What Happened at Peor? Part 3

General Canaanite Religion

Although the religion of Baal Peor has not been identified in any archeological discovery, Ancient Near East discoveries indicate the nature of the religion of Baal Peor. Before the rise of ANE archeology, knowledge of the religion of Canaan was limited to the Hebrew Bible. The authors of Hebrew Bible wrote for theological purposes. Thus, they excluded much of the information about the other religions from their records and assumed that the reader would have a grasp of the nature of those religions. And so, researchers have been limited in their understanding of the religions of Canaan. But since the rise of ANE archeology, information regarding the religion of Canaan has grown, and researchers are able to compare what we know about Canaanite religion to the context of Numbers 25.

Worship of the Dead

There are a few Late Bronze Age texts that suggest what the Canaanites believed concerning the afterlife. Their god of the afterlife was Mot, which means death. In a Ugaritic text, as Baal sends messengers to Mot, Baal describes their journey to the underworld as a descent into the earth where Mot resides in filth.[1] In another place, when Baal is killed, the gods El and Anath morn for Baal by cutting themselves, putting on sackcloth, and covering themselves in dust.[2] When a person died, the Canaanites believed that the soul entered an immaterial realm, taking on the form of a shade or spirit, who could come back and haunt people.[3] These different aspects in their beliefs give the context in which the dead were worshiped.

Textual Evidence for a Cult of the Dead

Textual evidence for a cult-of-the-dead or ancestor worship is scarce.[4] The reference to Baal Peor in the Hebrew text is an undebated reference to a cult of the dead. Also, the stele of Katumuwa, from the eighth century, also mentions a death cult ritual for the departed spirit.[5] The stele reads:

I am Katumuwa, servant of Panamuwa, who acquired a stele for myself while alive and set it up in the guest-chamber of my tomb and ritually instituted this guest-chamber (thus): a bull for Hadad the Host, and a ram for the Chief of Provisions, and a ram for Shamash, and a ram for Hadad of the Vineyard, and a ram for Kubaba[!], and a ram for my being which is in this stele . And as for any of my or anyone’s offspring: if this guest-chamber [!] becomes his he must take from the best of this vineyard an annual offering, and make a slaughter where my being is, and apportion a thigh-cut for me.[6]

This text says that, at least in the eighth century, ritualistic eating was observed when the dead were remembered.

Another interesting funeral rite was the ancient custom of the marzea feast. In Ugaritic literature, the term marzeawas a cultic funerary banquette[7] at which there is excessive drinking.[8] In the Hebrew Bible, Jeremiah connects the marzeawith mourning for the dead. Amos cites the drunkenness, music, and luxury attending the marzea.[9] Although not directly mentioned in Numbers 25, Philip King suggests that the evidence indicates that the Baal Peor feasting was a marzea.[10]

Archeological Evidence for the Cult of the Dead

In addition to the textual evidence, archeological evidence supports the existence of a death cult. Leading archeologists Steven Collins and Hussein Aljarrah found at the Tall El-Hammam dig what they describe as a “necro-scape.”[11] The site appears to have been inhabited from the IBA to the MBA, with only one LBA building discovered so far. Even so, this timeframe places the later dates for the city within a few hundred years of the Israelites’ encampment at Shittim.

At Tall El-Hammam, they discovered several undisturbed dolmens containing various ceramics, as well as scattered bones of both infants and adults. There were no complete skeletons or indications of such, which would point to the use of these dolmens not as a burial place for the dead, but as some kind of place for ritualistic ancestor worship.[12] In one dolmen, they found evidence of repeated ritualistic use, excavating pottery dated from the Chalcolithic to the IBA—a range of over 2,200 years.[13] Additionally, these dolmens and other megalithic monuments[14] appear to have some alignment with the cultic center attached to the nearby town, suggesting a direct connection between the necro-scape and the religious rites of the city.[15] Although these artifacts are not directly connected to the religion of Baal Peor, they do advocate for a strong presence of a cult of the dead in the region.

Fertility Cults and Cult-Prostitution

The connection between cultic prostitution and Baal Peor has long been established. Philo stated that the acts were a form of cultic prostitution.[16] However there are many authors today who do not accept that cultic prostitution was in view in Numbers 25 and some argue against it in the broader context of the ANE.

