“How Lovely Are Your Tents, O Jacob” – Balaam’s Praise of Israelite Women
When the Israelites encamp on the Moabite plains, Balak, the king of Moab, hires the seer Balaam to curse them (vv. 4–6). Balaam’s first two attempts are blocked by YHWH, and instead of cursing them, they are blessed with great numbers (22:41–23:10) and military success (23:11–24). The third time, Balaam decides to bless Israel on his own initiative, and says:
במדבר כד:ה מַה טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ יַעֲקֹב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Num 24:5 How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwelling-places, O Israel!
This beautiful opening line is engraved upon countless synagogues throughout the world. It begins the daily morning service and is even sung as a popular campfire song. What does it mean, though, that Balaam blesses Israel’s tents?
Modern commentators interpret this verse as describing the beauty of Israel’s dwellings in the land of Israel, placed backwards in time. The Talmud sees the tents and dwelling places as a reference to synagogues and schools of Jewish learning (b. Sanh. 105b). Thus, R. Tobias ben Eliezer (11th cent. Byzantium) writes in his Lekah Tov commentary (ad loc.):
מה טובו אהליך יעקב – אלו בתי מדרשות. משכנותיך ישראל. אלו בתי כנסיות.
“How lovely are your tents, O Jacob”—these are the study houses. “Your dwellings, O Israel”—these are the synagogues.
The interpretation here connects the “tents” with the אהל מועד “Tent of Meeting” and dwelling places (משכנות) with the משכן “Tabernacle,” the Israelites’ portable shrine. In contrast, Rashi (R. Shlomo Yitzhaki, ca. 1040-ca.1105), citing Bava Batra 60a, understands the blessing as describing their literal tents:
מה טובו אהליך – על שראה פתחיהם שאין מכוונין זה מול זה.
“How lovely are your tents”—for he saw that their openings were not arranged to face each other.
According to this interpretation, Balaam saw that the Israelites could not see into each others’ tents, and appreciated that this was to give them privacy at night to be intimate with their spouses. These midrashic interpretations highlight the difficulty with interpreting the verse literally—of all things, why would Balaam praise their tents?
“Go to Your Tents” in Deuteronomy: A Euphemism for Sex
As we see in the account of the Sinai theophany, “tents” can be used metaphorically in contexts of sexual intercourse. In Exodus, before YHWH descends to meet the Israelites, Moses instructs the people to ritually cleanse themselves and then refrain from sexual activity so that they will remain ritually pure:
שׁמות יט:יד וַיֵּרֶד מֹשֶׁה מִן הָהָר אֶל הָעָם וַיְקַדֵּשׁ אֶת הָעָם וַיְכַבְּסוּ שִׂמְלֹתָם. יט:טו וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל הָעָם הֱיוּ נְכֹנִים לִשְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים אַל תִּגְּשׁוּ אֶל אִשָּׁה.
Exod 19:14 Moses came down from the mountain to the people and warned the people to stay pure, and they washed their clothes. 19:15 And he said to the people, “Be ready for the third day: do not go near a woman.”
In the retelling in Deuteronomy, when the people ask to have the revelation happen to Moses alone for fear that they will not survive a divine encounter, YHWH agrees and then tells Moses:
דברים ה:כז[*ל] לֵךְ אֱמֹר לָהֶם שׁוּבוּ לָכֶם לְאָהֳלֵיכֶם.
Deut 5:27[*30] “Go, say to them, ‘Return to your tents.’”
“Returning to the tents” here is a euphemism for permitting the people to resume sexual activity. This is how the rabbis understand the verse (b. Mo’ed Qat. 7b), which they further apply to another verse using the word “tent.” In the context of the requirement that a person suffering from the skin disease tzaraʿat must remain outside his tent for seven days after being declared clean, they state:
...תַנְיָא: ״וְיָשַׁב מִחוּץ לְאׇהֳלוֹ שִׁבְעַת יָמִים״, שֶׁיְּהֵא אָסוּר בְּתַשְׁמִישׁ הַמִּטָּה. וְאֵין ״אׇהֳלוֹ״ אֶלָּא אִשְׁתּוֹ, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״לֵךְ אֱמוֹר לָהֶם שׁוּבוּ לָכֶם לְאׇהֳלֵיכֶם״.
