Should the Genocide of the Midianites be Kept in Torah?

In Numbers 31, in Parashat Mattot, we read what I consider probably the most horrifying and disgusting chapter of Torah: the genocide of the Midianites. If you can read it without puking, wash out your mouth and your brain. YHWH allegedly demands, Moshe allegedly orders, and the Israelite people allegedly carries out, the murder of every Midianite except girls too young to have had sex with a man, and they are taken as slaves.

For years, I wondered why we still read it. Burn it already, cleanse the Torah!!  Then a few years ago I realized a reason to keep it.  It says to us, NO people is immune from committing genocide. Not us the Jews, not us the Americans, not whatever "us" we are. If we read it with that kavanah and ONLY with that kavanah, then it is valuable to read. Our disgust is the crucial midrash. 

It warns us: Be careful. If someone accuses you of genocide, look into the situation. Do not answer, "That's absurd! How could we, victims of gemocide, do sucha  thing. You are lying!"

Look again. The Torah says we did do such a thing. We, the victims of Pharaoh's attempt at genocide, heard the God we celebrate, the Breath of Life, tell us to murder an entire people.  And the Torah says our Maximum Hero, Moses, did not protest. And we did it.  

So this means, If someone accuses you of genocide,  instead of dismissing the charge out of hand, investigate. Listen to the evidence. If you are even on the edge, not in the hellish stew, step back. Take steps to make sure you are not even close. 

And read the Torah again with gladness that the story is there. If the ancient story were not there, the present/ future action would be more likely.

Haftarah Mattot: Jeremiah 1, translated by Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Rabbi Arthur Waskow


Words of Yermi-yahu [Jeremiah] son of Chilki-yahu, of the clan of priests in Anathoth in the district of Benjamin, as the Breath of Life spoke through him in the days of Yoshi-yahu [Josiah] son of Ammon king of Yehudah, in the thirteenth year of his kingship, and as it came also in the days of Yeho-yakeym, son of Yoshi-yahu king of Yehudah, until the end of the eleventh year of Tzidki-yahu, son of Yoshi-yahu, king of Yehudah, until the exile of Yerushalyim in the fifth month.

And so the Breath of Life spoke through me, saying

Subscribe to RSS - Mattot