Trials: Jealousy, Leprosy, Dishonesty, and Genocide (Numbers)

Monday, May 9, 2022


Thank you for creating and editing this transcript Sarah! You are wonderful!

Channing: [00:00:00] Hi! I'm Channing.

Elise: And I'm Elise. 

Channing: And this is The Faithful Feminists Podcast. 

Elise: [00:00:12] We focus on feminist interpretations of scriptures and follow the LDS Come Follow Me manual as a guide for study. We understand scriptures can be a tricky endeavor for readers, but we also believe sacred texts contain compelling examples of loving and liberating relationships with The Divine, others, and ourselves. We hope you'll join us in exploring the problems and promises of sacred texts with imagination, critique, and celebration to reveal what we feel is the loving and liberating heart of scripture.

Channing: [00:00:41] While Mormonism, with its iconic floral foyer couches, is our background, we follow our faith and our God on the winding path of spirituality over institution, and connection over condemnation.  We are fellow wanderers, weavers, and doubters. If you’ve found yourself feeling a little too faithful for some and not enough for others: Welcome. We've saved you a seat on the soft chairs. This podcast is funded by our listeners’ generous donations. If you'd like to support our work, connect with us on Patreon or on our website at

Elise: [00:01:22] Hello, everyone. We are so glad that you're here because today we are doing yet another entire book of scripture in one episode or in one week. This week, we're working through the book of Numbers for the dates May 9th through the 15th. So a quick summary from our fantastic and very favorite, Reverend Dr. Wil Gafney, who writes: “the book of Numbers may well be regarded as Exodus Part 2. Many of the narratives that many biblical readers associate with the Exodus narrative occur in Numbers rather than in Exodus.” In these chapters, we have some really iconic stories that I'm sure many of you have heard of.

[00:02:00] This is where God supplies quail and manna to the people. This is also when the people are wandering and murmuring and whining in the wilderness. We see divine presence and guidance show up in the form of a pillar of fire. We have the story of poisonous snakes and the brass serpent that Moses holds up and tells the people to look on it and live. And we also have the story of a group of spies being sent into Canaan to look for the promised land. 

Channing: [00:02:27] Yeah. When we cover an entire book in one episode, there's a lot of ground to cover. There are 36 total chapters in the book of Numbers and the Come Follow Me manual assigns 9 of them. The chapters that are assigned are chapters 11 through 14, which cover the Israelites complaining that they've had way too much manna and would like some meat.

[00:02:52] So Moses complains to God that he just can't handle all these people alone. So God assigns Moses to choose 70 elders. And God says he will send so much quail to the people “until it comes out at your nostrils and it be loathsome unto you.” A great plague comes and it kills a whole bunch of people.

[00:03:15] We also see Miriam and Aaron complain against Moses in these chapters. And this is a story we'll cover later in today's episode. Also, we see Moses sending 12 spies into Canaan. 10 of them are afraid of the strength of the Canaanites and lie to Moses, but two of them named Joshua and Caleb do not lie. Lucky for them and unlucky for everyone else, God kills the lying spies. And the other 5 chapters that are assigned, chapters 20-24, we see Miriam's death. We also come across the same story with the fiery serpents, and we have a really fascinating instance of a prophesying donkey and blessings and visions of a man called Balaam who was supposed to originally curse the Israelites but didn't because of the said talking donkey. So lots of stuff happening in this week's entire book. And we wanted to look at the way that the manual highlights these chapters with headings like “Speaking against the Lord's prophet offends the Lord” and “Moses was very meek” and “With faith in the Lord, We can have hope for the future” and “If we look to Jesus Christ in faith, He can heal us spiritually.” Those headings make sense based on the chapters that were chosen for study, but we're hoping to cover more ground in today's episode and bring forward the stories with feminist relevance. That means today we'll be discussing the trial of jealousy illustrated in Numbers chapter 5, Miriam's punishment in chapter 12, the murder of the Midianite woman, Cozbi bat Tzur on her wedding day in chapter 25, the kidnapping and rape of the 32,000 virgin women, and genocide against the Midianites in chapter 31, and the daughters of Zelophehad in chapter 27. So knowing what we have coming up in this episode, we would just like to offer a content warning to our listeners.

[00:05:21] Later in our episode, we will be discussing genocide and rape. So as always, we encourage you to take care of yourselves and listen with care and caution.

Elise: [00:05:34] All right. So we're going to go ahead and get started in Numbers chapter 5, verses 12 through 31 that outlines a ritual meant to relieve a man of his jealousy.

[00:05:44] If he thinks that his wife has slept with another man, whether or not the husband's jealousy has good reason or not, this trial of jealousy means that he can bring his wife to the priest with a small offering of flour. The priest will charge the woman with an oath saying that if she is guilty, her belly will swell and her thigh will rot.

[00:06:08] If she is not guilty, she will not experience these afflictions, but will instead conceive a child. To this, the wife says, amen, amen. And then the priest mixes the ink from which the oath was written with holy water and dirt from the tabernacle floor. The woman then drinks the “bitter water”. If this trial of jealousy sounds a little bit like a witch trial to you, you are not alone.

[00:06:32] That is something that came up for Channing and I as we were talking about this chapter, so we decided to do more research and what we found were a few different approaches or ways to categorize and interpret this trial either through celebrating it or critiquing it. And the first thing that we came across was interpretations that saw this trial as a protective measure for women from abuse.

