Rebellion and War: Parashat Chukat – Numbers Chapter 20&21

What a discontented lot were the Israelites! If it is not the priestly hierarchy that stirs up protests, it is the physical deprivation of which Dathan and Abiram complained in an earlier chapter.

Numbers Chapter 20

1

The entire congregation of the children of Israel arrived at the desert of Zin in the first month, and the people settled in Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there.

  א

וַיָּבֹ֣אוּ בְנֵֽי־יִ֠שְׂרָאֵ֠ל כָּל־הָ֨עֵדָ֤ה מִדְבַּר־צִן֙ בַּחֹ֣דֶשׁ הָֽרִאשׁ֔וֹן וַיֵּ֥שֶׁב הָעָ֖ם בְּקָדֵ֑שׁ וַתָּ֤מָת שָׁם֙ מִרְיָ֔ם וַתִּקָּבֵ֖ר שָֽׁם:

2

The congregation had no water; so they assembled against Moses and Aaron.

  ב

וְלֹא־הָ֥יָה מַ֖יִם לָֽעֵדָ֑ה וַיִּקָּ֣הֲל֔וּ עַל־משֶׁ֖ה וְעַל־אַהֲרֹֽן:

3

The people quarreled with Moses, and they said, “If only we had died with the death of our brothers before the Lord.

  ג

וַיָּ֥רֶב הָעָ֖ם עִם־משֶׁ֑ה וַיֹּֽאמְר֣וּ לֵאמֹ֔ר וְל֥וּ גָוַ֛עְנוּ בִּגְוַ֥ע אַחֵ֖ינוּ לִפְנֵ֥י יְהֹוָֽה:

4

Why have you brought the congregation of the Lord to this desert so that we and our livestock should die there?

  ד

וְלָמָ֤ה הֲבֵאתֶם֙ אֶת־קְהַ֣ל יְהֹוָ֔ה אֶל־הַמִּדְבָּ֖ר הַזֶּ֑ה לָמ֣וּת שָׁ֔ם אֲנַ֖חְנוּ וּבְעִירֵֽנוּ:

5

Why have you taken us out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place; it is not a place for seeds, or for fig trees, grapevines, or pomegranate trees, and there is no water to drink.

  ה

וְלָמָ֤ה הֶֽעֱלִיתֻ֨נוּ֙ מִמִּצְרַ֔יִם לְהָבִ֣יא אֹתָ֔נוּ אֶל־הַמָּק֥וֹם הָרָ֖ע הַזֶּ֑ה לֹ֣א | מְק֣וֹם זֶ֗רַע וּתְאֵנָ֤ה וְגֶ֨פֶן֙ וְרִמּ֔וֹן וּמַ֥יִם אַ֖יִן לִשְׁתּֽוֹת:

Once again Moses and Aaron resorted to magic to overcome the crisis. Moses struck a rock with his staff and water gushed forth. That was insufficient. In the next chapter, once again the Israelites griped about the suffering they underwent during their forced marches.

5The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in this desert, for there is no bread and no water, and we are disgusted with this rotten bread.”   ה

וַיְדַבֵּ֣ר הָעָ֗ם בֵּֽאלֹהִים֘ וּבְמשֶׁה֒ לָמָ֤ה הֶֽעֱלִיתֻ֨נוּ֙ מִמִּצְרַ֔יִם לָמ֖וּת בַּמִּדְבָּ֑ר כִּ֣י אֵ֥ין לֶ֨חֶם֙ וְאֵ֣ין מַ֔יִם וְנַפְשֵׁ֣נוּ קָ֔צָה בַּלֶּ֖חֶם הַקְּלֹקֵֽל:

6

The Lord sent against the people the venomous snakes, and they bit the people, and many people of Israel died.

  ו

וַיְשַׁלַּ֨ח יְהֹוָ֜ה בָּעָ֗ם אֵ֚ת הַנְּחָשִׁ֣ים הַשְּׂרָפִ֔ים וַיְנַשְּׁכ֖וּ אֶת־הָעָ֑ם וַיָּ֥מָת עַם־רָ֖ב מִיִּשְׂרָאֵֽל:

7

The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord that He remove the snakes from us.” So Moses prayed on behalf of the people.

  ז

וַיָּבֹא֩ הָעָ֨ם אֶל־משֶׁ֜ה וַיֹּֽאמְר֣וּ חָטָ֗אנוּ כִּֽי־דִבַּ֤רְנוּ בַֽיהֹוָה֙ וָבָ֔ךְ הִתְפַּלֵּל֙ אֶל־יְהֹוָ֔ה וְיָסֵ֥ר מֵֽעָלֵ֖ינוּ אֶת־הַנָּחָ֑שׁ וַיִּתְפַּלֵּ֥ל משֶׁ֖ה בְּעַ֥ד הָעָֽם:

8

The Lord said to Moses, “Make yourself a serpent and put it on a pole, and let whoever is bitten look at it and live.

