Friday, August 5

Numbers 29: This chapter, continuing the theme of the sanctification of time, moves from spring to autumn.

In Israel's ancient calendar, as reflected in this and the previous chapter, we observe a concentration of focus on the spring and the autumn, the two “transitional” seasons, moving from cold to warm and from warm to cold, from darkness to light and from light to darkness. These seasons, then, serve as the annual representations of each day's morning and evening. The sundry feasts associated with these two seasons become a kind of annual Matins and Vespers.

The autumnal “seventh month” (Tishri) is the exact correspondent to our own word “September” (from the Latin septem, meaning “seven.”) In fact, the ancient month Tishri overlaps September and October.

As the “seventh” month, Tishri is the most important and sacred month. As we see in the present chapter, there are three feasts associated with it:

The first is the feast of the trumpet, which heralds the month itself (verse 1). In later days, this trumpet announced the new year; the day was then called Rosh Hashanah, “the head of the year”—that is, New Year’s Day. In addition to the daily, weekly, and monthly sacrifices, there are special sacrifices associated with this feast itself (verses 2-6).

It is worth remarking that the Orthodox Church still begins the liturgical year on the first day of the seventh month—September—and calls it “the crown of the year.” Obviously, neither Jews nor Christians see a discrepancy with beginning the new year in the seventh month!

The prescribed blowing of the trumpet is reminiscent of the blowing of the trumpet associated with Joshua’s storming of Jericho, to begin the conquest of the Holy Land. It is passing curious that the Orthodox Church also celebrates Joshua’s feast on September 1.

Because this beginning of autumn falls on the first day of the seventh month (verse 1), its prescriptions specify that the appointed sacrifices be done in addition to the regular sacrifices designated for each month (verse 6).

The autumnal season goes on to include Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (verses 7-11), which always falls on the tenth day of Tishri (cf. Acts 27:9 – If, as we are justified in suspecting, this was the year A.D. 59, then the Day of Atonement was October 5.) Requiring an extra day of rest, this feast has a Sabbath quality.

Finally comes the Feast of Tabernacles, Sukkoth (verses 12-40), which lasts an entire week and requires more detailed instructions. This feast, always occurring in the seventh month, also has about it a kind of Sabbath character, in the sense that it involves a time of rest (verses 12,35).

During the course of the weeklong Feast of Tabernacles, there is a gradual diminishing of the number of bullocks sacrificed on each day. There are thirteen on the first day (verse 13), twelve on the second day (verse 17), eleven on the third day (verse 20), and so on (verses 23,26,29,32), finishing with only one bullock on the eighth day (verse 36). That is to say, this feast has about it a quality of “winding down,” as it were.

The Sacred Text specifies that these “set feasts” (verse 39) do not exhaust the potential for Israel's piety as represented in the appointed sacrifices. There could and should be further “freewill offering” as the fervor of the people would dictate.

Nor does this list of the feast days preclude the addition of others at later times, such as Purim during the Persian era and Hanukah during the Greek period.

Saturday, August 6

Numbers 30: From the “freewill offerings” mentioned in the previous chapter (29:39) there is a reasonable transition to the vows treated in the present chapter.

Because the Israelites shared, with most other religious people, a positive view of vows (cf. Genesis 28:20-22), the subject of vows did not require a systematic or philosophical treatment. Nor would it require much legislation except for those occasions when a vow is impossible, unadvisable, or even harmful to keep. The present chapter considers such cases.

That is to say, the substance of this chapter is casuistry, or case law. It also presumes the earlier biblical legislation about vows (cf. Leviticus 5:4; 7:16-18; 22:17-25; 27:1-31; Numbers 6:2-21; 15:1-10) and then goes on to look at specific cases.

The major principle about vows is enunciated at once: Vows are morally binding (verse 1). More particularly, they are binding on a man, a male person ('ish) who is socially and politically free to observe it. A woman, however, who is normally under male authority, represents a different set of cases.

The first case is the unmarried woman who is still under paternal authority. She is bound by such vows as her father permits (verses 3-4). Otherwise she is not (verse 5).

Similarly, a married woman, living under the authority of a husband, must observe such vows as he approves (verses 6-7; cf. 1 Samuel 1:11). Otherwise, no (verse 8).

In the case of a widow or divorced woman, who is under no male authority, her vows are treated exactly like those of a man (verse 9), unless the husband had formerly determined otherwise (verses 10-15).

