Tags: ark of the covenant, Baal, Betzaleil, chariot, keruvim, Psalm 18, weather gods
(This is the last of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms. Next week I will begin revisiting some sparks in the ancient priestly religion described in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra.)
Skilled artisans among the Israelites make all the items for the portable tent that is to be a dwelling-place1 for God in the Torah portion Vayakheil. Moses then assembles the new Tent of Meeting, the divine fiery cloud covers it, and the glory of God fills the inside in the next Torah portion, Pekudei. The golden calf was a mistake, but this time the Israelites got it right! The success in this week’s double portion, Vayakheil-Pekudei, completes the book of Exodus/Shemot.
The focal point for God’s presence is the empty space above the ark inside the inner chamber of the tent. The ark is a gold-plated wooden box holding the second pair of tablets Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. The master-artisan Betzaleil hammers out a solid gold lid for the ark—not just a slab of gold but a sculpture, with two winged creatures rising from the lid in one continuous piece of gold.
And he made two keruvim; of gold hammered work he made them, from two edges of the lid: one keruv from this edges and one keruv from that edges. From the lid he made the keruvim, from its edges. And the keruvim were spreading out wings above, shielding the lid with their wings. And each one faced its brother, and the faces of the keruvim were toward the lid. (Exodus/Shemot 37:76-9)
keruv (כּרוּב) = a hybrid creature with wings and a human face. Plural: keruvim (כְּרוֻבִים or כְּרוּוִים). (The English word “cherub” is derived from the Hebrew keruv, but a keruv in the Bible does not look like a chubby baby with stubby white wings.)
When King Solomon builds the first temple in Jerusalem, its back room, the Holy of Holies, contains two free-standing gold-plated sculptures representing keruvim. Each is 10 cubits tall (15 to 20 feet) and has a 10-cubit wingspan. Solomon has the ark carried in and placed under their wings. (See my post Pekudei & 1 Kings: A Throne for the Divine.)
The Hebrew word keruv may come from the Akkadian word kuribu, “blessed ones”, their name for the colossal statues of hybrid winged beasts guarding doorways and gates. Commentators have speculated that keruvim might have the bodies of bulls (like Assyrian shedu) or lions (like Egyptian sphinxes or Phoenician lammasu) or humans. Raanan Eichler has made a good argument that the keruvim spreading their wings over the ark must have stood upright on two legs, and therefore probably had human bodies.
Hybrid beings with wings and human faces appear in many Ancient Near Eastern sculptures. When they are not demons battling heroes, they are either guardians of gates, or servants transporting a god. Keruvim in the Hebrew Bible are never demons, but they do appear as both guardians and transportation.
Assyrians placed sculptures of shedu, winged bulls, as guardians at either side of a gateway into a city or palace. Another guardian figure, called Gud-alim by Sumerians and Kusarikku by later Mesopotamians, represented a door-keeper who protected a house from intruders. He stood upright and looked fairly human, except that he often had wings, horns, or a bull’s legs. In some depictions he carries a bucket.
Phoenician artworks from coastal cities west of ancient Israel and Judah also feature a pair of hybrid winged creatures on either side of a tree of life. Their tree of life is a composite of a lotus and a papyrus (borrowed from Egyptian art) and sometimes a palm tree.
Similarly, the decorations carved in the walls of King Solomon’s temple—by artisans from the Phoenician city-state of Tyre—featured keruvim and palm trees.2
In the book of Genesis/Bereishit, two keruvim serve as guardians of the way back into the Garden of Eden, where the Tree of Life remains untasted.3
One of Ezekiel’s prophesies compares the king of Tyre with a keruv that is supposed to protect its city.4 In an earlier post, Terumah: Cherubs Are Not for Valentine’s Day, I suggested that since God speaks to Moses from the empty space above the ark,5 the two keruvim are also guardians of an entrance: a portal to the invisible God.
