Numbers, and there were plenty of them. Mixed in with censuses, lineage and exact weights for every sacrifice possible, the Israelites packed a ton of action in this book.
Since this is Numbers, I’d like to start with a number: 600,000. That’s the fighting force listed in the beginning of this book. That helps explain a lot of the future battles, which we’ll get to. It also makes me comfortable estimating there were close to 3 million people in the group (women, children, elderly and slaves) which helps to visualize just how huge this group was.
Numbers 5:5-10 discusses restitution for sin and how a portion of all those sacrifices belong to the priests. This gets explained in more detail later in the book, but the priests and those in charge of the Tabernacle essentially have no other source of income. In this circumstance it makes sense and works, but made me think of Catholic abuses of indulgences.
The second half of Numbers 5 has to do with tests for an unfaithful wife. In short, if a husband suspects his wife was unfaithful he takes her to the priest and a ritual is done, ending with the wife drinking “cursed” water. If she becomes barren, she was unfaithful. If she is innocent, the water won’t make her barren and she is blameless. Interestingly, the book makes special note that “The husband will be innocent of any wrongdoing, but the woman will bear the consequences of her sin” (Num 5:31). Blame falling on women remains a theme.
In Numbers 11, the Israelites are wandering the desert and they get tired of eating mana. They implore Moses to ask God for meat. God answers by sending wave upon wave of quail into their camp. Some of the Israelites eat it, but then, because God is angry that the Israelites complained about the mana he sent, God sends a “sever plague” on the people. Plagues are also a theme.
Numbers 12:3 caught my eye. In full: “(Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.)” I had to chuckle at a parenthetical verse devoted to Moses’ humility. In this chapter, Aaron and Miriam (Moses’ sister) get jealous of Moses’ relationship with God. They confront Moses and God about this, and God rebukes them both, but makes Miriam a leper (not Aaron). She is banished for seven days, is healed and returns to the camp. Nothing else happens to Aaron.
In Numbers 14, men explore Canaan and report back that the land is beautiful but there are many other people there, and they outnumber the Israelites. All the men but two spread rumors through the camp that the land is barren, and thus the Israelites ask Moses why they left Egypt just to wander the wilderness and die. They decide to get a new leader and go back to Egypt. This upsets God. “How long will these people treat me with contempt? How long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the signs I have performed among them? I will strike them down with a plague and destroy them, but I will make you into a nation greater and stronger than they” (Num 14:11-12). Moses saves the lives of the Israelites, but God does promise that every person who wanted to leave for Egypt will die in the wilderness and never see the land he promised them. They will wander for 40 years.
In chapter 15 a man who gathers wood on the Sabbath gets stoned to death. Stone-able offenses: cursing the name of God and working on the Sabbath. Again, the entire community stones him.
Numbers 16 tells of three men who form a group and attempt to rebel against Moses and Aaron, claiming they are no more holy than the rest of the them. This ends predictably, but there are a few interesting wrinkles. The three men who lead the rebellion get swallowed up by the earth the next day, but not alone. They stand in front of their tents with their “wives, children and little ones.” All of them are killed. In addition, the 250 men who rebelled stand in front of the Tabernacle with bronze censers full of incense. God strikes them down with fire, burning them to death. Moses then commands a priest to take the bodies away, but to keep the bronze censers and mold them to the altar as a reminder not to defy God. That latter seems calloused, and the former mention of wives and little ones keeps with the theme of women (and now innocents) being punished for men’s sins. As a kicker, God also sends a plague on the people which kills 14,700. It should be noted he wanted to kill everyone.
To rid himself of the “constant grumbling” of the Israelites, God chooses Aaron as the right-hand man to Moses by making a staff with his name blossom as a “sign to the rebellious” thus ending their doubt so “they will not die”. Understandably, the Israelites are still scared and say to Moses “We will die! We are lost, we are all lost! Anyone who even comes near the tabernacle of the Lord will die. Are we all going to die?” (Num 17:12-13). A fair question, and one that was answered already in chapter 14, but I think this chapter really drives home the idea of the “fear of God.” The Old Testament God requires sacrifice and obedience, and the punishment is death.
In chapter 21 the Israelites start winning some battles and taking some land. First the people of king Arad. They “completely destroy them and their towns.” Later the armies of Sihon and Og, which are struck down completely with no survivors. That is not a phrase you see often, and implies either killing people who had surrendered or hunting people down. Either way, pretty terrifying.
Numbers 25 has some of the Israelites indulging in “sexual immorality with Moabite women” and then following a god called Baal of Peor. God’s response is another plague, this time killing 24,000. We’ll get back to this incident shortly.
Numbers 27 changes things up in a good(!) way. An elder dies with no sons, so his daughters ask Moses to give them their father’s inheritance. In a surprise to me, Moses accepts the offer and the daughters receive the lands and property of their father. Finally, something good for women.
Well, Israelite women I should say. Chapter 31 pits the Israelites against Midianites and it does not go well for the latter. As seems to be par for the course, the Israelites kill every man in the army. No survivors. In a morbid twist, when the commanders report back the victory and all the captives/plunder, Moses is furious and responds:
“‘Have you allowed all the women to live?’ he asked them. ‘They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful to the Lord in the Peor incident, so that a plague struck the Lord’s people. Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.'” (Num 31: 15-18)
Another bad day for women and children. I think barbaric serves as the best word to describe this. Kill every woman and boy, but of course save the virgins for yourself.
Ironically chapter 35 discusses murder and how justice should be handed down to murderers. It seems that murder has no place in the promised land. “Do not pollute the land where you are. Bloodshed pollutes the land… Do not defile the land where you live and where I dwell, for I, the Lord, dwell among the Israelites” (Num 35:33-34). If killing pollutes the land, then the promised land seems to be the only safe place by default. Everywhere else the Lord went was soaked in blood.
Thank you for reading,