Chukkat: The Price of Silence

June 28, 2017 at 1:20 pm | Posted in Chukkat | Leave a comment
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Miriam dies while the Israelites are camped in the wilderness of Tzin in this week’s Torah portion, Chukkat (Law). Then the people complain, once again, that Moses brought them from Egypt into the wilderness only so they and their livestock would die of hunger and thirst.1 Moses and Aaron both throw themselves on their faces. (See last week’s post, Korach: Face Down.)

And God spoke to Moses, saying: “Take the staff and assemble the community, you and your brother Aaron. Vedibartem to the rock, before their eyes, and it will give its water.  Vehotzeita for them water from the rock, vehishkita the community and their livestock.” (Numbers/Bemidbar 20:7-8)

vedibartem (וְדִבַּרְתֶּם) = and you (plural) shall speak (i.e. both Moses and Aaron shall speak).

vehotzeita (וְהוֹצֵאתָ) = and you (singular) shall bring forth (i.e. Moses shall bring forth).

vehishkita (וְהִשְׁקִיתָ) = and you (singular) shall provide drink to.

Moses Strikes the Rock,
by James Tissot

God apparently wants Moses and Aaron to use the staff only to assemble the community, not to trigger the miracle—unlike 39 years before, when God told Moses to bring water from a rock by striking it with his staff. 2

Once the people are assembled, (both) Moses and Aaron are supposed to speak to the rock. As a result, Moses (alone) will bring forth water. Did a careless scribe mix up the plural and singular verb suffixes? Or is God making a deliberate distinction between what both brothers should do and what only Moses is responsible for?

And Moses took the staff from in front of God, as [God] had commanded him. (Numbers 20:9)

Only Moses takes the staff “from in front of God”, i.e. out of the Tent of Meeting.  This is the staff with Aaron’s name written on it. In the previous Torah portion, Korach, the leader of each tribe lends his staff to Moses, who writes the leader’s name on it. 3  Moses leaves the twelve staffs in the Tent of Meeting overnight (Numbers 17:17-21). In the morning, Aaron’s staff has bloomed and produced almonds, proving that God has chosen him (Numbers 17:22-23). (See my post Korach: Early and Late Bloomers.)

Moses returns the unaltered staffs to the tribe leaders, but follows God’s instructions to put Aaron’s staff back in the Tent as a sign for the “children of mutineers”—the next generation. (Numbers 17:25). Showing the complainers this staff would remind them that God gave authority to the tribe of Levi, whose leaders are Aaron and Moses.

And Moses and Aaron assembled the assembly in front of the rock, and he said to them: “Listen up, mutineers!  Shall we bring forth water for you from this rock?” (Numbers 20:10)

Moses brings out the staff, but both Moses and Aaron assemble the Israelites, as instructed. Next both Moses and Aaron are supposed to speak to the rock. Instead, Moses speaks to the Israelites. Losing his patience, he implies that he and Aaron have the power to bring water out of the rock. He does not mention God.

Moses Striking the Rock,
by Marc Chagall

And Moses raised his hand and he struck the rock twice with his staff.  And abundant water came forth, and the community and their livestock drank. (Numbers 20:11)

Instead of speaking to the rock, Moses hits it with the staff—just as he did at another waterless camp 39 years earlier, following God’s directions.4  Now God has changed the directions, but Moses does what worked last time. The Torah now says it is his staff.

Why does the miracle occur anyway? Maybe the staff retains some power from its miraculous blossoming in the Torah portion Korach. 12th-century rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra suggested that Moses has become able to do small miracles by himself. Or maybe God is covering for Moses, so the people will continue to follow him.

But will the people follow Moses because he is God’s prophet, or because they believe he has power of his own? Even though God let the miracle proceed, God is not amused.