The gods of other religions in the ancient Near East rarely rode on the backs of winged creatures; instead they used these creatures to pull their chariots. Tarhunz, the high god of the Luwian people living north of Canaan, was in charge of weather and war. He used lightning as a weapon, and rode in a chariot pulled by winged horses. South of the Luwians and north of Israel, the Canaanites of Ugarit worshiped Baal Hadad (“Master of Thunder”), a weather and war god who also wielded lightning. The Ugarit writings call this Baal “Rider of Clouds”.
The God of Israel also seems to have a chariot of clouds, in the poetry of Jeremiah and Psalm 104.6
God’s cloud chariot is pulled by keruvim in a poem that appears twice in the Bible, once as chapter 22 in the second book of Samuel, and later (with only slight changes) as Psalm 18. The speaker, King David, faces death at the hands of an enemy army, and calls on God for help. God descends from the heavens.
Smoke went up from His nostrils
And fire from His mouth devours.
Embers blazed from Him.
He tilted the heavens and descended,
And a thundercloud was beneath His feet.
And He drove a keruv and flew,
And He soared on the wings of the wind. (Psalm 18:9-11)
I use the pronoun “He” in this translation because God is presented as if “He” were Baal Hadad from the Canaanite pantheon of male and female gods. Psalm 18 continues with imagery of dark clouds, hail, thunder, and arrows of lightning. God then stages a dramatic rescue, and David wins the battle.
A Chariot Throne
The ark with its two keruvim is often considered God’s throne in the Bible—the authoritative location where God sits like a king. But sometimes this throne is movable, like a chariot.
Before David conquers Jerusalem, when the ark is housed in a temple at Shiloh, the Israelite army decides to carry it with them into battle against the Philistines, hoping that God will fight for them.
And they took away from there the ark of the covenant of God of Armies Sitting on the Keruvim … (1 Samuel 4:4)
Although the Israelite forces carry God’s throne, they lose the battle. The Philistines capture the ark, then later abandon it in Israelite territory. When King David retrieves it for his new capital in Jerusalem, it is called
… the ark of the god whose name was invoked, the name of God of Armies Sitting upon the Keruvim. (2 Samuel 6:2)
The title is also used in psalms 80 and 99.
Listen, Shepherd of Israel, You who lead Joseph like a flock!
Sitter on the keruvim, shine forth! (Psalm 80:2-3)
God, King, the peoples will tremble!
Sitter on the keruvim, You will shake the earth! (Psalm 99:1)
The Babylonian army razed the first temple in Jerusalem in 579 B.C.E., burning it to the ground. The army carried off some of its gold items as booty, but the ark and its keruvim disappeared from history. When some of the Israelites returned to Jerusalem under Persian rule and built a second temple, they left the Holy of Holies empty.
Ever since the destruction of the first temple with its ark and gold keruvim, God’s throne could only be an abstraction or a vision. The prophet Ezekiel reports two mystical visions of hybrid winged creatures during the exile in Babylon (Ezekiel 1:4-28; Ezekiel 10:1-22 and 11:22-23). In his second vision he identifies these creatures as keruvim.
In both visions, the glory of God (not God Itself) appears as a fiery figure on a throne that looks like sapphire, suspended above four keruvim, each of which is accompanied by an interlocking wheel covered with eyes. Each keruv has a single leg ending in a calf’s hoof, a human body, four wings, a human hand below each wing, and a head with four faces: one human, one lion, one eagle, and one that is called the face of an ox in the first vision and the face of a keruv in the second vision.
The keruvim and their wheels move up and down as well as in all four directions, and the throne suspended above them moves along with them. Although Ezekiel does not call this arrangement a chariot, subsequent Jewish writers developed a school of mysticism based on the merkavah (מֶרְכָּבָה = chariot) in the book of Ezekiel.
Even without a temple, even without keruvim, the human mind needs poetic images to think about God. Today many of us no longer need to assign God a face, a hand, or a body in robes; we can handle the paradox of God as both invisible and manifest in everything we see. Yet poetic images still well up around the notion of God: clouds, beams of light, opalescent radiance, perhaps even wings. They are not God, yet God is in the imagery.
