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Parasha Matot (Tribes): Vows, Vengeance, Anger, and the Will of God

Matot (Tribes) 
Numbers 30:2–32:42; Jeremiah 1:1–2:3; Matthew 23:1–39

“Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes (matot) of the people of Israel, saying, ‘This is what the LORD has commanded.  If a man vows a vow to the LORD, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word.  He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.’”  (Numbers 30:1–2)


A family portrait of a 12-year-old girl reading the Torah for the first time,  accompanied by her parents.  The yad (Torah pointer) is used during readings to protect the precious parchment and handwritten text from being damaged by oils on the skin.

Last week, in Parasha Pinchas, God instructed Moses regarding dividing the Land by lottery among the tribes of Israel.  The five daughters of Tzelafchad also successfully petitioned Moses for the portion of the land belonging to their father, who had died without male heirs.

In this Parasha (Torah portion), Moses speaks to the heads of the tribes (matot) about the issue of vows.  In Hebrew, the word is neder (נדר ), and the English language really has no equivalent word.  This Hebrew word denotes a solemn promise to consecrate something to God or to do something in His service or honor.

Jacob (Yaacov) made such a vow to God when he promised to give back to God a tenth (tithe) of anything God gives to him in exchange for God’s provision and protection on his journey. 

“Then Jacob made a vow [neder], saying, “If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house.  And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you.’”  (Genesis 28:20–22)


A 12-year-old girl reads from the Torah publicly for the very first time.

This Torah portion reminds us that we must be careful about making promises because God expects us to keep our word.  (Numbers 30:2)

The Bible insists that we keep our word even when it hurts (when it is no longer convenient or pleasant).  The person who does so is the one who may abide in God’s tabernacle and dwell in His holy hill!

“Lord, who may abide in your tabernacle?  Who may dwell in Your holy hill?  He who walks uprightly, and works righteousness…  He who swears [vows, promises] to his own hurt and does not change.”  (Psalm 15:4) 

Because of the weight and sanctity of a vow, and the serious consequences for not keeping one, observant Jews can be heard saying bli neder (without a vow) to qualify a commitment, in the event that the speaker finds him or herself unable to fulfill it.


Israeli students study at a yeshiva, a Jewish institution of learning that focuses on the study of traditional religious texts, primarily the Torah and the Talmud.

In Judaism, words are considered extremely important.  After all, the whole world was created through words.

As Believers, we should have an impeccable reputation as people of integrity—as people who can be trusted to keep our word.  Yeshua said, “Let your yes be yes and your no be no.”  (Matthew 5:37)

Of course, Yeshua was not disallowing vows.  Yeshua’s disciples and the apostles continued making various vows, even after He had ascended to Heaven; for instance, in Acts 18:18, Paul shaved his head in connection with a Nazirite vow he had taken.

Rather, Yeshua’s statement is meant to be a guide to holy speech.  We shouldn’t be led into making unnecessary vows for the sake of bringing a sense of importance or power to our words, or to reassure someone that we mean what we say.

His statement is entirely in keeping with Judaism’s view that vows are not to be entered into lightly, and that it is better not to make one than make one and not fulfill it.

“When you make a vow to God, do not delay to fulfill it.  He has no pleasure in fools; fulfill your vow.  It is better not to make a vow than to make one and not fulfill it.”  (Ecclesiastes 5:4–5)


Jewish men recite morning prayers wearing tefillin (phylacteries), a set of small black leather boxes containing parchment scrolls inscribed with verses from the Torah.

Waging War With Wise Counsel

“Plans are established by seeking advice; so if you wage war, obtain guidance.”  (Proverbs 20:18)

While the vow emphasizes the power and importance of the words that we speak, chapter 31 of Numbers perhaps emphasizes the power of the words we listen to.

In this chapter, God commands Moses to execute His vengeance against the Midianites for conspiring to destroy Israel through enticing them to sin.

“‘Avenge the people of Israel on the Midianites.  Afterwards you shall be gathered to your people.’  So Moses spoke to the people, saying, ‘Arm men from among you for the war, that they may go against Midian to execute the LORD’s vengeance on Midian.  You shall send a thousand from each of the tribes of Israel to the war.’”  (Numbers 31:1–4)

Because of the advice of Balaam the sorcerer, who helped Balak plot Israel’s moral downfall, Israel fell into sin with Midianite women and a plague swept through the camp killing many thousands.

“Behold, these, on Balaam’s advice, caused the people of Israel to act treacherously against the LORD in the incident of Peor, and so the plague came among the congregation of the LORD.”  (Numbers 31:16)


A close-up of the Torah scroll

In the end, the Lord took vengeance, and the Israelites slew Balaam with a sword in this war with Midian.

