In this week’s Torah portion, (Numbers 30:2-36:13), the Israelites go to war. Moses sends them to war with the Midianites to take revenge for that group’s seductive ways, leading Israelites astray from their way of being, and leading them to an immoral way of living.
Why a war? I kept asking myself as I read this Torah portion. Why killing people? In fact it is a massacre! Moses commands them to kill all the men and all the women who had relationships with men.
Why such violence? What role does this story play at the end of the book of Numbers, at the end of the journey through the wilderness just as the Israelites are about to cross the Jordan and reach a place that will become home?
Maybe this new generation of Israelites who didn’t know Egypt have a capacity that the older generation didn’t. Maybe this war has a symbolic meaning.
Earlier in the book of Numbers we don’t see the Israelites struggle at all. We see them ready to give up. “Why did you take us out of Egypt only to die in the wilderness?” is the consistent refrain. They fearfully resign themselves to their perceived dismal fate and can’t even envision a struggle of any kind. They have no will for struggle. They are spiritually empty.
The change that we see later in the book of Numbers is that the people are ready to step forward for what they believe. Two weeks ago, (Numbers 25:1-8) Pinchas took a stand against the Israelites who were defaming God’s name in the way that they cavorted with the Midianite women. Last week the daughters of Tzelophchad came forward to ask that a law be adjusted to allow them to inherit their father’s land.
The Biblical narrative, filled with verbs, tells us what people or groups did, but rarely how they felt or how they perceived their world. For example, back in Genesis, the evening before Jacob will reunite with Esau, he struggles with a stranger. Many commentaries interpret this confrontation as an externalization of Jacob’s internal struggle with himself.
Is it possible that wars and confrontations with other nations aren’t only a historical narrative, but like Jacob’s struggle is a metaphor for the Israelite nation’s internal life? Maybe fighting the Midianites is a way of externalizing the spiritual conflict of being seduced by other ways of living that are not part of one’s true self.
The Midianite way of life has been presented as counter to God’s commandments. Maybe this last war that precedes crossing the Jordan into the promised land, crossing the threshold into a new beginning, a new way of being, represents the Israelites redeeming themselves from all the times they doubted God’s capacity to assist them and their own strength. Maybe an Israelite people ready to fight in order to follow God’s way is the act that tells us: It’s time. They are ready.
Perhaps, just as the chapters that follow will delineate physical boundaries for the tribes and the nation, the people are ready to delineate their spiritual boundaries what it means to be God’s people.