Ethnic Cleansing and Genocide: Numbers 30:2−36:13

I wanted to avoid writing on this week’s portion, I had decided to write about my travels instead. And I may still do that. But I cannot avoid confronting the moral conundrum of the text and the classical means of getting around the issue. Simply put, the text does not merely appear to endorse ethnic cleansing and genocide. It explicitly does.

After the Israelite army had conquered the Midianites and killed all the males – not even just the soldiers, a crime in itself – read the horrors of the text.  

ט  וַיִּשְׁבּוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-נְשֵׁי מִדְיָן, וְאֶת-טַפָּם; וְאֵת כָּל-בְּהֶמְתָּם וְאֶת-כָּל-מִקְנֵהֶם וְאֶת-כָּל-חֵילָם, בָּזָזוּ. 9 And the children of Israel took captive the women of Midian and their little ones; and all their cattle, and all their flocks, and all their goods, they took for a prey.
י  וְאֵת כָּל-עָרֵיהֶם בְּמוֹשְׁבֹתָם, וְאֵת כָּל-טִירֹתָם–שָׂרְפוּ, בָּאֵשׁ. 10 And all their cities in the places wherein they dwelt, and all their encampments, they burnt with fire.
יא  וַיִּקְחוּ, אֶת-כָּל-הַשָּׁלָל, וְאֵת, כָּל-הַמַּלְקוֹחַ–בָּאָדָם, וּבַבְּהֵמָה. 11 And they took all the spoil, and all the prey, both of man and of beast.
יב  וַיָּבִאוּ אֶל-מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל-אֶלְעָזָר הַכֹּהֵן וְאֶל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֶת-הַשְּׁבִי וְאֶת-הַמַּלְקוֹחַ וְאֶת-הַשָּׁלָל–אֶל-הַמַּחֲנֶה:  אֶל-עַרְבֹת מוֹאָב, אֲשֶׁר עַל-יַרְדֵּן יְרֵחוֹ.  {ס} 12 And they brought the captives, and the prey, and the spoil, unto Moses, and unto Eleazar the priest, and unto the congregation of the children of Israel, unto the camp, unto the plains of Moab, which are by the Jordan at Jericho. {S}
יג  וַיֵּצְאוּ מֹשֶׁה וְאֶלְעָזָר הַכֹּהֵן, וְכָל-נְשִׂיאֵי הָעֵדָה–לִקְרָאתָם:  אֶל-מִחוּץ, לַמַּחֲנֶה. 13 And Moses, and Eleazar the priest, and all the princes of the congregation, went forth to meet them without the camp.
יד  וַיִּקְצֹף מֹשֶׁה, עַל פְּקוּדֵי הֶחָיִל, שָׂרֵי הָאֲלָפִים וְשָׂרֵי הַמֵּאוֹת, הַבָּאִים מִצְּבָא הַמִּלְחָמָה. 14 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.
טו  וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵיהֶם, מֹשֶׁה:  הַחִיִּיתֶם, כָּל-נְקֵבָה. 15 And Moses said unto them: ‘Have ye saved all the women alive?
טז  הֵן הֵנָּה הָיוּ לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, בִּדְבַר בִּלְעָם, לִמְסָר-מַעַל בַּיהוָה, עַל-דְּבַר-פְּעוֹר; וַתְּהִי הַמַּגֵּפָה, בַּעֲדַת יְהוָה. 16 Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to revolt so as to break faith with the LORD in the matter of Peor, and so the plague was among the congregation of the LORD.
יז  וְעַתָּה, הִרְגוּ כָל-זָכָר בַּטָּף; וְכָל-אִשָּׁה, יֹדַעַת אִישׁ לְמִשְׁכַּב זָכָר–הֲרֹגוּ. 17 Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. [my italics]

Moses himself ordered the ethnic cleansing of the Midianites. Because King Balak had requested that their prophet, Balaam, curse the Israelites? But look at the last verse. Moses ordered all male children and infants to be killed and only women children who were virgins were to be saved and taken as spoils of war, presumably as slaves and/or concubines. Not just the women who had seduced Israelites and were then blamed for making the Israelite men worship Baal of Peor.

