Bamidbar Twenty-One: Sihon and Og

The Israelites have been refused passage through the Edomite lands, so they’re taking an alternative route. This route takes them in the direction of Canaanite lands, specifically those of the king of Arad. He starts a war against the Israelites, and takes a captive. The Israelites promise God that if He gives them a victory, they will consecrate the Canaanite cities. I’m not entirely sure what consecrating the cities means, but God does as He has been asked, and gives the Israelites the necessary victory. The people continue on their way once again, and go from Mount Hor towards the Red Sea so as to circumvent the Edomite land. The people become weary due to the long journey. “The people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in this desert, for there is no bread and no water, and we are disgusted with this rotten bread (Numbers 21:5).'” While I’m sure that had I been part of the people at that time, I would have been complaining right along with them, from the perspective of a reader, it seems so pathetic that they keep crying and not learning their lesson, time after time. This time, as punishment for their complaining, God sends snakes against the people to bite them, and some die. As is their pattern, the people repent in the face of their punishment, so they cry to Moses, and he intervenes with God. “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Make yourself a serpent and put it on a pole, and let whoever is bitten look at it and live (Numbers 21:8).”

The journey continues, and the people arrive at the border of Moab, and then they send a message to Sihon, king of the Amorites. “Let me pass through your land. We will not turn into fields or vineyards, nor drink well water. We shall walk along the king’s road, until we have passed through your territory (Numbers 21:22).” But like Edom, Sihon refuses to allow the people into his land, and instead he fights them. This time, Israel wins, and takes possession of the cities of the Amorites, including Heshbon, Siihon’s city. The people settle in the land of the Amorites, and then they move north towards the land of Bashan. There, Og, the king of Bashan, tries to fight them, but he is defeated as well. Now, the Israelites have land in their possession, which will surely upset the balance of power in the region.

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Bamidbar Twenty: The Death of Miriam and Aaron

The people keep wandering, and arrive in Kadesh, in the desert of Zin. There, Miriam dies and is buried. Immediately following this update, it says “The congregation had no water; so they assembled against Moses and Aaron (Numbers 20:2).” The connection between these verses is picked up on in midrash, where commentators say that Miriam had a special well that followed the people around throughout her lifetime, but once she died, the well was gone too. Miriam is honored today at Passover seders with a cup of water known as Miriam’s cup, which symbolizes the water and sustenance that she provided for the people in the wilderness.

So, Miriam is dead, and the people are rebelling against Moses and Aaron once again. Now, they’re wishing they had died with Korah and his rebels, instead of being parched in the desert. Moses and Aaron ask God what to do in order to appease the people. “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Take the staff and assemble the congregation, you and your brother Aaron, and speak to the rock in their presence so that it will give forth its water. You shall bring forth water for them from the rock and give the congregation and their livestock to drink (Numbers 20:7-8).” The instructions are pretty straightforward in terms of laying out what Moses is supposed to do in order to get water from the rock. However, in a rare moment of rebellion, Moses doesn’t do exactly what he is told, and instead of talking to the rock, he hits it. It still works – the rock produces water, and the people are satiated. but Moses has made a huge mistake in not listening to God closely.

“The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, Since you did not have faith in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly to the Land which I have given them (Numbers 20:12).” This is the moment when Moses and Aaron lose the right to finish the journey that they started, and are told that they will never make it into the Promised Land. It’s a devastating, life-altering moment, and yet we aren’t told about either of their reactions. They don’t apologize, or fall on their faces, or fight with God, or even state that they accept His judgment. We have no knowledge of how this turn of events impacted them as leaders, and as people. Instead, the story immediately moves on.

