Thursday, 17 June 2010

Skeptics' Parshat Hashavua: Parshat Chukat

Bamidbar (Numbers) Chapter 21

יג  מִשָּׁם, נָסָעוּ, וַיַּחֲנוּ מֵעֵבֶר אַרְנוֹן אֲשֶׁר בַּמִּדְבָּר, הַיֹּצֵא מִגְּבֻל הָאֱמֹרִי:  כִּי אַרְנוֹן גְּבוּל מוֹאָב, בֵּין מוֹאָב וּבֵין הָאֱמֹרִי. 13 From thence they journeyed, and pitched on the other side of the Arnon, which is in the wilderness, that cometh out of the border of the Amorites.--For Arnon is the border of Moab, between Moab and the Amorites;
יד  עַל-כֵּן, יֵאָמַר, בְּסֵפֶר, מִלְחֲמֹת יְהוָה:  אֶת-וָהֵב בְּסוּפָה, וְאֶת-הַנְּחָלִים אַרְנוֹן. 14 wherefore it is said in the book of the Wars of the LORD: Vaheb in Suphah, and the valleys of Arnon,
טו  וְאֶשֶׁד, הַנְּחָלִים, אֲשֶׁר נָטָה, לְשֶׁבֶת עָר; וְנִשְׁעַן, לִגְבוּל מוֹאָב. 15 And the slope of the valleys that inclineth toward the seat of Ar, and leaneth upon the border of Moab.--

This is one of the more puzzling passages in this week's parsha.  Many commentators try to deal with is what exactly is this "Book of the Wars of the Lord" and more importantly what is the BOTWOTL trying to tell us?

There are many explanations for this in the commentaries but the simple meaning of these verses is that the Torah just made a statement that Arnon is the border between the Amorites and Moab. The Torah then cites evidence for this from a passage from another book called "BOTWOTL". (This is basically how the Ramban understands it) This is AFAIK the only place in the entire Pentateuch where another work is explicitly cited.

Now this brings us to a bit of a theological issue. The problem is that this citing of another book is rather un-Godly behavior. Orthodoxy believes that God pretty much wrote the whole Torah. Why is an omniscient God bringing proof to his assertion that Arnon is the border of Moav from an external source? Can't we trust the omniscient God that he knows where the border of the Amorites and Moav lies. Does the textual evidence from the BOTWOL  add anything to God's infallible word? This is roughly equivalent to a 40 year old senior proffesor citing a passage from a high school essay for support.  Even if the BOTWOL is also a book written by God still the question remains why does the omniscient God need to cite any sort of support for anything he says?

I'm sorry to say but this whole passage seems very human to me.

Now for something completely different:

I really enjoyed reading all the comments to my post How I Became Skeptical Part II: My Pandora's Box. If anyone is interested in contributing a sort of "guest post" along the same lines then send it to me a I would be interested to know:

1. What did you used to believe?

2. What do you believe now?

3. What was the exact catalyst that got you to start questioning your former world view.

4. How did that moment make you feel? How did you react? How did thing unfold after that?

It could even be from Chareidism to Modern Orthodox. I just find the concepts of "the one moment that changed everything" or the "sudden lifting of the veil" fascinating. (Apparently the Greeks did too when they made the Pandora's Box story)




Anonymous said...

...and why would God, who knows the future, reference a book that's no longer in print? How could that reference mean anything to me?

Shilton HaSechel said...

I think a lot of clever religious people believe that the Torah's primary audience was the generation it was written in but at the same time the Torah is still valid for all time.

Tamir said...

Why is an omniscient God bringing proof to his assertion that Arnon is the border of Moav from an external source?

I think, from the wording of the verses you bring, you've got it back to front: because "Arnon is the border of Moab, between Moab and the Amorites", therefore( the translation, as you quote it, uses 'wherefore') "it is said in the book of the Wars of the LORD ...". This I take to mean that the quote is based on God's assertion, not the other way round.

The question should be, rather:
Why does God take the bother to prove a quote from another book with "his assertion that Arnon is the border of Moav" ?

Shilton HaSechel said...


I think the language of על כן could go in either direction. But still you make a good point that might take the force out of my question.

I guess you could ask the same thing every time the Torah says "such and such a place is called such and such because of such and such" Is the Torah bringing proof to back it up or is it just explaining why the place is called what it is.

MKR said...

Well, here is what J. H. Hertz says in his comment on the passage "the book of the Wars of the LORD" (Pentateuch and Haftorahs, 661): "The lines from that book quoted here support the statement that Arnon was the border of Moab. There is no further mention of this book in the whole of Scripture. Ibn Ezra says, 'It was an independent book, in which were written the records of the wars waged by God on behalf of those that fear Him. Many books have been lost and are no longer extant among us; e.g. the Words of Nathan and Iddo, and the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel.'"

More interesting, perhaps, is the next part of the comment, which is a quotation from Samson Raphael Hirsch: "'The Book of the Wars of the Lord, like the Sefer Hayashar (Josh. X, 13 and II Sam. I, 18) is a proof that there was no absence of literary activity in the days of Moses. It furthermore proves that the Torah is not the result of such literary activity, otherwise the alleged compiler could have indicated his sources as he has done in this instance'" (emphasis added). Hirsch's reasoning seems to be: the fact that this passage contains an attribution of certain words to another text confirms the divine origin of the Torah; for if the Torah were NOT of divine origin, it would (or could?) furnish references to its sources all over the place, rather than merely in this one passage and a couple of others. The counterfactual hypothetical here seems to me utterly bizarre.

Shilton HaSechel said...

Lol! I remember reading that in shul once and thinking "Jeez, thanks, Hertz chumash, for putting all my doubts to rest."

anon said...

SH - great post. Yet more dirt on the jewish tribal god yaweh, who was a war god no less !

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