Balak & Pinchas: How to Stop a Plague, Part 1

July 13, 2017 at 3:12 pm | Posted in Balak, Pinchas | 4 Comments
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And Israel strayed at the acacias, and the people began to be unfaithful [to God] with the daughters of Moab. They invited the people to the sacrificial slaughters of their god, and the people ate and bowed down to their god. And Israel attached itself to Baal Peor, and God’s nose burned against Israel. (Numbers/Bemidbar 25:1-3)

The Israelites camp for a while under the shade of acacia trees on the east bluff of the Jordan River, with a view of their “promised land” of Canaan across the water. In last week’s Torah portion, Balak, some local women invite the Israelite people—men and women—to feasts in honor of their god, Baal Peor, and the Israelites accept. (See my post Balak: False Friends.) They bow down to Baal Peor along with their hostesses, perhaps at first out of politeness. But their prostrations become sincere; they end up worshiping Baal Peor. The God of Israel is enraged at their unfaithfulness; in the Biblical Hebrew idiom, God’s nose burns.

This is the second time a large number of Israelites flout one of the Ten Commandments. The first time, at Mount Sinai, they make and worship the golden calf (as an image of the God of Israel), violating the commandment against idols in Exodus/Shemot 20:4. Even after Moses has the Levites kill about 3,000 idol-worshipers, God sends a plague that kills more of them.

The Ten Commandments also include “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:3). Right after forbidding other gods and idols, God says:

You shall not bow down to them and you shall not serve them; because I, God, your god, am a kana god, taking retribution for the crimes of parents upon their children, upon the third and the fourth [generations] of those who hate Me. (Exodus 20:5)

kana (קַנָּא) = jealous, zealous.

In last week’s Torah portion, Balak, many Israelites flagrantly disobey God by worshiping Baal Peor. This time God’s plague kills 24,000 Israelites.

Everyone wants to stop the epidemic—even God. Apparently pestilence is a direct expression of God’s anger (along with the idiomatic burning nose), and God (as portrayed in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar) cannot simply switch off divine anger.

So what can stop the plague? God has the first idea, and tells Moses:

Take all the chiefs of the people and hang them for God in full sunlight. Then the heat of God’s nose will turn away from Israel. (Numbers 25:4)

But Moses, who prefers justice over mass extermination, does not follow God’s suggestion. He  orders a different action to stop God’s anger:

Moses said to the judges of Israel: Each man, execute his men who are attached to Baal Peor. (Numbers 25:5)

The Torah does not say whether Moses’ order is carried out. But in the next verse, a chief from the tribe of Shimon tries another idea for halting the plague.

from Sacra Parallela, Byzantine, 9th century

And hey! An Israelite man came and brought the Midianite close to his brothers, before the eyes of Moses and the eyes of the whole community of the Israelites who were weeping at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. And Pinchas, son of Elazar son of Aaron the Priest, saw it, and he stood up in the midst of the community and he took a spear in his hand. And he entered the kubah after the man of Israel, and he pierced the two of them, the man of Israel and the woman, to kavatah. And the pestilence was held back from the Israelites. (Numbers 25:6-8)

kubah (קֻבָּה) = alcove, small tent. (This word may be related to the Akkadian kabu, a verb for calling upon a god, and/or the Arabic kubatu, a small tent-shrine.)

kavatah (קֳבָתָהּ) = her belly. (The word is probably used here as a pun on kubah.)

The word kubah is not used in any descriptions of the God of Israel’s Tent of Meeting; in fact, it appears only once in the Hebrew Bible. So why is there suddenly a kubah near the entrance of the Tent of Meeting?

The Israelite man, we learn in this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, is Zimri son of Salu, a chief of the tribe of Shimon. The Midianite is Kozbi daughter of Tzur, a chief of a tribe of Midian. According to commentator Tikva Fryemer-Kensky, a high-ranking Midianite woman might well be a priestess who sets up her own kubah in the hope that she can stop the plague.1 The religious ritual she uses to invoke her god apparently includes sexual intercourse with Zimri, given the pun about her kubah. Thus Zimri and Kozbi are probably transgressing three of God’s rules at once: worshiping another god, letting a foreigner enter the holy courtyard around the Tent of Meeting, and having intercourse there.2

Although some commentary justifies Pinchas’s violent deed by pointing out that the first two of these rules carry a death penalty, there is no legal trial.3  Pinchas is not an executioner, but someone who murders in the grip of emotion—like God.

Is Pinchas’s action necessary? In other parts of the Torah, God kills individuals instantly when they flout one of God’s rules or decisions.4 But in the Torah portion Balak, God seems to be overpowered by rage, unable to either calm down or attend to anything else.

In the Torah portion Pinchas, God thanks Pinchas.