[00:06:54] There's an article from the Jerusalem Post by Nechama Goldman Barash, and the author writes, “In “The Torah, A Woman’s Commentary”, the editor comments that ‘the lack of repercussions for the wrongly suspicious husband also may protect his wife from convincing him to initiate the ritual. Assuming the bitter waters are humiliating, but harmless, it may be better for the wife to undergo the trial than to have to live with a jealous husband.’ ”

Channing: [00:07:23] The second interpretation that we found for the trial of jealousy was one that argued that the trial was meant as a reunification ritual for a couple. From The Torah Website in an article titled “The Sotah Ritual: Permitting a Jealous Husband to Remain with his Wife,” Professor Hanna Liss writes “the [Hebrew] root ‘jealous zeal’ in the chapter highlights a key goal of the ritual and its accompanying offering, namely, to remove the husband's jealous zeal and allow him to remain with his wife without guilt.”

[00:07:59] Liss says, “to put it differently, the case is not suspected cheating, with the jealousy merely explaining why the husband is bringing forward the case, but rather, the case is that the husband suspects cheating and he is feeling jealous. The ‘law of jealousies’ does not provide a means to convict a woman of adultery, but a means of reuniting the couple.”

Elise: [00:08:23] There are also some critiques of this trial of jealousy, particularly one that we found that was written by Johanna Steibert: “Violence in Marriage: A Closer Look at Numbers 5.” Steibert writes, “adultery is a lopsided matter, which occurs when a woman is either married or betrothed and has sexual relations with someone other than her husband. A married man, on the other hand, can have sex with other women without committing adultery, as long as the women are not married or betrothed to another man.” Steibert continues, “For feminist commentator Alice Bach, the emphasis on men's control of the woman in Numbers 5 reflects male anxiety about female erotic desire. Bach interprets the text to assert ‘dominance over women's bodies’ and to assure a husband that ‘his honor could be restored if he had so much as a suspicion that his wife had been fooling around.’ Ishay Rosen-Zvi agrees that the ritual constitutes ‘the ultimate cure for male fears, presenting the rebellious woman as passive, controlled, publicly exposed, and ultimately stripped of all of her seductive powers.’” Steibert refutes claims that the trial of jealousy was a protective measure for women.

[00:09:41] Steibert argues that it is unlikely that lawmakers created a ritualistic smokescreen to protect women. And second, Steibert argues against the idea that the potion was inherently harmless. They write: “It is also unlikely that if such a ritual was practiced, it did no harm to the woman - even if the potion was no more than a placebo, her husband suspects her of adultery and the suspicion is brought to the priest and possibly made known also to other members in the community - this alone is likely to cause the woman great distress. Additionally, there is the elaborate and formal ritual and the fear of punishment.” Steibert writes, “I find it disturbing that some interpreters consider the ritual to be protective of the woman. If that is the case, not only does protection come with elaborate accommodation to the husbands’ jealousies, but it also comes at considerable cost to the woman. The question arises: is such ‘protection’ worth having?” Steibert also points out that this law does not distinguish rape and assault from consensual adultery.

Channing: [00:10:46] With all of these different interpretations that either celebrate or critique the trial of jealousy, and all of the exegesis that we could provide for this, all of that aside, there is actually little evidence of a trial of jealousy ever being performed in biblical times. From the Jewish Women's Archive, author Ishay Rosen-Zvi writes “although the sotah ritual was probably discontinued (if it was ever indeed practiced) during the second temple era, we have no accounts from biblical times about the performance of the ritual. Even if we accept that the ritual was performed, it is hard to know exactly what form it took.” So, as you're moving through and reading the text in Numbers 5, hopefully this gives you a little bit of background information and just a small snippet of feminist interpretation about the trial of jealousy in Numbers 5. 

Elise: [00:11:42] Moving on from here, we're going to position ourselves in chapter 12. And this is where we see the return of our very beloved prophetess, Miriam. She shows up and in this story in chapter 12, she and Aaron show up and they criticize Moses because of the “Ethiopian woman whom he had married” in verse one of chapter 12. Now, Reverend Dr. Wil Gafney suggests that this criticism is not racialized, even though it might read that way to us, but rather it is a criticism for Moses's divorce of Zipporah in Exodus chapter 18, verse 2, and the abandonment of her and her children. In offering her midrash, Gafney writes, 

[00:12:24] “He had abandoned his first wife, Zipporah, and their children- after all she had done for him! She had saved his life from the hands of his own God. Her father had taught her about the God of Sinai and she had taught Moses. Moses traded her in for a new woman- it wasn't Zipporah’s fault she was abandoned like yesterday's garbage. Someone needed to tell him about himself before the other men started getting ideas and [Miriam], our prophet, got in his face and told him about himself.” So after Miriam and Aaron confront Moses and start criticizing him for abandoning Zipporah and the children, God hears this criticism and God calls together Miriam and Aaron and Moses, and God calls them in for a stern talking to where God basically proclaims that Moses is the better superior prophet out of all three of them.

[00:13:20] And then simultaneously as God leaves from the stern talking to, Miriam “became leprous, white as snow.” So Miriam gets leprosy. Aaron ends up begging Moses for mercy and forgiveness. And we hear Moses then call to God and ask for Miriam to be healed. However, she is not healed immediately and is instead cast out of the main camp for seven full days.

[00:13:47] At this point in the story, it should remind us both of marginalization and rules for communal health as we talked about last week in Leviticus. 

