LEARNING BIBLE TODAY
From Creation to the Conquest of Canaan
by Michael J. Prival
WANDERING IN THE WILDERNESS
CONTENTS OF CHAPTER V:
[Exodus 16:1 - 17:16]
After six weeks of wandering, the Israelites came to the Wilderness of Seen. They had no food and they began to grumble about Moses and Aaron. “It would have been better if Yahweh had killed us in Egypt where we had enough bread to eat. Now you have brought us here to starve to death!”
Yahweh appeared in a cloud and said to Moses, “I have heard the Israelites complaining. In the evenings you shall have meat, and in the morning you shall have bread. Then you will know that I am Yahweh, your God.” That evening, birds appeared for the Israelites to eat. And the next morning, a fine, flake-like substance covered the ground. Moses said, “This is the bread that Yahweh has given you to eat.” He told them to gather as much as they needed each day, but that on the sixth day of the week they should gather enough for two days. This way they would have enough to eat on the seventh day, the Sabbath.
And the Israelites named this sweet food “manna.” And they ate the manna every day for 40 years, until they came to the land of Canaan.
The Israelites left the Wilderness of Seen and came to Repheedeem, where there was no water for them to drink. The people quarrelled with Moses, saying, “Give us water to drink.” Moses called out to Yahweh. And Yahweh said, “Take your rod and strike the rock at Mount Horev, and water will come out from it.” Moses did this while the elders among the Israelites watched him, and the people had enough to drink. And the name of that place was then called Massah, meaning trial, and Mereebah, meaning quarrel, because the Israelites quarrelled there and because at that place they tried Yahweh, saying, “Is Yahweh with us or not?”
Then Amalek came to fight with the Israelites at Repheedeem. And Moses told Joshua to choose some men and go out to fight against Amalek. Moses watched the battle from the top of the hill. He held the rod in his hand. Whenever he lifted his hand, the Israelites grew stronger than Amalek. When he could no longer keep his hand up, Aaron and Hur held his hand up until the sun set. And Joshua defeated Amalek. And Yahweh said to Moses, “Write of this as a memorial in a book. I will completely wipe away all memory of Amalek from under the sky.” And Moses said, “Yahweh will be at war with Amalek throughout the generations.”
1. This story tells us about more of the complaints that the Israelites had. As in the previous story (chapter IV-6, “The Waters Part! The Israelites Escape!”), Yahweh answers their complaints with miracles that restore their faith in him, at least for a while. The fact that Yahweh led the Israelites out of Egypt and helped them along their way with miracles is very important to the religion of traditional Judaism. Many times in the Bible, Yahweh explains to the people that they should have faith in him and do what he says because he is the one who led them out of Egypt. Thus, according to the Bible, the principal reason why the Israelites (and their descendants, the Jews) should have faith in Yahweh, their god, is because of the miracles that he performed for them in these stories.
Today, most Jews, even many religious ones, no longer believe that the miracles described in these two stories actually happened. But religious Jews continue to have faith in Yahweh, the god described in these stories. How can that be? Do you think that most religious people today think of god in the way he is described in these ancient stories – a god who talks directly to people and takes direct actions to change things for people?
As we discussed earlier (chapter I-1,“The Story of Creation,” discussion point #6; and chapter I-5, “Noah and the Great Flood,” discussion point #3) there are still some people called “fundamentalists” who believe that each of the stories in the Bible is absolutely true. Fundamentalist Jews and Christians believe that the waters of the sea parted for Moses, just as described in the Bible story.
2. What is this flaky stuff, manna (mahn in Hebrew), that Yahweh brings to the Israelites instead of bread? Why doesn’t he just send bread, as he said he would? The answer to this question may be one of those “natural” explanations that we talked about in discussion point #3 of the story before this one. In some parts of the Sinai, which is where the Israelites wandered, the tamarisk bush grows. Insects that feed on the sap of this bush produce a sweet sticky substance that tastes very good.
3. Moses uses his rod to produce water from a rock and then to win the battle against Amalek. We have already learned that the rod of Moses can perform miracles. What miracles did the rod perform in Egypt? The rod is a sign of the leadership of Moses and his ability to call on the power of Yahweh.
4. In this story, the Israelites are led by Joshua in their battle against Amalek. This is the first mention of Joshua in the Bible. Joshua is a very important person. He is the one who will take over leadership of the Israelites after Moses dies. It is Joshua who will lead the people to victory in conquering the land that God promised them.
In this story, Joshua goes out to battle Amalek. Who is Amalek? Remember Esau, the brother of Jacob? Well, Amalek is one of Esau’s grandsons. Of course, the story we are reading now occurred hundreds of years after the time of Esau and even of his grandson, Amalek. Amalek in this story means the Amalekites, the descendants of Amalek. The Bible often presents single individuals, such as Esau and Amalek and Israel (Jacob), who are supposed to have been the original ancestors of whole nations (see, for example, discussion point #3 in the story “Esau Sells his Birthright to his Brother, Jacob,” chapter II-9).
Amalek is presented in the Bible as one of the groups of people living in the land that Yahweh promised to the Israelites, though archaeologists have not found any evidence that this group ever existed. The battle in this story is just the first of many that the Israelites fight with the Amalekites. Although the Israelites fight many battles against many different people in the Bible, the Amalekites somehow seem to be their most evil and constant enemy. In this story, for example, they suddenly appear and to attack the Israelites for no reason at all. We will come across the Amalekites again later on.
Yahweh says he wants to wipe away all memory of the Amalekites. Then why does he insist that Moses write the story of the battle down as a memorial in a book? Why does the story appear in the Bible?
[Exodus 19, 20, 31, 32; Deuteronomy 5, 9, 10]
In the third month after they left Egypt, the Israelites entered the wilderness of Sinai. They set up their camp in front of the mountain. Yahweh called to Moses from the mountain, saying, “Tell the Israelites, ‛You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you out on eagles’ wings. So if you will obey me and keep my covenant, then you will be my special treasure, more than all the other peoples of the world.’” Moses told the people what Yahweh had said to him.
Three days later, Mount Sinai began to shake, and smoke poured forth from it, as Yahweh came down upon it in fire. And the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder.
And God spoke out of the fire, saying:
(1) “I am Yahweh, your god, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
(2) “You shall have no gods other than me. You shall not make any sculptured image or any likeness of anything that is in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I am a jealous god, who brings punishment for the wickedness of the parents upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate me, but shows mercy to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.
(3) “You shall not take the name of Yahweh, your god, in vain.”
(4) “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. You shall labor for six days and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of Yahweh, your god. On the seventh day you shall not do any work – neither you nor your son or daughter, nor your slave, nor your cattle, nor any stranger that is visiting you. For in six days, Yahweh made the sky and the earth and the sea and all that is within them, and he rested on the seventh day. That is why Yahweh blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”
(5) “Honor your father and your mother, so you may live for a long time and you may do well on the land that Yahweh, your god, gives to you.”
(6) “You shall not commit murder.”
(7) “You shall not commit adultery.”
(8) “You shall not steal.”
(9) “You shall not be a false witness against your neighbor.”
(10) “You shall not desire your neighbor’s house. You shall not desire your neighbor’s wife, or his slave, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”
All the people saw the thunder and lightning, and heard the sound of the trumpet, and saw the smoke pouring forth from the mountain. They heard the words that Yahweh spoke with a great voice out of the fire. And Moses said to the people, “God has come before you so that the fear of him will be with you, so you will not sin.”
And Yahweh said to Moses, “Say to the children of Israel: You saw for yourselves that I spoke to you from the sky. You shall not make any gods of silver or gold.”
And Moses climbed up the mountain to receive the Tablets of the Covenant. For forty days and forty nights he stayed on the mountain, eating no food and drinking no water. And Yahweh gave him two tablets of stone on which the finger of God had written the words he had spoken out of the fire to the children of Israel.
But Moses had been up on the mountain so long that the people waiting below wanted a god to worship. So Aaron had made for them a calf of gold. And when the people saw the golden calf, they called out, “This is your god that led us out of the land of Egypt!” When Moses came down the mountain to bring the Tablets of the Covenant to the people, he saw them worshipping the golden calf. He became so angry that he threw the tablets down and broke them in front of the Israelites. Then he burned the calf that they had been worshipping, and ground it into a fine powder which he threw into the water, and then he made the Israelites drink it.
