Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Church and State, or just Church?: Numbers 27:12-23

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

Moses is getting old and Aaron's already dead, so it's time to decide who's in charge in the future. Before this happens, God sends Moses up onto another mountain to give him a panoramic view of the land the Israelites will eventually conquer. Is God seizing another opportunity to torment Moses with what he's missing out on, or is he trying to be kind? I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and go with the latter.

Moses prays that God will arrange for future leadership of Israel, then summons Joshua of Nun and Eleazar the high priest. In the future, God says, Joshua will carry some of Moses's authority. Strangely, God tells Moses that this will happen after Moses gives Joshua "some of your authority." What is this authority? Is it a magic dust that Moses carries around in his pocket?

Joshua won't have the same access to God, though: that authority will rest with Eleazar instead. God, who as every conservative will admit is a big fan of magic divination, says that Eleazar will make decisions using the Urim and the Thummim, the strange divining instrument that was originally described way back in Exodus. Even the high priest, it seems, won't have the same access to God that Moses does. Presumably this will be very convenient for those later priests who demonstrably can't summon and tame God the way Moses does on a regular basis.

What's perhaps even more interesting, though, is that God is essentially proposing the eventual abolition of the state: Israel is going to be a stateless society. That wasn't uncommon among people at that time in history, especially among nomads - but this is less true for a centrally organized agricultural society of the sort that is apparently going to be one day established in Canaan. All of the other peoples the Israelites run into have kings. God will be the Israelites' king, it seems. The only hereditary title is that of the priesthood: the state side of Moses's task is reduced to being general of the army, and while Joshua will do the task admirably, God seems to think even that won't be necessary by the time Joshua dies. He makes no arrangements for the survival of hereditary military leadership the way he does hereditary priestly leadership.

As an anarchist I'd like to think that a stateless society under God is a grand idea, but the book of Judges is coming up, and I'm pretty sure its author has other ideas. Plus there's still the matter of the priesthood, which has a pretty decent tax rate to assure its continuing revenue. And there are all those laws requiring capital punishment. Who's going to carry them out?