The term used in Japanese for the stages of Israel’s journey is the same used for flight itineraries, and yes, this chapter definitely takes me back to selecting cheap options for flying back from Japan. The circuitous route they take reminds me of the one really cheap option that I opted not to take since it would have required me going from Tokyo to Shanghai to Toronto before taking me to America.
The most interesting thing about this route map is that it claims Moses wrote this down himself. Now the first five books are called “The Books of Moses” and were sometimes traditionally believed to have been written by him (even the parts that took place long before his birth and after his death). But this is the first time in reading it that I’ve seen evidence of Moses writing down anything other than the Ten Commandments.
So why write down something as dull as which places they stopped at? Possibly it’s a memory device. If you remember each place you went to in order, you can remember what events happened in order. I’ve used this on trips when I take photos. My camera records places I went to, and that lets me remember everything that I did.
The tricky thing, though, is that a bunch of these places weren’t mentioned before in the narrative. Verses 18 through 35, for example, are referring to events we don’t have in the Pentateuch. This may be the table of contents, but a bunch of chapters are missing. Were the stories less interesting? Did they contradict the beliefs of some of the editors? Or did they just not have good or complete sources for filling out all the details? This was written in exile; maybe the people who knew those stories had already died.
The final passage is a series of commands about the conquest of Canaan. These verses (v 50-56) are using the “drive out” language that implies more eviction than eradication – not that either is great, when I think of all the reservations here in America. Still, this chapter is more concerned with destroying the elements of the other gods than with destroying the people. If they don’t drive out the Canaanites, if they choose to live with them, they will be “as barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides” (v 55) and God will do to the Israelites “as [God] thought to do to them” (v 56).
Since as either one of the people originally reading and writing this text, or as someone in the present, you know they don’t actually drive anyone out permanently, that they continue interacting with other peoples, and that they wind up worshiping a lot of gods other than YHWH.
Perhaps, then, this is a reflection in hindsight. The answer to the question of “why are we in exile?” is “because we weren’t pure enough, because we hung out with foreigners, because we started worshiping their gods.” That can be a source of strength for a people out of power, that need to craft a unique identity separate from the outsiders who have conquered your people.
It works less well with a people who are in power, using it as a cudgel to disenfranchise people who are different from you.
The Japanese: ryotei “itinerary, journey” (v 1), chiten “point, spot,” kakitomeru “to write down” (v 2), ikiyouyou “triumphantly” (v 3), chuuzou “cast image,” funsai suru “to pulverize, to smash” (v 52), tsukisasaru “to pierce,” wakibara “side, flank” (v 55).