Monday, February 20, 2017

Bible in a Year: Numbers 20-Deuteronomy 6

I liked to visit my friend Rabbi Plotkin at Temple Beth Israel
in Phoenix, AZ; when I visited him, the synagogue was still
 located on Tenth Ave. Here is a photo of that complex.
I’m reading through the Bible this year at a rate of about 22 chapters a week (1189 total chapters divided by 52 weeks), and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

This week, I'm studying Numbers 20 through Deuteronomy 6. I apologize that this post is nearly twice as long as the others, but I include some material on Deuteronomy that connects that book to the other four Torah books, and also considers the way Deuteronomy looks ahead to the history in Joshua through 2 Kings.

When we arrive at Numbers 20-25, we enter the last year or two of the Wilderness period. When I was a little kid, I learned that the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years, and I thought they were on the move and lost all that time! Actually the people remained at Kadesh in the wilderness of Paran, near the edge of the Land. Miriam dies here (20:1), as does Aaron (20:21-29). Though the priesthood continues under his son Eleazar, the founding high priest and his sister pass away short of the Promised Land.

And, of course, Moses is forbidden to enter the Land after the incident of Numbers 20:1-29. In a tragic parallel to the incident of Exodus 17, the people complain for the lack of water, and in anger, Moses strikes the rock rather than (as God required) speaking to it. Moses’ sin does not seem severe enough to warrant God’s judgment. The Torah: A Modern Commentary seeks a possible explanation: Moses does not go to God and intercede for the people as he did in the past; he is more passive and then angry, indicating that he has become wearied in his leadership. But furthermore, the entry into the land requires a warrior-leader like Joshua, whereas Moses has been primarily the prophet and shepherd.

The narrative turns positive in chapter 21, when the people have successful conquests over Arad (21:1-3) and Sihon and Og, 21:10-35), but yet another rebellion occurs 21:4-9, over the quality of food that God provides. Here we find the famous story of the bronze serpent; God sends snakes to torment the people, but anyone who looks at the bronze snake will live (21:4-9, cf. 1 King 18:4). The bronze serpent has been called a type of Christ, as anyone who looks up to Christ will be spiritually healed and live.

In all these stories, the Israelites must trust in God, and if they do, things will go well; if not, disaster follows. This is difficult theology, as I mentioned last week, for we know in our experience that things sometimes go poorly for the best people. We have to remember the context of the scripture, where God is shepherding a resistant people through dangerous circumstances and also teaching them a covenant relationship with God. Our own painful situations aren't sent by God, but God is close by, loving, and helping.

The section 22:1-24:25 is the well known story of Balak the king of nearby Moab, and the seer Balaam. As the Harper’s Bible Commentary points out, this story happens apart from the Israelites, who don’t realize how God is protecting them from the threat of a curse. Balak sends Balaam to curse the Israelites, which Balaam attempts three times, but each time God allows him to bless the people, making Balaam a kind of prophet of the Lord. Like many kids, I learned the story of Balaam’s donkey at an early age; it’s a kind of folk tale wherein the donkey perceived God’s angel before Balaam, and God allows the ass to speak and testify to God’s presence to his irritated master.

Sadly, chapter 25 is another story of rebellion, this one involving Israelite men who have relations Midian women. The women, in turn, invite them to worship Midian gods, especially Baal of Peor. One of my commentaries comments that this story is placed right after the Balaam stories for ironic effect, showing how the people were unfaithful to God right after God had saved them (see note 1 below). The Baal-peor story is an early example of the connections of idolatry, cult prostitution, and the metaphoric “harlotry” of worshiping gods other than the Lord—a theme that we’ll see in the Prophets. In our own time, we'd call it a very "patriarchal" story, with the women and their sexuality portrayed as negative influences.

The Israelite Phineas takes the initiative and slays the Midianite Cozbi and the Israelite Zimri; since he kills them with a single spear, the two are presumed to be engaging in sex when they are killed. The savagery and divine jealously of this story are troubling; God is like a spurned lover for whom punishment against his beloved is justified. And although he is not to be emulated as a lesson, Phineas’ actions are praised! Where I live, there was a recent news story where a husband killed his wife and then himself, and so these kinds of biblical stories, wherein God is like an enraged husband, are troubling.

In this story, Phineas' slaying of Zimri and Cozbi stop the plague that God sent agains the Israelites. The 24,000 who die in the plague are likely the end of the old generation.

Now we are on a new generation. Numbers 26 is a census of the twelve tribes, connecting back to the census that opens the book. But this census sets up the concern for how the land will be distributed among the people. The Harper’s Bible Commentary notes that there are correspondences in this concluding section and the earlier chapters, like the celebration of the passover (chapters 9 and 28), the provision for the Levites (chapters 18 and 35), legal issues for women (chapters 5 and 27), and others.

