A Land Without a People // Numbers

On the Bible., On theory., Uncategorized

Even if it is called the social nexus, link to the other in general, this fiduciary “link” would precede all determinate community, all positive religion, every onto-anthropo-theological horizon. It would link pure singularities prior to any social or political determination, prior to all intersubjectivity, prior even to the opposition between the sacred (or the holy) and the profane. This can therefore resemble a desertification, the risk of which remains undeniable, but it can—on the contrary—also render possible precisely what it appears to threaten.

            Jacques Derrida, “Faith and Knowledge: The Two Sources of ‘Religion’ at the Limits of Reason Alone”

…[T]he very violence of the foundation or positing of law must envelop the violence of the preservation of law and cannot break with it. It belongs to the structure of fundamental violence in that it calls for the repetition of itself and founds what ought to be preserved, preservable, promised to heritage and to tradition, to partaking. A foundation is a promise.

            Jacques Derrida, “Force of Law: The ‘Mystical Foundation of Authority’”  

But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you then those whom you let remain shall be as barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides; they shall trouble you in the land where you are settling. And I will do to you as I thought to do to them.

            Numbers 33.55-6

Two thematic threads weave their way through the disjointed narrative in the Book of Numbers, stitching its various episodes and genres into a somewhat unified story. Before naming these two threads, though, let’s take stock of where the first three books have brought us. Genesis introduced the family from which the protagonist people would descend. It introduced as well YHWH, the god to whom this people would be fundamentally related, according to the promises he made with their bloodlines. Exodus told of YHWH’s deliverance of this people from captivity by means of plague and genocide. It then marked YHWH’s institution of this people as a people, a nation (more than merely relatives of a particular family) by means of the violence of law. Leviticus detailed the people’s law and the relation of purity and blood that was their law’s organizing principle. So we are left, at this point, with a people in possession of a legal identity and a few promises, wandering through the wilderness awaiting the consummation of those promises in the land they will enter.

The Book of Numbers then, on the one hand, is a story of the struggle for leadership of this people. This struggle concerns the distribution and delegation of authority—especially the establishing of legitimacy of authority—among the people in response to several rebellions. The second concerns the struggle for the land promised to the people by their god, a bloody struggle between the people who wish to settle in the land and the people already living there. Both of these struggles revolve around the problematic of the promise: what force a promise has and for whom it has force. Both the struggle for leadership and the struggle for the Promised Land determine the soul of this people—how, within the account, they came to define themselves and how the account lends itself to inspiring a certain continuing identity and claim within changing historical contexts. I would like to explore these themes and this problematic in connection with Derrida’s discussions in “Faith and Knowledge: The Two Sources of ‘Religion’ at the Limits of Reason Alone.” It seems to me that in examining the notion of this people alongside that of this promise, we stumble into a terrain where our every step concerns matters of purity and violence.

// Power, the People //

I have to keep reminding myself the difficulty of looking back at a text like this. Everything that happens in this story has oblique resonances of concepts and structures that concern us in the present, but the difficulty here is that this was a time before, a leafing back through the pages of history to pages that could not have predicted what would be written later. We are trapped in the bind between reading the soul of the past and the many ways that our reading is informed by concepts that did not concern these subjects in the same way they concern us or with the same definition. I repeat to myself this problem, again and again, like a paranoid schizophrenic, knowing the dangers but never quite knowing the source, only these voices that both are and are not the voices of my own age.

I see in this book a story of sovereignty, of political formation, of nation, and of governance. These words frame my orientation to the text, but I’m looking into the black box of a pre-political age, an age that existed before politics as we know it was imagined. Sovereignty means something else here. Power means something else. Who can know it?

I can only begin from what I have before me, every step into prehistory a penetration into a dark desert: “Nocturnal light, therefore, more and more obscure,” as Derrida describes revelation and our will to penetrate it. It’s a playful phrase that appears suddenly in my mind every now and then.

So, power, however we may come to understand it here. There is a portioning of power at work in Numbers, YHWH designating who holds what role. This is how we have to approach power’s function in this book: every designation or legitimation of power has always to do with how this people understands their relation to their god. Power comes from YHWH, or rather, power means a specifically defined relation to YHWH. He designates power early on in the book when he apportions to the Levites the role of administering the sacred instruments and the tabernacle:

[Y]ou shall appoint the Levites over the tabernacle of the covenant, and over all its equipment, and over all that belongs to it; they are to carry the tabernacle and all its equipment, and they shall tend it, and shall camp around the tabernacle. When the tabernacle is to set out, the Levites shall take it down; and when the tabernacle is to be pitched, the Levites shall set it up. And any outsider who comes near shall be put to death. The other Israelites shall camp in their respective regimental camps, by companies; but the Levites shall camp around the tabernacle of the covenant, that there may be no wrath on the congregation of the Israelites; and the Levites shall perform the guard duty of the tabernacle of the covenant. (Num. 1.50-3, emphasis added)