And God said to Moses and to Aaron: “Because lo he-emantem in Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the Israelites, therefore lo taviyu this assembly to the land that I have given to them.”  (Numbers/Bemidbar 20:12)

lo he-emantem (לֺא הֶאֱמַנְתֶּם) = you (plural) did not believe, have faith, put trust.

lo taviyu (לֺא תָבִיאוּ) = you (plural) shall not lead.

Only Moses hits the rock, yet God accuses both men of failing to trust God and therefore failing to increase the Israelites’ awe of God. So God decrees the same punishment for both Moses and Aaron.

Commentators have generated many different reasons why God decides to punish Moses. (David Kasher presented 18 of them in his ParshaNut post on Chukkat in 2015.)  But why does God also punish Aaron?

Here is what we know about Aaron’s actions during this episode:

1) When the Israelites complain, both Moses and Aaron throw themselves on their faces. Although God addresses Moses, commentators assume that Aaron also heard God’s instructions.

2) After Moses brings the staff with Aaron’s name on it out of the Tent of Meeting, both Moses and Aaron assemble the people in front of the rock, as instructed.

3) Aaron stands by silently as Moses says: “Listen up, mutineers!  Shall we bring forth water for you from this rock?” Unlike Moses, Aaron does not lose his temper. He does not say that he and Moses will make a miracle. On the other hand, he fails to mention God’s name after Moses omits it.

4) Aaron watches silently while Moses strikes the rock twice with Aaron’s staff. He does not try to stop Moses. He does not speak to the rock himself, even though God asked him, as well as Moses, to do so.

Apparently God blames him for his silence and inaction.  God refrained from punishing Aaron after he made the Golden Calf 5, but now God punishes him for doing nothing.

God announces Aaron’s immanent death later in this week’s Torah portion:

God said to Moses and to Aaron at Mount Hor, on the border of the land of Edom: “Aaron will be gathered to his people [here]; for he will not come into the land that I have given to the Israelites, because meritem My word concerning the water at Merivah.”  (Numbers 20:23-24)

meritem (מְרִיתֶם) = you (plural) mutinied against, rebelled against. (A form of the word that Moses called the Israelites: morim, מֺרִים = mutineers, rebels.)

Moses mutinies through his speech to the Israelites and through his action in hitting the rock.  Aaron mutinies through silence and inaction.

Who can blame Aaron for letting the great prophet Moses take the lead, as usual, and making no effort to correct him?

God can, and does.

In my own life, I often wonder when to speak up and when to be silent. Writing a letter to your congressman is not like sitting next to a person in authority who is doing the wrong thing—perhaps while holding a staff with your name on it.  This Torah portion demonstrates that if you know what is right, then you must speak up, or you are equally guilty.

But how and when to speak is seldom clear.

May all of us be blessed with the ability to know when the situation is so urgent and important we must speak immediately, in public; when it is better to wait and speak in private or at another time; and when it is better to be silent.

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

1  When the Israelites camp at Refidim, between the Reed Sea and Mount Sinai, they complain that there is no water, and that Moses brought them from Egypt into the wilderness only so they and their livestock would die of thirst (Exodus/Shemot 17:1-3).

2 At Refidim, when the Israelites complain about the lack of water, God tells Moses to hit a rock, using “your staff with which you struck the Nile” (Exodus 17:5). This is also the staff God uses to perform a demonstration miracle at the burning bush (Exodus 4:2-4), and both Moses and Aaron use to trigger God’s miracles in Egypt (Exodus 7:9-10:13) and the parting of the Reed Sea (Exodus 14:16).

After everyone drinks the water from the rock at Refidim, the people name the spot Massah-u-Merivah, “Trial and Strife” (Exodus 17:7). In this week’s Torah portion, Chukkat, God identifies the new spot where Moses hits the rock as Merivah, “strife” (Numbers 20:13, 20:24).

3  After Refidim (Exodus 17:5), no staff is mentioned until the Torah portion Korach. The Torah does not say whether Aaron’s staff in the portion Korach is the same as the staff both brothers used in the book of Exodus.

