The concept of the divine has changed quite a bit throughout the course of history. As Greg has hinted, and no doubt will later show, Yahweh is no exception. The eternal god of universal love and forgiveness espoused on Sundays around the world is nowhere to be found in Numbers. Instead, Yahweh is ruthless to both his chosen people and the people they conquer. His “justice” is as barbaric as it is ultimate.
After delivering them out of Egypt and giving them his commandments, God leads the Israelites toward the promised land. Well, that was the idea anyway. Along the way, God doles out quite a bit of punishment to his chosen people. They complain about their hardships so he incinerates them (Num. 11:1-3), they complain about having no meat so he gives them meat which he uses as an instrument of plague (Num. 11:18-20, 31-34), some try to undermine his plan so he strikes them dead with the plague (Num. 14:34-36), and they violate several commandments with the Moabite–or was it Midianite?–women, so he sends a plague that kills 24,000 (Num. 25).
The god in Numbers kills a lot of people with his weapons of choice: fire and disease. On one occasion (Num. 21:4-9), his approach is different. After completely destroying Arad, the Israelites grow impatient and whiny yet again. This time, God sends his judgement in the form of venomous snakes that end up killing “many” of them. What’s truly bizarre is how God suggests they cure their bites. He tells Moses to build a snake (turns out to be bronze) and place it on a pole. If anyone has the misfortune of getting a snake bite, they simply need to look at the bronze snake and they’ll survive. This seems a bit off. Not only does it sound an awful lot like magic, but also idolatry. Here’s my suggestion: send the snakes away and stop killing people.
When the carrot does come out, it’s to reward an act of “justice” (aka double homicide). Eleazar kills a copulating Israelite man and Midianite woman in cold blood. God gives Eleazar and his descendants the priesthood for his “zeal” in upholding God’s honor (Num. 25:6-13).
Then there’s the trouble with God’s approach to war. I’ve mentioned this once before, but it worths reiterating. God was complacent in the complete destruction of Arad (Num. 21:1-3), as well as the genocide against the Midianites (Num. 31:1-18), and orders that their offensive shouldn’t stop until every inhabitant of the promised land is driven out (Num. 33:50-56), least the Israelites incur God’s wrath and vengeance. Resolving this with the turn-the-other-cheek philosophy of the New Testament requires some serious mental gymnastics.
If we’re to take this as a literal historical account, I think it’s difficult to resolve the God of Numbers as a God of peace and love. I see a couple possible defenses here (feel free to bring up your own in the comments).
For starters, times have changed. Society was much more barbaric three thousand years ago. If events didn’t happen like this the message wouldn’t have been effective.
This line of reasoning requires a few considerations that are not consistent with an all-loving perfect god. If it’s conceded that there is an objective (or at least objective-ish) morality, we start to run into some trouble. If God is the source and arbiter of an objective morality, it seems we’ve fallen away from his “perfection”. Summary executions and genocide fall well outside of acceptable behavior today. I can’t imagine a church endorsing either. To remedy this ugly problem we can simply define God as perfection, and anything he does as moral. Or in other words, redefine “objective” to mean “whatever God says”. Changing the meaning of words doesn’t change the underlying reality. This redefinition implies that morality is subject to God’s whims and compulsions, making it anything but objective.
Perhaps an objective (or objective-ish) morality exists outside of God? If that’s the case, then the God in Numbers is immoral. I suppose you could argue that my assertion that murder and genocide are objectively immoral is incorrect. But, really? I mean, come on. That’s ridiculous.
The alternative is that this is not an historical account. This suggests two possibilities.
- Numbers is still the word of God, but clearly it’s metaphor.
- Numbers belongs on the shelf next to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.
If you’ve been following Holey Books for a while, my preference shouldn’t be a surprise.* The events of Numbers are likely not historical. This book is full of myth and little else.
*There’s probably a larger post coming on the first stance. The short version is that if some parts of the Bible should be taken as metaphor and others literally true, where do we draw the line? Since there hasn’t been an official decree from on-high (to my knowledge), the answer is rather subjective.