1 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Avenge the people of Israel on the Midianites. Afterward you shall be gathered to your people.” 3 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. 4 You shall send a thousand from each of the tribes of Israel to the war.” 5 So there were provided, out of the thousands of Israel, a thousand from each tribe, twelve thousand armed for war. 6 And Moses sent them to the war, a thousand from each tribe, together with Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest, with the vessels of the sanctuary and the trumpets for the alarm in his hand. 7 They warred against Midian, as the Lord commanded Moses, and killed every male. 8 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. 9 And the people of Israel took captive the women of Midian and their little ones, and they took as plunder all their cattle, their flocks, and all their goods. 10 All their cities in the places where they lived, and all their encampments, they burned with fire, 11 and took all the spoil and all the plunder, both of man and of beast. 12 Then they brought the captives and the plunder and the spoil to Moses, and to Eleazar the priest, and to the congregation of the people of Israel, at the camp on the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho.
13 Moses and Eleazar the priest and all the chiefs of the congregation went to meet them outside the camp. 14 And Moses was angry with the officers of the army, the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds, who had come from service in the war. 15 Moses said to them, “Have you let all the women live? 16 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. 17 Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him. 18 But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him keep alive for yourselves. 19 Encamp outside the camp seven days. Whoever of you has killed any person and whoever has touched any slain, purify yourselves and your captives on the third day and on the seventh day. 20 You shall purify every garment, every article of skin, all work of goats’ hair, and every article of wood.”
21 Then Eleazar the priest said to the men in the army who had gone to battle: “This is the statute of the law that the Lord has commanded Moses: 22 only the gold, the silver, the bronze, the iron, the tin, and the lead, 23 everything that can stand the fire, you shall pass through the fire, and it shall be clean. Nevertheless, it shall also be purified with the water for impurity. And whatever cannot stand the fire, you shall pass through the water. 24 You must wash your clothes on the seventh day, and you shall be clean. And afterward you may come into the camp.” – Numbers 31:1-24 ESV
This is a difficult chapter. As I read it this morning I was struck by the seeming violence and barbaric nature of the scene it portrays. Something about it jars our modern-day sensibilities as we read about an entire civilization being wiped out, of innocent women and children being slaughtered. It seems reminiscent of the tribal warfare and genocide taking place in remote places around our contemporary world and chronicled by the media.
Yet this is the story of the people of God doing the will of God. In reading this story we run the risk of being repulsed by the violence and becoming judgmental of a God who would justify such actions. Or we can become callous and insensitive to the very real battle the people of God found themselves in as they attempted to live as a people of faith in the midst of a fallen world. Either extreme is wrong. Many have rejected the God of the Old Testament as a blood-thirsty god who slaughtered indiscriminately and rather heartlessly. Others have reduced the details surrounding the lives of the Old Testament characters to nothing more than moralistic stories that have lost their vitality and any sense of reality. Yet these were real people living real lives and having to engage in very real battles of life and death. The fight of faith was anything but a metaphor.
To understand what was going on, we have to step outside of our modern context. We have to immerse ourselves in the culture into which the Israelites were entering as they prepared to take possession of the land. This was not Disneyland. It was a hostile environment inhabited by pagan people groups who were vehemently opposed to Israel and their God. The NET Bible makes the following comment regarding the nature of the war that God commanded Moses to wage against the Midianites:
“The command in holy war to kill women and children seems in modern times a terrible thing to have been done (and it was), and something they ought not to have done. But this criticism fails to understand the situation in the ancient world. The entire life of the ancient world was tribal warfare, necessitating warfare. God’s judgment is poured out on whole groups of people who act with moral abandonment and in sinful pursuit.” – NET Bible Study Notes
The relationship between the Midianites and Israelites was a strained one. As the people of Israel had begun to make their way to the land promised to them by God, they had to pass through the land of Midian. But the Midianites feared the Israelites and saw them as a threat to their safety and autonomy. So the Midianite king, a man named Balak, had hired a seer named Balaam to place a curse on the unwanted intruders. Motivated by a sizeable reward, Balaam had repeatedly tried to fulfill the king’s wish but failed. God prohibited him from following through on his plan.
