Archive for July, 2012

July 26, 2012 12:01 am CDT

Devarim: Give peace a chance

“And I [Moses] sent messengers from the wilderness of Kedemoth to King Sihon of Heshbon with words of peace.”  (Deut. 2:26)

Moses does this even though God had already said “I have handed over to you King Sihon the Amorite of Heshbon, and his land. Begin to take possession by engaging him in battle”  (2:24).  Instead, Moses asks Sihon if he can travel through his land in as peaceful,  “low-impact” and self-sufficient  a manner as possible:  “If you let me pass through your land, I will travel only along the road; I will turn aside neither to the right nor to the left. You shall sell me food for money, so that I may eat, and  supply me water for money, so that I may drink.”  (2:27-28).

Sihon refuses, and the battle is joined, but we have to assume that had he accepted the terms, Moses would have honored them, even though this goes against the express command of 2:24.  In examining Moses’ actions, the ancient interpreters turn to Psalm 34:15, which not only says “seek peace” but adds “and pursue it.” This imparts a special urgency to acts done for the sake of peace, which not only justifies Moses’ action, but makes it exemplary.

July 25, 2012 11:53 pm CDT

Devarim: The promised lands

The Horim had formerly inhabited Seir [=Edom], but the descendants of Esau dispossessed them, destroying them and settling in their place, as Israel has done in the land that the LORD gave them as a possession. (Deut. 2:12)

On its way to Canaan, Israel is admonished to avoid warfare as it passes through through the regions of Edom, Moab and Ammon.  Genesis tells of the ancestors of these peoples in the stories of Esau and Lot.  Here, we are told that their descendants were also given their land by God through a divinely ordained conquest that displaced former inhabitants.

Apparently, the biblical writers saw this as the way ethnic groups got land.  It was not a unique arrangement for Israel.   Similarly, the prophet Amos reminds Israel that each nation also had its own “exodus”: “Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans  from Kir?” (9:7)

July 19, 2012 1:50 am CDT

Matot-Masei: Reuben among the sheepfolds

Then [the tribes of Reuben and Gad] came up to [Moses] and said, “We will build sheepfolds here for our flocks, and towns for our dependents, . . . [Moses answered] Build towns for your dependents and sheepfolds for your flocks.” (Num 32:16, 24)

Numbers 32 describes the request of the tribes of Reuben and Gad to remain in Transjordan (east of the Jordan River) rather than settle with the other tribes in Canaan.  Moses upbraids them for deserting the rest of Israel in the upcoming battles, and is only pacified when they offer to join the invading host as an advance guard before returning home.

The question of Reuben’s joining the tribes in warfare comes up again in Judges 5, the Song of Deborah, one of the oldest texts in the Bible.  The Song not only praises those tribes who answered Deborah and Barak’s summons but also shames those, like Reuben, who did not.

“Among the clans of Reuben
there were great searchings of heart.
Why did you tarry among the sheepfolds?
To hear the piping for the flocks?”  (Judges 5:15-16)

Reuben chooses to pursue a pastoral existence in our parsha as well—in fact, the midrash* portrays Reuben and Gad as so keen to pursue it that they don’t have their priorities straight.  “The Reubenites and the Gadites cherished their property more than human life, saying to Moses, ‘We will build here sheepfolds for our flocks and towns for our children’ (v. 16).  Moses said to them, That is not right!  Rather do the more important things first.  ‘Build towns for your children’ and afterward ‘sheepfolds for your flocks’  (v 24) . . . the Holy One Blessed Be He said to them, ‘seeing that you have shown greater love for your cattle than for human souls, by your life, there will be no blessing in it.'”

*rabbinic interpretation from the first millennium, which often seizes on a very small detail, in this case, the difference in word order between the tribes’ proposal and Moses’ reply.

July 19, 2012 1:43 am CDT

Matot-Masei: “A Hundred Names for Sand”

They set out from Succoth, and camped at Etham, which is on the edge of the wilderness. They set out from Etham, and turned back to Pi-hahiroth, which faces Baal-zephon; and they camped before Migdol. They set out from Pi-hahiroth . . . . (Num. 33:6-8)

Numbers 33:1-49 enumerates 42 stations of Israel’s wilderness journey, between Ramses (the starting point in Egypt) and the final encampment at Jordan.  Interpreters have puzzled over the need for this summary.  My favorite explanation comes from the 19th century commentary of Dovber Salomon.

