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Nun's Tale
Written June 2012

Oh, what I have lost!  How bitter is my fate!

I built up my business to be profitable, always dealing fairly with my customers, giving them good value.  But now our leaders have issued new rules and regulations, and they have destroyed my livelihood!

I brought up my son to be a good little boy, moral, friendly, kind to his neighbors whatever their nationality.  But then he discovered the Ten Commandments.  Now he thinks he knows everything, and he has ambitions of becoming a mass murderer!

My name is Nun, from the tribe of Ephraim.

You might be familiar with my son Hoshea.  When he was only a lad, I made the mistake of introducing him to the liberator of our people, Moses, and Moses recruited him to be his assistant.

But what about his father, me, the old craftsman Nun?  For all my life, I’ve carved statues and cast images.  My most profitable product has been a little statue of a fertility goddess whom I call Maari.  I can make her in several different sizes and materials.  In Egypt, many a Hebrew purchased a figure of Maari for a shrine outside his house.

Now I’m out of business.  Moses and his henchmen, the Levite priests, have denounced my products and others like them.  I might have accepted it if they merely said my little statues are in bad taste; but no, they declared them to be evil abominations!

According to their new law, “The Levites, in the hearing of all Israel, are to intone these words:  ‘A curse on anyone who carves an image or casts an idol — anything abominable to Yahweh, a craftsman’s handiwork — and sets it up in secret.’  And the people must all respond, ‘Amen.’” [Deuteronomy 27:14-15]

An Ancient Story

These statues have been part of the life of our Hebrew people since the days of our ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  They used to be called teraphim.

You may remember the story of Jacob.  In the olden days, he went to work for his uncle Laban so that he could marry Laban’s two daughters, Leah and Rachel.  After a number of years, Jacob decided to return with his wives to his father Isaac.  He arranged to sneak away while Laban was busy shearing his sheep.  During their hasty departure, Rachel stole her father’s household gods, but she didn’t tell her husband.

Laban chased after Jacob and his wives and caught up with them a week later.  “I assume you left me because you were homesick,” Laban said, “but why did you take my gods?”  Jacob denied the theft, but Laban insisted on conducting a search.  So Rachel hid the gods in a camel’s saddlebag and sat on it.  When her father came around, she apologized for not standing up, claiming she was having her period, and the gods were not discovered. [Genesis 31]

Of course, those were only the gods of that one family.  The Hebrew nation includes many families, grouped into twelve tribes, and we have a “God Almighty” over all of us:  the god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Not long afterwards, Jacob dreamed he had a wrestling match with an angel.  His name was changed to “he who struggles with god,” or Israel. [Genesis 32:24-28]

Sojourn in Egypt

Then came a drought, and one of Israel’s sons, Joseph, led our people down into Egypt.  For generations we lived in that civilized and prosperous nation.  Most of us were content to do so, though we were second-class citizens.  “Slaves,” they called us.  We had to pay a 20 percent tax to Pharaoh. [Genesis 42-47]

Finally Moses led us away from there, telling us he was taking us to a better place.  We were returning to the land that had once been promised to us by God Almighty, the god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

So far, of course, we haven’t reached that Promised Land.  We’ve been stuck here in the Sinai desert for years.

New Names

Moses told us something else.  He declared he had a new understanding of our ancient god, whom he claimed had spoken to him from a burning bush.  The voice revealed something that Abraham and Isaac and Jacob had never known about their god: his name.  It turns out that it’s “Yahweh.”  Some people don’t like to say the holy name out loud, so they say “the LORD” instead. [Exodus 3:4-15, 6:2-3]

And Moses wasn’t done with the new names.  Having apprenticed my son Hoshea, he changed his name to Joshua.  You see, Hoshea means merely “salvation,” while Joshua means “Yahweh is salvation.” [Numbers 13:16]

Also, our people are no longer to be called Hebrews but rather Israelites.  “Hear, O Israel,” Moses proclaimed.  “Yahweh is our god — Yahweh our one and only god.  And you must love Yahweh, your god, with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” [Deuteronomy 6:4-5]

So to summarize, nowadays we must call ourselves “Israelites,” and my boy “Joshua son of Nun,” and our god “Yahweh.”

Other peoples have their own deities, of course.  For example, there’s Chemosh of the Moabites, Dagon of the Philistines, and Baal of Peor.

