Keyword:

Light from the Sidra

Matot (Vows) 19 July 2014. 3 Tammuz 5774.

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

Please note that unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from Tanach (The Artscroll™ Series/Stone Edition, April 2013. Published and Distributed by Mesorah Publications, Ltd, 4401 Second Avenue / Brooklyn, New York 11232)

Violence, sex and religion

Ask anyone to list the Ten Commandments and they will probably say (with a laugh) that they can only remember the one about not committing adultery’. Ha ha... The second commandment they are likely to know is, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’

At the height of the Vietnam War, Stephen Stills cynically sang: ‘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 you’re brave.’ The barbed lyrics of Stills’ Song of Love were aimed at politicians who claimed to stand for truth and decency while being unfaithful to their wives and sending young men to die in South East Asia.

Leaving aside the fact that that those who are fond of quoting the sixth mitzvah often misunderstand it – the Hebrew word ratsach means ‘murder’ rather than simply ‘kill’ – they would not like this week’s Parasha because Numbers 31:1 records the final divine order given to Moses before he dies. He was to ‘take vengeance for the Children of Israel against the Midianites.’ Vengeance was to take the form of killing ‘every male among the young children and every woman fit to know a man by lying with a male’ (v17).

In case we might 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 might 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 murder instruct his people to wipe out an entire people group? Because the Midianites had jeopardised the very existence of Israel, the people of God. The Midianite orgy in which the men of Israel took part had brought down the wrath of God on Israel. It was, as we saw last week, only the atonement brought about by the swift action of Phinehas that checked the resulting plague God sent on the Israelites (25:8)

Today when the repellent behaviour of the likes of Jimmy Saville, Rolf Harris and Members of Parliament come to light the nation itself doesn’t suffer divine retribution. But Israel is more than just another nation; the Jews are God’s chosen people. At the incident of Baal Pe’or the men of Israel were unfaithful to more than their wives (bad as that was); they were primarily 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?

Ideas have consequences. Idolatry is dangerous. To create gods in our image instead of worshipping the God who made us in his image is an insult to the Almighty. It is spiritual adultery, and the penalty for adultery in the Torah was death: ‘A man who will commit adultery with a man’s wife, who will commit adultery with his fellow’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death (Leviticus 20:10).

In Gan Eden, the first sin was an act of spiritual adultery. 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.

Though many find the prohibition of adultery humorous, no one wants their wife or husband to cheat on them. Tabloids know how to exploit this widespread hypocrisy. On the front pages they invite us to condemn footballers and rock stars for cheating on their significant others while on the next page they invite their male readers to ogle nubile young women without clothing.

In our imagination if not in practice we are all to some degree guilty of adultery but everyone is guilty in practice of spiritual adultery. Who, or what, is our god? Our god is the most important thing or person in our lives. Our god might be money. It might be parents, spouse or kids. It might be our job. Our god might be ‘Me’. It might even be our religion! Whatever is most important in a person’s life is their god; and if that god is not HASHEM, the living and true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, then we are idolaters.

Before you do anything else today, take a few moments to ask yourself who or what comes first in your life. Whoever you are, if the most important person or thing in your life is not the God who has revealed himself in the Hebrew Scriptures, you will need to bow the knee to him, confess your idolatry and ask his forgiveness.


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