Balak & Micah: Divine Favor

How does a community know that God is on their side?

In the Hebrew Bible, God rewards people with food, fertility, long life, and success in war. God determines the winner of a battle. If an enemy attacks a group of Israelites and wins, God is punishing the Israelites. If the Israelites attack and win, God is giving them the victory because they have found favor in God’s eyes.

Lion attacking, Persepolis, circa 5th c. BCE

Both this week’s Torah portion, Balak, and the accompanying haftarah reading, Micah 5:6-6:8, predict that when the Israelites please God, they will conquer other countries like a lion devouring its prey.

What can people do to get God on their side?

In Balak, the blessings that the prophet Bilam pronounces for the Israelites include two hints about why God is on their side. But in the haftarah, the prophet Micah directly states what God wants.

A sign of divine favor

The Israelites traveling from the Reed Sea to Mount Sinai defeat an attack of Amalekite nomads in the desert, with God’s help.1 Their next military engagement is on the southern border of Canaan, where the Israelites alienate God and are condemned to forty years in the wilderness. They march north anyway, even though Moses warns them that God is no longer on their side, and this time the Amalekites defeat them.2

After that the Israelites avoid combat until their forty-year sentence is almost completed. Then, instead of approaching Canaan from the south, they circle east and north around the kingdoms of Edom and Moab.

When they finally head toward the Jordan River and Canaan (in last week’s Torah portion, Chukat) they ask the Amorite king Sichon for permission to pass through his territory. He attacks them instead. The Israelites win and conquer all of his land, from Arnon River to the Yabok River.3

… he was Sichon, king of the Amorites, and he had made war against the first king of Moab and taken all his land from his hand, as far as the Arnon. (Numbers/Bemidbar 21:26)

The next Torah portion, Balak, opens with the current king of Moab’s fear of the hordes of Israelite invaders camping across the Arnon in what used to be Moabite land. King Balak hires a Mesopotamian prophet to come and curse the Israelites, so he can defeat them. But each time the prophet Bilam prepares to do so, God makes him speak a blessing instead.4

Two of Bilam’s blessings compare the Israelites to lions. The lion was the top predator among non-human animals in the Ancient Near East, an apt metaphor for a human nation that is the top predator among the nations in the region—the nation that wins wars and cannot be conquered.

In the first of his two blessings mentioning lions, Bilam says:

Hey, a people like a lioness rises,

           And like the lion it rears up.

It does not lie down until it devours prey

            And drinks the blood of the slain. (Numbers 23:24)

Later in the portion Balak some Midianites living in Sichon’s former territory seduce many of the Israelite men into disobeying God and worshiping Baal Pe-or.5 After the apostasy has been squelched, God orders the Israelites to attack the Midianites.6 Like ravenous lions, the Israelite men kill every Midianite male and burn down all their villages.7

by Rembrandt van Rijn, 17th c.

Bilam refers to lions in another blessing when he says of the Israelite people:

It kneels, lies down like a lion

            And like a lioness, who [dares to] impose on it? (Numbers 24:9)

When the Israelites cross the Jordan River they have a reputation for conquering two Amorite kingdoms, both Sichon’s kingdom of Cheshbon and the Og’s kingdom of Bashan. In the book of Joshua, they conquer large parts of Canaan. Bilam’s blessing indicates that in the future (perhaps in the time of King Solomon) their new nation “relies on its reputation and does not fear attack even when lying down.”8

Micah makes a similar prediction in this week’s haftarah. The book of Micah begins with a denunciation of the northern Israelite kingdom, Samaria, which the Assyrian Empire had recently conquered. Micah’s prophecies for the southern kingdom of Judah alternate between catastrophe if the Judahites offend God and good fortune if they retain God’s favor. In the haftarah for Balak, Micah prophecies:

And the remainder of Jacob9 will be among the nations,

            In the midst of many peoples,

Like a lion among beasts of the forest,

            Like a young lion among flocks of sheep

That passes through and tramples

            And tears apart, and there is none to rescue them.

Your hand will be high over your adversary

            And all your enemies will be cut down. (Micah 5:7-8)        

How to earn divine favor

Bilam passes on God’s blessings for the people who already have favor in God’s eyes. In his very first blessing, he says:

Who has counted the dust of Jacob,

           Or numbered [even] a fourth of Israel?

