Chukat (Numbers 19:1 – 22:1)

NUMBERS 19:1-17

“[If] he does not purify himself, he has polluted Adonai’s tabernacle” (Numbers 1:13). Here is the key to understanding the clean-unclean system of Israel (the ritual purity laws of Torah).

Numbers 19:13 and Leviticus 15:31 express the same concept. It is not a transgression to be unclean. But to fail to follow through with the commanded act of purification violates God’s sanctuary.

Why? Because un-purified impurity travels like air pollution to God’s holy place and defiles it. This whole system is arbitrary, symbolic. The chosen conditions deemed unclean (childbirth, menstruation, ejaculation, venereal disease, scale disease [traditionally “leprosy”], and contact with a human corpse) all relate to death or loss of life in various ways.

Human death is “unclean.” God’s sanctuary is a place designed to be free from all signs of human death. In the whole land of Israel, the people are to maintain a symbolic system of purification, involving baptisms (bathing), laundering, and sometimes more elaborate rituals. Every condition of impurity which is not accompanied by the required acts of purification defiles. And this defilement accumulates in the tabernacle, so that it must be purged once a year (Yom Kippur) or the glory will depart.

What are we to make today of this ancient symbolic system of impurity and rites of purification? The place where God is shall be free of human death. What the tabernacle symbolizes must point to some reality. As Isaiah said, “He will swallow up death forever” and “Your dead shall live” (25:8; 26:19).

Preparing ashes of the red heifer (1-6), purification of those who prepared them (7-10), procedure for purification from corpse-contamination (11-12), prevention of sanctuary defilement (13), contagion of corpse-contamination (14-16), water of purification (17).

Numbers 19 is a chapter out of place. It clearly belongs in Leviticus 11-15, the priestly laws concerning ritual impurity (impure animals, ritual impurity and various procedures for purification related to childbirth, scale disease, genital discharges, menstruation, ejaculation, marital intercourse, etc.). The greatest impurity of them all is contact with human death (corpse contamination). Many theories have been proposed concerning the odd location of the laws for corpse contamination, but the reason remains obscure.

All forms of impurity symbolize death or loss of life. The overarching message behind the ritual purity laws is that God will not have human death near his sanctuary.

For this reason, the high priest was forbidden to contact even the corpse of a near loved one and the regular priests were allowed only contact with the corpses of the nearest relatives (Leviticus 21). For ordinary Israelites, corpse contact was permitted, but some rather involved procedures were required for attaining purification following that contact. In common practice, people probably went through the purification procedures upon arriving for the festivals at the sanctuary rather than interrupting their lives to travel to the sanctuary every time they had contact with death.

But when anyone failed to follow through on the purification procedures outlined in Torah, they sent contamination like air pollution which defiled the Temple (vs. 13). Numbers 11:13 (and its companion, vs. 20) is a key principle in Torah. It helps define the relationship between Israel’s practice of ritual purity laws and Israel’s nearness to the divine Presence. The theology expressed here is at the heart of Torah.

The red heifer is a unique type of sacrifice, burnt whole with the blood. It is a burnt-sin offering. The blood is contained in the ashes which, mixed with water, are sprinkled on the defiled person or object. The impurity is reduced after three days and is over at the end of the seventh (Jewish rites of mourning are based on the periods of three and seven days). The Torah depicts God as being about life, and that belief required an elaborate ritual which was fitting for the culture of the time. The ritual is theology enacted in a culturally appropriate manner, making a statement.

NUMBERS 19:18 – 20:6

Three deaths in Torah are particularly sad. First, Miriam dies, then Aaron, and finally Moses, with the Torah ending on the note of Moses’ death.

Life and death are a strong motif in Torah. God creates life. Humans quickly devolve into a world of death and violence. “You will surely die,” God says. One of the first stories of human history is about murder (Cain and Abel). The flood story is about God’s reaction to a violent humanity (Genesis 6:11). “I have set before you today life and death … choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19).

No Israelite who had touched a corpse or even been under the same roof with a corpse could enter the courts of the sanctuary without first undergoing a seven day period of purification. A pinch of ashes from a red cow, burnt with the blood and with other symbolic red elements, was added to clean water and sprinted on days three and seven. Only on the eighth day would he or she be free from ritual defilement and able to enter the sanctuary courts.

