This week’s portion – Matot - has three distinct sections:
1. In the beginning of the portion we learn about the laws concerning vows and oaths and the differences between a man or a woman making a vow
2. The middle of the portion describes the war ordered by God and launched by Moses against the Midianites. The result is the total annihilation of the Midianites, as revenge for their “trickery” leading the Israelite men astray to worship their gods. The Israelites then move on to properly cleanse themselves, their clothing and their weapons, after all that messy contact while in battle. And then they count and divide the considerable spoils of victory, including paying a levy to the Levite priests.
3. At the end of the portion, the Israelites are on the verge of entering the land of Israel, and the tribes of Reuben and Gad make a controversial request to not settle in Israel, but rather stay in Jordan, where they believe the cattle grazing is better. This request at first enrages Moses, but after some negotiation and a vow by the Tribes to commit troops to the Israelite conquest of Israel, Moses relents. This section could prompt an interesting discussion of the responsibilities of those, like us, that choose to settle outside the land of Israel, but we’ll save that for next year.
Each section by itself is worthy of thoughtful discussion, but I would like to focus on the middle of the portion - the war against the Midianites, which on its face is, to me, one of the most troubling and disturbing sections of the Torah. Yet maybe we can shed some light on the purpose of this story at this point of the literature.
The narrative picks up from the last two weeks spanned by Numbers 25, when at their last major stop before entering Israel, the people (presumably the men) “profaned themselves” by being seduced by the Moabite women, who “invited the people to the sacrifices for their god . The people partook of them and worshipped that god.” Two weeks ago there was considerable drama, as G-d was incensed at these actions and he took his revenge on the Israelites, ordering Moses to “publicly impale” the ringleaders. And Moses passed this order to the leaders of the tribes to kill their own men who had gone astray. In addition, as the Torah describes, God brings a plague that kills 24,000 Israelites, or a little less than 5% of the Israelite populations. This week we come back to the story line and the Lord says again to Moses “avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites; then you will be gathered to your kin.” I believe this means this is Moses’ final act, and in fact, this is Moses’ last battle before his death, and before the subsequent battles to conquer the land of Israel.
So the troops are assembled and Pinchas, a priest, leads the Israelites to a total victory. All the males, including the five Midianite kings, are slain, and as was the custom of the day, the women, children, livestock and treasures are captured and brought to Moses and the other leaders. But Moses is not satisfied and in anger he orders the slaying of all the women and the male children. Only the young girls are spared and they remain captive. The soldiers undergo a week of ritual cleansing and they are ready to rejoin the community.
A few troubling aspects of our story.
This is no ordinary war.
First, the battle is not about territory, resources or military gain, but about religious vengeance.
Second, it is not Moses or Joshua, but Pinchas, the priest and grandson of Aaron, who leads this battle. If you were at the beach on July 4 weekend and missed it, Pinchas made a name for himself when overcome by passion, he slays an Israeli male and Midianite woman with a single spear, loosely translated “through the belly.” God, impressed by Pinchas’ religious fervor, elects to end the plague and not wipe out the Israelites. As additional reward, God grants Pinchas and his descendants the “pact of priesthood for all-time.” The line of Aaron is established as the line of priests, not because of piety or scholarship, but rather as a result of an act of violence against arguably a defenseless target.
Third, the battle is over, yet, in what would today be a clear violation of the Geneva Convention, Moses orders complete annihilation of the Midianites, effectively genocide.
Finally, there appears no moral dilemma or remorse for Moses, the priests or the community at large.
So how do we resolve these issues and perhaps understand the lesson that is relevant to us today?
How is this massacre… this genocide… justifiable?
I understand why the Israelites are punished – they had made a covenant with God and at the verge of God making good on his part of the deal – delivering the people to the land of Israel – the Israelites sin in the a way not seen since the days of the golden calf, 40 years prior. They are about to complete their journey, settle down and presumably achieve some level of comfort in their new home. And perhaps this story sounds familiar – every time the people get a little comfortable, their attention tends to wander from God and the Commandments. Punishment is deserved and necessary so that hopefully they will fear the consequences of straying again.
But why do the Midianites suffer their fate? The Midianites made love, not war. They had no covenant with God and they did not break any vow. It does not seem that they occupied the land of Israel, so geographically, they did not stand in our way and they were not a military threat. But their attempted seduction of the Israelites was considered a more grave threat than any traditional military campaign, or even enslavement, proof being the Egyptians did not suffer a fate as severe as the Midianites. The Midianites provided an existential threat to the the Jewish people, and therefore a direct threat to God. The order by the Lord against the Midianites was not trivial, but could be argued that it was an act of self defense.
I don’t think we feel comfortable justifying genocide as an act of self defense against dilution of the Jewish community, particularly when part of the failing here is self-inflicted. I believe this is a dangerous conclusion, justifying these actions on the basis of preserving cultural purity, as you could look to the Sudan, to Bosnia and to Nazi Germany and see parallels to similar justification for the horrific actions that took place there.
Maybe we feel some solace if we view it as a lesson, albeit a gruesome one, and not a strict account of history. Perhaps, the scribes of the Torah were constructing a story or a series of stories, derived from our oral tradition, in order to drive home a point. I believe the leaders and priests, of Moses’ time or generations later when the words were written, understood this existential threat very well and this story of “shock and awe”…take no prisoners in the literal sense …was meant to emphasize that the commandment to honor only the Lord, the one God, was to be taken seriously. But that point could be achieved by punishing the Israelites directly, certainly as it had in other instances where the Israelites had strayed. I think the Midianites suffer as a warning to others, almost as a defense mechanism. “Neighbors - don’t attack us, because we have the Lord standing with us, but also don’t try to tempt or trick us, because God will punish you in a most severe way.”
An aside, in earlier chapters it was the Moabite women who were the temptresses, but it is the Midianites that suffer the consequences. This inconsistency supports the theory that perhaps this sequence is the result of merging two or more stories. The Midianites are an available foil, probably no longer around centuries later to dispute the account. In fact the Bible itself tells us that while there may have been a battle with the Midianites, there was not a total annihilation. The Midianites reappear on the scene as a powerful foe in the book of Judges, only a generation or two later.
By the way, I don’t take away that assimilation, per se, is the threat to the Jewish people and I do not think that is the direct cause of either God’s of Moses’ anger. Look at Moses – he married a Midianite woman, Zippora, and took counsel from his father- in-law Jethro, who was a Midianite priest. No, I believe the issue is that in this case, consorting with the Moabites or the Midianites, or whoever, led directly to the breaking of at least three commandments and straying to other gods. Even in Deuteronomy, when the Torah speaks out against intermarriage, it’s because of the fear that “they will turn your children away from me… to worship other gods.” This is the transgression God deems punishable by death and this is the warning given by the Torah.
So I believe this message was directed at an Israelite population that was now settled in the land of Israel, trying to maintain its identity among a land with other people worshipping other gods. Of course, life would be so much easier if we lived in a place where we all shared the same beliefs and background. But that will never be the case, not here and certainly not in Israel. Therefore in ancient Israel, our ancestors survived and preserved the Torah by not straying, at least not too far. Perhaps they feared punishment and perhaps their then-neighbors feared it as well.
Today, the challenge is similar, even if the fear of divine retribution is not. Since isolation is not an option in mainstream society, we will continue to face temptation, and of course vanquishing the tempters is not a viable option, either. We must operate in a multicultural society. It’s not a threat to live with neighbors with other beliefs, as long as we hold fast to ours, in one God, and maintain our Jewish identity. Since the exodus from Egypt, we’ve survived as a people this way and this is how we will have to survive into the future.