The books of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy form the bulk of the Hebrew law, or Torah. Each text mixes procedural instructions and legal matters with a variety of narrative voices and action. The separate books are probably the collected writings of priests with different interests and perspectives, written sometime during Israel’s tumultuous exile in the seventh and sixth centuries b.c. The three works document an important stage in the development of Israel’s identity as a people and a nation. The prose is frequently arduous and repetitive, but it functions as a long, concentrated pause in the narrative of the Old Testament. Israel’s wandering in the desert can be seen as the nation’s adolescence—a period of education and growth following the nation’s birth in the exodus from Egypt and the events at Mount Sinai.
The fact that the Israelites’ punishment for certain infractions is to isolate or expel the offending individual from the camp demonstrates the extraordinary desire of the people to remain part of the community. The Israelite camp is set up in concentric circles with the tabernacle at its center: Moses and Aaron are closest to the tabernacle, followed by the Levites who care for it, and the rest of the tribes surround them. Since uncleanness bars a person from approaching the sacred religious items, physical impurity places one farthest from the center of Israel. In this way, God’s injunctions challenge the Israelites to strive to remain near the nation’s center. The distinction between purity and impurity helps promote a distinction between an accepted, privileged “us” and an outcast “them” who are outside the circle of the community.
Moses’s emphasis on the word “heart” in his sermons is also critical to Israel’s understanding of itself as a unified people. Moses describes the physical and external regulations of the law by using spiritual and internal imagery. He says, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart” (Deuteronomy 6:6). The idea that Israel as a whole has a “heart” or a group of “hearts” suggests that the nation has developed a set of personal or private experiences over the forty years of wandering in the desert. This waiting period distances Israel from Egypt and the laws at Mount Sinai, forcing the nation to form a collective memory of these events. When Moses instructs the people, “You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul,” he encourages them to internalize and embrace these collective, national memories (Deuteronomy 11:18). Moses portrays the religious laws no longer as a list of actions to be performed in the future but as sacred words and ideas that are a part of a past and an internal life that is unique to Israel.
The description of God as loving and compassionate in Deuteronomy is perplexing in light of God’s intense wrath in Numbers. Moses, however, seems to see God’s violent reaction to Israel’s complaints and infidelities as an exercise or a test of Israel’s commitment to the covenant. Indeed, God’s destruction follows a consistent pattern in Numbers: the people complain and wish to return to Egypt; God threatens to destroy the people; Moses or another representative intercedes on behalf of the people; and God relents, punishing only a portion of Israel’s population. The climax in these exercises occurs when representatives of the people speak on behalf of Israel. The moment of intercession when the plague is stopped by Aaron running into the crowd or by Eleazar’s son stabbing the man and his foreign mistress are both climactic. Man’s intercession does not require God to stop his destruction, but it creates the opportunity for Israel’s leaders to display religious zeal and for God to show his mercy. God manifests his compassion and love not by what he does, but by what he does not do. Israel emerges from these encounters as a nation that has survived trials and hardship—a resilient people, with its weakest members now weeded out.