Charmed, I’m Sure: Wizardry, Women and War in the Book of Numbers

16 02 2015

Yesterday I had the pleasure of presenting my fourth paper (?) at an AAJS Conference, held this time at the University of New South Wales. I was a last-minute stand-in, since one of the registrants had cancelled and, as such, I was able once more to enjoy the experience of hastily cobbling together a synopsis in time for the programme to go to print, and then labouring over the construction of a paper that might both satisfy that synopsis and the general expectations of the discipline. I cannot say whether or not I succeeded in the second of those two aims, but I at least succeeded in the first of them.

My paper (the title of which introduces this post) was concerned with a series of narratives in the book of Numbers, which culminated in what might be termed a “holy war” against the Midianites. My concern with the last of those passages (Numbers 31) was two-fold: I was interested in establishing the ideological goals of the text, and in considering why that story (which might have featured for its enemy any number of different nations) was presented as being one about the Midianites in particular.

We know from archaeological evidence that Midian came into existence at some point in the 13th century BCE in the Northern Hejaz region of Saudi Arabia, which is just east of the Gulf of Aqaba – effectively where Eilat is today, extending both westward and southward, and but a little bit south of where the Moabites dwelt at the time when our story is set. Interactions between Midianites and Moabites are recorded in a few instances – both negatively (as in Genesis 36:35, where the Edomite king, Hadad, is said to have defeated the Midianites in the plains of Moab) and positively (as when Midianites and Moabites unite in Numbers 22 to secure the services of Balaam).

The proximity of the Midianites to the land of Israel is such that we might expect them to feature in a number of texts (as we find, for example, with the Edomites, Moabites and Ammonites) and so it perhaps comes as something of a surprise that they are really only mentioned a handful of times.

In some instances, the Midianites appear as active characters within a story, advancing the plot and participating in it, while at others they are incidental features of a narrative: part of the backdrop, if you will. It is Midianite traders, we are told, who were responsible for raising Joseph from the pit and selling him to a caravan of Ishmaelites, and it was to Midian that Moses fled after having murdered an Egyptian taskmaster. While the Midianites in that former narrative play no further part in the Joseph saga, the Midianites who feature in the subsequent text become active characters whose role in the Moses story is somewhat… complicated.

Moses, of course, marries a Midianite woman and develops a strong and positive relationship with her father. He is referred to, throughout the book of Exodus, primarily as Jethro, but when he reappears in the book of Numbers it is as Chovav. We are told on several occasions that he is a Midianite priest, and the context in which this information is conveyed would seem to suggest that it is information favourable to him.

He offers Moses good advice that the latter is quick to heed and joins up with the Israelites for a time, having heard of the wondrous things being done for them. So positively is this Midianite priest described that the rabbinic tradition came to look upon Jethro as a convert to Judaism, while some scholars have hypothesised that the worship of the Israelite god actually originated in Midian.

Not all references to the Midianites are so favourable. Together with Amalek, they are described in Judges 6ff as having oppressed Israel for several years; their subsequent defeat is alluded to in Psalm 83, and referred to on more than one occasion by the prophet Isaiah. Yet the most striking display of animosity towards these people is in the book of Numbers, and it is none other than Moses himself who leads the charge.

Numbers 22 describes Midianites and Moabites joining forces to secure the services of Balaam, a prophet-for-hire. They approach him with amulets, or charms (קסמים in the Hebrew). These are devices used for soothsaying or sorcery. The term is mentioned again, in Joshua’s review of Israelite history, when describing Balaam as a קוסם – a sorceror. It features a number of times throughout the biblical literature, and it is noteworthy that it only appears positively in one instance, and that is when Balaam declares in Numbers 23 that there is no קסם in Israel. Such cannot be said, of course, for Israel’s neighbours, who have approached Balaam with קסמים in the hope that he will curse them.

This passage marks the last reference to Midianites within the Balaam cycle. Their subsequent omission is strange, and one that Josephus attempts to correct by giving the Midianites a stronger part to play in his version of events. It is on the basis of their absence within the rest of the Balaam story that many see the reference to them at its beginning as an addition to the text, designed to link it with the events described later on in the same book.

Indeed, the Midianites resurface in Numbers 25, in which they feature in a tale of sexual and cultic infidelity that leaves some twenty-four thousand Israelites dead. In this passage, we are told that the Israelite men began to consort in a depraved manner with Moabite women. The verb employed here, לזנות, implies sexual debauchery. As a result of this, they then become “attached” to the service of a Moabite deity named Baal-Peor. The relationship between sexually liaising with Moabite women and becoming attached to this particular god lends itself to an interpretation of this god’s worship involving a sensual component – as was suggested by many earlier biblical commentators in particular.