Cultic Prostitution in the ANE

In her article Tamar, Qědēšā, Qadištu, and Sacred Prostitution in Mesopotamia, Joan Westenholz argues against the conception that cult prostitution played a typical role in ANE religions.[17] After detailed analysis of the linguistic data from the ANE on words traditionally translated cult prostitute, she states in her conclusion, “Neither the nrp nor the qadistu nor the nu-gig are to be reckoned as sacred prostitutes.” Further, she adds, “it remains necessary to prove that there was no such institution as sacred prostitution in Mesopotamia in spite of its widespread reputation among scholars.”[18] Continuing on, she points out that the ANE fertility cults are a kind of urban-legend, perpetuated from scholar to scholar quoting each other without reliable evidence.[19]

Although Westenholz makes some excellent points, her argument does not adequately interpret the available data. First, the promiscuous nature art in the context of the ANE religions was rampant, as depicted by the abundance of explicit material discovered, such as plaques and reliefs. There is an abundance of female figurines, crafted in a way to emphasize pubic areas,[20] and often these figurines and other related objects are found in shrines. For example, William Dyrness notes that “in and around [a shrine] were scattered many animal figurines and models of male sex organs, indicating that fertility cults existed at that early date.”[21] Additionally, the goddesses are usually depicted in sexually explicit forms. For example, the Egyptian goddess Qudšu, who is equated with the goddess Asherah, is characteristically depicted in erotic images.[22]

Second, some texts describe goddesses as fertility goddesses. For example, one of the earliest references to Asherah appears in the mid-second-millennium Akkadian inscription. In this text, Asherah, under the name Agratum, “is described as kallat gar gami ‘bride of the king of heaven’ and hetet kuzbi u ulqi ‘mistress of sexual vigor and rejoicing.’”[23] Other goddesses have accounts of their behavior, indicating how they flaunted their beauty and power over males, whether gods or men.[24] Given this level of accolades and activities, it is improbable that the fertility cults were non-existent in the ANE.

Third, Westenholz cites that the Hebrew context of the word קָדֵשׁ does not indicate in any manner a sexual activity.[25] While this assertion works well with Job 36:14, removing the idea of illicit activity out of the occurrences in Genesis, Deuteronomy, and Kings produces an awkward rendering of the passages, especially Deuteronomy.[26] Most importantly, she ignores the context of Hosea 4:14 where the whole context of the verse is perverted sexual activity and the word קָדֵשׁ is in parallel with זנה (prostitute). In this passage, the sacrifice by means of cultic prostitution is in view. Based on the implicit evidence from the artifacts and the explicit statements from textual sources, it seems that a better construction of the evidence indicates that the fertility rites did have a significant role in the religion in the ANE.

Numbers 25 and Cultic Prostitution

Within the Baal Peor narrative, many writers deny that there was any cult-prostitution.[27] However, besides cult prostitution being part of the worship context of that era, the text itself indicates that cultic prostitution is in view. In the first verse, Israel played “the harlot with the daughters of Moab.”[28] Levine takes this reference to be a metaphor for general idolatry and not actual adultery. He observes that the object of the verb znh takes the preposition ’el here and in Ezekiel 16:26, 28.[29] He argues that since Ezekiel’s use of the term is metaphorical, so too the use in Numbers should be metaphorical. However, Ezekiel uses this construction as a provocative metaphor, illustrating Israel going after other nations. On the other hand, Numbers 25 specifically notes that the men of Israel prostituted themselves with the “women of Moab” and not just “with Moab,” indicating that it is more than just spiritual apostasy going on.

The Temple at Tell Deir ‘Allā

These women invited the men “to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods.”[30] The nation Israel was not just passing through the area, but they had “settled in Shittim,” a phrase which indicates that they were encamped there for some time.[31] Thus, they would have had enough time to attend this sacrifice, even if it were some distance away.

While Israel was encamped in Shittim, twenty-five miles to the north at Tell Deir ‘Allā there appears to be evidence of ritualistic gatherings at a temple. First, the temple precincts were so large and expansive, that there was little room for civilian population. Second, there were no walls or fortifications around the site, suggesting that nobody thought that the temple would be attacked. Franken suggests in his 1964 excavation report that “it seems as if we have a central sanctuary where tribes living in the vicinity gathered for festivals etc.”[32] Additionally, at the location, Franken notes in his 1960 report:

A very curious find is a terracotta seated female figure (the head and shoulders are unfortunately broken off) with a monkey sitting on her lap whose raised hands grasp the breasts of the female (Pl. 13B). Several fragments were found of the type of the nude male and female hand moulded figurines which show more than usual care in the execution. They may represent followers of a procession in or towards a sanctuary. Fragments of the common so-called Astarte figurines, made in a mould, were also found. I am inclined to consider them as representing chthonic [underworld] powers rather than images of Astarte as a goddess (P1. 13A and 14A-B).[33]

These discoveries suggest that, during the time that Israel was in Shittim, the fertility cults at an apparently region wide gathering place were practiced, correlating well with the Numbers 25 account. One additional line of evidence, connecting Deir ‘Allā to the Numbers 25 account, is the reference to Pethor on some clay tablets dated to the LBA.[34] Pethor is the home of Balaam referred to in Numbers 22:5, and Deir ‘Allā is probably the site where the Biblical Pethor is located.[35] Could this temple be the location of the worship of Baal Peor? The answer is still maybe, but the connections are strong.

