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G-d told Moses: 'Avenge… the Midianites' (31:1-2).
Though the Midianites joined up with Moabites in their bid to tempt the Israelites into idolatry and adultery, G-d told Moses to avenge the Midianites only. Rashi explains this is because the Moabites sought to weaken the Israelites out of fear that the Israelites might harm them (c.f. 22:3). In contrast, the Midianites (25:17-18), had never been threatened. They were not in reach of the Israelite route to the Promised Land, but they took the initiative in joining Moab in a campaign against Israel, even though the Israelites did not menace Midianite interests.
But G-d did not tell Moses to destroy Midian - as he did with Og the King of Bashan: 'you shall do to him as you did to Sihon, King of the Amorites…' (then) 'we captured their cities… we utterly destroyed them as we did to Sihon the King of the Amorites… and took all their cattle and spoils' (Deut. 3:2-7).
Both Sihon and Og on one hand, and the Midianites on the other hand, sought to destroy, or at least weaken Israel. Sihon answered Israelites' request for safe passage through his lands by going out to war with them (21:21-23). Og followed suit (21:33-34). Both were destroyed; in Og's case 'to the last person' (21:24).
The Midianites used a different approach - by breaking the connection between the Israelites and their Sponsor - G-d. 'Their supreme power hates adultery' (Sanhedrin 106a) - therefore they tempted them to assimilate into their own culture of Baal Peor, which combined idolatry and adultery. They indeed succeeded in arousing G-d's extreme displeasure, with 24,000 Israelites dead in plague (25:9). And they were to continue to make life extremely unpleasant for them during the time of the Judges (Judg. 6:2-3).
As explanation, perhaps the Midianites were spared the ultimate destruction for the following reason (only five out of all the Midianite kings were killed - 31:8). The Israelites had done nothing to antagonize Sihon and Og. The latter attacked the Israelites on their own initiative. The Israelites had no choice, but to fight back, and ensure that they would never be able to strike in the future again.
In contrast, the Midianites played on the Israelite weaknesses and tempted them to the hilt, but they did not force anything on them. The Israelites had the choice, and they let the exigencies and excitement of the moment decide for them. They could, and were expected, to have said 'No'.
Thus only five royal states of Midian were destroyed, but their civilization was not utterly wiped out… Nor were the Israelites allowed to occupy Midianite land. This might have been a salutary lesson to the Israelites that they are required to face and deal with their own shortcomings. One must not blame others for one's own weakness - however aroused.
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Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
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Also by Jacob Solomon:
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