The general line of reasoning in this chapter is clear: Of their very nature, vows involve supererogation—they are added on to the existing and presupposed order of things. If they are found to be in conflict with the social order, those responsible for that order—husbands and fathers—have the authority to abrogate them.

Vows are to be observed, therefore, except in those cases where they may threaten the stability of order. This line of reasoning has always guided the Christian Church's own discipline of vows.

Sunday, August 7

Numbers 31: Except for a recent skirmish with the Amorites a few chapters ago, the armies of Israel have not been involved in much fighting for a long time. The recent oracles of Balaam, however, indicate that Israel is now a significant military power, and we know that its armies will soon cross the Jordan to conquer Canaan. Hence, it is time to review some of the rules for warfare, specifically as they pertain to prisoners and spoils. Such is the burden of the present chapter, in which, once again, a prompting narrative precedes the rules.

Moses, before his death, must oversee Israel's vengeance on the Midianites (verse 2). This task, which involves only a fraction of Israel's forces (verses 3-6), is explained by Numbers 25:18, where we learned of collusion between Moab and Midian in the moral seduction of young Israelites. That collusion also explains why Balaam is one of the casualties of the present conflict (verse 8).

Israel's force of twelve thousand is accompanied by Phineas, the warlike priest who is charged with blowing the trumpet (verse 6).

The reported execution of every Midianite male (verse 7) should be understood with something less than mathematical exactness, since we know that the Midianites in the next generation will be stronger than ever (cf. Judges 6).

This successful exercise in warfare brought certain practical problems attendant on military victory, chiefly what to do with the surviving captives and their possessions (verses 9-12). Moses is upset that ANY enemies survived the battle (verse 14). After all, were not these the very women who had corrupted Israel's youth just a few chapters back (verse 16)? In the end he permits only the virgins to be spared, in order to become wives for the Israelites (verse 18).

The ensuing slaughter of the women and little boys rightly offends our moral sense. If it did not, we would be in sorry shape, I think; it might suggest that the Sermon on the Mount has not taken sufficient hold on our conscience.

The Bible’s report of this event also cautions us, however, against elevating our moral sense in an absolute way that would challenge the holiness of God. This incident of the Moabites and Midianites was an attack on the holiness of God, and therefore it involved something more than a merely human offense. Although we correctly disapprove of killing women and children in the context of war, and more especially when the war is already over, our correct moral disapprobation is not the last word on the subject. Even when our moral judgment is correct, it is still inadequate to deal with the holiness and righteous judgments of God.

In the execution of the Midianites we touch on the holiness and righteousness of God, which so transcends the moral sense of man that its activity—as exemplified here—may strike man's moral sense in offensive ways. It is imperative that we ever bear in mind that God is holier than even the most moral of moral men. This is all to say that man's morality is one thing—and a very good thing—but the holiness and righteousness of God is something infinitely more.

All killing of human beings, even when blood is justly shed in combat, defiles and requires cleansing (verses 19-20). This does not mean that the shedding of blood in these circumstances is morally wrong. On the contrary, the shedding of blood in a just war is morally correct and may even qualify as an act of charity. (What else but genuine charity for our countrymen, including our own families and immediate neighbors, would prompt us, at the extreme risk to our own lives, to kill our enemies in combat? This perception explains why the Christian Church has always provided blessings and other prayers for the armed forces of our nations.)

Still, such bloodshed falls infinitely short of the purity necessary for entering into God's presence in worship. This is the reason why a prescribed purification process is necessary. Indeed, this is another example in which the holiness of God stands infinitely above even the highest morality of man. (The Christian Church, therefore, has always placed certain canonical, sacramental restraints on those who take the enemy’s life in warfare—not because such shedding of blood is morally wrong, but because it does not adequately reflect the holiness and righteousness of God’s house.) Following this narrative comes the rules for the disposition of persons and booty captured in war (verses 22-40). A percentage of these spoils was dedicated to divine service, very much like the fruits of labor (verses 41-54).

This chapter's final section displays the same concern for numerical exactness and tabulation that we have elsewhere seen in this book appropriately called Numbers.

Monday, August 8

Numbers 32: Life is soon to change for the Chosen People. They have never been sedentary, not even in Egypt, where they lived as semi-nomadic shepherds. Now, however, they are to become farmers, the very type of people most tied to the land.