Channing: [00:13:55] So there are many, many lessons that we can learn from this story, but two things really stick out to us this week. The first being that the people refuse to leave without Miriam. In chapter 12 verse 15, it reads, “The people journeyed not until Miriam was brought into the main camp again.” This suggests that God or Moses or the camp had plans to move and continue the journey to the promised land, but many in the group refused to leave without Miriam. Of this, Gafney writes from the perspective of these people who wouldn't leave without Miriam, illustrating their feelings about it.

[00:14:31] She imagines them saying something along the lines of: “Now our Miriam, she's a real prophet. She goes to God on our behalf and God speaks to her for us. God comes when she pounds her drum. And when she dances God dances with her. Some say, we ought to have moved on by now. God-in-fire started to move. But a funny thing happened. Some of the women in the main camp refused to move without the prophet being gathered back into the main camp.” We love seeing how the people have Miriam's back. And for us, it reminds us of commitment, solidarity, and action. When we see a group of people taking on the affliction of one member as if this affliction was their own, we pay attention.

[00:15:17] And perhaps the people stand by Miriam, not only because she's an amazing, awesome prophet, but also because they recognize how she's been punished by patriarchy and power, and thus turned into a prophet from the margins, both in terms of physical space, by being separated from the main camp and marginalized because of a health condition.

Elise: [00:15:40] And this really sparks the second thing that stood out for us when reading this story is that Miriam is punished for speaking out against the prophet, for speaking out against patriarchy, and for speaking out against God. Now, remember it's Miriam and Aaron that stand up against Moses and critique him because they're standing in solidarity with a marginalized woman, specifically Zipporah, who Moses has neglected.

[00:16:06] However, the Come Follow Me manual uses this story as an opportunity to scare people into not speaking against the Lord's prophet because it “offends the Lord.” But what we see happening here is Miriam and Aaron being punished because they're speaking up for the proper treatment of women within a system of patriarchy.

[00:16:26] They're speaking up against the prophet and within a system that values control, within a system that is male-identified, male-dominated and male-centered, any and all critique or attempt at transformation of the system is not welcome. So yes, sure. Okay, Come Follow Me manual. Miriam was speaking against the Lord's prophet, but she was speaking up on behalf of and advocating for a woman that she loved, for all of the women she loved.

[00:16:52] She was speaking up for her sister-in-law and we can assume speaking up for the treatment of women and other marginalized folks at large. And still, this is not like an unfamiliar narrative in the LDS culture. It's been taught to us to always, always, always follow the prophet because he knows the way and we shouldn't go astray.

[00:17:13] We've been taught that criticizing or disagreeing or advocating against what the prophet says is the same as speaking out against God. And we're very afraid and we've been taught to be afraid of doing that. We've really loved the work of Derek and James that they've been doing on their Beyond The Block podcast and on their Instagram page.

[00:17:33] Because I think that they really do remind us to push back on the infallibility of prophets and to stop seeing the prophets as perfect, uncriticizable people. Each time I listen to some of their episodes. I'm reminded that the prophets don't know everything and they are so, so limited by their own bias, their own prejudice, their racism, homophobia, ableism, and that it really is our righteous duty to call them out, to critique the system and break the rules, especially when those rules seek to further marginalize folks and uphold a system of oppression.

[00:18:09] And even though, yeah, we can get really fired up about all of these calls to action. There also are always consequences for trying to critique and speak out against a system that would rather have you silent and compliant. And we see that, especially with a Miriam story because she gets cursed with leprosy.

[00:18:28] And I think for many Mormon feminists, what we hear is that the greatest fear of disobeying or speaking out and going against the leaders is fear of being excommunicated. And I think that that's also one way we could read Miriam's punishment. She was pushed out of the main camp where she held the formal power of prophetess and then marked with a disease as if to make her untouchable, untrustworthy and make it clear to the people what she had done.

[00:18:53] And what do we always say to the threat of excommunication? We always say: ‘you can't excommunicate me. I am the church.’ And as much as we love this line, Channing and I also both want to say that we have stopped attending church. And so there's a different type of resonance, I think with that line, ‘you can't excommunicate me, I am the church.’

[00:19:14] That will resonate differently for people who still find themselves called to being active and full-on attending members of the church and people who aren't in that same spot. We even see that play out with Miriam. Her people stand by her. They refuse to leave her behind and move on without her. They're more concerned about her well-being than they are about obeying a vengeful God who kicks people out of a camp for standing up for the least of these. So whether in or out, adjacent or full-on connected, whatever your relationship with the church looks like right now, I still think the lesson we can learn from the story of Miriam, about critiquing, holding people accountable and wanting to change systems, even if there are consequences is a relevant, resonant lesson, whatever our relationship with the church is like. So perhaps all of this is to say there will always be consequences and punishments, especially if we're attempting to make any true, lasting and substantial change. It reminds us of Audre Lord's line:

[00:20:20] “My silences have not protected me and your silences will not protect you.” So let's make big moves, speak up and out like Miriam. And let's also be the types of communities who will refuse to participate or refuse to move forward and move on when BIPOC, disabled, queer and trans folks are punished in the margins. 

Channing: [00:20:42] Moving on from our heroine, Miriam, we move later into the book of Numbers into chapter 25 and just like any good story, the text provides a little bit of a backdrop before we really get into the conflict and the heart of the text. While the Israelites are wandering the wilderness, they happen to encounter the Moabites. In Numbers 25 verse 1 it says, “And Israel abode in Shittim and the people began to commit whoredom with the daughters of Moab. And the daughters of Moab called the people unto the sacrifices of their gods: and the people did eat and bowed down to their gods.”

