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Itamar Kislev





How Ancient Scribes Tried to Make Sense of the Composite Story of Baal Peor



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Itamar Kislev





How Ancient Scribes Tried to Make Sense of the Composite Story of Baal Peor






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How Ancient Scribes Tried to Make Sense of the Composite Story of Baal Peor


How Ancient Scribes Tried to Make Sense of the Composite Story of Baal Peor

Inner-Biblical Exegesis

Biblical interpretation began as soon as the texts that would comprise the Bible were composed and came to someone’s attention. Much of this interpretive activity has been lost, since it was oral, but nonetheless, evidence of early interpretation can be found already in the Bible itself.

Academics call this phenomenon “inner-biblical exegesis”—the Bible interpreting the Bible.[1] The reason inner-biblical exegesis often goes unnoticed is because these glosses are not presented as separate commentaries that offer answers to difficulties, but are written into the current biblical text itself, as expansions that strive to obviate the questions in the first place.

I will explore this phenomenon in the context of the story of Phineas, Cozbi, and Ba‘al Pe‘or, in Numbers 25, a story that poses significant challenges for the careful reader, modern and ancient. This piece will not focus on how to resolve the problems using modern critical tools, but on how ancient readers—including later redactors of the Bible—attempted to deal with these problems.

The Story – Numbers 25

במדבר כה:א וַיֵּשֶׁב יִשְׂרָאֵל בַּשִּׁטִּים וַיָּחֶל הָעָם לִזְנוֹת אֶל בְּנוֹת מוֹאָב. כה:ב וַתִּקְרֶאןָ לָעָם לְזִבְחֵי אֱלֹהֵיהֶן וַיֹּאכַל הָעָם וַיִּשְׁתַּחֲוּוּ לֵאלֹהֵיהֶן. כה:ג וַיִּצָּמֶד יִשְׂרָאֵל לְבַעַל פְּעוֹר וַיִּחַר אַף יְ־הוָה בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל.
Num 25:1 While Israel was staying at Shittim, the people profaned themselves by whoringwith the Moabite women, 25:2 who invited the people to the sacrifices for their god. The people partook of them and worshiped that god. 25:3 Israel attached itself to Baal-peor, and YHWH was incensed with Israel.
כה:ד וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה קַח אֶת כָּל רָאשֵׁי הָעָם וְהוֹקַע אוֹתָם לַי־הוָה נֶגֶד הַשָּׁמֶשׁ וְיָשֹׁב חֲרוֹן אַף יְ־הוָה מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל. כה:ה וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל שֹׁפְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הִרְגוּ אִישׁ אֲנָשָׁיו הַנִּצְמָדִים לְבַעַל פְּעוֹר.
25:4 YHWH said to Moses, “Take all the heads of the people[2]and have them publicly impaled before YHWH, so that YHWH’s wrath may turn away from Israel.” 25:5 Moses said to Israel’s judges “Each of you slay those of his men who attached themselves to Baal-peor.”
כה:ו וְהִנֵּה אִישׁ מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בָּא וַיַּקְרֵב אֶל אֶחָיו אֶת הַמִּדְיָנִית לְעֵינֵי מֹשֶׁה וּלְעֵינֵי כָּל עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְהֵמָּה בֹכִים פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד. כה:ז וַיַּרְא פִּינְחָס בֶּן אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן וַיָּקָם מִתּוֹךְ הָעֵדָה וַיִּקַּח רֹמַח בְּיָדוֹ. כה:ח וַיָּבֹא אַחַר אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל הַקֻּבָּה וַיִּדְקֹר אֶת שְׁנֵיהֶם אֵת אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאֶת הָאִשָּׁה אֶל קֳבָתָהּ וַתֵּעָצַר הַמַּגֵּפָה מֵעַל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. כה:ט וַיִּהְיוּ הַמֵּתִים בַּמַּגֵּפָה אַרְבָּעָה וְעֶשְׂרִים אָלֶף.
