Fighting in God’s Cause & Being Ritually Unclean

One of the features of war and the modern nation-state is the moral legitimacy of killing for one’s country and the fact that killing does not morally taint the killer. In fact, the man (or woman) who kills for king and/or country is heroic, virtuous and not unclean (I hate not un- constructions, but it works here). Any hint that a soldier fighting the good fight for a good cause has somehow been tainted in any way by that fighting is disloyal, unpatriotic and immoral.

However, I recently found something interesting in the Hebrew scriptures. In Numbers 31 (Numbers is that long somewhat, at least to begin with, tedious book of the Torah the begins with an interminable census of Israel in the wilderness and ends with some instructions on how Israel will parcel out the land of Canaan and live in that land; in between, there’s some gory and fascinating stuff), YHWH (The Lord; this little Asus Eee PC I’m writing on doesn’t allow me to write in Hebrew or Arabic) commands Moses to avenge Israel on Midian. About ten chapters previously, Balak the king of Moab told the elders of Midian that something needed to be done about Israel because “this hoarde will lick clean all that is about us as an ox licks up the grass of the field.” (Num 22:4, JPS Tanakh) This kicks off the entire Balak/Balaam episode, of which I may write more later. In chapter 25, it is a Midianite woman that Phineas, the grandson of Aaron, stabs in the gut in order to stem a plague God inflicted on Israel because the Israelites fooled around with non-Israelite women.

This is, apparently, enough for God to demand vengeance upon Midian. God calls upo0n Moses to draft (or accept volunteers, as the text in English is not clear and I don’t have my Hebrew dictionary handy) 1,000 volunteers from each of the 12 tribes of Israel — 12,000 men under the command of Moses and the aforementioned Phineas. They “slew every male” including Balaam and:

The Israelites took the women and children of the Midianites captive, as seized as booty all their beasts, all their herds, and all their wealth. And they destroyed by fire all the towns in which they were settled, and their encampments. (Numbers 31:9-10)

(Except that they didn’t, because Midian shows up again in Judges 6, oppressing Israel as if they’d never, ever been exterminated. The Amelekites appear to pose a similar difficulty, they just refuse to stay dead, and it’s amazing just how many times Israel annihilates them.)

Moses and Eldeazar are angry — the male children and all women who have “known a man carnally” (31:17) are to be killed as well. The only Midianites left standing are “every young woman who has not had carnal relations with a man.” (31:18)

(So, I’m guessing those Midianites in Judges just sprouted out of the ground or something…)

Now remember, this is the Lord’s work, an act of vengeance ordained by God upon Israel and led by Moses, the leader of God’s people Israel, and Eleazar, the son of Aaron and the high priest of Israel. It is as close to holy war as I think we can get. So, the soldiers doing this work are noble heroes who should be greeted with maidens and parades, right?

[Moses said] “You [plural] shall then stay outside the camp seven days; every one among you or among your captives who has slain a person or touched a corpse shall cleanse himself on the third and seventh day. You shall also cleanse every cloth, every article of skin, everything made of goats’ hair, and every object of wood.”

Eleazar the priest said to the troops who had taken part in the fighting, “This is the ritual law that the Lord has enjoined upon Moses: Gold and silver, copper, iron, tin and lead — any article that can withstand fire — these you shall pass through fire and they shall be clean, except that they must be cleansed with water of lustration; and anything that cannot withstand fire you must pass through water. On the seventh day you shall wash your clothes and be clean, and after that you may enter the camp.” (Numbers 31:19-24)

One of the reasons Numbers is such tedious and eye-watering reading is that in addition to counting the tribes, detailing which Levites will put up and tear down and then carry tabernacle poles, or how many animals will be offered as sacrifices on what days, there’s also a whole lot about ritual cleanliness. Chapter 19 deals specifically the ritual cleansing needed by Israelites (and strangers living among Israel) who come into contact with dead bodies.

He who touches the corpse of any human being shall be unclean for seven days. He shall cleanse himself with it [the ashes from a burnt pure red heffer] on the third day and on the seventh day, and then be clean; if he fails to cleanse himself on the third and seventh days, he shall not be clean. Whoever touches a corpse, the body of a person who has died, and does not cleanse himself, defiled the Lord’s Tabernacle; that person shall be cut off from Israel. Since the water of lustration [water made from the ashes of the burnt red heffer], he remains unclean; his uncleanness is still upon him. (Number 19:11-13)

There’s more, but this is what’s important in Chapter 19. And what’s important about putting this in context of Numbers 31 is that ritual impurity applies not only to those who touch or deal with the corpses of Israelites, but also those people Israel kills in war. Even when the soldiers of Israel wage war at God’s command, when they massacre non-combatants at God’s command, they are considered ritually unclean. And not just their bodies, but their instruments of war. They are not allowed in the camp, these 12,000 volunteers, for seven days.

What is someone suggested that American soldiers coming back from Iraq or Afghanistan were ritually unclean for having killed? (Or, heaven forbid, IDF soldiers needed to go cool their heels someplace to take a couple of baths before coming home?)

I remember reading someplace, and I wish I could remember where, that a following one of the Crusades, a bishop or somesuch made returning soldiers do penance — sackcloth and ashes — because even though the war was a noble one, called by the church, individual fighters still did damage to conscience that demanded repentance and penance. Whether that’s true, this passage from Numbers is “true” in so far as it is on the page. It is a reminder that one’s enemies are, however justified one may be in fighting them, human beings, and killing them on some level injures — even if for only seven days — the one who kills.

But in our era of the always-virtuous nation-state, our warriors are never wrong, never tainted, never in need of acknowledging that on some level, even as they may fight for good, noble (and even divinely sanctioned) causes, the killing they do still injures them and, on some level, separates them from the community and requires some acknowledgment and even reconciliation.

This would require we live in a more contemplative era. And in a more contemplative society.

6 thoughts on “Fighting in God’s Cause & Being Ritually Unclean

  1. I’ll be reading Numbers again next week. I thought it was just the priests and Levites who were ritually defiled by touching a corpse. That was why Jesus used them in the story of the Samaritan, right? The Law forbade them to take the risk the guy died under their hands.Not important in relation to your point, for which I’m grateful. If anything defiles anybody, it’s taking part in war, even as a compliant, cheerleading citizen safe at home. Cleansing?not so sure this side of the cross


  2. Okay, maybe I’m being simplistic, but when I read stuff like that, the first thing that comes to mind is that those rituals probably sprang from very practical concerns about disease. Contact with corpses (even fresh ones, which may be covered in blood) in a time with less hygiene and less understanding of disease and bacteria, was perhaps dangerous. Ritual cleansing may have had more to do with the body than the soul. But by couching the requirement as a religious imperative, it increases compliance. Just a thought.Still, I think you make an interesting point.


  3. Great stuff bro. I found your article while doing preperation for my sermon on the healing of Jairu’s daughter (Mark 5).I’m sure you’re right. Even though all dead bodies are on view in the passage, verse 16 certainly reminds us that wars are included.Even the ‘sacred violence’ of a ‘holy war’ defiles the warrior!Father


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