4  Exodus 17:6.

5  Exodus 32:1-6.

 

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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.

 

Haftarat Bemidbar—Hosea: Speaking in Wilderness

June 6, 2016 at 9:25 pm | Posted in Bemidbar, Hosea | Leave a comment
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion (Numbers 1:1-4:20) has the same name as the book it begins, Bemidbar. The haftarah is Hosea 2:1-22.

The Hebrew name of each of the first five books of the Bible is the first significant word in the first sentence of the book. This week Jews begin studying the book called “Numbers” in English, which begins:

Mount Sinai: one possible location

Mount Sinai: one possible location

God vayedabeir to Moses bemidbar of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, on the first [day] of the second month, in the second year of their exodus from the land of Egypt. (Numbers/Bemidbar 1:1)

vayedabeir (וַיְדַבֵּר) = (and) he/it spoke.

bemidbar (בְּמִדְבָּר) = be- (בְּ) = in a + midbar (מִדְבָּר) = wilderness; uncultivated and/or uninhabited land.

Although bemidbar by itself means “in a wilderness”, when it is followed by a definite place-name, such as “Sinai”, a better translation is “in the wilderness of Sinai”. A common custom today is to call the book of Numbers Bamidbar (בַּמִדְבָּר), the word for “in the wilderness’ if it is not immediately followed by a place-name. But some commentators, myself included, prefer to take the name Bemidbar directly from the text.

A more important question is whether midbar comes from the same root as vayedabeir. The modern scholarly consensus is that there are at least two root words with the letters דבר, one that has to do with driving away or going behind, and one that has to do with speech, words, and things. Midbar comes from the first root, and could be translated as “back-country”. Vayedabeir comes from the second root, and is a form of the verb dibeir =speak.

But that does not stop a poetic prophet from using the word midbar both to indicate wilderness and to allude to a medabeir (מְדַבֵּר) = “one who speaks, speaker”.

Hosea’s prophesies were composed in the northern kingdom of Israel in the 8th century B.C.E.. Like the later prophets, Hosea keeps warning the people of Israel to stop being unfaithful to God by worshiping other gods. Hosea compares Israel to a woman who abandons her first husband and prostitutes herself with other men. In this week’s haftarah, Hosea passes on God’s warning that Israel must stop soliciting.

drawing by Rembrandt

drawing by Rembrandt

Or else I will strip her naked,

Bare as the day of her birth,

And I will make her like the midbar

And render her like a waterless land,

And I will let her die of thirst. (Hosea 2:5)

God is threatening not merely to humiliate Israel like a women stripped naked in public, but also to turn the cultivated and inhabited land of Israel into the worst kind of wilderness: an empty desert. This is the midbar that the children of Israel feared when they crossed the wilderness with Moses, and panicked three times when there was no water: twice in the book of Exodus/Shemot, and once in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar:

There was no water for the community, and they congregated against Moses and against Aaron…and they said…Why did you bring the congregation of God to this midbar to die here, us and our livestock? (Numbers 20:2-4)

Their complaint was false on at least three counts: it was God who led the people into the wilderness; God led them from Mount Sinai straight to the border of their promised land, but they refused to cross, so it was their fault that God made them stay in the wilderness for 40 years; and finally, they had no reason to believe that God, who provided water and food throughout their wilderness journey, would fail to do so again.

Apparently the inhabitants of Israel in Hosea’s time were just as full of false beliefs. In this week’s haftarah, Israel (the unfaithful wife) says her other gods (her illicit lovers) gave her vines and fig trees; she does not recognize her crops as a gift from her own God.

God promises to turn Israel into a midbar to punish her. But then God will take her back.

Indeed, here I am, seducing her.

And I will lead her through the midbar,

Vedibarti to her heart. (Hosea 2:16)

vedibarti (וְדִבַּרְתִּי) = and I will speak. (From the same root as dibeir.)

