Chapter 31


War with Midian

    • The Lord told Moses, “Take revenge on the Midianites on Israel’s behalf. After this, you will die and be gathered to your people.”

      • This vengeance is in response to the events of Numbers 25, in which the Midianite women participate in a plan created by Balaam to seduce the Israelite men into sexual immorality and idolatry.

    • So, Moses gave the Israelites the following instructions: “Select 10,000 men from each tribe and prepare them to go to war with Midian to carry out the Lord’s vengeance.”

    • 1,000 recruits were taken from each tribe for a total of 12,000 and Moses sent them to war led by Eleazar’s (the priest) son, Phinehas. The holy objects of the sanctuary and the trumpets for signaling were entrusted to his care.

    • They attacked Midian according to the Lord’s command and killed all the men. All five Midianite kings were killed in the battle- Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba. They also killed Balaam (Beor’s son). The women and children were taken captive and they seized all their cattle, flocks, and property. They burned all the Midianite cities and camps and brought all the plunder (including the captives and animals) back to Eleazar and the rest of the Israelites. At this time the Israelites were camped on the plains of Moab beside the Jordan River across from the city of Jericho.

      • NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible notes that Zur was, “the father of Kozbi, the Midianite woman killed by Phinehas along with her Israelite paramour, Zimri son of Salu (Numbers 25:14-15).”

    • Moses, Eleazar, and the Israelite leaders went to meet the returning troops outside of the camp, but Moses became furious with the generals and captains saying, “Why have you let all the women live? They are the ones who, following Balaam’s strategy, lured the Israelites into unfaithfulness to the Lord at Mount Peor which resulted in a plague.Go now and kill all the boys and every woman who isn’t a virgin. You can keep all the young virgins for yourselves.”

      • NLT Illustrated Study Bible notes, “God had commanded total destruction, but the Midianite women who had followed Balaam’s advice and were largely responsible for the apostasy of Baal-Peor had wrongly been given clemency. Only young virgin women were to be spared, since they had not participated in the incident at Baal-Peor.”

    • Moses then told those returning from battle, “Remain outside the camp for 7 days. Any of you and your prisoners who have killed someone or touched a dead body are to purify yourselves on the 3rd and 7th days. You must also purify all your clothing along with anything made of leather, goat hair, or wood.”

      • NLT Illustrated Study Bible writes, “Israelite warriors who had contact with corpses subjected them and their equipment to routine, but important, purification rituals (Numbers 5:1-4; 19:1-22).

    • Then Eleazar told the troops that the Lord had given Moses the following command, “Anything made of gold, silver, bronze, iron, tin, and lead (all metals that don’t burn) must first be passed through the fire, then water to be rendered ceremonially pure. Anything that will burn must be purified by water alone. After you have washed your clothes on the 7th day, you will be purified and can return to camp.”

Division of the Plunder

    • Then the Lord instructed Moses, “You, Eleazar, and the family leaders of each tribe are to record all the people and animals captured in battle. These are to be divided as follows: half is to be given to the troops and the other half is to be given to the rest of the Israelites. Before the troops are given their portion, the Lord’s portion must be set aside from their half- one out of every 500 people, cattle, donkeys, sheep, and goats- and given to Eleazar as their contribution the Lord. Before the rest of the Israelites receive their portion, they must set aside the Lord’s portion from their half- one out of every 50 people, cattle, donkeys, sheep, and goats. From this portion all the livestock must be given to the Levites, who are in charge of taking care of the Tabernacle.”

    • Moses and Eleazar did as the Lord had commanded. The following is an account of the totals:

      • The total number of captives remaining from what the troops had taken were:

        • 675,000 sheep and goats

        • 72,000 cattle

        • 61,000 donkeys

        • 32,000 female virgins

      • The totals for the troop’s half was (Moses gave the Lord’s portion to Eleazar):

        • 337,500 sheep and goats of which 675 were the Lord’s share

        • 36,000 cattle of which 72 were the Lord’s share

        • 30,500 donkeys of which 61 were the Lord’s share

        • 16,000 female virgins of whom 32 were the Lord’s share

      • The totals for the rest of the Israelites’ half was:

        • 337,500 sheep and goats

        • 36,000 cattle

        • 30,500 donkeys

        • 16,000 female virgins

        • Of these, Moses gave one in every 50 to the Levites as the Lord had instructed.

