22 January 2012

Numbers (במדבר)

The four book of Jewish Torah (or Pentateuch) or the fourth in the Hewbrew Bible is “Numbers” (Derived from the Greek word arithmoi’ which mean ‘Numbers’; Thus is Tamil: எண்ணாகமம்). The original Hebrew word for this Book does not have anything to do with Numbers, but is called “‎bamidbar” (במדבר), which literally means "in the desert”. We see an end to the 40 years of wandering of Israelites in the wilderness as their Lord leads them to the promised land where milk and honey flow. This book, like all the five books in the Pentateuch (Torah), is also traditionally attributed to Moses. 

With 1288 verses, Numbers is not a small book like Leviticus we saw last week. Still, there is hardly any verse in it to qualify as a quotable quote. It is almost entirely dominated by prophetic utterances, divine commandments and retribution, burnt offerings to please God, few sundry laws and the like. In any case, I take this opportunity to discuss on Numbers in the Bible, the imagery of Milk and Honey and the Dedication of the firstborns for priesthood.

(1) Numbers in the Bible

The Greek named the fourth book “Numbers” only because it has figures of census of people and animals almost throughout the book. This includes census of Israel’s common mass, census of armies, census of priests, census of firstborns, census of animals, census of new generation etc. 

Talking about numbers, any casual reader would realize that number SEVEN is the most commonly mentioned numerical in the Bible. Just to cite an example from the book of Numbers itself:

Then Balaam said to Balak,
            “Build SEVEN altars for me here,
            and prepare SEVEN bulls and
            SEVEN rams for me here”
(Numbers, 23:1)

பிலேயாம் பாலாகை நோக்கி:
நீர் இங்கே எனக்கு ஏழு பலிபீடங்களைக் கட்டி,
ஏழு காளைகளையும்
ஏழு ஆட்டுக்கடாக்களையும்
இங்கே எனக்கு ஆயத்தப்படுத்தும் என்றான்.

There are many websites that highlight the specialty of number SEVEN in the Bible (*, *, *, *). I also have a book authored by Winifred Irene Paul (2000): “Sevens in the Bible”. Some glimpses of the SEVENS in the Bible are ……
  • Deuteronomy 28:5: Israel was scattered before their enemies and disperses in SEVEN ways 
  • Proverbs: Solomon speaks of SEVEN men
  • Isaiah 11:5: God smites SEVEN streams to enable Israel to go on dry land
  • Revelation 5:6: The lamb had SEVEN horns, SEVEN eyes, SEVEN spirits
  • 1Kings 6: We find it took Solomon SEVEN years to build the temple
  • Psalms 119:164: We find one praising the Lord SEVEN times a day
  • Acts 6:3: We find SEVEN men appointed to serve the people
  • Judges 14: We find Samson’s wife weeping before him SEVEN days
Jeffrey (1996) wrote a book “Signature of God” which had one chapter devoted to some of the mathematical miracles in the Bible. There are many websites attributing the Bible to divine authorship because of the alleged occurrence of mathematical patterns based on number SEVEN (eg. Computer Proof by San Jose). There are also a section of Muslims (called Submitters) who claim that the composition and organization of the Quran is based on number 19. 

“The mark of wisdom is to discern the truth from whatever source it is heard” (எப்பொருள் யார்யார்வாய்க் கேட்பினும் அப்பொருள் மெய்ப்பொருள் காண்ப தறிவு” – Kural 423) said Valluvar in Thirukkural. Therefore, I made my own investigations into these tall claims, only to find out that these are not valid claims as the methodology was faulty on many grounds. Even though there are some striking and exciting results, cases of omissions and commissions were aplenty. 

I tried my luck in finding such mathematical patterns in Thirukkural, the only classic in my native tongue I was then familiar with. A casual attempt revealed a series of striking mathematical combinations based on number SEVEN. The results of my findings are presented at my website under Mathematical Miracle in Thirukkural only to present my case that such mathematical coincidences can be see in human-authored books as well. The Kural does not require any mathematical proof to substantiate its worth. Nor do I expect more people to begin appreciating the merit of the Kural merely because of my mathematical findings. Having said all this, I must admit that my interest in comparative literature and religion, which has grown to epidemic proportions now, actually began from there.

(2) Milk and honey (பாலும் தேனும்)

If Jehovah delight in us,
            then he will bring us into this land,
And give it unto us;
            a land which floweth with milk and honey.
(Numbers 14:8)

கர்த்தர் நம்மேல் பிரியமாயிருந்தால்,
அந்தத் தேசத்திலே நம்மைக் கொண்டுபோய்,
பாலும் தேனும் ஓடுகிற அந்தத் தேசத்தை நமக்குக் கொடுப்பார்.

Throughout the Jewish Bible, we come across many references of their Lord promising the Jews to lead them to a land where milk and honey flow. At least 10 of the 36  chapters in the Book of “Numbers” (Tamil: எண்ணாகமம்) are about their journey towards the promised land of Canaan, the story revolving around the hardships they face on the way, God’s punishment for their impatience, conquest of the promised land and the subsequent killing of some of the inhabitants of the conquered land. Canaan is not a mythological place, but a historical region roughly corresponding to modern-day Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, and the western parts of Jordan and Syria [*]. Well, does milk and honey flow there?

Like the Jewish God Yahweh who promised a land in this world where milk and honey flow, the Qur'an promises for its believers a Paradise in the hereafter, where also rivers of milk and honey flow (Qur'an 47:15). All these are only allegorical references, which probably mean that the land is a fertile one and has everything for a leisurely human existence. River flowing honey could mean florid nectar-mixed river waters. We learn this possibility from the description in one of akam works of Pathinenkeelkanakku in Tamil: “Her eyes have turned red due to her bathing in the honey-mixed red floods in the wild stream” (தேம் கலந்து வந்த அருவி குடைந்து ஆட, தாம் சிவப்பு உற்றன, கண்).