When God Itself seems too abstract, perhaps we can think of something like a keruv, a creation that pulls the presence of God toward us when we need rescue, and that stands at our gateways when we need a guardian.
1 (See my post Terumah & Psalm 74: Second Home.)
2 In the first (Israelite) temple in Jerusalem, keruvim and palms are carved in relief on the wooden walls and two sets of double doors (1 Kings 6:29, 32, 34). Keruvim, palms, and lions are engraved on the stands for ten bronze wash-basins (1 Kings 7:36).
3 Genesis 3:24.
4 Ezekiel 28:14, 16.
5 Exodus 25:22, Numbers 7:89.
6 Hey! Like clouds it ascends;
Like a whirlwind is [God’s] chariot;
Lighter than eagles are His horses. (Jeremiah 4:13)
In Psalm 104, God’s cloud chariot is pulled by the wind:
Setting beams for [God’s] roof chambers in the waters [above the sky],
Making the clouds His chariot,
He goes on the wings of the wind. (Psalm 104:3)
Tags: Baal, Canaanite religion, henotheism, monotheism, other gods, polytheism, Psalm 29, Psalm 82, Psalm 97, Ten Commandments
(One of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms.)
The Song of the Sea, in last week’s Torah portion, includes the verse:
Who is like You among the eilim, Y-h-w-h?
Who is like You, glorious in holiness,
Awesome, praiseworthy, doing wonders! (Exodus 15:11)
Y-h-w-h (י־ה־ו־ה) = God’s personal four-letter name. (Many English translations substitute “LORD” for this name, even though it is spelled using letters from several forms of the Hebrew verb “to be” rather than from the Hebrew noun for “lord”.)1
eilim (אֵלִם) = plural of eil (אֵל) = a god. (In some Canaanite religions, Eil was the founding god of a pantheon.)
The Song of the Sea assumes that other gods exist, and rejoices that the God of Israel, Y-h-w-h, is so powerful. Since the Song of the Sea is one of the oldest poems in the Bible, dating to around 1100 B.C.E., one might dismiss its polytheism as an archaic remnant. Yet this verse is included in the daily Jewish liturgy, morning and evening. When Jews sing “Mi chamokha” (“Who is like You?”) we do not always remember that we are comparing our God with other gods.
Yitro and the First Commandment
In this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, the Midianite priest Yitro meets his son-in-law Moses near Mt. Sinai a few days after God and Moses have brought the Israelites out of Egypt.
And Yitro said: “Blessed be Y-h-w-h, Who rescued you from the hand of the Egyptians and from the hand of Pharaoh…Now I know that Y-h-w-h is greater than all the elohim…” (Exodus/Shemot 18:11)
elohim (אֱלֺהִים) = gods, god, God. (Grammatically elohim is the plural of eloha, a rarely used word for a god. But the Bible uses the word elohim to refer to a single god as well as to multiple gods. Elohim refers occasionally to a foreign god2, and frequently to the God of Israel, Y-h-w-h.)
Does Yitro believe in the existence of multiple gods only because he is a Midianite? No; many passages in the Bible that were originally written before the destruction of the first temple in 587 B.C.E. share this belief. Even the first of the “Ten Commandments” in this week’s Torah portion does not require monotheism, but only a henotheistic religion in which Y-h-w-h is the best god and the only one the people are allowed to worship.
I am Y-h-w-h, your elohim, Who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of servitude. You shall have no other elohim over and above My presence. (Exodus/Shemot 20:2-3)
(For other translations, see my post Yitro: Not in My Face.)
Y-h-w-h does not say that there are no other gods, but only that the Israelites must not have them.
A number of psalms3 are similarly henotheistic, at least in the Hebrew. (Some translators strain to make them sound as monotheistic as later Biblical writings.) These psalms treat other gods as real, but emphasize that they are weak and worthless compared with Y-h-w-h, the God of Israel. Here are three examples:
Psalm 29 is probably the oldest of the henotheistic psalms. It opens:
Grant to Y-h-w-h, children of eilim,
Grant to Y-h-w-h magnificence and might!