The differences between these two ways of life (exemplified as far back as Cain and Abel) are not reducible simply to their sources of livelihood. The differences extend, rather, to the entire social structure, particularly government and systems of loyalty.

Not all the Israelites are equally keen on making this transition to agriculture and vine-growing, especially those tribes that have been most successful in raising herds. These included, especially, the tribes of Reuben and Gad, which now announce their preference to remain in the good grazing land east of the Jordan (verses 1-5).

Moses' immediate objection to this suggestion concerns Israel's diminished military strength, if its forces were to be reduced by two tribes. He likens the request of these two tribes to the earlier incident when the twelve spies brought back a discouraging word from their inspection of the Holy Land. Indeed, this discouragement is the point of the comparison (verses 6-15; compare Judges 5:16-17). The tribes of Gad and Reuben, by way of response, declare their intention (after securing their own families on land east of the Jordan) to remain with the invading force until all the Promised Land is conquered (verses 16-19).

Moses agrees to this arrangement (verses 20-24), and the two tribes repeatedly pledge their cooperation (verses 25-27,31-32). Moses announces the compromise to the rest of Israel's leadership (verses 28-30).

Half the tribe of Manasseh, whose recent significant growth we have already had occasion to observe, is added to the two tribes inheriting land east of the Jordan (verse 33), and the chapter ends with a list of new Israelite villages and strongholds in that territory (verses 34-42).

In this chapter the “compromise” between Moses and the petitioning tribes is recorded, with no explicit comment on its moral and theological ambivalence. This approach permits the Bible-reader to reflect on it freely, in the light of the biblical story as a whole. Was this a good compromise, or was it simply the accommodation accorded to an infidelity? That is to say, was Moses’ decision in this case similar to the Old Testament provision for divorce?—“Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce” (Matthew 19:8).

An initial impression suggests comparing Moses’ accommodation on this point with the accommodation Samuel later makes to the Israelites’ request for a king. That is to say, just as the Lord, through His servant Samuel, permitted Israel to adopt the monarchy—in spite of the infidelity involved in that request—so the Lord, through His servant Moses, permitted these petitioning tribes to settle east of the Jordan.

Closer inspection of the text, however, indicates a problem with this parallel. In the case of the monarchy, the Lord is seen to incorporate the infidelity of the Israelites into His larger historical plan: the Messiah would be born in the lineage of Israel’s second king. We find nothing of this sort in the eastern expansion of Israel’s geography: It simply happens; the event never takes on a larger theological significance. Indeed, the Lord Himself is not even consulted in this chapter!

A more modest, and even cautionary, approach to this question seems warranted: From patristic times, as evidenced in Origen’s Homilies on Numbers, it has been common to regard those Israelites who settled east of the Jordan as something less than fully committed believers: they belonged to the people of God, but they failed to measure up to a full commitment. They are the oligopistoi—“those of little faith.”

Two facts support this interpretation:

First, these tribes received their inheritance, not from the Lord, but from Moses (verse 33). Settling in the land of Gilead was never regarded as something God had in mind. It was their idea, and Moses, near the end of his life, did not believe it worthwhile to deny their request.

Second, the tribes that settled in the land of Gilead were subject to unusually difficult pressures in the centuries that followed, as various peoples east of the Jordan, such as Nahash the Ammonite (1 Samuel 11), looked upon that rich grazing land with a covetous eye. The plight of the “easterners” became particularly acute with the ascendancy of Syria in the mid-eighth century.

It is worth remarking that the Jews laid no claim on the land east of the Jordan in either of their two historical “restorations”—neither at the end of the Babylonian Captivity nor at the foundation of the modern state of Israel. This land, so attractive to Gad, Reuben, and half of Manasseh, was not within the borders of the land of promise. As with Moses’ concession with respect to divorce, it was proper to assert, “from the beginning it was not so.”

Tuesday, August 9

Numbers 33: As Israel's long journey draws nigh to its end, the inspired author of this book thinks it an opportune time to recount the stages, since Egypt, that the Chosen People have traveled (verse 1). This list is based on Moses’ own “log” of the trip, but the Lord Himself directed this recording of it (verse 2).

