That sounds awfully dark. Who would want their life to have meaning only in their death? I know we have glorious (but dead) heroes, like the defenders of Masada or the Alamo. And martyrs are an example to others – but not one that sane people actually aim to imitate.
Normal people do not aspire to finding their fulfillment in battle or the gas chambers. Most of us want to make our marks through our lives, not our deaths.
Yet the Torah tells us about an entire generation who only reach their destiny when they are dead, as an example for all of our people to never, ever follow.
After the spies lose their nerve, G-d decrees:
But your carcasses shall drop in this wilderness, while your children roam the wilderness for forty years, suffering for your faithlessness, until the last of your carcasses is done in the wilderness.
The word I translate as “done” is tam, meaning completion or fulfillment. So the completion of the people was found in their carcasses. Which means that the ultimate value of their lives, in G-d’s eyes, was found in their death. That is pretty depressing.
The text makes this connection even darker. The word for “carcass” is rare in the Torah. In addition to its use in the story of the spies, it is found in a curse for not following G-d.
I will destroy your cult places and cut down your incense stands, and I will heap your carcasses upon your lifeless fetishes. I will spurn you.
Again – an example for others to follow.
But the first time “carcass” (peger) is found is at the mysterious and terrifying Covenant Between the Parts: Abraham is commanded to cut animals in half:
He brought all these and cut them in two, placing each half opposite the other … Birds of prey came down upon the carcasses, and Abram drove them away.
These animals were nameless, random beasts. They could have lived their lives. Until one day they were used in this way, and became an eternal lesson to the Jewish people. Like those who died in the wilderness because of their sins, these animals became an important lesson – but in their deaths, through their carcasses lying on the ground. The very best possible reading might be: “Sure, they died, and it was awful, but at least we learned something from their death, in the end.” They are a cautionary tale. And so were the generation of the spies, condemned to die like the animals, and to have the very purpose of their existence found in their dead bodies.
P.S. Secondary to the primary thesis, one obvious question remains: why does the text mention the vultures?
Birds of prey came down upon the carcasses, and Abram drove them away.
I think it is because nature was ready to recycle the carcasses. But Avraham knew they were there for a reason. He killed the animals, but he did not do it for food or whim: G-d had commanded it, and so they must have a purpose beyond mere vulture food. In the Torah, even carcasses are there for a reason!
As you may recall, the Covenant that involves the carcasses includes the prophecy that the enslaved people would go down to serve a foreign people, and then be brought out by G-d with great wealth. The Exodus itself describes something supernatural: a slave nation leaving its host in the manner of the Exodus defies normal existence and the natural workings of people and nations. The Jewish people, by being in Egypt and leaving, would be achieving something that could not be naturally assured or expected.
So by interrupting the vultures, Avraham is foreshadowing G-d’s salvation of the people: nature would not be allowed to simply run its course. The natural end of the carcasses was interrupted and managed by a higher power, just as the Exodus tells of a people who were about to be lost, but were saved by G-d.
The story of the Jewish people is the story of the natural world that contains a supernatural people, a people able to elevate themselves and the world around them, and a people that refuses to simply let nature take its course. Avraham stops the vultures because the carcasses are there for a bigger reason than simply recycling dead animals. So, too, G-d delivers the Exodus in violation of the natural “laws” of the world, because G-d wants the entire world to know that there are some things that are bigger, more powerful, and more important than the earth.