Cowboys and farmers in Numbers 16

12 Moses sent to call Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab; and they said, “We won’t come up! 13 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, but you must also make yourself a prince over us? 14 Moreover you haven’t brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, nor given us inheritance of fields and vineyards. Will you put out the eyes of these men? We won’t come up.”

15 Moses was very angry, and said to Yahweh, “Don’t respect their offering. I have not taken one donkey from them, neither have I hurt one of them” (Numbers 16:12-15 WEB)

I called attention to Numbers 16 in a post based on James Hoffmeier’s book, Ancient Israel in Sinai. I focused on the story about the rebellion of Korah.

Critical scholars have long said that Korah’s rebellion is a separate story from the rebellion of Dathan and Abiriam. Korah’s story is about a division among the Levites. But Dathan and Abiram are from the tribe of Reuben and it is easy to separate their story from the other. Critics often assign the Dathan and Abiram story to the J source. The Korah story get assigned to the P source, since it deals with a dispute among priestly clans.

When I read an online article by David Frankel, linked  here, called Datan and Abiram: A Rebellion of the Shepherds in the Land of Israel I got a new perspective on this. He suggests that the phrase “to kill us in the wilderness” in verse 13 was added by an editor. Its function is to put the story in the category of wilderness complaints. However, the story makes more sense as something set during the Israelite settlement, perhaps the beginnings of settlement in the area of Reuben east of the Jordan.

The claim not to have stolen anyone’s donkey (verse 15) has a parallel with Samuel in 1 Samuel 12:3.  Donkey’s were domestic animals used for plowing or carrying small loads.  They were not usually herd animals.  Their mention favors a setting of settlement rather than wilderness wandering.

So what were Dathan and Abiram really complaining about? Frankel’s idea is that they were complaining about Moses bringing them to a land that required backbreaking farm work. In Egypt the Nile made agriculture less labor intensive. The people seem to have kept livestock on good grazing land there. But in the new environment shepherding was more difficult and, if they settled down, they could only make the earth produce by strenuous labor.

This would call for a complaint in verse 14 like this: “ Moreover you haven’t brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, instead you have given us an inheritance of fields and vineyards.” Rather than settling us in a land like Egypt, you’ve put us in dry hills and wadis where you want us to make fields and vineyards by our hard work.  But part of the tribe of Reuben chose to become nomads rather than dig cisterns and build terraces.

Then Frankel applies this to verse 15 about the disrespected offering. This recalls Cain and Abel. Also it perhaps recalls the story in Joshua 22 about Reuben and Gad setting up their own altar, which nearly causes a war between the tribes.

Frankel sees the true context for the passage as conflict between grazing and farming that has emerged in many eras and many cultures. He points out that the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests at the end of the monarchies probably upset the agricultural system and forced people to survive by falling back on grazing and milking. Isaiah 7:21-25 predicts such a future.

Frankel, though, is not really trying to date the story that late. I take it that he is just pointing out a cultural context that may have existed in the Iron Age. Without taking the story literally or historically, he sees it as a story of Moses calling for a sacrifice that the Dathan and Abiram refuse to share in, thus explaining an early religious and cultural parting of the ways in the Transjordan.




About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
This entry was posted in Ancient Israel, Bible and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Cowboys and farmers in Numbers 16

  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

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