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Numbers 28-31



Numbers 28 and 29 contain commands having to do with sacrifices and holidays. These chapters repeat much of what has gone before. The one big difference is that there is no mention of the Tabernacle or the Tent of Meeting. Friedman explains:
Other laws clearly indicate that sacrifice can be performed only at the entrance of the Tabernacle. If I was correct in my commentary on the Tabernacle (Exodus 26)—that the Tabernacle was actually located in the First Temple—then it is critically important that these laws come now picturing sacrifice even without reference to the Tabernacle. By no reckoning was the Tabernacle in the Second Temple. (Nor were the ark, the tablets, the cherubs, or the Urim and Tummin.) It is these two chapter (and Num 15:1-31, which likewise does not mention the Tabernacle) that make it possible for there to be sacrificial worship at the Second Temple.[1]
Friedman’s commentary begs the question: “Were these chapters, that mention sacrifice with no mention of the Tabernacle, added after the exile precisely to allow for sacrifice in the Second Temple without the presence of the Tabernacle?” The answer would appear to me to be: yes. However, I do not know the opinion of Hebrew scholars on this point.
Numbers 30 deals with vows and whether vows taken by women are binding or not. If a woman takes a vow and either her father or husband cancel it, then it is cancelled. Friedman comments,
Having power over another person also means taking responsibility for that person’s actions. If a man causes his wife to violate a vow she made, then it is he who must live with the consequences….
This law, like several others in the Torah, stands at a juncture in the development of the balance between women and men. On one hand, it accepts the fact that men are in a position of such power over women that they can prevent their daughters and wives from keeping vows that they have made to their God—and it gives this power the force of law. But, on the other hand, it places a tremendous burden of responsibility on the men. If they dare to prevent their daughters and wives from keeping these vows, they bear the guilt themselves for whatever comes of it.[2]
In Numbers 31, YHWH commands Moses to get revenge for the Israelites from the Midianites. Yet, Moses instructs the people to get YHWH’s revenge. Friedman suggests,
Perhaps this is because the Israelites willingly participated in the matter of Baal Peor, and so in their minds there is no reason for revenge; therefore Moses tells them that it is for God. But the deity sees the event at Baal Peor as an injury to the people, not to God.[3]
In Numbers 31:8, we read of the death of Balaam. This comes as a shock because he seemed like a good man. Why does he have to die with the rest of the Midianites? A few verses later we are told this is because the Midianite women who seduced the Israelites at Baal Peor did so at the direction of Balaam. We are not told why Balaam acted this way. The text simply suggests that human motives are complex and that there is good and evil mixed together in all of us.
Beginning with Numbers 31:16, we have one of the most difficult parts of the Hebrew Scriptures for modern people to accept. What we have here is an example of holy war—an apparent command from God to Israel to kill their enemy, in this case, the Midianites, and not just the combatants in a war, but all men, infants, and females who have had sexual relations with men. Friedman says this command is so severe because it has to do with a ritual crime, a violation of the holy. However, are we not told in Genesis 1 that all humans are made in the image of God? How can God, even in this instance, command that those made in his image should be destroyed, including persons (babies in this case) who had no evil intent? Some well-meaning religious people might say, “Well, if that is what God commanded the Israelites to do, then they did right by carrying out God’s commands.” Yet, we do not approve of holy war as practiced by Islamic militants and others in our own day. 
Personally, I do not believe there is any way to justify this command or to make sense of it ethically. However, we have in the rest of the Scriptures a corrective to this, especially in the New Testament. With Jesus, everything changes. With Jesus, no longer do we have holy war. In Jesus we have one who, rather than taking the lives of others in order to execute justice, lays down his own life to satisfy justice and to show mercy to those who do not deserve it.
Friedman does offer this helpful perspective on the text from a Jewish perspective:
If Moses’ anger over the fact that they have not killed the women and children is difficult to accept, how much more amazing is the fact that the women in question are Midianite—like Moses’ wife! The command to attack the Midianites comes from God, and the text does not state what Moses’ personal reaction is. He must order a war against his wife’s people, with whom he once lived, whose priest was his father-in-law and adviser. He married a Midianite woman, but now he has all the other married Midianite women killed. The lack of any comment about Moses’ thoughts and feelings here is the most powerful silence since the story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac, in which we were told nothing of Abraham’s heart. The Torah’s way is to leave these things unspoken, and thus to leave us to ponder them.
Remarkably, the fearful order to kill the women and children comes from Moses himself. The text does not say whether it originates from God. To conceive of Moses’ thoughts, perhaps we must go back to the point of the Midianite seductions at Baal Peor and start with the question of what Moses might feel when he learns that women of his wife’s people are seducing the Israelites into heresy: shock, embarrassment, betrayal, fury. What conversation can we imagine between Moses and Zipporah? What humiliation might Zipporah suffer from the Israelites in the aftermath of Baal Peor? How much are both Moses and Zipporah undermined? Moses’ command to eliminate the Midianite women can be conceived as coming from the depth of his outrage and pain.
Another point: The text never reports that Moses’ order was carried out! There is a mention of retaining the virgin women as captives (31:35) but no mention of the execution of the women who have known men or of the male infants. It is possible to imagine that they are released or allowed to escape—and that Moses acquiesces in this. Alternatively, perhaps it is not reported simply because it is so horrible to describe.[4]
For some other modern Jewish perspectives on holy war, see this blog: http://ynefesh.com/2011/07/22/war-against-the-midianites-what-greater-blasphemy/


[1] Friedman, Commentary on the Torah, 522-523
[2] Ibid, 528-529
[3] Ibid, 529
[4] Ibid, 531

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