Buddhist-Christian Studies 21.1 (2001) 3-12
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Vancouver School ofTheology
While Israel was staying at Shittim, the people began to have sexual relations with the women of Moab. They invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. Thus Israel yoked itself to the Baal of Peor, and the LORD's anger was kindled against Israel. The LORD said to Moses, "Take all the chiefs of the people, and impale them in the sun before the LORD, in order that the fierce anger of the LORD may turn away from Israel." And Moses said to the judges of Israel, "Each of you shall kill any of your people who have yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor." (Num. 25:1-5)
This is the first of two stories told in Numbers 25. In the second, an Israelite brings a Midianite woman into the camp as the sentence is being carried out. In response, one of the Israelites, a man named Phinehas, a grandson of Aaron the priest, takes a spear and follows the couple into a tent, where he slaughters them both. God commends this act of butchery with these words: "Phinehas son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the Israelites by manifesting such zeal among them on my behalf that in my jealousy I did not consume the Israelites. Therefore say, 'I hereby grant him my covenant of peace. It shall be for him and for his descendants after him a covenant of perpetual priesthood, because he was zealous for his God, and made atonement for the Israelites.'" (Num. 25:11-13)
The account of these incidents is an unsophisticated one. God is portrayed, in an anthropomorphic way, as violently egocentric. The punishment exacted for offending God is crude and barbaric. This is a god who demands violence and commends violence when it is performed in his cause. This is a god who is intensely competitive toward the other gods and who treats vindictively anyone who has commerce with them.
Because of the unsophisticated terms in which this story is told, it is easy enough to dismiss a text like this as a crude expression of ancient Hebrew religion that the Judeo-Christian tradition has long since transcended. I want to take a somewhat different perspective and argue that the violence expressed in this text, albeit in a more subtle and spiritualized way, has persisted in the Christian tradition.
The violence of Numbers 25 has the following characteristics. First, it is ordered [End Page 3] and justified in terms of an exclusive loyalty to a single deity. Secondly, it expresses a religious xenophobia. This xenophobia is religious, cultural, and sexual. The transgression of the loyalty to God is attributed to the presence of foreign women. In short, the text is chauvinist and misogynist.
It is common to distinguish between henotheism and monotheism. Henotheism is the worship of a single god in distinction from other gods. Henotheism does not deny the existence of other gods. It focuses its attention and devotion on only one of those gods. Thus henotheism might also be described as monolatry--the worship of one god among many. Monotheism, by contrast, acknowledges the existence of only one god.
Given this contrast, we can say that Numbers 25 is a henotheistic text. That is, Yahweh, the god who leads the Israelites out of Egypt and toward the Promised Land, acknowledges the reality of the other god--here the Baal of Peor--by the intensity of his anger. The worship of the Moabites is taken very seriously. Those who participate in the Moabite cult actually yoke themselves to this other god. The coincidence of the sexual liaison with Moabite women and the worship of the Moabite god expresses something of the intimacy of the relationship in which the Israelite men are understood to participate. It is the assumed reality of the Moabite deity that makes it necessary for Yahweh to demand that the offenders be impaled in the glaring light of the desert...