Moses saw that the people were out of control, and he called, “Whoever is on the side of Yahweh, come to me.” And all the men of the tribe of Levi gathered around him. He said to them, “Yahweh, the god of Israel, says: Take your swords and kill your brothers, your friends, and your relatives.” And the Levites killed three thousand on that day. And Yahweh did strike the people because of the golden calf that Aaron had made.
Moses pleaded with Yahweh not to destroy the Israelites. Moses said to Yahweh, “Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Overlook the wickedness of the people. If you destroy the Israelites, then the people of Egypt will say that you were not able to bring the Israelites to the land that you promised to them. They will say that that is why you took them out into the wilderness to die.”
Then Yahweh told Moses to carve two new tablets of stone like the first ones, and to make an ark of wood to keep them in. Again he went up Mount Sinai and Yahweh inscribed the same Ten Commandments on the new tablets. Moses put them in the ark and then took the tablets and the ark down the mountain.
1. This story contains two very important ideas: (1) the repeating of the covenant between Yahweh and the Israelites and (2) the well-known “Ten Commandments.”
You should remember the “covenant” from earlier stories. In the story we call “Abraham and Sarah, The Promise from God” (chapter II-1),Yahweh first establishes the covenant with Abraham. This covenant is the “deal” that he makes with Abraham and his descendants that if they follow Yahweh and obey his rules, then he will give them land to live on and take care of them. This covenant is later established again with Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, in the story of “Jacob’s Ladder,” (chapter II-11). Now Yahweh once again repeats this covenant with the descendants of Abraham – who are now led by Moses.
What are the rules that Yahweh requires the Israelites to follow? There are many hundreds of them – ten are given in this story. These are called the “Ten Commandments.” These Ten Commandments have been very important both to Judaism and to Christianity.
Over the centuries, Jews and Christians have taken the text of the Ten Commandments and divided it up in several different ways to get ten statements. The division shown in the text above is the most common way that Jewish commentators have divided the Ten Commandments, but even among Jewish scholars there have been different views on how to do this.
2. The first commandment says simply that Yahweh is the god of the Israelites. The purpose of this statement is, presumably, to tell the Israelites that they should be worshipping Yahweh. And why should they worship Yahweh? The answer to this question is also given: Yahweh is the one who led the Israelites out of the land of Egypt, where they had been enslaved.
You might think from the first two stories in this book (chapter I-1 and chapter I-2) that the god of the Israelites is more important than other gods. Why is this? Why do you think that God doesn’t remind the Israelites about what he did in these two stories to convince them that they should worship only him? Instead, he reminds them of what he did especially for them in order to convince them to worship him alone; what is this special thing he did for them? Why do you think that Yahweh takes this approach in trying to gain the loyalty of the Israelites?
3. In the second commandment, Yahweh says that the Israelites shouldn’t worship any god other than him. Perhaps surprisingly, he doesn’t say that he is the only real god, or that other gods do not exist. As we discussed earlier (Introduction to the story “Abraham Smashes the Idols,” chapter II-2), the early Israelites believed that Yahweh was their own special god, and that other people had different gods who were special to them and would protect them. In fact, in another Bible passage [Deuteronomy 4:19 -
4:20] Moses explains that Yahweh gave the sun, the moon, and the stars, everything in the sky, to other people to worship, but that the Israelites must worship only Yahweh. Later on, the idea of “monotheism” developed, meaning that this god of the Israelites, Yahweh, was the only real god – other gods did not exist. The early books of the Bible (the Torah) however, do not clearly express the monotheistic point of view that Yahweh is the only real god.
The second commandment goes on to say that the Israelites should not make sculptured images or worship them. This is also to prevent them from worshipping any gods other than Yahweh. In the religions of most people of the time, the gods were thought of as looking like people, or animals, or some combination of the two. Sculptures were often made showing what these gods looked like, and the people would pray to the gods while looking at these sculptures, or idols (as has been discussed in the story “Abraham Smashes the Idols,” chapter II-2).
Yahweh was completely different from these other gods in this one very important way: no statue or picture could be made of Yahweh. Why is this so important? What is so different about worshipping a god that cannot be shown as a statue or in a picture as compared to worshipping one that is?
The second commandment goes much further than preventing the Israelites from sculpting or drawing an image of Yahweh. It prevents them from making a sculpture or picture of anything in the sky, on earth, or in the sea. Thus, according to Jewish religious law, it was not permitted to make a picture of Yahweh or a person or a tree or a bird or a fish or even a rock. Even today, some Orthodox Jews (now a small minority among the Jewish people) still do not draw pictures of real things. Why do you think that the Israelites included this prohibition in the commandment? How would your life be different if you lived in a place where no one could make pictures of anything?
4. The third commandment is a little hard to understand in its English translation. It is also not easy to understand in the original Hebrew! What does it mean to “take the name of Yahweh, your god, in vain”? One thing that it seems to mean is to make a false statement in Yahweh’s name. Thus, one of the basic commandments of the Jewish religion, and Christianity as well, is that any statement sworn to in the name of God should be the truth. This commandment may also mean that a person shouldn’t call out to God in order to perform some trick of magic. Another possible meaning is that a person shouldn’t say “God” as part of any curse or statement of anger. Perhaps it means all of these things.
5. The fourth commandment requires the Israelites to observe the Sabbath, and not to do any work on that day. The Sabbath (sha-baht́ in Hebrew) is the seventh day of the week – from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday. (Remember that each day in the Hebrew calendar goes from sunset to sunset – see discussion point #10 following
chapter I-1, “The Story of Creation.”) In fact, sha-baht is the name of this day in Hebrew. According to the commandment, even the slaves and animals of the Israelites were required to take the day off!
Later on, when Christianity and Islam developed, they also adopted the idea of a holy day which came once a week. But the Christians decided that the Sabbath would fall on Sunday, and Islam selected Friday as its day of special community prayer. Why do you think that these later religions selected days other than the Saturday Sabbath of Judaism? Today, most societies have adopted the ancient Israelite idea of a day (or two) of rest each week. This has occurred even in those societies, such as China, in which the religions observing a weekly Sabbath have not had very much influence.
6. The fifth commandment, to honor your father and mother, includes a specific reward for obeying it – “so you may live for a long time and you may do well on the land that Yahweh, your god, gives to you.” Why do you think that this commandment and the second commandment are the only ones that gives specific reasons – threats or promises – for obedience?
7. Commandments numbered 6, 7, 8, and 9 are very brief. They are different from the other commandments in that these four are still part of the system of laws in most places, though adultery (commandment 7) is not a crime any more in most states of the United States.
The sixth commandment is interesting because many English translations use the word “kill” rather than “murder.” The use of the Hebrew word rah-tsah́ in this commandment was meant to prevent one person from murdering another, but not meant, for example, to prevent a person from killing another in self-defense or in a war, and it was also not meant to prevent the Israelites from using capital punishment to enforce the laws. As we will see later, there are other specific laws requiring the Israelites to kill people in wars and as punishment for violating certain laws.
The seventh commandment is a requirement for married people to be faithful to their wives and husbands. The eighth and ninth are meant to prevent people from stealing or from accusing others of doing things that they did not do.
8. The tenth commandment is different from all of the others. The other nine tell the Israelites what they should and should not do. The tenth commandment tells them what they should not think or feel. This commandment tells the Israelites that they should not desire to have anything that belongs to someone else. Of course, no one can help feeling that they would like to have something that others have. Jewish laws almost always tell people how to behave – not how to think. That is why this commandment is so strange. It is the only one that is really impossible to obey completely. It seems to express an ideal that cannot always be reached.
Later in Jewish history, the rabbis who wrote about this commandment recognized that it was not literally possible to keep people from desiring what other people have. So they said that this law was not meant to prevent people from simply desiring something. They said that the law could only be violated when a person actually made plans or took real steps to take something away from someone else. In this way, the rabbis made it possible for all people to actually obey this commandment even if they had a desire for something that belonged to someone else. This later law developed by the rabbis made sure that people would not be breaking the law simply by their thoughts.
While it is very difficult to make general statements about Christianity because it is very diverse, it can be said that the Christian religious view of the tenth commandment has often been different from the Jewish view. Christian religious leaders would generally say that the tenth commandment means just what it says, in spite of the fact that it is usually not possible for people to control their desires. This is not unusual for Christianity. There are many examples in which Christian principles would usually be expressed as saying that people should try to follow ideal standards of behavior, which is often not possible for most people.