25:6 Just then one of the Israelites came and brought the Midianite woman over to his companions, in the sight of Moses and of the whole Israelite community who were weeping at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. 25:7 When Phinehas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, saw this, he left the assembly and, taking a spear in his hand, 25:8 he followed the Israelite into the chamber and stabbed both of them, the Israelite and the woman, through her belly. Then the plague against the Israelites was checked. 25:9 Those who died of the plague numbered twenty-four thousand.
כה:י וַיְדַבֵּר יְ־הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. כה:יא פִּינְחָס בֶּן אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן הֵשִׁיב אֶת חֲמָתִי מֵעַל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּקַנְאוֹ אֶת קִנְאָתִי בְּתוֹכָם וְלֹא כִלִּיתִי אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּקִנְאָתִי. כה:יב לָכֵן אֱמֹר הִנְנִי נֹתֵן לוֹ אֶת בְּרִיתִי שָׁלוֹם. כה:יג וְהָיְתָה לּוֹ וּלְזַרְעוֹ אַחֲרָיו בְּרִית כְּהֻנַּת עוֹלָם תַּחַת אֲשֶׁר קִנֵּא לֵאלֹהָיו וַיְכַפֵּר עַל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
25:10 YHWH spoke to Moses, saying, 25:11 “Phinehas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My passion. 25:12 Say, therefore, ‘I grant him My pact of friendship. 25:13 It shall be for him and his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all time, because he took impassioned action for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites.’”
כה:יד וְשֵׁם אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל הַמֻּכֶּה אֲשֶׁר הֻכָּה אֶת הַמִּדְיָנִית זִמְרִי בֶּן סָלוּא נְשִׂיא בֵית אָב לַשִּׁמְעֹנִי. כה:טו וְשֵׁם הָאִשָּׁה הַמֻּכָּה הַמִּדְיָנִית כָּזְבִּי בַת צוּר רֹאשׁ אֻמּוֹת בֵּית אָב בְּמִדְיָן הוּא.
25:14 The name of the Israelite who was killed, the one who was killed with the Midianite woman, was Zimri son of Salu, chieftain of a Simeonite ancestral house. 25:15 The name of the Midianite woman who was killed was Cozbi daughter of Zur; he was the tribal head of an ancestral house in Midian.
כה:טז וַיְדַבֵּר יְ־הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. כה:יז צָרוֹר אֶת הַמִּדְיָנִים וְהִכִּיתֶם אוֹתָם. כה:יח כִּי צֹרְרִים הֵם לָכֶם בְּנִכְלֵיהֶם אֲשֶׁר נִכְּלוּ לָכֶם עַל דְּבַר פְּעוֹר וְעַל דְּבַר כָּזְבִּי בַת נְשִׂיא מִדְיָן אֲחֹתָם הַמֻּכָּה בְיוֹם הַמַּגֵּפָה עַל דְּבַר פְּעוֹר.
25:16 YHWH spoke to Moses, saying, 25:17 “Assail the Midianites and defeat them— 25:18 for they assailed you by the trickery they practiced against you—because of the affair of Peor and because of the affair of their kinswoman Cozbi, daughter of the Midianite chieftain, who was killed at the time of the plague on account of Peor.”(NJPS slightly modified).

Difficulties with the Narrative

The story has a number of narrative inconsistencies. I would like to focus on three:

1. How did a Midianite woman end up in a story about Moabite women?

The story begins (v. 1) with the Israelites fornicating with Moabite women. Further on (v. 6), with no explanation or introduction, a Midianite woman appears. How did she end up in the story?

2. What happened to the sin of idolatry?

A second surprise relates to the sin. In the first half of the chapter (vv. 1-5), the story is about how fornication with Moabite women leads to worship of their gods. In the second half, as soon as the Midianite woman appears (v. 6ff), the concern for idolatry disappears. The Israelite man takes the Midianite woman, and they enter the tent. The text intimates what they are doing inside, but does not that it included idol-worship.