This designation of power involves a regimentation of space within the camp (the tabernacle at the center, the Levites concentrically located nearest). The tabernacle was the meeting place between YHWH and the people, and the Levites both saw to that place and resided at the central heart of the community, in nearest relation to their god. This designation was so strict that violation of such spacing and administration was a matter of life and death. The Levites were insiders, the most inside, bearing a sharp distinction from the other tribes whose access to their god would always be mediated by this ruling class. Order emanated from this center; chaos involved an erosion of the established channels between the center and the periphery.

However, when we think of power and privilege and ruling classes, we think often of license. Those with the most power get to do the most of what they desire. This is complicated here, since the Levites receive their designation of power essentially by being received as communal sacrifices. They take their place at the center as a form of dying—they are taken by YHWH as the required sacrifice of the firstborn that was enforced in their deliverance from Egypt:

Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: I hereby accept the Levites from among the Israelites as substitutes for all the firstborn that open the womb among the Israelites. The Levites shall be mine, for all the firstborn are mine; when I killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, I consecrated for my own all the firstborn in Israel, both human and animal; they shall be mine. I am the LORD. (Num. 3.12-13)

Birth remains a constituent element of power. The firstborn receives the inheritance of the father and thereby the father’s authority in the clan upon the father’s death. So again, power descends along bloodlines. But notice the complexity here: this is an entire tribe designated as “firstborns,” thereby acting as scapegoats for YHWH’s wrath involved in their deliverance. Rather than require the physical death of the firstborn children and animals from the Israelites, YHWH accepts the eternal service of the Levites as substitution, making them a sacred class, already sacrificed but abiding as living sacrifices. The firstborn tribe, then, retains the power of being at the center of the community and presiding over their most sacred and significant affairs. Importantly, though, they are the firstborns both of the entire people Israel, of all the tribes, and of their divine father. Their power is not a substance that produces for them a kind of license. It is a position, articulated spatially, as they reside at the midpoint between the human community and the divine authority, and they reside there by constituting, in a sense, a kind of half-life, neither fully divine nor fully human. (N.B.: This will be crucial for reading the Jewish messianic interpretation of Jesus’s position as both fully divine and fully human. But we’ve got a long way to go before we get to Christ.)

The circle divides deeper; the Levite tribe is made up of several families. Each family is apportioned a role in presiding over certain of the sacred instruments and structures. The ancestral houses in the census of the Levites include the Gershonites, the Merarites, and the Kohathites. The Gershonites were placed in charge of the fabrics of the tabernacle and were positioned behind the tabernacle on its western side. The Merarites were in charge of the structures and pillars of the tabernacle and were positioned on its northern side. The ancestral house given the most significance—the most power—were the Kohathites, the house that included the clan of Moses and Aaron. “The service of the Kohathites relating to the tent of meeting concerns the most holy things” (Num. 4.4). They were in charge of the furnishings within the tabernacle and the Holy of Holies, its inner sanctum where YHWH resided at the very heart of the community. While the general house of the Kohathites were to reside on the southern side of the tabernacle, the family of the high priest—Moses, Aaron, and Aaron’s sons—were to reside on the eastern side, “having charge of the rites within the sanctuary, whatever had to be done for the Israelites; and any outside who came near was to be put to death” (Num. 3.38). They were to position themselves between the entrance of the tent of meeting, where all communal judgment and decision-making occurred, and the rest of the entire community.

As shown in the passage above, Aaron’s family, as the preeminent family in the community, was given the power to put to death those who violate the laws of access to the tabernacle and, therefore, to the divine. It was this family that put to death those who worshiped the golden calf in Exodus. (Except for, interestingly enough, Aaron himself, who actually constructed the idol. Perhaps there is something to be said here regarding the sovereign exception as defined by Nazi political theorist Carl Schmitt, that sovereign is he who decides on the exception.)

The first time leadership emerges as a problem or question is coincident with the first narrated episode of rebellion. In this first episode, the people complain about the pain and privations of their wilderness journey. First, the complaints are vague, but the response from YHWH is fierce when he hears them: “Then the fire of the LORD burned against them, and consumed some outlying parts of the camp. But the people cried out to Moses; and Moses prayed to the LORD, and the fire abated. So that place was called Taberah [Burning], because the fire of the LORD burned against them” (Num. 11.1-3). As will be the pattern for subsequent episodes, this first one establishes the legitimacy and strength of Moses’s power as supreme mediator between the community and YHWH, and this is established by Moses’s ability to ask YHWH for mercy and thereby to bring about a salvation for the people from YHWH’s wrath.