Moses at the Burning Bush by Rembrandt

Moses at the Burning Bush
by Rembrandt

Now we see the midbar in a different light, as the place where God speaks to the Israelites. God first spoke to Moses out of the burning bush in the midbar of Sinai.

And Moses…led the flock to the back of the midbar, and he came to the mountain of the God… (Exodus/Shemot 3:1)

There God commissioned Moses to serve as God’s prophet in Egypt. After the Israelite slaves were freed, God’s pillar of cloud and fire led them back to the midbar of Sinai.

They journeyed from Refidim and they entered Midbar Sinai and they camped bamidbar, and Israel camped there in front of the mountain. And Moses went up to God… (Exodus 19:2-3)

The Israelites stayed in the midbar of Sinai for two years, while God spoke the Ten Commandments, made a covenant, and gave Moses instructions for the sanctuary and the duties of priests and the various holiday observances. That was the midbar where God was a medabeir, one who speaks.

The book of Hosea says that after God has punished Israel for being unfaithful and the land is reduced to a midbar, God will speak to Israel again—but this time, instead of repeating the rules and instructions for the religion, God will “speak to her heart”, “seducing” her to return to God.

vineyard 1The haftarah continues:

And I will give her vineyards from there,

And the valley of disturbance for a doorway of hope.

And she will answer there as in the days of her youth,

As the day she came up from the land of Egypt. (Hosea 2:17)

God will speak to Israel’s heart, and Israel will answer as in the days when the Israelites lived in the wilderness. The wild land will grow vineyards, and the wild heart will grow hope.

*

The midbar is the place of insecurity, where no wells are dug and no crops planted. But the midbar is also the place where people can hear the medabeir: God speaking.

Does God speak in your heart when you are well-clothed, well-fed, and secure? Or is that when you attribute your good fortune to other gods, such as your own cleverness or hard work?

Are you more likely to hear God speaking in your heart when you are in a place of insecurity?

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.

 

 

Chukkat: Facing the Snake

June 26, 2015 at 2:29 pm | Posted in Chukkat | 2 Comments
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

The first time the Israelites in the wilderness complain about food, they are traveling toward Mount Sinai with all their cows, sheep, and goats. Neither meat nor milk is taboo, yet they say:

If only we had died by God’s hand in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat, when we ate our fill of bread!  For you have brought us to this wilderness to kill this whole congregation by famine! (Exodus/Shemot, 16:3)

God responds by providing manna every morning. But when they leave Mount Sinai about a year later, the people complain about the manna:two onions and a garlic on a white background closeup

Who will feed us meat? We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt for free, the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic. But now our nefashot are drying up; there is nothing except the manna before our eyes! (Numbers 11:4-5)

nefashot (נְפָשׁוֹת) = plural of nefesh (נֶפֶשׁ) = throat, appetite; what animates the body; individual life.

The people are not hungry, merely fed up with their restricted diet. This time, God sends in a huge flock of quail that falls two cubits deep on the ground, and many people die “with the meat still between their teeth”.

This is the generation that refuses to enter Canaan, even after their scouts bring back appetizing fruits. They just want to go back to Egypt. God decrees that they must stay in the wilderness for 40 years.

Detour of Israelites

Detour of Israelites

In this week’s Torah portion, Chukkat (“Decree”), most of that generation has died, and the next generation is on its way to Canaan.  Yet when they have to take a long detour around the kingdom of Edom, they complain.

They pulled out from Mount Hor by way of a sea of reeds, to go around the land of Edom, and on the way the nefesh of the people became katzar. And the people spoke against God and against Moses:  Why bring us up from Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and there is no water, and our nefesh is katzah with the unappetizing food. (Numbers/Bemidbar 21:4-5)

katzar (קָצַר) = was short, was shortened.  When used with nefesh, katzar is an idiom meaning “impatient”.

katzah (קָזָה) = at an end, at its limit.  When used with nefesh, katzah is an idiom meaning “fed up”.

