THE HERESY OF PE’OR
I found Israel like grapes in the wilderness, I saw your fathers as the first-ripe in the fig-tree at her first season. But as soon as they came to Ba’al-Pe’or, they separated themselves unto the shameful thing and became detestable like that which they loved (Hos 9:10).
Phinehas was the grandson of Aaron, the brother of Moses (Ex 6:25). He distinguished himself by risking his life to end the heresy of Pe’or and make reparation to HaShem for it, after the people of Israel had bought into the heresy lock, stock and barrel. Phinehas won from the Father cessation of the annihilation of the Israelites as a punishment (Nb 25:11-13). He also won a covenant of peace for the people and a covenant of everlasting priesthood for himself and his descendants.
The people of Israel had spent almost 40 years in the desert after their spectacular exodus from Egypt. They found themselves at Abel-Shittim (Nb 25:1): the last station before they were to reach the promised land of Canaan (Chassidic Masters, 2010). The Israelites had been consecrated by HaShem to be His chosen people, His first-born nation, after they entered into a covenantal relationship with Him which was embodied in and through the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments; Ex 20:1-17) He gave Moses on Mount Sinai. This covenant – the covenant of the Torah – had been offered by God the Father to many other nations before He offered it to Israel, but all these other nations had turned Him down (Parsons, 2013a). The essence of that covenantal relationship was epitomized by the first commandment:
“I am HaShem your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make a graven image, nor any manner of likeness, of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down unto them nor serve them. For I, HaShem your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of those who hate Me; and showing mercy unto the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep My commandments” (Ex 20:1-5).
The expectation was that the people of Israel would worship HaShem exclusively in exchange for His special favor, thus foregoing all other gods worshiped by the neighboring, pagan nations. Pertinent here were also the fifth and sixth commandments: “You shall not kill [and] you shall not commit adultery” (Ex 20:13-14). The fifth commandment proscribed murder as it violated the sole right of God as Creator to give and take life. The sixth commandment proscribed adultery, including within it any kind of sexual promiscuity or depravity, since all these violated the purity of God and the natural order (Aquinas, 1920).
The heresy of Pe’or consisted both of the reasonableness and performance of extreme sexual and scatological depravities, and the idolatry of the false gods which comprised the Ba’al of Beth-Pe’or (Josephus, 93-94) – the “idol of the wide opening.” This Ba’al was considered akin to Moloch, the god of propitiatory child sacrifice by its parents. The false gods which comprised Ba’al-Pe’or were the sun-god and god of ‘holy’ warfare, Chemosh, the national god of the Moabites (van Zyl, 1960) and the moon goddess, Ishtar. Chemosh and Ishtar were worshiped through prostitution, other depraved acts carried out under the name of ‘sacred sex’ (Tractate Avodah Zarah 44b, 2005; Tractate Sanhedrin 64a, 2005), and the eating of young, human victims which were sacrificed to the dead (2 Kgs 3:27, Ps 106:28).
Chemosh was often depicted as a phallus and Jerome of Stridon reported that statues of Ba’al-Pe’or in Syria showed the god with a phallus in his mouth. Other scholars said that the area in front of the Ba’al was a latrine and the idol was shown seated on a toilet, receiving offerings of the excremental residues of digestion (de Plancy, 1863). Priests and priestesses of Ba’al-Pe’or cross-dressed as women and men respectively when worshiping the idol (Highwater, 2001).
The Moabites – people of Chemosh, as they liked to be known – were direct descendants of Moab, the son of the daughter of Lot, born from her incestuous union with her father when he was drunk. The Moabites were related to the Israelites through Terah, the father of Abraham and Haran, which latter was the father of Lot (Gn 19:30-38). But despite such kinship, the people of Chemosh were prohibited from worshiping HaShem with the people of Israel because:
“. . . they met you not with bread and water on the way, when you came forth out of Egypt; and because they hired against you Balaam, the son of Beor from Pethor of Aram-naharaim, to curse you” (Dt 23:5; cf. Neh 13:2).
Moab leads Israel into sin
The heresy of Pe’or was deliberately propagated by the people of Chemosh toward the people of Israel at the instigation of their king, Balak (formerly Tzur, king of Midian; Parsons, 2013b) so that he could gain power over the Israelites (Nb 22:1-41). When Balak saw the numerous victories of the Israelites against other nations due to the favor shown them by God, he feared Israel with intensity. As a worshipper of the occult, Balak knew that if he could successfully entice the people of Israel to sin against HaShem they would lose His favor and incur His wrath, making it easy for the king to subdue them – something he had been unable to achieve despite numerous attempts, including a failed attempt to curse the Israelites from the top of Mount Pe’or itself (Nb 23:1-30, 24:1-25; Parsons, 2013b). Thus Balak ordered both the people of Chemosh and Midian to entice the people of Israel:
“. . . set out the handsomest of such of your daughters as are most eminent for beauty, and proper to force and conquer the modesty of those that behold them, and these decked and trimmed to the highest degree able. Then do you send them to be near camp, and give them in charge, that the young men of the Hebrews desire their allow it them; and when they see they are enamored of them, let them take leaves . . . till they have persuaded leave off their obedience to their own laws, the worship of that God who established them to worship the gods of the Midianites and for by this means God will be angry at them” (Josephus, 93-94).
