Friday, April 18, 2008

The War Crimes Begin: Numbers 31

This post is part of a Biblical commentary sponsored by the Church of the Orange Sky.

I know it's anachronistic but I'm not sure what to call it. It sounds silly accusing the Biblical people of atrocities, but that's what they are, and tellingly, on this occasion God is notably silent in the narrative until it comes to counting the booty at the end.

God decides that it's time to "take revenge" on the Midianites, a strange turn of phrase given than a few chapters ago this was supposed to have been done already. On his own initiative, Moses organizes a provisional army of 12 000 men in 12 divisions, and "sends them into battle," accompanied by priest Phineas.

The army attacks Midian and wins easily, killing "every man." Among the victims are the five Midianite kings and, ironically, Balaam of Beor. God lets his prophet be killed by his people, it seems. The fact that Balaam gets put to the sword might be a hint that this mission has reached unauthorized extremes, or it might simply be that God really doesn't give a damn about non-Israelite prophets, even after he went to the trouble of intimate conversation the Israelites themselves are supposedly unworthy of. After the men are dead, they kidnap all the women and children, and plunder the herds and flocks and towns and so on. All the loot is carried back to the main Isrealite encampment.

What follows is highly dubious. God hasn't yet given any blanket genocidal commands, at least not explicitly (he will later, I suspect), but on this occasion Moses takes it upon himself to issue the commands anyways. He is furious that the soldiers allowed the Midianite women to survive. He foolishly claims that Balaam was responsible for the Israelites losing their faith a few chapters ago, something which Numbers itself would appear to contradict. To straighten the matter out, Moses orders that all boys and women be killed. The troops may keep virgin girls alive, if they wish. Moses seems to realize this is a dubious affair even as he gives the orders; he requires that all the killing be done away from the camp and that the murderers stay away for a week, and then have themselves purified before rejoining Israelite civil society.

The priesthood - and, by extension, God - are elated by the profitable expedition. Eleazar orders all the gold, silver, bronze, iron, tin and lead loot purified, and then they divvy up the proceeds: half is divided among the community, half to the 12 000 soldiers. The soldiers must give 1 out of every 500 animals and persons captured to the priesthood - interestingly, the tax on war profiteering is considerably less than the tithe tax on legitimate economic activity. Later, the army commanders collect all the jewelry looted and offer it to the priesthood as thanks for having a fatality-free battle. The priesthood also collects all gold items - which in total weighed about 400 pounds.

In total, the Israelites get about a million animals and 32 000 virgins. The genocide of the Midianites has apparently been a most profitable affair, and all conducted on a very dubious pretext. God says the Midianites harmed the Israelites, but in reality it was the Moabites who did so. Moses blames Balaam, which is most curious because Balaam, despite the incident with the talking donkey, generally acquitted himself pretty well. He followed God's orders at every turn, and has been repeatedly punished for it. The Israelites - and even God - seem more interested in slaughtering foreigners for their women and treasure than they do about any real semblance of justice.