Background Probability

The Agnostic Popular Front has moved to its new home at Skeptic Ink, and will henceforth be known as Background Probability. Despite the relocation and rebranding, we will continue to spew the same low-fidelity high-quality bullshit that you've come to expect.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Numbers 19:1-22:1 (Chukat)

Here we have the ritual law of the red heifer, a ritual which went by the wayside long ago, but which some folks are trying to bring back in Jerusalem, just as soon as the controversial third temple can be built. Because of the implications that this has for certain versions of Christian eschatology, this long-forgotten tradition, practically irrelevant to most self-identified followers of any of the Abhrahamic faiths, has taken on a whole new life in Jerusalem, at the crossroads of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Ian McEwan to unpack the details in a recent lecture at Stanford:

[P]rophetic believers are certain that Jesus will return at the height of the battle of Armageddon but his thousand year reign which will ensure the conversion of Jews and Muslims to Christianity or their extinction cannot begin until the third temple is built. And so it comes about that a cattle breeding operation emerges in Israel with the help of Texan, Christian fundamentalist ranchers to promote the birth of the perfect unspotted red calf and thereby we have to assume bring the end days a little closer. In 1997, there was great excitement as well as a good deal of press mockery when one promising candidate appeared. Months later this cherished young cow nicked its rump on a barbed wire fence causing white hairs to grow at the site of the wound and earning instant disqualification. Another red calf appeared in 2002 to general acclaim and then again later disappointment. In the tight squeeze of history, religion and politics that surround the Temple Mount, the calf is a minor item indeed but the search for it and the hope and the longing that surround it illustrates the dangerous tendency among prophetic believers to bring on the cataclysm that they think will lead to a form of paradise on earth. The reluctance of the current US administration to pursue in these past six years, a vigorous policy towards a peace settlement in the Israeli/Palestinian dispute, may owe less to the pressures of Jewish groups than to the eschatology of the Christian right.

Unlike just about any other passages in the Book of Numbers, the red heifer is seemingly entangled in matters of contemporary international foreign policy. This is, of course, utterly staggering to the average rationalist, who would expect the theory and practice of ritual sacrifice to have been firmly relegated to the dark ages by now.

Also, in this passage we have the miracle of a stone producing water, which Moses accomplishes by means of his magic wand, er, staff. In the days of Moses, conjurers had not yet realized that it is not the size of one's rod which counts, but rather the quality of the wood.

God gets angry at Moses and Aaron because Moses didn't cast an audible spell as divinely ordered, but instead went straight on to striking at the rock. So, once again we see the theme that magical rituals must be followed carried out precisely, or else we may expect divine retribution. Later in this passage, God kills Aaron in retribution for their failure to perform the miracle of the waters in the proper way. Well, at least no one gets burned alive this time.

Speaking of casting magical spells in bizarre ways, check out Numbers 21:4-9. The people complain (again) and the Lord send poisonous snakes. The people repent (again) and the Lord sends Moses a new spell which operates as anti-venom. You have to read this particular passage for yourself to get just how paganish it sounds.

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