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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Balak: Prophet and Donkey

July 5, 2017 at 9:53 pm | Posted in Balak | 4 Comments
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Bilam appears to be a sorcerer who can bless and curse people, but he is actually a prophet who transmits God’s blessings and curses. Bilam’s donkey1 appears to be an ordinary domestic animal, but she actually knows more than Bilam.

At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Balak, King Balak of Moab is alarmed by the large Israelite camp on his border. He sends messengers to Bilam, whom he thinks is a professional sorcerer, with this request:

“Now come, please, curse for me this people, because they are too mighty for me. Then perhaps I will be able to strike them and drive them out from the land; for I know whoever you bless is blessed, and whoever you curse is cursed.” (Numbers/Bemidbar 22:6)

God has used Bilam as a prophet so often that Bilam believes he can count on God to speak to him during the night (presumably in a dream). So he tells Balak’s messengers:

“Remain here overnight, and I will bring back to you whatever God speaks to me.”  (Numbers 22:8)

That night, God tells Bilam:

“You shall not go with them.  You shall not curse the people, because it is blessed.” And Bilam got up in the morning and said to the officials of Balak: “Go back to your own country, because God refused to permit me to go with you.” (Numbers 22:12-13)

Bilam fails to mention that God has already blessed the Israelites. When the messengers report to their king, they fail to mention God at all; they simply say:

“Bilam refused to go with us.” (Numbers 22:14)

King Balak assumes Bilam refused only because he did not expect to get paid enough, so he sends a larger and higher-ranking group of officials. His second message promises Bilam:

I will honor you very impressively, and anything that you say to me I will do; just come, please, curse for me this people. (Numbers 22:17)

This time Bilam suggests the payment he would like: the king’s house full of silver and gold. In other words, he wants as much wealth and/or as much honor as a king. But he is at least honest enough to add that he cannot do anything that contradicts God’s command. Then he asks the messengers to stay overnight while he checks with God.

And God came to Bilam at night, and said to him: “If the men came to invite you, get up, go with them. But only the word that I speak to you, shall you do.” And Bilam got up in the morning and saddled his she-donkey and went with the officials of Moab. (Numbers 22:20-21)

Bilam’s silence in the morning is dishonest, since it gives Balak’s messengers the impression that the cursing will take place as requested.

And God vayichar af because he [Bilam] was going, and a messenger of God manifested itself on the road as an accuser for him. (Numbers 22:22)

vayichar (וַיִּחַר) = and he/it became glowing hot.

af (אַף) = nose, nostril.

vayichar af (וַיִּחַר אַף) = and his nose burned: an idiom meaning “and he became angry”.

God gives Bilam permission to go to Moab, but God is angry when he goes. Perhaps God disapproves of Bilam’s lying by omission, or of his greed for a payment he is unlikely to receive.2

Three times a messenger of God (i.e. an angel), manifests on the road to Moab. Who sees the divine apparition? Not Bilam, the prophet and would-be sorcerer; not his two human servants; but only his donkey. Bilam has only heard God’s voice at night, but his donkey sees God’s angel in broad daylight.

Each time Bilam’s donkey sees an angel with a drawn sword in the middle of the road, she refuses to go forward. The first time she runs off into a field, the second time the road lies between walls and she presses Bilam’s foot against the stones, and the third time the way is so narrow she lies down in the middle of the road. Each time Bilam beats his donkey, unable to see the reason for her behavior. The third time, the Torah describes the beating:

…and she lay down underneath Bilam, and Bilam vayichar af and he beat the she-donkey with the stick. (Numbers 22:27)

Then god opened the mouth of the she-donkey, and she said to Bilam: “What have I done to you that you beat me these three times?” And Bilam said to his she-donkey: “Because you made a fool of me!  If only there were a sword in my hand, I would kill you now!” (Numbers 20:28-29)

Bilam has been beating his donkey out of pride. With his servants and possibly King Balak’s officials watching him, he wants to look as if he is in control of his animal. In fact, his donkey is in control of where Bilam goes, and the donkey sees God’s messenger—with a sword in its hand, ready to kill Bilam!

by Rembrandt, 1626

And the she-donkey said to Bilam: “Am I not your she-donkey, upon whom you have ridden all your life until this day?  Have I really been in the habit of doing thus to you?” And he said: “No.” (Numbers 22:30)

The donkey says “all your life”, not “all my life”, even though the average life-span of a working donkey is 15 years in developing countries (a category that applies to all countries in biblical times). While Bilam’s age is not given in the story, he is a man who has developed a reputation, so he is too old to have been riding the same donkey his whole life.  The donkey’s words are a clue that the donkey is not just a talking animal; she also represents a part of Bilam.

Though he enjoys hearing God speak in the dark, Bilam is only a human being, and he cannot do anything without his animal: his body. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Bilam rides a she-donkey; in Biblical Hebrew, the word nefesh, which means both an individual body and the soul that animates the body, is feminine.

When Bilam answers his donkey with the word “No”, he both recognizes the truth and humbles himself before the animal he rides.

Then God uncovered the eyes of Bilam, and he saw the messenger of God standing in the road, and its drawn sword was in its hand.  Then he knelt down, and he bowed down le-apav.  (Numbers 22:31)

le-apav (לְאַפָּיו) = to his nostrils, to his nose. (A form of af.)

Bowing down to his nose is an idiom for making a full prostration, indicating his humility and submission before God’s messenger. But it also implies Bilam is surrendering his own “hot nose”, his own anger.

Then God speaks through the divine messenger and explains that the donkey saved Bilam’s life three times. If the donkey had not shied away from the angel, God would have killed Bilam—but spared the donkey.

After that humbling experience, Bilam becomes a better prophet. He is more direct and honest; as soon as he meets King Balak, he warns his employer that he can speak only the word God puts into his mouth. And now God speaks to Bilam in the daylight, and even gives him prophetic visions.

Of course all three times Bilam attempts to curse the Israelites, God makes praise and blessings come out of his mouth. And his employer, King Balak, is enraged.

Balak, vayichar af at Bilam …and Balak said to Bilam: “To curse my enemies I called you, and hey! You kept on blessing them, these three times!  So now run away to your own place! I said I would honor you impressively, but hey! God held you back from honor.”

King Balak dismisses Bilam rudely and without payment. But Bilam no longer seeks honor from other people. Now he knows that seeking wealth or fame blinds him to God’s message, and he is a prophet.  He responds to Balak only by pronouncing another prophecy—one that includes Israel defeating Moab. Then, unrewarded by either wealth or status,

Bilam got up and went and returned to his own place. (Numbers 24:25)

*

Personally, I resent being humbled by my donkey.  All too often I set off on what looks to me like a rewarding path, assuming I can do what I want—only to find that my body refuses to carry me. My chronic pain increases and my energy flags. If I try to whip my body into doing my will by drinking too much coffee, for example, my body starts lying down underneath me.

