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Sandra McPherson: Numbers 31

(in which Moses orders the rape

of 32,000 Midianite virgins)


Reading the Bible in the sun of her patio

I burn a little, covet such growing:

Gingerroot climbing out of the soil,

Along a brick wall white-whiskered with old fire.

My eye’s at the mercy of stemmings

Old but exotic, revolutionary red

And samurai gray, never a sense that the war

Is over, the sky mooring offshore, blue

As the Navy of blossoms on her clematis vine.


I run hot fingers over the news.

God, who is love, gave these flowergirls to the men.

But how could the soldiers accept?

How go about slaying their mothers,

As the Moses we disgust had asked them to?

And what of Israel’s mothers; did they beg

Daughters to raise?  Did they rescue? —  

These wives scuffing through manna,

Captured in kitchens of coriander seed,

Their hands worked bdellium-gold.


Cozbi, the reason, carved lust in a captain.

They two died joined on one priest’s javelin.

Other women followed strung there.

Did they fight back?  Did they bite, did they kick?

For even the unwily ones like ourselves

Those war heroes snuffed there.

People are presents, yes, she’ll say,

But those boys should have answered, “No thank you.”


The leaves around her brew fresh air.

The Midianites scratch,

Claw their manicures into the soldiers’ arms.

The rulers de-sin-themselves after each kill,

Their unstretched stomachs blameless and tan,

No evidence kicking them under the skin.


We are wanton when we vex our clergy.


Mother, how devoted must we be to this?

This version, published in Certain Uncollected Poems, Ostrakon Press, 2012, is revised  from an earlier version published in American Poetry Review, Vol. 12, No. 4, July/August, 1983.

And Moses said unto them, Have ye saved all the women alive?

Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Ba’laam, to commit trespass against the LORD
 in the matter of Pe’or,
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, King James Version)

One comment on “Sandra McPherson: Numbers 31

  1. chucktaylorauthor
    February 18, 2020

    Your poem made me think of Korean “comfort” women, sex slaves actually for the invading Japanese army. They sued the Japanese government and won some settlement.

    Liked by 1 person

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