Pages 5-7: summer 1993 SEXUAL CONDUCT PENTATEUCHAL STYLE Robert Countess, Ph.D. There are

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Pages 5-7: summer 1993 SEXUAL CONDUCT PENTATEUCHAL STYLE Robert Countess, Ph.D. There are several biblical passages that I consider unambiguous in their implications or the inferences that may be drawn from them concerning sexual beliefs and practices of the times in which they were written. One is found in Numbers 31: "But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves" (v:18, RSV). The context is the overall conquest of the land after the exodus. Specifi- cally, chapter 31 treats a war with Midian. Yahweh required revenge against Midian for its previous wrong of Israel (Num. 25). After this military expe- dition, Moses was to be gathered to his people (31:1), a euphemism for his death. Paramount here is Yahweh's vengeance (v:3)--not justice or rehabilitation--and this vengeance was to take on the form of a nearly total annihilation of men, women, children, and animals. The cities were to be burned also, but we are not told if the fruit and olive trees and the vine- yards were to be cut down. Twelve thousand Israelite men warred against Midian and killed every (adult) male (v:7). So far, there was obedience, but we then read that captivity rather than destruction was the end result for the women, children, animals, and other goods (v:9). On the return of his army, Moses upbraided the officers for sparing "all the women" (v:15), who were of the same nation- ality as the women who had enticed some 24,000 Israelite men to idolatry and sexual relations in an earlier incident (Num. 25). Moses ordered that "every male among the little ones" be killed (v:17), but he did not enjoin the killing of every Midianite female--only those who had had sexual intercourse with men. The text does not put this command of Moses in Yahweh's mouth, but the context implies that Moses was here carry- ing out Yahweh's word. So now the warriors killed all women who had had sexual experience. I find it interesting, even though it might not be all that significant, that those spared were not called virgins [bethulah] but simply "the young girls who have not known man by lying with him" (v:18). Was the writer implying by this that pagan women could not be virginal in a high, ethical sense, but that they were only those with a physical qualification called hymen intactus? At any rate, the stated purpose for sparing these "intact" females was a sort of dative of advantage: "for yourselves." And according to verse 35, there were some 32,000 "intact" females spared. The formula for dividing up this fortuitous bounty was 50:50 for warriors and congregation (v:27). Thereupon, Yahweh's portion was 1:500 (v:28) of the 50% that the warriors received, whereas the Levites' share was considerably larger: 1:50 of the 50% given to the congregation. The "intact" females were divided as follows: 16,000 to the warriors (and since there had been only 12,000 warriors to begin with, and all had sur- vived, this balanced out to one and one-third virgins per warrior); 16,000 for the congregation (how they were distributed to the hundreds of thousands of Israelites was left unsaid); then 32 females for Yahweh and 320 for the Levites. At issue here is the question: For what purpose(s) were these "intact" females spared? What did Yahweh want or need? And what did he actually do with them? Since the Levites were ministers at the cultic site, it is only logical to conclude that these 32 were turned over to them for use. In the context of this story, the answer was apparently one of aposiopesis. What kind of stated answer really could have been given the readers? Here, silence is truly golden. In the division of the captives, last in the list were the congregation's 15,680 females. This was the 16,000 less the Levites' 320. Parceling them out to the twelve tribes gave about 306 per tribe and thus not really very many to go around. Again, in the various households to which they did in fact go, if used as menials, sexual temptation would certainly ensue for fathers and sons. Question: could these females have ever become full Israelite women through marriage? Precedent supports an affirmative answer on the analogy of the "mixed multitude" that accompanied Israel out of Egypt, even though the matter can be treated only indirectly from the texts. More directly might be the prece- dent in which Moses, having taken a Cushite woman to wife (LXX: aithiops, the common Greek term for "burnt faced" peoples, that is, Hamitic types). Although Miriam and Aaron were highly critical of this marriage (even though their explicit reason was not given), Yahweh's siding with his servant Moses supports the inference that a foreign woman could become as legitimate a member of Israel as any other (Num. 12). On the other hand, because of the immediate association of these Midianite females, it seems unlikely that they would have been regarded fit for mar- riage. Hence, the interpretation that I deem most genial with the context's "for yourselves" (v:18) is that these virgins were for whatever general disposition that comported with the Yahwistic milieu. Namely, that they could be handled sexually. Analogy for this is Leviticus 19:20-22, which made provisions for an Israelite to lie sexually with a female slave even though she was betrothed to another man (slave?). The two of them were not to be put to death, since "she has not been freed" (RSV). Thus, I construe that Israelite men could have similarly related to these Midianite females. CONCLUSION: The thesis question for this study, assuming only the Pentateuch for guidance, asks about both content and practice for us today. As for belief content, we might hold that sexual relations on a somewhat casual basis are acceptable as long as the female is (1) intact, (2) not idola- trous, and (3) not married, even though perhaps betrothed. We can be (1) warriors, (2) laymen, (3) priests, (4) married, and, inferentially, (5) Yahweh himself. The latter is most shocking to the sensibility, but we are to remember that Yahweh was directing Israelite life in great detail during this period, and, secondly, the people were called upon to be followers, that is, emulators of Yahweh. For interpretations that seek to give adequate emphasis to the tribal significance of Yahweh, my inference cannot seem too far- fetched. APPLICATION: Were I, as chaplain, to have taken Numbers 31 for my sermon text and spoken to a combat arms unit on the eve of a battle, say, in Vietnam, and further, say, My Lai, Vietnam, I might have said the following: Men, you have read with me this chapter of God's word to Israel just before attacking the Midianites. Let me reemphasize the salient points. When you go into battle, you will, with success, reach a village called on our maps My Lai, and you are to utterly destroy it with napalm and explosives. Kill every male without regard to age, even those sucking at the breasts of their mothers. Kill the mothers too. Kill also every female who is not a virgin. Our medics will provide clinical direction about those in doubt as to their intact status. You are free to take spoils of sheep, donkeys, and cattle as you have opportunity, as well as any valuables you come across. After this battle is over--and I pray that all of you will return safely--our commander will divvy up the virgins and the spoils on an equitable basis. The virgins will be for yourselves. You who are married, I'm sure, have understanding wives, because, after all, it is our God who has outlined our mission and its execution. After it's all over, men and women (of our all- volunteer, nonsexist army), I'll lead you in a postvictory chapel service of praise and thanksgiving to Yahweh. May God go with you all! Amen. As distasteful and even ludicrous as the above scenario might sound, I believe that what I have inferred and reconstructed is an accurate reflection mutatis mutandis when placed within the context of the thesis of this article. Perhaps in no other way can we enter into the Old Testament milieu and see what it might have been like to have lived in a certain slice of that era. One may call my approach "heuristic" in the sense of our trying to emulate the oft repeated dictum: "Follow the scriptures." Are avid preachers of that dictum really willing to follow this example? (Dr. Robert Countess is a former army chaplain, who holds the Ph.D. in NT Greek text and is a history adjunct at Alabama A & M University in Huntsville. His address is 120 Sagewood Circle, Toney, AL 35773.) ******************************** FREE SUBSCRIPTION: A free one-year subscription to The Skeptical


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