Reading Difficult Parts of the Torah, Part I

August 5th: Mattot/Mas’ay
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

If you were to read Chapter 31 of Numbers, you would be shocked. It tells the story of a massacre—a massacre commanded by God and executed by the Israelites. “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites; then you shall be gathered to your kin.’ 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. You shall dispatch on the campaign a thousand from every one of the tribes of Israel.’”(Numbers 31.1-4) By the end of the story, every Midianite man and boy and every female Midianite who was not a virgin was killed.

 No massacre is good, but the rationale for this one grates even more against our modern sensibilities: the Midianites were guilty of seducing many Israelites into their pagan sexual practices, and this was manifestly unacceptable. The Midianites needed to be stopped permanently, i.e., wiped out.

 Shades of ISIS—or the Crusaders! How can we, who have too often been the victims of genocidal rampages, deal with such a barbaric text in our Torah? How can we read such a text and reconcile it with the profound morality and holiness of our Tradition?

 Let me suggest three answers—answers that speak to the nature of the Biblical text and the way that we find meaning in our Holy Scriptures

 First, this and other stories of Biblical massacres are not borne out by evidence—neither archeological evidence nor from later books of the Bible. The kind of destruction that would have had to take place—“The Israelites destroyed by fire all the towns in which the Midianites were settled, and their encampments”—is not indicated by the archeological record. This is not to say that fighting did not occur or that the Israelites might have been victors, but the Biblical claims seem to be greatly exaggerated. Add to this the fact that later books of the Bible speak of these supposedly destroyed people, living in their supposedly destroyed places, and continuing to have relationships with Israelites/Jews. The Prophet’s ongoing complaints about the pagan and idolatrous religions testify to the persistent presence of these non-Jewish religious activities/temptations centuries after the alleged massacres.

 Could these ancient stories be some kind of hyperbole about a legendary past? Or, were these ancient stories told to further the agendas of later generations of Jews—building up or tearing down the reputations of various peers or competing groups? One needs to remember that the stories which present themselves as happening in the 12th Century BCE were not edited in their final form until the 6th Century BCE, and, with that much time and historical process, lots of editorial revisioning could have taken place. The one thing we know is that there is a disconnect between some of these Biblical stories and the political, military, religious, and sociological reality of subsequent periods. They do not seem to accurately reflect our actual history, AND, more importantly, they are not precedents or marching orders for modern behavior.

 Second, though we aspire to eschew violence and destruction, even we civilized moderns sometimes find it necessary to resort to extreme measures. Look at the massive forces we have assembled over the last few centuries to enforce our sense of righteousness (the Civil War) or to ensure our survival (World War II). Look at our response to the attacks on September 11, 2001. Whether or not we all agree with decisions made back then, the fact is that our country decided to send overwhelming force against those whom we judged to be our mortal enemies. Even today, look at the way people talk about stopping or “getting rid of” ISIS and Al Qaeda. And, I do not recall hearing any objections to the way Osama bin Laden was “taken out.”

 We may not like the fact that evil exists—or that there are enemies out to destroy our way of life. We may wish for, pray for, and work for peace, but the sad fact is that violence and destruction are sometimes the best or only option.

 We should also remember that the Bible presents many different ways to deal with the issues that humans face, and many of them did not involve violence. It is therefore important for us to look at the whole panoply of Biblical life and the many ways that the Bible teaches us to relate to each other. Violence is certainly a possibility, but the Bible counsels us that it is a last resort. Remember what King Solomon used to say, “Unto the counselors of peace there is joy.” (Proverbs 12.20)

 A third way to understand this and other problematic Biblical texts will have to wait until next week—though I shall give you a hint: progress has been made in human thinking and morality over the centuries, and the Bible gives us examples of both good and bad behaviors.

 In the meantime, let us look at our ancient texts expansively and with perception and moral judgment.