Priestly factions and the compromise
solution in the book of Numbers
The traditions in Exodus come from variant sources, andthere are parallels to the myth of origins as hereditary, divine ordination found in the book ofLeviticus. However in Numbers, itself composed of variant sources, there are noveltiesintroduced in an attempt to 'reconcile' the disparate accounts that surface in Exodus, as different factions in the Levitical priesthood struggled for supremacy. We areboth told that the Aaronite priesthood was 'hereditary' and then again that 'God assigned the restof the Levites to serve Aaron.' This appears to be an attempt at compromise. The Levites, as atribe of Israel were priests, but they were priests in a subordinate position to their superiors, thehereditary Aaronite priesthood. Whether such a compromise would have satisfied the NorthernLevites is questionable, but the fact that it is found in Numbers suggests that what we are readinghere is a later work (later than Exodus) and an attempt is being made to reconcile inconsistentaccounts and somehow bring into line the dissident factions in the priesthood who weredissatisfied with the claims to superiority of those claiming descent from Aaron. We are first toldthat the priesthood is hereditary.
"These are the names of the sons of Aaron: Nadab the first-born, and Abihu, Eleazar, and IthamarThese are the names of the sons of Aaron, the anointed priests, whom he ordained to minister inthe priest's office. But Nadab and Abihu died before YAHWEH when they offered unholy firebefore YAHWEH in the wilderness of Sinai; and they had no children. So Eleazar and Ithamarserved as priests in the lifetime of Aaron their father." (Numbers Chapter 3 verse 3)
The earlier tradition is briefly recapitulated. Next a novelty isintroduced, and the earlier laws making the priesthood hereditary are partially abandoned, eventhough the earlier laws called for the death penalty to be imposed upon interlopers. Other Levitescould serve as priests in subordinate positions to the 'Aaronites'.
"Bring the tribe of Levi near, and set them before Aaron the priest, that they may minister to him. And you shall give the Levites to Aaron and his sons; they are wholly given to him from amongthe people of Israel ... And with you bring your brethren also, the tribe of Levi, the tribe of yourfather, that they may join you, and minister to you while you and your sons with you are beforethe tent of the testimony." (Numbers Chapter 3 verse 6; Numbers Chapter 18 verse 2)
The point is driven home in a series of polemical stories in Numbers, stories which clearly indicate that the compromise was not considered satisfactory by the dissidents factions the Aaronites had attempted to place in subordinate positions. In the story of the rebellious Levites (whom the earth swallowed to the horror of everyone) this fact is acknowledged. First, the Numbers narrative points out to the non-Aaronite Levites that they had been offered the compromise position, but nevertheless they continued to 'murmur' against Aaron. The polemic concludes with God breaking out against the subordinate Levites and they are all swallowed by a sinkhole in the earth. (The italics are mine.)
In the following passage the compromise solution is alluded to and the fact that it was rejected is acknowledged.
"God has brought you near, and all your brethren the sons of Levi with you. And would you seek the priesthood also? Therefore it is against YAHWEH that you and all your company have gathered together; what is Aaron that you murmur against him?" (Numbers Chapter 16 verse 10)
Next the traditional 'Aaronite' mythology of 'divine hereditary ordination' is recapitulated followed by a threat against the Levites who had been subordinated.
"'In the morning YAHWEH will show who is holy, and will cause him to come near to God; him whom God will choose God will cause to come near. Do this: take censers, put fire in them and put incense upon them before YAHWEH tomorrow, and the man whom YAHWEH chooses shall be the holy one. You have gone too far, sons of Levi!." (Numbers Chapter 16 verse 5)
The Levites are portrayed in the polemic as insolent and rebellious against the great Moses, himself. They once again reject the compromise solution, and 'talk back.'
"Is it a small thing that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, that you must also now lord it over us? Moreover you have not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, nor given us inheritance of fields and vineyards. Do you think we are blind? We will not come up." (Numbers Chapter 16 verse 13)
The polemic concludes with God in a fury. In great alarm, Moses ordered everyone to stay clear of the rebellious non-Aaronite Levites. After everyone had scattered in every direction in terrified panic, in great wrath the Levites were destroyed by God for their insolence in refusing to accept the compromise plan offered to them by 'the Aaronites.' They are taken down 'alive to Sheol' and fire consumed 250 other rebellious Levites who offering 'unauthorized incense' in the wrong way. (Did they want to go so far as to have the priesthood, as well? They have gone to far, those other Levites.) The story is polemical.