…It was taught: “But he shall dwell outside his tent seven days” (Lev 14:8)—[that is] he shall be precluded from the use of the [conjugal] bed. “Tent” always means wife, as it is said (Deut 5:27[*30]): “Go, say to them, ‘Return to your tents.’”
Significantly, here “tent” is understood specifically as “wife” in a sexual sense.
“My Tent Is in Her”—Ezekiel’s Vulgar Epithet
A graphic usage of tent as a euphemism in a sexual context appears in Ezekiel’s extended metaphor personifying Samaria and Jerusalem as sisters married to YHWH:
יחזקאל כג:ב בֶּן אָדָם שְׁתַּיִם נָשִׁים בְּנוֹת אֵם אַחַת הָיוּ.... כג:ד וּשְׁמוֹתָן אָהֳלָה הַגְּדוֹלָה וְאָהֳלִיבָה אֲחוֹתָהּ וַתִּהְיֶינָה לִי וַתֵּלַדְנָה בָּנִים וּבָנוֹת וּשְׁמוֹתָן שֹׁמְרוֹן אָהֳלָה וִירוּשָׁלִַם אָהֳלִיבָה.
Ezek 23:2 “Mortal, there were two women, daughters of one mother…. 23:4 Their names were Oholah, the elder, and Oholibah, her sister. They became mine, and they bore sons and daughters. As for their names, Oholah is Samaria, and Oholibah is Jerusalem.”
The names Oholah (אָהֳלָה) and Oholibah (אָהֳלִיבָה) mean “her tent” and “my tent is in her,” respectively. Using sexual imagery, bordering on the pornographic, Ezekiel describes the infidelity of the two cities. For example, referring to Oholibah (Jerusalem), Ezekiel writes:
יחזקאל כג:יז וַיָּבֹאוּ אֵלֶיהָ בְנֵי בָבֶל לְמִשְׁכַּב דֹּדִים וַיְטַמְּאוּ אוֹתָהּ בְּתַזְנוּתָם וַתִּטְמָא בָם וַתֵּקַע נַפְשָׁהּ מֵהֶם.
Ezek 23:17 So the Babylonians came to her for lovemaking and defiled her with their whoring; and she defiled herself with them until she turned from them in disgust.
Oholibah’s flagrant infidelity provides Ezekiel with an offense egregious enough to warrant and even demand the destruction of YHWH’s holy city and temple. It is impossible for the divine presence to remain within such a polluted vessel:
יחזקאל כג:יח וַתְּגַל תַּזְנוּתֶיהָ וַתְּגַל אֶת עֶרְוָתָהּ וַתֵּקַע נַפְשִׁי מֵעָלֶיהָ כַּאֲשֶׁר נָקְעָה נַפְשִׁי מֵעַל אֲחוֹתָהּ.
Ezek 23:18 She flaunted her harlotries and exposed her nakedness, and I turned from her in disgust, as I had turned disgusted from her sister.
Oholibah’s name, “my tent is in her,” refers to YHWH’s Temple in Jerusalem. Ezekiel casts Jerusalem’s allowing foreign powers with their deities into YHWH’s private space as Oholibah’s marital infidelity. Thus, YHWH’s tent here, metaphorically speaking, is Jerusalem’s vagina, which, like the Temple, is supposed to be dedicated exclusively to her divine husband to preserve its sanctity. In this context, “tent” functions as a dysphemism, a disparaging term, expressing a vulgar epithet for vagina that embodies the author’s repugnance for the cities’ violated temples.