For us readers, nonetheless, identifying each of these places is a far from certain exercise. When the desert is called a “trackless waste,” full consideration should be given to that description. Deserts and their shifting sands are notoriously deficient in stable landmarks, and this record antedates by far the art of calculating one's precise geographical position by reference to the stars. In addition, archeology has not been able, in every instance, to identify the place names listed in this chapter. If it did, we could confidently map out the entire period of Israel's desert wandering.

An illustration of our difficulty is immediately provided by the name “Sukkoth,” which means tents or booths. It may be the case that this place received its name for no other reason than the fact that Israel pitched its tents there. Thus, when the tents were moved, it was more difficult to find the place!

The place names in the list in verses 5-15 correspond very closely to the account in Exodus 12:37-19:2. Dophkah (12-13), a name not included in Exodus, seems to be what is now called Serabit el Khadem, a site of turquoise mining in the south of the Sinai Peninsula. One suspects that Alush, also missing from Exodus, gave its name to Wadi el'esh, just south of Dophkah.

Kadesh, which Israel reaches by verse 36, is not desert at all. It is a lush valley with abundant spring water. The major spring was Ain el-Qudeirat, twelve miles from which is found Ain Qudeis, an Arabic name that still preserves the name “Kadesh.”

Wednesday, August 10

Numbers 34: The present chapter may be read as a contrast with the chapter we have just finished, and this contrast pertains to both time and place. Having looked backwards in the previous chapter, the inspired writer now turns his attention to the future, and as the former chapter took the measure of the desert, the present chapter will measure the Promised Land.

The large territory considered in the first half of this chapter (verses 2-15) was not all conquered during Joshua's period of conquest. Not until the monarchy in the tenth century before Christ did Israel occupy such a large area.

Nonetheless, the territory outlined here really does correspond very closely to the “Canaan” over which earlier Egyptian pharaohs exercised dominion until the close of the fourteenth century before Christ. In this sense it would have seemed normal to Moses and his contemporaries to think of Canaan (verse 2) in these same dimensions. Having come up from the south, Moses first considered Canaan's southern border. Under Israel's occupation this southern border will be the land of Edom (verse 3)-that is, a line running westward from the border of the Dead Sea to the Mediterranean (cf. Joshua 15”3-4; Ezekiel 47:19). The Wadi el-Arish (“river of Egypt”—verse 5) serves as a kind of natural division of the Negev from the Sinai Peninsula.

The “sea” (verse 5) and “great sea” (verse 6) are references to the Mediterranean, Israel's natural western border.

On the north a line running eastward from the Mediterranean, somewhat north of Byblos, to the desert beyond Damascus, will border Israel. Zedad is northeast of Mount Hermon (verse 7-9).

Respecting the eastern border of Canaan, its northeastern corner will be Benaias (a later name, derived from the Greek god, Pan), the major source of the Jordan River. Then the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan, and the Dead Sea will roughly form the natural eastern border (verses 11-12).

We note that these boundaries completely exclude the land recently claimed by Gad, Reuben, and half of Manasseh. These latter tribes, therefore, are not considered in the division of the land just circumscribed (verse 13-15).

The chapter ends by listing the names of the men charged with the division of the Holy Land (verse 16-29).

Thursday, August 11

Numbers 35: Part of the disposition of the Promised Land, a theme now continued from the previous chapter, is the arrangement for regional “cities of refuge.” These were special places of sanctuary for those whose lives were endangered by families seeking blood vengeance.

Since these assigned cities of refuge were all priestly cities, however, the chapter begins with the disposition of the priestly cities (cf. also Leviticus 25:32-34; Joshua 21:1-40). The tribe of Levi, the priestly tribe, was to inherit forty-eight cities, including the six cities of refuge, dispersed throughout the whole Promised Land (verses 6-7). Attached to this inheritance is pastureland in the vicinity of the priestly cities (verses 2-5).

Most of this chapter, however, is devoted to the cities of refuge themselves (verses 10-34). Because they were priestly cities, these cities of refuge had shrines and altars that would serve as precincts of sanctuary (cf. Exodus 21:14; 1 Kings 1:51).

Three were assigned to Canaan, three to Transjordania (verse 14).

These assigned cities served two discrete purposes: first, to guarantee that no retributive action would be taken against an accused killer until a fair trial could determine whether or not his offense was intentional; and second, to provide a haven for such a one, after the trial, against those still disposed to take vengeance on him anyway. In both cases, the function of the “city of refuge” was to place rational and political restraints on the exercise of revenge.

