This veto is a double-edged sword, in a sense. God is merciless to the man who makes an oath he cannot honor, but shows some mercy to the woman who makes an oath she cannot fulfill. This mercy is entrusted to her patriarch, who can decide for her that she cannot be obligated to carry out her obligation, provided he objects within a day of her oath. In one sense, it is profoundly insulting to the woman's autonomy that a patriarchal figure in her life has veto power over her agreements. However, much of Jewish law is how to get rid of an obligation that one has made but cannot fulfill, and Jewish law is much kinder to women than to men who fail to meet their obligations.
The second theme is Moses' vengeance on Midian for the heresy of Baal-Peor. Recall that the Israelites have been journeying through the wilderness, and on the plains of Moab are nearly done with their journeys. They have been seeking passage to Canaan, and finding various nations have opposed them in their attempt to enter the land. First, the Israelites responded by avoiding their opponents, then when later opponents attacked them, they cursed their cities and avoided them, still later, when their opponents attacked them, they defended themselves and took the battle to their opponents, killing them. Finally, with Midian, the Israelites engage in a war of extermination.
God tells Moses that he is to organize a surprise attack on Midian, and that afterwards, Moses will die, and cede leadership to Joshua. Moses gathers a force of 1000 men from each tribe, and these shock troops, led by Pinchas ben Eleazar the priest, mount a surprise attack and slaughter every adult male in Midian, and take the women, children and livestock captive, along with all their valuables and possessions. They single out and execute by sword the five kings of Midian, along with Balaam the sorcerer (although presumably his donkey was spared). All of the buildings in Midian are set on fire.
Moses is furious. He asks the generals and captains: "Have ye saved all the women alive? Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the Lord. Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves." [Numbers 31: 15-18].
If the savagery of Moses drives you to contemplate atheism, you would not be the first, nor certainly the last, to do so. Thomas Paine, in The Age of Reason, wrote the following about this passage:
Besides, the character of Moses, as stated in the Bible, is the most horrid that can be imagined. If those accounts be true, he was the wretch that first began and carried on wars on the score or on the pretence of religion; and under that mask, or that infatuation, committed the most unexampled atrocities that are to be found in the history of any nation, of which I will state only one instance.
When the Jewish army returned from one of their plundering and murdering excursions, the account goes on as follows: Numbers, chap. xxxi., ver. 13:
"And Moses, and Eleazar the priest, and all the princes of the congregation, went forth to meet them without the camp; and Moses was wroth with the officers of the host, with the captains over thousands, and captains over hundreds, which came from the battle; and Moses said unto them, Have ye saved all the women alive? behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the Council of Balaam, to commit trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the Lord. Now, therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known a man by lying with him; but all the women-children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves."
Among the detestable villains that in any period of the world have disgraced the name of man, it is impossible to find a greater than Moses, if this account be true. Here is an order to butcher the boys, to massacre the mothers, and debauch the daughters. Let any mother put herself in the situation of those mothers; one child murdered, another destined to violation, and herself in the hands of an executioner; let any daughter put herself in the situation of those daughters, destined as a prey to the murderers of a mother and a brother, and what will be their feelings? It is in vain that we attempt to impose upon nature, for nature will have her course, and the religion that tortures all her social ties is a false religion.
After this detestable order, follows an account of the plunder taken, and the manner of dividing it; and here it is that the profaneness of priestly hypocrisy increases the catalogue of crimes. Ver. 37 to 40, "And the lord's tribute of sheep was six hundred and three score and fifteen; and the beeves were thirty and six thousand, of which the Lord's tribute was three score and twelve; and the asses were thirty thousand and five hundred, of which the Lord's tribute was three score and one; and the persons were sixteen thousand, of which the Lord's tribute was thirty and two persons." In short, the matters contained in this chapter, as well as in many other parts of the Bible, are too horrid for humanity to read or for decency to hear, for it appears, from the 35th verse of this chapter, that the number of women-children consigned to debauchery by the order of Moses was thirty-two thousand.
People in general do not know what wickedness there is in this pretended word of God. Brought up in habits of superstition, they take it for granted that the Bible is true, and that it is good; they permit themselves not to doubt of it, and they carry the ideas they form of the benevolence of the Almighty to the book which they have been taught to believe was written by his authority. Good heavens! it is quite another thing; it is a book of lies, wickedness, and blasphemy; for what can be greater blasphemy than to ascribe the wickedness of man to the orders of the Almighty?Paine judges Moses by the standards that he would judge the way that 18th century Englishmen of sufficient birth would treat each other. The Pennsylvania of his time was one that ran a spectrum from the developed East to the wild West, where the Eastern coast was ethnically cleansed of native inhabitants and its Western border was still engaged in bloody guerrilla war between natives and Europeans, with massacres committed on both sides. The England of his time was one where Luddites were hanged for damaging factories, and riots were broken up with bayonets and rifles. It was also a time where Ireland was pacified with brutality and oppression. It was also a time of massacres in India, in Africa, and in Guyana. This cruelty outlived Paine by many, many years. Just last night, listening to the BBC, I heard that victims of English cruelty in the Mau Mau uprising were suing Great Britain. One woman told of driving with her husband and children in 1958, and being stopped at a road block by British soldiers. She and her husband were separated, interrogated, and tortured. Her husband was castrated. Both were eventually released, and spent the next decade scouring Kenya looking for their children, whom they never found. They reluctantly concluded that they had all been murdered. She was suing the UK for war crimes.
Moses lived in a time where empires put whole peoples to the sword. The Assyrian empire, which shows up later in the Bible, impaled the entire populations of those they conquered, leaving them to die horribly over several days. Israel was a new nation surrounded by vicious enemies. If their actions seem horrific, they were, but no more so than their neighbors.
As Walter Kauffman wrote in reply to attitudes like Paine's: "The reproach of callousness and insufficient social conscience can hardly be raised. Our social conscience comes largely from the religion of Moses. ... [But] to find the spirit of the religion of the Old Testament in [these biblical passages], is like finding the distinctive genius of America in the men who slaughtered the Indians."
The third theme is that of the Transjordan Israelites. The tribes of Reuben and Gad, along with half of the tribe of Manasseh, liked the land in Moab for grazing cattle, and asked Moses to allow them to reside there. Moses, assuming this was a dodge to keep them from participating in the conquest of Canaan, was upset with the request. But the leaders of these tribes promised to form the advance guard in the conquest, and return to this land only after Canaan was under Israelite control. With this stipulation, Moses agreed. Sadly, because of this, these tribes were the first lost tribes, as they did not have the same protection as the other tribes, and were picked away by conquest. Sadly, among the more zealous Religious Zionists, there are those who make a claim on the Transjordanian lands that were once occupied by Reuben and Gad for a modern state of Greater Israel. It is not clear that the Jordanians would ever comply with this.