Pe’or – a Very Modern Idol


According to the Talmud of Jerusalem, a Jew,  named Sabbathai of Ulama, one day entered the temple of Pe’or, then « fulfilled a need and wiped himself on Pe’or’s face. All who heard of it praised the man for this deed and said: « Never has anyone ever acted as well as he did.»i

What to think of this curious scene? The Talmud seems to regard it as a great deed, an act of courage showing the contempt of an Israelite for the idols of the Moabites. A Jew, defecates on the idol, wipes himself on the idol’s nose, and receives praise from his fellow believers.

In reality, no blasphemy, no transgression happened then: the cult of Pe’or consisted precisely in doing this sort of rite. Rashi explains it very well: « PE’OR. Named so because people undressed (פוערין ) in front of him and relieved themselves: that is what his cult consisted of. »

One may infer from that indication that the Talmud’s comment (« No one has ever acted as well as he did ») could not come in fact from other Jews, supposed to be gleefully approving of Sabbathaï desecrating the idol.

How could law-abiding Jews approve of a Jew who would have just strictly followed the rites of a pagan cult in the temple of Pe’or?

It is more likely that the praise for Sabbathai came rather from the Moabites themselves, being surprised (and maybe flattered) to see an Israelite following the rites of worship of Pe’or, and even adding a final touch of perfection, a remarkable pirouette.

The name Pe’or comes from the verbal root ָפָּעַר which in Hebrew means « to open one’s mouth wide ». The god Peor, a.k.a Ba’al Pe’or, (and better known in the West as Belphegor), was the « god of openness ». Whether this openness is that of the mouth or that of the anus is of secondary importance. It could just as well be a reference to the opening mouth of the Earth or of Hell.

In fact, Isaiah uses the word pe’or in an infernal, hellish, context: « Therefore the Sheol expands its throat and opens its mouth ( וּפָעֲרָה פִיהָ) inordinately.»ii

Another word, very close phonetically (פָּצַה), means « to split, to open wide », and in a metaphorical sense « to unchain, to deliver ». The Psalmist uses it in this way: « Deliver me, save me.»iii

Ba’al Pé’or, god of « openness », is a god over whom one could defecate “religiously”. That was a metaphor for deliverance…

One may say, rather counter-intuitively, that Ba’al Pé’or also prefigured, beyond what could be considered the apparent nothingness of idols, and their laughable inanity, a more disturbing idea:  that of a Godhead ultimately despised and humiliated, – by the defecation of human excrements.

A very modern idea.

iQuoted in Georges Sorel, in Le système historique de Renan, Paris, Ed. G. Jacques, 1906

ii Is. 5, 14

iii Ps. 144,7

Votre commentaire

Choisissez une méthode de connexion pour poster votre commentaire:

Logo WordPress.com

Vous commentez à l’aide de votre compte WordPress.com. Déconnexion /  Changer )

Photo Google

Vous commentez à l’aide de votre compte Google. Déconnexion /  Changer )

Image Twitter

Vous commentez à l’aide de votre compte Twitter. Déconnexion /  Changer )

Photo Facebook

Vous commentez à l’aide de votre compte Facebook. Déconnexion /  Changer )

Connexion à %s

Ce site utilise Akismet pour réduire les indésirables. En savoir plus sur la façon dont les données de vos commentaires sont traitées.