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.



Haftarat Pinchas—1 Kings: Zealots

July 28, 2016 at 1:45 pm | Posted in Kings 1, Pinchas | 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 Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1) and the haftarah is 1 Kings 18:46-19:20.

My god is better than your god.

Holding this opinion (even when your “god” is atheism) is human nature. The trouble begins when someone with religious zeal (great energy and enthusiasm) becomes a zealot (fanatical and uncompromising). When two zealots oppose one another, no compromise is possible; one of them must quit or die.

This week both the Torah portion and the haftarah include a clash between a zealot for the God of Israel and a zealot for the gods of another religion.

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

Pinchas (Phineas),
by J.C. Weigel

The Torah portion, Pinchas, opens with God’s declaration:

Pinchas, son of Elazar son of Aaron the High Priest, turned back My hot wrath from the Israelites through his kina among them, kina for Me, so I did not finish off the Israelites through My kina. Therefore say: Here I am, giving him my covenant of peace. And it will be for him and for his seed after him a covenant of priesthood forever… (Numbers/Bemidbar 25:11-13)

kina (קְנְאָ) = zeal, fervor, passion, jealousy.

God has afflicted the Israelites with a plague because many of them started worshiping the local god, Ba-al of Pe-or. While the Israelites are weeping, an Israelite man brings a local woman into a chamber of a tent (possibly God’s Tent of Meeting). Pinchas follows them in and impales them—and God’s plague stops. The Torah uses the same word, kubah (קֻבָּה) for both the tent chamber and the woman’s inner “chamber” where Pinchas’s spear skewers them both. (See my post Balak: Wide Open.)

This week’s Torah portion names the impaled couple: Zimri, a leader in the tribe of Shimon, and Cozbi, the daughter of a Midianite chieftain of Moab.

Why would either of these people walk in front of Moses and engage in sex right in or next God’s Tent of Meeting—in the middle of a plague?  Tikva Frymer-Kensky suggests in Reading the Women of the Bible that Cozbi is a priestess, a role often given to the daughter of a king, and that Zimri brings her over to conduct a religious ritual to end the plague.

Frymer-Kensky imagines Cozbi might even perform her ritual in the name of the God of Israel. But I imagine Cozbi as so zealous for Ba-al that she wants to save her new neighbors, the Israelites, from their plague-inflicting god by bringing in some positive energy from Ba-al. She does not ask for permission to practice her religion in the Israelite’s holy place; she just does it, in an act of passionate conviction.

In this clash between two zealots, Pinchas wins and Cozbi dies. God (the God character in the Torah) admits to being carried away by zeal, as well, and rewards Pinchas for stopping God from destroying the Israelites.


The haftarah from the first book of Kings tells a different story about two zealots: the battle between the queen of Israel and Israel’s foremost prophet.

Ba-al Preparing Thunder and Lightning

Ba-al Preparing
Thunder and Lightning

King Ahab’s queen and primary wife is Jezebel (Izevel in Hebrew), daughter of the Phoenician King Etba-al of Tyre. It is a good political alliance; but both books of Kings revile Jezebel because of her zeal for her native religion. As soon as Ahab marries Jezebel, according to 1 Kings, he builds a temple to Ba-al and bows down to that god. He also erects a cultic post for the goddess Ashtart.

Phoenician Ashtart

Phoenician Ashtart

Jezebel not only persuades her husband to worship her gods, but also tries to stamp out worship of the God of Israel by “exterminating the prophets of God” (1 Kings 18:4).

Furthermore, she uses her personal wealth to maintain 450 prophets of Ba-al (god of fertility, war, and weather) and 400 prophets of Ashtart (goddess of fertility, war, and seafaring).

Meanwhile Elijah, the most powerful prophet of the God of Israel, comes to King Ahab at his capital city, Samaria, and says:

As God lives, the god of Israel on whom I stand in attendance, there will be no dew or rain these years except by the word of my mouth. (1 Kings 17:1)

After three years, the famine in Samaria is severe. Jezebel’s weather god, Ba-al, does nothing.  So King Ahab institutes a search for Elijah.

Elijah orders King Ahab to summon “all Israel”, the 450 prophets of Ba-al, and the 400 prophets of Ashtart to Mount Carmel for a contest. The first book of Kings does not mention the prophets of Ashtart again, but the prophets of Ba-al and the Israelite witnesses show up on Mount Carmel, where there are two altars: one for Ba-al and one for the God of Israel. Against impressive odds, the God of Israel wins the contest. (See my post Pinchas & 1 Kings: The Sound of God.) The people of Israel fall on their faces and declare their allegiance to God, and under Elijah’s orders they kill all the prophets of Ba-al.

