The Limits Of Power And Conquest
The book of Numbers, full of bloodshed and division, ends with a call for unity and a discussion of the sanctity of life.
The following article is reprinted with permission from the Orthodox Union.
The journey to the land of Canaan has been long and arduous. But, at long last, the conquest of the land is underway. Now, at the end of the journeys there are five utterances, which Hashem directs to Moshe, instructing the Children of Israel how to take possession of their land:
33:50-56--to dispossess all the inhabitants of the land and destroy all idolatry.
34:1-15--the boundaries of the land are described.
34:16-29--the tribal representatives who will help divide the land are listed.
35:1-8--the command to set aside cities for the tribe of Levi, who will not receive a regular portion in the land.
35:9-34--the cities of refuge for the unintentional murderer are designated, and the laws of murder and manslaughter are set forth.
Abrabanel (Don Yitzchak Abrabanel, 1437-1508) says that Moshe is thereby comforted: Although he will not lead the Children of Israel into the land, the conquest in its entirety is dependent upon the Divine utterances he will teach.
At first glance, it would seem that the cities of refuge are discussed here because six of the Levite cities were cities of refuge. Then, it is appropriate that the fuller discussion of the laws of murder and manslaughter follows. Still, the effect of concluding with these topics is unsettling.
Why end the tumultuous book of Bamidbar--indeed, why prepare for entry into the land--on this note? Of the many commandments that are particular to the land of Israel, why "sign off" with the cities of refuge? Are there not more uplifting commandments to be dealt with than bloodshed? And, are there not other commandments more specifically land-of-Israel-oriented than murder?
And, what is the relevance of the marriage of the daughters of Zelophehad, which concludes the book (Ch. 36)?
Regarding murder, the Torah says:
And you shall not pollute the land in which you are, because blood is that which pollutes the land; and the land will not be atoned for the blood that is spilled in it except by the blood of the one who spilled it. And you shall not defile the land in which you settle, in the midst of which I dwell, for I Hashem dwell in the midst of the Children of Israel (35:33-34).
As the Ramban (Nachmanides) explains, although these laws apply everywhere, they are even more severe in the land of Israel, because of the Divine Presence there. All human life must be cherished, because all human beings are created in the image of Hashem. Murder is deplorable in any society, and respect for human life must be the basis of any system of ethics.
But, if innocent blood is spilled in the land of Israel, this desecrates the bond between Hashem and the land. Often, the Torah speaks of the land of Israel as an organic entity: it reacts by rejecting immorality in its most basic forms, such as sexual immorality (Leviticus 18:25-28), idolatry (Deuteronomy 11:16-17), and bloodshed, in our passage.
Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) sees a parallel between this passage and the commandments given to Noach after the Flood. Mankind's emergence from the Ark was a precursor of the Children of Israel's leaving the wilderness--Israel prepares to inhabit the promised land just as Noach and his descendants prepared to inhabit the earth. Humanity, from that point on, was permitted to use both vegetable and animal life as it saw fit, but they were cautioned against bloodshed:
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