By Israel Drazin

Where do we start?

Numbers 30: 1 states: “And Moses told the Israelites all that the Lord commanded Moses.” Verse 2 continues: “And Moses spoke to the heads of the Israelite tribes, saying, ‘This is what the Lord commanded.” Although chapter 30 begins with verse 1, Jewish tradition divides the text at verse 2, and begins the portion of Matot with this second verse.

I discussed in the past that the bible chapter divisions are not of divine origin or even very ancient, but were created by Christians, and Jews developed their own system where they felt that segments of the Bible begin. People should pay attention to the many times that Christians and Jews begin Bible parts at different places and ask themselves or others why each group divided the Bible section as they did. Of course, such thoughts are purely speculative because we no longer know why the people, Christians and Jews did what they did. Numbers 30:1 and 2 is a good example.

Rashi supports the traditional Jewish division. He states that verse 1 needed to be attached to the prior section to inform readers that Moses transmitted God’s command as God requested, and verse 2 begins an entirely new subject, that of vows. Rashi’s grandson Rashbam also supports the traditional view, but asks why the opening verse 30:2 is different from the rest of the Torah. Usually the Bible states that God issued a command to Moses and then Moses communicated it to the Israelites. Here in verse 2, Moses tells the people what God told him, but there is no indication that God said it. Rashbam suggests that we should understand that 30:2 is connected with the prior chapter that relates that God spoke to Moses, and this section beginning with verse 2 was also communicated at that time.

Clearly the Christian creator of chapters was bothered by the same problem, and by attaching verse 1 to the following laws of vows, verse 1 tells that the laws of vows were dictated by God.

Readers need to decide for themselves which approach makes the most sense.


The laws of vows are discriminatory

I also mentioned in the past that the rabbis changed biblical laws and what Jews practice today is not Torah laws but rabbinical laws. Jews know that although they may make a vow to do something or to refrain from something, they can annul their vow. What most Jews do not know is that, as stated in chapter 30, biblical law forbids nullification: once a person makes a vow the person must keep it. It was only in post-biblical times that the rabbis changed the law to allow vow repeals.[1] The tragic story of Jephthah in Judges 11 is an example. Jephthah led Israelites in a battle and vowed that if he was successful, he would sacrifice whatever came out to meet him when he returned home. He probably expected to be greeted by his dog, but his daughter greeted him, and since he could not terminate his vow, he had to sacrifice her.[2]

But this law only applies to men.[3] The portion states that if a daughter makes a vow, her father can cancel it. Similarly, if a wife does so, her husband has this cancellation power. The only exceptions are widows and divorcees, who are no longer under male dominion, whose vows cannot be rescinded.

It is clear that the Torah considers daughters and wives property of their fathers and husbands. What she has belongs to him and he totally controls her vows. Even if she wants to retain what she promised, her father or husband can stop it.


Is the battle with Midian only a legend?

Many scholars insist that the battle with Midian is a legend because it has legendary qualities. The portion states that the Israelites totally destroyed them, yet even the Bible itself indicated that the Midianites continued to exist, as in Judges 6-8. The chapter indicates that not a single Israelite died in the battle, which is hard to believe. The numbers mentioned are unbelievable, such as 32,000 female captives who were virgins. While Joshua led the battle against Amalek, he is not mentioned leading this war.

It is likely, however, that the Torah is writing, as it usually does, in hyperbole. So many Midianites were killed that it seemed as if the entire country was destroyed, so few Israelites died, almost none, and hundreds of virgins were captured. Joshua is not mentioned, but still could have led the battle.

How could the Israelites differentiate virgins from non-virgins? I leave this to the reader’s imagination. Why were the non-virgin females killed? It is possible that they were killed because the war was prompted by the Midianite women inciting Israelite males to worship the idol Peor by means of sex with them. And it was felt that all non-virgins were implicated in this endeavor.


Can Israelites marry non-Israelites?

Moses allowed Israelites to marry non-Israelites, even as he had married the daughter of a Midianite priest.[4] It was only many generations later that the leaders of the Judeans[5] Ezra and Nehemiah railed against the Judeans[6] for having non-Judean wives.[7]


Why did the Israelites need to make atonement?

The Torah required the soldiers to make atonements after returning from the battle with Midian in 31:50. Generally people celebrate after a victory and are not remorseful. Possibly this reflects the Torah’s general displeasure with killing, even seemingly justifiable killings. However, Ehrlich suggests that usually in war both sides lose some soldiers. This lose is the atonement. Here since the Israelites lost no one, they had to undertake an atonement ceremony.


[1] Mishnah Terumot 3:8.

[2] Another example is Isaac’s blessing of Jacob even though he wanted to bless his son Esau. Once he uttered the blessing he could not retract it even though he wanted to do so.

[3] The laws of vows for men are also in Leviticus 5:4 and 5, Numbers 6, and Deuteronomy 23:19, 22-24. But this is the only site dealing with female vows.

[4] Exodus 2:21 and Numbers 12:1. We also have reports of other leaders marrying non-Israelites: Joseph married a pagan priest’s daughter and King Solomon married many non-Israelites.

[5] As they were called at the time.

[6] Ezra 9 and Nehemiah 10.

[7] The practice of conversion did not exist at that time because if it did, the Judeans could have kept wives who converted. And, in any event, Ezra and Nehemiah would have told the Judeans to have their wives convert rather than send them away. When Ruth said that Naomi’s God was her God, this was part of a series of poetical expressions indicating she was joining Naomi and Israelites.