'Bamidbar' (In the Desert) from HEXATEUCH, 2019
[What follows is a section of Joel Newberger’s elaboration of the Bible’s first five books (Torah in Hebrew, Pentateuch in Greek-derived English), in what Robert Kelly succinctly calls “Newberger’s imaginative disclosure of the multitudinous meanings of the Five Books so rightly called of Moses.” Presented below, then, is what the English Bible knows as The Book of Numbers, but named in the old book itself as Bamidbar: “In the Desert,” or closer to my own concerns “In the Wilderness.” And Kelly further: “This is a book of recovery, adventure, shock, high comedy, tenderness. The Bible will never seem the same again, thank God. And one privilege of his Hexateuch, is that it does a good job of contributing to the vital revolution in religious studies leading to a fresh and altogether anti-patriarchal awareness of Judaism and Christianity as one religion, not two … and understanding how they are linked by a shared eschaton.” That Newberger’s is a brave and important new poem as well is also to be noted. (J.R.)]
Only numbers were in the desert; the Canaanites had stayed home, never hungered, never gone down, never labored, never left, never crossed, and had never come to the hill, received the stone, had never moaned; they had never left home.
They were where they were, crossing streets, speaking, lifting tunics, reading, grazing, and where they weren’t, they were not.
Honey and milk, ample flocks, hosts of angels, altars founded on bedrock, libraries, libraries of candelabras, and their gods were where they were, and scribes were who they were, and when they weren’t elsewhere, they wrote records of what went on: the revealing and the concealing, eating and excreting, revealing and sealing, needing and willing, revealing and re-reading, cleaving and cleaving.
They had no memories of birth or learning. They could not remember rainbows, names changing, rainbow cloaks, dreams in Goshen, pyramids, cattle dying, hail, darkness, congealed water, loaves from the sky, cylindrical fires within cloud cylinders, ambushes, gold, rocks, thunder, clouds, rocks, wrath, purity; spies, giants, milk, honey, wrath, bronze serpents, assassinations, trumpets, miasma, snails, water, rocks, purity.
Sometimes they were told a different story by one priest or another. Now they had memories, and indeed did remember wrath, purity, rocks, snakes and so forth, but their memories were not perfectly full; and where there was nothing, there was a weirdly hollow place in their minds.
For the cult of Melchizedek, this was the Holy of Holies; for Korach’s cult, this was the desert. Who knows about Bilaam’s or Balak’s? For Elijah it was a cleft in the side of a hill.
Christ forgot what it meant in his cult, so his followers knew; they called that place Christ, because nothing else came to mind.
Coming to the Lady’s mind to beg for a clue, Christ found that her mind was complete, and, because of this, she couldn’t speak. Or, she could, but she could never quite get to the other side of conjunctions, so she said, “the hole he felt in his head was the place that;” or, “the desert that;” or, “I would, but.”
Moses’s midrash on this phenomenon was from the very beginning famous in Canaan, because it was known before being read; he had thought what he said, and what he thought, they couldn’t say. The Lady is the Desert. The Desert is the Stutter. The Stutter is the Act of Coitus. Coitus is what happens when you call me Moishe. Thus, we take this to mean that you must call me Moishe. I am slick with butter. I have an empty head.
Melchizedek would tell his parishioners to stay home to avoid this slithering lucubration. Call Moses Simon or Samson, not Moishe; Shamai or Hamas, or Hamsa; leave Moses alone. Leaving Egypt, he explained, was no more true than remembering the feeling of your previous birth. Sacred so far as the grammar imagined it, it was yet to happen. He’s just substituting one thing for another, and that thing for a third. Let’s take a nap.
Jerusalem then slept and the trees slept. Cherubim fell off of cornices, asleep, landing softly in the roots of a treestump. The veil also fell. The goat to be killed fainted. In his sleep Solomon painted branches that gave actual apples; the paint dreamt of the snail that gives such turquoise, such scarlet; and the snail dreamt of its mother’s thigh.
Abraham woke up in Egypt. What was Canaan? He knew the East was Set’s crabshell, South was amber. North he could surmise from the will-o-the-wisps above his reedy sloop. There is, in the middle, myself, he thought, reflexive as a snake who retrieves his wife from Pharaoh. My God, this is all made up. Where is my mascara? None of the sorcerers will fear me. But I fear I am more Lot than I’d like to be, and am thus pensioner and sorcerer both.
I have walked, he thought, and laughed, and forgotten everything but this one yawping dog, and now I think he has deserted me. This must be the desert the Torah mentions, dogless; too bad I can read. This must be what happens when you can’t read. You go blind, think you’re in Egypt, and end up floating like a dead man in salt-water, stinging where a goat chewed off your foreskin; and you don’t remember invoking that goat, and you’re not sure if you’re Assyrian or Canaanite, but you’re surely inside your cave at Qumran, speaking to me.
He fell asleep.
Counting sheep, he kept subtracting, accidentally, drawing shadows beneath his abacus, so that the shortest lot was left in his hand. But he held a shekel. There was only one righteous Israelite.
