May 16, 2014

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Old Testament: The Israelites arrive east of the Jordan

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

Chapter 20 of the Book of Numbers begins with the death of Miriam, Moses’ sister, and ends with the death of Aaron, his brother.

In between, we have the incident at Kadesh where the Israelites again complained about the lack of water. God told Moses to order a rock to yield its water. Instead, Moses struck the rock twice with his staff, and water gushed out. Because God deemed that Moses did not have sufficient faith to work the miracle with only one blow, he told him that he would not lead the Israelite community into the Promised Land.

Chapter 21 includes the story of the bronze serpent. Again, the people complained because there was no food or water. This time, as punishment, God sent serpents to bite the people, and many died. When Moses prayed to God, God told him to make a seraph serpent and mount it on a pole. If anyone was bitten and looked at the seraph, he would be healed.

In the New Testament, Jesus referred to this incident when he told Nicodemus, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that those who believe in him may not perish, but may have life everlasting” (Jn 3:14-15).

Chapter 21 also tells of the military victories over Sihon, king of the Amorites, and the giant Og, king of Bashan, who refused to let the Israelites pass through their territories. The Israelites slaughtered all the people—men, women and children—and took possession of their lands, including 60 cities in Bashan. These victories are repeated in the Book of Deuteronomy.

The Israelites finally arrived on the plains of Moab, northeast of the Dead Sea in modern Jordan. They remained there until they crossed the Jordan River into Canaan.

Chapters 22-24 might be the most fascinating part of the Book of Numbers because they tell the story of Balaam, a mysterious prophet from Mesopotamia. Balak, king of Moab, summoned Balaam to curse the Israelites. We have the story of Balaam’s talking ass that balked at moving ahead because it, but not Balaam, saw an angel with a drawn sword.

Eventually, Balaam proclaimed four oracles, but instead of cursing the Israelites he blessed them, and then went his way. (However, in Chapter 31, the Israelites executed Balaam when they killed five Midianite kings.)

Chapter 25 tells us that the Israelites “degraded themselves by having illicit relations with the Moabite women” (Nm 25:1), and offered sacrifices to their god, the Baal of Peor. God told Moses to hold a public execution of those who were guilty, and 24,000 were killed. God praised Phinehas for his zeal in carrying out the execution.

The concluding chapters of Numbers include the defeat of the Midianites, the second census, and the allotment of the lands of Canaan to the various tribes after they conquered them. It was agreed that the tribes of Gad and Reuben could stay east of the Jordan, in Gilead, as long as their men aided in the conquest. †

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