Va-etchannan: Haunted by Shame

August 3, 2014 at 10:07 pm | Posted in Va-etchannan | 2 Comments
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Shame na feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.” (Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 10th ed.) shame 1

The Hebrew Bible is haunted by shame over how a large number of Israelite men betrayed their God and their laws when they worshipped Baal Pe-or through ritual sex. Shame over their own behavior drives the Israelites to commit atrocities before they finally accept responsibility and turn their shame into a life lesson.

I have led a blameless life by comparison, yet shame has haunted me, too. It took me years to forgive myself for betraying my best friend in first grade, caving in to peer pressure and saying she was “a big baby”. I did not repeat that particular shameful act, but I betrayed my own principles in other ways when I was clinging to my first husband, ignoring the shouts of my inner ethical voice. It took many more years, after my divorce, before I could trust myself again.

I imagine the world is teeming with people who walk around haunted by shame. What can we do about those recurrent memories of betraying ourselves, betraying our gods, and doing the wrong thing?

The Torah offers two different responses to the shame of Baal Pe-or. The Torah portion Mattot in the book of Numbers/Deuteronomy provides a negative example. (See my post Mattot: Killing the Innocent.) This week’s Torah portion, Va-etchannan (“And I implored”) provides a more positive example.

Here is the original shameful deed of the Israelites concerning Baal Pe-or (“the god of the wide-open mouth”):

Israel settled among the acacias, and the people began liznot with the daughters of Moab. They [women of Moab and Midian] invited the people to the sacrificial-slaughter-feasts of their gods, and the people ate, and they bowed down to their gods. And Israel yoked itself to Baal Pe-or; and God became enraged against Israel. (Numbers/Bemidbar 25:1-3)

liznot (לִזְנוֹת) = to have illicit intercourse; to engage in cult prostitution as a form of religious observance. (Some ancient Middle Eastern religions employed this method to stimulate the gods to bring fertility to the land.)

As the Torah portion Balak continues, God’s rage is expressed in a plague. God tells Moses to stop the plague by impaling all the Israelites who are ringleaders in liznot. Moses begins to make arrangements, but then an Israelite man and a Midianite woman go right inside God’s Tent of Meeting to have intercourse. Pinchas, son of Elazar the high priest, runs in and runs a spear through the couple. The plague is checked, with 24,000 dead. (See my earlier post, Balak: Carnal Appetites.)

Here God is punishing the Israelites. But in the next Torah portion, Pinchas, God tells Moses to punish the Midianites:

Be hostile to the Midianites and strike them! Because they were hostile to you through their cunning, acting cunningly toward you over the matter of Pe-or… (Numbers 25:17-18)

Notice how the blame for the blasphemy shifts from the Israelites to the Midianites. Yet the Midianites may have acted in good faith.

The land where people worship Baal-Peor is north of the Arnon River and east of the Jordan. Its residents are Moabite farmers and Midianite semi-nomads. But its king, when the Israelites reach the border, is an Emorite who recently conquered northern Moab. The Israelites ask King Sichon for permission to pass through his land on their way to Canaan. But the king refuses and attacks them. The Israelites win the battle, conquering his territory.

To the local residents, one foreign ruler might be the same as another. For all we know, the Moabites and Midianites living in the conquered territory are trying to be helpful, by teaching the Israelite men how to do the right religious rituals so that their local god will keep the land fertile. The original story in Balak (above) would support that interpretation.

But in the next two Torah portions, the God-character tells Moses that the Midianites are cunning and hostile. (The Moabites are forgotten.) Moses puts together an army of 12,000 armed men to attack the Midianites.

This reminds me of people today who feel ashamed of betraying their own principles in order to have fun with the local crowd—but instead of acknowledging their own guilt, they react by blaming others.

Moses’ army kills every Midianite man, including their five kings. The Israelites also kill the Petorite prophet Bilam, who somehow happens to be on the scene instead of at his home on the Euphrates.

