Model of the tabernacle of the congregation
Timna Valley Park, Israel.

Source: By Ruk7 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Lev Lunts


LIGHTING FIRES around the camp at night, they slept in tents. And in the morning -- hungry and vicious -- they moved on. They were many: who can count the sand of Jacob and number the multitude of Israel? Each took with him his cattle, and his wives, and his children. It was hot and terrible. And it was more terrible in the day than at night, because in the day the sun shone with a golden and even light that was darker in its steadiness than the nightly gloom. [1]

It was terrible and boring. There was nothing to do -- but walk, walk. Scorching boredom, hunger, desert delirium, the need to do something with their hairy hands and blunt fingers drove them to steal from each other -- utensils, skins, cattle, women -- and then to slay the stealers. And then they avenged the slayings and slew the slayers. There was no water, and there was much blood. And ahead lay the land flowing with milk and honey. [2]

There was no escape. Those falling behind died. And Israel crept on; behind crept the desert beasts, and ahead crept time.

There was no soul: the sun consumed it. There was only the body -- black, dry and strong: the bearded face that ate and drank, the feet that walked, the hands that slew, ripped apart flesh and clasped women on the bed. High above Israel was God -- gracious and longsuffering, just, merciful and true: black and bearded as Israel, avenger and slayer. And between God and Israel was the blue, smooth, beardless, terrible sky and Moses, Israel's leader, possessed. [3]


EVERY SIXTH DAY in the evening the trumpets sounded, and Israel went to the tabernacle of the congregation and crowded before the tent with curtains of fine-twined byssus and multicolored wool. And at the altar stood Aaron, the chief priest, black and bearded, wearing a precious ephod, screaming and crying. About him, his sons, and his grandsons, and his kindred from the tribe of Levi -- black and bearded, in purple and scarlet -- screamed and cried. Israel then -- black and bearded, in goats' skins, hungry and cowardly -- screamed and cried. [4]

And then was justice administered. Moses -- possessed, speaking with God and unable to speak in Israel's tongue -- mounted the platform. And on the platform his body heaved, his mouth foamed, and in the foam there were sounds, incomprehensible, but terrible. Israel shook and howled and, falling on its knees, prayed for forgiveness. The guilty confessed, and the guiltless confessed, for it was terrible. And they stoned the confessors. And then they moved on, to the land of milk and honey. [5]



-- gold, and silver, and brass, and wool -- blue, purple and scarlet, and byssus, and goats' hair, and rams' skins dyed red, and badgers' skins, and shittim wood, and spices for anointing oil and for incense, and precious stones --
-- bore Israel to the tabernacle of the congregation, when the trumpets sounded. Aaron then, and his sons, and his grandsons, and his kindred from the tribe of Levi took for themselves this offering.
And he who had no gold, no purple, no precious stones -- brought dishes, and plates, and cups, and mugs for libation, and the best of holy oil, and the best of grapes and bread, and unleavened bread, and leavened bread, and flat cakes anointed with oil, and sheep, and calves, and rams.
And he who had no oil, no grapes, no cattle, no utensils -- was slain. [6]


WHEN THEY LACKED THE STRENGTH to go on, when the sand burned their soles and the sun their skins, and they had no water; when they ate mules and drank mules' urine -- then Israel went unto Moses and wept and chided with him: "Who will give us flesh to eat and water to drink? We remember the fish we ate in Egypt, and the cucumbers, and the melons, and the onions, and the turnips, and the garlic. Where are you leading us? Where is this land flowing with milk and honey? Where is your God who leads us? We do not want to fear him. We want to go back to Egypt." And, in answer, Moses, Israel's leader, possessed, heaved on the platform, foamed at the mouth and sputtered curses, incomprehensible, but terrible. Aaron, his brother, in purple and scarlet, stood beside him and threatened and screamed: "Slay the murmerers." And the murmerers were slain.

And when Israel continued to murmur and cried out: "Is it not enough that you lead us from Egypt's land to perish in the wilderness? You have not led us to the land flowing with milk and honey. You have not given us vineyards and fields. We will not go. No, we will not go!" Then Aaron told his kindred from the tribe of Levi: "Bare your swords and make your way through the people." And the sons of the tribe of Levi took their swords and made their way through the people and slew everyone in their path. Israel screamed and cried in terror, because Moses spoke with God and the Levites had swords.