    • The generals and captains came to Moses and told him that they had taken a count of all the troops that had gone to battle and discovered that not one man was missing. For this reason they presented an offering to the Lord of all the gold each man had found- armbands, bracelets, rings, earrings, and necklaces in order to make atonement with the Lord.

      • Is is reasonable to believe that ALL of the Israelite troops could have survived such a large battle? NLT Illustrated Study Bible notes, “Though it is unusual for no soldiers of an army to be killed in battle, it is not impossible. Classical authors also record battles in which few or no Roman soldiers were killed. If the Israelites had the advantages of preparation, surprise, and overwhelming force, they could have defeated the Midianites and lost no troops, especially in light of God’s blessing.”

    • Moses and Eleazar received all these golden articles and the weight of gold presented totaled 420 pounds (167,750 shekels). Moses and Eleazar accepted this gold from the generals and captains and took it to the Tabernacle as a memorial for the Israelites before the Lord.

This is a good place for a time out!

    • There are several things discussed in the passages above that are very disturbing for Christians and of course, used as ammunition by skeptics to claim that the God of the OT is a cruel, vengeful, genocidal maniac. If you’re interested in an in depth discussion of God’s vengeance on the Midianites, this Christianthinktank link is an excellent source. We’ll look at some questions one by one:

          1. In general, we react negatively to the thought of vengeance because it seems so inconsistent with God’s love. However, there are some important distinctions to me made with regard to the circumstances surrounding this narrative.

        • As David Guzik points out in his commentary, “…in the right context, vengeance is something good that God is interested in…The Scriptures repeatedly speak of the vengeance of God as a positive thing. Evil comes when we take vengeance into our own hands.”

        • Regarding appropriate context, the HCSB commentary explains the difference between the context of this Israelite “holy war” as opposed to the unsanctioned, and sinful modern “holy wars” that often come to our minds, “Critics who suggest a holy-war mentality was a crude feature of ancient cultures and not in keeping with God’s purpose for humanity have ignored the fact that these instructions were applicable at this critical point in the formation of the theocracy of Israel. Their very survival as the holy community was at stake...However, the law of Christ, the law of love, supercedes the instructions for Israel in the era of Moses and Joshua. While God still abhors every kind of evil in society, and the people of God must diligently oppose its every expression, ‘holy war’ of the kind recorded here is not the proper response.” (emphasis mine)

          1. Even if vengeance was necessary, doesn’t it cross the line that female non-virgins and young boys were to be slaughtered along with all the men? The author of the Christianthinktank article linked above does an excellent job of putting this misguided notion in perspective with several points:

        • We are not realizing the amount of premeditation and effort on the part of the Midianites (including the women) to destroy the Israelites according the plan set forth by Balaam:

          • The Israelite camp was located in Shittim (Numbers 25:1) when apparently large numbers of Midianite women begin showing up there. This would have been an approximately 30 mile journey for the Midianite women who were coming from the kingdom of Moab. How would this journey have been accomplished? “Such difficulties and perils doubtlessly contributed to the fact that most international travel and communication was undertaken by caravans; in numbers, there was some protection against alien elements and agents. Considerable literary evidence from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor indicates that caravans were generally large and almost always escorted by security guards, armed by the public powers for their tasks, and that the caravanners were expected to stay strictly on the preordained route. It was not uncommon for caravans to include as many as 100 to 200 donkeys, sometimes carrying priceless commodities, and one extraordinary text from Mari refers to a caravan of 3,000 donkeys.” (ABD, “Travel and Communication (Old Testament World”)

        • Given the information above the Christianthinktank author paints this picture, “So, these Moabite women show up, with government funding and security escorts, having carefully planned the trip, and having left all family responsibilities on indefinite “hold” back in Moab…and the sequence of events runs like this:

          • (1) “The Moabite (and Midianite, as we know from verse 6) women show up at the Israel encampment.”

