If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.
February 24-26. Numbers 31-36
I have grouped together this weekend’s readings, being the last six chapters of this book. Each tackles a different aspect of the run-up to the crossing of the Jordan.
They start with gruesome reading, the near-destruction in chapter 31 of the Midianites. Only unmarried girls and women are allowed to live (and even then, only to become ‘brides’ for the invading soldiers, and all the animals and precious metals taken as spoils of war. Nothing could be further from a ‘modern’ understanding of religion, and yet it invites comparison to the way that Daesh is still carrying on its jihad in nearby Syria today. The belief that God would not only select one nation as special (which is the foundational principle of the Old Testament), but order them to destroy all rival civilisations they encounter, still persists and must be resisted. Yet this was only the beginning of the long campaign of Israelite terror in Canaan that we will return to in the Book of Judges.
The story then moves on to the intended division of land after further conquests have been achieved. Two and a half of the twelve tribes, being pastoralists, will settle in the (destroyed but to be re-built) Midianite towns but only after their men have done their share of fighting. The remainder will settle in the more fertile land west of the Jordan – the promised ‘land of milk and honey’. It’s a reminder that where we live influences what we do, though often in less obvious ways than this.
Chapter 33 recaps the story of the Exodus wanderings with a full list of the places they camped, most of which were not mentioned earlier, presumably because nothing special happened there. But that’s the story of most of our lives – in between the moments of glory and shame, the places that we remember for better or worse, are the many days and years when life went by much as normal. But they are all part of our life’s story, and a full account of the life of a person or group should not overlook them.
Then comes a detailed description of boundaries. This I familiar language to me. Part of my work involves dealing with Church of England parish boundaries, many of which in rural areas are untouched since medieval times. This leaves us wondering at the reasons for many quirks – one parish boundary I spotted up in the hills above Teesdale goes up and down the mountainside three times like a castle battlement, yet there are now no buildings or even walls that correspond to this line. One can only presume it represented the land holdings of different ancestral families. On the other hand, reading the descriptions of boundaries of new urban parishes created in Victorian times is like this Bible passage – “from the junction of High Street and Market Street, in a south-westerly directions for about 450 yards to a point on Station Road thirty yards west of the police station” (I made that one up, but that’s the kind of thing). And boundaries do still matter, though less so in the church than in past times, except when it comes to weddings.
Chapter 35 includes provision for cities of refuges for murderers who could stay there safe from revenge attacks until they could receive a fair trial – although the penalty for both murder and manslaughter if witnesses could be found to prove it, was death. And finally there is provision for the descendants of Noah and her sisters (as mentioned a few days ago, these being the only women who inherited land in their own name). Thus ends this collection of stories and laws from desert times.