After the women of Moab and Midian enticed the men of Israel with their adornments and beauty,
“. . . the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab and they called the people unto the sacrifices of their gods; and the people did eat, and bowed down to their gods. And Israel joined himself unto the Baal of Peor; and the anger of HaShem was kindled against Israel” (Nb 25:1-3).
The women also told the men of Israel:
“Since you make use of such customs and conduct of life as are entirely different from all other men . . . it will be absolutely necessary, if you would have us for your wives, that you do withal worship our gods. Nor can there be any other demonstration of the kindness which you say you already have . . . than this, that you worship the same gods that we do . . . especially while our gods are common to all men and yours such as belong to nobody else but yourselves” (Josephus, 93-94).
With the people of Israel given over to Ba’al-Pe’or despite their consecration to HaShem, His anger was significantly aroused and He proclaimed their annihilation because
“When once the youth had tasted of these strange customs, they went with insatiable inclinations into them; and even where some of the principal men were illustrious on account of the virtues of their fathers, they also were corrupted together with the rest” (Josephus, 93-94).
By engaging in sexual and scatological depravities, idolizing false gods and consecrating themselves to Ba’al-Pe’or by killing, then eating, young children in propitiation, the people of Israel became vile in the sight of God (Hos 9:10). They had broken their vow and risked the complete eradication of their institutions and themselves as a people (Josephus, 93-94) because they violated the first, fifth and sixth commandments (Ex 20:1-14) without repentance.
When Moses discovered what happened, he pleaded in tears with the people of Israel to return to the law of the covenant. He stressed that changing ways was imperative as the Israelites had already been enjoying prosperity in their daily lives (Josephus, 93-94) as a result of their covenantal relationship with HaShem, even though they had not yet reached the promised land. But the men of Israel did not listen. In particular, Zimri, a prince of the tribe of Simeon,
“brought unto his brethren a Midianitish woman [Cozbi, a princess of Midian] in the sight of Moses, and in the sight of all the congregation of the children of Israel, while they were weeping at the door of the tent of meeting” (Nb 25:6).
Upon being confronted, Zimri told Moses with defiance:
“. . . Hebrews are not easily put upon, but thou shalt not have me one of thy followers in thy tyrannical commands, for thou dost nothing else hitherto, but, under pretense of laws and of God, wickedly impose on us slavery and gain dominion to thyself, while thou deprivest us of the sweetness of life, which consists in acting according to our own wills and is the right of free-men and of those that have no lord over them” (Josephus, 93-94).
In front of such open rebellion and incitement, many Israelites remained silent. But Phinehas
“. . . rose up from the midst of the congregation and took a spear in his hand. And he went after the man of Israel into the chamber and thrust both of them through: the man of Israel and the woman through her belly. So the plague was stayed from the children of Israel. And those that died by the plague were twenty and four thousand” (Nb 25:7-9).
Phinehas slew Zimri out of zeal for HaShem, in reparation, and to end the spread of transgression throughout the ranks of the people of Israel. Like that, he delivered them from total annihilation, as the ongoing transgression of the Israelites had brought down upon them a raging plague in punishment. This zeal of Phinehas also aroused other men of Israel, who until then had remained largely neutral, to end similar behaviors in those compatriots who had followed in the footsteps of Zimri (Josephus, 93-94). The rest of the people
“. . . all perished by a plague, which distemper God himself inflicted upon them; so that all those their kindred, who, instead of hindering them from such wicked actions as they ought to have done, had persuaded them to go on, were esteemed by God as partners in their wickedness and died” (Josephus, 93-94).
After this action of Phinehas, HaShem told Moses:
“Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, has turned My wrath away from the children of Israel, in that he was very jealous for My sake among them, so that I consumed not the children of Israel in My jealousy. Wherefore say: ‘Behold, I give unto him My covenant of peace and it shall be unto him, and to his seed after him, the covenant of an everlasting priesthood; because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the children of Israel’” (Nb 25:11-13).
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- Highwater, J. (2001). The mythology of transgression: Homosexuality as metaphor. Bridgewater, NJ: Replica Books.
- Josephus, F. (93-94). Antiquities of the Jews, Bk. IV, Chap. VI (W. Whiston, ed. & trans.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Software.
- Parsons, J. (2013a). Hebrew for Christians. Available at http://hebrew4christians.com
- Parsons, J. (2013b). A year through the Torah: A week-by-week journey for Christians. Scottsdale, AZ: Hebrew Heart Publications.
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- van Zyl, A. H. (1960). The Moabites. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill.