Parashat Matot-Mas'ei

The Tribes (The Marches of the Israelites)
July 29, 2022Leslie Brier

This week’s parashah begins with the rules of vows and under what circumstances they can be annulled.

Later in Numbers 31:1, we read about the military campaign against the Midianites. For seven years, the Midianites oppressed the Israelites by raiding their crops and livestock. A battle ensues and results in the total destruction of the Midianite land by fire, the capture of women, animals, and wealth, and the murder of each Midianite male. All this was brought before Moses.

Moses, however, became angry because the Midianite women were spared. The Midianites represented sexual immorality and idolatrous threat. These women apparently seduced the Israelites and convinced them to sacrifice to their gods. Moses commanded that all the women be killed and any male dependent. Afterward, the men were commanded to purify themselves outside the camp, and once purified, they could return to the camp on the seventh day. The booty of the campaign was divided among the combatants and the community. A levy of the rewards given to the warriors was mandated, and a portion from each was given to Eleazar, the priest, for sacrifice to God. A levy from the portion of rewards given to the community was to be given to the Levites who attend the duties of God’s Tabernacle.

Then, God commands the Israelites to cross Jordan into the land of Canaan, dispossess the inhabitants of the land, and rid it of all the molten images and cult places. The land would then be portioned out among the Israelites. If the Israelites did not succeed, then God would do to the Israelites what was planned to be done to the inhabitants of Canaan. God set out how the land would be portioned and named the commissioners of each portion of land. The Israelites were commanded to provide towns for the Levites to reside.

The Reubenites and the Gadites, two of the tribes, owned many cattle and wanted to settle in the conquered land instead of moving across the Jordan with the rest of the Israelite tribes. Moses became angry and asked if they would stay behind while the other tribes were to invade the land God promised them. He said a generation of Israelites passed after wandering the wilderness for 40 years, and now these sons would add further to God’s wrath if they stayed. They compromised and agreed to set up in the land east of Jordan for their cattle and families but join the tribes in warfare until each Israelite had his portion, at which point, they would return to the east of Jordan while the rest of the tribes would move into the territory beyond Jordan.

In Numbers 36:2, we come upon the story of the daughters of Zelophehad who wished to claim the inheritance of land portioned to them. The family heads of the clan of the descendants of Gilead were concerned that the daughters might marry outside of the tribe, thus taking the land out of the tribe. Therefore, Moses instructed that the daughters of Zelophehad could marry anyone they wished within the clan of their father’s tribe. A law was made that no inheritance could be moved from one tribe to another.

This double parashah is difficult because of the violence, the injustices that women endured, and God being cast as a vengeful god. Yet, in our time, we also face the issues of violence, injustice, and sometimes a war carried out in God’s name. Still, we can learn lessons of compromise and responsibility to the larger community in this parashah and apply them to our current environment.

Recent social justice issues such as reproductive rights, gun violence, and separation of church and state have been brought to the forefront with laws being changed or upheld that weaken safeguards for women, reduce opportunities to coexist peacefully, and challenge safety overall.

Given the theme of military campaigns, consider a military tool, “Intelligence preparation of the battlefield,” that can be used to strategize an effective outcome for social justice issues. The process provides an understanding of the “battlefield” and the options it presents.

1. Evaluate the threat by identifying facts and assumptions. Data collection is important. 

2. Rely on historical data when facing a well-known threat. We have addressed these issues before and can learn lessons from the advocacy of our forebears. 

3. Define the “battlefield” environment and the opportunities it presents, such as avenues of approach, engagement areas, and areas of entry. 

4. Have a systematic and continuous process of analyzing the threat and environment in a specific geographic area which is most important now that laws are determined state by state regarding reproductive rights and gun laws.

5. Pray for the wisdom of our leaders and a quick resolution.


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