Mattot, Va-etchannan, & Isaiah: How to Stop a Plague, Part 3

July 27, 2017 at 8:15 pm | Posted in Isaiah 1, Naso, Va-etchannan | 1 Comment
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from Domenichino,
“The Rebuke of Adam and Eve”, 1626

“Don’t blame me!” We say that when we feel guilty.  Even the first human beings in the Bible blame someone else when they disobey God’s instruction not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad. The male human blames the female, and the female blames the snake.1

In the Book of Numbers/Bemidbar, the Israelites flagrantly disobey the First Commandment, “You shall have no other gods before Me”, after accepting an invitation from the local women (first called Moabites, then Midianites) in the land the Israelites have conquered east of the Jordan River.

And they invited the people to the slaughter-sacrifices for their god.  And the people ate, and they bowed down to their god. (Numbers 25:2)

The story told in the Torah portion Balak gives no indication that the women deceive the Israelites, no hint of a lie or a trick. (See my post Balak: False Friends.) It is the Israelites who decide to worship that god, Baal Peor.

from Sacra Parallela,
Byzantine, 9th century

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

The God-character rewards Pinchas for calming “His” rage in the next Torah portion, Pinchas. (See my post Mattot, Judges, & Joshua: How to Stop a Plague, Part 2.)

At least the God-character’s uncontrollable anger targets the Israelites, the people guilty of disobeying God’s commandment. Ironically, when the God-character is calm, ‘He” targets the Midianites, accusing them of actively tricking the Israelites.

Attack the Midianites and strike them down! –beecause they attacked you through nikheleyhem when niklu you over the matter of Peor … (Numbers/Bemidbar 25:17-18)

nikheleyhem (נִכְלֵיהֶם) = their deceit, their cunning, their wiles.

niklu (נִכְּלוּ) =they deceived, they treated cunningly.

But Moses turns his attention to other issues. So eventually, in the Torah portion Mattot, God reminds Moses:

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

nekom (נְקֺם) = Avenge! Take revenge! Get even!

nikmah (נִקְמַה) = [the] vengeance, revenge, payback.

And Moses finally assembles an army.

The God-character is calling for revenge, not for removing temptation. At most, the extermination of the local population prevents the Israelites from sliding back into worshiping Baal Peor. It does not stop them from straying after other Gods once they settle in Canaan.

Women of Midian Led Captive,
by James Tissot

The Israelite soldiers kill all the Midianite men and burn all their settlements. But instead of killing the Midianite women and children, the army returns with them as booty.

And Moses said to them: “You let every female live? Hey, they caused the Children of Israel, through the word of Bilam, to elevate themselves over God in the matter of Peor, so that the plague came to the community of God!” (Numbers 31:14-16)

Moses blames the Midianite women for seducing the Israelites into Baal-worship, instead of blaming the Israelites for their own actions. He also casts blame on Bilam, the prophet who uttered God’s blessings for the Israelites, then returned to his distant home on the Euphrates.2  Any foreigner is easier to blame than your own people.

Moses then orders his officers to kill all the Midianite women and the boys, exempting only the virgin girls from the genocide. (See my post Mattot: Killing the Innocent.) The Torah portion Mattot illustrates how guilt over your own behavior can lead to blaming others, and even destroying them.

Yet there are other ways humans can deal with guilt and shame. In next week’s Torah portion, Va-etchannan, Moses says:

Your eyes saw what God did about Baal Peor; for God, your God, exterminated from among you every man who went after Baal Peor. But you who cling to God, your God, are alive, all of you, today. (Deuteronomy 4:3-4)

Here Moses returns to the originally story, placing the blame on the Israelite men and declaring that God punished the guilty Israelites by killing them with the plague. Everyone who remained faithful to the God of Israel, he says, was not punished.

This is certainly more just than accusing the Midianites or Bilam for the deeds of the unfaithful Israelites. But I notice two moral problems:

Genocide:

The Israelites who followed the orders to massacre all the Midianites in the valley of Peor, even infants, are never considered guilty. Genocide is not a crime in the Torah. If the Israelite men felt uneasy about it, they probably excused themselves by thinking: “Don’t blame me; God made me to do it.”

Repentance:

None of the Israelites who worship Baal Peor get a chance to admit their own guilt, repent, and reform. The God-character’s angry plague wipes them out without even a trial.

Judah sets a stellar example of repentance and reform in the book of Genesis/Bereishit.3 But God neither punishes nor rewards Judah directly, though God does provide a prophecy that Judah’s descendants will someday be the rulers of Israel.4

The book of Leviticus/Vayikra provides ritual animal-offerings for those who inadvertently disobey one of God’s rules,5 but the only atonement it offers for deliberate misdeeds is the high priest’s annual ritual on Yom Kippur, which purifies the entire people of Israel.6

The first time the Bible declares that guilty individuals can repent and receive forgiveness and a second chance from God is near the beginning of the book of Isaiah.

Wash yourselves clean;

            Remove evil from upon yourselves,

            From in front of My eyes.

And stop doing evil;

            Learn to do good.

            Seek justice. (Isaiah 1:16-17)

The first prophet Isaiah then tells the Israelites to “do good and listen”7 and to “turn around”, i.e. repent8.

I suspect the world today is teeming with people haunted by shame and guilt. What can we do about our recurrent memories of betraying ourselves, betraying our God, and doing the wrong thing?

I have led a relatively blameless life, yet shame has haunted me, too. It took me years to forgive myself for insulting my best friend in first grade. I did not repeat that particular shameful act, but I betrayed my own principles in other ways during the years when I clung to my first husband, accepting his abuse and ignoring my inner ethical voice. After I finally left him, it took many more years before I could trust myself again.

May all of us learn to accept responsibility for our own transgressions, instead of blaming others. When we are ashamed of our own behavior, may we admit it and strive to do the right thing next time. And may we stop and think when anyone tells us that God wants something we know in our hearts is wrong.

(A portion of this material is from Va-etchannan: Haunted by Shame”, an essay I published in August 2014.)

1  Genesis 3:12-13.

2  The king of Moab hires Bilam to curse the Israelites, but Bilam utters God’s blessings, and goes home without pay (Numbers 24:10-11, 24:25). The Torah gives no reason why Bilam would ever return to the land north of Moab. Yet the description of the Israelite war on Midian mentions that they kill the five kings of Midian—and Bilam (Numbers 31:8).

3 Judah is guilty of selling his brother Joseph as a slave (Genesis 37:26-28) and condemning his daughter-in-law Tamar to death (Genesis 38:24). He publicly admits his guilt about Tamar (Genesis 38:25-26) and rescues his brother Benjamin from slavery (Genesis 44:16-34).

4  Genesis 49:10.

5  Leviticus chapter 4.

6  Leviticus chapter 16.

7  Isaiah 1: 19

8  Isaiah 1:27.

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

July 19, 2017 at 9:01 pm | Posted in Joshua, Judges, Mattot | 3 Comments
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Pinchas first appears in the Torah grabbing a spear and skewering two worshipers of a local Midianite god, Baal Peor. God (that is, the God-character in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar) is relieved, because “He” could not stop “His” own anger at the apostasy and the resulting plague. (See my post Balak & Pinchas: How to Stop a Plague, Part 1.) Pinchas’s zealous impulse does the trick.

God tells Moses:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pinchas in Mattot

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

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

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

Pinchas in the Book of Judges

Dead Concubine at Gibeah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pinchas in the Book of Joshua

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1  See Deuteronomy 20:2.

2  See 1 Samuel 4:4-5.

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

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

5  Judges 20:1-48.

6  Numbers 32:1-33.

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

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

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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