The Book of Numbers is probably the most tedious book so far in the Bible, with a large proportion consisting (as the name suggests) of recording of names and numbers. The name of every man who did anything at all is recorded along with his sons. There are various censuses and elaborate detail is given on the various festivals and sacrifices that must be done to honour God. This is an accountants delight but incredibly boring for the rest of us.
The first nine chapters are mind-numbingly dull so I’ll skip them. It’s very repetitive, lots of census taking, listing of men and their sons. In typical Biblical sexist fashion, only the men’s names are recorded, the woman are completely ignored. A census is taken of all the men over the age of 20 (women literally don’t count in the Bible) and it is found that there are 603,550 of them, not counting the Levites (of which there are 22,000). This is an absurdly high figure. If we assume that there were as many women as men and that families had 2-4 children, then the total Israelite population would be about 2-3 million! There is no that such a vast number of people could travel through the desert (if there really was that many then by the time the front of the group reached Israel the end would probably still be in Egypt).
There is also a reiteration of the fear of the unclean that we met in Leviticus. In particular emphasis is made about not touching the dead as anyone who does so is unclean. If they do so they must undergo a cleansing process or else face expulsion. Now to an Irishman this seems very odd and I wonder what Jewish funerals are like? In an Irish funeral (or wake) the body is brought back to the house and all the friends and relatives come to say their goodbyes. Contact with the body is encouraged and there are even some people who keep watch over the body the whole night so that it is never alone until buried. Admittedly, this probably shows how much Irish funerals take their traditions from Pagan sources.
Considerable detail is given in chapter 5 of how a man can tell if his wife has been cheating on him (there is no test to see if the husband is cheating which apparently isn’t something to be worried about). If a man suspects his wife of cheating on him, he must bring her before a priest with a grain offering and the priest will make her drink “bitter water” while saying an oath. If she has cheated on him, the water will cause her thigh to rot and her belly to swell. This is a really bizarre superstition. Could God not have designed a better test?
Numbers also designates that one tribe of Israel, the Levites are to be a priestly caste. God reasoning is that he owns the first born child of every family but he will take all the Levites instead (this is pretty weird reasoning if you think about it). But wouldn’t choosing priests on racial lines cause all sorts of problems? What about all the talented and religious people from the other tribes who may wish to become priests? Are you blocked from joining? What if you are born a Levite but have no interest in becoming a priest? Are you forced to become one anyway? What if you are really incompetent or lazy, are you protected from being fired? Would this not leave you with a religion that excludes the most suitable people and is instead staffed by incompetent people who only got the job based on who their father was?
Wouldn’t designating a twelfth of the people as priests not impose a serious burden on the rest of the population? In Ancient times people were desperately poor and starvation was a real danger. Even without a famine many people would go hungry and struggle to survive. God’s answer to this is not to give these people new farming techniques to make them more productive, but rather to add to their burdens by giving them an unproductive priestly caste to be fed and demanding that precious amounts of scarce food is wasted in sacrifices. It is noted in chapter 18 that the Levites are to receive the best food and tribute from the rest of the population, which sounds like their feathering their own nest.
I’m going to break the chronological structure of this blog as the Book of Numbers has an awful lot of violence in it that I’ll condense in one post. Instead, I’ll focus this post on the other not so violent parts of Numbers. For example in chapter 30, God declares that if a woman makes a vow or pledge and her father hears her and disagrees, then he can made her pledge null and void. When she is married, her husband gets this right. I find it very funny that when debating with Christians, I am often told to read the Bible and that it will change my mind. Well I am and rather than seeing divine wisdom and superior ethics, I see a backwards book that views women as property of men. What a woman wants is deemed subservient to the wishes of a man.
In chapter 34, the Levites get even more power as 48 cities of Israel are to be given to them. I don’t know how cities solely comprised of priests would function but perhaps the other tribes can live there but the Levites are in charge? Would that not blur the tribal lines? In any case, six of these cities are to be designated as refugee cities where anyone wanted for manslaughter can flee and be safe from retribution. This is odd as I don’t see why God would create a place where his law didn’t apply. Why should manslaughter of all crimes be protected? So long as the person who committed manslaughter remains in the refuge city, they are safe from harm, but if they live the city, then the avenger may kill them. This raises a question about how the laws were enforced? There doesn’t seem to be any police force so did people literally take the law into their own hands?
The land of Israel is randomly divided among the tribes of Israel who draw lots for the places. You know, this story looks less like the chosen people lead by the source of wisdom and morality, and more like a small tribe making it up as they go along. It is strange that there is no strong sense of Israelite nationalism or unity, instead the people seem to be divided by their tribe. In fact to ensure that the tribal division between the people remains, women are forbidden from marrying someone from a different tribe. This is petty sectarianism that undoubtedly created its fair share of Romeos and Juliets.
At what point are we going to get to the part where the Bible has lessons for today? Is this is it? Should the Catholics of Northern Ireland take instruction from the Bible and be forbidden from marrying Protestants for fear it would upset the tribal balance? Should we all only marry within our tribe to make sure the head count isn’t reduced and with it the power of the tribal chiefs? Or should men and women not be treated like cattle and instead be free to marry whomever they love?
So that’s half the Book of Numbers for you. The tribe of priests get special favour and the best of food, while everyone else has to put up with superstition and being used as pawns in the tribal power division, all without a good wake to cheer them up and properly remember the dead. If you think that’s bad, the next post is even worse. Much worse.