I am continuing to have difficulty making sense of the Bible especially when it comes to the things god does and expects people to do. I realize that I am reading it from the point of view of a biased non-believer. Because I am posting my discoveries and perceptions online, I have tried to be as objective as possible. I really am trying, but sometimes it is very hard.
Anyway, here’s the first installment of Numbers.
The title is obvious because the first several chapters deal with a census and how the different tribes will locate themselves around the tabernacle while travelling. We learn that this family originally consisting of the 12 sons of Jacob has now grown to 603,550. And that is just the 20-60 year old men, the ones fit to go to war. That means there were upwards of 3 million or so people on this journey. I won’t quibble with the logistics of that number.
Then we get a really interesting method of determining what to do if you suspect your wife of being unfaithful. Take her to the priest. He will concoct a bitter water of some kind and force her to drink it. If she is innocent, nothing will happen. If she is guilty her belly will swell and her thighs will rot. That an ancient tribe might believe this is understandable. But this method was told to Moses by God. Trial by ordeal was used throughout the Middle Ages to prove guilt or innocence, often in the case of witchcraft. We look back and wonder what were they thinking? So what was God thinking when he prescribed this method? And what can a wife do if she suspects her husband of infidelity? Nothing. And what happens to a man whose suspicions were ungrounded? Nothing. And what happened to death to adulterers which was set out in Leviticus. New rule. More reason for my confusion.
Like Leviticus, there are a number of decrees given by god. However, there is also much intrigue as the people begin to question both God and Moses. There is a brief episode where Miriam and Aaron (siblings of Moses) are upset that Moses had married an Ethiopian. (This marriage took place way back before Moses returned to Egypt so I am not sure why they are complaining now. Perhaps I missed a rule about marrying Ethiopians.) They wonder aloud if the lord speaks only through Moses. Apparently others have had dreams. God is angry, takes them aside, and berates them. Then he makes Miriam leprous. Of course Aaron – remember Aaron, the guy who was not punished for making the golden calf and lying about it – gets no punishment at all. To his credit Moses asks the Lord to heal Miriam which he does but not until after she has suffered and been banished for seven days.
Questioning Moses is one thing. Questioning God is another matter. The people have been out in the desert for a year of so. The Lord has provided them with manna and water for survival. Still, they complain. They want meat. (My first thought was quit sacrificing all the bulls, rams and goats but I digress.) God gets angry and basically says “If you want meat, then here’s meat.” What he actually says is “You will not eat one day or two days or five days or ten days or twenty days but a whole month until it comes out of your nostrils.” Then he sends a massive amount of quail, but still angry, and “while the meat was yet between their teeth … the Lord smote the people with a very great plague.”
OK, a bit of an overreaction, but I actually get this story. God has led the people out of slavery. He has fed and sheltered them. They still complain. I can understand God’s frustration. He must have thought “everything I have done for them and this is the thanks I get.”
The people’s lives have been improved considerably and they should be grateful for what they have. In today’s world, despite, how much we have and how lucky we may be, we make ourselves unhappy and stressful, trying to get more. And sometimes the consequences of getting that extra may not turn out to be exactly as we planned. At the same time though, I think of poor Oliver Twist asking for more. Did the people deserve God’s response for hoping for a slight improvement to their lives?