Thoughts on Numbers

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I am one of those backward backwoods miscreants who finds it less possible to believe in Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens put together than in God, so what I’m about to say will not endear me to the camp of atheism chic those two seem to be scout-mastering. Nor will it win a warm welcome into the camp of the believers. In other words, I’m about to venture into that no-man’s-land called Opinions on Religion, from which few emerge unscathed and most emerge unloved.

A favorite secularist target is the notion common to many religious groups that they, and they alone, possess a sacred text and that it, and it alone, is literally the Last Word on the Matter, no matter the matter. One of the chapters in Christopher Hitchens’ bestseller God Is Not Great is called "The Nightmare of the Old Testament." It follows the standard attack run: If the Old Testament is so sacred, why is it so often incoherent, irrational, and irrelevant? That word “nightmare” may provoke certain believers to sputter, overheat, wipe the foam from their mouths, and clamor for Hitchens’ scalp now and an eternal soul-roast later — I think it would be better (not to mention less satisfying to the Hitchenses of the world) to react with a shrug of indifference, or to partially concede the point. The Old Testament is something of a nightmare, particularly if readers insist on drawing a literal interpretation of all it says. And after all, nightmarishness isn’t the worst that can be said about a book. Nineteen-Eighty-Four, Macbeth, Crime and Punishment, The Divine Comedy, Heart of Darkness… a lot of great books are nightmares. Might not the Old Testament be in that league?

Not according to "The Bible’s Literary Sins" (13/8/07 Guardian Unlimited), written in the dismissive, condescending, cocksure tone atheists like for picking at holy writ. Not only is the Bible not a sacred book, Sam Jordison decides — it is not even a good book in the literary sense. Jordison finds the Old Testament particularly wanting, though he grants it a "few passages of extraordinary beauty." Song of Solomon, regarded as some kind of groovy early Semitic version of The Kama Sutra, is described as "a blast." Jordison doesn’t bother with enduring Old Testament stories like those woven around Samson, Samuel, Noah, David, Jonah, or Joseph. He doesn’t mention the majestic account of creation in Genesis, the poetry of the Psalms, the eloquence of the Prophets, the beauty of Ecclesiastes, the complexity of Job — none of these is blast enough for a spot on his miniature list of Old Testament literary qualifiers.

I’m afraid there’s more wisdom and more literature in half a page of Ecclesiastes than in "The Bible’s Literary Sins" added to all 40 gazillion copies of The Da Vinci Code sold to date. That said, I also fear that the phrase Mark Twain applied to the Book of Mormon is equally applicable to parts of the Old Testament. They are "chloroform in print" to all but the most dogged readers. "I disliked reading the book of Numbers," Gandhi wrote in his autobiography. I admire his gift for understatement. A book like Numbers is handy if you’re curious about ritual slaughter or codes of cleanliness, but on the whole it is slow going. As a juvenile reader, I found only two outlets for relief. One was the reference heading "Balaam’s Ass Speaks," which could be counted on to amuse certain of my peers. The other was Numbers 25:1: "While Israel dwelt in Shittim the people began to play the harlot with the daughters of Moab." I wondered whether Shittim had subdivisions, like East Shittim, West Shittim, or Deep Shittim, and was often kept from sleep by speculations on the daughters of Moab.

Later, I became less bored than troubled by some of the stories in Numbers. The Rebellion of Korah (Numbers 15—17), for example, relates how an Israelite is found in the wilderness gathering firewood on the Sabbath, taken into custody, and brought back to camp. Moses consults the Lord, and relays His orders: "Take the man out of camp and stone him." The sentence is carried out, but a person named Korah calls on 250 "well-known men chosen from the assembly." These confront Moses and the priests: "You have gone too far! For all the congregation are holy, every one of them… why then do you exalt yourselves?" Moses reacts angrily, and says that God will settle the matter come morning. Come morning, Korah and company are swallowed up into the earth, sent down "alive into Sheol." Yet the murmurs persist: "You have killed the people of the Lord." Moses and Aaron issue another warning. God sends a plague that kills 14,700 more people of the Lord. The murmuring stops.

A literalist will read the Rebellion of Korah as proof that God’s mysterious will is meant to be obeyed, a harsh lesson in the virtues of conformity. Korah had it coming; Moses and the priests are the heroes of the story. They did what they had to, and the death of some 15,000 souls was worth it to ensure that nobody went gathering firewood on the Sabbath again, and that nobody challenged authority the way Korah and company had. I can’t help thinking of Madeleine Albright’s statement that the hundreds of thousands of deaths attributed to the years of sanctions against Iraq were "worth it." But my point is that I no longer find reading the Bible worth it if one is expected to suspend the kind of critical, moral, literary, intuitional, or intellectual judgment one would feel a duty to use with any other demanding text. If the Bible is a great book, it deserves to be read as a great book. And like all great books, it holds much of its meaning between the lines.

Read between the lines, the Rebellion of Korah turns from a morally repulsive story to a morally instructive one. A bunch of pious busybodies spot some poor old devil out gathering firewood on the Sabbath, and turn him in. Under pressure from a priestly elite and inflexible elements in the tribe, Moses makes a spiritually weak but politically expedient decision — apply the full letter of the law, and attribute the move to the demands of a "higher Father." The fall-guy is taken out and stoned. Korah, disgusted by what has happened, discovers that others in the congregation are too. These men accuse Moses and the priests of abusing their positions. Those in power vow to crush what they regard as a rebellion, and condone if not initiate a bloody purge.

The Dawkins-Hitchens camp would likely mock such a reading inasmuch as it finds relevance in the kind of text atheism chic insists is nonsensical and nightmarish. On the other side of the river, literalists would likely howl that such a reading ignores what the Bible really says, that it lends an over-subjective interpretation to words that mean just precisely what they say, and that I will ultimately be joining Hitchens at the eternal barbecue reserved for our sort. Apart from the horrifying prospect of eternity with Christopher Hitchens, that might not be so bad. Korah and those 250 dissidents might be there, and the old fellow Moses had stoned, and Mark Twain, and presumably the daughters of Moab…. Like Twain always said: “Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company.”

John Liechty [send him mail] currently teaches in Muscat, Oman.

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