Suddenly, an Israelite man brings a Midianite woman (not a Moabite woman) into his tent. We are subsequently told (after both she and he have been murdered) that her name was Kozbi and that her father was a Midianite chieftain. The name Kozbi, of course, is reminiscent of the Hebrew כזב, which means “false”, or “lying”, and which is a term associated several times in the book of Ezekiel with both sorcerors and sorcery. In this instance, its usage harmonises with the sudden command given by God to Moses: that he should harrass the Midianites, for they have conspired against the Israelites – a term that denotes deception and trickery; the notion that things were not really as they seem.

It is a fascinating feature of this narrative that the Moabites, who are likewise implicated in their use of magic, their hiring of Balaam, the sexual enticing of Israelite men and the worship of Baal-Peor are now dropped from the narrative altogether. The Midianites, who until this point have been a background feature of the text, now assume primary importance. It is they who are to blame for the transgressions of the Israelite men, and it is from them alone that vengeance is to be extracted.

The story continues, and concludes, in Numbers 31. Here, Moses is finally instructed to take revenge against the Midianites. He is also told that this is to be his final mission: אחר תאסף אל עמיך, “afterwards, you shall be gathered unto your people”. In a way, the story of Moses’ life has now come full circle, since his first mission was a quest that was imparted to him while he was residing in Midian. This passage is also linked to the previous Balaam narrative with a return of the itinerant prophet, who here meets a violent end, being driven through with a sword. The assertion that the Midianite women of Numbers 25 (note: they are here described as Midianite, not Moabite) acted “on Balaam’s instruction” likewise connects these various texts together.

The story is a bloody one, but it features strong parallels with various other biblical texts – particularly those that, unlike this one, utilise the term חרם. As with those passages, this one also speaks of putting cities to the fire and killing their inhabitants by the sword, but unlike most of the חרם texts, not everybody in this one is slated for annihilation.

It is in regards to this particular issue that we might note a striking contrast between Numbers 31 and 1 Samuel 15. In the latter text, Saul spares the Amalekite king together with the best of his livestock; he is rebuked for doing this, and the king is murdered. In the former passage (Numbers 31), the Israelite generals spare the Midianite women, children, livestock and wealth; they are rebuked for doing this, and Moses has the young boys murdered together with every woman who has ever been sexually active. Girls too young to have had sexual intercourse may be kept by the Israelites as spoils of war, together with the Midianite wealth – but only once the latter has been purified.

Another comparison might be made to the story in Judges 21. There, the Israelites go to war against the people of Jabesh-Gilead (a war carefully crafted around the flimsiest of rationales), slaughtering everybody except the virgin girls, who are then given to the men of the tribe of Benjamin. When the number of captured girls proves insufficient, they abandon all pretence of excuses and instruct the Benjaminites to simply steal women for themselves from the neighbouring town of Shiloh. This passage is thought by some to reflect on patriarchal concerns with biological purity and with the integrity of one’s bloodlines, as is evidenced by the need for the foreign men to be eradicated and for the captive women to be virgins.

While the war against Amalek permitted no survivors and no plundered wealth, the wars against Jabesh-Gilead and Midian both allow for the survival of certain girls, while the war against Midian allows also for the plundering of other property. Here as there, the booty is inherently tainted, but so long as the girls are too young to have had sexual intercourse and so long as the other property is ritually cleaned, this taint may be removed.

In Numbers 31, Moses berates his generals by referring specifically to the sexual misdeeds of the Midianite women. While a superficial reading of this passage might therefore lead us to suppose that pre-pubescent girls are spared on the grounds that they were innocent of the crimes of their sisters and mothers, it needs be noted that this same concession is not extended to infant boys (who were surely innocent of the crimes of the Midianite men). On the contrary, and at the risk of stating the obvious, the virgin girls are to be looked upon as property; their being virgins simply makes them property that is safe to claim. Little Midianite boys are, after all, Midianites; they are foreigners, in other words, and they remain forever threatening. Sexually active women have been branded by the enemy, but virginal girls are neither here nor there, and can be claimed.

As to how they might be claimed, we can consider in this context Deuteronomy 21, which describes the means by which a captive woman might actually become an Israelite. She needs to shave her head, pare her nails, change her clothes and mourn her parents, but so long as her captor has the patience for all of this she can now be legitimately his.