They sound just like their fathers—but with an important difference.

When the earlier generation gets obsessive about food, they want to go back to Egypt.  The second generation complains about the manna only when they have to take a long detour on their way to the “promised land”.  They are impatient to reach Canaan and start eating normal food in the land God that wants them to occupy and farm.

Instead of killing them with quail, God responds by letting the snakes in the wilderness bite them.

Then God let loose the burning nechashim against the people. and they bit the people, and many of the people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and they said:  We are at fault, because we spoke against God and you.  Pray to God, and he will remove the nachash from upon us! And Moses prayed on behalf of the people. (Numbers 21:6-7)

nechashim (נְחָשִׁים) = plural of nachash (נָחָשׁ) = snake.  (This word is related to the verb nachash (נָחַשׁ) = did divination, read omens.)

The new generation of Israelites has learned that Moses is their intermediary with God.  More mature than their fathers, they apologize, and ask Moses to mediate for them.

Why does God respond with snakes?  The Torah has already associated the snake (which literally travels on its belly) with food cravings and journeys. In the story of the Garden of Eden, the snake encourages the woman to eat fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad.  God decrees that the snake will go on its belly and eat dust. (Genesis/Bereishit 3:1-14) Jacob prophesies that the tribe of Dan will be “a snake upon the road”. (Genesis 49:17)

So snake bites are an appropriate punishment—but maybe God’s intent is not punishment.  Maybe God is starting to prepare the people for life in Canaan, where they will be independent, and cannot expect any more divine miracles—such as the miraculous (if monotonous) food, and the miraculous removal of snakes from their path.

Naturally, the people ask Moses to ask God to remove the snakes again.  Instead, God offers a cure for snake bite.

Nechash nichoshet

Nechash nichoshet

God said to Moses: Make yourself a saraf and put it on a pole, and all of the bitten will see it and live. So Moses made a nechash nichoshet and he put it on the pole, and if a nachash bit someone, then he would look at the nechash nichoshet and live. (21:8-9)

saraf (שָׂרָף) = a burning creature.  (From the verb saraf (שָׂרַף) = burn in a fire.  In the book of Isaiah, a saraf is a creature with six wings who lives in the visionary space around God’s throne.  In the books of Numbers and Deuteronomy, a saraf seems to be a venomous snake.)

nechash nichoshet (נְחַשׁ נִחֹשֶׁת) = a snake of a copper alloy (brass or bronze); a divination of copper.

Why would looking at a copper snake on a pole cure someone of snake bite?

Many commentators argue that since Moses made the snake at God’s command, looking at it reminds snake-bite victims of God and induces a prayerful attitude.

According to 19th-century rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, the copper snake is a reminder of God’s power to protect people from danger even when they are unaware of it—like the Israelites before God let loose the snakes in their path.

 

I believe looking at the copper snake means looking at the cause of your problem.  It is all too easy for humans to avoid thinking about painful issues.  If snakes start biting you, it does not help to complain, or to ignore it, or to consider it an omen for mystical divination.  The best approach is to look for reasons.

The Israelites looked and saw that they had just complained about God’s manna.  They realized God had kept the snakes away for 40 years, and they knew enough to apologize and ask Moses for help. They received a cure for snake bite.

Alternatively, they might have concluded that the burning snakes lived only along the detour around Edom, and looked forward to heading north again, out of snake country and toward the land God promised them. Either way, they would remember their purpose in life, and view the snake bites as a temporary set-back.

Is something biting you?  Do you feel as though you were burned? Then look at the symbolic snake and figure out the causes of your distress.  Is it a problem you contributed to with an unwise choice?  Is it something you had to go through at the time, but you can avoid in the future?  Is it something that cannot be cured, but that you can accept with grace as you focus on your real purpose in life?

Face your snake!

