Numbers

Is the endless boring slog of reading Leviticus and Numbers intended to mimic the Israelites’ tedious decades-long trudge through the desert? At the beginning of Numbers, the Israelites have been in the desert for only two years and one month. This seems impossible, given that I feel like it has been at least fifty years since they left Egypt, but having recently lived through 2016 until now, I understand how a year can feel like a decade. 

The Lord is speaking to Moses now, because he’s instituting the first draft — all the men who are 20 or older will be going to war in Canaan. The draft also serves as a census, and do you think the Bible goes into tedious and excruciating detail about this? If you’ve been paying attention, you know it does! There were 603,550 Israelites at this point (not counting the Levites, who at first the Lord says were too holy to be included in the census but then a chapter later, he counts and they are 22,000) and the aptly-named Numbers damn near lists every last one of them. 

God is going through another micromanaging design mania, so he next details exactly how all the tribes are to pitch their tents, in what order and pattern, and facing where, and in what relation to the Tabernacle. 

Grab your popcorn for the next exciting installment of the Old Testament, wherein we learn how much in taxes each tribe will owe, and how that is to be determined! It is mildly interesting that the ceremony Aaron is to conduct on tax day heavily features badgers’ skins. 

The Lord goes on about the Tabernacle for awhile, and then we’re suddenly talking about exiling lepers again, and I’m really confused about the organization of this book, to be honest. There’s a long passage that explains how if a man is jealous and thinks his wife has slept with someone else, but he can’t prove it, he should bring her to the priest and they can do a ceremony where they make her drink some water and curse it, so that it will make her sick if she is guilty. 

Then there’s an interesting bit about being a Nazarite, which as best as I can tell is a man who intentionally separates himself from the rest of society for a time for holy reasons, and how exactly the Nazarite should shave and style his hair at various points of his atonement and when he’s ready to come back into the camp, and if I’d had the misfortune to be alive in all this mess, I’d be all about that Nazarite life. 

Then there’s page after page of cataloguing sacrifices and a lot of repetitive stuff about the Levites (every firstborn of every family in Israel will be named a Levite and conscripted into the priesthood to honor that time the Lord killed every firstborn child in Egypt — haha remember that? Good times.). 

Don’t touch a dead body during Passover. God will now lead them all as a cloud instead of the previous pillars of fire and smoke. There’s a whole long bit about making silver trumpets, and what the various trumpet blasts will signify. Honestly, Numbers seems like a miscellaneous collection of everything the writers of the Torah couldn’t fit in elsewhere. 

Then, there’s a narrative passage where the Bible is just basically like “time passes,” and as part of that, we get this: 

And when the people complained, it displeased the LORD: and the LORD heard it; and his anger was kindled; and the fire of the LORD burnt among them, and consumed them that were in the uttermost parts of the camp. 

And the people cried unto Moses; and when Moses prayed unto the LORD, the fire was quenched. 

The lord god has NO PATIENCE for whiners! As our Holy Father, he not only pulls the car over when you ask “are we there yet,” but he also puts your little ass out on the curb and then sets you on actual fire

And yet, immediately after this, the Israelites start bitching about how sick they are of eating manna all the time and how they miss meat. These people had zero sense of self-preservation. They actually all start crying when the manna falls next, they are such ungrateful drama queens. 

At this, Moses has had it. He rants at the LORD and asks why he’s been cursed with nursemaiding a bunch of mewling babies through the wilderness and what did he ever do to deserve all this and says the LORD should just kill him, because that’d be better than staying in this awful job a moment longer, and what middle-manager among us hasn’t thrown this tantrum at her boss at least once during a particularly bad bout of PMS, amirite? No? Just kidding, me neither. 

So God finally accepts that Moses has more responsibility than he can manage on his own, and He tells Moses to gather up 70 elders and he’ll split up the burden of the people amongst all of them. And meanwhile, God tells the people that if they want to eat meat so badly, he will fucking gag them with it: 

But even a whole month, until it come out at your nostrils, and it be loathsome unto you. 

This is God saying, “you want to smoke a cigarette so bad? I’m going to sit here till you smoke the whole pack.” 

So God sends a giant gang of quails into the camp and everyone eats of them, and yay! But NOPE, it is a bait-and-switch, for “And while the flesh was yet between their teeth, ere it was chewed, the wrath of the LORD was kindled against the people, and the LORD smote the people with a very great plague.” 

The LORD is basically done with the people, is what this comes down to, and so is Moses. And so am I! I’m really ready to move on from this desert journey! 

