The previous parashah ended with Moses reviewing for the people the commandments regarding sacrifices and the Holy Days. Now he continues with the laws regarding vows. These three things- sacrifice, Festivals and vows- form the basis of worship. The people are at the end of their journey and being prepared to enter the land God promised them they would possess. This is not the generation that refused God’s offer, for they all died in the desert. This is the new generation of Israel, a nation not born into slavery but born into freedom, raised in the harshest of climates and environments. This is the generation that has grown up knowing battle.
After the A-B-C’s of worship are reviewed, God tells Moses that the last thing he is to do as leader is to have Israel destroy the Midianites for the cruelty they imposed on the Israelites. After this, Moses is to meet his Maker.
The Israelites destroy the 5 kings of Midian, but there are still Midianites left in other parts of Canaan. Israel takes all the spoil, including women and children, which makes Moses mad. He reminds them of the sin caused by these women after Balaam suggested they seduce the men of Israel into worshiping their gods. Moses orders all the women who are not virgins to be slain, and all the male children (BTW…Balaam is also slain in the battle.) The spoils are split with those who did not go to war, with a lions share to the men who went to battle. There is tithing of the spoils, and the men that risked their lives gave a portion one tenth the size of those that received spoils but did not fight.
Miraculously, but not surprising considering God is behind this, of the 12,000 men from Israel who went to fight (1,000 from each tribe) it is reported that not one man is killed in battle.
This parashah ends with the tribes of Gad, Reuben and the half tribe of Manasseh asking if they can have the land east of the Jordan because it is good for their cattle.
Just for the record, Manasseh wasn’t really spit in half: there were 8 tribes of Manasseh (Numbers 26:29-32 lists the sons of Manasseh, 8 in all), of which 6 families stayed on the East of the Jordan, and the other 2 were on the West.
This request ticked Moses off, as he assumed they were refusing, as their fathers had, to enter the land, but it was soon resolved that they would go into the land to help the other tribes conquer it, and only after the other tribes had their inheritances would these three tribes return to their share east of the Jordan. These three tribes built up their cities and fortified them, then joined the rest of the camp to go into Canaan and take possession.
I have often heard that the bible is not fair to women. Of course, any complaint against social mores in historic times that is based on current beliefs is ridiculous. History is what it was, and can’t be judged by what is now. We can make comparisons, we can say that women were considered in a different light then, but when we look deeper we see that they were not treated unfairly then, considering that day’s ethical beliefs. In fact, the bible shows that women were given just as much right as men to make decisions, once they were of age or their social status was free of parental support.
That is really the difference- today a female person of majority (legal age) has rights and is accountable for what she does, with no consideration as to her marital status or where she lives. Back then, the ages for majority were different, but what was the same then as it is now is …“as long as you live under my roof, you will abide by my rules.” A female who was a virgin and living with her father was under his authority. She was allowed to make vows, and if the father (or when married, the husband) let those vows stand by not voiding them, then she was totally accountable to God for keeping that vow. If the father (or husband), who technically owned all assets of the family, voided the vow the moment he heard about it, then the female was absolved of responsibility. However, if the male did not void it immediately upon learning about it, but tried to void it later, the female was not accountable because he was! She had the right to make a vow and the responsibility to keep it, unless the person that owned the property for the family voided it. Remember- a vow would affect the entire family, and may also affect their income; or, the person making the vow may be less available for doing chores. Whatever the vow was, it affected everyone in the family, and may have affected their assets. It is only right that the one who owns the assets is given a right of review. It may be that you say women should have as much right to the property as the man, but there were no communal property laws in 1500 BCE. Today that certainly isn’t fair, but that is how it was back then. When you consider the cultural ethics of the time, the laws about family leaders (the father or husband) having the final vote about a vow the female living with him makes, is very fair, and respectful to all involved.
Note , also, that if a woman was a widow or divorced (the assumption is that she is living alone), then her vows were binding. Again, here it shows that she has the same authority as a man to make a vow, but being under her own authority (marriage-wise) she is totally accountable. Having the right to promise to do something also carries the weight of responsibility for doing that which was promised. Man or woman, this was equally enforced.
One example that comes to mind is how Elkanah let stand Hannah’s vow to give her first born son to God (1 Samuel, 22-23.)
When we read the bible we have to incorporate proper interpretive rules, and one of those is to accept that the cultural norms of that day were acceptable then. We may not accept them now, but that doesn’t make the people back then “wrong” or “unfair’ because the rules, as well as the entire game, was very different.
By remembering to account for cultural and ethical differences, you will not misjudge the people, or (for that matter) the bible.