“They killed the kings of Midian with the rest of their slain, Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba, the five kings of Midian.  And they also killed Balaam the son of Beor with the sword.”  (Numbers 31:8)

From this we can understand that God is mindful of who we are listening to!

All kinds of voices are clamoring to give us advice on what we should do next and how we should do it; however, when making plans, seeking guidance, or in the midst of any kind of battle, we so desperately need wise counsel.

“Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.”  (Proverbs 15:22)

“‘Consider carefully what you hear,’ he continued.  ‘With the measure you use, it will be measured to you—and even more.’”  (Mark 4:24)


A Jewish man carries the Torah scroll, which has been adorned with a beautifully embroidered Torah mantle.

We often search for advice, intuitively understanding that there are so many variables outside our control.  Which way should we go?  To whom should we listen?  Who knows the inside track so we can avoid trouble around the next turn?

Still, the wrong advice can bring a person down quickly!  Balaam’s counsel brought destruction not only upon all Israel, but upon Midian and himself.  Who are we listening to?

Many people today are taking advice and seeking guidance from ungodly counselors like Balaam—psychics and fortune tellers.  Some of these counselors not only give worldly advice that is contrary to Scripture, but they might have even worse problems than the ones in our own lives!  As well, many people in the world today seek for advice by checking their horoscope, using tarot cards, or by other occult means.

Scripture, however, advises us against taking counsel from the ungodly:

“Blessed is the man [or woman] who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly…. but his delight is in the Torah of Adonai, and in His Torah he mediates day and night.”  (Psalm 1:1–2)

Praise God for wise counsel from Spirit-filled people who hear from the Lord.  But while we can receive wise counsel from Godly people, and there is safety in a multitude of counselors (Proverbs 11:14), we must first bring every issue to the Lord.

We are so blessed to have the Torah and Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit) as our counselor and guide: 

“For this God is our God forever and ever:  He will be our guide even unto death.”  (Psalm 48:14)

Western Wall-Wailing Wall-Kotel-prayer

A Jewish man reads from the Psalms during morning prayer at the Western (Wailing) Wall in Jerusalem.

Entering into the Promised Land

“And they said, ‘If we have found favor in your sight, let this land be given to your servants for a possession.  Do not take us across the Jordan.’”  (Numbers 32:5)

So far, we have examined the attention that we must give to the words we speak and the words we listen to.

Chapter 32 of Numbers seems to emphasize listening patiently to the requests of others, leaving room for real communication.

As it came near the time to cross the Jordan and take possession of the land of promise, two of the tribes, Gad and Reuben, decided that they preferred the land of Gilead and asked for permission to settle on the east side of the Jordan, rather than cross over with the rest of the tribes of Israel.

12 Tribes-map

A map of the 12 Tribes of Israel

This request provoked Moses to anger and he accused them of cowardice and betrayal:

“But Moses said to the people of Gad and to the people of Reuben, ‘Shall your brothers go to the war while you sit here?’”  (Numbers 32:6)

As Israelis face brutal ongoing terrorist attacks and are hammered by bombs from the Gaza Strip and Lebanon, this is a question that some Israelis might want to ask their brethren who remain in relative comfort and prosperity in the nations of the world.

Still, we wonder, why did the simple request of Gad and Reuben spark such a bitter outburst of anger in Moses?

This request reminded him of a painful incident from his past experience with the Israelites.  He remembered that the bad report of 10 of the 12 spies discouraged the people so much that they wanted to go back to Egypt instead of going in to possess the land.  Moses was concerned that there might be a repeat, resulting in more wilderness wandering.

He wanted to circumvent anything that would prevent the people from entering the Promised Land.

“Why will you discourage the heart of the people of Israel from going over into the land that the LORD has given them?  Your fathers did this, when I sent them from Kadesh-barnea to see the land.”  (Numbers 32:7–8) 

The Grapes of Canaan-James-Tissot

The Grapes of Canaan, by James Tissot

Still, his anger was premature.  Additional discussion made it clear that this was not their intent.  Reuben and Gad pledged their support and solidarity with the other tribes of Israel before settling in the lands of Gilead.

In our interactions with people, we too must be careful that we don’t jump to conclusions or simply react because of a previous negative experience.  We should be careful to hear people out instead of making rash judgments on their motivations or projecting possible outcomes or scenarios before we have heard all the facts. 

Reuben and Gad’s pledge and concern for the interests and welfare of the entire nation of Israel reveals something important for Believers.

As members of the Body of Messiah, we are connected.  If one part of the Body hurts or is suffering, the whole body feels the pain.  Because we are joined together, we must not be selfishly looking after only our own best interests.  We must be mindful of the needs and well-being of the whole community of Believers, as well as for Israel.

“Let each of you look out not only for his own interest, but also for the interests of others.”  (Philippians 2:4)

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