When the Israelites continue to complain, Moses asks YHWH to lighten his burden of governing this rebellious and numerous people. YHWH responds by taking “some of the spirit that was on him” and placing it on seventy of the elders of Israel, as a sort of delegation of authority (Num. 11.25). When the elders receive this portion of the spirit that was on Moses, they “prophesy,” including two (Eldad and Medad) who were still in the camp rather than at the tent of meeting. (It’s unclear what is meant by “prophesying” here. I have heard an interpretation that it involved glossolalia, speaking in tongues, but this may have been an effect of the Pentecostal will to strengthen later doctrines by contriving their origin in a pre-Pentecostal text.) Some, including Moses’s second-in-command Joshua, complain about this act of prophesying as it appears to be an attempt at breaching Moses’s authority. Moses makes a gesture toward something democratic-sounding in his response: “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!” (Num. 11.29). However, these seventy elders only prophesy this one time, while Moses apparently carries the gift with continuity, a mark of the preeminence of his divinely apportioned authority. It’s difficult to determine the intent behind Moses’s line then. Maybe it’s somewhat disingenuous and meant only to keep the peace. As there are such clear divisions in place regarding who can have access to the divine (and lethal punishments for those who violate it), it’s unclear how we can take seriously this stated wish that YHWH’s people would have such direct access to his spirit.

Following this episode, Moses’s right as leader is directly questioned for the first time. This challenge comes from Miriam and Aaron, his sister and brother. This challenge has again to do with relations of access to YHWH, but this time the question of leadership includes the element of racial/national purity, the purity of blood: “While they were at Hazeroth, Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married (for he had indeed married a Cushite woman); and they said, ‘Has the LORD spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?’ And the LORD heard it” (Num. 12.1-2). Scholars point out that “the Cushite woman” could refer either to an Ethiopian or to someone from Midian, which means that they could be referring to Moses’s wife Zipporah. But their claim has not only to do with the purity of the community’s blood—that all in the camp would be properly children of Israel. Their challenge here also predicates the legitimacy of leadership on a relation of access to YHWH. One can be a leader of this people only if one can channel the voice of their god. Again, power, according to this community, describes a quality of relation to the divine, to the vital but occulted heart of the community.

As the text goes, this challenge is resolved in Moses’s favor when God appears in a pillar of cloud and offers his own verdict:

And he said, “Hear my words:
When there are prophets among you,
I the LORD make myself known to them in visions;
I speak to them in dreams.
Not so with my servant Moses;
he is entrusted with all my house.
With him I speak face to face—clearly, not in riddles;
and he beholds the form of the LORD.
Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” And the anger of the LORD was kindled against them, and he departed. (Num. 12.6-9)

The legitimacy of Moses’s authority is established based on his unique access to YHWH. While others, such as Miriam and Aaron, are spoken to obliquely in visions and dreams, Moses is spoken to face-to-face, “and he beholds the form of the LORD.” For this reason, he is entrusted with the entire community. He has the greatest amount of power because he has the greatest access to YHWH. Because of Miriam’s insubordination (again, why is Aaron not punished?), she is struck with leprosy and thereby cast outside of the camp for seven days. Because she questioned Moses’s authority, she is made temporarily as one who does not belong to the community, as one belonging to the wilderness of the outside. The question of his intercourse with a non-Israelite woman is ignored, however. This is curious, because as we will see, the matter of sleeping with non-Israelite women becomes a fatal offense to YHWH, because his covenant is with Israelite blood. Anything else pollutes the channels between YHWH and his chosen people.

// Purity //

Okay, so far we’ve established the means by which power is attained in this community and what meaning power obtains for this community. The means and the meaning both have to do with a relationship of access to the voice of YHWH. Those nearest to the tent, those who can prophesy, and, most of all, those who can prophesy based, not only on dreams and visions, but on an actual encounter with the face of YHWH maintain the greatest amount of power here, the power to rule and the power to be indemnified against punishment. Power is given by YHWH to those who can hear it. Power is a promise from the mouth of YHWH given to those whom he chooses.