Susan Niditch puts it beautifully in an article titled “War, Women, and Defilement in Numbers 31” (Semeia 61, 1993). She observed that “the Hebrew scriptures, like the classical literary traditions of many cultures, is filled with associations between women and war – the victims like Dinah (Gen 34) or the concubine of Judges 19, whose humiliations men avenge in wars with outsiders or within the group; the women stolen in Judges 19 or taken as booty in Numbers 31, demarcating an end to hostilities; the daughter of Jephthah, the war-vowed sacrifice (Jud 11:34-40). Their presence marks the passage into war and the exodus from it; they are marginal, border figures, central in the events around them, and yet they are usually nameless, voiceless items of exchange and symbols of transition” (43-44).

The narrative in Numbers 31, functions as a vehicle for conveying important realia about warfare, and about the laws of cultic purification. In doing so, it transmits a specific ideology concerning the nature of impurity and of transgression, of the status of women in war (and perhaps even outside of war), and of those who can (and must) be held responsible for transgression. In this instance, the primary message of Numbers 31 can be reduced to two related issues: that women taken captive in war require a process of cultural assimilation that precludes their having been sexually involved with the enemy, and that the spoils of war require a process of purification before they are ready for Israelite use.

In order to appreciate how these two ideas govern the text, it is necessary to consider the metaphorical relationships that underlie them. To be clear, a metaphor ascribes qualities or terms from one semantic domain to something that derives ordinarily from a different semantic domain. In metaphor theory, the thing being discussed in such a manner might be termed the subject of the metaphor, while the descriptions applied metaphorically to it are termed the vehicle. The semantic domains of the subject and of the vehicle need to be sufficiently similar to one another as to permit comparison, yet sufficiently distinct as to be recognised as non-literal. In the simple equation, AN X IS A Y (such as LIFE IS A PARTY, MEAT IS MURDER and THE LORD IS MY SHEPHERD), identification of the metaphor is relatively straightforward. In most texts, however, we do not have that luxury, and must consider which metaphorical relationships underlie the passage without being stated explicitly.

In this instance, I would like to suggest that the two primary metaphors that underlie Numbers 31 are that foreign women are vehicles of social degeneration and that foreigners in general are agents of contamination. What is more, a careful consideration of the passages that are linguistically and thematically connected to this one (being the Balaam cycle in Numbers 22-24, and the worship of Baal-Peor in Numbers 25) demonstrates that these same metaphorical relationships are latent within those narratives as well.

The assertion that foreign nations have a contaminating influence is conveyed both by means of denigrating those other nations, as well as through lauding Israel in its enforced separation from them. We have already had occasion to note the careful contrast that is established between the Moabites and the Midianites on the one hand and the Israelites on the other, in Numbers 22 and 23. It is in relation to Israel that Balaam declares that there is no sorcery in their midst, while emissaries from the other nations approach the prophet with sorcery, quite literally, in their hands.

It should also be noted that when Balaam first blesses the Israelites encamped beneath him it is specifically in relation to their dwelling apart from all other peoples. Their isolation is accounted to them as righteous: תמֹת נפשי מות ישרים, the prophet declares. וּתהי אחריתי כמֹהו; “May I die the death of the upright, and may my end be like his!” The imputation of righteousness to those who dwell apart from all others is predicated on the assumption that cross-cultural pollination has a deligitimising effect. This in turn is predicated on the assumption that the Israelites express a certain cultural uniformity, or homogeneity, which might be threatened by cultural contact.

This ideology is so pervasive throughout so much of the biblical literature that it can easily go unnoticed, and tends to be remarked upon more frequently in its absence. So too when it comes to the relationship between foreign women and cultural decline, which is particularly evident in the second part of our story, in Numbers 25. There, once Israel has settled in Shittim, they first whore out to the Moabite women, they are only then invited by the Moabite men to partake in offerings, it is then that they eat, and then that they worship Moabite gods. It is in doing this that they are described as having become “attached” to Baal-Peor – a process that commences with their sexual seduction and only ends with their service of a foreign deity. As Susan Niditch has observed, the Midianites “had hired a male wizard to curse Israel, while the Midianite women had cast their own spell, seducing Israel into apostasy” (op.cit. 46).

These two themes reach their climax in Numbers 31, in which they function in many ways as an opportunity to present a series of legislative principles. While the excuse for the war is predicated on concerns over foreign women in particular, the concern over foreign men shows through in the war’s outcome: a contamination rendered even unto inanimate objects. It is difficult to determine the extent to which this impurity is resultant of the war itself, and the extent to which it lay already upon the property of the Midianites, as it may indeed have lain upon the Midianites themselves.

