NUMBERS 30:2 – 17 (1-16 in Christian Bibles)
“When a man makes a vow to Adonai . . .” Despite the dangers of hasty vows (think of the horrible Jephthah story), they remained a popular form of piety in the Torah.
The Psalms frequently refer to vows as a practice in the worship life of the people (Psalm 22:26; 50:14; 61:6; 65:2; 66:13; 116:14, 18). “I pay my vows in the presence of his worshippers,” says the Psalmist. God is praised with the saying, “Vows are paid to you.” It was common for vows to the deity to include offerings, animal and other kinds of offerings from crops, olive oil, and wine.
Where did the idea of vowing to the deity come from? What were people seeking? Why did God allow it in his Torah? Those who made vows were fearful and they sought help from heaven with great burdens that weighed on them. Keep my children alive. Do not let us starve. Keep demons and evil far from us. In order to have some security, to feel protected by the deity, the cultural custom was to vow costly things and pay those vows on attending the temple during holy seasons.
Vows, in other words, met the psychological needs of a people. They were a way to feel like heaven was protecting you on earth. We have the same fears and many questions. Will my faith in God keep tragedy from me and those I love? The hard truth is, no: tragedy comes to all.
There is no divine plan in which our lives are tragedy-proof. What we trust in is that he will turn whatever happens into a happy ending, in this life and more so beyond. But God permitted vows in Torah because the people needed them culturally, as a practice of faith meaningful to them. But the more we learn, the more we move on from practices seeking to manipulate life and guarantee our security and success. A higher truth calls out to us: God desires and will bring about for us an ultimate good, despite our living through the interim period of sadness.
Vows are inviolable (2-3), the father and vows of unmarried women (4-6), the husband and vows of women prior to marriage (7-9), the vow of a widow or divorcee (10), the husband and vows of wives (11-13), the responsibility of the husband (14-16), summary (30:17).
Because it was common for vows to the deity to include offerings, animal and other kinds of offerings from crops, olive oil, and wine, the subject of vows follows closely in Numbers on the heels of the catalogue of sacrifices. The vow is an ancient practice of worship, a psychological need which people have to feel as if something they do can get the deity’s attention.
The problem with vows lies in this: what we utter in an instant, perhaps even unthinkingly, becomes binding in relation to the deity. This is especially true psychologically. Even though God is merciful, if we vow and do not fulfill, we imagine that we have broken a strand of the cord that binds us to him.
To partially ameliorate the problem of hasty vows, Torah adopts a cultural norm in Israel. Given that their society was patriarchal, vows by women are subject to annulment by the male authority of the family (father, husband). This does not deal with the problem of hasty vows by men, but later, Yeshua teaches his followers not to make vows at all. The Torah permits vows, but does not command or even commend them.
Note the warning in Qohelet (Ecclesiastes 5:3-5), “When you vow a vow to God, do not delay . . . Better not to vow than to vow and not carry it out . . . Don’t let your mouth make you sin.” Despite the dangers of a vow, they were a popular form if Israelite piety. Milgrom (Numbers: The JPS Torah Commentary) lists a number of references to vows in Psalms as evidence of their popularity as a form of devotion (these verses numbers are as in Jewish Bibles: Psalm 22:26; 50:14; 61:6; 65:2; 66:13; 116:14, 18).
Does Torah advocate or, worse yet, legislate the act of genocide? “Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites,” says God to Moses. “The slew every male,” the story reports. “They took the women and the children of the Midianites captive.”
Torah contains many things that are beneath God, that do not fit with his nature as it is defined in Torah itself. Torah seems to speak with two voices about God and his ways with human beings. The reader should note that a false notion exists that the “Old Testament” (Jewish Bible) depicts God as cruel while the “New Testament” (Christian Bible) depicts God as loving. This is a non-starter. Such an argument overlooks the death-dealing passages of the New Testament and the life-affirming passages of Torah and the prophets.
What we are really dealing with is a Hebrew Bible that seems to have two voices. What we have to realize is that human and divine voices are mixed in the Bible. It is not a purely divine book, but a very human one.
As for passages depicting slaughter, it helps to know the tendency in Near Eastern writing to exaggerate victories in war accounts. If we understand Israel as a tiny nation desiring to be like the larger nations, we should not be surprised if some Torah authors wanted the Israelites to seem as powerful as Assyrian and Babylonian armies.