When we think in terms of promises and why they matter in this text, for this community, the element of blood purity at play in these power relations begins to make sense. All power and all promises between YHWH and the Israelite people have an originating force dependent on YHWH’s original covenant with the line of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Covenant and promise are somewhat interchangeable words in these Hebrew texts, but they mean something stronger and different than our modern senses of promise. (Though perhaps, arguably, these still provide the root of our modern sense of to promise and hence should shift the significance we give to the term.) A covenant denotes a relationship between two parties—a sort of pact or contract, but more existentially significant. As I mentioned in my post on Genesis, biblical covenants always seem to include four elements: a promise (in the modern sense, an assurance of future acts), a blessing, a law, and a sign. Each of these elements is constitutively bound in the others, such that a promise is never a promise in itself; it is a promise as a unique relationship between two parties who have agreed to act in particular ways (bringing in the element of law).

The Hebrew phrase denoting the forming of a covenant between two parties means, more literally, to cut a covenant. A covenant, in its etymological essence and therefore in the imagination of the culture that developed the practice, involves violence and blood. Keep in mind that the sign of the covenant with Noah was an archer’s bow in the sky, immediately following the annihilation of all humankind other than Noah’s family. Then, the sign of the original covenant made with Abraham was circumcision, a cutting of the flesh—and particularly a cutting of the flesh of the appendage associated with progenation. This covenant was reaffirmed for Moses in an episode from Exodus, when Moses was returning to Egypt from Midian with his wife Zipporah in order to inform Pharaoh ultimately of YHWH’s promise to kill Pharaoh’s firstborn son if he did not free YHWH’s firstborn son, Israel:

On the way, at a place where they spent the night, the LORD met him and tried to kill him. But Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched Moses’ feet with it, and said, “Truly, you are a bridegroom of blood to me!” So he let him alone. It was then she said, “A bridegroom of blood by circumcision.” (Ex. 4.24-6)

The only prevention against YHWH killing Moses is for Moses to wound his child, thus reaffirming, via the spilling of blood, Moses’ place in YHWH’s covenantal family. (And to drive the point home, “feet” here was actually a common euphemism for penis.)

So, the shedding of blood—a common wounding of communal flesh—is a crucial sign of God’s covenant with Israel. His promise is, fundamentally, a promise with the bloodline of the Israelite people, and for this reason, it becomes crucial that Israel maintain the purity of this line in order to maintain the covenantal relationship in good standing, as all power and promise stems from this relationship. This is why it becomes a capital offense for the men of Israel to sleep with the women of other tribes in the following episode, quoted at length. (N.B.: See the sharp contradiction below between the way other men are treated for sleeping with Midianites and the way Moses benefitted from the sovereign exception for the exact same offense):

While Israel was staying at Shittim, the people began to have sexual relations with the women of Moab. These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. Thus Israel yoked itself to the Baal of Peor, and the LORD’s anger was kindled against Israel. The LORD said to Moses, “Take all the chiefs of the people, and impale them in the sun before the LORD, in order that the fierce anger of the LORD may turn away from Israel.” And Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Each of you shall kill any of your people who have yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor.”

Just then one of the Israelites came and brought a Midianite woman into his family, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the whole congregation of the Israelites, while they were weeping at the entrance of the tent of meeting. When Phinehas son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he got up and left the congregation. Taking a spear in his hand, he went after the Israelite man in the tent, and pierced the two of them, the Israelite and the woman, through the belly. So the plague was stopped among the people of Israel. Nevertheless those that died by the plague were twenty-four thousand. (Num. 25.1-9)

This nation—this protagonist of these civilization-shaping books—was founded upon the address of God to figures belonging to a family, and their manner of responding to the address reaffirms their status as a family, and moreover as the chosen family. In a sense, the unique status of this bloodline begins as an address, a communication between one party and another. The origin is plural, bound within various events of encounter. This recognition allows us then to invert the idea that promises here are determined by blood, because blood, too, is determined by a promise. The act of promising, as Derrida argues, is the origin not only of the possibility of religion but also of social connection at all, and religion cannot be thought without an attention to the ways social connections form and function. If we think of religion as an institution or even as a practice, we think of it as the repetition of acts bound to a common significance, and this repetition of activity binds people together by relating them to the original event(s) that allowed for their coming-together. Here is Derrida:

Axiom: no to-come without heritage and the possibility of repeating. No to-come without some sort of iterability, at least in the form of a covenant with oneself and confirmation of the originary yes. No to-come without some sort of messianic memory and promise, of a messianicity older than all religion, more originary than all messianism. No discourse or address of the other without the possibility of an elementary promise. Perjury and broken promises require the same possibility. No promise, therefore, without the promise of a confirmation of the yes. This yes will have implied and will always imply the trustworthiness and fidelity of a faith. No faith, therefore, nor future without everything technical, automatic, machine-like supposed by iterability. In this sense, the technical is the possibility of faith, indeed its very chance. A chance that entails the greatest risk, even the menace of radical evil.

