Numbers

Better than Game of Thrones, but only just.

Written by Blue Pipe Thoughts.

The Book of Numbers is the continuing story of the Israelites in the wilderness under the leadership of Moses, following on from Exodus and Leviticus. It tracks the change from the broken and frightened people who escaped from Egypt, to a conquering army that claims land in God’s name. It also contains an abundance of lists – lists upon lists, upon lists; quantities and labels – a stock takers delight!

  1. Moses and Aaron build an army of more than 600,000 from each tribe, except the Levites (who are excluded from military service because they are in charge of the holy tent)
  2. Camping arrangements are set by marching order
  3. 22,000 Levites are enrolled to order and maintain the holy tent
  4. Two of the Levite tribes are given special responsibility for carrying the parts and accessories of the holy tent
  5. Moses is told to be sure that no ritually unclean people are allowed near the holy tent, and a testing process by ‘bitter water’ is given for women suspected of adultery
  6. Instructions for people who want to dedicate some time to serving God, along with a priestly blessing
  7. The dedication of the holy tent over twelve days is described in great detail
  8. The male adult members of the Levite tribe are purified, ready to serve in the holy tent
  9. When it comes to observing the Passover festival everyone – including visitors – can take part
  10. With a blast of trumpets and some help from friendly neighbours, the whole Israelite camp marches into the desert, with the covenant chest leading the way
  11. Lots of moaning ensues; the people moan to Moses for more meat, Moses moans to God about the demands of the people and God responds (somewhat grumpily) with helpers for Moses – and enough meat to choke everyone
  12. God gets drawn into a family spat with Aaron and Miriam against Moses, which Miriam loses
  13. The representatives of the tribes sent to check out the promised land come back with mixed messages – some are terrified and decide they don’t want to move there after all
  14. Moses intervenes to stop God destroying the people who are afraid and want to run away from the promised land, but their punishment is that they will never enter it
  15. Instructions about sacrifices, and what to do when people get it wrong by accident – or on purpose
  16. Some of the Levites who have not been admitted to the priesthood rail against the authority of Moses and Aaron, and then all seem to die suddenly in horrible ways…
  17. A test of Aaron’s status among the Levites is undertaken
  18. God tells Aaron that the Levites and priests who serve the holy tent are not allowed to own land, but they are compensated from the people’s offerings
  19. A very elaborate week long procedure is described for ritually purifying anyone who has had contact with a dead body
  20. Moses is punished by God for a mistake, but God does provides the water he requested for the thirsty people
  21. The Israelites march across the desert lands, conquering the peoples who won’t let them cross; seeking help from God whenever things don’t go their way
  22. Some of those whose land the Israelites are wanting to cross also seek God’s guidance, but they aren’t good at listening and have to be guided by a donkey
  23. King Balak repeatedly asks the oracle Balaam to curse the Israelites – but God keeps giving him words of blessing
  24. When Balak is furious with Balaam because of the blessings on the Israelites, the oracle makes a final proclamation that there will be a shift in power and those chosen by God will prevail
  25. Foreign women create a purity problem, and Aaron’s grandson Phinehas is rewarded for murdering an influential foreign women and the Israelite man she is with, as they walk casually through the heart of the camp together
  26. The sons old enough to serve in the army are counted and named, if a clan had no sons the daughters are named instead
  27. Moses knows he is dying and so authorises a new leader (Joshua), and updates inheritance law so that daughters can inherit where there are no sons in a clan
  28. Instructions are given for daily, monthly and yearly sacrificial offerings of animals, grain, oil and wine to be made at the holy tent
  29. A detailed accounting of the enormous number of animal, grain, oil and wine sacrifices required for the festivals of Passover and Booths is recorded
  30. A reminder that vows made to God must always be kept – unless a woman’s father or husband either disapproves of the vow or causes the her to break it
  31. After a very successful military campaign against the Midianites, the spoils of war are counted
  32. Some of the clans decide that the grass is greener on the non-promised side of the Jordan, and ask Moses if they can be excused from settling in the promised land
  33. The stages of the journey from Egypt to Canaan are recounted
  34. The boundaries of the promised land are outlined, and leaders are chosen to divide the land among the nine and a half tribes who have chosen to dwell there
  35. The Israelites are instructed to set aside land for the priests and to set up refuge cities for those under a death sentence
  36. It is agreed that daughters who inherit property cannot take their property rights with them if they marry into another tribe