But texts like these do not nullify higher expressions of God’s nature found in the same Torah. A profound respect for human life flows from the foundational texts of creation and the flood. Divine mercy and healing fill the pages of Torah, and all the more so in the prophets. Any theology of war and violence as part of the human experience must take into account God’s desire for life and peace on earth. At the same time, it is naive and even repugnant to insist on strict non-violence when that requires good people to commit suicide and give up the earth to cruel and possessive tyrants.
War with Midian may have been necessary. Moses surely had a task that had to be accomplished. If the authors stumbled in describing how God felt about such violence, we need not attribute genocidal urges to God. They were on their way to make a place of life, a land where death would be minimized and freedom would be celebrated. They had to get past war-mongering rivals along the way.
War with Midian.
The war with Midian is a conflict with a former ally turned treacherous. It seems as if “Midian” covers more than one people group, since some of the Midianites were allies (Hobab in Num 10:29, perhaps the same person as Jethro). But a different group of Midianites sought to prevent Israel from entering the land. It seems they conspired to get Israel in trouble with God by luring Israelite men with Midianite women. And Balaam is mentioned as being with them among those slain by Israel, suggesting that he was the mastermind behind the plan.
According to Numbers, Israel wiped out this branch of the Midianite tribes but not all Midianites. The Midianites are mentioned again in Judges. In fact, Hobab’s family lived in Canaan with Israel (Judg 1:16; 4:11).
God gave Moses the task of a holy war of vengeance on Midian before he died. The commandments to Israel during the wilderness and conquest to put people under the ban (herem in Hebrew) and to kill all the males, or sometimes even women and children, are extremely troubling. Ancient Near Eastern scholars observe that exaggeration is normal in accounts of conquests and that language of extermination is often not to be taken literally (see John Walton, The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest).
Genocide is inconsistent with God’s nature and passages in Torah which seem to advocate genocide do not reflect God accurately. However we manage to regard these texts, they do not cancel out the ethical passages of Torah that demand respect for human life, love for neighbor, and a call to peace. Some stories in Torah (such as the Phinehas story) celebrate acts by people that stopped more killing from happening. The Torah seems to contain both an acceptance of divine judgment and a dissatisfaction with it that even becomes a protest and a restraining of God’s killing wrath. Perhaps we can say that the authors of Torah did not know how the balance of death and life worked and they struggled to write about conquest and God’s covenant love in the same sacred text.
“Slay every male among the children . . . slay also every woman who has known a man.”
Is this the voice of God or is it the voice of the authors of Torah, writing some five centuries later? Did the authors of Torah know for a fact that God commanded women and children to be killed in cold blood?
Readers who feel committed to the infallibility of the Torah (and/or Bible) are unable to say that the text contains errors. This has to be the legitimate divine voice in such a view. This requires a reader to assume that God’s ethical system has less respect for human life than the Geneva Conventions (modern rules adopted by many nations of the world governing wartime conduct).
Ironically, the text itself is uneasy with the killing. Human death is impure. In vss. 19-24, the soldiers who carried out the killing were impure and had to purify themselves (in keeping with Numbers 19 and the whole symbolic system of ritual purity laws in Torah). In other words, killing, though sometimes necessary, is part of the evil God desires to eradicate from the world.
Thus, on the one hand, the text has God saying, “slay women and children,” and yet, also saying, “your warriors are impure because they have taken human life.” Some readers might assume that taking human life is acceptable in the present situation and that the impurity of human death is simply an ideal for the future. But other readers might argue that taking human life should only happen in cases of necessity to save human lives, and that the impurity of human death in Torah calls us to have the utmost respect for human life.
If we read the whole Torah, hearing within it the highest ethical call to peace and life, then what would we say if a heavenly voice commanded us to kill human beings in cold blood? We might ask God as Abraham did, “Will not the judge of all the earth do right?” Moses ranks among those who protested when God declared something harsh and Ezekiel once refused a divine command (and God relented, Ezekiel 4:14-15).
The Torah (and the Bible as a whole) undermines the command to slay in cold blood. These verses do not stand as the legitimate word of God. They appear instead to be the imperfect remembrance by authors five centuries removed from the events. Though part of the sacred text, these words seem to be anti-divine, and are, rather, part of the human imperfection of scripture.
The army returns victorious but not fully obedient (13-18), purification of soldiers and booty (19-24).
We find out specifics for the first time about Balaam’s treachery in vs. 16 (the account of Balaam’s death is in vs. 8). This is the only narrative connection Balaam to the larger story of Israel in Numbers, since the Balaam cycle in chapters 24-27 is separate from the rest. The reader has to assume the rest of the untold story. Apparently, after being unable to curse Israel for the kings of Moab and Midian, Balaam counseled them to seduce Israel into trouble with God through the women and idols of Moab and Midian.
