Reflections – Mattot

Texts and beliefs By Meira Ben-Gad 19th Jul 2014

For readers who take the Bible seriously, this week’s sedra raises a number of issues – some interesting, some more discomfiting. Let’s look at a few.

The sedra starts with the law concerning oaths and vows. The concern here is with promises to God – pledges of a gift to the sanctuary, or self-imposed obligations to do or refrain from doing something. People do this all the time: “If I get this job (or find a parking spot, or make my train), I’ll …..” According to our sedra, such promises are binding, even if the oath was uttered in a moment of crisis, when the person was not in control of his emotions. Failure to fulfil such an oath merits punishment from God. Is this simply a matter of God being a literalist, a stickler for the law – a bit of a Shylock? Or is there something else going on? As scholars have noted, in the Biblical worldview, words have power and substance. A vow, once uttered, is a dangerous thing: something reactive and unstable that must be neutralized by its corresponding act in the world. Failure to neutralize the vow by fulfilling it means it must be neutralized in some other way – through punishment of the person responsible.

The law about oaths and vows has implications in the social world too. First, unusually for the Bible, this law is given not directly to the people, but to the tribal heads. This is a crucial distinction. It means that ordinary people don’t need to be told that their oaths are binding; rather, it’s their leaders who need to have limits put on their authority to interfere in the vows of others. The (presumably priestly) writers of these verses are making an anti-totalitarian statement of a sort: nobody in the tribal hierarchy, however powerful, can interfere with a man’s relationship to God.

The text then addresses the exceptions to the general rule: the oaths of unmarried women may be annulled by their fathers, and those of married women by their husbands. The notion that women might make independent decisions was problematic in a male-dominated society. Crucially, though, if the father or husband failed to annul a woman’s vow on the day he heard it, the vow was binding. Widowed or divorced women were also bound by their vows. While the social structure might not bear the weight of women’s relationships with God superseding their relationships with their fathers and husbands, we should at least be thankful that women in Biblical culture were recognized to have voices.

Yet it stands out that the general rule about oaths is stated in one verse, while the instructions regarding women take up 14 verses. This imbalance seems excessive. There was clearly something discomfiting for the Biblical writers about the idea of female power.

Female power, and particularly sexual power, is at the core of the next part of the sedra, which tells of the war against Midian. The Israelites attack and slaughter the Midianites in retaliation for their seduction of the Israelites at Shittim, which we read about in sedra Balak (the villains there are named as the Moabites, but never mind). In one of the Bible’s more squirm-inducing episodes for us moderns, Moses upbraids the victorious Israelites for capturing but not killing the Midianite women, who employed sexual enticements to lure the Israelites into apostasy. There is no suggestion that only the specific culprits might be slain: All the sexually awakened women of Midian are to be massacred on the spot.

The juxtaposition of this episode with the previous 14 verses is interesting. What was it about allowing women an untrammelled relationship with God that was so frightening? Was it feared that this would open the door to religious practice based on licentiousness? Yet in the context of vows made in moments of crisis, it’s easier to imagine women swearing to renounce sex. Food for thought.

Meira Ben-Gad is a member of Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue.

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