Memory and Tradition in the Book of Numbers

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The people of Israel move through the wilderness in order to reach a land about which they know little. Their information comes from a story told by God at three instances Exod. God intends the land to represent the antithesis of Egypt. The presence of other peoples implies that Israel will have to conquer it by military means. God initiates the storytelling event by instructing Moses to send twelve men into Canaan. The scouts gather their story by exploring the land.

Instead of discovering their ancestors in their burial place of Hebron, the scouts run into giants and gather fruit Forty days later they return to the camp and bring a report accompanied by a giant cluster of grapes to Moses, Aaron, and the people Caleb interrupts the story. The peoples of Canaan are no ordinary nations, but Nephilim, a race of demigods born from the union of the sons of God and the daughters of Adam Gen. In contrast to the giant Nephilim, the Israelites see themselves as grasshoppers and project this vision onto the inhabitants. How could you know how I made you appear to them?

Furious at the telling of this story in the midst of their grief, the people are ready to stone Joshua and Caleb. Moses dissuades God by having him imagine the kind of story that would afterward circulate among the nations , so God rests at punishing Israel in proportion to their deeds. The people wished for death in the desert , so God visits death on the desert generation ; the scouts roamed the land for forty days, so the people wander the wilderness for forty years.

Though only expressed as a general principle in rabbinic literature, measure for measure is frequent in the Bible. The only hope for the future is that the next generation will tell a different story. The laws contained in Numbers 15 reiterate the Priestly investment in law and hierarchy. The placement of the new set of laws serves as an assurance that the Priestly legal and social structure must and can endure even the most widespread rebellion. Please support us. This tradition is extant in Deut. In accordance with this view, the sinful act of the spies could not have been sponsored by God.

Her co-authored book, Women on the Biblical Road, was the beginning of her work on gender and the Bible. I would like to receive new essays When published Before Shabbat. Torah Portion. This Week's Torah Portion. Genesis Exodus Leviticus Numbers Deuteronomy. The five books of the Pentateuch are the first five books of the Christian Old Testament and the entire Jewish written Torah. These texts introduce most if not all of the most important themes that will recur throughout the Bible as well as characters and stories that continue to be relevant.

Thus understanding the Bible requires understanding the Pentateuch. The word Pentateuch is a Greek term meaning "five scrolls" and refers to the five scrolls which comprise the Torah and which also comprise the first five books of the Christian Bible. These five books contain a variety of genres and were constructed from source material created over the course of millennia. It is unlikely that these fives books were originally intended to be five books at all; instead, they were probably considered all one work.

The division into five separate volumes is believed to have been imposed by Greek translators.

Jews today divide the text into 54 sections called parshiot. One of these sections is read each week of the year with a couple of weeks doubled up. The tradition among believers has always been that Moses personally wrote the five books of the Pentateuch. In fact, the Pentateuch has in the past been referred to as the Biography of Moses with Genesis as a prolog. Nowhere in the Pentateuch, however, does any text ever claim that Moses is the author of the entire work. There is a single verse where Moses is described as having written down this "Torah," but that most likely refers only to the laws being presented at that particular point.

Modern scholarship has concluded that the Pentateuch was produced by multiple authors working at different times and then edited together. This line of research is known as the Documentary Hypothesis. This research began in the 19th century and dominated biblical scholarship through most of the 20th century.

Although details have come under criticism in recent decades, the broader idea that the Pentateuch is the work of multiple authors continues to be widely accepted. The texts that comprise the Pentateuch were written and edited by many different people over a long span of time. Some editing and adding were still to come, but not long after the Babylonian Exile the Pentateuch was largely in its current form and other texts were being written. Sons had a duty to bury their father Petersen Family had a duty to ensure burial at the ancestral site Genesis 30 , or at least a decent interment: to go unburied was a dreadful prospect Jeremiah This was done to honor the memory of the ancestors, but it was linked to beliefs about the afterlife and fellowship across the generations.

Rituals might include food offerings to the ancestors.

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Occasional critiques of such customs e. Deuteronomy , alongside archaeology, suggest that similar practices were common in ancient Israel. In that worldview, to be childless was to fail to maintain the line of descendants and cut off the forefathers. Moses would look forward to the nation living in the land; while those writing after the exile look back to a golden age when they were not subject to any empire.

