Mattot, Judges, & Joshua: How to Stop a Plague, Part 2

July 19, 2017 at 9:01 pm | Posted in Joshua, Judges, Mattot | 3 Comments
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Pinchas first appears in the Torah grabbing a spear and skewering two worshipers of a local Midianite god, Baal Peor. God (that is, the God-character in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar) is relieved, because “He” could not stop “His” own anger at the apostasy and the resulting plague. (See my post Balak & Pinchas: How to Stop a Plague, Part 1.) Pinchas’s zealous impulse does the trick.

God tells Moses:

Therefore say: Here I am, giving to him My covenant of shalom. And it shall be for him, and for his descendants after him, a covenant of priesthood for all time, founded because he was zealous for his God, so he atoned for the children of Israel.” (Numbers 25:12-13)

shalom (שָׁלוֹם) = peace, wholeness, well-being.

The covenant of shalom makes Pinchas a priest, binding him to commit no further violence against humans (though like all priests, he must slaughter animal offerings at the altar).

However, there is no covenant of peace binding God. In this week’s Torah portion, Mattot (“Tribes”), God orders Moses:

Avenge the vengeance of the Israelites on the Midianites! Afterward you shall be gathered to your people. (Numbers 31:1)

After Moses dies, the rest of the Israelites live with the knowledge of both their unfaithfuless to God and their vengeance on the Midianites. Next week’s post, Mattot, Va-etchannan, & Isaiah: How to Stop a Plague, Part 3, will consider the lasting effects of the Baal Peor incident on the Israelites. This week’s post explores what happens to Pinchas after his well-timed murder.

Pinchas in Mattot

Moses sent a thousand from each tribe for the army, and Pinchas, son of Elazar the Priest, for the army; and holy utensils and trumpets for blasting were in his hands. And they made war against Midian, as God had commanded Moses … (Numbers 31:6-7)

A priest accompanies an army in the Torah not to engage in battle, but to address the troops before battle1 and take charge of holy objects2. Sometimes a general consults a priest before battle, and the priest uses an oracular device to relay simple questions to God and report God’s brief replies.3

The Torah portion Mattot does not identify the holy utensils Pinchas brought to the battle against the Midianites in the valley of Baal Peor. Trumpets were used to sound an alarm, to signal troops to advance, and to signal troops to retreat.4

Pinchas in the Book of Judges

Dead Concubine at Gibeah

Pinchas does use an oracular device to answer the questions of generals many years later, when he is the high priest of the Israelites. After the tribes have conquered and settled various parts of Canaan, some men in the territory of Benjamin rape and kill a Levite’s concubine. The Levite rallies all the other tribes to go to war against the Benjaminites.5

Pinchas stays in the town of Beit-El, where the ark is in residence, about 8 miles (13 km) north of Gibeah, the main town of Benjamin. Before each day of battle, men from the Israelite army go to Beit-El with a question for God.

First they ask which tribe should advance first against the Benjaminites, and God’s answer is “Judah”. The Israelites lose the battle. They return to Beit-El and ask if they should attack again, and God answers yes. But they lose the second battle as well.

Then they went up … and they came to Beit-El and they wept, and they sat there before God, and they fasted that day until the evening, and they sent up rising-offerings and shelamim before God. (Judges 20:26)

shelamim (שְׁלָמִים) = animal-offerings either to express gratitude to God for well-being, or to attempt a state of peace and unity with God. (From the same root as shalom.)

And the Israelites inquired of God—and the ark of the covenant of God was there in those days, and Pinchas son of Elazar son of Aaron was standing in attendance before [God] in those days—saying: “Should we gather again to go out to war with the Benjaminites, our brothers, or should we give up?” And God said: “Go up, because tomorrow I will give them into your hand.” (Judges 20:27-28)

The Israelites defeat the Benjaminites the next day, wiping out most of the men of that tribe and all of the women. But the only role Pinchas plays is to report God’s answers; he takes no action on his own.

Pinchas in the Book of Joshua

Pinchas takes a more active role in the book of Joshua when nine and a half tribes are considering making war on the other two and a half.

At the end of Mattot, this week’s portion, the tribes of Reuben and Gad ask Moses for permission to settle east of the Jordan in Gilead and Bashan, the lands that the Israelites have already conquered. Moses grants them and the half-tribe of Menasheh these lands, but only after they have promised that their fighting men will cross the Jordan with the rest of the Israelites and help conquer Canaan.6

After the death of Moses, Joshua leads these men and all the other Israelites across the Jordan River. His army conquers a large part of Canaan, the men of Reuben, Gad, and Menasheh return to their new homes, and the land west of the Jordan is allotted among the other nine and a half tribes. Joshua erects the portable Tent of Meeting containing God’s ark at Gilgal first, then at Shiloh, both on the west side of the Jordan.