Then it finally rains.

Jezebel and Ahab

Jezebel and Ahab

Jezebel is not present at Mount Carmel, but Ahab comes home and tells her about the contest and that Elijah killed all the prophets of Ba-al by the sword.

Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah saying: Thus may the gods do and more if by this time tomorrow I have not made your life like the life of one of them. And he was afraid, and he got up and went to [save] his life… (1 Kings 19:2-3)

He reaches Beer-sheva in the kingdom of Judah, then walks for a day into the wilderness and lies down to die. Although he won the contest on Mount Carmel and moved the Israelites to kill 450 Ba-al worshippers, a zealot’s job is never done. His victory seems empty as long as Queen Jezebel, his zealous opponent, is still in power, still supporting the religion of Ba-al and Ashtart, and still determined to kill every one of God’s prophets.

God sends an angel to urge Elijah to eat and keep walking.  He ends up on Mount Chorev (also called Mount Sinai) where God asks him:

Why are you here, Elijah? And he said: I was very kina for God, the God of Armies, because the Israelites had abandoned Your covenant and pulled down Your altars and killed Your prophets by the sword. And only I was left, and they tried to take my life. (1 Kings 19:9-10)

He declares he is a zealot for God, and admits that he has failed to exterminate Jezebel’s religion. God responds with a demonstration.

Elijahs CaveAnd hey! God was passing by, and a big and strong wind was tearing off mountains of rocks in front of God; but God was not in the wind. And after the wind, an earthquake; but God was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake, fire; but God was not in the fire. And after the fire, a faint sound of quietness. And when Elijah heard, he wrapped his face with his robe, and he went out and stood at the entrance of the cave; and hey!—a  voice [came] to him, and it said: Why are you here, Elijah? (1 Kings 19:11-13)

And Elijah gives the same reply, word for word. He did not pick up on God’s hint that true service to the divine lies in quietness. So God, instead of rewarding him, tells him he must anoint a young man named Elisha to be a prophet in his place.


In the book of Numbers, Pinchas’s zeal, kina, leads him to kill the Ba-al worshiper Cozbi and her Israelite assistant Zimri. God declares that this murder stopped God’s own kina from killing all the Israelites in a plague, and makes Pinchas a priest. In next week’s Torah portion, Mattot, Pinchas is the priest who goes with the raiding party to kill all the inhabitants of Pe-or. One zealot wins hands-down; the other zealot dies.

Did the good guys win?  Read my post Mattot: Killing the Innocent before you decide.

In the first book of Kings, Elijah’s kina leads him to stage a contest between gods and kill 450 Ba-al worshipers on the losing side. God cooperates by sending the dramatic manifestation of fire that Elijah requests on Mount Carmel. But Elijah’s real opponent is the zealot Jezebel, who remains in power.

When two zealots oppose one another, one of them must quit or die.  God’s demonstration at Mount Chorev implies that Elijah must quit being a zealot, take a quieter approach to religion and perhaps spend the rest of his life in hiding. But Elijah despairs because he cannot imagine living without fighting for his cause. And God appoints another prophet.

Did the good guys win? No; Jezebel is just as zealous and just as willing to murder for the sake of religion as Elijah is. But God as portrayed in the first book of Kings is now wiser and more mature than the God in the book of Numbers. This god still wants exclusive worship, but recognizes that kina, the passion of the zealot, is not the best approach.

Our world today is full of zealots. It is easy to revile a zealot willing to kill for the sake of a religion or another cause—when that zealot is not on your side.  May we all learn to recognize uncompromising zeal in people we agree with, and even in ourselves.  May we all learn to restrain ourselves, and listen to the faint sound of quietness.


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.



Haftarah for Pinchas –1 Kings: The Sound of God

July 6, 2014 at 10:29 pm | Posted in Kings 1, Pinchas | 1 Comment
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When people in the Hebrew Bible see a manifestation of God, they nearly always see either fire (from the flames in the burning bush to the sparks of fire in the pillar or cloud), or something human (from Abraham’s guest to the feet on the sapphire pavement).

When they hear a manifestation of God, they usually hear words. I have found only two exceptions in the Hebrew Bible. One is in the book of Exodus, when God descends upon Mount Sinai, and all the Israelites hear (and see, perhaps through synesthesia) thunder and the sound of a shofar (a loud wind instrument made from an animal’s horn). The cracks of thunder and the increasing volume of the shofar blasts would make the sound of God unbearably loud.

Ram's Horn Shofar

Ram’s Horn Shofar

The other exception is in this week’s haftarah, when the prophet Elijah hears God as what the King James translation calls “a still, small voice”.

