Saturday, April 05, 2008

God's Obsession with Numbers; also, A Successful Levite Plot: Numbers 1-4

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky.


An important point: it's occurred to me that all of the rules from Leviticus assume the Israelites have vast numbers of animals available. Where did they come from? In Exodus the people were worried about starving and God turned to emergency food drops to prevent a famine. But what about all these domesticated animals? Are the Israelites all vegetarians? I'm confused. Perhaps I'm forgetting some crucial turning point.


A few years ago, someone I was in brief contact with, an unusually radical Mennonite pastor and emerging church leader from Alberta named Mike Perschon, wrote an article on God's apparent obsession with numbers - or more accurately, various religious groups' obsession with numbers. It's still online here. Perschon's normally a cool guy, who takes an inordinate amount of pleasure when his work occasionally shows up on the "evil New Age heresy!" lists produced by various far-right Christian ministries (I probably would feel the same way), but on this one he seems to be moving in the wrong direction.

Remember the census and crossing-over ritual that God described way back in Exodus - the one where women were exempt, etc, etc.? The results have been processed and the first several chapters of Exodus are about the sort of dry, meaningless datasets you'd expect from the ancient Levantine equivalent of Statistics Canada. Read with breath-taking detail as God first appoints by name assistants for the census, and then lists by tribe all of the men who are over twenty years old and thus able to serve in the military. Only the Levites are not counted, because God intends them for other, more special purposes. It turns out that among the non-Levites there are 603 550 adult males, and the Bible specifies that these men were "able to serve in Israel's army." Having counted them, God sets up guard duties for the camp. giving each tribe a particular boundary that they are to camp upon and guard from outsiders.

The Levites are counted in a separate mini-census, because God doesn't wat them to be part of the general masses. At the end of the first chapter, he explains to Moses that the Levites, in reward for their superior faith in him, are set aside "to be in charge of the tabernacle." As I suggested numerous times in Leviticus, they are now the general priesthood; only they may approach the porta-temple without being struck down and killed. The Levites get counted by individual clan and it turns out that there are only 22 000 of them, including all males of any age. This is a little strange given the size of the numbers of the other tribes, since after 400 years you would have expected them all to be about the same size, but I guess the Levites aren't having enough sex or something. They should have taken the Relevant Church's 30 Day Sex Challenge!

After the numbers are in on the Levites, God says only those over thirty have to do any work, which is really cool for the pastor's kids, because I guess it means they get ten years of holidays that no one else gets before it's time to settle down and start their career. God assigns each clan a specific task; the Kohathites, for example, are commanded to set up all the articles and relics inside the porta-temple, and the Gershonites are to carry it around as the tribe moves. The real "priesthood" is going to be reserved for the Levites of Aaron's clan; three others (the Kohathites, the Gershonites, and the Merarites) get subsidiary holy duties which place them closer to God than the other Israelites, but clearly under the authority of the Aaronites.

There's also an interesting bait-and-switch scheme described at the end of chapter 3. Recall that as the Israelites left Egypt, God declared that every firstborn son had to be dedicated to him (though you could redeem your firstborn son for a price). This could have been a useful way to democratize the priesthood, since it would mean there would be priests coming from every segment of Israelite society. But the Levites aren't eager to surrender to such a revolutionary concept. Instead, God has them take a quick count of the number of firstborn sons in all of Israel, and it turns about to be just about the same as the number of Levite men (22 273 versus 22 000, respectively).

You can see where this is going. God decides that he'll just swap all the firstborns for all the Levites. Voilà! The priesthood is spared from an influx of non-Levites. God says the remaining 273 firstborn sons all must pay a fine of five shekels of silver (i.e. 2 ounces), and tells Aaron to pocket the proceeds all for himself.

So much for the priesthood. Before moving on in the hopes of more breathtaking data sets, I think it's worth remarking on the stupendous size of the Israelite military. Historically, no group ever achieves or even attempts total militarization for any period of time, but the way the first chapter is phrased, it seems to expect that any number of those 600 000 adult men might be expected to fight in the future. And unlike most societies, Israel could enlist most of them, because right now they're still a nomadic people rather than a settled one, and God is apparently taking care of much of their food needs with manna.

So, there are 600 000 potential soldiers. Even if we drop enlistment down to, say, one-quarter of adult men, which historically isn't that difficult to do for small periods of time, we have 150 000 soldiers. This would make Israel a major power in the ancient Levant. Centuries later, Alexander the Great made it all the way into western India with an army that was normally only about one-third this size, and the Roman empire at its territorial peak only had about three or four hunderd thousand men under arms. How much divine help does an army this size need to win a battle?