Grant to Y-h-w-h the magnificence of Its name,
Bow down to Y-h-w-h of holy beauty!
The voice of Y-h-w-h is over the waters;
The eil of magnificence is thundering. (Psalm 29:1-3)
Canaanite poems describe the god Baal as the weather god who speaks in thunder and makes lightning and earthquakes. Psalm 29 goes on to describe the voice of Y-h-w-h as shattering cedars, making the mountains of Lebanon dance, kindling fire, shaking the wilderness, and startling does into giving birth—all images related to thunderstorms and earthquakes.
Then the psalm declares:
And in Its palace everyone says: Magnificent!
Y-h-w-h sat [enthroned] for the flood,
And Y-h-w-h sits [enthroned as] king forever. (Exodus 29:10)
Similarly, in Canaanite literature the god Baal conquers the waters of chaos, builds a palace on a mountaintop, and becomes king over all the other gods except his father, Eil.
The purpose of Psalm 29 may have been to replace Baal-worship among the Israelites with the worship of Y-h-w-h, and to persuade them that all the other gods are less powerful than Y-h-w-h, the mere “children of eilim”. These inferior gods acclaim and bow down to Y-h-w-h in Its palace.
In Canaanite religious writings from Ugarit, the father god Eil periodically convenes an assembly of the gods, each of whom has its own sphere of power. With advice from the other gods, Eil makes the major decisions about the world.4
Psalm 82, however, takes the idea a divine assembly in a different direction.
Elohim takes a stand in the assembly of Eil,
Among elohim he pronounces judgment. (Psalm 82:1)
In the first line “Elohim” refers to Y-h-w-h; in the second line “elohim” refers to all the assembled gods. “Eil” in the first line might be either Y-h-w-h or the Canaanite father god.
Y-h-w-h then accuses the other gods of unjust rulings that favor the wicked and fail to rescue the poor. But the other gods don’t get it.
They neither know nor understand,
They walk around in darkness;
Causing all the foundations of the earth to totter. (Psalm 82:5)
Without true justice, the whole human world is threatened. So Y-h-w-h gets rid of the ignorant lesser gods, commenting:
I used to say to myself: You are elohim,
And children of the Most High, all of you.
Nevertheless, you will die like humans,
And you will fall like one of the princes. (Psalm 82:6-7)
Psalm 82 might be an explanation of why the wicked are not always punished: inferior gods have been acting as judges.
On the other hand, this psalm might be a story exhorting the Israelites to abandon other gods because they are wicked, stupid, and no longer immortal. Only Y-h-w-h is worth worshiping, because only Y-h-w-h administers true justice and lives forever.
The heavens told of [God’s] true justice;
All the peoples saw Its magnificence.
Every worshiper of a carved idol is shamed,
Those who boast of the elilim.
All elohim bowed down to It! (Psalm 97:6-7)
elilim (אֱלִילִים) = worthless gods, nonentities, not-gods, insignificant gods.
“The heavens” in verse 6 probably refers not to the inanimate sky, but to the gods (including stars) who dwell in the heavens. Since even the other gods bow down to Y-h-w-h and acknowledge Its justice, anyone silly enough to worship these insignificant gods should be ashamed.
According to the Bible, it took many centuries for the Israelites to stop worshiping the old gods. The people would declare their allegiance to Y-h-w-h, and then slide back into worshiping some other god, a god “everyone” knew was especially effective at inflicting or solving the problem they were dealing with at the moment.
Henotheism was a hard enough concept. Monotheism was truly radical. After second Isaiah started preaching true monotheism during the Babylonian exile, who knows how long it took before most Israelites believed there was only one god in the universe?
I suspect that psalms and hymns were the most effective way to change the people’s beliefs. The “Ten Commandments” are powerful, but not persuasive. The Bible often shows Moses and other prophets and priests scolding the Israelites for straying after other gods, but the scoldings must have been ineffective, since the people kept on backsliding.
