This chapter has a string of short stories that traces the Israelite’s path through Sinai as they were attempting to reach Canaan. Unfortunately their path is blocked by other, minor kingdoms. When faced with Edom they turned back, but in this chapter they have more success.
First there’s Arad, who preemptively decides to attack and take some prisoners (presumably as slaves), and the Israelites make a deal with God that if he lets him defeat them, they will “utterly destroy their towns” (v 2). That’s an odd bargain to say the least. What is God getting out of this? I can think of two possibilities: either they are promising not to profit off the venture by taking any slaves themselves, or this is another example of herem, where genocide is a sort of sacrifice to God. That’s a deeply unpleasant thought, but I know I’m going to have to get used to it, especially in Joshua.
More than anything, though, this story seems to exist to justify the place-name of Hormah, which has been a repeating thing in the Exodus account so far.
They decide to try going through Moab rather than Edom, maybe because Moan was recently defeated by the Amorites (v 26) and they assume a country after a war won’t want to start a new one. On their way they either “became impatient” (v 4 in the NRSV) or “couldn’t stand it any longer” (the NCT rendering). The former translation makes them sound like whiny children wanting to know “are we there yet?” the latter makes it sound as though they were tired, running out of water, that sort of thing. It goes to show how translation choice really changes the way you view a scene.
And once more, God sends something to smite them, only this time it’s not a plague or an army but serpents. In the NRSV they are “poisonous,” in the NCT they are “fiery,” but in the original Hebrew they are seraphim, which literally means “burning ones.” Seraphim in Isaiah are perceived as attendants on God, holy beings like angels, and again, how you choose to translate the word makes the story seem very different. Did “fiery” just mean “poisonous”? Did poisonous snakes just get into the camp, as in the NRSV? Or did supernatural creatures, serpents of fire, appear, as in the NCT or the Hebrew?
The Israelites seem to be learning how this works, and they immediately repent, and Moses prays on their behalf, and they create the nehushtan, a bronze serpent on a pole that everyone can look at. It’s not actually called the nehushtan here, but later in 2 Kings 18.4 it is destroyed by Hezekiah because “until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it.” Again, this seems like an account of why the bronze serpent was in the temple.
Later, the Book of John would use this story as an analogy for Christ’s death (John 3:14-15), but should I ever manage to actually get that far I’ll talk about it then.
Another stop to give place names for things, and then two more battles, against Shihon and Og. The first begins with the same scenario as they had with Edom, offering to just pass through the land without disturbing anything. Again the king decides to fight them, but this time the Israelites defeat him easily.The funny thing is that it doesn’t say why. The victory isn’t attributed to God, they just won. That would be a nice lesson for everyone to learn – sometimes people win for reasons that have nothing whatsoever to do with being on the “right” side.
Not so with Og, where they are afraid to fight, and God has to reassure them that they will win (v 34). And when they do win, they don’t just take possession of the land like they did with the Amorites, they kill everyone, “until their was no survivor left” (v 35).
This isn’t the last you hear of Og. In Deuteronomy, it specifically says he was a remnant of the Rephaiim, the race of giants supposedly destroyed by the flood. His bed is over 13 feet long, indicating he was over ten feet tall. Setting aside the massive continuity problem for a moment (how did Rephaim survive a flood that killed everything?), Og and his people take on the appearance of fairy tale ogres here rather than an actual nation, which is maybe how they justify their wholesale slaughter, as well as their initial hesitation.
It’s hard for me to be entirely on the side of the Israelites, though the authors clearly wanted it to be read that way. They’re an explicitly invading force, and while the kings of these tribes are also doing the wrong thing by launching raids and taking captives, it’s their people who are paying the price.
The Japanese: hiryo “prisoner, captive” (v 1), taekirenai “to be unable to withstand” (v 4), somatsu “humble, meager,” kiryoku “vigor, spirit,” useru “to disappear, to vanish” (v 5), hinan suru “to criticize, to reproach” (v 7), hatazao “flagpole,” kakageru “to display, to fly (a flag)” (v 8), nasu “to form, to constitute” (v 13), shiryuu “tributary, branch” (v 14), oyobu “to reach, to extend” (v 15), shaku “mace, scepter,” tsukasa “chief, head, official” (v 18), senryou suru “to occupy, to capture,” kengo “firm, solid” (v 24), shuuhen,”periphery,” sonraku “village” (v 25), kizuku “to build, to construct, to establish” (v 27), fukideru “to blow out, to spout” (v 28), kouhai suru “to go to ruin”(v 30), teisatsu suru “to scout” (v 32), tenjiru “to turn, to switch” (v 33), fukumu “to contain” (v 35).