There’s nothing quite like a boastful victory song. Inspiring. Patriotic. Stirring. Aso, if you ask me, insipid.
We are taught that everything that is in Torah is there for a reason. So the boastful victory hymn of Numbers chapter 21 vv. 27-30 must serve some purpose.
בֹּ֣אוּ חֶשְׁבּ֑וֹן תִּבָּנֶ֥ה וְתִכּוֹנֵ֖ן עִ֥יר סִיחֽוֹן׃
כִּי־אֵשׁ֙ יָֽצְאָ֣ה מֵֽחֶשְׁבּ֔וֹן לֶהָבָ֖ה מִקִּרְיַ֣ת סִיחֹ֑ן אָֽכְלָה֙ עָ֣ר מוֹאָ֔ב בַּעֲלֵ֖י בָּמ֥וֹת אַרְנֹֽן׃
אוֹי־לְךָ֣ מוֹאָ֔ב אָבַ֖דְתָּ עַם־כְּמ֑וֹשׁ נָתַ֨ן בָּנָ֤יו פְּלֵיטִם֙ וּבְנֹתָ֣יו בַּשְּׁבִ֔ית לְמֶ֥לֶךְ אֱמֹרִ֖י סִיחֽוֹן׃
וַנִּירָ֛ם אָבַ֥ד חֶשְׁבּ֖וֹן עַד־דִּיב֑וֹן וַנַּשִּׁ֣ים עַד־נֹ֔פַח אֲשֶׁ֖רׄ עַד־מֵֽידְבָֽא׃
Therefore the bards would recite:
“Come to Heshbon; firmly built
And well founded is Sihon’s city.
28 For fire went forth from Heshbon,
Flame from Sihon’s city,
Consuming Ar of Moab,
The lords of Bamoth by the Arnon.
29 Woe to you, O Moab!
You are undone, O people of Chemosh!
His sons are rendered fugitive
And his daughters captive
By an Amorite king, Sihon.”
30 Yet we have cast them down utterly,
Heshbon along with Dibon;
We have wrought desolation at Nophah,
Which is hard by Medeba.
To summarize the victory song:
King Sihon, leader of the Amorites, from his mighty city of Heshbon, conquered the Moabites and took over their land.Yet for the Israelites, Sihon was a pushover. Nyah, nyah. Slam!
They attacked us, we won. All that’s missing is the ubiquitous “let’s eat!”
Now, to be fair, the Israelites did ask King Sihon, nicely, to let them pass though his territories, promising to keep to the road, and not take from their vineyards, fields, or wells. Sihon said no and attacked them. Sihon was utterly defeated, and the Israelites occupied the land of the Amorites (and the land Sihon had wrested from the Moabites.)
As befitting a mythic tale, Israel, despite the fact that it is supposed to proceed onward to take possession of the land promised to its ancestors, also takes possession of the Amorite lands and occupies them. Then it goes on to spy out Jazer, conquer it, and then conquer the lands of King Og of Bashan and occupy them.
OK, with all this occupying going on, who is left to proceed on to Canaan? We know later that the Reubenites and Gadites ask to remain in lands east of the Jordan and are given permission to do so as long as they aid in conquering Canaan. Is that the explanation for how the Israelites were able to seize and occupy the land of the Amorites and others and still muster the people-power necessary to invade Canaan?
Back to the victory song. We have an Israelite people that continually demonstrates lack of faith in G”d. (So much so, they they even bargain with G”d: deliver the enemies into our hands and we will proscribe their cities for You. Not quite the same as Yaakov’s “see me safely through my journey and You will be my G”d” but there are shadows of connection.) So where does this downtrodden, whiny people find the gumption to sing a boastful, taunting victory song?
It would be one thing if this song were a paean to G”d. It doesn’t even offer thanks to G”d, In fact, G”d is not even mentioned. “We” (the Israelites) defeated the mighty Sihon.
Seems we need a lesson here similar to the one Torah teaches us about eating and that led to the Birkat HaMazon : v’akhalta, v’savata, u’verakhta – we eat, are satiated, and we bless. We know the lesson – when are stomachs are empty, it’s easy to complain to G”d, when they’re full, it’s easiest to forget to thank G”d.
Moshe got it, as did Miriam. Their songs at the sea of reeds, while full of military boasting, are also hymns thanking G”d, and clearly attributing the victory to G”d. Not so here in parashat Chukat. Why is that? What are was supposed to learn from this? That it’s OK to flaunt your victories and not attribute them to G”d (or to even thank G”d for them?) That we can act as whiny and intractable and as defiant as we want and we can still win victories? (Yes, that G”d we’re not even thanking will insure that we win! To keep things in context, just before this section of the parasha, the people, fresh from victories over the Canaanite King of Arad, start whining and complaining again, so G”d sends serpents to plague them, and Moshe, at G”d’s direction, tries a little sympathetic magic to drive them away.) I just don’t get it. Why is this little victory hymn even here?
Some scholars speculate that the Israelites took the song of Amorite bards, praising Sihon, and added the final verses boasting of Israel’s easy victory over so mighty a King. We can’t know this with any certainty, but it would sure be an effective “utz.” I’ve always tried to imagine what it feels like to an Englishman hearing American’s sing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” to the strains of “G”d Save the King.” The Israelite minstrels may have had the same intent. still doesn’t explain why it’s preserved in Torah.
Just a few verses earlier we have another brief song;
Spring up, O well—sing to it—
18 The well which the chieftains dug,
Which the nobles of the people started
With maces, with their own staffs.
It, too, seems to ignore G”d. Is there a pattern here? Were the Israelites feeling their oats–er–manna?
Two marching songs in a row. And just before them, an anachronistic mention of a seemingly lost “Book of the Wars of the Lord.” Something just isn’t quite right here. Did the editors/redactors get sloppy? (Of course, for those who believe the author of Torah is G”d, that raises all sorts of questions.) Were these two songs popular, still, among the people, and so could not be omitted?
I’ve yet to come up with a compelling rationale. How about you, dear reader? Can you help me redeem these few verses? Is there any valuable lesson (positive or negative) that we can talk away from the victory hymn of Numbers 21:27-30?
Here’s a “Jody” to finish up:
I don’t know but I’ve been told
The words of Torah are very old
Sometimes the words stick in our craw
Is it wise to read them just as they are?
Sound off…alef, bet
Sound off…gimel, dalet
Bring it on down
alef, bet, gimel, dalet
alef, bet….gimel, dalet!
©2013 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Chukat 5772 – Your G”d, Our G”d, and the Son of a Whore
Chukat 5767-What A Difference A Vowel Makes
Chukkat 5765-Not Seeing What’s Inside
Chukat 5764 – Man of Great Character
Chukat 5762-The Spirit of Miriam
Chukat-Balak 5766 – Community Sing
Chukat Balak 5763-Mi ChaMicah
Chukat-Balak 5760-Holy Cow!
Chukat 5759/61-Wanting to See More Than The View From The Mountaintop