What causes a renaissance? Why do certain periods in history seem to be erupting with cultural productivity, while others are relatively quiet? Where does a golden age begin?
In Chapter 21 of the Book of Numbers, after forty years of desert wandering, we suddenly detect the stirrings of a cultural awakening. We are only given snippets, just the slightest clues of what might be going on, and none of them are easy to decipher. Yet we can identify, in this one chapter, the birth of at least three distinct forms of literary expression.
First, there is a new book. The Torah has referred to itself as a ‘book,’ of course, already in its fifth chapter (“This is the book of the generations of humanity..”, Gen 5:1) But this appears to be something else. After mentioning that the Israelites’ passage through a region called the ‘Arnon’ took them between the territories of two of their enemies, the Torah states:
That is why the Book of the Wars of the Lord speaks of, “Waheb in Suphah, and the wadis of the Arnon.” (Numbers 21:14)
עַל־כֵּן֙ יֵֽאָמַ֔ר בְּסֵ֖פֶר מִלְחֲמֹ֣ת ה אֶת־וָהֵ֣ב בְּסוּפָ֔ה וְאֶת־הַנְּחָלִ֖ים אַרְנֽוֹן
What is this Book of the Wars of the Lord? No one really knows, but the Ibn Ezra tells us that it was a book “distinct from the Torah.” Nachmanides imagines it belonging to a particular genre of writing, characteristic of the time:
In those generations, wise men would write stories of the great battles.
שהיו בדורות ההם אנשים חכמים כותבים סיפור המלחמות הגדולות
So we presume that the book is some record of military history. Its exact purpose is unknown, and we only hear a fragment of its content (which the commentators struggle mightily to make some sense of). But one way or another, we see that books are being produced. Writing is now not only the province of Moses, and not only used to record the word of God. The people have taken up the quill and begun to document their lives.
The second medium we hear about in this chapter is song. In language that rings quite familiar, we read a few lines further down:
Then Israel sang this song… (Numbers 21:17)
אָ֚ז יָשִׁ֣יר יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֖ה הַזֹּ֑את
This wording is clearly meant to evoke the beginning of the great Song at the Sea, back in Exodus:
Then Moses and the Children of Israel sang this song to the Lord…(Exodus 15:1)
אָ֣ז יָשִֽׁיר־מֹשֶׁה֩ וּבְנֵ֨י יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֤ה הַזֹּאת֙ לַֽה
But whereas that song was lead by Moses, the one in our chapter is sung by Israel alone - and they are no longer “children.” And whereas that song was a lofty tribute “to the Lord,” the topic of this latter song is far more prosaic:
Spring up, O well - sing to it. עֲלִ֥י בְאֵ֖ר עֱנוּ־לָֽהּ
The well that the princes dug. בְּאֵ֞ר חֲפָר֣וּהָ שָׂרִ֗ים
Which the noblemen of the people began כָּר֙וּהָ֙ נְדִיבֵ֣י הָעָ֔ם
With their scepters and their staffs. (Numbers 21:17-18) בִּמְחֹקֵ֖ק בְּמִשְׁעֲנֹתָ֑ם
A simple song about a well - the tale of how it was first dug, and a call for it to give water again. The basic concerns of everyday life, recorded in what appears to be a folk song. As the French medieval commentator, the Bechor Shor describes the very practical message of this song as follows:
Israel sang the song… - Out of happiness that they had been taken from death to life, for they had feared they would die of thirst, they and their cattle.
ישיר ישראל. מחמת שמחה כי נהפכו ממות לחיים כי היו יראים למות בצמא הם ומקניהם.
Nothing too surprising about the themes here: thirst in the desert; the struggle to survive; a careful accounting of people, and even livestock. What is surprising is that the people are beginning to compose poems and songs to chronicle their life experiences, and even, perhaps, to entertain themselves along the way. Music, like writing, is no longer confined to the realm of the sacred, nor solely composed by the priests and prophets. We are beginning to hear the voice of the people in song.
The third genre of communication named in this section is more difficult to categorize precisely. It is called, in Hebrew, the mashal (משל). We read towards the end of the chapter that:
The composers of mashal would recite: עַל־כֵּ֛ן יֹאמְר֥וּ הַמֹּשְׁלִ֖ים
Come to Heshbon, firmly built בֹּ֣אוּ חֶשְׁבּ֑וֹן תִּבָּנֶ֥ה
And well-founded is Sihon’s city. וְתִכּוֹנֵ֖ן עִ֥יר סִיחֽוֹן
For fire went forth from Heshbon, כִּי־אֵשׁ֙ יָֽצְאָ֣ה מֵֽחֶשְׁבּ֔וֹן
Flame from Sihon’s city… (Numbers 21:27-28) לֶהָבָ֖ה מִקִּרְיַ֣ת סִיחֹ֑ן
Like the book, the mashal will take written record of Israel’s history, including – in this case - its epic battles and conquests. Like the song, it will use the techniques of verse and rhyme. But the mashal is a unique form of expression, meant to convey more profundity than prose, and more wisdom than poetry. We often translate mashal as “proverb” - and indeed this is the word that titles King Solomon’s book of wisdom sayings: ‘Mishlei.’ But mashal can also mean, “parable,” “metaphor,” or “example.” It calls upon our capacity for abstract thinking and inference. It uses nuance and symbolism to make its points. It is famous for ethical instruction and existential reflection. The composers of mashal are not only recording their lives; they are processing, analyzing, and drawing lessons from their experiences. The mashal, in other words, is the beginning of philosophy.
So: History; Poetry; Philosophy. Or: Writing; Singing; Thinking. Or: Literature; Art; Theory. However we might categorize these new forms of expression, it is clear that something is bubbling up in this civilization. Wellsprings of thought and feeling are finding new outlets, through voices and words, among the people of Israel. In Exodus we saw the birth of a nation. Now, in Numbers, we are seeing the birth of a culture.
What is causing this sudden vitality? What has called forth the creative energies of a people who have so far just been surviving?
Who knows? Perhaps it is the recent deaths of Miriam and Aaron, and the aging of Moses. These giants of spirit have long served as the mouthpieces for a people who did not yet know how to speak. Now that they are passing on, they will leave behind them a great void of silence that beckons new voices to fill it. The next generation of leaders must arise.
Perhaps it is the flurry of war that is summoning a response. It seems no coincidence that the three new forms of “media” of Chapter 21 emerge in the midst of three major battles that frame the chapter. History shows that times of great conflict and violence are often accompanied by rich artistic productivity. Whether in protest, critique, or just the distraction of entertainment, art is often the release valve for the pressures of war.
Or perhaps it is simply that this is the fortieth and final year of the desert journey. One generation has almost died out, and a new one is emerging. The people are preparing to close one chapter of their history and cross over the Jordan to begin the next chapter. That epoch will be recorded in the majestic books of the Prophets. And then the kings of Israel will rise and fall, and along the way, their reigns, too, will give birth to new literary forms - the later writings of the Hebrew Bible: Psalms, Megilot, Chronicles. Then, one day, that society will fall and be replaced by the culture of the rabbis - with their own masterpieces of literature, the Talmuds and Midrashim. And after them, the medieval rabbis, with their codes, and responsa, and great tomes of philosophy. And then the poetry and mysticism of the next generations. And then the polemics and commentaries of the ones after that. And then the scientists, the novelists, and the political agitators of the modern period. The screenwriters and comedians of our own generation. And on and on. The genius of Judaism continues, and changes form. In every generation, this culture is both extended and reborn.
And maybe, just maybe, the earliest roots of this grand tradition first took hold in Parshat Chukat, in Chapter 21 of the Book of Numbers.
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