It’s only common sense to respect all these gods.  You may have a shrine to Maari in your herb garden, and you may give sacrifices to Yahweh as the god of the Israelites, but if you’re in Moab, you’d be well advised to bow down to Chemosh as well.  All these deities have their powers, so you can’t be too careful.

Nevertheless, we Israelites tell ourselves that while other gods exist, ours is more powerful than the others.  When we crossed the Red Sea to leave Egypt, we sang a hymn, “Yahweh, who is like you among the gods?” [Exodus 15:11]

New Rules

As we wandered through the Sinai desert, Moses instructed us to make camp at the foot of an active volcano — an unwise choice, in my opinion.  The mountain belched smoke, with loud noises and flashes of light.  Moses declared it holy and warned that it was too dangerous to climb. [Exodus 19:2, 16-18, 21-23]

But then he went up himself.  Joshua went with him, carrying a set of chisels.  They were gone for more than a month.  We were afraid they'd fallen into the molten lava.  Lacking leadership, we turned to Moses' brother Aaron, who made a golden calf for us to worship. [Exodus 24:12-18, 32:1-6] 

Finally Moses and Joshua showed up again.  They were carrying two stone tablets engraved front and back with a set of “commandments” personally carved by Yahweh himself.  That's what Moses claimed, anyway.  He was highly displeased to find us making merry in front of Aaron's idol. [Exodus 32:15-19]  According to those new commandments, we are no longer allowed to bow down to Chemosh or any of the other nations’ gods.  And the images I manufacture are now illegal!

The commandments begin, “I am Yahweh, your god who brought you out of Egypt, out of that land where you lived as slaves.  You must have no other gods beside me. [Deuteronomy 5:6-7]  You must not make a carved image for yourself, nor the likeness of anything in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth.  You must not bow down to them in worship.” [Exodus 20:4-5]

This prohibition was repeated many times throughout the other laws that Moses relayed from Yahweh to us.  He even added the death penalty.  “You must not make gods of silver to be worshipped besides me, nor may you make yourselves gods of gold.” [Exodus 20:23]  “You must not put a stone carved figure on your land to worship, because I am Yahweh your god.” [Leviticus 26:1]  “You must not introduce any abominable idol into your houses and thus bring yourselves under solemn ban along with it.  You shall hold it loathsome and abominable, for it is proscribed under the ban.” [Deuteronomy 7:26]  “Whoever sacrifices to any god but Yahweh must be put to death under solemn ban!” [Exodus 22:30]  “You must not invoke other gods; their names are not to cross your lips.” [Exodus 23:13]  “You must not bow down to them in worship; for I, Yahweh your god, am a jealous god, punishing the children for the sins of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me.” [Exodus 20:-5]

A jealous god he may be, but he doesn’t sound like a just god.  If parents reject Yahweh and choose a different religion, Yahweh may be insulted, but then how is it fair for him to punish their innocent descendants?  When I had a chance to speak with my son Joshua, I protested that these commandments made our god sound cruel and vindictive.

“Not at all,” he replied.  “Yahweh is a compassionate god, gracious, long-suffering, ever faithful and true, remaining faithful to thousands, forgiving iniquity, rebellion, and sin . . .”

“So our god is merciful,” I interjected.

“. . . but without acquitting the guilty, one who punishes children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation for the iniquity of their fathers.” [Exodus 34:6-7]

“So which is it?  Does he forgive iniquity, or does he punish iniquity for generations afterwards?”  My son had no answer.  I love him, but sometimes he drives me crazy.

What Now?

However, my son does work for Moses, so at first I thought maybe Moses might hire me too.  I have to find some way of making a living, now that my products are banned.  I thought I could help construct the Tent of Meeting — the Tabernacle and its furnishings.

It was not to be.  He appointed Bezalel son of Uri for this task.  Bezalel, said Moses, was “expert in every craft and a master of design, whether in gold, silver, copper, or cutting precious stones for setting, or carving wood — for workmanship of every kind.” [Exodus 31:2-6]

I can do those things, but it appears that our leader doesn’t want me.

