Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Modern Kuzari Argument

Parshat Va'etchanan

The "Modern Kuzari" argument is one of the most standard arguments used by modern day apologists in favor of Judaism.  While it has its roots in the Kuzari, a 12th century apologetic work, the modern incarnation has really only been popular recently.  I'm not sure exactly when it first became formulated, but I do know that it was around 15 years ago when I was religious.  Like many thoughtful and religious Jews, I used the argument to defend Judaism.  In a sense, the argument was the last plank that I hung on to when my belief in the rest of the religion started falling away all around me.  However, after a lot of deep introspection, and a little bit of research, I concluded that the argument was false.

I will only briefly touch on the reasons that I came up with for rejecting the Kuzari argument.  There are a lot of posts online, ones that didn't exist fifteen years ago, that essentially make the logical arguments I used at that point.  I'll put a list of them at the end.  Instead, I want to focus on two specific counter-arguments.  One of which, I've seen posted in many places, but never with the level of detail I tend to desire, so I'll shore up that argument to the best of my ability.  The second argument is one that I think is entirely new.  Or at least, it's one that I haven't seen before.  First we need to describe what I mean by the modern Kuzari argument is.

The Argument

Here is the most succinct formation of the Modern Kuzari that I could find, it comes from Rabbi David Gottlieb:
Let E be a possible event which, had it really occurred, would have left behind enormous, easily available evidence of its occurrence. If the evidence does not exist, people will not believe that E occurred.
Earlier he applies this to Judaism in the following way:
Again, oversimplifying, (this is only the outline): There are two broad possibilities. One: the event at Sinai took place and people witnessed it, and that caused their belief. Or two: the event did not take place. If the event did not take place, then someone invented the story and convinced the people to believe it. 
The Kuzari's argument proceeds by investigating the second alternative, that the event didn't happen, that the story was made up and was sold. The argument shows that the second alternative is not credible. It is not credible to believe that the story was made up and then sold. If you can defeat the second alternative, that leaves only the first alternative, that it happened and was witnessed. That is the structure of the argument. 
Most refutations, and the one I came up with some 12 years ago, point out that this is a false dichotomy.  There are many other alternative paths besides the invention of the argument at a later point.  You can read about these in some of the sources below.  Some other refutations, like this one, mention that it's actually fairly easy to get people to believe in myths and legends and provides a modern example.  There are tons of examples like this, one of my favorite being the Angel of Mons.  But this is not what I wish to discuss.

Before we get to the two main points, we need to examine one issue as a preamble.

How Many People?

One of the claims of the Kuzari argument is that its the size of the population at the Sinai revelation that lend credence to its believability.  The Torah claims a very large number of people, well over 100,000, experienced direct revelation from God.  However, as we've seen here, that number conflicts with every single archaeological survey of the region.  In other words, if you are relying on the large number claim as a piece of supporting evidence, you must first explain why that claim is deemed impossible by archaeology.

In that discussion in Parshat Bamidbar, I also noted that most modern apologists seek alternate explanations for the impossibly large numbers quoted in the Torah.  If you go this route, but still maintain that the Sinai revelation happened, then you must agree that it's possible to increase the number of people involved in a mass revelation claim.  Because, even if you think that the Torah actually is talking about lower numbers, for the next 2000 years afterwards, everyone thought it was talking about large numbers.

The point in this preamble is to show that the large number of people cannot be a prerequisite for acceptance of national revelation.  And if you wish to rely on it, you have a lot of work to do with regard to explaining the archaeological evidence.  (I recommend not using this argument!)

Refutation One - Wohpe

The first refutation is essentially a counter-example, one that supposedly does not exist according to Kuzari supporters.  It's a case where another group of people experienced a national revelation, that was instrumental to their religion and culture.  As with Sinai it claimed to involve the entire group, and it includes a large number of parallels.  An adherent to the Kuzari argument must also, if they're being honest, conclude that this story must also be true.  Either that or the main argument falls apart.

First let's see where this myth comes from.  Between 1896 and 1914, James Walker was a US appointed physician to the Lakota Indian tribe.  While there he recorded many of the oral traditions of the culture.  During one of his conversations, he recorded a discussion from one of the village elders named "Finger" who was about 80 at the time. He discusses the tribe's encounter with Wohpe, the White Buffalo Calf Woman.  While I've seen this referred to with respect to the Kuzari in other sites, I've never been satisfied with how it was presented.  That's why I dug up the original source as best I could.  You can read the full account here, complete with reference.  In case you don't want to read the full thing, I'll summarize now.

The story begins with Wohpe encountering two individuals.  One of them attempts to capture the woman and is killed.  The other is instructed to prepare the rest of the tribe for her arrival.  Compare this to the initial encounter between Moshe (Moses) and God with the burning bush.

After the tribe preparation, which is similar in idea to the preparation of the Israelite nation at Har Sinai, Wohpe arrives and teaches the nation important rituals.  She teaches them to smoke the peace pipe and informs them that she will protect the tribe as long as they practice this ritual.  Compare this to the Sinai story, where the Israelites essentially sign a contract with God.

Finally, after Wohpe finishes visiting the tribe, she instructs all the people to gather together and build a fire, which she vanishes into.  At this point the tribe knows that she is Wohpe, a divine god.  Here we have a display of supernatural powers, similar to the Sinai narrative.

The story of Wohpe includes all the important ideas described in the modern Kuzari argument.  It includes, a national event with the entire tribe, a transference of divine commandments, and a public display of supernatural powers.  This represents a perfect example of a Sinai-like narrative at one of the early stages. A legend passed down among a tribe orally, by tribal elders.  Had the Lakota tribe lasted another hundred years, who knows what this legend might have evolved into. 

Refutation Two - From the Tanach Itself

The Kuzari argument is in actuality a weak argument because it claims that there is no other way for a story like the revelation at Sinai to arise without the event actually occurring in a manner very similar to what is recorded in the Torah.  Instead of refuting it by showing one of the many alternate paths, we can instead look at what the Kuzari argument's positive claims are, things that would have to be true for the very premises to make any sense.  These are:
  1. The Sinai revelation story was known to every generation from the original event until the modern day.
  2. The Sinai revelation was considered "foundational" for every generation until the modern day.
It's pretty clear why if the first is false, the Kuzari argument falls apart.  If it could be shown that a generation did not know the Sinai revelation story, then it must have been introduced later regardless of the actual truth of the event.  If the second statement is false, that the event was not foundational to Judaism, the Kuzari argument also fails.  This is mainly because the "foundational-ness" is what is generally used to reject similar mythical stories of other cultures.  In actuality, this winds up being weasel words.  However, what we're getting at here, is that every generation would consider such a thing so important that they would have expected to hear about it from a previous generation.  For example people might believe a myth, such as the story of Samson or Hercules, without actually having an oral tradition because these are not foundational.  This foundational nature of the myth under discussion is at the heart of the Kuzari argument.  If it could be shown that the Sinai narrative was not foundation for any given generation, then it's easy for anyone, even staunch adherents to this argument, to see how a myth could have been generated.

How do we go about attacking these arguments?  The answer is to look at the Tanach itself. Specifically we will look at the Nevi'im (prophets).  Here I mean the actual writings of the prophets, Yishayahu (Isaiah), Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah), Yehezkel (Ezekiel) and the 12 minor prophets.  I'd normally remove Yonah (Jonah) from the twelve, since it's a different type of book, but we'll see that it's not relevant.

