May 9, 2014

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Old Testament: The Israelites leave Mount Sinai

John F. Fink(Eighteenth in a series of columns)

The Book of Numbers, the fourth book in the Old Testament, is a combination of history and laws. Historically, it tells the story of the 38-year journey of the Israelites from Mount Sinai to the east side of the Jordan River, ready to cross into the Promised Land. The laws relate to their experiences and need to keep order.

The book derives its name from two censuses, one taken near the start and the other near the end of the journey. They were for military purposes, so they included only the men 20 years of age or older, and did not include the Levites since they were priests. The first census found 603,550 men and the second 601,730.

The first nine chapters tell of the preparations for departure from Sinai after being there for two years, and there entering into a covenant with God. Interspersed among the preparations are laws, such as the ordeal for a suspected adulteress in Chapter 5 and laws concerning Nazarites (those who dedicate themselves to God) in Chapter 6. That chapter ends with the priestly blessing, which the Catholic Church reads in the first scriptural reading at Masses on New Year’s Day.

The actual journey begins with Chapter 10. But this is no ordinary trip. It’s a military campaign that won’t end until the Israelites conquer the tribes in Canaan. At least, that’s the idea. However, this vast army is also marching with women and children, and it’s marching through a desert. So it’s not long before the people are rebelling—in Chapter 11. Even Moses’ brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam, oppose him, in Chapter 12, and God punishes Miriam by turning her into a leper—temporarily.

While camped in the desert of Paran, on the northeast side of the Sinai Peninsula, Moses sent 12 scouts to reconnoiter the land of Canaan. They returned and reported that the land “does indeed flow with milk and honey” (Nm 13:27), but the people were fierce giants and the towns fortified. Only Caleb and Joshua thought that they could defeat them.

The others spread the word through the camp, and the people were again ready to revolt. God again threatened to destroy them and, again, Moses spoke in their defense. God then decreed that, of all the men 20 years or more registered in the census, only Joshua and Caleb would enter the Promised Land. All the others would wander in the desert until their death.

Chapters 16 and 17 tell about the rebellion of a man named Korah and another by Dathan and Abiram. God destroyed Korah and 250 followers by fire, and Dathan and Abiram and their followers were killed by being swallowed alive by an earthquake.

Chapters 18 has laws pertaining to the priests in the tribe of the Levites, their share in the food offered to God in sacrifice, the tithes due to the Levites and what they are to do with them.

Chapter 19 tells how the Israelites were to purify themselves if they touch a dead body. †

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