The Children of Israel Fight the Midianites: Violence, Murder and Plundering in Parashat Matot

The Children of Israel Fight the Midianites: Violence, Murder and Plundering in Parashat Matot

In Parashat Matot, the Children of Israel set out to fight the Midianites. This is the first war that is depicted in detail, and the details are horrific for the contemporary reader.

The war begins with a divine decree: “Avenge the children of Israel of the Midianites; afterward shalt thou be gathered unto thy people.” Moses’ last meaningful act would be a war of vengeance. The reason for vengeance is the Ba’al Pe’or sin:  “for they harass you, by their wiles wherewith they have beguiled you in the matter of Peor.” Parashat Matot is the dramatic ending of Pinchas’ zealot act. Pinchas kills a man of Israel and a Midianite woman for performing a pagan sex ritual for Pe’or. Unlike Pinchas, who did not premeditate the killing and committed manslaughter during the heat of the moment, the Midian war is a premeditated, well-organized, lethal revenge.

The Midianites have a significant place in Moses’ life story. The Midianites saved Moses in the desert, “Moses fled from the face of Pharaoh, and dwelt in the land of Midian; and he sat down by a well.” Moses’ wife Zipporah is a Midianite, and his father in law, Jethro, was his cherished political advisor. And yet, when he is called on a war of revenge against Midian, Moses accepts the decree without protest.

The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman) writes on the rules of war: “as it is decreed to call for peace before setting out for war, it is also decreed to encircle the enemy only from three directions, allowing the enemy to flee from the fourth direction and save their souls for mercy sake.” On the Midian war there’s a debate in rabbinic teachings: some argue that the Midianites were encircled from all directions, in a way that prevented any survivors. The fact that the Israelite fighters return with no casualties suggests a ruthless attack.

When the fighters return victorious, they face Moses’ wrath: Moses is aggravated because the warriors took spoils. As with the Midianite war, Moses is uncompromising:

And Moses was wroth with the officers of the host, the captains of thousands and the captains of hundreds, who came from the service of the war. And Moses said unto them: ‘Have ye saved all the women alive? … Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves … and thirty and two thousand persons in all, of the women that had not known man by lying with him.

The warriors killed the Midianite men, and brought back women, children, animals, gold and silver as spoils of war. Moses decrees that all the male children and all the women who are not virgins be killed. 32,000 virgins are left as spoils of war. The spoils are divided among the tribes, and a portion is given to the Mish’kan, the tabernacle. According to rabbinic teachings the foreign women converted to Judaism, and were allowed to come into Israel. But a more mindful reading would suggest that these are women who lost their families, their people, their homes and the world as they know it. These women become “spoils,” concubines against their will.

The Children of Israel sinned in the case of Ba’al Pe’or, by caving in to their carnal lust. But the punishment falls upon the Midianites, in general, and the Midianite women in particular. In the Midian War the Children of Israel replace the dangerous lust of the flesh, with another, more lethal lust, the lust for spiritual superiority that is exhibited in religious zealotry.

The people who is commanded to remember “for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt,” who read every year of the persecution of male infants by Pharaoh, murdered its prisoners of war, and then received meticulous instructions on the purification process the warriors have to undergo, since they became tainted by death. How does one purify oneself from the murder of women and children?

Many choose to read the Midian war with a hermeneutic approach that seeks an internal interpretation for external events. Unfortunately, violence, murder and plundering are still prevalent in our world, and it is advisable to deal with the issues raised by the Midian war. The Torah itself voices different perspectives on war laws and military conduct, and rabbinic teachings suggest criticism against religious fanaticism.

Parashat Ki-Te’ze, in Deuteronomy, discusses the laws of war, with a distinct awareness of the fact that war corrupts the soul: “When thou goest forth in camp against thine enemies, then thou shalt keep thee from every evil thing … For the LORD thy God walketh in the midst of thy camp … therefore shall thy camp be holy.” In our time we should ask ourselves, what is the meaning of “shall thy camp be holy?” Does it mean a people unique in its religious fanaticism, as in the case of the Midian war? Or is it a people who exhibit exemplary humane behaviour?

Some interpreters suggest that Ba’ar Pe’or sin begins with Balaam’s suggestion to the daughters of Midian to seduce the Israelites. Balaam, who came to curse, but ended up blessing, gave us one significant blessing: “How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob” (Ma Tovu ohalekha Ya’akov). Would we be a people whose tent is open and welcoming to all human beings?

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