Bemidbar: Tribes in Four Directions

May 22, 2015 at 10:07 am | Posted in Bemidbar | 1 Comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

The Israelites leave Egypt in a rush, in a swarm, in no particular order.  At the beginning of the book of Numbers/Bemidbar (“In a wilderness”), they prepare to leave Mount Sinai in orderly formation.

One difference is that now they have made the portable sanctuary for God.  The tribe of Levi is responsible for the sanctuary, both when the people are camping and the sanctuary is assembled, and when they are marching and the Levites are carrying the disassembled parts.  So the Levites camp in the middle of the Israelites, immediately around the sanctuary: the priests (kohanim) and Moses on the east, the clan of Kehat on the south, the clan of Geirshon on the west, and the clan of Merari on the north.  (See my post Naso (and Bemidbar): Four Duties, Four Directions for details.)

Camping Formation

Camping Formation

Surrounding the Levites, but at a greater distance from the sanctuary, are the remaining twelve tribes.  They camp and march in four blocks: east, south, west, and north.  Each block has a leading tribe and two supporting tribes.

God spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying: Each man shall camp next to his banner, with the insignia of their father’s house.  They shall camp at a distance around the Tent of Meeting. And those camping keidmah, mizrachah, shall be the banner of the camp of Yehudah… And those camping next to them: the tribe of Yissachar …the tribe of Zevulun … All those counted for the camp of Yehudah were 186,400, by their legions; the first to pull out. (2:1-9)

keidmah (קֵדְמָה) = to the east, in front, originally. From the root verb kadam (קָדַם) = came toward, went first, confronted, preceded.

mizrachah (מִזְרָחָה) = to the east, toward sunrise. From the root verb zarach (זָרַח) = shone forth.

When the Israelites break camp, the tribe of Yehudah (יְהוּדָה), Judah in English, sets off toward the east, then veers in whatever direction the people will actually travel that day.

In the Torah, the east represents origins and birth. The front gate of the courtyard around the tent-sanctuary is on the east side.  So is the curtain at the entrance into the sanctuary proper, which only priests (and Moses) are allowed to enter.

sunriseMoses and the priests (Aaron and his sons) camp just east of the courtyard gate.  Farther east is the camp of Yehudah, accompanied by Yissachar and Zevulun. In the book of Genesis, Yehudah gradually becomes the leader of all the brothers who confront Joseph.  King David was from the tribe of Yehudah, and after Assyria conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, the kingdom of Yehudah survived for two more centuries.

When you face east, the south is on your right.  That means Reuven is Yehudah’s right-hand man in this week’s Torah portion:

The banner of the camp of Reuven shall be teymanahAnd those camping next to them shall be the tribe of Shimon…and the tribe of Gad… All those counted for the camp of Reuven were 161,450, by their legions; and they shall pull out second. (2:10-16)

teymanah (תֵּימָנָה) = to the south.  (From the root yamin, יָמִין, = right side, south side, right hand.)

In the Torah, south is the direction of the Negev desert, the kingdom of Edom in the hills of Sei-ir, Mount Paran, and Mount Sinai. Moses says in his final speech to the Israelites: God came from Sinai, and shone forth from Sei-ir for them, having radiated from Mount Paran… (Deuteronomy/Devarim 33:2)

menorahAll of this divine light dawns in the south.  Inside the sanctuary tent, the menorah (lampstand) is by the south wall.

The Levite clan of Kehat camps just south of the sanctuary.  Beyond them are the camps of Reuven and its two assisting tribes, Shimon and Gad.  Reuven is the firstborn of the twelve sons of Jacob, a.k.a. Israel, but he does not inherit the leadership of the extended family. His tribe gets second place, but at least it is close to God’s illumination in the south.

