Rabbi Richard Hirsh for Jewish Reconstructionist Communities
The Importance of Re-Reading Torah
The Book of Numbers is in many ways the least cohesive of the five books of the Torah. Its narrative excursions and legal legacies are occasionally related, but more often discrete.
In Matot and Masey, which conclude the fourth book of the Torah, the narrators/editors of the Torah attempt to pull things together by accounts which summarize the forty years in the desert and anticipate the imminent entrance into the Land of Israel.
However, even before the Torah moves to prescriptions for social and religious regulation within the Land, it presents a narrative of proscription which is chilling. Beginning in Numbers 31, the text tells the story of the Israelite war against the Midianites. So brutal is the account that even Dr. J. H. Hertz, the preeminent apologist for the traditional rendering of the text, states in his well-known commentary that "The war against the Midianites presents peculiar difficulties...we cannot satisfactorily meet the various objections that have been raised...".
The text by itself is straightforward: "The Lord spoke to Moses saying 'Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites'... Moses spoke to the people saying 'Let men be picked out from among you for a campaign, and let them fall upon Midian to wreak the Lord's vengeance on Midian'". (31:1-3) The punishment is understood as retribution for the role of the Midianites in seducing the Israelites from their God and luring them into false worship and sexual immorality (see Numbers 25).
After slaying "every male", the Israelites "took the women and children of the Midianites captive, and seized as booty all their beasts, all their herds, and all their wealth" (31:9). Upon discovering this, Moses is extremely upset, and he orders the execution of all the women who are not virgins as well as all the male children.
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