A haftarah is the reading from the prophets that accompanies the week’s Torah portion. This week’s haftarah, from the first book of Kings, opens with the prophet Elijah running before the chariot of King Ahab.

In the scene just before, Elijah had staged a dramatic contest on Mount Carmel, where there were altars to both Baal and the God of Israel. King Ahab (who was away from his wife Jezebel at the time) summoned all the people to the mountaintop as witnesses. Elijah invited 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah to call on their gods, while he alone would call on the God of Israel. (The prophets of Asherah did not show up, but the contest proceeded anyway.) A bull was killed and laid over wood at each altar, but nobody was allowed to bring fire to burn the offerings. Elijah said:

You will call your gods by name, and I, I will call God by name. And it will be the god that answers with fire, that one is the god. And all the people answered, and they said: It is good! (1 Kings 18:14)

Elijah increased the drama by giving the prophets of Baal all day to work themselves into an ecstatic frenzy, and by pouring water all over the God of Israel’s altar. No fire ever appeared on Baal’s altar. In the evening, when water was dripping into the trench around God’s altar, Elijah called on God by name.

And the fire of God fell, and it consumed the rising-offering and the wood and the stones and the dirt, and it licked up the water that was in the trench. And all the people saw, and they fell on their faces, and they said: That god is the god! That god is the god! (1 Kings 18:38-39)

The Israelites helped Elijah kill all 450 prophets of Baal. A three-year drought ended. And Elijah ran as an honor guard before King Ahab’s chariot as they returned to the king’s nearest palace, in the fortress of Jezreel.

Haftarat Pinchas begins with this triumphal run. Then Ahab’s wife Jezebel, the real ruler of the kingdom, nixes the mass conversion and threatens to kill Elijah.

The prophet flees, lies down in the wilderness to die, then gets up again at the request of an angel and walks all the way to Mount Horev (another name for Mount Sinai). There God speaks to him—first in words, as usual.

Then the word of God [came] to him, and it said to him:  Why are you here, Elijah?

And he said: I was very zealous for God, the God of Armies, because the Children of Israel had abandoned your covenant, and pulled down your altars, and killed your prophets by the sword. And only I was left, and they tried to take my life. (1 Kings 19:9-10)

Elijah is in despair because Queen Jezebel won. He forgets that the Israelites fell on their faces, shouted that the God of Israel is the only god, and killed Baal’s prophets. He either does not believe, or does not care, that the people’s feelings about God have changed. All that matters to him is that he lost the contest with Queen Jezebel for political power. Her gods, and the rest of her prophets, will remain in the kingdom of Israel whether the people support them or not.

God tells Elijah to stand up, and then gives him a wordless demonstration.

And hey! God was passing by, and a big and strong wind was tearing off mountains of rocks in front of God; but God was not in the wind. And after the wind, an earthquake; but God was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake, fire; but God was not in the fire. And after the fire, kol demamah dakkah. And when Elijah heard, he wrapped his face with his robe, and he went out and stood at the entrance of the cave; and hey!—a  voice [came] to him, and it said: Why are you here, Elijah? (1 Kings 19:11-13)

kol (קוֹל) = voice; sound.

demamah (דְּמָמָה) = quiet (without much movement or sound); stillness; silence.

dakkah (דַקָּה) = very thin; finely ground, powdery.

kol demamah dakkah = “a still, small voice” (King James translation); “a soft murmuring sound” (Jewish Publication Society translation); a “sound of thin silence” (Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg translation); a faint sound of quietness (my translation).

Elijah hears the sound of quietness, steps out to the mouth of the cave, and covers his face. That means he knows God is in the quietness, since God told Moses no one may see God from the front.

Then God asks him the same question: Why are you here, Elijah? And Elijah gives the same reply, word for word—as if he had learned nothing. So God tells him he must anoint a young man named Elisha to be a prophet in his place.

I agree with the many commentators who concluded that Elijah is too impatient in his zeal; he wants the spectacle of fire (or, presumably, windstorm or earthquake) to turn Israel back to God all at once. He is not interested in a quiet, gradual approach. And that is why God decides to retire Elijah and try a new prophet.

But I also wonder about the three ways of hearing God: as ear-splitting blasts and booms, as spoken words, and as a faint sound of quietness.

We are only human. When we want to plan, or communicate, or understand something complicated, we turn to language. Even musicians and visual artists who are working alone must think in words when they address other aspects of their lives. Our brains automatically translate much of our experience into words and language.