I think looking at the prophets is a good approach because they're the best witness to the Israelite culture in the latter half of the first temple period and the exile. They are attempting to persuade the Israelites to worship God properly, and in doing so, they use everything at their disposal.  For example, a great many of them describe a sojourn in Egypt, or a time in the desert.  Some reference stories about the patriarchs.  From the great many references to an Egyptian exodus, we can conclude that this was a well known origin story to the Israelites.  If a prophet said, "remember when we left Egypt," as many of them did, all the population would presumably know what he was talking about.

So, the question is, what do the prophets say about Sinai?  The answer is, nothing.  They don't even mention the word.  Yishayahu mentions it zero times in his work. Yirmiyahu mentions it zero times in his "jeremiad".  You might think that Yirmiyahu, when trying to convince people not to worship other gods might say something like, "Hey, remember that time where you head God specifically tell you not to do worship idols?"  But he doesn't.  Yehezkel, despite talking a lot about the exodus from Egypt and the desert sojourn, and despite describing a great many laws like those of festivals and sacrifices, somehow fails to mention Sinai even once.  There are no references to Sinai or its alternate name Horeb in those major prophets or, in fact, in any of the minor prophets until a single mention in the very last sentence in the very last prophet, Malachai.  But it's even worse, some of the prophets seem to even know the contents of the "ten commandments" (Amos 4:2)
Swearing and lying, and killing, and stealing, and committing adultery! they break all bounds, and blood toucheth blood.
yet, Amos makes no attempt to tie these laws to any sort of Sinai revelation.  The closest we get to anything resembling Sinai is in Yehezkel (a late prophet, we should note) who says (Ezek 20:10-13):
10 So I caused them to go forth out of the land of Egypt, and brought them into the wilderness. 11 And I gave them My statutes, and taught them Mine ordinances, which if a man do, he shall live by them. 12 Moreover also I gave them My sabbaths, to be a sign between Me and them, that they might know that I am the LORD that sanctify them. 13 But the house of Israel rebelled against Me in the wilderness; they walked not in My statutes, and they rejected Mine ordinances, which if a man do, he shall live by them, and My sabbaths they greatly profaned; then I said I would pour out My fury upon them in the wilderness, to consume them.
But even here, Sinai is not mentioned by name.  All that exists is a vague claim that God gave his ordinances somehow.  No mass revelation described.  No mention of Sinai or Horeb.  This account doesn't even align with the Torah since there is no description of the Israelites desecrating the "Sabbaths" as a nation.

What to make of this? Here are some options.  Neither the prophets nor the people knew about the Sinai revelation.  In this case assumption 1 above is false and the Kuzari argument falls.  Another option: the prophets knew about the Sinai revelation but the people didn't, in which case both 1 and 2 are false and Kuzari falls.  How about: the prophets knew about it, but didn't think it was important, in which case assumption 2 is false, the revelation just wasn't all that important and Kuzari falls,  Perhaps you can salvage something by saying that both the prophets and the people knew about it, and thought it was foundational, but the prophets didn't mention it for some ulterior motive.  For example, they didn't want to encourage people to think that they too could experience prophecy, so they just elided this mass revelation idea from their narratives.  To save the Kuzari, you throw the prophets under the bus.  But if you go this route, you lose far more in Judaism than you gain from the Kuzari.  Furthermore you still have to explain why the prophets didn't decide to focus on a revelation at Sinai but only to a specific prophet, like Moshe.  What other options are left?  How to explain this glaring absence of this purportedly foundational event in every one of the prophets?

To conclude, while this isn't the best refutation of the modern Kuzari, it is at least one that I don't think has been mentioned before.  If you want additional refutations, I've cataloged some below.

List of some of the Kuzari refutations that I've come across throughout my days on the internet.  If only these had been around fifteen years ago.

Larry Tanner's refutation (multiple parts, link is to index)

Avi Norowitz's refutation (comparison to Irish myths)

Martin Winer's refutation (the fallibility of mass experiences)

Naftali Zeligman's refutation (Judaism has no mass revelation tradition)

Alter Cocker's refutation (multiple-parts, link is to first one)

Baruch Pelta's refutation (Uses Aztec revelation mythos)

Some criticisms from religious Jews

Eliyahu Fink's critique (Argument only useful if you believe in God in the first place)

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Book of Devarim

Parshat Devarim

We begin the last book of the Torah this week.  The book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) is one of the first sections that people noticed was significantly different from the rest of the Torah and let to the hypothesis, standard today in academic circles, that multiple authors were involved in the Torah.  This week we'll look at some of the reasons that they came to that conclusion.  We will provide the academic theory about who actually wrote this book.  We will also briefly discuss the relationship between Devarim and the histories that follow in the books of Yehoshua (Joshua) through Melachim (Kings), and how this relates to the correspondence between the rest of the Torah and Divrei Hayamim (Chronicles).  We'll finish with some questionable passages in Devarim.  As a warning, this post will be longer than usual.

On the Other Side of the Jordan

The book opens with the following verse:
These are the words which Moses spoke unto all Israel beyond the Jordan; in the wilderness, in the Arabah, over against Suph, between Paran and Tophel, and Laban, and Hazeroth, and Di-zahab. 
One clause, "on the other side of the Jordan" or in this translation "beyond the Jordan" has an implication that the author of these verses is standing on this side of Jordan, as in the land of Israel, a location that the Torah is very clear that Moshe (Moses) never went to.  There are other similar clauses in the Torah that indicate that the Torah was written by and for an audience living in the land of Israel at a later time.

These types of verses need to be contrasted with the verses that traditional Judaism uses to claim that Moshe wrote the entire Torah.  When you look at all the supporting verses and contradicting verses (like this one) you'll find that it's not clear at all that the Torah even claims that Moshe wrote it.  We don't have time to go through it in this post, but I discussed a little about it here, and we'll see some of the supposed supporting verses later.

Indicative Phrases

The book of Devarim has a bunch of phrases that are almost exclusively used in that book.  Some of these are.

תַּאֲרִיךְ יָמִים עַל-הָאֲדָמָה  - "Lengthen your days on the land" appears 11 times in some form in Devarim but only once outside of it.

בְּכָל-לְבַבְכֶם, וּבְכָל-נַפְשְׁכֶם - "With all your heart, with all your soul" appears only in Devarim, 9 times in all

Various forms like, "וַעֲבַדְתֶּם אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים" "serve other gods" or worship other gods, or other similar phrases appear only 13 times, always in Devarim.

תִשְׁמַע בְּקוֹל יְהוָה"Listen to the voice of God" only appears in Devarim, 12 times [1].

Also many variations of לָשׂוּם אֶת-שְׁמוֹ שָׁם, לְשַׁכֵּן שְׁמוֹ שָׁם, are endemic to Devarim

Additionally a lot of these verses seem to occur in some later works.  For example, "with all your heart, with all your soul" also appears in Yehushua (Joshua) once, and "with all your heart" alone appears three times in Shmuel (Samuel) and once in Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah).  "Serve other gods" appears twice in Yehushua, four times in Shoftim (Judges), twice in Shmuel a bunch of close phrases in Melachim (kings) and some variation of serving other gods appears a whopping 18 times in Yirmiyahu.  There is no "other gods" phrase in either Yehezkel (Ezekiel) or Yishaiyahu (Isaiah).