These days I find myself getting a “hot nose” less and less often, thank God. I am trying to pay attention to my own donkey. I am slowly giving up my desire for recognition and honor, knowing that I am still blessed with the ability to do my calling, as long as I listen to both my God and my donkey.

Who knows, if I learn enough humility, maybe someday my eyes will be uncovered and I’ll see a messenger of God in the road! But I’m not planning on it.  It’s enough to learn how to get along with this faithful donkey whom I’ve been riding all my life.

1  “Donkey” and “ass” are two words for the same species of equine animal. In Hebrew, a she-donkey, or jenny, is an aton (אָתוֹן).

2  According to Ramban (3th-century Rabbi Moses ben Nachman or Nachmanides), God was angry at Bilam for leaving without telling Balak’s messengers everything God had said, and for hoping that he might be able to curse Israel after all.

(An earlier version of this essay was published in June 2010.)

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.

 

 

 

Balak, Pinchas & Mattot:  How Moabites Became Midianites

July 8, 2015 at 8:16 pm | Posted in Balak, Mattot, Pinchas | 1 Comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah

Moabites and Midianites are two distinct peoples in most of the Bible.  Yet they appear to be interchangeable in a story about sex and revenge that runs through three Torah portions in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar: the portions Balak (last week), Pinchas (this week), and  Mattot (next week).

The conflation between Moabites and Midianites begins after the Israelites have marched through the wilderness east of Moab and conquered the Amorite kingdom to its north. The Israelites camp on the east bank of the Jordan River, in their newly captured territory.

Balak, the king of Moab, is afraid they will go south and attack his country next.

And [the king of] Mo-av said to the elders of Midyan: Now the congregation will nibble away all our surroundings, as an ox nibbles away the grass of the field. (Numbers/Bemidbar 22:4)

1. Midian in Genesis, Exodus, and 1 Kings. 2. Midian in Numbers and Judges.

1. Midian in Genesis, Exodus, and 1 Kings.
2. Midian in Numbers and Judges.

Mo-av (מוֹאָב), Moab in English = a kingdom east of the Dead Sea; the people of this kingdom. (The actual etymology is unknown. Genesis/Bereishit  19:36-37 claims the Moabites are descended from incest between Lot and one of his daughters, and implies that the daughter named her son Mo-av to mean “from father”.  The actual Hebrew for “from father” would be mei-av מֵאָב.) The Moabite language was a Hebrew dialect, and appears on a circa 840 B.C.E. stele about a war between Israel and a Moabite king named Mesha.

Midyan (מִדְיָן), Midian in English = a territory occupied by the people of Midian, whose geographic location differs in various parts of the Bible. (Possibly from the Hebrew dayan (דַּיָּן) = judge. Midyan might mean “from a judge”, “from judgement”, or “from a legal case”.) References to a people called Madyan or Madiam appear in later Greek and Arabic writings, and Ptolemy wrote of a region of Arabia called Modiana (see #1 on map), but archeology has not yet proven the existence of a country of Midian.  The Midianites may have been a nomadic people without a fixed territory.

When King Balak sends a delegation to the prophet Bilam to ask him to curse the Israelites, it consists of the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian. (Numbers 22:7).

When Bilam arrives at the mountaintop overlooking the Israelite camp, King Balak is there with “all the nobles of Moab (Numbers 23:6, 23:17) but apparently no Midianites.

After Bilam fails to curse the Israelites and goes home, a brief story in the portion Balak describes how some young women invite the Israelites to participate in ritual feasts to their gods, and many Israelites end up bowing down to the local god, Baal Peor. (See my post  Balak: False Friends?) At first, these women are identified as Moabites.

And Israel settled among the acacias, and the people began to be unfaithful with the daughters of Moab. (Numbers 25:1)

Pinchas Impales Zimri and Cozbi, by J.C. Weigel

Pinchas Impales Zimri and Kozbi,
by J.C. Weigel

Next, an Israelite man brings a foreign woman into the Tent of Meeting itself for sex. Aaron’s grandson Pinchas saves the day by quickly spearing the two of them. The woman is identified as a Midianite, and in the next Torah portion, Pinchas, we find out she is a woman of rank.

And the name of the  Midianite woman who was struck down was Kozbi, daughter of Tzur, the head of the people of a paternal household from Midian. And God spoke to Moses, saying: Be hostile toward the Midianites, and strike them down. Because they were hostile to you through their deceit, when they deceived you about the matter of Peor… (Numbers 25:15-18)

Suddenly the Moabite women who invited the Israelites to feasts for their gods are being called Midianites!

In the next Torah portion, Mattot (“Tribes”), God reminds Moses to attack the Midianites, but does not mention the Moabites.

And they arrayed against Midian, as God had commanded Moses, and they killed every male. And the kings of Midian they killed …five kings of Midian, and Bilam son of Beor, they killed by the sword. But the children of Israel took captive the women of Midian and their little ones… (Numbers 31:7-9)

This story ends with the slaughter of the captive Midianite women. (See my post Mattot: Killing the Innocent.)

And Moses said to them: You let every female live! Hey, they were the ones who, by the word of Bilam, led the Israelites to apostasy against God in the matter of Peor, so there was a plague in the assembly of God. So now, kill every male among the little ones and every woman who has known a man by lying with a male, kill! (Numbers 31:15-17)

Here Moses declares that it was Midianite women who seduced Israelites into worshiping Baal Peor. The Moabite women are no longer mentioned.

When we look at the storyline over three Torah portions, the enemies of the Israelites seem to change from a coalition of Moabite and Midianite leaders, to Moabite men, to Moabite women, to Midianite women, to Midianites in general.  How can we explain the shift from Moabites to Midianites?

As usual when it comes to inconsistencies in the scripture, the commentary falls into three camps: the apologists, the scientists, and the psychologists. (A fourth camp of commentary is the mystics, who focus on individual phrases and words, and ignore inconsistencies in storylines.)booksThe Apologists

The apologists take the Torah as literal history, and find clever ways to explain apparent inconsistencies.

The Talmud considers Midian and Moab two separate nations that became allies against the Israelites. Thus men from both nations hire Bilam to curse the Israelites, and make their daughters seduce the Israelite men (in order to cause the God of Israel to abandon the Israelites and leave them vulnerable).

In one Talmud story, God tells Moses to spare Moab and attack only Midian because God wants to preserve the land of Moab for the birth of Ruth, the virtuous ancestor of King David. (Talmud Bavli, Bava Kama 38a-b.) Another tractate of the Talmud (Sotah 43a) says that the attack on Midian is actually vengeance for the episode in the book of Genesis when a band of Midianites buys Joseph from his brothers and sells him into slavery in Egypt.

