Blogging The Bible

Biblical Racism and the Story of Moses’ African Wife


Chapter 1 to Chapter 3
I assumed they were kidding when they called this book “Numbers.” But no. It begins with a tribe-by-tribe census. All you demographers will be enthralled to learn that Judah tops the list with 74,600 men, while Manasseh lags in last place with only 32,200. There are a total of 603,550 Israelite men, not counting the Levites (about whom more below). Curiously, this is exactly the same number of men counted in the first census, taken a year earlier and mentioned in Exodus.

The Lord himself names the census-taker for each tribe, picking a chieftain who was “the elected of the assembly.” This word “elected” intrigues me: Were the tribes proto-democratic, in that they voted for their chiefs? Or is this “elected” just a synonym for “leader”?

The census continues the venerable biblical tradition of ignoring women. The Israelites count only men old enough to fight. (That means 20 years old—a surprisingly advanced age, considering their shorter life spans. The U.S. Army, by contrast, is manned with 18-year-olds.)  The census is chiefly a tool of military strategy, designed to help organize the tribal armies (or perhaps, “tribal militias”?) in their order of battle: Twelve tribes are divided into four divisions, each of which camps on one side of the Tabernacle.

The Levites, the 13th tribe, are assigned to take care of the Tabernacle. They are subject to a separate, even more detailed, even more tedious census. The total number of Levite males turns out to be a very important figure, because it resolves a critical divine-demographic problem. God has designated the Levite tribe to serve him. At the same time, ever since the Exodus, the Lord also claims all firstborns for himself. Voilà —a perfect occasion for an exchange! Let’s say you’re Eliahu, a firstborn son from the Ephraim tribe. By law, you’re pledged to the Lord. But since the Levites are God’s key assistants, the priests perform a quick switch. A Levite male takes your place. As it turns out, there are 22,273 firstborn Israelites but only 22,000 Levite males. So the first 22,000 are easily swapped. The 273 surplus Israelite males redeem themselves from divine service by paying five shekels to the priests—which is why Jews still pay “five shekels,” or the local equivalent, to redeem their firstborn sons today.  (Is it any wonder that Jews have such a successful history as traders? This whole Levite-for-first-born arrangement, one could argue, is the world’s first hedge fund—and the priests are collecting the management fee.)

Chapter 4
Elaborate instructions about how the Levites are supposed to pack up the Tabernacle when they break camp. The mystery detail: The most precious objects were wrapped up in dolphin skin. Two questions: 1) They were in the desert—where did they get dolphin skin? 2) Why wrap in dolphin skin, which is famously delicate?

Chapter 5
Numbers is developing into a pudding without a theme—some numbers, a few laws, a couple rituals, some moving instructions. … All those warnings you gave me about how dull Leviticus would be—I fear they really apply to Numbers.

Numbers repeats the biblical punishment for financial crimes: You pay back what you took, plus 20 percent (and sacrifice a ram, naturally). It seems like a pretty gentle penalty, doesn’t it?

Another Monty Python-style episode: If a husband suspects his wife of adultery, he takes her to the Tabernacle. A priest casts a magic spell upon holy water, then makes her drink it. If nothing happens to her when she drinks, she’s innocent. But if her belly “distend[s] and her thigh shall sag,” she’s an adulteress.

Chapter 6
This is new to me: The Israelites had their own monkish sect, the “Nazarites,” who don’t shave or cut their hair and avoid all grape products, especially wine. (Amazing what you can learn on the Internet: According to Wikipedia, Samson was a Nazarite, and Nazarites are still around: Modern Rastafarians are Nazarites—that’s why they grow dreadlocks!)

Chapter 7
This chapter, in which tribal chiefs deliver offerings to the temple, reminds me of a question that’s been bothering me ever since I came across the sublime name “Zillah” in Genesis, Chapter 4. (She was the wife of Lamech.) Why do parents limit themselves to just a few biblical names (Isaac, Ezekiel, Samuel, Rebecca, etc.), and ignore so many other marvelous ones? In this chapter alone, the roster of chieftains includes Eliab, Zurishaddai, Eliasaph, Gamaliel, Ochran, Gideoni, and Ahira. Wouldn’t life be better with a few less Davids and Pauls and a few more Ahiras and Zurishaddais?

