Monday, May 6, 2013

Reboot the Pentateuch: A New Land is Inhabited (Num 1-25)

This is part 18 of 20 in a series about the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. In it we will explore the context of the book, specifically its relationship to the Egyptian culture of its day.

Click here to read the entire series.

A few weeks ago, we saw that God entered the "Game of Thrones" that is the ancient world, choosing one small group of slaves to be His people. 

His plan had five phases. 

In Phase One, He rescued the people from bondage--showing them clearly and definitively in the process that He was greater than the Egyptian gods.

In Phase Two, He formed a new nation, making a mostly-secular legal code that defined how to govern their day to day lives.

Last week we learned about Phase Three, in which He invents the Jewish religion and sets up codes for ritual purity, and tells people how to begin worshipping Him.

Phase Four:  Conquering the Land

Recall that a few centuries ago, God "gifted" a very large portion of land to Abraham and his descendants. This area stretched basically from the Mediterranean to the Euphrates, encompassing the majority of the Near East. Although Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had a right to this land, they lived (more or less) peacefully with the other kings in the area.

However, when Jacob left Canaan, a major power vacuum would have existed: the most powerful tribe in the region's history had gone away, and stayed away for four centuries! Now, they are going to have to re-possess the land.

The Book of Numbers tells how they did that. And while there are some good tales in the Book of Numbers...I will admit that they are much more straightforward than most of the other posts I have written in this series. There is less "mind blowing" cultural insight to be had here--pretty much everyone can tell at first glance that Numbers is about capturing the land that they own.

One point to note is that many non-Christians use Numbers as an argument against God--they see the Jews as a warring people trying to kick out the Palestinians (sound familiar today?). But in reality, the land had belonged to Abraham and his descendants for centuries--and likely was left in the care of stewards and servants when Jacob brought his family down to Egypt. But 400 years of slavery later, the land had been broken apart and sold off and was possessed by many others.

So some lawyers I assume could have a nice argument here--what is the statute of limitations on something like this? How long should the stewards have held onto Abraham's land before selling it off to others? Does Abraham's tribe still have a right to claim the land, 400  years after being enslaved? Does the fact that they were enslaved (and did not willingly abandon it) make their claim stronger?

The good news is that we don't have to wonder: God said that they owned the land still. So there you have it.

The settling of their land can be divided into a few key sections, which I will list and only BRIEFLY review (for, as I said, most of it is fairly straightforward).

  • The Census and Priestly Duties (Num 1-4) - a census reveals an army 600,000 strong, plus 22,000+ Levite priest. Priestly duties are described. The Levites are excluded from army service, as they are supposed to take care of the tabernacle.
  • Further Priestly Duties, the Nazarites, and Purifying the Tabernacle (Num 4-7) - this further expands priestly duties and talks about how to purify the Tabernacle. The "vow of the Nazarite" is introduced following a story of a wife who was drunkenly unfaithful to wine. Almost all of the ancient Jewish scholars agreed that this vow is meant to be taken by adult sinners, as a sign of atonement. Generally speaking, this was a 30-day vow, though some may take it up for a year or even a lifetime (as many suspect John the Baptist of doing). There are ten nazirite commandments, but they basically come into three categories:  (1) avoiding any fruit which grows on a  vine (whether fermented or not); (2) not shaving or cutting hair; and (3) abstaining from any ritual impurity activity (in other words, it's not okay to do the activity and then take a mikvah cleaning; the activity must be completely avoided). After the period was up, they could bring an offering and then begin shaving and drink again.
  • Journeying and Complaining in the Wilderness (Num 8-12) - during this section, we see the journey through the wilderness leading toward the Promised Land, and the Jews beginning to have second thoughts. The Hebrews are entering their second year since being freed and are beginning to grow tired of God's plan, despite the daily miracles ahead of them...even Moses' sister and brother speak against him, looking down on his interracial marriage. God strikes the Hebrews with a plague for their lack of trust.
  • Rebellions and Skirmishes (Num 13-21) - Spies are sent into the Promised Land to determine the difficulty of retaking the land; they report how great it is, but also how well-defended. Not trusting God, the people begin a major rebellion. God sentences them to atone for their lack of faith by spending 40 years wandering in the desert, so that none from this generation would enter the Promised Land. Later, Korah led a conspiracy/rebellion against Moses, didn't end well for him. Read up. More complaining continues as the years go on, however, despite several miracles and several victories in initial skirmishes on the outer rim of the Promised Land. Despite all the rebellions and in-fighting, two powerful local kings are defeated.
  • Balaam and the Donkey (Num 22-25) - The initial victories of the Israelites alarms the king of Moab. The king tries to hire a prophet, Balaam, to curse the Israelites but he refuses since it is not YHWH's command to do so. The offered price by the king rises, and Balaam (because of his greed) begins to request of God to allow him to go; God agrees as long as Balaam only speaks what God tells him to speak. Balaam is so anxious that he goes again even without an invite, and the blatant greed angers God. An angel blocks his path and Balaam's donkey is miraculously granted the ability to speak, refocusing Balaam on God's power. Balaam arrives with the king as requested, but provides a blessing on Israel instead, angering the king.
  • Another Census and Moses' Successor (Num 25-29) - A generation of battle and conquest has passed since the last census, but they remain extremely strong, with over 601,000 men capable of battle. Moses is aging, and Joshua is named as his successor.
  • Settling the Land (Num 30-36) - The Midianites are wiped out entirely, and the Hebrews have now overthrown the majority of their opposition. They are the dominant force in the area. The Hebrews begin dividing up their newfound possessions and settling the land--each tribe in his own area. 
At the end of Numbers, we now have a new nation--although they remain more of a loose confederation of tribes than they do a unique kingdom. They have their own land and their own religion and their own laws, and their prime minister's replacement is secured.

Slaves no more, they have become a nation of priests, as God commanded.