The Complete Book of Numbers

The Bible's Most Hideous War Crime
What's really in the Good Book.
Aug. 23 2006 2:55 PM

The Complete Book of Numbers

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Chapter 28 and Chapter 29
Holiday time—what a bloodbath! These chapters specify all the animal sacrifices required for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. The Tabernacle was practically an abattoir. Goriest of all is Sukkot, which calls for: seven goats, 14 rams, 70 bulls, and 98 lambs. It's supposed to be a jolly harvest festival, but it sounds more like one of those all-you-can-eat Brazilian barbecues.

Chapter 30
In the last entry I described the Lord's decision to allow daughters without brothers to inherit property as a landmark in women's rights. Several readers rebuked me, arguing that this was a pretty meager recognition for women. Maybe they're right, given that Numbers is already treating women as nonpeople again. The subject is contract law. The chapter asks: When do you have to keep a promise? Any time a man makes a promise, he must keep it. But if an unmarried woman makes a promise, her father can override it, and if a married woman makes a promise, the husband can veto it. The law is not completely infantilizing: The father and husband get only one brief opportunity to veto the female promise. If they don't object quickly, the promise stands. And promises made by widows and divorcees have the same force as any man's.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

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Chapter 31

Here is most hideous war crime in a Bible filled with them. As with the story of Dinah, it is sexual misbehavior that spurs the ugliest, evilest biblical vengeance. At the start of the chapter, God tells Moses he must complete one more task before he dies: taking vengeance against the Midianites. Why? For the fairly piddling crime described in Chapter 25. God was threatening punishment for Israelites who'd been whoring with Moabite women. At that very moment, an Israelite walked by the Tent of Meeting with his Midianite girlfriend. Phineas speared the couple to death. God, delighted by Phineas' zealotry, stops the plague he had sent against the Israelites as punishment for their lechery. Even so, 24,000 Israelites die. For reasons I can't understand, God and Moses hold the entire Midianite nation responsible for this mess, and they want payback. If you ask me—and Moses didn't--the Bible is willfully ignoring the obvious point. It was the Moabite women, not the Midianite women, who did the dreadful whoring that provoked God's rage and the plague. Going after the Midianites to punish a Moabite crime is as nonsensical as the United States invading Iraq to teach al-Qaida a lesson. (Oh, wait. We did that.)

Moses dispatches his army, which quickly kills the five Midianite kings and slaughters all the Midianite men. (This is not the war crime, but rather everyday policy.) The Israelites capture all the Midianite women and children and march them back to camp. Moses is furious that the Midianite women have been spared. (This chapter also fails to mention that Moses himself is married to a Midianite woman!)  Moses orders his troops to execute all the Midianite boys and all the Midianite females except for the virgins. Isn't this a kind of sick, grotesquely disproportionate atrocity? It's collective punishment of a most repellent sort—and all to take revenge for the one bad date between an Israelite and a Midianite girl! Numbers informs us, with its usual fondness for precision, that 32,000 virgin females survive the mass execution (and were then enslaved, incidentally). By my rough estimate, this means the Israelites killed more than 60,000 captive, defenseless women and boys.

Let's pause for a second to consider Moses' rage, which I find almost incomprehensible. For most of the last three books, Moses has been restraining God. The Lord loses his temper with His disobedient people, and Moses persuades Him to show mercy. But God is on the sidelines during the Midianite slaughter: It is Moses who's bloodthirsty. Where does his new anger come from? Is it the fury of a frustrated old man who's been barred from his Promised Land? Is it the homicidal megalomania that descends on so many dictators who hold power too long?

What is particularly poignant is that Moses himself seems to know that this massacre of innocents is wrong. He orders his death squads to stay outside of camp after they finish their butchery. They need a week away from the Tabernacle to purify themselves. The Bible never mentions such a quarantine for Israelite soldiers after other battles. But, as Moses recognizes, these killings are not war, they are murder, and they defile his people.