What does it mean?  Is all this mere coincidence, or is something else afoot.  Keep this in mind while we discuss the next section about when we think the book was written.

A Discovered Scroll

There is a section in the book of Melachim which is well known to anyone with even a passing interest in Academic scholarship, but is usually hidden from religious students.  Indeed our study of Nach in day school conveniently never reached this chapter.  It is worth reading all of chapters 22 and 23 of Melachim Bet (2 Kings) if you are unfamiliar with the story.  I'll produce a short excerpt of the important bit (2 Kings 22:8-14)
8 And Hilkiah the high priest said unto Shaphan the scribe: 'I have found the book of the Law (Sefer haTorah, סֵפֶר הַתּוֹרָה) in the house of the LORD.' And Hilkiah delivered the book to Shaphan, and he read it. 9 And Shaphan the scribe came to the king, and brought back word unto the king, and said: 'Thy servants have poured out the money that was found in the house, and have delivered it into the hand of the workmen that have the oversight of the house of the LORD.' 10 And Shaphan the scribe told the king, saying: 'Hilkiah the priest hath delivered me a book.' And Shaphan read it before the king. 11 And it came to pass, when the king had heard the words of the book of the Law, that he rent his clothes. 12 And the king commanded Hilkiah the priest, and Ahikam the son of Shaphan, and Achbor the son of Micaiah, and Shaphan the scribe, and Asaiah the king's servant, saying: 13 'Go ye, inquire of the LORD for me, and for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that is found; for great is the wrath of the LORD that is kindled against us, because our fathers have not hearkened unto the words of this book, to do according unto all that which is written concerning us.'
What book did they find?  They call it Sefer haTorah.  Religious commentators, wary about the problem of having lost the physical Torah for hundreds of years, claim that this could be any book.  This is despite using even vaguer references to Torah to further specific claims, like that of the oral Torah or Mosaic authorship, but that's a side point.  Academic scholars suggest that the book that was found was the vast majority of the book of Devarim.

Why do they associate Devarim with the book discovered in Yoshiyahu (Josiah)?  One reason is that the reforms enacted during Yoshiyahu's reign, the centralization of worship in Jerusalem, and the removal of all idolatry and worship locations outside Jerusalem align with commandments in Devarim.  As we've noted above, there are many discussions about worship in the place where God decides to settle his name, and that being the sole place where worship is allowed.  The idea that worship at the bamot (high places) was bad is a central idea in the book of Melachim.  Each king is criticized after his reign for not removing them, only Yoshiyahu and Hizkiyahu (Hezekiah) escape the critique.  After Yoshiyahu these criticisms disappear, along with other changes indicated a possible change of authorship, which would make sense if the rest of the history was written during his reign.  However, as we've noted, worship in alternate locations was not criticized by other authors in the Torah and the older sections of the histories.

Also, with regard to the words Sefer haTorah.  These words appear elsewhere in Tanach.  Can you guess where?  Yup, in Devarim.  Deut 31:24-26 says
24 And it came to pass, when Moses had made an end of writing the words of this law (haTorah) in a book (sefer), until they were finished, 25 that Moses commanded the Levites, that bore the ark of the covenant of the LORD, saying: 26 'Take this book of the law (Sefer haTorah), and put it by the side of the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God, that it may be there for a witness against thee.
It's not clear what exactly the claim is that Moshe wrote.  It doesn't appear to be the Torah as we know it, since these verses describe what happens after he finishes writing it.  In other words the narrator of the text is watching Moshe write the Torah!

The phrase also appears in other places in Devarim like in Deut 29:20
and the LORD shall separate him unto evil out of all the tribes of Israel, according to all the curses of the covenant that is written in this book of the law (Sefer haTorah).
and Deut 28:61 (not quoted).  Also, Deut 17:18, regarding the duties of a king (kings only appear in Devarim by the way.)
And it shall be, when he sitteth upon the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write him a copy of this law (haTorah) in a book (sefer), out of that which is before the priests the Levites. 
There is one other appearance of Sefer haTorah in Yishayahu (Joshua) and besides that we don't see that phrase again until the discovery in the time of Yoshiyahu.

There are other indications that link Devarim to Yoshiyahu and that link it to the rest of the historical narratives from Yehushua to Melachim, we'll look at one contrast in the next section.

Parallel Books

There are two histories written about the kings of Judah and Israel.  The first one is in part of Shmuel and all of Melachim.  The second is Divrei HaYamim (Chronicles).  The two books overlap significantly, and often the exact same words are used in both narratives.  However, there are places where they differ.  We've seen a couple of these differences in the past.  For example, when describing the feast after the dedication of the temple during Sukkot , Melachim does not include the AtzeretDivrei HaYamim does include an Atzeret.  Similarly, when the holidays are described in the Torah, the section in Devarim does not include an Atzeret, the sections in Bamidbar (Numbers) and Vayikra (Leviticus) do.

Another example we've discussed has to do with the question of priesthood.  The idea that priests are descendents of Aharon (Aaron) alone does no appear anywhere in Shmuel or Melachim (or Yehoshua or Shoftim for that matter).  However, additional sections in Divrei HaYamim make it clear that the priesthood is confined to the descendents of Aharon.  When David's priest Zadok is introduced in Shmuel no lineage is given for him.  An explicit lineage tracing him to Aharon is provided in Divrei HaYamim.  Again this parallels the split in the Torah.  Devarim repeatedly refers to the Kohanim HaLeviim, indicating that the priests are descendents of Levi.  The same idea is found in sections in Yehoshua through Melachim.  However, Shmot (Exodus) - Bamidbar (Numbers) makes it clear that priests are only descendents of Aharon.

Originally I had a plan to go through all the differences between Divrei HaYamim and Melachim, but it took far too long to complete this task.  Instead, I'll leave the task to an interested reader.  Otherwise, take my word that these are representative differences.  Whenever you find a difference between these two books, the Melachim version always aligns with Devarim and the additions in Divrei HaYamim always align with the middle three books of the Torah.

But this isn't the only parallel.  We've also noted the fact that similar language appears between Devarim, the section of books between Yehoshua and Melachim and the book of Yirmiyahu.  What to make of this?  Yirmiyahu was writing during the reign of Yoshiyahu!  If we suspect that Devarim and the historical books were also composed during this time, we should expect overlap between those books, and sure enough, they are there.  This was noted even by traditional scholars who ascribed the authorship of the book of Melachim to Yirmiyahu.  Academic scholars go further and suggest that he, or someone close to him, probably penned all the works starting with Devarim itself continuing through Yehoshua, Shoftim, Shmuel and up to the reign of Yoshiyahu in Melachim.

Problems With Single Authorship in Devarim

While it's useful and indeed generally reasonable to ascribe all of Devarim to a single author.  There are a couple places where problems arise.  One of these places is the beginning of the fifth chapter which starts (Deut. 5:1):
And Moses called unto all Israel, and said unto them: Hear, O Israel, the statutes and the ordinances which I speak in your ears this day, that ye may learn them, and observe to do them.
This seems to be a fresh beginning that has no recollection of the four chapters that precede it.  This has led scholars to wonder if two different accounts got put together back to back.

