Parashat B’ha’alotkha – Num. 8:1 – 12:16

And he called the name of that place, “Graves of Greed” because there they buried the people who were greedy. – B’Midbar/Numbers 11:34

The unusual root aleph-vav-heh, only used twenty five times in the Tanakh, is difficult to translate. To add to the difficulty, the verb is only used in the Pi’el and Hitpa’el stems, emphasising the intensity of feeling that it conveys. Davidson offers “to desire, to long for” for the verb and “desire, appetite or lust” for the abstract noun formed by adding a tav to the front of the root. My modern Hebrew dictionary offers the slightly different “to want, to desire” for the verb and “wish, desire or lust” for the noun. While the English word ‘lust’ has always had particular sexual overtones, the basic meaning of the word – surely applicable in this context – speaks of “a passionate desire for something”. Given the narrative block in which the word is used, the English words favoured by the translations – “greed/greedy” by CJB, NASB and NJB; “craving/craved” by NIV, NKJV, NRSV – seem appropriate.

The word hata’avah that ends the first half of the verse is the noun form, greed or craving. It is preceded by kivrot, to form a proper name for the place where the people who had craved for meat were buried: “Graves of Greed”, as above or “Graves of Craving”. The word hamitavim is the mp Hitpa’el participle, “the greedy ones” or “the ones who craved”.  Baal HaTurim notices a Masoretic note /2 in the margin and explains that this word appears twice in the Tanakh: (i) here, “because there, they buried the people who had been craving”; and (ii) “Woe to those who ‘crave’ the day of
HaShem” (Amos 5:18). “Why should that be?” he asks. “Because there they [will have] buried the people who had been ‘craving’ [for that day].” Targum Onkelos, reluctant to attribute such a negative emotion to the Israelites, softens ‘lusted’ to ‘demanded’ dimeshalei from the Hebrew and Aramaic root sha’al, “to ask, get; to enquire, question” (Jastrow).

Jacob Milgrom, following Onkelos’ reluctance, reports that the words based on the root avah are a “verbal reference to the riffraff who ‘felt a gluttonous craving’ implying that the main body of Israelites escaped punishment.” Who were these people? They are the “mixed multitude [who] went up with them” (Shemot 12:38, JPS): Egyptians and others who came out of Egypt with the Israelites. Milgrom proposes that the verse before our text, where “the anger of the LORD blazed forth against the people” (B’Midbar 11:33, JPS), should read “against a portion of the people”. He concludes, “Only the instigators of Israel’s discontent, the riffraff, were summarily punished, whereas, presumably, the Israelites continued to eat quail for a whole month.” Plaut acknowledges the tradition, but is less convinced by the argument: “the rebellion was formented, so we are told, by the ‘riffraff’. This was surely the judgement of later generations and designed to exculpate the majority of the people, who were thus shown to have been misled by worthless agitators.”

A number of commentators want to make excuses for the people, pointing out how difficult it was for them in the desert. Looking back, thinking of the way that G-d provided for our people in those days, we are tempted to romanticise their lives, thinking that they really had little or nothing to complain about – everything served up on a plate and a constant reminder of G-d in their midst. Gunther Plaut paints a slightly different picture that perhaps we need to hear: “Satiety, boredom, lack of challenge, and the inconveniences of nomad existence were seeds of discontent as potent as want and poverty. A surfeit of manna and meat would not for long cover the lack of inner resources among the people.” The same issues cause frustration and tension among the long-term unemployed, sick or disabled. Their basic needs are met by welfare benefit in one way or another, but the lack of control or ownership over their own lives, the inability to make any independent decisions – and hey, whether to have manna-burgers or manna-bagels for tea is hardly a life-changing decision – or even to plan for next week or next month, is hugely challenging, requiring significant personal strength of character and fibre. Looking back, the Psalmist highlights the danger of giving in to craving or lusting after something: “they ate and were well filled, for He gave them what they craved. But before they had satisfied their craving, while the food was still in their mouths, the anger of G-d rose against them, and He killed the strongest of them and laid low the young men of Israel” (Psalm 78:29-31, ESV).

It was the cravings – the lusting, and perhaps the Torah uses this word deliberately, pointing to the irrationality or intensity of the desire, well-nigh as if it were a sexual desire – that buried the people in the wilderness. Moshe names the place, “Graves of Greed” almost as if the greed has been buried rather than the people; the people are anonymous, they have been consumed by their greed – it has taken them over and killed them and their own individual identity has been completely lost.

In the matter of food and clothing, of course, Yeshua has instructed us not to make those objects of desire or concern – “Do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?'” (Matthew 6:31, ESV) – other people may get worked up about them, but God – who has accepted responsibility for us in the same was as He brought the ancient Israelites out of Egypt – will provide what we need. But what about other things? Do we crave money, stuff, attention, recognition, sympathy, honour, gratitude or favour? Are we subject to passionate or irrational demands – I must have … or I will … – followed by a number of possible manipulative threats such as: “never speak to you again”, “hate you”, “make you pay for this”? Is your real identity still visible, or have you become consumed by your craving for something, so that it has taken you over and you have disappeared? Will your craving bury you?

Rav Sha’ul struggles against sin trying to take him over, in spite of his best intentions: “For I delight in the law of G-d, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:22-24, ESV). He knows what he ought to do; he wants to do it, but finds himself doing the wrong thing. When a man was convicted of murdering someone, he was chained to the dead body of his victim and forced to carry the decomposing carcass around until it killed him – this is the picture that Sha’ul paints. The law of sin and death will certainly have its way The only freedom is in Yeshua: “Thanks be to G-d through Yeshua the Messiah our Lord!” (v. 25, ESV).

Yeshua’s death and resurrection are game-changing. As Sha’ul goes on: “There is no longer any condemnation awaiting those who are in union with the Messiah Yeshua. Why? Because the Torah of the Spirit, which produces this life in union with Messiah Yeshua, has set me free from the ‘Torah’ of sin and death” (Romans 8:1-2, CJB). G-d dealt with sin in the only way possible, by condemning it and executing the flesh that does it, but making us alive in Yeshua – “It is no longer I who live, but Messiah who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20, ESV). This is what gives us a choice now in what we do: “For those who identify with their old nature set their minds on the things of the old nature, but those who identify with the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit” (Romans 8:5, CJB). We have to make that decision and then be intentional about subduing our cravings and desires for material or emotional gratification. The Bible wouldn’t tell us we have the choice if it couldn’t be done. Make sure you are not buried in the wilderness!

Further Study: Romans 13:13-14; Ephesians 4:22-24; Colossians 3:5-10

Application: Do you find yourself stuck in the cravings of the flesh? Honestly now! Then hear Sha’ul’s words for you today: “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16, ESV).