Then they arose and set forth to the land of milk and honey. And the years crept as Israel crept, and Israel crept as the years. [7]


IF THEY MET A TRIBE or a people on the way, they slew them. They ripped them apart greedily, like beasts, and having ripped them apart moved on. And behind crept the desert beasts and ripped apart the remains of the people and feasted on them -- greedily, like Israel.

The Edomites, the Moabites, the Bashanites, and the Amorites they ground into the dust. They demolished their altars and plucked down their high places and cut down their sacred trees. They left no man alive. But goods, and cattle, and women they took, and having enjoyed a woman at night slew her in the morning. They ripped open the womb of the pregnant woman and destroyed the fruit within, but the woman herself they took until morning -- and in the morning slew her. And the best of utensils, cattle and women the tribe of Levi took for itself. [8]


THE YEARS CREPT as Israel crept. And together with the years and Israel crept hunger, and thirst, and terror, and fury. There was nothing to bring to the tabernacle of the congregation when the trumpets sounded. And Israel slew its cattle and took it to Aaron and his kindred from the tribe of Levi. Those who came with empty hands -- were slain. And more often Israel went to Moses and screamed and chided with him, and more often the sons of the tribe of Levi bared their swords and made their way through the people. And children were born, and years, and terror, and hunger.


AND IT CAME TO PASS, that Israel met with the Midianites. And there was a great battle. Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, led Israel, with the holy instruments and the trumpets to blow in his hand. And Israel conquered, and having conquered rampaged. And then it divided the cattle and the women. And Phinehas, grandson of the priest, took for himself the best beasts and the best woman. [9] And when morning came, Phinehas took his sword to kill the woman he had enjoyed. But the woman was lying naked. And Phinehas could not kill her. And he left the tent, called a slave and said, giving him the sword: "Go into the tent and kill the woman." And the slave said: "So be it, I shall kill the woman." And he entered the tent. Time passed, and Phinehas told another slave: "Go into the tent and kill the woman and the one who is lying with her." And then he told a third, and a fourth, and a fifth slave. And they said, "So be it," and entered the tent. Time passed, and no one left the tent. Then Phinehas entered the tent, and there on the ground lay slain slaves, and the last slave lay with the woman. And Phinehas took his sword and killed the slave and prepared to kill the woman. But the woman lay naked. And Phinehas could not kill her, and he went and lay down by the door to the tabernacle of the congregation. [10]


AND A GREAT MADNESS and fornication began in Israel. For the woman was lying on the bed, and the sons of Israel slew each other at the tent's entrance, and the one who prevailed lay with the woman. And when he came out of the tent -- they slew him.

Thus passed the day, and the darkness behind the day, and the next day behind the darkness, and the next darkness behind the day. There was no bread, but no one murmured; there was no water, but no one thirsted.

And on the sixth day, in the evening, the trumpets did not sound, and Israel did not go to the tabernacle of the congregation, but crowded around the tent of Phinehas, the son of Eleazar. Phinehas himself lay by the door to the tabernacle of the congregation. [11]

And the seventh day passed, the sabbath, and Israel did not gather at the tabernacle of the congregation and did not bear offerings. And the sons of the tribe of Levi came to slay the woman, but slew each other, and the one who prevailed lay with the woman.

And Moses, possessed, heaved on the platform and screamed, and spit out curses and foam, but no one listened to him. [12]

And Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, lay by the door to the tabernacle of the congregation, but no one looked upon him.

And the camp of Israel did not creep on to the land flowing with milk and honey, but stopped. And the desert beasts that followed stopped, and time stopped.


AND IT CAME TO PASS, on the tenth day, that the woman came out of the tent and walked naked through the camp. Israel crawled through the sand after her and kissed the tracks of her feet. And the woman said: "Destroy the altars of your God and build a pedestal for Baal-peor, for he is the true god." And Israel destroyed the altars of their god and built a pedestal for Baal-peor. [13] And the woman went to the tabernacle of the congregation, but at the door to the tabernacle lay Phinehas, the son of Eleazar. And the woman decided not to enter the tabernacle, but said: "Why are you lying there like a desert dog? Come and lie with me in your tent." And she said further: "Strike this man!" And Zimri, the son of Salu, leader of the Simeon tribe, came and kicked Phinehas. And the woman went into the tent. And Zimri, the son of Salu, followed after her. [14]

When evening came, Phinehas got up and went to his tent to lie with the woman. And Israel saw where Phinehas was going and parted before him. And Phinehas entered the tent, his javelin in his hand. And there lay the woman naked on the bed, and upon her lay Zimri, the son of Salu, naked. And Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, struck him above the sacrum and thrust through his bowels and the woman's bowels and fastened the javelin to the bed. Then Phinehas turned over the tent, and Israel saw the woman and Zimri, the son of Salu, bare and stuck to the bed. And Israel began to weep and howl. But Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the chief priest, went and lay down at the door to the tabernacle of the congregation.