Another issue relates to problems in Melachim.  During the end of the Yoshiyahu pericope, after it discusses the various reforms he did, it concludes with (2 Kings 23:24-25)
24 Moreover them that divined by a ghost or a familiar spirit, and the teraphim, and the idols, and all the detestable things that were spied in the land of Judah and in Jerusalem, did Josiah put away, that he might confirm the words of the law which were written in the book that Hilkiah the priest found in the house of the LORD. 25 And like unto him was there no king before him, that turned to the LORD with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; neither after him arose there any like him.
This looks like a conclusion, it finishes with a description of Yoshiyahu which echoes how the author of Devarim described Moshe.  Academics propose that this is where the histories of the account ends [2].  However, that's not where the book ends.  The next two sentences:
26 Notwithstanding the LORD turned not from the fierceness of His great wrath, wherewith His anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocations wherewith Manasseh had provoked Him. 27 And the LORD said: 'I will remove Judah also out of My sight, as I have removed Israel, and I will cast off this city which I have chosen, even Jerusalem, and the house of which I said: My name shall be there.'
That initial word, translated here as Notwithstanding, is Ach in Hebrew, it's the same keying word we saw with regard to the holiday of Sukkot that was an indicator of redaction.  Modern scholarship suggests the following sequence events.  After the book of Devarim - Melachim was completed up to the reign of Yoshiyahu, all hell broke loose in Judah.  Yoshiyahu was killed in an ill-advised war with the Egyptians, despite God's promise to him that he will die in peace.  The kingdom of Judah gets destroyed shortly afterwards by internal strife and eventually a conquest by Babylon.  What were the exiled Judeans to make of the eternal promise of kingship that God gave to David?  Modern academicians suggest that another author, D2, went back and added in specific clauses into the text that claimed that destruction would come if they worshiped idols.  A post-hoc explanation to justify the calamities that befell the Judeans.  The two verses from Melachim above are emblematic of these kinds of redactions.  To D2, the destruction of Judah had nothing to do with the fact that Yoshiyahu probably pissed off allies by removing their idols from the Jerusalem temples, and instead he hangs it all on the evil Menashe who came before and ruled for fifty-five years of peace.  Similarly, there are sections in the Torah where a second, later author, is thought to modify the text to provide "prophecies" of the exile.

How well you trust the conclusions of modern scholarship on this matter is up to you.  There's a lot more going for it than I can squeeze into this post, which is already growing way too long.  But before I go, I'll mention one more vexing problem in Devarim which I have no good answer for.

Devarim is written as the sayings of Moshe before he died.  Throughout the book, the author is very clear about when Moshe is speaking, and when the third person author is speaking.  There's one place where this fails though.  The first 12 verses of chapter 11 are written as if they were spoken by Moshe.  It speaks of God in the third person, "his signs and doings" and so forth.  However, there's an abrupt shift in verse 13 which begins the middle passage of Shema.
13 And it shall come to pass, if ye shall hearken diligently unto My commandments which I command you this day, to love the LORD your God, and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul, 14 that I will give the rain of your land in its season, the former rain and the latter rain, that thou mayest gather in thy corn, and thy wine, and thine oil.
This can't be Moshe speaking anymore, he can't actually claim to be providing rain.  While it's possible he is referring to his commandments, the next verse is clearly God speaking.  There's no preamble, no "God told me," nothing.  I have no good explanation for this anomaly, but thought I should point it out.


Devarim is probably one of the best starting points if you want to look at theories of multiple authorship.  Even severe critics of the Documentary Hypothesis, like Whybray, admit that Devarim appears to be separate, and they thus limit their critiques to the first four books.  Hopefully I've given some reasons why they have come to this conclusion, although reading through what I have written, I can't help but feel that I wasn't able to give the argument the full justice it deserves.

1. The preceeding claims and similar ones come from the introduction to Friedman, "The Bible with Sources Revealed"^

2. It probably includes verse 28, which is the generic formula forhow melachim concludes the reign of each king. The two verses that come in between are likely an insertion.^

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Wilderness

Parshat Matot-Masei

To close out the book of Bamidbar, we'll look at at the wilderness stories from a fairly high level view.  First we'll look at a very common hypothesis in academic circles which suggests that the worship of the Jewish God, YHWH, originated from a group of people who lived in this region and later migrated to Canaan with their religion.  Second we'll look at the wilderness story as it appears in the various prophets to try to get a feel for when and why it may have been formulated.

YHWH of the Wilderness

Academic scholars have always been puzzled about where the God, YHWH, came from.  Except for one possible sketchy reference, he doesn't appear to be a member of the Canaanite pantheon as expressed in the writings of Ugarit.  Yet, he was clearly an important deity to the Israelites from the very beginning of what we can construe as history, i.e. the monarchial period.  There we see theophoric names using YHWH alongside other names with deities such as El or Ba'al, known Canaanite deities.  Eventually YHWH would supplant Ba'al and merge with El to become the supreme deity of the entire world, but that occurs much later.  First we want to know where this deity came from.

In the biblical story, Moshe (Moses) first encounters God at the burning bush in the land of Midian, in the midbar (here translated as wilderness, but could also mean desert).  Later all the Israelites "encounter" God in the desert as well, which is where, the Torah says, the religion known as Judaism is founded.  Academic scholars have looked at this story and wondered if there was some actual historical knowledge passed down here.  Maybe YHWH came from the Midianites, and an Egyptian/Israelite named Moshe learned about this deity from them.

Also, some of the older verses of the Torah seem to indicate an origin of YHWH in the desert.  For example in Moshe's blessings, verses considered to be old (Deut. 33:2)
And he said: The LORD came from Sinai, and rose from Seir unto them; He shined forth from mount Paran, and He came from the myriads holy, at His right hand was a fiery law unto them.
These places, Sinai, Seir, and Paran are all desert locations. Or in the Ha'azinu song (Deut 32:10)
[God] found him in a desert land, and in the waste, a howling wilderness; He compassed him about, He cared for him, He kept him as the apple of His eye.
Or from the song of Devorah (Judg 5:4)
LORD, when Thou didst go forth out of Seir, when Thou didst march out of the field of Edom, the earth trembled, the heavens also dropped, yea, the clouds dropped water.
So, a lot of the old songs seem to place YHWH in the south, the wilderness.  However, the evidence isn't entirely from the Tanach.  The earliest extra-biblical references to the deity come from Egypt.  There are two references from the 14th and 13th centuries which refer to "YHW of the land of the Shasu."  The Shasu were desert wanderers that occasionally stopped by in Egypt to graze cattle when drought hit their normal pastures.  These references alone have led to a lot of scholars hypothesizing that the desert nomads were the original worshipers of YHWH, long before the Israelites ever came on the scene.

Another much later inscription from the 9th-8th centuries comes from Kuntillet Arjud.  The references are are to YHWH of Samaria and his Asherah, and to YHWH of Teman and his Asherah.  Teman, generally means the south, but perhaps specifically in this context is a reference to Edom, implying that they too worshipped YHWH.