And the Israelites heard [a report] saying: Hey! The Reubenites and the Gadites and the half-tribe of Menasheh built an altar opposite the land of Canaan, in the district across from the Israelites. (Joshua 22:11)

This is the same region where the Israelites were camping when they joined the Midianites in their worship of Baal Peor.

And the Israelites heard, and they assembled, the whole community of the sons of Israel, at Shiloh to go up to make war upon them. And the Israelites sent Pinchas, son of Elazar the [high] priest … to the land of Gilead, along with ten chieftains … (Joshua 22:12-14)

If anything could trigger Pinchas’s jealousy and zealotry for the God of Israel again, it would be news that some Israelites had built an altar for a foreign god. When his delegation arrives, Pinchas protests:

Is it a small matter for us, the crime of Peor from which we have not purified ourselves to this day? It is a scourge in the community of God! And you, you would turn away from God? If you rebel today against God, tomorrow the whole community of Israel will become angry! (Joshua 22:17-18)

The east-bank tribesmen quickly explain that they have no intention of worshiping another god. They claim they were afraid of being excluded from the community of the God of Israel, and they only built a symbolic replica of God’s altar in Shiloh.

because it is a witness between our eyes and your eyes. Far be it from us to rebel against God!” (Joshua 22:28-29).

And Pinchas the priest heard, and the chieftains of the community and the heads of the companies of Israel who were with him, the words that they spoke … and it was good in their eyes. (Joshua 22:30)

Pinchas and his delegation return to Shiloh with their new understanding, and war is averted. Pinchas has indeed become a man of shalom, of peace, wholeness, and well-being.

Did God’s covenant of shalom transform Pinchas because it gave him the responsibilities of a priest?7 Or did it transform him because God’s response shocked him into recognizing his own excessive zeal?

Imitating God’s forgiveness might be a fine strategy, but imitating the murderous zeal of the God-character in the Torah is bad for a human being. Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, the 19th-century author of Ha’amek Davar, wrote: “Since it was only natural that such a deed as Pinhas’ should leave in his heart an intense emotional unrest afterward, the Divine blessing was designed to cope with this situation and promised peace and tranquility of soul.”8

May all human beings who are overwhelmed by jealousy or anger be transformed like Pinchas —whether by a new responsibility, a new realization, or an inner blessing—into people of shalom.

1  See Deuteronomy 20:2.

2  See 1 Samuel 4:4-5.

3  This oracular device is called urim and/or tummim in Numbers 27:21, 1 Samuel 14:41, and 1 Samuel 28:6; and an eifod in 1 Samuel 23:9-12 and 1 Samuel 30:7-8.  An eifod in the Bible is usually a tabard worn by priests and other attendants on God’s sanctuary: a garment made of two rectangular panels of cloth fastened together at the shoulders and belted around the waist. Exodus 28:6-30 describes the elaborate eifod of the high priest and the choshen tied to its front panel. The choshen is a square pouch with twelve precious stones on the front side. Inside the pouch are the urim and tummim, items that scholars have not yet identified.

4  2 Samuel 17:6, 20:22; Jeremiah 4:19, 6:1, 51:27; Ezekiel 33:6; Amos 3:6.

5  Judges 20:1-48.

6  Numbers 32:1-33.

7  The priesthood was hereditary, so Pinchas, son of the high priest Elazar, son of the high priest Aaron, could expect to be consecrated as a priest eventually. But the Zohar notes that someone who has killed a person is normally disqualified from the priesthood. (Arthur Green in Sefat Emet, The Language of Truth, by Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, translation and commentary by Arthur Green, The Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1998, p. 264)

8  Translation from Ha’amek Davar in Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Bamidbar (Numbers), translated from Hebrew by Aryeh Newman, The World Zionist Organization, Jerusalem, 1980.

Haftarat Mattot—Jeremiah: Doomed to a Calling

August 3, 2016 at 9:11 pm | Posted in Jeremiah, Mattot | Leave a comment
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Mattot (Numbers 30:2-32:42) and the haftarah is Jeremiah 1:1-2:3.

Jeremiah discovers his calling in this week’s haftarah:

The word of God happened to me, saying:

     Before I enclosed you in the womb, I knew you.

