Mattot: From Genocide to Gentleness

July 17, 2011 at 1:49 pm | Posted in Mattot | 1 Comment

A story of genocide appears in this week’s Torah portion, Mattot (Tribes).  And the Israelites are the perpetrators, committing genocide against the Midianites living in Moab.

God spoke to Moses, saying:  Take vengeance, the vengeance of the children of Israel, against the Midianites; afterward, you will be gathered to your people.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 31:1-2)

For this last military action before Moses dies, he sends out a detachment of 12,000 men, a thousand men from each tribe.  With them he sends the new priest Pinchas, his grand-nephew, who skewered the Israelite man and the Midianite woman in the act of fornicating to worship the god of Peor.  (See my last two blogs, “Pinchas: Aromatherapy”, and “Balak:  Wide Open”.)  To further emphasize that the coming battle is a religious one, rather than an ordinary battle for conquest or defense, Moses sends Pinchas with signal trumpets and (unspecified) holy objects.

The Israelite detachment succeeds without losing a single man.  They kill all the Midianite men, and bring back the women, children, livestock, and other booty as spoils of war.

And Moses became angry with the military orders given by the officers of the thousands and the officers of the hundreds, the ones coming from the armed battle.  And Moses said to them:  You let the females live!   Hey, here they were, leading Israel in the matter of Bilam, to choose unfaithfulness to God in the affair of Peor; and the pestilence happened to the community of God!  So now kill every male among the small children, and every woman who has known a man by lying down with a male, kill her!  But all the small children among the women who have not known lying down with a male, keep alive for yourselves.  (Numbers 31:14-18)

Whoa!  Are Moses’ orders as awful as they sound?  It depends on the level of interpretation.  Jewish Torah commentary is often divided into four classifications:  peshat, “spreading out” the literal interpretation; remez, the application of “hints” in the text to related situations; derash, the “investigation” of how mythical elements in the text apply to human psychology and ethics; and sod, the “hidden” level that finds mystical symbolism in the words.

On the literal,  peshat level, Moses carries out God’s request for “vengeance” by treating the action against the Midianites in Moab as different from all previous military actions.  This is a religious war against a people who seduced the men of Israel into worshiping a false god.  That’s why Pinchas leads the army, bringing holy objects with him.  The Israelites kill all the Midianite men in combat, without losing one of their own men, because God is on their side.  But then they follow standard wartime procedure by returning with all the women and children as part of their booty.

Moses points out that since the Midianite women were the ones who did the seducing, enticing the Israelite men to worship the god of Peor through both sex and animal sacrifices, the guilty women must then be killed.  Since it’s not clear which Midianite women seduced Israelites, Moses orders all the non-virgins killed.

The young boys must be killed to prevent them from growing up and avenging their fathers.  But the young girls are considered safe, because (according to traditional commentary) they will be converted by their Israelite husbands.

So on the literal, peshat level, Moses at least has a rationale for the genocide.  But when I look on the remez level for what the text hints at, I notice the assumption that Israelite men have no willpower to resist seduction.  All the blame lies on the Midianite women, rather than on the Israelite men who succumb to their invitations.  That’s why God orders vengeance against all the Midianites in Moab.  (It’s a fair assumption, since the Midianite women seduce the Israelite men openly, that the Midianite men are complicit.)

If the Israelite men were held responsible, the story would be different.  The vengeance or punishment would be left up to God, who has already afflicted both Israelite and Midianites with a pestilence.  And Moses would exhort the men of Israel to leave Moab behind them, rejecting any future seductions from Midianite women.  No war or genocide would be necessary, because the Israelites do not intend to conquer Moab, and their men must learn to resist seduction by worshippers of foreign gods.

So in my own remez interpretation, the story of genocide becomes a tragic illustration of what happens when women get all the blame for seducing men into bad behavior.

Moving toward the derash level, modern commentators have noted that Moses himself was married to a Midianite.  Moses’ wife Tzipporah has nothing to do with the seduction in Moab; he married her decades earlier, she belonged to a group of Midianites living far away on the Sinai peninsula, and her father was the Midianite priest Jethro (Yitro), who mentored Moses and worshiped the same god.

Nevertheless, Moses might feel self-conscious about his Midianite wife, and therefore insist on being especially severe with the Midianite women in Moab in order to prove his complete aversion to them and their alien religion.

Going deeper into a derash investigation, I find the basic human conflict between what Freud called the id and the superego.  One side of a human being wants to indulge in any pleasure that comes along, and avoid the pain of saying no, setting boundaries, refusing to go along with other people.  This is the side that is seduced by Midianites into worshiping the wrong god.  The other side of a human being wants to do the right thing,  earn self-respect and inner peace, and go for the long term reward of a good position among good people.  This is the side that must utterly reject the Midianites.  And this utter rejection is expressed metaphorically by the extermination of all the Midianites in Moab—except for the young girls.

What do the young, virgin girls stand for?  Moving into the sod level of interpretation, I think they represent our more innocent impulses toward pleasure and sociability.  Human beings should not be total killjoys.  Instead, we should let our love of physical and social pleasures enrich our moral activities and bring a gentle joy into our lives.

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  1. […] The other problem is the genocide. This year, thanks to a question from my friend Steve Ulrich, I can no longer distance myself from the genocide the way I did in my 2011 post, Mattot: From Genocide to Gentleness. […]


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