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NEW BOOK: “Numbers: The Wilderness Years”

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The following is an extract from Rabbi Sacks’ new book Numbers: The Wilderness Years, the fourth and penultimate book in his celebrated Covenant & Conversation series on the Hebrew Bible. Numbers: The Wilderness Years can be bought online, from Jewish bookstores or direct from Maggid here.


Numbers: Then and Now

Bamidbar book coverNovember 1989. The Berlin Wall falls. The Cold War comes to an end. The Soviet Union begins to implode. A young American political scientist, Francis Fukuyama, captures widespread attention with an essay entitled “The End of History.”1 In it he argues that the two great institutions of the modern West, liberal democracy and the market economy, have not only proved stronger than Soviet communism but are about to conquer the world. People are no longer willing to make the sacrifices or endure the privations of war for the sake of nation, class, or creed. John Lennon’s vision in his 1971 song “Imagine” – “Nothing to kill or die for / and no religion too / imagine all the people / living life in peace” – is, he claims, about to be realised, a secular equivalent of the Messianic Age.

Within three years, bloody ethnic war had broken out in the former Yugoslavia – first in Bosnia, later in Kosovo – between Muslims, Orthodox Serbs, and Catholic Croats, groups that had lived peaceably together for many decades. A rueful liberal intellectual, Michael Ignatieff, wrote that the forces of “blood and belonging” had prevailed.2 In 1993, Harvard political historian Samuel Huntington predicted not the “end of history” but instead a sustained and dangerous “clash of civilizations.”3

Fast-forward to January 2011. Aided by the new electronic media, a series of mass protests broke out in North Africa and the Middle East, beginning in Tunisia. There were insurgencies in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, civil uprisings in Bahrain and Egypt, and mass demonstrations in Algeria, Iran, Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman, and Sudan. The phenomenon was quickly named the “Arab Spring,” in the belief that what had happened in Eastern Europe in 1989 was about to happen in the Middle East as well: a grassroots-led rejection of tyranny in favour of democracy, liberalisation, and human rights.

As I write these words five years later, almost all of that hope has been destroyed as authoritarian regimes still prevail in Egypt and Bahrain, while civil war is tearing Syria, Libya, and Yemen apart at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives. The twenty-first century has seen swathes of the Middle East, Africa, and Asia descend into a Hobbesian state of nature, a war of “every man against every man” in which life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” What succeeded the Cold War has turned out to be not peace and liberty but rather the old-new barbarism and oppression. Meanwhile, the liberal democratic West seems less sure of itself than it has been for many centuries. Thus do dreams of freedom end in a nightmare of chaos, violence, and fear.

This is why the book of Numbers – in Hebrew, Bemidbar, “In the Wilderness” – is a key text for our time. It is among the most searching, self-critical books in all of literature about what Nelson Mandela called “the long walk to freedom.” Its message is that there is no shortcut to liberty. Numbers is not an easy book to read, nor is it an optimistic one. It is a sober warning set in the midst of a text – the Hebrew Bible – that remains the West’s master narrative of hope.

The Mosaic books, especially Exodus and Numbers, are about the journey from slavery to freedom and from oppression to law-governed liberty. On the map, the distance from Egypt to the Promised Land is not far. But the message of Numbers is that it always takes longer than you think. For the journey is not just physical, a walk across the desert. It is psychological, moral, and spiritual. It takes as long as the time needed for human beings to change. That, as we discover in Numbers, can be a very long time indeed.

Political change cannot be brought about by politics alone. It needs human transformation, brought about by rituals, habits of the heart, and a strenuous process of education. It comes along with knowledge borne out of painful experience, preserved for future generations by acts of remembering. It calls not only for high ideals but also a way of life that translates ideals into social interactions. You cannot create a democracy simply by removing a tyrant. As Plato wrote in The Republic, democracy is often no more than the prelude to a new tyranny. You cannot arrive at freedom merely by escaping from slavery. It is won only when a nation takes upon itself the responsibilities of self-restraint, courage, and patience. Without that, a journey of a few hundred miles can take forty years. Even then, it has only just begun.

A Bewildering Text 

Numbers is a difficult book, the most challenging of the five Mosaic books. It contains an extraordinary range of texts, genres, and subject matters. There are narratives, laws, census lists, itineraries, details of how the tribes encamped and travelled on their journeys and laws about wives suspected of adultery, Nazirites, vows, purifications, sacrifices, and sundry other matters alongside cases that Moses himself had to bring to God for adjudication. There are accounts of battles, rebellions, and collective failures of nerve, and a strange story about a pagan prophet and a talking donkey.

