Mattot, Judges, & Joshua: How to Stop a Plague, Part 2

July 19, 2017 at 9:01 pm | Posted in Joshua, Judges, Mattot | 3 Comments
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Pinchas first appears in the Torah grabbing a spear and skewering two worshipers of a local Midianite god, Baal Peor. God (that is, the God-character in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar) is relieved, because “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 trick.

God tells Moses:

Therefore say: Here I am, giving to him My covenant of shalom. And it shall be for him, and for his descendants after him, a covenant of priesthood for all time, founded because he was zealous for his God, so he atoned for the children of Israel.” (Numbers 25:12-13)

shalom (שָׁלוֹם) = peace, wholeness, well-being.

The covenant of shalom makes Pinchas a priest, binding him to commit no further violence against humans (though like all priests, he must slaughter animal offerings at the altar).

However, there is no covenant of peace binding God. In this week’s Torah portion, Mattot (“Tribes”), God orders Moses:

Avenge the vengeance of the Israelites on the Midianites! Afterward you shall be gathered to your people. (Numbers 31:1)

After Moses dies, the rest of the Israelites live with the knowledge of both their unfaithfuless to God and their vengeance on the Midianites. Next week’s post, Mattot, Va-etchannan, & Isaiah: How to Stop a Plague, Part 3, will consider the lasting effects of the Baal Peor incident on the Israelites. This week’s post explores what happens to Pinchas after his well-timed murder.

Pinchas in Mattot

Moses sent a thousand from each tribe for the army, and Pinchas, son of Elazar the Priest, for the army; and holy utensils and trumpets for blasting were in his hands. And they made war against Midian, as God had commanded Moses … (Numbers 31:6-7)

A priest accompanies an army in the Torah not to engage in battle, but to address the troops before battle1 and take charge of holy objects2. Sometimes a general consults a priest before battle, and the priest uses an oracular device to relay simple questions to God and report God’s brief replies.3

The Torah portion Mattot does not identify the holy utensils Pinchas brought to the battle against the Midianites in the valley of Baal Peor. Trumpets were used to sound an alarm, to signal troops to advance, and to signal troops to retreat.4

Pinchas in the Book of Judges

Dead Concubine at Gibeah

Pinchas does use an oracular device to answer the questions of generals many years later, when he is the high priest of the Israelites. After the tribes have conquered and settled various parts of Canaan, some men in the territory of Benjamin rape and kill a Levite’s concubine. The Levite rallies all the other tribes to go to war against the Benjaminites.5

Pinchas stays in the town of Beit-El, where the ark is in residence, about 8 miles (13 km) north of Gibeah, the main town of Benjamin. Before each day of battle, men from the Israelite army go to Beit-El with a question for God.

First they ask which tribe should advance first against the Benjaminites, and God’s answer is “Judah”. The Israelites lose the battle. They return to Beit-El and ask if they should attack again, and God answers yes. But they lose the second battle as well.

Then they went up … and they came to Beit-El and they wept, and they sat there before God, and they fasted that day until the evening, and they sent up rising-offerings and shelamim before God. (Judges 20:26)

shelamim (שְׁלָמִים) = animal-offerings either to express gratitude to God for well-being, or to attempt a state of peace and unity with God. (From the same root as shalom.)

And the Israelites inquired of God—and the ark of the covenant of God was there in those days, and Pinchas son of Elazar son of Aaron was standing in attendance before [God] in those days—saying: “Should we gather again to go out to war with the Benjaminites, our brothers, or should we give up?” And God said: “Go up, because tomorrow I will give them into your hand.” (Judges 20:27-28)

The Israelites defeat the Benjaminites the next day, wiping out most of the men of that tribe and all of the women. But the only role Pinchas plays is to report God’s answers; he takes no action on his own.

Pinchas in the Book of Joshua

Pinchas takes a more active role in the book of Joshua when nine and a half tribes are considering making war on the other two and a half.

At the end of Mattot, this week’s portion, the tribes of Reuben and Gad ask Moses for permission to settle east of the Jordan in Gilead and Bashan, the lands that the Israelites have already conquered. Moses grants them and the half-tribe of Menasheh these lands, but only after they have promised that their fighting men will cross the Jordan with the rest of the Israelites and help conquer Canaan.6

After the death of Moses, Joshua leads these men and all the other Israelites across the Jordan River. His army conquers a large part of Canaan, the men of Reuben, Gad, and Menasheh return to their new homes, and the land west of the Jordan is allotted among the other nine and a half tribes. Joshua erects the portable Tent of Meeting containing God’s ark at Gilgal first, then at Shiloh, both on the west side of the Jordan.

And the Israelites heard [a report] saying: Hey! The Reubenites and the Gadites and the half-tribe of Menasheh built an altar opposite the land of Canaan, in the district across from the Israelites. (Joshua 22:11)

This is the same region where the Israelites were camping when they joined the Midianites in their worship of Baal Peor.