Miriam and Aaron (Moses’s sister and brother) decide this is as good a time as any to pick a fight with Moses over his having married an Ethiopian (Cushite) woman. Side note — scholars dispute whether or not this was Zipporah, who was Midianite. Some people say that it was and Miriam was just insulting her darkness by calling her a Cushite; others say there’s support for Moses having had a sort of pseudo-wife forced upon him when he was hiding in Cush earlier. The Bible could possibly have explained this a bit more, but it might have had to cut some of the approximately 8,000 pages devoted to burnt offerings to do it, so we can’t have that. Anyway, the LORD gets mad at the siblings for this, and strikes Miriam with leprosy. Let’s not get confused by this and think that the LORD is bothered by their racism here; Numbers makes perfectly clear that the LORD is very, very into racism. He just hates mouthy women. Moses and Aaron intercede on Miriam’s behalf, and the LORD says: 

If her father had but spit in her face, should she not be ashamed seven days? Let her be shut out from the camp seven days, and after that let her be received in again.

If my father ever spit in my face, I’d be a lot of things, but ashamed would not be high on that list. 

Then the LORD organizes a scouting party to go ahead and scope out the lands of Canaan that the Israelites are on their way to conquer, and the scouts come back and say that the good news is, there is hella fresh fruit in the new land, but the bad news is the land is populated by giants and they will be hard to fight. Apparently, the future gentrifiers of the Promised Land have been marching under the misconception that they won’t have to do any work to take over this land of milk and honey? Like, it’s just sitting there empty, waiting for them? So they all sit down in the dirt and start weeping and saying they’d be better off slaves in Egypt and so on, and they elect a captain to take them back to Egypt.

Of all the people to select as his Chosen Folk, the LORD has surely picked the weakest, whiniest crew he could possibly find. There are strapping pagans who do their own conquering and have neat hairstyles in every town around, but God has thrown his lot in with the Gen X of the Middle East. The LORD also feels this way and tells Moses (again) that he’s just going to smite all these people and fuck it, and Moses tells the LORD (again) that if He does that, the Egyptians will hear about it and it will make the LORD look bad. I don’t know why the LORD gives a hoot about the Egyptians’ opinions of him since he is, you know, THE ALMIGHTY GOD and all, and could just smite the Egyptians too, come to that, but this tactic always works on the LORD. He and Moses do this song-and-dance every few chapters. 

But let’s be real, God’s threats are empty anyhow — this whole desert fiasco has become a sunk-cost fallacy for everyone involved by this point. I mean, they have all invested I don’t know how many years in custom-building temples and wardrobes and furniture and curtains, and they have laboriously planned and written out the details of how they will run every single aspect of an entire future society, from how to cook a steak all the way up to how to orchestrate the entire economy. There’s nothing to do now but press on. 

Still, the LORD is not going to let this particular ungrateful bunch benefit from any of it, so he tells Moses that they’re going to keep marching in circles in the desert for forty years, until this current generation has died off entirely, for Thy God is a Petty God. His boy, Caleb, can still see the Promised Land, but he only likes Caleb at this point — everyone but Caleb sucks. Well, and Joshua. Joshua’s ok. But everyone else! 

A bunch of the Israelites are like, nuts to that, we’re spitting distance to the land of Canaan and we’re going in. I don’t really understand this, since a minute ago, they were all ready to go back to Egypt and return to slavery rather than face the giants of Canaan, but now they march on into Canaan against advisement and are immediately slain by the natives. Everyone else packs up and gets to wandering. Forty more years of the same, and of course, the LORD immediately starts in on more descriptions of exactly how and when to offer more types of burnt offerings, because are you really even in the desert if you aren’t on the business end of an endless droning monologue about policy and ritual and daily minutiae from the least imaginative deity mankind has ever managed to dream up? 

Seriously, can you imagine Zeus spending forty years droning on about burnt offerings and sexual hygiene and leprosy? Zeus did not have time for that shit; Zeus was a God who fucked. Why of all the Gods to follow for thousands of years did we pick the Ben Stein of Gods? White people! 

Anyway, the Israelites at least get to take a brief break from the endless lecturing to stone a guy they find gathering sticks on the Sabbath. As a contemporary liberal, I don’t go in much for primitive group murder, but if God said to me, “hey, you can take an hour break to participate in a stoning, or we can just press on with how to fringe the edges of all your clothes and where specifically to edge things in blue ribbon,” I’d go full Lottery on my own mother. 

Then there is some sort of power struggle where a family feels like Moses has dragged everyone out into the desert to set himself up as a king among them, and the LORD again offers to smite everyone but Moses and Aaron — His offers along these lines are increasing of late — and Moses again talks Him down from it. Instead, Moses convinces the LORD to open the ground beneath the feet of this one tribe and swallow them up as a lesson. Which — and you won’t believe this — frightened everyone! So because they ran and screamed, the LORD went ahead and set 250 of them on fire. Which made the people even madder and they turned more against Moses, so the LORD again asked Moses if he could please, please just kill them all. He sent a plague that killed 14,700 people before Aaron was able to appease him with some sort of incense ritual. 

