I am bothered by an incident in the Torah that seems morally unacceptable.

After the incident with Pinchas, the Torah records that Klal Yisroel were commanded to attack Midian to avenge their attempt at seducing them. Klal Yisroel goes to war and kills all the male Midianites but spares the females. This angers Hashem: after all, the women were the whole problem in the first place, and Hashem commands them to kill all the (already defeated) women "who knew men." Klal Yisroel them goes and kills all the women of Midian, sparing 16,000 women who "never knew a man" and taking them as slaves.

A slightly upsetting story, but I can accept it was necessary.

The issue that bothers me to no end is a Gemara in Yavamos 60b that adds the following point to the story: When Hashem commanded them to kill all the women "who knew men", that did not mean all women who actually slept with a man. Rather, it meant all women legally old enough to have intercourse - 3 years and older.

The Gemara then asks the obvious question of how it was possible for Klal Yisroel to identify the age of the girls - after all, a two year old may look like she is three years old, and many three year olds can easily pass as two year olds. The Gemara explains that the Jews lined up the girls in front of the Cohen Gadol wearing the Urim viTumim, and all the girls older than three would be identified as they passed in front of the Urim viTumim.

Assuming those under 2 years old and over 4 years old were readily identifiable and did not need the Urim viTumim to be ferreted out, that leaves a line of 8,000 little girls (who had just watched both their parents and brothers get killed) forced to stand in a long line to see if they will be killed, or spared and allowed to live as a lifelong slaves.

Let us assume that the Jews had a very efficient killing system - with only 5 seconds for each girl to pass in front of the Cohen Gadol and be identified, and 10 seconds for another person to pull the girl aside and kill her or send her off to her master. Even with these unreasonably quick timeframes, that still means that even if Klal Yisroel worked around the clock, it would take a day and a half (33 hours) to get through the line.

How is this not barbaric? Lining up 8k 2 and 3 year old orphan girls for over a full day with a team of executioners at the end of the line who are busy killing half the girls - how is that not a terribly depraved and inhuman event, even compared to other horrors in the history of the world?

Does anyone have any thoughts on this issue?

  • Lmai Nafka Minah between lining them up and killing them versus just killing them as they try to run away? The fact is, it cannot be a moral issue because Hashem Yisborach commanded it. We might not understand it, but Hashem ONLY does good.
    – ezra
    Nov 1, 2018 at 3:39
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    God commanded it, therefore it's good, doesn't work for me either. But, unlike Natan, I don't consider the earlier bits "nothing too crazy." Not everything has a justification...
    – Cyn
    Nov 1, 2018 at 6:02
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    Related: amalek
    – Double AA
    Nov 1, 2018 at 12:16
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    +1 for a good question. And this might not be a satisfying answer. But one thing I got to understand in learning Torah is that one shouldn't learn and decide if one agrees with it or not, or if it fits our 21st century "morals" or not. One should learn and believe this is absolute truth - and try to understand what this means for us today. In this case, it seems that destroying evil potential was the thing to do whether we understand it or not
    – mbloch
    Nov 1, 2018 at 13:53
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    judaism.stackexchange.com/q/4037/759 this is a Midrash after all, not the verses themselves
    – Double AA
    Nov 1, 2018 at 16:39

3 Answers 3


Of course, it's upsetting.

Especially when these young girls are all innocent right? Wrong.

This is the point.

Let's discuss the range - 3 years to 12 years. Children can be indoctrinated very easily. They are used today in the most horrific ways - slave labor, fighting in wars. It is estimated according to Reuters that 350 million children worldwide are used as soldiers. This is today, yes, 2018. Horrific!

My point is to illustrate that your assumptions about innocent girls is simply based on your own moral compass. I agree that all things being equal killing small children for fun, is morally reprehensible. Period. I totally agree. Can small children be redeemed - can they repent from their ways. I would venture to say that the answer might be an emphatic no.

In terms of today, child soldiers could possibly be, sadly, irredeemable. A child's experiences, especially in the formative years, affects brain chemistry, and reforming them, might be an altogether impossible task. It is not a simple matter of simply 'converting people'. We're talking dedicated indoctrination of principles that antithetical to moral culture. We see this today in the cycle of hatred of various groups calling for the destruction of Israel and do not recognize the Jewish state. This is inculcated very early on, and children assume this to be the truth, and do not question it.

This is going on today.

Back to the Torah. The Torah is talking about a spiritual issue that cannot be corrected, and must be eradicated. We don't make these judgments, G-d does. We see very clearly, that the Jewish people were not happy to do this, and had to do be told a second time to carry out the act. We were told to do it by G-d.

In sefer Hayashar it is brought that the Egyptians buried children in the walls. Moshe Rabbeinu has a complaint directed at Hashem for doing this, and as a result, Hashem allows two to be saved to show Moshe what becomes of these children. They become the leaders of the Eiruv Rav and become extremely wicked people (see Rokeiach Beshalach 14-11). We see from a spiritual perspective G-d saw that these children are not going to be redeemed nor are redeemable. They must be removed from this world. Again, G-d makes these decisions. We don't.