So, having failed at his assignment, the pagan soothsayer returned home without his reward. But the story didn’t end there. It seems that Balaam came up with a workaround. Since Yahweh wouldn’t allow him to curse the Israelites, he developed a simple, yet ingenious plan that would cause them to curse themselves. Moses described it in great detail in chapter 25.
Balaam convinced King Balak to use the Midianite women as weapons against the Israelites. But rather than wielding swords and spears, these women used their feminine wiles. They successfully seduced the men of Israel into engaging in sexual immorality which eventually led to these men committing idolatry. In doing so, they caused the Israelites to turn their backs on God. These women posed a moral threat, rather than a military one. But that is what made them so dangerous.
Balaam’s goal was to destroy the people of God from within, without ever having to raise a sword. So, God commanded that they be destroyed. Otherwise, their presence would be a constant threat to the spiritual well-being of the people of God. The danger was real and the solution was sobering. The Midianites had effectively infiltrated the Israelite camp and caused God’s people to commit the unpardonable sin of idolatry. And God knew that the presence of the Midianites would pose a continued threat to Israel’s moral health as a nation. So, He gave Moses one last assignment.
“On behalf of the people of Israel, take revenge on the Midianites for leading them into idolatry. After that, you will die and join your ancestors.” – Numbers 31:2 NLT
Moses obeyed God’s command and ordered the wholesale destruction of the Midianites and their cities. A force of 12,000 men carried out the mission, killing all the Midianite men and burning all their towns and villages. They even executed Balaam for his role in the whole affair. But the text reveals that the Israelite soldiers couldn’t bring themselves to kill the Midianite women.
Then the Israelite army captured the Midianite women and children and seized their cattle and flocks and all their wealth as plunder. – Numbers 31:9 NLT
Still driven by lust, the men saw the Midianite women as too valuable to kill and brought them back as plunder. In doing so, they poured gasoline on the fire of their own sinful desires. They actually made matters worse, and Moses reacted with disbelief and anger.
“Why have you let all the women live? These are the very ones who followed Balaam’s advice and caused the people of Israel to rebel against the LORD at Mount Peor. They are the ones who caused the plague to strike the LORD’s people.” – Numbers 31:15-16 NLT
The men of Israel were willing to live with the Midianite women in their midst, even though they posed a threat to their safety. They were the very women who had caused them to rebel against God, to begin with.
God called the people to action. He demanded that they deal with the threat to their spiritual safety, and they did. This was an act of faith. In fact, every battle the Israelites fought was an act of faith. They were not warring people. They had been slaves. For the last 40 years they had been wandering vagabonds. They had no real military training, and their battle experience was minimal. So, to form an army and fight against the Midianites was an act of faith. But God rewarded their faith.
It’s interesting to note that the preceding chapter outlined the sheer number of sheep, goats, and bulls the people were required to offer in sacrifice to God each year. Then this chapter outlines the number of sheep, cattle, and donkeys the people took as plunder from the Midianites: 675,000 sheep, 72,000 cattle, and 61,000 donkeys.
It seems that the sacrifices were all about faith. They were to offer to God their best, even though it cost them dearly. The battle was all about faith, and trusting God to lead them in an endeavor for which they had no skills or experience. But the result was the reward of God. He repaid their faithfulness with abundance. God gave them back far more in the way of livestock than they would ever have to give to Him. He was testing their obedience. He wanted to see if they would step out in faith and obey what He told them to do.
Moses knew what needed to be done and ordered the soldiers to complete their mission.
“Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him. But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him keep alive for yourselves.” – Numbers 31:17-18 ESV
To modern readers, this all seems so extreme and unnecessary. We tend to judge the actions of the Israelites through what we believe to be our more enlightened understanding of justice. But the land of Canaan was like the wild west, filled with disparate people groups who were all vying for control and willing to do whatever was necessary to solidify their hold on the land. And the Israelites were one nation among many. But they had been chosen by God and awarded sole possession of the land of Canaan. Yet, even more important than their possession of the land was the preservation of their purity and the demonstration of their faith in God. They were to be a set-apart people, wholly committed to Yahweh and willing to follow His commands whatever the cost. No compromise. No concessions. No subtle softening of their convictions. The battle was real and the fight of faith would be anything but easy.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.