Rashi (11th century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) wrote that the king of Moab consults the Midianites because he knows Moses spent a period of his life in Midian, and he wants to learn more about the leader of the Israelites. The elders of Midian choose to not only advise the king of Moab, but join forces with him in the campaign to seduce the Israelite men. According to Rashi, God orders Moses to attack only the Midianites because the Moab acted solely out of fear for their own nation, “but the Midianites became enraged over a quarrel which was not their own”.

Some 20th century commentary explains the conflation between Moabites and Midianites by concluding that Midian was not a separate kingdom, but a confederation of nomadic tribes. (This explains why the first Midianites Moses meets lived near Mount Sinai, while the Midianites in the book of Numbers live in or near Moab, several hundred miles away.)  According to this theory, King Balak recruits local Midianite elders in order to involve all the people living in Moab, and the two ethnic groups work together to weaken the Israelites.

This theory explains God’s order to kill the Midianites, but does not explain why God fails to order the death of Moabites who are not Midiainites.booksThe Scientists

The commentators I call “the scientists” use linguistic and archeological evidence to assign various parts of the biblical text to authors from different periods and with different agendas. Inconsistencies in a Torah story occur when two different sources are awkwardly combined by a redactor.

The “documentary hypothesis” about when various pieces of the Bible were written has been revised a number of times since it first became popular in the 19th century, but linguistic scholars have agreed that passages in the first five books of the Bible come from at least four original documents (and probably additional fragments), and were stitched together and edited by at least one redactor.

Richard Elliott Friedman’s The Bible with Sources Revealed (2003) proposes that the stories in the Torah portions Balak, Pinchas, and Mattot came from three different sources which were compiled and edited by a final redactor (perhaps the priest called Ezra the Scribe).Midian 2 charts

The two references to Midian (…to the elders of Midianin Numbers 22:4; … and the elders of Midian … in Numbers 22:7) were inserted into the Bilam story by the final redactor who compiled and edited the five books of the Torah in the 5th century B.C.E. This redactor (possibly Ezra) inserted the elders of Midian into the Bilam story in order to harmonize it with the later story of seduction by Midianite women.

According to Friedman, the bulk of the Torah portion Balak was written by the “E” source in the northern kingdom of Israel. The northern kingdom was often in conflict with Moab across the Jordan River, and at one point conquered the whole country, only to be defeated by a new king of Moab named Mesha. The “E” source considered Moab an enemy.

Friedman credits the redactor of J/E with writing the story of the Moabite women seducing the Israelites into worshiping Baal Peor. The J/E redactor combined the “E” scripture from the northern kingdom of Israel with the “J” scripture from the southern kingdom of Judah, and added a few other stories—including the story of the Moabite women, according to Friedman.

The “P” source, which Friedman assigns to the Aaronide priests at the time of King Hezekiah of Judah, wrote the next story, in which a man from the tribe of Shimon and the daughter of a Midianite king go into the Tent of Meeting to copulate, and are speared in the act by Aaron’s grandson Pinchas. God then makes a covenant with Pinchas, and tells Moses to attack the Midianites.

Friedman notes that the “P” source was responding to a conflict at the time between priests who claimed descent from Aaron, and a clan of Levites called “Mushi” who may have been descendants of the two sons of Moses and his Midianite wife, Tzipporah. The first book of Chronicles, written between 500 and 350 B.C.E., says their descendants were the Levites in charge of the treasury. This story by “P” praises Aaron’s grandson, while denigrating Midianites.

In the next Torah portion, Mattot, the “P” source records the story of the Israelite’s war on the five kings of Midian, and has Moses blame the Midianite women for causing Israelite men to worship Baal Peor.

The approach used by Friedman and other scientific commentators certainly explains why this part of the book of Numbers keeps adding or replacing Moabites with Midianites. But it does not address the psychological insights of the stories when they are read as if they are episodes in a novel or mythic epic.booksThe Psychologists

The commentators I call “the psychologists” read the Bible as it stands, viewing it as a collection of mythic tales rolled into one grand epic, and mine it for insights about human nature.

One of the first psychological commentaries appears in a 5th century C.E. story in the Midrash Rabbah for Numbers. Referring to the Torah story about an Israelite man bringing a Midianite princess into the Tent of Meeting for sex, the Midrash says: “He seized her by her plait and brought her to Moses. He said to him: ‘O son of Amram! Is this woman permitted or forbidden?’ He answered him: ‘She is forbidden to you.’ Said Zimri to him: ‘Yet the woman whom you married was a Midianitess!’ Thereupon Moses felt powerless and the law slipped from his mind. All Israel wailed aloud; for it says, they were weeping (25:6). What were they weeping for? Because they became powerless at that moment.”

Yitro and Moses

Yitro and Moses

As a psychological commentator myself, I would point out that until the Israelites reach the Jordan north of Moab, all their contacts with Midianites have been positive.  Moses himself is sheltered by a Midianite priest, Yitro, when he is fleeing a murder charge in Egypt.  Yitro becomes his beloved mentor and father-in-law.  The Torah does not say Moses loves his wife, Yitro’s daughter Tzipporah, but she is the mother of his two sons, and she does rescue him from death on the way back to Egypt.

When Moses is leading the Israelites from Egypt toward Mount Sinai, his Midianite family arrives at the camp, and Moses greets his father-in-law with joy and honor. Yitro calls the god of Israel the greatest of all gods, makes an animal offering to God, and gives Moses good advice about the administration of the camp. (Exodus 18:5-27)

Moses and the Israelites do not encounter Midianites again until 40 years later, about 500 miles to the northeast, and in the book of Numbers. These Midianites are hostile instead of benevolent, determined to ruin the Israelites by alienating them from their god.

Does Moses feel betrayed by the people he married into?  Does he feel powerless, as the Midrash Rabbah claims, when his own affiliation with Midian seems to contradict his orders to destroy Midian?

Does it break his heart to see Midianite women, kin to his own wife, seducing Israelite men away from God?  Does it break his heart to transmit God’s orders to kill all the Midianites near Moab, including the captive women?

Does he turn against his own Midianite wife and sons then?

Or does he reassure himself, and perhaps others, that the Midianite tribes in Moab are different from the Midianite tribes near Mount Sinai; that there are good Midianites and bad Midianites, and it is right to marry the good ones, and kill the bad ones?

If Moses distinguishes between good Midianite tribes and bad Midianite tribes, does it occur to him that within a tribe there might be good and bad individuals?  That wholesale slaughter, although the usual procedure in war, is actually unjust because a number of innocent people die with the guilty?

Judging by Moses’ long speech to the Israelites in the book of Deuteronomy (which scientific commentators attribute to sources written after 640 B.C.E.), Moses and the Torah continue to condemn tribes and nations wholesale, without regard for individual members.

