Sunday, April 13, 2008

The War Begins: Numbers 20-21

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

Israel hasn't actually started to conquer the promised land yet, so they don't begin these chapters with any particular intention to fight. It all has the feel of some sort of fantastic quest, actually, with the Israelites moving around the map from one realm to the next. First up are the Edomites, and Moses greets them as brothers, the sons of Jacob to the sons of Esau. He proposes that the Edomites give them free passage through the land, and promises that no Israelite would venture from "the king's highway" as they travel. They willl take no food or water from the Edomites. Edom refuses and assembles their own army along the road. Rather than fight them, Moses turns aside and they head in another direction.

Peace doesn't last long: Next is the land of Arad, which is populated by Canaanites. The Arad king allegedly captured some Israelites, which I suppose is plausible, and on this pretext, Israel retaliates by completely obliterating the Aradites: "they completely destroyed them and their towns." It would seem that the Israelites are taking anger management lessons from their God. This isn't really a genocide since the Aradites are Canaanites and most of the Canaanites haven't been targeted yet, but it's still an ominous beginning to the campaign. Interestingly, it's the Israelites themselves who propose killing off the Aradites. They ask for God's blessing in this slaughter, and apparently he gives it.

After killing off the kingdom of Arad, the Israelites move on towards the Moabites and the Amorites. Like the Edomites, the Amorites muster an army to stand at the border and tell the Israelites to go another way. The Israelites extend the same offer to the Amorites' King Sihon: they will pass in peace, taking and destroying nothing. Sihon is having none of it. The Israelites don't even bother to ask for God's blessing this time: they crush Sihon's forces and "put him to the sword." They also capture all of the Amorites' cities, including the capital, Heshbon. Somewhat disturbingly, the author of Numbers then launches into a bombastic and militaristic war poem describing the capture of Moab and the rape of its women.

After the Amorites are thus destroyed, the Israelites press onwards to slaughter the people of Bashan, under king Og (which is a really cool name, I think). This time, God tells Moses he will be with them, so the Israelites make no offers of peace. Instead, they simply invade and kill everyone they can find. The author of Numbers proudly relates that they "left no survivors."

After each of these little conquests, Numbers records, the Israelites "settled" the land they had taken. This is intriguing. Why are they settling now, after God has just cast them away from the holy lands? Is it supposed to be God's decision, or theirs, that it's time to settle down after all? The Israelites are making the transition from escaped slaves to fighting force, and it's not necessarily pretty. What is the purpose of this conquest and slaughter? It lacks even the thin legitimacy of Joshua's later wars, although it's also gratifyingly vaguer about the details. It's notably devoid of any lengthy, self-absorbed speeches by God, pronouncing his grand intentions for the world and for the Israelites in particular. The Israelites appear to be killing people just because they're in the way.