When studying the Torah, I think that sometimes it’s as important to pay attention to what the text doesn’t say as to what it actually says. This is what I found myself thinking as I read through the Torah portion for this week, which contains what I can’t help but see as one of the darkest moments in the Tanakh, the war of revenge waged against the Midianites. It is difficult to understand some of the things that happen to the Israelites in the Torah, harder still to understand some of the things they do, but hardest of all for me to understand are those moments when the bloodiest violence seems to be sanctioned by divine commandment. At moments such as this, the question ceases to be how we can justify our lives in light of the Torah, but how we can justify the Torah in light of our own lives.

Let’s approach this carefully, then: The parsha begins with a series of legal pronouncements carefully establishing the limits of vows taken by a woman. In the case of men, a vow must be carried out once taken. In the case of a woman, however, her ability to make a pledge is limited in this patriarchal society by the men who control her life, either her father or her husband, both of whom can annul it upon first hearing about it. Only in the case of a widow is she absolutely free to make a pledge on her own account, without the possibility of it being nullified by another.
Immediately after this discussion God instructs Moses to take care of one final item of business before he is gathered to his ancestors: Waging war against the Midianites in revenge for the “trickery they practiced” against the Israelites. This is a complicated story, stretched out over the past two parshiyot, so it might be a good idea to go back and see if we can recall how we got up to this point.

Back at the end of Parashat Balak we read about an episode where the people “profaned themselves by whoring with the Moabite women, who invited the people to the sacrifices for their god” (Num. 25:1-2) and Pinchas, one of the sanctuary guards, averted God’s anger by impaling a Midianite woman along with her Israelite lover.

The connection between this Midianite woman, Cozbi, and the Moabite women who were apparently primarily responsible for the whole affair, is never clearly explained. Nevertheless, it seems clear from God’s instructions to “assail the Midianites and defeat them” (Num. 25:17) that they were somehow associated with the plot to corrupt the Israelites by tempting them over to the worship of a foreign god.

One confusing question to arise from this narrative is, why the Midianites? Unlike the Moabites, when we’ve encountered them before it was mostly as friends and allies. Moses’s wife was a Midianite, as was his father-in-law, whether we go with the passage in Numbers that identifies him as Hobab, or the ones in Exodus about Jethro, the Midianite priest who seems to be basically monotheistic in religious outlook. It seems strange, therefore, that the Midianites, of all peoples, should be blamed for attempting to sway Israel over to idol-worship, especially with Balaam, another non-Israelite monotheist who we’ve seen portrayed in a much more positive light just a few chapters earlier, supposedly acting as ringleader.

In this parsha, the Israelite army comes back from waging its successful campaign of vengeance against the Midianites, only to be berated by Moses for killing only the men, leaving the women and children alive as captives. He goes on to tell them to kill the women and boys, leaving only the girls to be divvied up between the combatants, their tribes and the sanctuary, presumably as slave labor.

There’s no other way of saying this: This conclusion to the story is basically shocking to me. I can understand the necessity of fighting a war to defend ourselves and our families. I can appreciate the fact that the world of the Bible is a hard world, where tribal rivalries frequently force a kill-or-be-killed attitude. What is harder to understand is the necessity of such deliberate slaughter, especially in light of our extremely sketchy understanding of the Midianites’ involvement. Significantly, nowhere in this fragmented story are the voices of the Midianite women recorded. At no point do they get a chance to speak for themselves. This silence, especially in light of the pointed reminder we get at the beginning of the parsha about the extremely limited autonomy of women in the societies of that time, makes me wonder whether the blame for the incident truly lies with the women themselves or with the kings, priests, husbands and fathers using them as pawns in a campaign of ethnic and religious violence.

One answer to these concerns is that this is one of those occasions when it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that we are actually dealing with different textual traditions living along side each other in uneasy peace after having been combined to form a single text. An argument along these lines might point to the numerous inconsistencies in the text and theorize that we’ve got several different traditions here, some of which remember the Midianites as monotheists, friends and allies, while others identify them as idol-worshipers, tricksters and enemies. We could say therefore that part of the problem might result from missing material from one or many of these traditions that didn’t get included for some reason–material that might better explain the Midianite women’s’ involvement in the seduction of the Israelites, or outline a distinction between groups of Midianites friendly to the house of Israel and other groups whose immoral religious practices brought the two peoples into conflict. This argument is plausible, but not terribly satisfying. It doesn’t really answer the question we’re putting to the text, which is what kind of life lesson we can draw from it.

Another approach that has been taken by some commentators is to regard the whole episode as basically metaphorical–an external, physical representation of an internal, spiritual conflict. “Midyan” shares the same Hebrew root as “dimyon,” imagination, fantasy, or illusion. Hence, these commentators say, what Moses and Israel are actually being asked to do is clear away the influence of illusion and false consciousness in preparation for their entry into Canaan–the task of conquering the land is something that must be tackled with clear eyes and a steady heart. This is an attractive option, as it resolves a great many of our moral problems with the text, though it seems to me this is an approach that demands some caution. Regarding enemies in the Torah as manifestations of sinful urges and attitudes may help us draw valuable life lessons from problematic texts, but we should be careful not to reverse this approach, projecting our own fears and insecurities onto the very real flesh and blood people we come into conflict with in our own lives.

One more possible interpretation might be to look to the individuals involved in this episode to show that at least some of the bloody excess in this story springs not from God’s commands, but from the over-zealous passion to carry them out. God tells Moses twice to attack the Midianites. In the first instance, He instructs him to “assail and defeat them. Then, in the current parsha, Moses is instructed to “take revenge against them.” In neither case does God explicitly tell Moses to inflict cherem, or complete destruction, against the Midianites, nor does God call out the women as specific targets of revenge, except of course for Cozbi, who is already dead.

We might also note the fact that Pinchas, the slayer of the Israelite man and Cozbi at the beginning of our story, is sent along to serve as priest for the raiding party. Pinchas, as we’ve come to know, is not the kind to shrink away from shedding blood in order to protect the moral fabric of the people. And yet, it doesn’t seem to have struck him as necessary to kill anyone but the men. Moses, we should remember, has been informed by God that this military campaign will be his last significant act in the public sphere before his death. Is it possible that in his passion and conflicted emotion at the awareness of his impending death, Moses is desperately trying to leave the people with a “clean slate,” to remove any possible influence that could turn them astray in his absence?

Something that was pointed out to me as I was trying to work out what to say about this parsha was that the text does not actually record Moses’s orders being carried out. The young women are included in the spoils of war to be divvied up, but when it comes to actually killing the married women and male children, the book is silent. If so, then perhaps we can take this episode as an opportunity to meditate on the price of purity, whether ideological, moral, spiritual or of whatever kind. It could be that the really important question for us to ask isn’t what those people chose to do at that moment, but what we ourselves would do in a similar situation.