In this week’s twinned Torah reading, Parashot Matot and Masei, there are two teachings about vengeance. The two readings appear quite separate. The first we will discuss, relates to the human need to “get back”; the second describes God’s almost unslakable thirst for vengeance.
On a very primal level, human instinct seeks retributions for harms caused, or even allegedly caused, by another, to ones self, one’s family, one’s people and one’s faith. On a personal level, the action and consequent reaction are often triggers for endless strife between the participants and then between their descendants.
Blood feuds, sometimes called vendettas, often evolve into long-running fights between different groups of people. They are fuelled by the cycle of retaliatory retribution, which keep the hatred alive long past the original insult. They have been known to last for many generations and may involve extreme acts of violence, reflecting the personal nature feeding the hatred. In modern times they are often interpreted as an extreme outgrowth of social relations based on both family honour and, however regrettable, religious affiliation. The Torah doesn’t forbid its exercise, it regulates it.
One of the most interesting laws imposed on the Israelites was a reaction to vengeful conduct; importantly not all, but specifically when one caused the death of another, thus triggering the cycle. The Israelites were directed to designate six cities as “cities of refuge”. These cities were to offer sanctuary for people who had unintentionally killed another, and who were at risk from those seeking vengeance and the beginnings of a blood feud.
God’s need for vengeance however, suffered no such restraint. The Torah records a number of instances where but for human intervention, complete destruction was promised for societies that had insulted God. Abraham argued with God about the victims of Sodom and Moses was forever seeking to militate against His desire to obliterate the Children of Israel.
In this week’s Torah reading, Moses was instructed that before he died, he needed to deliver retribution against the Midianites: “Avenge the children of Israel of the Midianites; afterward you shall be gathered unto your people.” He in turn ordered the Israelites to gather the best small army, only 12,000 men were pressed into service, and: “fall upon Midian to wreak God’s vengeance”.
The Midianites had become targets of the Israelites because of their involvement with, and responsibility for the immoral and idolatrous behaviour, described in Parsha Balak. Briefly, the Midianites joined forces with the Moabites and introduced a Canaanite idol into the Israelites camp whose cultic worship called for sensual indulgence. The Israelites who participated in the outrage were killed by the ensuing plague. Conversely, all of the Midianites, whether participants or bystanders, or, those physically removed from the unfortunate incident, were killed.
The battle against the Midianites was a brief and miraculously the Israelites suffered no losses and all of the men of the Midianites were killed. The property was seized and all towns and encampments were put to the torch and destroyed. There was to be no evidence left of their existence. Initially, the Israelites, perhaps not grasping the need to completely obliterate any trace of Midian and its people from history, took the women and children captive, but their orders were clarified and every male child and every post pubescent female were put to the sword. There was no refuge from the Divine retribution.
Traditional commentary offers a number of explanations for the command, which appeared to draw no distinction between perpetrators and innocents. Some analogize the conduct of Midian with that of the Israelites nemesis, Amalek. The sin of Midian, like that of another purged tribe Amalek, was to prey on the vulnerability of the Israelites– an anathema to one who follows the moral teachings enshrined in the Torah. Others point to their provocation of God’s jealousy against Midian, when they “persuaded” (some of) the Israelites to “transfer their allegiance” from Him to something else.
While modern sensibilities may be offended by the harshness of the command and the ugliness of the result, such conduct towards an enemy, whether as retribution or as a “defensive measure” was not unknown in the ancient world and is still practiced in the modern world. Violence, once commenced, could lead to a cycle of bloodshed. It was thought best to completely destroy the enemy, both alive and any possible future generations, lest they in turn seek to continue the vendetta.
Incidentally, the Israelites appear to have failed in their task. Midian makes reappearance in events recorded in the Book of Judges, where they are said to have oppressed the Israelites for seven years. I’ll let you, dear reader, draw your own conclusions.