“Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites” (Num. 31:2) is followed by a detailed description of the campaign of the Israelites against the Midianites.
The Torah attempts to explain the reason for this war, pointing to Numbers 25:5 and the sexual encounter between an Israelite and a Midianite woman. The Israelites had fallen to the worship of Baal-Peor under the influence of Moabite women. But why are the Midianites put to the sword?
There seems to be great fluidity in using tribal affiliations: the story here switches between Moabites and Midianites, and the tribe who sold Josef as a slave is identified in Genesis as both Ishmaelite and Midianite (Gen. 37). Little importance is put on keeping the records straight on who did what and why. This leads me to believe that this account of the war against Midian is not about revenge at all but something else.
It always occurred to me as peculiar that the Torah switched attitudes toward the Midianites so drastically. Remember: in Exodus 2, Moses finds refuge in the tents of Midian after a narrow escape from Egypt. He is welcomed into the home of the priest Jethro and given one of his daughters in marriage. Moses remains with them, according to Midrash Tanhuma (Parashat Shemot, siman 8) for 40 years. Here he sees the birth of his first son, Gershom. This is a peculiar name, based on the root of ger (stranger), as if Moses recognized that he still didn’t really belong and was a stranger both in the land of his birth, Egypt, as well as in the land of Midian. A short while later, he is called back to Egypt by God. And this is not the last time we will encounter Jethro. He appears again in Exodus 18:7 and comes to pay a visit on his son-in-law in the camp of the Israelites: “Moses went out to meet his father-in-law; he bowed low and kissed him; and each asked after the other’s welfare.” Jethro then advises Moses on matters of leadership, advice that Moses desperately needed at that point.
Forty years later, though, Moses commands an almost complete annihilation of the Midianites. What happened during those 40 years? According to some interpretations, those years were necessary for the Israelites to shed their slave mentality and to become a nation. And it is in light of this that we might be able to understand what happened in Numbers 31. Reading Benedict Anderson’s fabulous book Imagined Communities, and with an eye to the French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas’s ethical thought of the “other,” it seems that we are dealing here with a transformation from fluid concepts of identity to the formation of a cultural, religious, ethnic, and national identity.
In the very early stages of Israel’s identity formation, Jethro was an outsider who was welcomed into the Israelite community. Borders were still shifting: we see this in the Torah’s description of the Exodus. Not only the Israelites left but also “a mixed multitude” (Exod. 12:38). Who is “in” and who is “out” is not yet clearly defined; the attitude toward strangers is based on the precise circumstances of the encounter and not on principled positions.
“Others” play an important role in how individuals and groups form identities. It is by defining us against the “other” and differentiating between “us” and “them” that we come to understand ourselves. The sheer presence of “others” becomes a unifying aspect to the group over time. Levinas expresses this in his book Time and the Other: “The ‘I’ is not initially existent but a mode of existing itself that, properly speaking, does not exist.” For Levinas, the experience of self-awareness emerges with the encounter and in opposition to the other, an explanation that is shared by sociologists.
We see a gradual shift: the same way that Moses becomes more established in his role as leader of the Israelites and eventually sends Jethro away, so too the identity of the Israelites as a separate group emerges and attitudes toward outsiders change—there is a clearer definition of who belongs and who doesn’t.
Up to a certain moment during identity formation, it is possible to become part of a group. Once that identity is formed, the same group suddenly has a tendency to become exclusive and to shut itself up against further “infiltration” by others. This reluctance is not only based on economic considerations, but also on an increased internal sense of “self” and a resistance to absorbing more “outsiders.” It suddenly becomes important to leave others outside in order to confirm the uniqueness of one’s own group.
Since the creation of the State of Israel, there has been a widening gap between Israeli identity and non-Israeli Jewish identity, and it is now not uncommon for Israelis to identify themselves as “Israeli” rather than “Jewish” and for some Jews in Europe and North America to feel increasingly disconnected from Israel. We can also see a progressively insular view of identity among some ultra-Orthodox circles, which leads to the rejection and demonization of secular or “liberal” Jews. Some fear that this is the beginning of a split, the beginning of “otherness.”
Which brings us back to the end of this week’s parashah: the tribes of Reuben and Gad (and the half-tribe of Manasse) request to receive their portion east of the Jordan; Moses finally agrees. After fulfilling their promise to help with the conquest of the Promised Land, the tribes return to their settlements east of the Jordan. In Joshua 22, we suddenly learn that the other tribes are preparing to go to war against the tribes of Reuben and Gad. The reason is an altar that Reuben and Gad had built on the east side of the Jordan, which caused suspicion that they had abandoned God. Here is the reply that Reuben and Gad gave in Joshua 22:24−25: “We did this thing only out of our concern that, in time to come, your children might say to our children, ‘What have you to do with the Lord, the God of Israel? The Lord has made the Jordan a boundary between you and us, O Reubenites and Gadites; you have no share in the Lord!’”
The tribes of Reuben and Gad were aware of the danger of separation and did their utmost to ensure that they would not become “other.” There is a fine line between building identity by recognizing what unites us with those around us and building identity that differentiates us from others and brings estrangement. In its extreme, the latter has led from openness toward the Midianites to their exclusion and rejection as completely “other.”
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.