He walked barefoot to Korach’s tent over Korach’s tunnel to Korach’s temple, to donate this penultimate coin. Yet a pocket slipped from his grasp into the unnumbered gold, so instead he wished Korach’s ritual the best of luck, handing over a few הs and יs as consolation.
Korach said, these; these don’t count.
Avram opened this Mother of Christ’s mouth and cleared her throat. She went instantly bald. Cold as ice, a pregnant ice sculpture to soothe sin. But very true. So he threw into the fires of her mouth his א, his ב, his ר, his מ, and as Sarai laughed, the fire of her laughter consumed not only him but also every him, them, all of them.
Melchizedek laughed as he became one of Sarai’s lives, named Lord of the Most High, because he had loaned her his sense of sight. When she saw him laugh, she frowned.
And then laughed. Remembering suddenly meant: to laugh when, having walked around and sacrificed an animal to summon a few gods, different gods appeared.
The God watched as gods were remembered.
Avram, who had been, remembered how to walk and walked alone, around a hole. Christ, who was walking, saw him walking, considered what was a circle, and kept walking for years after. When he was certain he had counted all of its sides, he cried, I would die to be that hole, and did, and was.
A prophet said a donkey but meant something was grazing under his tunic.
The truer statement was the donkey’s, who said Kaddish for each of the prophets of the future, as he nibbled on a king’s beard, wagging furtive glances, wary a Jew would show up.
Miriam and Aaron mated for the last time in a white tunnel.
Ash, ink black, wisps, locusts of smoke, asked. Toad shapes in smoke, embers, gas, black snake particles, bronze husks around snake eyes, mote, smoke Sarai noted wandering over Edom, east of her mountain. Salted ash, enough black grain for an infinite book, dark myrrh oil dripping, the dust of burnt roses, stars, newborn lions wearing starry crowns—
from my mouth, she thought. God is with me. What did you say?
Ask a sign from the Mother of the Lord your God.
She remembered the dimensions of the book, but couldn’t but laugh, and the book became a tree but was called three.
Now a sign invoked her. It did not pronounce her name as three. It called her with only those letters that still held the waters of light, calling ש , ש ,ש, and it reminded her, as she was thinking snakes, that she had the sign of itself.
From my math, she thought. God is my width, width of my scattered laughter on this blood-stained bench. But I count so many animals that we must be outside. So his is the width of the ash of men dispersed in the desert by my laughter. Midian. Indeed. The meridian of their scattering, a line of quills, singed — how you fell from the spines of bereaved lovers, mothers.
No-one was at home in Canaan. No — no-one was in Canaan but ladies, who had learned from Sarai the magic of loosing shackles. Their sums remain obscure to us, because they had no numbers and only knew how to write, but in the land at that time none of the letters had right angles.
Only numbers were in the desert, bent by laughter into male figures, fœtal threes, flaccid ones, bloated sixes, uncircumcised figures of figures. Her tears watered them with pebbles, watered them to keep them dark and visible, snail-shell, rock, gold, miasma edges.
In the nights after the ladies counted them, the men lost count. Some died, but some didn’t. Some didn’t remember whether they did or had been done.
Some murmured rumors of an absolute number, number of figures’ figure, but some did not mind the desert; these mentioned a warmth in their head. Some that were counted twice came back from the dead, but somehow were dead still, their entire body the shape of the faculty of memory, itself the shape of a rural temple; and, as those temples gathered stars in their midriff, their hollow loins were full of white sand. In that darkness, they came home, secretly, while all of the ladies watched, while the sand was still wet; Korach and his holy thousands walked West, silently, rattling snakes and timbrels, dripping sand; Sodomites without hands held Pharaoh’s cavaliers’ corpses in their heads.
Heads were either hidden in books or laid in the Jordan as stepping stones, for these shadows to walk across.
Aaron walked like a loaf of bread, very quiet at the rear of this hovering zero.
He held two heads over the water to lap the water like dogs, to tame the current.
Now Miriam appeared to greet them, behind the mask of a timbrel, drenched with the water of meter, rattling like a sea walking on split hooves.
Three heads drank from the seven stones of Jericho to arrange the lights of heaven as at ten in the evening, so that all men could lie down in bed, home, alone, could know the letters of their names, wrestling the ancient geometries into feminine curves. They purred and Aaron purred, and ate their snakes. And when God heard, he meowed.
Melchizedek groaned to Miriam, to Mary, in immaculate Greek, who appeared to him in a cave at Qumran. They let this one earliest human male reverse his spelling and wait out what would be in the scroll of the Book of Numbers.
For numbers were where he wasn’t, if he walked backwards in circles in the cave; numbers were tracing footprints of Arcadian shadows to the East, Southeast, unto Yemen.
Unto India in the shadow of letters the women walked, Miriam shielding them from dryness upon dryness, lifting and wielding rivers as they went, dancing to the drumbeat of hands striking the tight skin of numbers, whirring wheels, wingbeat of the cherubim.
Reprinted from J. Newbeger, Hexateuch, Lunar Calendar Collective, Hudson, NY, 2018.
Poems and poetics