July 10, 2009

Matot: A Path to Follow

What’s the beef with Midian?

Following Midianite appearances in the Torah is an interesting path:

In Genesis/Breishit 25:2, Midian is listed as one of the sons of Abraham and his second wife Keturah (whom some identify with Hagar). The narrative makes clear that the story will continue to follow Isaac, whom Abraham “wills all that he had.” But Abraham’s other offspring are sent off with “gifts,” and there is no negative description of Keturah’s children.

In Exodus/Shemot chapter 2, Moses flees Egypt to Midian. There he meets Jethro (Yitro), who many times is identified as “the priest of Midian” (e.g., 3:16). Moses marries Jethro’s daughter, Zipporah, and lives peacefully among the Midianites for many years, leaving only when called by God to particular service in Egypt (not to get away from Midian). Jethro is mentioned favorably several more times, later in the Exodus story, giving Moses advice, sharing sacrificial food with Moses and Aaron, etc.

In Numbers/Bamidbar chapter 22, Midianites join with Moabites in hiring Balaam to curse the Israelites. At the close of that episode, “while Israel was staying at Shittim, the people profaned themselves by whoring with the Moabite women.” (25:1) Then, “one of the Israelites came and brought a Midianite woman over to his companions, in the sight of Moses and of the whole Israelite community, who were weeping at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.” (25:6). The priest Pinchas kills them both — they are identified as Zimri son of Salu, of the house of Simeon, and Cozbi, daughter of Zur, a trial head in Midian. Then:

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: “Assail the Midianites and defeat them — for they assailed you by the trickery they practiced against you — because of the affair of Peor and because of the affair of their kinswoman Cozbi, daughter of the Midianite chieftain, who was killed at the time of the plague on account of Peor.” (Numbers/Bamidbar 25:16-18 — JPS translation)

As the book of Numbers/Bamidbar closes, Moses is told that his last act before being gathered to his kin is to “avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites” (31:1-2). A massacre — in which only females who have not “known a man” are saved — ensues.

Robert Alter calls this latter episode “bloodcurdling” and says that “attempts of the interpreters, traditional and modern, to ‘explain’ it invariably lead to strained apologetics….It is painfully evident that this is an instance in which the biblical outlook sadly failed to transcend its historical contexts.” (From a comment to verse 31:17 in Alter’s translation of The Five Books of Moses)


Does the change of relationship between Midian and Israel represent
a continuous story line?
conflicting traditions?
historical changes of attitude to inter-mingling and inter-marriage?
something specific to Moses’ relationship with his wife and with Israel?

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Bamidbar, Community, Ethics

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