     And before you went out from the womb, I consecrated you;

     A navi to the nations I appointed you. (Jeremiah 1:4-5)

navi (נָבְיא) = prophet. (Plural = neviyim (נְבִיאִים).)

There are two kinds of neviyim in the Bible: those who have ecstatic experiences of the divine but do not speak for God; and those who serve as mouthpieces or translators for God, giving God’s messages to other people. Jeremiah is the second kind of navi, like Moses, Bilam, Samuel, Natan, Elijah, Elisha, Jonah, Joel, Amos, Hosea, the first Isaiah, Micah, and Nahum before him.

Jeremiah is an adolescent when he hears God tell him he is a navi.

And I said:

     Ahahh! My master, God!

     Hey! I do not know how to speak,

     Because I am a youth. (Jeremiah 1:6)

Ahahh (אֲהָהּ) = a cry of alarm, like “oh no!” or “alas!”

Jeremiah does not want the job.

While Moses tried to get out of being God’s prophet by claiming his speech and his tongue were heavy, Jeremiah protests that he would be a poor speaker because he is too young.

Perhaps he is wise for his age and knows speaking out effectively against what others are doing requires insights that come from experience. Of course, that wisdom would actually make him more qualified!

More importantly, God consecrated him as a navi before he was born. The language in these poetic verses reflects an observation that we explain today through genetics: human beings are born with genes for certain talents and dispositions, which change from potential to actual in the right environment. Skills can be developed through education and practice, but you can become a stellar dancer only if you were born with certain physical traits, a stellar mathematician only if you were born with certain mental traits, a stellar prophet only if you were born with—what?

My guess is that a competent navi must be born with both the kind of intelligence needed by translators and eloquent speakers, and an unusual spiritual sensitivity.  Jeremiah must have had a way with words as a child, and he must have experienced glimpses or echoes of a reality behind our mundane reality.

People enjoy using their talents. So why is Jeremiah horrified at news that he must serve as a navi?

The haftarah opens by stating that Jeremiah began prophesying in the 13th year of the reign of Josiah, king of Judah, which scholars date to the 620’s B.C.E. Two neviyim are already active in Jerusalem at that time: Zephaniah (who has his own book) and Huldah (who is mentioned only when she utters a prophecy for King Josiah five years after Jeremiah’s call, in 2 Kings 22).

King Josiah began his reign at the age of eight, and while he was growing up, Zephaniah was predicting a day of reckoning when God would wipe out Jerusalem, Judah, and most of the world for injustice and idol worship, while giving refuge to a small number of survivors.

When Jeremiah is called to prophesy, Josiah is 21 and has not yet begun his campaign of wiping out the images, shrines, and priests of other gods. The kingdom of Judah is still full of polytheists worshipping Baal, Ashtoret, Molekh, Khemosh, Milkom, and various astral deities. Furthermore, the political situation in the region is shifting. The Assyrian Empire, which had earlier swallowed up the northern kingdom of Israel and made Judah its vassal state, is weakening. Wars are brewing between powers bigger than the little state of Judah. It would be all too easy for a sensitive person to imagine God using foreign armies to punish and destroy the Israelites.

Jeremiah probably expects that the speeches he must make as a navi will be at least as grim and unwelcome as Zephaniah’s. If Jeremiah hopes that at least his private life will continue as before, that hope probably dies when he hears God’s response to his attempt to excuse himself on the grounds of youth.

prophet 1And God said to me:

     Do not say “I am a youth”

     Because anywhere I send you, you will go,

     And anything I command you, you will speak.

     Do not be afraid in front of them,

     Because I will be with you to rescue you –declares God. (Jeremiah 1:7-8)

Theoretically Jeremiah could refuse the call, but God already knows Jeremiah will obey—and that he will need rescuing from “them”, people who have not yet been named. In case Jeremiah did not get the hint, later in this haftarah God says:

     And they will attack you

     But they will not vanquish you

     Because I will be with you—declares God—to rescue you. (Jeremiah 1:19)

How reassuring!

prophet 2Jeremiah rants against dishonesty, injustice, and the worship of other gods until King Josiah is killed in 609 B.C.E. During the reigns of the next four kings of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon vanquishes the old Assyrian empire and his army conquers Judah, putting Jerusalem under siege in 589 B.C.E.

Jeremiah blames idol-worship for the Babylonian attack, and advises each successive king of Judah (Yeho-achaz, Yehoyakim, Yehoyakin, and Tzidkiyahu) to surrender and make Judah a vassal of the new Babylonian empire. He knows it is the only way to save lives and preserve Jerusalem and its temple.

