By Simon Gordon
‘The Lord told Moses: Avenge the children of Israel against the Midianites; afterward you will be gathered to your people.’ (Numbers 31: 1-2)
The battle against the Midianites is the conclusion of a story that began in Parashat Balak. To recap: the Israelites consort with Moabite women, and worship their god, Baal. Worse, Cozbi, a tribal leader, shows off a Midianite woman to his brethren, in full view of the Tent of Meeting. Pinhas, grandson of Aaron, kills them both – thus halting a plague apparently inflicted by God on the Israelites in punishment for their disloyalty.
But the divine retribution doesn’t stop there. God has already instructed Moses: ‘Harass the Midianites, and smite them’ (Numbers 25: 17), as we read in Parashat Pinhas. Here, He repeats that command in even stronger language.
Moses now executes it. He sends 12,000 men – 1,000 from each tribe – to war, with Pinhas and the ‘holy vessels’ as their standard-bearer. They slay every adult male – including the five kings of Midian – while suffering no casualties of their own, and take over 30,000 women and infants captive.
Yet Moses still isn’t satisfied. Castigating the army chiefs for sparing the women – the root of the Israelites’ idolatry – he issues new orders: ‘Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves’ (Numbers 31:17-18).
This passage raises several questions. First, why are the Midianites the target of vengeance, but not the Moabites, who were much more fundamental to the story in Parashat Balak? Indeed, why does God specifically command Moses not to fight the Moabites (Deuteronomy 2:9)?
After all, both tribes are cousins of the Israelites, via Abraham. Indeed, Moses’s own wife, Zipporah, is Midianite and his father-in-law, Jethro, designed the Israelites’ judicial system in the wilderness.
Rashi conjectures that the Moabites were motivated by fear of the Israelites, whereas the Midianites interfered with a quarrel that had nothing to do with them. But the text doesn’t provide a clear explanation.
More problematic to modern eyes is the slaughter of women and children that Moses commands. There is a dark irony that Moses’s life, which began with his escape from Pharaoh’s edict to kill every Israelite newborn male, ends with his imposition of a similar decree on the captured Midianites. Are we little better than the Egyptians?
Some modern commentators seem to think so. ‘It is painfully evident,’ writes the contemporary Bible scholar, Robert Alter, ‘that this is an instance in which the biblical outlook sadly failed to transcend its historical contexts.’
Arguably, however, the reverse is true. The clearest way in which the Tanakh transcends its context is in its zero-tolerance approach to avodah zarah – worship of foreign gods – in Israel’s midst. And even though the Israelites succumb to the temptation of avodah zarah throughout the biblical narrative, Israelite religion has survived (albeit in rabbinic form), while the surrounding pagan cults have long since disappeared.
Treating biblical passages like this one as simply obsolete seems too convenient. While the violence condoned by the Torah is disconcerting, Judaism may be unsustainable without some kind of religious exclusivity – uncomfortable as that may be for progressive Jews. Moses had clear religious red lines. What are ours?
Simon Gordon is a professional writer and was formerly assistant editor of Mosaic Magazine. He is a member of Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue.