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26.07.2016 12:40    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah shabbat parasha  pinchas  menahem ben-yashar  

The Sin of Baal Peor and the Zealotry of Pinchas

The sins of the Israelites during their trek through the wilderness can be divided into two periods:  the first, from the exodus from Egypt until the sin of the spies.  This was a direct journey (with a stop at Mount Sinai), having as its immediate destination the land of Canaan.  The second took place in the fortieth year, as the period of wandering in the wilderness was drawing to a close; in other words, during the journey on which they were finally embarking from Kadesh to the borders of Canaan.  In each of these two stages there were four types of sins committed by the people, aside from the sin of the spies which essentially caused the journey to be interrupted, dividing it in two.

In the first stage of the journey the people complained twice about lack of water (Ex. 14:22-25; 17:1-8); twice about lack of food (Ex. 14:16; Num. 11:3-34); once about the hardship of the trek (Num. 11:1-3),[1] and they committed one cultic sin:  making the golden calf (Ex. 32-34).  The second stage of the journey includes a complaint about thirst (Num. 20:1-13) (or perhaps two complaints—Num. 21:16-17),[2] a complaint about the wearisome way (Num. 21:4-9), and the cultic sin of Baal Peor.

During most of the years in the wilderness, from the decree in the wake of the sin of the spies until renewal of the journey towards Canaan (Num. 20:1), such problems did not arise because the Israelites were living a relatively comfortable nomadic life around desert oases and wells—“you remained at Kadesh all that long time” (Deut. 1:46)—and perhaps also kept distant from foreign tribes.

The two cultic sins occurred close to the point of departure on and of arrival at their destination:  the sin of the golden calf is tied to Egypt, whence they had left, where Hapis is sacred to the Egyptians,[3] and the sin of Baal Peor occurred as they were approaching their destination, the land of Canaan.

Bear in mind that the Israelites were no longer in the wilderness, but in the fertile area of the plains and mountains of Moab, in the “non-sacred” part of the Israelites’ inheritance,[4] which would later be given to the two and a half tribes.  The mountains of Moab are high and hence more rainy and fertile than the mountain ranges in the western part of the land of Israel.[5]

Moab is a rich agricultural land; thus many Israelites were tempted to worship the gods of agriculture, gods without whose help, supposedly, there would be no rain and the land and livestock would not be fertile.  Little wonder that the Israelites of the Bible, situated amidst a civilization that was entirely polytheistic, found it challenging to abandon these pagan ways, as is proven by the numerous and repeated warnings in the Torah and the Prophets against idolatry.

Both cultic sins—the golden calf and Baal Peor—went hand in hand with the sexual sin of prostitution.  In the case of the golden calf, this is indicated by the words, “and then rose to dance” (Ex. 32:6) and by the dancing referred to in verse 19.  In this week’s reading, sexual relations were the main gist of the matter.

This is understandable when we note the orgiastic nature of rites in the ancient and classical worlds, especially fertility rites—the acts of kedeshotand kedeshim, in the language of the Bible.  In the way these two elements—idolatry and forbidden sexual relations—were combined, the golden calf was not like Baal Peor.

With the golden calf, worship of the calf was the main focus, and from intoxication with the ritual, from “the people offered up burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being” (Ex. 32:6), they were drawn to “sat down to eat and drink, and then rose to dance.”  Not so in this week’s reading.  Here the order is reversed:  “the people began (Heb. va-yahel)[6] to commit adultery with the Moabite women” (Num. 25:1), and from their sexual appetite or alongside it came their appetite for food:  the women “invited the people to the sacrifices for their god.  The people partook of them,” for a festive meal is generally eaten in the context of a religious ritual, and this lead to “and worshipped that god” (Num. 25:2).  The result was:  “Thus Israel attached itself (tz-m-d) to Baal-peor” (Num. 15:3):  acknowledging Baal-peor as a god and joining in his worship.  Since the root tz-m-d in Scripture has to do with sexual coupling, some recent commentators see this as hinting at sexual activity.[7]

The case with the daughters of Midian, who suddenly appear in the account of Baal-peor, was different, as Shadal notes in his commentary on the Torah.  The Israelites were encamped on the plains of Moab, in the territory that Sihon the Amorite had captured from the Moabites, north of the Arnon river, a region still inhabited by Moabite men and women; or possibly Moabite women came to the Israelite encampment from the neighboring Moabite territory, south of the Arnon.

