We last noted the contradictory rebellion stories now stitched together in Numbers 16 (#246-250):
- From the Yahwist tradition: The rebellion of the Reubenites led by Dathan, Abiram, and On against Moses’ authority, to which Yahweh responds by opening up the earth and swallowing “them and all their households” (16:32); and
- From the Priestly source: The rebellion of the Kohathites led by Korah and his cohort of 250 chieftains against the Aaronid’s sole right to be priests, to which Yahweh responds by burning alive Korah, the 250 rebels with him, and all their property! (16:32, 35)
Numbers 17 continues with the Priestly narrative, and indeed all of Numbers 17:1-20:13 is uninterrupted Priestly material. Numbers 20-21 evidences another cut-and-paste job by our redactor of two versions of the Kadesh-Edom tradition, one of which is from P. We will look at that shortly.
In Numbers 17, the specific decree whose purpose the preceding rebellion narrative served, presented as “divinely-ordained,” and which not surprisingly advances the Aaronid’s ideology is finally pronounced:
- “No outsider, one who is not from Aaron’s seed, shall come forward to burn incense in front of Yahweh!” (17:5)
- “Everyone [all non-Aaronids] who comes close, who comes close to Yahweh’s Tabernacle, will die!” (17:28; cf. Num 3:10, 38)
Again, such pro-Aaronid legislation, legitimating by “divine” sanction the sole authority and prerogative of the Aaronid priesthood, is contradicted in pan-Levite texts such as Deuteronomy, which was written earlier than the Priestly source; so the Aaronids are writing and crafting a Yahweh who stands against the “divine” pronouncements of the pan-Levite text of Deuteronomy (see #152, #174, #177, #187, #214-216). This is merely one example of how Israel’s rival priestly guilds wrote texts to legitimate their positions over and against each other. Recall also how the Aaronid priestly writer pushes the supremacy of Aaron above that of Moses, the hero of the pan-Levites, in many of the Plague and Exodus stories while at the same time presenting Moses in less than flattering terms, such as his “uncircumcised lips”! (see #91, #93, #95, #97-98, #105).
At any event, the bronze fire-holders used by Korah and his cohort of 250 men have now become holy since they have come into contact with Yahweh’s shrine, Yahweh’s holiness. They therefore cannot return to the spacial realm of the common and profane. This priestly viewpoint—namely that anything that comes into contact with Yahweh’s sphere of holiness becomes holy, but in the case of non-Aaronid individuals death ensues—reminds me of a couple earlier contradictions. In the older Elohist and Deuteronomic traditions a guilty individual could seek refuge at Yahweh’s altar. But this is completely anathema to the Aaronid priests who saw their world divided into spacial categories of pure and impure. Such an individual in the priestly worldview would immediately die for touching Yahweh’s altar (#141). Recall also the contradictory Elohist tradition that has the non-Aaronid Joshua going into the Tent of Meeting! A huge no-no! (#166).
Thus, these fire-censers are to remain in the sphere of the holy; they now become the bronze to be hammered as plating for the altar. The problem, however—and I owe this contradiction to an observant reader (here)—is that the altar had already been plated with bronze and in a completely different context!
As a side, we should also note the contradictory law codes coming from the Sinai traditions as they now stand in Exodus 19-40. The older Elohist tradition has Yahweh commanding that his altars—plural—be made of earth, while at the same time the Priestly legislation which was inserted into the Sinai narrative at a later date has Yahweh contradictorily commanding at the same narrative time that he should have but one altar and it shall be made of acacia wood plated with bronze (#137-138).
At any event, the present contradictions, surprisingly, are between two Priestly texts. In this case, there were apparently 2 different traditions explaining the origin of the bronze plating of Yahweh’s altar. In reality, neither are probably historical!
It is interesting to look closely at the tradition preserved in Numbers 17. It is in fact an etiological story—the hammered bronze fire-holders, now the altar’s plating, serve to remind (“let them become a sign”) the Israelites of a later date, presumably those living when this text was written, that rebels against the Aaronid priesthood will be severely punished!
Additionally, it looks like the tradition preserved in Numbers 17 may have been the later of the two, and that its author was unaware of the existing tradition now mentioned in Exodus 38. The reason being, the earlier Deuteronomic version of this rebellion story (Deut 11:5-6), noted by my astute reader, only mentions the Yahwist components—Dathan and Abiram—and therefore must have been unaware of P’s version or it had not yet been written—since the stitching together of the Yahwist and Priestly versions had not yet occurred when the Deuteronomist wrote his text!
Also, although the version in Numbers 17 makes no mention of who specifically hammers the bronze down into the altar’s plating—it just says “they”—I have assumed paying strict attention to the Aaronid ideology, that since these fire-holders were holy that meant that only the Aaronids could touch them (Num 4:5-15).
Finally, I should bring my reader’s, John’s, reference to the LXX into this discussion, because it highlights certain aspects of textual criticism that I often don’t get the chance to mention. For readers that don’t know, the Septuagint (LXX) was a 3rd century BCE Greek translation of initially the Torah but then later it included the other Hebrew writings. Scholars who study the LXX have regularly noticed variations and differences in the text from the Masoretic Hebrew text, from which we get our English translations. It has been argued that the Masoretic text originates from the Babylonian recension—the edited text that our redactor(s) started while in exile in Babylon and which allegedly Ezra brought back to Palestine with the returnees (see Ezra). There were, however, other recensions that evidenced narrative differences, expansions, contradictions when compared to the Masoretic text (booyah!), and most significantly different ways that scribes redacted together our sources! We know of the Samaritan Pentateuch and the Hebrew original for the LXX translation, which was not the Babylonian recension, but rather a Palestinian version!—thus the apparent differences at times between Septuagint and Masoretic versions.
Here’s the different verse from the LXX. Can you guess, intelligently, what this translator was attempting to do?
He [Bezalel] made the brazen altar of the brazen censers, which belonged to the men engaged in sedition with the gathering of Core. (Ex 38:22)
It’s difficult to say off the cuff if this attempted harmonization between Numbers 17 and Exodus 38 was originally part of the Hebrew text and our translator merely translated it, or, more likely, if our translator himself added this into the text because he himself was aware of the contradictory origin behind the altar’s bronze plating and attempted to harmonize the two traditions. Apparently, however, what this other failed to acknowledge was that the Korah rebellion (Core in Greek) occurred 2 to 3 years after Bezalel made the altar and its bronze plating!