Fr. James' Lectionary

The Lectionary is both a reading program for completing all of Holy Scripture on a one year schedule, and a daily comment on a portion of the day's reading wedded to a poem to give an added perspective on the theme.

Location: Amherst, Virginia, United States

Thursday, May 05, 2005


Daily Readings
Proverbs 12 + Numbers 31 + Deuteronomy 24 + Romans 6

Quote of the Day
Fools show their anger at once,
But the prudent ignore an insult. Proverbs 12:16

Daily Text: Numbers 31:1-9, 25-30, 48-51

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 2"Avenge the Israelites on the Midianites; afterward you shall be gathered to your people." 3So Moses said to the people, "Arm some of your number for the war, so that they may go against Midian, to execute the Lord's vengeance on Midian. 4You shall send a thousand from each of the tribes of Israel to the war." 5So out of the thousands of Israel, a thousand from each tribe were conscripted, twelve thousand armed for battle. 6Moses sent them to the war, a thousand from each tribe, along with Phineas son of Eleazar the priest, with the vessels of the sanctuary and the trumpets for sounding the alarm in his hand.
7 They did battle against Midian, as the LORD had commanded Moses, and killed every male. 8They killed the kings of Midian: Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba, the five kings of Midian, in addition to others who were slain by them; and they also killed Balaam son of Beor with the sword. 9The Israelites took the women of Midian and their little ones captive; and they took all their cattle, their flocks, and all their goods as booty.
25 The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 26"You and Eleazar the priest and the heads of the ancestral houses of the congregation make an inventory of the booty captured, both human and animal. 27Divide the booty into two parts, between the warriors who went out to battle and all the congregation. 28From the share of the warriors who went out to battle, set aside as tribute for the LORD, one item out of every five hundred, whether persons, oxen, donkeys, sheep, or goats. 29Take it from their half and give it to Eleazar the priest as an offering to the LORD. 30But from the Israelites' half you shall take one out of every fifty, whether persons, oxen, donkeys, sheep, or goats--all the animals--and give them to the Levites who have charge of the tabernacle of the LORD."
48 Then the officers who were over the thousands of the army, the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds, approached Moses, 49and said to Moses, "Your servants have counted the warriors who are under our command, and not one of us is missing. 50And we have brought the Lord's offering, what each of us found, articles of gold, armlets and bracelets, signet rings, earrings, and pendants, to make atonement for ourselves before the LORD." 51Moses and Eleazar the priest received the gold from them, all in the form of crafted articles.

With the account of the Midianite war we begin this scorched earth policy of destroying everything and everyone except the booty. Phineas, the son of Eleazar, the high priest, is sent as priest on this campaign. We have already seen Phineas at work (Numbers 25:7) in very zealous fashion and his presence highlights the ‘holy war’ this seems to be. We know that in this case and in the clearing of the land to come that this policy of killing all males and mature women was to create a place for the Israelites free of pagan worship and influence. If they allowed the women to live and the Israelite men married the pagan women they would be influenced by them in their religion as well as in other cultural ways. They almost never carried this holocaust out thoroughly, but the principle was in place and it was understood.

On this occasion they reportedly killed all the men and brought the women back as part of the booty. Moses is furious and commands them to kill all of the females who have had sexual intercourse. How they would know this, I can’t imagine unless they had already been raped by the Israelite soldiers—not at all an unlikely scenario.

War is a terrible process. Most folks shudder at descriptions like those in this chapter as well they should. But war is like killing meat for food. Lots of folks don’t like to think about it, but they eat meat regularly. This sort of terrible travesty is a part of war. When the U. S. invaded Iraq in 2002 we dropped leaflets telling people to come out of their homes with their hands up and they would be safe. But many are the accounts we have of their being mown down indiscriminately. There is no justification for it, but war is obscene, always. War is wrong, but war is culturally acceptable. Let’s not get superior over war tactics 3000 years ago.

Did God command the war or was Moses anger responsible for it? Was Balaam in Midian or was he in Mesopotamia? How were all Midianite males removed and yet Midian was able to continue as a nation that fought Israel (Judges 6-8)? The Midianites are completely subdued with no loss of life among the Israelite warriors! Why is it that many cultures treat the enemy as if he (and she) is less than human? In order to kill indiscriminately? Remember the phrase in the American Indian wars,“The only good Indian is a dead Indian?” I was in the Dominican Republic in 1965 when President Johnson sent in the troops and I heard an American soldier in Santo Domingo say that about Dominicans. By demonizing the enemy we overcome the religious and cultural prohibitions against killing. Christians may not demonize their enemies. The New Testament and Jesus are clearly against war. Instead, Jesus taught that we are to love our enemies. He didn’t say we wouldn’t have enemies, but we are to love them, and treat as we would be treated. The Church has seldom embraced Jesus' teaching completely, with notable exceptions like the Mennonites and Quakers, but it has tried to limit the atrocities that we see in Numbers 31 and Iraq with the Doctrine of Just War that imperfectly attempts to limit what can be done in war. These are huge issues for Christians and for Jews. Surely, the only appropriate posture is one of humility.

O God of Field and CityJohn Haynes Holmes

O God of field and city,
O Lord of shore and sea,
Behold us in Thy pity
Lift naked hands to Thee.
Our swords and spears are shattered,
Our walls of stone down-thrust,
Our reeking altars scattered
And trodden in the dust.

O God of law unbroken,
O Lord of justice done,
Thine awful word is spoken
From sun to flaming sun:
We hate and we are hated,
We slay, and lo, are slain;
We feed and still unsated
We hunt our prey again.

O God of mercy tender,
O Lord of love most free,
Forgive as we surrender
Our wayward wills to Thee.
Absolve our fell allegiance
To captain and to king;
Receive in full obedience
The chastened hearts we bring.


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