Just as Moses judges all Midianites in the five northern tribes as evil because of the actions of a few of their members, human beings throughout history have made judgements about undifferentiated groups.  It is so much easier than discriminating among individuals. From Biblical times to the present day, some people have judged all Jews as bad.

Today, I catch myself ranting against Republicans, as if every person who voted Republican in the last election were responsible for the particular propaganda efforts and political actions that I deplore. A psychological look at the story of Moses and the Midianites near Moab reminds me that I need to be careful not to slander the innocent with the guilty.

 

Note: This blog completes the book of Numbers  for this year (2015 in the modern calendar, 5775 in the Hebrew calendar). My next blog post will be in two weeks, when we open the book of Deuteronomy.

 

 

Balak: False Friends?

July 2, 2015 at 11:05 pm | Posted in Balak | 2 Comments

Friendliness from foreigners is a new experience for the Israelites, after 40 years in a wilderness where the only new people they encountered were armed and hostile.

Detour of Israelites

Detour of Israelites

In this week’s Torah portion, Balak, the Israelites are camped on the northern border of Moab, overlooking the Jordan River. They have already skirted Moab, then conquered the Amorite country to its north. They are poised to cross the Jordan into Canaan, but Balak, the king of Moab, does not know that.  He panics at the sight of thousands of Israelites on his border, and hires the Mesopotamian prophet Bilam to curse them. (See my earlier post, Balak: A Question of Anxiety.)  Bilam’s blessings and curses always come true—because he can only declare the words God puts into his mouth.

But God makes Bilam give only good prophecies about Israel. Immediately after this, the Israelites prove themselves unworthy of the honor.

Israel settled among the acacias, and the people began liznot with the daughters of Moab.  They invited the people lezivchey to their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. (Numbers/Bemidbar 25:1-2)

liznot (לִזְנוֹת) = to be unfaithful (to God or to a husband); to prostitute oneself.

lezivchey (לְזִבְחֵי) = to slaughter an animal on an altar, as a sacrifice to a god.

Why do the Israelites succumb so quickly? They know what it means to slaughter animals on an altar, give selected portions to God, and eat the rest themselves; they do the same thing for their own god when they make wholeness offerings (shelamim). They are also accustomed to bowing down to their own god. Now they are performing the same kinds of worship to the gods of Moab.

What makes the dinner invitations of the young women of Moab so irresistible?

The Midrash Rabbah for the book of Numbers (in the section based on the 5th century C.E. Tanhuma) spins a tale in which the Moabite women set up stalls in the market to sell linen, and when Israelite men come to buy, the old women in front of the stalls sends them into the back, where young women seduce them.

But I think this elaborate scenario is unnecessary.  All the Israelites need is the novel experience of a friendly invitation to dinner.

The last friendly foreigners the Israelites encountered were Moses’ own Midianite family, who came to visit him in the wilderness at Refidim, on the way to Mount Sinai, nearly 40 years before. The next time Israelites see other people is two years later, when the twelve scouts go into Canaan and see “giants”. Their report leads the Israelites waiting at Kadesh in Paran to despair and decide to go back to Egypt—and this leads to God’s decree that the people must stay in the wilderness for a total of 40 years before they have another chance to enter Canaan.

The next morning, some of the men charge over the hill into Canaan anyway, and the Amalekites trounce them.  So the Israelites spend another 38 years in the wilderness, mostly in isolation at Kadesh.  Then, instead of crossing the border into Amalek country again, they circle east and north, so they can enter Canaan by crossing the Jordan River.

Here are the foreigners the Israelites encounter during that journey:
soldier 2* The troops of Edom, who come to their border to make sure the Israelites take the long away around, without entering their land.

* The king of Arad and his troops, who attack and take captives. (The Israelites retaliate, with God’s help, and destroy Arad’s towns.)

soldier 2* The troops of Sichon, king of the Amorites, who respond to the Israelites’ request for safe passage through their country by attacking them.  (The Israelites conquer and occupy Sichon’s country.)

* King Og and his troops, who meet the Israelite men in battle when the Israelites go up the road to Bashan for no obvious reason. (See my post Devarim & Shelach-Lekha: A Giant Detour.)

No wonder the Israelites associate other peoples with war, and consider outsiders bad news.

The Israelites camp in the Amorite land they have conquered, among the acacias near the Jordan, just north of the Moab border. Then suddenly some Moabite women invite them over for a feast in honor of their gods.

prostrationPerhaps some of the men are interested in sex with exotic foreign women.  And perhaps all the Israelites are touched by an unprecedented gesture of friendliness. It would be easy for them to forget that by participating in the animal sacrifice and bowing down to the Moabite god, they are being unfaithful to their own God.

Israel yoked itself to the ba-al of Peor, and God became hot with anger against Israel.  So God said to Moses:  Take all the heads of the people and impale them for God in front of the sun; then God’s blazing anger will turn back from against Israel. But Moses said to the judges of Israel:  Each man, kill the men yoked to the ba-al of Peor. (Numbers 25:3-5)

ba-al (בַּעַל) = a local god; master, owner. (In Canaan, ba-al could also mean the main god of weather and war.)

How easy it is for some of the Israelites to slide from attending rituals for foreign gods to worshipping one of those gods! Moses later orders the Israelites to kill the Midianite women from Moab, saying:

Hey! They are the ones who led the Children of Israel, by the word of Bilam, to betray God over the matter of Peor! (Numbers 31:16)

Thus he shifts the blame for the Israelites’ unfaithfulness to their God onto the foreign women, and even onto Bilam (who merely goes home unpaid after blessing the Israelites in this week’s Torah portion).

Are outsiders really bad news? Should we avoid attending a different religion’s services? Should we suspect and reject friendly overtures from people who are not part of our own community?

No. I believe that once again, a Torah story can inspire us to exercise more maturity than the characters in it. Friendship between people of different religions can benefit both the individuals and the world. What we need to do is examine our own standards for behavior, and then stick to them (politely), while still meeting new people with a peaceful and friendly attitude.

 

Mattot: Killing the Innocent

July 13, 2014 at 9:03 pm | Posted in Balak, Mattot | 7 Comments
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In the Torah portion Balak, Israelite men worship a god named Baal Pe-or by engaging in ritual sex with the local Midianite and Moabite women. God becomes enraged against Israel, punishes the Israelites with a plague, and tells Moses to impale the ringleaders among the Israelite men. (See my earlier post, Balak: Carnal Appetites.) The focus is on the men’s shameful betrayal of the God of Israel.

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 is shifted from the Israelites to the Midianites. In this week’s Torah portion, Mattot (“Tribes”), God reminds Moses: Take vengeance, the vengeance of the Children of Israel from the Midianites! (Numbers 31:2)

In the Torah, making God angry often results in death. A death penalty for the Midianite women who engaged in Baal Pe-or worship with Israelite men would be consistent with other examples of justice in the Torah. But what happens is far worse.

