The Sword of Moses

The Bible’s most hideous war crime. The most jaw-dropping line in the Torah. Precedent for genocide in the modern era.

All of these have been used to describe Numbers 31, a passage which we read last Shabbat in Israel, but Diaspora communities will read this Shabbat. It describes the divinely-mandated war with Midian, in which every adult male Midianite is killed on the battlefield by the Israelite forces. When the latter return to the camp with (hundreds of) thousands of women and children and millions of animals, Moses grows furious at the commanders and orders (vv. 17-18):

And now kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that has known man by lying of a male; but all the women children, that have not known lying of a male, keep alive for yourselves.

This directive is arguably the most disturbing thing Moses ever says. Let us remember that his biography begins with the following pharaonic decree (Exodus 1:22):

Cast every newborn boy into the Nile, but keep alive every daughter.

So how are we to relate to this? In the Sifrei, the original compendium of halakhic midrash, Rabbi Elazar explains that this is one of three instances in which “our master Moshe, because he was consumed by anger, made a critical mistake.”

But what, precisely, is the mistake? Let us consider the fact that although Moses gives the command to execute every boy and every woman, we do not find this carried out in practice. The chapter goes on to describe, in excruciating detail, the fate of every girl, sheep, bracelet, etc. — but not the boys and women. Is it possible that they were not subject to such a cruel fate?

In the Talmud (BT Yevamot 60b), the Rabbis expound “‘Keep alive for yourselves’–for male and female slaves.” Of course, if only the girls were spared, there could be no male slaves from Midian. However, if we combine the view of the Rabbis with that of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai ibid. (though they argue about the precise reading of the text), we may say that the girls were married off, while their mothers and brothers entered servitude. Essentially, these are two levels of conversion: the girls would become full Jewesses, eventually marrying Israelites; while their mothers and brothers would be obligated in certain commandments, having indentured status within the community. Considering that the reason Israel wages war on Midian is the role the Midianites play at Shittim in seducing Israelites into idolatry and adultery, resulting in a plague that kills 24,000, it is not inconceivable for 32,000 Midianite girls to marry into the people, while their brothers and mothers serve the nation.

Moses’ mistake, then, is that it is not necessary to kill these Midianites. Indeed, he may be referring to them when he talks about “the convert who is in the midst of your camp, from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water” (Deuteronomy 29:10), perhaps akin to Joshua 9:27’s “hewers of wood and drawers of water for the congregation and for the Lord’s altar” (see BT Yevamot 79a).

But why was Moses so angry in the first place? Because this is personal. He found refuge in Midian, he married a Midianite woman, he honored his Midianite in-laws, he offered them a share in God’s inheritance. The fact that at least one faction of the Midianites betray him is something which drives him to a horrific mistake, a lapse in judgment.

The very least we can learn from Moses, it would seem, is not to let anger drive us to forget who we are.

About the Author
Yoseif Bloch is a rabbi who has taught at Yeshivat HaKotel, Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshivat Shvilei Hatorah and served as a congregational rabbi in Canada. He currently works as an editor, translator and publisher. As a blogger and podcaster, he is known as Rabbi Joe in Jerusalem.
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