One example may be found in the sixth commandment. As was mentioned before, the original Hebrew means "You shall not murder" but many translations say "You shall not kill." It is translations found in Christian Bibles that often use the word "kill" – establishing an ideal that would be wonderful to achieve – a world in which no one kills anyone else even in war, or in self-defense, or as punishment by the government for committing crimes. Jewish Bibles translated into English state the more practical rule against "murder," which means killing someone in ways that are not permitted by the laws, since in the real world killing is sometimes considered to be acceptable or even necessary.
Jewish religious laws are usually practical and possible to follow because they were meant to be actually enforced in Jewish communities. The ideal standards that Christianity has often set up, and which may be impossible for most people to follow, were never actually enforced by society. They were designed more as a way of showing people what a more perfect life would be like – something to strive for, but perhaps never reach. The ideal standards that we often find in Christianity were also meant to show people that they could not achieve the type of life that God meant for them to have and so they needed to be forgiven by God even if they were good and honest people in their daily lives. Traditionally, Christian religious thought has taught that this forgiveness from God can be obtained through belief in the principles of Christianity.
What do you think about this? What are some advantages of having a practical set of rules that can actually be followed in real life? What are some advantages of setting up ideal principles of behavior as goals to work towards, even though these ideal principles are above the ability of most people to reach?
9. It sure didn’t take long for the Israelites to begin violating the new commandments from Yahweh! Before Moses could even get down the mountain with the stone tablets containing these commandment, the Israelites had made a calf of metal to worship as a god – thus violating at least the first two commandments.
Yahweh is so angry that he wants to destroy the Israelites, but Moses argues with him to protect his people. Does this remind you of a story we read earlier? Remember “Abraham Argues with Yahweh” (chapter II-4)? Both Abraham and Moses seem to trick Yahweh by their arguments. Do you think that the authors of these stories meant that Abraham and Moses were more clever than Yahweh because they could get him to change his mind by arguing with him? What is the difference between the argument that Abraham uses to save the people of Sodom and the one Moses uses to save the Israelites? Which one actually succeeds in convincing Yahweh not to kill the people?
10. The “ark” mentioned at the end of the story is not a boat like Noah’s ark. It is a special box with carvings on it. According to the Bible stories, the Israelites put the Tablets containing the Ten Commandments inside this ark. They carried the ark around with them for many years, until it was lost during a battle. No one knows if the stone tablets ever really existed, but the Ten Commandments themselves have been a very important part of Judaism and Christianity for many centuries.
You may have noticed that after the title of each chapter in this book, we have shown the place in the Bible where the story comes from. Most of the stories we have read are from the first book in the Bible, the book that in English is called Genesis. The second Biblical book, Exodus, contains the stories about Moses. With the story of the Ten Commandments, we are now about halfway through the book called Exodus. At this point, the Bible changes greatly. Instead of being a series of stories about the development of humankind and the Israelites, the Bible now goes into a very long section in which many hundreds of religious laws, or commandments, are stated. This “legal” section includes the rest of the book of Exodus, as well as most of the next three books of the Bible: Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. There are relatively few stories contained in these three books – almost the whole content of these books is devoted to setting out the ancient laws of the Jewish religion.
In this chapter we will read some of these laws, or commandments (mits-voht́ in Hebrew). Only a few could be selected from the many hundreds in the Bible. The laws that were selected for this chapter show the wide range of religious laws contained in the Biblical books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. They range from commandments requiring ethical behavior to those requiring the following of seemingly minute details of ritual behavior.
But first, a few words about a special book in the Bible, the book of Deuteronomy. This is the fifth Biblical book and is different from the first four in several important ways. First, in many cases it repeats stories or laws that have already been given in the earlier books. For example, the last story we read (chapter V-2), “The Israelites Receive Ten Commandments,” is found in the Bible in the book of Exodus and again in the book of Deuteronomy. You may have noticed that both of these Biblical books are listed after the title of that chapter. One problem is, however, that the book of Deuteronomy often tells stories in a somewhat different way than they are told in earlier books. The story about the golden calf, for example, is told differently in Exodus from the way it is told in Deuteronomy – the way it is presented in the book you are reading is a combination of the two. Even the Ten Commandments themselves are slightly different as written in Exodus as compared to how they are stated in Deuteronomy.
Scholars of the Bible believe that the book of Deuteronomy was written by a different person than the people who wrote the earlier Bible books. Do you remember J (the Yahwist), E (the Elohist), and P (the Priestly author) that we have discussed earlier (for example, in Discussion point #7 of chapter I-2, “Adam and Eve, the First People" and also in Discussion point #6 of chapter I-5, "Noah and the Great Flood")? Scholars think that these three authors wrote most or all of the first four books of the Bible, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. However, the book of Deuteronomy seems to have been written by a different author, who is called “D,” the “Deuteronomist.”
The first five books of the Bible are particularly special in traditional Judaism. Together these five books make up the “Torah,” which is considered by the traditional, “Orthodox” Jewish religion to be the most important part of the Bible. According to traditional Judaism (and traditional Christian thinking as well), all five books of the Torah are said to have been written by Moses himself, following direct instructions from Yahweh about what to write. Thus, these books are often called "The Books of Moses." We now know that the Torah had several different authors and that they lived many centuries after the time in which the story of Moses is set.
In the next few chapters, we will read a few of the many hundreds of commandments that appear in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Many of these are repeated, either with the same words or with different words in different parts of these books. We have shown more than one source for such repeated commandments in brackets after the texts.
In the Bible itself, the commandments often appear to be presented in a completely haphazard order – with some strong ethical point sandwiched between now-obscure points of ritual. To make reading easier, the sampling of the commandments given below is divided thematically into sections.
A. Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying, “Tell the Israelites to bring me gifts; every person whose heart is willing to do so should make an offering to me. These offerings shall be of gold and silver and copper, and fine linen, and skins of rams dyed red, and acacia wood, and oil for light, and onyx stones.
“Tell the Israelites to build for me a special holy place, so that I can live among them. I will explain to you exactly how to make the holy tent and everything that goes within it. And inside the holy tent, a special curtain shall be hung. And behind this curtain will be the Holy of Holies. And the ark with the tablets of the commandments will be kept in this Holy of Holies.” [Exodus 25:1 - 25:9, 26:31 - 26:34]
B. And Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the Israelites, and say to them: ‛If any of the people violates one of Yahweh’s commandments without knowing it, and then becomes aware of it, that person shall bring a perfect female goat as an offering for the sin. He shall bring the goat to the entrance of the Tent of Congregation and kill it. The priest shall take some of the blood of the goat with his finger and put it on the horns of the altar, and he shall pour out all of the goat’s blood at the bottom of the altar. Then he shall remove all of the fat that covers the internal parts, and the priest shall burn the fat to make smoke that is sweet-smelling to Yahweh. The priest shall atone for the person who sinned against Yahweh’s commandment, and he shall be forgiven.’” [Leviticus 4:1,
4:27 - 4:31]
C. “On the tenth day of the seventh month of the year is the Day of Atonement. On that day you shall humble yourselves and you shall do no work. Anyone who does not humble himself throughout the day will be cut off from his people. Whoever does work on that day will be destroyed. On that day, you shall present to Yahweh a burnt sacrifice of one bull, one ram, and seven lambs. In addition, you will sacrifice a goat as a sin-offering.” [Leviticus 23:27 - 23:30; Numbers 29:7 - 29:11]
D. Hear, O Israel. Yahweh is our God – only Yahweh. You shall love Yahweh, your god, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. And the words of my commandments shall be in your heart. And you shall bind them as a sign on your hand and between your eyes. And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. [Deuteronomy 6:4 - 6:9]
E. You may eat meat as you desire, but you may not consume the blood of the animal. You shall pour the blood on the ground like water. [Deuteronomy 12:15 - 12:16]
F. And Yahweh said to Moses and Aaron, “Tell the Israelites: You shall eat animals whose hooves are split open and that chew their cud. But you shall not eat of the camel, which chews its cud but whose hooves are not split open; it is unclean to you. Nor may you eat of the pig, whose hooves are divided, but which do not chew their cud; it is unclean to you. Anything that lives in the water and which has fins and scales you shall eat. But anything from the water that has no fins and scales you may not eat; they are unclean things to you. [Leviticus 11:1 - 11:12; Deuteronomy 14:3 - 14:10]
G. “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” [Exodus 23:19; Deuteronomy 14:21]
1. In the first law or commandment in this section, listed as “A,” Yahweh tells the Israelites to build a special tent, called the Tent of Congregation or the Tent of Meeting. Inside this tent is the “Holy of Holies,” the special place where the ark containing the tablets of the Ten Commandments are to be kept. Remember the ark from the previous story, “The Israelites Receive the Ten Commandments” (chapter V-2, discussion point #10).
