by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah
Moses reaches the end of his rope in last week’s Torah portion, and protests to God:
Did I myself become pregnant with all this people, or did I myself give birth to them, that you say to me: Carry them in your bosom, like the omein carries the one who suckles, to the land that You swore to their forefathers? … I am not able to carry all this people by myself alone, because they are too heavy for me! If At must do thus to me, please kill me altogether, if I have found favor in Your eyes, and don’t let me see my badness! (Numbers/Bemidbar 11:12-15)
omein (אֹמֵן) = guardian, substitute parent. (The feminine form, omenet (אֹמֶנֶת) means a wet nurse or nanny. Moses views himself as both omein and omenet. See my post Beha-alotkha: Moses as Wet-Nurse.)
at (אַתְּ) = you, feminine form. (The masculine form of “you” is atah, אַתָּה.)
I think Moses’ use of the feminine form here alludes to God’s responsibility for the people. If Moses is like an omenet for the Israelites, so is God.
In this week’s Torah portion, Shelach-Lekha (“Send for yourself”), the God character reaches the end of his (or her) rope.
God said to Moses: How long will this people spurn me, and how long lo ya-aminu me, despite all the signs that I have performed in their midst? (Numbers 14:11)
lo ya-aminu = will they not trust. Lo (לֹא) = not. Ya-aminu (יַאֲמִינוּ) = they will believe, be convinced by, put trust in, have faith in, rely upon.
Ya-aminu comes from the same root verb, aman (אמן), as the nouns omein and omenet. An omein and an omenet must be reliable so that their young charges can believe and trust them.
Both Moses and God are reliable parental substitutes during the Israelites’ journey from Egypt to Mount Sinai. Whenever something bad happens—the Egyptian army catching up with them at the Reed Sea, or a shortage of water or food—the people panic, afraid that their god has abandoned them. Each time, Moses speaks to God, and God takes care of the problem.
One breach of trust is recorded in the book of Exodus/Shemot: the episode of the Golden Calf. Moses and God take turns becoming enraged; Moses has 3,000 calf-worshiping men killed by the sword, and God strikes down many of the survivors. Moses has to talk God out of annihilating the Israelites altogether.
After that, the remaining Israelites spend a quiet year eating God’s manna and fabricating the tent sanctuary and its holy objects. God issues rules with dire penalties, but does not kill any more people—until the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, after they leave Mount Sinai.
In this week’s Torah portion, the people reach the wilderness of Paran on the border of Canaan. Moses sends twelve men to scout out the land, and they return 40 days later with a gigantic grape cluster as well as pomegranates and figs. Ten of the scouts report that the human inhabitants of Canaan are also gigantic, and say:
We are not able to go up against that population, because it is stronger than we! …and all the people that we saw in its midst were men of unusual size …and we were in our own eyes like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes. (13:31-33)
The ten pessimistic scouts assume the Israelites would have to conquer Canaan by their own efforts, without any help from God. The rest of the Israelite men—except for Moses, Aaron, and the other two scouts, Caleb and Joshua—make the same assumption. The people weep all night, complaining:
If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or in this wilderness, if only we had died! And why is God bringing us to this land to fall by the sword? And our young children will be the [enemy’s] plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to return to Egypt?—So they said, each man to his brother: Let us pick a leader and return to Egypt! (Numbers 14:2-4)
The next morning everyone assembles. Caleb and Joshua say:
If God is pleased with us, then [God] will bring us to this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. However, do not rebel against God! And you, do not be afraid of the people of the land, because …God is with us! (14:8-9)
The trouble with this argument is that it begins: “If God is pleased with us”. The people have every reason to think God is not pleased with them. After all, since they left Mount Sinai they have complained twice, and both times God flew into a rage and killed many of them. Now they have just spent the night complaining about God’s plan to send them into Canaan.
Perhaps because they feel doomed anyway, the people vent their frustration on Caleb and Joshua, threatening to stone them.
Then the glory of God appeared in the Tent of Meeting to all the Children of Israel. God said to Moses: How long will this people spurn Me, and how long lo ya-aminu Me, despite all the signs that I have performed in their midst? (14:10-11)
Apparently the God character in this story thinks that the Israelites doubt his ability to give them a miraculous victory in Canaan. In fact, the people never doubt God’s power, only God’s love. They doubt God’s commitment to protecting them.
And they are right. In a private conversation with Moses, God once again declares he will wipe out the Israelites and start over:
I will strike with a pestilence, and I will dispossess them, and I will make you a greater and more powerful nation than they! (Numbers 14:12)
Moses once again talks him out of it. God still kills the ten scouts who spoke against entering Canaan immediately. And God swears that only Caleb, Joshua, and the Israelites who are currently under age 20 will enter Canaan and get a share of the land. Everyone else will die in the wilderness—gradually, over the next 38 years. The people must now spend 40 years in the wilderness before they can enter Canaan. (This total includes the two years that have already passed since the people left Egypt.)
The next morning, some of the men confess they were wrong, and try to get back into God’s good graces by launching an assault across the border of Canaan. But God has made up his mind; he lets the Canaanites defeat them.
It is possible to argue that God does care about the Israelites—if you grant that:
1) God has so little respect for the people that “he” administers corporeal punishment without attempting to explain himself, and
2) God considers the Israelites a single entity, rather than a group of individuals.
This is not the kind of omein that medieval theologians pictured when they decided that God must be omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, omnibenevolent, and personal. Nor is it the kind of deity that anyone today would want to trust or believe in.
God said to Moses: How long will this people spurn me, and how long lo ya-aminu me, despite all the signs that I have performed in their midst? (14:11)
I think the answer that this god deserves is: “As long as it takes for You to become as wise, just, and kind as the best human being.”
Needless to say, I do not believe in the existence of the anthropomorphic God in the first five books of the Torah, the one who has vast magical powers but very limited understanding.
But what was life like for the people who took this part of the Bible literally, and not only believed the God character in this story existed, but thought of him as a father-figure (omein), and strove to trust him?
What is life like for the people who still do so today?