In case we were feeling emboldened and empowered by the upholding of Zelophedad’s daughters’ request for inheritance in last week’s parshah, this week we are reminded that a woman under the care of her father or husband (this includes most women except for widows and very few who remain unmarried after their fathers die) are often subservient to them. Vows made to God are considered unbreakable, however women’s vows can be annulled by their husband and father and are also considered breakable if made without the husband or father’s consent. We are reminded that women have very little power in this society. Zelophedad’s daughters are revisited in this parshah. A concern is raised about their inheritance rights leading to land being transferred to another tribe should they choose to marry. Thus they are told they can marry only within their own tribe – highlighting that the control of women has not subsided, but perhaps has been further heightened, in spite of their successful legal claim.
The rest of the parshah deals with warring between the Israelites and the Midianites. A continuation of the condemnation of the casual sexuality and other perceived sins, the priests are clearly asserting their own power and worth in the writing of this section. Eleazar (son and successor to Aaron) shows his military power, and the struggle is about purification as well as domination/conquering. The Israelites are very successful and they slay many people, they save only the virgin women who are presumably held captive. They also purify themselves after the slaughter according to Priestly law and ritual. Although the text does not mention that the Israelites are so successful because they are under God’s protection, the preceding chapters dealing with sacrifice, how to uphold the calendar/ritual holidays, and also on vows, makes the connection implicit. Of course, the writers of the story have an investment in presenting them as being victors because God is on their side.
Mase’ei picks up where Mattot leaves off – describing the settlement of the Israelites as they approach Canaan. Mase’ei goes back through the wandering of the desert and traces where the Israelites are said to have stopped along the way. This provides a fictitious geographical history of the wandering in the desert and eventual conquering of Canaan. Not all scholars believe the text to be fictitious, but there is no historical evidence that the Israelites were in these places listed. Rather, it seems like the narrative retroactively invents the history so as to convince the people of the Exodus narrative. The narrative is compelling indeed. Obviously if your forebears wandered in the desert for forty years, did not survive, and left you to enjoy the land, not to mention the extreme punishments they endured for transgressions relating to faith/belief, there is a stake in you sticking with this people, this emerging religion. The Exodus narrative as repeated every Passover is still a pronounced experience of inculcation into peoplehood.
After this “history,” God tells Moses to tell the people how to conquer Canaan. They must, essentially, destroy the Canaanite people and their objects of worship or else they will be destroyed. This section is about transferring all cultic and religious practice from Canaanite to Israelite (and what becomes Jewish) culture. Again, the story of the exodus is a tool to help bring forth this shift. The juxtaposition of these two elements – the wandering narrative with commands for how to solidify and solemnify as a cult/religion – shows us how inextricable these elements are.
The next section focuses on justice and, in particular, the consequences for and of murder. It discusses that, once in the land, the people should establish areas where those accused/suspected of murder may flee and remain safe until tried. This is the establishment of due process and restraining the emotion which may provoke vengeance. The text also states that “You shall not pollute the land in which you live; for blood pollutes the land” (35.33). The text makes a direct connection between the land and the people. They are going to populate Canaan; they are going to finally be a people in a land. Now the people are even more responsible to act justly. Note that the text instructs that we not turn on one another – that we not “pollute” the land with one another’s blood – a reminder that it is not just the external enemies we face but division from within. When Jews fight one another, in violence or in ideology, we risk severing ourselves from one another and from our historical ancestors. The message in this parshah, just as the metaphor of the promised land looms large, is that we create the promised land by honouring each other.