The book of Numbers continues to elude me structurally. Neither an overall structure nor micro-structures within certain passages have revealed themselves yet.
There are so many dramatic passages like the Sotah (wife accused of acting unfaithfully), Naziriteship, consecration of the Levites to the Lord instead of the first-born, the second Passover, the marching order, the unrest of the people over “flesh” to eat and the quail that rains down upon them, Miriam and Aaron’s rebellion, the report of the spies and the ascendance of Caleb and Joshua, preliminary skirmishes with the Amalekites and Canaanites, a stoning of a man who gathers sticks on the Sabbath, the rebellion of Korach, the story of Zimri and Cozbi, the Midianitish woman, the daughters of Zelophehad. Threaded through it all are the murmurings, the plagues and judgments, the food theme, the numberings and namings and allocations. The structural mechanisms that support the texts of Leviticus and Genesis don’t seem to be present in this book, though.
Perhaps Numbers is more of a flow, a fitful movement forward, directed to forging the Children of Israel into a mission-focused marching force. One of the strongest clues to this overall direction is the phrase in Num. 15:39, when G-d commands fringes on the corners of Israelite garments so “you do not go about after your own heart and your own eyes, after which you used to go astray.”
Numbers, then, is a book about forging a people with a mission, a single-minded purpose, to remember and do all the Lord’s commandments and be holy to their G-d (Num. 15:40). The Children of Israel must develop the strength and sense of mission they will require to enter the Land of Israel. The time of wandering is coming to an end. Restiveness and distraction are luxuries they cannot afford.
Perhaps this urgency explains in part the horrific story of Numbers 25, when the people “go astray” after the daughters of Moab and then are further lured into worshiping their gods. G-d instructs Moses to hang the chiefs of the people up in the face of the sun, and Moses instructs his flock to kill those around them who went astray. Can we imagine the scene?
And then “one of the children of Israel came and brought unto his brethren a Midianitish woman in the sight of Moses, and in the sight of all the congregation of the children of Israel, while they were weeping at the door of the tent of meeting” (Num. 25:6). What could possibly have inspired this action in the context of what was already occurring? Certainly it was not a casual act but rather an action springing from rage or despair.
The action stirs Phinehas to grab a spear and go “after the man of Israel into the chamber” where he “thrust both of them through, the man of Israel, and the woman through her belly” (Num. 25:8). Even more startling, Phinehas’ rage and the action that results from it are rewarded as G-d recognizes him for saving his people.
Following a communal purging, a command to smite the Midianites with whom the Israelites recently fraternized, a recount of the people, the episode with the daughters of Zelophehad which asserts the importance and birthright of every part of the remaining community, and the appointment of Joshua, when all is in place for the next step — there is a section on sacrifice, described like this: “My food which is presented unto Me for offerings made by fire, of a sweet savour unto Me, shall ye observe to offer unto Me in its due season.” This thematic element is important, and I am noting it here to follow-up with on another occasion. The Midianites “called the people unto the sacrifices of their gods; and the people did eat, and bowed down to their gods” (Num. 25:2). Phinehas acts so that G-d does not consume the Israelites. The imagery of food and eating is central to the meaning, but this requires a separate analysis.
It is difficult for us to connect with the violence, even intra-communal violence of this text. Imagine living with a close-knit community of people for forty years, sharing the joys and tragedies of life with them, births, deaths, hardships and celebrations. You are at a resting place prior to entering the promised land and face formidable obstacles, possibly death, before you will rest again.
Your young people in particular want moments of enjoyment and relaxation before embarking on this final thrust into an unknown future. They party. They enjoy sexual liaisons. They share food. They relieve themselves of the burden of a mission and let their minds wander. Ultimately they lose any sense of purpose and mission. Suddenly the community is in the vortex of a bloodbath, one act of rage or despair stimulating another act of rage followed by a community turned on itself to eradicate the purposeless activity that threatens to destroy it.
I imagine an intense mix of emotions in this situation, but most of all I imagine being shocked into the strong sense of purpose and mission that the coming days will require. And immediately G-d commands another census, numbering all those of the Children of Israel twenty and older “able to go forth to war” (Num. 26:2). Those in the count are the most mission-focused of their people, the strongest and least susceptible to distraction. They are a chastened and hardened fighting force gathering in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho at the edge of the Land.
While it seems tragic that Moses is denied the opportunity to enter the Land with his people, Moses doesn’t dispute the decree but asks that the Lord appoint a man over the congregation, a man appropriate to lead the people on this segment of their mission. Joshua, a man who already demonstrated his commitment to the task before them, receives the commission.
The conscious choice theme of earlier chapters in the story of the Children of Israel has become a sharpened, mission-specific theme focused on entry to the Land. There the Children of Israel are expected to fulfill the most difficult task of all, remaining true to their covenant and establishing right relationships with their neighbors, the rest of their world and their G-d within the borders of the Land.
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