Life is often not nice for women in the Numbers story. In chapter five men are permitted to test their wives by seeing what happens if they drink contaminated water. Supposedly a woman who’s has had an affair and become pregnant by it will miscarry as a result of this test. I wonder how many women were saved from false accusation by this method and how many innocent women condemned? There is small comfort in the fact that there was a testing process, and also that men couldn’t just condemn women without evidence. A murderous story unfolds in chapter twenty-five when a man picks up a spear and stabs an Israelite man and a foreign woman as they are walking by. The action is celebrated, and righteous jealousy for God is used as a justification for this violent behaviour. I had to turn to commentaries to help me process my feelings about what was happening in this text. One commentator suggests that the Moabites and Midianites were plotting the overthrow of the Israelites and deliberately using pretty girls to lead the men into sin. The event which led to Phinehas picking up his spear was an escalation, which saw the idolatrous intentions of the Moabites/Midianites move from the edges of the camp to the heart of the community. The evidence that Phinehas’ action was in line with God’s will, was the sudden end of a plague which had been sweeping through the community – I wonder now whether it was a plague or whether the women carried unseen, perhaps poisonous weapons!

More horrible things happen to foreign women (and girls) in chapter thirty-one, when the virgin daughters of the conquered Midianites are numbered among the ‘spoils of war’, along with animals and precious metals. These young girls are given away as a reward to the successful soldiers. It’s a familiar story and one that never fails to sicken me. There is a suggestion that the instruction from God was total slaughter of the Midianites, not capture – would this have been more merciful for those girls than what they were subjected to after watching everyone they knew slaughtered? I don’t know, and I struggle to find much trace of the merciful God I love in these kinds of stories

In contrast to the violent and unpleasant behaviours towards women, the affection that Moses, Aaron and the whole camp have for Miriam is displayed frequently. In chapter eleven, where God is asked to heal Miriam of the skin disease she’s become afflicted with as a result of her rebellion against Moses, the whole camp chooses to pause in their journey, until she is well enough to travel again. Miriam has clear authority and respect, but she is not given special treatment for being a relative of the two most important men in the camp – she must pay her dues like anyone else. It is also clear that Miriam is able to hear God, although perhaps not as clearly as Moses does. I was also surprised to find that women can follow a serious religious calling, by becoming nazirites, and can make vows to God which men had to respect or pay the cost of breaking (as in chapter thirty).

Unsurprisingly Numbers didn’t give me many laugh out loud moments, but I did chuckle to discover that among the many lists of special items associated with the holy tent, only the Kohathites were allowed to carry the special meat fork used at the altar – perhaps they were the only ones who could be trusted not to lose such an important piece of kit?! There was also some comedy in the Balak/Balaam story; first a sorrowful talking donkey (surely the inspiration for Eeyore?) Then Balak getting Balaam to move around to different sites to see if he could come up with a curse against Israel (“look at them from over here, surely when you look from this side you can see that they deserve to be cursed… How about here?”…)

So much of the peoples behaviour in this story is fear driven and cruel, but perhaps this is unsurprising, after all the Israelites had taken huge risks in following and trusting Moses and are continually terrified of attack – people without a home are so vulnerable after all. Even with all the portents suggesting that God is with them, they find it hard to trust because their lives and the lives of their whole household are on the line. They are looking to take possession of a land already inhabited by established peoples who have fortifications and seem strong. Their doubts and fears are very reasonable, and I sometimes felt that the whole story of Israel was balanced on a blade during this time in the wilderness. By the end only two men, from among all those who left Egypt, will live to enter the promised land. These were testing times for Israel

I happened to be reading the first book from the Game of Thrones series for part of the time that I was reading Numbers. This epic series also follows a story steeped in human power struggles and clannishness. However, the popular fantasy story lacks God entirely. There is a kind of spirituality, but no suggestion of a merciful God guiding anyone, which (in my view) makes the story somewhat pointless and tedious. Stories of human power struggles and cruelty, without any hope of redemption or salvation just feel pointless to me, an endless cycle of success and failure, of pleasure and suffering for only short term material gain. Overall, I preferred Numbers to Game of Thrones – but that’s not saying much!