And the Children of Israel took captive the women of Midian and their young children, and the plundered all their cattle and all their property and all their wealth. (Numbers 31:9)

Moses is furious, and says: You let every woman live? Hey, they were [the reason why] the Children of Israel, through the word of Bilam, betrayed God in the matter of Pe-or, so that a plague was among the assembly of God! (Numbers 31:15-16)

Then he orders them to kill all the women and the boys, exempting only the virgin girls from the genocide.

Once you turn shame into blame, it is hard to stop.

Moses and the God-character blame not only the Midianite women who taught the Israelite men liznot, but all the Midianite men, and even their infant sons. The Torah even manages to blame Bilam, who is neither a Midianite nor a Baal-worshiper.

In the Torah portion Balak, Bilam is a prophet from the east who accepts pay for blessing and cursing people, but speaks only the words that God—the God of the four-letter name, which is the God of Israel—puts in his mouth. The King of Moab hires him to curse the Israelites, but Bilam utters God’s blessings, and goes home without pay. He leaves well before any of the Israelites begin liznot for Baal Pe-or.

Now suddenly, in the Torah portion Mattot, Bilam is back among the Midianites of Pe-or. Moses even says that the Midianite women tempted the Israelite men “through the word of Bilam”, as if Bilam instigated the whole affair! In fact, none of the Israelites are aware of Bilam’s blessings earlier in the Torah; the only way Moses would know of the event is if God told him off-stage, so to speak.

Bilam is a non-Israelite who hears God’s voice and speaks for God just as if he were a “true” prophet, a prophet of Israel. But to whomever wrote down or redacted this section of the portion Mattot, a foreign prophet was unacceptable. Ergo, Bilam must have been guilty of more than just wanting money.

The Torah portion Mattot illustrates (perhaps unintentionally) how shame over your own behavior can lead to blaming others, and even to destroying them.

But there are other ways humans can deal with shame. In this week’s Torah portion, Va-etchannan, Moses is urging the Israelites to follow all of God’s decrees, and he gives this argument:

Your eyes saw what God did about Baal Pe-or; for God, your god, exterminated every man who went after Baal Pe-or  from your midst. But you hadeveikim God, your god, are alive, all of you, today. (Deuteronomy 4:3-4)

hadeveikim (הַדְּבֵקִים) = who cling to, who stick with, who keep close to, who are attached to

Here Moses returns to the originally story, placing the blame on the Israelite men. God punished the guilty Israelites through the plague. Everyone who stuck to their principles and to God was not punished. This view is just, but not merciful. Shame is attached only to the actual sinners, but nobody gets a second chance.

In the book of Joshua, the Israelites who settled in the territory east of the Jordan do get a second chance. These tribes build an altar, and the Israelites on the west side, in Canaan proper, suspect them of apostasy. They are ready to declare war against their brothers, but first they send a delegation led by Pinchas, who is now the high priest. Pinchas asks the eastern tribes:

Is the sin of Pe-or a small thing to us? We have not purified ourselves from it to this day, and it will be the stumbling-stone among the assembly of God. And you, you would turn away today from following God! (Joshua 22:17-18)

The tribes east of the Jordan explain that they have no intention of turning away from God, and volunteer to get rid of their altar. By bringing up the shame of Baal Pe-or worship, Pinchas not only acknowledges the Israelites’ past guilt, but gives the eastern tribes a chance to change course.

May all of us human beings learn to accept responsibility for our own transgressions, instead of blaming others.  May we admit it when we are ashamed of their own behavior. And may we give both ourselves and our supposed enemies a chance to do the right thing next time.



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  1. […] Amorites, Midianites, and assorted other peoples in the region. (For an example, see my post Va-etchannan: Haunted by Shame.) Apparently God, Moses, and many of the prophets (at least as portrayed in the Bible) believe the […]

  2. […] We are still learning how to behave ethically. As our moral insights develop, many humans have learned how to be good in ways that neither the people nor the God-character in the Torah imagined. (For example, see my earlier post, Va-etchannan: Haunted by Shame.) […]

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