AND MORNING CAME, and behold, they had no bread, and no meat, and no water. And hunger awakened, and thirst, and terror, and fury. And Israel went to Moses, possessed, and said unto him: "Who will give us flesh to eat and water to drink? We remember the fish we ate in Egypt, and the cucumbers, and the melons, and the onions, and the turnips, and the garlic. Why do you lead us into this wilderness, for us and our cattle to die? You have not led us to the land flowing with milk and honey. We will not go. No, we will not go!" And, in answer, Moses, who spoke with God, heaved on the platform, foamed at the mouth and sputtered incomprehensible curses. And Aaron, the chief priest, arose and told the sons of the tribe of Levi: "Bare your swords and make your way through the camp." And the sons of the tribe of Levi took their swords and made their way through the camp and slew everyone in their path. [15]

When evening came, Israel arose and crept on to the land flowing with milk and honey. Ahead crept time, behind crept the desert beasts, and on crept darkness.
Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, went last and looked back as he walked. And there were the woman and Zimri, the son of Salu, leader of the Simeon tribe, bare and stuck to the bed. [16]

And above Israel, and above time, and above the country flowing with milk and honey -- black and bearded as Israel, avenger and slayer -- was God, gracious and longsuffering, just, merciful and true.

March 1921

Translated by Gary Kern


V pustyne is the first of three Biblical stories by Lev Lunts (1901-1924), the other two being Rasskaz o skoptse [The Story of a Castrate] and Rodina [My Homeland]. As a retelling of episodes in the Bible, this story achieves a clarity of purpose, structure and reference greater than the following two, which borrow more widely, transform their materials more radically and seek to go beyond the angry satire and irony of this work. Essentially it is composed of two motifs. The first, drawing passages from the Books of Genesis through Numbers, is the forced march of the Israelites through the Arabian wilderness to "the land flowing with milk and honey." A raving Moses exhorts them, his privileged brother Aaron and the Levite priests beat them, religious sacrifices deplete them, and hunger, thirst and desert delirium drive them mad. The second motif, drawn from Numbers 25, is apostasy. A "great madness and fornication" begins in the camp of Israel, a beautiful Midianite woman seduces the men one after the other and she makes them build an altar to Baal Peor, but Phinehas, the grandson of Aaron, spears her and a lover to their bed, winning the approval of the other Levites and the eternal blessing of God, who nearly got replaced. Then the Israelites, once more decimated by Levite swords, again push on through the desert.

This retelling of the Biblical exodus may be taken as an irreverent reversal of divine revelation, divine prophecy, religious ritual, religious devotion and in general the whole saga of the Jewish people's trek through the first five books of the Old Testament, known as the Pentateuch. On first reading, it may appear that the author has gone out of his way to produce a negative and contrary account of what is inscribed in Scripture. Yet a careful examination of the relevant passages in the Bible, indicated here in the endnotes, will reveal that there is sufficient basis for regarding the long march of the Israelites as tyrannical and vicious, driven by preachments and promises, and backed by whips and swords, all to the advantage of the ruling class of priests, the Levites, and all to the disadvantage of the other eleven tribes. After reading this story, it is very hard to look at any book of the Old Testament without seeing through Yahweh's self-serving conceits, as pronounced by his prophets and priests. In this sense, the work is entirely consistent with the atheist program of the newly victorious Bolsheviks, who wanted to extirpate the "opiate of the masses" from Russia, save that it implies something as well about leaders who assume the right, on the basis of questionable authority, to drive the masses to a promised land. Lunts leaves the equalization of the Levites and Bolsheviks as an unspoken implication, but the times themselves were such as to make the story not just consistent with the revolution, but antithetical to it.