The last long section, chapters 26-36, has a variety of material. Mitzvot about inheritance, sacrifice, and vows (27:1-11, 28:1-30:16) are provided along with the succession of leadership from Moses to Joshua. But Joshua will not have the direct interaction with God that Moses had; as the Harper book reminds us, Moses is a unique leader whose stature in Israel’s history is never reached by subsequent prophets. In the New Testament, the book of Hebrews discusses Jesus’ superiority to Moses, but that also indicates the unique and high place of Moses; only God’s Son can supersede him.

The victory of the Israelites over the Midianites is another savage story. In the context of the narrative, it illustrates the fact that the new generation trusts God as they should, and the debacles of Numbers 13-14 and 25 are reversed. The story of Reuben and Gad also serves to illustrate the right path that the new generation is taking. These two tribes requested to settle outside the boundaries of the Land, that is, on the east side of the Jordan River. The request troubles Moses, who fears a negative response on the part of the people (as in Numbers 13-14), but a compromise is successfully achieved.

Chapters 33-36 conclude Numbers—and would conclude the whole story of the Bible so far, before we even get to Deuteronomy. Chapter 33 summarizes the travels of the Israelites from Egypt and all their campsites. Chapter 34 provides the boundaries of the Land as God gives the tribes this place to live. Chapter 35 establishes cities of refuge and the Levitical cities. Chapter 36 has more material on the daughters of Zelophehad, providing (as the Harper book indicates) a frame for the section of chapters 27-36.

I like to find “story arcs” in the Bible. Good commentaries are essential for me, because otherwise I wouldn’t notice the connections. Exodus 29, which concerns priestly ordination, connects to Leviticus 8-9. The covenant of the Sabbath, Exodus 31:12-17, connects back to Genesis 1: the God who created all things has created a beloved people whose very lives reflect God’s pattern of creation. The laws of Leviticus connect back to the events of Mount Sinai in Exodus 19-24.(16) The stories of the spies and the rebellion of Israel in Numbers 12-14 connect us forward to the book of Joshua and set the stage for the long sojourn in the wilderness. The story of Numbers 20 connects us back to Exodus 17, two similar rebellions of Israel. Of course, the very promise of the Land connects us to Genesis 12 and God’s promise to Abram and his family.

The conclusion of Numbers circles back even further, for as commentators note, the passage describing the land of Canaan and its settlement (chapters 34-36) belongs to the Priestly Source that is also the source of Genesis 1. Thus the promise of land for God’s people reflects God’s love of all creation and God’s desire for new human relationships (see note 2 below).

In the upcoming Deuteronomy: In chapters 29-30 Moses reiterates the covenant to the people and promises that God’s word is not remote in time and space but always very near (Deut. 30:11-14, and chapters 29-30). The reminder and promise of the covenant takes us back to the beginning of the covenant (Ex. 19-24).But Deuteronomy circles back to Genesis as well. “A wandering Aramean was my father,” says Deut. 26:5, meaning Jacob, and the passage 29:5-10 remembers Egyptian bondage, God’s salvation, and circles back again to the promise of the land, which the Israelites are about to enter.

The story could end with Numbers, for the people are about the enter the land and new leadership has been established with Moses’ impending death. It’s interesting to me that these hypothesized ancient accounts like the Priestly Source and others provide this shape of the overall story. We already saw how the Priestly Code is found throughout this material.

With Deuteronomy, we begin a section of the Bible that will extend to the end of 2 Kings Scholars hypothesize a “Deuteronomistic history” that now forms the basis of all this material (see note 3 below).

The Deuteronomistic history continues the theme of the earlier Torah books: the keeping of the covenant. God will reward faithfulness and will eventually punish wickedness and apostasy. So the connection of the historical books and the Torah is, at one level, the failure of the Israelites to keep their part of the covenant faithfully; thus God’s judgment in the form of the Babylonian conquest and exile at the end of 2 Kings. But throughout these centuries, God has remained faithful.

The land is another ongoing theme that we’ll find through the upcoming historical books—the land promised to Israel since Abram in Genesis 12. God guides his people, establishes his covenant with them, gives them his law, and leads them to the Land under the leadership of Moses and then Joshua.  Holding and keeping the Land, though, remains a challenge across the centuries: the campaigns and conquests of Joshua are far the end of the story (see note 4 below).

Eventually we’ll get to the history of the monarchy and the great figure of David, whom we can connect to Moses as the Land’s greatest king, though not a prophet like Moses.

Deuteronomy contains another hypothesized, ancient source of law, the Deuteronomic Code, which is much longer than the Book of the Covenant that we saw earlier. This code stretches across Deut. 12-26 and includes laws about the destruction of Canaanite holy places (ch. 12), apostasy (p. 13), food and tithes (ch. 14), sabbatical year (ch. 15), annual pilgrimage festivals (Passover, Pentecost, and Shavuot, ch. 16), and many other laws about Levites, cities of refuge, rules of warfare, murder, livestock, and so on. While some laws (especially Deut. 13) seem cruel (and were not known to have been carried out), many laws reflect justice issues protecting people’s rights and encouraging social interdependence (32-33). My Harper’s commentary points out aspects that indicate Deuteronomy’s likely authorship during the time of the monarchy, perhaps the reign of Josiah: the indication of a monetary rather than agricultural/barter economy, the fertility rites that tempted God’s people during a later time, the importance of a just judiciary, and the overall importance of reform (pp. 209-210).

