Parashah #42: Mattot (Tribes) B’Midbar (Numbers) 30:2-32:42

Beth Elohim Messianic Synagogue

Parashah#42: Mattot (Tribes) B’Midbar (Numbers) 30:2-32-42

Haftarah: Yirmeyahu (Jeremiah) 1:1-2:3

B’rit Chadashah: Mattityahu (Matthew) 5:33-37


Three themes dominate this parashah. The first is the narrative on the laws pertaining to vows. The second addresses the battle against Midian which was a very unique battle. The third is the unexpected request of the tribes of Gad and R’euven to remain just outside the Land in order to settle the recently conquered territory of the Amorite kings. Let’s first explain the difference between a vow and an oath for this is a frequent question.

Vows and oaths are serious business in G-d’s economy. While G-d laid down the regulations for making vows, Yahshua took it even further by encouraging us to avoid making vows in the first place (Ecc. 5:4-5). There are four paragraphs dedicated to this issue that covers vows and oaths between a man and G-d, a man and his wife, between father and daughter if the daughter is living as a minor in her father’s house (Num. 30:17). Again, what is the difference between an oath and a vow? According to the Rabbis, the vow refers to the object, the oath to the person. For instance, a person may place a self- ban on drinking for a given period. This ban on the act, drinking, is said to constitute a vow. If, on the other hand, the person swears that he/she will not ever drink again, this constitutes an oath. In both instances for the person to break his/her word is a religious rather than an ethical offense. The idea behind it all is that the person has given to G-d his/her word, which must not be broken. It is only a verbal declaration that constitutes a vow. A vow “taken in the heart,” as the Rabbis call it, a mental resolve, has no binding force.

In Moshe’s final days, he is commanded to attack the Midianites. This war was the results of the women’s enticement of the Jewish men into the sin of idolatry consistent with Ba’al worship along with the gross immorality in the rituals. Who were the Midianites? They were descendants of Abraham through Keturah (Gen. 25:1). They were a nomadic tribe and often raided and harassed the tribes of Israel. They made their raids on camels, quickly raiding then escaping. They were the people that sold Joseph to Potipher (Gen 37:28, 36). The Midianites were associated with the Amalekites and the Moabites. They were allied with Moab, under the control of Sihon who had already been defeated by Israel.

Moshe commands the people to prepare “anashim” (men) interpreted by Rashi as “righteous people.” This war is the vengeance of HaShem through the Children of Israel. Clearly Midian is to be punished for leading Israel to sin against HaShem, and for arousing His anger against His Chosen Nation. Exacting war against the very people who enticed Israel also forces Israel to confront their own sin. They must kill those with whom they morally collaborated with in Ba’al worship. To prevent any selective amnesia on the part of the Israelites, G-d’s directive to attack Midian is transmitted promptly after the Pinchas episode (Num. 25:16-18). However, the narrative account of this war appears a number of verses later in Num.31, after the census, G-d informing Moshe of his imminent death, and the legislation concerning sacrifices and vows.

Assuming the deferment reflects the execution of the war and not just the narrative is explained by some commentators as being necessary in order to take the census, which is always a good idea when preparing to go to war. Note that we do not do this or follow any of the other tenets of war in our country when preparing for battle! However, since the tribes were ordered to send only 1,000 from each, the census was not necessary for this campaign. Furthermore, the wars against Sihon and Og had recently been waged (Num. 21:21-35) without need of a census, and those kings were the mightiest in the region.

Other commentators speculate the Midian war narrative was placed just prior to the petition of Gad and R’euven for the Trans- Jordanian territory (Num. 32) so as to highlight this request. It was Midian’s defeat and the grand amount of booty that vastly increased Israel’s livestock and secured their safety from the remaining regional forces that gave these tribes the idea for this selfish request.

What once sidetracked Lot from choosing the Land now sidetracks R’euven and Gad (Gen. 13:5-13). As firstborns, Gad and R’euven owned great herds, and the desire to graze livestock sidetracked them. These tribes actually settled for less than the perfect will of G-d, much as we often do also. Although G-d in his unmerited kindness (chesed) often allows us desires that are not in synch with His will, He often allows us to achieve or obtain them, generally resulting in our subsequent resentence and return to the King’s Highway. This may be compared to allowing a child to have a stick horse, when our intent was for them to have a real pony! It is a lesson the child does not easily forget. Sometimes the child will learn to wait for the parent’s will to be executed and will not “pre-empt” the parent’s original plan. Children should be able to trust that parents have their ultimate welfare at heart.