May my soul die the death of the upright,

           And may my end be like theirs! (Numbers 23:10)

Here dust is a metaphor for fertility, as in Genesis when God promises to make Abraham’s descendants “like the dust of the earth, so that if a man is able to count the dust of the earth, he can also count your descendants”10.

This verse in Balak implies that the Israelites have been rewarded with fertility (another sign of divine favor) because they are upright. But we do not learn God thinks of them that way.

In his third blessing, Bilam says:

Mah tovu your tents, Jacob,

            And your dwellings, Israel! (Numbers 24:5)

mah tovu (נַה־טֺּווּ) = How good they are. (Mah = what, how + tovu = they are good, from the same root as tov, טוֹב = good: desirable, useful, beautiful, kind, or virtuous.)

Parshas Balak, The Jewish Voice

How are they good? All shelters are desirable and useful. Are the tents or future dwellings of the Israelites beautiful?  Probably not; the rest of the Torah waxes lyrical about nature and about the sanctuaries the Israelites build for God, but not about their personal habitations. So does Bilam mean that Israelite houses, i.e. families, are good in the ethical sense?

According to the Talmud, Bilam sees that the entrances of the tents are not aligned so that they face each other, thereby giving each family more privacy—and this makes them worthy of God’s presence.11 Subsequent commentators, including Rashi, interpreted this privacy as a form of sexual morality.

But the haftarah goes much farther than the Talmudic speculation that Bilam was referring to a narrow area of morality.

Micah, after comparing the Israelites to a lion, delivers a different prophecy in which God will destroy Judah, presumably through a foreign army, as a punishment for worshiping idols.

Then he quotes God as bringing as case against the Israelites for turning toward idols despite all the help God gave them in the past: bringing them up from Egypt; giving them Moses, Aaron, and Miriam as leaders; and making Bilam answer Balak with blessings.12

Next Micah imagines the Israelites asking what they can give God to get back into favor—thousands  of rams as burnt offerings? Streams of oil? Their own firstborn sons?13 He replies:

It was told to you, human, mah tov

            And what God is demanding from you:

Only to do justice

           And to love kindness

            And to live carefully, walking with your God. (Micah 6:8)

mah tov (מַה־טּוֹב) = what is good.

Here tov clearly means “good” in the ethical sense, and it is not limited to sexual morality. God wants us to treat other human beings with both justice and kindness. God also wants religious observance that is not ostentatious or immoral, like the sacrifices the Israelites suggest, but part of a careful, mindful life.

*

Even when we are not looking for divine favor to vanquish our enemies or give us happy lives, Micah’s statement of what God wants is a valuable guide to being morally upright. May we all learn to pay attention to where we walk, and correct our course as needed so that we treat our fellow humans with both justice and kindness.

  1. Exodus 17:8-13.
  2. Numbers 14:39-45.
  3. Numbers 21:21-25.
  4. Numbers 23:11-12, 23:25-26, 24:1, 24:10. In the Hebrew Bible a prophecy is usually a conditional prediction; it forecasts what will happen if a person or nation makes a certain choice. A blessing, such as Isaac’s blessings of his sons in Genesis 27, is an unconditional prediction.
  5. Numbers 25:1-9. See my post Balak: Being Open.
  6. Numbers 25:16-18, 31:2.
  7. Numbers 31:3-18.
  8. 18th-century Moroccan rabbi Chayim ben Mosheh ibn Attar, Or HaChayim, translated in sefaria.com.
  9. The “remainder of Jacob” probably refers to the kingdom of Judah, since the Assyrians had deported thousands of Israelites from the other Israelite kingdom, Samaria.
  10. Genesis 13:16.
  11. Talmud Bavli, Bava Batra.
  12. Micah 5:9-6:5.
  13. Micah 6:6-7.

Haftarat Balak—Micah: Bribing the Divine

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 Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9) and the haftarah is Micah 5:6-6:8. Last week the haftarah was Judges 11:1-33.

What does God want from us?

temple altar 2            With what shall I come before God?

            (With what) shall I soothe God on High?

            Shall I come before Him with olot?

            With calves a year old?

            Would God be pleased with thousands of rams?

            With ten thousand streams of oil?

            Should I give my firstborn for my rebellion,

            The fruit of my loins for the guilt of my soul? (Micah 6:6-7)

olot (עוֹלוֹת) = plural of  olah (עוֹלָה) = rising-offering. In an olah an entire slaughtered animal offering is burned up into smoke. (From the root alah (עלה) = go up.)

