Mattot, Va-etchannan, & Isaiah: How to Stop a Plague, Part 3

July 27, 2017 at 8:15 pm | Posted in Isaiah 1, Naso, Va-etchannan | 1 Comment
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from Domenichino,
“The Rebuke of Adam and Eve”, 1626

“Don’t blame me!” We say that when we feel guilty.  Even the first human beings in the Bible blame someone else when they disobey God’s instruction not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad. The male human blames the female, and the female blames the snake.1

In the Book of Numbers/Bemidbar, the Israelites flagrantly disobey the First Commandment, “You shall have no other gods before Me”, after accepting an invitation from the local women (first called Moabites, then Midianites) in the land the Israelites have conquered east of the Jordan River.

And they invited the people to the slaughter-sacrifices for their god.  And the people ate, and they bowed down to their god. (Numbers 25:2)

The story told in the Torah portion Balak gives no indication that the women deceive the Israelites, no hint of a lie or a trick. (See my post Balak: False Friends.) It is the Israelites who decide to worship that god, Baal Peor.

from Sacra Parallela,
Byzantine, 9th century

God’s rage at the Israelites’ apostasy is expressed as an epidemic among the Israelites, a divine plague that even the God-character cannot control. The plague stops only when Pinchas spears an Israelite man and a Midianite woman (who is probably a priestess of Baal Peor) in the act of doing something unholy. (See my post Balak & Pinchas: How to Stop a Plague, Part 1.)

The God-character rewards Pinchas for calming “His” rage in the next Torah portion, Pinchas. (See my post Mattot, Judges, & Joshua: How to Stop a Plague, Part 2.)

At least the God-character’s uncontrollable anger targets the Israelites, the people guilty of disobeying God’s commandment. Ironically, when the God-character is calm, ‘He” targets the Midianites, accusing them of actively tricking the Israelites.

Attack the Midianites and strike them down! –beecause they attacked you through nikheleyhem when niklu you over the matter of Peor … (Numbers/Bemidbar 25:17-18)

nikheleyhem (נִכְלֵיהֶם) = their deceit, their cunning, their wiles.

niklu (נִכְּלוּ) =they deceived, they treated cunningly.

But Moses turns his attention to other issues. So eventually, in the Torah portion Mattot, God reminds Moses:

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

nekom (נְקֺם) = Avenge! Take revenge! Get even!

nikmah (נִקְמַה) = [the] vengeance, revenge, payback.

And Moses finally assembles an army.

The God-character is calling for revenge, not for removing temptation. At most, the extermination of the local population prevents the Israelites from sliding back into worshiping Baal Peor. It does not stop them from straying after other Gods once they settle in Canaan.

Women of Midian Led Captive,
by James Tissot

The Israelite soldiers kill all the Midianite men and burn all their settlements. But instead of killing the Midianite women and children, the army returns with them as booty.

And Moses said to them: “You let every female live? Hey, they caused the Children of Israel, through the word of Bilam, to elevate themselves over God in the matter of Peor, so that the plague came to the community of God!” (Numbers 31:14-16)

Moses blames the Midianite women for seducing the Israelites into Baal-worship, instead of blaming the Israelites for their own actions. He also casts blame on Bilam, the prophet who uttered God’s blessings for the Israelites, then returned to his distant home on the Euphrates.2  Any foreigner is easier to blame than your own people.

Moses then orders his officers to kill all the Midianite women and the boys, exempting only the virgin girls from the genocide. (See my post Mattot: Killing the Innocent.) The Torah portion Mattot illustrates how guilt over your own behavior can lead to blaming others, and even destroying them.

Yet there are other ways humans can deal with guilt and shame. In next week’s Torah portion, Va-etchannan, Moses says:

Your eyes saw what God did about Baal Peor; for God, your God, exterminated from among you every man who went after Baal Peor. But you who cling to God, your God, are alive, all of you, today. (Deuteronomy 4:3-4)

Here Moses returns to the originally story, placing the blame on the Israelite men and declaring that God punished the guilty Israelites by killing them with the plague. Everyone who remained faithful to the God of Israel, he says, was not punished.

This is certainly more just than accusing the Midianites or Bilam for the deeds of the unfaithful Israelites. But I notice two moral problems:

Genocide:

The Israelites who followed the orders to massacre all the Midianites in the valley of Peor, even infants, are never considered guilty. Genocide is not a crime in the Torah. If the Israelite men felt uneasy about it, they probably excused themselves by thinking: “Don’t blame me; God made me to do it.”

Repentance:

None of the Israelites who worship Baal Peor get a chance to admit their own guilt, repent, and reform. The God-character’s angry plague wipes them out without even a trial.

Judah sets a stellar example of repentance and reform in the book of Genesis/Bereishit.3 But God neither punishes nor rewards Judah directly, though God does provide a prophecy that Judah’s descendants will someday be the rulers of Israel.4

The book of Leviticus/Vayikra provides ritual animal-offerings for those who inadvertently disobey one of God’s rules,5 but the only atonement it offers for deliberate misdeeds is the high priest’s annual ritual on Yom Kippur, which purifies the entire people of Israel.6

The first time the Bible declares that guilty individuals can repent and receive forgiveness and a second chance from God is near the beginning of the book of Isaiah.

Wash yourselves clean;

            Remove evil from upon yourselves,

            From in front of My eyes.

And stop doing evil;

            Learn to do good.

            Seek justice. (Isaiah 1:16-17)

The first prophet Isaiah then tells the Israelites to “do good and listen”7 and to “turn around”, i.e. repent8.

I suspect the world today is teeming with people haunted by shame and guilt. What can we do about our recurrent memories of betraying ourselves, betraying our God, and doing the wrong thing?

I have led a relatively blameless life, yet shame has haunted me, too. It took me years to forgive myself for insulting my best friend in first grade. I did not repeat that particular shameful act, but I betrayed my own principles in other ways during the years when I clung to my first husband, accepting his abuse and ignoring my inner ethical voice. After I finally left him, it took many more years before I could trust myself again.

May all of us learn to accept responsibility for our own transgressions, instead of blaming others. When we are ashamed of our own behavior, may we admit it and strive to do the right thing next time. And may we stop and think when anyone tells us that God wants something we know in our hearts is wrong.

(A portion of this material is from Va-etchannan: Haunted by Shame”, an essay I published in August 2014.)

1  Genesis 3:12-13.

2  The king of Moab hires Bilam to curse the Israelites, but Bilam utters God’s blessings, and goes home without pay (Numbers 24:10-11, 24:25). The Torah gives no reason why Bilam would ever return to the land north of Moab. Yet the description of the Israelite war on Midian mentions that they kill the five kings of Midian—and Bilam (Numbers 31:8).

3 Judah is guilty of selling his brother Joseph as a slave (Genesis 37:26-28) and condemning his daughter-in-law Tamar to death (Genesis 38:24). He publicly admits his guilt about Tamar (Genesis 38:25-26) and rescues his brother Benjamin from slavery (Genesis 44:16-34).

4  Genesis 49:10.

5  Leviticus chapter 4.

6  Leviticus chapter 16.

7  Isaiah 1: 19

8  Isaiah 1:27.

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