The concept of the promise is a complex one, because it functions in all verb tenses. To promise, in the present, describes the activity of encounter that hinges on a future to-come. A promise, in the present, is the object of a past encounter that directs one toward something or someone not-yet-arrived—it lays claim on something that does not exist, but in bringing that inexistent thing to present attention, sealing it, appropriating it in this way, marking it as belonging to the one addressed with the promise, it makes it exist without existing. Here and still to come. A promise draws one back into the past, the moment of encounter, the act that forged a relation between two parties. The promise is a heritage, an identity, and a destiny. When a promise is fulfilled, it repeats the act of encounter but—because history is flux—it repeats the encounter by making it different, new, other.

Faith is more than trust as a feeling or mental state or rejection of opposing feelings or mental states (namely, doubt). We can follow Kierkegaard, in part, by agreeing that faith is subjective: it can only be described as something having to do with relation, how one relates to another, how much fidelity that relation has. The truth of faith is in relationship, not in correspondence between mental states and facts of the world. But we have to go beyond Kierkegaard, because faith must concern more than one. It is not about how one feels or believes or loves or trusts. Faith is an activity binding one to another. In a sense then—and to be pretty Derridean about this—faith undoes the one, cuts the one, opens the one by making the other have a constitutive relation to the one. Faith is wounding, exposure, infection. Faith makes one different from oneself. Faith is the activity of cutting this difference, of binding and loosing in the space between, binding and loosing as one simultaneous activity.

Derrida argues that the possibility of the promise creates the possibility of faith, of relation, of future. To go further, the possibility of promise creates the possibility of the one, the self (auto), because the one can only determine oneself by establishing oneself as distinct, as different. Different from what? Different from another. And then can only remain different by repeating a sameness, an automaticity. Difference via repetition. It follows from this that the self, the one, is the accident, the contingency—the more-than-one, the one-as-other, the relation that cuts across the closure of the one is fundamental. Only the many is given. The one as same to oneself is enforced by acts of violence that confirm an identity that was, that is, and that is to come.

Through this strange framework, we have another key to interpreting all the ways violence happens in these books of faith. These books are books about covenant, about promise, about faith in a promise. We have established that covenant is about wounding, the binding one to another. But the “menace of radical evil” that Derrida suggests is always possible where faith is possible is here in these books too. A promise is about a wounding, but a promise produces wounding too—this is how a promise repeats and binds, how a people is kept the same, how a bloodline remains pure. Radical evil happens when faith is turned in on itself—when the self is not made other to itself, but when the other is made one with the self. Here is how Leonard Lawlor describes Derrida’s notion of radical evil:

The worst violence occurs when the other to which one is related is completely appropriated to or completely in one’s self, when an address reaches its proper destination, when it reaches only its proper destination. Reaching only its proper destination, the address will exclude more, many more, and that “many more,” at the limit, amounts to all. It is this complete exclusion or this extermination of the most – there is no limit to this violence – that makes this violence the worst violence. The worst is a relation that makes of more than one simply one, that makes, out of a division, an indivisible sovereignty.

The worst violence, the most violent evil, happens when one refuses the wound that defines the binding of oneself and another. It happens when the binding is repeated without acknowledging the significance of the wound, when the binding is made complete, such that there is no wound. The determining power of the address involved in promising is turned in upon itself so that the address does not determine but is determinate—an address to be repeated violently, with a finite origin and destination, an irreducible addressor and an addressee irreducibly appropriated in the address. Here’s a metaphor that plays out concretely in these texts: the worst violence happens when blood is made into something pure, rather than something inconsolably infected by another’s blood. The worst violence occurs when a bloodline is made privileged and distinct as one bloodline, necessitating the exclusion and cleansing of other blood, of the blood of another.

So here’s the hard proposition that this comes down to: The function of YHWH in these texts is to facilitate the working of the worst violence.

These texts have refused the fundamental ontological status of the address and have instead made a singular addressor, YHWH, the foundation of all address. They have defined power and blessing as having a pure and direct relation to this addressor. The powerful human is the one in a position to be addressed by the one being who is to have existed before all address. These texts say that a command created the universe—Let there be light—and in saying so, they have blinded us to the reality that something exists more fundamental than sovereignty. By making YHWH the first and the sovereign, every act of address here becomes one of appropriating or annihilating. No one may speak back to the Speaker.

In establishing a foundation of chosenness by the sovereign, the people that wrote these texts wrote themselves into oblivion. Their only presence here is presence as completely appropriated to the sovereign One. They do not exist—they only live, move, and have their being in the One. The One necessitated that existence be submission of one’s being and will to him, such that separation would mean exclusion, dispossession, annihilation. “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob” (Deut. 30.19-20).