In this week’s haftarah, the prophet Micah mocks Israelites who try to buy God’s favor by making impressive offerings on the altar. Everyone has a price, these people think, even God. I can get God to forgive my moral shortcomings if I pay the right price.

In last week’s haftarah, Yiftach (“Jephthah” in English), the new chieftain of Gilad, tries to win God’s favor for his upcoming battle with the Ammonites. (See last week’s post, Haftarah for Chukkat: Judges—A Peculiar Vow.) He has no idea what kind of gift God would like; God does not speak to him.  But he knows what kind of gifts other people donate to their gods.  His fellow Israelites serve God by slaughtering livestock and burning them on God’s altar. An even bigger offering, for the people in that region, is to sacrifice one’s own child—preferably one’s firstborn son—to a god.

Babylonian cylinder seal illustrating child sacrifice
Babylonian cylinder seal illustrating child sacrifice

(Abraham almost does this in Genesis chapter 22; the king of Moab does it in 2 kings 3:27, the Israelites sacrifice their children to Molech in Jeremiah 7:31, and Psalm 106:38 claims that the Israelites “shed innocent blood, the blood of their sons and their daughters, whom they slaughtered for the idols of Canaan”.)

Yet elsewhere, the Bible makes it clear that human sacrifice is completely unacceptable to the god of Israel. Yiftach’s messages to the king of Ammon show that he is well versed in the history of the Israelite conquests east of the Jordan River, as related in the book of Numbers—and perhaps added to Yiftach’s story by the editor of the book of Judges.

But in the original story of Yiftach and his daughter, does Yiftach know about the ban against human sacrifice?

He has only one child, his young adolescent daughter. And he has just been given his father’s position as chieftain of Gilad. The best thing a man can hope for, in his culture, is to pass on his position and his property to descendants. Yet everything depends on winning the war with Ammon.

So Yiftach does not choose between sacrificing an animal or a human; he lets God (or fate) decide.

And Yiftach vowed a vow to God, and he said: “If You definitely give the Ammonites into my hand, then it will be the one that goes out from my door of my house to meet me at my safe return from the Ammonites—[that one] will be for God, and I will make him go up as an olah.” (Judges 11:30-31)

Maybe Yiftach hopes a bull or a ram will trot out of his house when he comes home. Or maybe he expects a male slave to open the door.

Yiftach wins the war, and his troops capture twenty towns from the Ammonites.

daughter of Yiftach 3bAnd Yiftach came … to his house, and hey!—his daughter was going out to meet him, with tambourines and with dancing.  And she was an only child; he had no other son or daughter. As he saw her, he tore his clothes [in grief] and he said: Ah! My daughter, I have certainly been knocked down to my knees! (Judges 11:34-35)

Women in the Bible often sing and dance with tambourines when their military heroes come home in triumph.  They do it for Saul and David in the first book of Samuel. Yiftach’s wife is absent from the story, so his adolescent daughter takes on the job.

Yiftach might conclude that God arranged for his daughter to come out because God wants his daughter to go up in smoke.

Some commentators, from the Talmud and the Midrash Rabbah on Leviticus (5th-7th century C.E.) to Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 11th century C.E.) to Robert Alter (2013), conclude that Yiftach actually does sacrifice and burn his daughter on the altar.

Another line of commentary, from Resh Lakish in the Midrash Rabbah on Ecclesiastes (6th-8th  century C.E.) to Abraham Ibn Ezra (12th century C.E.) to Jonathan Magonet (2015), argues that Yiftach does expect a human being to come out the door, but he does not intend to make a human sacrifice. Instead, he plans to dedicate the person to God by paying the priests of Gilad in silver, which they can then use to buy sacrificial animals for a big olah. This is an approved procedure in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra (probably written in the 6th century B.C.E., about the same time that the stories in the book of Judges were collected and edited).

Anyone who shall make a wonderful vow of the value of humans to God, the assessment shall be: for a male 20 to 60 years old, 50 shekels of silver…if five to 20 years old, the assessment shall be …ten shekels for a female… (Leviticus/Vayikra 27:2-3)

Yiftach does not vow to give God “the value of a human”, but he does vow that the human concerned “will be for God”—and also that he will (according to this theory) turn that person into a symbolic olah by paying the priests the correct amount of silver.

Yet if Yiftach expects to give God the assessed value of the first person who comes out of his house, then why is he upset when his daughter dances out? The assessed value of an adolescent girl is lower than the value of an adult male slave; he can save some money!

