It’s a little hard to follow what happens in this story. First the Israelit’es venture into idolatry is attributed to the Moabites, but by the end it’s all somehow the Midianites’ fault. In order to deal with the apostasy the judges are supposed to actively kill anyone who worshiped Ball of Peor, but wait, no, actually a plague happened instead (v 8-9). Oh, and somehow in spite of not being mentioned once in the entire chapter, this is all Balaam’s fault (ch 31).

I’ve seen this kind of problem recently first-hand. I’m doing NaNoWriMo, and I skip around writing different parts, and when you have to merge them together, inevitably there’s contradictions between the sections that you have to go iron through. Technically you’re not supposed to edit during November, and all my ironing may be why I’m 2000 words behind where I should be, but the point is that if you don’t work through contradictions of your copy-paste job, well, you get Numbers 25.

It very much feels as though the story of how the Midianites and the Israelites broke their allegiance was glued onto the back of their run-in with the Moabites. I really wonder what it’s like to read the Bible without accepting source criticism. How do you read a chapter like this and decipher why it’s so messed up? Well, one strategy that I can tell is that you make up extra events going on behind the scenes that explain away all the contradictions to make the narrative smoother.

But accepting source criticism doesn’t explain all of the contradictions in the Bible. After all, one of an editor’s jobs is to try to smooth out narratives and remove continuity errors. So the big question I would pose is, why did the editor of the Bible not care enough to fix these problems?

I can’t entirely say about the plague vs execution element of it, but I’m willing to wager that the conflation of the Moabites and the Midianites had a lot to do with the idea that all foreigners are the same. Whether we call them gentiles, barbarians, primitives, aliens, they’re all the “other,” and we can just lump them together by their collective trait of not being Us. That’s definitely one thread running through the Bible.

The other thread, of course, is of the virtuous outsiders. Melchizedek blessing Abraham, the Egyptian midwives who save Israelite babies, the Midianites who take Moses in, Balaam the prophet, and how dare you criticize Moses for marrying a non-Israelite woman!

I think these two threads are present in the Bible, warring with each other, because they’re present in all of us as well. There’s an instinct to be afraid of anyone different from us and to rush into oversimplified stereotypes of what other groups of people are like. Some of that is sexism, racism, classism, homophobia, and everything else liberals like to dump on, but liberals can also be quite guilty of assuming that all conservatives or right-wingers are the same, that they’re all deluded or ignorant or hypocritical, irredeemably lost, and only fit to be swept aside in the coming revolution.

Regardless of how Numbers 25 would be interpreted in Judaism, as a Christian, as someone who believes that Jesus was the best revelation of God’s intent, I have to reject that. I have to believe in reconciliation and atonement and forgiveness and inclusion, that Israelites and Moabites and Midianites must unite together to make the world a holy place, rather than the Israelites must wipe the Moabites and Midianites off the face of the earth.

That’s the challenge of reading these portions of the Bible. I genuinely feel they’re wrong. They’re messed up, they represent a narrow, incorrect understanding of God, one that later prophets and rabbis and Messiahs would try to remedy.

The Japanese: haishin “infidelity, betrayal, apostasy,” koui “act, deed” (v 1), ogamu “to pray, to worship” (v 2), shitau “to adore,” ikidooru “to be angry, to be ind” (v 3), hakujitsu “the light of day” (v 4), haika “underling, men under one’s command” (v 5), tassuru “to reach” (v 8), azukaru “to be given, to be entrusted with” (v 13), shidousha “leader” (v 14), takumi ni “well, skillfully” (v 18).