Balak: Carnal Appetites

June 18, 2013 at 10:39 pm | Posted in Balak | 6 Comments

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.

Bilam Prophecies,
by James Tissot

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.

Impalements in Assyrian relief, Tiglath Pileser II

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.

Balak: A Question of Anxiety

July 1, 2012 at 5:53 pm | Posted in Balak | 4 Comments

The Torah is full of kings: rulers of Israelites, pharaohs of Egypt, kings of empires, and many petty kings of small countries scattered around the Middle East.  Out of all the kings of the small non-Israelite countries, the one I feel the most empathy for is a king of Moab named Balak.

Israelite camp, Collectie Nederland

Balak son of Tzippor saw everything that Israel had done to the Amorites. And Moab felt very intimidated on account of the people, because there were so many; so he felt hostile on account of the children of Israel. (Numbers/Bemidbar 22:-3)

Balak (בָּלָק) devastated, rendered uninhabitable.

King Balak may feel “devasted” at the sight of the Israelites because he already rules a diminished country.  During the reign of the first (unnamed) king of Moab, the Amorites had attacked and conquered the northern half of Moab (Numbers 21:26).  The kingdom of Moab that King Balak rules is a small land between Edom to the south and the Amorite kingdom of Cheshbon to the north.

In last week’s Torah portion, Chukkat, the Israelites marched north through the wilderness east of Edom and Moab. At the Arnon River, the border between Moab and Cheshbon, they turned west again, heading for the Jordan River and the “promised land” of Canaan on the other side.

Route of Israelites

Moses asked King Sichon of Cheshbon for permission to pass through his country on the way to the Jordan, but Sichon refused, and sent an army to attack the Israelites.  The Israelites defeated his army and conquered his country, as well as the land of Bashan to the north. Then they camped on the “plains of Moab”, a stretch of land along the east bank of the Jordan that belonged first to Moab, then to the Amorites, and now to the children of Israel.

This week’s Torah portion, Balak, opens when King Balak sees the huge Israelite encampment, just north of his own territory.  A confident and thoughtful king might feel relieved that the Israelites had skirted his own country and conquered his enemy instead.  He might make inquiries, and learn that the Israelites had asked permission to cross through the land of Cheshbon peacefully, since their real destination was Canaan.  He might realize that the Israelites are, in fact, no threat to the present kingdom of Moab.

But Balak is consumed by anxiety.  The Israelites are so powerful, they must be a threat!  Balak knows his own army could never defeat them. So he decides to resort to magic.  He sends delegates to Bilam (sometimes spelled Balaam in English), an independent operator with a reputation as as sorcerer.  The delegates pass on their king’s message:

Hey! A people went out from Egypt, and hey! It covers the sight of the land!  And it has settled in front of me! So now please come curse this people for me, because it is too vast for me.  Perhaps then I will be able to strike a blow against it and I will drive it out from the land.  Because I know whoever you bless is blessed, and whoever you curse is accursed. (Numbers 22:-3)

Classic commentary argued that since Balak asks for a curse against the people of Israel, rather than for a blessing for his own people, he must have an evil nature.  I think Balak is not evil, but merely frightened.  Confident people believe they can achieve things; frightened people feel powerless.

King Balak believes Bilam is a powerful sorcerer who can change the fate of nations. But Bilam is actually a prophet.  He tells Balak’s delegates right away that he can only say what God tells him to (and he uses the same four-letter name of God as the Israelites).  The next morning, Bilam reports that God told him the Israelites are blessed, so he cannot go and curse them.

But Balak cannot bear to give up the idea of being rescued by magic.  He assumes Bilam is making an excuse, and tries again with higher-ranking delegates and promises of “very much honor”—i.e., ample remuneration—if he will just come and pronounce a curse on those Isralites.  Finally Bilam does come to Moab. Balak’s first words to him are questions:

Isn’t it so that I certainly sent for you, to invite you?  Why didn’t you go to me? Am I really not able to honor you? (Numbers 22:37)

Thus Balak inadvertently reveals his own insecurity.  Meanwhile, Bilam has just lived through a harrowing experience involving an angel and a talking donkey (see my post Balak: Prophet and Donkey).  He snaps back:

Hey!  I’ve come to you now.  Am I really able to speak anything?  I must speak the word that God will put in my mouth.  (Numbers 22:38)

The truth could not be plainer.  But does King Balak believe Bilam?  Of course not. He is too anxious about the horde of Israelites, too desperate to look at any facts.

by James Tissot

Bilam, who likes the idea of being “honored” with silver and gold, goes along with Balak—just in case God changes its mind. Balak takes Bilam to three different spots overlooking the Israelite camp, and at each place, he builds altars and sacrifices animals according to Bilam’s instructions.  At each place, Bilam goes off by himself, then returns to King Balak and recites a poem extolling the Israelites.

Bilam’s second poem includes the line:  There is no magic in Israel. (Numbers 23:23)  Unlike Balak, the people of Israel do not need to believe in magic, because they know God is blessing them.

I think God is also blessing Balak and Bilam in this story.  After all, the army of Israel is not attacking Moab.  And Bilam gets to be the mouthpiece of God, and even work his own name into the poetic prophecies.  But neither man is getting what he has fixated on, so neither recognizes his own blessings.

After the third time Balak and Bilam go through their routine, the king of Moab finally gives up on magic.

Then Balak’s nose burned in anger toward Bilam, and he clapped his hands [in despair].  Balak said to Bilam: I invited you to pronounce a curse on my enemies, and hey! You repeatedly blessed them these three times!  So now, run away back to your own place.  I said I would certainly honor you, but hey! God withheld honor from you! (Numbers 24:10-11)

Looking from the outside, it is easy to see that King Balak should have been patient and avoided making assumptions or taking any action against the Israelites.  But things look different from the inside.


I felt powerless for the first forty years of my life.  Like Balak, I thought my adversaries could only be thwarted by someone else, someone who did have power.  And like Balak, I did not believe anyone could bless me and make me stronger.  I remember how in the middle of anxiety and insecurity, it was almost impossible to be patient and rational.  Doing something, anything other than direct confrontation, seemed better than standing there like a target for misfortune.  And once you start doing something irrational, it is hard to stop.

How can we face apparent threats with equanimity?   How can we avoid being “devastated”?  The clue in the Torah is that there is no magic in Israel; the people who know they have God’s blessing do not seek magic.

Our task is to cultivate a habit of feeling blessed.  I try to do this by consciously noticing small blessings throughout the day, from the daylily blooming in my garden to the smile on my husband’s face.  What practice do you cultivate?

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