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Divine Command and Human Initiative: A Literary View On Numbers 25-31

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Numbers 25-31 is a literary unit that has puzzled many scholars. Between the divine command to go to war against the Midianites and its fulfillment appear stories and laws that interfere with the logical expected narrative. This article suggests dealing with this issue by looking into the 'Deep Structure' of these chapters. Opening this segment is the story of God's command to Moses. The command once fulfilled is to pacify the divine wrath now being inflicted on Israel. Immediately following this divine speech Phine-has slays the sinners Zimri and Cozbi on his own initiative, and thus the divine wrath is quieted. This episode raises the issue of divine command verses human initiative. The chapters following Phinehas' act, chs. 25-31, deal with this matter. They do so through a unique structure comprised of three pairs of stories or laws. These pairs maintain a permanent interaction between divine command and voluntary human initiative relating to that command. The unit expands on this interaction while focusing on three aspects that have surfaced in the story of Phinehas' zeal: the undermining of Moses' authority, women's place in religious rituals, and the bringing of sacrifice to God. Positioning this unit between the command to attack the Midianites and its fulfillment focuses the reader's attention on the tension raised by the story of Phinehas, tension that unravels as the unit advances.

Affiliations: 1: Bar-Ilan University


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