While the more obvious category involved in the institution of sanctuary is spatial (that is, the setting apart of a measured precinct), it has another dimension that may be called “temporal” (that is, the setting apart of a measured time). The institution implies an “until.” Thus, the accused could not be harmed until he was properly tried (verse 12). If granted further asylum at that trial, the accused person was safe until the death of the high priest (Joshua 20:6). In regard to the heat of avenging passion, the biblical text shows here a conspicuous respect for the therapeutic influence of time. It recognizes that time is not on the side of passion but of reason. Thus, these cities of refuge, beyond the political and judicial significance conveyed in their literal and historical sense, are also possessed of a moral and ascetical meaning. As institutions of restraint, they represent a healthy distrust of impetuosity. They stand for the rational mind's control over the passions, especially an avenging anger that feels itself to be righteous. This institution embodies the truth that “the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:20).

Experience indicates that the passions, if not deliberately fueled and stoked, are marked by a native entropy. They resemble, in this respect, the flames often invoked to describe them. Left to themselves, the passions tend to diminish over time. Thus, wrath must act quickly, as it were, because it knows that its time is short (Revelation 12:12). Generally speaking, time is no friend to the passions.

Time is on the other side—that of reason. Reason, therefore, unlike the passions, knows how to wait. Reason is the realm of thought, and thought, unlike passion, requires the discipline of time. Consequently, properly cultivated reason is “slow to anger” (Proverbs 16:32; James 1:19).

Furthermore, reason is a bulwark of assured self-possession. Indeed, reason is slow precisely because it is confident. Reason can “take its time,” because, unlike the passions, reason deliberately invests in time. Time is one of reason's most interest-bearing endowments, its long-term investment.

The true city of refuge, then, is the mind godly cultivated in the art of patience, cautious of the impromptu, wary of impulse, and suspicious of “quick returns.” Its manner is slow, deliberate. As a result, no blood is shed within its precincts; the avenger is restrained and sternly reprimanded at its gates.

Friday, August 12

Numbers 36: The Book of Numbers ends with a final determination about the property of five heiresses, the topic of an earlier discussion (27:1-11). The question raised in this chapter is directed to the inheritance of this property in the event that the inheriting heiress marries outside of her own tribe (verse 3). That is to say, what is needed is a further clarification of the earlier ruling, and Moses perceives the need for this clarification (verse 5).

The solution to the difficulty is a prohibition against these heiresses—if they do claim their inheritance—marrying outside their own tribe, lest the inherited property be lost to that tribe (verse 7). This solution is consistent with the intention of the earlier disposition—namely, to preserve in integrity the inheritance of each tribe and family (verse 8).

These heiresses dutifully conform to the prescribed arrangement (verses 10-13).

The last verse of this book asserts divine sanction for the decisions and judgments made throughout chapters 22-36, raising them to the same level of authority as the commandments received on Mount Sinai.

The legal determination in this chapter was consistent with an overriding preoccupation in the allotment of the Promised Land among Israel’s tribes: A concern to distribute the available real estate evenly, so that no one family or group should gain—at least initially—an undue prominence or advantage over the others.

This concern was the reason why, when the land was apportioned, the task fell to representatives of all the tribes (34:16-29). These men were to guarantee an equitable distribution, based on an elementary principle: “And you shall divide the land by lot as an inheritance among your families; to the larger you shall give a larger inheritance, and to the smaller you shall give a smaller inheritance; everyone’s shall be whatever falls to him by lot. You shall inherit according to the tribes of your fathers” (33:54).

This arrangement, bolstered by Israel’s jubilee rule (cf. Leviticus 25:10-34), encouraged a rough equality of resources in Israel, not only among the tribes, but also among individual households. The inspiration for this system may be described as a benign egalitarianism. It would distinguish Israel from the money-grubbing nations round about.

This egalitarianism, on the whole, lasted for centuries. Even as late as the reign of Solomon (961-922), it could be said, “Judah and Israel dwelt safely, each man under his vine and his fig tree” (1 Kings 4:25).

Afterwards, this benign egalitarianism was corroded by Israel’s commercial dealings with Israel’s neighbors, chiefly the Phoenicians. We detect an early example of this corrosion in the ninth century, in the case of the seizure of Naboth’s vineyard by Ahab and Jezebel. It is worth observing that the outspoken critic of this seizure was the prophet Elijah (1 Kings 21).