Published in April 1922 in the so-called "first almanac" of the Serapion Brothers, which had no successor, "In the Wilderness" attracted an unusual amount of attention in Petrograd and Moscow and garnered some favorable reviews. The writer Marietta Shaginyan perceived that Lunts was attempting to create a new prose style, which she compared to musical speech. [17] Yevgeny Zamyatin called it a work of "successful stylization" and hailed it as a pointer to the literature of the future:

For the literature of the near future will surely take leave of portraiture, be it respectably realistic or modern, and of everyday life, be it old or most recent and revolutionary, and will move toward an artistic philosophy. [18]

Yury Tynyanov saw features in the story which remove the action from its Biblical context and bring it closer to the reader, but reserved his praise with the observation that the Biblical style runs the risk of referring not to the Bible, but to Biblical imitation. He need not have worried, for Lunts, though not always completely accurate in his citations, drew on a knowledge of the Bible so trenchant that only readers steeped in the culture would have caught all the references. Yet it is possible that Tynyanov, an elder friend of Kaverin and a Formalist scholar respected by both him and Lunts, spurred the young writer to seek new turns in the style. Each of the three Biblical stories proves quite different from the other. [19]

In the political sphere, the Serapion Brothers caught the attention of Leon Trotsky, who as the most literate of the Bolshevik leaders, sought to sum up the first writings of the post-revolutionary period and give pointers to writers for proper development. Taking Lunts's story as emblematic of the group, he stated that the October Revolution had given them their "pedigree," but that they, rather than acknowledge their debt, tried to assert their individuality by ignoring the revolution and writing about Biblical Jews. He failed to see anything contemporary in the story and considered it an example of art for art's sake, useless and irresponsible. His verdict was short-sighted, both for faulting the treatment of revolutionary themes in the works of Vsevolod Ivanov, Nikolai Nikitin and other Serapions, and for thinking that Lunts had only the Bible in mind. Also, as a Jew and atheist himself, Trotsky might have found something to admire in the work. His book on these matters, Literature and Revolution, came out in 1924, the year of Lenin's death and his own decline in power, yet his pronouncements remained in effect through all the succeeding anti-Trotskyist years. Quite accurately, he grouped the Serapion Brothers with other poputchiki -- "fellow travellers" -- of the Bolshevik regime. [20]

In the present translation the King James version was used to render passages that Lunts took or paraphrased from the Russian Bible. In most instances the matches were exact or very close, both between Lunts and the Russian synodal version, and between the synodal and the King James. In one instance, however, no equivalent could be found in either Bible for a word in the Russia text of the story. It is pomost, which Lunts uses to signify the elevation, platform or pulpit where Moses preached. In the Russian Bible, this word is not found in conjunction with Moses, but rather in Ezekial 40:17-18 and in Esther 1:7, where it connotes a "pavement" (King James version) of stones, multicolored in Esther. Similar passages are found in John 19:13 and in the Talmud referring to a floor called in Hebrew "Gabbatha," or pavement, but here the Russian and English texts do not correspond. Although there once was a popular belief that Moses stood on a pavement of multicolored stones when he preached in the tabernacle of the congregation, possibly based on the false analogy "Moses/ mosaic," it is not clear what Lunts had in mind. Therefore pomost is translated simply as "platform."


[1] "Who can count the sand of Jacob" -- drawn from The Book of Numbers 23:10. In the Bible the twelve tribes of Israel are descendants of the twelve sons of Jacob, who was renamed Israel ("soldier of God") in Genesis 32:28.

[2] In Exodus 3:9-17 God commissions Moses to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt "unto a land flowing with milk and honey." The land is identified as "the place of the Canaanites, and the Hittites, and the Amorites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites." (King James version)

[3] Moses belongs to the tribe of Levites, descendants of Levi, third son of Jacob. This is the caste of priests, established in Exodus 4:14-16, 24:1-12, 28:1-2 and 29:29-30. The epithets for God come from Ex. 34:6.

[4] The trumpets sounded -- Numbers 10:2-10. The tabernacle was a portable tent with two chambers: the first held an altar and a ceremonial table; the second (the holy of holies) held the ark of the covenant -- a box containing the two stone tablets with the Ten Commandments. Outside the tent were a bronze basin in which the priests washed their hands and an elevated altar for burnt offerings. The compound was surrounded by curtained fences forming a long rectangular courtyard. See Exodus 25-27, 35-38. Aaron's ephod (an elaborate apron) was worn with a luxurious robe and a breastplate inlaid with twelve precious stones -- Ex. 28:4-14, 39:2-7. Lunts probably intends the whole dress. The keeping of the sabbath -- Ex. 20:8-10, 31:12-15 and 35:2.

