(The books of Exodus through Deuteronomy present Moses as a complex character overall, yet at times he obeys God without thinking. In the conversation below I address this simplistic Moses character.)
Moses: We killed them because they made us do the wrong thing.
M. Carpenter: They made the Israelite men do it? Aren’t they adults, responsible for their own actions?
Moses: But they tricked us.
Carpenter: Or maybe you let them trick you. Here’s what the Torah says:
And Israel was dwelling at Shittim, and the people began liznot the Moabite women. And they invited the people to make slaughter-offerings to their god. So the people ate and prostrated themselves to their god. And Israel yoked itself to Baal-Peor, and God became inflamed against Israel. (Numbers/Bemidbar 25:1-3)
liznot (לִזְנוֹת) = to have intercourse with a religious sex worker (when zonah, זֺמָה = cult prostitute); to have illicit intercourse (when zonah = any woman who sells herself for sex); to be unfaithful.
Any of the three meanings of liznot might apply in the passage above. The Israelite men might have served the god of Peor from the beginning, through its sex workers. Or they might have used Moabite prostitutes, who then invited them to religious feasts. Or the word liznot might introduce the idea that they became unfaithful to God when they bowed down to another god.
God’s rage was expressed as a plague, which killed 24,000 Israelites before Aaron’s grandson Pinchas stopped it with a single violent act. One of the Israelite men brought one of the Moabite women right into God’s Tent of Meeting to have sex. Pinchas speared both of them through their private parts in one blow.1
Torah portion Pinchas: Then God made Pinchas a priest on the spot.2 When the Torah gave the names of the speared offenders, it changed the Moabite woman into a Midianite woman, an example of incomplete redaction when two versions of a story have been melded. From that point on, the female offenders are called Midianites.
Then God spoke to Moses, saying: “Attack the Midianites and strike them down! –because they attacked you through nikheleyhem when niklu you over the matter of Peor … (Numbers 25:17-18)
nikheleyhem (נִכְלֵיהֶם) = their deceit, their trickery, their cunning.
niklu (נִכְּלוּ) =they deceived, they tricked.
Moses: So you see, God Himself said that the Moabites, er, Midianites, tricked us.
M. Carpenter: Well, the God-character you heard in the Torah said that. I think those Israelite men should have realized that having liaisons with women attached to the god of Peor would lead to invitations to feasts, during which it would only be polite to bow down to their god like everyone else. The men could have thought it through, but they didn’t—and they could not use the excuse that they were starving. They already had sex and food in their own camp with Israelite women.
Moses: Anyway, those Peor worshipers will never trick us again.
M. Carpenter: True. Because the next Torah portion says:
Torah portion Mattot: After a while God reminded him:
Take revenge with the vengeance of the Israelites on the Midianites! Afterward you shall be gathered to your people.” (Numbers 31:1)
So, knowing it might be his final deed before he died, Moses assembled an army. The Israelites defeated the Midianites, burned down their towns, and killed every Midianite man. When they returned with the booty, including the Midianite women and children, Moses ordered them to kill all the women who were not virgins. He explained that it was Midianite women who caused the Israelites to choose Peor over God, which resulted in God’s plague.3
M. Carpenter: Exterminating the local population did eliminate that particular temptation. But it won’t stop the Israelites from straying after other Gods once they settle in Canaan, as I pointed out in an earlier post: Mattot, Va-etchannan, & Isaiah: How to Stop a Plague, Part 3.
Moses: But God wanted revenge.
M. Carpenter: In this story, the God-character wants revenge. But elsewhere in the Torah, the God-character wants justice. There’s a difference. Let me quote something God said to you at Mount Sinai:
“A fracture for a fracture, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth: as someone gives a physical injury to a human, thus it shall be given to him. And for striking down a beast, he shall pay compensation, but for striking down a human, he shall be killed.” (Leviticus/Vayikra 24:19-21)
Moses: So you think we should have seduced the Moabites into worshiping our God?
M. Carpenter: You could have tried. Of course, they might have had the fortitude to resist and stick to their own god. But trying to seduce them would have been more ethical than killing them.
Moses: I was afraid that if we didn’t obey God’s order to kill the Moabites, God would kill more Israelites. You know what a temper he has.
M. Carpenter: You must have noticed that God has more than one voice in the Torah. There’s the angry jealous God, the God of justice, and the God of mercy. Remember back in the book of Exodus when you talked the jealous God-character into giving up his plans for revenge against the Israelites, and extending mercy instead?3
Moses: I asked for mercy for the Israelites. Mercy for the Moabites is different.
M. Carpenter: Is it?
- Numbers 25:6-9.
- Numbers 25:10-13.
- Numbers 31:16.
- Exodus 32:7-14.