In this Torah portion, we are taught about vows which can be annulled, about God’s revenge on the Midianites, and about two tribes who wish to hand-pick their land lot.
Vows and Oaths
The Torah delineates the laws of vows in this passage. Any promise made in God’s name is legally binding, and one who violates such an oath, whether it is a commitment to do or refrain from something, is liable before God.
There is an exception, however. Should a woman make a vow, it can be undone by another. If she lives under her father’s roof, he can annul her vow on the day he hears of it. Likewise a husband. However, if her father or husband hears of her commitment and says nothing, she is responsible for whatever she swore. Should she neglect to observe her oath, she is considered guilty.
If her husband reacts after the moment he hears of his wife’s vow, and on the power of his word she violates her commitment, he is liable for her sin.
Finally, a widow or divorcee’s oath cannot be undone.
The Israel Bible points out how important one’s word is on the basis of this chapter. Just as God keeps His promises to us, we are expected to fulfill our promises. Today we can see proof of God fulfilling His promise to return His people to the Land of Israel. We hope to see the fulfillment of the rest of His promise of peace in the near future.
Points to Ponder
This is one of many instances where the Torah seems to give precedence or power to men over women, yet just last week we saw evidence, with the daughters of Zelophehad, that women are valued equally. Why, then, do you think a father or husband is given the authority to reverse a woman’s vows?
The Battle Against Midian
God commands Moses to lead the Children of Israel into battle against Midian as vengeance for causing them to sin at Baal Peor, after which Moses will die. Without flinching, Moses orders the nation to send out an army of 1,000 soldiers from each tribe to fight against this enemy of God. The fighters slay all the men, including the five kings of Midian and Balaam; destroy the Midianite cities; and take the women and children captive and the cattle and property as spoils.
Moses reacts strongly to the captives taken, saying the women were the ones most responsible for leading the Israelites to sin! He orders the execution of all male children and all women old enough to have been with a man, allowing the girls to live. He divides the spoils between the fighting forces and the community members who stayed behind, taking a portion from each for God. He also explains how to purify vessels accumulated from the Midianites so that they may be used by the Children of Israel.
Soon after, the soldiers approach Moses. They tell him they conducted a census and determined that not one of their number fell in battle. In great awe, they wish to offer a tribute to God in exchange for the souls He spared. The gift consists of gold vessels and jewelry.
Points to Ponder
The Torah tells us why Moses orders the women to be executed. Why do you think he has the boys killed, as well?
The Other Side of the Jordan
As the nation prepares to enter the Promised Land, the tribes of Reuben and Gad approach Moses with a proposal. They are laden with sheep and cattle, and have noticed that the newly-conquered lands on this side of the Jordan River are suitable for livestock. Instead of being given a portion of the land of Canaan, they ask for the conquered lands instead.
Moses sees in their request a hint of their fathers’ sin of rejecting the land. Why else would they want to stay on this side of the river? To assuage any possible fears that they are shirking their responsibilities, Reuben and Gad insist they will help with the conquest. In fact, if allowed to build pens for their animals and homes for their families, they will lead the way in battle in the land of Canaan.
Moses agrees to their modified request, stipulating that, once they build homes for their families and pens for their animals, if they neglect to fight alongside their brethren, they will suffer for their sins. From this insistence, we learn an important lesson in responsibility, pointed out by the Israel Bible. Although these tribes already had their homes, they were not permitted to settle down until every member of the nation had a place. In addition, Moses includes half the tribe of Manasseh to live alongside them.
Points to Ponder
Why do you think half the tribe of Manasseh, who did not ask to live in this region, is given a share on the eastern bank of the Jordan? Why Manasseh, and not any other tribe?