Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

Vengeance and Vindication in Numbers 31

Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

Vengeance and Vindication in Numbers 31

Article excerpt

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The story of Moses's birth amid Israel's "ruthless" oppression in Egypt is one of the best known in the Hebrew Bible, thanks in part to Pharaoh's heartless command "Every son that is born you shall throw into the Nile, but every daughter you may allow to live" (Exod 1:22).1 Yet there is another "slaughter of the innocents" that has received far less notice. In Num 31 we meet Moses at the end of his life (v. 2b), commanded by YHWH to "avenge the Israelites on the Midianites" (v. 2a), according to the NRSV. Moses's own wife was a Midianite (Exod 2:15-22, Num 10:29-32); but not only does Moses send an army against them (Num 31:3-12), he even angrily objects to the preservation of the captives after the battle (31:13-16). Like Pharaoh, Moses now demands that they also "kill every male among the children, and kill every woman who has known a man..., but every child among the women ... keep alive for yourselves" (31:17-18). Unlike Exod 1-2, Num 31 raises no lament over the fate of these women and children and tells no tales of their miraculous escape. "Vengeance," it appears, has been served. But has it?

In Num 31:16, Moses justifies his command by appealing to the Midianites' role in the apostasy and plague recounted in Num 25, and commentators have generally accepted that explanation and concluded that the text portrays the utter destruction of Midian as the fulfillment of YHWH's call for "vengeance."2 Horst Seebass has questioned that consensus, noting that the slaughter of the Midianite women and boys is nowhere granted explicit divine sanction and asking whether this implies a "distance" over against Moses's command.3 Seebass does not commit to that line, but there is a great deal of evidence to support it. Through an examination of the chapter's overall structure and reuse of earlier traditions, I will argue that Num 31 as a whole portrays Moses's demands in vv. 13-18 as an extension beyond YHWH's requirements, not as their fulfillment.

Numbers 31 does not simply recount a historical event; it reapplies and reformulates a wide range of earlier biblical legislation in novel and surprising ways.4 While critical English-language scholarship has often considered the chapter Priestly,5 its reinterpretations not only of Priestly but also of Deuteronomic and other traditions suggest that its final form is late and post-Priestly, as German scholarship has long recognized.6 In particular, Moses's command to execute the Midianite women and boys will be seen to reinterpret both YHWH's command in 31:2-already fulfilled in 31:7-and the war regulations in Deut 20:10-15, which are closely followed in Num 31:7-12. Similarly, this whole sequence of divine command, fulfillment, and extension in 31:1-18 is paralleled in the second half of the chapter, where a voluntary gift to the sanctuary by "the officers" in 31:48-54 also goes beyond YHWH's commands regarding the distribution of the plunder in 31:25-30, which are explicitly fulfilled in 31:31-47. Like Moses's demand, the officers' gift lacks explicit divine approval, and its reapplication of the census regulations in Exod 30:11-16 is no less innovative than Moses's reinterpretation of Deut 20.

Yet these two extensions beyond YHWH's command are not simply parallel; they are set in contrast. They embody two very different responses to the threat of apostasy and plague, the former focused on the enemy, the latter on Israel itself. This reflects a tension first introduced between YHWH's initial call for "vengeance" (...) in 31:2 and Moses's reformulation of it in 31:3. Though the two verses are generally assumed to be equivalent, they are not. Moses's restatement emphasizes YHWH's ... on (...) Midian, but YHWH's own command highlights Israel's ... from (...) the Midianites. As Jacob Milgrom notes, the two expressions carry distinct nuances: Moses's indicates retribution or punishment on the enemy, but, despite the usual translations, YHWH's probably calls for the vindication or redress of Israel itself. …

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