What Happened at Peor? Part 1

“While Israel remained at Shittim, the people began to play the harlot with the daughters of Moab. For they invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods.”[1] God burned with anger and Moses commanded: “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.”[2]

Why did Yahweh burn with anger and why did Moses order such harsh measures be taken? What was the big deal about this event? When the people worshipped the golden calf, Yahweh did not command these extreme measures to be taken. When Israel complained against Yahweh, he did not command that people be publicly executed. Even the rebellion of Korah was not as gruesome and raw as this event. Why was Yahweh so enraged against this sin? The purpose of this paper is to explore the world at that time to find the worship of Baal Peor.

Significant Textual Sources

There are two main textual traditions that provide data for the religion of Baal Peor. The first tradition is the Hebrew Bible, which not only recorded the event, but offers several later commentaries on the subject. The second tradition is the 1967 discovery of the Balaam Inscription. The inscription references the deities of Balaam and provides context to the worship of Baal Peor.

The Hebrew Text

The Hebrew Bible and Baal Peor

To discover the nature of the religion of Baal Peor, the first stop is the Hebrew Bible record. The Hebrew Bible indicates several aspects of the Baal Peor religion. The passage itself (Num. 25:1) indicates that fertility rites were part of the religious rites of the Baal Peor. Centuries later, Hosea recites the unfaithful history of Israel. He describes the sin of Baal Peor and records that Yahweh cursed the fertility of the nation of Ephraim (Hos. 9:10-14). Because of the close connection of Baal Peor and the curse of the fertility of Israel, it is a probable inference, then, that the worship of Baal Peor involved in some way fertility rites.

While the fertility rites are indicated from the Hebrew Bible, another aspect of their religion was to sacrifice to the dead. The text states that these sacrifices included some ritualistic feasts (Num. 25:2). Also, in Psalm 106:28, the author states that “they worshiped Baal Peor and ate sacrifices offered to the dead.” Thus, the worshippers of Baal Peor practiced a variation of dead/ancestral worship. So, the investigation of the religion of Baal Peor will trance the nature of these two rites in the ANE.

The Coherence of Numbers 25

The text under consideration, Numbers 25:1-18, is a complete unit. Many commentators divide the text into two parts, verses 1-5 and 6-18. The first section is attributed to JE, because the author calls Israel “the people” and mentions the roles of judges. Moreover, the anger of Yahweh as recorded in Numbers 25 is also part of the JE tradition, according to the Documentary Hypothesis. The second section (6-18) is attributed to P, because the author calls Israel “the sons of Israel” and “the congregation.” In addition, the narrative focuses on the Levitical line and Phinehas’ covenant with Yahweh. Therefore, according to the hypothesis, the second section must be from the P source.[3]

The Date of Baal Peor

The text would places the story at the end of the wilderness wonderings, between 1400-1290 BCE. Because archeology can only give us approximant dates, the exact date of the Baal Peor narrative is not important to the discussion at hand.[4] Thus, the information under consideration will be from the Late Bronze age.

[1] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Nu 25:1–2.

[2] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989), Nu 25:4.

[3] Philip Budd, “Apostasy at Shittim,” in Numbers, vol. 5, World Biblical Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1984), 274.

[4] I hold to a the “early date” theory of the Exodus. For a balanced discussion on the subject, see: Charles Dyer, “The Date of the Exodus Reexamined,” Biblotheca Sacra 140, no. 559 (1983): 225–42.


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