Certainly, the book of Numbers does speak at length about corpse impurity, and reference to such defilement is made also within this chapter. In relation to one’s involvement in warfare rendering a spiritual contamination, one recalls in this context David, who could not build the temple because his hands were stained with blood. And yet, the presentation of war in Numbers 31 is somewhat ambiguous. On the one hand, all those who take part in the killing are rendered susceptible to corpse impurity, in need of the waters of the red heifer and are quarantined. On the other hand, it is none other than the high priest’s son who leads the charge, and who does so bearing sacred vessels and trumpets.

Looked at from a strictly literary perspective, the imagery is dissonant, made all the moreso in that these utensils are not referred to as כלי מלחמה (vessels of war), but as כלי הקֹדש: sacred vessels. And herein lies the ambiguity: is war sacred by virtue of its being divinely ordained, or is it something ugly and contaminating? This ambiguity is made especially pronounced within the text’s conclusion, in which the generals of the war make an offering, לכפר על נפשתינו: “in order to atone for ourselves”. For what, one wonders, do they seek atonement? For the sin at Baal-Peor? Or for the war itself?

This dual presentation of the war suits the nature of the two metaphorical relationships that it serves to emphasise. On the one hand, there is the alluring quality of the women; seductive and inviting, they are reminiscent of the “woman of folly” in Proverbs 1-9. On the other hand, however, there is the physically and spiritually contaminating nature of their host culture; repulsive and foreboding, theirs is a path that leads only to death.

It has been suggested that this passage reflects the interests of a late, post-monarchic community, as evidenced by the role of the priests as leaders of the war, and by the highly developed organisation of the Israelite army. The deadly appeal of foreign nations may suit the interests of a scribe who lived during the period of Babylonia’s ascendancy, but what does it tell us that the enemy chosen is the Midianites, rather than the Moabites?

Some scholars has suggested that “Midianites” might have served as a generic reference to nomadic peoples – perhaps along with “Ishmaelites”, “Kenites” and “Amalekites” as well. As such, it may be that the Midianites in Numbers 31 served as a reference also to the Moabites of Numbers 25, but I find this interpretation unsatisfactory. While some features of the text may lend themselves to the possibility of a rough synonymity of terms, the editorial gloss in Numbers 22 that includes Midianite elders in the delegation sent to Balaam belies this possibility. In addition to its asserting a distinction between Midianite and Moabite, it reflects on a desire to maintain an exclusively Midianite focus in the narrative’s culmination, which it legitimises by including them in the affair of Balaam. We must consider, therefore, the Midianite ethnicity of Kozbi as a further appeal to exclusively Midianite guilt, and the reference to the women of Baal-Peor as having been Midianite (as opposed to Moabite) as the final nail in their collective coffin.

One is reminded in this regard of the early post-exilic work of Ezra/Nehemiah, with its focus on the termination of marital relationships, the expulsion of mixed-race children and the rejection of northern communities who, while religiously similar, were simply not a part of the community of exiles. A concern for the purity of bloodlines and of language mark key interests of this community, insofar as they are represented within that text, and they are concerns that find a subtle counterpart within the book of Numbers as well.

In relation to concerns of this nature, there can surely be no better enemy than the Midianites: a community into which Moses himself had married, and from whom – but ten chapters prior to the commencement of our story – he humbly requests an entourage. The manner in which Moses seeks companionship from his father-in-law and is denied mirrors in some fashion the requests made to the returned exiles in Ezra 4. In both instances an appeal is made to the commonalities between two communities, and in both cases these overtures are rebuffed with an appeal to fundamental dissimilarities.

In Ezra, it is the Judean delegation that rebuffs the various men of the north, while in Numbers it is Moses’ father-in-law who refuses to travel with Moses and his people. In his words, כי אם אל ארצי ואל מולדתי אלך: I will go to my land and to my family. That Moses’ family includes Jethro’s own daughter further emphasises the liminal nature of women within this text. In both cases, however, these passages preempt open hostilities between the two groups, which in the pentateuchal narrative culminates in bloodshed.

That these concerns are reflected in the pre-exilic literature is but a further indication that they did not originate during the period of the restoration, as some have supposed. The uneasy relationship that ancient Israel had with her neighbours is reflected in a great deal of her literature. The appeal of foreign cultures and a priestly aversion to cross-cultural pollination find a powerful representation in Numbers 31, and are well-suited to the choice of sexual and cultic metaphors that predominate within it.



One response

2 03 2015
Biblical Studies Carnival – February 2015 |

[…] Simon Holloway (not to be confused with Paul Holloway!) posted about a paper he presented at Australian Association for Jewish Studies Conference entitled “Charmed, I’m Sure: Wizardry, Women and War in the book of Numbers.” […]

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