Friday, July 21, 2017

Angry Moses: You spared all the females?! Mattot

Image by Bas Leenders,  used under Creative Commons License
Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) 

The words scream accusingly off the page. Moses, himself, raged against the officers of his army returning from a war of vengeance against the nation of Midian. Moses asked rhetorically, “Have you allowed all the females to live?” (1)

I wrote about this two years ago, but the words don’t fail to disturb me anew. How can I reconcile my belief in the inherent worth of all humans, while also affirming the holiness of this sacred text? I don’t have an answer but I still feel compelled to explore and probe this text. First, by providing the context for how this text is read today in contrast with its historical context. Secondly, by reviewing how traditional scholars have responded to the text in their commentary and, finally, by offering a comment of my own.

Judaism does not permit this kind of behaviour today. This was an instruction, for a particular time over 3000 years ago, by the prophet Moses. Jews no longer have prophets and, therefore, no- one has the authority that Moses had (2). Most modern Jews are not aware of this particular passage. As for those who are aware of it, it is understood in more abstract and metaphoric terms. One example of this is the teaching that Midian, who attacked the Jews with no provocation, is symbolic of baseless hatred which we must eradicate from ourselves (3).

The context of the passage above was a battle ordered by God and presented in the text as revenge against the people of Midian. They (and the Moabites) sought to deliberately destroy the Israelites’ spiritual lives, by sending their daughters to seduce Israelite men and then pressure them to worship the false god Peor, thus incurring upon themselves Divine wrath(4). Theirs was a hostile act that attacked our way of life, at its core (5).

While it may still not justify the deeds in this story, we need to recognise the difference in the conditions of war today, among those who adhere to the Geneva Conventions, in contrast with the conditions of all-out war in ancient times. Today, nations can resort to sanctions to deter others from trampling on their rights, or engage in a limited military operation to protect their interests. In order to survive in ancient times, it is argued that you needed to be as cruel as other nations were (6).

Disturbingly, from a modern critical perspective, our earliest commentators did not appear at all concerned about Moses’ desire to see the women dead. On the contrary, we find that Moses had asserted that the battle against Midian was God’s revenge, not that of the Israelites because he argued that “if we had been idol worshippers the Midianites would not hate us or pursue us” (7). Because of this perspective, Moses had a great desire to witness the revenge against Midian before he died (8). The Midianites led the Israelites to sin and ‘leading a person to sin is considered more serious than killing him!’ (9).

However, a later commentator read the phrase “have you allowed all the females to live?” not as a complaint that the Israelites did not kill all the women, but that they allowed all the women to live, including those who had been recognised as being the perpetrators, who seduced the Jewish men and then pressured them into worshiping idols (10).
Another argument was advanced that Phineas and the soldiers did not judge the women to be deserving of punishment because they would have been under the control of their husbands and forced into offering their bodies for the war effort (11). In addition, while two nations engaged in these bizarre battle tactics of using women to lead the Israelites to sin, revenge was taken on only one, Midian, while Moab was spared. This is explained by the fact that Moab felt genuinely threatened by the Israelites (12). These commentaries reflect that, at least, some value was placed on the lives of the Israelites’ “enemies” in our tradition.

My exploration of this text is far from comprehensive. As I did on my blog two years ago, (2), I leave this matter unresolved. I take some comfort from the fact that I am not the first to be concerned about these deeds. Scholars believe that questions were asked at the time and that Moses himself was disturbed and angered by aspects of the killing (13).  A senior editor of wrote that the “war of retribution on the Midianites...sends chills down my spine” (14). He asserts that “Jews are supposed to ask these questions, even if the answers are not satisfactory”. In asking these questions, we emphasise our abhorrence of genocide and racism, and our tendency to read these texts primarily as metaphoric messages about the importance of rejecting senseless hatred and the disruption of the cultural and spiritual lives of others.

1)       Numbers 31:14-15
3)       The Chasidic discourse known as “Heichaltzu” is a prime example of this.
4)       Numbers 25:18, 31:1-2, read in relation to Numbers 25:1-3
5)       Samson Raphael Hirsch on Numbers 31:3
6)       Rav Kook, Igros Hareia, vol 1, p. 100, cited in Sharki, R. Uri, Jewish Morality in War, Parshat Matot, מוסר יהודי במלחמה , לפרשת מטות - דברי הרב אורי שרקי,
7)       Bereshit Rabba on Matos, 2.
8)       Bereshit Rabba on Matos, 5, also in Midrash Tanchuma
9)       Etz Yosef on Bereshit Rabba on Matos, 5
10)   Seforno on Numbers 31:15
11)   Ohr Hachayim Numbers 31:16. However, in the end this argument was countered by the argument that the women had of their own volition and initiative manipulated the Jewish men to worship the idols, which went further than the acts that they were coerced into by the men.
12)   Ralbag, on Numbers 15, Balak, Toelles 1, Mosad Rav Kook edition, p. 135, and Chizkuni
13)   Chasam Sofer, Klei Yakar on Matos

No comments:

Post a Comment