Thursday, April 10, 2008

Moses and his Bonus Wife, plus More Misogyny, and Trouble for Protestants: Numbers 12

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

Moses, it turns out, has an extra wife, a black woman from Cush. (This is in addition to his first wife, Zipporah the Midianite.) It's unclear when Moses picked up his bonus woman, but by Numbers 12 it's caused some contention. Aaron and Miriam grumble about this, and the conversation turns to another grudge they apparently share: Moses has spoken through them, too, but only Moses seems to be getting the credit as God's chosen one.

The scribe who wrote this section of Numbers provides an idiotic and exaggerated aside - that Moses was in fact "more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth - then turns to the real result of the matter, which is that, predictably, God is not happy at this dissent, and sets about at once to restore the unchallenged authority of his chosen patriarch. Moses is no mere prophet to whom God reveals his will, God declares: Moses speaks with God "face to face"! So no one may challenge him.

Once again, the anger of God "burns" against Aaron and Miriam. Bizarrely, however, God only punishes Miriam for the crime; as his cloud takes off into the sky, Moses and Aaron turn to see that he has given Miriam severe leprosy so that her entire body has turned white as snow. Aaron promptly asks Moses to forgive the two of them, which is decent of him, though it's patently ridiculous that only Miriam should be punished for this sin. Aaron is the high priest - surely this gives him greater responsibility, not greater immunity!

Moses is Miriam's sister too, of course, and he also feels sorry for her, so once again it's up to Moses to tame and control God. He has an astonishing degree of control over the divine, it seems. God replies to Moses that he is like Miriam's father, and he has spit in her face - as a father would if he wished to reject a daughter. Therefore Miriam's punishment will follow the law: she is to be sent from the camp for seven days, after which God will heal her and she may come back in.

On the one hand, it's interesting that God is following his own laws here. It took many centuries for European culture to rebuild the concept of the rule of law during the medieval, Renaissance, and Enlightenment periods, and an uncertain amount of time for the Romans to build it to begin with (they subsequently dropped it in favour of naked imperialist expansion, sort of like the Bush administration has).

On the other hand, what the hell is this supposed to symbolize? That high priests are allowed to sin? That women are evil? That the high priest's requirement to avoid uncleanness is enough for God not to punish him?

There's a second, disturbing implication to this story, which has to do with the fact that God is severely punishing people for presuming to argue that they may interact with the divine through some other channel than Moses. That even the high priest must respect this boundary is intriguing, but I doubt many Protestants would really be pleased by the implications of Numbers 12 if they paused to seriously think about what's going on here. I could go on but there's another, even more dramatic incident coming up in a few chapters which will help make the point even more clearly.