Wednesday, April 09, 2008

God's Rage versus the Israelites versus the Magic Priesthood: Numbers 11

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

Exodus and Numbers are covering some similar material, but from dramatically different perspectives. Biblical literalists can probably find some way to twist and harmonize them, of course, but this pretty much puts the lie to the notion that Moses wrote the entire Torah.

Back in Exodus 16, God gave the Israelites manna and quail. Several times as I reviewed that book, I noted that the average masses of Israelites - unlike Moses, Aaron, and the Levites - were faithless, unhappy and discouraged even at times when you'd think, at the very least, they would be well aware of God's various powers. The quail episode, however, was notably positive; the people are unhappy that there is food, so God promises them not just their daily bread - the manna - but meat for dinner. Everyone is happy. It's a good time.

Numbers is a lot more pessimistic, however; there was still some liberation theology-ish touches before, but they're pretty much gone now. At the beginning of this chapter, "the people complained about their hardships in the hearing of the Lord" - an odd statement, since presumably God hears things all over the place. Nevertheless, upon hearing these complaints, he flew into a rage and sent fire into the "outskirts of the camp." Upon seeing what is happening, Moses prays to God and the fires go out.

This is a return to what I previously described as priest-as-lion-tamer theology. God sees something sinful, gets extraordinarily angry, and begins killing people. (This occasion is relatively tame in that he apparently doesn't teeter on the brink of wiping out the entire tribe, but don't worry, divine camp rage will return later!) Moses, the ever-patient spriritual head of the people, intercedes for them and calms God down. The recurring theme that the chosen prophets and priests have power over an angry, vengeful God is a convenient one for the priesthood, since it secures their power. "If we weren't here to protect you, God would wipe you out at once! So give us food and silver!" In the hands of an unscrupulous high priest, this could easily tilt over into religious extortion.

In the Numbers version of the exodus story, God gives the Israelites manna well before he gives them quail -- so long that the people are tired of eating manna and recall their varied Egyptian diet of past years. Both God and Moses listened to the people "wailing" about the manna, and according to Numbers, Moses was "troubled" that his people were unhappy. God, of course, ever the petulant child, is more than troubled: he is "exceedingly angry."

Moses gives a most strange speech in which he comlains that he can no longer deal with all these troublesome whiners. He says, in fact, that he would prefer God to strike him dead - immediately - if the alternative is to keep caring for the Israelites. Moses seems to think that there's no meat available for the Isralites, which strikes me as most implausible given all of the animals the Israelites seem to have on hand whenever they need to perform a sacrifice.

God tell Moses that he will ease the prophet's burden by transferring some of the authority - which he refers to as "the Spirit" - onto the nation's 70 leading elders. He does so, but apparently only for a single morning, after which sole authority as prophet returns to Moses. Why there was such a short time limit is not made clear.

As for meat, God doesn't promise the celebratory feast he gave in Exodus: this time, he declares that he's going to give the Israelites so much meat they'll be sick of it. They are going to be required to stuff their mouths with quail for an entire month, "until it comes out of your nostrils and you loathe it." As promised, a stiff wind blows in and deposits an enormous number of quail around the camp, so that everyone gathers up at least 60 bushels of quail. (I'm not sure how the measurement works in this case, but it certainly seems like a lot.)

But God's not done! As the Israelites begin to eat, he strikes them with a "severe plague" and quite a number of them die and are buried.

Why God would over-react like this in the Numbers version of the quail story is most unclear. I'm beginning to have a new respect for whichever optimist is responsible for the Exodus version of Jewish mythology, because this one seems almost ridiculous. God is almost sadistic as he lights fires in the camp, orders the Israelites to gorge themselves sick, and then torments them with plagues.