Thursday, November 27, 2014

Numbers: Chapter 32

What you see
And what is given 
to be taken

We separate

even as we connect

the bonds that tie

Reflected, refracted 

We reach across waters

[For full chapter, click here
After the bringing of the booty in the previous chapter, this chapter highlight the cost of possession. The key word is "mikne"--commonly used as "cattle", but literally "possession, that which was bought": "Now the children of Reuben and the children of Gad had a very great multitude of cattle (mikne); and they saw the land of Jazer and the land of Gilead, and behold, the place was a place for cattle". As is thematic in Genesis, the increase of possession leads to a break between "brothers" (a'h--another key word of this chapter). The tribes of Reuben and Gad of-the-many-possession desire to split from the rest of the children of Israel: "we will not inherit with them on yonder side of the Jordan or forward, because our inheritance has fallen to us on this side of the Jordan to the east". Not for nothing is the tribe of Menasseh, that eventually joins them, suddenly identified as "Menasseh son of Joseph": the chapter is raising the specter of the primal split between "brothers" : the sale of Joseph for "profit".
 In a book for of echoes and recreations, this is the most dangerous reverberation yet. Much of the Book of Numbers recreates the earlier books of the Torah: The complaints about the Manna; the demand for meat; the lack of water. Often, the tale of the first generation that left Egypt is retold within the second generation. This is especially accentuated here, when Moses literally re-tells the saga of the wilderness (ba-midbar--the Hebrew name for this book), fearing a twice-told tale, in which the children repeat the sins of the fathers: "behold, you have risen up in your fathers’ stead, an increase of sinful men, to add to God's flaming toward Israel.  For if you turn away from Him, He will yet again leave them in the wilderness, and you will destroy all this people.”
Moses seems to be right on mark in identifying a danger here. There are indeed echoes of the sage of the spies: if the spies were sent to "see the land," and end up  rejecting the "place" (makom--another key word) that "God has given"; Reuben and Gad "see the land" that isn't theirs, and ask for it to be "given" to them: an inversion between seeing, and not wanting what is yours, to seeing and wanting what is not yours. 
Disaster is averted, however, by making the eastern tribe's inheritance contingent on that of their "brothers'. If they bind up their fate with the rest of Israel's, then the nation itself will "give" them the land.]

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