And God spoke to Moses, saying: “Pinchas, son of Elazar, son of Aaron the high priest, turned back my rage from the children of Israel through his kina, kina for me in their midst, so I did not finish off the children of Israel in my kina.  Therefore say: Here I am, giving him my covenant of peace.  And it shall be for him, and for his descendants after him, a covenant of priesthood for all time, founded because kinei for his God, so he atoned for the children of Israel.” (Numbers 25:10-13)

kina (קִנְאָ)=  zeal, jealousy, fervor, passion for a cause. (From the same root as kana above.)

kinei (קִנֵּא) = he was zealous, he was jealous.

God recognizes a kindred spirit. Both God and Pinchas act out of kina when someone is unfaithful to God.

Pinchas’s double murder for God’s sake does prevent the deaths of any more Israelites from God’s plague. And murder may be justified if it is the only way to prevent other people from being killed. Does God grant Pinchas a covenant of peace and priesthood as a reward for halting the plague that God is unable to halt?

Or does the covenant modify Pinchas’s kina, giving him an ability to make peace? (See next week’s post, Mattot, Judges, & Joshua: How to Stop a Plague, Part 2.)

It takes longer for the God character in the bible to master “His” own kina over how “He” is treated by the Israelites. For example, after the Israelites are settled in Canaan, God strikes 70 Israelite villagers dead when they look into the ark, even though they are rejoicing over its return to Israelite territory and worshiping God through animal offerings.5

Eventually God calms down somewhat. When God becomes angry with the Israelites of Judah for worshiping other gods at the temple in Jerusalem, He lets the Babylonian army do the killing. God merely informs the Israelites, through the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel, that they deserve it.

And in Second Isaiah God finally gives up His kina over the unfaithful Israelites. God promises to take them back with love and never lash out in anger again, despite their infidelity.6

In the western world today we understand jealousy as a natural human emotion, but we caution people not to act out of jealousy, since that often leads to unfortunate or immoral results. On the other hand, we still praise zeal, passionate attachment to a cause.

Yet over the centuries millions of people have been murdered, often in battle, because of zeal for a religion. I pray that more people will question their own beliefs, and stop confusing God with the God-character in the Bible, who kills thousands in uncontrollable fits of rage and kina.

And I pray that all people who are filled with passionate attachment to a cause, even a good cause, will pause and think before taking any action that might harm someone.

May we all become humans of peace.

1  Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Reading the Women of the Bible, Schocken Books, New York, 2002, pp. 220-222.

2  The Torah prescribes the death penalty for an Israelite sacrificing to any gods other than the God of Israel (Exodus 22: 19 combined with Leviticus 27:29), and for a foreigner approaching the Tent of Meeting (Numbers 3:10). The Israelite religion also forbids semen even in the courtyard around the Tent of Meeting; anyone who has sex must bathe and wait until evening before entering the area (Leviticus 15:16-18).

3  A legal punishment can only be carried out after a trial including the testimony of two witnesses (Deuteronomy 19:15). When Moses orders the judges to execute the men who are attached to Baal Peor (Numbers 25:5), he is in effect asking for such trials. Some commentators say Pinchas assumes responsibility for impaling Zimri because God’s plague is raging and the judges of Israel are too slow to act.

4  For example, God employs fire to kill Nadav and Avihu when they bring unauthorized incense into the Tent of Meeting (Leviticus 10:1-2). God makes the earth swallow up  Korach, Datan, and Aviram when they challenge the leadership of Moses and Aaron (Numbers 16:27-33—see my post Korach: Buried Alive). And God inflicts an invisible death (perhaps a stroke or heart attack) on Uzza with when he touches the ark to prevent it from tipping over (2 Samuel 6:6-7—see my post Haftarat Shemini—2 Samuel: A Dangerous Spirit) and on King Achazeyahu after he consults with a foreign god (2 Kings 1:16-17).

5  1 Samuel 6:15, 6:19.

6  Isaiah 54:7-10. See my post Haftarat Re-eih—Isaiah: Song of the Abuser.

 

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  1. […] As the Torah portion Balak continues, God’s rage is expressed in a plague, which leaves 24,000 dead. (See my post Balak & Pinchas: How to Stop a Plague, Part 1.) […]

  2. […] “He” could not stop “His” own anger at the apostasy and the resulting plague. (See my post Balak & Pinchas: How to Stop a Plague, Part 1.) Pinchas’s zealous impulse does the […]

  3. […] God’s rage at the Israelites’ apostasy is expressed as an epidemic among the Israelites, a divine plague that even the God-character cannot control. The plague stops only when Pinchas spears an Israelite man and a Midianite woman (who is probably a priestess of Baal Peor) in the act of doing something unholy. (See my post Balak & Pinchas: How to Stop a Plague, Part 1.) […]

  4. […]  Balak & Pinchas: How to Stop a Plague, Part 1; Mattot, Judges, & Joshua: How to Stop a Plague, Part 2; and Mattot, Va-etchannan, & […]


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