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...".
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