And the Israelites heard, and they assembled, the whole community of the sons of Israel, at Shiloh to go up to make war upon them. And the Israelites sent Pinchas, son of Elazar the [high] priest … to the land of Gilead, along with ten chieftains … (Joshua 22:12-14)

If anything could trigger Pinchas’s jealousy and zealotry for the God of Israel again, it would be news that some Israelites had built an altar for a foreign god. When his delegation arrives, Pinchas protests:

Is it a small matter for us, the crime of Peor from which we have not purified ourselves to this day? It is a scourge in the community of God! And you, you would turn away from God? If you rebel today against God, tomorrow the whole community of Israel will become angry! (Joshua 22:17-18)

The east-bank tribesmen quickly explain that they have no intention of worshiping another god. They claim they were afraid of being excluded from the community of the God of Israel, and they only built a symbolic replica of God’s altar in Shiloh.

because it is a witness between our eyes and your eyes. Far be it from us to rebel against God!” (Joshua 22:28-29).

And Pinchas the priest heard, and the chieftains of the community and the heads of the companies of Israel who were with him, the words that they spoke … and it was good in their eyes. (Joshua 22:30)

Pinchas and his delegation return to Shiloh with their new understanding, and war is averted. Pinchas has indeed become a man of shalom, of peace, wholeness, and well-being.

Did God’s covenant of shalom transform Pinchas because it gave him the responsibilities of a priest?7 Or did it transform him because God’s response shocked him into recognizing his own excessive zeal?

Imitating God’s forgiveness might be a fine strategy, but imitating the murderous zeal of the God-character in the Torah is bad for a human being. Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, the 19th-century author of Ha’amek Davar, wrote: “Since it was only natural that such a deed as Pinhas’ should leave in his heart an intense emotional unrest afterward, the Divine blessing was designed to cope with this situation and promised peace and tranquility of soul.”8

May all human beings who are overwhelmed by jealousy or anger be transformed like Pinchas —whether by a new responsibility, a new realization, or an inner blessing—into people of shalom.

1  See Deuteronomy 20:2.

2  See 1 Samuel 4:4-5.

3  This oracular device is called urim and/or tummim in Numbers 27:21, 1 Samuel 14:41, and 1 Samuel 28:6; and an eifod in 1 Samuel 23:9-12 and 1 Samuel 30:7-8.  An eifod in the Bible is usually a tabard worn by priests and other attendants on God’s sanctuary: a garment made of two rectangular panels of cloth fastened together at the shoulders and belted around the waist. Exodus 28:6-30 describes the elaborate eifod of the high priest and the choshen tied to its front panel. The choshen is a square pouch with twelve precious stones on the front side. Inside the pouch are the urim and tummim, items that scholars have not yet identified.

4  2 Samuel 17:6, 20:22; Jeremiah 4:19, 6:1, 51:27; Ezekiel 33:6; Amos 3:6.

5  Judges 20:1-48.

6  Numbers 32:1-33.

7  The priesthood was hereditary, so Pinchas, son of the high priest Elazar, son of the high priest Aaron, could expect to be consecrated as a priest eventually. But the Zohar notes that someone who has killed a person is normally disqualified from the priesthood. (Arthur Green in Sefat Emet, The Language of Truth, by Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, translation and commentary by Arthur Green, The Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1998, p. 264)

8  Translation from Ha’amek Davar in Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Bamidbar (Numbers), translated from Hebrew by Aryeh Newman, The World Zionist Organization, Jerusalem, 1980.

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Haftarat Balak—Micah: Bribing the Divine

July 19, 2016 at 7:11 pm | Posted in Balak, Judges, Micah | Leave a comment
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9) and the haftarah is Micah 5:6-6:8.

What does God want from us?

temple altar 2            With what shall I come before God?

            (With what) shall I soothe God on High?

            Shall I come before Him with olot?

            With calves a year old?

            Would God be pleased with thousands of rams?

            With ten thousand streams of oil?

            Should I give my firstborn for my rebellion,

            The fruit of my loins for the guilt of my soul? (Micah 6:6-7)

olot (עוֹלוֹת) = plural of  olah (עוֹלָה) = rising-offering. In an olah an entire slaughtered animal offering is burned up into smoke. (From the root alah (עלה) = go up.)

In this week’s haftarah, the prophet Micah mocks Israelites who try to buy God’s favor by making sufficiently impressive offerings on the altar. Everyone has a price, these people think, even God. I can get God to forgive my moral shortcomings if I pay the right price.

In last week’s haftarah, Yiftach (“Jephthah” in English), the new chieftain of Gilad, tries to win God’s favor for his upcoming battle with the Ammonites. (See last week’s post, Haftarah for Chukkat: Judges—A Peculiar Vow.) He has no idea what kind of gift God would like; God does not speak to him.  But he knows what kind of gifts other people donate to their gods.  His fellow Israelites serve God by slaughtering livestock and burning them on God’s altar. An even bigger offering, for the people in that region, is to sacrifice one’s own child—preferably one’s firstborn son—to a god.

Babylonian cylinder seal illustrating child sacrifice

Babylonian cylinder seal illustrating child sacrifice

(Abraham almost does this in Genesis chapter 22; the king of Moab does it in 2 kings 3:27, the Israelites sacrifice their children to Molech in Jeremiah 7:31, and Psalm 106:38 claims that the Israelites “shed innocent blood, the blood of their sons and their daughters, whom they slaughtered for the idols of Canaan”.)