Then there is a very long passage about another ritual where all the houses of Israel selected a special rod to represent their house (“and they looked, and took every man his rod”), and the teenage boy in me snickered all the way through this bit. Aaron’s rod was a very special rod and the LORD asked Moses to display Aaron’s rod to all the congregation and to taunt the rebels with it, until they all acknowledged that Aaron had the most impressive and authoritative rod. 

Order thus restored, we’re back to burnt offerings, tithes, threshing floor leavings, and purification rituals. 

And then they run out of water, and — quelle surprise — the people begin to cry and say they’d be better off in Egypt. But this time, instead of offering to smite them all, God tells Moses how to get them some water. He tells Moses to take that magic rod and speak to a certain rock, and it will give them water, but Moses decides to add a little showmanship to the proceedings, and he strikes the rock with his rod. 

Now, look. 

We know all that Moses has been through, and all that he has done for the LORD and His people over years and years and chapters and books of all this nonsense. Moses has gagged down reams of orders and statutes, Moses has performed endless rituals, Moses has taken so much dictation his hands must be permanently deformed from it, and through all this, he has not so much as embroidered a bell wrong on a priestly undergarment. He has absorbed endless whining and crying and rebellion from a people he does not love and did not grow up with, all while starving to death in the fucking desert. Everything the LORD has told him to do, he has done it faithfully. And all this despite the fact that he never asked for this job! In fact, he begged the LORD to have anyone but him do it! 

And now, because one time — ONE TIME! — he adds a bit of a flourish to the act, the LORD tells him that he will die in the desert himself, and will never be privileged to enter the land of Canaan. And let us not forget that earlier in Exodus when they’d run out of water, the LORD had told Moses to strike a rock about it. So it’s not even like there’s no precedent for this — this was the way God had TOLD him to do it before! 

Moses has taken all God’s abuse over the years and has done nothing in return but sing His praises and be supportive of all His whims, only for God to turn around and do him dirty like this in the end. I’ve seen the LORD pull a lot of lowdown shit in the first four books of the Bible, but this is really beyond it all. It genuinely makes me angrier than anything else the LORD has done so far — and I have watched Him casually set babies on fire multiple times because their parents were being annoying.

Yet even now, Moses doesn’t throw his staff down in the desert and leave God to see how well he manages without old Moses to kick around. No, he just dutifully works out his notice, like it was all his idea.  

The Israelites get ready to pass through Edom and Moses asks the Edomites if they can just pass through and not touch anything, but the Edomites say no. So Moses and crew pull back to nearby mount Hor and think about things for a bit, and God takes this opportunity to say, “hey, also I thought about it more, and I want for Aaron to go ahead and die right here because you struck that rock to get the water out.” 

HAHAHAHA, Aaron’s gotten away with so much, I’m delighted by this turn of events! Per the LORD’s orders, Moses takes Aaron to the top of Mount Hor, strips him of his priestly garments and puts them on his son, Eleazar, and then Aaron dies. I hope this was a little bit of joy for poor old Moses — at least he got to give worthless Aaron a good kick in the priestly nuts before he died. 

Then, we have a very abrupt transition into King Arad the Canaanite hearing about the earlier Israeli scouting party and attacking the Israelites and taking some of them as prisoners. The Israelites ask God to help them and He delivers up the Canaanites to the Israelites and they utterly destroy them and their cities. 

We seem to have skipped quite a lot here — just a couple of chapters ago, the Israelites were so intimidated at the idea of fighting the Canaanites that they made a plan to return to Egypt and God killed tens of thousands of them in retaliation. Now all of a sudden, the Israelites are confident warmongers who know the LORD is on their team? 

And then in the very next chapter, the Israelites are going back to Edom and they’re back to their old refrain about the LORD bringing them out of Egypt to die in the wilderness and “our soul loatheth this light bread” and the LORD sends fiery serpents into the people to bite them and many of them died. 

I’m getting whiplash from all this. How on earth are these people so stupid that they forgot that when they complained about the bread and the wilderness like a mere month ago, they got the Divine Smiting of their lives? And here they are doing it again!? It seems more likely that whoever wrote Numbers was drunk and is just repeating the same incident multiple times. Anyway, Moses intervenes with the LORD again, and He tells Moses to make a brass serpent on a pole and then anyone bit by the fire serpent can look at the brass serpent as an antidote. 

Sure, why not. 

Then, the Israelites travel for a long time, conquering various lands and peoples and developing a fierce reputation. Is it at all possible that there are two entirely different nations of Israel — one being a bunch of complaining milksops, and the other being a fierce, organized invading army — and Numbers is just sort of conflating them? 