Kozbi, a Priestess of Asherah?

Another indication of the cultic fornication of Baal Peor is the woman that Zimri brought into the camp, named Kozbi. While there was a plague going around the camp of Israel because of their sin, Zimri brought the Midianitess into camp. He set up what the text calls a qūbbâ, which has been translated tent. However, this word is probably related to the Arabic word qubbāh, which means tent-shrine. Reif notes: “the קֻבָּה, mentioned in this passage does in fact refer to a very early tent-shrine, a forerunner of the later authenticated qubbāh, and is used only here as a special term describing a Midianite tent-shrine.”[36] Thus, Zimri established a religious shrine, and entered the tent with the woman.

Additionally, the name Kozbi has religious importance to it. While not all names are significant, the context of Kozbi in ANE literature does have significance. According to Lutzky, the root kzb in Semitic languages has two meanings: “to lie, deceive, disappoint, fail (water)” or “to be voluptuous, luxuriant, abundant (including water).”[37] In Akkaidian, the word means “luxuriance, abundance, attractiveness, charm, sexual vigor” and is often applied to the goddess Ištar/Asherah.[38] The name Kozbi meaning voluptuous and the religious context of her actions, indicates that she may have been involved in the Asherah cult. Furthermore, because of her connections to the leadership of Midian in Numbers 25:15, it is reasonably concluded that she was also a high priestess of that religion.


What happened at Peor? The people rejected Yahweh, turning to the worship of the land. It was more than just intermarriage between the Israelites and the Moabites. It was a rejection of Yahweh completely, for gods whose worship pleased the body with feasting, drinking, and immorality, yet which left the worshippers broken and empty in the end. So, Yahweh, who had rescued them and tended them, hated that the leaders of Israel had turned their people way from Him into emptiness.

[1] James Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 3rd ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974), 135. “There now, be off on your way . . . And descend to the depth of the earth, / Be of those who descend into earth. . .. Into his city Pit, / Low the throne that he sits on, / Filth the land of his inheritance.”

[2] Ibid., 139. El “sits on the ground Pours dust of mourning on his head, . . . And puts on sackcloth and loincloth. He cuts a gash with a stone.”

[3] Susan Braunstein, “The Meaning of Egyptian-Style Objects in the Late Bronze Cemeteries of Tell El-Farʿah (South),” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, no. 364 (2011): 16.

[4] Braunstein, 17.

[5] Seth L. Sanders, “The Appetites of the Dead: West Semitic Linguistic and Ritual Aspects of the Katumuwa Stele,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, no. 369 (2013): 51, https://doi.org/10.5615/bullamerschoorie.369.0035.

[6] Seth L. Sanders, 50.

[7] Gregorio Del Olmo Lete and Joaquin Sanmartin, A Dictionary of the Ugaritic Language in the Alphabetic Tradition, vol. 67, Handbook of Oriental Studies Section One: The Near and Middle East (Bostan: Brill, 2003), 581. “mrzh n. m. 1) “cultic association”; 2) “(cultic), (funerary) banquet”, by metonymy “banqueting hall” . . . . 1) Cult association: mzrh d qny cult association that PN founded, 3.9:1; mrzh fh[/]cult association of DN, 4.642:2, 4-7; mt mrzh member of the m., 3.9:13, cf. PN bn mrzh, 4.399:8. 2) (Cultic) banquet: ilytb bmrzhh DN is seated at his banquet (among his fellow guests), 1.114:15; 1.1 IV4 (cf. Del Olmo IMC 41). Cf mrzfy.”

[8] Andrew Cross, “Baal Peor and the Marzeah Feasts,” Arcalog (blog), 2014, http://www.arcalog.com/baal-peor-and-the-marzeah-feast/. Notes that El drank so much at one of these Marzeah that he passed out.

[9] Jeremiah 16:5, often translated “house of morning,” and Amos 6:4-7 translated “revelry of the loungers” (a better trans. “the feast of the loungers”).

[10] King, “The Marzeah Amos Denounces: Using Archaeology to Interpret a Biblical Text,” 38.

[11] Steven Collins and Hussein Aljarrah, “Tall El-Hammam Season Six, 2011: Excavation, Survey, Interptretations and Insights” (Trinity Southwest University Press, 2011), 24. “Necroscape: that portion of the landscape utilized, augmented, and altered by the collective funerary activities of the city-state community, where the dead are treated, tended, buried, and memorialized, including tombs and monuments of all types devoted to the passage, remembrance, or worship of ancestors, such as cave and shaft tombs, dolmens (various types), menhirs (+ alignments), stone circles, and ritual avenues.”