[5] Moses tells God in Exodus 4:10 that he is "not eloquent... but slow of speech, and of a slow tongue." God therefore instructs him (Ex. 4:14-15) to use his elder brother Aaron, who "speaks well," and "put words in his mouth."

[6] Offerings -- Exodus 25:3-7, 29:2, 35:5-29. The rights of the Levites to consume sacrificial offerings -- Leviticus 2:3-10, 6:14-16 and 7:28-39.

[7] This chapter summarizes the complaints of the Israelites in the wildernesses of Sinn (Exodus 16-17), Paran (Numbers 11) and Zin (Num. 14:1-11, 20:1-5). In the Bible God first provides them with manna that forms in the morning dew and water that springs from a rock, but thereafter threatens them with plagues and damnation should they persist in their rebelliousness.

[8] Israel's victory over the Amorites -- Numbers 21:21-32; over the Bashanites -- Num. 21:33-35. Before their entrance into the land of Canaan, God commands the Israelites to drive out all its inhabitants and destroy all their possessions -- Num. 33:51-56.

[9] Israel's slaughter of the Midianites under the command of Phinehas -- Numbers 31. Eleazar was the third son of Aaron and succeeded him as chief priest -- Num. 3:32, 20:25-28. After Eleazar's death (Joshua 24:33), Phinehas became an officiating priest -- Judges 20:28.

[10] Israel's "whoredom with the daughters of Moab" -- Numbers 25. The woman in question is described as "Midianitish," and her name is transcribed "Cozbi" in the King James version and "Khazva" in the Russian synodal edition -- Num. 25:6, 15. Lunts places the battle with the Midianites (Num. 31) before the episode with the "Midianitish woman" (Num. 25). Phinehas is the hero of both Biblical accounts.

[11] The tabernacle was set up in the middle of the camp and the twelve tribes were positioned around it, with the Levites occupying the closest ground. It is not clear here whether Phinehas is lying inside the courtyard at the entrance to the tent or outside the courtyard at the gate. Logic favors the latter, but the Russian favors the former. (Lunts uses vkhod, not vorota.)

[12] Whether Moses spoke in camp upon a mound of earth, a platform of boards, or a pavement of multicolored stones is a question involving much Biblical and Talmudic interpretation. Here it seemed best to translate the word pomost generically as "platform."

[13] The nature god Baal was worshipped in the Middle East from 2000 BC or earlier. The name meant "lord" or "master" and required a suffix for greater specification, so that the godhead of each city had his own suffix. One had the aspect of a bull and may have inspired the "golden calf" of Exodus 32. Apparently the Israelites began to apply the name to their own god, for which God reproved them in Hosea 2:16-17.

[14] In Numbers 25:1-4 the daughters of Moab invite the Israelites to attend the sacrificial rites of their religion, where they win them over. Sexual seduction is more than implied.

[15] The swords of the Levites -- Ex. 32:26-29). Lunts passes over God's command in Numbers 25:4 to take the Israelites who worshipped Baal-peor and "hang them up before the Lord against the sun, that the fierce anger of the Lord may be turned away from Israel." By "hang them up" impaling is meant.

[16] The Lord was well pleased with Phinehas: "Behold, I give unto him my covenant of peace: And he shall have it, and his seed after him, even the covenant of an everlasting priesthood; because he was zealous for his God, and made an atonement for the children of Israel." (Numbers 25:12-13)

[17] Marietta Shaginyan, "Serapionovy brat'ya," Zhizn' iskusstva No. 819, 11/29/21, 5 & No. 11 (834), 1922; both included in Literaturnyi dnevnik, stat'i 1921-1922 [Literary Diary, Articles 1921-1922] (Moscow-Petersburg: Krug, 1923), 128-133.

[18] Yevgeny Zamyatin, "Serapionovy brat'ya," Literaturnye zapiski [Literary Notes] No. 1, 5/25/22, 7-8, translated by Mirra Ginsburg in Yevgeny Zamyatin, A Soviet Heretic (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), 75-80, quotation on 76.

[19] Yury Tynyanov, "Serapionovy brat'ya, Al'manakh pervyi," Kniga i Revolyutsiya [Almanac the First, Book and Revolution] No. 6, 1922, 62-64.

[20] Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution, translated by Rose Strunsky (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1960), 69 ff. The original article was "Serapionovy brat'ya, Vsevolod Ivanov," Pravda, 10/5/22.


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