[00:21:24] So we see from the text that God is displeased, whether with the intimate relationships or the worship of other gods that are happening with the Moabites, the text is not really clear. Either way, God commands Moses to command other people in verse 4, to “take all the heads [or the leaders] of the people and hang them up before the Lord.”

[00:21:47] But in addition to God's command, Moses adds a little something special. In verse 5, he says, “do all that and kill every Israelite who joined the Moabites.” We don't actually ever see any of this commanded retaliation occur in the narrative. Instead, we witness violence committed against another group of people entirely.

[00:22:11] We understand now that there was growing frustration, prejudice, and hatred for the intermingling of the Israelites and other groups that they encountered in the wilderness. So just as a reminder for everyone, we have three main groups that are going to be showing up in this story. We have the Israelites who we've been following through the entire text.

[00:22:30] We have the Moabites who we just talked about. Then we have the Midianites. So who are the Midianites? If we go way, way back in the book of Exodus, when Moses fled Egypt, we remember that he was taken in by Jethro, a Midianite priest. Moses eventually married Jethro's daughter Zipporah. Moses then sends Zipporah back to her father Jethro after she circumcised their son. Once the Israelites travel out of Egypt into the wilderness, Jethro and Zipporah come to visit Moses, but only Moses’ welcoming of Jethro is recorded and never a reunification with Zipporah. In other words, the Midianites are Moses' in-laws. They're his family. As we move on to Numbers, chapter 25, verse 6, we encounter a woman named Cozbi bat Tzur.

[00:23:22] She was a Midianite princess, the daughter of a monarch named Tzur. In the text she was presented by her Israelite husband-to-be, named Zimri, to the Israelite community in front of the tabernacle for their marriage ceremony. It's important to note here that many of the patriarchs of the Israelites intermarried with women of other groups, including Joseph, Judah, Simeon, and most notably Moses. It could be reasonably argued that Zimri was simply trying to follow the prophet.

[00:23:55] In verse 7, we read, “And when Phinehas, grandson of Aaron saw the marriage ceremony, he rose from among the congregation and took a javelin in his hand and went after the man of Israel into the tent.” Inside the tent, Phinehas killed both Cozbi and her husband-to-be with the javelin. The text is specific in the case of Cozbi’s wounds, which the King James Version names as her belly. This translation is one that Reverend Dr. Wil Gafney argues is incomplete. And instead says the translation should be read as “private chamber. The Midianite woman is killed through the violent penetration of her womb and/or vagina terminating and parodying the conjugal union.” So this is a pretty intense happening that unfolds within seven verses of chapter 25.

[00:24:54] And as readers of the text, it's kind of difficult to get our bearings. So one of the questions we wanted to ask here is: what is going on, what's going on in this background? Why would Phinehas do this? And a couple of things again help illuminate why this conflict was so intense. So first, remember back to the Moabites that were intermingling with the Israelites, Moses, and God by extension, were not happy about that.

[00:25:28] And here with the marriage of Cozbi and Zimri we see an additional intermingling, however, it's slightly different because Cozbi is a Midianite, not a Moabite. 

Elise: [00:25:41] One way to approach the story is to look at it through a lens of fear around intermingling or intermixing religious or ethnic groups with one another.

[00:25:53] There's an article titled “Terrorizing Indigenous Women in the Contact Zone, Placing Cozbi and the Midianites in Colonial Australia.” Griffin writes “the only verb directly attributed to the Moabites/Midianite women collectively is to ‘invite’ or ‘call’ in Numbers 25:2. Their action is thus hospitality and engagement, inviting the Israelites to engage sexually and ritualistically, joining in sex, eating and worshiping. As non-Israelites, these women are not bound by YHWH’s commandments: they have committed no crime. Instead, it is the Israelite men who have angered YHWH. Nonetheless, it is the actions of the Moabite/Midianite women that are depicted as harassment, trickery, and deception. The women are explicitly blamed for the sinful conduct of Israelite men, and it is Cozbi (together with Zimri) who pays for this with her life in order for the divine punishment in the form of a plague to be lifted.” So, briefly paraphrasing, it's really the Israelite men who have participated in sinful conduct, even though it is Cozbi and Zimri who pay the price.

[00:27:10] And towards the end of that passage that I read, it talks about divine punishment in the form of a plague. What we also find out in the story is that many, many Israelite men had been dying off and no one really knew why. And in the story, it finally comes to light that these men were dying off because of a plague.

[00:27:27] And it's only after the murder of Cozbi and Zimri that this plague ends. This is really telling, especially if we were to consider the question, how did God feel about the murder of Cozbi. We think what is particularly striking about this verse is that God appears to bless Phinehas and the Israelites for Cozbi's murder by stopping a rampant plague and saying to Moses in verse 11, “Phinehas hath turned away my wrath from the children of Israel. He was zealous for my sake among them, that I consumed not the children of Israel in my jealousy. Wherefore, behold, I give unto him my covenant of peace and an everlasting priesthood.” And in that same article that I referenced earlier, Griffin continues to write, “The sexualized body of the non-Israelite woman depicted in Numbers 25 is both a site of Israel's misconduct and the object of violence through which Israel is saved.” From this, not only do we find it questionable and quite upsetting personally, to see God's, kind of, praise of this act from Phinehas, but it's also upsetting that at the same time, this woman and women in the future story are the site of such violence.

