Thursday, December 10, 2009

This week's lesson: Numbers 25, 31

Let's set aside the questions raised by holy war, ethnic cleansing, and even the reported presence of 675,000 sheep in a smallish patch of semi-arid land . . .

Yes, set them aside for now, and ask yourself about the kind of people who thought the story in these chapters really needed to be told -- the kind of people who enjoyed hearing how the Israelites wiped out the people of Moab.

Were they blood-thirsty primitives?

Perhaps -- though I'm not sure an era which includes the Holocaust, the GULAG, and the firebombing of Dresden has much right to be throwing stones at others.

In fact, most of the people who've cherished this story were not victors but victims -- smallholders and shopkeepers who whispered it to their families as they waited for yet another knock on the door at night.

And there were always knocks on the door . . . from the Egyptians. From the Assyrians. From the Babylonians, and Persians, and Greeks, and Romans -- all of whom continually demanded that God's people hand over their money, their land, and their children.

Sometimes, the threat was annihilation.

And sometimes, it was assimilation.

For every young man killed by the goyim, after all, there were a hundred who took one look at the bright lights of the big city and decided that fitting in was better than fighting back. And if fame and fortune meant leaving God behind . . .

Well, Zimri ben-Salu wasn't the last man who tried to make good by marrying some shiksa.

In short, the story of the Moabites in Numbers 25 and 31 is a "bookend" to the story of Pharaoh in Exodus 1; both tell how Israel was put at risk by the loss of its sons to foreigners.
  • In Exodus, the threat is annihilation, while in Numbers it is assimilation.
  • In Exodus, the threat comes from a man, while in Numbers it comes from women.
  • In Exodus, the saviors are women, while in Numbers it is a man.
And while we'd much rather think of God's people as victims rather than victors, the fact is that both stories are stories of survival.

To be sure, the story here in Numbers does raise all kinds of questions . . .

But at least we're here to ask them.

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