Moses sends messengers to the king of Edom, identifying the Israelites as his brothers, and asking to pass through the Edomite land. However, Edom refuses to let the Israelites pass through his land, so they have to find an alternative route. This route leads them to Mount Hor, which is also on the border to Edom. “The Lord said to Moses and Aaron at Mount Hor, on the border of the land of Edom, saying, Aaron shall be gathered to his people, for he shall not come to the Land which I have given to the children of Israel, because you defied My word at the waters of dispute (Numbers 20:23-24).” It doesn’t seem fair that Aaron is being punished so extremely when it was Moses who hit the rock, so I have to wonder what exactly Aaron was doing at that time. We aren’t told of his actions, so we are left to speculate about whether or not he encouraged Moses, tried to stop him, or just stood aside, and is being punished for his inaction at that moment. Moses takes Aaron and Eleazar up Mount Hor, and takes the garments of the high priest off of Aaron and puts them on his son. Then, Aaron dies on top of the mountain, after which Moses and Eleazar come down alone. “The whole congregation saw that Aaron had expired, and the entire house of Israel wept for Aaron for thirty days (Numbers 20:29).”

This chapter starts with death and ends with death. By the end of it, Moses is left without either of his siblings. The close proximity of their deaths begs for comparisons to be made. Miriam’s death doesn’t seem to be acknowledged by the people, while they actively mourn Aaron. What does this say? Does it mean Miriam was less important? Or, as some feminist commentators speculate, is it that she was even more important, and mourning for her continued indefinitely? If we follow the thought process of the midrash, in which Miriam’s death leads to the lack of water, then her death was a direct precursor to Aaron’s, which is a result of Moses hitting the rock in search of water. What is this link meant to teach us?

Bamidbar Nineteen: Red Heifer

“This is the statute of the Torah which the Lord commanded, saying, Speak to the children of Israel and have them take for you a perfectly red unblemished cow, upon which no yoke has been laid (Numbers 19:2).” This is the commandment of the red heifer, one of the commandments that we are not able to fulfill today. In recent memory, no such unblemished cow has been found, and there are many people who are actively searching for one, including trying to breed one. The heifer is to be taken by Eleazar the kohen to be slaughtered, and afterwards, he will take its blood and sprinkle it in front of the Tent of Meeting, and then burn the cow. This is clearly an important sacrifice, warranting its own description, but it’s not quite clear to me when and why this particular sacrifice would be made. “A ritually clean person shall gather the cow’s ashes and place them outside the camp in a clean place, and it shall be as a keepsake for the congregation of the children of Israel for sprinkling water, for cleansing (Numbers 19:9).”

Next, we learn a little about death. “Anyone touching the corpse of a human soul shall become unclean for seven days (Numbers 19:11).” The uncleanness of death remains on a person until he sprinkles himself with water, and until that time, he cannot enter the Temple out of fear of defiling it. Today, after interacting with the dead through attending funerals, we continue an approximation of this tradition by ritually washing our hands after being in cemeteries. Even though the full commandment can no longer be followed without the Temple, through these small gestures we recognize what was.

Bamidbar Eighteen: Kohanim and Levites

This chapter lays out the relationship between the kohanim and the Levites. God says to Aaron, “Also your brethren, the tribe of Levi, your father’s tribe, draw close to you, and they shall join you and minister to you, and you and your sons with you, before the Tent of Testimony (Numbers 18:2).” This emphasizes the familial bond between the two subsets of priests. Then, Aaron is told that the Levites will have charge of the Tent, but not of the holy vessels or the altar, which are the domain of the kohanim alone. “I have therefore taken your brethren, the Levites, from among the children of Israel; they are given to you as a gift, and given over to the Lord to perform the service in the Tent of Meeting (Numbers 18:6).” This description of the relationship emphasizes the dominance of the kohanim, and sets the Levites up to be the servants of their brothers.

The kohanim have the Levites, and dominion of the most sacred places and rituals of the Israelites. “These shall be your from the holiest of holies, from the fire: all their offerings, their meal-offerings, their sin-offerings, their guilt-offerings, what they return to Me; they shall be holy of holies to you and to your sons (Numbers 18:9).” They have the honor of eating the sacrifices of the people, as well as rights to the firstborn sons of both humans and animals. However, they are obligated to redeem the sons, as well as the firstborn offspring of unclean animals. We are now told about the ritual of the pidyon ha-ben, the redemption of the firstborn son. “Its redemption from the age of a month, according to the valuation, five shekels of silver, according to the holy shekel, which is twenty gerahs (Numbers 18:16).” This is a ritual that continues until today, with descendants of the kohanim ceremonially being given, and then returning, firstborn sons.