Despite all of Jeremiah’s prophesies, the people do not repent, and none of the kings submit to Babylon.  The Jerusalem faction that opposes surrender flogs, imprisons, and attempts to murder Jeremiah, so he will stop interfering with their power over the king.

prophet 3When the Babylonians finally do raze Jerusalem and its temple, and kill or take captive most of its leading citizens, all Jeremiah can do is save the lives of a few people who helped him. He spends the rest of his own life in exile in Egypt, prophesying about other countries whose kings do not listen to him.

Maybe Jeremiah glimpses his own future when God first calls him to serve as a navi. That future would make anyone cry Ahahh!

*

When I was young, I was one of many Americans who believed that if you discovered your true calling and did it, you would be successful and happy. The 1970’s and 80’s were the era of “Do your own thing” and “Follow your bliss”.

Gradually I realized that even when you pursue work you have a talent for and are passionate about, the world does not always rearrange itself to give you a clear path. Some individuals are lucky; I believe my father was born to be an engineer, and he had a profitable and satisfying career in that field. Some are unlucky, and pursue what speaks to their innermost heart only to end up broke and miserable. In some countries, those who pursue the work of a prophet speaking out against the government end up imprisoned (like Jeremiah) or killed (a fate he narrowly escaped).

And some people never try to pursue their calling, either because what they were born to do is something society expects from them anyway, or because they run away from the first intimation that they might have a calling.

What if you realized, with deep inner clarity, that you were called to devote your life to work that would lead to frustration and failure like Jeremiah’s?

Balak, Pinchas & Mattot:  How Moabites Became Midianites

July 8, 2015 at 8:16 pm | Posted in Balak, Mattot, Pinchas | 1 Comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah

Moabites and Midianites are two distinct peoples in most of the Bible.  Yet they appear to be interchangeable in a story about sex and revenge that runs through three Torah portions in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar: the portions Balak (last week), Pinchas (this week), and  Mattot (next week).

The conflation between Moabites and Midianites begins after the Israelites have marched through the wilderness east of Moab and conquered the Amorite kingdom to its north. The Israelites camp on the east bank of the Jordan River, in their newly captured territory.

Balak, the king of Moab, is afraid they will go south and attack his country next.

And [the king of] Mo-av said to the elders of Midyan: Now the congregation will nibble away all our surroundings, as an ox nibbles away the grass of the field. (Numbers/Bemidbar 22:4)

1. Midian in Genesis, Exodus, and 1 Kings. 2. Midian in Numbers and Judges.

1. Midian in Genesis, Exodus, and 1 Kings.
2. Midian in Numbers and Judges.

Mo-av (מוֹאָב), Moab in English = a kingdom east of the Dead Sea; the people of this kingdom. (The actual etymology is unknown. Genesis/Bereishit  19:36-37 claims the Moabites are descended from incest between Lot and one of his daughters, and implies that the daughter named her son Mo-av to mean “from father”.  The actual Hebrew for “from father” would be mei-av מֵאָב.) The Moabite language was a Hebrew dialect, and appears on a circa 840 B.C.E. stele about a war between Israel and a Moabite king named Mesha.

Midyan (מִדְיָן), Midian in English = a territory occupied by the people of Midian, whose geographic location differs in various parts of the Bible. (Possibly from the Hebrew dayan (דַּיָּן) = judge. Midyan might mean “from a judge”, “from judgement”, or “from a legal case”.) References to a people called Madyan or Madiam appear in later Greek and Arabic writings, and Ptolemy wrote of a region of Arabia called Modiana (see #1 on map), but archeology has not yet proven the existence of a country of Midian.  The Midianites may have been a nomadic people without a fixed territory.

When King Balak sends a delegation to the prophet Bilam to ask him to curse the Israelites, it consists of the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian. (Numbers 22:7).

When Bilam arrives at the mountaintop overlooking the Israelite camp, King Balak is there with “all the nobles of Moab (Numbers 23:6, 23:17) but apparently no Midianites.

After Bilam fails to curse the Israelites and goes home, a brief story in the portion Balak describes how some young women invite the Israelites to participate in ritual feasts to their gods, and many Israelites end up bowing down to the local god, Baal Peor. (See my post  Balak: False Friends?) At first, these women are identified as Moabites.

And Israel settled among the acacias, and the people began to be unfaithful with the daughters of Moab. (Numbers 25:1)

Pinchas Impales Zimri and Cozbi, by J.C. Weigel

Pinchas Impales Zimri and Kozbi,
by J.C. Weigel

Next, an Israelite man brings a foreign woman into the Tent of Meeting itself for sex. Aaron’s grandson Pinchas saves the day by quickly spearing the two of them. The woman is identified as a Midianite, and in the next Torah portion, Pinchas, we find out she is a woman of rank.