Elsewhere, the Bible makes it clear that human sacrifice is completely unacceptable to the god of Israel. Yiftach’s messages to the king of Ammon show that he is well versed in the history of the Israelite conquests east of the Jordan River, as related in the book of Numbers—and perhaps added to Yiftach’s story by the editor of the book of Judges. But in the original story of Yiftach and his daughter, does Yiftach know about the ban against human sacrifice?

He has only one child, his young adolescent daughter. And he has just been restored to his father’s position as chieftain of Gilad. The best thing a man can hope for, in his culture, is to pass on his position and his property to descendants. Yet everything depends on winning the war with Ammon.

So Yiftach does not choose between sacrificing an animal or a human; he lets God (or fate) decide.

And Yiftach vowed a vow to God, and he said: “If You definitely give the Ammonites into my hand, then it will be the one that goes out from my door of my house to meet me at my safe return from the Ammonites—[that one] will be for God, and I will make him go up as an olah.” (Judges 11:30-31)

Maybe Yiftach hopes a bull or a ram will trot out of his house when he comes home. Or maybe he expects a male slave to open the door.

Yiftach wins the war, and his troops capture twenty towns from the Ammonites.

daughter of Yiftach 3bAnd Yiftach came … to his house, and hey!—his daughter was going out to meet him, with tambourines and with dancing.  And she was an only child; he had no other son or daughter. As he saw her, he tore his clothes [in grief] and he said: Ah! My daughter, I have certainly been knocked down to my knees! (Judges 11:34-35)

Women in the Bible often sing and dance with tambourines when their military heroes come home in triumph.  They do it for Saul and David in the first book of Samuel. Yiftach’s wife is absent from the story, so his adolescent daughter takes on the job.

Yiftach might conclude that God arranged for his daughter to come out because God wants his daughter to go up in smoke.

Some commentators, from the Talmud and the Midrash Rabbah on Leviticus (5th-7th century C.E.) to Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 11th century C.E.) to Robert Alter (2013), conclude that Yiftach actually does sacrifice and burn his daughter on the altar.

Another line of commentary, from Resh Lakish in the Midrash Rabbah on Ecclesiastes (6th-8th  century C.E.) to Abraham Ibn Ezra (12th century C.E.) to Jonathan Magonet (2015), argues that Yiftach does expect a human being to come out the door, but he does not intend to make a human sacrifice. Instead, he plans to dedicate the person to God by paying the priests of Gilad in silver, which they can then use to buy sacrificial animals for a big olah. This is an approved procedure in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra (probably written in the 6th century B.C.E., about the same time that the stories in the book of Judges were collected and edited).

Anyone who shall make a wonderful vow of the value of humans to God, the assessment shall be: for a male 20 to 60 years old, 50 shekels of silver…if five to 20 years old, the assessment shall be …ten shekels for a female… (Leviticus/Vayikra 27:2-3)

Yiftach does not vow to give God “the value of a human”, but he does vow that the human concerned “will be for God”—and also that he will (according to this theory) turn that person into a symbolic olah by paying the priests the correct amount of silver.

Yet if Yiftach expects to give God the assessed value of the first person who comes out of his house, then why is he upset when his daughter dances out? The assessed value of an adolescent girl is lower than the value of an adult male slave; he can save some money!

But Yiftach tears his clothes in grief. That means that either Yiftach does intend to slaughter a human being—his own daughter—on the altar; or a piece of the story is missing.

I suspect that the redactor who assembled the book of Judges omitted something—because the rest of the story of Yiftach’s daughter is about celibacy, not death.

She calmly tells her father that he must carry out his vow, and asks him to delay it for two months.

daughter of Yiftach 4“Let this thing be done for me: I shall go down on the hills and I shall weep over my betulim, I and my (female) companions.”  And he said: “Go.”  And he sent her off for two months, her and her companions, and she wept for her betulim on the hills. And at the end of two months she returned to her father and he carried out his vow that he had vowed. And she, she had never known a man. And it became a custom in Israel: for all of her days, the daughters of Israel went to sing for the daughter of Yiftach the Giladite, four days in the year. (Judges 11:37-40)

betulim (בְּתוּלִים) = virginity; celibacy; evidence (of blood on a sheet) of being either virginal or not pregnant.

A period of two months has no special significance elsewhere in the Bible, but it is the right length of time for a woman to wait to make sure she has a menstrual period and is not pregnant.

I think Yiftach’s daughter is reminding him of another alternative to human sacrifice.

According to the Torah, an Israelite woman can achieve a higher level of holiness only by becoming a nazir for a period of time and abstaining from alcohol and grape products, hair care, and being near a dead body.  This would not count as a substitute for an olah.  But in neighboring Mesopotamia a woman could serve a goddess in several other ways: as a temple sex worker, as a high priestess who had sex only with a god, or as a nun who lived communally in a special part of the temple complex. Neither a priestess nor a nun was allowed to have children.