יח  וְכֹל הַטַּף בַּנָּשִׁים, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָדְעוּ מִשְׁכַּב זָכָר–הַחֲיוּ, לָכֶם. 18 But all the women children, that have not known man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.

Moses is unequivocally a genocidaire. Further, God Himself is guilty of ethnic cleansing. Chapter 33, verses 51- 53 read as follows:

“Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them: When ye pass over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then ye shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, and destroy all their figured stones, and destroy all their molten images, and demolish all their high places. And ye shall drive out the inhabitants of the land, and dwell therein; for unto you have I given the land to possess it.”

How can you focus on vows and issues of feminism, including their rights of inheritance? How can you focus on the conditions in terms of which the tribes of Reuben and Gad and parts of Manasseh were allowed to settle on the land on the east side of the Jordan? Why review the itinerary of the Israelite travels through the wilderness after leaving Egypt? And why talk about cities of refuge or attend to God’s differentiation between murder and manslaughter compared to these atrocities?

Well, sure, comment on all these topics. But you cannot ignore these major moral conundrums. And the commentators over the ages have not ignored them. One method of dealing with the problem, used by Maimonides for example, is to read into the text that which is not there, namely, in his case, that the Israelites were committed first to offer the Canaanites, for example, an escape clause – live beside us in peace and accept the universal Noahide code governing all of humanity, then they would be allowed to live. Presumably they did not agree and were wiped out, including infants who could not assent or dissent. However, the text is pretty clear – neither escape nor acceptance of subjugation were sufficient. Mass slaughter was ordered. In fact, Moses was furious that the Israelites had spared women and children after the Israelite soldiers returned from battle.

Indeed, how can the Israelites who were supposed to be a compassionate people – Rachmanim b’nai rachamanim – kill captured soldiers, non-combatants and even women and male children? The question has bothered commentators over the ages. So instead of interpreting the story, they effectively rewrote it, but, frankly, still leaving these most heinous crimes unexplained except to insist that even a very moral people must be tough some time, otherwise their moral code will crumble. And this is supposed to explain killing captured soldiers, non-combatants and even women and male children!

Dr. Ruhama Weiss, a member of the Reform movement and Director of “The Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Center for Pastoral Counseling Taube Family Campus,” the Blaustein Centre, at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, when commenting on this parashah, asks a tough question: “Are we capable of evil?” This may not be as tough as asking whether our most illustrious prophet and even God Himself were not only capable of evil but actually ordered such dirty deeds, but she at least directly confronts the issue on a more general level.

The answer is always to opt for the moral higher ground by altering inherited precepts.

  1. Jews are not morally superior to other peoples;
  2. God did not distinguish between the Jews and other peoples;
  3. God did distinguish between good and evil for all peoples;
  4. God did not “choose” the Jewish people from all other peoples, but simply gave them the opportunity of coming closer to God through the gift of Torah.

To avoid ignoring the horror of Moses’ command, utter the words as a melancholy chant and rededicate ourselves to the tasks of learning from history and altering our behaviour accordingly, Weiss suggests. Accept that we too as Jews are capable of genocide. “Ethical living begins to be a challenge when we realize that all of us are capable of evil and all of us are commanded to do good.” Further, transform God from a paternal authoritarian figure, from a tough judge, into a hope and a choice. Therefore, I am commanded to do good.

But is not this the same God who commanded the evil of ethnic cleansing? Is this not the same Moses, God’s chosen prophet, who ordered his military to commit atrocities? In other words, Ruhama Weiss tries to get around the problem by leaving behind that part of historical Judaism – the characterization of its supreme prophet and God – that does not fit in with her current moral precepts. Unfortunately, then the historical precepts are made relative and lose the status of a commanding universal voice.

My answer, at least as inadequate as the others, is to accept that this was indeed what God and Moses were like. They did command evil. However, God is He who reveals Himself over time. God is becoming. God changes and learns from His mistakes. He learned that it was stupid to drown everyone and start all over again. Rather, you have to work with what you have. Over and over again, the Torah is a tale of God’s self-discovery through His relationship with humans and His alterations in the process, a process that began with the story of Adam and Eve.

We can thank God for the long road of change and development that He has covered. God indeed is a God of hope.

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