At last, after 40 years in the wilderness, a large company of ex-slaves from Egypt camp on the east bank of the Jordan River, right across from their “promised land” of Canaan. They have just conquered two small kingdoms of Amorites,1 which proves that God is on their side. And when the Mesopotamian prophet Bilam tries to curse them in this week’s Torah portion, Balak, God keeps putting words of blessing in his mouth instead.2 The Israelites expect to cross into Canaan with the help of their God.
Then they get invitations from their neighbors, the Midianite Moabites3 living near their campsite. These tribes are inhabitants of the area that used to belong to the Amorite king of Cheshbon until the Israelites defeated him and took over.
Israel settled at The Acacias, and the people began to commit forbidden intercourse with the young women of Moab. They invited the people to slaughter offerings to their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. Israel yoked itself to the local god of Peor, and God became hot with anger against Israel. (Numbers/Bemidbar 25:1-3)
Peor (פְּעוֹר) = a place name meaning Wide Opening. (From the root verb pa-ar, פָּעַר = open wide.)
The verb pa-ar occurs only four times in the Hebrew Bible, all in reference to mouths opening wide. Sheol (death) opens its mouth wide and the living fall down into it,4 a psalmist opens his mouth wide as he pants for God’s commandments,5 Job’s tormentors open their mouths wide against him,6 and Job remembers when men came to him for wise advice and their mouths opened wide to receive it like rainfall.7
One traditional interpretation of the name Peor is that the Midianite Moabites living near the Israelite campsite were afraid of the horde of conquerors, so they came up with a scheme for integrating the two communities on a friendly basis. The Moabites would display their daughters to the Israelite men. These young women would then invite the men to a banquet that included meat from animal sacrifices to Baal Peor, the local god of Peor. The Israelites would eat, drink, and have intercourse with the Moabite women.8
This outcome would not be ideal from the Moabite point of view; fathers in the Ancient Near East preferred to sell their daughters as brides. But at least if their scheme works, the Moabites might escape being killed or enslaved.
The Israelite men are already familiar with eating meat from animal sacrifices; in their own wholeness-offerings (shelamim) some animal parts are burned up into smoke for God, and some of the meat was reserved for the priests and the donors and their guests to eat.9 It is not surprising that Midianites across the river from Canaan worship their gods in a similar way—or that Moses’ own father-in-law was a Midianite priest in another place, southwest of Edom.
Opening their mouths to eat and drink, the Israelite men become open not just to friendship and sex with Moabites, but to their religion as well. They forget that the God of Israel is a jealous god, who becomes “hot with anger” when they do anything that could be interpreted as worshiping an additional god. As usual, the God-character expresses anger by starting an epidemic. Then God tells Moses how to stop it:
“Take all the leaders of the people and impale them before God, across from the sun; then the anger of God will turn away from Israel.” (Numbers 25:4)
Impaling a man kills him by making an unnatural opening in his body. “Across from the sun” is an idiom for doing something in the open, in public.
But Moses said to the judges of Israel: “Each man, kill the men yoked to Baal-Peor.” (Numbers 25:5)
Instead of following God’s directions, Moses orders the execution of the men who actually participated in the sacrificial feasts for the god of Peor. Before any of the judges can take action, something else happens.
But hey! An Israelite man came up, and he brought to his kinsmen a Midianite woman, in plain sight of Moses and all the community of the children of Israel! And they were weeping at the 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 enclosure, and he pierced the two of them, the man of Israel and the woman, into her “inner enclosure”, and the epidemic was halted. (Numbers 25:6-8)
petach (פֶּתַח) = opening, entrance, doorway.
The Israelite man and the Midianite woman (identified later as Zimri, a chief of the tribe of Shimon, and Kozbi, a daughter of a Midianite chief)10 may be engaging in ritual sex for the purpose of ending the epidemic.11
The impalement of only two people, by spear, proves sufficient to calm God’s anger—perhaps because they are skewered right at the spot where an illicit entry is happening. The epidemic comes to a halt.
This story is full of openings: the name of the local god, Peor/Wide Opening; the social opening of the invitation from the Midianite Moabites; the daughters of the Midianites opening their bodies to foreign men; the Israelite men opening their mouths to eat the sacrificial meat; the threat of impalement; the petach/opening to God’s Tent of Meeting; and the deadly opening Pinchas’s spear makes in the coupling couple.
The invitation from the Moabites seems to me like a peace offering, an ethical alternative to war. Knowing the nature of the God of Israel, the Israelites who respond to this social opening are foolish to accept the meat (and sex) without checking its religious significance. They succumb to their animal desires without thinking, but they could have thought it through and offered a counter-proposal to the Moabites for peaceful social relations without religious transgression.
The petach of the Tent of Meeting is an essential part of the portable sanctuary for the God of Israel. The fact that the Israelites assemble in front of the petach of the tent in times of distress indicates the spiritual solidarity of the community.
The tent-sanctuary is not open for entry by anyone who has not been initiated into the service of God, so the Levites, including Pinchas, are charged with guarding its petach so no unauthorized persons enter. Both Zimri, an Israelite from another tribe, and Kozbi, a non-Israelite, are forbidden to enter.
The God-character in this week’s Torah portion reacts as if any opening between the Israelites and the Moabites is bad, and the only solution is extermination. First the God-character demands the execution of the Israelite bosses (or at least one ringleader). Then in next week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, “he” orders the Israelites to go to war against the Midianites.12 When they do, they kill every Midianite man in the area, and take the women and children captive. But Moses reminds them to kill all the Midianite women, too: every woman who “has known a man”.13 The whole project of friendly relations between the Midianites and the Israelites must be destroyed.
The Israelites in the Torah, like all peoples in the Ancient Near East, and like the governments of most nations today, resort to the wholesale killing of war when they cannot think of another way to resolve a difference between peoples or deal with the fear of foreigners. Many stories in the bible portray the God-character as no better than human beings at peaceful co-existence.
Today I hear calls for eliminating people designated as foreigners, through by war, deportation, or building a wall on the border. I also hear calls for being open to other people and celebrating our differences.
I believe there is a time to open and a time to close, but never a good time to kill. Opening to friendships between people belonging to different groups is good. Adopting another group’s religion, ethics, or way of life may be good only if one thinks it through and does it consciously, with one’s true self. Being open to the possibility of God is good—but only if your idea of “God” is morally good.
Being open in a good way takes a lot of thinking.
- Cheshbon and Bashan. See last week’s post, Chukkat & Ecclesiastes: Accounting for Cheshbon.
- The Mesopotamian prophet Bilam. See my post Balak: A Question of Anxiety.
- See my post Balak, Pinchas, and Mattot: How Moabites Became Midianites on why the Torah refers to the local inhabitants as both Moabites and Midianites.
- Isaiah 5:14.
- Psalm 119:131.
- Job 16:10.
- Job 29:23.
- See Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 106a; Numbers Rabbah 20:23; and Sefer HaYashar, Numbers 7. A different line of commentary is that people worshipped Baal Peor, the god of Peor, by baring their buttocks and opening their anuses to relieve themselves. (Sifrei Bamidbar 131; Rashi, the acronym for the 11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.)
- See my posts Vayikra & Tzav: Fire-Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 1 and Part 2.
- Numbers 25:14-15.
- Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Reading the Women of the Bible, Schocken Books, New York, 2002, p. 221.
- Numbers 25:16-18.
- Numbers 31:2-18. See my post Mattot, Va-etchannan, & Isaiah: How to Stop a Plague, Part 3.