Then the Tent of Meeting shall set out, the camp of the Levites, in the middle of the camps; as they camp, so shall they pull out, each man in position next to their banners. (2:17)

Next come the tribes in the back, to the west of the sanctuary:

The banner of the camp of Efrayim by its legions shall be yammah…And next to them shall be the tribe on Menasheh…and the tribe of Binyamin…  All those counted for the camp of Efrayim: 108,100, by their legions; and they shall pull out third. (2:18-24)

yammah (יָמָּה) = to the west, toward the (Mediterranean) Sea (yam).

sunsetThe other Biblical Hebrew word for west is ma-arav (מַעֲרָב), toward the sunset. In the Bible, the west represents the unknown:  the great sea, the future, and death. The western end of the tent sanctuary is the back wall of the Holy of Holies.

The Levite clan of Geirshon camps just west of the sanctuary courtyard.  Behind them, in the position farthest west, is the tribe of Efrayim and its assistant tribes, Menasheh and Binyamin. In Genesis, Jacob rearranges his hands when he blesses Joseph’s two sons Menasheh and Efrayim, so that even though Menasheh is older, Efrayim receives the blessing of the firstborn.

Thus the chief tribe on the east is named after Yehudah, who took the role of the firstborn by his own leadership.  The chief tribe on the south is named after Reuven, who was the firstborn but lost his position.  And the chief tribe on the west is named after Efrayim, who was born second but promoted to firstborn.

The chief tribe on the north, Dan, does not even care about the rights of the firstborn.

The banner of the camp of Dan shall be tzafonah, by their legions… And those camping next to them shall be the tribe of Asher…and the tribe of Naftali… All those counted for the camp of Dan: 157,600; as the last they shall pull out, next to their banners. (2:25-31)

tzafonah (צָפֹנָה) = to the north. From the same root as the verb tzafan (צָפַן) = hide treasure, hide in ambush.

mountainIn the Bible, the north is where the Assyrians came from when they swept down and conquered the kingdom of Israel.  It is also the direction of Mount Tzafon, a peak near the Mediterranean coast in present-day northern Syria. In Canaanite mythology, when Baal became the supreme god, he built a palace on top of Mount Tzafon, and the gods assembled there.

Inside the sanctuary, the table displaying the twelve loaves of bread stands by the north wall. The loaves stand for the tribes of Israel, on display before God.

The Levite clan of Merari camps just north of the sanctuary.  Dan is the leader of the three tribes camping farther north.  Jacob’s fifth son, Dan, is unimportant in the book of Genesis.  But in Judges the tribe of Dan abandons its allotted territory and heads north.  As the tribe crosses Efrayim’s territory, it captures a priest and a molten idol.  Then Dan seizes the Canaanite city of Laish.  Both conquests are surprise attacks; perhaps the whole tribe of Dan is good at hiding in ambush. Laish, renamed Dan, becomes the northernmost city in the kingdom of Israel.

The word for northward, tzafonah, is related not only to hiding, but also to the center of Canaanite religion at Mount Tzafon. In the first book of Kings, the city of Dan has its own temple and a golden calf.

Maybe when the Israelites break camp the tribe of Dan pulls out last because it is not wholehearted about either the community of Israel or its god. Dan goes its own way, then follows the rest of Israelite and its sanctuary after all.

compassWhen the Israelites leave Mount Sinai, they march and camp in a formation that positions each tribe in relation to the four directions and to the sanctuary in the center.  Today, we also need to put what is holy to us at the center of our lives. Otherwise we will swarm about aimlessly.

In addition to holding a holy center, we need to operate in the world.  The four compass points might indicate four ways of operating. If we are fortunate, our primary strategy is represented by the east and Yehudah: taking the lead in our own lives and setting off on new ventures. A second strategy is represented by the south and Reuven: seeking and remembering moments of illumination. Third is the strategy represented by the west and Efrayim: humbly accepting the unknown future, as well as unexpected blessings from those wiser than we.  Finally there is the strategy represented by the north and Dan: stepping away when we need to, coming out of hiding, and doing the unexpected.

May all these elements be present when we organize our own lives.

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