Moses’ Apotropaic Intercession
When the Israelites refuse to enter the Promised Land in the wake of the report of the scouts, YHWH threatens to strike them with a plague and disown them all (Num 14:11)—but does not because Moses intervenes successfully with YHWH on the Israelites’ behalf (Numbers 14:13-19). As he does on several other occasions (e.g., Exod 32:11-13; Deut 9:26-29; and Num 16:22), Moses is intervening on behalf of others to ward off a divine decree of doom. We see similar behavior by others elsewhere in the Bible, including Abraham (Gen 18:23-32), David (2 Sam 24:17; 1 Chr 21:17), Ezekiel (9:8, 11:13), and Amos (7:2, 5).
This kind of activity appears in the religious literature of other ancient Near Eastern societies: in Mesopotamia and Anatolia (site of modern Turkey), experts conducted rituals to ward off divine decrees of doom communicated in the form of omens. Although different, these ancient Near Eastern rituals and the biblical speeches constitute human attempts to avert or prevent divinely-decreed evil or suffering. Scholars term this kind of behavior “apotropaic.” Thus Moses’ speech in Numbers 14 can be called “apotropaic intercession.”
Decrees of the Gods: Shared Assumptions in ANE Societies
Ancient Near Eastern societies, including Israel, believed that human well-being was largely controlled by divine will. The gods decreed good fortune or suffering based on human behavior, rewarding those who pleased them and punishing offenders. Ancient Near Eastern and biblical texts portray deities doing so in several different ways. At times the gods withdraw their protection, leaving their erstwhile protégés open to various types of malevolent forces. In other cases they punish them directly, through plague or flood, as in the story of Noah (Gen 6:6-7:12). Still other times an angry deity enlists a human agent, such as an enemy ruler, to punish the offender.
Crucial to this dynamic is the matter of timing. In courtroom procedures, there is a pause between a verdict and its execution. Like human judges, the gods were understood to announce their verdicts (often in the context of divine councils) and often, to communicate them before carrying them out. For example, YHWH tells Moses, “I will strike them with a plague and disown them!” (Num 14:12). The gap in time between communicating the verdict and beginning the punishment allowed humans to try to ward off the punishment, either through repentance and changed behavior by the offenders, or through intercession by a third party.
In the ancient Near East, in both human and divine contexts, a third party might intercede with a judge or deity on behalf of those targeted for punishment. In the context of divinely decreed doom, a human ritual expert might act as intercessor, pleading the offenders’ case before the gods or helping the offenders speak on their own behalf. These rituals had the purpose of lessening or averting the decreed punishment.
A vital aspect of this system was divine-human communication. Humans could intervene to avert divine decrees only if they knew the divine decision had been made. So how did humans learn about divine decrees of disaster in the ancient Near East? In general, through omens.
Societies in the ancient Near East shared the belief that the gods communicated with humans through multiple channels, many of them requiring expert decoding. Because the gods controlled the cosmos, they could write their messages in the stars or in the internal organs of sheep destined for sacrifice, allowing skilled diviners to “read” the results. Another way the gods communicated was through “terrestrial omens”: for example, unusual animal behavior, lightning strikes, or accidents.
Namburbu: Rituals to Avert the Evil
We know about many rituals to avert divinely decreed doom. Mesopotamian archaeologists have uncovered hundreds of ritual texts known as namburbu (singular namburbi). These rituals were intended to ward off the evil portended to individuals and households via specific omens of disaster that modern people would consider chance events, such as the appearance of a wild animal in someone’s house, or a lightning strike that caused a fire.
Although longer namburbu were written on their own clay tablets, some shorter ones were embedded in a particular collection of omen texts known as the Shumma alu. The Akkadian term namburbi originates from the older Sumerian term nam.bur.bu, which literally means “its releasing.” The Sumerian term likely reflects the placement of some of these ritual texts directly after the omens they were meant to ward off.
The namburbu tablets were found mostly in the royal archives in Nineveh and date to the time of the Neo-Assyrian kings Esarhaddon and Assurbanipal (7th century BCE). Mostnamburbu address terrestrial omens, although some ward off the evil portended by other types of omens, including malformed animal or human births and celestial events. In many cases, the targeted individual was the king, meaning that the omen had national consequences.
The Namburbi’s Juridical and Magical Functions
The namburbi, in general, had two functions. The first function was juridical, to appeal to a “higher court” to overturn the decree of the lesser god, who enraged at a particular human, had ordained punishment and sent the omen. This appeal could be addressed to one or more of the high gods, or the entire divine council headed by the god of justice, Shamash.
It was meant to cause the evil to “pass by” its intended recipient, often by instead attacking the harbinger itself. For example, according to one omen, a dog could communicate a man’s doom by urinating on him or howling in his house.The dog was acting as a harbinger of doom. In the namburbi KAR 64, the affected person verbally transfers the evil onto a clay model of the harbinger. Included in this magical function was purification of the targeted offender. This section of the namburbi was often addressed to the gods of magic and performed before their images at the ritual site.
