Numbers 15-16

Good morning! Both Numbers 15 and 16 today show what happens when people break the divine commandments, and the punishments seem to far outweigh the transgressions. We’re given opportunity here to continue wrestling with the ancient Hebrew understanding of God’s ultimate holiness and unapproachability on human terms.

Most of Numbers 15 gives instructions for various offerings once people enter Canaan, with the provision that the sacrificial system is opened to non-Israelites. These commands also show significant permissiveness for accidental sinning, but call for banishment in cases of deliberate sinfulness. The Sabbath is of such importance to this writer’s understanding that near the end of the chapter we see the terrible consequences for breaking it: a man is stoned for gathering sticks on the Sabbath. As I understand Sabbath theology, the weekly observance is at least partly an acknowledgement that humans are made by God with limits. To impose on the Sabbath in doing even a little work is to trust one’s own false need to provide for oneself, rather than trusting God’s provision by taking time to center one’s identity in communal worship. While the penalty here doesn’t fit the “crime” in our modern eyes, I wonder what dramatic personal steps are necessary in our time to recall the giftedness of human identity as creatures of God, rather than submit to the idolatry of one’s own endless striving. The fringes on garments commanded at the end of the chapter are still present today in a holy shawl that observant Jews wear to pray.

Korah, Dathan and Abiram (a Levite and two descendants of Judah) lead a coup of 250 men against Moses and Aaron’s leadership in chapter 16. They complain that the leaders falsely set themselves and all priests over others, when in reality the spirit of the Lord is on every person. Moses challenges Korah and the Levites to act as priests instead then, letting God judge who is truly chosen for that role. Dathan and Abiram refuse Moses’ command, on the grounds that Moses (and God, by extension) has overpromised and underdelivered. The next day Korah and the other rebellious Levites gather the whole people to witness their priestly challenge, offering fire to God with priestly (in)censors. Offended by the presumption, God tells Moses and Aaron to step away from the rest of the people to give a clearer sight line for divine destruction, but the two argue for God’s leniency on the bystanders. So instead God causes the ground to open and swallow up the three leaders, along with their possessions and families. (“Sheol” is the place where all the dead go in early Jewish understanding before ideas of heaven/hell took hold. The punishment for Korah, Dathan and Abiram is that they reached Sheol before their natural time, and the death of their families ensured that they had no descendants, a traditional sign of blessing.) Fire from God also consumes the other 250 rebellious Levites. The bronze censors are all that remain from the inferno, but they’ve been made holy by the process. At God’s command, they become a kind of armored plating for the altar, a visible reminder not to presume priestly access if it’s not in one’s divinely ordained role. But the next day, fear of Aaron and Moses causes the people to rally against them. When God again intends to destroy them for insurrection, Moses and Aaron fall on their faces to plead otherwise. Moses sends Aaron among the people with sanctifying incense as a barricade between the people and a plague that God has sent. While this containment strategy works to save the whole congregation, the incident still costs fourteen thousand Israelite lives.

What are we to make of this terrifying story? I can understand the role of such a narrative as a cautionary tale in Jewish literature. It elevates Moses and Aaron’s authority over challengers in much the same way as the story of Miriam in Numbers 12. It also underlines an “awe-full” understanding of God, the “loose cannon” who needs to be obeyed at all costs even when one disagrees, lest one endanger one’s family and the whole community. But in our time, this is a stumbling-block story which makes God out to be a deranged abuser. In my reading of it, I have to remember that this comes from writers with a deep investment in maintaining priestly authority, and from a time when chaos between warring sides (here God and the rebels) led to massive “collateral damage” to innocent and fearful bystanders (and still does). With that in mind, and treating this as a record of how some humans wish God acted (rather than as a record of God’s action), we might take away some nugget about the importance of trusting the ways of God as best we understand them, even when the path is unpopular or unclear. We might also recommit to ways of strenuously peaceful disagreement over authority rather than rhetoric or actions of violence. What else do you take away from this chapter? “Happy” reading!

Read Numbers 15-16.

Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. Tomorrow’s passage is Numbers 17-19. Thanks for reading!

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