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Numbering the Dead in Northern Ireland

March 10, 2009

I was reading in the Radical Torah reflection for today of the prohibition on the numbering of the Israelite population. The point being made was that the counting of people invited some evil into the midst of the community, so the numbers given for each of the tribes are clearly estimates, nicely rounded into plump thousands.

The piece moved on to reflect on how we number the dead and displaced in humanitarian crises and how the sheer weight of the numbers can numb us to the tragedy. 5.4 million people dead in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Dear God! What does that mean? That’s the population that lives on this entire island.

In conclusion the verse containing the prohibition, from Exodus 30:12, is translated literally,

‘when you raise up the heads of the Israelite people’

which contrasts sharply with the translations we regularly use, which have some variation of ‘when you take a census…’ The significance of this translation is that in the numbering of the people the individual is not simply subsumed into the faceless tally, instead each face is seen as the head is lifted and the individual person is recorded.

Thus it is with each person who has been killed in the dirty war that has prevailed here in Northern Ireland and into which we find ourselves plunged mercilessly once again. Not only each one killed, including Mark Quinsey, Patrick Azimkar and Stephen Carroll in the last few days, but ten times that many who have been seriously injured and the countless numbers in their circles who have been affected.

It is the stuff of nightmares to raise up the head of each victim, to take note of each face. Many would prefer they are lost in the anonymity of a census. But God doesn’t allow us that luxury, for to do that is to invite a worse calamity on our community, which is scarcely imaginable.

From → Current Affairs, news

  1. Was just thinking on a similar line in the wake of watching (for the umpteenth time) the West Wing episode “Mr Willis” where they are arguing the constitutionality of sampling as against a head count for the 10 year census. And it made me realise that more and more our individual stories do not matter in the modern world… we are merely statistical data… Numbers generating more numbers to be manipulated… This first came home to me with regards to our own little local difficulties when Lost Lives took the helpful step of numbering each of the said fatalities associated with the troubles… But who numbers the indirect casualties? I suppose that is down to God who even numbers the hairs on our heads…

  2. Pistol Pete permalink

    Poignant reflection on a tragic situation. Thank you.

  3. thanks both of you for your comments. You’re nothing like ‘just a statistic’ David.

    And Pistol, really good to hear from you again it’s been some time. I hope you are very well

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