The Complete Book of Numbers
Writing teachers always say, "Show, don't tell." Here's the Bible version of that. Numbers is puttering along, repeating various Levitical laws, including severe warnings about what will happen if you "defiantly" break a commandment. All pretty dry legalese. Suddenly the law book is interrupted by story: A man is caught gathering wood on the Sabbath and taken into custody. Moses asks God what to do. Stone him to death, the Lord declares. And they do. This anecdote is more powerful than 100 legalistic exhortations.
Incidentally, the Sabbath-breaker stoning takes place outside the Israelites' camp, on God's explicit orders. I haven't mentioned this till now, but for almost every law, ritual, or story, the Torah specifies whether it occurs outside or inside the camp. Lepers, for example, are exiled outside the camp, as was Miriam when the Lord blighted her. The Israelites collect their mannainside the camp, but the cursed quail that bring them a plague are outside the camp. The obvious point is that the camp is sacred to God and His people, and the world beyond the camp is foul and contaminated. I assume the presence of the Tabernacle is what sanctifies the camp—right, Torah scholars? If so, how are Jews—scattered around the world, and with no surviving Temple or Tabernacle—supposed to create a sacred space today? Don't we now live in a world where everything is outside the camp?
An astonishing rebellion against Moses (and God). A Levite named Korah and a few sidekicks denounce Moses and Aaron: Moses has cut the people off from God and tried to hoard God's love for himself. The rebels declare: "For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourself above the Lord's congregation?"
This may be the first recorded example of what has become the fundamental conflict in all religions: religious elite vs. the people. (See, for example, the pope vs. Martin Luther.) Korah asks an essential question: Why should the few priests and prophets monopolize God? What's so great about them that they control access to the divine? In the 3,500 years since, many religions have come down on Korah's side of this question, deciding that God belongs to the masses, not an anointed elite. But the Bible doesn't. It rules emphatically—smitingly—for Moses and Aaron, for the few rather than the many.
Moses challenges the rebels to a divine duel. Korah and his 250 followers are to show up (at dawn, of course) with their firepans. Then, Moses says, the Lord will choose who is holy. The next morning, they all gather outside the Tabernacle—not just the 250 rebels, but also the entire Israelite community, which now supports them. This is a very bad mistake on the Israelites' part. Again, the Chosen People face the prospect of being seriously Un-Chosen. The Lord cautions Moses and Aaron, "Stand back from the community that I may annihilate them in an instant." But Moses once more steps in to save them, rebuking God exactly as Abraham did about Sodom: "When one man sins, will You be wrathful to the whole community?" God agrees not to kill everyone but orders the Israelites to stand back from the tents of Korah and two other rebel leaders.
Moses then explains to the Israelites how they'll know that the Lord is almighty, and that He speaks through Moses alone. He tells them, "By this you shall know it was the Lord who sent me to do all these things. … If [the rebel leaders] die as all men do, if their lot be the common fate of all mankind, it was not the Lord who sent me. But if the Lord brings about something unheard-of, so that the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up … you shall know these men spurned the Lord." And in the very next instant, lo and behold, the ground "burst[s] asunder" and the earth swallows up Korah and his people—including wives and children. (God's habit of holding the sins of the father against the children is one that I still can't reconcile to. It also suggests He wasn't listening to Moses earlier.) The rest of the 250 rebels don't escape God's wrath either: A fire engulfs and kills them. This is a pretty potent argument against a more democratic religion, isn't it?
I have skipped over the most interesting word in the entire chapter: "Sheol." Moses says that when the earth swallows the men, they will fall into "Sheol." I cheated and looked at the commentary, which says that Sheol is the "netherworld, the abode of the dead." This challenges one of my strongest held (and favorite) beliefs about Judaism—that we have no afterlife. Ignoring the hereafter, I always thought, makes Judaism and Jews more concerned with justice and morality here on earth. If there's no salvation, you'd better make the most of the present. But Sheol knocks this all down. Does this mean that Jews have a heaven and a hell? Can we get saved, too? And damned? How important is this Sheol to our theology, anyway? (It can't be too critical, or even an ignoramus like me would have heard of it by now.)
The Israelites still haven't learned their lesson! The very next day they complain to Moses about the murder of Korah and his sidekicks. And, like a summer rerun, God tells Moses and Aaron to stand aside so He can annihilate the Israelites—this time with a plague. Moses and Aaron quickly expiate the Lord by burning incense, so only 14,700 Israelites die.
