As the Israelites approach the northeast border of Canaan, after serving their 40 years in the wilderness, they find out that God is on their side. When the king of Cheshbon attacks them, they conquer all of his and his brother’s land.
Then in the first part of this week’s Torah portion, Balak, God blesses the Israelites through a prophet other than Moses. Balak, king of Moab, hires the prophet Bilam to curse them, but every time Bilam opens his mouth, God makes him speak prophecies of blessing instead. (See my post Balak: Anxiety.)
You might expect the Israelites to rejoice, look forward to their next conquest, and serve God wholeheartedly. But human beings are not always reasonable.
Israel settled among the acacias, and the people began liznot with the daughters of Moab. (Numbers/Bemidbar 25:1)
liznot (לִזְנוֹת)= to engage in illicit sex, infidelity, or cult prostitution.
Traditional commentary assumes it is the men of Israel who are screwing up. Commentators differ over whether they are having sex with non-Israelite women, or because they are participating in what scholars call “cult prostitution”: ritual sex between a man and a Mesopotamian priestess in order to influence a god to make the land fertile.
At any rate, exotic sex is the first attraction offered by the women of Moab. The second attraction is meat.
They invited the people to sacrificial-slaughter-feasts for their gods, and the people ate, and they bowed down to their gods. (Numbers 25:2)
The Israelites already had their own sacrificial-slaughter-feasts, laid out in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra. Why would they be attracted to something they could get at home? Maybe the Moabites provided the sacrificial animals, so the Israelites got meat for free. Maybe it was exciting to make an offering to a different god, following slightly different customs.
The new generation of Israelites appears to be no more mature than the old one. They are still easily distracted, easily seduced by novelty. They fail to learn from the past or prepare for the future. They cannot resist a good party, and all they can pay attention to is free sex and free food, the more exotic the better. The only problem is that partying with the Moabite women means being unfaithful to their own god.
And Israel yoked itself to the ba-al of Pe-or, and God became angry against Israel. (Numbers 25:3)
ba-al (בַּעַל)=a local god; an owner or master.
When God becomes angry (literally, “hot-nosed”) against Israel, a plague usually follows. Moses spends a lot of time in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar doing things to change God’s mood, so God will stop the latest plague. In this scene, the Torah does not tell us when the plague begins, only when it ends. But as soon as God gets angry, God tells Moses what to do.
Then God said to Moses: Take all the leaders of the people and hoka them for God, in front of the sun; and it will turn My anger back from Israel. (Numbers 25:4)
hoka (הוֹקַע) = display a dislocation. (Another form of the verb is yaka, which the Torah uses to describe both what Jacob’s wrestling partner does to his hip, and a disjointed, alienated feeling.) Translations of the verb hoka in this verse include “hang”, “impale”, and “hang up their bodies”.
God’s instruction to Moses is not easy to interpret. Does “all the leaders of the people” mean every chieftain (since the leaders are supposed to stop bad behavior instead of looking the other way)? Or does it mean every ringleader who is encouraging others to worship the god of Pe-or? The Midrash Rabbah, written in Talmudic times, offers both interpretations.
What is Moses supposed to do to these leaders? Rashi (11th-century Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) wrote that the leaders were to be stoned, the usual punishment for idolaters, and then their corpses hoka, hung up on display. Later commentators speculated that God was requesting an unusual punishment such as impaling. Since the Torah consistently prescribes the death penalty for any Israelite who worships another god, one of these interpretations is probably correct.
Yet I am attracted to the idea that God is asking Moses to expose how dislocated the leaders are from the main body of their community, how alienated they are from the true path.
Here is my interpretive translation of Numbers 25:4:
Then God said to Moses: Take all the leaders of the [unfaithful] people and expose their dislocation and alienation from God, in front of the sun; and that will turn back the plague Israel has brought upon itself.
Traditional commentary is divided over whether Moses ever carried out God’s instructions. The plague stops when Aaron’s grandson Pinchas spears a leader of the tribe of Shimon and a Moabite (or Midianite) princess as they are fornicating in Israel’s sacred Tent of Meeting. (See my blog post Balak: Being Open.) This double impalement is so shocking, that the Israelites wake up to their reality and abandon the god of Pe-or.
As I read the book of Numbers, I often feel exasperated with the Israelite men for being so immature and short-sighted. Why can’t they accept that they have no choice but to continue the journey that began when they left Egypt? Why can’t they be grateful for the food, teaching, and protection that God is giving them (as long as they behave themselves), and work on becoming better and holier people?
I used to feel the same way about “party animals” back when I was in college. I thought I was more mature because I had better things to do with my time. Now, I wonder if I am really any better. I need to lose weight, yet I could not resist eating several bowls of ice cream today. The difference between me and the Israelites who worshiped Ba-al Pe-or is that my ice cream did not violate my religion. It was even kosher! And eating ice cream is much more virtuous than having sex with strangers or bowing down to somebody else’s god. Nevertheless, you could argue that when I ate all those calories, I failed to honor God by failing to honor my body, which is a gift from God.
It is part of human nature to be seduced by things that are unreasonable. May we all be thankful for those moments of shock that wake us up.