This total, complete submission to a god taken to be sovereign and first means that this national community can only continue by repeating and repeating the worst violence, identifying themselves with their god by denying themselves and all others. This is what they count as blessing: that they are nothing, but their god is all, and therefore that all others are nothing. When the mercenary prophet Balaam is hired by Balak the Moabite to curse Israel, YHWH stops him by having Balaam’s donkey speak back to him, refusing the mission. YHWH commands Balaam to bless, rather than curse, Israel three times. These blessings confirm YHWH’s will that Israel is special, distinct, set apart, and that Israel will dominate all others. Their blessing means a curse for everyone else:

How can I curse whom God has not cursed?
How can I denounce those whom the LORD has not denounced?
For from the top of the crags I see him, from the hills I behold him.
Here is a people living alone,
and not reckoning itself among the nations!
[…]
Look, a people rising up like a lioness, and rousing itself like a lion!
It does not lie down until it has eaten the prey
and drunk the blood of the slain. (Num. 23.8-9, 24)

As it is written, for the unchosen blood, the only choice is to be cleansed or to be consumed. There is a fatal cost that comes with the violence of a promise.

The first fulfillment of this promise, this blessing, and the violence that necessarily attends it occurs in the book of Numbers in the protagonist nation’s genocide of the Midianites who lived in the land they would enter and threatened the purity of their bloodline. The episode is worth quoting at length, though it is a difficult one to read:

They did battle against Midian, as the Lord had commanded Moses, and killed every male. They killed the kings of Midian: Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba, the five kings of Midian, in addition to others who were slain by them; and they also killed Balaam son of Beor with the sword. The Israelites took the women of Midian and their little ones captive; and they took all their cattle, their flocks, and all their goods as booty. All their towns where they had settled, and all their encampments, they burned, but they took all the spoil and all the booty, both people and animals. Then they brought the captives and the booty and the spoil to Moses, to Eleazar the priest, and to the congregation of the Israelites, at the camp on the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho.

Moses, Eleazar the priest, and all the leaders of the congregation went to meet them outside the camp. Moses became angry with the officers of the army, the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds, who had come from service in the war. Moses said to them, “Have you allowed all the women to live? These women here, on Balaam’s advice, made the Israelites act treacherously against the Lord in the affair of Peor, so that the plague came among the congregation of the Lord. Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known a man by sleeping with him. But all the young girls who have not known a man by sleeping with him, keep alive for yourselves. Camp outside the camp seven days; whoever of you has killed any person or touched a corpse, purify yourselves and your captives on the third and on the seventh day. You shall purify every garment, every article of skin, everything made of goats’ hair, and every article of wood.” (Num. 31.13-24)

A number of themes come together in a harrowing way in this passage. Here we see that the promise associated with a privileged bloodline—the promise of a land that belonged to them, though it was already inhabited—effectually negated the lives of those who already lived in the land. The violence done in the taking of the land is not registered as indicative of moral failure or a sign of evil in YHWH or Moses, because the promise, dependent on purity, is supreme and definitive of this holy nation’s approach to the world. It is as though the others do not exist, and so they are made to cease existing—except for the young women who are made to exist in the social death of sexual slavery. Following the slaughter, the nation purifies itself of the dead—the dead who were always already dead to them and whose status was simply confirmed by the encounter. And so, the nation enters the land promised them by their god, colonizing a land now without a people, as was the chosen people’s birthright.

// Coda //

All around silence was falling, and very soon it would close upon that last circle. And when silence had closed in on everything and no man disturbed the stillness, which yearned noiselessly for what was beyond silence–then God would come forth and descend to roam the valley, and see whether all was according to the cry that had reached him.

S. Yizhar, Khirbet Khizeh (1949)

 

Image source: sdobie, Flickr (edited)

A Trace of Blood // Genesis

On the Bible., Uncategorized

You shall not pollute the land in which you live; for blood pollutes the land, and no expiation can be made for the land, for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of the one who shed it.

            Numbers 35.33

The tale spoke clearly: whatever brotherhood human beings may be capable of has grown out of fratricide, whatever political organization men may have achieved has its origin in crime.

