Wibble Wednesday: Military Intelligence (Numbers 13:1–15:41)

Back again this week, with פָּרָשַׁת שלח לך (“Send yourself” portion), another odd blend of narrative and random grab-bag laws. It’s only 3 chapters but a lot happens in them.

The quick snarky summary: Moses sends scouts out to examine Israel, and their lukewarm praise precipitates a whole new crisis of God being pissy. He works out his aggression by killing most of the Israelites and demanding obedience to a few extra laws.


So this parsha is mostly taken up with a reconnaissance mission to Israel and its immediate fallout. God tells Moses to send out one man from each tribe to check out the land of Canaan. It’s a peculiar instruction when you get down to it, since surely God doesn’t need this particular recon mission done, as he already knows Israel pretty well. So presumably it’s being done for the benefit of the Israelites.

Anyways, Moses picks twelve men, one from each non-Levite tribe (for some reason, the Levites are never part of any of the usual one-from-each-tribe nonsense; we’ve seen the tribes listed at least 4 times before this in this book, and the Levites are never part of the accounting). Of these, 10 of them are completely inconsequential as individuals, and the other two are Caleb, from Judah, and Hosea, from Ephraim. Hosea is renamed “Joshua” here, which is presumably meant to be dramatic, as formal renamings have been a Big Deal before (Abram became Abraham as a result of the covenant with God; Jacob became Israel through the blessing of a supernatural being). But the odd thing is we’s already seen this “Joshua” before. He was Moses’s lieutenant in the war with Amelak back in Exodus 17, and he was named Joshua then. Anyways, we’ll see Joshua again later, too. He’ll eventually be a major character, but for now, he’s just one of the two vaguely significant ones of these twelve.

The middle of Chapter 13 is a recitation of a path through Israel, presumably of interest to geography enthusiasts, but the recon team takes note of the people, visits a range of areas, and brings back enormous fruit (it’s specifically pointed out that to carry a single cluster of grapes, they had to build a special two-person carrying frame). Finally, at the end of a whirlwind tour of Israel, they return to the community with what mostly seems like a fairly honest report, praising the land but reasonably pointing out the military strength of the inhabitants. Which, back in verses 18 and 19, Moses specifically requested.

Up through verse 29, then, the recon mission basically looks like a success, having found out what Moses wanted to know. The whole thing seems to veer off course when Caleb opens his big mouth to editorialize, contradicting the report of military strength with a show of faith in God granting them strength. This piety seems pretty well-meant, but it totally antagonizes the scouts collectively, and they get their backs up and feel compelled to defend their criticism, and what was an honest “they’re pretty strong” spirals into the apaprently blasphemous “they’re too strong for us, even if God helps”.

So the practical upshot of that blasphemy is enacted in Chapter 14. If you assume that God gets really, disproportionately angry, well, then, good guess. We start with a scene-setting of the usual whining and moaning and carrying on. As usual, the complaint is that things were so much better back in Egypt. You’d think the still-living members of the community would refrain from this particular whine, seeing as how everyone who did it before died messily and in a show of godly wrath, but, hey, apparently the people Israel aren’t very smart. They even threaten to kill Joshua and Caleb for sticking by the “God can take ’em” line. Seriously, the generation of the Exodus are the most cluelessly faithless bunch I’ve ever seen. Faith is a pretty tricky concept for most folks, what with miracles being rare, but how thick do you have to be to live through overt miracles, and see your friends messily expire when they express dubiousness about God’s power, and then say “hmm, I’m not sure God’s quite up to the task of defeating some tall guys, even if a nation of two million people are helping him out”?

As always, God wants to just kill ’em all and start over with Moses (and maybe Joshua, and presumably their wives).But Moses knows God’s weak points, and presents a pretty good argument. God’s main flaw is his vanity, and the argument goes more or less along the lines which appealing to vanity usually goes. Moses says, “Y’know, if you just kill the Israelites instead of giving them Canaan, people are going to think you couldn’t deliver Canaan after all.” God, rising to the bait, says “You know I can squash the Canaanites with my little finger and teleport the Israelites there with a wave of my hand,” and Moses grins and says, “Oh, yeah? Prove it.”

But, oh, no, the Israelites aren’t getting off easy. The members of the community over the age of 20 (except Joshua and Caleb) will be punished with death in the desert, and the young with trudging around aimlessly for forty years. In fact, the marching order in verse 25 is directly back to where they started their wanderings.

Of course, when the Israelites are told of this, they’re suddenly taken by surprise, as if the idea of divine punishment for disobedience hadn’t occurred to them. Really, death’s too good for them. They prove their obdurate stupidity by deciding that, having been condemned to death in the wilderness,they’ll just go into Canaan to atone for not wanting to go to Canaan. Moses points out that it’s too late and that at this point this constitutes a whole new act of defiance, but they don’t listen, and get routed by the inhabitants.

That all forms the core of the narrative, and we proceed back into laws for a little while. I have no idea what sacrificial procedures are doing here. It seems that various sacrificial tenets are scattered all through the book, dropped hither and yon. Here we have some laws indicating that the provider of a burnt sacrifice has to also provide an offering of flour and a wine libation, with the quantities varying by the sacrifice type. Logically, all this belongs back in early Leviticus, where the particular sacrificial types and acceptable offerigns therefor are detailed. I have no idea what they’re doing here. We also have a couple of special flour sacrifices provided here: first yields of the field and of the bakery have to be offered to God. This actually makes a certain amount of contextual narrative sense: coming on the heels of the long-term plan for eventually taking possession of the land, procedures for offering up the produce of the land in gratitude are at least thematic.

But then we zip back into nonthematic sacrifices. Verses 24–31 deal with transgressions. Again, this feels much more like a Levitical concept, tying into the sacrifices of Leviticus 4 and 5. There’s a sacrifice for a community’s error, and an individual error, both of which I’m pretty sure correspond to procedures we already saw in Leviticus.

Throughout Chapter 15, there’s a vague sense of inclusiveness we’ve seen before: verses 14–16 and 29 suggest that the Israelites and the strangers in their midst should have equal rights under ritual law. This is contradicted in many other places, where the Israelites are commanded to enslave, drive out, and/or kill the non-Israelite inhabitants, but it’s still a ncie sentiment to see at all.

After all this ritual folderol, we return briefly to a weird little narrative incident to let everyone know that the prohibition on deliberate transgression of the laws still holds. Apparently someone gathered wodd on the Sabbath, and, after deliberating and consulting God, Moses had him stoned by the community. So there might be sacrificial atonement for accidental transgressions, but if you sin from contemptuous indifference, Msoes is there to kill you dead.

We end with a pleasant little nonburdensome ritual: the Israelites are commanded to put little fringes on the corner of their garments. This is basically to mark them as belonging to God and dedicated to him, and remind them to obey.

This reminder won’t work for long, alas. Get ready, because next week we’re going to see even more acts of willful rebellion.

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

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