A message embedded in a psalm is different. Music kindles people’s emotions. When I read the words of a psalm or hymn silently, I often have theological objections. But when I sing at services, I am often carried away with the feeling of the song. And the underlying message of the song stays with me, in my heart or my gut.
My advice to religious seekers is to choose your religion carefully, so you do not get emotionally carried away in the wrong direction. And my advice to religious leaders is to make sure the singing is good.
1 I usually translate the four-letter name as “God”, but in this post it is important to distinguish Y-h-w-h from elohim. I insert hyphens because according to Jewish tradition, God’s personal name must not be spelled correctly in writings that are neither biblical nor liturgical. For many Jews this applies even to spelling the name with Roman letters.
The Hebrew for “lord” or “master” is adon (אָדוֹן). When Jews read out loud in religious services, we often substitute adonai (“my lords”) for the four-letter name of God.
2 The Bible uses “elohim” as a singular noun for the gods Baal, Baal-berit, Baal-zebub, Dagon, Kemosh, Milkom, and Nisrach; the goddesses Astarte and Ashtoret; and the golden calf.
3 Psalms 29, 82, 86, 89, 95, 96, 97, 135, and 136 all assume the existence of other gods.
4 A divine assembly also appears in the book of Job and in Psalms 82 and 89.
Tags: 1 Kings, Baal, Elijah, fire offerings, haftarah, King Ahab, King Saul, Moses, prophets, religion, torah portion
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 Ki Tissa (Exodus 30:11-34:31), and the haftarah is 1 Kings 18:1-39.
And Elijah said to the people: I am the only navi left for God, and the neviyim of the Baal are 450 men. (1 Kings 18:22)
navi (נָבִיא) = prophet. (From the root verb niba (נבּא) = raved; conveyed the word of God.)
neviyim (נְבִיאִִים) = plural of navi.
The Hebrew Bible uses the word navi for two kinds of people: those who go into an altered state in order to experience God, and those who hear God whether they want to or not.
In the book of Exodus/Shemot, Moses is the prophet who hears God directly, whenever God wants to speak to him. When God first speaks to him at the burning bush, Moses tries to turn down God’s mission, but later he gets used to passing on God’s words to Pharaoh and the Israelites. God also uses Moses to signal miracles, both by words and by raising his staff or his hand. He is a full-service prophet, but he never goes into a prophetic ecstasy.
The book of Numbers/Bemidbar gives us an example of a non-Israelite prophet who does not rave in ecstasy, but hears and must obey God’s commands. First Bilam hears God’s words in dreams, but by the end of his story God is channeling poetic prophecies to him directly. (See my post Balak: Three Places to Be Blessed.)
There are also bands of Israelite prophets who go into an altered state and speak in ecstasy, but do not hear or convey God’s commands. In one episode in the first book of Samuel, King Saul sends messengers to seize David, whom the prophet Samuel has anointed behind Saul’s back.
And they saw a group of the neviyim nibim, and Samuel standing stationed over them. And the spirit of God came over the messengers of Saul, vayitnabu, even they. And they told Saul, and he sent other messengers, vayitnabu, even they. Then Saul sent a third group of messengers, vayitnabu, even they. (1 Samuel 19:20-21)
nibim (נִבְּאִים) = speaking in ecstasy; raving.
vayitnabu (וַיִּתְנַבְּאוּ) = and they spoke in prophetic ecstasy; and they raved as if insane.
Next Saul goes himself in search of David.
And he walked there, to Nayot in Ramah, and the spirit of God came over him, even him, and he continued walking, vayitnabei until he entered Nayot in Ramah. Then he stripped off his clothes, even he, vayitnabei, even he, in front of Samuel, and he fell naked… (1 Samuel 19:23-24)
vayitnabei (וַיִּתְנַבֵּא) = and he spoke in prophetic ecstasy; and he raved.
