Purifying Midianite Spoils – From What?


Wars and Mitzvot

The second half of Sefer Bemidbar describes the battles which the Children of Israel fought during their fortieth year in the Wilderness against Arad, Sichon, Og,1 and Midyan. While the earlier battles mentioned no special halakhic directives, the conquest of Midyan (Bemidbar 31) stands out in that it is followed by two sets of halakhic prescriptions for the purification of the returning soldiers and their belongings. Why did the Torah wait to convey these laws until the Midyan campaign? Did they apply only now and not in the earlier victories? Was there something unique about the conflict with Midyan?

Dual Ordinances

The first group of laws is transmitted by Moshe himself, and they explicitly command ritual purification from contact with dead bodies:


(יט) וְאַתֶּם חֲנוּ מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה שִׁבְעַת יָמִים כֹּל הֹרֵג נֶפֶשׁ וְכֹל נֹגֵעַ בֶּחָלָל תִּתְחַטְּאוּ בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי אַתֶּם וּשְׁבִיכֶם. (כ) וְכׇל בֶּגֶד וְכׇל כְּלִי עוֹר וְכׇל מַעֲשֵׂה עִזִּים וְכׇל כְּלִי עֵץ תִּתְחַטָּאוּ.

(19) And you shall encamp yourselves outside the camp seven days, whoever has killed a person and whoever has touched a slain man, purify yourselves on the third day and on the seventh day, you and your captives. (20) And every garment, and every skin vessel, and every work of goats, and every wooden vessel you shall purify.

These verses are then immediately followed by a second set of instructions, but these are imparted by Elazar and they are less explicit as to what necessitates their purification processes:


(כא) וַיֹּאמֶר אֶלְעָזָר הַכֹּהֵן אֶל אַנְשֵׁי הַצָּבָא הַבָּאִים לַמִּלְחָמָה זֹאת חֻקַּת הַתּוֹרָה אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה' אֶת מֹשֶׁה. (כב) אַךְ אֶת הַזָּהָב וְאֶת הַכָּסֶף אֶת הַנְּחֹשֶׁת אֶת הַבַּרְזֶל אֶת הַבְּדִיל וְאֶת הָעֹפָרֶת. (כג) כׇּל דָּבָר אֲשֶׁר יָבֹא בָאֵשׁ תַּעֲבִירוּ בָאֵשׁ וְטָהֵר אַךְ בְּמֵי נִדָּה יִתְחַטָּא וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָבֹא בָּאֵשׁ תַּעֲבִירוּ בַמָּיִם. (כד) וְכִבַּסְתֶּם בִּגְדֵיכֶם בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי וּטְהַרְתֶּם וְאַחַר תָּבֹאוּ אֶל הַמַּחֲנֶה.

(21) And Elazar the Priest said to the men of the army who go in to battle: "This is the law of the Torah that Hashem has commanded Moshe: (22) 'But the gold, and the silver, the brass, the iron, the tin and the lead. (23) Everything which may go into fire, you shall pass through fire, and it will be purified, but it shall be purified in water of separation, and everything which may not go into fire, shall go through water. (24) And you shall wash your clothes on the seventh day and you will be purified, and afterwards you shall come into the camp.'"

What is the relationship between the two sets of verses? Do verses 21-23 also speak of impurity from a corpse?2 If so, why are they communicated separately from the earlier verses?

Bemidbar 19 and 31

As can be seen from the following table, both groups of verses in Bemidbar 31 contain distinct parallels3 to the laws of purification from corpse contamination detailed earlier in Bemidbar 19:

במדבר י"טבמדבר ל"א
(יב) הוּא יִתְחַטָּא בוֹ בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי... (טז) וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר יִגַּע עַל פְּנֵי הַשָּׂדֶה בַּחֲלַל חֶרֶב אוֹ בְמֵת אוֹ בְעֶצֶם אָדָם אוֹ בְקָבֶר יִטְמָא שִׁבְעַת יָמִים. (יט) כֹּל הֹרֵג נֶפֶשׁ וְכֹל נֹגֵעַ בֶּחָלָל תִּתְחַטְּאוּ בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי
(ד) וְלָקַח אֶלְעָזָר הַכֹּהֵן (כא) וַיֹּאמֶר אֶלְעָזָר הַכֹּהֵן
(ב) זֹאת חֻקַּת הַתּוֹרָה אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה' (כא) זֹאת חֻקַּת הַתּוֹרָה אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה'
(ט) לְמֵי נִדָּה חַטָּאת הִוא (כג) בְּמֵי נִדָּה יִתְחַטָּא
(יט) וְחִטְּאוֹ בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי וְכִבֶּס בְּגָדָיו וְרָחַץ בַּמַּיִם וְטָהֵר בָּעָרֶב (כד) וְכִבַּסְתֶּם בִּגְדֵיכֶם בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי וּטְהַרְתֶּם

At first glance, these similarities would seem to indicate that the ambiguous verses of Bemidbar 31:21-23 also speak of corpse contamination. However, if so, why did the Torah not convey these laws already in Chapter 19? And why would the Torah give the impression there that sprinkling water always suffices, when really some materials require an additional purification by fire?

These questions led Rabbinic exegetes and others to reexamine the assumptions about the subject matter of our verses, and to explore the possibility that they serve as the source for entirely different realms of halakhah. In Approaches, we will analyze these various options.