Moshe Rabbeinu’s anger against the officers in the war against Midian, conveyed in Bamidbar 31:14-16, would seem to be quite understandable. God’s command to Moshe was for the nation to take vengeance against Midian for causing the Jewish People to rebel against God, with the subsequent consequence of a plague engulfing Israel, as presented in Bamidbar 25:1-9. As Rashi, Bamidbar 31:16 explains, this rebellion was expressed through promiscuity as the Midianite and Moabite1 women seduced the men of Israel. Thus, letting the women, those who specifically caused the harm, live would seem to be contradictory to the very purpose of the war. The war’s purpose was to punish those who led Israel to sin. The women were the ones who specifically did this and, yet, the soldiers allowed them to live.2 No wonder Moshe was angry.
There, however, is a slight problem with this understanding. This approach would actually make total sense pursuant to the straightforward reading of Bamidbar 31:17 which seems to imply that only the women who actually had had relations with men were to be killed.3 T.B. Yevamot 60b, however, maintains, building on the language of Bamidbar 31:18, that the directive was not just to kill any woman who had relations but, rather, to kill any woman who was capable of having relations whether she had done so or not. Given the argument we presented above as to why it was specifically wrong to exempt the women from punishment, why would the directive include killing the adult women who did not have relations? Furthermore, why would Moshe have been angry that the soldiers allowed the adult virgins to live? These women obviously were not a factor in the Jewish men sinning through promiscuity.
Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, Emet L’Yaakov, Bamidbar 31:15 explains that indeed Moshe was only angry in regard to the fact that the soldiers kept alive the women who had had relations with men. This, the soldiers should have figured out on their own – that these women were, within this context, deserving of death. Moshe then added a new law, that all the women capable of having relations, although they had not done so, should also be killed. This, the soldiers would not have known and thus Moshe was not angry with them for having kept these women alive. The new directive, however, was also to kill them. The obvious question is why.
Rav Yaakov maintains that there are actually two separate issues here, touching upon two distinct understandings of the purpose of war (although clearly not the only reasons for war). One is to punish. The second is as a reaction to heresy in that such death in war is a consequence to actions that were undertaken in rebellion against God. To clarify this latter case, Rav Yaakov uses the case of the ir hanidachat [the city of idolaters].4 In the case of the ir hanidachat we also find a directive to kill all within the city – men, women and children.5 In this case, the war’s purpose is not specifically punishment but, rather, to avenge God’s honour in that there was a (Jewish) city on this Earth devoted idolatry. Such a city must be obliterated from this world and so the destruction may include those who may not technically be deserving of punishment. So it was with this war against Midian. It was a war to avenge God’s honour, not just to punish, and so its call was also to kill the adult virgins and the male children.6
Paradoxically, it would seem, Rav Yaakov then also applies this thought to further explain Moshe’s anger. By leaving the women alive, the soldiers thought that this was like any regular war in which women (non-combatants) should not be targeted. The people were already told, though, that this was a war of nekama [vengeance] which demands full destruction and so Moshe was angry that the soldiers did not act appropriately. The problem is, however, that Rav Yaakov already stated that Moshe was only angry that the soldiers kept the women who had relations alive. If the issue was not correctly applying the principles of a war to avenge God’s honour, should he not have been angry with keeping any of the women alive?
Why was Moshe specifically angry that the soldiers kept the women deserving punishment alive? Our assumption would seem to be that the soldiers should have known better from their own reasoning. Moshe’s anger emerged because the soldiers simply, should have known better. By extension, it would also seem, a determination that a war should be one of punishment could be one reached by human beings through reason. The soldiers should have thus understood the purpose of this war and acted appropriately. Their failure in doing so is what angered Moshe. Moshe’s statement that this was a war of nekama would seem not to have been a factor in this.
The challenge is that Rav Yaakov then writes that Moshe was specifically angered because the soldiers were told that this was a war of vengeance. Such a recognition, though, would seem to demand the execution of all the adult women so why would Moshe be angry only in that they did not kill the women deserving of punishment? It may be, though, that even the categorization of a war as one of punishment can only be made with an explicit Divine declaration of such. If so, without any declaration that this was a war of nekama, there never would have been an assumption in any way that non-combatants, including the non-virgin women, should be targeted. It was only the Divine statement that this was a war of vengeance that could have initiated an understanding that the punishment of those who wronged Israel was also to be a consideration in this war.
Moshe could understand that the soldiers did not recognize that this declaration that this was a war of nekama would include the execution of the adult virgins. The fact that it was, at least, a call for punishment, though, could not be ignored. This is what angered Moshe; the soldiers then not, as God demanded, executing the non-virgins who were deserving of this punishment.
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht
1 As to why God did not also demand vengeance against the Moabites, see Rashi, Bamidbar 31:2.
2 For an interesting reason as to why the soldiers may have done so, see Meshech Chochmah, Bamidbar 31:14.
3 See Ntziv, HaEmek Davar, Bamidbar 31:17,18 who applies this simple approach to the verses (although still noting the gemara).
4 See Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Avodat Kochavim, chapter 5 specifically 5:6.
5 A presentation of the actual rules regarding an ir hanidachat is clearly beyond the parameters of this Insight however it should be noted that, as is often found with Torah law, there is, in this matter, a distinction between the general statement of law and its application in detail. For our purposes, the idea is that in such a case there is a theoretical call to kill all within the city – including children – even though they, by definition, did not sin.
6 As to why the female children were exempt from death, see Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, Bamidbar 31:17,18. This would be a distinction between the call of revenge in this war and this call in the case of ir hanidachat which Rabbi Hirsch’s theory could somewhat explain. Applying it to Rav Yaakov’s theory, though, is slightly difficult leaving us somewhat with the question of the female children in regard to Rav Yaakov. .
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