Like other Mesopotamian rituals, the namburbu were understood to have been given by the gods of magic to humanity. They were to be enacted by the appropriate ritual specialist, known as an ashipu or mashmashu, along with the targeted individual.
Namburbi Part 1 – The Appeal
Most of the namburbu contain two sections corresponding to the functions noted above. The first part combines sacrifice with an appeal to a high god or gods. This part usually contains persuasive language (typically flattery) and a request for help based on a juridical model. For example, the opening recitation in KAR 64, a ritual to avert the evil portended by a dog urinating on an individual’s leg or howling in the house, reads as follows:
“Šamaš, king of heaven (and) earth, judge of upper and lower realms
light of the gods, ruler of humanity,
judge of the cases of the great gods,
I turn to you, I seek you out. Among the gods, command (my) life!
May the gods who are with you speak in my favor!”
Namburbi Part 2 – The Magical Rite
The second section incorporates magical rites—both verbal and physical—intended to purify the individual and eliminate the entity whose presence brought the impending evil in embryonic form. This part of the namburbi commonly addresses the gods of magic, Ea (god of wisdom and sweet water) and his son Asalluhi. This section makes use of magical speech since the words that are uttered are attributed to the gods who taught them to humans for this purpose.
This part of the namburbi makes use of specific magical techniques to help avert the decree. One particularly common magical method is the analogy, an example of sympathetic magic in which a verbal comparison magically transfers an attribute—the evil or suffering—from the targeted individual to someone or something else. Often the analogy is illustrated by an object or action. For example, in the namburbi quoted earlier, a model of the harbinger of doom—a clay image of a dog—is thrown into the river. As the water sweeps it away, the ashipu helps the targeted individual recite the following:
“This dog urinated on me
so that I am afraid and depressed.
Just as this image cannot return to its place
May its evil not approach! May it not come near! May it not press upon (me)!”
Other ancient Near Eastern societies had their own rituals averting the punishment portended by omens. In the Ritual of Huwarlu, a ritual expert known as an Old Woman averted the evil portended by ominous bird behavior with a combination of magical and persuasive speech and the frequent use of analogic magic.
Making Use of the Gods’ Powers
Magical rituals offered the ritual experts limited access to the gods’ own ways of controlling the cosmos. The ritual experts who enacted them took on a godlike mantle within the context of the ritual, uttering words and deeds that altered the fabric of reality, removing impurity and evil.
How the Biblical Approach Differs from ANE Apotropaic Intercession
The biblical writers disparaged many methods of divination, but like others in the ancient Near East, they believed that divine messages might appear in dreams, visions, prophetic oracles, and other signs. In narrative contexts such as Numbers 14, divine messages often appeared as direct speech from YHWH to a prophet. Thus, Moses knows about the decree because YHWH tells him about it explicitly.
The narrative context allows YHWH and Moses to be in dialogue, and distinguishes the interaction from the ritual texts described earlier, which utilize the less-direct communication found in omens and rituals.
The Place of Rhetoric and Human Persuasiveness
But the differences do not end there. The speech is presented as Moses’ own words, an act of rhetoric, devoid of analogies and lacking any manual rites other than the simple act of prostration (Num 14:5). In this regard, it is absolutely typical of biblical depictions of intercession against divine decrees of doom and quite different in style from a namburbi or like rites.
Moses’ plea on the Israelites’ behalf is a multi-pronged rhetorical performance, a tour-de-force of logos and pathos in which he makes several arguments:
A. Moses begins by arguing that YHWH’s killing the Israelites en masse will make him appear weak, undoing YHWH’s express intent to appear strong (Exod 7:5):
במדבר יד:יג וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל יְהוָה וְשָׁמְעוּ מִצְרַיִם כִּי הֶעֱלִיתָ בְכֹחֲךָ אֶת הָעָם הַזֶּה מִקִּרְבּוֹ. יד:יד וְאָמְרוּ אֶל יוֹשֵׁב הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת שָׁמְעוּ כִּי אַתָּה יְהוָה בְּקֶרֶב הָעָם הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר עַיִן בְּעַיִן נִרְאָה אַתָּה יְהוָה וַעֲנָנְךָ עֹמֵד עֲלֵהֶם וּבְעַמֻּד עָנָן אַתָּה הֹלֵךְ לִפְנֵיהֶם יוֹמָם וּבְעַמּוּד אֵשׁ לָיְלָה. יד:טווְהֵמַתָּה אֶת הָעָם הַזֶּה כְּאִישׁ אֶחָד וְאָמְרוּ הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר שָׁמְעוּ אֶת שִׁמְעֲךָ לֵאמֹר.יד:טז מִבִּלְתִּי יְכֹלֶת יְהוָה לְהָבִיא אֶת הָעָם הַזֶּה אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לָהֶם וַיִּשְׁחָטֵם בַּמִּדְבָּר.