Next, there’s a very funny anecdote wherein a guy called Balaam is approached to join some forces mobilizing against the newly threatening nation of Israel, and God gets involved and says something to Balaam about how he should go when called but also not go (? I don’t really understand this), and the next day Balaam gets on his ass and heads out. As they ride along, God (who is mad, because Balaam apparently did the wrong thing) sends an angel to stand in their way with sword in hand, and the ass is like, “Ooop, nope, not doing that!” and swerves off into a field. But Balaam beats the ass to get it to ride forward. Then, the angel moves over and stands between two narrow walls, and the ass is like, “aargh” and runs into the wall, crushing Balaam’s foot, and he beats the ass again. Then, the angel stands in an even narrower pass, and the ass just plunks down in the road and refuses to move. Balaam beats it again. Then, the LORD lets the ass talk, and the ass says, “Stop it, quit!” And Balaam says, “Don’t mock me, ass, if I had a sword, I’d kill you right now.” And the ass says, “That is super hurtful, I have been your very own ass that you’ve ridden for years now, and we’ve always had a good relationship. You should trust me by now that if I don’t want to go forward, there’s a reason for it.” And then the LORD opens Balaam’s eyes to the angel. Then, the angel yells at Balaam for beating his poor ass, and takes the ass’s side in it all! 

I am 100% behind this Biblical pivot to adorable anthropomorphic animal stories and moralistic tales about being kind to pets. Balaam’s ass is my favorite character so far! (Is it beating a dead ass by now to point out that this donkey receives more agency, respect, and characterization than has as yet been given to any woman in the four books so far?)

Then, Balaam goes around to the opposing rulers and speaks on behalf of the LORD, and there’s an incredibly long and boring section about the various rulers making burnt offerings and lots of word-of-mouth telephone about why they’re doing it and how, and we don’t get any further insight into what their livestock think about it all. It’s all pretty tedious with all kinds of people just talking about how great and all-powerful God is, and sure, #thathappened, let’s remember who the author is here. 

And then comes my favorite verse of Numbers

And Israel abode in Shittim, and the people began to commit whoredom with the daughters of Moab. 

Poetry!

As is par for the course in Numbers, this transition is very abrupt. Do you think the LORD was ok with this behavior from the Israelites? You know he was not, because you are able to retain information and learn from patterns! I don’t know why the Israelites can’t. 

The LORD kills 24,000 Israelites this time. It’s a wonder anyone is left to reach the land of Canaan after all this desert slaughter. This plague is stopped by one of the sons of Aaron putting a javelin through the belly of both a Midianitish woman and an Israeli man she was with in a single blow! The LORD absolutely loves this hate crime (see earlier remarks about the LORD being super down with racism), and promotes the guy who committed it. 

Numbers ends with another census, during which the LORD reminds everyone of the status of all the various tribes in His eyes based on their behavior throughout the desert trip. Also, Joshua is ordained as Moses’s successor. And then, just when I thought I was fully out of the woods, the LORD starts talking about burnt offerings again, for pages upon pages upon pages. 

There’s a brief passage about how seriously to take a promise by a woman, which I guess God had forgotten to include in the earlier rulebooks and so just threw in here in the middle of a bunch of unrelated stuff, and then very suddenly, there’s a war! 

The war is against the Midianites, who need to be destroyed because the Israelite men were sleeping with the Moabite women (see above). It remains unexplained how the Midianites and the Moabites are even connected (they are not the same, I looked it up), and also Moses’s first wife Zipporah was a Midianite women herself, so what the hell is any of this even about? Who knows! Had I been advising in an editorial capacity at the time, I might have gently suggested that the writers trim back some of the voluminous burnt offering content in favor of spending a bit more time in building up to this first major war. But not only do they not do that, the entire war itself is dispensed with in only a few lines. The Israelites burn the Midianite villages to the ground and slaughter everyone, but take all the virgins alive, and we all know what that means (although modern-day Christians will pretend for all the world that they don’t)! 

Moses says, “Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.” 

Whatever will they do with them?!? Presumably just give them some lunch? They scored 32,000 virgins — that’s a lot of manna-and-lamb sandwiches. I guess it was only an abomination in the LORD’s eyes when the Israelite men were sleeping with consenting foreign women.  

Finally, there’s a good deal of business about dividing up the spoils of war, and some negotiations about who is going to fight which battles and settle which lands in future, which is a bit confusing and even more boring. But I’ve been promised a ton of action in the next book, and I had better get it. I’m telling you right now, if I even so much as see the words “burnt offering” in Deuteronomy, I’m going to shave the corners of my head, work on a Saturday, top a lady, cook us up a big shellfish dinner while I’m on my period, and then curse at my parents for dessert. I’m not playing, God! 

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