The two kinds of neviyim could be easily distinguished; one kind quietly listens to God’s words and then speaks and acts like a rational person, while the other kind is overcome by God’s spirit and speaks and acts like a madman.
In this week’s haftarah Elijah is a navi in the tradition of Moses: he hears God while he is in his normal consciousness, he tells God’s words to other people, and he serves as a conduit for God’s miracles. He also thinks up a plan to achieve God’s ends.
The 450 prophets of Baal, on the other hand, are neviyim who induce an altered state of prophetic ecstasy in themselves.
At this time, the northern kingdom of Israel is ruled by King Ahab, who welcomes the worship of the Canaanite gods Asherah (a mother goddess) and Baal (a god of weather, especially lightning and rain). Ahab’s wife Jezebel, daughter of the king of Sidon, supports hundreds of prophets who serve these two gods, but wants to exterminate all the prophets of the God of Israel.
Since Israel under King Ahab views Baal as the god in charge of weather, Elijah warns Ahab that it will not rain again until he, the servant of God, says so. Then Elijah flees and hides east of the Jordan while Israel suffers three years of drought.
This week’s haftarah begins:
And it was much later, and the word of God happened to Elijah in the third year, saying: Go, appear to Ahab; then I will send rain over the face of the earth. (1 Kings 18:1)
When Elijah confronts King Ahab again, he requests a contest.
Now send, gather all Israel to me at Mount Carmel, and the 450 neviyim of the Baal and the 400 neviyim of the Asherah who eat at the table of Jezebel. (1 Kings 18:19)
Instead of killing Elijah on the spot, the king arranges a contest between God and Baal. (The neviyim of the goddess Asherah drop out of the story at this point.) Ahab probably expects Elijah and the God of Israel to lose. After all, God will have only one prophet, Elijah; Baal will have 450. On Mount Carmel God’s altar is in ruins; Baal’s altar is in good repair. The winning side will be the one whose god who answers with fire; lightning is one of Baal’s specialties.
Once everyone has gathered at Mount Carmel, Elijah says:
So the contest begins. Each side gets its altar, a bull to butcher, and a stack of wood. When each sacrifice is prepared, the prophets will call on their gods. The Israelites agree that the god who answers by setting the wood on fire will be their god henceforth.
Elijah lets the neviyim of Baal go first.
…and they called in the name of the Baal, saying: Answer us! But there was no voice and there was no answer. Then they hopped around on the altar that was prepared. And at noon Elijah mocked them, and said: Call in a louder voice! After all, he is a god. Maybe he is chatting, or maybe he is preoccupied, or maybe he is on the road. Maybe he is sleeping, and he will wake up.
And they called in a louder voice, and they cut themselves with daggers and with lances, as is their custom, and blood poured out over them. And noon passed, vayitnabu, until the time of the afternoon offering, but no one answered and no one paid attention. (1 Kings 18:26-29)
The neviyim of Baal did everything they could to work themselves into a prophetic ecstasy, but their speech sounded like insane raving—especially in light of Elijah’s mockery and the lack of response from Baal.
Then Elijah repaired the altar for the God of Israel, laid out his bull offering on the wood, and had twelve jugs of water poured over it, so everyone would see that no ordinary fire could burn there. Then he said:
God, god of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, today may it be known that You are elohim in Israel and I am Your servant, and at Your word I did all these things. Answer me, God, answer me, and this people will know that You, God, are the god… And the fire of God fell, and it ate up the rising-offering and the wood and the stones and the dirt, and it licked up the water in the trench. And all the people saw, and they fell on their faces and said: God, He is the elohim! God, He is the elohim! (1 Kings 18:36-39)
Later that day, it finally rains.
And the winner is … not only the God of Israel, but also his rational navi.
Does this mean the bible prefers non-ecstatic prophets? Not quite. The bands of raving Israelite neviyim are not criticized in either the book of Numbers or the first book of Samuel. There is nothing wrong with entering an altered state in order to experience God’s presence.