It is often said, wrongly, that Torah does not contain any belief in an afterlife. The idea of afterlife permeates Torah. It is simply never defined or described, but rather assumed. Death begins a mystery in the worldview of Torah, a mystery whose answer is in the hands of God. Rather than explaining what comes after death, Torah implies a reality beyond our experience and leaves our questions unanswered.

Sprinkling to purify corpse contamination (18-19), prevention of sanctuary defilement (20), the one making clean becomes unclean (21-22), Miriam’s death (20:1), the people grumble for water (20:2-5), Moses and Aaron fall before God’s face (20:6).

The symbolism inherent in the ritual purity laws of Torah finds a colorful expression in the purification procedures for someone who has been in contact with a deceased person. A little like the elaborate set of rituals for the purification of healed “lepers” (those with scale disease, not actual leprosy, Leviticus 13-14), the procedures after contact with human death are filled with meaning.

The color red figures highly in the elements of the procedure: a red cow is burned, the blood of the red cow is contained in the ashes, blood is sprinkled, scarlet yarn and red cedar wood are burned with the cow. Hyssop, a plant whose stems were used by the priests for sprinkling blood, also is part of this procedure. Red, as the color of blood, stands for life. Only life can counter the negative effects of exposure to the forces of death.

Vs. 20, like vs. 13 and also with some resemblance to Leviticus 15:31, is about a crucial idea in Torah. Israel is dwelling near the divine Presence. All of the ritual purity laws are about keeping human death away from the divine Presence. Given that human death is inevitable in this present reality, all things associated with death or loss of life in Israel required acts of purification such as waiting, bathing, laundering, and in some cases animal sacrifices. To fail to carry out the required purification process for any specific type of impurity was to cause that impurity to travel (like air pollution) to the sanctuary and contaminate first the altar, and if still left un-purified, to encroach even into the tent and defile the inner altar or even the Holy of Holies. If the nation would not practice the required acts of ritual purity, then the implication is the divine Presence would depart and Israel would cease to have God’s direct manifestation in their midst. This, of course, eventually happened in the Babylonian destruction of the temple in 586 BCE. Since that time, the divine Presence has been symbolically and not actually present.

The red cow was burned along with the blood, a departure from the usual procedure for a burnt offering in which the blood was poured out at the base of the altar. These ashes contained the blood and were thought of as a powerful ritual detergent for cleansing impurity. A tiny quantity of ashes placed in clean water became a sort of holy water to be sprinkled on the third and seventh days on the persons being cleansed.

One irony of the sprinkling of water imbued with the ashes of the red cow is that the one who performed the cleansing became unclean (until evening). That is, the person who made others clean became defiled in the process. The burnt sin offering (ashes of the red cow) absorbed impurity as it purified. Since the ashes contained the cleansing agent, they absorbed impurity and rendered the handler impure. This is similar to the case of the priest who burned portions of purification offerings (sin offerings) outside the camp and in so doing became impure (see Lev 6:20(27)).

After completing the instructions for purification from death contamination, the Torah relays the story of Miriam’s death. The deaths of Moses and Aaron followed soon after. The account of the people complaining about a low supply of water foreshadows the deaths of Moses and Aaron, because those events will lead to their deaths. If there is any reason why the purification from contact with human death is located in Numbers rather than in what seems the more appropriate section (Leviticus 11-15), it must be that it precedes the deaths of Miriam, Aaron, and Moses.

NUMBERS 20:7-13

“And he showed himself holy among them” (וַיִּקָּדֵשׁ בָּם vayiqadesh bam). How did announcing judgment on Moses and Aaron show God to be “holy”?

In his discussion of eleven theories about the reason God was angry with Moses (and Aaron), Jacob Milgrom (Numbers: The JPS Torah Commentary) concludes that the sin of Moses was in saying “shall we bring forth water?” instead of “shall he?” Moses wrongly inserted himself into the miracle, as if he was the necessary conduit and as if somehow he had the power to transcend nature (the view also of Bekhor Shor, a medieval Jewish commentator).

And after God announces judgment, Torah says of God, “and he showed himself holy among them.”

In this case, “holy” appears to refer to the fact that God alone can interfere with nature by a power that transcends nature. In the view of most ancient people, magic was a force higher than the gods. Human beings could participate in the power of magic. Moses may have simply come to believe that he had something to do with the miracles and victories. His job was to teach Israel that God alone ruled over nature and supernature.