Writers in exile looked forward to returning to the land, but also with an eye to their exiled community. Babylonia and other ancient empires dealt with conquered peoples by enslaving the survivors and deporting some or all of them to other locations in the empire. Consequently, exiles were scattered around the empire, and that exacerbated perceptions of their being few. They were often unable to own land, vulnerable to oppression, and lacked self-determination.

One important concern of their leaders was to preserve a distinct national religious identity. It is unlikely that Old Testament writers worried about perpetuating the human species. Its survival had not been precarious since a time far beyond any collective memory. More importantly, humankind did not exist as one united community but rather as many rival peoples.

The concern of each was national survival, often under threat from other nations and empires. There was a subsidiary interest in preserving the constituent parts of Israel. Communal efforts to rescue the tribe of Benjamin from near extinction are described in Judges Whatever the later reality of the tribes, the continuity of each clan was valued.

A basic concern was maintaining and increasing clan numbers. Elites with a wider perspective were concerned about the national scale of this phenomenon. Human fertility could therefore be a symbol of national hopes Hosea In the ancient Near East, rivalry between nations for political existence and dominance required fertility partly to offset deaths in war, but mainly to match or outnumber other peoples. Judean towns also fell, and even Jerusalem was besieged 2 Kings , Perhaps at times of defeat and loss there was a stronger emphasis on reproduction.

Memory and Tradition in the Book of Numbers

Moses was pictured leading a host of landless ex-slaves to conquer and occupy Canaan. During the kingdom period the emphasis was on holding land, and training sufficient sons to defend it militarily. So the uncertainty of dating is not a problem for this argument. Whether and how particular texts are polemical in supporting or critiquing ruling powers is hotly debated. For example, Philip Davies identifies many texts as the voice of a ruling class mediated by scribes 21 , whereas others discern anti-monarchy voices. Attitudes to the institution of monarchy, the Davidic dynasty, the northern kingdom, and post-exilic Jerusalem governors authorised by Persia are certainly part of the background for the Old Testament.

Mortality rates among royal infants were probably little better than the pre-modern average. Though primogeniture the eldest son inheriting lordship was common in the ancient Near East, it was not automatic: a king could choose from among his sons, so more sons offered more chance of a worthy successor. The writers of some fruitful verses in Proverbs and Psalms including have a royal audience in mind. And their writings were not mere flattery: they hoped the king would have sons for the sake of continuity, stability, and good governance. The prophet Samuel had warned the people about how rulers behave:.

This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. The commander Joab counted 1. Archaeology suggests that these numbers are unrealistically high, but they show the aspirational ideals of kings seeking grandeur and glory.

The canonical and theological investigation cannot be confined to Genesis and the only fruitful verses addressed to humankind universally for two reasons. First, because the natalist sources do not confine their reception to Genesis ; out of references to the Old Testament, only 37 are to those early chapters. All the natalist writers refer to texts outside Genesis, even if these are just the Psalms for the least prolific quoters.

Book of Numbers | My Jewish Learning

Second, because the primeval history Genesis is part of the Pentateuch and the wider canon. In this respect, Old Testament theology suggests that some verses from the primeval history are thematic for the narrative from Genesis onward, from Joshua to Kings and beyond. The chosen instrument is the man Abraham and his seed offspring established in a particular land.

The worship of God, embodied in religious practices, will endure through the matrix of this nation. The foundations of the nation are divine promises to Abraham, repeated to Isaac, Jacob, and the Israelites. They will receive a land , good pasture and fertile fields, and will spread out across it , to fill and subdue it. Old Testament scholars synthesize those promises in various ways.


Desmond Alexander identifies descendants and land as the two prerequisites of nationhood The divine agenda of creating a holy nation requires a number of related elements: genetic offspring is one of them, and increase in numbers is one aspect of that. Israelite fecundity is necessary but not sufficient; it is part of a larger project. Without access to more land they would suffer.

When the God who provides for His chosen people promised numerous descendants, that was accompanied by a promise of land Genesis ; , 7. Similarly, when Abraham is promised that his seed will be as numerous as dust, he is also promised that they will be able to prtz spread out to the west, east, north, and south In the wilderness the people are sustained by manna, but it is not an enduring solution. Land was a prerequisite enabling the sons of Israel to be fruitful and become a nation.

