Posted by: Steve Coplan | July 24, 2006

Parsha of the week – revenge

This week’s parsha includes an account of the type that critics like to point at to justify the image of a ‘vengeful Old Testament god’. After the Midianite women seduced the Israelite men into orgiastic rituals at the shrine of Baal Peor that results in a plague that kills 24,000 people, in this week’s Torah portion Moses assembles an army specifically to inflict Hashem’s vengeance, as the text states.

In order to illustrate the extent of the military threat posed by Midian, the force assembled is relatively small but still manages to utterly vanquish Midian, slaughtering all the males of fighting age, the Midianite kings and the prophet Balaam who had found refuge amongst the Midianites. (As an aside, Rashi explains the phrase ‘they killed the kings on their slain ones’ in an interesting way. Apparently, Balaam used witchcraft to allow the kings to fly. By showing the gold plate engraved with the divine name that the High Priest wore, the spell would break and the kings fell onto their soldiers who already been killed.)

Still, when the soldiers return from war with the captured Midianite women and children, Moses is angry with them since the women were in the fact the agents of the offense against Hashem. So he commands the military to kill all the women with the exception of those who have not reached puberty and all the male children. Now, the Torah has very explicit rules about battlefield ethics and the treatment of prisoners of war, and women in particular. So why is this brutal act seen as permissible? Some commentators point out that by highlighting the episode, the Torah is emphasizing its exceptional nature and the departure from acceptable practice.

It’s an interesting question to contemplate in light of current events and the question of collateral damage. Is this response to the circumstances justified? In the context of the Torah as a political document, yes. What the Midianite women had set out to do was undermine the unity of the Jewish people which derived from a belief in a single god who had under specific conditions had granted the Land of Israel. Without this belief to underpin the political unity of a group of people with as yet still porous identity and enforce discipline, the entire endeavor was subject to failure at any moment. This singular sense of purpose is not only under threat from military attack but also from the potential of ideological subversion, or defeat from within.

The Torah does hint at some ambivalence about the act, since the soldiers are commanded to undergo the ritual purification required for coming into contact with a corpse, as well as cleansing their clothes and utensils. The lack of clarity on what circumstances allow for a line to be crossed in the name of self defense, or to what extent an act of cruelty can be justified has some real modern consequences.


On a separate note, this episode has attracted the attention of the proponents of the documentary hypothesis on account of a few inconsistencies. Firstly, in discussing the events of Baal Peor the text mentions the “daughters of Moav” and only a single Midianite woman. Secondly, the Midianites show up again a few hundred years later when Gideon does battle with them. The documentary hypothesis holds that the Torah represents a combination of documents from different sources rather than a single text authored by one individual. Needless to say, this theory is summarily rejected by the Orthodox mainstream and approaches apikorus. In order to explain the transposition of Moav and Midian, the proponents of the hypothesis point out that Ruth was a Moabite woman from whom the House of David monarchy sprung. Casting the Moabites in a negative light would serve to diminish the stature of the monarchy.

Also as an aside, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ commentary offers a view on the question of the connection between Israel and Judiasm. My thoughts on a less conciliatory point of view are here.


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