Albrecht Durer, detail

Albrecht Durer, detail

Moses sends an army of 12,000 Israelites to attack the local Midianites. The army kills all the Midianite men, burns their settlements, and brings back the women and children as captives, along with livestock and other booty. And Moses is furious.

Moses said to them: You let every nekeivah live! Hey, they were [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 community of God! So now, kill every male among the small children. And every woman who has known a man by lying with a male, kill her! But all the small children among the women who have not known lying with a male, keep them alive for yourselves. (Numbers 31:15-18)

nekeivah (נְקֵבָה) = female (human or any other animal); hole.

Two things about this passage raise my hackles. One is how Moses and God shift the blame from the Israelites to the Midianites. I will address that issue three weeks from now, when I write about the second Torah portion of the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim: Va-etchannan.

The other problem is the genocide. This year, thanks to a question from my friend Steve Ulrich, I can no longer distance myself from the genocide the way I did in my 2011 post, Mattot: From Genocide to Gentleness.

Commentary from the Talmud through the nineteenth century tried to justify Moses’ orders with variations on the claim that Midianites—at least the Midianites living north of Moab—were  somehow unable to stop subverting Israel’s morals and religion. Even if all the adult Midianites were killed, their infant boys would still grow up dedicated to bringing down the Israelites.

Classic commentary also strained to justify why Moses exempted the virgin girls among the Midianites from the death penalty. The Zohar (written in the 13th century) claimed that once a woman has lost her virginity to a man, she is under his influence. This assertion supposedly justifies both the killing of the Midianite men (who must have urged their wives to seduce Israelites), and Moses’ order to spare the virgin girls “for yourselves”. It utterly fails to explain why Moses orders the death penalty for the underage boys.

Some twentieth-century commentary pointed out that genocide was common at the dawn of the Iron Age in the Middle East, along with taking girls captive to be personal slaves. The implication is that we cannot expect a higher standard in the Torah.

None of this commentary justifies Moses’ order of genocide as far as I am concerned. In my 2011 post, I tried a different approach to the genocide in this week’s Torah portion, and interpreted it symbolically. That was an interesting exercise for me, and it let me avoid dwelling on the atrocities the Israelite army committed at Moses’ command.

But this year I want to point out two assumptions underlying Moses’ orders:

1) Proselytizing for the “wrong” religion is a crime deserving death.

2) Every member of the same tribe or race or ethnic group as the criminal deserves the same punishment, because “they” are all alike.

This second assumption is Hitler’s way of thinking.

It is also an extreme example of a common human error. Many people who feel ashamed or at a disadvantage look for someone to blame. All too often, they generalize and blame their situation on all the members of a group—such as Jews, Muslims, Democrats, Republicans, blacks, whites, unemployed single mothers, CEO’s of corporations, men, women.

Few Americans today progress from blaming all members of a group to trying to massacre them. We tend to stop at the level of hatred, bitterness, slander, and voting habits. But in other parts of the world, genocide still happens.

Apparently genocide was acceptable to whoever wrote down or redacted this part of the Torah portion Mattot—as long as the victims were not Israelites. Then classic commentators had to find excuses for Moses, because they assumed a priori that the heroes in the Torah always have good reasons for doing apparently bad things.

But we are not bound by their assumption. We must do better, and denounce genocide even when the so-called good guys do it in the Torah.

And we must never stop noticing and pointing out when someone is blaming a whole group for the misdeeds of some of its members. Even if that blamer is yourself.

Balak: Three Places to Be Blessed

June 29, 2014 at 12:10 pm | Posted in Balak | 2 Comments
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Balak, the king of Moab, is afraid of the horde of Israelites camped just north of his border in this week’s Torah portion, Balak. (See my earlier post, Balak: A Question of Anxiety.)He hires the prophet Bilam to curse the Israelites so Moab’s soldiers can drive them away. Bilam warns the king that all he can do is say the words God puts in his mouth. Nevertheless, King Balakleads Bilam to three different vantage points, hoping for a curse each time. Instead, God makes Bilam pronounce three different blessings on the Israelites.

Here are the three vantage points where Balak takes Bilam to look down at the Israelite camp:

1) In the morning Balak took Bilam and he led him up to Bamot of Ba-al, and from there he saw the edge of the people. (Numbers/Bemidbar 22:41)

bamot (בָּמוֹת) = heights; high places used for Canaanite worship.

ba-al (בָּעַל) = ruled over, owned. (The noun form of this verb is also pronounced ba-al, spelled בַּעַל; it means ruler, owner, master; or the Canaanite god of weather and fertility.)

2) Then Balak said to him: Go with me, please, to another place from where you will see them. … Curse them for me from there. He took him to the Field of Tzofim, to the head of the mountain… (Numbers 23:13-14)

tzofim (צֹפִים) = lookouts, observers, watchmen.

3) Balak said to Bilam: Go, please; I will take you to a different place; perhaps it will be right in the eyes of the gods that you will curse them for me from there. And Balak took Bilam to the Head of the Pe-or,the overlook over the face of the desert. (Nuimbers 23:27-28)

pe-or (פְּעוֹר) = wide open like a mouth

In the 19th century Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch identified the names of these three locations with material prosperity, foreknowledge, and sexual morality. At each place, he wrote, King Balak was hoping a corresponding weakness in the Israelite people would provide an opening for Bilam to curse them. (Hirsch on Chumash.)

First, according to Hirsch, Balak takes Bilam to a shrine of the Canaanite nature god Baal, who controls material prosperity. (For an agricultural people, prosperity does come from fertility and beneficial weather, Baal’s areas of expertise.) Balak hopes the Israelites can be cursed with poverty. But Bilam calls the Israelites a solitary people, which does not count itself among the nations… (Numbers 23:9). Hirsch argued from this that Jewish national survival, unlike that of other nations, does not depend on material prosperity, and therefore Israel remained blessed.

For his second attempt, Balak takes bilam to the Field of Tzofim. Traditional commentary interpreted the word tzofim as soothsayers—seers who used magic to provide information and advice about the future. Hirsch wrote that at the Field of Tzofim, Balak hopes the Israelites have a weak spot when it comes to magical and intellectual advice about the future. Bilam returns and says: Stand up, Balak! (Numbers 22:18) His second blessing, according to Hirsch, tells Balak that the Israelites have a much higher level of wisdom than that of soothsayers.

For his third try, King Balak takes Bilam to the vantage point of Head of the Pe-or. For Hirsch, Pe-or means the worship of sexual immorality—probably because at the end of this week’s Torah portion, many Israelite men succumb to the seductions of local women who worship Ba-al Pe-or, and one Israelite man commits the ultimate sacrilege of having intercourse with a Midianite woman in God’s own Tent of Meeting. (See my earlier post, Balak: Wide Open.)

