“In Elim there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees, so they camped there.”
What we read in Numbers 33 is an ancient genre, a travel itinerary purporting to remember the past. The story is romanticized. At the beginning it recounts Israel departing boldly in the sight of the Egyptians, as the Egyptians were burying their firstborn dead. The journey of Israel begins with freedom from oppressors and leads toward hope.
Along the way, though traveling through harsh desert places, the Israelites found some beautiful places, such as Elim. Elim was chosen, we read, because of the numbers twelve and seventy — twelve springs and seventy palms. It was, therefore, an ideal place for a stopover for a nation whose God made the world in seven days and for a people consisting of twelve tribes.
The numbers game does not stop there. For those who care to count, the itinerary has forty-two stops (6X7). This travel story shows a different side of the wilderness experience, downplaying the hardship and viewing the journey as a great deed of the ancestors to be remembered for all generations.
As is always the case in life, there is more than one side to every story. Though the first generation of Israelites lacked faith, complained, and were fated by God to die in the desert, nonetheless their travels were heroic. The travel story helped later generations of Israelites remember something very important: where they came from and how they got to the land of Canaan. Looking back on their history, they saw God’s hand in all of the events and expressed this with the poetry and numerology.
These are the journeys (1), how Moses wrote them down (2), beginning from Rameses after Passover and plagues (3-4), from Rameses to the Reed Sea (5-10).
Chapter 33 is the wilderness itinerary of Israel, with forty two stations (6 X 7, another example of ideal numbers in the Torah).
From Rameses to Sinai, Sinai to Kadesh, and Kadesh to the steppes of Moab. This ancient list of places is poetic and beautiful, but the sites mentioned cannot be identified.
Classic rabbinical interpretation identifies two purposes for the wilderness itinerary: to affirm that Israel’s survival for forty years was miraculous and to remind Israel of the places the nation provoked its God. The Sinai is not a place capable of supporting life on any large scale. It is a inhospitable landscape. But Israel’s story is of miracles of provision and blessing. Furthermore, the stories of the wilderness are lessons or all of Israel’s days about maintaining a good relationship with God through faith and not fear.
The wilderness journey narratives are about holy history, breaking down ancient memories as a people into lessons of faith. Richard Elliott Friedman (The Bible with Sources Revealed) takes chapter 33 of Numbers to be an older account used by either the authors of Torah. Where this account of Israel’s travels originated, no one can say. As for the place names, they can no longer be identified. Even the actual location of Sinai is nothing more than a guess.
But to the authors of Torah, they are a love song about the past. The stories about what happened in these places, though they do not make the children of Israel into heroes, are worth repeating and learning from. The place names become almost myth. They were probably unknown to the authors of Torah just as their geographical location is lost to us today.
Why write about obscure places in the desert through which the ancestors passed? One possibility is that ancient accounts mentioning these places and journeys inspired the authors of Torah, providing them a glimpse into a past they longed to remember. How could they explain their own times, the period of the monarchy in Judah, where the people seemed caught between a divine covenant and ways and customs out of keeping with that covenant? They saw their history as having two major influences: Sinai and Canaan. The solution to the problems of the nation seemed simple to them: choose Sinai.
From the Reed Sea to the steppes of Moab.
Chapter 33 is the wilderness itinerary of Israel, with forty two stations from Rameses to Sinai, Sinai to Kadesh, and Kadesh to the steppes of Moab. Vss. 11-42 begin at the Reed Sea and end at the steppes of Moab, just across the Jordan from the Promised Land.
The most important stops along the way are Sinai and Kadesh before the steppes of Moab, where Moses will address the second generation in the book of Deuteronomy. Trying to compare the wilderness itinerary with stations of the journey mentioned in Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy leads to a number of problems and possible discrepancies. For example, did the Israelites arrive at Kadesh near the end of the forty years (Numb 33:36-38)? Or did they arrive there early, in the third year, and remain for thirty-eight years in one place (Deut 2:14)? Based on the work of Frank Cross, Milgrom (Numbers: The JPS Torah Commentary) provides a chart harmonizing the itinerary, though not without some problems, especially regarding Kadesh.
