Our discomfort with the Torah's command to wipe out other nations stems from the contrast between that directive and the Torah's usual emphasis on respect for human life.
The following article is reprinted with permission from CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
Mattot is a disturbing Torah portion. In depicting the early Hebrews' war with the Midianites, it contains a command to the Hebrews to wipe out most of the Midianites.
To place the commandment in context, one must remember that 3,000 years ago, this is how wars were fought. "Ancient documents from Mesopotamia to Egypt," a recent book notes, "abound in joyous references to annihilating neighbors."
The main reason these injunctions so disturb us is because the Bible itself has sensitized us to deeply respecting each human life. As the late Princeton philosopher Walter Kaufmann wrote, "The reproach of callousness and insufficient social conscience can hardly be raised. Our social conscience comes largely from the religion of Moses."
In large measure, it is only because of other verses in the Bible commanding us to love our neighbors and to love the stranger that the verses commanding total war trouble us. "[But] to find the spirit of the religion of the Old Testament in [these biblical passages]," Kaufmann added, "is like finding the distinctive genius of America in the men who slaughtered the Indians."
The Bible's troubling ethics of warfare can perhaps be best explained in terms of monotheism's struggle to survive. After all, it was long a minority movement with a different theology and ethical system than the rest of the world. It developed and expanded because it had one small corner in the world where it grew undisturbed. Had the Hebrews continued to reside amid the pagan, child-sacrificing Canaanites, monotheism itself almost certainly would have died.