Sunday, July 24, 2005

A few weeks ago I was invited to giv a d'var Torah -- a little talk about a portion of the five books of Moses. The portion for that week was Numbers, ch. 13-15. Here it is, with slight modifications:

We approach the Bible with certain prejudices. Some see it as a historical document, stitched together from other accounts, a cul;tural text with no one author.

Mark Twain is supposed to have told a preacher he had just heard, "that was a fine speech,"

"Thank you," said the preacher.

"I have a book at home that contains every word of it," said Twain.

"That's quite impossible."

"I say that I have it."

"I should like to see it, then."

"I'll send it to you," said Twain.

A few days later, the preacher received in the mail a package containing an unabridged dictionary. So even if the torah were shown to be stitched together from previous sources, someone did the stitching. Moreover, it reads as if it were written with intention.

Others come to the study of the Torah with religious bias, certain philosophical, theological ideas about how God should be, and what He should say. God is omnipotent, omniscient, and good. He supports the virtues we value, and condemns what we consider vicious. and He always tells the truyth; indeed, He is truth.

The problem with the theological bias -- the philosophic religous approach to the Bible -- is that it is constantly under attack by a simple reading of the text.

"And the Lord spoke thus to Moses: Send for yourself men that they may scout out the land of Canaan..." (Numbers 13:1-2). Why? Is god unfamiliar with the terrain? Moses, the man who the torah tells us knew God best, sees this as military reconnaisance and strategic information-gathering. clearly, God is not simply acting as an omniscient, omnipotent commander. Moreover, if we unserstand this story at face value, it's a debacle. The Children of Israel refuse to enter the land, until God orders them to go back into the wilderness for 40 years, at which point they try to enter the land and ar vanquiched.

But perhaps this is not meant to be taken at face value. After all, the so-called spies or scouts are not selected on the basis of competence or willingness, but as distinguished leaders within each tribe, "heads of the Children of Israel" (13:2-3). Perhaps they were selected as twelve witnesses, to inform not God or Moses, but the Children of Israel.

Representation of each group in a society means two things in a modern context: deliberative assembly (cf. for instance the American Senate), and symbolic full participation, as at local events at which all community leaders, even those not directly involved, are present. Both apply here.

First, since each tribe is represented, all the tribes -- the tribes, not just the leadership -- are entitled to a report. Second, Israel functions as at least a partial democracy, or at least responsive to popular pressure: popular sentiment often is the impetus for an action. Soon, Korach's rebellion against the privileged elite almost wins, and is not put down by centrally organized force, but when the earth splits beneath him. In other words, he falls out of touch with his base of support.

Also, notice that the ten wicked spies are not wicked for spreading scurrilous, false rumors. They are punished though they tell the truth. The land is filled with milk and honey -- as they say. They did, in fact (the torah's fact) encounter the offspring of Giants -- as they say. And it is true that without some miracle, the children of Israel were at that time unable to contend with the Aamalekites and Canaanites, and got, in the Torah's word "pounded" -- as they correctly predicted.

So what was the problem?

(Aside: A friend later pointed out that part of the problem was that they attributed their own view of things to the giant's sons: they say, "we were like grasshoppers in our eyes, and in theirs. I don't have much to say about this, but it's worth pointing out.)

The problem is that they were being unhelpful in undermining Moses's and God's ability to lead effectively, while Joshua and Caleb, who understood what was expect3ed of them from their commander, accentuated the positive.

so far a literal understading will take us.

But if God shows us by His actions that it can be wrong for men to be forthoming, might He Himself dissemble, or at least likewise not tell the whole story?

The God of the Torah is not the God of philosophic truth, of theology. But it can't be wrong to talk about God in anthropomorphic terms, since this is God to us, i.e. how He affects our world. The God of the Torah gets angry, experiments, and is affected by and changes in response to our world. It is no accident that at the sea where the Egyptians drowned, horse and rider, the Israelites exclaimed not "Zeh Hael," "This is God," but "Zeh Eli," "This is my God." The Torah is a teaching text and its God is a teaching God.

God's command serves two purposes. First, Israel cannot successfully invade Canaan without a willingness to proceed even knowing the dangers ahead. Second, God shown what is expected of the subordinate, tribal leaders. They, not having been privy to God's thoughts, acted inappropriately in doing what they thought defied Him and Moses.



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