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Itamar Kislev





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





APA e-journal

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

123rf adapted

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.

The story of Phineas, Cozbi, and Ba‘al Pe‘or (Numbers 25) is a good example of a story that poses significant challenges for the careful reader, and looking at how this and other texts were redacted shows us how ancient readers attempted to deal with these problems. 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.

במדבר כה:א וַיֵּשֶׁב יִשְׂרָאֵל בַּשִּׁטִּים וַיָּחֶל הָעָם לִזְנוֹת אֶל בְּנוֹת מוֹאָב. כה:ב וַתִּקְרֶאןָ לָעָם לְזִבְחֵי אֱלֹהֵיהֶן וַיֹּאכַל הָעָם וַיִּשְׁתַּחֲוּוּ לֵאלֹהֵיהֶן
Num 25:1 While Israel was staying at Shittim, the people profaned themselves by whoring with the Moabite women, 25:2 who invited the people to the sacrifices for their god. The people partook of them and worshiped their god(s).

Later on, with no explanation, we suddenly see a Midianite woman in the story:

כה:ו וְהִנֵּה אִישׁ מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בָּא וַיַּקְרֵב אֶל אֶחָיו אֶת הַמִּדְיָנִית לְעֵינֵי מֹשֶׁה וּלְעֵינֵי כָּל עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְהֵמָּה בֹכִים פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד.
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.

Why are we suddenly jumping from Moabite to Midianite?

2. What Happened to the Sin of Idolatry?

In the opening verses (quoted above), we hear how fornication with Moabite women leads to worship of their gods. This is followed by reference to a specific god:

. במדבר כה:ג וַיִּצָּמֶד יִשְׂרָאֵל לְבַעַל פְּעוֹר וַיִּחַר אַף יְ־הוָה בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל.
Num 25:3 Israel attached itself to Baal-peor, and YHWH was incensed with Israel.

As soon as the Midianite woman appears, however, the concern for idolatry disappears. Indeed, once Phineas kills the fornicating couple, YHWH’s wrath is appeased:

במדבר 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.
Num 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.

What about the idolatry?

3. Did Moses Change the Punishment that YHWH Had Commanded?

Following Israel’s attachment to Baʿal Peʿor, YHWH 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]

במדבר כה:ד וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה קַח אֶת כָּל רָאשֵׁי הָעָם וְהוֹקַע אוֹתָם לַי־הוָה נֶגֶד הַשָּׁמֶשׁ וְיָשֹׁב חֲרוֹן אַף יְ־הוָה מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל.
Num 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.”

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, Moses commands the judges of Israel to slay every man who was involved with Baʿal-peʿor.

במדבר כה:ה וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל שֹׁפְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הִרְגוּ אִישׁ אֲנָשָׁיו הַנִּצְמָדִים לְבַעַל פְּעוֹר.
Num 25:5 Moses said to Israel’s judges “Each of you slay those of his men who attached themselves to Baʿal-peʿor.”

The problem of Moses’ non-compliance troubled the ancient scribes of the Samaritan Pentateuch, who revise YHWH’s command to fit with that of Moses:

במדבר כה:ד [נה"ש] ויאמר י־הוה אל משה אמר ויהרגו את האנשים הנצמדים לבעל פעור וישוב חרון אף י־הוה מישראל׃
Num 25:4 [SP] YHWH said to Moses: “Say and they will kill the people who attached themselves to Baʿal-peʿor, so that YHWH’s wrath may turn away from Israel.”

But for the Masoretic Text (MT)—and for the Septuagint—the problem remains: Is Moses simply revising YHWH’s command on his own authority? Why does YHWH call him out on it and why doesn’t the text explain?

Solving the Moabite/Midianite Problem

Beginning with the first question, 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. 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 to 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 :

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.” Now Balak son of Zippor was king of Moab at that time.

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-pe‘or 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.

Solving the Idolatry and Moses’ Disobedience Problems

What is the point of the Ba‘al-pe‘or story? Why is it being told? The answer seems relatively simple: the purpose of the story is to justify Phineas’ priesthood:

במדבר 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.
Num 25:10 YHWH spoke to Moses, saying, 25:11 “Phineas, 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.’”

When we read the story, we are impressed by Phineas’ 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.

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 doesn’t the story end here at verse 13? Instead, it continues by naming the sinners:

במדבר 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.
Num 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.

Moreover, why, when the sinners are first introduced (v. 6), 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 here, after their part in the story is over, are their names revealed?

The story then continues by announcing the need for Israel to go to war against the Midianites, making them responsible for the worship of Pe‘or, and again mentioning the sinners by name.

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.”

The discontinuity between these verses and their awkward placing at the end of the story suggests that they must have been added 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 to solve the problem noted above.

An Editorial Insertion about Idolatry

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 by making 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.

Undoing Moses’ Disobedience

In the original narrative, where the focus is on the greatness of Phineas, the identity of the sinners were not important information. They are added because mentioning their names and status ameliorates the problem of Moses’ disobedience and God’s acquiescence.

God commands Moses to execute the leaders of the people for their collective responsibility for the people’s sin, yet 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, as it 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! God’s command to execute the leaders is not for their collective responsibility but for their own sins! Thus, by commanding the killing of the Israelite sinners, 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.

Revision as Commentary

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

October 23, 2023


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.