The last thing Moses was commanded to do before retiring from this world was to exterminate the Midianites. Hebrew relations with the Midians were uneasy: Moses took a wife from among them and recorded Jewish laws on the advice of his father-in-law, a pagan priest. The Jewish attitude toward the Midian wife, Zipporah, was negative: Moses had to send her away before embarking on the Exodus mission. Likewise, Moses’ family rejected his other wife, a Nubian. His children by Zipporah did not inherit his authority and do not figure prominently in the Tanakhic chronicles. Even converted gentile women were not good enough for Jewish leaders.

There was a continuous intermingling between Jews and Midians. Some Midians lived among Jews and were so intimate that Moses refused to let them go, lest they reveal significant military information to enemies. Many Jewish men had relations with Midian women, prompting Pinchas to assassinate one of them along with his Midian wife. Pinchas’ action, the murder of a nice interfaith family, earned him eternal blessing from God himself.

genocide of Midians by humble Moses

The genocide of the Midians is traditionally thought to be Moses’ last earthly assignment, though “you would join your peoples” can be taken literally as a permission to leave the Israelites. Whatever the case, why were the Midians singled out for prosecution? By this time, Jews had plenty of violent enemies, and the Midians were friendly to the point of readiness to intermingle. It is this intermingling that the Jews were commanded to avenge. Not surprisingly, the genocide was made Moses’ business: he had started interfaith relations with Midians by marrying Zipporah, and he had to expiate his sin by killing his unsuspecting relatives. The sin of interfaith marriage was great: when Moses did not abandon his pagan wife immediately after hearing God speaking from the burning bush, God sought to kill him in desert, and savvy Zipporah averted divine wrath by circumcising their child.

Hebrews, a deeply polygamous society, inherently lacked enough Jewish wives and therefore often intermarried. Like Moses, many Hebrews had married Midianites. The solution was found in genocide: once all other Midianites were exterminated, those who had married Jews automatically became rootless and honestly embraced Jewishness as their only possible identity.

The transgression was Jewish, so why kill the Midians? Here lies a concept of immense importance for modern Israel: God doesn’t expect Jews to be perfect. Other nations are exterminated for their transgressions, but not Jews. The Torah is explicit that the Canaanites lost their land because of their transgressions, but Jews would return there after having been dispersed. The Exile has ended and Israel reestablished not because of Jews’ merits—we don’t merit that much—but only because God has a purpose for Jews. We’re his instrument, experimental mice if you wish. He realizes his divine plans through us. Whatever happens to our enemies is not for our sake, but for his. On that, I believe, Satmar is wrong: even ruled by crooks and socialists, Israel is not an accident, but a part of the divine plan laid out in prophecies.

Back to the expedition against the Midians. It was so important that even Levites joined it. The participation of Levites indicates that the affair was a slam-dunk one—Hebrews did not normally risk their priests. The fighting was lopsided: the Jews numbered more than 600,000 males, but thought it enough to send just a 12,000-strong mob against the Midians.  Not a single Jew was killed in the expedition, but among the prisoners were 32,000 virgins. Evidently, the Midians were a large and peaceful nation exterminated by the Jews on God’s order. As if the genocide was not enough, Moses lashed out against the Jews: “How dare you to leave all women alive?… Now kill all the male children, and every woman who knew a husband.”

Still, the Torah calls Moses “the humblest man.” Could a humble man preside over genocide? The answer is a definite yes. Moses’ humility was his entire submission to divine will. A tremendous erosion of the concept took place afterward: Jewish humility came to mean submission to people, even down to enemies and oppressors. Whatever his own views, Moses entirely accepted God’s definition of morality. Divine decrees set the standard of morality, and anything God told him to do was moral by definition. Even genocide was moral when perpetrated on divine orders.

Modern Jews should not shrink from the explicit commandment to cleanse the land God gave us of its hostile inhabitants.