But experiencing God’s presence is different from hearing God’s words. A navi like Moses or Elijah hears God whether he wants to or not, and must keep his head in order to act on God’s words, whether he is passing on divine information, signaling a miracle, or, in this week’s haftarah, elaborating on a hint from God (Go, appear to Ahab; then I will send rain over the face of the earth) in order to make the right things happen.
May all of us who engage in religion remember that experiencing God in an altered state, or even in an especially good worship service, is not the same as serving God. To truly serve God, we must listen for the divine word or inspiration during our everyday lives, and think carefully before we act.
Tags: Baal, blessing, cursing, Mah Tovu, torah portion
Balak, the king of Moab, is afraid of the horde of Israelites camped just north of his border in this week’s Torah portion, Balak. (See my earlier post, Balak: A Question of Anxiety.)He hires the prophet Bilam to curse the Israelites so Moab’s soldiers can drive them away. Bilam warns the king that all he can do is say the words God puts in his mouth. Nevertheless, King Balakleads Bilam to three different vantage points, hoping for a curse each time. Instead, God makes Bilam pronounce three different blessings on the Israelites.
Here are the three vantage points where Balak takes Bilam to look down at the Israelite camp:
1) In the morning Balak took Bilam and he led him up to Bamot of Ba-al, and from there he saw the edge of the people. (Numbers/Bemidbar 22:41)
bamot (בָּמוֹת) = heights; high places used for Canaanite worship.
ba-al (בָּעַל) = ruled over, owned. (The noun form of this verb is also pronounced ba-al, spelled בַּעַל; it means ruler, owner, master; or the Canaanite god of weather and fertility.)
2) Then Balak said to him: Go with me, please, to another place from where you will see them. … Curse them for me from there. He took him to the Field of Tzofim, to the head of the mountain… (Numbers 23:13-14)
tzofim (צֹפִים) = lookouts, observers, watchmen.
3) Balak said to Bilam: Go, please; I will take you to a different place; perhaps it will be right in the eyes of the gods that you will curse them for me from there. And Balak took Bilam to the Head of the Pe-or,the overlook over the face of the desert. (Nuimbers 23:27-28)
pe-or (פְּעוֹר) = wide open like a mouth
In the 19th century Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch identified the names of these three locations with material prosperity, foreknowledge, and sexual morality. At each place, he wrote, King Balak was hoping a corresponding weakness in the Israelite people would provide an opening for Bilam to curse them. (Hirsch on Chumash.)
First, according to Hirsch, Balak takes Bilam to a shrine of the Canaanite nature god Baal, who controls material prosperity. (For an agricultural people, prosperity does come from fertility and beneficial weather, Baal’s areas of expertise.) Balak hopes the Israelites can be cursed with poverty. But Bilam calls the Israelites a solitary people, which does not count itself among the nations… (Numbers 23:9). Hirsch argued from this that Jewish national survival, unlike that of other nations, does not depend on material prosperity, and therefore Israel remained blessed.
For his second attempt, Balak takes bilam to the Field of Tzofim. Traditional commentary interpreted the word tzofim as soothsayers—seers who used magic to provide information and advice about the future. Hirsch wrote that at the Field of Tzofim, Balak hopes the Israelites have a weak spot when it comes to magical and intellectual advice about the future. Bilam returns and says: Stand up, Balak! (Numbers 22:18) His second blessing, according to Hirsch, tells Balak that the Israelites have a much higher level of wisdom than that of soothsayers.
For his third try, King Balak takes Bilam to the vantage point of Head of the Pe-or. For Hirsch, Pe-or means the worship of sexual immorality—probably because at the end of this week’s Torah portion, many Israelite men succumb to the seductions of local women who worship Ba-al Pe-or, and one Israelite man commits the ultimate sacrilege of having intercourse with a Midianite woman in God’s own Tent of Meeting. (See my earlier post, Balak: Wide Open.)
Nevertheless, Hirsch claimed that Bilam had to bless the Israelites a third time because of their sexual morality.
