Encroaching on the Sacred: Purity and Polity in Numbers 1-10

Article excerpt

As God's people prepare for their departure from Sinai, great care is given in matters of purity and blessing, revelation and ethics, to safeguard God's continued presence among them in the wilderness.

THE BOOK OF NUMBERS begins in midstream of Israel's sojourn from Egypt. Having witnessed the revelation at Sinai, erected the Tabernacle, and been instructed in its operation, the Israelites now prepare themselves for the march through the wilderness. They organize themselves as a war camp centered around the Tabernacle yet become progressively demoralized by complaints, rebellions, and finally apostasy, to the point of death in the wilderness (1:1-10:10; 10:11-25:19). The first of the three sections of Numbers takes place in "the wilderness of Sinai" over the course of twenty days (1:1; 10:11), after which the Israelites leave Sinai to meander through the wilderness for thirty-eight years until they reach the Jordan River (22:1). The twenty days are spent in putting the camp on a war footing to protect it against potential adversaries. After a census of able-bodied men, the camp is organized for maximum security (chaps. 1, 2). The Levites, who undergo a separate census, are encamped around the Tabernacle and charged with guarding and transporting it (chaps. 3-4). This is followed by various laws concerned with the purity of the camp and priestly responsibilities (5:1-4; 5:5-6:27). Tribal chieftains bring gifts of transport (oxen and carts) to the newly dedicated altar for the use of the Levite porters, and the Levites are then inducted into this service, with work assigned on the basis of age (chaps. 7, 8). A month's postponement is permitted for those who are ritually impure, and an explanation is given of divine guidance for the wilderness trek, as well as the various trumpet calls by which the camp can meet emergencies (9:1-14, 15-23; 10:1-10).

Features of Numbers 1-10

Realism. Scholars often suggest that the priestly laws are utopian and do not reflect the actual conditions of Israel's life. However, even those who assert that the priestly laws were written in the Babylonian exile admit that they prepare the way for Israel's restoration and reoccupation of its land. To be sure, idealism permeates the priestly legislation. Yet it is also true that these laws reflect the social, economic, and political conditions of ancient Israel.

(1) The census and organization of Israel's camp are grounded in military principles that reflect the dangers of a trek through the wilderness (chaps. 1-2).

(2) The law of the suspected adulteress is geared toward curbing a lynch-law mentality and is meant to protect the woman from the uncontrollable rage of her husband or community (5:11-31).

(3) The Nazirite law, which introduces certain priestly regulations as well as a terminal period for fulfilling the vow, may be a priestly countermeasure to the prevailing institution of the lifelong Nazirite (6:1-21).

(4) The purification procedure for corpse contamination reflects settled conditions, even though it is phrased in wilderness terminology (chap. 19). The bearer of impurity, for example, need not leave the community, as is mandated in 5:1-4. The latter may represent, however, the later view of the Holiness source (concentrated in Lev 17-27) that the sphere of the holy includes not just the sanctuary but the entire land, of which the wilderness camp is the prototype. This change therefore reflects the changed conditions of Israel's national existence-another instance of law as a mirror of society.

The function of sacrifice. The doctrine of collective responsibility is nowhere better illustrated than in the purification offering. This sacrifice, brought for physical impurity or inadvertent violations, presumes that these offenses produce a miasma that is attracted magnetlike to the sanctuary and accumulates there until God abandons both sanctuary and people to their doom. Thus this sacrifice vividly illustrates the effect of the individual on the common weal. …