NUMBERS 33:50 – 34:15
“When you are crossing the Jordan into the land of Canaan.” There are two very noticeable features about the Hebrew (ki ‘atem ‘ōvrim et-hayarden el-eretz kena’an, כִּי אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים אֶת־הַיַּרְדֵּן אֶל־אֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן).
First, the clause emphasizes the word “you” (plural). Moses speaks this word and the reader knows Moses himself will not be crossing with them.
Second, the sentence uses a participle, “crossing,” instead of a future or infinitive. The participle often has a present tense meaning and here, combined with כִּי (ki, “when”) there is a sense that this is about to happen very soon.
Putting the two together, Moses tells them about something they are going to do soon and yet he must not include himself in the statement. The attentive reader will see something poignant here: Moses is about to die. If their crossing will be soon, Moses’ death will be even sooner. And yet, Moses is still the leader according to this story.
Why hasn’t Joshua taken over? How is it that Moses gets to give the final instructions just before the crossing? Some say this was a consolation to Moses (he will not enter the land, but God allows him to lead right up to the verge of it). Others say the people needed to have continuity, to see the commands for entering as coming from the same leader who brought them out of slavery.
Perhaps both are true. As for Moses, his attitude toward death appears to be calm and accepting. He leads to the very end. Soon he will walk up Mt. Nebo to the summit of Pisgah where he knows God will end his life. It’s a moving picture and one very meaningful to contemplate. When we become aware of our own impending death, how will we face it? If it should happen that we have a clear mind and the knowledge that our end is very near, will we be accepting of our destiny like Moses?
The command repeated to divide the land by lots (33:50-56), the boundaries of the land (34:1-15).
The last sections of Numbers are busy with detailed instructions about entering the land. Though Moses will not be allowed to enter, it was important for the authors of Torah to trace the commandments about occupying the land back to him. In their minds, there had to be a continuity between the Sinai revelation and the establishment of Israel in Canaan.
The command to apportion the land by lots is a repeat, but now two and a half tribes have settled in the Transjordan, so the division of land will be affected by this change. They are commanded to evict the Canaanites (“drive them out”). Deuteronomy uses different language, often translated “devote them to complete destruction” (7:2; 20:17). Is there a contradiction? John Walton (The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest, Proposition 15) argues that the verb in Deuteronomy (חרם, ch-r-m) does not mean “destroy,” but “put under the ban.” That is, they must not be taken as slaves or their women as wives. They can be driven out or killed (possibly they could be given asylum as foreigners).
Failure to drive out all the Canaanites and avoid entanglement in Canaanite culture and ways will become a snare for early Israel, according to the book of Judges: “The Israelites settled among the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites; 6 they took their daughters to wife and gave their own daughters to their sons, and they worshiped their gods” (Judges 3:5–6, JPS).
Numbers 34:1-15 is important as an early description of the boundaries of the land. It covers more than modern Israel in some ways and less in others. The northern border not only includes the Golan, but also Damascus. Milgrom (Numbers: The JPS Torah Commentary) points out that these boundaries match the Egyptian provincial boundaries of Canaan (and is followed by Ezekiel in ch. 47). The boundaries in Genesis 15 and Deuteronomy are even larger, going all the way up to the Euphrates and as far east as the desert in the Transjordan (perhaps the area controlled by David and Solomon through alliances). But the boundaries in Numbers 34 seem to be the most official ones even though Israel did not completely occupy this territory.
“Eleazar the priest and Joshua son of Nun.” The names have changed. Thirty-eight years have passed and now there is a new generation of leaders. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the way “Aaron and Moses” has now become “Eleazar the priest and Joshua son of Nun.”
Life changes. The people we grew fond of and were used to give way to their children and grandchildren. “A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever” (Eccles 1:4).
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (Exodus: The Book of Redemption) argues that God kept the slave generation in exile because they were unable to transition from being oppressed to conquering the land and being free people. In many cases in life the older generation holds on to power and refuses to give way. In this case, God took care of the transition, keeping the first generation stuck so a new one could rise up and enter the promise.
We know little about Eleazar, but in the personality of Joshua we see something very different from Moses. Moses was a strong leader, what Rabbi Sacks calls an “adaptive leader,” one who helps people adapt to great circumstances (a Churchhill, Ghandi, or King). People often admire but dislike adaptive leaders, blaming them for the hardships of transition and paradigm change.