Nevertheless, Hirsch claimed that Bilam had to bless the Israelites a third time because of their sexual morality.

According to traditional commentary, when Bilam stands on the peak called Pe-or, he has a vision of the Israelite camp, and he notices that the openings of the tents are arranged so that nobody can see into another family’s tent, and sexual modesty is preserved. This is the traditional explanation for why Bilam’s third blessing includes the following verse (one that has become a standard part of Jewish morning liturgy): How good are your tents, Jacob; your dwellings, Israel!

By citing this extrabiblical tradition, Hirsch was able to conclude that the Israelites were blessed from the vantage point of sexual morality, as well as prosperity and foreknowledge.

The remaining problem with Hirsch’s three categories is that King Balak wants the Israelites cursed so that he can attack their camp and drive them away from his northern border. While poverty, short-sightedness, and/or moral problems might bring down a culture eventually, none of these ills would operate quickly enough for Balak’s purpose.

I think Balak’s three vantage points reflect different issues: mastery over the land, awareness, and satisfaction with life. If the Israelites are cursed in any of these areas, it will be easier for the army of Moab to send them packing.

The first location, Bamot Ba-al, also means “heights of ownership and mastery”. The Israelites have just conquered the territory north of Moab, but can they master the land and its people, so as to hold it?

Bilam’s first blessing not only calls the Israelites a solitary people, which does not count itself among the nations (Numbers 23:9), but also includes the rhetorical question: Who can count the dust of Jacob? (Numbers 23:10)

I think this blessing tells Balak that unlike other nations, the Israelites know they are blessed, and do not compare their possessions with any other nation’s. If God wills it, they will remain owners of the land east of the Jordan. If not, they are still confident they will take and keep the land of Canaan, because God promised it to them. They trust in God’s mastery, rather than their own.

Next Balak takes Bilam to the Field of Tzofim. When I consider the plain meaning of tzofim, “lookouts”, I think Balak is hoping this second vantage point will result in a curse that leaves the Israelites blind to any approaching danger, and therefore easy prey.

This time, the blessing that God puts into Bilam’s mouth includes these two verses:

There is no divination in Jacob, and no magic in Israel; what God accomplishes is told to Jacob, to Israel, at that time. (Numbers 23:23)Lion

Hey, a people like a lioness arises, and like a lion it lifts itself up. It will not lie down until it devours prey, and drinks the blood of the slain. (Numbers 23:24)

In other words, the Israelites do not need magicians to reveal their future, because God tells them what God has arranged. In addition, the Israelites are as alert and fierce as lions when it comes to battle.

I daresay King Balak gives up on his idea of a pre-emptive attack when he learns how alert and aware the Israelites are. But he is still hoping for a curse, so he takes Bilam to the third vantage point, the head of the Pe-or overlooking the desert.

The name Pe-or does foreshadow the seduction of Israelite men into worshiping Ba-al Pe-or through illicit public intercourse. But a pe-or, a wide open mouth, stands for all unrestrained desires. When your desire knows no bounds, you are always dissatisfied, and your life looks like a desert. The previous generation of Israelites complained repeatedly about the food on their journey. What if the current generation is just like them, and God is tired of their insatiable neediness? A reminder of a wide open mouth might encourage God to dictate a curse to Bilam.

Balak is foiled again, as Bilam recites a third blessing. After Bilam praises the tents and dwellings of the Israelites, he says God satisfies the people’s needs so their souls can grow like well-watered plants.

Like groves they stretch out, like gardens beside a river, like succulents God has planted, like cedars beside the water. Water pours from [God’s] buckets, and their seed is at the abundant water. (Numbers 24:6-7)

At this point, King Balak gives up on cursing the Israelites, and orders Bilam to go home.

Bilam has confirmed God’s blessing at all three of Balak’s vantage points. At the Heights of Ba-al, the Israelites are blessed with confidence in God’s mastery. At the Field of Tzofim, they are blessed with awareness. And at the Head of Pe-or, they are blessed with fulfillment of their desire to grow and flourish.

A person who has confidence, awareness, and fulfillment cannot be harmed by any curse. May we all be so blessed.

Balak: Carnal Appetites

June 18, 2013 at 10:39 pm | Posted in Balak | 3 Comments

The king of Cheshbon attacks the children of Israel in last week’s Torah portion, and the Israelites conquer all of his and his brother’s land, north of Moab and east of the Jordan River. These military victories are evidence that God is on the Israelites’ side, now that they have finished serving their 40 years in the wilderness.  Another piece of evidence is that during the first part of this week’s Torah portion, Balak, God blesses the Israelites through a prophet other than Moses. Balak, king of Moab, hires the prophet Bilam to curse them, but every time Bilam opens his mouth, God makes him speak prophecies of blessing instead. (See my post Balak: Anxiety.)

You might expect the Israelites to rejoice, look forward to their next conquest, and serve God gladly now. But human beings are not always reasonable.

Israel settled among the acacias, and the people began to be zonot to the daughters of Moab. (Numbers/Bemidbar 25:1)

 zonot = those who engage in illicit sex, infidelity, or cult prostitution

Traditional commentary assumes it is the men of Israel who are screwing up. Commentators differ over whether they are zonot because they are having sex with non-Israelite women, or because they are participating in what scholars call “cult prostitution”: ritual sex between a man and a Mesopotamian priestess in order to influence a god to make the land fertile.

At any rate, exotic sex is the first attraction offered by the women of Moab. The second attraction is meat.

They invited the people to sacrificial-slaughter-feasts for their gods, and the people ate, and they bowed down to their gods. (Numbers 25:2)

The Israelites already had their own sacrificial-slaughter-feasts, laid out in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra. Why would they be attracted to something they could get at home? Maybe the Moabites provided the sacrificial animals, so the Israelites got meat for free. Maybe it was exciting to make an offering to a different god, following slightly different customs.

The new generation of Israelites appears to be no more mature than the old one. They are still easily distracted, easily seduced by novelty. They fail to learn from the past or prepare for the future. They cannot resist a good party, and all they can pay attention to is free sex and free food, the more exotic the better. The only problem is that partying with the Moabite women means being unfaithful to their own god.

And Israel yoked itself to the ba-al of Pe-or, and God became angry against Israel. (Numbers 25:3)

ba-al = a local god; an owner or master.

When God becomes angry (literally, “hot-nosed”) against Israel, a plague usually follows. Moses spends a lot of time in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar doing things to change God’s mood, so God will stop the latest plague. In this scene, the Torah does not tell us when the plague begins, only when it ends. But as soon as God gets angry, God tells Moses what to do.

Then God said to Moses: Take all the leaders of the people and hoka them for God, in front of  the sun; and it will turn My anger back from Israel. (Numbers 25:4)

hoka = display a dislocation. (Another form of the verb is yaka, which the Torah uses to describe both what Jacob’s wrestling partner does to his hip, and a  disjointed, alienated feeling.) Translations of the verb hoka in this verse include “hang”, “impale”, and “hang up their bodies”.