Maybe one difference between a prophet and an ordinary person is that a prophet can easily translate experiences of God into words. So for them, God manifests as spoken words.

For the rest of us, our occasional numinous experiences are hard to understand, hard to put into words. A shaft of sunlight or a haunting bird call might trigger an awareness of something greater—but we struggle just to describe it. Our brains do not translate these evanescent and ineffable experiences into direct speech from God.

In the book of Exodus, God manifests to all the non-prophets at Mount Sinai as unbearably loud noise. The people are terrified, and beg for God to speak only to Moses; their prophet can then translate what God says into words spoken at a reasonable decibel level.

But in the book of Elijah, when the prophet hears God ask him a question in words—Why are you here, Elijah?—he answers defensively, stuck in a repetitive loop of his own words, his own story about himself. Any further insight from God cannot get through. So God resorts to non-verbal communication.

Elijah hears the windstorm, the earthquake, and the fire. Then he hears God in the “still, small voice,” the faint sound of quietness. But he does not understand.

Does God manifest to us, sometimes, as quietness?

Can we understand?

Masey & Pinchas: Daughters and Loyalty

July 4, 2013 at 1:40 am | Posted in Masey, Pinchas | Leave a comment

As the book of Numbers/Bemidbar comes to an end, the Israelites are camped on the east bank of the Jordan, ready to begin their conquest of Canaan. Moses knows he will die before they cross the river, so he is handing down rules that will only apply after the people settle the new land and switch to a different economy. Instead of being nomads, most of the Israelites will become farmers or ranchers in Canaan. Wealth will be measured in land rather than herds.

Last week I wrote about God’s directions in the Torah portion Pinchas on how to divide up Canaan into hereditary properties—after the Canaanites have been driven off their land. (See Pinchas: Fairness). First Moses takes a census of men aged 20 and older. Every man counted in that census will get a tract of land in Canaan for his household. His land will be in the district of his clan, and his clan’s district will be in the territory allocated to his tribe.

Women, of course, do not count. Ancient Israelite society was patriarchal, and women were dependents. Apart from their personal effects, women’s possessions were nominal. In a marriage contract, any property that a woman’s father assigned to her was passed directly to her husband. If her husband died or divorced her, “her” possessions became the property of her sons. Women did not inherit, and if they were given land, they did not control it. They belonged to the clan and tribe of whichever man supported them, and only men could be leaders in a clan.

Yet in the Torah portion Pinchas, five women take a bold and independent action. The daughters of Tzelofchad come to Moses and the assembly of all-male leaders at the very entrance of the Tent of Meeting. They ask for the property that would have gone to their father, if he had lived long enough to be counted in Moses’ census.

Why should the name of our father be removed from his family because he had no son? Give us property amidst the brothers of our father. (Numbers/Bemidbar 27:4)

The women are careful to ask for property not for their own sake, but in order to perpetuate their father’s name. Moses checks with God, who replies:

Rightly the daughters of Tzelofchad speak; you shall certainly give them possession of a hereditary property amidst the brothers of their father, and you shall make the property of their father pass over to them. And you shall speak to the children of Israel, saying: If a man dies and has no son, then you shall make his property pass over to his daughters. (Numbers 27:7-8)

God’s answer promotes women from chattels to second-class citizens who can inherit land—but only if their father dies without sons. This solution rescues women who would otherwise be dependent on the goodwill of distant male relatives. The Torah never praises independence, but it does praise compassion for the unfortunate, and a woman without a father, husband, brother, or son to support her is considered unfortunate. A side-effect of the new law was that a daughter who inherited and remained unmarried would have a financial independence no other women possessed. But the Torah assumes all women marry and have sons.

This assumption raises an issue about the daughters of Tzelofchad in this week’s double Torah portion, at the end of Masey (“Journeys”). The heads of other clans in the Gilad branch of the tribe of Menasheh come to Moses and say:

God commanded my lord to give the land, by lot, as hereditary property for the children of Israel; and my lord was commanded by God to give the property of Tzelofchad, our brother, to his daughters. But if they become wives to any of the sons of the [other] tribes of the children of Israel, then their property will be removed from the property of our fathers, and it will be added onto the property of the tribe that they will belong to; so it will be removed from our allotted property. (Numbers 36:2-3)

In other words, if a daughter who inherited land married a man from another tribe, then she and her land would automatically become her husband’s property—and therefore the property of her husband’s tribe. These men identify strongly with their own tribe, Menasheh, and with the Gilad branch of the tribe. Any reduction in the amount of land under the control of the Gilad clans of Menasheh seems like a personal loss to them.

Moses approves of their sentiment. He does not stop to check with God this time, but he answers the men in God’s name.