And the name of the  Midianite woman who was struck down was Kozbi, daughter of Tzur, the head of the people of a paternal household from Midian. And God spoke to Moses, saying: Be hostile toward the Midianites, and strike them down. Because they were hostile to you through their deceit, when they deceived you about the matter of Peor… (Numbers 25:15-18)

Suddenly the Moabite women who invited the Israelites to feasts for their gods are being called Midianites!

In the next Torah portion, Mattot (“Tribes”), God reminds Moses to attack the Midianites, but does not mention the Moabites.

And they arrayed against Midian, as God had commanded Moses, and they killed every male. And the kings of Midian they killed …five kings of Midian, and Bilam son of Beor, they killed by the sword. But the children of Israel took captive the women of Midian and their little ones… (Numbers 31:7-9)

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

And Moses said to them: You let every female live! Hey, they were the ones who, by the word of Bilam, led the Israelites to apostasy against God in the matter of Peor, so there was a plague in the assembly of God. So now, kill every male among the little ones and every woman who has known a man by lying with a male, kill! (Numbers 31:15-17)

Here Moses declares that it was Midianite women who seduced Israelites into worshiping Baal Peor. The Moabite women are no longer mentioned.

When we look at the storyline over three Torah portions, the enemies of the Israelites seem to change from a coalition of Moabite and Midianite leaders, to Moabite men, to Moabite women, to Midianite women, to Midianites in general.  How can we explain the shift from Moabites to Midianites?

As usual when it comes to inconsistencies in the scripture, the commentary falls into three camps: the apologists, the scientists, and the psychologists. (A fourth camp of commentary is the mystics, who focus on individual phrases and words, and ignore inconsistencies in storylines.)booksThe Apologists

The apologists take the Torah as literal history, and find clever ways to explain apparent inconsistencies.

The Talmud considers Midian and Moab two separate nations that became allies against the Israelites. Thus men from both nations hire Bilam to curse the Israelites, and make their daughters seduce the Israelite men (in order to cause the God of Israel to abandon the Israelites and leave them vulnerable).

In one Talmud story, God tells Moses to spare Moab and attack only Midian because God wants to preserve the land of Moab for the birth of Ruth, the virtuous ancestor of King David. (Talmud Bavli, Bava Kama 38a-b.) Another tractate of the Talmud (Sotah 43a) says that the attack on Midian is actually vengeance for the episode in the book of Genesis when a band of Midianites buys Joseph from his brothers and sells him into slavery in Egypt.

Rashi (11th century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) wrote that the king of Moab consults the Midianites because he knows Moses spent a period of his life in Midian, and he wants to learn more about the leader of the Israelites. The elders of Midian choose to not only advise the king of Moab, but join forces with him in the campaign to seduce the Israelite men. According to Rashi, God orders Moses to attack only the Midianites because the Moab acted solely out of fear for their own nation, “but the Midianites became enraged over a quarrel which was not their own”.

Some 20th century commentary explains the conflation between Moabites and Midianites by concluding that Midian was not a separate kingdom, but a confederation of nomadic tribes. (This explains why the first Midianites Moses meets lived near Mount Sinai, while the Midianites in the book of Numbers live in or near Moab, several hundred miles away.)  According to this theory, King Balak recruits local Midianite elders in order to involve all the people living in Moab, and the two ethnic groups work together to weaken the Israelites.

This theory explains God’s order to kill the Midianites, but does not explain why God fails to order the death of Moabites who are not Midiainites.booksThe Scientists

The commentators I call “the scientists” use linguistic and archeological evidence to assign various parts of the biblical text to authors from different periods and with different agendas. Inconsistencies in a Torah story occur when two different sources are awkwardly combined by a redactor.

The “documentary hypothesis” about when various pieces of the Bible were written has been revised a number of times since it first became popular in the 19th century, but linguistic scholars have agreed that passages in the first five books of the Bible come from at least four original documents (and probably additional fragments), and were stitched together and edited by at least one redactor.

Richard Elliott Friedman’s The Bible with Sources Revealed (2003) proposes that the stories in the Torah portions Balak, Pinchas, and Mattot came from three different sources which were compiled and edited by a final redactor (perhaps the priest called Ezra the Scribe).Midian 2 charts

The two references to Midian (…to the elders of Midianin Numbers 22:4; … and the elders of Midian … in Numbers 22:7) were inserted into the Bilam story by the final redactor who compiled and edited the five books of the Torah in the 5th century B.C.E. This redactor (possibly Ezra) inserted the elders of Midian into the Bilam story in order to harmonize it with the later story of seduction by Midianite women.