Let us pause here to ask an obvious question. Time and again, according to the Bible, the Israelites have witnessed the Lord do something utterly miraculous that ought to silence their complaints and doubts about him, yet time and again the Israelites keep kvetching. They beg for food: He supplies them with manna for 40 years. They need water: Moses brings it forth from a rock. They need to cross the Red Sea: He pushes the ocean back. Over and over and over again, He presents evidence of His absolute power. Just the day before, He had caused the rebel leaders to be swallowed by the earth and caused all the other rebels—and no one else—to be consumed by fire. Isn't that pretty convincing evidence of His absolute power? Now, I don't know about you, but had I been an ancient Israelite and witnessed such awesome doings, I would have been a fervent, A-No. 1 believer. Yet the Israelites are faithless and fickle.
Which leads me to this line of questioning. If you remain faithless after witnessing all that has been described in the Torah, either you
1) are a faithless, cynical skeptic
2) didn't actually witness the events that you are supposed to have witnessed.
Both of these are problematic explanations. If the Israelites are so faithless that even the most obvious miracles won't convince them, then they're truly hopeless. Explanation 2 seems the commonsense accounting for the Israelites' behavior. No one would behave so skeptically if they witnessed such miracles; ergo, they didn't witness such miracles.
So, my question to readers who believe the Bible is true or mostly true: Is there a third explanation for the Israelites' faithlessness?
The Levites had won God's special favor by staying loyal to Him during the Golden Calf fiasco. They too have now rebelled, but they stay in the Lord's good graces: God reaffirms that they still get to take care of the Tabernacle. This chapter also details tithing obligations. Aaron and the priests get first cut of everything—the choicest meat, the best olive oil and wine, five shekels for every firstborn. The Levites get to keep the one-tenth of crops and livestock tithed by all the other tribes (though they, in turn, pass on one-tenth of that to Aaron and the priests. It's a kind of Amway arrangement, with Aaron and the priests collecting a piece of every transaction.).
The gist of this chapter: If you touch a corpse, you are really, really impure.
Also, an unusual ritual is described: An unblemished red heifer is sacrificed, burned to ash, and scattered over holy water. This sanctified water is used to purify people who have handled a corpse. I remember reading a few years ago about efforts to breed an unblemished red cow in Israel. Hmm, perhaps this was the story. Apparently, the red heifer is necessary before Jews can rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem, which is a prerequisite for the Messiah to come.
Miriam, who hasn't spoken a word since God afflicted her skin, dies and is buried in a single sentence. It doesn't take Susan Faludi to see unfairness in God's treatment of Moses' brother and sister. Miriam is plagued, banished, shunned, and ignored, while weak-willed, three-times-a-traitor Aaron is rehabilitated—back speaking to God and advising Moses.
The Israelites are parched and again wishing they are dead ("If only we had perished when our brothers perished. … Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place?"). God tells Moses and Aaron to assemble the Israelites in front of a rock, and then "order the rock to yield its water." They do as they're told, but instead of talking to the rock, Moses strikes the rock twice with his staff. Water pours forth; the Israelites are mollified.
But the Lord is hopping mad that the brothers struck rather than spoke to the rock. So, He lays the wood on them: Because they didn't trust the Lord, they too will die before they reach the Promised Land. Wow, this seems harsh! First of all, in previous droughts (back in Exodus), God told Moses to strike rocks to release the water. Isn't it possible that Moses just made a mistake this time? And even if the striking was intentional, hasn't Moses earned the right to be a little bit frustrated? God, after all, flies into a towering rage whenever the Israelites whine or cross Him. Moses, by contrast, has been a paragon of patience, enduring the most outrageous Israelite (and divine) behavior with tolerance and wisdom. Yet Moses displays the teeniest bit of pique and hits the rock, and God gives him a death sentence. It's capricious cruelty, and unfair to His greatest servant.
See you never, Aaron! Soon after the Rock-Water-Staff episode, the feckless brother dies—stripped naked on the top of Mount Hor. I'll miss Aaron—he really gives you someone to root against—but I'm sure the Israelites are going to do better without his sorry, no-account self presiding over the Tabernacle. Goodbye, Fredo, and good riddance.
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David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.