One aspect of God’s “holiness” is his unique relationship to the universe. God is not part of the universe. The universe has its ground and being in him and not the other way around. Things we take for granted as “reality” actually originate with God and did not pre-date him. The universe is the way it is because he has made it this way. “Supernatural” events are only so from our point of view. We exist within nature and see it from our limited perspective. God corrected Moses and in so doing made a strong statement about the uniqueness of divine power. What our divinely made minds can conceive is possible with God because everything flows from the mind of God.

God commands Moses and Aaron to provide water from the rock (7-8), water is brought forth (9-11), God passes judgment on Moses and Aaron (12), the name Meribah is given to the place (13).

Why was God angry with Moses? This is one of the most familiar questions about any Bible story. Moses is the great hero of the Torah and this perplexing story about his fall from God’s good graces lacks a clear explanation. Jacob Milgrom (Numbers: JPS Torah Commentary) considers eleven theories about the sin of Moses (and Aaron as well, who is also found at fault in the story). In the end, Milgrom concludes that the sin of Moses was in saying “shall we bring forth water?” instead of “shall he?”

That is, Moses included himself and Aaron with God among those who would bring forth the water miraculously. Bekhor Shor (a nickname for Joseph ben Isaac, a 12th century interpreter) first published this theory. Since one of the aims of Torah is to overthrow pagan magical thinking, Moses and Aaron were to carefully represent all miracles as divine power and avoid any implication that these were incantations. All miraculous acts should have been presented to show that they were clearly divine and the human actors merely vessels.

Milgrom also discusses the theory of Bekhor Shor that three stories in Numbers are repeats of stories already told in Exodus (water from the rock, the manna complaint, and the quail complaint) and not new incidents. If this water-from-the-rock incident is the same as that in Exodus 17, we are seeing new details about what has already been reported. This would mean Moses from very early on knew he would not enter the land. It might also explain why Moses would do something immature, believing that he is more than just a vessel. He seems to assume he is the necessary vessel, as if God’s work can only come through him.

NUMBERS 20:14-21

The back story of Jacob and Esau is such a beautiful thing. Living his whole life in fear of his brother, Jacob returned and found that Esau had loved and forgiven him the whole time. Now, centuries later, the descendants of Esau (the Edomites) fail to welcome their brother nation, Israel, but instead refuse them safe passage.

So begins a theme in the Bible, of brother Edom as the enemy of Israel. The name of Edom became synonymous with the enemies of Israel and at key junctures in history, Edom would cruelly seek to benefit from Israel’s misfortunes. So Edom became powerful and prosperous, but they practiced treachery.

God said of Edom, “They may build, but I will tear down” (Malachi 1:4). Representing the way of this world, with selfishness, jealousy, and ambition ruining everything good, Edom lost favor with God.

We can imagine if Edom had only welcomed Israel, had sought to be a blessing. A blessing would have come upon Edom as God had said, “I will bless those who bless you.” It is not difficult to be part of God’s economy of blessing. If we follow the opposite path of Edom, setting aside jealousy and ambition, choosing to bless others (even those who do not bless us in return) we will be part of making the world a better place. Lovingkindness builds. Ambition destroys. God has built wisdom and goodness into the universe so that those who practice the way of blessing others receive from him this message: “You build, and I will support.”

Israel entreats Edom to pass through Kadesh (14-17), Edom rejects the entreaty (18-21).

Esau’s descendants became a nation, Edom, just as Jacob’s descendants became Israel. Though the Edomites and Israelite were related peoples, they became enemies. From the earliest days of Israel, the story was passed down that Edom refused the Israelites safe passage in the journey toward Canaan. Right when Israel (Jacob) had the chance to become reacquainted with Edom (Esau), the relationship was rejected and though the actual Jacob and Esau had peace, the same could not be said for their descendants.

Isaiah, Obadiah, and Malachi speak about the enmity between Judah and Edom, which continued more than six centuries later because of another incident of betrayal between the two nations. During the time when Babylon laid waste to the towns of Judah, the Edomites exacerbated Judah’s pain by plundering and causing more destruction in a grab for territory. The name “Edom” became synonymous with the perpetual enemies of Israel, as can especially be seen in Obadiah. Later Second Temple period apocalyptic writings refer to the Romans as Edomites and medieval Jewish writers called Christianity (persecutors of the Jewish people) by the name “Edom.”