3. Did Moses change the punishment that God had commanded?

Another difficulty concerns the punishment. In verse 4, God tells Moses to execute all the heads of the people; in other words, the leaders are to be punished since they were responsible for letting the people sin.[3] God does not seem to give any consideration to the question of whether or not the leaders themselves took part in the sin; they are to be punished because of their position. Yet, according to the story, something else happens. In v. 5, Moses commands the judges of Israel to slay every man who was involved with Ba’al-peor. Moses deviates from the divine command, and decides on a different response; instead of killing the leaders, Moses instructs the judges to punish the sinners. God, and the narrator do not comment on Moses’s deviation from the command.

The Re-Working in the Samaritan Pentateuch

This last problem bothered scribes in antiquity; thus, the Samaritan version of verse 4 reads: “Tell them to slay those of his men who attached themselves to Baal-peor”[4] instead of “Take all the heads of the people and have them publicly impaled before YHWH, so that YHWH’s wrath may turn away from Israel.” The problem of Moses’ non-compliance troubled the ancient scribes responsible for this revision. Similar harmonistic reworking typify the Samaritan Pentateuch and a related group of Torah texts found among the Dead Sea Scrolls.

An Academic and Ancient Resolution

We will begin with the first question: From where does the Midianite woman appear? Most academic scholars believe that this chapter combines at least two sources, one about the Moabites, and one about a Midianite woman.[5] In other words, the incongruities are a result of the involvement of multiple authors. This explanation may be sufficient for modern academic scholars, who believe the Torah to be a composite work from multiple sources, but this would not have been an explanation sufficient for the Torah’s ancient interpreters.

The question that remains is, how would an ancient reader of this combined story have understood the sudden entrance of a Midianite woman into a story about Moabites? One consideration may have been geographical, since Moabites and Midianites lived in the same region, and therefore women from these two peoples may easily mingle together in the same story. Nevertheless, this fact does not seem to have sufficiently eased the tension, since some ancient scribes seem to have gone out of their way to smooth over the Moabite-Midianite ripples by editing the Torah in two other places.

Editorial Addition A – Midianites in the Balaam Story

The Balaam story immediately precedes our story. There too, we encounter the Moabites; that story begins with the Moabites’ concern that the Israelites are moving into Moabite territory (Num. 22:3-4):

במדבר כב:ג וַיָּגָר מוֹאָב מִפְּנֵי הָעָם מְאֹד כִּי רַב הוּא וַיָּקָץ מוֹאָב מִפְּנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. כב:ד וַיֹּאמֶר מוֹאָב אֶל זִקְנֵי מִדְיָן עַתָּה יְלַחֲכוּ הַקָּהָל אֶת כָּל סְבִיבֹתֵינוּ כִּלְחֹךְ הַשּׁוֹר אֵת יֶרֶק הַשָּׂדֶה וּבָלָק בֶּן צִפּוֹר מֶלֶךְ לְמוֹאָב בָּעֵת הַהִוא.
Num 22:3 Moab was alarmed because that people was so numerous. Moab dreaded the Israelites, 22:4 and Moab said to the elders of Midian, “Now this horde will lick clean all that is about us as an ox licks up the grass of the field.”

The Moabites turn to their allies, the Midianites. This seems strange. Since the text has emphasized several times that it is “Moab” that is afraid of Israel, it is surprising indeed to see the sudden appearance of the “elders of Midian.” Furthermore, the two bodies are not equivalent: “Moab” is a collective name for the entire people while “Elders of Midian” is a specific group of people. It is odd that Moab – the entire nation – is placed on the same plane as “the elders of Midian.” Moreover, the elders of Midian do not respond to Moab’s statement; they seem entirely passive.