This Tent of Congregation is the place where the Israelites are to go to worship Yahweh, their god. The worship of Yahweh involves sacrifice – the giving up of something of value. Religions in ancient times often required people to make sacrifices to their gods so that these gods would help them out. Some religions still do this even today. We have already learned about sacrifices in the stories of “Cain, the Jealous Brother of Abel” (chapter I-3, discussion point #4), “Noah and the Great Flood”
(chapter I-5, discussion point #6), and “God Tells Abraham to Kill his Son, Isaac”
(chapter II-7, discussion point #4, for example). The Bible describes many reasons for bringing sacrifices to the Tent of Congregation, and exactly how the sacrifice is to be offered at different times. Item “B” above shows only one example of these – an animal sacrifice to be made when one of Yahweh’s commandments is violated without the person knowing it, but later the person realizes that the commandment has been violated.
The religious view at the time these commandments were written was that sacrifices to Yahweh would cause Yahweh to do certain things that people wanted, such as forgiving them for their sins. The sacrifices also provided food and other valuable things for the priests who ran the Temple, since they were the ones who actually collected the sacrifices in the name of Yahweh.
2. Many of the laws contained in the first five books of the Bible (the Torah) tell the Israelites how to worship Yahweh at their Temple, which was first built in Jerusalem by King Solomon. This was about 200 years after the time of Moses (see the time line in the Introduction). The biblical commandments do not mention the Temple directly, but only the “Tent of Congregation,” since the Temple did not exist during the time being written about. One possibility is that the early Israelites did carry out their worship ceremonies in a tent, and then moved them into the Temple after they settled in Canaan. Another possibility is that these portions of the books were written or edited by priests in the Temple in Jerusalem who wanted the people to believe that the rituals they used in the Temple were directly commanded by Yahweh through Moses, centuries earlier. Scholars have concluded that those sections of these books that describe the Temple sacrifices were, indeed, written by “P,” a priest of the Temple in Jerusalem. Whether the Tent of Congregation ever really existed isn’t known. One theory is that the tent really did exist and that it was put inside the Temple when it was built, so that when the commandments of the Bible told the Israelites to sacrifice at the Tent, they did so by going to the Temple.
3. There are a number of commandments in the Bible that tell when special holidays are to be observed. For example, the holiday of Passover was discussed in the story “The Israelites Gain their Freedom” (chapter IV-5, see discussion points #1 and #3). In section “C” above, Yahweh tells the Israelites about another holiday, called the Day of Atonement or, in Hebrew, Yom Kippur. On this special day, the Israelites would sacrifice animals at the Temple to try to make up, or “atone,” for the sins they committed during the previous year. A special goat, the scape-goat, was also killed. A special ritual was believed to put the sins of the whole community on the back of this goat which was then pushed off a cliff outside of Jerusalem so that the people would not be punished for their sins.
On Yom Kippur, the High Priest of the Temple would go into the Holy of Holies, where the ark was, and recite prayers in which he said out loud the name of the god of the Israelites, “Yahweh.” Saying the name of God was strictly forbidden for all the Israelites except the High Priest – and he could only say the name on this one day each year. What effect do you think hearing the name of their god spoken out loud had on the ordinary Israelites? How do you think that this ritual affected the way the Israelites looked upon the High Priest?
4. Commandment “D” gives rituals that are to be followed by the Israelites and which are still followed by some Jews. It required the Israelites to put the words of Yahweh on their hand, between their eyes, and on their doorposts. Even today, when Orthodox Jewish men say their morning prayers, they tie a small black leather box to their arm, and another onto their forehead. These boxes, called “tefillin” in Hebrew, contain certain passages from the Bible. Many Jews also attach to the doorframes of their houses a small box called a “mezuzah” which contains certain Biblical passages. Have you ever seen “tefillin” or a “mezuzah”?
5. The commandments in the Torah told the Israelites what they could and could not eat. A few of these commandments are listed under “Food Rules.” Those things that are permitted as food are called “kosher.” Those that are not permitted are “non-kosher.”
Commandment “E” says that blood is not kosher. As a result, when an animal is killed to make kosher meat, it is killed by cutting its throat in such a way as to make as much blood as possible come out, so there is as little blood as possible left in the meat. Commandment “F” says that meat from certain animals can never be kosher – such as camels, pigs, and shellfish (shrimp, lobster, clams, etc.). Commandment “G” sounds very simple, but has turned out to be much more complicated than it seems. It says not to boil a kid (a baby goat) in its mother’s milk. However, the rabbis have decided that in order to follow this commandment, Jews must never eat meat at the same meal with milk or foods made with milk. This means that a cheeseburger can never be kosher. Even today, Jews who follow the religious dietary laws will never have milk or cheese or butter at the same meal with meat.
As we go through the commandments in the Torah, you will see that some are impossible to follow today, such as the ones about sacrificing animals in the Temple, since the Temple no longer exists. Other commandments, such as punishing people for violating religious laws, could only be followed in a place where the Jewish religious leaders were also the leaders of the government. Such a place would be a “theocracy” – a place where religion and government are the same.
Some of the commandments in the Torah can be followed, even today. The laws concerning kosher food would be an example.
A. Yahweh said to Moses, “These are the laws that you will bring to the Israelites:
“If you buy a Hebrew slave, you shall free him after six years.” [Exodus 21:2; Deuteronomy 15:12]
B. “You shall not oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” [Exodus 22:21]
C. “You shall not mistreat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will hear their cries and my anger will burn. And I will kill you with the sword, so your wives will be widows, and your children will be orphans.” [Exodus 22:22 - 22:24]
D. “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the spirit of the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” [Exodus 23:9]
E. “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not completely reap the corners of your field. Also, you shall leave the gleanings that fall to the ground. You shall not take every grape from your vineyard. You shall leave these things for the poor and the stranger. I am Yahweh, your god.” [Leviticus 19:9 - 19:10, 23:22]
F. “You shall not ridicule a deaf person, or put a stumbling block before a blind person. You shall fear your God: I am Yahweh.” [Leviticus 19:14]
G. “If a stranger is living in your land, you shall not do him any wrong. The stranger that lives with you shall be treated like one born among you. You shall love him as you love yourself. For you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am Yahweh, your God.” [Leviticus 19:33 - 19:34]
H. You shall appoint judges and officers for each of your tribes. You shall judge righteously, and with true justice. You shall not take bribes. Righteousness, righteousness you shall pursue, so that you may live and possess the land that Yahweh your god gives to you. [Deuteronomy 16:18 - 16:20].
I. When you come to fight against a city that is far away, call upon it to surrender in peace. If it surrenders in peace, then its people shall become forced laborers for you. If it does not surrender in peace, then when you conquer the city, you shall kill every man in it by the sword, and you shall take for yourselves the women, the children, and the cattle.
When you conquer a city that is part of the land that Yahweh your god gives to you, then you shall kill every thing in it that breathes. You shall completely destroy it, so that you may not learn from the people the wicked things they do in the worship of their gods, and thus sin against Yahweh, your god. [Deuteronomy 20:10 - 20:18]
J. If a man has a stubborn and disobedient son, who will not listen to his father or mother, and they punish him, but he still does not heed them, then they shall bring him to the elders of the city. And the men of the city shall stone him to death. Thus you shall eliminate evil. All Israel shall hear of this and be afraid. [Deuteronomy 21:18 - 21:21]
K. If you come upon a bird’s nest with the mother sitting on eggs or baby birds, take only the eggs or baby birds for yourself and leave the mother behind, so that all may be well with you and your life may be long. [Deuteronomy 22:6 - 22:7]
L. If a slave who has escaped comes to you, you shall not return him to his master. He shall live in your city wherever he chooses. You shall not oppress him. [Deuteronomy 23:16 - 23:17]
M. If any man is afraid to fight in battle, then he shall be sent home, so that his fear will not cause others to be afraid [Deuteronomy 20:8]. When a man gets married, he shall not go into the army for one year, so that he may bring joy to his wife. [Deuteronomy 24:5]
N. When you are gathering the crops in your field, and you have left some grain there, you shall not go back to take it. When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over them again to get the remaining olives. When you gather grapes from your vineyard, you shall not pick over the vines again. You shall leave what remains for the stranger, the orphan, and the widow. You shall remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt, and that is why I command you to do these things. [Deuteronomy 24:19 - 24:22]
1. People often cite the Bible as an important source of ethical principles. The Ten Commandments are usually considered to be the most important ethical statements in the Bible (see chapter V-2, “The Israelites receive the Ten Commandments”). Beyond the Ten Commandments, however, there are many rules that directly encourage ethical behavior. There are also some that, at least by the standards of today’s world, would not be considered to be ethical. This chapter shows a representative sampling of the commandments of the Torah that require ethical – and, in some cases, possibly unethical – behavior. They are presented in the order in which they appear in the Torah. As you read through these commandments, it is important to remember that some types of behavior that we would not consider to be proper were accepted in ancient times. The laws written into the Torah were written for a society that existed over 2000 years ago.
