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Parashat Mattot

July 23, 2008

By Sanford Olshansky

There is a saying that many stories in the Torah must be true, because if they were made up, our sages would have presented our ancient ancestors more favorably. But in this week’s Torah portion of Mattot there’s a story, a story about what we moderns would call genocide, a story so revolting that I would like to believe it’s not true.

In Numbers 31:2, God tells Moses to “get revenge for the children of Israel from the Midianites.” This refers back to an earlier instruction in Parashat Pinhas, to “afflict the Midianites” (Numbers 25:17-18) because they seduced the Israelite men, through prostitution, to worship the idol Baal Peor, as described at the end of Parashat Balak.

Moses recruits 12,000 armed men and sends them to battle. They kill all the adult Midianite men, take the women and children prisoner and burn their cities and homes. They bring the prisoners, livestock and other spoils back to the Israelites’ camp in Moab. When Moses sees the prisoners, he becomes angry. He reminds the officers that the Midianites caused a “breach” of the covenant with God by seducing the Israelites into idolatry. Moses orders the soldiers to kill every male child and every woman who has had sexual relations with a man, leaving only the virgin females alive.

When I first read this story I was appalled by the barbarism of Moses’ order. We like to say that the ancient Israelites were morally superior to the other nations around them and yet here is our great teacher, Moses, ordering them to slaughter them like Nazis. The Torah doesn’t say whether or not the order was carried out, although Midianites do appear later in the Bible, in the book of Judges.

There’s another old maxim that the Torah never wastes a word. In this case, the text could have said simply that God ordered vengeance on the Midianites and that the Israelites killed all of them, except the virgin females. Why does the Torah describe the prisoners being brought to the camp, where Moses demands their execution? Is it to show us that Moses had become unfit for leadership, because he allowed himself to be carried away with rage and exceeded God’s instructions? If so, this parallels the earlier episode of Moses striking the rock to bring forth water, in Parashat Hukkat.

Perhaps Moses was just being practical. Did he foresee that the Midianite women, if left alive, would again seduce Israelite men to worship pagan gods? Did he anticipate that the Midianite sons would grow up with an obligation to avenge their fathers? Did he realize that their mothers might indoctrinate them to seek vengeance? We still see too many examples today of such generation-spanning blood feuds.

Unfortunately, this practical explanation does little to appease our sense that a barbaric crime was ordered, especially against the male Midianite children, who had no part in their mothers’ seduction of the Israelite men. It may help us to remember that this story is fundamentally about God’s and Moses’ response to idolatry, which was the worst of all crimes in the eyes of the Torah.

In his great historical novel, The Source, James Michener imagines, in troubling detail, how socially destructive idolatry must have been in ancient times. He writes at length about the fragility of the monotheism of the ancient Hebrews and how easily it could be corrupted by social interaction with idolaters. In The Source, a fictional Hebrew leader, who would have preferred peaceful coexistence, comes to accept the inevitable annihilation of the neighboring Canaanites to preserve the religious purity of his tribe.

We know that the seduction of idolatry was an ongoing problem for our prophets, hundreds of years after the Israelites had settled in Canaan. Does this help us to believe that the slaughter of the Midianites, if it occurred, was necessary? What if we still prefer to believe that the massacre story is not true? How else can we read it?

Rabbi Alan J. Levin suggests that the massacre story was written as a warning to later generations of Jews to steer clear of idolatry. He quotes the philosopher Kenneth Seeskin, who says that obsession with the desire for wealth, beauty, fame or power is a modern form of idolatry, against which the Torah is effectively telling us to be on guard. This insight gives us a modern context, not only for Mattot, but also for the warning which traditional Jews recite twice daily, in the middle portion of the Shema:

Guard yourselves, lest your hearts be deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods, and worship them. (Deuteronomy 11:16)


Sanford Olshansky is a rabbinical student at AJR.