Naso: Alleviating Intense Emotions
Nasa’ – “Lifting up”
In the complex set of passages that make up the first three parshiyot of Bemidbar (Numbers), a key term is the root nasa’ , “lift up,” which occurs in several senses. It is used in the phrase “lift up the head”, in the meaning of “take a census,” which was the main topic in Numbers 1. The word occurs in this meaning also in Numbers 4, including the opening words of Parashat Naso’ itself, which command an enumeration of the tribe of Levi.
The root nasa’ appears prominently also in the word nasi’, “one lifted up, leader.” This word is used of the heads of the tribes who carry out the census in Numbers 1 and in Parashat Naso’ in connection to offerings made by the same nesi’im at the dedication of the tabernacle (Num 7). In addition, nasa’, in the form of the word massa’, “lifting up, carrying” (NJPS “porterage”) refers to the duty of the most important branch of Levites, Kohath (to which Moses and Aaron also belong) to lift up and bear the ark when Israel continues its journey in the desert.
Finally, the root nasa’ occurs in the most well-known passage in Parashat Naso’, the Priestly Blessing in Num 6:24-26. The third climactic, blessing is that God “lift up (yissa’) His face towards you and grant you peace.” In this verbal way the disparate topics in Parashat Naso’ are tied together by the use of the term that begins the parasha itself.
Three Topics that Don’t Fit the Pattern
There are three contiguous topics in Numbers 5 and 6 that are outside this pattern:
A. The first deals with the “guilt” or “trespass” offering (asham), which was described in detail in Leviticus 5. The new point in Numbers 5 seems to be to include sins committed against another person in the category of asham (Number 5:5-10). This law seems to be out of place.
B. The second topic is the ordeal of the sotah, “straying woman,” to which a wife suspected of adultery is subjected (Num 5:11-31).
C. The third topic is the law of the nazirite, the man or woman who has taken a divine oath for a certain amount of time (Num 6:1-20).
I would like to first concentrate on the latter two.
The Sotah Ritual: A Unique Case of Biblically Approved Magic
As already noted by Rashi, these latter two laws seem to have no connection to each other or to the rest of the parasha. The usual scholarly explanation for their inclusion here is that the regulations involving both the sotah and the nazirite require the presence of a priest. He administers the ordeal to the woman, and supervises the oath of the nazirite, and thus these rituals are included because the surrounding units deal with priests. But there may be a more intrinsic connection, one which is of great importance to the priestly theologians whose religious ideas underlie this passage.
The ordeal of the sotah involves a woman whose husband is wracked by jealousy (qin’ah) because he suspects she has committed adultery. Whether there are grounds for the suspicion or, as the text specifically tells us, there is no basis in fact for the charge, the woman is brought to the priest at the shrine. He takes some earth from the floor of the shrine and mixes it with water to make a potion, called the “waters of bitterness which bring on the curse” (JPS translates the latter term as “spell.”) He loosens her hair and has her drink the potion, stating that if she is guilty the waters will make her “thigh to sag” and “her belly swell.”
The latter symptom grotesquely imitates pregnancy, but it is unclear what the effects of the drink would be on a guilty woman (some suggest a prolapsed uterus). Equally unclear is whether the result of the ordeal becomes known immediately or later. Perhaps it only takes place when she tries to give birth, if the adultery resulted in a pregnancy. Strangely, there is no statement that a guilty wife is executed, the penalty elsewhere for adultery (Lev 20:10), only that she will become a “curse among her people” and “bear her guilt,” a penalty that need not mean death.
Some have argued that the aim of the ritual is to protect women from false accusations by a jealous husband, because the ordeal would unlikely result in so drastic and visible a result. What is clear is that the ordeal is unique in the Hebrew Bible, and a rare example of licit magic.
Why does the priestly tradition allow such a seeming departure from the monotheistic prohibition of magic in biblical religion (see e.g. Exod 22:7; Deut 18:10)? To answer this question we must first look at the next passage, the laws of the nazirite , the one who has taken an oath.