            Hannah Arendt, On Revolution

When we watch crime serials on television, we’re used to seeing the Keith Herring-esque chalk outline of an absent cadaver. These chalk outlines (if they are still in use) mark the place where a body once was, where the body was found dead and in what manner it was found. The outline orients the forensic specialists as they explore the scene for other material evidence of the crime, such as fingerprints, strands of hair, or spots of blood. When such traces are found, this can designate one of two things: the presence of the victim or the presence of the murderer. DNA testing in a lab confirms the identity of the figure who inhabited that space at the time the event occurred, and we find this information useful for the purposes of judgment and reckoning. The blood found at the scene casts some revelation on the bodies no longer present there.

In the Bible, as well as in much of culture for much of history, blood has a significant relation to notions of identity, of violence, and of life, three themes that are often crucially intertwined. Entire political histories have been determined by our taking blood to indicate some particular identity: a familial dynasty of power or a landed plot of property can only carry on down generations if we take the identity that ownership depends on to be transferrable by means of progenation (or some legally accepted symbolic equivalent, such as adoption). It’s a powerful statement to make of someone that they are “blood of my blood” or “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gen. 2.23)—blood runs thicker than water. Such a referral to blood designates the relationship between two people as something stronger than other sorts of relationships one might enter into with another: a relationship of family and of mutual familial identification. This is a kind of identification that we see as something stronger than a business partnership, a friendship, or even a sexual or erotic relationship. Something changes when another is or becomes family, and blood is what they share.

But blood also designates the life of a living thing. This is why the shedding of blood designates violence: an aggression against life by draining that life, in whole or in part, from the being to whom it belonged. The Bible several times explicitly locates the life of a creature in the creature’s blood (Gen. 9.4; Lev. 17.11; Deut. 12.23), and for this reason also establishes legal prohibitions on eating the blood of a creature, even if the creature is considered clean to eat. In fact, the entire history of the institution of law in the Bible, curiously enough, begins and ends with prohibitions on ingesting blood.

According to the story, on the twenty-seventh day of the second month of the six hundred first year of the earth’s existence, God told Noah to leave the ark he had built to weather the storm of God’s wrath and to step onto dry ground (Gen. 8.13-15). The first thing Noah does is to take one of every clean animal that he had rescued from the flood and to kill and to burn them as an offering to God (Gen. 8.20). And God—who consistently through the Old Testament finds the smell of a roasted animal on an altar delectable—responds to Noah with a new covenant. As is the case with all covenants made in the Bible, this one to Noah involved four things: a promise, a blessing, a law, and a sign. First, God promised to “never again curse the ground because of humankind,” and he added, “nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done” (Gen. 8.21) (Such mercy and justice, to only annihilate every living thing once.) God then blesses Noah and his family, saying that they will be fruitful and multiply on the earth and that all the animals will live in fear of them (Gen. 9.1-2), hence securing the dominion of humankind that was established in the creation of Adam. Following the blessing, God gives Noah and his family a new law:

Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. [In high school, I once used this as a retort to my sister’s veganism, but it turned out hers had more to do with unethical factory practices than divine commands.] Only, you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. For your own lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning: from every animal I will require it and from human beings; each one for the blood of another, I will require a reckoning for human life. Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind. (Gen. 9.4-6)

Here we have the first command against ingesting blood in the Bible and it comes, arguably, in the first institution of civil law. Noah and his family are the only ones left alive on the earth, and this is the first law that God establishes as a way of ordering the new society. Notice, again, that God locates the life of a creature in its blood, and while God does not command against humankind killing animals (he offers all animals to them as food), he does command against ingesting the locus of life in the animal, which is the blood. This prohibition continues all the way through the New Testament, when, at the Council of Jerusalem, the apostles are trying to decide what law Gentile converts should follow. James the brother of Jesus declares, after much debate—and this is simplifying the tale—that Gentile converts should “abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood” (Acts 15.20). Blood is a sacred thing in the Bible, meaning that it is both protected and potent. When blood spills somewhere, the ancient understanding was that the stain can never go away or be concealed. And we might say there is a modern tradition to this too—think of Lady Macbeth, failing to wash the phantasmal stain of blood from her hands.

When we try to disentangle the varied ways blood is made to mean in this ancient book of Genesis, it gets tricky. Take, for instance, that last aspect of God’s covenant to Noah, the sign, the infamous rainbow:

This is the sign of the covenant that I made between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring the clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. (Gen. 9.12-15)

Despite the hundreds of times I’ve read this verse, this is the first time I caught the symbol: this rainbow is no lovey-dovey symbol of peace, diversity, and togetherness as it is used to mean today, given its many colors and pleasing rounded shape. Instead, this rainbow is viewed how it might have been viewed by an ancient literary community, constantly in terror of their own precariousness at the force of the elements, which they see in divine and mythic terms, and the hands of warring tribes (and war, blood, and murder is all over this book): this was an archer’s bow. The sign of God’s covenant with Noah and with all of life on the earth is a cosmic weapon, this time turned away from the earth. Therefore, the sign of the covenant is an assurance of God’s violent strength but also his decision to no longer use it on such a grand scale. (He is willing, however, to use it on a somewhat smaller scale, given the utter desolation of all life in the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah mere chapters later [Gen. 19.24-5].)