So we know what the kohanim have. Now, we learn what they don’t have. “The Lord said to Aaron, You shall not inherit in their land, and you shall have no portion among them. I am your inheritance and portion among the children of Israel (Numbers 18:20).” Both the kohanim and the Levites are not given pieces of the land, because they have service of God as their inheritance. The kohanim get the sacrifices, and the Levites are given the tithes of the rest of the Israelite community. It’s interesting to see what the honors, as well as the burdens, of being part of the chosen tribe are. Is land a real trade-off for close service to God? What does that say about the innate holiness of the land, that possessing it is meant to be equal to directly serving God in the sanctuary?

Bamidbar Seventeen: Choosing Aaron

Eleazar, Aaron’s son, is given the task of of taking the fire pans of Korah and his followers and making them into plates to become an overlay for the altar so that they will serve as a reminder to the people of this experience. “So Eleazar the kohen took the copper censers which the fire victims had brought, and they hammered them out as an overlay for the altar, as a reminder for the children of Israel, so that no outsider, who is not of the seed of Aaron, shall approach to burn incense before the Lord, so as not to be like Korah and his company, as the Lord spoke regarding him through the hand of Moses (Numbers 17:4-5).” In this way, the hope is that no one else will be tempted to follow Korah’s bad example, and if they do they’ll at least remember what happens to those who try to usurp the position of the priestly class. However, the next day, the people begin to complain about Moses and Aaron again. They blame them for Korah’s death, saying that they have killed people of God. God’s presence then appears and He tells Moses and Aaron to step aside so that He can consume the congregation of the people of Israel. As is their custom, they fall on their faces.

Moses tells Aaron to quickly atone for the people before God, because He is setting a plague on the people. The plague has spread and killed 14,700 people because of Korah by the time Aaron stops it. Then, God speaks to Moses again. “Speak to the children and take from them a staff for each father’s house from all the chieftains according to their fathers’ houses; twelve staffs, and inscribe each man’s name on his staff. Inscribe Aaron’s name on the staff of Levi, for there is one staff for the head of their fathers’ house. You shall place the staffs in the Tent of Meeting before the Testimony where I commune with you. The staff of the man whom I choose will blossom, and I will calm down from Myself the complaints of the children of Israel which they are complaining against you (Numbers 17:17-20).” Spoiler alert: Aaron’s staff is the one to blossom, and once again, the people can see that Aaron is the chosen one.

Bamidbar Sixteen: Korah’s Rebellion

Dissension comes to the camp. Korah, along with Dathan, Abiram, and On, confronts Moses, as well as the committee of elders and chieftains who serve as the leaders of the community. “They assembled against Moses and Aaron, and said to them ‘You take too much upon yourselves, for the entire congregation are all holy, and the Lord is in their midst. So why do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s assembly (Numbers 16:2-3)?'” Now, I understand why this type of dissension and outright questioning of Moses, and by association God’s choice of leadership, is not acceptable. However, I also kind of understand the question. It has been reiterated many times that all of Israel is chosen and holy. Therefore, why does there need to be a hierarchy amongst the people?

Moses falls on his face again. He doesn’t defend himself outright, but instead tells Korah that God will make it known who is holy and chosen the next day, and that those people will be drawn closer to God. He cautions Korah against taking too much on himself, and reminds him, as a fellow Levite, that he has already been distinguished from the majority of the congregation and given a special role.

“Moses sent to call Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, but they said, ‘We will not go up. Is it not enough that you have brought us out of a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the desert, that you should also exercise authority over us? You have not even brought us to a land flowing with milk and honey, nor have you given us an inheritance of fields and vineyards. Even if you gouge out the eyes of those men, we will not go up (Numbers 16:12-14).'” This seems to be a dramatic response, but it shows the source of a great deal of the resentment that the people may have towards Moses and their current circumstances. Moses is upset, and tells God not to accept their offering, while simultaneously telling Korah to take his men and make sacrifices the next morning.