This is the word that God commanded for the daughters of Tzelofchad, saying: They may become wives to whoever is good in their eyes; yet only within the clan of the tribe of their father they shall become wives. And landed property shall not go around for the children of Israel from tribe to tribe, for each man shall daveik to the landed property of the tribe of his fathers. And every daughter coming into possession of landed property from the tribes of the children of Israel, she shall become a wife to someone from the clan of the tribe of her father, so that each of the children of Israel shall possess the landed property of his fathers. (Numbers 36:6-7)

daveik  = cling to, stick to, be attached to; catch up with

The idea of clinging to your ancestral land is so important that Moses repeats it.

The property will not go around from one tribe to another tribe, because each man shall daveik to his hereditary property in the tribes of the children of Israel. (Numbers 36:9)

The Hebrew Bible uses the verb daveik when physical things stick to each other, and when one person pursues and overtakes another. But daveik is also used when one person is devoted to another, and when it sets out the ideal that the Israelites should cling to God with loyal devotion. The only time the Bible uses a form of daveik to indicate a person’s attachment to land is in Numbers 36:7 and 36:9, translated above. But land here is not just real estate; it is the expression of family lineage and tribal loyalty.

Conquering Canaan could, theoretically, be an opportunity for the tribes of Israel to unite and become truly one people (as the thirteen colonies became the United States of America). However, the Torah tells men to cling to the property they inherit from their fathers, and to the territory of their tribe. My theory is that instead of viewing tribal loyalty as a threat to national loyalty, the way many nations do today, the Torah views tribal loyalty as good practice for for national loyalty. The more you cling to one thing, the more you become able to cling to something else.

Most of all, Moses repeats that everyone must love God. But does practicing  passionate attachment to another person, to a tribe, or to a country, make it easier to love God?

I grew up in an atheist household in 20th-century America. I have always valued independence more than loyalty. I love my husband and my son, and give them my passionate allegiance. But I have never been interested in loyalty to my ancestry, or hometown, or school, or state, or country. I have grown fond of several of the houses and yards where I have lived, but I still move and sell the property to strangers. Maybe I have not practiced attachment enough, and that is why I find it hard to become attached to God.

In the Torah, many of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness also find it hard to cling devoutly to God. The first generation of the exodus from Egypt frequently complains about the food and expresses a desire to abandon God and return to Egypt. When Moabites invite the second generation to worship Baal-Peor, most of the men quickly abandon any loyalty to their own god. (See my earlier post, Balak: Carnal Appetites.)  No wonder Moses encourages them to practice passionate loyalty, if only to their families and tribes!

If you have not practiced a lot of clinging, is there any other way to develop a love for God? In Chassidic Judaism of the last two centuries, a key aspiration is deveikut, attachment or clinging to God. The Chassidic masters recommended developing deveikut through personal prayer, meditation, and intention (though it also helps to learn from a wise rabbi).

But first a modern, independent person without a religious upbringing must decide whether deveikut is even desirable. And that includes figuring out what it is that we are calling “God”.

I wonder if my life would be easier if I had inherited my religion and my god. On the other hand, a good life is not necessarily easy.

Pinchas: Fairness

June 27, 2013 at 9:26 am | Posted in Pinchas | 1 Comment

Children passionately want life to be fair. For the sake of fairness, they can even be persuaded to share their possessions. But if a young child is the victim of unfairness, prepare for a tantrum.

Adults know that life is not fair. People in power are biased, and bad luck happens. Yet most of us still feel bitter when we do all the right things, and still get the short end of the stick.

When is the distribution of good things “fair”?  Merriam-Webster’s dictionary gives two possible answers: when the distributor is impartial, i.e. free from self-interest, prejudice, or favoritism; and when everyone is given their due according to established rules.

This week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, looks ahead to how the land of Canaan will be distributed after the Israelites have conquered it and driven off the Canaanites. The question of fairness to the Canaanites never comes up in the Torah. Over and over again, from the book of Genesis/Bereishit through the conquest of the land in the book of Joshua, we read that God is giving this land to the children of Israel. What God wants trumps any human notion of fairness. Although later Jewish writings paint the Canaanites as evil perverts, the only objection to Canaanites in the Torah itself is that they worship different gods.

In this week’s Torah portion, God prescribes how the land the Israelites are about to conquer should be divided among themselves. The first step is to take a census of men aged 20 and older. The census serves both as a mustering of eligible fighters for the upcoming conquest, and as a count of the households that will own plots of land once Canaan has been conquered.