I’ve considered manufacturing agricultural implements like hoes and scythes, but there’s not much need for those things while we’re camped out here in the barren wilderness.  I remember how in Egypt we had fish for the asking, cucumbers and watermelons, leeks and onions and garlic.  Now our appetite is gone.  Wherever we look there is nothing except manna.  We scrape it off the ground, grind it up, boil it, and make it into cakes. [Numbers 11:5-8]  Maybe when we reach the Promised Land of milk and honey, life will be good again.

Talking to My Son

“Let me tell you something about that, Dad,” my son offered.  “When we lived in Egypt, it almost never rained, but you planted your seeds in the vegetable garden and irrigated the garden with water from the Nile.  That water was always available.  However, now we’re on our way to a different place, the land that was promised to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, a land of mountains and valleys watered only by the rain from heaven.  Moses says that if our people obey Yahweh, he will send rain for our land in season.  But if we serve other gods, he’ll get angry and pout.  He will shut up the heavens and there will be no rain.  The soil will not yield its harvest, and we will quickly perish.” [Deuteronomy 11:10-17]

I asked him why our god had to be so possessive.  Why couldn’t he stand a little competition?  Why did he demand exclusivity?  I can marry more than one wife, so why can’t I honor more than one deity?

Again, Joshua had no answer, except to quote the law that Moses had proclaimed.  “You are not to bow in worship to any other god, for Yahweh’s name is The Jealous God, and a jealous god he is!” [Exodus 34:14]

I asked him about the other laws that had been imposed on us.  I argued that civilized people don’t need rules carved in stone to tell us we shouldn’t steal.  No, we learned in childhood that if we’re caught taking other people’s things, we will suffer unpleasant consequences. You and I have an unwritten understanding that if I don’t murder you or steal your cattle, you won’t murder me or steal my cattle.  It’s how civilized people get along.

Joshua disagreed emphatically, claiming that without written laws to tell us what to do and what not to do, we would have no idea how to act.  We could never be good people.  Anyone who doesn’t accept the rules dictated by Yahweh has no ethical foundation.  He is an atheist, utterly evil.

On the contrary, I said, your mother and I raised you to be a good person without the benefit of divine injunctions.  Our system of morals was developed not through arbitrary decrees but through reason.  If our reasoning proves to be wrong or if someone can show us a better way, then we can change our ways and become even better people.  “But your commandments from Yahweh,” I pointed out, “are graven in stone, never to be improved or amended.”

“And that is how they should be,” Joshua asserted smugly.

Killing and Coveting

I asked about one commandment in particular, the plain words “Thou shalt not kill.”  Thou shalt never kill? I asked.  Not even a spider?  Not even a lamb for your supper?

Joshua explained that this is not an absolute prohibition.  It only means that thou shalt not kill other Israelites.  Thou canst kill foreigners.  Or animals; same thing.

I pointed out that, on the contrary, the law says thou shalt kill other Israelites — if they’ve ignored the commandments.  Remember the man who was found gathering sticks on the Sabbath day, instead of resting?  Moses said he deserved to die.  The whole community took him outside the camp and stoned him to death. [Numbers 15:32-36]  “Well, yes,” Joshua answered, “of course that’s another exception.”

And, I asked, what about this commandment?  “Do not covet your neighbor’s household; you must not covet your neighbor’s wife ...  his slave-girl ... or anything that belongs to him.” [Exodus 20:17]

That’s correct, Joshua said.  Thou shalt not steal the womenfolk for your own.  But again, this only applies to Israelites.  A foreigner does not qualify as “your neighbor.”  A foreigner’s women are fair game.

I recall how this worked in practice.  I heard Moses declare war on Midian: “Let men among you be drafted for active service, a thousand men from each of the tribes of Israel.”  They attacked Midian and killed every man, took the Midianites’ women and children captive, and carried off all their herds, flocks, and property.  But when the army returned, Moses was angry that they had spared all the women.  He ordered them to “kill every male child, and kill every woman who has had intercourse with a man.  But you may keep the virgins for yourselves.” [Numbers 31:3-18]

The Levites worked out a complicated formula whereby the 12,000 soldiers got 15,968 Midianite girls, those of us who had not been drafted were allowed to enslave another 15,680, and the priests received the remaining 352. [Numbers 31:32-47]  When one of these girls was offered to me, I declined.  I expressed disgust at this inhumane treatment of the Midianites.  Joshua agreed, in a way.  “It won’t be like that when I’m in charge,” he said.  “We won’t permit any survivors!”