They are often followed by a quieter sort of leader, one who is more nurturing, building on the change orchestrated by the adaptive leader. People don’t want two Moseses in a row. So they get Joshua son of Nun, the quiet assistant who was content to let Moses shine, the meditative, faithful man who will nurture the people in their coming challenge. We see life move in this cycle of change, the names changing but life going ever on. “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccles 1:9). But with all the change, we ask ourselves, what remains the same? Life, love, and God.
Tribal leaders who will apportion land (34:16-29).
There are earlier lists of the tribal chieftains in Numbers 1 and 7. Yet the names are very different. This is because now, in Numbers 34, about thirty eight years have passed.
Moses will soon die and Joshua is the second generation leader. Only he and Caleb survive of the first generation leaders. The tribes and leaders generally proceed from south to north, except that Judah is listed before Simeon, because the symbolic position of first tribe is too important to do otherwise. Aaron and Moses have been replaced by Eleazar and Joshua. The tribal chieftains will work out details of apportioning territory in the conquest.
The teachers of Israel, the Levites, were given cities in which to dwell without any agricultural land. They would subsist on the agricultural donations of the rest of the tribes of Israel. Meanwhile their duties included not only instructing people in the Torah, guarding the sanctuary to keep the people safe from God’s fatal holiness, carrying the tabernacle furnishings, and assisting the priests, but also distributing donated food to the poor.
Israel is a community built on the ideals of Torah. The laws we find in the Torah combine elements of Bronze and Iron Age culture, some of which are sub-ethical (slavery, war brides, execution for religious crimes, etc.), and others of which are forward-thinking and designed to make obsolete the cruel elements of human culture (love of neighbor, love for the immigrant, duties of kindness to one’s enemy, etc.).
If a nation or any community of people will place a high value on divine teaching, human beings will transcend the sad limitations of biological competition. Nature is competitive and apathetic (survival of the fittest). To be truly human is to ascend to the divine (love, cooperation, protecting the weak, raising the level of life and blessing). The idea of towns for Levites and a system of teaching and mutual support gives us a glimpse into God’s better plan for humanity.
The Levitical cities and their common pasturage (1-5), six cities of refuge among the forty-eight Levitical cities (6-7), four Levitical cities in each tribal territory (8).
Although the Levites would not receive a share of agricultural land, they still needed places to dwell. Rather than all the Levites living at the central sanctuary (tabernacle/temple), they were spread out into four towns in every tribal territory (forty eight in all).
From these towns the Levites were to teach the people the law, receive tithes, and redistribute the third year tithes to the needy. Deuteronomy 33:10 refers to the Levites as teachers.
Six of the cities of the Levites were cities of refuge, the laws about which will be explained in the next section. Joshua 21 records the appointing of the forty eight Levitical cities, four in every tribal territory. Vs. 8 could be interpreted to mean there were more Levitical cities in the larger tribal territories and less in the smaller, but this does not agree with Joshua 21. The meaning of vs. 8, then, is uncertain.
A person guilty of murder or even manslaughter may be killed by a family member of the victim without penalty? Legal vigilante-ism? According to the Torah, a “blood avenger” (גֹּאֵל הַדָּם, gōel haddam, literally “the redeemer of the blood”) for a murder victim may kill without guilt (אֵין לוֹ דָּם, ein lō dam, literally “there is not to him blood”).
Imagine if our courts allowed aggrieved family members to execute perpetrators. Even worse, a person whose crime was manslaughter was forced into exile, required to live in a refuge city until the death of the current high priest. Somehow the death of the high priest “atoned” for the manslaughter and the man-slaughterer was considered free and untouchable after that. Even so, if the man-slaughterer should be found outside the bounds of refuge, he or she was subject to a vengeance killing with no penalty to the “blood redeemer.”
This system in Torah, as imperfect as it seems to us, is yet one more illustration of a common pattern. Ancient Near Eastern customs which fell below the standards of Torah’s highest laws were nonetheless allowed, though highly regulated and restrained. Owning slaves, beating slaves, taking war brides, and other reprehensible acts were permitted in Torah just as vengeance killing was permitted.
