Thursday, April 10, 2008

God Decides to Kill Everyone (Plus, Giants!): Numbers 13-14

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

God invents espionage: he instructs Moses to send a dozen men (one from each of the fighting tribes) for some much-needed reconnaissance in the land of Canaan, which, according to God, will soon be conquered by the Israelites. The chosen dozen spends 40 days touring Canaan and returns with the news that there is much milk, honey, and fruit to be had - "but the cities are fortified and very large."

The holy pair - Joshua and Caleb, who will take over from Moses after his death - declare that the land is rich and "we should go up and take possession." But the others, who like most Israelites are lazy and faithless, disagree, saying the Israelites aren't strong enough. As I noted previously, the Israelites seemingly have enough men under arms to become a Bronze Age superpower. Surely they can handle this.

But no - because there are Nephilim in Canaan! This is a ridiculous statement. Given the context, it's unclear whether the men are lying about this - but then, no one bats an eye. According to Genesis, the Nephilim - the word actually means "giants" - were on the Earth prior to the flood. But that means they should have all died eons ago. Why are they still around? How did they survive the flood? Weird.

The writer of Numbers isn't content just to blame the faithless ten, though: according to him (or them), all the other Israelites take advantage of this negative report from the spies. They decide that God has hoodwinked them and they're going to be massacred by the Canaanites, so word spreads that a new leader is going to be chosen, to lead them back to Egypt. They even consider stoning Joshua and Caleb, which seems a bit extreme.

Unsurprisingly, the mistreatment of Joshua and Caleb is enough to provoke God's rage once again. He speaks - this time to Moses and Aaron together, which suggests he's decided to cooperate with Aaron after the latter's protest in chapter 12 - and announces his decision that every Israelite adult is going to die. He proposes to strike down the entire nation with yet another plague and, once everyone is dead, he will start a new nation from Moses's family, just like he once did with Abraham.

Also as usual, Moses leaps into action to deflect God's anger and pacify the angry deity. If he murders the Israelites, people will think he's a failure as a god, Moses points out. Therefore God should forgive them.

God offers a compromise position: he won't kill everyone right away, but he will lead the Israelites around in circles in the desert until every living adult has died. Once everyone has died, then and only then will God collect the remaining Israelites and lead them into Canaan. The only two who will be saved are Joshua and Caleb. To seal the deal, God sends down a new plague and kills off all the faithless spies.

The Israelites, who can't do right if they try, decide to show their regret about the whole sorry episode by marching into Canaan anyways. This, Moses points out, is now an act of disobedience, since God has sentenced them to death in the desert. They go anyways and get soundly beaten in battle by the Amalekites and the Canaanites, who are apparently allied. This is impressive, assuming any more than a token regiment of the Israelites' massive army went into combat.

God's decision is a stunning one and, to the Israelites, presumably an appalling one. He hasn't exactly condemned them all to death, but he's come pretty close - after leading them this far with promises of a grand paradise "of milk and honey," they've fucked up one too many times and now he's going to delay for forty years, waiting for them to die of old age as they wander homeless in the desert.

God's irrational anger is starting to get a little tedious. He repeatedly proclaims himself merciful and loving and slow to anger, but time after time he's so beside himself with rage that he's apparently willing to break his covenant with Israel and blast his people off the face of the earth. The Numbers author does him a favour by highlighting, whenever possible, the fickle stupidity of the Israelites, who are as consistently weak and dissatisfied as God is wrathful and violent. Still, they've been slaves for 400 years. They were wrenched from Egypt by a God who had abandoned them to slavery and oppression for 400 years - an astounding figure which seems short to us only because we have no narrative to fill in the time period. 400 years ago would be 1608 if we were counting today. It's a phenomenally long time for God to wait before staging a religious revival, and he has some nerve to be surprised when his people are a little suspicious of his intentions.