Everyone Must Die

Yes, heaven help us, my son Joshua may soon be in charge.  Moses is getting up in years, and so is his brother Aaron the high priest.  As the long-time assistant to Moses, Joshua is presumed to be the one who will succeed him as the leader of our people.  And he may be even more bloodthirsty than Moses was with the Midianites.  He quoted the law to me:

“When Yahweh your god brings you into the land which you are about to enter to occupy it, when he drives out many nations before you — Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and powerful than you — you must exterminate them. [Deuteronomy 7:1-2]  You must not leave a soul alive! [Deuteronomy 20:16]  You are to devour all the nations which Yahweh your god is giving over to you.  Show none of them mercy! [Deuteronomy 7:16]  They must not stay in your land, because they might lead you to sin against me.  You might be tempted to worship their gods.” [Exodus 23:33]

I protested.  I thought my son was a better person than that.  His mother and I certainly hadn’t brought him up to utterly destroy seven nations.

“Why can't we all get along?” I asked naïvely.  “We could share the land.  We could live alongside the native people who are there now.  After all, there are more of them than there are of us.  And in Egypt, we lived alongside the Egyptians.”

Joshua rejected that idea, pointing out that Egypt is governed by the Egyptians.  When we were there, we had to obey our overlords.  “No,” he said, “Yahweh has promised us our own land.  In the land of Israel, we will be in charge.  I’m sure the Canaanites will never agree to live under our rule.  So we’ll have to kill them.  Kill them all!”

The Phantom of the Tabernacle

Alas, following Moses has greatly changed the bright little boy I thought I knew.  Now that the Tent of Meeting has been completed, my son spends almost all his time inside.  “The fire on the altar is to be kept burning,” he reminded me.  “It must never go out.” [Leviticus 6:12]

When Moses enters the Tent, a pillar of cloud comes down and remains at the entrance to the Tent while Yahweh is giving Moses more laws.  But Joshua never moves from inside the tent. [Exodus 33:9-11]  I suspect he might have something to do with generating that pillar of cloud that blocks the entrance.

Also, he might have something to do with the tongues of fire that sometimes lash out from the Tent, apparently for the purpose of eliminating any competition.

Two of Aaron's sons also wanted to be priests.  Nadab and Abihu put fire into censers, threw incense on the fire, and presented the fire to Yahweh.  Although they were nephews of Moses, apparently Yahweh had not commanded them to do that.  So we're told that  “fire came out from before Yahweh” and killed the two men. [Leviticus 10:1-2]  Was Joshua operating some sort of flamethrower?

And my son was also inside the Tent when a miracle of almonds confirmed the authority of the leader and his brother.  It seems that Korah son of Izhar had challenged them, advocating the priesthood of all believers.  “Each and every member of the community is holy,” he told Moses and Aaron, “and Yahweh is among them.  Why do you two set yourselves up above the assembly?” [Numbers 16:1-3]  There was more business with censers and even an earthquake, and once again “fire came out from Yahweh” and consumed 250 men presenting incense. [Numbers 16:31-35]

Then Moses told the chief of each of the twelve tribes to write his name on a staff, with Aaron’s name on the staff of the Levites, and he took the twelve staffs into the Tent of Meeting.  Joshua was in there, of course, and I suspect he might have made a slight adjustment overnight.  The next morning, Aaron’s name was found to be on a staff that had budded, blossomed, and produced ripe almonds.  Moses displayed the miracle staff in front of the Testimony as a reminder to any future complainers. [Numbers 17:2-10]

Waiting to Invade

Ah, well.  I too am getting old, and my son has a new assignment now, planning the conquest of Canaan.  Some time ago, he went on a 40-day reconnaissance mission with eleven other men to explore the Promised Land.  However, when they returned, only Joshua and his friend Caleb thought we could go up and occupy the country immediately.  The others reported that the natives are too strong, bigger and taller than us, and an attack is out of the question.  So the invasion has been postponed while we remain encamped here in the wilderness, building our strength. [Numbers 13:2-32, 14:36-38]

But the invasion will come.  I suppose it’s time to return to my workbench and prepare for my son’s campaign of genocide.

I shall beat my plowshares into swords and my pruning hooks into spears.


(a retelling of portions of the Torah)

Click here for other Bible stories I've retold in the first person.


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