[12] Collins and Aljarrah, 16–17.

[13] Kennett Schath, Steven Collins, and Hussein Aljarrah, “Excavation of an Undisturbed Demi-Dolmen and Insights from the Al-Hammam Megalithic Field, 2011 Season,” Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan 55 (2011): 329.

[14] Schath, Collins, and Aljarrah, 346. “Ancestor ‘worship’ and/or ‘memorializing’ must have been a prominent feature of society in general, engendered by the sight of frequent ceremonial processionals from the city into the surrounding hills where tombs held the dead and obligatory burial goods. Dolmen chambers received memorial offerings and ‘token’ ancestral bones ceremonially lifted from nearby family tombs; solitary menhirs stood to represent the gods (or ancestral ‘great ones’); menhir alignments reflected the ritual calendar, marking the movement of the sun at solstices and equinoxes and the moon through its courses and phases; stone circles delineated sacred spaces (for ritual dancing, singing and chanting?); henges (a circle of ancestors?) stood in silent witness to the power of death in forging family/clan continuity and unity in the never-ending struggle for survival in a harsh and often unforgiving environment.”

[15] Schath, Collins, and Aljarrah, 331.

[16] David Lincicum, “Philo on Phinehas and the Levites: Observing an Exegetical Connection,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 21, no. 1 (2011): 45.

[17] Joan Westenholz, “Tamar, Qědēšā, Qadištu, and Sacred Prostitution in Mesopotamia,” The Harvard Theological Review 82, no. 3 (1989): 245–65.

[18] Westenholz, 260.

[19] This observation is valid. In researching fertility cults or sacred prostitution, it is hard to find articles, books, or entries that contain discussion of actual artifacts or text. Often times, the proof comes by a mere quotation of an earlier scholar, but with no tangible evidence presented.

[20] Joel Jupp, “Fertility Cults,” in The Lexham Bible Dictionary, ed. John Barry (Bellingham: Lexham Press, 2016).

[21] William Dyrness, “Art,” in Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988), 201.

[22] John Day, “Asherah in the Hebrew Bible and Northwest Semitic Literature,” Journal of Biblical Literature 105, no. 3 (1986): 358.

[23] Day, 356.

[24] An summary of all the myths of Inanna, a Sumerian goddess, which details this information can be found in the book: Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Kramer, Inanna Queen of Heaven and of Earth (New York: Harper and Row, 1983).

[25] Westenholz, “Tamar, Qědēšā, Qadištu, and Sacred Prostitution in Mesopotamia,” 248.

[26] Genesis 38:14, 21-22; Deuteronomy 23:17; 1 Kings 14:24, 15:12, 22:46; 2 Kings 23:7

[27] Baruch Levine, “The Sin of Baal Peor,” in Numbers 21-36, vol. 4A, The Anchor Bible (New York: DoubleDay, 2000), 279. For example, Baruch Levine argues that the reference is to pagan intermarriage, and not sexual promiscuity and “certainly not sacred prostitution.” See also, Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Reading the Women of the Bible (New York: Schocken Books, 2002), 221–22.

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

[29] Baruch Levine, “The Sin of Baal Peor,” in Numbers 21-36, vol. 4A, The Anchor Bible (New York: DoubleDay, 2000), 283.

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

[31] Levine, “The Sin of Baal Peor,” 282.

[32] H. J. Franken, “Excavations at Deir ’Allā, Season 1964: Preliminary Report,” Vetus Testamentum 14, no. 4 (1964): 419.

[33] H. J. Franken, “The Excavations at Deir ʿAllā in Jordan,” Vetus Testamentum 10, no. 4 (1960): 392.

[34] William Shea, “The Inscribed Tablets from Tell Deir ’Alla Part 1,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 27, no. 1 (1989): 21–37. See also, H. J. Franken, “Clay Tablets from Deir ʿAlla, Jordan,” Vetus Testamentum 14, no. 3 (1964): 377–79.

[35] Because this paper is about Baal Peor and not directly about Balaam, I will end my discussion of this here. The Hebrew text is ambiguous as to the location of Balaam. Literally translated, Balaam lived in “Pethor, which [is] upon the river, [in the] land of the sons of his people [or ‘Ammo].” If “the river” is the Jordan river, Deir ‘Allā is a prime location for Pethor.

[36] S. C. Reif, “What Enraged Phinehas?: A Study of Numbers 25:8,” Journal of Biblical Literature 90, no. 2 (1971): 204, https://doi.org/10.2307/3263760.

[37] Harriet Lutzky, “The Name ‘Cozbi’ (Numbers XXV 15, 18),” Vetus Testamentum 47, no. 4 (1997): 247.

[38] Miguel Civil et al., eds., The Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago: K, vol. 8 (Chicago: The Oriental Institute, 2008), 614.

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