At one point, I had simply considered writing:
Numbers Chapter 31
and allowing that to be my entire musing, with the musing’s title (without the parenthetical “for now”) saying all that I felt needed to be said about it. The Torah has no dearth of troubling texts, and I have always been interested in finding ways to redeem them. I have written about this before, trying to find ways to redeem at least parts of it. I’ve done so as recently as last year’s musing. This year I’ve given up on this one. At least for now. Here – read for yourself, and we’ll discuss it on the other side, as they say:
Numbers Chapter 31
וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃
1 The LORD spoke to Moses, saying,
נְקֹ֗ם נִקְמַת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל מֵאֵ֖ת הַמִּדְיָנִ֑ים אַחַ֖ר תֵּאָסֵ֥ף אֶל־עַמֶּֽיךָ׃
2 “Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites; then you shall be gathered to your kin.”
וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר מֹשֶׁה֙ אֶל־הָעָ֣ם לֵאמֹ֔ר הֵחָלְצ֧וּ מֵאִתְּכֶ֛ם אֲנָשִׁ֖ים לַצָּבָ֑א וְיִהְיוּ֙ עַל־מִדְיָ֔ן לָתֵ֥ת נִקְמַת־יְהוָ֖ה בְּמִדְיָֽן׃
3 Moses spoke to the people, saying, “Let men be picked out from among you for a campaign, and let them fall upon Midian to wreak the LORD’s vengeance on Midian.
אֶ֚לֶף לַמַּטֶּ֔ה אֶ֖לֶף לַמַּטֶּ֑ה לְכֹל֙ מַטּ֣וֹת יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל תִּשְׁלְח֖וּ לַצָּבָֽא׃
4 You shall dispatch on the campaign a thousand from every one of the tribes of Israel.”
וַיִּמָּֽסְרוּ֙ מֵאַלְפֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֶ֖לֶף לַמַּטֶּ֑ה שְׁנֵים־עָשָׂ֥ר אֶ֖לֶף חֲלוּצֵ֥י צָבָֽא׃
5 So a thousand from each tribe were furnished from the divisions of Israel, twelve thousand picked for the campaign.
וַיִּשְׁלַ֨ח אֹתָ֥ם מֹשֶׁ֛ה אֶ֥לֶף לַמַּטֶּ֖ה לַצָּבָ֑א אֹ֠תָם וְאֶת־פִּ֨ינְחָ֜ס בֶּן־אֶלְעָזָ֤ר הַכֹּהֵן֙ לַצָּבָ֔א וּכְלֵ֥י הַקֹּ֛דֶשׁ וַחֲצֹצְר֥וֹת הַתְּרוּעָ֖ה בְּיָדֽוֹ׃
6 Moses dispatched them on the campaign, a thousand from each tribe, with Phinehas son of Eleazar serving as a priest on the campaign, equipped with the sacred utensils and the trumpets for sounding the blasts.
וַֽיִּצְבְּאוּ֙ עַל־מִדְיָ֔ן כַּאֲשֶׁ֛ר צִוָּ֥ה יְהוָ֖ה אֶת־מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיַּֽהַרְג֖וּ כָּל־זָכָֽר׃
7 They took the field against Midian, as the LORD had commanded Moses, and slew every male.
וְאֶת־מַלְכֵ֨י מִדְיָ֜ן הָרְג֣וּ עַל־חַלְלֵיהֶ֗ם אֶת־אֱוִ֤י וְאֶת־רֶ֙קֶם֙ וְאֶת־צ֤וּר וְאֶת־חוּר֙ וְאֶת־רֶ֔בַע חֲמֵ֖שֶׁת מַלְכֵ֣י מִדְיָ֑ן וְאֵת֙ בִּלְעָ֣ם בֶּן־בְּע֔וֹר הָרְג֖וּ בֶּחָֽרֶב׃
8 Along with their other victims, they slew the kings of Midian: Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba, the five kings of Midian. They also put Balaam son of Beor to the sword.
וַיִּשְׁבּ֧וּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל אֶת־נְשֵׁ֥י מִדְיָ֖ן וְאֶת־טַפָּ֑ם וְאֵ֨ת כָּל־בְּהֶמְתָּ֧ם וְאֶת־כָּל־מִקְנֵהֶ֛ם וְאֶת־כָּל־חֵילָ֖ם בָּזָֽזוּ׃
9 The Israelites took the women and children of the Midianites captive, and seized as booty all their beasts, all their herds, and all their wealth.