The census of adult men raises two questions: What about women? And why should the land be divided according to the population that is about to cross the Jordan, rather than the previous generation, or the next generation? The Torah addresses these issues in the story of the daughters of Tzelofchad, which begins in the portion Pinchas and resumes in the portion Masey. I plan to examine that two-part story in next week’s blog post.

Right or wrong, the census of Israelite men clearly defines the in-group for the distribution of land. The next step is to divide the land fairly among the tribes of the in-group.

This is the census of the sons of  Israel: 601,730. Then God spoke to Moses, saying: For these the land shall be divided as a nachal, by the account of names. The abundant [tribe] will have an abundant nachal, and the scanty [tribe] will have a scanty nachal; each one shall be given its nachal according to the bidding of the census. Yet the land shall be divided according to the bidding of a lottery; nachal [will be assigned] to the names of the tribes of their fathers.  According to the bidding of the lottery you shall divide [land] among the abundant [tribes] and the scanty [tribes], giving each its nachal(Numbers/Bemidbar 25:51-55)

nachal a permanent possession to pass on as an inheritance; a hereditary land-holding.

In other words, each tribe will get a territory proportionate to the number of adult men in the tribe, and tribes will be matched with territories through a lottery. This passage goes out of its way to achieve fairness. The distribution of the land among the tribes of Israel appears to be fair both because the territories are divided according to the population of the in-group, and because a lottery is used to match each tribe with its territory. (After that, the leaders of each tribe are to use a similar process to allocate land to individual clans and households.) According to the Talmud Bavli, tractate Bava Batra 121b-122a, every man in the census will end up with his own plot of land, and all the plots will be equal—not in size, but in value. Where the land is more fertile, the plots will be smaller. This seems fair because each member of the in-group will get his due.

To make sure this distribution is carried out without favoritism, God also calls for a lottery to match each territory with its tribe. Later in the Hebrew Bible, lotteries express the will of God, but here a lottery might be merely a randomizing mechanism, as it is today. The choice is left up to blind chance rather than a human decision. A lottery seems to meet the dictionary definition of fairness as impartial distribution, free from self-interest, prejudice, or favoritism.

But there is a catch. Each tribe must get a territory whose total value matches its total count of adult males. And the tribes are different sizes. The tribe with the largest head-count is Yehudah (Judah in English), with a total of 76,500 men. The smallest is Shimon (Simeon in English) with a total of 22,200. In a truly random lottery, the high priest might draw the name Yehudah the same time as the description of a territory that could only support Shimon. Thus the leaders cannot conduct a random lottery and still give each tribe land according to its head-count. Either the land will not be not distributed equally, or the lottery will be rigged.

The Talmud explained that when the lottery took place, the high priest Elazar already knew which tribe would be matched with which territory, because he was supported by the ruach hakodesh, the holy spirit of God. First he would predict the tribe and its territory. Then he would shake the urn of tribe names and pick one, and shake the urn of land boundaries and pick one. Every time, the two lots matched his prediction (Talmud Bavli, Bava Batra 122a). In other words, the whole lottery was predetermined by God.

Thus God’s orders for land distribution are fair only for the group counted in the census, and only if God is impartial and does not play favorites. Is God fair?

God wears a human face in the Torah; “He” is an anthropomorphic character who feels emotions such as regret (for creating this world) and rage (every time the Israelites disobey him). Nevertheless, God is the creator of the universe, far greater than any other gods, if they even exist. Sometimes this God character is benevolent. When God tells Moses “His” 13 attributes in Exodus/Shemot 34:6, the list begins with compassion, grace, patience, abundant kindness, and truth. Fairness is not mentioned.

And it is hard to attribute fairness to the god who saves Noah’s family but drowns the rest of the world, including innocent children; or to the god who routinely wipes out thousands of Israelites with plagues that make no distinction between the innocent and the guilty.

Some people still assume that the God character in the Torah is the same being as the theologian’s omnipotent all-benevolent God, and that both are the same as God the Unknowable. After all, the three versions of God all have the same name. It is hard for these people to believe that life is unfair. If God is human enough to care about fairness, and God runs everything in the universe, then why does bad luck strike some people and not others? Surely the unlucky must deserve a worse deal than their luckier neighbors. Otherwise, God would be unfair.

This confusion about God led some Jews to believe that they must have deserved the Holocaust; if only they had been more observant, God would have intervened to prevent it. During the current long recession, some Americans who lose their houses and jobs blame themselves for not working hard enough, or for making the wrong decisions.  It is easier for them to believe they are undeserving than to believe that either God or the American system is unfair.

Other people embrace the reality that life is not fair, and campaign to change the system to make it more fair. Still others view the desire for fairness as childish, and focus on moral values they find less simplistic.