Num 14:13 Moses said to YHWH: “If Egypt hears that you raised up this people from among them with your might14:14 they will say to those dwelling in this land that they heard that you, O YHWH, are in this people’s midst, that you, O YHWH, appeared eye to eye, and your cloud stays over them, and that you go before them in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night. 14:15 But if you kill this people as one man, the nations who heard of your repute will say, 14:16 it was on account of YHWH’s inability to bring this people to the land which he promised to them that he slaughtered them in the wilderness?
Tucked into the final sentence of this claim is an implied legal argument: YHWH is breaking a promise.
B. YHWH presents himself as patient, loyal, and forgiving (Exod 34:6-7), so should he not demonstrate these qualities?
יד:יז וְעַתָּה יִגְדַּל נָא כֹּחַ אֲדֹנָי כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתָּ לֵאמֹר. יד:יח יְ-הוָה אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב חֶסֶד נֹשֵׂא עָוֹן וָפָשַׁע וְנַקֵּה לֹא יְנַקֶּה פֹּקֵד עֲוֹן אָבוֹת עַל בָּנִים עַל שִׁלֵּשִׁים וְעַל רִבֵּעִים.
14:17 Now, please, let my Lord’s forbearance be great, as you promised when you said, 14:18 ‘YHWH is patient and abounding in steadfast loyalty, forgiving iniquity and transgression but not vindicating it, holding children to account for their fathers’ iniquity to the third and fourth generation.’
C. Moses reminds YHWH of his past forgiveness of his people and asks for him to do so once again.
יד:יט סְלַח נָא לַעֲוֹן הָעָם הַזֶּה כְּגֹדֶל חַסְדֶּךָ וְכַאֲשֶׁר נָשָׂאתָה לָעָם הַזֶּה מִמִּצְרַיִם וְעַד הֵנָּה.
14:19 Pardon, please, this people’s iniquity according to your great and steadfast loyalty and as you have pardoned this people from Egypt until now.”
These last arguments raise the expectation of divine consistency: YHWH is expected to stay true to his word, his self-description, and his past behavior.
From the perspective of pathos, Moses aims at two divine emotions: Moses plays on YHWH’s loving connection with his people by emphasizing his intimacy with the Israelites (noting how YHWH has appeared in their midst, “eye to eye,” and accompanied them all the way from Egypt). He also plays on the potential for YHWH feeling shame should the Egyptians—or even, perhaps, Moses himself—think badly of him, which might happen if YHWH fails to deliver on his promises or acts out of character.
Both the Bible itself and Rashi credit Moses’ speech with saving the Israelites’ skins. This is implicit in Num 14:20, when YHWH says,
“I have forgiven them in accord with your word.”
Rashi (1040-1105) interprets this verse to mean,
כדברך – בשביל מה שאמרת פן יאמרו מבלתי יכולת ה’:
“In accord with your word” – Because of what you [Moses] said, that is: “it was on account of YHWH’s inability . . .”
Rather than magic, the Bible emphasizes Moses’ human agency—his faithful representation of his people and his skilled use of speech on their behalf. Instead of magic, Moses uses various rhetorical strategies to persuade YHWH to change his mind. This reliance on ordinary human rhetoric is also found in the verbal intercessions of Amos, Ezekiel, and others who forestall divine decrees of doom. YHWH, however, always has the last word on the possibility and effectiveness of intercession. Three times YHWH tells Jeremiah not to intercede on behalf of his people prior to the Babylonian conquest (Jer 7:16, 11:14, 14:11-12).
Connections with ANE Ritual
Moses’ speech is linked to the ancient Near Eastern ritual tradition. The very notion that a deity might decree doom, yet respond to human intervention to ameliorate the punishment, was familiar throughout the region. In addition, the namburbu and other such rituals typically contain persuasive rhetoric as well as magical speech, although they usually lack the detailed argumentation found in Moses’ plea.
Apotropaic Use of the Divine Attributes
There is one more way in which Moses’ speech in Numbers 14 parallels the ritual approach. The words Moses recites in verses 17-18 are a close adaptation of YHWH’s divine attributes, which he shared with Moses in Exod 34:6-7. Such sharing of effective speech resembles the ancient Near Eastern traditions of the gods giving humanity ritual words to use to fend off the evil predicted in omens. It also resembles magical rituals in which experts quote divinely-approved language with magical effect. Moses’ re-use of YHWH’s own self-description certainly makes sense as a rhetorical strategy. But perhaps, in this context, it also means something more.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
June 13, 2017
July 14, 2021
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Dr. Marian Broida is Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion at Gustavus Adolphus College. She received an MA in Jewish Studies and PhD in Hebrew Bible from Emory University. She is the author of Forestalling Doom: “Apotropaic Intercession” in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East (2015).
Essays on Related Topics: