As noted previously (#287), the Balaam pericope (Num 22-24) and the Baal Peor apostasy (Num 25) both present a viable Moabite force in northern Moab, contradictory to the traditions preserved in the Yahwist which spoke of an Amorite presence and Amorite territory. See also #282-285.
Similarly, the present story of the Israelites’ apostasy and attachment to the cult of Baal at Peor clashes pretty heavily with the rather positive presentation of the Israelites as loyal to Yahweh throughout Numbers 21-24, on account of which Yahweh had granted them a victory against the Canaanites at Hormah (but see #271-273), a victory against the Amorites in northern Moab (#282-285), a victory against the desired cursing of the Israelites by the Moabite king Balak, and future victories against Moab and Edom, and pronouncements against the Amalekites, the Kenites, and the Assyrians, but not Israel, in Balaam’s final oracle.
Theologically, then, Numbers 21-24 display no divine knowledge of the impeding apostasy here represented in Numbers 25, nor for that matter does Numbers 25 display any knowledge of the Balaam incident, nor the fact that this territory was Amorite, not Moabite according to the earlier J tradition. In other words, the present story, like the Balaam pericope, comes from a different textual tradition and was for whatever reason placed in its present position by later editors.
Additionally, there seems to be two traditions here: an earlier version where the Moabites, specifically Moabite woman, lead the Israelites into the cult of Baal, and a later reworking where the Midianites are added into the mix.
For instance, the primary account of the Baal Peor incident, Numbers 25:1-5, records that the affair only involves Israelites and Moabites,
But in Numbers 25:16-17 and 31:15-16 it now becomes the Midianites, exclusively, who have led the Israelites into apostasy. Furthermore, in connection with the Moabite woman of Numbers 25:1-5, the Israelites who become associated with Baal Peor “are impaled to Yahweh” facing the sun. But in reference to the Midianite storyline, Yahweh sends a plague (Num 25:8-9, 18). And while in the Midianite storyline, their role in leading Israel to apostasy is given as the pretext to exterminate all Midianites save virgin girls (Num 31:1-20), nothing is said about the Moabites!
Biblical scholars have long recognized on both thematic and linguistic grounds that the story starting at Numbers 25:6, as well as all of chapter 31, belongs to the Priestly source, and that it was the Aaronid priests themselves who added the Midianites into this story to serve their own ideology.
This should not come as a surprise. We have already seen in numerous other Priestly reworkings of earlier JE material the degradation of the Midianites, and/or the omission of both Moses’ and Yahweh’s association with Midian. So, by way of review:
- In P’s retelling of the Sinai revelation, Yahweh reveals himself to Moses while he is still in Egypt, thus not in Midian (#87). In fact, in P’s retelling there is no Midianite sojourn; Moses never goes to Midian in P!
- P ignores the tradition that Moses’ wife was a Midianite. Indeed, in the present context one wonders if Moses’ wife is among those Midianite woman commanded to be slain: “kill every woman who has known a man” (Num 31:17)
- P (as well as D) expunges from the historical record any mention of the Midianite Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, as the first priest to officiate sacrifices to Yahweh, while Aaron stood by (Ex 18:12)—an Elohist text!
- And now here in the retelling of the Baal Peor incident, P exchanges the guilty Moabite woman for Midianite woman, and thus mandates, using this as a pretext, the complete exterminate of all Midianites!
In light of these rewritings, and P’s subtle slighting of Moses at times (e.g., #93, #95, #105), scholars surmise that the Aaronid priesthood must have been uncomfortable with Moses’ Midianite connections, and what that implied—i.e., that Yahwism came from Midian! So what did the Priestly writers do? They rewrote the tradition—nay, they rewrote “history.” P completely omits Moses’ Midianite sojourn; ignores the tradition that Moses’ wife was Midianite; eliminates the Midianite priest of Yahweh, Jethro; changes the Moabite foes into Midianite foes in the story now preserved in Numbers 25:6-19; and mandates the wholesale slaughter of Midian in Numbers 25:16-18 & 31:1-20.
We might speculate that the Aaronid Priestly writer was attempting to purge Yahweh from any connections he may have had in the earlier sources to the Canaanite El or a Midianite deity or origin. What P’s El Shaddai covenant passages effectively do is claim that the deity whom the earliest Israelites-Canaanites worshiped when they built altars for El was in fact Yahweh as El Shaddai (see #11, #27, #294-296)! Likewise purging Yahweh from any sort of Midianite connection was also a way of presenting Yahweh as more Israelite in character and origin. I’ll end this with an excerpt from William Propp (Exodus 19-40, 750):
Because of Moses’ familial relationship with Jethro the priest of Midian [Yahweh’s priest!], because of Midian’s proximity to mount Sinai, because Yahweh is said to come from the south both in the Bible (Deut 33:2; Judg 5:4-5; Ps 68:8-9, 17-18) and in an inscription from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, “Yahweh of Teman,” and because the Egyptians encountered “Yahweh Shasu” [Egyptian texts from the reigns of Amenophis III, Ramesses II, Ramesses III mention seminomads called the “Shasu of yhw3” located in the vicinity of Midian]… a popular scholarly theory is that Israel learned to worship Yahweh from Midian.
Although this view is favored, and even indorsed somewhat, by the earlier Elohist tradition and older traditions now found in the Psalms and elsewhere in the Bible, the Priestly writer sought to expunge this tradition from the historical record! Little did he know however that the new “history” he wrote to replace these older traditions would one day be assembled together with these older traditions and even centuries later labeled as “the Book” by readers who knew nothing of the Priestly writer’s agendas, concerns, worldviews, and beliefs!