Israelites in the Bible frequently worship other gods in addition to the God of Israel, and at times they confuse their god with another local god. Perhaps Yiftach’s daughter and her companions weep ritually at one or more hilltop shrines (bamot) dedicated to other gods. Then, when she has proof that she is not pregnant, her father gives her to God—to some god, anyway, a god that will accept her as a priestess or a nun.

That would explain why, after Yiftach has carried out his vow, women of Israel are able to go and sing for the daughter of Yiftach the Giladite, four days in the year—for the rest of her life.

Yiftach still grieves, because now he will have no grandchildren.  And his daughter laments for at least two months because now she will never “know” a man or have a child. But by borrowing from another religion, she finds a way to make herself a gift to God by living, not dying.

*

Later in the Bible, prophets from Isaiah to Malachi point out that although animal offerings in the temple are fine if performed in the right spirit—and to the right god—what God really wants is for people to behave ethically toward one another.  The prophet Micah says it best in this week’s haftarah, after he has mocked Israelites who try to buy God’s favor with sacrifices.

He told you, humankind, what is good

And what God is seeking from you:

Only to do justice,

And love kindness,

And walk modestly with your God. (Micah 6:-8)

If only Yiftach knew that was what God wanted! Then he could have vowed: “If You definitely give the Ammonites into my hand, then, as chief of Gilad, I will do justice and pursue kindness and be humble.”

If only we all dedicate ourselves to being just, kind, and humble, it will be a gift to the whole world.

 

 

 

Haftarat Chukkat—Judges: A Peculiar Vow

July 12, 2016 at 11:45 am | Posted in Chukkat, Judges | 1 Comment
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Chukkat (Numbers 19:1-22:1) and the haftarah is Judges 11:1-33.
Yiftach by Guillaume Rouille

Yiftach
by Guillaume Rouille

Why would a man who is clear-headed, cool, and careful with words suddenly make a vow that threatens his only child?

The haftarah from Judges introduces Yiftach as a man who is an outcast through no fault of his own.

Yiftach of Gilad was a capable warrior, and he was the son of a prostitute, and he was begotten by Gilad. Then the wife of Gilad bore him sons, and the sons of his wife grew up and they drove out Yiftach. They said to him: “You shall not inherit in our father’s household, because you are the son of another woman.” So Yiftach fled from his brothers, and he settled in the land of Tov, and men without means gathered around Yiftach and went out with him. (Judges 11:1-3)

Yiftach (יִפְתָּח) = he opened.  “Jephthah” in English translations.

Grassland in Gilad (now in west Jordan)

Grassland in west Gilad
(now in Jordan)

Gilad (גִּלְעָד) = “Gilead”, the region east of the Jordan River, settled by the tribes of Reuven, Gad, and Menashe in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar because it was good for cattle. Yiftach’s father is probably called “Gilad” because he is the chief or de facto king of the region; the Bible often refers to a king by the name of his country.

The oldest son of a chief does not automatically become the next chief, but all of a man’s sons are entitled to a share of his property.  As a capable warrior, Yiftach could attack his half-brothers when they refuse to share with him. But he is too sensible to take this risk. Instead he accepts that he has been deprived of both his home and any of his father’s herds, and he flees to a remote part of east Gilad.

There he leads a band of landless men who “go out”—probably to raid villages for spoils, a common occupation in the ancient Near East.

Later, the Ammonites to the south attack the Giladites and capture some of their towns.  Since Gilad has no war leader, a delegation of elders travels to Tov and asks Yiftach to take the job.  He refuses on the grounds that he was disinherited and driven away. So the elders make him a better offer.

“You shall go with us and you shall battle against the Ammonites and you shall become our chief, for all the inhabitants of Gilad.” (Judges 11:8)

Yiftach, clever and careful, rephrases their offer to mean that he will be the permanent chief of Gilad, even after the Ammonites are defeated:

“If you are bringing me back to battle against the Ammonites, and God gives them up to me, it is I who will be your chief.” (Judges 11:9)

The elders agree, but as an extra precaution Yiftach repeats his words in front of God at the nearest high place, the mitzpah or lookout post of Gilad.

We can assume he brings his raiders with him and recruits and trains more soldiers.  But his next recorded move is to send a message to the king of the Ammonites:

Gilad at the end of the book of Numbers

Gilad (Menasheh, Gad, and Reuben) at the end of the book of Numbers

“What is between me and you, that you come to me to make war on my land?” (Judges 11:12)

Yiftach addresses the Ammonite ruler as one king to another, as if it were a personal quarrel.  The king of the Ammonites replies that the Israelites took his ancestral land, between the Arnon and Yabok rivers east of the Jordan, when they came up from Egypt centuries ago.  Yiftach replies by explaining that Amorites captured that land before the Israelites arrived, so the Ammonites have no legitimate grudge against the Israelites of Gilad.  This time, the Ammonite king sends no return message.

Up to this point Yiftach has acted cautiously and reasonably. Then something happens to him.

And a ruach of God came over Yiftach.  And he passed through the Gilad and Menasheh, and he passed the lookout of Gilad, and from the lookout of Gilad he passed ahead to the Ammonites. (Judges 11:29)

ruach (רוּחַ) when immediately followed by a name of God = prophetic inspiration or ecstasy; charisma; mood, motivating force, prevailing attitude.