While in Genesis the foremost element is offspring, in Exodus and Leviticus the covenant is dominant, and in Numbers and Deuteronomy the land is highlighted Clines Deuteronomy revisits all the earlier themes, and the offspring element reappears there alongside the elements of land and covenant. I would not expect it to disappear permanently because the normal regular losses from mortality require a continuous state of being fruitful.

Maintaining a numerous people demands the addition of replacement people in each generation. To keep the land filled with the living requires persistent reproduction, and if it ever slackens the land would quickly empty. Continued references after the origin narratives do imply endless fertility, but not necessarily absolute growth. Also, the birth of Israel and the subsequent stages of its national life are an historical process, and the relative importance of the elements varies according to the situation. Joshua has the whole land to fill so the situation is like that of Adam or Noah.

When he is old there remains room for growth because much land has still not been occupied by Israelites Joshua ; Exodus God promises offspring as numerous as the stars, sand, or dust. All these metaphors extravagantly picture a large number. Rhetorically, there seems to be no upper limit in view, but when Moses speaks the Israelites are still fewer in number than their enemies. Whenever there is a choice between quality and quantity, the former is prioritized. Attempts to build a holy nation including the extra sons would not yield a greater result; rather, it would hinder the project.

As it turns out, God relents and instead commands that only three thousand unrepentant men be slain Exodus There are also incidents in which loss of numbers is portrayed as necessary to maintain national holiness. It is better for the Israelites to be reduced in number than to compromise the covenant. Despite this Abraham, due to his unbelief, fathers Ishmael by Hagar and later six sons by Keturah , but sends them all far away Genesis ; because the holy nation must be built only through Isaac, the child of Sarah.

Though many small rural settlements might be purely kin groups, the people of a nation were not all closely related. Its members are numerous, but most are not his kin.

4. The Old Testament Context

Later in Israel, national identity was not strictly ethnic as many Israelites were not descendants of Jacob, and that is reflected in biblical narratives which mention some Israelites having names that indicate a different ancestry, including Uriah the Hittite 2 Samuel , Non-kin could be incorporated into Israel by marriage, but gerim strangers and resident aliens could also join Israel, and there was no requirement for a connection by marriage to a descendant of Jacob.

A clan of gerim could join Israel.

The requirement was loyalty to God and nation, not ancestry or kinship connection. Though such groups include some who are not kin, they are essentially kin-based. Genesis Some texts indicate a policy of endogamy rules against marriage to foreigners forbidding, for example, marriages between Israelites and people from Canaanite nations Deuteronomy Apart from these, no particular promise of fecundity is directed toward goyim , the other nations.

Even among the Israelites, the promise is only for keepers of the covenant. I will continue striking you I will let loose the wild beasts against you, which shall bereave you of your children Biological descent from Jacob did not guarantee loyalty to the national covenant and God is portrayed as intervening to limit the number of offspring. The first two are at creation addressed to nonhuman species and to humankind; the third revives the blessing for Noah and his sons as they make a new beginning in an empty world. The last is a report of the fulfillment of the original blessing in the land of Goshen in Egypt, indicating that God is still true to His covenant even though the people are temporarily distant from the promised land.

This pattern, as with most occurrences in Genesis, indicates an emphasis on prh and rbh at the origins and formation of the nation, and its recollection as a promise of restoration after the depletion and dispossession of war and exile. It is spoken by God to the patriarchs at difficult points in their lives, as reassurance. The four instances outside Genesis offer hope of future success.

Israelite popular folk religion was perhaps similar. Figurines of a pregnant or lactating woman have been found all over Judah from the time of the Davidic dynasty, perhaps linked to a cult of Asherah and probably connected to prayers for fertility.

Memory and Tradition in the Book of Numbers

Victor Hamilton observes that fertility rituals were often associated with the retelling of creation stories Westermann suggests that Genesis is designed to warn its hearers that when they seek fertility the words of the blessing may derive from a traditional marriage blessing , they should not seek help from other gods because fertility is a gift from the God of Israel, and since God gave all life the capacity to reproduce at its origin, no subsequent ritual is needed Genesis All the other Sethites, half of humankind, are destroyed in the Flood.

Most of their earlier reproductive effort that had looked so promising turned out to have been as futile as the births of the Cainites. At first this sounds like a success story: fulfilment of the blessing. This suggests that mere numbers are not the highest priority, and there will be divine discrimination between what is acceptable and unacceptable. After the Flood the sons of Noah are a hopeful fresh start for humankind and we read that:. Genesis , HNV.