[00:28:43] And it's yet that same violence that supposedly saves or offers salvation to the Israelites, but it's always at the cost of women's lives and their bodies through violence. 

Channing: [00:28:54] Absolutely. As we move through Numbers chapter 25, we encounter verse 16, which reads “and the Lord spake unto Moses saying, vex the Midianites, and smite them: for they vex you with their wiles, they have beguiled you to the Moabites and in the matter of Cozbi, their sister.” And from here, the story is already pretty violent, but unfortunately it gets much, much worse because this verse initiates the planning stage for the genocide of the Midianite people later in Numbers chapter 31 all-out war begins. 1000 men from every tribe, to the total of 12,000 men, armed themselves for war and marched on the Midianites with Phinehas leading them and tooting a trumpet.

[00:29:45] The Israelites started by killing all of the Midianite kings, then killed all the men. And then in verse 9, “took all the women of Midian captive and their little ones and took the spoil of all of their cattle, all their flock and all their goods.” Then, the army burnt their cities on the way out of town.

[00:30:06] We also see echoes here of the story of the women in Shechem in Genesis chapter 32, whose husbands and sons and brothers were murdered. And then they themselves were kidnapped and enslaved by Jacob's sons. The God in the text did nothing then. And the God of this text encourages the similar actions again. After kidnapping the women and children of the Midianites, the Israelites return back to Moses.

[00:30:35] And chapter 31, verse 14, it reads, “And Moses was wroth and said unto them, have you saved all the women alive?” In verse 17 Moses commands the Israelites to kill all the male children and “kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him.” But in verse 18, Moses said, “but all the women children that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.” There are significant complications to this story, and there's no hierarchical order of horror here.

[00:31:13] But I think that we can start by recognizing the echoes of Pharaoh who commanded that all of the Egyptians kill the Israelite boys. We hear this echoed in Moses. I really appreciated what Reverend Dr. Wil Gafney said about this. She writes “Moses' genocide is more effective and efficient than that of the Pharaoh. He has learned well.” In their article titled “Kill All The Boys… Let The Girls Live: Moses, Midian and Murder in Numbers 31” by Kathryn Imray, they write, “No person, having heard the story of Moses’ birth, would fail to hear its echo here. Through Moses’ command, we are prime to view him as the villain of this piece, and the actions against Midian unjust, with the Midianite people positioned as the Hebrews in Egypt. In the book “Moses As Political Leader,” author Wildavsky argues that Moses has to learn leadership on the job and initially learns what to do and what not to do by observing Pharaoh. Pharaoh thought he was wise, but really was a fool and Moses evidently learns from the foolishness of ordering the death of the boy children, but letting the girls live, for in this Pharaoh insured, even without the heroic Puah and Shiprah, that the Hebrews would, gradually, increase in numbers and do so among their own people.” Imray continues saying that, “though Moses replicates Pharaoh's command to let the girls live in this iteration, it takes on an even more sinister slant with the addition of ‘for yourselves.’ This ‘for yourselves’ denotes little girls being drawn inside Israelite boundaries, their cultural and religious identities erased, and rape and forced impregnation.” 

Elise: [00:33:06] Another bit of awfulness that we see in this story is that Moses commands the large-scale systematic killing of his own family.

[00:33:14] And we ask ourselves, were Zipporah and Jethro among the dead? What about Moses’ nieces and nephews, his sons, cousins, and uncles and aunts? Secondly, the Midianites were kin not just to Moses, but to the Israelites at large because they shared a common parentage through Abraham. The Israelites were children of Abraham and Sarah.

[00:33:36] The Midianites were the children of Abraham and Ketturah. There's also the fact that this attack is unprovoked. The catalyst for the attack on the Midianites was the violence of an Israelite priest toward another Israelite and a Moabite, which is to say Phinehas’ actions. Then we also have to grapple with the justifications that are offered in the story for a complete genocide. Gaffney writes, “The justification for the slaughter fails to meet the excuses given in the text. In none of these episodes were Israelites attacked or even tricked. The claims of trickery makes Zimri and other Israelite men look like hapless fools while emphasizing the danger of foreign women. The vitriolic language in the call to arms equate some voluntary intercultural worship and intimate unions with violent assaults, thereby justifying violence in retaliation. The illogic of this episode contributes to the senseless rage holding these narratives together.” Picking up from the Imray piece that Channing cited earlier, Imray writes, “Numbers 25 and 31 reflects an in-group/out-group dichotomy, which portrays ‘alien women as sensuous and evil enticers, embodiments of the wrong way, the foreign way’ of idolatry and anti-Yahwism. Such an attitude is prevalent in colonialism. Europeans have consistently feminized foreign lands and sexualized non-European women, projecting onto them ‘forbidden sexual desires and fears.’ ” 

Channing: [00:35:11] Continuing on, we also have to grapple with the fact that this is not just any war, but an all-out genocidal attack that kills innocent women, children, and infants.

[00:35:22] This goes without saying that this constitutes a war crime by any modern standard. Then we also have to grapple with the fact that another war crime is committed when Moses takes charge of the distribution of 32,000 young girls (who are referred to as booty in the text) that Moses distributes to the Israelite men for rape-marriages. Referencing again the Laura Griffin article, they write, “This chapter reads Num 25 and 31 as texts of terror, extending the method employed by Phyllis Trible in her classic book… Under the logic of empire, the reproductive capacities of the Indigenous woman’s body, as with the reproductive capacities of the land, must be contained, controlled, and put to use for the colonizing group…The terrorizing violence exacted upon Cozbi and the other Midianite women and girls has played out in the genocidal practices of colonial authorities against Indigenous women and girls…In imperial ideology, what is threatening is not the local woman herself. It is her connection to (and potential continuation of) her Indigenous or Midianite identity, and thus her tradition and culture. The Indigneous woman, like the colonized land she represents, is not simply to be avoided. She must be absorbed into the colonizer’s identity and mission.”