Sexual Euphemisms in Balaam’s Blessing and the Song of Songs
The metaphorical uses of tent for woman, sex, or even vagina suggest a rethinking of how Balaam is using the term. The exclamation that Balaam applies to Israel’s tents—מַה טֹּבוּ, “How lovely!”—occurs one other time in the Hebrew Bible: in a love poem in the Song of Songs, in which a male lover praises his beloved:
שׁיר השׁירים ד:י מַה יָּפוּ דֹדַיִךְ אֲחֹתִי כַלָּה מַה טֹּבוּ דֹדַיִךְ מִיַּיִן וְרֵיחַ שְׁמָנַיִךְ מִכָּל בְּשָׂמִים. ד:יא נֹפֶת תִּטֹּפְנָה שִׂפְתוֹתַיִךְ כַּלָּה דְּבַשׁ וְחָלָב תַּחַת לְשׁוֹנֵךְ וְרֵיחַ שַׂלְמֹתַיִךְ כְּרֵיחַ לְבָנוֹן.
Song 4:10 How sweet is your love, my sister, my bride! How lovely is your lovemaking—beyond wine; the scent of your oils—beyond any spice. 4:11 Sweetness drops from your lips, O bride; honey and milk are under your tongue; and the scent of your robes is like the scent of Lebanon.
The sensual imagery of the Song is clear, and it continues in the next poem:
שיר השירים ד:יב גַּן נָעוּל אֲחֹתִי כַלָּה גַּל נָעוּל מַעְיָן חָתוּם. ד:יג שְׁלָחַיִךְ פַּרְדֵּס רִמּוֹנִים עִם פְּרִי מְגָדִים כְּפָרִים עִם נְרָדִים. ד:יד נֵרְדְּ וְכַרְכֹּם קָנֶה וְקִנָּמוֹן עִם כָּל עֲצֵי לְבוֹנָה מֹר וַאֲהָלוֹת עִם כָּל רָאשֵׁי בְשָׂמִים. ד:טו מַעְיַן גַּנִּים בְּאֵר מַיִם חַיִּים וְנֹזְלִים מִן לְבָנוֹן.
Song 4:12 A garden locked is my own, my bride, a fountain locked, a sealed-up spring. 4:13 Your limbs are an orchard of pomegranates and of all luscious fruits, of henna and of nard—4:14 Nard and saffron, fragrant reed and cinnamon, with all aromatic woods, myrrh and aloes—all the choice perfumes. 4:15 [You are] a garden spring, a well of fresh water, a flowing rill of Lebanon.
Here the male speaker describes his lover’s body as a garden, claiming that it is “locked,” i.e., unavailable for physical intimacy. He goes on to compare her appearance and especially her scent to several aromatic plants.
The themes of garden, flowing water, and aloes also appear in the next verses of Balaam’s blessing; the language that it shares with the Song is bolded:
במדבר כד:ו כִּנְחָלִים נִטָּיוּ כְּגַנֹּת עֲלֵי נָהָר כַּאֲהָלִים נָטַע יְ־הוָה כַּאֲרָזִים עֲלֵי מָיִם. כד:ז יִזַּל מַיִם מִדָּלְיָו וְזַרְעוֹ בְּמַיִם רַבִּים...
Num 24:6 Like groves of palm trees stretching out, like riverside gardens, like aloes planted by YHWH, like cedar beside the waters; 24:7 water shall flow from his buckets, and his seed through abundant waters…
In Balaam’s poem, the aloes אַהָלִם (ʾahalim), play on the sound of the word “tents” אֹהָלִם (ʾohalim). At the same time, its fragrance is elsewhere associated with lovemaking, such as in the enticing speech of the seductress in Proverbs:
משׁלי ז:יז נַפְתִּי מִשְׁכָּבִי מֹר אֲהָלִים וְקִנָּמוֹן.
Prov 7:17 I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon.
Balaam also references the fragrant cedars, which are alluded to in the previous poem in the Song, in the phrase כְּרֵיחַ לְבָנוֹן, “like the scent of Lebanon”(4:11).
