Last night the Torah group met again. It was a nominally momentous occasion, as we were beginning a new book: Numbers. The English name of this book is "Numbers," that is, because it begins with a census, but the Hebrew name means "in the wilderness." The parashah we went over last night was largely a rehash of things we'd touched on before, such as the reluctance to allow people to be counted. This reluctance seems to survive even today, though for different reasons. One always hears of census workers who are shot at or killed in the course of their duties because of illegal aliens fearing they'll be found out or criminals hiding out and trying to stay hidden, etc. One would think then that shooting at a census worker would attract MORE unwelcome attention rather than less, but I suppose criminals are generally not known for their foresight.
The book was full of epic catalogues and formulas describing how each tribe lined up and displayed its colors and then how the Levites lined up, in their thousands, to be counted. There had to be a separate counting for the two groups because the first counting was for military conscription purposes, and the Levites, bound to the temple, were not to serve in the military or work in other occupations unrelated to the temple. In fact, the taxes went to support this latter group.
It struck me while we were reading over and discussing this hodgepodge of information that I know now where Melville got his idea for Moby Dick, since it so precisely mirrors the almanac-like structure of the Torah--a little history, some law, taxonomy, etc. ... .