* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Numbers 1-4: Counting People and Organizing a Society

Thus far, we've looked at the first three books of the protestant Christian Bible, which are traditionally attributed to Moses, although scholars have determined that the books were authored by several different contributors over a long period of time.  Thus far, the books have largely been about the preservation of Israelite culture, primarily through belief in an external divine being who favors the Jewish people somewhat arbitrarily.  Part of the establishment of this religiously rigorous culture involved elaborate sacrifices for various things, essentially giving up something personal to make amends when one acts contrary to the culture's policies.  A special group of people were assigned to oversee the religious life of the Jewish people, and these were the Levites, those men descended from Levi, Jacob's third son.  More about the Levites in a moment.

Rather than accept the culture-specific deity suggested in the Old Testament, most Christians primarily rely on the story of Jesus and the teachings of the New Testament to bridge the gap.  Essentially this reflects the belief that over time, as culture changed and developed, spiritual truth evolved as well.  It is no longer necessary to offer elaborate animal sacrifices whenever a person does something wrong, because Jesus eliminated that requirement.  It is no longer necessary to adhere to strict dietary guidelines, because Peter had a holy vision.  And in some cases, people just assume that the Bible's earlier teachings are invalid because we have grown in our understanding of how the world works.  We don't hang twisted sticks by a water trough in order to make livestock be born with curly hair because we know that biology doesn't work that way, and we don't worry about whether a person is "clean" or "unclean" because hygienic and medical practices have become more robust in the thousands of years since these laws were written.  What's odd is that many people seem to be just fine with the idea that some "laws" can change with the culture, while other laws are immutable, even though they are all declared with the same authority in the biblical text.

In my own language, I have been suggesting a redefinition of the divine as something within us rather than something apart from us.  Rather than eliminating the idea of what people consider divine, to a certain extent I am merely repositioning those qualities in our cosmology.  I believe that there is no external intelligence watching, guiding, punishing, and rewarding humanity.  The guidance and punishment and reward comes from within us, from a part of ourselves of which we aren't always aware.  Psychologists have given different names to this piece of our psyches, but it carries the characteristics of the divine.  This part of us does not fear, and therefore it does not deceive.  It is the part of us that sees the deep truth about ourselves and the people around us, the vast similarities that lie under the superficial differences.  It is the part of us that understands the beauty and value of who we are and seeks to discover that beauty in other people and in the natural world.  It is the part of us that creates, whether it is creating works of art, practical solutions to problems, or connections with other people.  The divine is within us and it is us, and when we are in tune with it, we realize how little we actually have to do to be at peace with ourselves.

Being at peace with ourselves is important, because all of our experience hinges on whether we are accepting and loving toward ourselves.  The beginning of the book of Numbers reflects how the Israelites expected to interact with the people around them.  Their god, through Moses, had proclaimed that other nations would fall before them.  Other nations were essentially infidels, although the translators of the Christian Bible don't often choose to use that term.  The preservation of a pure Israelite culture required the prevention of intermingling, so anyone who wasn't an Israelite was an enemy of the Israelites and their god.  Thus when the first census is taken among the Israelite community, they count only the men at least twenty years old who could serve in the army.  They didn't need to know how many women or children were in each tribe because the warriors were the ones who would be driving away the non-Israelites.  At the time, women and children were essentially property, not fully recognized people.

It's interesting to note that when a command in the Bible is attributed to God, he often seems to adopt the worldview of the people through which he's speaking.  Since the men of the day saw women and children as property, God saw no point in counting women and children in the census.  There are also plenty of other examples in the previous books and in the books that follow.  Wouldn't it have made more sense for God to maintain a sense of the value of all human life, even when the people to whom he was speaking didn't?  This is the problem with relying upon any person's declaration of what God wants.

Moses meant well.  After all, he wanted to preserve his people and their culture.  The authors who wrote the Old Testament meant well.  They were striving to keep their culture sacred.  They probably actually believed the righteousness of their words.  But when a person sets out to control other people's behavior, it is usually more from an inward fear than from any sense of what is true.  Moses tapped into some divine guidance from within and sought to impose order on a people who hadn't reached any measure of spiritual awareness.  And instead of training people to look within themselves and discover the truth about how to live with one another in a productive and healthy society, Moses and the early Israelite leaders attempted to lock the culture down.  Only a select few were allowed to be in touch with the divine, and all the rest hundreds of thousands of men, plus their women and children were supposed to be good followers and do what the religious leaders told them to do.

These religious leaders, at the beginning of the book of Numbers and beyond, were the Levites.  The Levites were counted differently from the rest of the Israelites, because the Levites were not going to be fighting in any battles.  Instead of counting every male of twenty years and older, the Levite census included every male of one month and older.  One month out in the world was when a male Levite became a legitimate person according to God.  Not at birth.  Not at conception.  Not at some age of reckoning.  One month.  Inerrantists and militantly religious anti-abortionists, take note.