“The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron saying, ‘Dissociate yourselves from this congregation, and I will consume them in an instant. They fell on their faces and said, ‘O God, the God of the spirits of all flesh, if one man sins, shall You be angry with the whole congregation (Numbers 16:20-22)?'” Even though they’re being questioned and disrespected, these men are still thinking of the good of the collective, and are trying to protect everyone, even their enemies. Moses tells the people to separate from Korah, Dathan and Abiram, so that they won’t be connected with their sins. Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, as well as their families, are subsequently swallowed by the earth. “The earth beneath them opened its mouth and swallowed them and their houses, and all the men who were with Korah and all the property. They, and all they possessed, descended alive into the grave; the earth covered them up, and they were lost to the assembly (Numbers 16:32-33).”

This is one of the most dramatic biblical incidents yet. The earth literally swallows people alive for their dissension. At the risk of following suit, this sounds more than slightly fascist, with questioning and alternative factions being crushed and destroyed. It’s definitely the most dramatic warning yet of what can happen to those who pursue more power than they have been given. I wonder why the wives and children of the rebels had to be punished along with their husbands, though. Why did the example need to extend to those who had nothing to do with it, as far as we are told? Is it because Korah and his followers weren’t regular people, but rather members of the Levite tribe, and therefore were seen as leaders and role models amongst the people in their own right? Was God that worried about further factions coming out of their families?

Bamidbar Fifteen: Sacrifices, Challah, and Tzitzit

Even though the initial plan of the exodus has taken a detour, and now a new generation will be the one that eventually makes it to the promised land, the preparations and expectations for what happens once they arrive are still intact. Now, we are told about how sacrifices will be expected to happen when there is an occasion for a peace offering or any other voluntary offering in the land. As usual, no detail is too small, from the types of animals to the amounts of grain and oil that are meant for each respective kind of offering. These are not sacrifices that are specific to the kohanim, but rather are meant to be undertaken by every person. “Every native born shall do it in this manner, to offer up a fire offering of pleasing fragrance to the Lord (Numbers 15:13).” In addition to the Israelites, resident proselytes are also able to make the same offerings, and they are accepted by God as well. “One rule applies to the assembly, for yourselves and for the proselyte who resides; one rule applies throughout your generations just as for you, so for the proselyte, before the Lord (Numbers 15:15).” I’m not sure what exactly a person needs to do or be in order to qualify as a proselyte, but I’m wondering how that principle can be applied today. Does a resident non-Jew living in Israel today have the same status, that their offerings would be accepted as well? What is a proselyte as opposed to a resident alien?

When the people arrive in the land, and they make and eat bread from the produce of the land, they are required to set aside a portion of it as a gift to God. “The first portion of your dough, you shall separate a loaf for a gift; as in the case of the gift of the threshing floor, so shall you separate it. From the first portion of your dough you shall give a gift to the Lord in your generations (Numbers 15:20-21).” This is something that continues until today, when Jewish people bake challah, the braided bread that we eat on Shabbat. A piece of it is removed and burned, a throwback to this sacrificial regulation.

Next we hear about sin offerings, both intentional and unintentional. And finally, in this jam-packed chapter, we are given the commandment to wear tzitzit, fringes, on the corners of our garments. In verses that are recited every day as part of the Shema, this mitzvah is written. “Speak to the children of Israel and you shall say to them that they shall make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments, throughout their generations, and they shall affix a thread of sky blue on the fringe of each corner. This shall be fringes for you, and when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the Lord to perform them, and you shall not wander after your hearts and after your eyes after which you are going astray. So that you shall remember and perform all My commandments and you shall be holy to your God. I am the Lord, your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt to be your God; I am the Lord your God (Numbers 15:38-41).”

Bamidbar Fourteen: Forty Years in the Desert

The spies have delivered their report, and it is cautionary, to say the least. As a result, the people start to freak out. They cry and scream, all through the night. And, as is their instinct, they begin to complain, speaking against Moses and Aaron. “Why does the Lord bring us to this land to fall by the sword; our wives and children will be as spoils. Is it not better for us to return to Egypt (Numbers 14:3)?” They suggest appointing a new leader to take them back to Egypt, rather than to Israel, because they are afraid of what is to come, and are somehow nostalgic for slavery once again. The leaders who have been appointed, Moses and Aaron, respond oddly. They fall on their faces before the people. What does that mean, and why is this their response? They are leaders who were appointed directly by God, and more than anyone else, they have seen and experienced God the most directly. Therefore, when their leadership, and by association His choice, is being questioned, why don’t they stand confidently and defend themselves? Why do they fall, passive and weak, before those who question them?

