Wibble Wednesday: The beatings will continue until morale improves (Numbers 8:1–12:16)

OK, I’m a full week behind, so tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to finish off two books of the Torah with a single update. Don’t think I can? Read on, as I work my way through פָּרָשַׁת בהעלתך (“On rising” portion), which some traditions claim includes the end of one book, the entirety of another, and the beginning of a third.

The quick snarky summary: we had a whole damn book of Levite practices, and two chapters worth of packing-up-to-move instructions for the Levites, and we’re still not done with basic day-to-day Tabernacle procedures. The congregation is finally ready to move, and they do. Arrival at a new desert encampment is celebrated with the now-traditional whining at Moses about the lack of creature comforts. Also, Tzippora’s in-laws are total assholes.


I’d dared to hope that by now we knew everything about how the priestly service worked. We’ve seen sacrificial law, Tabernacle maintenance, priestly ordination, laws of priestly conduct, Tabernacle-dismantlement procedures, festival observances in the Temple… really, we’ve already seen a lot of text devoted to priestly decorum and duties. And here in Chapter 8, we have a couple more Levitical rules which I could swear we’d seen elsewhere. There’s construction rules for the menorah, which seem both out of place and repetitive, as a more detailed version of the same appeared in Exodus 25, and again in Exodus 37. The rest of the chapter deals with the purification of the Levites, which I feel like we’ve seen before, but maybe we haven’t: back in Leviticus 8 the priestly class was ordained, but that’s a distinct subset of the Levites consisting of Aaron and a few other elites. There’s a lot of laying-on of hands in the consecration: the Israelites (yes, apparently all of them) lay hands on the Levites, and the Levites lay hands on sacrificial bulls; the laying of hands on sacrifices has been historically considered to be a transfer of sin, so this procedure is somewhat in line with its purifying intent: ritually, the Levites are purified by the expurgation of their sins into the sacrifices (I have no idea what the Israelites’ laying of hands on the Levites is, although verses 16–18 mention again that bit about the Levites serving in the place of the first-born, so perhaps the laying on of hands is a transfer of responsibility (in which case, shouldn’t it only be the firstborn touching Levites? Gah, I give up on making sense of this ritual). The Levites are consigned to God’s service from age 25 to 50, which seems like it might be a bit of a raw deal, but it’s a better deal than most ancient world folk could expect: 25 years of secure employment and maintenance, and earlyish retirement (presumably with continued maintenance)? I’d take that.

Chapter 9 gives us a better idea of the chronological framework: apparently this point in the narrative is more-or-less a full year after the Exodus, so this occasion is the first commemorative Passover sacrifice, which back in Exodus 12 was established as a tradition every Jew was obligated to participate in. Surprisingly, given the Torah’s penchant for repetition of details we’ve already learned, the narrative of the community sacrifice is actually pretty perfunctory here, but we get an interesting bit of legalism: the sacrifice on the fourteenth of Nisan is absolutely compulsory, but anyone suffering from one of the more severe forms of ritual uncleanliness is forbidden from taking part in holy rites, including sacrifice. So, quite reasonably, these people asked how to deal with it, and God’s answer is pretty simple: if it’s impossible for some reason to offer the sacrifice on the right day, wait a month and do it then instead. But we also get some other Passover laws at this point, one of which conceals a social justice principle: outsiders are permitted to participate in the community sacrifice, and verse 9:14 more specifically suggests this as a special case of a general principle of equality under law of citizens and strangers. Unfortunately, this seems not to be the case in practice, and is contradicted elsewhere, but it’s a nice sentiment.

From the middle of Chapter 9 to the end of Chapter 10, we learn travel logistics. The day’s decamping and camping are apparently entirely ordained and scheduled by God: when the cloud of supernatural favor lifted, it was time to move, and wherever it ended up was where the community was supposed to stop. Apparently, no matter what, they were expected to follow the cloud, and if the cloud stayed somewhere for 38 years (as it apparently did), well, they’d just stay there until it moved.

Part of the community logistics dealt with communication: the cloud told the Israelites that that day they were to move, but when were they actually suppsoed to march? In Chapter 10 we’re told the answer: Moses made two silver horns and had them blown by the priests for various signals of assembly, marching, and war: one long blast to summon the leaders, two for the entire community, three for Others, and short blasts to signal the march, either for moving camp or war.

And finally, the Israelites move in verse 10:11. They’ve been at the foot of Mount Sinai since midway through Exodus, and they’re now finally moving on to their next stop, at Paran. The tribes order themselves a bit oddly: they’re marching east, and starting with the eastmost tribes makes sense, but from there it proceeds to the southern, then western, then northern, which, given the immense size of the community, seems inefficient: it seems like moving out the northern tribes before the western would make a lot more sense.

Before this first march, we’re told someone leaves. My Hebrew isn’t quite up to unsnarling it, but the English translation of the name of the departing figure is “Hobab the son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses’s father-in-law”. I’m not sure where that last appositive is supposed to be attached: Moses’s father-in-law, elsewhere called Jethro, is referred to in Exodus 2:18 as “Reuel”, so my interpretation of this section is that Hobab is actually Moses’s brother-in-law, and not another name for Jethro. So Moses pleads with this never-before-mentioned and never-again-relevant character to stay with them and serve as their guide. It’s not clear why they need a guide, since God will tell them exactly where to go, and apparently it’s a good thing they don’t need a guide, because this guy is unswayed by Moses’s plea. We aren’t explicitly told that he leaves, oddly enough, but the conversation with Moses kind of ends abruptly.

