Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Balak 5770/ June 26, 2010

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



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:

While Israel was staying at Shittim, the people profaned themselves by whoring with the Moabite women, who invited the people to the sacrifices for their god.  The people partook of them and worshipped that god.  Thus Israel attached itself to Baal- peor, and the Lord was incensed with Israel (Num. 25:1-4)

In this brief article we shall take a close look at the way Josephus recast this story in Antiquities of the Jews (hereafter, Antiq.). [1]

Josephus gives the story of Baal-peor prominence, devoting to it paragraphs 126-155 in Book IV of Antiq.  Beyond what is given in the biblical description, Josephus’ account adds two orations by women of Midian, plus one by Moses, and one by Zimri.

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 Midianites [2] 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 Israel to Baal-peor.  Josephus’ account was apparently based on the allusion to this in Parashat Matot:  “Yet they are the very ones who, at the bidding of Balaam, induced the Israelites to trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, so that the Lord’s community was struck by the plague” (Num. 31:16).   The phrase rendered here as “to trespass against the Lord” is translated in the Septuagint as apostesai kai uperidein, which means to rebel against the Lord and have contempt for His word.   That was Balaam’s objective, for according to this tradition it was he who advised Balak to send the daughters of Midian to seduce the Israelites.

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). [3]   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. [4]   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 between Israel and other nations, and especially between the Israelite faith and Greek mythology.  Hence one wonders why he did not also omit the Baal-peor affair, for there, too, sexual offenses and idolatry appeared hand in hand.   We suggest that Josephus chose not to omit the Baal-peor affair because, despite its similarities with the sin of the golden calf, he could nevertheless use it to suit his objectives.

1.     In the sin of the golden calf, the motive force for the forbidden action came from the people of Israel themselves, whereas in the affair with Baal-peor, the moral decline occurred in the wake of contact with idolaters.

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, [5] 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.


[1] Project Gutenberg’s The Antiquities of the Jews, trans. William Whiston, Ebook #2848, posted January 4, 2009.

[2] 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).

[3] Two 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, Philadelphia: JPS, 1947, p. 381, note 785; p. 383, note 790.

[4] Cf. J. Grossman, “Divine Command and Human Initiative:  A Literary View on Numbers 25-31,”  Biblical Interpretation 15 (2007), pp. 54-79.

[5] Xenophobia (and its parallel, misoxenia) is a Greek term; amixia, the Latin equivalent.   On these claims against the Jews, see Against Apion [Hebrew], Arye Kasher edition, Jerusalem 1996, vol.2, p. 504, and the references given there.