Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Of Vows, Vengeance, and Women / Parshat Matot-Masei

Parshat Matot is about vows (primarily by women) and violent vengeance (primarily against women).

Two weeks ago we read of the incident at Baal Pe’or, a troubling narrative inserted into the story of Balaam. In Numbers chapter 25 we are told that Israelite men are lured into idolatry by Midianite women, evoking God’s wrath. God instructs Moses, “Take all the ringleaders and have them publicly impaled before God, so that Adonai’s wrath may turn away from Israel” (25:4). But at just that moment, an Israelite man takes a Midianite woman into the Tabernacle where they copulate. Pinchas runs them through with a spear, halting the punishing plague in progress that had already taken 24,000 lives.

The account of Baal Pe’or, and the subsequent war of revenge against the Midianites, has many troubling features, not the least of which are Pinchas’ vigilantism against Zimri and Cozbi (the couple coupling in the Tabernacle) and the very idea of a war of vengeance. My focus here, however, is the manner in which woman are portrayed as sexual sirens who lure men into idolatry.

In this week’s parashah, God demands that the Israelites go to war with the Midianites on account of Baal Pe’or. God spoke to Moses, saying: “Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites; then you shall be gathered to your kin” (Numbers 30:31). This is to be Moses’ last battle, a war of vengeance. The war is a success. No Israelite soldiers dies. The Israelite soldiers capture a bounty of spoils – cattle, herds of sheep and goats, human captives and their possessions – yet Moses is not satisfied:
Moses became angry with the officers of the army, the officers of thousands and the officers of hundreds, who had come back from the military campaign. Moses said to them, “You have spared every female! Yet they are the very ones who, at the bidding of Balaam, induced the Israelites to trespass against God in the matter of Pe’or, so that God’s community was struck by the plague. Now, therefore, slay every male among the dependents, and slay also every woman who has known a man carnally; but spare every female dependent who has not had carnal relations with a man. (Numbers 31:13-18)
God did not issue this command to Moses (Numbers 30:31, see above). Is the order to slaughter women from Moses alone? Moreover, how are the officers to distinguish between women who had carnal relations with Israelite men, and those who did not? It is unlikely they can, and once the slaughter begins, it is unlikely that distinctions will (or can) be made.

And there is more: The soldiers must undergo an intense purification because, having killed human beings, they have become ritually impure. The purification takes a full week. When it is completed:
The officers of the troop divisions, the officers of thousands and the officers of hundreds, approached Moses. They said to Moses, “Your servants have made a check of the warriors in our charge, and not one of us is missing. So we have brought as an offering to God such articles of gold as each of us came upon: armlets, bracelets, signet rings, earrings, and pendants, that expiation may be made for our persons before God.” (Numbers 31:48-50)
The told offered that day by the officers totaled 16,750 shekels. The commentary to Etz Hayim notes, “This parenthetical comment underscores the magnanimity of the officers’ contribution. Although a census requires a monetary ransom from each person (Exod. 30:12), the officers donated more than twice the amount needed to ransom the entire army – ½ shekel of silver per soldier (not to speak of gold), totaling 16, 750 shekels. Thus each infantryman could keep his booty (see v. 32).”

The officers don’t bring any old booty. They bring specifically and exclusively jewelry – it seems, jewelry belonging to the women they have killed – to offer atonement. The jewelry suggests that the sin of Baal Pe’or rests with the Midianite women – all of them – even more than the Israelite men with whom they consorted. The image of women as sexual sirens leading men astray stands at variance with other presentations in the Torah (the strong matriarchs) and Talmud (the woman refused to worship the Golden Calf and were rewarded with Rosh Chodesh; see Midrash Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, chapter 45). I’m not claiming that this is a singular theme in Torah or Talmud, but any generalization is dangerous, and we should guard against them all.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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