Getting back to the space between the command to go to war and the narrative may lie in a different approach than either of the two common lines of thinking. The chapter 25 statement expresses the command with the reason, but does not indicate that it must be imminent. It should be done at the PROPER TIME. After all, timing is everything! In the Chapter 31 narrative, G-d essentially says “do it now” and conclude your life’s work. The postponement may have been connected to HaShem’s telling Moshe he was to be gathered to his people after the war (Num. 31:1). This seems to have served as Moshe’s final marching orders, so to speak. After Midian’s deceptive and seductive ploys against Israel, Moshe’s life would not be complete without the follow-up and execution of G-d’s vengeance on this idolatrous nation; much as the execution of G-d’s vengeance described in Revelation. This war, similar to the war against hasatan (satan), would signify the critical importance attached to actively fighting evil and helping to establish the national disposition to perpetually deal with evil in any form; the final battle to be held at Har Meggido (Armageddon). The several issues that followed the war are related to entering the Promised Land. They also serve as sort of a summary as the Book of Numbers nears a close with the last parashah addressing the stages in the journey of the Israelites from Egypt to the Promised Land. Similarly, Revelation closes with the establishment of true peace, the new heaven and earth, and the wedding of Israel (all true believers) to Yahshua. Both accounts clearly describe progressive salvation; not an instantaneous, automatic event.

This may also elude to an interesting relationship between Numbers and Deuteronomy. In the latter, Moshe set the command to blot out the remembrance of Amelek at the end of a long narrative addressing the legal code (Deut. 25:17-19), followed by several laws depicting the nation after being established in the Promised Land. These are clearly issues that conclude the book. In the Torah, Amelek and Midian represent two types of evil that must be continually confronted if we are to call ourselves lovers and followers of G-d. Amalek attacked the weak and defenseless (stragglers) of a nation passing by with no provocation. Midian used sexual enticement to seduce a nation that was passing through its region to serve its idolatry. These acts perfectly illustrate cultures that lacked even a minimum standard of conduct, human decency, morality, or sanctity; a total disregard for G-d’s Torah. We must confront such evil with a consistent lifestyle reflecting G-d’s Torah wherever we find ourselves.

The word used to describe the action called for against Midian is niqmat, widely translated as “vengeance.” The Biblical meaning of the root word especially when applied to G-d, is invariably related to “judgment” and “exacting retribution,” usually linked to vindication, restoring a lost honor to the victim, or to affording protection to the innocent. Regarding Babylon: “for this is niqmat HaShem, hinaquemu ba, as she has done, do to her” (Jer. 50:15b). Regarding the Philistines: “I will wreak upon them great Niqamot… and they shall know that I am HaShem when I place m niqmat upon them (Ezek. 25:17).  “G-d of Niqamot, appear; rise, Judge of the earth, render retribution to the arrogant… how long shall the wicked exult?” (Ps. 94:1-3).

Moshe became very angry when the troops returned with women captives. After all, it was the women who were used by the Midianites to seduce Israel (Num. 31:15). However, the commanders must have been somewhat confused because Moshe had not explicitly instructed them to kill everyone. Perhaps Moshe thought it common sense for the commanders to kill everyone as they had with Og (Num. 21:33). The commanders should have deduced that since the women were the perpetrators of such widespread seduction of Israel and that the men could be so easily seduced (see Num. 15:37 and the explanation of wearing tzitziot), the women should have been killed also. Subsequently, Moshe instructed them to kill all the male children and the women who had been with a man. The booty was permitted but with strict purification instructions we see only one other place in the Torah. El’azar the cohen tells them “Zot hukat haTorah…” “This is the decree of the Torah” as to how the booty was to be purified. This phrase is only found in the account of the Para Aduma (the red heifer). Fire described in the process represents testing in the above context, and the water represents the Ruach (Holy Spirit). (A detailed explanation of the Para Aduma was provided including this fact in Friday’s teaching, sent to everyone on the mailing list).