Obadiah 15 sums up God’s message to Edom: “Your deeds will return on your own heads.” The people in Judah after the return from exile complained to God that Edom seems to be thriving while the remained small and poor (Malachi 1:2-5). God’s answer to them is heartening: Judah will be restored while Edom will have no future. It is not in military or economic greatness that a nation survives, but in its relationship with God and its pursuit of the good.

NUMBERS 20:22 – 21:9

“Strip Aaron of his garments and put them on Eleazar his son.” The scene is tragic. The Hebrew is rough, saying literally, “strip Aaron his garments.”

For the event of his own death, Aaron had to climb a mountain, on the border between Jordan and Israel, in full high priestly garb. His vestments were removed at the top of the mountain and placed on his son.

In some way, at that moment, Aaron died. The text only touches on the very edges of the tragedy of death. Torah is largely about an idea that death is not the final word. Yet we have no clear statements about afterlife. Aaron is said the be “gathered to his kin,” a phrase that may imply afterlife in some vague sense.

Miriam has died. Now Aaron. Moses will also die soon. The closest Torah comes to offering hope is to hint that God has something better and leaving the questions surrounding death unanswered. But Torah offers a way if life in the here and now based on trust and symbolizing hope with action by keeping the festivals, purity laws, and the laws of love.

God announces Aaron will die at Mt. Hor (22-26), Aaron’s death (27-29), Israel destroys Arad (21:1-3), the bronze serpent (4-9).

Aaron had been judged guilty, along with Moses, of sacrilege in the Meribah incident (vss. 12-13). So, like Moses, he was told he would die before the Israelites entered the Land. He was to be succeeded by his son, Eleazar.

The story of Eleazar’s succession is dramatic: Aaron ascends in full vestments with Moses and Eleazar, at the top of the mountain Aaron’s vestments are transferred to Eleazar, Aaron dies, and then only Moses and Eleazar descend from Mt. Hor. The transfer of office involved a miracle of timing, with Aaron dying at the precise moment God determined.

An oddly placed story follows, concerning a Canaanite king who proactively attacked the Israelites and took some of them captive. The reader should be asking why God would allow the Israelites to lose an initial battle and why the situation required a plea from the people for God to start acting on their behalf. In their plea, the Israelites vowed to place the cities of the Canaanite king under the ban (חֶרֶם cherem). This refers to an ancient practice of devoting a place to a deity for destruction. The troops would forego looting and all would be donated to the sanctuary (see Lev 27; Deut 20).

The destruction of the Canaanite city and the story of how the place came to be called Hormah (related to the word for “devoted to destruction”) is followed by a seemingly unrelated event. The Israelites complained yet again about the difficulties of the wilderness journey. So God sent a plague of “seraph” serpents (fiery serpents, probably meaning venomous).

One possible clue to the placement and meaning of this story involves geography. The people were near the copper mines of Timnah, and so the bronze or copper serpent image that God instructed Moses to make was a fitting image for the place (Milgrom, Numbers: JPS Torah Commentary). Archaeologists have discovered a copper snake image near Timnah, about five inches long, from about 1000 BCE (not, of course, thought to be the one referred to in the story). The image of the copper snake became an idolatry problem of its own later in Hezekiah’s time (2 Kgs 18:4). In Ninevah, a bronze bowl with Hebrew writing and a winged snake on a pole was found, possibly a part of the tribute payment sent either by Ahaz or Hezekiah (Milgrom). The Fourth Gospel uses the copper snake as a figure for faith (John 3:14-15).

NUMBERS 21:10-20

“Gather the people and I will give them water.” At times we are our own worst enemies. The Numbers account is about the relationship between a people and God. The people are immature, responding poorly when life presents a challenge. The leaders fail, the people complain, God punishes, and yet everything always comes back around to rescue and resolution. The universe is abundant and forgiving. God made it that way. So in spite of it all, the people get the water they need and they keep finding life, over and over again.

God’s economy is not ultimately cruel. There is no denying that the universe can be a place of death and deficiency. But the sun comes out again. New grass grows in the ashes.

These stories more than hint that God’s ultimate commitment is to giving life. While we live in the middle, the cruelty of the world may find us at times and leave us bereaved or desperate. But the middle is not the end. God has a benevolent end in mind for all of us which has nothing to do with our worthiness. It seems we are expected to be on a journey and our immaturity is also a phase that will someday pass. Standing on the peak of the mountain range, we peer into the Land and see good things ahead.