וְאֵ֤ת כָּל־עָרֵיהֶם֙ בְּמ֣וֹשְׁבֹתָ֔ם וְאֵ֖ת כָּל־טִֽירֹתָ֑ם שָׂרְפ֖וּ בָּאֵֽשׁ׃
10 And they destroyed by fire all the towns in which they were settled, and their encampments.
וַיִּקְחוּ֙ אֶת־כָּל־הַשָּׁלָ֔ל וְאֵ֖ת כָּל־הַמַּלְק֑וֹחַ בָּאָדָ֖ם וּבַבְּהֵמָֽה׃
11 They gathered all the spoil and all the booty, man and beast,
וַיָּבִ֡אוּ אֶל־מֹשֶׁה֩ וְאֶל־אֶלְעָזָ֨ר הַכֹּהֵ֜ן וְאֶל־עֲדַ֣ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל אֶת־הַשְּׁבִ֧י וְאֶת־הַמַּלְק֛וֹחַ וְאֶת־הַשָּׁלָ֖ל אֶל־הַֽמַּחֲנֶ֑ה אֶל־עַֽרְבֹ֣ת מוֹאָ֔ב אֲשֶׁ֖ר עַל־יַרְדֵּ֥ן יְרֵחֽוֹ׃ (ס)
12 and they brought the captives, the booty, and the spoil to Moses, Eleazar the priest, and the whole Israelite community, at the camp in the steppes of Moab, at the Jordan near Jericho
I’ll stop here. and provide a link for you to read the remaining 42 verses:
Trust me, it only gets worse as you go along. After this horror, the returned commanders are berated by Moses for killing only the adult males and leaving the Midianite women and children alive. Those Midianite women who had tempted the Israelite men to follow other gods. So Moses orders the slaying (or the last euphemistic murdering) of all the male children, and all the women who were not virgins.
Once this carnage is complete, the soldiers are to remove themselves from the camp and purify themselves and their weapons over seven days. Then, the booty gets counted up, a portion withheld for the priests (it’s cleverly named a portion for the L”rd, but we all know who was really getting it,) and the rest divided up between the soldiers. 16 verses are dedicated to accounting for all the booty and the various portions withheld for the L”rd and other shares as required – noting the number of sheep, cattle, asses, and yes, human beings (i.e. the female virgins left after everyone else was killed.)
The chapter itself makes a small attempt at internal redemption when the commanders of the troops, upon discovering that not one of them was killed, offer their booty to the priests. (The soldiers kept what booty they took.) Yes, saying thank you to G”d for sparing the lives of all your soldiers (even though they mercilessly killed thousands of men, women, and children) gets brownie points. (Though I deduct from the value of the points for the fact that this booty wasn’t really given to G”d, it was given to the priests and Levites.)
So let me ask you – what – what could possibly be redeemed from that mess?
Yes, there is a ton of apologetic reasoning out there. If we operate from the premise that human beings are innately prone to war with each other the potential for apologetic reasoning is vast. I reject all of it, utterly.
My problem is less with the human beings - the Israelites and Moses. My issue is with G”d. This omnipotent G”d who has done the mightiest of miracles needs to use human beings to kill other human beings so that G”d might fulfill a promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? You couldn’t have sent legions of angels? You couldn’t just snap your fingers and voila?
Yes, we all understand that human beings will value something more highly if they have to work for it rather than just having it handed to them. I get that. Nevertheless, it feels, as I’ve written in previous musings, over the top to have all this wholesale slaughter as part of just such an exchange. Not to mention that G”d took a different approach with the ten plagues, so we know it is possible – or – wait a minute – is that a glimpse of redemption here? The ten plagues involved lots of lopsided suffering. Did G”d realize that a more abject lesson, with suffering on both sides, would be a better lesson for the Israelites? But oops – not one Israelite was killed in this slaughter – so, never mind, chuck that redemptive idea.
We can place the story in a classic ultimate good versus ultimate evil, but that doesn’t hold up well either.
As I seek redemption for chapter 31 I keep having moments of aha followed by inevitable let down and the balloon busts on each new (or recycled old) thought. So I’m going to accept the lesson in that, at least for today, for this year, for this moment in time, and declare chapter 32 irredeemable. For now.
חֲזַק חֲזַק וְנִתְחַזֵק
©2018 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other Musings on this parasha:
Matot-Masei 5777 - Thirty-Two-Thousand Virgins?
Matot-Masei 5775 - Mei-eit Harav Tarbu U'mei-eit Hamat Tamitu
Masei 5774 - Would Jeremiah Be Surprised?
Matot 5774 - Over the Top (Revised 5763)
Matot-Masei 5773 - The Torah Is One Of My FaceBook Groups
Matot-Masei 5772 - And the Punting Goes On
Masei 5771 - Cause and Effect
Matot 5771 - Don't Become Like...Them
Matot-Masei 5770 - Treasure Trove of Trouble
Masei 5768 - Accidents Matter
Matot 5768/5765-Even Moshe Rabbeinu Had to Punt
Matot-Masei 5766 - First Fruit
Matot-Masey 5764-Putting the Kids Before the Kids
Matot--Masey 5763-Over the Top
Matot--Masey 5762--The Rebel's Complaint and Promises, Promises