Parsha Matot: God Ordered Genocide?

385px-Figures_Five_Kings_of_Midian_Slain_by_IsraelThis week we read parsha Matot (MattotMattoth, or Matos) which means “tribes”.   Matot consists of  Numbers 30:2–32:42.  You can read a brief summary here.

Parsha Matot provides ammunition for those who wish to dismiss or attack the Torah (and God) as barbaric and cruel.   The reference is usually in relation to the episode regarding the vengeance on Midian, and supposedly God ordered everyone – man, woman, and boy – slaughtered… only the virgins could live.

So is this true?

Let’s actually read what the Torah says in Numbers ch. 31:

Numbers 31 (NIV)

1The Lord said to Moses, 2“Take vengeance on the Midianites for the Israelites. After that, you will be gathered to your people.”

3So Moses said to the people, “Arm some of your men to go to war against the Midianites so that they may carry out the Lord’s vengeance on them. 4Send into battle a thousand men from each of the tribes of Israel.”5So twelve thousand men armed for battle, a thousand from each tribe, were supplied from the clans of Israel.6Moses sent them into battle, a thousand from each tribe, along with Phinehas son of Eleazar, the priest, who took with him articles from the sanctuary and the trumpets for signaling.

7They fought against Midian, as the Lord commanded Moses, and killed every man8Among their victims were Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur and Reba—the five kings of Midian. They also killed Balaam son of Beor with the sword. 9The Israelites captured the Midianite women and children and took all the Midianite herds, flocks and goods as plunder. 10They burned all the towns where the Midianites had settled, as well as all their camps.11They took all the plunder and spoils, including the people and animals, 12and brought the captives, spoils and plunder to Moses and Eleazar the priest and the Israelite assembly at their camp on the plains of Moab, by the Jordan across from Jericho.

13Moses, Eleazar the priest and all the leaders of the community went to meet them outside the camp.14Moses was angry with the officers of the army—the commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds—who returned from the battle.

15“Have you allowed all the women to live?” he (Moses) asked them. 16“They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful to the Lord in the Peor incident, so that a plague struck theLord’s people. 17Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, 18but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.

19“Anyone who has killed someone or touched someone who was killed must stay outside the camp seven days. On the third and seventh days you must purify yourselves and your captives. 20Purify every garment as well as everything made of leather, goat hair or wood.”

21Then Eleazar the priest said to the soldiers who had gone into battle, “This is what is required by the law that the Lord gave Moses: 22Gold, silver, bronze, iron, tin, lead 23and anything else that can withstand fire must be put through the fire, and then it will be clean. But it must also be purified with the water of cleansing. And whatever cannot withstand fire must be put through that water. 24On the seventh day wash your clothes and you will be clean. Then you may come into the camp.”

So God orders Moses to get retribution (a better translation of נקמת “nikmat”, though vengeance is definitely not wrong) for the Israelites, and Moses proceeds to give the order to his men to get retribution (same Hebrew word) for God.  Wait a second… What just happened?

Well the answers to this dilemma may be simple.  God and Israel are one.  When people attack Israel, they are attacking God.  Just like today.  Israel, the Jewish people, and God are betrothed to one another and one.  Therefore, in finding retribution for Israel, they are also claiming retribution for God.

But what about verse 15?

15“Have you allowed all the women to live?” he (Moses) asked them. 16“They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful to the Lord in the Peor incident, so that a plague struck theLord’s people. 17Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, 18but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.

Well this is an order from Moses NOT God!  God simply ordered retribution, which they seemed to do… BUT Moses wanted more.  Why?  I am not sure.  Perhaps because he felt he needed to compensate for his misstep earlier at Baal-Peor which seemed to force the hand of Pinchas (and thus Pinchas received blessings from God.)  Again, that was another instance of Moses not exactly ordering what God said…

Really, it is a false claim to say that God ordered total genocide on Midian.  Moses did for sure… but interestingly the Torah is silent about it actually occurring.  In nearly all (if not all) other occurrences when Moses or God order something, there is a statement about “it was done as ordered”.  This time however, the Torah is silent.  Rather it just resumes listing the spoils. Perhaps because not only did God not order a mass Midianite genocide, but the Israelites never carried out Moses’ orders anyway.

To be clear, I am simply basing this on what the Torah says… in it’s own words.  You can still judge for yourself, but please keep your judgement true to the text.

Shabbat Shalom!

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