Joshua and Caleb rip their clothes, and they are the ones who respond to the people. “They spoke to the entire congregation of the children of Israel, saying, ‘The land we passed through to scout is an exceedingly good land. If the Lord desires us, He will bring us to this land and give it to us, a land flowing with milk and honey. But you shall not rebel against the Lord, and you will not fear the people of that land for they are our bread. Their protection is removed from them, and the Lord is with us; do not fear them (Numbers 14:7-9).'” In spite of this passionate plea, the response of the people is to threaten to stone them. However, God’s presence appears to the whole community, stopping this plan. He questions Moses, asking how long the people will continue to provoke Him, and to question His will and plans for them. He threatens to strike them with a plague, leaving only Moses, who will be made into an even greater, stronger nation.

Now, if Moses were less of a leader, he might take this option. The people would stop bothering him, and he would continue to have power and glory. But Moses isn’t the type to take advantage of this kind of situation, and instead of thinking selfishly, he cautions God. His argument is that if God destroyed the people, the Egyptians will hear about it, and they will say that God didn’t have the ability to bring the people to the Promised Land, and will question Him. Instead, Moses reminds God of His nature. “The Lord is slow to anger and abundantly kind, forgiving iniquity and transgression, Who cleanses and does not cleanse, Who visits the iniquities of parents on children, even to the third and fourth generations. Please forgive the iniquity of this nation in accordance with your abounding kindness, as You have borne this people from Egypt until now (Numbers 14:18-19).” God listens to Moses, showing once again the unique nature of their relationship. He agrees to forgive the people, but says that this generation will not see the land that He promised to their fathers. This is the moment when the generation of the Exodus loses the opportunity to finish the journey that they have started and enter the land.

“But as for My servant Caleb, since he was possessed by another spirit, and he followed Me, I will bring him to the land to which he came, and his descendants will drive it out (Numbers 14:24).” Only Caleb, and Joshua, of the whole generation, will live long enough to get to the land. The children of the generation of slaves will also make it, but once again it is repeated that the initial group of the people will not. “Your children shall wander in the desert for forty years and bear your defection until the last of your corpses has fallen in the desert. According to the number of days which you toured the Land forty days, a day for each year, you will bear your iniquities for forty years; thus you will come to know My alienation (Numbers 14:33-34).” This is the reasoning for the length of time in the desert, something that I never knew before. In the end, the spies (other than Joshua and Caleb) die immediately from a plague, and the people hear of their new fate, and try to make amends. They want to enter the land, but Moses tells them that God is no longer with them. Nevertheless, they try to progress, and are attacked and beaten by the Amalekites and the Canaanites. This demonstrates that the people are not able to be successful on their own, only when God is on their side, and for now at least, they have lost that.

Bamidbar Thirteen: The Spies

So Miriam has recovered, and now we’re on to the next part of the story, the story of the spies. God tells Moses to send out men to scout out the land, with one representing each tribe. They went from Paran to Canaan, one man from each tribe (except Levi). We are given a list of their names, which include Hosea, son of Nun, from the tribe of Ephraim. We are told that Moses calls Hosea Joshua, who is the man that we know as his eventual successor as the leader of the people. No explanation is given for the change of name at this point, only that Joshua and Hosea are one in the same.

