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B'Midbar/Numbers 31:50 And we have brought the offering of Adonai ... to atone for our souls before Adonai
How can this offering - the gold from the officers' share of the booty from the destruction of the Midianites - bring atonement, and why was atonement required? This verse follows the account of the successful battle against the Midianites when although many Midianites were killed, it was at the L-rd's instruction, so surely no atonement was necessary on that account.Sforno answers the question this way: "because we did not protest about the sinners at Pe'or"; he suggests that the atonement was necessary because the officers had failed to protest about - and therefore prevent - the sins of the people with the Midianite women, worshipping their idol; and if there had been a protest and so no sin, the destruction of the Midianites might not have been necessary. Hirsch, commenting on the phrase - the offering of Adonai - points out that because the text says "the offering of Adonai" rather than "an offering to Adonai", this offering is being brought as a duty to thank G-d for preservation and protection; the lives of the officers and the men had all been saved, thus an atonement offering was due. In similar vein, highlighting that the officers had had to count all the fighting men to be sure that everyone was present and accounted for, Milgrom suggests that this was a counting and census issue: "when you take a census of the sons of Israel to number them, then each one of them shall give a ransom for himself to the L-rd, when you number them, that there nay be no plague among them when you number them" (Shemot 30:12, NASB); as the officers had counted, they brought an offering from their booty to atone for the lives of both themselves and the men whom they had counted to see that no-one was missing.
Rashi and the Sages of the Talmud, on the other hand, present an entirely different answer. Rashi, in his usual laconic style, simply says: "to atone for our thoughts about the daughters of Midian", while the Talmud constructs a conversation between Moshe and the officers on the subject: "Moshe - Why an atonement? Officers - Though we escaped from sin, yet we did not escape from meditating upon sin. So straightaway we brought the L-rd's offering" (b. Shabbat 64a). The Midrash is even more explicit: when they had stripped the Midianite women of the ornaments and jewelry, some from intimate places, they did not violate their bodies - "Nevertheless, not one of us was joined with one of them in this world, so as not to be joined with her in Gehenna in the world to come. May this stand up in our favour on the day of Great Judgement, to make atonement for us before the L-rd" (Targum Neofiti). In these days of warfare when soldiers are being accused of unethical behaviour, raping and abusing civilians in Iraq - simply another episode among many in the sad history of war and soldiers throughout the ages taking advantage of the civilian population - it is significant that the behaviour of the Israelite army here was almost unique: they did not sexually abuse the women. It is also worth pointing out that the behaviour of IDF soldiers today towards Arab women is similarly exemplary with almost no cases of rape or abuse being credibly reported in spite of the IDF's command structure being rigorous to investigate any such claims quickly and thoroughly.
What is interesting is the reason the Targum provides for this behaviour: no man wanted to be joined in this world - and so in the next - with a woman who because of her life of idolatry and, now, attempting to buy her life with sex, would be sent to Gehenna. This bears a striking connection to Yeshua's words about marriage: "For this reason a man should leave his father and mother and be united with his wife, and the two are to become one flesh. Thus they are no longer two but one. So then, no-one should break apart what G-d has joined together" (Mark 10:7-9, CJB). Intercourse is one of three ways that the rabbis consider a marriage to be contracted, so the writers of the midrash saw not only the Israelite man becoming permanently linked in this world to a Midianite woman if he had sexual intercourse with her (be that rape or consensual), but that the tie between the two would endure into the next world, with the Israelite man being dragged down to share her punishment for idolatry. Whether this was thought to be simply because of the link itself, or because her subsequent behaviour, sin and further idolatry, would cause him too to sin is unclear. We do know that Moshe taught the people: "Be careful, after [the nations of the Land] have been destroyed ahead of you, not to be trapped into following them; so that you enquire after their gods and ask, 'How did these nations serve their gods? I want to do the same'" (D'varim 12:30, CJB).
Rav Sha'ul picks up the same theme when he writes to the Corinthians. Corinth was a sea port and a cultic centre, so well supplied with prostitutes of every kind, and Sha'ul vividly highlights the issue: "Don't you know that your bodies are part of the Messiah? So, am I to take parts of the Messiah and make them parts of a prostitute? Heaven forbid! Don't you know that a man who joins himself to a prostitute becomes physically one with her? For the Tanakh says, 'The two will become one flesh'" (1 Corinthians 6:15-16, CJB). Sha'ul sees this physical link as having great spiritual strength, creating a bond that damages the believer. He goes on: "Run from sexual immorality! Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the fornicator sins against his own body" (v. 18, CJB). Sexual sin is something that affects us right inside; the way that pornography becomes an addiction is a modern proof of this old truth. As Rav Sha'ul concludes, "Your body is a temple for the Ruach HaKodesh who lives inside you, whom you received from G-d. The fact is, you don't belong to yourselves, for you were bought at a price. So use your bodies to glorify G-d" (v. 19-20, CJB). Sha'ul's words apply equally to men and women, for either gender may entrap or be entrapped in sexual sin.
Further Study: Jeremiah 1:1-5; Romans 12:2; 1 Corinthians 8:12
Application: How do you use your body and body language? Do you dress modestly and carefully so as to protect yourself and others not just from sin but from meditating upon sin? Each of us has a responsibility not only for ourselves but the effect that we might have on others. As Yeshua said, "Whoever causes one of these who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better to be tied to a millstone and thrown into the sea" (Mark 9:42).
© Jonathan Allen, 2008
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