According to traditional commentary, when Bilam stands on the peak called Pe-or, he has a vision of the Israelite camp, and he notices that the openings of the tents are arranged so that nobody can see into another family’s tent, and sexual modesty is preserved. This is the traditional explanation for why Bilam’s third blessing includes the following verse (one that has become a standard part of Jewish morning liturgy): How good are your tents, Jacob; your dwellings, Israel!
By citing this extrabiblical tradition, Hirsch was able to conclude that the Israelites were blessed from the vantage point of sexual morality, as well as prosperity and foreknowledge.
The remaining problem with Hirsch’s three categories is that King Balak wants the Israelites cursed so that he can attack their camp and drive them away from his northern border. While poverty, short-sightedness, and/or moral problems might bring down a culture eventually, none of these ills would operate quickly enough for Balak’s purpose.
I think Balak’s three vantage points reflect different issues: mastery over the land, awareness, and satisfaction with life. If the Israelites are cursed in any of these areas, it will be easier for the army of Moab to send them packing.
The first location, Bamot Ba-al, also means “heights of ownership and mastery”. The Israelites have just conquered the territory north of Moab, but can they master the land and its people, so as to hold it?
Bilam’s first blessing not only calls the Israelites a solitary people, which does not count itself among the nations (Numbers 23:9), but also includes the rhetorical question: Who can count the dust of Jacob? (Numbers 23:10)
I think this blessing tells Balak that unlike other nations, the Israelites know they are blessed, and do not compare their possessions with any other nation’s. If God wills it, they will remain owners of the land east of the Jordan. If not, they are still confident they will take and keep the land of Canaan, because God promised it to them. They trust in God’s mastery, rather than their own.
Next Balak takes Bilam to the Field of Tzofim. When I consider the plain meaning of tzofim, “lookouts”, I think Balak is hoping this second vantage point will result in a curse that leaves the Israelites blind to any approaching danger, and therefore easy prey.
This time, the blessing that God puts into Bilam’s mouth includes these two verses:
There is no divination in Jacob, and no magic in Israel; what God accomplishes is told to Jacob, to Israel, at that time. (Numbers 23:23)
Hey, a people like a lioness arises, and like a lion it lifts itself up. It will not lie down until it devours prey, and drinks the blood of the slain. (Numbers 23:24)
In other words, the Israelites do not need magicians to reveal their future, because God tells them what God has arranged. In addition, the Israelites are as alert and fierce as lions when it comes to battle.
I daresay King Balak gives up on his idea of a pre-emptive attack when he learns how alert and aware the Israelites are. But he is still hoping for a curse, so he takes Bilam to the third vantage point, the head of the Pe-or overlooking the desert.
The name Pe-or does foreshadow the seduction of Israelite men into worshiping Ba-al Pe-or through illicit public intercourse. But a pe-or, a wide open mouth, stands for all unrestrained desires. When your desire knows no bounds, you are always dissatisfied, and your life looks like a desert. The previous generation of Israelites complained repeatedly about the food on their journey. What if the current generation is just like them, and God is tired of their insatiable neediness? A reminder of a wide open mouth might encourage God to dictate a curse to Bilam.
Balak is foiled again, as Bilam recites a third blessing. After Bilam praises the tents and dwellings of the Israelites, he says God satisfies the people’s needs so their souls can grow like well-watered plants.
Like groves they stretch out, like gardens beside a river, like succulents God has planted, like cedars beside the water. Water pours from [God’s] buckets, and their seed is at the abundant water. (Numbers 24:6-7)
At this point, King Balak gives up on cursing the Israelites, and orders Bilam to go home.
Bilam has confirmed God’s blessing at all three of Balak’s vantage points. At the Heights of Ba-al, the Israelites are blessed with confidence in God’s mastery. At the Field of Tzofim, they are blessed with awareness. And at the Head of Pe-or, they are blessed with fulfillment of their desire to grow and flourish.
A person who has confidence, awareness, and fulfillment cannot be harmed by any curse. May we all be so blessed.