifying, but it seems necessary to understand where this passage is coming from. female adultery was a Big Deal, and the pressure was all on the woman, not on her paramour. So there’s this long presentation of ritual shaming, involving most notably the public uncovering of the woman’s hair. Hair was a big deal then, and still is in some circles: feminine modesty involved covering the hair. So this is kind of along the lines (if not quite as extreme) as stripping the accused naked in public. It’s really supposed to be a big, humiliating spectacle. The injured husband gives her a plain barley offering, which is a kind of bewildering little exercise, but I assume it’s also meant to be humiliating, as a grain offering was already an offering of poverty, and an unoiled, unperfumed barley offering is indicative of even greater poverty, so making her hold such a shabby offering might also be meant to shame her.

But this is all prologue to the big magical ordeal, where they give her a potion made by dissolving the words of a conditional curse in water. And if she’s been unfaithful, the curse supposedly occurs and disfigures her horribly, but if the accusation’s untrue, she should be unharmed. There’s no record, except in this chapter, of this ritual, and needless to say, there’s no evidence it was ever done, much less that it worked, but it’s still indicative of a shame-oriented trial scenario for adultery.

Chapter 6 deals with another ritual matter, the ritual consecration of one’s body to God. One so consecrated is termed a נזיר, and has to follow three prohibitions: against contact with grapes or wine, against hair-cutting, and agaist touching the dead. The first and third of these kind of make sense: wine clouds the judgment and is in some ways impure, and contact with the dead, as we’ve seen, is ritually defiling. But the hair thing is clearly a bit of a focus here, because the rest of the capter is going on about “consecrated hair” and “hair set apart for God”. Maybe the hair is intended as a metonymy for the נזיר himself, but there’s an unavoidable suggestion that this everyday dude has holy hair. This is supported by the point that at the end of his term he shaves his head and sacrifices the hair (giving up the consecrated hair to God!), or if he accidentally violates his vow, then he has to shave and start over (the hair’s been spoiled, so time to start growing new, better hair!). And of course in both of these cases there are tons of sacrifices to be made. You can’t even give your life and body to God without giving him something else too, the greedy bastard.

The end of the chapter has a bit which seems out of place, with God telling Moses to command Aaron’s family to bless the people. This seems like it’d make a lot more sense either earlier or later, in among the narrative. Although Chapter 7 does actually get back into narrative, with the final dedication of the Tabernacle.

This dedication, which should be climactic, is a total snorefest. I assume that when lazy kids have this as their Ba* Mitzvah portion, they choose verses 7:12 to wherever, because it’s the most ploddingly repetitive thing ever. Remember those chieftains of the twelve tribes named back in Numbers 1:5–15? And named again in Chapter 2? Well, now they come and give offerings. They all give the same offering: a silver bowl and basin full of flour, a gold ladle full of incense, a bull, six rams, six lambs, six goats, and two oxen. It takes six verses to describe these offerings. Rather than saying: “they each came and gave this”, the text laboriously repeats these same six verses over and over, changing only the date (one gift per day), the tribe name, and the chieftain name. Thus far we’re only seven books in, and we’ve had the twelve specific tribes invoked by name four times. It all gets very long-winded. Fortunately, the narrative’ll click back on track soon.

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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