We know more now than the Israelites knew.  We know more about the natural world, we know more about how individuals behave and why, and we know more about how societies and subcultures function.  When someone tells us something intended to sound factual, we know how to check our sources and verify the truth of what we're told.  And when someone tells us something spiritual, we know how to test that within ourselves.  We are not incapable of thought.  We don't need someone else to think for us, but that often seems easier than digging into ourselves and discovering something of value.  When you allow someone else to think for you, though, you give up personal power and you make yourself vulnerable to whatever ulterior motives another person may have.  Don't just drift along on other people's assertions.  At least be aware of your own beliefs.  Think for yourself.

The Israelite leaders may have wanted what they thought was best for their society, but that doesn't mean they had the only solution.  Many people today are willing to go to war against all manner of things in order to do what they think is best for society, and many people simply want to preserve power.  It isn't always easy to tell the difference, but fortunately we don't have to.  Here is something few people realize: You cannot be at peace with yourself and at war with other people.  When you are at war with other people, you must vigilantly defend yourself against them.  And when you are vigilantly defending yourself, you are not really aware of that deep sense of truth, beauty, and creativity.  Your focus is outward, at what threats may be coming.  When you are peace with yourself, you are aware of the truth, beauty, and creativity within you and you are simultaneously able to recognize those qualities in the people around you.  This is the most powerful spiritual position a person can assume.


  1. "One month out in the world was when a male Levite became a legitimate person according to God."

    This is a bit of a leap. There are only two direct references to the one month requirement:

    3:14-15 -- The Lord said to Moses in the Desert of Sinai, “Count the Levites by their families and clans. Count every male a month old or more.”

    3:39 -- The total number of Levites counted at the Lord’s command by Moses and Aaron according to their clans, including every male a month old or more, was 22,000.

    There's a difference between the practicalities of running a society and making statements about who the Israelites -- much less God -- regard as legitimate persons. We must remember that the infant mortality rates were much higher than we experience today. The one month requirement was probably based on the higher odds of an infant surviving once having reached a month in age – and therefore, it made more sense to count them.

    And so we must be careful when we put words into the mouth of God, lest we misunderstand his nature. God actually values every person, regardless of gender or age. There are multiple examples of this, but Psalm 139 is perhaps the best (in the Old Testament). It tells of God knitting us together in our mothers’ wombs – a clear reference to the value that the Jewish people placed on the unborn.

    To my knowledge, Jewish people also cherish women, and always have. Did Jewish women have equal rights, as we understand that concept today? Certainly not.

    But I challenge you to consider this census through a different lens. What if you think about the *men* being objectified, seen as mere military pawns, almost disposable? And what if counting them were more akin to counting assets, or pawns, or widgets?

    And what if we see the women and children not being counted because they are too precious to ever be “used” in battle? They must be protected, no matter their number, no matter the cost.

    I am not suggesting that this different lens is necessarily accurate; I am merely suggesting that there are multiple lenses.

    And let us remember that Judaism is a matrilineal culture – membership is handed down by mothers to their children. Women may not have had the same rights as men, but they were -- and are -- certainly revered within the culture.

  2. It's possible. I wasn't meaning to suggest that women were valueless to the Israelites, just that their perspective thousands of years ago was very different from ours. I tend to think that Moses (or other Israelite leaders) wanted to control the society as tightly as possible and used the concept of God to reinforce that control.

    Incidentally, your infant mortality idea would make a little more sense to me if the one-month-olds from every tribe were counted. Only the able-bodied men (military pawns) were counted from the other tribes. Although the Levites were given a role to play, is it reasonable to assume that a one-month-old could fulfill that societal role better than a three-week-old?

    Of course there is also biblical precedent for considering life to begin at conception, as you point out. But if we are to conclude anything about what God really thinks, we are making an assumption either way, and usually people tend to believe that God thinks like they do. There are people who would say that God has predestined some people for Hell, and that there is nothing that anyone can ultimately do for them because God has already determined their fate. These people find "evidence" in the Bible for their perspective and they preach it from pulpits and on radio broadcasts. That doesn't mean they know any more about God than you or I, they've just made interpretations and assumptions.

    Just because the leaders in ancient Judaism handled situations a particular way doesn't mean that they were any wiser than we are, and it doesn't mean that their way was the only "right" way to do things. Looking to a record of how an ancient culture operated can be interesting and informative, but it shouldn't be viewed as the only correct template for how we operate today. We are not ancient Israelites.

    Which is why I go back to my point: it's important to consider what we are told to believe very carefully. If we let other people do our thinking for us, we give up a piece of our own spiritual identity. I don't want to think for other people, either -- but I do enjoy getting other people thinking.