  ח

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהֹוָ֜ה אֶל־משֶׁ֗ה עֲשֵׂ֤ה לְךָ֙ שָׂרָ֔ף וְשִׂ֥ים אֹת֖וֹ עַל־נֵ֑ס וְהָיָה֙ כָּל־הַנָּשׁ֔וּךְ וְרָאָ֥ה אֹת֖וֹ וָחָֽי:

9

Moses made a copper snake and put it on a pole, and whenever a snake bit a man, he would gaze upon the copper snake and live.

  ט

וַיַּ֤עַשׂ משֶׁה֙ נְחַ֣שׁ נְח֔שֶׁת וַיְשִׂמֵ֖הוּ עַל־הַנֵּ֑ס וְהָיָ֗ה אִם־נָשַׁ֤ךְ הַנָּחָשׁ֙ אֶת־אִ֔ישׁ וְהִבִּ֛יט אֶל־נְחַ֥שׁ הַנְּח֖שֶׁת וָחָֽי:

Once again the protest was overcome with magic and the creation of a copper snake on a stick to cure the people of the poison when they were bitten by venemous real ones. But there is a third, and this time very real rather than abstract fear: the strength of the enemies that ten of the twelve scouts warned about.

The Israelites were not permitted to pass through the land of the Edomites; they retreated to go around them. It was during this time that Aaron expired on Mount Hor to be replaced by his son Eleazar; Miriam had died just before the encounter with the Edomites. Is there any connection between the Israelites avoiding battle when Miriam and Aaron were alive, but engaged in battle after their deaths? The Israelites took on the people of Arad in the Negev, the Amorites and those in Bashan and emerged victorious in all three wars. They destroyed their enemies and two-and-a-half tribes of Israelites occupied the land east of the Jordan River in the western part of what is now Jordan.

The wars are typical in part. They begin with diplomacy and the request to pass through the land with the promise that if the Israelites and their cattle use any water, they will pay for it. Just as the Edomites did, all three kings refused, but the rising tension and confrontation in the cases of Arad, the Amorites and Basham escalated into all-out war. Then the atypical part. Since these peoples were entirely destroyed by the Israelites, there was no need for peacemaking, cease-fire, peace enforcement, peacekeeping and post-conflict reconciliation. The Israelites simply replaced them on their land and in their cities.

In this section, we are dealing with real history. The geographical detail is precise and the historical record is backed up by artifacts, archeological reconstructions of the military forts and the Mesha Stele royal inscription by the King of Moab who described how he recaptured the land. I do not recall the order of the battles – I am sure they can be found in Finkelstein’s book, The Forgotten Kingdom, ​​The Archaeology of the Israelite Settlement.

Professor Israel Finkelstein gave me the following map when I interviewed him years ago for Israel Today.

https://thetorah.com/north-israelite-memories-of-the-transjordan-and-the-mesha-inscription/

What is clear is that the Israelite record of its history, though overlapping with the Moabite one, was different. In the Torah, the Moabites were confined to the area south of the Arnon Stream. In the Moabite account, their territory originally stretched up to Nebo and Heshbon giving them a right of first possession after they reconquered the territory from the Israelites.

Much of the battle between modern Israel and the Palestinians is over first possession. But both claims may be true if you trace history back before the Muslim conquest to the 9th century BCE. Rabbi Dov Stein in the Israeli documentary produced by Nissim Mossek claimed, “that a significant part of the Arabs in the land of Israel are actually descendants of Jews who were forced to convert to Islam over the centuries.” As Ariella Oppenheimer wrote in her PhD thesis, both Palestinians and Ashkenazi Jews can trace their origins to the Kurds of Babylon from the territory where Abraham set out on his trek. After all, many Palestinians possess the Cohen chromosome.

Dr. Harry Ostrer, when he was Director of the Human Genetics Program at New York University School of Medicine, authored a study (Proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences, 9 May 2000) of an international team of researchers that he led and claimed that, “Jews and Arabs are all really children of Abraham…And all have preserved their Middle Eastern genetic roots over 4,000 years.”

If these historical, archeological and genetic claims are valid, then the Israeli-Palestinian war is more of a civil war than a war between states. Before I knew any of this, I recall my own experience years ago when I was invited to be part of a panel at Tulkarem in the West Bank near Nablus. On the panel were two others, the town’s eminent physician, a communist, and the more moderate mayor. The mayor spoke first, the doctor second and I was scheduled to speak third.

I was unable to speak. For the first time in my life, I was totally tongue-tied. The mayor of the town was the spitting image of my late father. Unless you were up close, you would not have been able to tell them apart. Eventually, I did apologize for and explain my inability to speak. I cannot recall their reaction. Perhaps I was too confused at the time.

Does any of this make a difference? It does suggest that the argument over prior possession may be a red herring. It may also suggest a reason why the conflict “between blood brothers” goes so deep and is seemingly so intractable. However, if Israelites and Palestinians can see each other as long- lost cousins now practicing a different religion than either practiced in the 9th century BCE, does this offer a lever to foster peace while also explaining the deep determination of the Palestinians in the conflict and their deep love for the land?

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

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