Balak & Pinchas: How to Stop a Plague, Part 1

July 13, 2017 at 3:12 pm | Posted in Balak, Pinchas | 4 Comments
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And Israel strayed at the acacias, and the people began to be unfaithful [to God] with the daughters of Moab. They invited the people to the sacrificial slaughters of their god, and the people ate and bowed down to their god. And Israel attached itself to Baal Peor, and God’s nose burned against Israel. (Numbers/Bemidbar 25:1-3)

The Israelites camp for a while under the shade of acacia trees on the east bluff of the Jordan River, with a view of their “promised land” of Canaan across the water. In last week’s Torah portion, Balak, some local women invite the Israelite people—men and women—to feasts in honor of their god, Baal Peor, and the Israelites accept. (See my post Balak: False Friends.) They bow down to Baal Peor along with their hostesses, perhaps at first out of politeness. But their prostrations become sincere; they end up worshiping Baal Peor. The God of Israel is enraged at their unfaithfulness; in the Biblical Hebrew idiom, God’s nose burns.

This is the second time a large number of Israelites flout one of the Ten Commandments. The first time, at Mount Sinai, they make and worship the golden calf (as an image of the God of Israel), violating the commandment against idols in Exodus/Shemot 20:4. Even after Moses has the Levites kill about 3,000 idol-worshipers, God sends a plague that kills more of them.

The Ten Commandments also include “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:3). Right after forbidding other gods and idols, God says:

You shall not bow down to them and you shall not serve them; because I, God, your god, am a kana god, taking retribution for the crimes of parents upon their children, upon the third and the fourth [generations] of those who hate Me. (Exodus 20:5)

kana (קַנָּא) = jealous, zealous.

In last week’s Torah portion, Balak, many Israelites flagrantly disobey God by worshiping Baal Peor. This time God’s plague kills 24,000 Israelites.

Everyone wants to stop the epidemic—even God. Apparently pestilence is a direct expression of God’s anger (along with the idiomatic burning nose), and God (as portrayed in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar) cannot simply switch off divine anger.

So what can stop the plague? God has the first idea, and tells Moses:

Take all the chiefs of the people and hang them for God in full sunlight. Then the heat of God’s nose will turn away from Israel. (Numbers 25:4)

But Moses, who prefers justice over mass extermination, does not follow God’s suggestion. He  orders a different action to stop God’s anger:

Moses said to the judges of Israel: Each man, execute his men who are attached to Baal Peor. (Numbers 25:5)

The Torah does not say whether Moses’ order is carried out. But in the next verse, a chief from the tribe of Shimon tries another idea for halting the plague.

from Sacra Parallela, Byzantine, 9th century

And hey! An Israelite man came and brought the Midianite close to his brothers, before the eyes of Moses and the eyes of the whole community of the Israelites who were weeping at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. And Pinchas, son of Elazar son of Aaron the Priest, saw it, and he stood up in the midst of the community and he took a spear in his hand. And he entered the kubah after the man of Israel, and he pierced the two of them, the man of Israel and the woman, to kavatah. And the pestilence was held back from the Israelites. (Numbers 25:6-8)

kubah (קֻבָּה) = alcove, small tent. (This word may be related to the Akkadian kabu, a verb for calling upon a god, and/or the Arabic kubatu, a small tent-shrine.)

kavatah (קֳבָתָהּ) = her belly. (The word is probably used here as a pun on kubah.)

The word kubah is not used in any descriptions of the God of Israel’s Tent of Meeting; in fact, it appears only once in the Hebrew Bible. So why is there suddenly a kubah near the entrance of the Tent of Meeting?

The Israelite man, we learn in this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, is Zimri son of Salu, a chief of the tribe of Shimon. The Midianite is Kozbi daughter of Tzur, a chief of a tribe of Midian. According to commentator Tikva Fryemer-Kensky, a high-ranking Midianite woman might well be a priestess who sets up her own kubah in the hope that she can stop the plague.1 The religious ritual she uses to invoke her god apparently includes sexual intercourse with Zimri, given the pun about her kubah. Thus Zimri and Kozbi are probably transgressing three of God’s rules at once: worshiping another god, letting a foreigner enter the holy courtyard around the Tent of Meeting, and having intercourse there.2

Although some commentary justifies Pinchas’s violent deed by pointing out that the first two of these rules carry a death penalty, there is no legal trial.3  Pinchas is not an executioner, but someone who murders in the grip of emotion—like God.

Is Pinchas’s action necessary? In other parts of the Torah, God kills individuals instantly when they flout one of God’s rules or decisions.4 But in the Torah portion Balak, God seems to be overpowered by rage, unable to either calm down or attend to anything else.

