The Complete Book of Numbers

The Bible's First Lawsuit, and How It Changed My Life
What's really in the Good Book.
Aug. 16 2006 3:53 PM

The Complete Book of Numbers

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Chapter 25
The Lord has made it abundantly clear that He dislikes sexual misbehavior, loathes intermarriage, and despises idol worship. What happens when you combine all three of His favorite sins? Gentle chiding? Sweet persuasion?

I don't think so.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

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The Israelite men go "whoring" with Moabite women and start to worship their god Baal as well. This drives the Lord into a rage. But He has clearly been seeing someone about His anger issues, because rather than proposing to wipe out all of Israel—His usual response to idolatry and law-breaking— He limits himself to condemning the ringleaders. The Lord demands that they be publicly impaled. Before this happens, however, an Israelite man and a Midianite woman happen to stroll by the Tent of Meeting. Aaron's grandson Phineas sees the mixed couple and immediately spears them to death. In modern America, this would be a hate crime. Here, it's heroism. God's delighted by the killing. He's so pleased with Phineas' "passion" that He grants him "My pact of friendship." The Lord appoints Phineas and his descendants as His priests "for all time." More importantly for the Israelites, the murder persuades God to stop the plague he'd sent against them (yes, another plague) after only 24,000 victims. God orders Moses to take fierce revenge on the Midianites. (Inexplicably, the Midianites are blamed for the whoring of the Moabite women, which hardly seems fair.)

Not mentioned during this entire episode: Moses is married to a Midianite woman! Another example of God allowing one law for Moses but imposing a much stricter one on His people. To be fair to the Lord, Moses married before the Israelites were freed from Egypt, before they'd established a national identity, before God had issued all his laws. When Moses married Zipporah, there was no Israel to protect. But here in the desert, decades later, the Israelites are fighting a death struggle with the neighboring tribes. Only one tribe, and one God, can win, so God's prohibition against intermarriage, and violent intolerance of idol worship, make sense. God's making a tactical argument, as much as a religious one. The Israelites are winning the war on the battlefield, but if they start picking up the local floozies and bowing to the local idols, they risk losing everything. That is why Moses' 50-year-old Midianite-marriage doesn't bother God but sleeping around with Moabites does.

Chapter 26
Yet another census—the third since leaving Egypt. (Is it any surprise there are so many great Jewish mathematicians? And accountants?) Because they're on the verge of crossing into the Promised Land, this census is needed to determine how much land each tribe will get. It's the ancient equivalent of our post-census congressional redistricting. (Now what, I wonder, is the Israelite version of gerrymandering?) Because the Lord has killed off the entire generation of Israelites counted in the last census—that's why He made them wander for 40 years, remember—this census counts a totally new group. Yet it records almost exactly the same number of Israelites as the last census—601,730 men, just 2,000 fewer than last time. The major difference: The tribe of Simeon has plummeted from nearly 60,000 members to only 22,000, while Manasseh has added tens of thousands of members. Was there some Simeon-specific plague that I missed? Did the Simeonites do something particularly nasty that got them cut down?

Chapter 27
One of my favorite chapters in the Bible, for a very personal reason. It begins by describing the plight of five sisters whose father, Zelophehad, has just died. He had no son, so they are his only heirs. They petition Moses to be allowed to inherit his holding in the Promised Land. Moses appeals to a higher authority: "Moses brought their case before the Lord." God immediately declares that their cause "is just." They can have the land. Furthermore, the Lord says, this is not just a single case, it's a new law: If a man dies without sons, his daughters inherit his property. Feminists dig this story, because it's the first major endorsement of women's rights in the Bible. Legal scholars also study it: They call the petition by Zelophehad's daughters the world's first lawsuit.

But that's not why I care about it. Four of the daughters have names that are odd, and even ugly sounding, in English: Mahlah, Hoglah, Tirzah, and Milcah. (Try saying those three times quickly.) But the fifth daughter is named Noa. (This is not the same name as Noah the ark-builder, as you can read here.) Noa is a very popular Israeli girl's name—there's a famous Israeli pop singer called Noa. (There's also a non-Israeli Cacharel perfume called Noa.) And, as you may have guessed by now, it is also the name of my 5-year-old daughter, which is why this story means so much to me. (Until I started Blogging the Bible, the only part of Numbers I had ever read was the story of Noa and her sisters, which I had looked up when my wife and I were discussing names.)

God orders Moses to climb Mount Abarim to get one look at the Promised Land before he dies. Is this very cruel or very kind? Is it excruciating for Moses to have to see what he wants more than anything in the world but cannot have? Or is this gaze consolation for a dying man? I can't decide.

An interesting moment that highlights the Israelites' tension between meritocracy and aristocracy: After his look-see at the Promised Land, God has Moses pass on his authority to his successors. Moses divides his powers. Moses lays hands on Eleazar, son of Aaron, and invests him with priestly authority—authority that Eleazar, in turn, will pass on to his descendants. Moses also lays hands on Joshua, a self-made man, and invests him with the power to govern the Israelites—a power that does not appear to be hereditary.

But wait! As I was writing that paragraph, I realized that this incident actually represents something much more important than a debate over meritocracy and aristocracy. This is the first separation of church and state. Religious authority goes to the priest Eleazar, secular to the warrior-leader Joshua. Neither is supreme, and they are independent of each other. This is remarkably canny of Moses and the Lord. Moses, God's own prophet, was often unable to live up to the demands of his job—speaking for God and ruling the Israelites was too much for him. Whenever he went off up Mount Sinai in the service of the spiritual, for example, his unruly people would rebel and make trouble. And when he focused too much on the daily needs of the Israelites—as when he supplied them with water by striking the rock—he would neglect God's instructions. Splitting the authority allows the undistracted Joshua to carry out the gritty, down-to-earth work of conquering and settling the Promised Land. Meanwhile, the priests can make sure to pay attention to the Lord. (I know, I know—it's not separation of powers that would pass U.S. Supreme Court muster, because it's clear that Joshua answers to God, too. Still, it's a start.)

After all those draconian laws in Leviticus, this chapter is a liberal paradise—the first lawsuit, the first women's rights, and the church-state separation. If Chapter 27 only included a few sentences about a woman's right to choose, ACLU members would be brandishing copies of the Book of Numbers instead of the Constitution.

Thoughts on Blogging the Bible? Please e-mail David Plotz at plotzd@slate.com.(E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

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