Prophetic Wilderness Accounts

As we did with the patriachs we'll go through the prophets in chronological order.  Yishayahu (Isaiah) doesn't really mention the wilderness narrative.  Hoshea (Hosea) mentions idolatry at Ba'al Peor (Hos. 9:10)
I found Israel like grapes in the wilderness, I saw your fathers as the first-ripe in the fig-tree at her first season; but so soon as they came to Baal-peor, they separated themselves unto the shameful thing, and became detestable like that which they loved.
 And later, Hoshea associates the wilderness to the Egyptian exodus (Hos 13:4-6)
4 Yet I am the LORD thy God from the land of Egypt; and thou knowest no God but Me, and beside Me there is no saviour. 5 I did know thee in the wilderness, in the land of great drought. 6 When they were fed, they became full, they were filled, and their heart was exalted; therefore have they forgotten Me. 
Similarly, in Amos where the 40 years are mentioned. (Amos 2:10)
Also I brought you up out of the land of Egypt, and led you forty years in the wilderness, to possess the land of the Amorites.
And again (Amos 5:25)
Did ye bring unto Me sacrifices and offerings in the wilderness forty years, O house of Israel?
None of the later smaller prophets mention the wilderness, so we turn to Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) and Yehezkel (Ezekiel).

First the earlier Yirmiyahu.  We start with (Jer 2:2,6-7)
2 Go, and cry in the ears of Jerusalem, saying: Thus saith the LORD: I remember for thee the affection of thy youth, the love of thine espousals; how thou wentest after Me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown.  6 Neither said they: 'Where is the LORD that brought us up out of the land of Egypt; that led us through the wilderness, through a land of deserts and of pits, through a land of drought and of the shadow of death, through a land that no man passed through, and where no man dwelt?' 7 And I brought you into a land of fruitful fields, to eat the fruit thereof and the good thereof; but when ye entered, ye defiled My land, and made My heritage an abomination.
But it's really Yehezkel that focuses on the wilderness period (Ezek 20:9-13).
9 But I wrought for My name's sake, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations, among whom they were, in whose sight I made Myself known unto them, so as to bring them forth out of the land of Egypt. 10 So I caused them to go forth out of the land of Egypt, and brought them into the wilderness. 11 And I gave them My statutes, and taught them Mine ordinances, which if a man do, he shall live by them. 12 Moreover also I gave them My sabbaths, to be a sign between Me and them, that they might know that I am the LORD that sanctify them. 13 But the house of Israel rebelled against Me in the wilderness; they walked not in My statutes, and they rejected Mine ordinances, which if a man do, he shall live by them, and My sabbaths they greatly profaned; then I said I would pour out My fury upon them in the wilderness, to consume them.
There are multiple more appearances in Tehilim (Psalms), with specific references to desert locations like the waters of Meribah, but it is very difficult to determine a date for those verses.  What we can conclude is that the idea of a desert wilderness period was around in the earliest prophets, and was already part of the Israelite narrative.  They traced their origin to Egypt followed by a stint in the desert, whether they actually came from there or not (probably not, for most of them at least).


There is a lot of speculation on the origin of the desert origin story.  It seems likely that there's some truth to the idea, that there was some group of people, who probably worshiped YHWH, who came into Israel from the desert.  Perhaps this group was a group of ex-pats fleeing Egypt.  Or maybe, a group of ex-pats combined with some YHWH worshiping nomads before entering Canaan.

The archaeological evidence points to indigenous origins for the Israelites, so the majority of the population probably did not have a wilderness origin.  Yet, this story became the origin story for the entire nation by the time the prophets were writing.  How did this happen?  In some way, we will never know.  The transition occurred in a pre-literate period and we don't have any writings from this era.  Still we must wonder where the wilderness stories in the Torah came from.

As we've seen, some of the stories have clear political purposes, like the story of the rebellions against Moshe which serve to solidify power either with the descendents of Moshe in the original, or with the descendents of Aharon (Aaron) in the modification with Korach.  Some of the stories are etiological, providing reasons for various place names in the Sinai peninsula.  Others fit the narrative common in the prophets, of people getting punished for disobeying God or worshiping idols.  Those stories probably arose for political reasons.  Similarly, the story of the attack by Amalek, or the refusal of the Edomites or Amorites to allow the Israelite to pass through.  These stories could not be historical, because those nations did not exist at the time of the supposed wilderness journey.  They probably serve political propagandistic purposes that existed at the time of creation, as a way to justify Israelite aggression.

What I think happened, speculatively, is that the wilderness idea came into Israel through a small group of desert living nomads, who also brought with them the worship of YHWH.  After centuries of living together, the nomads' stories and the Israelite stories were melded together so that all of Israel identified with the wilderness narrative.  The wilderness framework then got merged with the Exodus framework to form the definitive origin mythos of the Israelite nation.  We know that this origin story was popular by the time the earliest prophets, Hoshea and Amos were writing.

Later authors used that framework to fashion various episodes and adventures that occurred in the wilderness to either further a political agenda, or provide etiological stories.  Some of these, especially the etiological ones, were probably folktales passed around by the fireside.  Eventually these were combined into the earliest strata of the Torah.  These were then added to by later authors with their own different agendas to produce the Torah we have today.  

With this we conclude the book of Bamidbar (Numbers) and move on to the last book Devarim.  I have tentatively scheduled in topics for all the weeks left in the year, but I still have quite a few to write.   At this point, I've only completed three weeks ahead of time, which is actually low for me.  When we started Bamidbar, I had written everything but this week!  So it will be a true race to the finish line.  I hope to see you there!

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Matrilineal Descent

Parshat Pinchas

As often with this blog, I chose this topic because it was something I wanted to dig into a little further.  I have often wondered when the idea of matrilineal descent, that "Jewishness" is passed from the mother, come into Judaism.  Sometimes, the research on these questions leads to interesting conclusions, but in this case, I'm left with no solid answer.  There's an argument that matrilineal descent stretches all the way back to the biblical authors, and there's an argument that patrilineal descent was the likely governing principle and it switched at some point.  I'll present the arguments for both as best as I can.  But first we'll need some background.

What Does it Mean to be "Jewish?"

This is an incredibly loaded question even today.  Judaism today is an ethnicity, a culture and a religion.  You can partake in one brand of Judaism without bothering with another.  I'm ethnically "Jewish" and do maintain some cultural ties to Judaism.  But religiously, I do not believe in anything that can be labeled Judaism.  So am I Jewish?  Depends on who you ask, and what assumptions they have about the word.

However, what we're really interested in is what "Jewish" meant at the time the biblical texts were being written, the first temple period, the exile and the second temple period.  The word Jewish didn't really exist yet, it's a later term to describe people dwelling in the Roman province of Judea.  It is not a term that the biblical authors use.  Instead they tend to prefer something like b'nai yisrael (children of Israel), yisraeli (Israelite), and in very few places ivri (Hebrew.)  We talked a little bit about the last one in the context of the Exodus and whether there's a link between ivri and apiru.

In the past when writing articles for the blog, I thought about what term to use to describe this group of people.  Religious articles will just refer to them as Jewish, although that's obviously an anachronism for more reasons than one.  I usually use Israelite, and that's what I'll use in this post as well.  It's an imperfect term, but I'll need to call them something while we figure out what exactly Israelite means.  So really, the better question to ask is "what does it mean to be an Israelite" during this time period.

Tribal Society

The Israelite society depicted in the Tanach was a tribal one.  It's unclear how much of the actual tribal description with twelve or thirteen distinct tribes is historical, but the general idea of a tribal society certainly seems reasonable for that period of time.  We see some description of how this all works in this week's parsha with the daughters of Tzelofchad.  In brief, this guy Tzelofchad dies and he has no sons, only five daughters.  Generally in the society the land would be split up amongst the sons, with the eldest son getting a double portion.  (As an aside, such a society cannot last for more than a few generations, since the land would be too split up.  So this is probably a later faulty reconstruction).  The daughters petition Moshe (Moses) that they should get the inheritance, and after consulting God, he agrees.  However, there is a condition that they must not marry outside of their tribe, in this case Menashe.