The elders of Midian are mentioned in Numbers 22:7 too as part of the delegation to Balaam, sent to enlist him to curse the Israelites, where they appear along with “the elders of Moab.” Their presence here is also somewhat problematic, but at least here the two sides are presented equally – both are represented by “elders.” Yet when the very next verse says: “So the Moabite dignitaries stayed with Balaam,” the elders of Midian have disappeared; they have no function in the whole story.

I suggest that the explanation for this is that the words “the elders of Midian” did not appear in the story originally in either place where they appear now; indeed, their presence muddles the story line.[6] Into this simple storyline, later scribes inserted the elders of Midian in two places. This was done to prepare the reader for the story of Ba‘al Pe‘or in chapter 25.[7]

By connecting the Moabites and Midianites already in the Balaam story, this addition decreased the tension about the ethnic identity of the women in Ba’al-peor story. With the insertions in the beginning of the Balaam story, the reader begins to assume a connection, geographic and political, between these two groups and would not be surprised to find Moabite and Midianite women together in chapter 25. The insertions in chapter 22 ameliorate the reader’s puzzlement before it even arises.

Editorial Addition B – The Last Five Verses of the Phineas Story

What about the disappearance of the idolatry and the issue of Moses disobeying God? These are dealt with in the closing verses of chapter 25. But before explaining this, we should take a step back and deal with a different but related issue.

What is the point of this story? Why is it being told? The answer seems relatively simple: the purpose of the story is to justify Phineas’ priesthood: “And he shall have it, and his seed after him, even the covenant of an everlasting priesthood” (25:13). It is likely that at some point in the past, one or more groups challenged Phineas’ right to the priesthood, and the story in Numbers 25 rebuts these challenges by asserting that God gave Phineas the gift of priesthood as a reward for his daring deed of taking action against Zimri, and putting an end to the plague, when all the other leaders were standing powerless.[8]

But if the goal of the story is to justify Phineas’ priesthood, why does it continue in verses 14-19 instead of ending at verse 13, which announces his priesthood? Moreover, why are the names of the sinners mentioned there, rather than when the characters are introduced and the initial action takes place? Why are they referred to in the main story anonymously, as “a man from the Israelites” or “the Israelite man” and “the Midianite woman,” and only later are their names revealed?

This evidence suggests that the five last verses must have been added to the story at a later stage to a story that originally contained an anonymous couple and ended with God’s covenant with Phineas. These verses were added for a variety of reasons.

First, the closing verses decrease the tension between the two halves of the story regarding the nature of the sin by reconciling them. At the beginning of the story, fornication with the Moabite women led to idolatry: the sin was the worship of the foreign god, here called Ba‘al Pe‘or. In the second half of the story, which features Phineas, the idolatrous aspect has disappeared and there is no reference to Ba‘al Pe‘or. Similarly, when God blesses Phineas, there is no mention of Ba‘al Pe‘or. The final verses, however, resolve this problem:

במדבר כה:טז וַיְדַבֵּר יְ־הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. כה:יז צָרוֹר אֶת הַמִּדְיָנִים וְהִכִּיתֶם אוֹתָם. כה:יח כִּי צֹרְרִים הֵם לָכֶם בְּנִכְלֵיהֶם אֲשֶׁר נִכְּלוּ לָכֶם עַל דְּבַר פְּעוֹר וְעַל דְּבַר כָּזְבִּי בַת נְשִׂיא מִדְיָן אֲחֹתָם הַמֻּכָּה בְיוֹם הַמַּגֵּפָה עַל דְּבַר פְּעוֹר.
Num 25:16 YHWH spoke to Moses, saying, 25:17 “Assail the Midianites and defeat them— 25:18 for they assailed you by the trickery they practiced against you—because of the affair of Peor and because of the affair of their kinswoman Cozbi, daughter of the Midianite chieftain, who was killed at the time of the plague on account of Peor.”