According to Friedman, the bulk of the Torah portion Balak was written by the “E” source in the northern kingdom of Israel. The northern kingdom was often in conflict with Moab across the Jordan River, and at one point conquered the whole country, only to be defeated by a new king of Moab named Mesha. The “E” source considered Moab an enemy.

Friedman credits the redactor of J/E with writing the story of the Moabite women seducing the Israelites into worshiping Baal Peor. The J/E redactor combined the “E” scripture from the northern kingdom of Israel with the “J” scripture from the southern kingdom of Judah, and added a few other stories—including the story of the Moabite women, according to Friedman.

The “P” source, which Friedman assigns to the Aaronide priests at the time of King Hezekiah of Judah, wrote the next story, in which a man from the tribe of Shimon and the daughter of a Midianite king go into the Tent of Meeting to copulate, and are speared in the act by Aaron’s grandson Pinchas. God then makes a covenant with Pinchas, and tells Moses to attack the Midianites.

Friedman notes that the “P” source was responding to a conflict at the time between priests who claimed descent from Aaron, and a clan of Levites called “Mushi” who may have been descendants of the two sons of Moses and his Midianite wife, Tzipporah. The first book of Chronicles, written between 500 and 350 B.C.E., says their descendants were the Levites in charge of the treasury. This story by “P” praises Aaron’s grandson, while denigrating Midianites.

In the next Torah portion, Mattot, the “P” source records the story of the Israelite’s war on the five kings of Midian, and has Moses blame the Midianite women for causing Israelite men to worship Baal Peor.

The approach used by Friedman and other scientific commentators certainly explains why this part of the book of Numbers keeps adding or replacing Moabites with Midianites. But it does not address the psychological insights of the stories when they are read as if they are episodes in a novel or mythic epic.booksThe Psychologists

The commentators I call “the psychologists” read the Bible as it stands, viewing it as a collection of mythic tales rolled into one grand epic, and mine it for insights about human nature.

One of the first psychological commentaries appears in a 5th century C.E. story in the Midrash Rabbah for Numbers. Referring to the Torah story about an Israelite man bringing a Midianite princess into the Tent of Meeting for sex, the Midrash says: “He seized her by her plait and brought her to Moses. He said to him: ‘O son of Amram! Is this woman permitted or forbidden?’ He answered him: ‘She is forbidden to you.’ Said Zimri to him: ‘Yet the woman whom you married was a Midianitess!’ Thereupon Moses felt powerless and the law slipped from his mind. All Israel wailed aloud; for it says, they were weeping (25:6). What were they weeping for? Because they became powerless at that moment.”

Yitro and Moses

Yitro and Moses

As a psychological commentator myself, I would point out that until the Israelites reach the Jordan north of Moab, all their contacts with Midianites have been positive.  Moses himself is sheltered by a Midianite priest, Yitro, when he is fleeing a murder charge in Egypt.  Yitro becomes his beloved mentor and father-in-law.  The Torah does not say Moses loves his wife, Yitro’s daughter Tzipporah, but she is the mother of his two sons, and she does rescue him from death on the way back to Egypt.

When Moses is leading the Israelites from Egypt toward Mount Sinai, his Midianite family arrives at the camp, and Moses greets his father-in-law with joy and honor. Yitro calls the god of Israel the greatest of all gods, makes an animal offering to God, and gives Moses good advice about the administration of the camp. (Exodus 18:5-27)

Moses and the Israelites do not encounter Midianites again until 40 years later, about 500 miles to the northeast, and in the book of Numbers. These Midianites are hostile instead of benevolent, determined to ruin the Israelites by alienating them from their god.

Does Moses feel betrayed by the people he married into?  Does he feel powerless, as the Midrash Rabbah claims, when his own affiliation with Midian seems to contradict his orders to destroy Midian?

Does it break his heart to see Midianite women, kin to his own wife, seducing Israelite men away from God?  Does it break his heart to transmit God’s orders to kill all the Midianites near Moab, including the captive women?

Does he turn against his own Midianite wife and sons then?

Or does he reassure himself, and perhaps others, that the Midianite tribes in Moab are different from the Midianite tribes near Mount Sinai; that there are good Midianites and bad Midianites, and it is right to marry the good ones, and kill the bad ones?