2. Commandment “A” is an example of a rule that would be considered to be unacceptable today, but was probably helped to bring about more humane behavior than was generally practiced at the time. Today, we cannot accept the idea of one person actually owning another person as a slave. However, slavery was very common in the ancient world, and was generally considered to be acceptable. The requirement that a Hebrew, or Israelite, slave be freed after six years was most probably a humane advance over the way most slave owners behaved. Even more surprising is commandment “L,” which says that slaves who escape from their owners should not be returned to them. What do you think these commandments indicate about the attitude of the ancient Israelites toward slavery?
3. One of the most well-known and widely quoted commandments is the one listed as “B.” The requirement not to oppress strangers is repeated several times in the Torah, and is given in different words in “D” and “G.” In modern times, these commandments are often quoted as showing the importance of treating other people well. However, over the centuries, most rabbis have said that the word “stranger” (gehr in Hebrew) in these commandments did not actually include many people. It was meant to refer only to non-Jews who had adopted the Jewish religion and way of life. Do you think it is a good idea to quote the Bible to make an ethical point if the original meaning was somewhat different than the point we are trying to make? Why do people find it useful to use quotations from the Bible (even if somewhat inaccurately) rather than just saying what they believe in their own words?
4. The commandments listed as “C,” “E,” “F” and “N” also require that the Israelites treat other people kindly. Commandment “C” includes a specific punishment for those who fail to be kind to widows and orphans. “E” and “N” require that farmers leave some of their crops behind in their fields for those who need it to survive. And “F” tells the Israelites not to be mean to deaf or blind people. These are some of the best examples of the ethical teachings in the Bible.
5. More of the ethical code of the Israelites is shown in the commandments listed as “H,” “K,” and “M.” The one about birds (“K”) is particularly interesting, since it is one of very few places in the whole Bible in which either Yahweh or anyone else shows any concern for animals. Why do you think the Hebrew Bible says so little about treating animals well? One possibility may be that the writers of the Bible were trying to keep the Israelites away from the practices of other religions. Many of the other religions at the time were actually forms of nature worship, in which the various gods represented different aspects of the natural world. Some people think that this is why the Bible is so focused on people and Yahweh, with little attention paid to the world of nature, including animals. What do you think of the idea, listed under “M,” that anyone who is afraid to fight in a battle will be sent home?
6. Some of the commandments in the Torah seem to us today not to be very ethical. For example, item “I” presents some rules for warfare that, if carried out, would not be acceptable to people in today’s world. There are two cases given in which Yahweh commands the Israelites to kill every living man in a city that they conquer, and, in one of these cases, they must also kill all the women, the children, and the animals.
You may have read that the religion of Islam has within it the concept of a “holy war” (jihad in Arabic). We see here the Biblical version of a “holy war” (herem in Hebrew), written many centuries before Islam existed. The Bible tells stories in which Israelite leaders were actually punished by Yahweh because they failed to kill everyone in a conquered city. Why does Yahweh require that every person and animal be killed? Once again, we see that the Bible is written to convince the people not to accept any other religion. Yahweh appears to be very worried that they will find other religions more attractive than the one he wants the Israelites to follow. Why should he be so worried? Why is he afraid that leaving some of the people, or even the animals, alive will cause the Israelites to begin worshipping the gods of the conquered people of Canaan?
7. Commandment “J” says that children who disobey their parents should be killed by having stones thrown at them. It would be nice to believe that this commandment was never really carried out, but that it was included in the Torah only for parents to use as a threat against children who were very bad. The earliest records of the sayings of the rabbis certainly tells us that disobedient children were not to be killed. However, we must remember that the instructions in the Torah were written during the time of the Temple priests, before Judaism was led by rabbis. We have no way of knowing whether disobedient children may have been killed during this priestly period in Jewish history. Looking over all of the commandments we have read about so far, do you think that the type of people who wrote and tried to live by these rules would have killed children who did not obey their parents?
A. There was a man whose mother was an Israelite and whose father was an Egyptian. This man cursed the name of God. And Yahweh said to Moses, “The whole community shall stone him. Anyone who curses the name of Yahweh shall be stoned to death. If anyone kills someone else, he shall be killed himself. If anyone harms another, he shall have the same harm done to him: broken bone for broken bone, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The law shall be the same for strangers and for those born among you.” Moses told this to the Israelites, and the man who cursed the name of God was stoned to death. [Leviticus 24:10 - 24:23]
B. “A person who strikes or curses his father or mother shall be put to death.” [Exodus 21:15, 21:17; Leviticus 20:9]
C. If a prophet calls upon you to worship gods other than Yahweh, you shall put him to death. If your own brother, or your son, or your daughter, or your wife or your close friend tries to get you to worship another god, you shall stone that person to death. [Deuteronomy 13:2 - 13:12]
D. If a man or a woman among you has worshipped other gods or the sun or the moon or any heavenly body, then you shall stone that person to death. The statements of two or three witnesses is needed before putting a person to death. The statement of one witness is not enough. The hand of the witness shall be the first to put him to death; the rest of the people shall follow. [Deuteronomy 17:2 - 17:7]
E. Fathers shall not be put to death for the sins of his children, nor shall a child be put to death for the sins of the father. People shall be put to death only for their own sins. [Deuteronomy 24:16]
1. Commandment “A” is one example of the criminal laws given in the Torah. In this case, the crime being discussed is cursing God. As with many of the crimes discussed in the Torah, these crimes are punished by death. Do you think that saying something against God should be considered to be a crime? Americans may find this strange because in the United States we have the right of freedom of speech, which means that we can say or write pretty much anything we want to. But in many countries freedom of speech is limited, and saying something against the main religion of the country is considered to be a crime, even today.
The commandment goes on to say that if a person harms someone else, then that person shall be harmed in a similar way. This is the very well known Biblical principle of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” This may seem very harsh and primitive to us today. In our society, a person who harms someone may have to pay money to the person who was harmed, and may even go to prison if the harm was serious and avoidable. But at the time this section of the Bible was written, the idea of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” may have been a real step forward compared to the way other groups punished those who injured others. It may be that without this “eye for an eye...” statement, someone who hurt someone else would be killed, or even have his whole family or village killed. Which do you think is better, the idea of “an eye for an eye...” or the more modern idea that a person who harms someone else has to pay money to that person?
It is important to understand that the commandments listed in the Torah were written or edited by priests in the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Since the time the Temple was destroyed, about 2000 years ago, the Jewish religion has been led by rabbis rather than temple priests. The rabbis often interpreted the priestly laws of the Torah in such a way as to change their meaning a great deal. For example, the rabbis did not accept the idea of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” even 2000 years ago. They said the same thing that our own laws say today – that a person would have to give money to someone who was injured; the guilty person would not be physically injured himself.
The rabbis often could not accept the simple meaning of the commandments of the Torah and therefore they gave interpretations that changed the meaning greatly. However, they always said that they were following the Torah. Why do you think they said this? Why didn’t they just say that they disagreed with the Torah, and they now wanted to now put out more practical and humane laws?
2. In commandment “A” we learned that cursing God is punishable by death. In “B,” “C,” and “D” we see that a person should also be executed for hitting or cursing a parent, worshipping any god other than Yahweh, or trying to get others to worship gods other than Yahweh. As with the commandment concerning disobedient children (“J” under “Do Not Oppress the Strange, Except Sometimes,” chapter V-4-iv), we have no way of knowing whether or not people were actually killed for disobeying commandments “B,” “C,” and “D” during the period when the Temple priests were the Jewish religious leaders. Why do you think that “D” requires more than one witness to prove that someone has worshipped a foreign god? Why do you think that it is the witness who is required to throw the first stone in “D”?
3. The commandment listed as “E” seems rather strange to us today. It seems only logical that no person should be punished for a crime committed by someone else. Why do you think it was necessary to write this down, even though it seems obvious to us today?
