Balak: Wide Open

July 7, 2011 at 4:11 pm | Posted in Balak | 3 Comments

Israel settled at The Acacias, and the people began to commit forbidden intercourse with the young women of Moab.  They invited the people to make sacrificial feasts to their gods, and the people ate and drank and bowed down to their gods.   Israel yoked itself to the local god of Peor, and God became hot with anger against Israel.  So God said to Moses:  Take all the heads of the people and execute them for God, in front of the sun (openly); then God’s blazing anger will turn away from Israel.  But Moses said to the judges of Israel:  Each man, kill the men yoked to the god of Peor.  

But hey!  A man from the children of Israel came in, and he brought a Midian woman near, in plain sight of his kinsmen, Moses, and all the community of the children of Israel; and they were weeping at the opening (petach) of the Tent of Meeting.  And Pinchas, son of Elazar, son of Aaron the priest, saw; and he rose from the middle of the community and took a spear in his hand.  And he came in after the man of Israel to the alcove (kubah), and he pierced the two of them, the man of Israel and the woman, to her inner alcove (kabatah), and the pestilence was halted.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 25:1-8)

This story comes at the end of this week’s Torah portion, Balak (“Devastate”, the name of the king of Moab).  When I reread it this year, I noticed that it keeps referring to openings.

Peor = a place name meaning “Wide Opening” in the sense of a gaping mouth, such as an open cavity leading to a tunnel

petach = opening, entrance, doorway

kubah = alcove, inner tent chamber,  secluded nook.  (The word kabatah has the same root as kubah, but sounds like the word for “her belly”.)

Why are there all these openings and enterings in a story about idolatry?

At this point in the Torah, the Israelites have camped on the bank of the Jordan River, right across from the promised land.  They are no longer in the wilderness, but in the land of Moab, an agricultural land with a king and a mixed population of Moabites and Midianites.  Earlier in this Torah portion, King Balak is afraid of being overrun by the Israelites, and hires a foreign prophet to curse them.  When that doesn’t work, the young women of Moab try another approach, seducing the Israelite men into becoming, in effect, Moabites—being unfaithful to their own God, and worshiping the local god, Baal Peor, instead.  (Presumably the Israelite women have to stay home inside the camp, and therefore Are not available for temptation.)

The Israelite men worship the local god through two different technologies.  One is animal sacrifice followed by a feast, a standard method among their own people as well.  The other is ritual fornication (a method actually used by some ancient cultures in the Middle East to mimic and encourage the sexual intercourse of the gods, in order to increase the fertility of the fields).

Once the Israelite men begin their intercourse with foreign women and foreign gods, they are hard to stop.  God and Moses call for two different kinds of mass executions, but neither is carried out—perhaps because of lack of support from the Israelite men.  Then there is a  “pestilence” (mageifah) that kills 24,000 people, and is somehow linked to the forbidden intercourse.  It might be another of God’s corrective plagues; it might be venereal disease; or it might be the spreading madness of lust for forbidden intercourse.

Then the Israelite man brings the Midianite woman right to the entrance of God’s sacred Tent of Meeting.  And Pinchas, the high priest Aaron’s grandson, stops it—by spearing the couple right at the spot where the illicit opening/entry is happening.

In next week’s Torah portion, God approves of Pinchas’s zeal.  Much Torah commentary is devoted to the question of what gives Pinchas the right to skewer the couple in the act, without a trial.  Personally, I think Pinchas’s action is legal because as a Levite, he is responsible for keeping unauthorized persons out of the Tent of Meeting.  The Torah does not say explicitly whether the Israelite man and Midianite woman went into the Tent of Meeting to find their alcove, or whether they merely paraded past the entrance to the Tent of Meeting on their way to some nearby alcove.  Either way, Pinchas could claim he skewered them in order to prevent them from desecrating the Tent of Meeting.

It’s interesting that all the unhealthy but seductive openings and enterings in the story are halted when Pinchas’s spear makes a deadly opening in the bodies of the coupling couple.

This reminds me of a Jewish daily prayer that praises God for creating many tunnels and cavities in human beings, and notes that if any of them were opened or blocked at the wrong time, we couldn’t even stand up.

The story translated above is also full of tunnels and cavities, with all the sexual intercourse, the god of Peor—Wide Opening, and even the architecture of openings and alcoves.  It illustrates the horrible consequences of being too open—both physically and psychologically.

In modern Western culture, we consider it good to be open.  We are reacting against earlier attitudes that blocked us and closed us off too much.  But it is also possible to be too open.  I shudder when I hear someone say “I’ll try anything once”, because there are some things that should never be tried at all.  If we are open to every invitation, every type of behavior, every “god”, then even if our bodies remain intact, we will lose our true selves and succumb to a spiritual pestilence.

May each of us be open at the right times, and closed at the right times, so that we are always able to stand up.


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  1. […] princess as they are fornicating in Israel’s sacred Tent of Meeting.  (See my blog post Balak: Wide Open.) This double impalement is so shocking, that the Israelites wake up to their reality and abandon […]

  2. […] 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.) […]

  3. […] 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.) […]

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