  3. I think the one month mark was probably a bureaucratic guideline in the name of orderliness. Think about our age requirement to vote, or for the presidency: aren't there 17 year olds that are better qualified to vote than 18 year olds? Isn't it possible that a 34 year old might be the best qualified person in the nation to run our country? Yes to both -- but we need a guideline, and so we created one.

    As a Catholic and a Christian, I certainly do not hold the ancient Israelites as any sort of standard for behavior. In many ways, the Old Testament can be seen as an account of how to screw up royally, over and over again. In fact, my understanding is that even to later Israelites, for whom Moses, Joshua and the judgers were heroes, look back with a fair amount of uneasiness at the Old Testament writings, especially where holy war (and the corresponding atrocities) are concerned. That was back in the bad old days, when the people were being formed... it was a life and death struggle between the ancients and the Canaanites.

    The point is, I think it is rare to encounter anyone holding up every aspect of the ancient Israelite culture as an ideal.

    But I couldn't agree with you more -- we MUST consider our beliefs carefully. And they MUST be our own beliefs. Otherwise, what we you have? Nothing.

  4. Bear in mind that my purpose is not strictly to build Christians' understanding of their holy text. I think that the Bible has some spiritual value, which is why I decided to use it as a launching point. My goal is to articulate a post-Christian understanding of human spirituality that places the concept of the divine where I think it belongs -- within people rather than outside of them. That's not a view I expect you to share, given your faith, but (as we have seen) it can get people to very similar world views.

    Your personal Christian perspective is not the template for all people who call themselves Christian, however. There are some Americans who consider themselves to be Christian, who indeed have a significant following, who look to the Old Testament as the model for what human behavior should look like. These are the fundamentalists who miss Jesus' message almost entirely in a desire to have the kinds of social controls the early Israelite leaders were striving for when they were first establishing Judaism as a culture. If I am to branch off from the Bible in a different direction, I believe it is important to establish what's wrong with the extremism, inerrantism, and judgmentalism that has become influential in certain segments of so-called Christian Conservative thought.

    The people who are using their minds and their ability to reason (whatever source they credit for it) are the last people I'm concerned about. I think those people are likely to arrive at the same conclusions as I about how to view themselves, other people, and the world, even if they arrive at those conclusions by a different spiritual path.

  5. Let’s be clear – you’re speaking to bone-headed, misguided Christians. But aren’t there bone-headed misguided atheists, too? If so, why then is there a need to branch off in a different direction from the Bible? It won’t solve the problem of having bone-headed people who refuse to think for themselves. Instead, why not seek a deeper, truer understanding of the Bible and live its message as best we can?

    Let me offer a secular analogy that in many ways will fall short, but it will sufficiently illustrate my point. We can make a generalization that Americans are -- in general -- lazy, ignorant slobs, can we not? We wouldn’t have to look very far to support such a generalization. And let’s say, for arguments sake, that such a generalization is correct. Would that justify throwing out the Constitution? Certainly not. For hundreds of years, the Constitution has served as a beacon of democracy and justice, a model for other countries. If Americans are not living out the ideals of that great document, it is a tragedy to be sure, but the answer is not to throw out the document.

    And similarly, there is no need to branch off in a different direction from the Bible. Sure, there are bone-headed Christians in the world – just as there are lazy ignorant Americans. Let’s make them less bone-headed, not less Christian. Let’s make Americans less ignorant, not less American. The answer, in both cases, is education.

    I can easily imagine that you will say, “But there is no need for God or any other kind of external force. Everything we need is within us, our divine selves.”

    But is trying to live a life without God, completely dependent on the self, any less close-minded as those who would claim to live without need for science or reason, completely dependent on God? You know the kind of people I’m talking about: the ones who put their fingers in their ears and say, “La-la- la- lahhhh” when the word “evolution” is uttered. They don’t need to understand the universe, because God will provide. If they need a job, they don’t go look for one, they wait for the phone to miraculously ring, because God will provide.

    Similarly, atheism seems to say (as far as I understand, and I have much to learn): I don’t need to understand hope, or love, or truth, or beauty. I see that certain aspects of life transcend evolution and nature, but I don’t need to understand why they don’t fit. I don’t need to know what was there before the Big Bang, or how life, which can only come from life, suddenly sprang up somehow. My model of understanding has holes in it, but I’m okay with that, because what I have within me is good enough. I don’t need anything else.

    This, to me, is unacceptable, for two reasons. First, humans are imperfect, and they fail – a lot. There are no exceptions – everyone has done something wrong in their lives, to varying levels, and they will likely do more wrong before they die. If we resign to be dictated by our inner selves, we are doomed to fail. Each person’s inner self would have to be respected as fully equal, which sounds great until a group of inner selves decides to commit genocide. Lacking a common moral code, society would crumble.

