Wibble Wednesday: Don’t Split the Party! (Numbers 30:2–32:42)

This week I’m writing about פָּרָשַׁת מטות (“Tribes” portion), which is a rather short one, in which the Israelite nation finally conquers the first of the lands they intend to settle: namely, Transjordan. I’m back at the family home, so this writing is informed not by my usual JPS Tanakh, but by the Fox translation and WRJ commentary.

The quick snarky summary: A couple of laws are shoehorned in before we get back to the narrative, and then we have a massive, divinely sanctioned genocide. Moses gets pissy that they’re not killing indiscriminately enough, and then we get unusually detailed descriptions of the spoils of war. Finally, in spite of not actually being in Israel, two of the tribes want to settle down immediately, and do.


Chapter 30 says in many words what could be said in few: namely, that men, if they swear an oath (presumably of a specific type whose name in Hebrew has connotative shading which is not easily conveyed in translation), are morally incontrovertibly bound by it, while women can have their oaths overruled by their male guardians. It’s a bit of gender retrogression to counterbalance the business of Tzelefchad’s daughters inheriting property in the last parsha, I suppose. Naturally, the WRJ commentary is pretty detailed on this, along more or less the lines I expected. Bear in mind that in ancient Israel, women were not generally propertyholders, and didn’t actually have the autonomy to make vows relating to their behavior. In that light, every vow a young woman could make would concern something belonging not to her, but to her father (whether she promised property, which is his, or promised behavior on her part, which is dispensing with something which is also presumed to be his), so that if it comes to her father’s attention, he has the right to refuse to fulfill it. The WRJ commentators, anxious not to express this practice in too unfavorable a light, notes that the woman at least has the recognized authority to make vows, even if they can be countermanded. I reckon that’s worth maybe half a progressiveness point. Also, it’s worth noting that the father’s objection must be immediate for the vow to be invalidated.

Marriage adds some complications, of course. After marriage a woman was transferred from her father’s guardianship to her husband’s, so the same basic idea holds for husbands. There’s a specific nuptial transitional case to be addressed: namely, if she made a vow before marrying, and her father didn’t object at the time, and she then marries, does her husband have the power to annul? The answer is apparently “yes”, as long as he does so promptly on learning about the vow. In all other respects, the laws for married women are basically the same as those for unmarried women, just with a different guardian.

One odd difference between the two cases which I’m inclined to think is just an editorial quirk is that verse 30:16 suggests that it is possible, if undesirable, for a man to annul his wife’s vow at a later date rather than immediately, but that in doing so he “incurs her guilt”. Oddly for a work so specific and nitpicky, the text does not provide the same option to fathers, which kind of suggests that fathers don’t have this privilege.

This set of descriptions of women leaves out a couple obvious groups: widows, divorcees, orphans, and independent unmarried women. The first two are explicitly granted responsibility for their own vows, like men are. The other two aren’t described at all — I assume the Biblical stance is that an orphan would have some male guardian and that a young woman should not be independent, but both orphans without male guardians and women who had to make their own way in the world probably happened.

Next up, in Chapter 31, is the instruction to wage war on Midian. In the last parsha I was a bit dubious as to why Midian was in the hot seat, seeing as how it was Moab, a completely different nation, that had induced Israel to idol-worship. My money is on “clumsy redaction of variant stories”, but in any case, the Israelites go ahead, take the field with an army of 12,000 men, rout the Midianites, slaughter the men, and execute their kings, as well as good old Baalam, who didn’t even figure into this stury until now, but is about to be blamed for everything.

So, anyways, the victorious Israelite army brings home an enormous herd of livestock and a bevy of women, and Moses gets a bit tetchy about the latter. Now, back in Numbers 25, the mingling with foreign women and idolworship appeared in close textual context to each other, so some connection’s presumably meant to be drawn, and that becomes explicit here, because Moses holds the Midianite women responsible for that disaster. He also claims specifically that they were instigated by Balaam, which is the first time that’s mentioned. Either way, all the non-virgins are slaughtered.

This is all pretty horrific but mostly I’m struck by the weird inconsistencies with the story told thus far, in which it was Moabites instead of Midianites, and in which Balaam played no part. Again, this suggests that there was at some point a variant form of the story which was a continuation of Balaam’s activities and which featured Midianites. That version of the story probably made more sense.

The briefly described war with the Midianites wraps up with rules for distributiong the spoils. First off, everything has to be cleansed, of course, because Midianites have cooties which can only be purified with fire or water. The spoils are then divided evenly between the warriors and the community as a whole, with a complicated taxation system skimming different proportions off the top of each portion for the priesthood. Grotesquely, the virgins are counted in among the livestock, which probably pushes this parsha way back into the red on progressiveness.

At this point in the story Israel has actually made significant conquests, having razed the kingdoms of Amor, Bashan, and a Midianite or maybe Moabite outpost. They are, for the first time in their history, in command of actually habitable land, so some of the tribes are understandably impatient to settle. Reuben and Gad suggest that they split off and settle these new lands, a proposal Moses receives with distrust, fearing that his fighting force will be reduced before he even gets into Canaan proper. This winds down into a lengthy series of negotiations in which everyone actually seems to already be agreed, in which the Reubenites and Gadites volunteer to complete the conquest of the land before returning to these areas, although they will leave their women and children to settle the land.

This seems like a terrible idea, since they’re leaving a completely defenseless settlement behind, which seems to invite slaughter, but the obvious massacre doesn’t actually occur, I don’t think. There’s mention of them settling fortified towns, but nothing about leaving a garrison, and the negotiations with Moses seem to suggest that every man fit for military service is being retained for the war across the Jordan.

A couple odd quirks poke out at the end of this chapter. First, the conditions in 32:30 seem to be exactly the opposite of what I would expect: if the Reubenites and Gadites broke their word, wouldn’t they be dispossessed, instead of being granted a regular share of the Canaanite conquest? Another element out of left field is the inclusion from verse 33 onwards (and, in fact, in all subsequent discussions of divisions of the land) of half of the tribe of Manasseh with Reuben and Gad in the Transjordan settlement force. Manasseh wasn’t involved in the earlier discussion, so I’m not sure what they’re doing in the outcome of the negotiation.

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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