On migrants as a plague in Exodus and Numbers

In the late nineties I came to see the story of Balaam in a different light. There was an unprecedented influx of foreign migrants into the Netherlands. The catchphrase  'Holland is full' emerged. All of a sudden, something struck me in Numbers 22, something I never paid attention to before, namely, the perspective from which the storyteller has us look at the scene. He makes us look alongside with king Balak and the hired enchanter Balaam. From the Moabites' perspective, you see the wandering tribes of Israel coming close, an uncontrollable mass of foreign migrants, you see how they will pitch their camps in your country, on every spot where the grass is green.

Normally, the stories about wandering Israel are told in a way that makes you as a hearer wander along with the people. And whenever you will keep aloof, this is because the narrator makes you identifie with Moses. You engage in Moses' toilsome solidarity with both his people and the Eternal One. To keep those two parties connected: that is the Moses' struggle that the reader is witnessing from nearby.

But here, in Numbers 22-24, the perspective is very different. We are allowed to glance from Moab's hilltops together with a man who is frightened when he sees the refugee people of Israel camping on his fields. But it is this people Israel itself that has passed the story down to us - as if to say: look, they'll see us coming, they won't be amused...

This narrative, then, is proof of self-refelction. It shows the ability to look at yourself through another people's eyes. King Balak and his people of Moab are an adversary, blocking Israel's route to the Promised Land. They do so in a twofold way: first, they do not grant them free passage, and next, they seduce them into idolatry. But the observations of the Moabites as narrated are fully recognizable: Now this multitude will graze bare all that is around us, like an ox grazes bare the green of the field (Num 22,4). The verb 'graze bare', or literally 'lick up', is a rare verb, and its usage seems to imply a considerable degree of loathing. The Moabites do not see people coming, they see an impersonal multitude that will leave their country stripped bare. That is how king Balak formulates it: Behold, there is a people come out from Egypt: behold, they cover the face of the land...  (Num 22,5). Literally, the expression Balak uses says:''that people covers the eye of the land'. Wherever you look, they are everywhere, the place is crawling with them. Significantly, we know this expression already from Exodus 10. There it were locusts in Egypt 'covering the eye of the land' (Ex 10,5.15).

Thus, king Balak and the Moabites become people with whom we can identify. For a flow of refugees alighting like a plague of locusts - that is a metaphor that many Dutchmen today might acknowledge as adequate. This is how they experience it. The place is crawling with them, you see them everywhere, the land is clogged up with them, they will finally push us aside, they are swarming down upon all that we have built up.

That is whow migrants are eventually not seen as humans, but as a plague, as vermin. King Balak tries to control the plague with a pesticide. From a couple of high points he wants to have a curse sprayed upon them, so that he will be able afterwards to sweep the fields clean. The vermin must be repelled, back into the desert, into the sea or into whatever, if only we will get rid of them.

Please note that king Balak's impulse is neither cheap nor evil in itself. It is the impulse of a man who feels threatened in his own existence. It is defense with a subtext of aversion. The consequence of this way of looking at strangers is, however, that a personal, human encounter with the foreigners is no longer possible. However recognizable Balak's loathing for the migrants might be, it can only produce injustice and inhumanity.

That is true as well for our responses to migration into our country, inasfar as these responses are meant as defense, to stop the plague. We do not spread curses, we contrive our own tricks, in the shape of bureaucratic measures that Balak could not even have dreamt of. We like these measures to be just, but they are not introduced for the sake of justice - they are introduced to control the plague. Nothing good can follow from that.

By the way: after the attempt to curse Israel has failed, integration proves to be a highly succesful policy. According to Numbers 26 the Israelites, voluntarily as it seems, follow an intensive naturalization course, the subjects being sexual transgression and idolatry. Numbers 31,16 suggests that Balaam has been the brains behind this unholy integration project. Here the perspective has turned back to normal: here the reader is on the migrants' side and looks in disgust at the unholy customs of the host country.

King Balak inspired me to have a closer look at the first chapters of the book of Exodus. He did so by noting that the Israelites came from Egypt, and as I mentioned before, he characterizes their presence with words used in Exodus 10 to denote the plague of locusts. Browsing backwards I realize now that quite a number of the Egyptian plagues (Exodus 7-12) implies that the place is swarming and teeming with nasty things being everywhere, in every hole and around every corner, leaving not even a spot untouched. Once at a non-religious elementary school I read the story of the plagues with a group of unbiased twelve-year-olds. Afterwards, we designed wallpaper, one sheet for each plague: frogs wallpaper, ulcer wallpaper, mosquito wallpaper, locust wallpaper. What inspired our imagination were not the specific characteristics of each kind of animal or plague, but the fact that they multiplied and covered everything - this stolid presence in vast numbers, in which individuality vanishes and the multitude imposes itself. You will stop wondering what a frog is like if frogs are everywhere, in your bed and in the loo, if they jump into your face from every drawer you pull open.