God’s instruction to Moses is not easy to interpret. Does “all the leaders of the people”  mean every chieftain (since the leaders are supposed to stop bad behavior instead of looking the other way)?  Or does it mean every ringleader who is encouraging others to worship the god of Pe-or? The Midrash Rabbah, written in Talmudic times, offers both interpretations.

What is Moses supposed to do to these leaders? Rashi (11th-century Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) wrote that the leaders were to be stoned, the usual punishment for idolaters, and then their corpses hoka, hung up on display. Later commentators speculated that God was requesting an unusual punishment such as impaling. Since the Torah consistently prescribes the death penalty for any Israelite who worships another god, one of these interpretations is probably correct. Yet I am attracted to the idea that God is asking Moses to expose how dislocated the leaders are from the main body of their community, how alienated they are from the true path.

Here is my interpretive translation of Numbers 25:4: Then God said to Moses: Take all the leaders of the [unfaithful] people and expose their dislocation and alienation from God, in front of the sun; and that will turn back the plague Israel has brought upon itself.

Traditional commentary is divided over whether Moses ever carried out God’s instructions. The plague stops when Aaron’s grandson Pinchas spears a leader of the tribe of Shimon and a Moabite (or Midianite) princess as they are fornicating in Israel’s sacred Tent of Meeting.  (See my blog post Balak: Wide Open.) This double impalement is so shocking, that the Israelites wake up to their reality and abandon the god of Pe-or.

 As I read the book of Numbers, I often feel exasperated with the Israelite men for being so immature and short-sighted. Why can’t they accept that they have no choice but to continue the journey that began when they left Egypt? Why can’t they be grateful for the food, teaching, and protection that God is giving them (as long as they behave themselves), and work on becoming better and holier people?

I used to feel the same way about “party animals” back when I was in college. I thought I was more mature because I had better things to do with my time. Now, I wonder if I am really any better. I need to lose weight, yet I could not resist eating several bowls of granola today. The difference between me and the Israelites who worshiped Ba-al Pe-or is that my granola did not violate my religion. It was even kosher! And eating granola is much more virtuous than having sex with strangers or bowing down to somebody else’s god. Nevertheless, you could argue that when I ate all those calories, I failed to honor God by failing to honor my body, which is a gift from God.

It is part of human nature to be seduced by things that are unreasonable. May we all be thankful for those moments of shock that wake us up.

Balak: A Question of Anxiety

July 1, 2012 at 5:53 pm | Posted in Balak | 3 Comments

The Torah is full of kings: rulers of Israelites, pharaohs of Egypt, kings of empires, and many petty kings of small countries scattered around the Middle East.  Out of all the kings of the small non-Israelite countries, the one I feel the most empathy for is a king of Moab named Balak.

Balak son of Tzippor saw everything that Israel had done to the Emorites. And Moab felt very intimidated on account of the people, because there were so many; so he felt hostile on account of the children of Israel. (Numbers/Bemidbar 22:-3)

Balak = devastated, rendered uninhabitable

King Balak may feel “devasted” at the sight of the Israelites because he already rules a diminished country.  During the reign of the first (unnamed) king of Moab, the Emorites had attacked and conquered the northern half of Moab (Numbers 21:26).  Now King Balak rules a small land between Edom to the south and Emor to the north.

In last week’s Torah portion, when the children of Israel finally left the Sinai peninsula, they tried to take a direct route through the three kingdoms along the east side of the Dead Sea: Edom, Moab, and Emor.  But when the king of Edom refused to let them pass through, they turned aside and journeyed through the wilderness east of Edom and Moab. Finally they turned west again, heading for the Jordan River and the “promised land” of Canaan on the other side.

Moses asked King Sichon of Emor for permission to pass through his country, promising that the Israelites would not leave the king’s highway, or even use the well water.  But King Sichon refused, and sent an army to attack the Israelites.  The Israelites, with God’s blessing, defeated the Emorites and conquered their country. Then they camped on the “plains of Moab”, a stretch of land along the east bank of the Jordan that belonged first to Moab, then to Emor, and now to the children of Israel.

This week’s Torah portion, Balak, opens when King Balak sees the huge Israelite encampment, just north of his own territory.  A confident and thoughtful king might feel relieved that the Israelites had skirted around his own country and conquered his enemy instead.  He might make inquiries, and learn that the Israelites had asked permission to cross through both Edom and Emor peacefully, since their real destination was Canaan.  He might realize that the Israelites are, in fact, no threat to the present kingdom of Moab.

But Balak is consumed by anxiety.  The Israelites are so powerful, they must be a threat! Balak knows his own army could never defeat them. So he decides to resort to magic.  He sends delegates to Bilam (sometimes spelled Balaam in English), an independent operator with a reputation as as sorcerer.  The delegates pass on their king’s message:

Hey! A people went out from Egypt, and hey! It covers the sight of the land!  And it has settled in front of me! So now please come curse this people for me, because it is too vast for me.  Perhaps then I will be able to strike a blow against it and I will drive it out from the land.  Because I know whoever you bless is blessed, and whoever you curse is accursed. (Numbers 22:-3)

Classic commentary argued that since Balak asks for a curse against the people of Israel, rather than for a blessing for his own people, he must have an evil nature. I think Balak is not evil, but merely frightened.  Confident people believe they can achieve things; frightened people feel powerless. During my own years of feeling powerless, I did not believe anything could bless me and make me stronger.  Like Balak, I thought my adversaries could only be thwarted by someone else, someone who did have power.

King Balak believes Bilam is a powerful sorcerer who can change the fate of nations. But Bilam is actually a prophet.  He tells Balak’s delegates right away that he can only say what God tells him to (and he uses the same four-letter name of God as the Israelites).  The next morning, Bilam reports that God told him the Israelites are blessed, so he cannot go and curse them.

But Balak cannot bear to give up the idea of being rescued by magic.  He assumes Bilam is making an excuse, and tries again with higher-ranking delegates and promises of “very much honor”—i.e., ample remuneration—if he will just come and pronounce a curse on those Isralites.  Finally Bilam does come to Moab. Balak’s first words to him are questions:

Isn’t it so that I certainly sent for you, to invite you?  Why didn’t you go to me? Am I really not able to honor you? (Numbers 22:37)

Thus Balak inadvertently reveals his own insecurity.  Meanwhile, Bilam has just lived through a harrowing experience involving an angel and a talking donkey (see my earlier post, “Balak: Night and Day”).  He snaps back:

Hey!  I’ve come to you now.  Am I really able to speak anything?  I must speak the word that God will put in my mouth.  (Numbers 22:38)

The truth could not be plainer.  But does King Balak believe Bilam?  Of course not. He is too anxious about the horde of Israelites, too desperate to look at any facts.