Journey to the edge of Moab (10-13), As it says in the Wars of the Lord (14-15), song of the well (16-18), to the peak of Pisgah (19-20).

Numbers 20-21 is not a straightforward, chronological account, but a jumble of different time periods edited for a literary purpose (Milgrom, Numbers: The JPS Torah Commentary). The basic literary plan is, as Milgrom describes it, a “trek which begins in gloom and ends in jubilation.” The events have been rearranged, as can be seen in the way the place names deviate from the order they are listed in chapter 33 (the so-called “wilderness itinerary”). The purpose of the rearrangement seems to be to show a pattern of relations between the people and God.

Ch. 21 follows this pattern: the leaders fail, the people murmur, God punishes, yet despite all God provides water and, thus, life. God’s characteristic kindness shines through in these accounts and the general immaturity of the people and failings of leaders do not deter him from nurturing and providing. Far from teaching the lesson that worthiness is the basis of love, these narratives show us the meaning of unconditional love.

The chronological jumble is not obvious to the reader unless one attempts to map out the travels of Israel in the order of the stories. They read well as a progression of stories because they are ordered thematically rather than geographically and chronologically. Vss. 14-15 mention a non-biblical source: the Book of the Wars of the Lord. As in many cases in the Torah, it is evident from this note that the narrator is from some time later than the lifetime of Moses. The account of Israel’s wilderness wanderings is put together after Moses’ time from sources such as the Book of the Wars of the Lord (see also the Book of Jashar in Joshua 10:13 and 2 Samuel 1:18).

Here in 21:10-20, the people actually arrive at the edge of the land, to Pisgah (synonymous with Nebo), the place where Moses will die (Deuteronomy 34:1). The “desert” (or “wasteland”) is that area just north of the Dead Sea in Moab (east of the Jordan) and the land (west of the Jordan).

NUMBERS 21:21 – 22:1

“For fire went out from Cheshbon, a flame from the town of Sihon.” This section of Numbers alternates ancient poems with narrative accounts. The song of the well, this ode to the victory over the Moabites, and the coming poems of the Balaam cycle add beauty to the story. Some theorize that the poem was written by an Amorite (or a Canaanite, someone near the land of Canaan lamenting the coming disaster that is the people of Israel).

What is this fire that came out of the city of Chesbon and overturned the leadership of the Moabites? The fire is the mysterious power of God that grants victory to this small people, those formerly slaves in Egypt. Though they are a small people, Israel has a fiery divine power behind it defeating nations more numerous than they (see Deuteronomy 7:1, and 7:7, “it was not because you were more in number than any other people that Adonai set his love on you”). The fire is the unexplainable divine force, not a literal flame. However, God’s Presence is said to have been a flame encased in cloud both in the pillar that accompanied Israel and in the manifestation above the ark in the sanctuary.

Sihon refuses passage to Israel (21-23), Israel defeats Sihon and camps in Heshbon (24-26), a poem to Heshbon’s defeat (27-30), capture of Jaazer (31-32), Israel defeats Og of Bashan (33-35), camping on the plains of Moab (22:1).

These victories are important for Israel, showing that divine favor has not left them. Amidst all the stories of failure and punishment, the defeat of Sihon, Jaazer, and Og are bright spots in the wilderness period.

The poem to Heshbon’s defeat is possibly written by an Amorite and inserted into Torah by an editor (Milgrom, Numbers: The JPS Torah Commentary). Its purpose is to clarify that Israel did not seek to harm Moab (Deuteronomy 2:9; Judges 11:15, 21). The Israelites faced in Moab an enemy known for worshipping a dread god. Chemosh, god of war, was a cthonic deity (from the underworld, worshipped by pouring sacrificial blood into the ground).

The second generation of Israelites (it has been nearly forty years since the exodus) is having some of the same experiences as their parents, but also some new ones. The first generation started with promise and ended with gloom and defeat. The second generation experienced many of the same ups and downs (grumbling over food and water), but had greater faith and defeated enemies.

The narratives of chs. 20-21 are not in chronological or geographical order (a comparison with the wilderness itinerary in ch. 33 shows this as well as common sense geography). So why are these victories at the end of this section? They are here to end on a note of success and blessing.