Balaam mentions water multiple times, as does the male lover in the Song, who describes his beloved as a garden spring and a rill of flowing water. This last phrase uses the same verb, נ.ז.ל, as Balaam does in one of his images. Similar flowing water imagery appears in Proverbs’ praise of marital relations:
משׁלי ה:טו שְׁתֵה מַיִם מִבּוֹרֶךָ וְנֹזְלִים מִתּוֹךְ בְּאֵרֶךָ. ה:טז יָפוּצוּ מַעְיְנֹתֶיךָ חוּצָה בָּרְחֹבוֹת פַּלְגֵי מָיִם. ה:יז יִהְיוּ לְךָ לְבַדֶּךָ וְאֵין לְזָרִים אִתָּךְ. ה:יח יְהִי מְקוֹרְךָ בָרוּךְ וּשְׂמַח מֵאֵשֶׁת נְעוּרֶךָ.
Prov 5:15 Drink water from your own cistern, running water from your own well. 5:16 Your springs will gush forth in streams in the public squares. 5:17 They will be yours alone, others having no part with you. 5:18 Let your fountain be blessed; find joy in the wife of your youth.
In the Song of Songs, these metaphors are not used merely to describe the woman’s body, but clearly to allude to sex. The latter half of the poem consists of a dialogue in which the woman invites the man into the garden to enjoy its fruits and drink up:
שיר השירים ד:טז עוּרִי צָפוֹן וּבוֹאִי תֵימָן הָפִיחִי גַנִּי יִזְּלוּ בְשָׂמָיו יָבֹא דוֹדִי לְגַנּוֹ וְיֹאכַל פְּרִי מְגָדָיו.
Song 4:16 Awake, O north wind, Come, O south wind! Blow upon my garden, that its perfume may spread. Let my beloved come to his garden and enjoy its luscious fruits!
The man responds, reflecting on their lovemaking:
שיר השירים ה:א בָּאתִי לְגַנִּי אֲחֹתִי כַלָּה אָרִיתִי מוֹרִי עִם בְּשָׂמִי אָכַלְתִּי יַעְרִי עִם דִּבְשִׁי שָׁתִיתִי יֵינִי עִם חֲלָבִי...
Song 5:1 I have come to my garden, my own, my bride; I have plucked my myrrh and spice, eaten my honey and honeycomb, drunk my wine and my milk….
Read in this context, Balaam’s opening description of Israel’s lovely tents, like gardens and aloes planted by a river, is a reflection on the loveliness of the Israelite women.
A Blessing of Fertility
Balaam then describes how Israel—the men in this extended metaphor—will make his own “waters” and seed flow from his buckets into the abundant waters, i.e., the Israelite women:
במדבר כד:ז יִזַּל מַיִם מִדָּלְיָו וְזַרְעוֹ בְּמַיִם רַבִּים...
Num 24:7 Water shall flow from his buckets, and his seed (zeraʿ) through abundant waters…
This description plays upon the ancient Near Eastern conception of the female’s internal water supply, according to which the process of human reproduction involves the female body-container’s intake of semen-water and eventual outlet of water and an infant.
The wording of the verse is not merely sexual, however; it also includes an example of a common ancient Near Eastern metaphor that human life is an agricultural product. Tikva Frymer-Kensky calls this “plant-people imagery” and reminds us that this concept is deeply embedded in the Hebrew language in ubiquitous terms such, as zeraʿ, which refers to both seed and, in this verse, semen/offspring, and perî, fruit, which can also mean offspring.
This concept of people as plants also explains the use of woman as a garden imagery, another ANE trope connected to sexuality and fertility, found in sources as disparate as the Sumerian inscription, “Plow My Vulva,” to the Qur’ānic statement, “your women are your fields” (Surah 2.223). In the Bible, Isaiah 5:1–7 depicts YHWH’s lover as a vineyard, and when Samson accuses Philistine men of being intimate with his wife, he says that they would not have found out the answer to his riddle (Judg 14:18) לוּלֵא חֲרַשְׁתֶּם בְּעֶגְלָתִי “if you had not plowed with my heifer.”
In sum, using ANE tropes, Balaam’s blessing effectively declares: “How good is your women’s reproductive capacity, O Israel!” In combination with the promise that the seminal emissions of the Israelite men will be productive, the poem constitutes a fertility blessing.