In this subsection, Moses is angry with the military leaders of Israel because they have let the children and women live. He commands them to kill any women who have been with a man and also to kill all the boys. Would God really command such a thing? Is this rather the authors of Torah writing history as they imagine it happened?
This text about the distribution of the plunder from the war with the Midianite clans is very odd for modern readers. It is part of the fascination of the ancient authors with numbers and symbolism.
The reader should notice that the numbers involved in this war make little sense compared to the population figure for Israelites given in both Exodus and Numbers. If Israel had over 600,000 males of fighting age, how is there any glory in a war with so few Midianites?
Another question we might ask: what is God going to do with the thirty two Midianites who become donations to the sanctuary?
The intended message of the story is that Israel had victories as promised by the covenant with God. They defeated their enemies and were enriched by the nations who sought to kill them. The larger point is that faith in God’s promise brings true blessings for the Israelites. The Sinai covenant is supernatural. It is specific. Only one nation, the Israelites, have such a promise (that if the nation heeds the covenant supernatural blessings will follow). This does not translate into a Biblical promise for individuals or for other groups besides the Israelites.
The Torah is a unique promise, one which has never been fully manifested on earth. The priestly authors of Torah imagined what it could be like if the people of Israel experienced divine blessing on earth. The prophets of Israel expanded on this picture, imagining a world of abundance and security. It is a dream worth believing, speaking to all humanity about something better God has for us. If God gives us the foreshadowing of such a coming world, we can choose to believe he will fulfill it in his own way and in his own time.
The command to divide the Midianite plunder (25-27), the plunder tax from the soldiers to the high priest (28-29), the plunder tax from the civilians for the Levites (30), the count of plunder (31-40), the instructions are carried out (41).
The war with Midian is about Israel’s survival. The Midianites have attacked what is essential about Israel: the covenant with God. At least in the imagination of the Torah’s authors, writing five centuries after the events they narrate, God’s instructions for this war included genocide.
The soldiers had to be purified to reenter the camp according to the rules of Numbers 19. Further, in a practice new to this chapter, we find a law about purifying plundered metals taken in a holy war, using fire and the water of purification.
The distribution of booty is somewhat complex: half to the soldiers and half to the civilian families, with a five-hundredth subtracted from the soldiers for the priests and a fiftieth from the civilians for the Levites. The soldiers offer an additional ransom, the gold they personally pick off of the slain: to keep from being punished for taking a census of survivors after the war.
“Not one of us is missing.” So the story says following Israel’s war with Midian, a war in which numerous Midianites died but not a single Israelite was killed. Things usually work this way only in the movies (where bullets always miss the heroes or strike them only in non-lethal places).
The promises in the Torah are not ordinary, but supernatural. Aside from a few examples in the history of Israel, such as this battle where not a single soldier was lost, the world has never seen anything like the Sinai covenant. Israel has not attained it either.
The promises of the covenant are specifically found in Leviticus 26:3-13 and Deuteronomy 28:3-14. They are hinted at in numerous places where death is considered impure, where a bounty of food and freedom from common causes of death are promised.
These promises of Torah should not be cheapened into religious formulas for individual prosperity (like some sort of “faith magic”). They are elusive and not something we experience in the present reality. The Israelites in the golden age experienced foretastes of covenant blessings, stories passed down to us that give us hope. The fulfillment of such stories can only come in God’s timing as he relates to humanity. In Jewish and Christian thought, these conditions will exist in the messianic era, representing a total reversal of the human condition.
The count of the civilians’ plunder and tax to the Levites (42-47), the census tax of the army which lost not even one soldier (48-54).
Following the procedure already commanded, the civilians now give their fiftieth of the plunder to the Levites. The officers of Israel collected a census tax and then took a census, finding that not one Israelite had died in battle.
The account about the war with Midian reflects faith in the supernatural covenant promises given at Sinai. The enemies of Israel are prevented from killing any Israelites. This is another example in Torah of the ideal condition in which human death can be eliminated. Though ironically this occurs in a war with a foreign enemy — whose men, women, and children were put to the sword — nonetheless Torah suggests God desires an end to the loss of human lives. Death is part of the natural operation of the world in its present condition, with God hiding his face. The supernatural protection from death afforded the Israelites in this story is the implied promise if humanity can find enlightenment with God.
“Do not move us across the Jordan.” Some people believe God has an immutable plan for every person’s life. Not only is this plan a mystery, so they say, which we must discover. But it is also something we can ruin by making choices other than the ones God (secretly) wants us to make. There is a Plan A and if we miss out on it, Plan B is vastly inferior.
