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Torah Commentary
Matot (July 19, 2014)

Sherry Nehmer,

Who Were the Midianites?

THE HISTORY OF THE Midianite people is interwoven with that of the Israelites. Midianites are related to Israelites through Abraham; his second wife (or some say concubine) was the mother of six boys, one of whom is the Midianite ancestor. Joseph was sold by this brother to Midianites. Moses spent his years of voluntary exile in Midian and took Zipporah, a Midianite woman, for his wife. In the parashah Pinchas, we learn of Cozbi, daughter of the Midianite chief Zur, who was speared by Pinchas together with Zimri, the son of a Simeonite chief whom she seduced. Midianite seductions of Israelites, in which the Israelite men begin to worship the Midianite god Baal-peor, are stated as an offense to God worthy of death.

This week’s parashah, Matot, chronicles the Israelites’ military campaigns against the Midianites, a series of violent, bloody battles fought over land and religion, as the Israelites continue to move toward Canaan.

The Midianites are to be destroyed, God tells Moses, and Moses summons a thousand men from each of the 12 tribes and elicits vows that they will triumph over the idol-worshiping Midianites. Their instructions are to defeat them utterly, killing all males and all women, sparing only virgins to (presumably) take as wives. Brutal as this act may be, it is in retaliation for the women leading the Israelite men to worship the false god Baal-peor. The wholesale slaughter is to ensure that the Midianites never again will be a threat to Israel.

If you read the chapter closely, at first it appears that this is a battle over land, not dissimilar to the many disheartening problems occurring in the same region today. And for the Midianites, it may very well be that that is the case. But to the Israelites, this is about remaining true to the vows they have made to God, that the Lord their God is One. Worshiping idols or other gods puts them in direct conflict with their vows.

Making a vow, and the power it has over you, is the theme of Matot. The parashah begins with a long description of the detailed rules governing men and women who make a vow — and it’s an enlightening read, for you find that a woman under the governance of a father or husband not only has different rules from the men in her household, she has different restrictions from those of a widow!

Seventeenth century churchman and philosopher Thomas Fuller said, “Vows are made in storms and forgotten in calm weather.” This is what Moses fears. It is the adherence to vows that concerns Moses in the latter half of Matot.

For many years in the desert the 12 tribes have moved as one, following Moses’ leadership to do whatever he (as God’s right hand) demands. But time has passed; there have been dissents that have resulted in death for some and 40 years of wandering for almost everyone else. Now in Matot we learn that some of the tribes have found fertile land and don’t necessarily want to move on. That is the case with “two and a half” tribes — Gad, Reuben and Manassah, who wish to settle on the Eastern banks of the Jordan to raise their cattle in good grazing land. They have no wish to follow the rest of the Israelites on their journey into Canaan. This does not sit well with Moses, and he subjects the leaders of these tribes to a long and detailed dressing down about how they are sinful and how what they plan to do is tantamount to a betrayal, considering everything God has done for them. A vow, as Samuel Johnson said, is a snare for sin, and these men have gone against their vows and are now sinners.

“We must not promise what we ought not,
lest we be called on to perform what we cannot.” 
— Abraham Lincoln

What are the Two and a Half Tribes to do? After Moses’ rant, they are quick to assure him they will never abandon their Israelite brothers until the Midianite foe is defeated, that they will send shock-troops and fight diligently until the day is won. They swear that this will be their path, one of absolute allegiance — just as long as Moses allows them to settle where they will once it’s over. It’s a renewal of their pledge to be obedient to God, and for Moses it’s enough.

And this is where Matot ends, for they are men of their word, who do as Moses and God command, and defeat the Midianites. Gad, Reuben and Manassah’s tribes settle the lands to the east, where they rename the cities they’ve conquered after themselves. Truly the victors write the histories — and rewrite the maps.

For us today, this chapter may be read as the chronicles of war, of the brutalities and ruthlessness of Moses’ times. They also may invite painful comparisons to the world today. But it also may be read for the broader message, about the importance of keeping one’s word through strife, through battle, in storms and in calm weather alike. One’s word is one’s bond to Moses, and to God, and it bears some thought even today, when we make casual promises or swear to do something, or pledge not to do so. Vows can be broken, whether they’re wedding vows, loyalty oaths, pledges of assistance or something more mundane. But whether or not we see a broken vow as a sin, surely each vow we break diminishes us, at least a little. Vows should not be broken easily, but they must not be made easily either. Thought, commitment and follow-through — those are the necessary ingredients for keeping one’s word. That is the message I take from Matot.

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