[00:36:48] Returning back to the Imray article, Imray writes, “Genocidal rape is deployed for several purposes: to cause such terror that the people will flee; to act as a humiliating sign of victory over a defeated people; to torture; to desensitize those who do it; to bolster the population of the genocidal ethnicity; and to break the biological and social bonds of the victim group. Genocidal rape includes the paradoxical purpose of ‘killing off… peoples by producing more of them.’ ” Imray highlights the fact that rape has been an element of the ongoing genocide of indigenous peoples by Europeans.

Elise: [00:37:34] Phyllis Trible, who is a feminist theologian who originally coined the term ‘Text of Terror’, writes in her book that has the exact same title that “sad stories do not have happy endings.” Picking up from Trible, Monica Jyotsna Melanchthon and Robyn J. Whitaker, editors of “Terror in the Bible” write, “Trible provides a helpful suggestion that we read these texts in memoriam- in memory of the abused, victimized, violated, dehumanized, nameless and murdered characters, and in continuum with similar victims today.”

[00:38:09] And I think that's why we are relying so heavily on outside sources because you have all of these intersecting systems of oppression showing up that transcend time and are showing patterns of colonialism through time. We also see demonstrated by both Griffin and Imray, Numbers chapter 25 and 31 have significant relevance for indigenous women, just like we were saying, including those in the United States. As you'll recall, missing and murdered indigenous women's remembrance state was on May 5th. And that calls our attention to how indigenous women are harmed at disproportionate rates. A KUTV article titled “How many Native women are missing and murdered in Utah? Officials admit they don't know,” the author of this article writes, “According to the US Department of Justice, American Indian and Alaskan Native women are two and a half times more likely to experience violent crimes and two times more likely to experience sexual violence than any other ethnicity.”

[00:39:10] The article also states that because of jurisdictional loopholes between federal, state, county and tribal authorities, there's no clear data on how many native women go missing every year, and how many of those end in murder. During the course of the investigation of this article, advocates and public officials cited the Urban Indian Health Institute’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Report.

[00:39:35] This report lists Salt Lake City and Utah making a top 10 list for the most cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Democratic State Representative Angela Romero says, “Indigenous women are at a higher risk than white women and many other groups here in the state of Utah, and the majority of the time their perpetrator isn't a Native American man.” There's also an article from the Salt Lake Tribune that was published on May 5th of this year that's titled “ ‘There's just no answers’: Families and tribes plead for resources on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Day.” In this article, it says, “Legislator Representative Angela Romero [whom we spoke of before] said that Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Day also includes the LGBTQ communities and that the issue of missing and murdered Native Americans should matter to all of Utah, not just rural communities. The nonprofit Restoring Ancestral Winds traces the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls to the colonization of the continent and the founding and expansion of America, which pushed native communities off of their ancestral lands using war, murder, and disease. The historical trauma persists, they say.”

Channing: [00:40:50] The article also states that “Restoring Ancestral Winds works across Utah's eight sovereign tribal nations to end violence against Native people, whether that is domestic violence or sexual assault.” We encourage our listeners to go to the Restoring Ancestral Winds website at to make a donation.

[00:41:15] As we returned back to the text and grapple with this story of the genocide of the Midianites, we have to ask the question, what do we do with this story? It's so complex. We have a couple of options. Reverend Dr. Wil Gafney draws the conclusion that we can understand the story in a couple of ways.

[00:41:35] Gafney argues that it's littered with retroactive edits and intensifiers made by a people fearful of eradication thousands of years after the story actually happened. Gafney also argues that we can view this as “a story told with a suspiciously Iron Age heavy-handedness.” Karen Eller, who is the author of “Numbers 25: a Reading by a Queer Australian” says, “Numbers 25 is a sobering reminder of how YHWH’s voice can be and has been perverted. Rather than reject Num 25 on the account of its violations, we are invited to include it as a valuable text that helps us identify and understand the ways editors and redactors used and abused their authority to manipulate. Num 25 is a clear example of why it is reckless to read biblical text uncritically. In particular, the way Num 25 sanctions sexual violence alerts us to the dangers of taking any particular verse of Scripture as an authoritative declaration on sexuality.” We also hear from Melanchthon and Whitaker saying, “Despite their horror, when we engage these texts, they evoke conversation and contribute to the development of a political and religious consciousness that allows us to look at acts of violence in earlier times and texts, and, we believe, to confront our moral dilemmas and sharpen our political and religious stances in addressing violence as we encounter it today.”

[00:43:07] And finally, author Manon Ceridwen James writes in their article titled “Body, Remember: Reflecting Theologically on the Experience of Domestic Abuse”: “A feminst theological approach would want to remain with the trauma and genuinely listen to the experience, and not to hurry on to any form of resolution (or even healing) quite yet. Shelly Rambo would urge us to attend to “the redemption in the middle” where traumatic experiences are not glossed over.”

And so when we face this question, what do we do with this story? We have lots of options. We can understand where the story came from, how edits and redactions have affected the way that this story is told throughout history and today.

