The Old Testament: Numbers and Deuteronomy
Numbers and Deuteronomy complete the Pentateuch/Torah- the books of Moses depicting the creation of the world, the delivery of the Jews out of Egypt, the establishment of the tribes of Israel and their laws. To my mind, the two major themes in Numbers and Deuteronomy are Conquest and Commandments.
First: conquest. In Numbers, Moses and Aaron organize twelve tribes of Israel (those of Reuben, Judah, Dan, Asher, Naphtali, Simeon, Gad, Issachar, Zebulun, Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin) that are “able to go forth to war”. The Levites, meanwhile, are appointed over the tabernacle of Testimony. The tabernacle is a sanctuary and the “stranger that cometh nigh shall be put to death.” (3:38)
As the tribes have come out of Egypt and grown significantly, they need lands to settle in, and these books are largely about the wars of conquest to acquire those lands, at God’s command. Whenever I see stories about religious zealots fighting over plots of land in the Levant, it seems strange to me to think of God as a real estate agent assigning property to His people. But I forget that three of the world’s religions consider the Old Testament a holy book, and it’s one in which God does exactly this. In several verses of Numbers and Deuteronomy, God calls on the tribes of Israel to go to war with impious nations and smash their idols, kill their men, take their wives and children, and burn their cities. These conquest stories are part of the heritage of a majority of the world’s believers. Nevertheless, if God talks to you and assigns you a plot of Promised Land, it might be good to find out if you are intended to be atop it or beneath it.
While obedient, Israel is destined to conquer many nations, including the Hittites, Amorites, Girgashites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Midianites, Hivites and Jebusites. When Sihon, king of Heshbon, makes war against the Israelites, they kill him, his sons, and people, take the cities and slaughter all of the men, women, and children. (D 2:34) They do the same to Og, king of Bashan, who fights them against the advice of Balaam- who I think is intended as an example of a non-Jew who nonetheless receives prophecy and is made obedient. In some cases, the destroyed cities attack the tribes of Israel and in others they’re attacked by the tribes. In most cases, women and children were spared, and military conquest is enough of a theme that the Torah specifies how to make a wife out of a woman taken in war.
All of this fighting serves as proof that God protects those people who are obedient and destroys those who are not. I think much is summarized by Deuteronomy 11: 22-23, in which the people of Israel are told that, if they keep the commandments of the Lord, He shall drive out all their enemies before them. Victories show God’s loyalty and defeats show God’s displeasure. But when the people of God are called upon to wage war, not doing so is an abomination.
This brings up the commandments. Deuteronomy especially reiterates the laws of the Israelites. The Ten Commandments are central. An interesting variation on the commandment against adultery: a jealous husband must come to the priest and make a “jealousy offering” of barley meal. The wife is then instructed to drink holy water that, if she is defiled, will be bitter and rot her inside. Then she and her lover are separated from the community and stoned to death. This is brutal, but not uncharacteristic of the time. If I remember the Babylonian law correctly, there an adulteress was supposed to be drowned following strangulation.
Patriarchal norms nevertheless strike us as cruel- here, a girl must be a virgin at marriage; if it’s found she was lying about this and had “played the whore in her father’s house”, she is to be stoned to death. A male cannot violate an oath made in the Lord’s name, but a female may violate such an oath if her father is displeased with it. On the plus side of the female ledger, rapists are killed. Perhaps the strangest marital law is Deuteronomy 25:11-12: if two men are fighting and the wife of one tries to break up the fight by grabbing her husband by his “secrets”, you must cut off her hand and show her no mercy. I would love to hear suggestions as to the modern-day application of this law.
A central theme is purity and bodily cleanliness. Before making a vow unto the Lord, one must separate oneself- fasting, leaving the hair uncut, and drinking no alcohol. Water is purifying as is shaving the body. One must be purified after touching a dead body. Whoredom can corrupt an entire congregation. There is an element of primitive taboo here. Sin is physically manifested in the body. The impurity of sin pollutes the community and even the land. A modern equivalent might be the physical ravages of long-term drug abuse.
Given how severe the punishments are, it’s surprising how many Israelites still rebel. Several disobedient congregations are consumed by plague or other disasters throughout the books. One generation is forced to wander in the desert for forty years and, eventually, the Jews will lose their lands. Aaron, the brother of Moses, is condemned for his lack of belief and left to die. The tribes are frequently ready to mutiny and Moses suffers under the burden, asking God to kill him. Instead, God has the chiefs of the tribes appointed as leaders and judges and gives others the gift of prophecy.
Moses is also weak. It could be the Charlton Heston influence, but I always envisioned Moses as a powerful leader and even somewhat charismatic. This isn’t right though. He’s not really a man with his own individual strength, but a relatively weak man fulfilling a role in which he is a conduit of that strength given by a gift of grace- a charism instead of charisma. Remember that Max Weber essentially secularized a religious concept with his writings on charisma. The religious leader delivers a powerful message, but is not individually powerful outside of that message.
Since there is no heaven or hell here, God’s punishments are often harsh and strangely detailed. One possibility is that certain passages can be read as prophecy instead of threats: I was troubled by the passages suggesting that those who turn against the Lord would be forced to eat their children. But this could be read not as a specific punishment for that offense, but instead as a prophetic statement of what is to come: a generation will turn against the Lord and they will, in the course of war, be forced to eat their children.
The laws have, by necessity, been reinterpreted over the ages. Modern Israel is not a stoning nation. The harshest penalties are generally taken as either symbolic in some sense or the maximum penalty possible. To be honest, the text doesn’t give much support for this reading, but I’m happy with it anyway. As Asra Q. Nomani argues, Islam desperately needs a rereading of the more brutal passages in the Quran to render them obsolete in the same way that Judaism and Christianity have reread the Bible. She is entirely too sensitive to point out that the Quran’s more notorious passages are outnumbered by the equally disturbing passages in the Old Testament. But maybe that’s not a pissing contest worth getting into.
A more sensible solution to the problem of unsettling passages in the Bible, Quran and other ancient religious texts, offered by many theologians, is to take the text as the writing of men, given to errors, forgetting, and the biases of their own time. This doesn’t mean that the Word of God is untrue, but it does mean that men understand it in their own ways and are, as a group, deeply flawed. And you don’t need much faith to believe that.
Endnotes: Since this caps off the Torah, I’m going to take a break from the Bible and return to those wily Greeks. I should also note that my life is hectic right now, so this was written about as quickly as it can be read and mistakes are likely legion. I’m flying by the seat of my pants here folks!