Saturday, April 19, 2008

A Darker View of the Priesthood: Final Reflections on Numbers

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

I'm a little confused. Christians basically reproduce the ancient Jewish belief that Moses wrote all of the books of the Torah, though we add in another not entirely helpful layer of Bible-as-intrictae-coherent-word-of-God nonsense that we imported from the Muslims. (I've never read the Koran, which maybe I'll do next, but on the surface they'd at least appear to have a considerable advantage over us on that scale because the Koran really was written fairly quickly and in a single location, whatever else you believe about it.)

But my reading of Numbers has shown extremely significant differences in the approaches taken by the authors of books in the Torah. This goes beyond mere inconsistencies and contradictions, though of course those are there as well. (Having moved further from my evangelical roots with every chapter, I find that hunting for contradictions, let alone finding ways to "harmonize" them, is increasingly dull and irrelevant.) It's about the general mood and the apparent interpretation being placed on various events.

Exodus and Numbers are telling similar stories, but where the former is concerned more chiefly with the immediate moment of liberation from Israel, the latter is concerned more with what happens after the revelations at Mt Sinai. This immediately gives the opportunity to describe some of the darker events in Israel's early history, but the author of Numbers seems to revel in regaling stories of the complete idiocy, incompetence, and general faithlessness of the average Israelite. Even where the stories are retellings of the same events, this new bias is obvious - like the story of the quail, which God once provided out of generosity, but in Numbers provides out of sheer spite, so demonstrated by the fact that as the Israelites begin to eat, he starts killing them even while ordering them to gorge themselves.

In contrast to the fickle masses, the Aaronite priesthood - and Moses - are heroes. They're not perfect; eventually even Moses screws up and God decides to kill him too - but in the meantime they save Israel from God's irrational rage in one strange crisis after another. The Israelites are fortunate they have their priests, the Numbers account says, because every so often God will be seized by fits of uncontrollable anger, and a properly trained priest will have to be summoned to perform a powerful bull sacrifice, or burn magic incense, in order to save everyone from annihilation. And only the priests have the magic hands! Based on the Numbers account, absolute obedience to the priesthood is pretty much a necessity: even if God doesn't blow you away for the mere initial act of rebellion, pretty soon after that he'll kill you for some other reason, and a priest won't be there to stop him. God is a wild, angry force and the priests alone can control him. The theological implications of every component of that statement are immense and unusual, yet Numbers appears to accept the statement as a basic premise. The priests even get responsibility for a variety of new and exciting ritual forms, all to give them something fancy to do as they demonstrate their power over God and everyone.

In the meantime, the Israelites have already started killing people. The context is uncertain and the reasons seem okay, at least to begin with. The first few states they promise not to harm provided they are granted free passage, but after God sentences the Israelites to death, they become understandably angry and bitter. They are no longer simply on the march, so they can't just negotiate for safe passage with various countries. In theory they're not settling yet, but that doesn't stop them from brutally attacking states, and systematically massacring the survivors. They can't take their anger out on God, but the peoples around them are a lot more vulnerable than a deity, in part because of Israel's oversized, massive army. God's role in the military campaign is ambiguous: sometimes he is silent, sometimes he appears to convict the wrong nation of the wrong sin. He lets his only known non-Israelite prophet, Balaam, get killed in a pointless skirmish.

Even as he punished the people with death for their sins, God is starting to reveal more hints about the society he wants the Israelites to build in Canaan. As I've noted in a numbers of posts, this is a seeming stateless one, where most social and economic power is controlled by the priesthood - a power rationalized in Numbers by their apparent ability to manipulate God through reason and powerful magic. Moses has seemingly proposed the first formal separation of church and state through his division of his powers between priest Eleazar and general Joshua, but that is a fiction; Joshua's authority is limited to the conquest of the holy land, but the priests' power is eternal. There is a much more conservative and pessimistic view of human nature, and the priesthood rises to counter this. In the meantime, the Israelites are commanded to love others as they love themselves, but this plainly doesn't apply to non-Israelites, who may be slaughtered with impunity.

There are a few bright spots in the narrative - the first women's rights, for example - but these are buried beneath contempt for people without title, murderous contempt of foreigners, and the steadily growing elite status of a hereditary priesthood. It's painful to admit that in some ways I actually liked and preferred Leviticus.