Thursday, April 20, 2006

Being Chosen

The Rest of Numbers

By the end of Numbers, the Israelites have now made their way to the land east of the Jordan River where they are now poised to come into their promised land, Canaan.

Their even being this far has necessitated conquering some kingdoms of people who happened to be dwelling here first. In one case (Midian), this actually meant killing all of the men, and all of the women who were not virgins (see chapter 31). The remaining Midianite women and girls could be “kept for themselves.” What did the Midianites do that was so awful as to justify this genocide? One of the Israelite men had brought home a Midianite woman as a wife. What is so awful about this (after all, Moses’ wife was also Midianite)? It is not clear, except that this particular incident gets connected with an entirely different one: other Israelite men had sexual relations with women from Moab (note: not Midianite women) and got enticed by them to worship their gods (Num 25:1-5).

Meanwhile, the rest of the first generation dies off, except Moses and Caleb and Joshua (Num 26:65). Moses is reminded that he is not going to live much longer and will never get to enter the promised land himself, and so he prepares to have Joshua become the new leader in his place. Two of the tribes, the Reubenites and the Gadites decide that they would like to stay in this land east of the Jordan, but they promise to help the others win and settle in Canaan before they fully settle there. Half of the tribe of Manasseh decides to join them in this (Num 32).

The boundaries of the promised land are clarified (Num 34:1-12). Leaders are designated for the remaining tribes, who will apportion the land to these tribes in proportion to the current population of each tribe (rest of chapter 34). Arrangements are also made for the Levites (Num 35:1-6). And further rules and practices for the people are clarified.

Among the clarifications are laws about what to do about people who have accidentally killed other people (cities of refuge are set up for them to live in until they can be tried). People who intentionally kill others are themselves to be killed. Because it is apparently okay to kill to avenge murder, and okay to kill non-Israelites whose land you’d like to take over, apparently at least one of the ten commandments (“thou shalt not kill”) is not absolute but has certain exceptions.

Clearly, I continue to struggle with all of this.

Now, I do know that all of this has to be read a certain way to be properly understood, but I continue to be troubled because the face-value acceptance of these stories is still at play in our world. If a country wants land or resources occupied and controlled by another country, they think it is okay to go into that other country and take over the land or resources by force, especially if they declare that God (or moral virtue) is on their side. Also, some of the very people who want the 10 commandments posted in schools and other public places (because they believe that the 10 commandments count as absolute moral rules) also support the death penalty.

But let me go ahead and try to read this text more positively.

One of the messages is that things are not always easy, and a person or a group can struggle for a long time, but through the struggles, God is still with them. The Israelites were in the wilderness for 40 years. The first generation died off before ever seeing the promised land. The message here is that even if you struggle your whole life and never see the results you hoped for, your struggles may yet be blessed, helping create a new and better world for later generations.

Another message is that even though the people in their struggles did not always uphold the highest standards of morality or faithfulness, and God was disappointed – even angry – during these times, God did not give up on his people. In this text then we see the emergence of a kind of committed love, a love that endures even through disappointment and anger: a love not linked to the actual actions of the people, but to who they are.

The notion of a “chosen people” is very powerful. On the one hand, I struggle with it because of the apparent exclusivity (one group of people is “chosen”; others can be expunged from the earth, not even from doing anything wrong themselves, but just because they happen not to be the “chosen”). But on the other hand, what is attractive about the concept of a chosen people is the notion that the people belong to God: that no matter what they do, they are loved and will not be abandoned. God still struggles with them, trying to make them better people. But as hard as they may resist, God will not give up on them. God believes that it is possible for them to be the best that they can be. The notion of chosenness is thus a notion of enduring relationship, and enduring hope in the inherent goodness of the people (even if their actions at any given moment may not be living up to this hope). A better life is possible; a better world is possible.

The way I resolve this in my own interpretation is to believe that all people are God’s chosen people.

So the long journey through the wilderness, out of bondage and towards the promised land and a new life in which God’s ideals can be realized on earth (if only the people would behave properly towards each other and towards God) is a powerful and important story: for all people and in all times.

Friday, April 07, 2006

On the Move Again

Numbers 1-20

I’m finding it hard getting through Numbers.

The story continues: Having finished building the tabernacle and consolidating their spiritual life together, now the Israelites take stock of their numbers for military purposes (Num 1:3), finding that they had 603,550 men 20 years old or older (Num 1:46). This did not include the Levites, the women, or the children. So it is estimated that their total population was about two million.

As they journey through the wilderness, sometimes they have problems finding water or food. The people get upset at these moments. The Lord gets upset with them for getting upset. When they want meat, they are given lots of quails, but then also become afflicted with plagues (See Num 11:18-20 and Num 11:31-34). Spies are sent forth to scope out the land they want eventually to settle. When they come back with reports about how hard it will be to conquer the people already there, the Israelites begin to question whether this is really what they want to do: to fight for this land they thought they were promised. The Lord gets even more angry, and finally reveals that in fact the first generation will never make it to the Promised Land (Num 14:29-30). When a group organizes themselves to challenge Moses’ and Aaron’s authority, the earth opens up and swallows some of the people; fires come forth and consume others (Num 16:31-35). The rest are terrified back into submission.

But a bit later on, the Lord even inexplicably gets upset with Moses and Aaron, and tells them that they will not make it either (Num 20:12). Sure enough, Aaron does die (Num 20:28).

And now, as the people continue to advance, the battles against those they meet begin … (to be continued).

So, hmm, I’m finding all of this difficult: a struggling people; an angry Lord; a violent invasion…

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Mysteries of the Tribes of Israel

Numbers 1

I’ve heard of the “lost tribes” of Israel, and so I’m staying alert as to when those tribes go missing. But, meanwhile, we seem to have now gained a tribe. While the 12 male descendants of Jacob were listed in Genesis 35:22 as: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, Benjamin, Dan, Daphtali, Gad, and Asher, at the beginning of Numbers (1:5-15), the 12 tribes are listed as: Reuben, Simeon, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Ephraim (a son of Joseph), Manasseh (another son of Joseph), Benjamin, Dan, Asher, Gad, and Naphtali. The changes include the omission here of Levi, and the breaking down of the descendants of Joseph into two separate lines tracing from Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh. If we add back the Levites (the priestly tribe), there are now 13!

So, I will stay alert as I continue to read about when the "lost tribes" go missing, and which ones they turn out to be!