The Oath of the Nazirite
The nazirite must abstain from wine and any product of the grape, let his or her hair remain untrimmed, and avoid contact with dead bodies, even close relatives. The passage enumerates the offerings that must be made at the shrine when the nazirite completes the time of the oath. There is no indication of why a person would make such an oath in the first place; but we know from the narratives of the Bible and from parallels in other religions that individual oaths were a major aspect of popular religion.
The most famous nazirite was, of course, Samson (whose story forms the Haftarah of Naso’). He was a nazirite for life, but paradoxically he broke all the requirements: he drank wine profusely, slaughtered Philistines (and thus became ritually defiled through contact with corpses) and, in the most famous part of his story, had his hair cut by Delilah, to be sure, while he was asleep.
But Samson’s lifetime commitment is very unusual. Most oaths were for a limited period, and involved personal commitments of the nazirite. The most drastic was Jephthah’s oath that he would sacrifice the first living thing to emerge from his house when he returned from battle, which turned out to be his daughter.
Presumably, oaths played a big role in warfare, but also in connection to the other vicissitudes of life. The largest genre of Psalms, the petitions of the individual, reflects the experience of oaths. A person beset by enemies or other trouble would vow a sacrifice when God relieved him of his distress. At the shrine, accompanied by family and friends, he would offer his sacrifice and publically praise God for helping him (Pss 22:26; 61:6).
Numbers mentions none of this, only the detailed sacrifice to be offered on the completion of the vow. The absence of these details seems to suggest that the Torah somehow disapproves of the kind of religious enthusiasm that led people to make oaths. Certainly, the long list of sacrifices prescribed in Numbers 6:13-15 might discourage ordinary people from entering the Nazirite status impulsively.
The Connection between Sotah and Nazir
Perhaps this element of emotion or spontaneity is precisely what links the laws of the sotah ordeal and the nazirite oath. Both involve feelings a person cannot contain. From the point of view of the priestly tradition, which valued regularity and order, both unbridled jealousy and the perfervid emotions that might lead one to make an oath precipitously, were dangers that had to be controlled and fit into the ritual system. The quasi-magical ordeal might still a husband’s suspicions and the list of required sacrifices might prevent nazirite’s hasty oath.
A verbal link between the sotah and the nazirite might be the term pera’, ”loosening (of hair).” The priest is to unloosen the hair of the suspected woman, a visible symbol of her indeterminate status in the ordeal (Num 5:18). The nazirite is to let his hair grow long, as warriors seem to have done in the early period, as a visible sign of his status as a quasi-holy individual for the time of his oath (Num 6:5). The loosening or lengthening of hair symbolizes not only indeterminacy but also uncontrollability. A term from the same root, parua’ , “broken out, uncontrolled” is used twice in Exodus 32:25 to describe the behavior of the Israelites, who have made the Golden Calf and worship it rather than God.
An underlying message in the laws in Parashat Naso is the importance of find a way to contain and channel what might otherwise be wildly destructive (Samson’s behavior was a sign of what an uncontrolled Nazirite might do, even if in his case it was God’s plan). Jealously is a highly destructive emotion both to the family and to society. But other deep emotions that that can take over one’s life, grief, ambition and even love (which the Song of Songs terms a form of jealously that is as strong as death) must be met with some structure in religion, if that religion is to have vitality and meaning. Perhaps even the third law in Naso, involving the asham, “guilt offering” reflects the same desire to channel, control and alleviate deep emotion. The asham sacrifice is the only one that involves a feeling, in this case an inner emotion of guilt at having done wrong. Such a feeling of permanent guilt can be highly destructive, and the priestly cult offered a ritual means of alleviating it.
It is wrong to view the ritual and sacrificial laws in Leviticus and Numbers as purely formal, emotionless regulations. Many of them, such as those in Parashat Naso, deal with basic human emotions, which, unless addressed by religion, whether through ritual or prayer or meditation, can destroy lives.
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May 25, 2014
December 1, 2020
Prof. Rabbi Stephen A. Geller is the Irma Cameron Milstein Professor of Hebrew Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard and his ordination from JTS. Geller is the author of Sacred Enigmas: Literary Religion in the Hebrew Bible. He is currently working on a commentary on the Book of Psalms.
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