Their involvement was ideologically motivated: They joined the Moavite attack not out of love for their homeland, not as a response to an imminent threat, but out of pure hatred for the Jews....
Last week’s parashah ended in chaos: Promiscuity, idolatry, and death had somehow overrun the Israelite camp. To be sure, throughout the forty years in the desert there had been episodes of spiritual backsliding, but this episode was different, both in character and in scope: Twenty-four thousand people lost their lives as a result of this disaster.
It began with trysts with the women of Moav, and soon escalated into idolatry. A plague sweeps through the camp, wreaking havoc and death. In the midst of this anarchy, a leader of the tribe of Shimon named Zimri, who ostensibly should have been a part of the solution, takes a Midianite woman and joins the sinful revelry. Pinchas heroically confronts the sinners and stops them in their tracks.
God then commands that revenge be taken against Midian. We are left somewhat perplexed by this verdict: The main culprits were daughters of Moav, who seduced thousands of Israelite men into sin. Kozbi, Zimri’s partner in crime, appears to have been the only Midianite involved in the entire episode. Why, then, are her people, the entire Midianite nation, singled out for retribution?
Balak, the King of Moav, was the primary instigator of the original plan to foil the Israelites’ advance: It was he, the King of Moav, who commissioned a seer of some repute, Bilam son of Beor, to curse the Jews - a plot foiled by God Himself, who turned the curses into blessings. The Moavite king reached out to his erstwhile adversaries, the Midianites, and invited them to join the fray. (B’midbar 22:2-4) Once again, Balak and his people, the Moavites, were the instigators of both strategies; it is they, and not the Midianites, who should have been the most harshly punished.
The verses themselves, as well as some of the commentaries on the parashah, lead us to several conclusions: Moav was situated in the direct path of the Israelites’ advance, and the Moavites were scared. They wished to preserve their way of life and to retain possession of their lands, and they saw the Israelites as a direct existential threat. Their behavior, though preemptive, was defensive. Not so the Midianites: When summoned to join forces against the Jews, they did so with enthusiasm, despite the fact that they themselves were not threatened: Their land was not under threat of siege, their way of life was secure. Had they not sought out contact with the Israelites, the conquest Canaan would have remained for them a news item from abroad and nothing more. Their involvement was ideologically motivated: They joined the Moavite attack not out of love for their homeland, not as a response to an imminent threat, but out of pure hatred for the Jews.
There are additional elements that point to a vast difference between the motivations of the Moavites and the Midianites: The Torah is not clear as to who initiated the contact between the Moavite women and the Israelite men; was it the daughters of Moav, perhaps as per Bilam’s advice, or was it the Israelite men who first approached these young women? Either way, the sin of adultery soon ballooned into idolatry as well. Be that as it may, the identity of Zimri’s Midianite partner, Kozbi the daughter of Zur, a prince or king of Midian, indicates the Midianites’ ideological bent: This was no “simple” affair. A member of the royal family of Midian was sent to conduct a demonstrative act of defiance against the religious, social and political mores of Israelite society.
There are those who would characterize the decree to destroy Midian as a “disproportionate response;” God does not agree. The Midianites, and not the Moavites, are to be eradicated. The battle against Midian is ideological. It is a battle against those whose war against us was born of religious zeal and hatred, hence the extreme response. Perhaps the lesson is that when a battle is based on conflicting claims to land, property, or resources, an arrangement and understanding can eventually be reached, but when the strife is based on ideology and religious hatred, achieving an understanding is much more difficult.
Careful consideration of the Torah’s attitude toward Moav supports this insight: Moav is held accountable for hiring Bilam to curse the Israelites. (D’varim 23:5) Somewhat surprisingly, the entire issue of the adultery and the resultant idolatry into which the Moavite women led the Israelite men is not mentioned. We may therefore surmise that the interaction between Moav and Israel began with an absence of malice on belligerence. Perhaps Moav abandoned their plans of confounding the Israelite conquest and sought instead to take the road of cooptation or cooperation. The Israelite men, and not the Moavite women, initiated the illicit contact between them; for this reason, no mention of any sexual or idolatrous cabal is mentioned in the final account of the events.
Yet this scenario seems at odds with a different aspect of the Torah’s attitude toward Moav: Moav is one of the tribes with whom the Torah forbids intermarriage even afterconversion to Judaism. The Talmud (perhaps motivated by the precedent of a famous Moavite named Ruth, who converted and married into the Jewish community) clarifies that the limitation applies only to Moavite men, but not women; the latter may convert and marry into the Jewish people. The Talmudic understanding of this law arises from a Torah verse:
An Ammonite or Moavite may not enter the congregation of God. … This is because they did not greet you with bread and water when you were on the way out of Egypt, and also because they hired Bilam son of Beor from Petor in Aram Naharaim to curse you. (Dvarim 23:4-5)
The Moavites are held accountable only for their attempt to curse the Israelite nation; they were not guilty of seducing the Israelites, either to adultery or to idolatry. They were, however, guilty of an additional sin, a sin of omission: They failed to greet the Israelites with bread and water. This seems a strange accusation indeed: Is it realistic to have expected this nation to greet the Jews with open arms and open hearts, to share valuable resources with them and assist them on their journey to the Promised Land? In fact, this is precisely what the Torah expects of them: The Moavites are the descendants of Lot, our forefather Avraham’s nephew. Lot grew up in Avraham’s tent, where he learned the virtue of hospitality. This sensibility should have been passed on to his descendants. Instead, they behaved selfishly, even brutally, toward a tribe with whom they shared a common patriarch; they extended them no aid in their time of need, and hired a powerful spiritual force to curse them.
This being so, we might ask why the prohibition against intermarriage with Moavites makes a distinction between men and women. Surely, they all failed to extend a helping hand to the Israelites. The Talmud cites a verse in Tehilim to explain why the law forbids marriage only with the men of Moav: Only the men were expected to meet the Israelites with food and drink, because “The dignity of a daughter of the king is within” (Tehilim 45:14)
While this verse might be understood as referring to modesty or regal bearing, the Talmud understands the verse in terms of geography: The daughters of the King of Moav remained inside their homes. We might contrast their behavior with that of Kozbi, the princess of Midian who seduced Zimri into a public display of sexuality that was, for all intents and purposes, a revolt. Although the common girls of Moav became involved with Israelite men, it was the daughter of the prince of Midian who used her body as a weapon in the war against the Jews.
The women of Moav were not judged harshly for failing to offer bread and water; they were friendly – if anything, they were too friendly. For this reason, they are permitted to marry into the Jewish people. On the other hand, Kozbi, the daughter of Midianite nobility who behaved in a most ignoble manner, brought shame and death upon her people.
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