At the end of Numbers 10, we get the prayer said when setting out each day, begging God to protect them. This is notable mostly for a peculiar typographical element: a reversed letter of the Hebrew alphabet written “׆”, appears around the prayer verses 10:35–36 in the Masoretic text. Nobody actually knows what a reversed נ actually means, but the peculiar suggestion of the generally authoritative Judah HaNasi is that this bracketing indicates that these two verses constitute a separate book of the Torah! Thus, according to the HaNasi rule, the Torah actually contains 7 books, which in Hebrew are named after their first word and would be בְּרֵאשִׁית (Genesis), שְׁמוֹת (Exodus), וַיִּקְרָא (Leviticus), בְּמִדְבַּר (Numbers 1:1–10:34), בִּנְסֹעַ (Numbers 10:35–36), הָעָם (Numbers 11:1–36:13), and דְּבָרִים (Deuteronomy). I’m not sure anyone actually refers to those fifth and sixth books by name anywhere, and I chose what seemed to be the best names for them. But, anyways, woo, just finished the books of בְּמִדְבַּר and בִּנְסֹעַ in a single post (and, also, now you have a trick answer to the question “what’s the shortest book in the Bible?”)

So we skip over the journey, and with the new encampment the Israelites settle into doing what they do best, which is bitching and moaning about the provisions. I had sympathy when it was about water, really, because drought in a community of a couple million packed into tight quarters is no joke (and neither is sanitation, really: I’m surprised there’s no complaint about living in piles of each other’s shit). But this time they’re annoyed that there’s nothing but manna to eat, and they want meat and vegetables. So God sets the camp on fire. He’s great at crowd control but pretty crappy at diplomacy: violent calamity is kind of his solution to everything.

Moses, on the other hand, lacking the power to smite the Israelites, passes the buck, and whines to God about how impossible these people are to work with. This seems like a pretty bad move on Moses’s part: didn’t he just see a firsthand demonstration of what God does to whiners? Fortunately, God’s got a wicked sense of humor, and instead of taking Moses at his word when he begs for death rather than having to lead this bunch of ingrates, he delivers an ominous pronouncement: “You want meat? Oh, I’ll give you meat. Mwahaha.” I may be paraphrasing a little.

Moses might be a bit disappointed that his suicide-by-divine-anger isn’t going as planned, because he asks a really dumb question: where’s all this meat going to coem from? God informs Moses, in as patiently patronizing a voice as possible, that that’s what omnipotence is all about and that Moses shouldn’t worry his pretty little head about it. I mean, if I were Moses, I might waste my one free question on “That sounds kind of ominous. Are you going to do something horrible to the community with some sort of meat-based situational irony?”m but I guess he’s more concerned with ecosystem logistics than community welfare.

And that really was the important question, because, sure enough awful things happen when the people eat the meat. Quail are swept into camp: we’re told that they were about 3 feet deep through the camp, and that each person gathered at least 10 “חֳמָרִים”; some lexicons suggest that this unit of measurement was equal to about 60 gallons, so each person — or, let’s say, each adult male, to bend the text in the favor of plausibility — collected 600 gallons of quail. That’s 360 million gallons in total, which is really a supreme assload of quail (which are not normally measured by volume, but, hey, you go with the information you’re given. And this obscene quantity of food is merely to prove a didactic point, because, sure enough, everyone who eats it dies immediately. Nice one, God. This is going to be a recurring theme: God is going to get more and mroe short-tempered over the course of this journey, but instead of threatening to turn the cloud around and go back to Egypt, he just kills people. Lots and lots of people.

Chapter 12 has a weird and uncharacteristic interlude in which Moses’s siblings complain about his wife. It’s not clear exactly what has them so riled up, other than marrying outside the community, which seems a bit unfair: back when Moses was of marrying age, he wasn’t in the community: he had been raised in an Egyptian household and was a refugee in Midian. He probably didn’t even know any Israelites. But anyways, it seems that this is meant to be a slur on Moses and not on Tzippora, which I don’t really get at all. It sounds like they’re running her down for being an outsider. Why this is coming up at all isn’t clear, anyways. Aaron, at least, is doing pretty well for himself, with the high priesthood conferred upon him. And they both survived the plague. If they were pissed at God, I’d get it, but Moses seems like an odd target for this specific ire, at this specific time. Anyways, Miriam is instantly struck with leprosy and kicked out of camp. This looks kind of unjust, since surely Aaron and Miriam are both in the wrong here, but there’s an obvious reason why only she gets nailed: Aaron’s the high priest, and if he had leprosy, he couldn’t perform his functions. Which is no excuse for why he gets off with no punishment at all, mind, but I guess the author couldn’t think of anything good that wouldn’t compromise his dignity as high priest.

Anyways, we’re back into narrative now! I’m happier with narrative than with laws, so chances are we’ll have some fun with the next few weeks’ portions.

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

2 Responses to Wibble Wednesday: The beatings will continue until morale improves (Numbers 8:1–12:16)

  1. swildstrom says:

    Re Judah haNasi–haNasi, “the prince,” is an honorific, not really part of his name. But he is regarded as first among the authors of the Mishnah.

  2. Greg Sanders says:

    I guess it bespeaks a level of learning among the populace that not everyone fell for the deadly quail. That or I suppose changes in appetite after subsisting on manna for decades.

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