But Yiftach tears his clothes in grief. That means that either Yiftach does intend to slaughter a human being—his own daughter—on the altar; or a piece of the story is missing.

I suspect that the redactor who assembled the book of Judges omitted something—because the rest of the story of Yiftach’s daughter is about celibacy, not death.

She calmly tells her father that he must carry out his vow, and asks him to delay it for two months.

daughter of Yiftach 4“Let this thing be done for me: I shall go down on the hills and I shall weep over my betulim, I and my (female) companions.”  And he said: “Go.”  And he sent her off for two months, her and her companions, and she wept for her betulim on the hills. And at the end of two months she returned to her father and he carried out his vow that he had vowed. And she, she had never known a man. And it became a custom in Israel: for all of her days, the daughters of Israel went to sing for the daughter of Yiftach the Giladite, four days in the year. (Judges 11:37-40)

betulim (בְּתוּלִים) = virginity; celibacy; evidence (of blood on a sheet) of being either virginal or not pregnant.

A period of two months has no special significance elsewhere in the Bible, but it is the right length of time for a woman to wait to make sure she has a menstrual period and is not pregnant.

I think Yiftach’s daughter is reminding him of another alternative to human sacrifice.

According to the Torah, an Israelite woman can achieve a higher level of holiness only by becoming a nazir for a period of time and abstaining from alcohol and grape products, hair care, and being near a dead body.  This would not count as a substitute for an olah.  But in neighboring Mesopotamia a woman could serve a goddess in several other ways: as a temple sex worker, as a high priestess who had sex only with a god, or as a nun who lived communally in a special part of the temple complex.

Neither a priestess nor a nun was allowed to have children.

Israelites in the Bible frequently worship other gods in addition to the God of Israel, and at times they confuse their god with another local god. Perhaps Yiftach’s daughter and her companions weep ritually at one or more hilltop shrines (bamot) dedicated to other gods. Then, once she has proof that she is not pregnant, her father gives her to God—to some god, anyway, a god that will accept her as a priestess or a nun.

That would explain why, after Yiftach has carried out his vow, women of Israel are able to go and “sing for the daughter of Yiftach the Giladite, four days in the year”—for the rest of her life.

Yiftach still grieves, because now he will have no grandchildren.  And his daughter laments for at least two months because now she will never “know” a man or have a child. But by borrowing from another religion, she finds a way to make herself a gift to God by living, not dying.

*

Later in the Bible, prophets from Isaiah to Malachi point out that although animal offerings in the temple are fine if performed in the right spirit—and to the right god—what God really wants is for people to behave ethically toward one another.  The prophet Micah says it best in this week’s haftarah, after he has mocked Israelites who try to buy God’s favor with sacrifices.

He told you, humankind, what is good

And what God is seeking from you:

Only to do justice,

And love kindness,

And walk modestly with your God. (Micah 6:-8)

If only Yiftach knew that was what God wanted! Then he could have vowed: “If You definitely give the Ammonites into my hand, then, as chief of Gilad, I will do justice and pursue kindness and be humble.”

If only we all dedicate ourselves to being just, kind, and humble, it will be a gift to the whole world.

 

 

 

Chukkat: Two Lives, Two Deaths

Miriam and Aaron both die in this week’s Torah portion, Chukkat (“Decree”). The portion opens in the first month of the fortieth and final year the Israelites must spend in the wilderness. Miriam’s death is described in a single sentence.

The Children of Israel, the whole community, came to the wilderness of Tzin in the first month, and the people stayed at Kadeish. And Miriam died there and she was buried there. (Numbers/Bemidbar 20:1)

kadeish (קָדֵשׁ) =  being holy, being dedicated to God; a Canaanite male temple prostitute; one of two places named before the Israelites took Canaan, presumably sacred spots for non-Israelites (Kadeish in the wilderness of Paran in the southern Negev, or Kadeish in the wilderness of Tzin on the border of Edom).

Canaan and its Neighbors
Canaan and its Neighbors

The Torah says nothing further about Miriam’s death. All the Israelites observe 30-day mourning periods after the deaths of Aaron and Moses. But no official mourning period is set for Miriam.

Aaron dies later in this week’s Torah portion, after the Israelites have begun circling around Edom and Moab. (At the end of this week’s Torah portion they camp on the east bank of the Jordan River, across from Jericho.)

The Torah describes Aaron’s death in detail.

