We all make lists. I think making lists is the most optimistic thing a person can do. It’s like buying green bananas, or ordering an entire season of theater tickets. The book of Bamidar is all about lists. It’s even in the English translation of the book. Bamidbar is “in the wilderness” Numbers is ….lists. There are two full censuses in the book, listing everyone in the community, by tribe. There is also, in this last parasha of Bamidbar, a list of places traveled over the last 40 years; a triptik, for those of you old enough to remember what that is.
Mostly what Bamidbar is, however, is about boundaries. We read about the camp -how it’s laid out, who camps where, how the Mishkan (Tabernacle) travels, etc. We read about who comes in and who goes out. When you come in, when you have to leave, and when you’re allowed to come back in again. Who lives on the edge – people like the Nazir and the Sotah, the accused wife. What happens outside the camp – like the Red Calf. All the other offerings that were made in the Mishkan by the Aaron and the priests, but not that one. Pinchas’ shishkebab, when he skewered two people cavorting in front of God and everyone, was about people who crossed the line between acceptable behavior to God and wholly unacceptable behavior. And, as Pinchas’ “reward”, he became High Priest, and received his own set of highly restricted behavior – very clear boundaries set up around him and his role in the community.
There are leadership boundaries. Korach crossed the line, but Eldad and Medad (the two guys who prophesied back in the camp while Moses had the rest of the Elders all experiencing a communal God-experience), they didn’t cross the line. They were welcomed. The most important leadership line that got crossed was that of Moses at Meribah. It’s the tipping point of Moses’ journey, the point of no return. He hit the rock, the people got their water, but from that point on, Moses was never to see the Land himself, and he knew he was forever in an outsider role.
There are boundaries around time. In Chapter 28 we read, “Be punctilious in presenting to ME at stated times the offerings…” and we read about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. And there was a very detailed list of what got offered up to God on what day. It was sacred time, separate from other time.
And of course, there are the boundaries with other people’s lands. We move from trespassing God’s borders to other people’s borders. Here, at the end of the wilderness, the end of the wandering , we get the travelogue of where we’ve been.
Finally, there are boundaries in the land that end the book of Bamidbar. We are about to come into the Land, but it’s not empty. There are other people who already live there. What to do? We read of God’s last instruction to Moses, his last task to the people. Chapter 31:1 “Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites, and then you shall be gathered to your kin.” Finish this last war, and then you will die. Here, God describes the perfect holy war and then commands the soldiers to go outside the camp, purify themselves, and then they can come back in.
But there are more changes to the narrative, more challenges to the boundaries. Lland had been apportioned to each tribe. Yet, the Gadites and the Reubenites now say, “We don’t want to come into the Land. We like the land right here on the east side of the Jordan, and we’d like to stay here.” Moses said, fine, but you have to fight with the rest of the Israelites in this last, epic battle; the Gadites and Reubenites agreed to come fight, after they’d built their houses and places for their animals, and got their families settled in.
What? The Land now includes what’s east of the Jordan? And that’s ok with Moses? Apparently it is. Moses takes it upon himself to approve a major change to the initial narrative: Go into the Land. But some people didn’t want to. So the goal was adjusted to reflect the wishes of the people.
In Bamidbar 33:52 Moses tells the people: “When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, you shall dispossess all of the inhabitants of the land, you shall destroy all their figured objects, you shall destroy all their molten images, and you shall demolish all their cult places. And you shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have assigned the land to you to possess. You shall apportion the land among yourselves by lot….But if you do not dispossess the inhabitants of the land, those whom ou allow to remain shall be stings in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall harass you in the land in which you live…”
Extremely harsh. And, to my thinking, not a great way to end the book. Or a great way to start in a new Land, with a new society. But that’s not where it ends. This is where the whole idea of boundaries gets a second look, through an old story.
Of all the stories in Bamidbar, the one that gets revisited is Zelophechad’s daughters. Back in Chapter 27, five daughters of Zelophechad approached Moses as he was giving instructions of land inheritance. They said it wasn’t fair that just because their father died without sons, they would lose their whole inheritance. And right there, right in front of God and everyone, the Law was rewritten to reflect fairness and the reality of life. Moses checked with God, and God agreed. The daughters were right, God was wrong. The daughters got their inheritances (with restrictions, of course – they had to marry within their tribe, otherwise they’d lose the land), but the Law was changed to make things more just, because people pointed out the problem.
That’s the real lesson of how Bamidbar ends. After the bloody, vicious, vengeful war and the instruction to dispossess and slaughter the people who were already living in the Land…we get a story of rewriting the Law to reflect justice. We couldn’t live at Sinai forever, it was an unrealistic place to live out the word of God. We had to start putting all these things into practice, and once we did, we saw where they needed to be adjusted to fit humans, not God. God may have defined the perfect holy war. As humans, we know there is no such thing. We don’t have to live with the vengeance and the slaughter. We can change the ending. We have to change the ending.