    Second, this atheistic model is simply unable to account for life’s most important aspects. Love and truth are essential to what makes us human, and yet our humanity alone cannot explain it. There is no reason for either of them to exist.

    You wrote that we should use our minds and our ability to reason, regardless of its source – and that’s exactly why atheism isn’t enough. I can’t just stop asking questions, and stop seeking the truth, because “the self is good enough.” It isn’t good enough, and I won’t stop. My sense of reason demands more.

  6. And so it seems we have three groups: 1) those who are closed to any challenge to their religious faith, even to the point of denying scientific facts; 2) those who are closed to the idea of any kind of a supernatural force, who are content with humanity as the highest expression of anything close to a deity; and 3) those who are open to the possibility that God, science, and reason can and do co-exist, a train of thought that is so open as to be bound only by its boundlessness, and is inexhaustible in its search for the truth.

    It is only in this third group’s line of thinking that all of the variables we’ve mentioned can be accounted for – but it ain’t easy. This belief system requires an open mind and the humility to admit that our human nature, our inner selves, is severely lacking.

    (P.S. I meant to write 'judges,' not 'judgers,' in my previous comment!)

  7. There are bone-headed, misguided people in every tradition and culture, to be sure. And there are people who are profoundly connected to themselves and other people who also believe in God. Honestly, I don't really think I'm writing for anyone who chooses to live an unexamined life. I get that I'm writing for people who are willing to think, regardless of their non-negotiable beliefs.

    I happen to think that man invented the concept of gods, and I see many ways in which the God-concept has been (and continues to be) abused without any real accountability. Since you can't argue with God, you also can't argue with people who claim to know what God wants, because their conviction doesn't require any thought or insight, it just requires them to say "God said so." So, the God-concept itself may not be a bad thing, but people's willingness to abuse it is. Since I believe that the concept is made up to begin with, I choose to do away with a concept that is ripe for abuse.

    The Bible is the core resource for people who abuse the God-concept. It's immutability is part of the problem. It was written for specific groups of people in cultures that no longer exist as they did thousands of years ago. While it does contain some spiritual truth, it also contains a lot of cultural baggage. If I knew the Quran as well as I know the Bible, I would probably find it to be an equally compelling jumping off point, but in American culture the Bible is the go-to source for most claims about the character of the divine. So, I'm using it as a starting point for creating something new. Maybe it was a misstep to start with the Bible, but I have a feeling I would be confronted with what the Bible says sooner or later if I were to put forth a new way of thinking about spirituality.

    You mention the Constitution as a point of comparison. There is one huge difference: The Constitution was designed to grow and evolve with the nation. When it was originally written, women and people of color were not given the consideration that they are today. The culture changed, though, so the Constitution was modified to fit the culture. The Bible hasn't been updated or amended for centuries.

    It's true that humans are imperfect. The God of the Bible is also either imperfect or incomprehensible. If he's perfect and merely incomprehensible, then I don't understand why "God did it" is any better answer than "I don't know." To say that God created the universe begs the question, "How did God create the universe?" Take that question back far enough and you wind up with the same lack of an answer that you dislike about relying solely on what we can understand through science. So human imperfection is going to impact human understanding no matter what belief system one chooses.

  8. You may be looking at failure in a very different way than I do, though. I think failure is one step in a process of learning and growing. You only truly fail if you stop trying. But when you say that if we rely on our own strengths and abilities, we are doomed to fail I assume you mean as a species, since you start by saying that individuals fail all the time. And yet, Christianity has been abused to justify abuse, oppression, and genocide, too. How is that any better? It looks from here that societies already lack a common moral code when you get beyond the broad strokes, even among people who claim the label of Christian. Moreover, the concept of God allows people to abdicate responsibility for their personal actions. If people were on the whole more aware of how their inner selves are dictating their actions, it would be very difficult to deny personal responsibility for the way we treat ourselves, other people, and the world around us.

    I also happen to believe that when people look to what truly resides within them, they will find the source for all of the so-called divine qualities we attribute to God. We have relocated those characteristics outside of ourselves, but since I believe that man created his gods and not the other way around, I am confident that there is a source for that concept of divinity within us.

    So, regarding your groups, I think there is at least a fourth possibility for a person to have conviction about personal beliefs and still allow for other people to have their own convictions without going haywire. I don't think that God exists, but I am happy to have a conversation about faith and spirituality with someone who does. That doesn't mean that I have to set aside my beliefs to do so, though. If something is said that really clicks for me, I can reserve the right to modify my own beliefs accordingly. I think that is what spiritual growth looks like when it comes down to it.