[00:44:01] We can also look at how this story has manipulated the voice of God to justify genocide and sexual violence. And we can carry that suspicion with us throughout the text. Additionally, we can choose to engage with these texts even as they challenge us, because they provide us with material and exposure and opportunities to have conversations about what is, and isn't ethical, how we should and shouldn't treat other people, and our own morals and our own values and our own ethics as we continue to live in relationship with our communities. 

[00:44:36] And finally, we can recognize just like Phyllis Trible says, that we can tell these stories in memoriam, in remembrance or in memory of the people who have suffered similar types of violence and are still experiencing that today. And remember to find what Shelly Rambo calls the “redemption in the middle.” To stay with it, to stay here, to not try to find the perfect ending or the perfect solution to a sad story that has a sad ending. Thank you for staying with us and staying with these women today. We know that this is a heavy story and requires a lot from readers and listeners to engage with horrific acts of violence in the text. And we commend and applaud all of our readers who are willing to look at this story with eyes wide open and hold it accountable. 

Elise: [00:45:42] Another story that shows up in the book of Numbers is in chapter 27. And if you're anything like us, you are surprised at how many women show up in the text and you are surprised at just how awful Moses is and this story doesn't paint him in any better of a light.

[00:46:00] This is the story of Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah who are the daughters of Zelophehad, and this is a story about demanding rights, resources, and land and demanding what you are owed and what you are promised. The Jewish Women's Archive provides a brief sketch or summary of the story. So a man named Zelophehad has five daughters: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah and he has no sons. Zelophehad is part of the generation of Israelites who actually departed from Egypt under Moses's leadership, but then died during the 40 years in the wilderness. Thus his five daughters belong to the new generation that would enter and possess the promised land. In the story, God has made a decree that says that the promised land should be split up and given to members of the second generation who were counted in this census.

[00:46:52] However, it was really only men that were included in the census and since Zelophehad is dead and he has no sons and his daughters are manless, this means that his daughters would be left without any inheritance and no piece of the promised land, even though God has promised to split up the land to members of the second generation.

[00:47:12] So the daughters aren't having this. They show up to appeal this rule. The text says that they stood before Moses and Eleazar, who's the priest, and before the princes and all the congregation by the door of the tabernacle of the congregations. This is to say what the daughters are about to demand is a big deal, it is preplanned and premeditated. The daughters stand all together as a group between Moses, God and the people at the door of the holy tabernacle to make their appeal. In chapter 27, verse 4, the daughters say, “Give unto us therefore a possession among the brethren of our father.” They don't ask. They tell Moses, give us the land.

[00:47:55] They make their argument. And Moses decides to ask God, what should I do? Should I give them the land? And in verse 7, God makes it really clear. God says, “The daughters of Zelophehad speak right: thou shalt surely give them a possession of an inheritance and thou shall cause the inheritance of their father to pass on to them.”

[00:48:15] So God makes it really clear. These are righteous women and they deserve what they're owed. This also leads in the story to kind of a new limited rule or right of Israelite women to inherit land. 

Channing: [00:48:29] However, there always seems to be this giant “but” in every single story. Some men come forward and are worried about a possible loophole in this rule where the daughters of Zelophehad might marry outside of their father's tribe.

[00:48:42] And one tribe might get more land than another. And the risk is that men might go around marrying fatherless daughters in order to gain land. From here, Wil Gafney really helped us see what happens next is a super tricky move on Moses's part because he doesn't actually end up giving Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah their rightful inheritance. In fact, the story of these women stays silent until Joshua 17, which is a huge distance and passing of time. Like that's an entire book of Deuteronomy and half of the book of Joshua later, at which point Moses dies. And then Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah take their case to Joshua, who is the successor prophet after Moses.

[00:49:36] And again, the women demand their right to their land. Joshua doesn't consult God because he doesn't need to, God's already given the commandment. And so, unlike Moses, Joshua gives them the land immediately. Although so much is left unsaid in the text, we really appreciate Gafney's reading in which she draws the connection between Moses being barred from the promised land and Moses' disobedience with regard to Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah and their land. Gafney writes, “Moses’ use of his power and authority to disenfranchise women in his community identifies him as one of the male religious leaders in virtually religious tradition of which I have ever heard whose response to women’s demands for equality—even a small amount of parity—is, “Over my dead body.” As a womanist I think of leaders of the civil rights and Black power movements who kept women in their place and of those male pastors who exclude women from leadership in the Black church, notably from ordination, and in some cases, from other institutional leadership. Like Moses, they are famous for fighting for the freedom of their people, whom they largely conceive of as men; however, that freedom comes with constraints. To borrow an infamous quote from a different content in American public discourse, Moses went to his grace holding the women’s piece of the promised land clutched in his cold, dead hand, even though it may have cost him his place in the promised land.” And this topic really struck us. And Elise and I asked each other, does this remind you of anyone by chance?

Elise: [00:51:23] Any of our male leaders in power and authority that structure and rule over the entire church, who seems so hell bent on excluding women and other marginalized people from any type of inheritance or power or inclusion in recognition and seem to say at every single turn, “Over my dead body.”

[00:51:45] Well, I love this piece from Gafney. I love this passage. Not only do I think her comments point to the fallibility of prophets, like we talked about before in the story of Miriam, but her comments also clearly point out and point toward intersectionality. And so, yes, I may be tempted to read myself as one of the daughters in this story who demonstrates agency by confronting justice, especially sexism and trying to resist patriarchy.

