Parashat Balak 5770/ June 26, 2010
the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of
The Sin of Baal-peor in the Writings of Josephus
Dr. Michael Avioz
Department of Bible
The weekly reading of Balak concludes with the words:
In this brief article we shall take a close look at the way Josephus recast this story in Antiquities of the Jews (hereafter, Antiq.). 
Josephus gives the story
of Baal-peor prominence, devoting to it paragraphs
Josephus views the story of Baal-peor and that of the war against Midian (Num. 31) as a continuous narrative unit, as is evident from the very beginning of his account:
Balaam said to Balak, “Do you therefore set out the handsomest of such of your daughters as are most eminent for beauty… Then do you send them to be near camp, and give them in charge, that the young men of the Hebrews desire them; … till they have persuaded [them to] leave off their obedience to their own laws, the worship of that G-d who established them…”
Further on Josephus
recounts: “So when the
 had sent
their daughters, as Balaam had exhorted them, the Hebrew men were allured by
their beauty” (Antiq. IV 131).
Here Josephus (like the Sages and other commentators) draws a connection
between the previously mentioned story of Balaam’s curse which turned into a
blessing and the adherence of
While Pseudo-Philo (Biblical Antiquities 18.13) holds that the Israelites only sinned sexually, Josephus (and also Philo, The Special Laws 1.54-58) is of the opinion that their sin included both intermarriage and idolatry: “it will be absolutely necessary, if you would have us for your wives, that you do withal worship our gods… that you worship the same gods that we do” (Antiq. 4.137).  Josephus puts into the mouths of the Midianite women arguments that are familiar to us from the claims of Greek and Roman authors against the Jews: “you make use of such customs and conduct of life as are entirely different from all other men, insomuch that your kinds of food are peculiar to yourselves, and your kinds of drink not common to others” (ibid.). Young Israelite men “gave themselves up to what they persuaded them, and transgressed their own laws, and supposing there were many gods…” (loc. sit. 139) they went so far that they fell “into danger of the entire abolition of their own institutions” (loc. sit. 140). These additions were intended to make clear to the reader the full import of the story.
There are various
stylistic, linguistic, and substantive connections between the Baal-
peor narrative and the sin of the golden calf in Exodus
32-34. In both, sexual licentiousness
combined with idolatry; in both, many Israelites died in the wake of what was
done; in both, the zealots were rewarded by the Lord.
Josephus omitted the story of the golden calf
from his rewriting of history, since portraying the Israelites as
idol-worshippers did not suit his apologetic line, which sought to distinguish
In the sin of the golden calf, the
motive force for the forbidden action came from the people of
2. In the case of the golden calf an idol was made which, in the view of several biblical exegetes, was intended to serve in place of the Lord, whereas in the affair of Baal-peor the daughters of Midian suggested that the Israelites also worship their Midianite gods (Antiq. 4.137).
Josephus was addressing both gentile and Jewish readers. To his gentile readers he explained the differences between the Israelites and their neighbors. The Jews were under attack by Greek and Roman authors who accused them of being xenophobes,  not wanting to be part of other cultures out of zealous concern to safeguard their ethnic uniqueness. Josephus responded by asserting that the Israelites were “following the custom of their forefathers,” an acceptable code phrase in the Greco-Roman world. The Roman rulers, according to Josephus, viewed adherence to the laws of one's forefathers as completely legitimate and acceptable.
For his Jewish readers, Josephus provided his take on the Baal-peor affair in order to show the potentially destructive results of not adhering to the laws of their forefathers and obeying the Lord, the one and only G-d. The speech which he placed in Zimri’s mouth is a reflection of the argument made by those who left the laws of their ancestors and adopted the pagan religion and its practices.
The double audience for whom Josephus was writing posed for him a complex situation. On one hand he had to defend Judaism against external attack and show that it was part of world civilization, yet he had to make clear the price of cultural integration into pagan society. Naturally this duality did not always allow for consistent and coherent recasting of the biblical narrative.
 Project Gutenberg’s The Antiquities of the Jews, trans. William Whiston, Ebook #2848, posted January 4, 2009.
 Josephus apparently finesses the problem posed by the contradiction between the reference to Moabites in Numbers 25:1 and Midianites in verse 6 there. In Antiq. 4.130 he writes, “they worshipped the gods of the Midianites and the Moabites.” Jacob Milgrom claims in his commentary on Numbers in Olam ha- Tanakh (Tel Aviv 1993), “Midian was a union of nations, some of them living in the shadow of the dominion on the King of Moab” (p. 139).
interpretations appear in the writings of the Sages.
According to Sanhedrin 106a, the sin
was sexual, but according to Numbers Rabbah
23, the sin was a combination of sexual licentiousness and idolatry.
See the discussion in Louis
Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews, III,
 Cf. J.
Grossman, “Divine Command and Human Initiative:
A Literary View on Numbers 25-
(and its parallel, misoxenia) is a Greek term;
amixia, the Latin equivalent.
On these claims against the Jews, see Against
Apion [Hebrew], Arye