Bilam, who likes the idea of being “honored” with silver and gold, goes along with Balak—just in case God changes its mind. Balak takes Bilam to three different spots overlooking the Israelite camp, and at each place, he builds altars and sacrifices animals according to Bilam’s instructions.  At each place, Bilam goes off by himself, then returns to King Balak and recites a poem extolling the Israelites.

Bilam’s second poem includes the line:  There is no magic in Israel. (Numbers 23:23)  Unlike Balak, the people of Israel do not need to believe in magic, because they know God is blessing them.

I think God is also blessing Balak and Bilam in this story.  After all, the army of Israel is not attacking Moab.  And Bilam gets to be the mouthpiece of God, and even work his own name into the poetic prophecies.  But neither man is getting what he has fixated on, so neither recognizes his own blessings.

After the third time Balak and Bilam go through their routine, the king of Moab finally gives up on magic.

Then Balak’s nose burned in anger toward Bilam, and he clapped his hands [in despair].  Balak said to Bilam: I invited you to pronounce a curse on my enemies, and hey! You repeatedly blessed them these three times!  So now, run away back to your own place.  I said I would certainly honor you, but hey! God withheld honor from you! (Numbers 24:10-11)

Looking from the outside, it is easy to see that King Balak should have been patient and avoided making assumptions or taking any action against the Israelites.  But things look different from the inside. I was like Balak earlier in my life, and I know that in the middle of high anxiety and insecurity, it is almost impossible to be patient and rational.  Doing something, anything other than direct confrontation, seems better than standing there like a target for misfortune. And once you start doing something irrational, it is hard to stop.

How can we face apparent threats with equanimity?   How can we avoid being “devastated”?  The clue in the Torah is that there is no magic in Israel; the people who know they have God’s blessing do not seek magic.

Our task is to cultivate a habit of feeling blessed.  I try to do this by consciously noticing small blessings throughout the day, from the daylily blooming in my garden to the smile on my husband’s face.  What practice do you cultivate?

Balak: Wide Open

July 7, 2011 at 4:11 pm | Posted in Balak | 3 Comments

Israel settled at The Acacias, and the people began to commit forbidden intercourse with the young women of Moab.  They invited the people to make sacrificial feasts to their gods, and the people ate and drank and bowed down to their gods.   Israel yoked itself to the local god of Peor, and God became hot with anger against Israel.  So God said to Moses:  Take all the heads of the people and execute them for God, in front of the sun (openly); then God’s blazing anger will turn away from Israel.  But Moses said to the judges of Israel:  Each man, kill the men yoked to the god of Peor.  

But hey!  A man from the children of Israel came in, and he brought a Midian woman near, in plain sight of his kinsmen, Moses, and all the community of the children of Israel; and they were weeping at the opening (petach) of the Tent of Meeting.  And Pinchas, son of Elazar, son of Aaron the priest, saw; and he rose from the middle of the community and took a spear in his hand.  And he came in after the man of Israel to the alcove (kubah), and he pierced the two of them, the man of Israel and the woman, to her inner alcove (kabatah), and the pestilence was halted.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 25:1-8)

This story comes at the end of this week’s Torah portion, Balak (“Devastate”, the name of the king of Moab).  When I reread it this year, I noticed that it keeps referring to openings.

Peor = a place name meaning “Wide Opening” in the sense of a gaping mouth, such as an open cavity leading to a tunnel

petach = opening, entrance, doorway

kubah = alcove, inner tent chamber,  secluded nook.  (The word kabatah has the same root as kubah, but sounds like the word for “her belly”.)

Why are there all these openings and enterings in a story about idolatry?

At this point in the Torah, the Israelites have camped on the bank of the Jordan River, right across from the promised land.  They are no longer in the wilderness, but in the land of Moab, an agricultural land with a king and a mixed population of Moabites and Midianites.  Earlier in this Torah portion, King Balak is afraid of being overrun by the Israelites, and hires a foreign prophet to curse them.  When that doesn’t work, the young women of Moab try another approach, seducing the Israelite men into becoming, in effect, Moabites—being unfaithful to their own God, and worshiping the local god, Baal Peor, instead.  (Presumably the Israelite women have to stay home inside the camp, and therefore Are not available for temptation.)

The Israelite men worship the local god through two different technologies.  One is animal sacrifice followed by a feast, a standard method among their own people as well.  The other is ritual fornication (a method actually used by some ancient cultures in the Middle East to mimic and encourage the sexual intercourse of the gods, in order to increase the fertility of the fields).

Once the Israelite men begin their intercourse with foreign women and foreign gods, they are hard to stop.  God and Moses call for two different kinds of mass executions, but neither is carried out—perhaps because of lack of support from the Israelite men.  Then there is a  “pestilence” (mageifah) that kills 24,000 people, and is somehow linked to the forbidden intercourse.  It might be another of God’s corrective plagues; it might be venereal disease; or it might be the spreading madness of lust for forbidden intercourse.

Then the Israelite man brings the Midianite woman right to the entrance of God’s sacred Tent of Meeting.  And Pinchas, the high priest Aaron’s grandson, stops it—by spearing the couple right at the spot where the illicit opening/entry is happening.

In next week’s Torah portion, God approves of Pinchas’s zeal.  Much Torah commentary is devoted to the question of what gives Pinchas the right to skewer the couple in the act, without a trial.  Personally, I think Pinchas’s action is legal because as a Levite, he is responsible for keeping unauthorized persons out of the Tent of Meeting.  The Torah does not say explicitly whether the Israelite man and Midianite woman went into the Tent of Meeting to find their alcove, or whether they merely paraded past the entrance to the Tent of Meeting on their way to some nearby alcove.  Either way, Pinchas could claim he skewered them in order to prevent them from desecrating the Tent of Meeting.

It’s interesting that all the unhealthy but seductive openings and enterings in the story are halted when Pinchas’s spear makes a deadly opening in the bodies of the coupling couple.

This reminds me of a Jewish daily prayer that praises God for creating many tunnels and cavities in human beings, and notes that if any of them were opened or blocked at the wrong time, we couldn’t even stand up.

The story translated above is also full of tunnels and cavities, with all the sexual intercourse, the god of Peor—Wide Opening, and even the architecture of openings and alcoves.  It illustrates the horrible consequences of being too open—both physically and psychologically.

In modern Western culture, we consider it good to be open.  We are reacting against earlier attitudes that blocked us and closed us off too much.  But it is also possible to be too open.  I shudder when I hear someone say “I’ll try anything once”, because there are some things that should never be tried at all.  If we are open to every invitation, every type of behavior, every “god”, then even if our bodies remain intact, we will lose our true selves and succumb to a spiritual pestilence.

May each of us be open at the right times, and closed at the right times, so that we are always able to stand up.

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