And they pulled out from Kadeish and the Children of Israel, the whole community, came to hor hahar. And God spoke to Moses and Aaron at hor hahar, on the border of the land of Edom, saying: Let Aaron be gathered to his people … Take Aaron and his son Elazar and bring them up to hor hahar. And strip off Aaron’s garments, and clothe his son Elazar. Then Aaron will be gathered, and die there. And Moses did as God commanded, and they headed  up hor hahar before the eyes of the whole community. Moses stripped off Aaron’s garments, and he clothed his son Elazar. And Aaron died there, on the head of hahar. And Moses went down, and Elazar, from hor hahar. Then the whole community saw that Aaron had expired, and the whole house of Israel mourned for Aaron 30 days. (Numbers 20:22-29)

Hor hahar (הֹר הָהָר) = mountain of the mountain, hill on the hill, Hor Mountain. (Rashi—11th-century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki—spoke for the majority of commentators when he wrote that Hor Hahar looked like a small mound on top of a large mound.)

Miriam and Aaron both die near the border of Edom. The Torah calls them both prophets, and ranks them both as leaders of the Israelites along with Moses. So why is Miriam’s death described in a single verse, while Aaron’s death takes eight verses?

The books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers are full of Aaron, since much of the material concerns the establishment of rituals conducted by male priests and Levites. But the Torah gives Miriam only three scenes.

In her first scene, Miriam comes forward after the pharaoh’s daughter rescues the infant Moses from the Nile. In one sentence (Shall I go and summon a nursing woman from the Hebrews, that she may suckle the child for you?) she gives the pharaoh’s daughter both the idea of adopting the baby, and the idea of hiring a Hebrew woman to nurse him. Then Miriam arranges for her own mother—and Moses’—to be the wet nurse.

Miriam’s second scene comes after the Israelites cross the Reed Sea safely and God drowns the Egyptian army. Then Miriam has another brilliant idea. It was customary, when soldiers came home from a victory, for women to greet them with dancing, drumming, and chanting. Miriam picks up her timbrel and gets the women to do the same thing to celebrate God’s victory.

The Torah calls Miriam a prophetess at this point, and confirms her status as a prophet again in her third scene. Here she speaks out against Moses regarding his wife, and gets Aaron to agree with her. God responds by saying Moses’s level of prophecy trumps Miriam and Aaron’s, and gives her a seven-day skin disease. The people wait for her to recover and rejoin them before they journey on.

Miriam’s role in the Torah is to be a prophet, not a priest. She receives divine inspiration, and inspires other people through her words and actions. I think she dies at a place that was already named holy (Kadeish) because she is intrinsically holy (kadosh). She is dedicated not only to serving God, but also to making things right for human beings.

Hor Hahar, the place where Aaron dies, has neither a holy name, like Miriam’s gravesite, nor a view of the “promised land” of Canaan, like Moses’. It is merely a mountain with an unusual shape.

Aaron is called a prophet, along with Miriam, because he does occasionally hear God’s voice giving instructions. But he lacks inspiration. He fails God and succumbs to the will of the mob when he makes the Golden Calf. He becomes the high priest only when Moses dresses him in the high priest’s garments and anoints him.  After that Aaron spends his days performing rituals and keeping track of holy objects.

The most important part of Aaron’s death is when Moses removes the unique vestments he wears as the high priest, and puts them on his son and successor, Elazar.  What makes someone a high priest is the breastplate with the divining gems, and the gold plate inscribed “Holy to God”. The clothes make the man.

Aaron the high priest is easily replaced by his son, through a change of clothing.  But nobody replaces Miriam.

Aaron has to leave the camp and die with only Moses and Elazar as witnesses. Miriam dies in the camp, surrounded by the Children of Israel.

Yes, I admire Miriam, for her brilliance, her courage, and her dedication to her calling. And I also admire Aaron, for his dedication to the job he was assigned—serving as the people’s high priest for nearly 40 years despite his own personal failure in making the Golden Calf.

In the book of Micah, God reminds the Israelites:

I brought you up from the land of Egypt,

And from the house of slavery I redeemed you,

And I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. (Micah 6:4)

It took all three leaders to get the people out of Egypt and ready to enter Canaan: Moses to work with God to create a new religion; Aaron to faithfully play his role within that religion; and Miriam to challenge people and transmit inspiration.

Every person has a different set of abilities, and a different role to play in life.  Whatever our own roles are, may each of us be blessed with the whole-hearted dedication of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.