The book of Judges tells of two war leaders before Yiftach who were overcome by a ruach of God: Othniel and Gideon, both of whom were motivated to go to war.  After Yiftach, whenever Samson is overcome by the ruach of God he has a burst of superhuman strength and commits an impulsive act of violence. In the first book of Samuel, King Saul is overcome both by a ruach of prophetic ecstasy and by a ruach that plunges him into foul and suspicious moods—and both kinds of ruach come from God.

What kind of ruach of God comes over Yiftach? The first effect of the divine ruach is that he gathers his troops and goes to fight the Ammonites. But the ruach may have a second effect; immediately after the sentence quoted above, the haftarah continues:

And Yiftach vowed a vow to God, and he said: “If You definitely give the Ammonites into my hand, then it will be the one that goes out from my door of my house to meet me at my safe return from the Ammonites—[that one] will belong to God, veha-alitehu [as] an olah.” (Judges 11:30-31)

veha-alitehu (וְהאעֲלִיתְהוּ) = and I will make him/it go up. (From the root verb alah (עלה) = go up. The –hu ending can mean either a male human or an animal.)

olah (עֹלָה) = rising-offering. (Also from the root alah (עלה) = go up.) In an olah an entire slaughtered animal offering is burned up into smoke.

Camel in Egyptian petroglyph

Camel in Egyptian petroglyph

This is not the vow of someone who is thinking clearly. After all, he does not know who or what will come out the door of his house.  The Midrash Rabbah for Leviticus/Vayikra imagines God wondering if Yiftach would offer up a non-kosher animal unsuitable for altar sacrifice, such as a camel, donkey, or dog, if it happened to come out the door first.

Yiftach, who is so well-versed in Israelite history, would know that human beings are also unacceptable as offerings on God’s altar. Yet his vow implies that not only will he give God ownership of the person or animal that comes out of his house, but that he will do so by burning up the man or animal in an olah offering.

Perhaps Yiftach is still under the influence of the ruach of God, and not thinking clearly.

I found three other if-then vows in the Bible, and all three are more practical about the object of the vow. Jacob vows that if God keeps him safe until he returns to his father’s house, then he will give a tithe of all his property to God (Genesis 29:20-22).  Hannah vows that if God gives her a son, she will give him to God as a lifelong servant—a nazir, priest, and/or prophet. (1 Samuel 1:11)  In this week’s Torah portion, the Israelites …vowed a vow to God and said: If You definitely give this people into my hand, then I will devote their towns to utter destruction for God. (Numbers/Bemidbar 21:2)

In each case, God fulfills the request, and the person who makes the vow gives what he or she promised to God.  God also fulfills the request in this week’s haftarah:

And Yiftach passed over to the Ammonites to fight against them, and God gave them into his hand. …twenty towns … a very great blow. And the Ammonites were subdued before the Israelites. (Judges 11:32-33)

So when Yiftach gets home, he must fulfill his unconsidered vow.

daughter of Yiftach 3bThis is where the haftarah ends, but the story continues in the book of Judges:

And Yiftach came to the lookout post, to his house, and hey!—his daughter was going out to meet him, with tambourines and with dancing.  And she was an only child; he had no other son or daughter. (Judges 11:34)

Yiftach’s response shows that he has recovered from the ruach of God that gave him battle fever and led to his muddled vow.

As he saw her, he tore his clothes [in mourning] and he said: Ah! My daughter, I have certainly been knocked down to my knees! And you, you have become okherai. And I, I opened up my mouth to God, and I am not able to turn back. (Judges 11:35)

okherai (עֹכְרָי) = one who cuts me off from social life, one who makes trouble for me.

When Yiftach’s father died, his brothers cut off from his old life and subjected him to troubles.  Now he blames his daughter for doing it again. He also blames himself for making the vow in the first place.

*

I know some people today who seek ecstatic experiences, who want to be overcome by the ruach of God.  And I know people who are driven by a mission they consider sacred, one that has taken over their lives and muddled their thinking, as if they had been overcome by a ruach of God.

As for myself, I would rather keep my head clear and think before I speak.  I would rather be like Yiftach before the ruach hit him.

What about you?

*

(Look for next week’s post (Haftarah for Balak) for an exploration of how Yiftach fulfills his vow, what actually happens to Yiftach’s daughter, and how this story informs next week’s haftarah from the book of Micah.)

Haftarat Naso—Judges: Restraining the Abstainer

June 15, 2016 at 10:59 am | Posted in Amos, Judges, Naso | 2 Comments
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Naso (Numbers 4:21-7:89) and the haftarah is Judges13:2-13:25.

Every religion has members who go beyond what is required of the whole community. In ancient Israel, there were priests, prophets, and nezirim.

drunk womanAnd I raised up some of your sons for prophets

And some of your young men for nezirim.

Is there nothing in this, Children of Israel?

—declares God.

But you made the nezirim drink wine

And you ordered the prophets not to prophesy!  (Amos 2:11-12)

nezirim (נְזִרִים) = “nazirites”: men and women who are dedicated and separated from the rest of the community as holy because they abstain from grooming their hair and drinking alcohol. Nezirim is the plural of nazir (נָזִיר), from the root verb נזר = separate, dedicate, restrain, abstain.