The Israelites were not encamped in the territory of Midian, a desert tribe whose ancestral houses pastured their sheep in the wilderness east of the highlands of Moab.  So what was the daughter of a Midianite tribal head of an ancestral house doing in the Israelite encampment on the plains of Moab?  She can only have come there as part of a Midianite initiative, as Scripture attests:  “Yet they are the very ones who, at the bidding of Bil'am, induced the Israelites to trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor” (Num. 31:16):  that same Bil'am who, on behalf of the king of Moab and the elders of Midian, had attempted to overcome the Israelites through magic and curses.

But the elders of Midian wisely perceived that magic would not triumph over the G‑d of Israel, and therefore Bil'am suggested to them an alternative way of gaining supremacy over Israel:  to sever the bond between Israel and their G‑d.  In this way he sought to save his reputation as a soothsayer and win remuneration for his services.  In other words:  Bil'am acted here not as a magician but as a theological advisor, an expert in matters of religion, especially the faith of Israel, in which he had gained expertise from the prophecies that the Lord had put into his mouth.

It stands to reason that the simple folk[8] were the ones who attached themselves to the daughters of Moab and their gods.  This is evident from the Lord’s words to Moses:  “Take all the heads of the people and have themimpaled” (Num. 25:4)—“them” meaning the “people” who were sinning[9]“publicly against the Lord,” indicating that there was yet hope that the people’s judges would isolate the sinners and punish them.

Bil'am’s advice had been to send to the Israelite camp the most notable daughters of Midian, so that they would entice the very leaders themselves.  Indeed, that is what happed:  Zimri son of Salu, chieftain of a Shimonite ancestral house, proudly displayed the Midianite princess whom he had won.  Bil'am deliberately chose Midianite women to trip up the leaders of Israel, from what the Sages picturesquely point out:[10]

Moses himself married a Midianite woman, although in special circumstances, when in exile and far from his own people.  Moreover, according to Genesis (25:2), the Midianites were descended from Abraham and hence apparently were circumcised,[11] which would provide mitigating circumstances for inter-marrying with them.

The religious transgression of idolatry together with the licentious sin of whoring led to removal of Divine Providence from the Israelites, who henceforth became subject to the health hazards of their gluttonous eating and orgies.  This is one way of understanding the words, “the Lord was incensed with Israel” (Num. 25:3).[12] Of course this expression can also be taken to refer to direct intervention, a plague straight from G‑d.

Be that as it may, one should not ascribe to G‑d such human traits as anger, rather “a [lasting] effect is recorded of every fierce anger in the Torah” (Zevahim 102a), i.e., saying that G‑d was angry indicates divine punishment.  In this week’s reading, the impact of G-d’s anger becomes evident from the continuation of the text:  “the plague against the Israelites was checked” (Num. 25:8).

This happened due to Pinchas “displaying his passion for Me” (Num. 25:11), being zealous for the Lord.  The Lord’s jealousy of Israel engaging in idolatry is similar or parallel to a husband’s jealousy of his wife:[13] just as a husband demands exclusive loyalty from his wife, so the Lord demands of Israel; and just as a husband is jealous when his wife betrays him, so the Lord is jealous of Israel when they worship other gods than Him.

In both parallel circumstances, the punishment is death.  What is notable on the divine side of the equation, as a measure of mercy within the measure of justice, is that the act of human zealousness against those who engaged in pagan worship can allay and the jealousy of G‑d and make it unnecessary.

Pinchas did just that, and by his extreme act he appears to have put an end to the Moabite-Midianite-Israelite revelry in the Israelite camp.  Pinchas restored the covenant between the Lord and His people Israel and thus established peaceful relations of a sort between them.  Therefore the Lord rewarded him by granting him “My pact of friendship [shalom]” (Num. 25:12), and since Pinchas atoned for the sin of Israel with human blood, he was promised “a pact of priesthood for all time” (Nu. 25:13), atoning with the blood of animals according to the principle set with Abraham at the binding of Isaac:  “So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son” (Gen. 22:13):  animal sacrifice instead of human sacrifice.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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