Saturday, April 19, 2008

Moses Parcels Out Canaan: Numbers 32-36

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

The Israelites are continuing to prepare for their long-awaited invasion of Canaan, and now it's time to make some more specific land and title arrangements. Most of it is pretty dull. The women from Gilead who approached Moses asking to be given their father's land get their due - the only women mentioned in this passage, certainly the only women owning property. It comes at a price, mind you: the (male) leaders of the Manasseh tribe come to Moses complaining that if these women marry out of the tribe the land might go with them. Moses agrees and orders that the women may only marry if their husband is also of Manasseh. This restriction applies only to women who own land, thus subordinating this little bit of freedom gained to the "needs" of the greater community. Some property gained, some liberty lost.

The Levites, as you may recall, don't get any land. Instead, God gives them some cities. Several of these are a new concept in ancient jurisprudence which God calls the "sanctuary city": sacred land to which accused murderers are permitted to flee in safety. In these cities they are guaranteed safety until they stand trial.

The Bible is a little unclear about what happens next. If the act is deliberate or involved a lethal weapon, the accused is guilty of murder and must be put to death. If it was accidental, the "assembly" of the Israelites will come to a judgement. God does not describe how they will do this, except that witnesses are required at a trial - at least two of them.

The punishment, moreover, is intriguing. I speculated before that God was proposing a stateless society, and that seems to apply here as well. The responsibility for carrying out the execution, if one is called for, rests with "the avenger of blood," presumably someone from the victim's family or tribe. So long as the accused is in the sanctuary city, he may not be harmed by the avenger. He may stay there until the death of the high priest; the Bible specifies twice that this is the priest "who was anointed with the holy oil." The suggestion that the holiness of the priest protects these individuals is an interesting one.

A more contentious issue arises in chapter 32, when the herders of the Reuben and Gad clans see that the lands already occupied by the Israelites, in Jazer and Gilead (what we now call the West Bank, I think) are best suited for their livestock. They suggest to Moses and the other elders that they remain there.

Moses is incensed. He essentially accuses the Gadites and Reubenites of being unpatriotic, pointing out that while they rest in relative comfort the other Israelites will still be fighting for their homes. He calls them a "brood of sinners" and reminds them that the last time the Israelites fucked up badly, God promised to wipe out every living adult. The Reubenite and Gadite leaders, clearly better diplomats than Moses, propose a compromise: they will keep this land, but they will go with the other Israelites for as long as the fighting must go on.

Thus the situation is resolved, but it raises an interesting question. Earlier on, the Bible looked with great optimism to arrival in the fabled "land of milk and honey." Now, as the date for the invasion again draws near, suddenly that land doesn't look as attractive after all - some people don't even want to go in and take what is theirs. God doesn't comment in this chapter, so we have no idea whether he feels betrayed by this reversal, or angered by the fact that this essentially means the Israelites will have to hold conquered land that he intended would not be part of their territory in Canaan.