Would it be possible that this character of the plagues is somehow related to the way in which the Egyptians perceived the Israelites? Would the horror caused by all those frogs and locusts correspond with the horror felt by Egyptians when they looked at the ever-spreading 'plague' of Hebrews?

There are, in fact, signs within the texts which suggest that for Egypt the Israelites came to constitue a threatening multitude that would fill up all the land. Here, like in Numbers, the storyteller helps us to look at the Israelites through the natives' eyes:

And the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled with them. (Ex. 1,7 ASV)

That is the plague which the king of Egypt thinks he has to take measures to control. He forces them to do hard labour, but:

... the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad. And they were grieved because of [or: horrified by,PvV] the children of Israel.  (Ex. 1, 12 ASV)

Such sentences help us to imagine what the Egyptians' nightmare looked like: an uncontrollable increase of Israelites. As I hear people saying about the larger migrant populations in our days: they breed like rabbits, nothing will stop them, one day they will push us aside. If once you start looking at it this way, fear and disgust will produce a spiral of inhuman attitudes out of which it will be hard to escape. In the story about Egypt it leads to systematic child murder.

And yet the story tells about people, notably women, who keep their heads cool and their hearts warm. They resist to being pulled into the vermin vision, they keep seeing a human being in each child they help deliver. Scholars differ in opinions as to whether Sifra and Pua were Egyptian or Hebrew women, but that does not matter very much. They save their own dignity by acknowledging the dignity of others, by not seeing numbers or multitudes, by seeing a person each time they meet one. That is why the story grants them each first a name and then a house of their own.

I find it impressive that Numbers 22 and Exodus 1 dare to introduce the vermin metaphor (the breeding, the swarming) as applied to the people of Israel seen by others. The stories do not play down the problem of growing groups of migrants taking their place in your country. The narratives help us to imagine the fear, the tendency to become defensive. But they show as well that giving in to this inclination leads to catastrophe. God's response in the stories seems to provide a mirror: if you see My people as a plague, you will have plagues. If you see them as vermin, vermin you will have. The curse you invoke upon them will turn itself against you. You will choke on the measures you have taken against them, while they walk away with blessing.

Now there remains a hermeneutical problem. The terminology which I have associated with vermin and plagues, does not in biblical language have a primarily negative connotation. All the multiplying and breeding and covering the land may get at the nerves of the natives, it is after all precisely what God in Genesis 1 told the first man and woman to bring about. Genesis 1,28 uses the same vocabulary as Exodus 1,7: be fruitful and increase abundantly, and fill the land. But in Genesis 1 there are no other people who can feel threatened in their existense or prosperity.

In this article, I have argued that inhumanity enters upon the scene when we stop to see other people as persons and start to see them as a teeming multitude. But in a sense, Genesis 1 represents an impersonal vision of multitude as well. In contrast to Genesis 2, where people have their names where they talk and are talked to, Genesis 1 is about the filling of created space. As the see swarms with fish and the skies are full of brids, so the earth is meant to swarm with people.

That is the priestly version of creation. Only now, in the context of Exodus 1 and Numbers 22, I came to feel badly about it, because of what one might call a lack of personalism. It would be worth checking if this is true for the priestly tradition in the Torah as a whole: that it is more interested in numbers and cases, calenders and maps, than in persons with their individual life histories. It is true, Scripture provides more than enpugh personalistic counterweight to such a tendency, but yet I would be curious to know if one could follow such personalistic-versus-priestly tracks throughout the biblical literature, into the prophets and perhaps even unto Jesus' stance towards the priests according to each of the Gospels.

The Dutch literary comics writer Marten Toonder wrote his picture novel "Het Lemland" already in 1960. In it, migrants knock at the doors in the town of Rommeldam. They are small and friendly creaturs in search of the land where everything will be better. The protagonist of Toonder's comic series, the noble but often unwise gentleman Bommel, at first receives them kindly, but more and more of them keep coming, the town and the countryside are filling up with them, they become a plague. The sheer mass of creatures, however friendly each of them may be, makes them dreadful vermin that swarms in every corner. Sir Bommel, who had offered hospitality to the first of the newcomers, stays their protector for a while and therefore is met with growing hostility in town. Alas, the comic story does not offer a real solution for the problem. Sir Bommel's unpropertied but clever friend Tom Cat saves the town: he places signs pointing to the promised Lemland, and the whole multitude moves out and eventually, like the proverbial lemmings, throws itself into the ocean. But the last sentences of the story are worth quoting. Sir Oliver B. Bommel offers a banquet, and concludes, awkwardly as usual: ".. But one should do well unto the individual and not unto the masses. For a mass will always look for Lemland where everything will be better, if one sees what I mean."

Piet van Veldhuizen