Those who study the Torah portion day-by-day came across the most stunning line (Num. 31:17-18) yesterday, which a furious Moses addresses to the Israelite officers (chiliarchs and centurions, if you want to get technical) upon their returning from the Midianite War with captives:
And now kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that has
known man by lying of a male; but all the women children, that have not known
lying of a male, keep alive for yourselves.
As I see it, there are three issues here:
It's easy enough to quibble over the specifics of terms which
might have been offered to Amalekites and Canaanites. One can also understand
the fog of war, in which distinguishing between combatants and civilians may be
extremely difficult and dangerous. However, this execution of the Midianite
boys is not happening on the battlefield, or even at the battlefield. It
happens right outside the Israelite camp. The man who was saved from a decree
of "Cast into the Nile every boy born, but keep alive every girl" is
now applying the very same (except now including the mothers and big sisters).
Now, the Torah does not state that this was carried out, even though it very
meticulously catalogs the execution of the rest of the orders. I'm not sure if
that is a mitigating factor, considering the next element.
Yes, we know that ancient peoples kept slaves, and this was true for Jews as
well, at least into early Talmudic times. Still, there is a world of difference
between the laws of keeping slaves in Exodus and Leviticus and the cruel
calculus here. 32,000 virgin girls--so that's 16,000 each to the soldiers and
the citizens, with the latter paying a 2% tax to the Levites and the former
paying a 0.2% tax to God.
And the persons were sixteen thousand; of which the LORD's tribute was
thirty and two persons. And Moses gave the tribute, which was the LORD's heave
offering, to Eleazar the priest, as the LORD commanded Moses.
Heave indeed. Eleazar, colleague and nephew of Moses, gets 32 virgin
slavegirls, Midianitesses like his Aunt Zipporah. The Levites had to split 320
among their half-dozen families, and one wonders how many the Amramites, i.e.
Moses' sons, got to take home to Mom. ("What, you're from Rekem? I'm from
But perhaps the most confounding is the textual-sexual issue:
You see, what we have translated "lying of a male" is actually
mishkav zakhar in the original, which is ironically used in Mishnaic Hebrew
to refer to sex between males. What exactly is it supposed to mean here? When
the Torah discusses sex between males (Lev. 18:22, 20:13), the term used is
"mishkevei isha," lit. "lyings of a woman." Is it
significant that mishkav zakhar is singular and uses a term of gender,
while mishkevei isha is plural and uses a term of personhood? Are we to
take the former to refer to all heterosexual intercourse and the latter to
refer to all homosexual intercourse? Or perhaps mishkav zakhar refers to
vaginal intercourse ("lying of a male" thus referring to the kind of
sex only women can have) and mishkevei isha to anal intercourse
("lyings of a woman" thus referring to the only type of sex you don't
need women for)? Does any of this change how we read the prohibition in
I'm starting to wonder if Tosafot (Megilla 31b) are wrong: maybe we
combine Mattot and Masei not to get the bad stuff out of the way
before year's end, but so that we can bury the lead.