The biggest number in the Book of Numbers, found in this week’s Torah portion, is 675,000… sheep. Not exactly New Zealand ratios, but the spoils of the Midianite War are still impressive. However, the most staggering statistic is not the largest, but the smallest percentages of the booty, namely the virgin booty (31:35):

And thirty and two thousand persons in all, of women that had not known lying with a male.

This follows Moses’ command (31:18):

But all the young girls, that have not known lying with a male, keep alive for yourselves.

This directive is perplexing. The Torah, in Deut. 20, defines two types of war.

  1. In fighting other nations, the Israelites may take captives from the non-combatants, i.e. the women and children.
  2. In fighting the Canaanites, the Israelites are to take no prisoners.

Who knew these guys were biblical scholars?

The rules of biblical warfare are quite harsh, but the world was a different place 3,500 years ago. Still, the rules for the Midianite War seem to fit neither template: under what circumstances would the Jews take captives, but only of the girls?

Nevertheless, there is one similar case in Scripture, in the very end of the Book of Judges (21:5-12), that of a war waged not against a foreign enemy, but a domestic one: the town of Jabesh Gilead, which failed to join in the fight of the eleven other tribes against Benjamin.

And the Israelites said: Who is there among all the tribes of Israel that did not come up with the congregation to the the LORD? For they had made a great oath concerning him who did not come up to the LORD to Mizpah, saying: He shall surely be put to death… For the people were counted, and behold, there were none of the inhabitants of Jabesh Gilead there. And the congregation sent there twelve thousand of the most valiant men and commanded them, saying: Go and strike the inhabitants of Jabesh Gilead with the edge of the sword… And they found among the inhabitants of Jabesh Gilead four hundred young virgins, who had not known a man by lying with a male, and they brought them to the camp in Shiloh, which is in the land of Canaan.


Not to be confused with the Shiloh which is in the land of Tennessee.

Thus, Jabesh Gilead is punished (just as Midian is, by a highly symbolic force of 12,000) for violating a “great oath” and failing to come to the aid of its fellow Israelite cities. The young girls escape the penalty of oath-breaking because of their unique status in this sphere, as detailed in the opening of our Torah portion. Of the fifteen verses analyzing vows, oaths and pledges, fourteen of them deal with females and their complex parental and spousal relationships. Num. 30 concludes by summarizing the laws as “between a man and his wife, between a father and his daughter, in her youth, her father’s house.”

This line, of course, immediately precedes the war with Midian, and the placement is not coincidental. Consider how the command to attack them is originally phrased (25:17-18): “Treat the Midianites as enemies and kill them. They treated you as enemies when they guilefully deceived you in the Peor matter.” Guile, deceit, enmity–is this the exclusive domain of Midian? What of Moab’s far more prominent role in the same incident, as well as the hiring of Balaam?

What is unique about Midian is, quite simply, their perfidy. As Joshua 13:21 tells us, the same five kings of Midian killed in this war were in fact “dukes of Sihon.” Sihon, of course, is the Amorite king defeated by Moses and the Israelites on the East Bank, whose territory becomes part of Israel. Somehow, when “Sihon gathered all his people and went out against Israel in the desert” (Num. 21:23), his Midianite vassals choose the other side. Fair enough. After all, Moses did make an offer to his Midianite in-law, Hobab (ibid. 10:29-32): “We are setting out for the place about which the LORD said, ‘I will give it to you’… If you come with us, we will share with you whatever good things the Lord gives us.” We also know from the beginning of the Book of Judges (1:16) that at least some part of Midian, the Kenites, the tribe of Moses’ in-laws, took him up on the offer and settled in Judah.

However, the princes and elders of Midian take a different path. After Sihon’s defeat, they begin to plot the downfall of Israel, one way or another. Their deceit, their guile, their faithlessness is unforgivable, and that is why they are subjected to a cruel fate, from which only the young girls escape. Indeed, the Sifre says concerning the soldiers (157): “Just as you are parties to the covenant (b’nei brit), so too your captives are parties to the covenant.” These daughters of Midian will not be part of the next plot; instead, they will remind all what happens to a nation of oath-breakers.

In modern Israel, we live in a region of realpolitik, in which constantly-shifting alliances are the norm. Nevertheless, as this week’s reading reminds us, there is ultimately a high price for perfidy.