Chapter 8
The Lord’s abhorrence of body hair continues. In Leviticus he praised bald men and ordered healed lepers to depilate. Now he mandates that Levites purify themselves by shaving off all their body hair.  (And on the eighth day, the Lord created the Abercrombie & Fitch catalog.)

Chapter 9 to Chapter 11
Our story begins again! After a book and a half of rules, we’re back to desert drama. The cloud of the Lord lifts out of the Tabernacle, and the Israelites set off toward the promised land. Which means, of course, that they immediately start to gripe. They’ve only been marching three days and they’re already “complaining bitterly.” Fed up with their whining, the Lord sends a ravaging fire into their camp. Moses prays to God, and the fire dies. The people quickly start moaning again, this time about the food: “Nothing but this manna,” they grumble. “If only we had meat to eat!” Moses, sick of them and sick of his job, reverts to his whimpering Exodus self, moaning to the Lord about how rotten his life is. “I cannot carry all this people by myself, for it is too much for me. If You would deal thus with me, kill me rather, I beg You.”

The exasperated Lord agrees to help his beloved Moses. But, like a very mean babysitter, God does the old, “You want chocolate, I’ll give you so much chocolate you’ll puke” trick. “The Lord will give you meat and you shall eat. You shall eat not one day, not two, not even five days or ten or twenty, but a whole month, until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome for you.” So, the Lord sends a flock of quail, who crash all around the camp, forming piles several feet deep. While the Israelites are gorging on quail—”the meat was still between their teeth, not yet chewed,” as Numbers puts it vividly—the Lord afflicts them with a plague, and the crabbiest Israelites die.

Chapter 12
A fascinating episode of racism, and God and Moses end up on the right side of it (sort of). Miriam and Aaron grumble against their brother Moses because he married “a Cushite woman.” My Bible says “Cushite” means she’s from Nubia or Ethiopia—African rather than Semitic. (Some Israeli acquaintances of mine refer to African-Americans as “Cushim.” I don’t know if this is descriptive or derogatory, but I fear the latter.)

Aaron and Miriam hint that they deserve to be prophets on par with the unsuitably married Moses. God hears their bellyaching, and summons all three siblings to the Tabernacle, where he opens a can of whup-ass on Aaron and Miriam. How dare they compare themselves to Big Mo? Moses, He tells them, is nothing like their pathetic selves. “My servant Moses; he is trusted throughout My household.” (“Trusted throughout My household”—I love that phrase!) Moses gets to talk to God “mouth to mouth. … He beholds the likeness of the Lord.” The Lord leaves the tent in a huff (or, perhaps, in a puff, since he appears as a cloud).

As he departs, Miriam’s skin is eaten away with “snow-white scales.” Moses intercedes on her behalf, imploring God to have mercy and heal her. God answers that she’ll have to wait: “If her father spat in her face, would she not bear her shame for seven days?” So Miriam is expelled from camp for a week until her sores disappear.

The Cushite episode speaks well for the Lord’s attitude about race, but not about gender. He doesn’t tolerate the grousing about Moses’ African wife, which is heartening. On the other hand, he punishes only Miriam for her rebelliousness. Weak-willed, traitorous Aaron, who learned nothing from his golden-calf disloyalty, walks away unscathed.

Addendum, July 27, 2006
I complained above that Americans limit themselves to a few biblical names (Isaac, Leah, etc.) and ignore all the vivid alternatives, including Zillah. But I’m wrong, at least about Zillah. Reader Annette Henderson informs me that Yakima County, Wash., has a town named Zillah, and Bill Healy sent me this gruesome story from yesterday’s New York Times about a New Jersey exotic dancer arrested for possessing a sawed-off hand in formaldehyde. Her given name is Linda Kay, but she strips under the name “Zilla.” Also, my friend Aryeh Tepper points out that Miriam’s punishment for complaining about Moses’ African wife perfectly fits the crime: She mutters about the wife’s black skin, so God covers her skin with “snow-white scales.”

Thoughts on Blogging the Bible? Please e-mail David Plotz at E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)