We see death and being killed by the sword as being negative and destructive. However, we also know that one of the punishments of Beis Din is Saif (death by sword). Punishments meted out by Beis Din are not punishments in the sense of correction. If G-d wanted to, He could have done things differently. The point about the punishments so that we end up in the World to Come. They are there to help us fix the mess we made in this world. Death is a neutralizer of our many failings and sins.

While we see that death and destruction, especially of small children is completely at odds with our western sensibilities; nonetheless, if we change our perspective of what is going on here, we understand that things aren't always as they seem, and that we're open to different views and we question our assumptions, we will find that the Torah's understanding is the correct moral approach.

  • 3
    Thank you for answering. Your main point seems to be that after 3 years old these children are irredeemable and can justifiably be eradicated just like the adults. This is simply not true. Rehabilitation programs for ISIS children or children leaving cults are quite successful in normalizing children much older than 3 years old. Most people have no memory of such a young age. If they spent the rest of their children raised in a Jewish household, barring supernatural intervention, it is absurd to say that a 3-year-old is irredeemably corrupted. Nov 1, 2018 at 13:03
  • The example was there to illustrate that your assumptions about all 3-12 year-olds are simply not true. You're making an assumption, and I think that assumption is very much at odds with reality. ISIS children comprise what percentage of the 350 million children who are child soldiers? What is it meant by 'success'? There are still major issues with children used in these circumstances. You have not provided any sources to prove your point. You say people have no memories of their early years.
    – user18155
    Nov 1, 2018 at 16:35
  • I would say that people remember key events that make an impression, especially if those events are reiterated by their parents. I think you're not questioning your assumption about what G-d says vis a vis these actions. You see them as 'barbaric'. I think it's important to acknowledge that if we assume that G-d did actually say to do this then objectively there would be absolutely no problem. You don't accept that G-d could do this.
    – user18155
    Nov 1, 2018 at 16:39
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    But even if this is true, would it be moral in your opinion to kill these child soldiers en masse today? If not, why was it moral back then?
    – b a
    Nov 1, 2018 at 17:50
  • It is moral because G-d said so. If, theoretically, we would hear a direct command from Hashem to kill child soldiers, we would be obligated to do it. However, since today, Hashem does not reveal Himself openly, we do not have direct commands from Him, and so we would have to use other mechanisms to determine whether it would be okay to do so. However, I doubt there would be any reason to today unless these people are a direct existential threat to the Jewish people. In which case, we have a mitzvah to do any means necessary to prevent atrocities from being committed to the Jewish people.
    – user18155
    Nov 3, 2018 at 18:33

That's exactly the difference between our human judgment and Heavenly knowledge.

Those girls (and many more examples in the Tanach) were not judged by Moses and his earthly court, they were judged by the Heavenly court and found guilty and sentenced to death. Only Moses and his army were asked to execute the sentence.

Just look around - innocent children are killed in accidents and terminal illnesses, but we do not question G-d's justice as the Torah says:

הַצּוּר תָּמִים פָּעֳלוֹ כִּי כָל־דְּרָכָיו מִשְׁפָּט
אֵל אֱמוּנָה וְאֵין עָוֶל צַדִּיק וְיָשָׁר הוּא׃

"His deeds are perfect, all His ways are just;
A faithful God, never false, True and upright is He. "

It is a huge difference in understanding the Torah logic - some actions are ours to judge and decide, some are not, we follow it brainlessly, counting on G-d's judgment.

  • The problem with this line of thinking is, that the suicide bombers acting in the name of Jihad also believe that God commanded them to do it, and that their massacre is the exception that is not to be judged but rather followed brainlessly. Is it then up to opinion what is and isnt a massacre, depending on what religion you are?
    – Yehuda
    Nov 1, 2018 at 21:58
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    @Yehuda not up to opinion; just the correct religion decides.
    – Double AA
    Nov 1, 2018 at 22:46
  • we follow it brainlessly, counting on G-d's judgment - As your neighbors and ancestors did, when sacrificing their children to Canaanite idols (Joshua 24:2; Genesis 22:2, 22:9-10); but, at some point, your ancestors began to question the validity of these morally-questionable deeds, and eventually replaced them with child circumcision (Genesis 17:10-13, 17:23-27) and animal sacrifice (Genesis 22:6-8, 22:11-14). The surrounding nations, who failed to adjust their ancient ways, were then gradually wiped out of existence.
    – user18041
    Jun 14, 2021 at 9:28
  • @Lucian Thankfully, rabbis apprehended your concern and stripped God from authoring the Halacha. From R' Yehoshua and on (famous Tanuro Shel Ahnai incident), rabbis are to decide and not God.
    – Al Berko
    Jun 15, 2021 at 10:53

Similar to the Hitler question, if you could go back in time and kill Hitler when he was a cute baby, would you / could you?

Perhaps all these children would have turned out destructive later in life, and therefore for the greater good it was better to kill them now.

Regarding the part of waiting in a queue, maybe they were sent into a different room, and had no knowledge of what was to come.

So to answer your question:

Depraved and inhumane? Certainly.
Absolutely necessary? Certainly.


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