“Moses sent them to scout the Land of Canaan, and he said to them, ‘Go up this way in the south and climb up the mountain. You shall see what land it is, and the people who inhabit it; are they strong or weak? Are there few or many (Numbers 13:17-18)?'” He asks further questions as well. They are instructed to check the quality of the land, and whether or not the people live in camps or cities. They are supposed to check the agricultural conditions as well, all important details to be aware of when the people seek to settle the new land. So the men go up into the land, to Hevron and then to the Valley of Eshkol. “They came to the Valley of Eshkol and they cut a branch with a cluster of grapes. They carried it on a pole between two and some pomegranates and figs (Numbers 13:23).” This has become the symbol of the spies, two men carrying a cluster of grapes so heavy and large that they’re practically the size of human beings.

urlEventually, the men return from the land after forty days. They come to Moses, and Aaron, and the congregation of Israelites. “They told him and said, ‘We came to the land to which you sent us, and it is flowing with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who inhabit the land are mighty, and the cities are extremely huge and fortified, and there we saw even the offspring of the giant (Numbers 13:27-28).'” They describe the land as being surrounded by enemies. What’s interesting to me is that none of this is necessarily untrue. The land is fertile, and is surrounded by hostile nations. The people could have easily appeared as giants, intimidating and scary to the scouts. However, by focusing on the negative, the scouts scared the people. “Caleb silenced the people to Moses, and he said, “We can surely go up and take possession of it, for we can indeed overcome it (Numbers 13:30).'” He expresses confidence, but the other men say that they won’t be able to prevail against the inhabitants. “They spread an [evil] report about the land which they had scouted, telling the children of Israel, ‘The land we passed through to explore is a land that consumes its inhabitants, and all the people we saw in it are men of stature. There we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, descended from the giants. In our eyes, we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes (Numbers 13:32-33).” The spies are scaring the people, and are placing doubt in their minds about entering and conquering the land. Lowering morale in a situation like this can be dangerous, which we’ll see play out in the coming chapters.

Bamidbar Twelve: Miriam and Aaron

In this chapter, we have clear dissension in the ranks of the leadership of the Israelites. Although we just saw the ruling class grow with the elders receiving a degree of prophecy, we now witness the problems that come with leadership. “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses regarding the Cushite woman he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman. They said, ‘Has the Lord spoken only to Moses? Hasn’t He spoken to us too?’ And the Lord heard (Numbers 12:1-2).” It is members of the family that speak against Moses in this case, his own siblings. It’s a little unclear about why, though. Is it because of his intermarriage to a Cushite (black) woman? Or is it because they’re jealous of his exalted status, when they are also prophets? Or are the two connected – are they questioning why he is so honored when he has married outside of the people? Any, or all, of these reasonings make sense when one thinks about human nature. Moses, the baby brother, has all the honor, while his siblings remain in the background. Therefore, is this a conflict of leadership, or an internal family matter? We are told that Moses was humble, more than any other person. From this we can infer that he didn’t show off his leadership to try and make others jealous. So did the jealousy manifest for some other reason? God tells all three siblings to go to the Tent of Meeting. He calls to Aaron and Miriam. “He said, ‘Please listen to My words. If there be prophets among you, the Lord will make Myself known to him in a vision; I will speak to hi in a dream. Not so is My servant Moses; he is faithful throughout My house. With him I speak mouth to mouth; in a vision and not in riddles, and he beholds the image of the Lord. So why were you not afraid to speak against My servant Moses (Numbers 12:6-8)?'” God is clearly protective of the special relationship that He has with Moses, which goes beyond that of ‘normal’ prophecy. Miriam and Aaron have a relationship with God, but it isn’t nearly as intimate as the one that Moses enjoys. Is it because of his humility that Moses was chosen for this role? Would Aaron or Miriam have been able to handle it without becoming corrupt? Miriam is punished. She is afflicted with leprosy, and as a result, Aaron pleads to Moses on her behalf, and Moses in turn cries to God to save her. Miriam is afflicted for seven days, and the people wait for her to recover before moving on. So many things are coming up in this story – Moses is clearly compassionate, and intervenes with God on behalf of his sister, even though she spoke against him and his wife. However, Aaron committed the same crime. Why, then, is only Miriam punished? Was she the instigator? Or was Aaron’s status as high priest a factor, in that God wouldn’t want to punish him so publicly and put the office that he held in question? How can gossip or questioning be dealt with so harshly, only for the parties to move on just as quickly? What was the actual sin that Miriam (and Aaron) committed?