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B'Midbar/Numbers 31:2 "Take vengeance for the Children of Israel from the Midyanites ..."
Both the first words in the text are derived from the same root: , which is normally translated as taking revenge or vengeance. When the Hebrew text uses this technique: combining a verb and noun from the same root - and we see other examples over swearing oaths and dreaming dreams - it is always used as a device for sharp emphasis, something that English finds difficult to do in the same way. How are we going to understand such a strong command to take vengeance alongside such equally string commands in the opposite direction: "You shall not take vengeance" (Vayikra 19:18), "Vengeance is Mine, I will repay" (D'varim 32:35). Is there a measure of contradiction going on here?
Jacob Milgrom, in the JPS Tanakh commentary on B'Midbar, says that the word should not be translated as 'avenge' or 'revenge' but redressing past wrongs or exacting retribution; in other words, that there is an element of justice involved: it should not be seen as mean-spirited "getting back" at people who have wronged us but a necessary corrective to re-instate the situation that prevailed before the initial offence.Hirsch goes even further: pointing to the possibility that may be a reflexive derivative of the verb , to arise, he suggests that it may be translated as "rise up for yourselves". He goes on to draw a distinction between the Moabites, who wanted to destroy the Israelites physically so as to expel them from their land, and the Midyanites, who wanted to destroy the Israelites at a spiritual level - by involving them in idolatry - so that they would cease to be a light and witness to the nations for G-d. So Hirsch projects this command as being an essential step to extract the Israelites form under the spiritual influence of the Midyanites, pointing to the word : the Midyanites are not just the direct object of the vengeance, but including the preposition , from, there is a sense of movement away from Midyanite control or influence. So there may be occasions when it is right to remove ourselves from a harmful or controlling situation, using forceful means if necessary to ensure separation. The Psalmist wrote, "The righteous rejoice to see vengeance done" (Psalm 58:11, CJB). It is a good thing when people are able to find freedom from situations and behaviour patterns that are stunting their spiritual growth.
How do we do this today as followers of Messiah Yeshua? Rav Sha'ul wrote: "Repay no-one evil for evil, but try to do what everyone regards as good. If possible, and to the extent that it depends on you, live in peace with all people. Never seek revenge. My friends, leave that to G-d's anger ... if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink" (Romans 12:17-20, CJB).
Further Study: Jeremiah 51:11-12; Ezekiel 25:12-17; Matthew 5:38-48
Application: At a human level, it is very easy to think thoughts of revenge and retribution on those who we think or feel have wronged us, and sometimes all too easy to carry them out. Recognising that no-one is meant to suffer abusive situations, we should "rise up for ourselves" and show G-d's love in a firm and open-handed way.
© Jonathan Allen, 2005
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