Moshe and Herodotus

In B’midbar (Numbers) 31, the story is told of the Israelites’ victory over the Midianites. In it, Moshe (Moses) commands the army to kill all the Midianites except the unmarried women (virgins). This was, apparently a somewhat common ancient practice, since Herodotus references it multiple times in his Histories and in detail. However, Herodotus uses his examples as a cautionary tale against the practice, but no parallel warning occurs in the Torah. Why?

Herodotus
In Herodotus’ examples, the surviving women of conquered peoples do not assimilate into their new nationality. Rather, they resist. In one case the conquered women refuse to eat with their spouses (the conquerors took wives from among the captives) and only speak in their native tongue, passing both practices down to their daughters along with the story of the slaughter of their people, resulting in a culture in which the men and women do not eat together and speak different languages over all. In another case, the conquered women (also taken as wives) teach their sons to hate the sons of the native-born women and to hate their own fathers. In this story, violence breaks out between the two groups of sons; and their fathers, seeing where this is going, are put in the position of killing both their foreign wives and the sons they had by them.

However, in the Torah, no such problems are referenced. The unmarried women are captured and assimilated into the Israelite tribes, presumably marrying Israelite men. Since girls married young in those days and all female children were kept alive in the story, it also stands to reason that these captured girls were adopted by Israelite families prior to their marriages, both because they would need parents and because they would need assistance in acclimating to their new culture. Why is there no rebellion, though?

The answer lies in cultural differences. The ancient Greeks practiced an extreme form of gender segregation. Men and women generally lived in separate quarters (even married couples), with women doing all the child rearing until the boys were old enough to learn their trade. Women generally did not spend much time outdoors, thus limiting the amount of interaction they had with men even in passing, and they had no individual rights to speak of. To illustrate this point, Herodotus recounts in The Histories the practices of many contemporary non-Hellenic peoples. One group, he claims, keep men and women so separate that a man is customarily not informed of the birth of his own child until the child reaches the age of five years. In this way, the man is protected from emotional upset should his child fail to survive those first five years. While the group that did this was “barbarian” (not Greek), Herodotus cites the practice as admirable and states the opinion that the Greeks should adopt it–it’s a logical custom to him and not a stretch of the imagination.


Different takes on the world, according to the Ancient Greeks.
No parallel behavior existed in ancient Judaism. In order for captured women married to conquerors to turn children against their own fathers, the women need almost exclusive access to their children. The fathers must be absent. Moreover, the women must not have been reeducated in their new culture.

The Torah, in contrast to Herodotus’ examples, emphasizes the importance of the fatherly role, and, more importantly, of people marrying who agree on culture and faith. While multiple examples exist both to support and discourage the intermarriage of Israelite men and foreign women, B’midbar 31 is just one of many examples of intermarriage being overlooked so long as the risk of the Israelite wandering off into foreign practices is minimized. These women don’t have the opportunity to seduce Israelite lovers to idolatry, because the women themselves are captives–they are being led to Israelite practices.

The assimilation of captured peoples requires a social mechanism through which assimilation is assured. Ancient Greek culture had no such mechanism or set of mechanisms. Israelite culture, on the contrary, was rife with them: frequent interaction between the sexes, an active role for fathers with their children, an explicit set of guidelines for the treatment of foreigners/newcomers, and an emphasis on communal practice of religious customs.


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