The first commandment, which says God is the only God, that He is the God of the Children of Israel whom He brought out of Egypt; that we must worship no other gods and obey His laws, precedes, in order and import, the law to which intuition gives pride of place, the commandment not to kill.
God, like the state, can command us to kill. “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.” The disobedient Israelite who gathers manna on the Sabbath is to be stoned. Three thousand of those who worship the golden calf must be put to the sword. The sword earns Israel God’s promised land. God punishes King Saul for not fulfilling the sacred massacre of the Amalekites in punishment for the ambush of Israel in flight from Egyptian bondage.
Numbers Chapter 31 tells how Moses accomplishes the punishment of the Midianites. Moses orders each tribe to send a thousand advance guards. (He will reprimand the Reubenites and Gadites who prefer to settle Transjordan for failing to join their brothers in arms.) The troops, equipped with sacred utensils and trumpets for sounding blasts, take the field against Midian, as the Lord commanded Moses. They slay every male. Not a single fighter in the army of the Lord is lost. The five Midian kings seem to have been taken prisoner and then killed. Balaam, whom we last met blessing the army of Israel from three consecutive mountaintops, as God commanded him, appears to be implicated in the guilt of the Midianite women. Meeting the triumphant Israelite warriors on their return, Moses speaks angrily to the officers: “You have spared the females!” He orders the killing of all woman except the virgins, who, according to one assumption, will be wedded to Israelite men, there being no divine injunction as yet against intermarriage. Moses himself has a Midianite wife. Then Moses issues the command to kill Midian’s male children. This is interesting because it was only by his mother’s pious ruse that the baby Moses was saved from the same command that Pharaoh had issued against Israel’s male children. If Moses is seeking vengeance for that old atrocity, it is against the wrong people. No, the revenge is understood to be against the Midianites, and particularly the Midianite women, for seducing Israel to disobedience, to go whoring after “gods they did not know,” that is to say the primal sin against the first commandment.
In his novel, “The Devils of Loudon,” Aldous Huxley proposed a partly tongue-in-cheek thesis about the world’s economy of good and bad: The quantity of each remains steady throughout human history, but there are moments when the bad seems to concentrate in a particular place. Then it goes on to concentrate in some other particular place.
How must we deal with the bad moments in our own history? The human instinct, as a person or as a nation, is denial. I didn’t do what I did. What happened never happened. This is a way out that Torah specifically denies us. Torah tells the story “in your face,” tells more than we would choose to know. Those women and the children!
Or we believe that what happened wasn’t all that bad, to piously believe it wasn’t bad at all. What we did was justified by the bad that the other side did. The Midianites endangered not only the integrity but also the safety of the new nation by making Israel disobedient to its God. Moses did what was necessary. There was no other way to end the ravishment of the plague with which God was punishing Israel for doing what was wrong in His sight.
There has been a rash, recently, of leaders confessing the historic savagery of their tribe against another tribe. The pope was sorry for what happened to the Jews. Bill Clinton apologized to the American Indians. South Africa hoped that making people tell the Truth about what they had done would lead to Reconciliation between the perpetrators and their victims.
Our story of Moses and the Midianites has troubled commentators ancient and modern. Robert Alter, for instance, in the splendid commentary to his new translation, wants gently and sadly to mitigate the horror by noting that the order to kill the male children doesn’t come from the mouth of God; it comes from Moses.
And let us remember that this is a story. Had the account of the battle of Midian been historical, wouldn’t there have to have been Israelite casualties? It is myth, and we must read it hermeneutically as literature out of a brutal time, from a brutal part of the world. This would be a comfort if we didn’t look about our own times and see so many concentrations of the worst in one place or another — a massacre here, a massacre there, dead women, dead children.
Lore Segal is a novelist, translator and essayist. Her latest children’s book is “More Mole Stories and Little Gopher, Too” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).