At least 22 verses in the Bible refer to both milk and honey and 20 of them appear in the context of God leading the exodus of Jews unto the land flowing with milk and honey (Exodus 3:8, Exodus 3:17, 13:5, 33:3, Leviticus 20:24, Numbers 13:27, 14:8, 16:13, 16:14, Deuteronomy 6:3, 11:9, 26:9, 26:15, 27:3, 31:20, Joshua 5:6, Jeremiah 11:5, 32:22, Ezekiel 20:6 and 20:15). In the Song of Solomon (4:11), we see 'milk and honey' being mentioned in a different context.
Your lips, my bride, drip honey;
Honey and milk are under your tongue.
(Bible-Song of Solomon, 4:11 )

We see exciting parallels to this in Thiruvasagan and Thirukkural:

பால் ஊறு தேன்வாய்ப் படிறீ கடைதிறவாய்     
O guileful one, whose mouth with milk and honey flows
(Thiruvasagam, 159 or VII. 18) [Tr: G.U. Pope]

பாலொடு தேன்கலந் தற்றே பணிமொழி
வாலெயிறு ஊறிய நீர்.   
Like a mixture of milk and honey,
Is the drool that drips through her pearly teeth
. (NV)
(Thirukkural, 1121)

During the Sangam period, one of the cherished diets given to young girls was a mixture of milk and honey. In Akathinai (Internal love poetry), we see poets describing the lamentations of the mother of the girl (who had eloped with her lover) in the following terms….

…………………………. உண்டனள் கொல்லோ
தேம்கலந்து அளைஇய தீம்பால் ஏந்திக்
கூழை உளர்ந்து மொழிமை கூறவும்,
மறுத்த சொல்லள் ஆகி,
வெறுத்த உள்ளமொடு உண்ணா தோளே!

I held a cup in my hand, filled with sweet and honeyed milk
And essayed to feed my daughter, stroking gentry her tresses
And uttering words of love;
But she refused to take it with words of protest;
Alas, she, even she, has now eloped with her lover and has crossed hazardous paths.
(Akam 207) (see also 89, 105)

(3) Dedicating the firstborn sons

All the firstborn of the children of Israel are mine,
both man and beast:
(Numbers 8:17)

இஸ்ரவேல் புத்திரரில்,
மனிதரிலும் மிருகஜீவன்களிலும்,
முதற்பேறானதெல்லாம் என்னுடையது;

As divine punishment to Egyptian Pharaoh’s reluctance to release the Jews from slavery, their Lord kills all the firstborn Egyptians, both animals and humans (Exodus 12:29-30). But here in Numbers 8:17, He commands Jews to set aside all the firstborn men for him. This is not the first time that this commandment occurs in the Bible (see Exodus 13:1-2).

Among some of the aboriginal tribes in Australia, the mother would kill and eat the first born child to enhance her capability to produce more children (Davies, 1981). We also see in the Bible how King Mesha, facing defeat at the hands of the Israelites, had to finally consider sacrifice of his eldest son (2 Kings 3:26–27). We also learn from Genesis (22:1-18) and Quran, God commanding Abraham to sacrifice his firstborn son in order to test his faith and obedience. Jesus, who died on the cross, was not only a first ‘born’ male in literal sense, but according to the New Testament also the firstborn of all creations metaphorically (Colossians, 1:15; Romans, 8:29).

Given this background of human sacrifice prevalent during Biblical times, does the commandment we see in the Hebrew Bible "Numbers" (for e.g. 8:17) mean dedication the firstborns as a ritual offering to the Lord? No, it isn’t. The fifth and last book in Torah, Deuteronomy (18:10) says "There shall not be found among you who burns his son or his daughter as an offering". Before the change of Priesthood to the community of Levites, Jewish family was expected to set aside their firstborn male for the priestly duties towards God. But this was subsequently changed as evident in Numbers 3: 40-41. As a compensation for the Levites taking over this responsibility, every firstborn Israelite was required to be redeemed by a payment of five shekels to a member of the Levites tribe (Myers, J. 2011) (see also Numbers 18:16; 3:47). Moreover, the first-born male animal was also meant for the priest to sacrifice (Numbers 18:15-17). This practice (called pidyon haben in Hebrew: פדיון הבן‎ or redemption of the first born son) is still followed among the Jews today [*].

Can we find a parallel to this practice in other religious traditions of the world? No doubt, the firstborn child in Indian society also attains great importance (see *). However I haven’t come across anything similar to Jewish practice, though there existed a practice among the Hindus during the British Raj to set aside their firstborn men to become a “Singh” to fight the Muslim invasions along with the British (Khushwant Singh and Kuldip Nayar: Tragedy of Punjab, p.20-21, quoted by V.P. Bhatia: "Secularisation of a Martyrdom", Organizer, 11-11998.[*]). Hinduism therefore was symbolically linked to Sikhism as the firstborn sons of several Hindu families frequently converted to Sikhism to defend the faith.
·         Davies, N. 1981. Human Sacrifice - In History And Today, Morrow, p 22.
·         Jeffrey, G.R. 1996. The Signature of God. Frontier Research Publications, Inc. p. 230-237
·         Myers, J. 2011. Jesus in Context. Biblical Heritage.com
·         Paul, W.I. 2000. Sevens of the Bible. ISPCK. 223 pages


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