Lest anyone should forget, or fail to remember the point of the polemic, some renovations are made to the temple.
"The censers of these men who have sinned at the cost of their lives; so let them be made into hammered plates as a covering for the altar ... Thus they shall be a sign to the people of Israel. So Eleazar the priest took the bronze censers, which those who were burned had offered; and they were hammered out as a covering for the altar, to be a reminder to the people of Israel, so that no one who is not a priest, who is not of the descendants of Aaron, should draw near to burn incense before YAHWEH, lest the same should happen to them." (Numbers Chapter 16 verse 38)
Furthermore, if anyone even supported the cause of the rebellious Levite, they, too, were threatened with being sent alive to Sheol and burned to death by God. (This is a polemical reference to those elements of society who supported the cause of non-Aaronite Levites.)
"The next morning the congregation of the people of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron, saying, "You have killed the people of YAHWEH." And when the congregation had assembled against Moses and against Aaron, they turned toward the tent of meeting; and behold, the cloud covered it, and the glory of YAHWEH appeared. And Moses and Aaron came to the front of the tent of meeting, and YAHWEH said to Moses, "Get away from the midst of this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment." And they fell on their faces." (Numbers Chapter 16 verse 41)
Plague began to spread through the congregation (note that plagues were more frequent that heavenly fire or sinkholes, and this 'threat' was more credible against the congregation, as things like this happened. It could then be suggested that these were caused by their rebellion against the Aaronite cause.) Moses turned immediately to Aaron who offered 'authorized' incense, being the only one who could offer incense and actually have a chance of making it work. Indeed, Aaron is the great hero of the book of Numbers. Older stories are recapitulated in this manuscript, such as the stories of the quail, with the difference that in Numbers horrors and plagues are appended to older myths, horrors which, of course, only Aaron could stop with his magical incense or his powerful goat sacrifice. The plague was halted and the rest of the people saved. Once again, this ridiculous tale of 'magic incense' and its great power of control over God (but only when offered correctly) is a transparent polemical device. It is an attempt to justify the cultic rituals and magical practices of the Jerusalem temple priesthood.
The polemic continues with the story of Aaron's rod. All challengers were invited to place their 'rod' beside the rod of Aaron, and God would demonstrate who would be allowed to be priest. There were many who came forward to challenge the authority of 'Aaron' and (by proxy, through the device of this polemic) the authority of 'the Aaronite priesthood' in the Jerusalem temple.
This is another clear indication that the attempt at compromise offered in the book of Numbers was unsatisfactory to the Levites who had been excluded by the temple priesthood (through the endlessly repeated fiction of 'hereditary rights' and 'descent from Aaron,' an ancient parallel to the mythology of 'the divine rights of kings,' nailed down by polemical appeals to 'the authority of Moses'.) However, as one can see when considering the calf narrative, 'the Aaronites' were not the only ones who could compose polemics, and, in the end, public support for the excluded Levites, also evidenced in the Numbers parables, made it the case that the Aaronites were not the only ones to get their polemics included in the Bible. This probably also goes a long way toward explaining the contradictory nature of the Bible, in that the Aaronites were not strong enough to exclude variant manuscripts, but, instead were forced to attempt to 'harmonize' them.
Of course, only Aaron's rod was blessed by God, thus settling the issue once and for all.
"And on the morrow Moses went into the tent of the testimony; and behold, the rod of Aaron for the house of Levi had sprouted and put forth buds, and produced blossoms, and it bore ripe almonds." (Numbers Chapter 17 verse 8)
And if you will believe that, well then that settles it, doesn't it?
The Numbers compromise caused more problems than it solved, and that it was ultimately unsuccessful is demonstrated by the inclusion of Non-Aaronite priestly polemics in the Bible. Deuteronomy ignores the divisive issue of 'Aaronite descent' and accords an equal status to all Levites, dispensing with the attempted 'compromise' found in the book of Numbers. The attempted power grab by a small faction of 'Aaronites' is commented on here, and rejected. The reference to 'the place that YAHWEH will choose' is a post temple polemical reference to the Jerusalem Temple, for it is a constant refrain in Deuteronomy that there is only one place for priestly service (the temple, of course). ALL LEVITES can serve in the temple, according to Deuteronomy. (The italics are mine.)
"And if a Levite comes from any of your towns out of all Israel, where he lives--and he may come when he desires--to the place which YAHWEH will choose, then he may minister in the name of YAHWEH his God, like all his fellow-Levites who stand to minister there before YAHWEH. They shall have equal portions." (Deuteronomy Chapter 18 verse 6)