Balaam’s Fertility Blessing in Context: A Warning
In the context of the larger story, Balaam’s tent-blessing acts as both a promise and a warning to Israelite men: Your women will be receptive and fertile; if you confine your sexual attentions to them—to אֹהָלֶיךָ, “your tents” alone—you will be virile in bed and powerful in battle. It also serves as an ominous foreshadowing as we continue reading. The story in which the Israelite men begin having sexual relations with the women of Moab and worshipping their Moabite gods immediately follows:
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 that god.
This transgression causes a plague, killing twenty-four thousand Israelites. If only the Israelite men had listened to Balaam!
Inverting the Warning: Balaam and the Priestly Authors
On its own, Balaam’s blessing, while also a warning, has Israel’s future success in mind. It thus aligns with the positive prophetic status of Balaam in early texts. This status is later sabotaged in Deuteronomistic and post-Deuteronomistic passages that disparage Balaam, demoting him from a true seer who can relay the blessings of YHWH to a mere pagan diviner, more foolish than his donkey.
The Priestly authors further tarnish Balaam’s reputation by presenting him not as trying to save Israel from being seduced by idolatrous women, but as the architect of this sin, and the one responsible for the men of Israel’s transgression with Midianite women at Baal-Peor. Thus, when, after the war with Midian (Num 31:2) Moses commands the Israelite men to kill the captive Midianite women, he explains:
במדבר לא:טז הֵן הֵנָּה הָיוּ לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בִּדְבַר בִּלְעָם לִמְסָר מַעַל בַּי־הוָה עַל דְּבַר פְּעוֹר וַתְּהִי הַמַּגֵּפָה בַּעֲדַת יְ־הוָה.
Num 31:16 Yet they are the very ones who, at the bidding of Balaam, induced the Israelites to trespass against YHWH in the matter of Peor, so that YHWH’s community was struck by the plague.
The imagery of sex with foreign women leading to Israel’s destruction is depicted poignantly in the Priestly version of the story. At the very moment Moses orders all men who had intercourse with Midianite women at Baal-Peor be slain, Phineas sees an offender in the act.
במדבר כה:ח וַיָּבֹא אַחַר אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל הַקֻּבָּה וַיִּדְקֹר אֶת שְׁנֵיהֶם אֵת אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאֶת הָאִשָּׁה אֶל קֳבָתָהּ וַתֵּעָצַר הַמַּגֵּפָה מֵעַל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Num 25:8 He followed the Israelite into the chamber and stabbed both of them, the Israelite and the woman, through the womb. Then the plague against the Israelites was checked.
The author plays on the word for tent here, קֻבָּה (qubbah), and the description of where Phineas pierces the offenders with his spear—through the woman’s קֳבָתָהּ (qobatah), usually translated as “her belly, body, or stomach,” but more accurately another biblical euphemism for the womb or vagina.
This graphic and violent Baal-Peor story found its logical place in Numbers 25 precisely because the Priestly authors understood that Balaam’s “lovely tents” blessing is about sexual fertility. Turning the sexual tent imagery in the blessing against the now discredited Balaam, the Priestly authors imply that Balaam’s blessing is the cause of the Israelite men’s sexual and cultic disloyalty, rather than a warning against it.
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Dr. Erica Lee Martin is Executive Director and Hebrew Bible Core Faculty at Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry. She received her PhD from the Graduate Theological Union and MA degrees from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Seattle University. Her publications include "Preaching Against the Text: When the ‘Good Book’ Isn’t," CCCAR Journal – The Reform Jewish Quarterly (2016); "The Christian Bible and the Jews," in Anselm Companion to the Bible (2014); "Noah in the Qur’ān," in After the Deluge: Post-Biblical Traditions of Noah (2010); and "The Rabbinic Knife: How and Why the Rabbis Castrated Noah," in Interpretation, Religion and Culture in Midrash and Beyond, Vol IV (2010).
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