Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage (Numbers 25) transports me to a 1971 movie house for a troubling and frightening look at the movie reputed to have started the slasher and body count horror movies that continue to this day. Twitch of the Death Nerve aka Bay of Blood aka Bloodbath, was the work of Italian director Mario Brava, known as the godfather of gore. Countless movies have imitated it, with Friday the 13th (I and II) being quasi-remakes. Cue the scary music as the camera lets you see through the killer’s eyes. You go up the steps, and into the bedroom, where a young man and woman are in the throes of passion, oblivious to the intruder. You see the end of the spear come into view in the corner of the screen, and suddenly, on cue with the music, the spear impales both lovers, pinning them to the mattress and traveling through to the floor.
It’s shocking and gory, but probably mild relative to the splatter films and video games that have evolved in the last 30 years. It makes me wonder, though, what Mario Brava would do with the passage from Numbers, were he given the opportunity to put it’s action onto the big screen. Cue the music, and you learn that there is a powerful anger burning against the house of Israel, because their men are indulging themselves with Moabite women, adding insult to the injury of sexual infidelity by bowing down to the foreign gods. God assigns Moses, the head of the executive branch, the job of executing judgment. Kill them all, God says. Moses delegates, handing judges the assignment of executioners. The music changes as an Israelite-Moabite couple interrupts the scene and walks right past Moses as he’s divying up the responsibilities for the mass execution. The two enter a tent in brazen disregard for what Moses is doing. The music intensifies as a certain Phinehas enters the picture, with a tell-tale spear in hand. He follows the couple into the tent, where he proceeds to impale them together through the stomach. A line from the trailer to Bloodbath is fitting here: They came seeking pleasure; they found death. The music crescendos, and we learn that Phinehas’ double execution is not the first. God has been hard at work in the killing fields – multitudes have been plagued with death. For some unexplained reason, though, Phinehas’ impaling action has satisfied the jealous God’s appetite for justice, and the killing suddenly stops, with the body count at 24,000.
So what are we to make of the inclusion of gory stories like this in holy writ? Is this simply a blood-splattering tale of ancient tribes warring with each other and assuming the presence of divine assistance in their battles? I sure hope not, if the writ really is going to be holy. No, I think that on a deeper level the violence of the story represents the fierceness with which Life guards diversity. Life breeds diversity; that’s a biological as well as cultural truth. An insight I’m still having a hard time articulating is the way stories like this serve and preserve life’s penchant for diversity.
The story represents a very conservative tradition and thread that runs throughout the Bible. It’s not the only thread; there are liberal traditions and threads throughout scripture as well. People like me tend to gravitate toward the more liberal threads, which prize ideals like globalization and universalism and cross-cultural connections and peacemaking initiatives. The conservative stories are the ones that shore up prejudicial ethnic pride and prize ideals like particularity and purity and holy war. The irony for me is, the prejudicial strains of conservative stories actually preserve the kind of diversity I cherish. The twin irony is the well-documented danger that the liberal drive toward global awareness and universalism and cross-cultural connections would, left to its own devices, undermine diversity by blanching out differences. It’s the drive that leaves us seeing images of Pakistani children eating McDonald’s hamburgers or the Lacandon Maya of the Mexican rain forest watching satellite tv. The fierce conservative backlash to this, seen in the horror story of the speared couple, reminds us that in order for diversity to exist, the purity of particular cultures needs to be preserved. Fiercely guarded fidelity is one of Life’s strategies for preserving the distinct cultures that we liberals love to cross. I still don’t have the concept very well developed in my head, but there’s something there for me to learn, as I continually bump up against fundamentalist border patrol folk who fiercely guard the exclusivity and distinctive claims of particular religious traditions and faith claims. While I cannot help but try and open these borders, (it’s my job as a liberal), I think the horror story of Numbers 25 (the original Twitch of the Death Nerve) somehow is giving me a new-found respect for the borders and boundaries of exclusive faith traditions. I can only hope that the stories remain where they are, in story form, and that we don’t have to re-enact them time and time again, like the countless serial slasher movies, in order to fully get the point.
As always, your feedback and comments are welcome.