Unholy War

crusades1.jpgAs the book of Numbers comes to a close this week, we read an account of an Israelite military campaign that can only be described as holy war:

Moses spoke to the militia saying, “Let troops be picked out from among you for a campaign, and let them fall upon Midian to wreak the Eternal’s vengeance on Midian. You shall dispatch on the campaign a thousand from every one of the tribes of Israel.”

…They took the field against Midian, as the Eternal had commanded Moses, and slew every male. Along with other victims, they slew the kings of Midian, Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba, the five kings of Midian. They also put Balaam, son of Beor to the sword.

The Israelites took the women captive and other dependants of the Midianites captive, and seized as booty all their beasts, all their herds, and all their wealth. And they destroyed by fire all the towns in which they were settled, and their encampments. (Numbers 31:3-10)

What on earth do we make of a text such as this? Some commentators say that this account is not about war per se as much as it is a polemic against idolatry. Others point to the obviously dubious historicity of this particular text. Still others suggest that God’s commandments to destroy ancient nations such as Midian have long been rendered null and void since these nations no longer exist.

Though these kinds of explanations might be of exegetical interest, alas, they do not ultimately address the core moral problem of this text: namely, God’s commandment that Israel exterminate another people. At the end of the day, there can be no whitewashing of this fact, no re-rendering of the text that will somehow erase the profoundly troubling truth that such attitudes are part of our inherited spiritual tradition.

What do we make of a texts such as these? One thing we cannot do is wish them away. If we are to take our Torah tradition seriously, we must be willing to face it head on and to admit that there are certain voices in Torah that we might sometimes find morally difficult, troubling, or, yes, even repugnant. If we consider ourselves to be serious Jews, we owe it to ourselves and to our tradition to honestly own the all of Torah.

If we are able to do this, we will invariably find that the Torah truly is a mosaic of very different and often contradictory voices. (Serious students of Torah cannot fail to notice, for instance, that a very different portrayal of Midian is offered in the book of Exodus, where Moses finds refuge in Midian, marries a Midianite woman and seeks serious counsel from his father-in-law Jethro, the Midanite High Priest).

This phenomenon, of course, is not unique to Judaism. Ultimately, this is the central choice facing any religious individual: which are the voices in my tradition that I proudly affirm, and which are the voices that I disavow in no uncertain terms? Will I be ready to say without hesitation that there is nothing holy about fomenting fear and hatred of another people – and that there is no place for such ideas in my religious tradition?

In the end, there can be no equivocating on this point. In a world beset by growing violence in the name of God, the stakes of this choice are much too high.

4 thoughts on “Unholy War

  1. I think we can name these conflicting voices in conformity with modern biblical scholarship. In the texts attributed to the J source, one hardly ever finds any reference to the idea that God tells people to kill, while such commands do appear in P source material.
    Question: Are different theologies of violence built into the criteria that scholars use to distinguish the sources, or do these differences appear after separating the sources on other grounds?

  2. I place myself squarely with those who say there is no place for such ideas in my religious tradition. I bluntly refuse to endorse killing or any violence at all. We must acknowledge that we live in different, difficult times and that what we read in our holy text is not always what we subscribe to.

  3. “Some commentators say that this account is not about war per se as much as it is a polemic against idolatry. Others point to the obviously dubious historicity of this particular text.”

    Which commentators?

    Rabbi Rosen responds: See the following, from “The Torah: A Modern Commentary” (URJ):

    “Note that the war itself is hardly dealt with; the emphasis is on cultic matters – purification and the division of spoils. Note further that, while the enemy is massacred, not one Israelite is reported missing (Numbers 31:49), which suggests that this section is not an actual report. Rather, it is a schematic reconstruction of events long past. Its aims are to show how God had protected the people, and how certain things were owed to God in return. The nonhistorical aspects of this account may also be seen in the listing of extraordinarily large numbers of people slain and booty captured. Finally, though ‘every male’ was said to have been killed, such was far from the actual fact. At most only a portion of the Midianites would have been killed, for not only did they not not disappear as a nation, but they dominated Israel a relatively short time thereafter (see Josh. 6-8). In sum, then, the details of the Midianite war may be said to constitute a form of biblical interpretation of the past.” (p. 1111)

  4. I’m rather relieved, actually, to find this post. I read Numbers 31 tonight for the first time, never having heard anything about the episode it describes before, and found it greatly disturbing. It is nice to know that I’m not the only one who has found it disquieting.

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