Compare this to the story of the Gadites and Reubenites. If ever there was a plan that seemed to have God’s approval on it and which we would imagine mortals should not change or even ask for an alteration from, it would be “I will bring you to a land of milk and honey.” The whole point of the Exodus was for God to brings the tribes to Canaan, where God would set up a holy mountain and consecrate the land with a Torah covenant.
If the Promised Land was Plan A, what was this modification of the plan that Gad and Reuben asked for?
“Do not move us across the Jordan.” Do not move us into the land of promise. Make a land of promise for us on the other side of the Jordan, please God. We have seen this green land and we know God can bless us here. We will fight with you for Canaan, but please let us settle our wives and children in the Transjordan first.
These two tribes were not lacking faith. They were not removing themselves from the battle to conquer Canaan. They were not abandoning God or their fellow Israelites. They simply desired this first green land they came to and asked for it.
And God, through Moses, said, “Yes, your plan is a good one.”
Perhaps God’s intention for us is not some unchangeable secret destiny which we must somehow discover. It could be instead an ever-evolving conversation between our will and his. The desires of our hearts matter to God and as we discover them, he does not deny them to us — at least not categorically. If we find our green land, our dream job, our partner in life, our whatever, and we desire it, we need never fear that choosing something we want could ruin some better plan God has for us.
Gad and Reuben request settlement east of the Jordan (1-6), Moses objects and recalls the incident of the spies (7-15), Gad and Reuben offer a compromise (16-19).
The land west of the Jordan is what has been promised. But the tribes Gad and Reuben see the advantages of the Transjordan (east of the Jordan River, in the modern nation of Jordan) as a fruitful place for raising livestock. They are eager to have land and end their nomadic life of forty years.
Their proposal to settle the Transjordan is met with anger and suspicion. Moses says that their settling here will cause the other tribes to fear, since their number will be diminished for conquering the land. The Gadites and Reubenites offer a compromise. If allowed to settle, they will go before Israel as shock-troops (Milgrom, Numbers: The JPS Torah Commentary). Their women, children, and aged family members will remain in fortified towns in the Transjordan and the men, unencumbered by family, will be able to maneuver more adroitly in military operations.
Writing five centuries after the fact, the authors of this section of the Torah (J and P) refer to unknown historical sources remembering the infancy of Israel’s tribes occupying the land of the Transjordan.
The account is explaining something which does not seem to fit the story of Israel. Having left Egypt they were promised a place in Canaan. But how is it, then, that some tribes occupied land beyond the Jordan? This section of the Torah offers an explanation.
Gad, Reuben, and some of the clans of Manasseh asked for a change in the divine plan, according to this story, and offered as a compromise their service as shock-troops (frontline soldiers taking the largest risk in battle). They asked that the boundaries of the Promised Land be expanded to include the territory that seemed pleasing in their eyes.
And God acquiesced to their appeal and granted them the thing they asked for. Perhaps we have here a story about making a life with God through our own initiative, respectfully pleading with God for something that we desire. Hard work, trust, and reliance on God bring a beautiful life for these clans of Israel. It seems the later generations, those in the time Torah started being written down, approved of and admired the inheritance that came to Gad, Reuben, and Manasseh.
Moses accepts compromise with Gad and Reuben (20-24), Gad and Reuben agree and swear to conditions (25-32), Moses assigns Transjordan to Gad, Reuben, and Manasseh (33-38), Manasseh conquers Gilead (39-42).
The Gadites and Reubenites have agreed to send the men as a vanguard or as shock-troops into battle during the conquest (with their women and children settled back home in the Transjordan). Moses accepts their compromise, but strengthens it as an oath in two ways (Milgrom, Numbers: The JPS Torah Commentary).
First, he adds God’s name to their promise, making it an unbreakable oath. Second, he adds a blessing for faithfulness to the oath (“you shall return and be free of obligation”) and a curse for unfaithfulness (“your sin will find you out”).
They agree to send their soldiers as vanguard troops “before the Lord,” literally to charge ahead of the Ark with the rest of Israel behind (Milgrom). This is confirmed in Joshua 6:7-13 where Israel attacks Jericho in a formation including a vanguard, then the Ark, and then the rest of Israel. Strangely in vs. 33 Manasseh suddenly appears as another tribe seeking territory in the Transjordan. This is because the J source of the Torah is interspersed with the P account in this chapter. J includes Manasseh song the Transjordan tribes while P does not. An account of Manasseh conquering the northern Transjordan follows.