If Moses distinguishes between good Midianite tribes and bad Midianite tribes, does it occur to him that within a tribe there might be good and bad individuals?  That wholesale slaughter, although the usual procedure in war, is actually unjust because a number of innocent people die with the guilty?

Judging by Moses’ long speech to the Israelites in the book of Deuteronomy (which scientific commentators attribute to sources written after 640 B.C.E.), Moses and the Torah continue to condemn tribes and nations wholesale, without regard for individual members.

Just as Moses judges all Midianites in the five northern tribes as evil because of the actions of a few of their members, human beings throughout history have made judgements about undifferentiated groups.  It is so much easier than discriminating among individuals. From Biblical times to the present day, some people have judged all Jews as bad.

Today, I catch myself ranting against Republicans, as if every person who voted Republican in the last election were responsible for the particular propaganda efforts and political actions that I deplore. A psychological look at the story of Moses and the Midianites near Moab reminds me that I need to be careful not to slander the innocent with the guilty.

 

Note: This blog completes the book of Numbers  for this year (2015 in the modern calendar, 5775 in the Hebrew calendar). My next blog post will be in two weeks, when we open the book of Deuteronomy.

 

 

Mattot: Killing the Innocent

July 13, 2014 at 9:03 pm | Posted in Balak, Mattot | 6 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.

Mattot: Learning

July 20, 2012 at 5:22 pm | Posted in Mattot | Leave a comment

Not all twelve tribes 0f Israel settle in the land of Canaan. In the Torah portion Mattot (“tribes”), the tribes of Reuben and Gad ask Moses for permission to settle down on the east side of the Jordan River from Canaan, in the land of Gilad. I think it is noteworthy that even though everyone knows Moses is going to die on the east bank of the Jordan, and Joshua will lead the Israelites across the river to conquer Canaan, the Gadites and Reubenites do not secretly plot to make their move after Moses dies and the new leader has to take charge.  No, they ask Moses’ permission ahead of time, in front of all the leaders of Israel.

Some traditional commentary claims the Gadites and Reubenites were exclusively interested in their own wealth, not in the God nor the fate of Israel.  But I believe the mere fact that they asked for Moses’ permission ahead of time proves that they still wanted to be in good standing with the people Israel and the god of Israel.

The subsequent dialogue between Moses and the speaker for the Gadites and Reubenites can be read two different ways. So when I lead services this Friday evening, I am going to hand out the following script for a reader’s theater.

Two Tribes Ask for a Favor

A = The Conversation in the Torah (Bemidbar/Mattot 32:1-32)

B = The Negative Interpretation of classic commentary, from Midrash Rabbah to Sforno

C = A Positive Interpretation

 

NARRATOR:      The children of Reuben and the children of Gad had abundant livestock, very vast herds. They saw … the land of Gilad, and hey!—the place was a place for livestock. The children of Gad and the children of Reuben said to Moses— (32:1-2)

SPEAKER A:       If we have found favor in your eyes, this land will be given to your servants as a permanent holding.  Do not take us across the Jordan! (32:5)

SPEAKER B:       Look at all the livestock we own! We are so rich! Why should we risk losing any of our livestock? Don’t take us into Canaan. We want to own this land of Gilad, instead.

SPEAKER C:       We don’t want to do anything without your permission, but we noticed that this is good livestock land, here.  And we have livestock. (Pause.) So, um, if we have found favor in your eyes, you could assign us the land of Gilad as our permanent holding.  We’d rather live here than across the Jordan.

 

MOSES A: Will your brothers enter the war, while you, yourselves, stay here? Why do you hinder the heart of the children of Israel from crossing into the land that God has given to them? That’s what your fathers did, when I sent them from Kadesh-Barnea to spy out the land …  (32:6-8) … And it caused trouble for this whole people. (32:15)

MOSES B (angrily):  What? Do you actually think your brother tribes will cross the Jordan and fight for the land God promised them, if you stay behind in this territory that we already conquered? They’ll think you’re afraid of the Canaanites!  Just like your fathers!  Remember how the spies discouraged everyone from going into Canaan, and stuck us all in the wilderness for 40 years?

MOSES C (disappointed):       You don’t want holdings in the promised land? Well, what about the other ten tribes? Can they take over Canaan if you stay here? Will they even try? Or will it be like when the spies came back and made everyone afraid?

