Chapter 25 of Numbers begins by telling us that “Israel abode in Shittim.” This is simply an amusing place name but the chapter goes on to detail the Ba'al Pe’or Heresy.
Israel joined himself unto Baal-peor: and the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel.
In other words, the Israelites were worshipping a Moabite god called Ba’al Pe’or. God, of course, has a hissy fit and threatens the wholesale destruction of the race. Luckily, Phineas jumps up, kills two Baal worshippers and God is placated. Having killed a mere 24,000 people with a plague, God announces that his wrath has been turned away.
But who or what was Ba’al Pe’or? Baal is a general term for a god in the Levant and Ba’al Pe’or (or Bel Phegor) may have been the local god of Mount Pe’or – where the heresy began. There is also an argument that Pe’or is connected to the Hebrew word stem ‘p’r’ and refers to an opening of the mouth or the bowels. Ba’al Pe’or thus means ‘Lord of the Opening’ and Talmudic tradition strongly indicates that Ba’al Pe’or’s worship involved both public exposure and excrement. Baal-Peor must have been a sort of dung god to whom both flatulence and faeces would be ‘sacrificed’ to cure intestinal problems or, because dung was used as manure, to help crops grow.
The 1863 edition of Collin de Plancy’s Dictionnaire Infernal claimed that Bel Phegor was “worshipped on a toilet, with offerings being the residue of one’s digestion.” The book also provides us with a fabulous engraving of the god in situ.
One story in the Sanhedrin (part of the Talmud, the rabbinical interpretation of the Tanakh) tells of Sabta, a Jew who attempted to show his contempt for Ba’al Pe’or. Sabta defecated in the temple and cleaned himself on the statue, only to be commended for his efforts.
He then entered, uncovered himself before it, and wiped himself on the idol’s nose, whilst the acolytes praised him, saying, “No man has ever served this idol thus.”
(Tractate Sanhedrin 64a)
Rashi, a French rabbi of the late eleventh century, said of Ba’al Pe’or that “they would uncover before it the end of the rectum and bring forth excrement; this is its worship.” In light of this, we should be grateful that it was the Israelites’ god who won this particular battle and who went on to create the dominant religions of the modern world.
Crucially, however, Phineas’ actions led to a lasting covenant of peace with God (Numbers 25:12). From this point forward, Judaism goes out of its way to prove it is different to the old pagan religions and it does this by underlining its hatred of scatology. After the events of Numbers 25, excrement is only ever referred to disapprovingly.