Yet in the case of these sub-ethical practices, they were, at the same time, undermined by the Torah’s highest laws. The right to a fair trial is established in Torah, even for a murderer. Yet rather than completely prohibit the custom of blood vengeance, Torah chose to regulate and restrain it. This is an example of the nature of Torah as a document intended to change over time. Torah is not immutable. Within Torah itself laws changed (such as the laws of donations or tithes). Torah is an application of divine insight into human society, not an unchanging law given once for all time.
Cities of refuge (9-13), number of refuge cities (14-15), defining types of homicide (16-29), homicide and execution (30-32), homicide and the sanctity of the land (33-34).
The issue of homicide is a matter of the sanctity of the holy land (35:33-34). Un-atoned murder will cause God to leave the land and the people, since the blood of those slain cries out to him and he abhors death and violence (violence is what led to the flood).
In a case of murder, the blood redeemer (go’el ha-dam) will be the executioner (the brother, uncle, or cousin of the one murdered). This idea of a blood redeemer (vengeance-taker) was already a custom in the Ancient Near East, but the Torah puts the following restrictions on the practice: there must be a trial with the proper authorities and witnesses, the condemned cannot pay ransom money or have sentence commuted, and involuntary manslaughter convicts must be given exile in a city of refuge (Milgrom, Numbers: The JPS Torah Commentary).
Those who were exiled to cities of refuge could be slain by the blood redeemer if they left and the blood redeemer would not bear guilt. They had to remain until the death of the high priest (whose death atoned for the manslaughter). A later rabbinic text says that the mother of the high priest would provide food and care for those in the cities of refuge so that they would not pray for her son’s death.
“To assign to inheritance of Zelophehad to his daughters.” How sophisticated can the literature of Torah be?
This final story in Numbers illustrates the complexity to which the authors/editors of Torah were capable. First, the story of Zelophehad’s daughters comes in two scenes: 27:1-11 and here in 36:1-12. Why are these two parts separated with other stories in between? It is because they have been arranged as bookmarks.
Stories about the second generation occur in between part 1 and 2 of the narrative of these daughters and their issue of female right of succession to the land. The beginning of a section about the second generation commences in 27:1-11 with a new issue: if there are no male heirs, can daughters inherit?
This is a social issue, one which we might consider to be progress from a patriarchal society into something at least a little more progressive. Then we read about the second generation and the transition in a long string of stories until the final episode of Zelophehad’s daughters returns. Now some clan chiefs in the tribe of Manasseh come forward. Will the ruling about daughters inheriting potentially break the status quo in which tribes and clans have permanent right to territory?
Now we might say the progress made in the first story is undermined a bit in the second. The freedom granted to the daughters is now restricted. To satisfy the concerns of the clan chiefs, the daughters can only marry into their own clan. Regardless of our opinion about the political decision, the narrative technique has been sophisticated.
But there is more. A numerical pattern emerges for those who read closely. There are ten generations from Adam to Noah, ten from Noah to Terah, and ten from Abraham to Zelophehad’s daughters.
Female heirs and land inheritance (1-12), summary leaving Israel on the steppes of Moab (13).
The final issue in Numbers returns to the case of female heirs (Zelophehad’s daughters) and it is decided they must marry within the tribe to prevent exchange of tribal lands. This section (vss. 1-12) is part 2 of the story of Zelophehad’s daughters with part 1 occurring back in 27:1-11. In part 1, the daughters complained that they were without a male heir in their family but did not want the family to lose its share of land. Moses ruled that the land would go to the daughters. Now in part 2, clan leaders from the tribe of Joseph bring a second complaint: if Zelophehad’s daughters marry outside the tribe, the inheritance will go to the husband’s heirs and the tribe of Joseph will lose the land permanently. Moses rules that they must marry within the clan of their father. They marry their cousins to resolve the inheritance issues. Why is this passage here and not immediately after part 1 in 27:1-11? The placement of Zelophehad’s daughters’ issue here serves two literary purposes. First, part 1 and part 2 of this story frame the entire section devoted to the second generation and their organization (Milgrom). Second, the daughters of Zelophehad are of interest in the numerological and genealogical patterns of the Torah. There are ten generations from Adam to Noah, ten from Noah to Terah, and ten from Abraham to Zelophehad’s daughters (Milgrom).