So who was it, Numbers? The Moabites or the Midianites? Or does the distinction not matter ’cause all furrners are the same?

Well, that is one way to interpret. Another way that I suspected and the NOAB is really pushing is that there were two versions of the story, one where the Moabites were responsible, another where the Midianites were. Also, in one version Balaam is a great guy, and in the other he’s not. Once more the editors of the Bible tried to fuse them together, resulting in lost paragraphs and many contradictions.

I suppose the rabbinical answer might also be that some of the portions lost in the text were preserved via tradition, which is why there are many, many stories related to the incident at Peor trying to untangle who was responsible and why.

Even if you could determine what “really” happened at Peor, this begs the question of why kill the men if the women were responsible? I think this calls for a closer look at who is giving the orders in this chapter.

  • God’s orders: take vengeance on the Midianites, then Moses will die (v 2). Divide up the spoils so that one half goes to everyone and one half goes to the fighters, and 2% of what goes to the general population needs to be offered, while only .2% of what goes to soldiers needs to be offered (v 26-30)
  • Moses’ orders: take a thousand troops from each tribe and go to war (v 3-4). Kill all the male prisoners and any woman who had sex with an Israelite man, then purify yourselves (v 17-20).
  • Eleazar’s orders: put anything noncombustible through a fire to purify it (v 21-24).

God’s order, as quoted in this book, is actually pretty darn vague. What does “taking vengeance” on Midian look like? In 25.17, prior to the digression into censuses and legal disputes and offerings, God had commanded them to “harass and defeat” the Midianites, so war seems like part of that. But did God intend for them to kill all the males, something Moses didn’t even order? Did God only want them to go after the people responsible for luring the Israelites away,whoever that was?

It seems that here, as in other places, the Bible depicts a lot of interpretation of God’s commands going on. Moses decides exactly how to go to war and what to do with prisoners, and Eleazar declares on how to purify things. It never says that they were wrong or that God was angry, but by not putting words directly into God’s mouth, it does say that Moses and Eleazar were trying to determine what to do based on much shorter messages, not by direct, verbatim commands. That’s certainly what most life is like; you have to decide how to interpret “God’s word” as best you can, especially when it gets contradictory and confusing like this account.

Some of what is going on in a lot of these wilderness passages must be the idea that the Israelites are being “purged” of everything foreign, including their allegiance to the Midianites (Moses having lived as a Midianite for years). The Japanese really reinforces that idea with the word they used for “burn down” in verse 10, yaki-harau. While the character for harau is used for meaning “to clear away,” the word also means (with a different character) “to exorcise.” Etymologically, if you go back far enough, they’re the same word. Driving out evil is the same thing as clearing the brush – or, for the Israelites, clearing out the people, either by killing their enemies or waiting for the older generation to die in the desert.

I can’t support that idea. From a time after the prophets and especially after Jesus, wiping away all the foreigners and all your enemies isn’t the solution. So what positive idea can I glean out of this?

Well, there is the part where the plunder is divided up. While this is all stolen goods and stolen women, it is interesting that, once again, there’s a redistribution of wealth going on. The soldiers don’t get to keep whatever they grabbed. They have to divide it up amongst the people who didn’t go and amongst each other. Soldiers still get the lion’s share, but they alone aren’t allowed to profit off their conquest. Everyone has to share some benefit from any “financial gains” they make. Once more, if you’re looking for capitalism in the Bible, you aren’t really going to find it.

The Japanese: shiuchi “treatment, disservice,” houfuku suru “to revenge oneself, to retaliate” (v 2), busou saseru “to be armed, to arm oneself” (v 3), shukueichi “encampment,” yakiharau “to burn down” (v 10), senrihin “booty, spoils of war,” bundoru “to pillage, to capture” (v 11), taigan “opposite shore” (v 12), shikikan “commanding officer” (v 14), sosonokasu “to tempt, to seduce” (v 16), tadachi ni “at once, right away” (v 17), yuushi “brave soldier,” seppan suru “to halve, to split evenly” (v 27), keigo suru “to guard against” (v 30), ryakudatsu suru “to plunder, to loot” (v 32), jin’intengo “personnel roll call” (v 49)