There are differences among the laws compared to similar ones in other parts of the Torah. There are also differences in the conception of the priesthood—another connection among all these Scriptures. One of my teachers, Brevard Childs, discusses the distinction of Aaronic and Levitical priests. Childs notes that in Ex. 28-29 and Lev. 8-10—where we find much information about the biblical priests—Aaron and his sons are consecrated to an eternal priesthood. The Aaronic priests performed cultic rites while Levites were responsible for maintenance of the tabernacle (e.g. Num. 1:47ff). But, Childs notes, we don’t find that distinction in Deuteronomy, which describe “Levitical priests” who have cultic responsibilities. We also find no Aaronite clergy in Judges and Samuel; Eli is the chief priest but he is from the Ephraim rather than the Levi tribe. When we get to Chronicles, we return to the separation of priest and Levites that we saw in Exodus and Leviticus.  Scholars like Julius Wellhausen explains the discrepancies in terms of the time period of the material: Ex. 25-40, Leviticus, and Numbers are post-exilic, while Deuteronomy is pre-exilic (i.e., late monarchy, from the time of Josiah), but Childs sees the historical development of the priesthood as largely irretrievable background history for the canonical text, in which the post-exilic form of priesthood has become normative. (See note 5 below).

The ten paragraphs above are from another informal Bible study that I did a few years ago: Now, back to the text!

Deuteronomy reflects a common practice of covenant renewal and is presented as a long, farewell speech from Moses, who will soon die at the edge of the Land. In the beginning section, chapters 1-3, Moses begins with a recounting of the journeys of the Israelites. The Harper author notes, “Even before Israel left Mount Horeb, it was structure into a society shaped by God’s justice” (p. 213), and this opening section certainly reminds the Israelites of the importance of justice for Israelite and stranger, powerful and powerless alike. It is a timely message for many time periods and many circumstances! Moses also reminds the people of the importance of trust in God, compressing the disaster of Numbers 13-14 and the success of Numbers 21 and 29 (cf. Psalm 136:17-22).

Moses promises God’s faithfulness, recounting the richness of the land and the protection that God provides when the people are obedience (3:12-29, 4:1-40). The section 4-11 (I’m reading 4-6 this week) is a sermon about the mitzvot. Moses preaches about the Ten Commandments and connects them to God’s faithfulness, the Sabbath, the Covenant, and the importance of worship of God alone and of justice.

Chapter 6 is worth quoting as a whole, as it relates to so much else, and it contains the beloved Shema (Hear, O Israel).

“Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that the Lord your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, so that you and your children and your children’s children may fear the Lord your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long. Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has promised you.

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

“When the Lord your God has brought you into the land that he swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you—a land with fine, large cities that you did not build, houses filled with all sorts of goods that you did not fill, hewn cisterns that you did not hew, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant—and when you have eaten your fill, take care that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. The Lord your God you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name alone you shall swear. Do not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who are all around you, because the Lord your God, who is present with you, is a jealous God. The anger of the Lord your God would be kindled against you and he would destroy you from the face of the earth.

“Do not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah. You must diligently keep the commandments of the Lord your God, and his decrees, and his statutes that he has commanded you. Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may go in and occupy the good land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give you, thrusting out all your enemies from before you, as the Lord has promised.

“When your children ask you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the decrees and the statutes and the ordinances that the Lord our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say to your children, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. The Lord displayed before our eyes great and awesome signs and wonders against Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his household. He brought us out from there in order to bring us in, to give us the land that he promised on oath to our ancestors. Then the Lord commanded us to observe all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our lasting good, so as to keep us alive, as is now the case. If we diligently observe this entire commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us, we will be in the right’” (NRSV).

Here are the parshiyot, Torah readings, and haftarot readings.

Chuqat               Numbers 19:1-22:1             Judges 11:1-11:33
Balaq               Numbers 22:2-25:9             Micah 5:6-6:8
Pinchas               Numbers 25:10-30:1             I Kings 18:46-19:21
Mattot               Numbers 30:2-32:42        Jeremiah 1:1-2:3
Masei               Numbers 33:1-36:13             Jeremiah 2:4-28; 3:4 (Jeremiah 2:4-28; 4:1-4:2)
Devarim               Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22     Isaiah 1:1-1:27
Va'etchanan       Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11     Isaiah 40:1-40:26


1. Stephen K. Sherwood, C.M.F., Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. Brit Olam Series, Studies in Hebrew Narrative and Poetry, COllegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002), 180-181.

2. Thomas B. Dozeman, “The Book of Numbers,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, volume II (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1998), 267-268.

3. The first of several books on this subject is Martin Noth, The Deuteronomistic History (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002; originally published in 1943).

4. An excellent study is Walter Brueggemann, The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith (second edition, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002).

5. Brevard Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 145-150, 152-153.

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