Chapter 32

The Midianite massacre isn't the only incident of Moses spinning out of control. This chapter, too, suggests he is getting a little paranoid as his final days approach. Here Gad and Reuben—both successful herding tribes—ask Moses if they can make their home in the good rangeland east of the Jordan and not settle in the Promised Land with everyone else. Moses explodes at them, accusing them of sabotaging the settlement of the new land, undermining the army, demoralizing their fellow Israelites, and turning their back on God.

Moses' indignation comes from nowhere and seems entirely undeserved. Gad and Reuben immediately mollify him—they promise to be the "shock troops" that will lead the army. Only when Canaan is conquered, they vow, will they return east of the Jordan to their settlements. Moses grudgingly agrees, but threatens divine vengeance if they don't fight hard. Again, it's hard not to feel that the brilliant and humane prophet who has dominated the Torah is slipping away, and that he has suddenly become an old, angry, vindictive tyrant.

Chapter 33

This chapter lists every place the Israelites have camped during their 40 years in the wilderness. It's dull as dishwater to read, but it serves a fascinating purpose. At the end of the list, God issues his orders to the Israelites: Cross into Canaan, smash the idols, dispossess all the inhabitants, and take, settle, and tame the land for themselves. Had the chapter skipped the travelogue and begun with God's fearsome instructions, it would seem brutal.  The 40-year-itinerary—the weary, heartbreaking journey—serves as a reminder to the Israelites of their suffering, and, more importantly, as a justification for conquest. Why is it all right to sack and destroy another civilization? Why is it fair to seize land and settle it? Because of what the Israelites endured, that's why. The 40-year accounting explains Israel. It says: You've earned it.

Chapter 34

Moses describes the boundaries of the land they're about to conquer, and as I read it, it's a close match to Israel today, with a couple of major exceptions. It counts all of what's now the West Bank and Gaza Strip as Israelite territory—which may be one reason that some observant Jews are so reluctant to surrender those lands to the Palestinians.

Chapter 35

The Bible has told us about all kinds of laws and punishments but hasn't explained how those laws would be  enforced, until now. This chapter lays out rules for "cities of refuge," where you can hide if you've killed someone. Anyone can seek asylum in these six designated cities while they await judgment of the "assembly" as to whether they're guilty of murder or manslaughter. If convicted of manslaughter, he is allowed to stay in the city of refuge and is eventually absolved and freed to go home after the high priest anoints him. If he's found guilty of murder—which has to be intentional—then the "blood-avenger," a family member of the victim, is entitled to kill him.

This criminal justice system is a curious and perhaps unstable mix of personal vengeance and government power. The state creates laws, safe havens, and institutions of justice—an assembly that issues a verdict—but the state doesn't punish. It leaves the sentence in the hands of the victim's family. It's an admirable arrangement in some respects, because it aspires to fair justice. (For example, the chapter also specifies that you can't be convicted of murder without the testimony of two witnesses—more rigorous than our own justice system). Even so, I doubt it worked. I just read a great book, Blood and Roses, which is partly about how a medieval England's very similar justice system failed: Powerful people were able to get away with terrible crimes because no one would dare to carry out the sentences against them. I assume the Israelite system suffered from the same flaw. It's only when the state acquires a monopoly on violence that the responsibility for punishment can pass from victim to government.  

Chapter 36

The last chapter in Numbers, and my favorite character, Noa, appears for a brief coda. She and her sisters won the right to inherit property back in Chapter 27. But now Moses narrows the ruling. Some of Noa's tribal elders are worried that if she and her sisters marry outside their tribe of Manasseh, their land will pass out of the tribe's control. This wouldn't be fair, the elders tell Moses. He agrees—land may not pass from one tribe to another. So Moses orders Noa and her sisters to marry men from their own tribe. I don't know what my tribe is (Washingtonians? Journalists?), but to my own daughter Noa I make this promise: You can marry whomever you want, sweetie.

Thoughts on Blogging the Bible? Please e-mail David Plotz at plotzd@slate.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

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