I guess one way of putting all of this more simply would be to say that Genesis, this book of beginnings and promises, is also fundamentally a book of violence. God sheds the first blood by making coats of animal skins to cover Adam and Eve’s nakedness, following their breaking of his first command (Gen. 3.21). Cain murders Abel, making the very first fratricide happen between the very first brothers, and Abel’s blood cries out from the ground, unrequited because blood cannot be cleansed from where it has spilled (Gen. 4.10-11). Cain’s descendent Lamech, father of Noah, tells his wives that he has killed a young man for wounding him, and that his recompense will be seventy times that of Cain’s (Gen. 4.23-5). The violence that began so locally is expanding, until only one generation later “the earth was filled with violence” (Gen. 6.11), initiating God’s annihilation of all flesh (notably, by means of flood—a bloodless way of committing mass slaughter, allowing civilization to begin again under the sign of God’s lethality).

And this is only the beginning of the bloodshed involved in these beginnings. There are accounts of warring tribes and conquest (Gen. 14). There is Abraham’s intended murder of his son according to God’s command (Gen. 22). There is the institution of circumcision, the sign of God’s covenant with Abraham fittingly embodied in a common wound. This wound is then later exploited by Abraham’s great-grandsons Simeon and Levi, who trick the men of Shechem into circumcising themselves and, while the men are healing, proceed to slaughter every last one of them as a reckoning for Shechem’s rape of their sister Dinah (Gen. 34).

Okay, I’ve made my point—there’s a lot of blood here. But there is one more instance of bloodshed I’d like to point out. When Joseph, Jacob’s favorite son, has dreams that he will one day rule over his older brothers, the older brothers, in their jealousy, plot his murder. However, Reuben initially stops them, saying, “Let us not take his life. […] Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him” (Gen. 37.21-22). So they do so, and as they eat their dinner atop the pit where they’ve stowed their brother, a caravan of Ishmaelites arrives (possibly significant, given the tumultuous backstory to the Ishmaelites). Judah then gets an idea: “Then Judah said to his brothers, ‘What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.’ And his brothers agreed.” (Gen. 37.26-7). The fact that Joseph is their brother, their own flesh, forbids them from shedding his blood, which would be impossible to conceal—meaning, in a divine juridical sense and in an occult sense, since there seems to be some karmic element in this people’s understanding of God’s justice: blood for blood. So instead they sell him into slavery.

However, to cover their tracks, they still end up shedding some blood. In order to convince their father that Joseph had been devoured by a wild animal, rather than sold into slavery, the brothers slaughter a goat and dip Joseph’s robe in its blood—the same robe that his father had made specially for Joseph (Gen. 37.31). The ruse is convincing, and Jacob believes that the blood is his sons. In this episode, blood is used as a conflation of identity—Joseph’s with the goat’s—as well as a sign of violence and loss of life.

This story of the goat’s blood, in one sense, works like all other atonement sacrifice narratives in the Bible: the blood of the goat stands as substitute for the life of the man, in order that the man may be counted dead without having actually died. Think of Abraham’s use of goat’s blood following his attempt at sacrificing his own son—God offers the goat’s life as a substitution for Isaac, allowing Isaac to go on living in the company of his father. In the case of Joseph, however, the blood is offered as substitute, not in order that Joseph may go on living in the company of the community—the requisite obedience to God having been satisfied—but rather in order to cast Joseph away from the community. This blood, though sacrificial, divides the community and conceals its guilt without cleansing.

But is this so different, after all, from the uses of blood in sacrifice for the redemption of communities? If the slaughtered creature stands in for the life of the community in order that the community may preserve itself in the world, what slaughter serves that community and what slaughter undermines it? Which community does slaughter serve? This question of sacrifice’s role in community is one I will certainly return to, but it is enough to note here that this great book of beginnings—of the beginning of the world, of humanity, of civil society, of law, and of God’s chosen nation—requires the shedding of blood to tell its tale. The suggestion is that beginning requires violence, but that there are also moments where slaughter creates its own excess: Cain’s violence both turns him into a wanderer and provokes a new generation of humanity; the violence of Joseph’s brothers brings about his own blessing and theirs. All good things require violence, but which violence is required—and why? That is a question that will constantly reemerge in this incredibly violent Bible.