Life is not fair.  What do you want to do about it?

Pinchas: Strong Spirits

July 13, 2012 at 10:41 am | Posted in Pinchas | Leave a comment

Most societies have procedures for determining who inherits property. (This week’s Torah portion includes a ruling that daughters can inherit when the deceased has no sons).  But when leaders of people die or retire, who replaces them?

Earlier in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar the first high priest, Aaron, dies and is succeeded by his son Elazar.  Will Elazar’s son Pinchas become the high priest someday?  This week’s portion, Pinchas, opens with God granting Pinchas’ that honor, even though he murdered two people he caught fornicating in the sacred Tent of Meeting. God explains that Pinchas’s act was necessary to preserve the Israelite people.

Miriam also dies in Numbers, but she is harder to replace.  According to the Torah, the people  manage without another strong female leader until the prophetess Devorah takes charge in the book of Judges/Shoftim.

Moses knows he will die before the Israelites enter the land of Canaan, and at this point in the Torah, the “promised land” is right across the Jordan River from the Israelite encampment.  Who will replace Moses?

Nobody else is capable of having such frequent, direct, long, and personal conversations with God. Nobody can replace Moses as a prophet.  Yet someone must replace him as the leader and ruler of the people as they take over the land of Canaan.  Moses’ own two sons dropped out of the Torah early in the book of Exodus/Shemot; presumably they either returned to their Midianite grandfather’s home, or else accompanied the Israelites for 40 years without doing anything worth mentioning.  Moses’ nephews Elazar and Itamar are disqualified for a different reason; God has made it clear that the  priesthood must be separate from the government.

So Moses spoke to God, saying: May God, the god of the spirits (ruchot) of all flesh, appoint a man over the community, who will go out before them and who will come in before them, and who will lead them out and who will bring them in, so the community will not be like a flock without a shepherd. (Numbers/Bemidbar 27:15-17)

ruach (plural ruchot) = spirit, wind, mood, driving impulse, motivation

The phrase  god of the spirits of all flesh is unusual; it occurs only twice in the whole Torah.  The other appearance is earlier in the book of Numbers, when Korach leads a revolt against the authority of Moses and Aaron. God tells the two of them to step aside while the rest of the community is consumed. Moses and Aaron fall on their faces (the best position for addressing God), and say:

God, the god of the spirits of all flesh! Is it that one man sins, and You become angry at the whole community? (Numbers 16:22)

They assume God can distinguish between the motivation of Korach, who talks about justice but wants personal power, and the motivation of the naive Israelites who follow along with him. Indeed, the “god of the spirits of all flesh” tells everyone else to step back, and destroys only the households of Korach and the other two ringleaders, plus the 250 men who deliberately usurp the priestly role of offering incense.

Moses’ successor must not be like Korach, bent on self-aggrandizement. But what kind of personality should the new leader have?  When Moses asks God to choose someone, he once again refers to the god of the spirits of all flesh, a reminder that God knows everyone’s inner motivations.

Rashi (11-century rabbinic commentator Shlomo Yitzchaki) wrote that Moses said: “Master of the World! The personality of each individual is revealed before You; they do not resemble each other.  Appoint a leader who can put up with each individual according to his personality.’’

It seems that Moses’ successor must, like God,  understand the ruach, the inner spirit, of every person he governs.  He cannot succeed by simply following all the laws God gave to Moses; he must be able to adapt the rules to different situations and individual needs as they emerge.

So God said to Moses: Take for yourself Joshua, son of Nun, a man who has spirit (ruach) in him, and lay your hand upon him.  (Numbers 27:18)

The new leader’s own personality must include not only a god-like understanding of other humans, but also a spirit of holiness, a connection with God. The Torah identifies some people as being filled, or seized, by ruach ha-elohim, “the spirit of God”. People in this condition are so aware of the numinous that (unless they have the mind of an Abraham or a Moses) they are overcome with ecstasy. Moses does not dance, or speak in tongues, but the spirit of God does become visible in his face: his skin glows so brightly that he wears a veil, removing it only when he speaks with God or tells the people what God said.

Moses’ successor must also have some of this holy spirit, though a glowing face is not required. Joshua is the obvious candidate.  He has been Moses’ faithful attendant ever since he led the Israelites in their first successful battle. He lived in Moses’ tent during the time when it was the Tent of Meeting where Moses and God conversed, and he sometimes accompanied Moses halfway up Mount Sinai. After 40 years of serving Moses, Joshua might be considered an apprentice who is ready to become a master.