We can now begin to describe the society that is portrayed in the Torah based off of this story and similar commandments.  Tribal allegiance is patrilineal, passed down from father to son.  If you are female, and marry a male from another tribe, then you join their tribe.  It never goes the other way.  We see a similar idea when discussing the Canaanite nations.  Deut 7:3 says:
neither shalt thou make marriages with [the Canaanite nations]: thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son.
This is pretty standard for the region, and indeed many societies throughout history.  Cultural ties between nations were often made by marriages, and it's always a daughter that is transferred between tribes and nations.  Despite this warning, about separation from the societies, it doesn't seem to have been very much practiced.  The books of Shmuel and Melachim (Samuel and Kings) demonstrate an integration between tribes that were traditionally part of the Israelite tribes, and ones that weren't.  For example, the "mighty men" of David included someone from the tribe of Ammon (2 Sam 23:37) and another from the Hittites (2 Sam 23:39).  There are also many other people of unknown lineage, named only by their place. Also, consider David's wife Bath-sheba who appears to be the daughter of Eliam one of David's heroes of unknown origin.  Her first husband, who David has killed, is none other than the mighty man that is mentioned before from the Hittite clan.  Clearly, there was some intermarriage going on, and some tribal exchanges between Israelites and some tribes deemed by later authors to be non-Israelite.

If you went back in time and asked the people what their religion was, they'd probably look at you strangely.  There was no such idea as a religion based on beliefs.  Rather, your religion came from your tribal allegiance.  There is no distinction between Israelite the nation and Israelite the religion.  Since the national identification was passed down from father to son via tribal allegiance, it seems reasonable to assume that the religious aspect was the same.


And what about conversion?  The idea never appears in the Torah.  There is never a situation where a male "converts" and becomes an Israelite.  Although, who was an Israelite was somewhat of a fluid concept, it was not easy to switch tribes as a male.  However, as a female, it's much easier.  Besides Bathsheba we are given lots of examples of kings with foreign wives.  Since these wives are often depicted as worshiping their own gods, much to the chagrin of the authors of the Torah, it seems clear that they never really adopted the "religion" of their husbands.  These include the wives of Shlomo (Solomon) and another we'll look at more closely.

When we go very late in the biblical corpus (by estimated date written as opposed to described period) we arrive at the story of Ruth.  Here is an example of a woman who converts not just by adopting a tribal allegiance, but also by adopting the ideology.  Later, in the Talmudic period, they would use Ruth to define what it means to convert, but we'll get to that in a bit.

Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention one particular verse which has caused a lot of trouble both for traditional commentators and myself.  The verse is Deut 23:3
An Ammonite or a Moabite shall not enter into the assembly of the LORD; even to the tenth generation shall none of them enter into the assembly of the LORD for ever;
This created problems for the Torah commentators because Ruth, mentioned above, was a Moabite.  They explained this by limiting this verse to applying to men only.  This is a questionable interpretation, especially when you compare it to something like Nehehmiah 13:1:3
1 On that day they read in the book of Moses in the hearing of the people; and therein was found written, that an Ammonite and a Moabite should not enter into the assembly of God for ever; 2 because they met not the children of Israel with bread and with water, but hired Balaam against them, to curse them; howbeit our God turned the curse into a blessing. 3 And it came to pass, when they had heard the law, that they separated from Israel all the alien mixture.
The "alien mixture" in this translation are specifically women, which is a running theme in the books of Ezra/Nehemiah.  I won't go into more detail on this, I've already gone on too long.  There's an essay here if you have more interest on this topic.

I mentioned that Deut 23:3 was problematic for me also.  That is because of the phrase "assembly of the Lord" or in Hebrew, קְהַל יְהוָה.  What exactly this means isn't clear.  The preceding verse indicates that "bastards" (mamzer) cannot enter this "assembly of God" and the verse before that indicates the same thing about people with genital abnormalities.  Perhaps this has more to do with describing who can enter some sort of holy building rather than a general Hebrew nation?  I'm honestly not sure.  Clearly though, we don't consider someone not Jewish today because they have crushed testicles.  Anyway, let's finally get to the topic I promised at the beginning.

Separating Tribes from Religion

I think a lot of religious Jews are fuzzy on the development of religion in the "Second Temple Period" which spans from about 500 BCE to the destruction of the second temple in 70 CE. A lot of the concepts that we associate with Judaism solidified during this time, and in fact, the idea of Judaism as a religion separate from a culture arose at the very end of this.  Let's try to figure out why.

At the very beginning of this period, in fact a bit before, there's the first real breakaway "sect" of Judaism.  I put sect in quotes, because it's entirely possible that the Judaism we know is actually the breakaway sect and they were the original.  I'm referring to the Samaritans.  The Samaritans, named for the biblical city of Shomron, were a group that had their own version of the Torah, which is very similar to the Torah of Rabbinic Judaism (from here on I'll refer to Rabbinic Judaism as just Judaism).  One major difference is that it includes the description of Har Gerizim as the holy site specified for divine worship.  The rest of the books of the Tanach are not considered holy by the Samaritans.  But who were they?

According to them, they represent members of the nation of Israel that fled after the destruction of the northern kingdom by the Assyrians.  Obviously, there's something problematic for Judaism with this claim.  How can a group claim the same religion yet have a different form of worship, specifically on a different divinely ordained holy place?  The solution, for at least the biblical author of the end section of Melachim (Kings) was to claim that the Samaritans were not Jewish, as in not part of the Jewish tribe based on the patrilineal ideas above. They claim that the Samaritans were a different nation settled there by the Assyrians (2 Kings 17:24):
And the king of Assyria brought men from Babylon, and from Cuthah, and from Avva, and from Hamath and Sepharvaim, and placed them in the cities of Samaria instead of the children of Israel; and they possessed Samaria, and dwelt in the cities thereof.
But how to explain the fact that they pretty much worshiped the same religion?  Continuing (2 Kings 17:25-28)
25 And so it was, at the beginning of their dwelling there, that they feared not the LORD; therefore the LORD sent lions among them, which killed some of them. 26 Wherefore they spoke to the king of Assyria, saying: 'The nations which thou hast carried away, and placed in the cities of Samaria, know not the manner of the God of the land; therefore He hath sent lions among them, and, behold, they slay them, because they know not the manner of the God of the land.' 27 Then the king of Assyria commanded, saying: 'Carry thither one of the priests whom ye brought from thence; and let them go and dwell there, and let him teach them the manner of the God of the land.' 28 So one of the priests whom they had carried away from Samaria came and dwelt in Beth-el, and taught them how they should fear the LORD.
That seems to wrap it up nicely.  The main purpose of this account is to delegitimize the Samaritans as a representation of Judaism. They are not Jewish, as in they do not actually descend from the northern tribes like they claim.  The relationship between Judaism and the Samaritans was always rocky, but we won't dwell on it any more.  The main point of all this is to show how at this time, Judaism the religion was still tied to Judaism the ethnicity. 

As the second temple period progressed, the number of alternative sects of Judaism grew.  Besides the Samaritans, the Sadducees sprung up around 150 BCE, and the Essenes around the same time.  Both these groups were obviously ethnically Jewish, but they had a very different approach to the religion.  It's possible that the separation between Judaism the religion and Judaism the culture started at this point.  What is certain, is that these breakaway sects paved the way for the biggest breakaway sect of them all, Christianity.