Samson, whose story begins in this week’s haftarah, is a nazir from the womb to the grave, but he fails to make his life holy. Perhaps that is why this week’s Torah portion lays out strict rules and term limits for living as a nazir.

Although the book of Numbers/Bemidbar is set at an earlier time in history than Samson’s story in the book of Judges, modern scholars agree that Judges was written long before the Torah portion Naso in Numbers.  Judges is a collection of old stories of heroes from the 11th century B.C.E. and earlier, stories which were probably compiled and rewritten in the 8th century B.C.E. Large parts of the book of Numbers, however, including the instructions for the nazir, were written after the Babylonian exile of the 6th century B.C.E., when priests were writing religious instructions for the time of the second temple.

Samson’s story begins in this week’s haftarah when an angel appears to the wife of a Danite named Manoach and announces that she will give birth to a nazir.

A messenger of God appeared to the woman, and he said to her: Hey, please! You are childless and you have not given birth, but you shall conceive and give birth to a son. So now guard yourself, please, and don’t you drink wine or alcohol, and don’t you eat anything ritually impure.  Because you are about to conceive, and you will give birth to a son, and a razor will not go upon his head, because the boy will be a nazir of God from the womb.  And he will begin to rescue Israel from the hand of the Philistines. (Judges 13:3-5)

Samson's Fight with the Lion, by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1525

Samson’s Fight with the Lion, by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1525

Samson’s first act (after the haftarah’s opening scene) is to ask his parents to marry him to a Philistine woman he finds attractive. They protest feebly that he should marry one of his own people, but they follow him to the Philistine village of Timnah to arrange the marriage. Samson discovers his superhuman strength on the way, when “a strong spirit of God came over him” and he rips apart a lion with his bare hands. (Judges 14:6)  For the wedding a year later, Samson hosts a seven-day drinking-party where he makes a wager and ends up killing 30 strangers in order to pay his gambling debt with their clothing.

As Samson’s adventures continue, the only thing he abstains from is cutting his hair.  His main interests are sex, and inventing spectacular ways of killing people.  He only prays to God at the end of his life, when Delilah has shaved his head and her co-conspirators have blinded and imprisoned him.  Then Samson asks God to return his super-human strength so he can bring down the temple of Dagon and all the Philistines in it—not for the sake of Israel or God, but for his own personal vengeance.

Samson does succeed in killing thousands of Philistines, but he is hardly the holy man that Manoach and his wife expected when the angel said their son would be a nazir.

The book of Numbers makes it clear that a nazir along the lines of Samson is unacceptable. For one thing, this week’s Torah portion says nobody is allowed to be a nazir from birth; only an adult man or woman can vow to live as a nazir, and the person making the vow sets a finite period of time for his or her dedication.  The instructions begin:

If a man or a woman vows the extraordinary vow of a nazir, lehazir for God… (Numbers/Bemidbar 6:2)

lehazir (לְהַזִּיר) = to restrain oneself, to abstain.  (From the root נזר.)

After describing what a nazir must abstain from, the Torah portion continues:

And this is the teaching of the nazir: On the day completing the days of nizro, he shall be brought to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. (Numbers/Bemidbar 6:13)

nizro (נִזְרוֹ) = his life as a nazir, the term of his vow dedicating him to separateness; his crown. (Also from the root נזר.).

At the Tent of Meeting the nazir makes offerings, shaves his or her head, and returns to ordinary life.  Thus all nezirim consciously dedicate themselves to restraint for a fixed period of time for the sake of God.

Their restraint consists of three kinds of abstention. The first category is alcohol and all grape products.

wine and grapesFrom wine and other alcohol yazir; nor shall he drink wine vinegar or vinegar from other alcohol, nor any grape juice; nor shall he eat grapes, wet or dried.  All the days of nizro he must not eat anything that is made from grapevines, from seeds to skin.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 6:3-4)

yazir (יַזִּיר) = he will abstain.  (Also from the root נזר.)

Abstaining from alcohol would not only improve the nazir’s ability to focus on being holy to God, but would also emphasis the nazir’s separation from the rest of society.

nazir hairThe second thing nezirim must abstain from is cutting, binding, or even combing their hair.

All the days of the vow of nizro, no razor will pass over his head; until the fulfillment of the days that yazir, his big, unbound, bristling hair will be holy to God.  (Numbers 6:5)

In the Bible, the only other people who let their hair grow untrimmed and unbound are mourners. Mourners are expected to disregard the social norms while grief commands all of their attention. Nezirim must let their hair grow wild while God commands all of their attention.  (See my post Naso: Distanced by Hair.)

Old Man on his Deathbed, by Gustav Klimt

Old Man on his Deathbed, by Gustav Klimt

The third thing a nazir must avoid is contact with the dead. (See my post Emor: The God of Life.)

All the days of hazayro to God, he must not come upon a dead body. For his father or his mother, for his brother or his sister, he will not make himself ritually impure for them in their death, because the neizer of his god is on his head. All the days of nizro he is holy to God. (Numbers 6:6-8)

haziro (הַזִּירוֹ) = his time as a nazir(Also from the root נזר.)

neizer (נֵזֶר) = consecration; crown.  (Also from the root נזר.)