Several particulars about the war with Midian make it quite unique:

  1. The Covenant element was highlighted by the differing, but mutually coordinated, designations. HaShem termed it “niqmat b’nai Ysra’el.” Israel’s neqamu (Num. 31:2) while Moshe referred to it as “niqama heh” HaShem’s nequama (Num. 31:3), each party focused on and concerned for the status of the other.
  2. Y’hoshua, who shortly before had been designated to be the successor to Moshe (Num. 27:22-23), is not mentioned in any capacity in conjunction with this campaign. This, despite the fact that he was a willing military leader who led the battle against Amalek (Ex. 17:13) and who would lead Israel in future battles. Another unusual feature of this war is that there was no specifically appointed military commander as Moshe addresses the heads of units (Num. 31:14). Indeed, HaShem was the Commander in Chief.
  3. Pinchas was sent by Moshe to accompany the army, not as a commander, but “with sacred vessels and the trumpets for sounding the blasts in his hands.” (Num. 31:6). It is thought that “Sacred vessels” refers to the Holy Ark with the tablets inside, which would directly invoke the Covenant. Others consider them to be the Urim V’Tumim, the vehicle through which Divine guidance was provided as questions were asked of G-d. Perhaps it was all of these. This was a battle in which the sanctuary and its spiritual armaments was quite prominent.
  4. There was not one casualty mentioned from among the Israelites.
  5. The booty was of staggering proportions.
  6. None of these features were mentioned in conjunction with the wars at Shihon and Og, which occurred in the 40th year, not long before this battle.
  7. There is no mention of the war with Midian in Deuteronomy as there is of the wars with Sihon and Og (Deut. 1:4; 2:31), despite the miraculous features described. Also interesting is that after Moshe’s death, Rahab who lived in Jericho, a city in the Jordan valley close to the plains where Israel was then encamped, mentioned the battles against Sihon and Og, but not the battle against Midian (Josh. 2:10).
  8. The booty was divided equally between soldiers and people. The soldiers contributed from their share terumah to the High Priest in the ratio of 1:500 while the people contributed to the Levites, guardians of the sanctuary, in the ratio of 1:50. Terumah is a heave offering which is a type of Korban (Biblical sacrifice), which specifically means a tithe. The term heave offering refers to the fact that such offerings were heaved or lifted above the altar, as opposed to being waved around it. Interestingly, the total contributions of the tree animal species described equal 8888. This indicates that in accordance with the symbolism of the number eight, this battle and victory possess a Covenantal connection:


Booty                         50%                         1:500                   1:50

Sheep 675,000           337500                     675                           6750

Cattle   72,000             36,000                      72                             720

Donkeys 61,000         30,500                       61                            610


808,000         404,000                  808                             8080 = 8888

Eight= Sh’moneh from the root Shin Mem Nun (Shah’meyn) “to make fat,”

“cover with fat,” “to super abound.” As the number “7” represents

perfection, completion, and rest, “8” represents over and above this

perfect completion.

Haftarah: Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) 1:1-2:3

Within these verses we are assured as was Jeremiah that our G-d is with us and will rescue us IF we are but obedient with heartfelt intent to G-d’s Torah (1:6-8). We are reminded that “Israel is set aside for Adonai, the first fruits of His harvest; all that devour him will incur guilt; evil will befall them.” (2:3). However, we are also reminded of how far Israel had fallen away from G-d and that He pronounce His judgments against Israelites and anyone else who abandons Him and chooses his own way.

B’rit Chadashah: Mattityahu (Matthew) 5:33-37 

This section reiterates the importance of vows, a subject addressed at the beginning of our parashah. We must follow through with our choice to either do something we promise to do or not do that which we vowed not to do. For the believer, we know that all of our vows are made before G-d as we are His representatives on this earth. Yahshua takes the issue of vows and teaches us that it is better not to make a vow at all, rather than making a vow that we may not keep (Ecc. 5:1-6). After all, only G-d knows what will happen to us from one second to the next. It is actually arrogant for us to make any vow. It is in our best interest to pray, study, integrate and live G-d’s Torah from day to day, making it our second nature and increasing our ability through G-d’s strength and power to live what we say we believe.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Tamah Davis