June 28, 2009

Balak: A Path to Follow

In the last verses of this portion, beginning with Numbers/Bamidbar 25:1, “the people” [ha-am] and “daughters of Moab” [b’not moav] become involved in a way that is dangerous to Israel:

“Israel settled in the Shittim and the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab” (Stone, 25:1).
“And Israel stayed at Shittim, and the people began to go whoring with the daughters of Moab” (Alter, 25:1).
“While Israel was staying at Shittim, the menfolk profaned themselves by whoring with the Moabite women” (The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, 25:1) (For references, see Source Materials)

The latter translation is accompanied by a note saying, “The text makes it clear that it is the Moabite women who entice Israelite men to join their ritual feast….the present story singles out women as enticers to sin, while it labels men as sinners.”

Alter annotates this verse as follows: “The sexual metaphor of ‘whoring’ (verbal stem z-n-h) is regularly used in the Bible to represent Israel’s betrayal of cultic fidelity to its own God….the literal sense of the verb ‘to whore’ leads to the figurative sense.”


It is worth exploring in this context the relationship between the Moabites and Israel: The people Moab are descendants of the incestuous relationship between Lot and his older daughter (the Ammonite people are descendants of Lot and his younger daughter; Breishit/Genesis 19:30-38).

Deuteronomy/Devarim 23:4 explicitly prohibits allowing Ammonites and Moabites to “enter the congregation….even in the tenth generation,” but does not reference Lot or his daughters. Abraham Ibn Ezra understood this to refer only to allowing males of these groups.

David and the royal line — including, by extension, the messiah ben david — descends from “Ruth, the Moabite” (as well as from Naamah, an Ammonite descendant and wife of Solomon).

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Bamidbar, Gender, midrash

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