In kindergarten, I constructed a feather and Native American headband from construction paper. Right before Thanksgiving, we were learning how our country was settled. Throughout the colonies, our brave first settlers had to guard against the evil, mean Native Americans. But in one pocket of the country, as settlers struggled to create a sustainable life, they bonded with these savages and, in the process, learned to work the land with Native Americans’ methods. Once harvested, the fruits of this knowledge were used for a feast, one that gave thanks for this life-saving knowledge.
This nice tale illustrates a good moral about working together, etc. But it also omits a lot—why the Native Americans hated the early settlers as well as the slaughter involved on both sides. Some of the early settlers were perhaps minding their own business, making their way in a foreign land, and were often victims of harsh violence meted out by savage Native Americans. Did anybody ask for the Native Americans’ account? How would we have felt if a bunch of foreigners encroached on our land, gathered our once plentiful resources, and attempted to impose their ways of life on us?
Numbers promotes one side of this era: only the Israelites’ journey to reach the Promised Land. Admittedly, their laborious journey took its toll. But that doesn’t mean they were perfect either, and based on the hostile reaction to their presence, there had to be another side to the story, some important details that explain why God had zero problem wiping out WHOLE towns and then telling the Israelites to take EVREYTHING for themselves. Ouch. Since the details never surface, we’re just to take God’s word for it that all of these people deserved it. (Something vague about them believing in other gods, etc.)
And although much of Numbers deals with men specifically—like the two censuses collected—women and children are not spared. Men are first targeted, signaling mercy for women and children on the party of the Israelite army. For example, after slaughtering ALL the men in one city, the returning army presents the women and children to Moses, who is disgusted. He immediately orders all the women and children (yes, children) to be butchered. Oh wait, except the female virgins. They might come in handy (31:15-17). You might perhaps be able to argue that adults make their own choices—and thereby responsible for their sins, etc. But children?
This action is even worse when, in constant lectures, the sanctity of life is espoused and then contradicted on such a LARGE scale. We’re not even told these people are given a chance. Furthermore, the most details we get involves the town of Edom, who—based on what we read—are unjustly turned away (20:17-20). This seemed like the best justification for retribution. Yet this is the only town seemingly spared God’s fury—the fact that this town is populated by distant relatives of the Israelites suggests why. But still. Seems like MORE of a reason to be angry with them.
Given all this violence, what happened to the idea that “bloodshed pollutes the land” (35:33)? Seems hypocritical to say violence is justified in some instances and not in others. It also suggests that some human beings are more important than others. This was certainly the idea I was pitched in kindergarten, one that I thankfully revised. But I had to actively revise this—I looked for information. If you took these stories at face value—without questioning—could the same mistake be made? I’m not saying the Israelites weren’t justified in their warfare; I’m just saying that I don’t have the full story.
Perhaps Mel Gibson can adapt Numbers for his next film. I’m sure he’ll clarify it for us.