Tuesday, April 15, 2008

More Israelite Faithfulness, And God Kills the Wrong People!: Numbers 25

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

After our acid trip to the land of talking donkeys and wayward prophets, we return to the more familiar theme of the Israelites behaving like blind idiots.

The Israelites are now staying in Shittim, of all places, and apparently they're there for quite a while - long enough for the men to begin what the NIV calls "indulging in sexual immorality with Moabite women." (I prefer the KJV version, which says much more prosaically that the men "committed whoredom.") These women invited the Israelites to participate in some pagan religious services worshipping the god "Baal of Peor," and naturally the Israelites did. The lesson is obvious - if you fall for a pagan chick, you'll also fall for her pagan gods - but the premise is ridiculous. Do the Israelites believe these are rival gods, or have they simply forgotten who god is? The best explanation is that the worldview of these people accepted the existence of many competing gods, of which God was only one. Only in this competitive polytheism do the Israelites' actions make any sense at all. If you do believe that there are lots of roughly equivalent gods to choose from, you might want to consider dropping the old Abrahamic one; after all, he's tormented you, ranted at you, and promised to kill you. The Bible doesn't seem to consider that there really would be real other gods - after all, it routinely mocks them, beginning in Exodus with the notion that the Israelites could "make" a god in their spare time - but the Israelites apparently feel differently.

You'll be familiar with the result: "the Lord's anger burned against them." He proposes that he kill all of the leaders of Israel to set an example. Instead, Moses tells the leaders to kill all the people who have participated in the pagan ceremonies. In the meantime, God sends another plague into the Israelite camp. God is pretty good with these plagues. The U.S. Army biowarfare program could use someone with his expertise. Instead they're stuck doing ludicrous projects like the ill-fated "gay bomb" experiment.

Whether the elders were prepared to mete out another round of death sentences in the name of God, however, we'll never know, because in the meantime one of the aforementioned pagan chicks causes a commotion when she walked by the porta-temple holding hands with a Simeonite, Zimri of Salu. Phinehas, a priest of God and also Aaron's grandson, picks up a spear and murders both Zimri and his girlfriend. God is terribly excited by Phinehas, proclaiming the young priest "as zealous as I am." He decides to forgive the Israelites, and even stops the plague - but only after it kills another 24 000 people. Jesus Christ.

God's thirst for blood isn't sated, though. He orders Moses to have all the Midianites rounded up and killed, "because they treated you as enemies when they deceived you in the affair of Peor."

This is a strange and senseless verdict. The woman killed by Phinehas was indeed a Midianite, but the women involved in the Peor sacrifices were Moabites, not Midianites. The only other Midianite woman I can think of is Moses's own wife - the daughter of Reuel/Jethro of Midian. Is God confused about who the women are? Is one pagan tribe pretty much the same as another? The "all pagans look the same" argument seems convincing, though you'd think God would find some way to tell the difference.

Along with the unexpected genocide of the Midianites, the Numbers account also explicitly strengthens further the elevated status of the priesthood: Phinehas has been so righteous that God will make a new "covenant of peace" with him and his descendants. They will be "a lasting priesthood." (Of course, as a son of Aaron Phinehas should already be part of a "lasting priesthood," but I guess God wants to make doubly sure."