In the book of Numbers ordinary people who touch or come near a dead body are ritually impure for seven days; then a ritual sprinkling restores them to purity and they rejoin the religious community. But for a nazir, the rules are as strict as for the high priest, who must avoid all corpses, even those of his own parents. If a nazir touches or comes close to any corpse, the term of his or her vow ends prematurely. Then after seven days, the would-be nazir must shave his or her head, make offerings, and start all over again. Once again, nezerim must pay attention—and, perhaps, emulate the high priest.

According to these rules, parents cannot say an angel told them their child would be a lifelong nazir, or treat him as especially privileged.  No nezirim can expect God to give them superpowers from time to time.  Staying sober, they have no excuse for wild behavior like Samson’s at the end of his drinking-party.

And since nezirim must avoid being near dead bodies, they cannot kill people.  Although all of the people Samson killed were Philistines, none of them were actual soldiers engaged in war against Israelites. Impulsive murder was no longer acceptable by the time of the second temple.

*

I have known individuals who were overwhelmed by spiritual impulses that cannot be integrated into normal life in modern western society. We have roles for spiritual leaders and teachers, but few outlets for people who would have been prophets or nezirim in ancient Israel.

When prophets in the Bible are overcome by the spirit of God they can at least speak, turning the divine message into human language.  But nezirim have no words.  When Samson feels the divine spirit, he is filled with physical strength that he uses for killing.

In the book of Numbers, nezirim can still be identified by big, unbound, bristling hair, but they are also required to follow extra rules.  Perhaps these rules and abstentions satisfy the spiritual impulse of the nezirim enough so that when the spirit of God comes over them, they can rejoice in their self-discipline—as well as in their neizer, their visible crown of consecration.

I wonder if an equivalent discipline would work today to provide an outlet for those with the spirit of a nazir?

 

Haftarat Beshallach—Judges: Overlooking the Underdog

January 17, 2016 at 11:10 pm | Posted in Beshallach, Judges | Leave a comment
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Beshallach (Exodus 13:17-17:16), and the haftarah is Judges 4:4-5:31.

The underdog triumphs in many biblical stories. Jacob, the beardless weakling, outsmarts his strong, hairy brother Esau. Joseph rules over the older brothers who once enslaved him. The boy David kills the giant Goliath.

In this week’s Torah portion, Beshallach (“when he sent out”), the Israelite slaves leave Egypt as free people while Pharaoh’s army drowns behind them. In the haftarah from the book of Judges, two Israelite women triumph over the Canaanite general Sisera and his army.

How do you defeat an enemy stronger than you?  In the Hebrew Bible, two effective ways are by receiving and using inside information from God, like Moses; and by taking action on your own initiative with intelligence, courage, and guile, like Jacob and Joseph.

The haftarah from Judges tells the story of two women, the ultimate underdogs in the patriarchal society of the ancient Israelites, triumphing over Israel’s enemies through both methods. Devorah the prophet gets her people to act on God’s promise to help them defeat the army of their Canaanite overlord, and Jael/Yael the Kenite acts on her own initiative and kills the enemy’s general.

War chariots, ivory plaque from Megiddo

War chariots, ivory plaque from Megiddo

When this week’s haftarah begins, the Israelites are scattered tribes who have been ruled by the chief king of Canaan, Yavin, for twenty years. They are oppressed by King Yavin’s general, Sisera, who commands a force that includes 900 chariots, the most fearsome war technology of the time.

Still, instead of relying on the Canaanite king’s dubious justice, the Israelites go to their own judges, including one outstanding judge.

Devorah was a woman, a prophet, a woman of lapidot; she was a shoftah of Israel at that time. (Judges/Shoftim 4:4)

Devorah (דְבוֹרָה) = “Deborah” in English; honey bee. (From the same root as doveir  = speaker, and divrah  = legal case.)

lapidot (לַפִּידוֹת) = a feminine plural form of the masculine noun lapid = torchlight, torch, flash of light. (Some translations consider lapidot a place-name or the name of Devorah’s husband.)

shoftah (שֹׁפְטָה) = the feminine form of shofet = judge; a man who decides legal cases and resolves disputes.

The Bible emphasizes that Devorah is a woman, at a time when all other judges were elders among the men. Moreover, she is a prophet, a woman of flashes of light. Even her name is significant: she is a speaker, both for justice and for God.

Date palm tree

Date palm tree

And she was the one who sat under the Date-Palm of Devorah, between Ramah and Bethel in the hills of Efrayim. And the children of Israel went up to her for the law. (Judges 4:5)

Unlike the judges of villages, Devorah serves as the authority for a wider area, and holds her own law court in a sacred place. In ancient Israel, many holy places were indicated by trees or groves with names, such as the Oak of Weeping (Genesis 35:8), the Grove of Teaching (Genesis 12:6), or the Grove of Mamre (Genesis 13:18). Devorah’s own presence is what makes this particular palm tree the marker of a holy site.