It is not simply that the book contains materials of such different kinds; it is that it mixes them in ways that seem almost random. Stories are interrupted by laws whose proper place would seem to be elsewhere. There are times when Numbers resembles a bricolage of texts pasted together with no overarching structure or theme. Many of its laws, especially those to do with the Sanctuary, read as if they more properly belong to Leviticus, the book of holy places and times. Why place them here, in the context of the Israelites’ journey, rather than there, in the sanctity of Sinai where the whole of Leviticus is set? Why break up the narrative flow with legal interjections that seem to have no relevance to the story itself? What is Numbers about? What is its overarching theme?

Other passages come with a sense of déjà vu, because they read like repetitions of stories we have already encountered in the book of Exodus: arguments about food and water and tales of the Israelites, overcome by fear and foreboding, questioning whether they should ever have left Egypt in the first place. Why tell us these stories if they are no more than more of the same?

Then there is the sheer overwhelming negativity of the narratives, forming an almost unbroken sequence of murmuring and complaints. We encounter three of them, immediately following one another, in chapters 11 and 12. First, there is an unspecified complaint. Then comes another in which the mixed multitude, and then the Israelites, bemoan the food they eat. Finally, Moses’ own sister and brother criticise him.

No sooner have these ended than we move to the scene that is the turning point of the entire book. Twelve spies are sent on a reconnaissance mission to the land. Ten return with a demoralising report. The land is good, they say, but the people are strong and the cities impregnable. The people despair and say, “Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt” (Num. 14:4). This is the counterpart of the sin of the Golden Calf in the book of Exodus. On both occasions, God is so angry that He threatens to destroy the people and begin again with Moses. Moses pleads with Him not to do so, this time using the same words God Himself had used – the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy – in the earlier episode. God relents, but nonetheless decrees that no one of that generation, with the sole exceptions of Joshua and Caleb, the two faithful spies, would enter the land. Their children would; they would not.

At this point, one feels that this is as bad as it gets. However, things are about to get worse. Almost immediately comes the rebellion of Korah and his fellow discontents, the most serious of all the challenges to the authority of Moses. Then comes the nadir. After the extended story of Balaam, the pagan prophet hired to curse Israel who instead blesses them, comes the lowest point of the entire wilderness years. Having protected Israel from the curses of their enemies, God then witnesses the Israelite men engaging in sexual immorality and idolatrous rites with the women of Moab and Midian – a complete breakdown of all that was supposed to characterise the Israelites as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6). What hope is there to be rescued from this cumulative tale of failure and faithlessness?

Not only do the people falter, so too does Moses, the one figure we look to as a role model of faith. The man we encounter in Numbers is not the one we met in the book of Exodus. Early on, he gives voice to almost terminal despair in one of the most searing passages in Tanakh: “If this is how You are going to treat me, please go ahead kill me – if I have found favour in Your eyes – and let me not see my own ruin” (Num. 11:15). Moses eventually rallies, but as the narrative proceeds, he seems less and less in control of events. In the episode of the spies, the main burden of leadership is borne by Caleb and Joshua. During the Korah rebellion, Moses seems to overreact; his call that the earth open up and swallow his opponents inflames the situation instead of resolving it. In the next challenge, when the people ask for water after the death of Miriam, Moses and Aaron respond so badly that they are deemed guilty of failure and told they will not enter the Promised Land. Why is Moses of the wilderness so different from Moses of the Exodus?

The book also does strange things with time. The first eleven chapters cover a mere twenty days.4 There is even a point in chapter 9 when time moves backwards by a month.5 Later, however, thirty-eight years disappear. At one moment we are little more than a year from Egypt. In the next we are in the fortieth year, with the Israelites nearing their destination. It is also hard to say exactly where the break in time occurs. The obvious place is chapter 26, where a second census introduces us to the new generation that will complete the journey their parents began. This seems like a new beginning. Yet the temporal leap actually comes earlier, between chapter 20, where we read about the death of Miriam and Aaron, and the next chapter, which describes the Israelites’ first battles for the conquest of the land.

What are we to make of these difficulties? In this introduction, I propose seven exegetical principles that allow us to decode much of the mystery of the book and understand why it is structured the way it is.

1. Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Avon, 1993).

2. Michael Ignatieff, Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism (London: Vintage, 1994).

3. Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996).

4. From “the first day of the second month of the second year” after leaving Egypt (Num. 1:1) to “the twentieth day of the second month of the second year,” when the people start journeying from Sinai (10:11).

5. Num. 9:1 is set “in the first month of the second year.”