“The summation of the wilderness itinerary was made for the benefit of the generation that died in the wilderness.  Just as I have heard the Bedouin have a hundred names for sand, so for that generation each of these wilderness locales had its distinctive texture and sensibility.  What looks to us like a bare list was to them a diary, each destination with its memories, its miracles, its trials.    Most importantly, this itinerary served to remind them that, despite their failings, they had carried their newfound sacred legacy a long way across the desert, even if it fell to their children, rather than them, to enter the land.”

July 12, 2012 2:07 am CDT

Pinchas: “God of the spirits of all flesh”

 “Let the LORD, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint someone over the congregation who shall go out before them and come in before them, . . . so that the congregation  of the LORD may not be like sheep without a shepherd.” (Num 27:16-17)  

God is here invoked with particular reference to animal life.  The epithet “God of the spirits of all flesh” (used also in Num 16:22) has a broader scope than “God of all humanity,” but a narrower one than “God of all creation.”

All flesh has spirit, ruach, i.e., breath, life, that which animates it.  This basic biblical metaphor is presented when God creates humankind in Genesis 2, breathing life into dust.  In this version Adam is not merely the prototypical human, but the prototypical animal: the other animals are created afterward, since “it is not good for man to be alone.”

That the model of Genesis 2 applies to animals as well as humans is confirmed in Psalm 104.

These all look to you
to give them their food in due season; . . .
when you take away their breath,
they die and return to their dust.
When you send forth your spirit, they are created;
and you renew the face of the ground.  (vv.  27, 29-30)

July 12, 2012 2:02 am CDT

Pinchas: “Spirit” in Joshua

And the LORD answered Moses, “Single out Joshua son of Nun, an inspired man, and lay your hand upon him.  (Num 27:18)

Joshua is designated by God as being qualified for leader ship because he is ” an inspired man,” lit., ” a man in whom there is spirit.”  In one sense, “there is spirit” in all people, in all animals, as the previous verse reminded us.  Clearly, a different sense is intended here.

In contemporary parlance, if we say that a person “is soulful” or “has soul,” it is not because others lack souls, but because that person has found a way to tap and express what can often be only latent or hidden.  Joshua draws on spirit, manifests spirit.

In what way does Joshua manifest spirit?  Some interpreters say through wisdom, others say through prophecy, others say through skill.   But spirit can also refer to courage (Joshua 2:11, 5:1).  This is exactly the quality God calls on when he exhorts Joshua after Moses’ death, “be strong and courageous.”  It is a quality Joshua has already demonstrated in the scout episode, where he stood up for God and Moses against a multitude, for which he was nearly stoned (Num 14:6-10).

July 5, 2012 12:58 am CDT

Parshat Balak: The King

Then Balak said to [Balaam], “Come with me to another place from which you can see them [Israel]—you will see only part of them, not all—and curse them for me from there.” (Numbers 23:13)

King Balak of Moab is in a quandary.  Threatened by Israel’s approach near his territory, he sought out a sorcerer and hired him to curse them.    But instead of a sorcerer, he  finds himself stuck with a diviner, one who can read the future but cannot control it.

Balak has spared no expense to obtain his divine maledictions, and is as puzzled as he is frustrated when they are not forthcoming.  All he can do is schlep Balaam to another vantage point, hoping that a partial view of Israel’s encampment will make them appear more vulnerable.  When that results in another blessing for Israel, Balak fumes, “don’t curse them and don’t bless them” (23:25); in other words, if you can’t say something calamitous about somebody, don’t say it.

In seeking to divert divine power to his own military ends, Balak discovers that divine power has a Mind of its own.   Enroll him in the list with Ahab, Oedipus, Macbeth, and other ancient kings who think they’re manipulating the oracle while all the time the oracle is overmastering them.

July 5, 2012 12:53 am CDT

Parshat Balak: The Seer

Balaam said to Balak, “And now that I have come to you, can I speak freely?  I will only utter what God puts in my mouth.” (Numbers 22:38)

Balaam, who has been hired to curse Israel, stands in sharp contrast with Balak.* He “can only utter what God puts into [his] mouth.”  He is, however, no mere neutral observer, but a witness, increasingly attracted to the God’s-eye view of Israel he is privileged to receive.  “May I die the death of the upright,” declares Balaam.  “May my fate be like theirs.” (23:10)

*That is, Balaam as he appears in this section of the story, 22:39-23:36.  The episode with the ass (22:21-35) interposes negative elements into what is otherwise a positive portrait.  Milgrom persuasively argues that two different traditions have been combined in the final version of the Book of Numbers.