Bamidbar: A Book of Failings, A Book of Truth

DesertThe Phoenicians and Philistines were sailing the Mediterranean, conquering coastlines. Semitic tribes traveled across Mesopotamia. Various empires fell (see under “Hittite” and “Kassite”). Troy was sacked in 1250 BCE.

It was a time of grand movements, critical conquests.

Narratives about the heroes of the time are still with us – think of the Illiad and the Odyssey. Egyptian and Assyrian annals glorified powerful kings and offered detailed descriptions of royal victories. Kings were great and powerful and their battles were epic.

What does Bamidbar offer?

The text references ancient texts now lost to us, like the Book of the Battles of YHVH. Fragments of ancient songs and poetry read like models for the Elvish poetry of The Lord of the Rings cycle. “Against Wahab in a whirlwind and the wadis of Amon / and the cascade of the wadis that turns down towards Ar’s dwelling / and clings to Moab’s border” (21:14-15). “Rise up, O Well! Sing out to it. / Well the captains dug, the people’s nobles delved it,/ with a scepter, with their walking stick” (21: 17-18).

On the one hand, we are given a continuation of Levitical and legal concerns, particularly around inheritance, organization of cultic activities, and tribal tasks. On the other, we learn how angry people can be, how frightened. At one point in the story the Israelites claim their relationship to YHVH is so tenuous that if they so much as go near the Tabernacle, they risk being destroyed. On the one hand, we learn how to walk together, how to march; on the other, divisiveness is part and parcel of the march.

The first ten chapters specify the tasks of the Levites and the laws around the Nazirites who become, for a time, lay priests of a sort. The tabernacle is, in an expanded recounting from Leviticus, dedicated and consecrated. It’s hanukkah! (It’s a word: It means “dedicate…”) There is much in the way of strictures to secure the Tabernacle from prying eyes and hands. The first Passover feast is celebrated. It is the beginning of the Israelites’ second year in the wilderness.

Silver trumpets are fashioned at YHVH’s command; these will announce the people’s get-up and go. The tenth chapter, and the first third of B’midbar, ends with a call to arms chanted during Torah services. Kuma Adonai: “Rise up, O Lord. May your enemies be scattered and your foes flee before you!” Now, it seems, all the Israelites have to do is head homeward.

But the next chapter introduces us to what one scholar has called “The Book of Failings.” Manna, which tastes of rich cream, is not good enough for the Israelites. They dream of melons, cucumbers, onions and fish. The people grumble and complain, YHVH is angry and lashes out, Moses intercedes. Places are named after conflict. Taberah, the first instance in the book of this oft-repeated cycle, is Hebrew for “conflagration.” Kibroth-Hattaavah, where the people get sick from gorging on God-given quail, means “Graves of Desire.”

Moses sends off scouts and they come back only to terrorize the people with descriptions of unbeatable giants. Again God is enraged, again YHVH lashes out, sentencing the fearful to wander so that only their descendants, born in freedom, may win the land for freedom.

YHVH tries to bless the people, to remind them to remember the law:

The LORD said to Moses as follows: Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the LORD and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge. Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God. I the LORD am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I, the LORD your God” (Numbers 15: 37-41).

And then, just after this restatement of relationship and hope, Korach’s desperate rebellion. The earth opens up to swallow pain and discontent, but it is not enough. The plague that follows is a horror: Aaron stops it by an emergency expiation, by standing, as the Torah tells us, “between the living and the dead” (17: 13).

A doctor without borders.

In one single chapter (Num. 20), Moses loses both his siblings. Israel’s dancing prophetess, Miriam, the girl who saved her younger brother so he could save his people, the mature, even elderly woman who brought water and life wherever she went, is buried in a parched wilderness. Moses and Aaron lose perspective and patience. God is prepared to give the kvetching Israelites water from a rock but the two leaders fail the test. They strike the stone instead of making it clear that any waterfall is and must always be God’s provenance and generosity.

One wonders. The sister whose presence guaranteed water is gone. No wonder Moses and Aaron hammer against the rock in their grief and rage. Do they strike out simply because they want their sister back? At the close of the same chapter which describes Miriam’s burial, we read of Aaron’s death. Moses himself must remove the priestly vestments from his elder brother’s shoulders and place them on his nephew.

Then, he watches Aaron die.

The last third of the book tells us about the machinations of war. A foreign seer is sent to curse the Israelites and blesses them instead. The Israelites engage in sexual transgressions with Moabite women and worship alongside the Moabites. There is yet another plague. A transfer of leadership is arranged and Moses stands on a mountain looking into a land he is not permitted to enter. The book ends by apportioning a land yet to be won.

What might we learn from Bamidbar?

Our Torah can be a humble record. Our leaders are not heroes with superhuman powers’s they are flawed, broken human beings. Our people is not a glorious nation, but a bickering, contentious one.

Moses pleads for his people, he defends them, he protects them. He mediates between a selfish, recalcitrant people and a jealous and impatient deity. Talk about the dangers of triangulation. Talk about standing between a rock and a hard place.
He fails, in the end, to find a way out.

Nowhere in our story is there an obvious answer, a clear way out. We live in a world of paradox. Chosen to stand for God’s law, we struggle to observe it. We struggle to interpret it. We are meant to be a nation of priests; most often, we are a nation of dissatisfied malcontents.

Our struggle is human. We are given the mandate to help God’s shefa flow into this world. We are to give, to love, to know and demonstrate compassion and understanding. This is godding, as Jewish Renewalists say. Yet, each and every day we are weighed down by our small-mindedness, by our egos, by the daily and even onerous tasks of living.

At the start of this book, Moses takes a census. We are counted. The book asks: Can YHVH count on us? Can we count on each other? What can we count on?