Good morning! Today we read the last two chapters of the “wilderness journey” section of Numbers, which includes a story of zealous vengeance on God’s behalf, and then another census.
The Shittim story in Numbers 25 includes all the things that are distasteful to ancient Israel’s religious establishment: women, sex and foreign gods. Israelites having sex with Moabite women leads to idol worship of Baal, and so Moses instructs his leaders to kill any of their people who have been involved in Baal worship. Phinehas, the grandson of Aaron, makes a name for himself here by running through a Midianite woman and the Israelite man she was sheltering with. (The biblical esteem of Midian has changed greatly since Moses sojourned there, finding his identity and hearing God at the burning bush before heading back to confront Pharaoh.) Evidently there was a plague stopped by Phinehas’ zealous “honor killing”, though there’s no mention of it earlier in the story. Phinehas is held up later in tradition as a leader with exemplary impulses, but this story makes my skin crawl. Sexual transgressions are here dealt with by summary execution—a pattern that historically plays into the hand of those with male, religious, and/or military power while justifying the persecution of women, sexual minorities and other marginal people.
Israelites of war-making age are counted again in Numbers 26. I found it interesting (and here I justify my nerdiness) to compare these numbers with the census in Numbers 1, also of Israelites 20 yrs of age or older. Most tribes gained some service-aged men over the time in the wilderness, but a few lost numbers, especially Simeon (which lost 37,100 by the second counting). According to Numbers 26, all those who were in the first list died out in the wilderness, and these numbers include those who grew up in the wilderness to take their place. These numbers are also important because they are intended for use in parceling out the land of Canaan once it is conquered. One final tidbit of interest buried in the trivia—here we see the name of Moses’ mother, Jochebed, from back in Egypt, as well as an accounting of Moses’ genealogy going back to Jacob/Israel’s son Levi. Happy reading!
Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. Tomorrow’s passage is Numbers 27-28. Thanks for reading!