[00:52:12] However, and this is, like, with lots of humbleness and embarrassment, I'm probably more like the later Moses in this story. Certainly not even the Moses that leads the people toward liberation. I'm much more like the Moses who makes promises and then fails to act in any type of liberating way. As a white woman who holds much privilege, it is both in my white suffragette history and in my present desire to be safe and comfortable and continue to fight only for the people who are like me, actually, even to only fight for myself, those are the things that make me like Moses in this story.

[00:52:52] There's the constant temptation for those of us who hold privilege to hold really tightly to the systems that benefit us while harming others. That's real. And it makes me drag my feet while I put on a performance of liberation for all, even if I have no true commitment to change anything. How often do we center ourselves and our people in the narrative of freedom and liberation, how do we respond when marginalized folks stand up and demand something of, and from us?

[00:53:23] How often do I number my people and help prepare their inheritance while simultaneously excluding large amounts of people? Because, well, this is the law and this is the way things are. And because of my own internalized sexism, racism, ableism, and homophobia, I know that it's a long road to liberation. So while I am ever inspired and thankful to the persistent demands of Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah, I'm also inviting myself this week to sit with the demands from others and ask, why am I withholding my support? Why am I withholding my solidarity, my time, my money, or my resources? 

Channing: [00:54:02] As we close the book of Numbers, we wanted to return back to the manual, which highlights it's chosen chapters with headings, again, like “Speaking against the Lord's prophet offends the Lord” and “Moses was very meek.” And again, just like we said, this makes sense in context of the chapters that are chosen, but they don't actually line up with the rest of the book.

[00:54:27] We have, like we've stated in other episodes, and in other places, we have major concerns about reading scriptures just a few chapters at a time. First, picking and choosing text based on preconceived notions about what the text presents without honoring it in its fullness is dishonest, both to the authors of the text and to its readers.

[00:54:51] Some may argue that these 9 chapters cover the most significant events in the book of Numbers. And to this, we ask significant to whom? Perhaps, to an LDS audience who considers the Hebrew Bible as an accessory canon to the New Testament and Book of Mormon. But further than that, it's significant to an LDS audience, which relies heavily on male-dominated narratives of perfect priesthood and prophethood.

[00:55:15] Secondly, as non-Jewish readers of a primary Jewish text, choosing not to read the text in its entirety is disrespectful and appropriative. If we mine the Hebrew Bible for biblical examples, which serve a particular narrative, but ignore the rest, we're appropriating. Wouldn't it be offensive to us if someone who wasn't LDS read only the war chapters of the Book of Mormon and then assigned them to others to study? So they could form a particular narrative about who the LDS church was and what its members did? Third, not reading the entirety of the text is dangerous because it allows us to make statements like “Speaking against the Lord's prophet offends the Lord” and “Moses was very meek” without the nuance that is inherent in the text.

[00:56:06] If we read only the chapters assigned by the manual an argument can be made for Moses' meekness. But if we read beyond that, we are suddenly confronted by stories of Moses commanding mass murder, kidnapping, rape, war, and instances where Moses himself chooses not to follow God's explicit commands. If we read only of the punishment of people who challenge the prophet, we miss out on examples like the daughters of Zelophehad, who are blessed because they do exactly that.

[00:56:39] If we make following the prophet the primary indicator of righteousness, we are absolved of wrestling with the instances when those same prophets direct genocide, murder and violent rape. Some will posit that the argument of selective readings being dangerous is extreme and irrelevant, but perspectives of righteousness still affect living people today.

[00:57:04] If we can view a xenophobic text, or in other words, a text that illustrates a dislike of, or prejudice against people from other countries, if we can view it as authoritative and permissive, we are in a dangerous situation indeed. When we encounter justification for violence and hatred toward anyone who is “other,” be they Israelite or otherwise, and don't also grapple with the modern day implications of prejudice, but instead celebrate them as an ancient form of righteousness, we weaponize the text. For church culture hyper-focused on small and simple things, we would be right to examine the small ways we refuse to be confronted. Confronted with our willful ignorance, with the nuance and complexities of scripture, with the appropriation of Jewish sacred text and our participation in narratives of destruction by way of silence in their presence.

[00:58:01] We've said it before, and we will probably say it a million more times this year: a church which ignores women's issues when they are present in the text is not a church which cares about women. There are more women named in the book of Numbers besides Miriam and thousands more implicated by the events in its pages.

[00:58:21] And yet we know none of them, if we only read the chapters assigned by the manual. Even just this week, Elise and I asked each other, how did we not know about these stories before this? How come this is the first time we've ever heard about it? And that is a question worth asking again and again, how did I not know? Why did I not know?

Elise: [00:58:52] Friends, thank you so much for joining us today for another episode of The Faithful Feminists podcast. We know your time and space is sacred and we are so grateful to have spent ours with you. If you enjoyed this episode, we'd be so happy if you left us a loving rating on iTunes and Spotify so other seekers can find us. 

Channing: [00:59:11] Financial donations support the many hours of research, work and devotion to each episode, as well as the everyday cost of creating and publishing the podcast. You can support us on Patreon or through a simple Venmo donation and help us create a world where creators, artists, activists, and beauty makers are valued and paid for their labor. Find us on those platforms and on Instagram as The Faithful Feminists. We're deeply grateful for your kindness and encouragement. We love you so much, and we hope to spend more time with you again soon.

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