Balak by Rabbi David Hartley Mark

Balak: Peace Hopes, Priestly Zeal, and Homicide

by Rabbi David Hartley Mark


“While Israel was camping at Shittim, the people profaned themselves…with the Moabite[?] women, who invited the people to the sacrifices for their god, Baal-Peor. The people partook of [the sacrifices] and worshiped that god. …Just then, an Israelite man came and brought a Midianite[?] woman…in the sight of Moses and of the whole Israelite community [before] the Tent of Meeting. When Pinchas, son of Elazar son of Aaron the Priest saw this, he [took] a spear in his hand…and stabbed both of them.”

–Num. 25:1-2, 6-8 (translation mine)


My name is Kozbi bat Tsur, and I am a Moabite princess-priestess, Stranger. I am glad that you were able to conjure my spirit up from Sheol, that Afterlife of Whispered Silences, where the spirits of the dead flit about aimlessly. I was a peacemaker, but, alas! My attempts were futile, due to the implacable hatred of one of your priests. Still, thank you for giving me the chance to tell you what really happened.

Doubtless, you have read of the cult of Baal-Peor, about which your Scroll relates that we, Moabites and Midianites both—the text is vague on our identity—seduced your people, with the harshest results. In the interests of promoting intertribal peace, I selected a worthy partner, one Zimri ben Salu, of your Tribe of Shim’on. I proposed to him that peace would ensure fertility for our crops, both Moabite and Israelite, for we believed that your people would gradually settle next to ours, in peace and harmony. Of course, your zealous Pinchas prevented all that, and we remain at war, today.

Don’t forget that your people camped next to us, within sight of the infamous or worthy (depending on your point of view, after all) Baal Peor, from whose godly mouth light emerges—hence, his name, Pe, “mouth,” and Or, “light.” I imagined, foolishly perhaps, that we might worship together, the better to unify our peoples. Our tradition did not allow us to pray to an invisible God; hence, Baal Peor might be a convenient starting-point for us.

There was another important distinction: in our worship, women take a leading role, since we represent the fertility we wish upon the earth. What god have you to equal Peor, after all?

And you know, Stranger, the truth is that I was acquainted with Pinchas from long before the tragic incident. I would often wander over to the Israelite Tent of Meeting, and admired how this dedicated young man was able to heft enormous sides of beef, as well as prepare the incense which clouded the Tent and smelled strong enough to make me dizzy. So much did I worship Pinchas—worship, ha! That’s a fine word, considering how he repaid me—that I would wait outside the Tent until he was done making the sacrifices. It was not my intention to seduce him, despite what your Scroll may say. Doubtless, our story was finally writ down on parchment decades, perhaps centuries, after our trysting took place. No, I swear in Baal’s name! I merely wished to become better acquainted with this prince of your people, this priest to whom all Israel paid obeisance; for, was he not messenger of your One High God?

We had no romance; we simply took long walks through the wheat fields. Our relationship—if you would call it that—consisted of his bragging to me about his priestly exploits, how his late Grandfather Aaron had carried him, shoulder-high, to the Shrine when Pinchas was but a young boy. Oh, and of course, he informed me of the sum total of sacrifices he would personally offer in the course of a week: really, after a while, his prattling about cattle and goats grew repetitious and boring. Is that what a girl—I mean, woman—wishes to hear, day after day?

Finally, I was able to get a word in, while my priestly Galahad was taking a breath—

“I, too, am a priestess,” I said, low and shyly, during an infrequent Pinchas-pause.

“A priestess? You?” he asked, and I felt his dark-brown eyes running over me, not kindly.

“Yes: to Baal-Peor,” I said, proudly.

“That is no god,” said Pinchas scornfully, “that is but a filthy, heathen idol.”

“Peor is not filthy!” I protested, “He is our god of the harvest, and I am one who brings the first-fruits before him.”

“You sacrifice your honor, in his name!” said Pinchas, and I felt my face redden.

“I do no such thing!” I retorted, “for all I do is bring forth the people’s harvest-offerings, both grain and fruits. I do no ashy, blood-soaked rituals such as your Israelite God requires.”

“Why, you—you—idol-strumpet,” said Pinchas, “you are not worthy to kiss the hem of my priestly robe, given me by Grandfather Aaron, of blessed memory.”

“Were your grandfather here,” I blazed back, “He would slap your face for insulting me, a princess of Moab, thusly. For I have heard from your neighbors, that Aaron was a peacemaker, who was careful to insult no one for their beliefs or practices.”

Pinchas held up one small hand, and I quietened, out of politeness.

“Stay away from me, strumpet,” he hissed, “for I cannot say what I may do when, or if, I see you again.”

He stormed off, and I returned to my father Tsur’s tent, nonetheless determined to work at uniting our peoples. Would not the Israelite God look with favor upon an alliance between us? I even recalled how Father told me that, decades before, we Moabites and you Israelites were related, through Abraham, our mutual father. When I asked Father for more details of our origins, he blushed, grew silent, and mumbled, “That is lost in the mists of our tribal history.”

And so, I continued my quest for unification, hoping for an Israelite partner. I was lucky, during the next few days, to meet one Zimri ben Salu, a prince of the Tribe of Shim’on. He was hardly as proud as Pinchas, but tribal royalty, like myself. We found a trysting-place by the Yabbok Stream, and shared many secrets.

I convinced Zimriabout my idea of unifying our tribes, and we discussed this at length. We decided that, on a given day, we would meet, not in secret, but before the Tent of Meeting, to blow the shofar and gather both of our peoples. Then, we would announce our Grand Plan of Peace.

The day came; I had dressed myself in my finest priestly robes, and met Zimri between our two camps. He, too, was richly clad, and his turban bore a chrysolite-stone which, he told me, his great-great-great—so many greats!—grandfather, Jacob, gave to Shim’on, his tribal forefather. He was convinced that the stone would flash and attract the Israelites to our cause; I had left word with my father, Tsur, to lead our Moabite people to the boundary-area for the Unification.

We stood before the Tent, and I recall the anticipation—or was it tension?—in the air. But I held on to Zimri’s hand, and waited for him to speak.

“Fellow Israelites!” said Zimri my love, after taking a deep breath, “The time has come to end all warfare against our Moabite tribal cousins, and seek the ways of peace—”

“Silence, Traitor! And you, Moabite strumpet! Die!”

I saw, too late: it was Pinchas, bearing a lance longer than he was tall. I felt the bronze tip enter my body—a blinding pain; I fell upon Zimri, to protect him from Pinchas. He screamed; I heard no more.

O you Israelites and Moabites! I implore you: strive for the ways of peace, and put aside war. For such is the will of both the Israelite God, and our Baal of Light.

Rabbi David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.

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