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Light from the Sidra

Mattot

Numbers 30:2(1)-32:42.Haftarah:Jeremiah 1:1-2:3

It’s interesting how people pick and choose from the Torah when it comes to morality. Ask anyone to name one of the commandments and they will probably say (with a laugh) they can only remember “Thou shalt not commit adultery”. At the time of the Vietnam War, lots of young people were quoting “Thou shalt not kill”. At the height of that war, Stephen Stills sang cynically: “The good book tells us/”Thou shalt not kill”./What is the meaning of this phrase?/Is it sometimes right/and sometimes wrong?/Depends if you’re foolish or brave.”

Leaving aside the fact that that those who are fond of quoting the sixth mitzvah misunderstand it (the Hebrew is “Thou shalt not murder”), they would not like this week’s Parashah. Numbers 31:1 records the final divine order given to Moses before he dies. He is to “avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites” (Unless specified, all quotations are from Tanakh – The Holy Scriptures: The New JPS Translation According to the Traditional Hebrew Text). Vengeance will take the form of slaying “every male among the children and … also every woman has not known a man carnally” (v 17).

In case we feel inclined to think this vengeance stemmed from an inclination on the part of Moses or the Israelites, we should note that the Israelites were reluctant to carry out the slaughter. We may be separated from the situation by more than 3,000 years and almost as many miles but they, like us, found the prospect of mass slaughter less than appealing.

Why would the God who forbids killing instruct his people to wipe out an entire people group? Because the Midianites had jeopardised the very existence of Israel itself. The Midianite orgy in which the men of Israel took part had brought down the wrath of God on Israel. It was only the atonement brought about by the swift action of Phinehas that checked the resulting “plague against the Israelites” (25:8)

When the immoral shenanigans of the boss of Formula 1 or a Manchester United star are exposed, there is widespread condemnation, and marriages fall to pieces but the nation itself doesn’t suffer. But Israel is more than just another nation; the Jews are God’s chosen people. The men of Israel were unfaithful to more than their wives (bad as that was); they were unfaithful to the God who had taken the nation as his bride at Sinai.

The women of Midian, at the instigation of Balaam, seduced the men of Israel. But the men’s sin was more than simple a moral issue; it was theological and spiritual. The men had worshipped the gods of Midian. No nation ever rises above its religion, and morality (or lack of it) will always be influenced by what we think about God (or don’t think about him). Do we really imagine that if we teach our children that they are a product of blind, random chance, that life is meaningless and that morality is a matter of personal choice, they will live in a “moral” way?

Idolatry is dangerous. To create gods in our image rather than worship the God who made us in his image is spiritual adultery, and in the Torah the penalty for adultery was death: “If a man commits adultery with a married woman, committing adultery with another man’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall be out to death (Leviticus 21:10).

In Gan Eden, the first sin was an act of spiritual adultery. Havah (Eve) and Adam were unfaithful to their Creator and transferred their loyalty from him to the Serpent. The penalty was death – spiritual death. Yahweh is a “jealous” God and Midian had to suffer the consequences of seducing Yahweh’s bride.


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