Jul 23, 2008

Oh, Moses ...

I sat down this afternoon to read this week's parashah, Mattot, which turns the focus of Torah to settling in the land. My biggest beef with this very short parashah is that, after G-d instructs Moses to have the people to take down the Midianites for the episode at Peor.

G-d tells the men to "wreak the Lord's vengeance on Midian" in Numbers 31. So the hefty soldiers go out, killing all of the men, and they round up the booty, women and children and head back to camp. Back at camp, Moses gets all up and arms and demands that they kill all the women who have taken in the delights of carnal pleasures, as well as all of the male children. So the mighty men kill all that Moses has instructed, wait the cleansing period, and then head back into camp.

So what's my beef? Firstly, this is a minor example of a "holy war" so far as we understand the term -- a war raged by religious partisans in order to propogate or defend their faith. That in and of itself is a gigantic issue, as in whether adding religion to a war invalidates or clouds the judgments of participants (think: crusades). But my big beef is about Moses' reaction to the returning soldiers and their booty. Moses is clearly upset with the soldiers for not having killed the women and the children, as in his mind "wreak the Lord's vengeance on Midian" meant to kill everyone, to spare no one. But in the minds of the mass of the soldiers, obviously that statement and in turn the Lord's vengeance applied only to men.

Thus, where is the great divide? Where is the confusion? How is it that all of these Israelites thought that G-d's vengeance meant to kill all the men and Moses's conception of this vengeance meant to kill all the women, too? A question can be raised, is the resulting order to kill all of the women and male children G-d's vengeance or is it Moses'? And on that note, what if even one of these women didn't partake in seducing the Israelites? Are their deaths still valid?

At any rate, just some questions for this week's parshah. Think on it, tell me what you think!

2 comments:

Shimshonit said...

If I have learned anything from my Torah teacher and guru, it is to try to keep my 21st century mind at bay when reading the Torah. Some things that look hairy and extreme to us were standard practice for the day, and others, while still pretty extreme, have their reasons. When God commands conquering a people, it's important to consider that the minds of the surviving members of that people (i.e. the children) are likely to be stewing in thoughts of revenge until they become adults. This is one of the reasons why exile was so popular among conquerors, as well as killing men and selling women and children into slavery. We Jews were routinely slaughtered, sold into slavery, and expelled from our land when conquered. These, and assimilation, were standard practice, and much more effective in the long run than taking pity on a conquered people, letting them live and stay in the land, and paying for it with rebellion later.

With our contemporary eyes, and our millenia of experience of religious wars, all this looks pretty distasteful to us. However, I live in a country that has been unquestionably generous to its conquered population, and while I think that whatever window existed for it to expel its conquered population is closed for now, not having seized the opportunity has been extremely costly to the security of this society. Looking at the state of international politics, I can sometimes understand better what is going on in the Torah.

chaviva said...

Interesting thoughts, indeed.

I try very hard to keep my 21st century thoughts under wraps, but I still think my question is valid -- why did the people versus Moses have different understandings of what "G-d's vengeance" entailed? It seems to me that there was some type of conversational breakdown between G-d/Moses or Moses/people or G-d/people. That's all I was attempting to discern!

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