וְהַלְוִיִּם יַחֲנוּ סָבִיב לְמִשְׁכַּן הָעֵדֻת וְלֹא יִהְיֶה קֶצֶף עַל עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל
And the Levites shall camp around the Tabernacle of the Testimony, so that there will not be frothing-anger at the Children of Israel (Num 1:53, see also v. 50b)
Frothing at the Mouth
First, a word about the translation "frothing-anger." (If technical linguistic details bore you, feel free to skip to the next section.) As we discussed in an earlier post on Biblical metaphor, the literal meaning of Hebrew words can shed light on their metaphorical connotations. The word qetseph (קצף) generally means "anger" in the metaphorical sense, but the word does appear once in the Bible in its literal use:
נִדְמֶה שֹׁמְרוֹן מַלְכָּהּ כְּקֶצֶף עַל פְּנֵי מָיִם
Samaria is likened - its king - as foam on the surface of water. (Hosea 10:7)
(A couple of word-related factoids: The word "skim" comes from taking the frothy "scum" off the surface of a liquid. The word קצפת in Modern Hebrew means whipped cream, which of course is foam-like.)
In terms of the context of qetseph in Hosea, the deposed king of Samaria could certainly be likened to a twig that was snapped off and now floats away. The metaphor of anger could then be related to "snapping" or "cracking." My preference is to say that the king is likened to foam on the water, which is there one moment and gone the next, and where the anger of qetseph connotes "frothing" or "foaming" at the mouth with rage.
Divine Potentate or Potency?
But I'd like to now consider the theological implications of our original verse in Numbers, about the Levites guarding against "frothing-anger." Let's put aside the connotation of "frothing at the mouth," which connotes a crazed, rabid state. The intent here is most likely "fierce wrath" or "violence." What I want to point out is that the verse is voiced by YHVH, as a command (v. 48), and YHVH refers to his own anger in the third person, as if it is some sort of natural phenomenon that cannot be changed.
"Camp around the Tabernacle, so that there will be no anger" has a similar structure as if I were to say, "Use an umbrella, so that you don't get wet." Now, if I had the power to prevent the rain from falling, why would I tell you to use an umbrella? I should simply keep it from raining, at least on you. I only tell you to use an umbrella because there is nothing I can do about the rain. Likewise, if YHVH can prevent his own anger from flaring, why would he tell the Levites to camp around the Tabernacle? It sounds as if there is nothing YHVH can do about his own anger. If triggered, YHVH's wrath will flare and people will be struck down. It is simply a matter of fact. All the Israelites can do is take safety precautions so that hopefully no one will come into harm's way.
Suffice it to say, it does not sound like the idea of God typically advanced in theological discussions. God is supposed to be "merciful" and "omnipotent." In the above verse, God sounds like neither.
The angle to approach a verse like this, I would suggest, is to consider what it might convey about the view of God from the perspective of the ancient Israelites. To say, "Do X, so that I not kill you," sounds rather like a dispassionate potentate, an autocrat who sets up absolute, nonnegotiable rules, which when broken automatically result in the death penalty. Not that the potentate wants the people to die - he doesn't, which is why he issues the warning - but rather there is simply zero tolerance for infractions. Perhaps that is the model for monarchs in the Ancient Near East.
However, I think there is another way one might approach the view of the Israelites (or at least that of the priestly school, to whom the scholarship literature identifies as the source of most of the Book of Numbers, including the first ten chapters). That is, rather than envision God as a divine potentate, God is viewed as a locus of divine potency - i.e. power. Having God's presence (kavod) in one's midst is akin to hosting a power plant in the middle of town. In order to harness and gain benefit from this power (in the form of blessing, protection, well-being, etc.), a set of strict guidelines must be followed. This includes guidelines for the people at large, as well as even more complex rules for those who work in and around the plant - i.e. the Levites and Priests. The Torah is essentially putting up signs: Authorized personnel only! Stay clear - danger of death! Safety warning - personnel may enter only at X times, equipped with Y uniform, and may under no circumstances touch Z!