They make it seem that the Midianites’ intention was to seduce the Israelites to worship Ba‘al Pe‘or. The editor(s) who formulated the closing verses saw the gap between the beginning of the story and its continuation, where, among other things, the nature of the sin was different. Therefore, they added a passage that welded the two sections into a single unit.

This version smooths over the discrepancy between God’s command in verse 4 and Moses’s instructions in verse 5 as well. As we pointed out, the identification of the names of the sinners, in verses 14 and 15, comes far too late in the narrative. Moreover, it is not important information. When we read the story, we are impressed by the Israelite man’s audacity, and his defiance of the leaders, who are sitting at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. The powerlessness of the leaders comes across quite clearly, when we see that not one of them objects to the abominable action of the Israelite; they merely sit and cry. Only Phineas gets up, takes action, and stops the plague that is ravaging the people. But why, then, does the text mention the names of the victims at an irrelevant point in the narrative, what is the purpose of mentioning them at the end of the story?

Mentioning these names provides room that ameliorates the problem of Moses’ disobedience and God’s acquiescence. As I noted above, God commands Moses in verse 4 to execute the leaders of the people for their collective responsibility for the people’s sin, yet in verse 5, Moses seems to ignore the divine command, and tells the Israelite judges to kill the people worshipping Ba‘al Pe‘or. The identification of the sinning Israelite man with “Zimri, the son of Salu, a prince of a chief house among the Simeonites,” is meant to resolve this discrepancy. This sentence identifies one of the leaders of the people, whom God says to punish, with the sinners, whom Moses says to punish. If the sinner himself is one of the leaders, then there is no discrepancy between God’s words and those of Moses! If the sinners are the leaders, then God’s command to execute the leaders is not for their collective responsibility for the people’s actions but for their own sins! Thus, the tension between the two sections of the story is resolved, and Moses is simply doing what God commanded him.

Phineas as Fulfiller of God’s Will

Furthermore, by making Zimri—a leader who sinned—the locus of agreement between God’s command and that of Moses, Phineas’ behavior can be interpreted as a fulfillment of God’s command and Moses’s instructions. When Phineas “arises from the midst of the community” and takes action, he is considered to be one of the “judges of Israel” who have been instructed to kill the sinners. According to this interpretive read, the “community” from which Phineas arises is the community of the judges (v. 4), which is standing powerless, and not following Moses’s orders. Only Phineas, who arises out of this community, does what they have been instructed, by killing the sinners. His zealotry is now not a spontaneous act of a hot-headed zealot, but the level-headed action of a judge, who is fulfilling his responsibility.

Moreover, the stabbing of the two sinners with a spear, which initially seems to be murder, outside the bounds of normal justice or legal procedure, now reads as a simple fulfillment of the legal instructions given by Moses, at God’s command: it is hoqa‘a, the form of execution that God had commanded. Phineas is careful to follow the divine instruction to the letter; he kills the sinners exactly in accordance with the method that God commanded.


The last five verses of the story were added to the (composite) narrative of vv. 1-13. Like the references to the Elders of Midian at the beginning of the story of Balaam, they were composed to solve the difficulties that arise from the composite story in Numbers 25. At later periods, after the Torah was canonized and its text was fixed, such answers would appear separately, as commentary on the Torah. However, at an earlier period, such interpretive solutions could be added into the text of (what ultimately became) Scripture: this is inner-Biblical exegesis.

Stated differently, some of the problems that bother modern readers as we read the biblical stories also bothered the ancient readers, and come of these ancient readers went to the effort of writing their solutions into the text of Scripture itself. This paved the way for further generations of interpreters, whose interpretations can be found outside of, rather than part of, the biblical text.


July 7, 2014


Last Updated

August 14, 2021


View Footnotes

Prof. Itamar Kislev is professor of Hebrew Bible and Medieval Jewish Exegesis at the University of Haifa. His Ph.D. is from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Kislev’s book, On the Threshold of the Promised Land [Hebrew] was published last year.