In the Torah portion Pinchas, God thanks Pinchas.

And God spoke to Moses, saying: “Pinchas, son of Elazar, son of Aaron the high priest, turned back my rage from the children of Israel through his kina, kina for me in their midst, so I did not finish off the children of Israel in my kina.  Therefore say: Here I am, giving him my covenant of peace.  And it shall be for him, and for his descendants after him, a covenant of priesthood for all time, founded because kinei for his God, so he atoned for the children of Israel.” (Numbers 25:10-13)

kina (קִנְאָ)=  zeal, jealousy, fervor, passion for a cause. (From the same root as kana above.)

kinei (קִנֵּא) = he was zealous, he was jealous.

God recognizes a kindred spirit. Both God and Pinchas act out of kina when someone is unfaithful to God.

Pinchas’s double murder for God’s sake does prevent the deaths of any more Israelites from God’s plague. And murder may be justified if it is the only way to prevent other people from being killed. Does God grant Pinchas a covenant of peace and priesthood as a reward for halting the plague that God is unable to halt?

Or does the covenant modify Pinchas’s kina, giving him an ability to make peace? (See next week’s post, Mattot, Judges, & Joshua: How to Stop a Plague, Part 2.)

It takes longer for the God character in the bible to master “His” own kina over how “He” is treated by the Israelites. For example, after the Israelites are settled in Canaan, God strikes 70 Israelite villagers dead when they look into the ark, even though they are rejoicing over its return to Israelite territory and worshiping God through animal offerings.5

Eventually God calms down somewhat. When God becomes angry with the Israelites of Judah for worshiping other gods at the temple in Jerusalem, He lets the Babylonian army do the killing. God merely informs the Israelites, through the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel, that they deserve it.

And in Second Isaiah God finally gives up His kina over the unfaithful Israelites. God promises to take them back with love and never lash out in anger again, despite their infidelity.6

In the western world today we understand jealousy as a natural human emotion, but we caution people not to act out of jealousy, since that often leads to unfortunate or immoral results. On the other hand, we still praise zeal, passionate attachment to a cause.

Yet over the centuries millions of people have been murdered, often in battle, because of zeal for a religion. I pray that more people will question their own beliefs, and stop confusing God with the God-character in the Bible, who kills thousands in uncontrollable fits of rage and kina.

And I pray that all people who are filled with passionate attachment to a cause, even a good cause, will pause and think before taking any action that might harm someone.

May we all become humans of peace.

1  Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Reading the Women of the Bible, Schocken Books, New York, 2002, pp. 220-222.

2  The Torah prescribes the death penalty for an Israelite sacrificing to any gods other than the God of Israel (Exodus 22: 19 combined with Leviticus 27:29), and for a foreigner approaching the Tent of Meeting (Numbers 3:10). The Israelite religion also forbids semen even in the courtyard around the Tent of Meeting; anyone who has sex must bathe and wait until evening before entering the area (Leviticus 15:16-18).

3  A legal punishment can only be carried out after a trial including the testimony of two witnesses (Deuteronomy 19:15). When Moses orders the judges to execute the men who are attached to Baal Peor (Numbers 25:5), he is in effect asking for such trials. Some commentators say Pinchas assumes responsibility for impaling Zimri because God’s plague is raging and the judges of Israel are too slow to act.

4  For example, God employs fire to kill Nadav and Avihu when they bring unauthorized incense into the Tent of Meeting (Leviticus 10:1-2). God makes the earth swallow up  Korach, Datan, and Aviram when they challenge the leadership of Moses and Aaron (Numbers 16:27-33—see my post Korach: Buried Alive). And God inflicts an invisible death (perhaps a stroke or heart attack) on Uzza with when he touches the ark to prevent it from tipping over (2 Samuel 6:6-7—see my post Haftarat Shemini—2 Samuel: A Dangerous Spirit) and on King Achazeyahu after he consults with a foreign god (2 Kings 1:16-17).

5  1 Samuel 6:15, 6:19.

6  Isaiah 54:7-10. See my post Haftarat Re-eih—Isaiah: Song of the Abuser.

 

Haftarat Pinchas—1 Kings: Zealots

July 28, 2016 at 1:45 pm | Posted in Kings 1, Pinchas | 1 Comment
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1) and the haftarah is 1 Kings 18:46-19:20.

My god is better than your god.

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

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

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

Pinchas (Phineas),
by J.C. Weigel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

Ba-al Preparing Thunder and Lightning

Ba-al Preparing
Thunder and Lightning

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

Phoenician Ashtart

Phoenician Ashtart

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then it finally rains.

Jezebel and Ahab

Jezebel and Ahab

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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