Sunday, December 14, 2014

Numbers: Chapter 36

What is added

What is taken

Married to the earth

Bound in its embrace

For full chapter, click here
This final chapter completes the laws of inheritance given at the liminal "passages of Moab"--a place already defined by the Promised Land's Jericho, and yet still over the Jordan.
It is a closing on many levels. First, it offers a chiastic framework to the detailed laws of inheritance that began when "the daughters of Zelophehad came close" (k'r'b) to demand an inheritance so that "their father's name be not lost." Now the leaders of their tribe "come close" (k'r'b) to demand that their inheritance "not be lost" to another tribe. The two scenes are paralleled to each other, In both, the petitioner "comes close"; in both they stand "before" Moses and the leaders of the tribes; in both the key words are "give" (n't'n); lose (g'r'a); in both cases, God responds with a simple affirmation of the act of speech: "ken--yes, the daughters of Zelophehad / the tribe of Joseph speak"
Yet there cannot be unlimited yes. The second affirmation changes and limits the first. No longer are the daughters of Zelophehad to simply inherit; now their inheritance is accompanied by a limitation on whom they can marry. The chapter is constructed around this tension between affirmation and taking away. It's key words (repeated obsessively) are "to add, gather" (a's'f, a play on the name of the tribe, Yosef) and "to take" (g'r'a): "And when the jubilee of the children of Israel shall be, then will their inheritance be added (yosef) unto the inheritance of the tribe whereunto they shall belong; so will their inheritance be taken away (yigara) from the inheritance of the tribe of our fathers.'
The tension is encapsulated in the double, nearly contradictory, injunction given to the daughters of Zelophehad: "This is the thing which God commanded the daughters of Zelophehad, saying: Let them be married to whom is pleasing to their eyes; But only into the family of the tribe of their father shall they be married."
The initial "yes" remains, but limited by the second "yes" --"But only into the family of the tribe of their father."
The focus on speech acts brings to the fore another of this book's central themes--the growing power of language. This is a power that this book has intertwined (as  in the primal setting of Genesis) with the relationship to women. The focus on language begins with Miriam, and her punishment for "speaking" of Moses; the encounter with the great speaker, Balaam, closes with a sexual orgy with the "daughters of Moab." The laws of vows revolve around limiting the validity of women's words. Now, "coming close" to demand a response from God is initiated by women, and in an attempt to counter the response to women.
The final intertwining of marriage and inheritance is the culmination of the growing intimacy with the Land. The description of the borders of the Promised Land was replete with feminized imagery. Now this chapter sets up a virtual monogamy between tribe and inheritance: "So shall no inheritance of the children of Israel remove from tribe to tribe; for the children of Israel shall cleave (davak) every one to the inheritance of the tribe of his fathers." Davak-cleave is a powerful word, sending us back to the primal creation of humanity in Eden: "Therefor shall man leave his father and mother and cleave (davak) to his wife, and they shall be one flesh." The relationship to land here subsumes the relationship of marriage: "who is pleasing in their eyes" is defined by the laws of inheritance; the relationship to land is the relationship to wife.
This returns us to the daughters of Zelphehad's original petition, where they seek to preserve "the name" of their father   through inheriting his land. The focus on "name" returns us to levirate marriage, which "seeks to raise the name of the dead on his inheritance." Land, marriage, inheritance, memory and speech become painfully intertwined in this closing to the Book of the Desert (Ba-Midbar), which is also the Book of Speech (Ba-Midaber)]

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