A. Yahweh said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites that I said this. If you obey me, I will make sure that none of you get sick. I will send fear to your enemies, and they will run away from you. In this way, you will slowly take over the land that I will give you, from the Sea of Reeds to the sea of the Philistines, from the wilderness to the River.” [Exodus 23:20 - 23:31]
B. “You shall follow all of the laws I have given to you and not the laws of the nations that I will defeat for you. I have told you that I will give their land to you, a land flowing with milk and honey. I am Yahweh, your god, who has separated you from all other nations.” [Leviticus 20:22 - 20:24]
C. “If you follow my laws and commandments, I will give you rain in the proper season, so that your crops will grow and the trees will give their fruit. I will give you peace, and your enemies will fall before your swords. I will give you many children and keep my covenant with you. And I will stay with you and you shall be my people. I am Yahweh, your god, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.
“But if you do not follow my laws and commandments, and you break my covenant, I will afflict you with sickness. Your enemies will conquer you. Your crops shall not grow and the trees will not bear fruit. I will destroy your cities. And if those among you who survive will humble themselves before me and accept punishment for their guilt, then I will remember my covenant with Jacob, and with Isaac, and with Abraham, and I will remember the land.” [Leviticus 26:3 - 26:42]
D. Moses said to the Israelites, “And if you follow these rules, then Yahweh, your god, will keep the covenant that he made with your fathers, and he will love you, and bless you, and your numbers will increase. You shall be blessed above all other people. Yahweh will keep all sickness away from you. He will deliver all of your enemies to you, and you shall destroy them and you shall destroy the sculptured images of their gods in fire.” [Deuteronomy 7:12 - 7:25]
E. “If you follow all of the commandments that I give to you, then Yahweh will remove all the nations from your path, even those that are much larger and stronger than you are. Your land will extend from the wilderness to the Lebanon, from the Euphrates River to the sea in the West.” [Deuteronomy 11:22 - 11:24]
F. And Moses said to the people:
“If you follow all of the commandments that I have given to you, then Yahweh your god will raise you above all other nations. He will defeat all enemies who attack you. And all the people of the earth shall see that you are the people of Yahweh, and they shall fear you. You shall have many children, and fruitful cattle, and bountiful crops.” [Deuteronomy 28:1 - 28:11]
G. “But if you fail to follow all of the commandments I have given to you, then Yahweh will destroy you. He will afflict you with many terrible diseases. Instead of rain, he will send you dust from the sky. He will defeat you when your enemies attack. Your crops will be consumed by locusts; your grapes will be eaten by worms; and your olives shall drop off the olive trees so that you will have none with which to make oil. You will have nothing to eat, until you are forced to eat your own babies. You shall be left few in number, after having been as numerous as the stars in the sky, and you shall be scattered among all the people of the earth.” [Deuteronomy 28:15 - 28:64]
This chapter lists some of the statement in the Torah in which Yahweh promises to reward the Israelites if they will follow his commandments. He also says that he will punish them if they do not obey him (“C” and “G”). We can see that the rewards include defeating their enemies, success in conquering the land of Canaan (which is “flowing with milk and honey”), good health, many children, and good harvests.
Are you surprised about the types of rewards and punishments that Yahweh promises? In the Hebrew Bible, Yahweh never says that he will reward good people after they die – by allowing them to enter Heaven, for example. All the rewards and punishments are to occur during life here on earth. During the time of the Temple and the priests, people were told to follow Yahweh’s commandments so that they would have a good life. Later on, after the Temple was destroyed and the rabbis became the religious leaders, the Jewish religious idea changed to say that people who behaved properly would be rewarded after they died. Why do you think that this change occurred? Do you think that people who are good are rewarded by never getting sick or by always having enough to eat? Do you think that it is a sign that people are bad if they do get very sick or die when they are young or are so poor that they do not have enough to eat? Do you think that promising people that they will be rewarded with good health or successful wars is a good way to get people to behave properly?
Christianity, which first developed among some Jews during the earliest time of the rabbis, adopted the view that the rabbis held, that rewards and punishments for good or bad behavior would occur after death. Do you think that promising people that they will be rewarded after death for good behavior is a good way to get people to behave properly?
[Numbers 12:1 - 12:15]
Miriam and Aaron, the sister and the brother of Moses, spoke out against Moses because he had married a Cushite woman. They said, “Has Yahweh spoken only with Moses? Has he not spoken also with us?” Now, Moses was more humble than any other person on the earth. Yahweh called Moses and Aaron and Miriam to the Tent of Congregation. Yahweh came down in a pillar of cloud to the entrance of the Tent. He called to Aaron and Miriam and said, “When there is a prophet among you, I speak to the prophet in a dream. But Moses is different. With Moses I speak mouth to mouth, I appear personally before him, he sees my form, and I speak to him plainly, not in riddles. So why were you not afraid to speak against Moses?” And the anger of Yahweh burned against Aaron and Miriam.
And when the cloud of Yahweh left the Tent, Miriam’s skin was snowy white with leprosy. And Aaron said to Moses, “Oh, my lord, do not blame us for our foolish sin.” And Moses called out to Yahweh, saying, “I beg you to heal her.” But Yahweh said to Moses, “Put her out of your camp for seven days. Then you may take her back.” So Miriam was put out of the Israelite camp for seven days. And the people had to wait until she was allowed to return before they could continue on their journey.
1. Moses has a lot of problems. We have already read about how the Israelites were constantly complaining about the lack of food and water in the wilderness (chapter V-1, “Complaints and Miracles – Food, Water, and a Battle”) and how Aaron had made a golden calf for the people to worship (chapter V-2, “The Israelites Receive Ten Commandments”). Now, in this story, he finds himself being attacked directly by Miriam and Aaron, his sister and brother. Why do you think that they criticize him? Do you think the only reason was that his wife was a Cushite?
2. What is a Cushite? We have already learned that Tsiporah, Moses’ wife, was a Midianite, the daughter of Jethro, the priest of Midian (see “Moses Rescues a Hebrew Man and Leaves Egypt,” chapter IV-3). The word Cushite means a person from Cush, the Hebrew word in the Bible used for Ethiopia. Thus, Moses apparently married someone in addition to Tsiporah, and this other wife was a Black African woman.
It is interesting to think that the type of disease that Miriam gets has something to do with the nature of her criticism of Moses' wife. One possibility is that Yahweh gives Miriam a disease in which her skin turns flaky and white as if to say to her: "You criticized Moses for marrying a Black woman, so you must think that it is better to have white skin. Because of this, I'll make your skin so white that you'll see that you were wrong to think that someone with dark skin is not as good as you are."
3. Miriam gets a disease called tsah-rah-at in Hebrew. Although this disease is usually translated as “leprosy,” we are not sure exactly what this disease was. We do know, however, that it resulted in the skin being covered with white spots or scabs. This disease makes a person “unclean” according to the commandments of Yahweh set out in the Bible. This is why Miriam had to be put outside of the Israelite camp for seven days. Why do you think that Aaron isn’t also punished? Remember, he wasn’t punished for making the golden calf either (in chapter V-2, “The Israelites Receive the Ten Commandments”).
4. Why does the Bible have stories in which Aaron goes against the words of Yahweh? After all, Aaron was supposed to be the ancestor of all the priests in the Temple in Jerusalem. Wouldn’t you think that the Bible authors would present Aaron as a loyal follower of Yahweh’s rules? The answer to this question is, of course, that there was more than one Bible author. (See the discussion of the four Bible authors in discussion point #7 after "Adam and Eve, the First People," chapter I-2).
As we have already discussed, one of the Bible authors, the one called “J,” who was from the southern kingdom of Judah where Jerusalem is, presents Aaron as a good and powerful person who is granted many special powers by Yahweh (see “Yahweh speaks to Moses from a Burning Bush,” chapter IV-4, discussion point #3). However, the Bible author “E,” from the northern kingdom of Israel, was apparently trying to convince people that the only true religion is not to be found in Jerusalem, where the Temple was run by the priests who were supposed to have been descended from Aaron. The northern kingdom, where “E” is from, had its own religious centers, and some of the priests in the north may have thought of themselves as descendants of Moses. Therefore, author “E” usually says very nice things about Moses and includes some stories that show Aaron not to be such a fine, God-fearing person. Two of the stories thought to have been written by author “E” are the one about Aaron building the golden calf and the part of this story in which Aaron angers Yahweh by criticizing Moses.
We have talked many times about the four authors "J," "E," "P," and "D" who, according to many Bible scholars, wrote the first five books of the Bible. The idea that these four authors wrote these books helps us to understand many of the points in the Bible, particularly when one passage tends to contradict another. It also explains why the writing style in some passages differs from that in others. However, it is important for us to remember that no one is really sure who "J," "E," "P," and "D" really were or if further research will result in another, probably more complicated, explanation of the origin of these Bible texts.
