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.