And she sent and summoned Barak, son of Avinoam, from Kedesh in Naftali. And she said to him: Did not God, the god of Israel, command: “Go!—and draw up your position on Mount Tabor, and you shall take with you ten thousand men from Naftali and Zevulun. Then I will draw up to you, to the wadi of Kishon, the commander of the army of Yavin, Sisera, and his charioteers, and his infantry; and I will give them into your hand.” (Judges 4:6-7)

If Barak musters troops from the two Israelite tribes of Naftali and Zevulun and marches them up Mount Tabor, God will arrange for the defeat of the enemy’s army. But Barak is afraid.

And Barak said to her: If you go with me, then I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go. (Judges 4:8)

Devorah agrees to go with him, but prophesies that Barak will get no glory from the battle, because

into the hand  of a woman God will deliver Sisera. (Judges 4:9)

Deborah, by Gustave Dore

Deborah, by Gustave Dore

Devorah walks with Barak both to Kedesh to inspire the men to volunteer for the ad hoc army, and to the top of Mount Tabor to announce when the men should charge down. God panics Sisera’s army (through a flash flood in the wadi, according to the accompanying poem) and the Israelite foot soldiers kill every enemy soldier except General Sisera.

Devorah is supremely successful as the instigator of the battle because she is God’s prophet. Receiving divine communication and cooperating with God both inspires people to trust her and results in a successful campaign—even though she is a woman, who would normally be powerless.

Sisera gets down from his chariot in the middle of the battle and flees on foot. Where can he find refuge? He heads for the nearby camp of Chever the Kenite, a vassal of King Yavin.

Sisera fled on foot to the tent of Yael, wife of Chever the Kenite … (Judges 4:17)

Study of Jael, by Carlo Maratta

Study of Jael, by Carlo Maratta

Yael (יָעֵל) = a variant of ya-al (יָעַל) = he will ascend, he will climb, he will mount for mating.

Normally, a fugitive would go to the tent of the man who heads the household or encampment, the only person who can take the role of host and decide to shelter the unexpected guest.  In that culture, a woman’s tent was her private domain that no man outside her immediate family would dare to enter. Why does Sisera enter Yael’s tent instead of heading straight for her husband’s tent?

One line of commentary claims that Sisera’s motivation was to rape Yael, and then claim Chever’s household as his own. By taking ownership of a chieftain’s women, a man signaled that he was the new chieftain. Later in the Bible, King David’s son Absalom shows Israel that he is the new king by having sexual intercourse with the concubines King David leaves behind in Jerusalem. Sisera might plausibly decide he would rather be the head of a camp of Kenites than a disgraced ex-general.

But I think Sisera is on his way to Chever’s tent when Yael appears and suggests a different plan.

And Yael went out to meet Sisera, and she said to him: Surah, my lord, surah eilai, do not fear. Vayasar to her, to her tent, and she concealed him with the curtain. (Judges 4:18)

surah (סוּרָה) = turn aside, go away, desert, avoid.

eilai (אֵלַי) = to me.

vayasar (וַיָּסַר) = and he turned aside, went away, deserted, avoided.

Normally a woman would warn an intruder who slipped past the sentries around her husband’s camp to get away from her. But since Yael says surah eilai, she must be saying either “turn aside to me” or “desert to me” (knowing that Sisera has already deserted his own army).

Yael is a quick thinker with a cool head. She may view Sisera as an enemy; the Kenites are usually allies with the Israelites in the Bible, and Chever might have sworn vassalage to King Yavin because he had no alternative. But now Yavin’s army no longer exists, and the time is ripe for change.  Sizing up the situation, Yael steps out of her tent and tempts Sisera with an ambiguous sentence.

And he falls for it. Suddenly he imagines he can take Chever’s wife, and then take over his whole household. He steps inside her tent, and she lets the curtain fall behind him. He asks for water, and she brings him a yogurt drink and puts covers over him. He orders her to stand at the entrance of the tent and tell anyone who comes that there is no one inside. Then, secure in his belief that she is his and they will eventually seal the deal with sex, Sisera falls asleep.

Jael and Sisera, by Jan de Bray

Jael and Sisera, by Jan de Bray

Then Yael, wife of Chever, took a tent peg and took the hammer in her hand, and she came to him quietly, and she drove the peg into his temple, and she hammered it into the ground. And he was fast asleep, exhausted, and he died. (Judges 4:21)

Deborah’s prophesy is fulfilled; Sisera dies by the hand of a woman.

Yael acts on her own initiative, taking advantage of the situation and employing her sharp wits and her ability to deceive without actually lying. The text does not say whether Sisera carries a weapon on his body, but he is a career soldier, and under ordinary circumstances could overpower (and rape) any woman in his path.  Yael courageously uses guile, the weapon of the underdog, to overpower and “rape” him with her tent peg.

*

Never assume you can take advantage of an underdog who has always held a rank beneath your own. People who have been slaves for hundreds of years might turn out to have God on their side, and defeat you, as in this week’s Torah portion from Exodus. And women who have been ordered around by men for hundreds of years might turn out to be prophets and judges, like Devorah, or extraordinary executioners, like Yael.

Never overlook the underdog.

 

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