“The Massacre of the Midianites: Does Judaism Countenance Genocide?”
(Updated and revised from Matot-Masei 5763-2003)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

At the conclusion of parashat Balak, (Numbers 25), we were informed that Balaam finally realizes that the Jews could not be defeated by his curses or even by overwhelming military might. So, Balaam resorts to the old time-tested method of defeating the Jews–he calls upon the Midianite women to seduce the Jewish men. This, of course, provokes G-d’s wrath, resulting in the death of 24,000 Jewish men in a plague.

In the first of this week’s two parashiot, parashat Matot, G-d tells Moses to mobilize the Jewish soldiers and exact vengeance upon the Midianites. Parenthetically, despite the fact that Moses is told that upon the completion of this mission he will die, Moses does not hesitate, and quickly attends to G-d’s command.

One thousand soldiers from each of the 12 tribes are dispatched, and all the male Midianites are killed, including the prophet Balaam. The women, children, and the flocks, however, are spared.

Moses expresses anger at the officers, demanding to know why they allowed the female Midianites to live, after all, the Midianite women had been so instrumental in Israel’s sinfulness. Moses then instructs the army to kill all the surviving male children, and any Midianite woman who had lain with a man.

After a brief interlude in which the Torah deals with the issue of kashering the looted utensils, a full account is taken of the booty. G-d instructs the people how to properly divide the spoils, giving the greatest share to the soldiers who fought in the battle, who put their lives on the line.

Although students of the Torah often encounter difficult parshiot and complex concepts, this particular parasha is especially challenging. After all, how can the children of Israel, who are known in Rabbinic literature (based on Beitzah 32b), as רַחֲמָנִים בְּנֵי רַחֲמָנִים , “compassionate people, descendants of compassionate people,” simply kill women and children?

The rabbis of old were troubled by this as well. They provided insight into this issue by insisting that the Jewish army is indeed a compassionate army. Maimonides elucidates this contention in his Mishna Torah, Laws of Kings, Chapter 6:1 & 4. Citing the verse from Deuteronomy 20:10, וְקָרָאתָ אֵלֶיהָ לְשָׁלוֹם—You shall call out to her [the enemy city] in peace, Maimonides posits that the Jewish army must always call out to its enemies in peace. Even the seven native Canaanite nations, whom G-d commanded to annihilate–man, woman, child, and cattle, must first be given the opportunity to surrender and accept Jewish dominion. If they refuse, only then, may they be attacked.

The reasoning behind this is that Jewish law assumes that the Canaanite people are “non-Noahides,” who do not even abide by the seven fundamental Noahide commandments, which Judaism considers to be the lowest-common-denominator of “civilization:” Belief in a monotheistic Deity, prohibition of blasphemy, murder, theft, adultery, eating an animal’s limb while yet alive, and the injunction to set up basic courts of law. A people that cannot abide by even these basic precepts, cannot live alongside the Jewish people or even with non-Jews who do adhere to the Noahide principles. Hence, if the non-civilized enemies refuse the overtures of the Israelites to live in peace and accept the Noahide principles, they may be attacked. Nevertheless, even when they may be attacked, Jewish law mandates that they may not be completely surrounded in battle, but that at least one escape route must be left open for those who wish to flee.

Especially because we live in an exceptionally tolerant society, we must not allow ourselves to become, as Lionel Trilling put it, “so open-minded that our brains fall out!” Moral societies require minimum standards of civilization to properly function. Society cannot simply operate under conditions of moral or ethical anarchy, and barbaric behavior by our neighbors, cannot be countenanced.

Judaism aspires for the day when all of G-d’s children will recognize the monotheistic G-d and hopes for a time when the entire world will be established under the Al-mighty’s dominion.

Optimally, this transformation to universal morality is to be accomplished through persuasion, exposure and education, rather than through coercion or war. Unfortunately, this is not always possible, especially when confronted by people who do not accept even the basic tenets of discourse and intellectual exchange. There comes a point where only power, indeed military power, becomes a pragmatic and effective response. However, before resorting to that regrettable alternative, we must be certain that all other means of persuasion have been exhausted. Judaism does not wish to harm any human being. Consequently, if the enemy wishes to flee and establish residence far away from the Jewish people, and other moral non-Jews, they are encouraged to do so.

As difficult as this law may appear, the alternative is far worse. As the Midrash Rabbah on Ecclesiastes 7:16 states: “Those who are compassionate at a time when theyshould be cruel, will ultimately be cruel at a time that calls for compassion.” Establishing a moral world order is hardly an easy task. In the effort to achieve utopia, painful decisions must be made. As hard as it may be, we are not free to walk away from this responsibility, and we must labor diligently to accomplish this sacred task.

May you be blessed.