At the end of the second biblical period, but before the composition of the Talmud, the Christian religion formed.  The approach was radically different to anything that came before it.  No longer did you have to be born into a religion.  Anyone could become a Christian, it was just a matter of belief.  The idea of "conversion" into a religion now existed.  The lines were set.  Judaism would have to really decide who was a Jew, whether you could become one if you were born elsewhere (conversion), or whether you could only be a member by blood, like Zoroastrianism.  Also, do you become a Jew automatically if your parent is Jewish, your mother (matrilineal) or your father (patrilineal) both or neither.  Until this point there was no need to answer these questions, but now that Christianity forced the issue and made it clear that religion could stand outside tribal boundaries, the Rabbis of the Talmud, and indeed the leaders of every other sect of Judaism were forced to decide.  Let's see what they chose and why.

Support for Patrilineal Descent

A lot of the support for patrilineal descent has already been laid out in the above section.  Biblical Judaism was a society where religion as inseparable from tribal allegiance.  And also tribal allegiance was clearly passed down from father to son.  So by the transitive property, you can argue that religion would have to be passed down as well.

In addition, the Tanach furnishes many stories in which a Jewish male marries a non-Jewish female and there's no scandal or indication of impropriety.  These stretch all the way back to the stories of the Patriarchs, but they also include Moshe (Moses) who marries the Midianite priests daughter Tzipporah.  In addition, Shlomo (Solomon) marries many women, who worship "other gods" including an Egyptian princess, and there is no discussion of the "Jewishness" of any of the offspring.  Additionally, there is the Israelite king Ahav (Ahab) who's wife Izevel (Jezebel) comes from another kingdom from the north.  The Tanach criticizes her for worshipping idols, yet there's no complaint from the populace when their son takes over the throne.  The son would not be Jewish is there was an idea of matrilineal descent.

The idea that your allegiance to the Jewish religion is past down from father to son was the choice of various Jewish sects that split off before the Talmudic period.  These include the Karaites, the Samaritans, and the Beta Israel of Ethiopia.  Basically, they decided if tribal allegiance came from the father then religious allegiance should as well.

Support for Matrilineal Descent

Rabbinic Judaism went with matrilineal descent.  How did they justify it?  The Talmud justifies it from the verses in Devarim, one of which I quoted above (Deut 7:3-4):
3 neither shalt thou make marriages with them: thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son. 4 For he will turn away thy son from following Me, that they may serve other gods; so will the anger of the LORD be kindled against you, and He will destroy thee quickly.
If you read this you might wonder why this seems to source matrilineal descent.  The answer is that the second verse refers only to the son being "turned away" by God and nothing about the Jewish daughter being turned away.  If this looks like a post-hoc explanation to justify a previous custom, well that's pretty much par for the course for Talmudic arguments.  It seems more likely to me that these verses were warning against intermarriage such as those performed by Ahav and Shlomo.

Another possible section supporting matrilineality comes from Vayikra (Lev 24:10-11)
10 And the son of an Israelitish woman, whose father was an Egyptian, went out among the children of Israel; and the son of the Israelitish woman and a man of Israel strove together in the camp. 11 And the son of the Israelitish woman blasphemed the Name, and cursed; and they brought him unto Moses. And his mother's name was Shelomith, the daughter of Dibri, of the tribe of Dan.
The argument is that the person in question is referred to in verse 11 as the son of an Israelite woman rather than the son of an Egyptian man, indicating that it's the matrilineal lineage that's important here.  This story makes no distinction or determination if this child is considered Israelite or not, so it's really tough to go to matrilineal descent from here.  There are a handful of other individuals of mixed parentage, such as the Hiram mentioned in 1 Kings 7:13, who is the son of a woman from Naphtali and a person from Tyre.  He is hired by Shlomo to build various things for the temple, and he seems accepted in Israelite society.

Yet on the other hand there is the descendent of an Israelite woman and an Amalekite man in 2 Samuel 1, who David kills in retribution for the slaying of Saul.  Twice, in 2 Sam. 1:8, and 2 Sam 1:13 he identifies himself as an Amalekite, not an Israelite.  Can we read anything from this?

As far as I know, these are the best arguments for matrilineal descent in the Tanach.  If you know of any more, I'd love to hear them.

Why the Matrilineal Choice?

If my historical reconstruction is correct, at the end of the second temple period religion and tribal allegiance were separated.  Then various Jewish sects decided whether Jewish religion would be passed down from the father or the mother.  Most sects chose the father, Rabbinic Judaism chose the mother.  But why?

To be honest, I am not sure, and this is a question that I'm going to have to leave open.  I am not sure why the society would favor matrilineal descent.  It is very possible that the Talmudic exegesis quoted above was honest, and they came to this conclusion through textual analysis.  It's also possible that they already had the custom and justified it with this verse.  It's likely that they could have justified patrilineal descent through similar exegesis, as the other sects of Judaism did.

I've written more on this topic that I meant to.  At the end, I don't have too much to show for it, in terms of solid conclusions.  Nevertheless, I hope the discussion has been interesting, and I would love to hear your thoughts on the topic.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Bilam the Prophet

Parshat Balak

This parsha feature an individual who in my opinion is one of the more interesting characters in the Torah.  The basic story is that the king of Moab, Balak hires a prophet Bilam (most commonly transliterated to Balaam) to curse the Israelites because he fears that they are about to invade Moabite land. Bilam warns Balak that he can only say what God tells him to, but Balak hires him anyway.  Bilam gets to a place where he can see the Israelites and instead of cursing the Israelites, he blesses them.  This repeats itself twice more and Bilam provides four separate blessings on the Israelites.  Balak is angry and dismisses him and Bilam returns home.  Later he's referred to in what is essentially a byline, noting that he was killed by the Israelites in battle.  There are some parts to the story that are very confusing, and we'll look at them.  After that, I'll explain why Blam is one of the most interesting figures in the Torah.

Really a Good Guy?

Bilam says a lot of things that on face value make it seems like he was actually a good guy. When the messengers first approach Bilam and ask him to curse them, he tells them to stay the night.  He communes with God who tells him not to go, and then (Num 22:13):
And Balaam rose up in the morning, and said unto the princes of Balak: 'Get you into your land; for the LORD refuseth to give me leave to go with you.'
When the messengers from Balak return, the second time, the following conversation plays out (Num 22:18-21):
18 And Balaam answered and said unto the servants of Balak: 'If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the word of the LORD my God, to do any thing, small or great. 19 Now therefore, I pray you, tarry ye also here this night, that I may know what the LORD will speak unto me more.' 20 And God came unto Balaam at night, and said unto him: 'If the men are come to call thee, rise up, go with them; but only the word which I speak unto thee, that shalt thou do.' 21 And Balaam rose up in the morning, and saddled his ass, and went with the princes of Moab.
At this point, Bilam looks to be as upright as any Israelite prophet.  He only goes with Balak's messengers when God specifically commands him to. After this conversation there's an interlude story which we'll come back to in a bit.  When Balak gets to Bilam, the following story plays out (Num 23:3-6):
3 And Balaam said unto Balak: 'Stand by thy burnt-offering, and I will go; peradventure the LORD will come to meet me; and whatsoever He showeth me I will tell thee.' And he went to a bare height. 4 And God met Balaam; and he said unto Him: 'I have prepared the seven altars, and I have offered up a bullock and a ram on every altar.' 5 And the LORD put a word in Balaam's mouth, and said: 'Return unto Balak, and thus thou shalt speak.' 6 And he returned unto him, and, lo, he stood by his burnt-offering, he, and all the princes of Moab.
Again, Bilam is working as the conduit from God to Balak, just as any Israelite prophet might. His methods are even similar, offering sacrifices to appease God.  This same type of narrative repeats itself two more times.  After this Bilam offers a prophesy regarding the future, and then leaves.