[Numbers 13:1 - 14:45]
Yahweh said to Moses, “Send out men, one from each of the twelve tribes of Israel, as spies into the land of Canaan.” So twelve spies were sent out, and among them were Caleb from the tribe of Judah and Hoshea from the tribe of Ephraim. And Moses called Hoshea, “Joshua.”
The spies spent forty days exploring Canaan. When they returned, they said to Moses, “The land you sent us to surely flows with milk and honey. But the people in that land are very fierce. Their cities are large and have strong walls.” Caleb, one of the spies who had seen the land of Canaan, said, “Let us go now into the land, for we can surely take it from the people who are there.”
But the others did not agree with him. They said, “We cannot go up against the people in the land of Canaan, for they are stronger than we are. We saw Giants there, the sons of Anak. We seemed like grasshoppers compared to them.”
Upon hearing this, the Israelites spoke against Moses and Aaron. “Better we had died in Egypt or in this wilderness. Why did you lead us here to be killed by the swords of the people of Canaan? Let us return to Egypt now!”
Then Moses and Aaron and Caleb and Joshua, who had also been one of the spies in Canaan, pleaded with the people, “Yahweh will defeat the people of the land of Canaan for us, as long as we do not go against his instructions.” But the people said that they would kill the four of them – Moses, Aaron, Caleb, and Joshua – with stones.
Then the glory of Yahweh appeared to all of the Israelites. And Yahweh said to Moses, “How long will the people not believe in me, after all the signs and miracles that I have shown them? I will strike the people with a plague. Then I will make from you a nation much greater than they are, to live in the land of Canaan.” But Moses said to Yahweh, “The Egyptians know that you have led the people through the wilderness. If you kill them now, the Egyptians will say that it was because you did not have the power to bring them into the land that you had promised to them. So I pray you to forgive the people, as you have forgiven them many times before since we left the land of Egypt.”
And Yahweh said, “I forgive the people, as you have asked me to. But let them know this, that before they enter the land I have promised to them, they and their children shall wander in the wilderness for forty years. And none who is now older than twenty years shall survive to enter the land of Canaan, except for Caleb and Joshua. Those who spoke against me shall not live to enter the land – only their children shall do so.” And Yahweh sent a plague upon the Israelites, which killed all of those who spoke against him. Of the spies sent into Canaan, only Caleb and Joshua survived this plague.
The people were sorry that they had gone against the word of Yahweh. But they decided that they would now enter the land of Canaan, even though Yahweh had decreed that they must wait for forty years. Moses tried to stop them, saying, “Yahweh is not with you.” But they went out anyway, and were beaten down at Hormah by the Amalekites and the Canaanites who lived in the land that Yahweh had promised them.
1. This is one of many stories in the Bible about how the Israelites lost faith in Yahweh, their god. In the story “Complaints and Miracles – Food, Water, and a Battle” (chapter V-1), Yahweh hears the complaints of the Israelites and gives them what they are asking for. Now he is getting tired of their constant complaining and punishes them for it. There are other stories in the Bible, which we have not included in this book, that have the same general theme: Yahweh punishes the Israelites for their complaints and lack of faith in him. For example, in chapter 11 of the book of Numbers, Yahweh inflicts a plague on the Israelites for complaining that they do not have meat to eat. We will read in the next section about the rebellion of Korah, in which Yahweh kills 250 Israelite leaders who question the authority of Moses over them. Then when the Israelites complain that Moses and Aaron have killed their leaders, Yahweh sends a new plague and another 14,700 people die.
Why does the Bible tell so many stories showing how the Israelites have lost faith in Yahweh, their god? What would readers learn about the way Yahweh will treat them by reading these stories? How is this likely to affect the behavior of people? What do these stories say about the personality of Yahweh? Of Moses?
In this story, the Israelites are beaten in battle by the Canaanites and the Amalekites. The Amalekites are the constant enemy of the Israelites. Do you remember them from the story “Complaints and Miracles – Food, Water, and a Battle,” chapter V-1?
2. It is interesting that the Israelites, who gained their freedom only by leaving Egypt, keep on saying that they want to return to Egypt. It seems to them that the hardships they must endure are worse than what they remember of their suffering in Egypt (see
chapter IV-1, “Moses – From a Basket to Pharaoh’s House”). Does it seem that way to you? Do you think that sometimes people would want to give up their freedom in order to have a more secure life? Do these stories about the Israelites wanting to return to Egypt seem realistic?
3. When Yahweh threatens to punish the Israelites with a plague, Moses argues with him and Yahweh changes his mind. Moses has used the same argument with Yahweh before (see “The Israelites Receive the Ten Commandments,” chapter V-2). How are the arguments raised by Abraham in “Abraham Argues with Yahweh” (chapter II-4) and those used by Moses in this story similar? What does Yahweh’s response to the arguments tell us about him? What do these stories tell us about the kind of people Abraham and Moses are?
4. In this story, the spies report having seen Giants in the land of Canaan. Does it seem from this story that the spies really saw Giants? What would Giants be doing in Canaan, anyway?
Remember the story “The Time When there were Giants on the Earth” (chapter I-4)? In that story the Giants were the children of the “sons of God” and human women. Although there are several different Hebrew words in the Bible that are translated into the English word “giants,” the Hebrew word used for Giants in these two stories is the same: Ne-phee-leem. In fact, these two stories are the only places in the whole Bible that the word “Nepheeleem” is used. But here the Nepheeleem are not the children of the sons of God, but are rather the sons of “Anak.” Now, “anak” actually means “neck” in Hebrew. The word as used in this story is thought to refer to some tall (long-necked) group of people who are said to have lived in part of Canaan.
5. After being punished with a plague, the people are sorry that they had lost their faith in Yahweh, but they disobey him again by entering Canaan. Why do you think they did this?
6. One of the characters in this story is Joshua. We have already learned about Joshua, and seen him act as a military leader (chapter V-1, “Complaints and Miracles – Food, Water, and a Battle”). Later on Joshua will lead the Israelites into the promised land of Canaan.
It is interesting that this story first says that Caleb was the only spy to say that the Israelites could conquer the land, but later on in the story Joshua’s name is also included with Caleb’s. It is as if some editor realized that, in stories that follow this one, Joshua leads the people into Canaan, and so the editor added Joshua’s name to Caleb’s in this story so that Joshua would not be killed off before he could lead the Israelites. This story first says that Hoshea, rather than Joshua, was the spy from the tribe of Ephraim. The statement that Moses called Hoshea by the name “Joshua” could also have been added by the editor who saw the need to make Joshua one of the spies who would survive the forty years in the wilderness. The idea that this story was changed to include Joshua is also indicated by the fact that Joshua is mentioned by the name “Joshua” (rather than Hoshea) in earlier stories in the Bible (see chapter V-1, “Complaints and Miracles – Food, Water and a Battle”). So Joshua’s name already was Joshua before the story of the spies occurred.
There is now no way to know for sure if the story was actually changed by an editor to add the name of Joshua. Can you think of something that archaeologists might find that could prove that Joshua’s name was added after the story was written? Whether it was added later or not, the type of reasoning used to conclude that this is a likely possibility helps us to remember how the Bible was written and changed by different authors and editors. It also points out the difficulty in trying to figure out how the Bible came to be written and which parts of it are factual.
[Numbers 16, 17, 18]
Now Korah of the tribe of Levi, and also Datan and Abeeram of the tribe of Reuben, along with 250 of the leading men among the Israelites, rose up against Moses and Aaron. “We have had enough of you,” they said. “Why do you put yourselves above the rest of the people? All of the Israelites are holy before Yahweh.”
And Moses said to Korah, “You, the tribe of Levi, are you not satisfied that Yahweh has separated you from the other tribes of Israel and brought you close to himself so that you may serve in his dwelling-place and minister to the whole congregation of Israel? Do you now want to be priests also?”
Korah brought all the Israelites out before the Tent of Congregation against Moses and Aaron. And the glory of Yahweh appeared before them. And Yahweh said to Moses, “Tell the people to move away from the tents of Korah and Datan and Abeeram. They should touch nothing that belongs to these wicked men, or they will be destroyed.”
