Mattot: Killing the Innocent

July 13, 2014 at 9:03 pm | Posted in Balak, Mattot | 5 Comments
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In the Torah portion Balak, Israelite men worship a god named Baal Pe-or by engaging in ritual sex with the local Midianite and Moabite women. God becomes enraged against Israel, punishes the Israelites with a plague, and tells Moses to impale the ringleaders among the Israelite men. (See my earlier post, Balak: Carnal Appetites.) The focus is on the men’s shameful betrayal of the God of Israel.

In the next Torah portion, Pinchas, God tells Moses to punish the Midianites:

Be hostile to the Midianites and strike them! Because they were hostile to you through their cunning, acting cunningly toward you over the matter of Pe-or… (Numbers 25:17-18)

Notice how the blame for the blasphemy is shifted from the Israelites to the Midianites. In this week’s Torah portion, Mattot (“Tribes”), God reminds Moses: Take vengeance, the vengeance of the Children of Israel from the Midianites! (Numbers 31:2)

In the Torah, making God angry often results in death. A death penalty for the Midianite women who engaged in Baal Pe-or worship with Israelite men would be consistent with other examples of justice in the Torah. But what happens is far worse.

Albrecht Durer, detail

Albrecht Durer, detail

Moses sends an army of 12,000 Israelites to attack the local Midianites. The army kills all the Midianite men, burns their settlements, and brings back the women and children as captives, along with livestock and other booty. And Moses is furious.

Moses said to them: You let every nekeivah live! Hey, they were [why] the Children of Israel, through the word of Bilam, betrayed God in the matter of Pe-or, so that a plague was among the community of God! So now, kill every male among the small children. And every woman who has known a man by lying with a male, kill her! But all the small children among the women who have not known lying with a male, keep them alive for yourselves. (Numbers 31:15-18)

nekeivah (נְקֵבָה) = female (human or any other animal); hole.

Two things about this passage raise my hackles. One is how Moses and God shift the blame from the Israelites to the Midianites. I will address that issue three weeks from now, when I write about the second Torah portion of the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim: Va-etchannan.

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.

Commentary from the Talmud through the nineteenth century tried to justify Moses’ orders with variations on the claim that Midianites—at least the Midianites living north of Moab—were  somehow unable to stop subverting Israel’s morals and religion. Even if all the adult Midianites were killed, their infant boys would still grow up dedicated to bringing down the Israelites.

Classic commentary also strained to justify why Moses exempted the virgin girls among the Midianites from the death penalty. The Zohar (written in the 13th century) claimed that once a woman has lost her virginity to a man, she is under his influence. This assertion supposedly justifies both the killing of the Midianite men (who must have urged their wives to seduce Israelites), and Moses’ order to spare the virgin girls “for yourselves”. It utterly fails to explain why Moses orders the death penalty for the underage boys.

Some twentieth-century commentary pointed out that genocide was common at the dawn of the Iron Age in the Middle East, along with taking girls captive to be personal slaves. The implication is that we cannot expect a higher standard in the Torah.

None of this commentary justifies Moses’ order of genocide as far as I am concerned. In my 2011 post, I tried a different approach to the genocide in this week’s Torah portion, and interpreted it symbolically. That was an interesting exercise for me, and it let me avoid dwelling on the atrocities the Israelite army committed at Moses’ command.

But this year I want to point out two assumptions underlying Moses’ orders:

1) Proselytizing for the “wrong” religion is a crime deserving death.

2) Every member of the same tribe or race or ethnic group as the criminal deserves the same punishment, because “they” are all alike.

This second assumption is Hitler’s way of thinking.

It is also an extreme example of a common human error. Many people who feel ashamed or at a disadvantage look for someone to blame. All too often, they generalize and blame their situation on all the members of a group—such as Jews, Muslims, Democrats, Republicans, blacks, whites, unemployed single mothers, CEO’s of corporations, men, women.

Few Americans today progress from blaming all members of a group to trying to massacre them. We tend to stop at the level of hatred, bitterness, slander, and voting habits. But in other parts of the world, genocide still happens.

Apparently genocide was acceptable to whoever wrote down or redacted this part of the Torah portion Mattot—as long as the victims were not Israelites. Then classic commentators had to find excuses for Moses, because they assumed a priori that the heroes in the Torah always have good reasons for doing apparently bad things.

But we are not bound by their assumption. We must do better, and denounce genocide even when the so-called good guys do it in the Torah.

And we must never stop noticing and pointing out when someone is blaming a whole group for the misdeeds of some of its members. Even if that blamer is yourself.

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5 Comments »

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  1. Thanks for this Melissa. There is only so far one can bend over and twist meaning . Sometimes you just have to say, that seems wrong from where i’m looking. CZ

  2. […] Torah portion Mattot in the book of Numbers/Deuteronomy provides a negative example. (See my post Mattot: Killing the Innocent.) This week’s Torah portion, Va-etchannan (“And I implored”) provides a more positive […]

  3. […] This story ends with the slaughter of the captive Midianite women. (See my post Mattot: Killing the Innocent.) […]

  4. […] the good guys win?  Read my post Mattot: Killing the Innocent before you […]

  5. […] texts for contradictory opinions. For example, in one passage Moses commands genocide (see my post Mattot: Killing the Innocent).  In another, God tells Moses to tell the people: You shall not wrong a stranger, and you shall […]


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