Twibble Tuesday: Blood for the Blood God (Numbers 25:10–30:1)

I bet you thought I’d forgotten about this. It’s been a few weeks, and I’ve been lame: there’s been one thing after another for the past few weeks, and most recently I’ve actually started a new project, so check out my mechanical calculator blog over at Mathematical Cranks. But this week we have פָּרָשַׁת פינחס (“Phineas” portion), which wraps up the fallout of Israel’s latest fuckup and starts seriously discussing the ramifications of conquering a new land.

The quick snarky summary: God absolutely loves Phineas, crazy murderous lunatic that he is. The Israelites take another census, just to be sure that they’re still way, way larger than a nomadic society has a right to be, even after a couple of smitings and a plague. Land is divvied up and a faltering blow is struck for feminism. Meanwhile, God confirms that Moses will die, and tells him to groom the next leader. Finally, since we’ve had a whole, like, 3 parshot of narrative, God reverts back into ritual-law mode and describes, for no apparent reason, the correct sacrifices to make for the festivals.

So, when last seen Israel was in Big Trouble for sleeping with Moabite women and worshipping their god (two things which God really, really hates), and God’s wrath was only checked when Aaron’s grandson grabbed a spear and murdered an Israelite and his Moabite consort. God’s happy enough about this development to announce to Moses that this grandson is a wonderful guy and that the priesthood belongs to him and his descendants forever. We get a little bit of detail about his victims too: the Israelite and his consort were respectively fairly highly placed people in the tribe of Simeon and among the Midianite chieftains. The weird thing is that earlier in Chapter 25 these people were Moabites, and the two quite distinct nations seem to be getting muddled up here.

Anyways, I imagine the Israelites would rather put this ugly incident behind them, but God demands some payback, and wants Israel to go out and kill the MoabitesMidianites. No, I’m still not sure of what the Midianites, culturally, did here. Balak consulted with the elders of Midian, and this particular outsider who seduced an Israelite was a Midianite, but it seems like God’s lost a bit of focus about the enemy: Balak himself is a Moabite, and the community of Shittim is explicitly described as being Moabite. I think this slips under the radar of a lot of readers, since the names sound kind of similar anyways.

Now, at this point in the story, we have an interlude before the war with Midian. God wants an accounting of how many people are still alive after the plague, even though in 25:9 we were already told exactly how many died. However, this census also has a secondary purpose: since the Israelites are on the edge of Canaan, they need an accounting of tribes and families so as to distribute the land. So we get a list not only of the tribes of Israel, but of their individual clans. This description’s a lot more meandering than the last several censuses: for instance, in the middle of listing the Reubenites, Dathan and Abiram come up, prompting a discursion into recapping the events of the rebellion with Korach, and at the beginning of listing the descendants of Judah, there’s an incidental mention of his two sons who died back in Genesis.

Anyways, the community of Israel comes out to the continuingly-unlikely population of 601,730 male adults, not counting the 23,000 Levites. Incidentally, now is as good a time as any to point out that (assuming the Israelite nation’s borders were roughly similar to the borders of the modern state of Israel as well as the entire West Bank, which it’s easier to find stats for) this would lead to a settlement density of 10 acres per man. Which doesn’t sound too bad until you realize more than half of that is desert. I have no idea how plausible this population density is for an agrarian society, but I’ve already hammered the extreme absurdity of these population figures into the ground.

It’s stressed, incidentally, that this group, forty years after the Exodus, has almost no overlap with the census group from Numbers 1:1. Back in Numbers 14, God promised none of the generation then alive would reach Israel, so in accordance with that, it’s asserted here that this group of a little more than half a million adults only overlaps in two people with the census of half a million adults from 40 years earlier. That sounds pretty demographically unlikely to me, but no more so than anything else said about the population of Israel. The two people are, of course, the two exceptions named in chapter 14: Joshua and Caleb.

Chapter 27 starts with an interesting legal interlude, featuring, among other things, what semm to be the only named female characters besides Miriam in the entire book of Numbers. They also show surprisingly refreshing agency in bringing forwards an issue: they’re the only children, and thus logically the heirs, of Tzelofehad, a man who died in the wilderness, but who wasn’t a member of any disenfranchised rebellious groups. So there’s a bit of a quandry in that the patrilineal succession of property would require his portion of Israel to go to his nonexistent male offspring. The request of the daughters of Tzelofehad is pretty reasonable, in light of this situation: absent a male heir, they think it right that women be able to inherit. God pretty much backs their interpretation of the law, providing the fallback precedence for inheritence in the absence of sons, and remarkably that order of precedence includes daughters. That’s actually pretty out of line with a lot of what many contemporary cultures — including Israelite culture, for the most part — thought about property possession. Unmarried women were generally not regraded as competent to hold property in their own right most of the time (neither were married women, but they had at least an ostensible share in their husband’s property. Widows might possess the former property of their husbands). So both the premise of this argument and its resolution are pleasingly progressive: women present a comprehensible and sensible argument and request, and actually gain a modest measure of autonomy thereby. It’s not exactly feminist, but we have to kind of take what we get with regard to Biblical recognition of women’s rights.

In the end of Chapter 27, God makes the death sentence on Moses explicit, telling him his death is nigh due to the somewhat nebulous rock-striking sin of a few chapters ago. Moses sensibly doesn’t try to argue, since arguing with God never gets very far, but rather deals simply with the logistical issues: without him around, who’ll lead the community? God, who likes a certain economy of major characters in a story, decides to single out Joshua for this honor. It’s not that clear why. He’s one of the only survivors of the previous generation thanks to his extreme faithfulness, but he hasn’t shown any real leadership qualities.

Chapters 28 and 29 are a rather tedious recapitulation with a few additions of sacrifice law, which feel very much like padding for this work. For instance, in Chapter 28, God is now telling Moses about the exact same daily sacrifice instituted at the end of Exodus 29 and also some additional sacrifices for Shabbat and for the new moon. We’re also told specifically all the rules of Passover and Shavuot, including sacrifices, which we’ve already encountered before back in Leviticus 23.

In Chapter 29, we go through the same ritual of repetition, but this time to describe the practices for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot seen in Leviticus 23. The lists of sacrifices are more detailed here: Leviticus simply said “burnt offerings”, whereas here there’s a specfici description of the numbers of bulls, rams, lambs, and goats to be sacrificed. I imagine that by the end of Sukkot, with eight days of extensive sacrifices, the temple must’ve smelled terrible.

It’s not clear to me why, at this particular point in the narrative, the Torah is spending pagecount on festival sacrifices. These seem like they’d make a lot more sense back in Leviticus aroundabout the 23rd chapter. But I imagine that the insertion here has to do with either the contemporary or later establishment of the physical temple as a civic center in ancient Israel. The occupation of the land is strongly associated with the foundation of the Temple, and has been since at least the destruction of the frist Temple, when the concepts of the Israelite state and the Temple in Jerusalem became semi-equivalent ideas, so here in the discussion of the settlement of the land, perhaps a recapitulation of the Temple Service makes more thematic sense than I let on.

Anyways, I fear we’re nearly done with actual narrative for a while. The rest of Numbers, and all of Deuteronomy, is going to be law and recap.


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

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