Danger of Death - the verses
To substantiate the "potency" approach to the concept of God, I think it is helpful to see just how many verses in the Torah there are which present God in this way.
Below is a list of the verses in the Torah which warn about the danger of YHVH-related death, or speaking about actual deaths. Note that the list does not include: A) verses relating to people put to death by human hands, on YHVH's command, or B) verses clearly speaking about punishments for rebellion and idolatry. (And there are numerous examples of both A and B.) The verses below instead reflect the inherent mortal danger of being in proximity to YHVH.
Beware of ascending the mountain or touching its edge; whoever touches the mountain will surely die. (Ex 19:12)
Descend, warn the people, lest they break through to YHVH to see, and a multitude of them will fall. (Ex 19:21)
Even the priests who approach YHVH should be prepared, lest YHVH burst forth against them. (Ex 19:22)
[The robe’s bells’] sound shall be heard when he enters the sanctum before YHVH and when he leaves, so that he will not die. (Ex 28:35)
Every man will give YHVH a ransom for his person when counting them, so there will not be a plague among them when counting them. (Ex 30:12)
Whenever they come to the Tent of Meeting, they shall wash with water so they will not die. (Ex 28:35)
I will not ascend among you, because you are a stiff-necked people, lest I consume you along the way. (Ex 33:3)
A fire came forth from before YHVH and consumed [Nadav and Avihu], and they died before YHVH. (Lev 10:2)
Do not leave your heads unshorn and do not rend your garments, so you will not die and He become wrathful with the entire assembly. (Lev 10:6)
Do not leave the Tent of Meeting, lest you die. (Lev 10:7)
Do not drink intoxicating wine... when you come into the Tent of Meeting, so that you do not die. (Lev 10:9)
[Aaron] should not come at all times into the sanctum... so he will not die. (Lev 16:2)
And the cloud of the incense should cover the ark-cover, which is above the testimony, so he will not die. (Lev 16:13)
But [the Kohatites] should not come and look as the sancta is inserted and die. (Num 4:20)
So there will not be a plague among the Children of Israel, when the Children of Israel approach the sanctuary. (Num 8:19)
Each and every one who approaches the Tabernacle of YHVH dies – will we ever stop perishing! (Num 17:28)
They will guard the safeguard of the sancta and the altar, and there will not be more frothing-anger against the Children of Israel. (Num 18:5)
So that the Children of Israel will not again approach the Tent of Meeting to bear a sin to die. (Num 18:22)
And the [sanctified tithes] of the Children of Israel you should not desecrate, so that you will not die. (Num 18:32)
A "Natural God" of Laws
What I extract from these verses is not an "angry God," nor an "uncompromising monarch." It is the concept of God's presence as presenting a power that one had to be exceedingly careful around, and which required a great deal of precautions and detailed procedures in order to protect the Priests, Levites, and the public at large from harm.
As for the theological implications of verses wherein YHVH speaks so matter-of-factly about people getting killed if they do not follow the rules, I view this not as offering information about God but rather as indicating a view of the world, and of sancta, that the Israelite priests projected onto God. It is a sense of the divine not characterized by the whims of capricious monarchs, nor of balancing judgment and mercy. Rather, the divine realm was one of natural/created order, rules, and severe danger when borders are breached, when rules are compromised. "Wrath" is purely metaphorical here. "Anger" is a term merely used to express the violence people would face if they stepped over the line - like stepping out into a violent storm.
In a sense, it is a proto-scientific worldview, wherein the framework in which the world exists is founded on laws, and there is cause and effect. In the same way that the ancient mindset did not distinguish the way we do between fact and fiction, or between physical health and morality, in the priestly view (and perhaps elsewhere) it also conflated the natural realm and the divine realm, wherein there is order, law, the occasion for great awe, as well as great caution. So it is not that God "can't help himself" from lashing out against those who do not follow the rules. Rather, God - in the form of a powerful and volatile presence - is envisioned both as the rule-maker and as part of the rules themselves. God creates nature, creates the law, and God is also a potent force within it.