 

SPEAKER A:       We will build stone pens for our livestock here, and cities for our non-marchers—our small children and our aged.  But as for us, we will arm ourselves and hurry ahead in front of the children of Israel, until we have brought them to their place (in Canaan)… We will not return to our houses until every one of the children of Israel has received his permanent possession. (32:16-18)

SPEAKER B:       We’re just thinking about our livestock. So we’ll build pens for our animals here in Gilad.  Oh, and cities for our children and old folks and women. But our fighting men will cross the Jordan with the children of Israel.  We’ll be in the front lines, even.  And we won’t come back across the Jordan until all the tribes of Israel have their property. Is that enough so we can have Gilad?

SPEAKER C:       Oh.  We didn’t realize the other tribes needed us. (Pause.) We could build stone pens for our livestock here, and cities for everyone who can’t fight.  And our fighting men will arm themselves and stay in the front lines of the Israelites, until we’ve brought all our brother tribes to their places in Canaan.  We will not return to our houses until every one of the children of Israel has received his permanent possession. If we get property, everyone should get property.

 

MOSES A: If you do this thing, if you arm yourselves before God for the war, and you all cross the Jordan armed before God, continuing until God’s enemies are dispossessed before God, and the land has been subjugated before God— then you may return.  And it will be established for God and for Israel, and the land will be yours as a permanent holding before God. (32:20-22)

But if you do not do this, hey!—you are offending God.  Know that your offense will catch up with you! So build for yourselves cities for your non-marchers, and stone pens for your livestock. And then what has gone out from your mouth, you must do. (32:23-24)

MOSES B:  But if you do not do this, you will be committing a sin against God.  And sins against God don’t go unpunished! So go ahead and build cities for your children here—and pens for your livestock, if you insist.  And then you’d better carry out your promise, or else you’re finished.

MOSES C:  But if you do not do this, hey!—you will be in the wrong, and it will be a wrong against God.  Please keep that in mind.

 

SPEAKER A:       Your servants will do as my lord commands. Our non-marchers, our women, our herds, and all our livestock, they will be there in the cities of the Gilad. And your servants will cross, everyone armed in the legion, before God, to the war—as my lord speaks. (32:25)

SPEAKER B:       Yes, sir, we’ll do everything you command, sir. As long as we get the land on this side of the Jordan.

SPEAKER C:       Far be it from us to go back on our promise! We’ll do exactly as you command. And then can we have our hearts’ desire? Not just the land for livestock, but the cities for our children. Thank you for the reminder that they come first. Oh, and for the reminder that we’re fighting for God, as well as for our fellow Israelites.

 

NARRATOR:  Then Moses issued a command about them to Elazar the Priest, and Joshua son of Nun, and the heads of the fathers of the tribes. (32:28)

MOSES A: If they cross the Jordan with you, the children of Gad and the children of Reuben, everyone armed for the war before God, and the land is subjugated before you, you shall give them the land of the Gilad as a permanent holding.  But if they do not cross over armed with you, then—they will be given possessions among you in the land of Canaan. (32:29-30)

MOSES B and C: What he said.

 

SPEAKER A:       That which God has spoken to your servants, thus we will do. We will cross over, armed for battle before God, to the land of Canaan. And then a permanent holding of our possession will belong to us on the other side of the Jordan. (32:31-32)

SPEAKER B:       Don’t forget we’re going back across the Jordan, to take possession of all that beautiful livestock land.

SPEAKER C:      You mean—even if we don’t meet our sacred obligations, you won’t just abandon us?  We’ll still get a place to live, even if it’s in Canaan instead of the Gilad?

MOSES C: Of course.  Gad and Reuben are still tribes of Israel, even if you are emotionally attached to owning vast herds of livestock. You’re still included in God’s promise.  Besides, if it turns out that you can’t balance your own desires with your duty to your community and your duty to God, well, then you’ll need some extra religious education—in Canaan.

SPEAKER C:       We are honored. We are your servants—I mean, God’s servants.  We will do what God has spoken. And the land of Gilad will become our permanent holding only after we have helped to secure Canaan. And we’ll remember that God owns the land on both sides of the Jordan. All the land in the world, in fact. We will only be holding the land for God, just like our fellow Israelites across the Jordan.

 

NARRATOR: So Moses gave them, the children of Gad and the children of Reuben, … the land with its cities. (32:33)

(SPEAKER A and MOSES A shake hands.)

(SPEAKER B and MOSES B nod to one another stiffly, then turn away disgusted.)

(SPEAKER C and MOSES C hold both hands and smile warmly at one another.)

 

MELISSA:  So what do you think? If people start out like the tribes of Gad and Reuben, thinking only about wealth and possessions, will they do the right thing only if it means they get the property they want?  Or can they learn to appreciate other things—their own families, their larger community, and even the Holy One?

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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