Twibble Tuesday: Clip Show (Numbers 33:1–36:13)

I really need to stop putting these off. It’s summer, and I have no excuse.

We finally get out of Numbers with פָּרָשַׁת מסעי (“Travels” portion), which is heavy on recap, light on exposition. The bad news is that this is pretty indicative of the book to follow, too.

The quick snarky summary: we know exactly how big Israel is, and have been ordered to kick outsiders out, so the Palestinians can go get fucked. Also, even though we execute murderers, we’ll create some complicated imprisonment/asylum rules for manslaughter.

Chaper 33 is mostly a rather long-winded recapitulation of the sites visited by the Israelites; there are forty-one listed, which is more, I think, than actually appeared in the books of Exodus and Numbers where they actually visited these places. Occasional events in the journey get mentioned in this recapitulation; oddly, they’re not the same events as were mentioned previously in the narrative, so we don’t get any mention of important events like the destruction of the Egyptian army at the sea, or the inauguration of the Tabernacle, or the various rebellions; rather we get mostly mentions of how some places (like Elim) had lots of water and others (like Rephidim) had none. The only recognizable event of the narrative appearing in this recapitulation is the death of Aaron.

The final section of Chapter 33 is a repetition of the exhortation to banish idolworship from the land before taking possession of it. There’s a particularly nasty bit of work in verses 33:55, though, where the Israelites are specifically enjoined to show no mercy and to completely dispossess the current inhabitants. This is a far cry from “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him”, but sometimes it seems like God’s weird idol-jealousy trumps any sort of decent standard of conduct.

Chapter 34 details the boundaries of the land of Israel. Unfortunately, a lot of these names refer to sites of dubious location, but it’s pretty safe to say that the boundaries given here are not identical to those of present-day Israel. The southern site of Kadesh-barnea, for instance, has given rise to a number of educated guesses, but is generally associated with Ain el-Qudeirat, which is well within Egypt’s borders, and the described southern border stretching west from there would include a significant chunk of Egypt (including some manner of waterway which is even called “the wadi of Egypt”). The northern border is no better: it extends east of Zedad (probably modern-day Sadad) well into Syria. And this is ignoring the fact that two and a half tribes occupy an area which is sort of a quasi-Israel in Transjordan. So it’s safe to say that the listed occupation zone here includes a lot of what is now fairly uncontested non-Israeli property (which will not stop the particularly lunatic end of Zionism from claiming these regions).Oddly, the borders given here do leave out one feature of some significance in modern Israel, in that the southern border is quite far to the north and cuts off the southern Negev, and more importantly the Red Sea access. Arguably, modern Israel is better off, having a seaport on the Gulf of Aqaba, than they would be with comparatively unimportant parts of Syria and Egypt.

Anyways, the parceling of the land, which will be detailed later, is to be administrated by Joshua and Eleazer, with the guidance of a chief from each of the 10 Cisjordanian tribes (remember, Reuben and Gad get no part at all in Israel proper, and Manasseh only a half portion). The theme of Judaic “manifest destiny”, and more to the point what it signifies for the people who already live in Canaan, is going to continue to be thematically important, so we’ll have lots more chances to explore this problematic element.

Chapter 35 starts off with a description of the towns for the Levites. The Levites don’t get a tribal portion, since they’re supposed to be priestly servants in all the communities of Israel, so the Levites get forty-eight small habitations throughout the other tribes. The remainder of this chapter is taken up chiefly with laws pertaining to unintentional manslaughter. Presented in that light, it might not be obvious what it’s doing here among a description of geographical aspects of the upcoming conquest and settlement, but this law has an important geographical component, in that one who kills another without intent is granted asylum in any of six designated Levite towns. A good chunk of this section is dedicated to describing in detail what constitutes murder, which is punishable by death, and what constitutes manslaughter. The distinction is fairly simple: intentionally striking someone and causing their death is murder, and unintentionally doing so is manslaughter, but they manage to take up 8 verses clarifying the distinction.

This chapter introduces the idea that someone (probably a near kinsman) serves as the avenger for a death, and in murder cases gets to execute the sentence, while in manslaughter cases they get an unusual role of enforcement of the asylum, in that if the perpetrator ever steps out of the asylum, the avenger can kill him. So presumably the avenger’s expected to just hang around the city of refuge, waiting for the manslaughter to leave. With no disrespect intended, I don’t think I’d do that for my kin, especially in a case where the perpetrator was arguably not morally responsible. Oddly, the death of the high priest breaks this impasse: when the high priest dies, the sentence of manslaughter is lifted and everyone goes back to their business.

Chapter 35 closes with an exhortation not to bend these laws or abuse them: in order to pass either of these sentences, there need to be multiple witnesses to the death, so that the charge is valid beyond a shadow of a doubt, and neither of these sentences can be commuted or mitigated. So there’s some good in with the bad here: the sentences of death and exile are pretty harsh, although not too awful by Biblical standards, but the restrictions here make certain that they aren’t invoked except in the face of overwhelming evidence, and that they’re invoked fairly.

The Book of Numbers, alas, closes on a rather legalistic and tedious note, in revisiting that old issue of the daughters of Tzelofechad inheriting property. The leaders of their tribe (Manasseh), object at this point to the settlement, arguing that female inheritance will diminish their holdings when those women marry (and pass their property to) members of other tribes. My response to this would be to shrug and say, “It’ll all even out when female heirs from other tribes marry into yours.” but that may be why Moses is the great lawgiver of the Jewish people and I am not. Instead, he establishes a rule that female heirs (Tzelofechad’s daughters in particular, but generalized therefrom as well) must marry within their tribe.

This incident points up two issues of tribal dynamics that might be worth mentioning: first, a principle that’s in play here is that of tribal coherence and staticity. Specific regions are given to specific tribes, and if let to go where nature takes them, those boundaries are likely to be amorphous over time. But the binding of both tribal affiliation and inheritance closely to the male line, and the Jubilee rules which cause reversion of sold property, would seem to enforce a (perhaps unsustainable) permanence in the association of tribal groups and specific regions. Another issue that arises here is the fact that the objection was not due to this particular ideal principle, but naked self-interest: Manasseh is worried that it will lose share in the land to its neighbors. That, to me, suggests a much more fractious relationship among the tribes than might be envisioned. Even before they’ve settled, they’re already fighting over the best bits. If they were just arbitrary affiliations, then, say, the Simeonites in one part of the land shouldn’t much care if a different part happened to belong to Simeon or Naftali or whoever, but clearly there is some sort of internal cohesion among a tribe which is somehow hostile to the encroachment of others, suggesting some sort of self-governance among the individual tribes. This will become clearer in some later books (Judges in particular), where we see how certain tribes end up jockeying with others.

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

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