Does he have some measure of “holy spirit” in him because of Moses’ influence all those years?  Or did Moses choose him as an attendant in the first place because he saw Joshua already had that spirit? Either way, Joshua meets the requirements.

Nevertheless, Joshua is not another Moses; he is merely the best candidate available for the job. No human being can really be replaced. And yet members of a community can move ahead under a different leader with a different spirit, and remain committed to their basic mission; to each other; and to the divine spirit that dwells among and within them.

Pinchas: Aromatherapy

July 11, 2011 at 10:00 pm | Posted in Pinchas | 3 Comments

God spoke to Moses, saying:  Pinchas, son of Elazar son of Aaron the Priest, turned my hot anger away from the children of Israel with his zeal, so that I did not destroy the children of Israel with my zeal.  Therefore say I am giving him my covenant of peace.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 25:10-12)

God spoke to Moses, saying:  Command the children of Israel, and you shall say to them: You must pay attention to  my offerings, to my food for my fires of fragrance for calming me down—to make the offerings to me at its appointed time.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 28:1-2)

reiyach = fragrance, odor, aroma (same root as ruach = wind, spirit, soul)

nichoach = calming down, soothing, settling into tranquility (same root as Noach = rest, resting-place)

Last week’s Torah portion ended with Pinchas skewering the couple who worshiped the local god of Peor by fornicating near the entrance of the God of Israel’s Tent of Meeting.  (See last week’s blog:  “Balak:  Wide Open”.)  This week’s Torah portion, Pinchas,  begins with God’s response:  promising Pinchas some kind of peace, and rewarding him and his descendants with everlasting priesthood.  (At this point in the Torah, there are only two living priests; the next generation has not yet been ordained.)

Many commentators have explained that God gives Pinchas a “covenant of peace” so that he won’t be too psychologically disturbed following his own violent and gory deed.  Only divine grace can give Pinchas a tranquil, peaceful soul.

So God calms down Pinchas.  And later in this week’s portion, the Torah reminds the Israelites to calm down God, by paying attention to making regular burned offerings in order to raise up that soothing fragrance.  This instruction is followed by a list of all the regular times when God requires burned offerings of animals and/or grain, and libations of wine.  There must be two daily offerings, plus additional offerings every seventh day, every new moon, and for five special occasions during the year (now called PesachShavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Shemini Atzeret).

The concept that the smoke from burned offerings reaches God as a reiyach nichoach,  “a fragrance of calming down”, appears once in Genesis/Bereishit; three times in the book of Exodus/Shemot, 17 times in   Leviticus/Vayikra, and 18 times in Numbers/Bemidbar, including the sentence above.

So the idea of calming down God through fragrant smoke is nothing new.  But it is an especially poignant instruction after Pinchas’s deadly zeal turns away God’s deadly zeal.

The God depicted in the Torah is often enraged by human behavior.  Although God does not skewer anyone with a spear, God does periodically kill hundreds or thousands of people, most often with plagues of disease, occasionally with fire, and on three occasions with unique methods of execution:  the earth swallowing Datan and Aviram in Numbers/Bemidbar 16:31-33; the ten miracles that strike Egypt in Exodus/Shemot; and the flood in the time of Noah.

In fact, the Torah’s first use of the phrase reiyach nichoach, “a fragrance of calming down”, is in the story of Noah.  Noah’s name in Hebrew is N0ach, which comes from the same root as nichoach and means “rest”.  After the survivors of God’s flood emerge from Noah’s ark, Noah sacrifices the surplus birds and beasts, and God smells the “fragrance of the calming down” and vows to himself never to doom the earth again because of the behavior of  human beings, who are inherently fallible, capable of both spurning God and yearning for God.

Today, people who use words like “God” to refer to more than just a mythical character tend to view God as either loving or without emotion, rather than angry.  We no longer subscribe to the anthropomorphic image of the God with the quick temper and the burning nose.  Yet we sometimes find ourselves disturbed by our own irrational anger, and the impulsive actions we commit as a result.  We get stuck in anger at ourselves.

One solution to this trap is to make regular offerings or gifts to God.  Jews no longer slaughter animals and burn them up into smoke for God, thank heaven!  But we are asked to draw closer to God through prayer at regular times, daily, weekly, and annually on religious holidays.  Some people find prayer meaningless, or a mere obligation.  But it is possible to make your prayers into fragrances that soothe your own soul, calming you down when you are angry and lifting your spirits when you are sad.

For me it was a true blessing to discover a way of praying that brings reiyach, fragrance, into my ruach, my spirit or emotional soul.  May everyone whose soul needs to be unstuck receive a blessing like that.

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