Moses warned the people as Yahweh had told him to. Then Moses said, “If these men who have rebelled against me and Aaron die as ordinary people die, then you will know that Yahweh has not sent me to you. But if Yahweh causes them to die in a new way, by the ground opening its mouth and swallowing them so they go down to Sh’-ohl alive, then you will know that Yahweh is with me and not with them.” And then the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and all the members of their households. So they went down alive into Sh’-ohl, and the earth covered them over. And fire from Yahweh then destroyed 250 men who had been part of the rebellion against Moses and Aaron.
On the next day, all of the Israelites spoke out against Moses and Aaron, saying, “You have killed the people of Yahweh.” And Yahweh appeared, and out of anger started a plague among the Israelites. Aaron went out with incense to atone for the Israelites and stopped the spread of the plague, but 14,700 people died from it.
And Yahweh said to Aaron, “Bring the tribe of Levi, which is the tribe of your father, near to yourself so that they may serve you. The Levites shall attend to the care of the Tent of Congregation. But only you and your sons will be priests at the altar and behind the curtain within the Tent. Only Levites will perform the needed services for the other parts of the Tent. But the Levites will have no land of their own among the tribes of Israel. The Israelites will pay a tithe to support the Levites so that they can perform their duties.”
1. Once again, Yahweh saves Moses from rebellion by the Israelites. This time, Moses and his brother Aaron are on the same side. Remember that sometimes it was Aaron who went against Moses (for example, in chapter V-5, “Moses is Criticized for Marrying a Cushite”). Clearly the purpose of this story is to establish the role of Aaron and his descendants as the holy priests in the Temple, and to make sure that the Levites recognize that they are not as important as the priests of the line of Aaron.
Which of the authors of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) likes Aaron? Which author writes bad things about Aaron? See, for example, discussion point #4 after the story “Moses is Criticized for Marrying a Cushite” (chapter V-5). You can guess from that discussion that Bible author E was certainly not the writer of the story about Korah’s rebellion. After analyzing the themes and the language of this story, Bible scholars have concluded that the story of the rebellion of Korah and his followers was written in part by author J and in part by author P. Remember that J represented the southern kingdom, Judah, where Jerusalem and the Temple were, so that J was always trying to show that those who ran the Temple were the true representatives of Yahweh. And who ran the Temple? Why, the priests who were thought of as the descendants of Aaron, of course.
The other author of the Korah story in addition to J is thought to have been P, whom we have learned about in several stories, such as “Noah and the Great Flood” (chapter I-5, discussion point #6), “Jacob Wrestles with an Angel, Gets a New Name, and Meets his Brother Esau” (chapter II-14, discussion point #5). Author P, it is thought, was a priest in the Temple in Jerusalem, himself, and was therefore considered to be a descendent of Aaron. Obviously, he would be anxious to say that Yahweh gave these temple priests, thought to be Aaron’s descendants, the right to perform the rituals in the Temple. So, in this story, Yahweh says that only Aaron and his descendants will be permitted to perform services at the altar behind the curtain in the Tent of Congregation. Remember (chapter V-4-i, section A and discussion point #1) that this would be the most special area where the Ark and the Ten Commandments were kept. This gave the priests who were considered to be the descendants of Aaron the right to receive the sacrifices which people left for Yahweh at the Temple in Jerusalem. The other Levites would have a less important role, but they would still be more important than the members of the other tribes.
This distinction between the Jews thought to be descendants of Aaron, the rest of the tribe of Levi, and the members of other tribes has lasted right up to today in certain rules and rituals observed by Orthodox Jews. For example, at one point in the weekly service in the synagogue, members of the congregation are called up to read aloud from the scroll of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible). The first to be called to read are the “priests” or “kohaneem” (who are often understood to be those with names like “Cohen” or “Kahane”). After the kohaneem come the Levites (with names like “Levi”), and then comes everyone else.
2. One interesting point in this story is the mention of an underground place called “Sh’-ohl.” This word is used a number of times in the Hebrew Bible as the name of a place that people go to after death. In many cases, it may simply mean “the grave,” and is often translated that way into English. Sometimes, however, it seems to mean a place where a person actually continues his or her existence after death. Since it is underground, Sh’-ohl is sometimes translated as “hell.” But in the Hebrew Bible, this certainly does not mean a hot, foul-smelling place where people are punished for their bad deeds in life. The Hebrew Bible, and the Torah in particular, make no reference to reward and punishment in “heaven” and “hell.” Rather, Sh’-ohl is not a particularly painful place to be; in fact, it is not described at all in the Hebrew Bible. It is just where you go after you die.
Much later, after the Torah and the rest of the Hebrew Bible were written, the idea developed among the Jewish religious leaders, the early rabbis, that people must be rewarded and punished after death. After all, there is no reason to believe, if we look at the world around us, that good people are always rewarded, or the evil ones always punished, when they are still alive. The idea of reward and punishment after death was adopted by Christianity and also became an important part of the Christian religious outlook. But the early Israelites who wrote the Torah and the rest of the Hebrew Bible did not believe in rewards and punishments after death.
[Numbers 20:1 - 20:29]
So the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. They arrived at the wilderness of Tseen and remained at Kadesh. The people joined together against Moses and Aaron because there was no water to be found in that place. They said to Moses, “Why have you brought us here to die in this wilderness? Why did you make us leave Egypt? There is nothing to eat here, nor even any water to drink.”
Moses and Aaron went to the Tent of Congregation and fell on their faces. The glory of Yahweh then appeared to them. Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying, “Take the rod, and assemble the people, you and your brother Aaron. Then speak to the rock in front of all the people. And water shall come forth from the rock.”
So Moses took the rod and went with Aaron to the rock. With all of the people there, Moses struck the rock with his rod two times. And water came out of the rock for all the people to drink, and their cattle also.
But Yahweh said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe in me to sanctify me in the eyes of the Israelites, you shall not bring the people to the land I have given to them. These shall be called the Waters of Mereebah, meaning quarrel, because the Israelites quarrelled with Yahweh and he was sanctified to them here.”
The Israelites moved on to Mount Hor. And Yahweh said, “Bring Aaron and his son Eleazar up to Mount Hor, and put Aaron’s garments on his son. Aaron shall die there – he shall not go into the land that I have given the Israelites because you rebelled against my words at the waters of Mereebah.” And Moses did as Yahweh had commanded. Aaron died on Mount Hor, and the people wept for him for thirty days.
1. This story is very similar to one we have already read. In chapter V-1, “Complaints and Miracles – Food, Water, and a Battle,” we read how Moses at an earlier time struck a rock with his rod to get water for the Israelites.
What are the similarities between the two stories? Even some of the names of the places are the same or similar, but the actual place is different. One story takes place at Mount Horev (also called Mount Sinai) and the Wilderness of Seen, the other, closer to Canaan, is at Mount Hor and the Wilderness of Tseen. Of course, when there are two stories with similar plots and similar names of places it makes us think that they were originally one story which, by being told by different people, became two slightly different ones, both of which got written down in the Bible.
2. One difference between this story and the earlier one is that this time Moses gets into big trouble for hitting the rock. Why is Yahweh so angry about that? Maybe by hitting the rock to get the water, Moses seemed to be trying to show that it was his power rather than the power of Yahweh that was able to get water from a rock. Yahweh wanted him to speak to the rock, not hit it. How would Moses speaking to the rock have shown the Israelites that it was the power of Yahweh, not of Moses, that brought forth the water?
Yahweh complains that by hitting the rock, rather than speaking to it, Moses did not “sanctify” Yahweh before the Israelites. Sanctify means to separate something out from other things as holy or sacred – to give it religious significance. Why do you think that Yahweh is so concerned about this? It is interesting that the Hebrew word for “sanctify,” “kadash,” is so similar to the name of the place where this story occurs, “Kadesh,” which is from the same Hebrew word meaning “sacred.” Do you think this tells us anything about Yahweh’s reason for bringing the Israelites to this place, where there was no water to drink? We have already had many examples of the importance of the meaning of names of people and places. This is just one more example of this.
3. After forgiving the Israelites so many times for acting against his wishes, why does Yahweh now act so harshly against Moses and Aaron? Does the striking of the rock seem like such a terrible thing? Aaron actually dies in this story, and Yahweh says that it is because Moses struck the rock. We will see in a later story that Moses also dies before the Israelites enter Canaan. Again, the reason why Yahweh denies him the honor of leading the Israelites into Canaan seems to be the one given in this story – that he struck the rock to get water, rather than talking to it.
4. Why are Aaron’s garments put on his son Eleazar, before Aaron dies? The garments referred to are presumably those that show that Aaron is the high priest of Israel.
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Copyright © 1995, 2014 by Michael J. Prival
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