We don't hear from them again until much later when the Israelites attack and slaughter the Midianites.  But that requires a section with a different title.

Really a Bad Guy?

When the Israelites slay the Midianites they specifically kill Bilam.  The following is said (Num 31:15-17)
15 And Moses said unto them: 'Have ye saved all the women alive? 16 Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to revolt so as to break faith with the LORD in the matter of Peor, and so the plague was among the congregation of the LORD. 17 Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. 18 But all the women children, that have not known man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.
I'll suppress the urge to go off on a tangent here about the biblical commandments for wanton slaughter and genocide (as well as apparent sexual slavery of minors).  We'll deal with those in later weeks.  Instead, note that the Torah here attributes the seduction of the Israelites to Bilam.  This is despite there being absolutely no indication in the entirety of the story of Bilam of him providing such counsel.  After Bilam leaves, the next time we hear his name is when the Israelites kill him.  Obviously, this looks like a hit job on Bilam.  But why?

Before we get there, let's look at some other mentions of him.  He shows up in the Devarim (Deuteronomy) recap with the following verses (Deut. 23:4-7)
4 An Ammonite or a Moabite shall not enter into the assembly of the LORD; even to the tenth generation shall none of them enter into the assembly of the LORD for ever; 5 because they met you not with bread and with water in the way, when ye came forth out of Egypt; and because they hired against thee Balaam the son of Beor from Pethor of Aram-naharaim, to curse thee. 6 Nevertheless the LORD thy God would not hearken unto Balaam; but the LORD thy God turned the curse into a blessing unto thee, because the LORD thy God loved thee. 7 Thou shalt not seek their peace nor their prosperity all thy days for ever.
A very similar story is repeated by Yehoshua (Joshua) at the very end of that book (Josh 14:9-10)
9 Then Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab, arose and fought against Israel; and he sent and called Balaam the son of Beor to curse you. 10 But I would not hearken unto Balaam; therefore he even blessed you; so I delivered you out of his hand.
These are not as negative as the earlier excerpt we looked at where Bilam is repsonsible for inciting the Israelites to fornicate with the Midianite women.  But it puts more agency into Bilam wanting to curse the Israelites than seemed to be warranted in the first story.  Chalk this up to another negative view of Bilam.

Micha (Micah) has a more neutral view it seems, he says (Micah 6:5)
5 O My people, remember now what Balak king of Moab devised, and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him; from Shittim unto Gilgal, that ye may know the righteous acts of the LORD.
Here Balak is the evil one and Bilam is credited with rebuking him. A similarly neutral view is in Nechemiah 13:2.  Before we go further, we need to look at the final view of Bilam.

Really an Idiot?

The interlude story I mentioned earlier portrays Bilam in a third light, that of a fool.  In case you aren't familiar with the story, I'll give a quick recap.  Somehow, despite Bilam leaving with Balak's messengers, he gets separated from them (no explanation given) and is suddenly alone. Bilam is riding his donkey, and the donkey keeps on seeing a messenger (malach, commonly translated as angel) of God.  Bilam himself cannot see it.  Three times the donkey tries to move away from the messenger and each time Bilam gets angry with it and tries to whip it back onto the road.  Only at the end, does God allow him to see the messenger.  Bilam is chastised by the angel, and then he says:
34 And Balaam said unto the angel of the LORD: 'I have sinned; for I knew not that thou stoodest in the way against me; now therefore, if it displease thee, I will get me back.' 35 And the angel of the LORD said unto Balaam: 'Go with the men; but only the word that I shall speak unto thee, that thou shalt speak.' So Balaam went with the princes of Balak
This is another hit job, but of a different type.  It makes Balaam out to be a second tier prophet, one that's literally dumber than the donkey he rode in on.  Commenting on this, Kugel says:
[T]his episode [with the donkey] seems intended to portray Balaam in a negative light: the great seer cannot even perceive what his donkey can!  Take that incident out, scholars say, and you have a smoothly running narrative that presents Balaam altogether positively, as someone who, from the beginning, knew that Israel was blessed by God.  Although he went to Moab as Balak requested, Balaam nevertheless warned the king time and again that he could say only what God allowed [1].
What's going on.  Why the positive story about Bilam, why the negative views in other stories?  Why do we have this donkey interlude, where Bilam's claim to prophecy seems to be highly suspect.  Furthermore, if we go even later in time, into the Talmudic commentaries, we find the hit job on Bilam gets even worse.  He's depicted as the worst of individuals, out for personal profit, double dealing, a real villain.

Who was Bilam?

To answer the questions posed in the last section, we need to actually learn who Bilam was.  Something like this is usually nearly impossible to do, but Bilam isn't just some minor biblical persona.  He was an actual prophet lauded by the Moabites.  And we know this from the Moabites themselves.  The "Deir Alla" inscription, which dates fairly early, in the 8th or 7th centuries BCE, possibly before some of these stories were written, mentions:
[Balaam ben Beor] was a seer of the gods.  The gods came to him in the night, and he saw a vision like an oracle of [the god] El. Then they said to [Balaa]m ben Beor: Thus he will do [ ] hereafter, which [ ].  And Balaam arose the next day... [2]
The story has some details which are similar to the biblical story.  Specifically, the idea that Bilam only seems to speak to God at night.  He makes the messengers wait overnight so he can talk to God.  He appears to only have prophetic dreams.  The rest of the story is completely different, it has nothing to do with the Israelites.  It reads as a homage to the prophet.

Knowing this we can start to reconstruct who Bilam was, and maybe begin to understand why the stories were written.  We know that he was a prophet of considerable reknown.  He was probably held in respect not only by the Moabites, but possibly also by the early Israelites.  Therefore, the first story of Bilam where he blesses the Israelites, was probably written to claim that even the great Moabite prophet was actually on the Israelite's side.

However, as time went on, respect for Bilam dropped considerably.  For one, the idea of Israel's god, communing with a Moabite was probably anathema to the Israelite prophets.  They wanted it known that they were the only ones who were able to talk to God.  So they invented some more stories.  Bilam was now responsible for the incident at Ba'al Peor, and he was so incompetent of a prophet that he wasn't even able to see God's messenger when his donkey could.  The purposes of these stories is to discredit a prophet that they no longer had any reason to respect.  His positive prophesies on Israel were a one time thing, a divine miracle.  Otherwise, the guy was worthless.  A charlatan and a rogue.

We don't really know what else Bilam did, or any of his other prophecies.  What we do know is that he was unfortunate to work for the side which has a lot less surviving works.  The victors write the history, and Bilam gets defined by the later Israelite authors.  Therefore, he comes out as a villain and a punchline to a joke.  Just another way how biblical authors used propagandic stories to assert their worldview.

1. Kugel, "How to Read the Bible" Free Press, 2006, p. 339 ^

2. Kugel, p. 338 ^