How should we relate to texts of terror in the Torah?
Rabbi Michael Graetz [a lesson on Mattot]
*Num. 31, 2 – 3
Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites; then you shall be gathered to your kin.” 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.
One of the most disturbing stories in the Torah is found in Parashat Matot. God tells Moses: “Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites; then you shall be gathered to your kin.” (Num. 31, 2) The Midianites had been responsible for the sins of the nation at Baal Peor. (cf. Num. 25, esp. v. 16-18) In our Parasha and in Num. 25, the punishment for the Midianites seems to be that Israel is to make war upon them. Moses reports God’s word to Israel thus: “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.” (v. 3)
What is disturbing is the command to kill all of the Midianites. Even though the rule of Herem, the ban of destruction, is not specified against the Midianites, Moses is upset that the soldiers leave part of the population alive. How can we relate to a story of total revenge on a civilian population? Worse, how can we relate to this vengeance being attributed to God’s word? Further complicating this moral problem is the fact that Moses’ own wife is a Midianite, and his children are born of this woman. Is Moses commanding the murder of his own wife and children? This seems to be an impossible situation.
Despite these problems, one Midrashic tradition justifies and even praises Moses. This Midrash praises Moses for acting immediately on God’s commands, since, according to the wording of the verse, Moses can live until he has taken vengeance on the Midianites. By postponing this war, he could lengthen his life considerably. The fact that he does not is in praise of Moses. (Num. R. 22, 2) This Midrash glorifies Moses’ zeal in killing the Midianites.
This same Midrash notes the discrepancy between God’s description words to Moses: “Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites”, and Moses’ words to the people: “the Lord’s vengeance on Midian”. Moses has changed the people’s revenge to God’s revenge. This Midrash views Israel as God’s representatives. The nations are jealous of Israel because they have been given the Torah and commandments. They are really striking out against God, and as such Israel’s revenge is simply God’s revenge as well.
This Midrashic tradition does not seem to have a problem with the text. However, I met a prophet who did have a problem with it.
I met the prophet Nahum on Sept. 13, 1966 near Columbia University in New York. Not Nahum ha-Elkoshi of the Bible, but Nahum Bloom, who prophesied to the Jews. Bloom wrote:
“The Jewish people, His chosen, has said of God that genocide — the extermination of a people — is sanctioned by Him. That it is proper when applied to an enemy of the Jewish people and that genocide is termed as being an act done in God’s service. And God looks with favor on such action under these conditions. That God derives pleasure from it and shares in the division of the booty and spoil that is related to such slaughter…The reader will of course say…that no Jew would say such a thing of his God….the sad fact of the matter is that these statements are made and implied in the 31st chapter of Bamidabar (sic)…these statements are accepted to be truth. They are proclaimed to be the word of God…Since it is placed in every bible and proclaimed the Word of God. Proclaimed Holy Scripture. Thus it has been given power….God did not say this thing — it is not true…Because this word was placed in the Torah, in the Ark…to be worshipped. Because no voice spoke out against it — so was the force of evil granted power — by the Jewish people….Precisely what was said that Israel did to Midian. So was it done to Israel….Let it not be said that the Torah mocks God–by continuing its presence there. It is God who is holy and the Torah is not holier than God…God does not ask you to murder in cold blood as an act of service to God.”
Nahum Bloom thought that the Holocaust was visited on Israel because it had not repudiated this part of the Torah as a man-made fabrication, something God could never had said. He particularly raises the question of Moses’ wife and children, and says that this is a proof that the tale is not really from God. Bloom’s argument is clearly a problematic understanding of history, but one thing cannot be ignored in his words — the notion that holy words have power, power to influence how men act, power to mold basic ways of thinking and acting in society. Some of those holy words which have been sanctified by tradition may turn out to be unholy. Bloom suggests that because of their power, the mistakenly sanctified words must be repudiated by being placed in archives, by being changed totally, or even by removal.
There is another Midrashic tradition which seems to be going in the same direction as Nahum Bloom. This Midrash imparts purifying powers to Tzipporah, Moses’ Midianite wife. It sees her as the one who defies the oath that Moses took to her father, namely, that their first born son would be dedicated to idolatry. In this Midrash, Moses agrees! Tzipporah does not agree, and she is the one who circumcises the son. In this Midrash, Jethro is also seen in a positive light, as one who helped Moses, and thus helped Israel. Therefore, his people are rewarded in the days of Saul. (cf. I Sam. 15, 6). This Midrash seems to be saying, there are bad Midianites, who may deserve to die, but there are good Midianites who do not. (Yalkut Shimoni shemot 169, for the basis of this working cf. Mekhilta derabbi Ishmael, Yitro, Amalek 1)
This tradition seems at least to question the Torah story, and raises the possibility that the good Midianites, including Tzipporah, were not at all included in the general order of chapter 31. Still, the questions raised by Nahum Bloom continue to haunt me. Jews have to disavow the idea of genocide and make it clear that it is NOT part of God’s will. Another Midrash makes Moses the architect of peace, and is almost the opposite of the first Midrash cited above. (cf. Deut. R. 5, 13)
I do not like the notion that war is value-neutral, thus God can command it and that would make it all right. I can’t think of how anything whose purpose is to kill can be value neutral. An axe can kill, but it was not designed for that purpose, unless you take the point of view of Kubrik’s “2001”, that tools are the result of the need for agression. Agression and the desire to kill are indeed part of nature, but as God tells Cain, hey, man you have to control it!!
Agression and yetzer ha-ra can be used for good purposes, as we know, and the struggle is to use those forces ONLY for those purposes and not for murder. Now, in the Torah, war as a tool of power to subdue evil or chaos (according to Jon Levenson the same thing) is God’s tool. The best that we can do is “justify” war, but that is not the same as saying it is value-neutral. Indeed, that is saying that it is value-negative, however there are circumstances where it is justified, e. g. self defense. The problem with the war against Midian, and the Herem in general, is that the justifications do not seem to hold up!
Perhaps my navi friend, Nahum Bloom is right, and Chapter 31 is from an anti-Moses clique of Israelites. Perhaps the point of the story is that Moses interpretation of what God says is wrong! We have seen that before, e.g. in transmitting God’s message to Pharaoh. To me the story of the Midianites is there to emphasize just this difficulty: the difficulty of understanding God’s message and the even greater difficulty in understanding what our understanding of God’s message implies for action. Caution and ethical reasoning need to be applied to help us deal with the difficulty.