          • (2) “The Israelite men immediately start having ‘regular’ sex with them–the Hebrew indicates extreme lustful abandon. (“The verb used to describe the action of the men is one normally used to describe the behavior of a loose woman, a harlot. Here the people, as a man, bewhore themselves with foreign, pagan women. Always in the ancient Near Eastern context, references to sexual imagery such as this suggest interconnecting circles of sexual immorality tied to sacral rites of prostitution, essential parts of pagan religious systems of the day. [EBCOT, Num 25])”

          • (3) “This first reference to sex does not contain the notion of ‘sacred prostitution’—that will show up in a later step.”

          • (4) “THEN, these women invited the Israelite men to their religious sacrifices (where meat and wine would have been served—the Israelites had not had very much meat during the 40 years in the wilderness). These would have likely been held at the religious shrines at or around the mount of Peor (one of the sites where Balak took Balaam), especially the shrine of Baal Peor, although smaller shrines, high places, and even shade-trees would have fit the Baal cult.”

          • (5) “The Israelite men went with them and ate the sacrificial meal.”

          • (6) “Then the Israelite men would have ‘bowed down’ to their pagan gods (probably as part of the ceremony), and engaged in ‘sacred sex’ due to the fertility nature of the Baal Peor god.”

          • (7) “Then, a ‘critical mass’ of the people (i.e., ‘Israel’ in the text)—including their leadership—were ‘yoked’ to Baal Peor.”

          • The author continues, “And it is here at this point that the treachery of the Midianites becomes visible in the narrative: this was deliberate strategy on the part of the Midianite leadership to use ‘sex’ as a weapon, and have Israel abandon the protection and life-source of their God.” The author points out that one or more of the following scenarios HAD to have taken place in the coordination of the events above:

          • (1) “Either the women agreed with Balaam’s plan, and then talked their husbands into letting them commit wholesale, pre-meditated, and government-facilitated adultery (for the sake of Balak’s paranoia, and Midianite anti-Israel sentiment) [the wording of the text suggests that THIS is the most probable historical reconstruction];”

          • (2) “Or the men agreed with Balaam’s plan and then talked their wives into committing wholesale, pre-meditated, and government-facilitated adultery (for the sake of Balak’s paranoia, and Midianite anti-Israel sentiment);”

          • (3) “Or the men agreed with Balaam’s plan and then forced their wives into committing wholesale, pre-meditated, and government-facilitated adultery (for the sake of Balak’s paranoia, and Midianite anti-Israel sentiment);”

          • (4) “Or the chiefs/elite of Midian forced both men and women to agree on committing wholesale, pre-meditated, and government-facilitated adultery (for the sake of Balak’s paranoia, and Midianite anti-Israel sentiment);”

          • (5) “Fathers and mothers may have talked their unmarried daughters into (or forced them into) committing wholesale, pre-meditated, and government-facilitated adultery (for the sake of Balak’s paranoia, and Midianite anti-Israel sentiment);”

          • (6) “The Midianite power forced the Moabite women to ‘lead the charge’ (but they disappear in the narrative after the first mention—everything else is ‘Midianite only’);”

          • (7) “The government plans, funds, and orchestrates the mass caravans of Moabite women, and Midianite migration to the area where Israel is camping.”

        • What about the young boys? The author above notes that the fate of the young boys is certainty an “unfortunate” reality “of children victims (in this case the boys) in ancient warfare” and lists the following points:

            • The Midianite parents would have been legally/ethically responsible for this situation falling upon their children—NOT the Israelites; This situation was forced upon the Israelites by the unprovoked treachery of the Midianites; No ANE (Ancient Near East) land-based and/or blood-succession-based civilization had means for assimilating foreign males into them; There were no ‘social relief’ institutions in this world…”

          1. Keeping the above information in mind, did this judgment still exceed the crime? The author notes that while the scale of Midianite judgement was large, it was far from genocidal. He lists the following points:

        • (1) “Only 12,000 Israelite men go into the battle. That would imply that the Midianite force would have been estimated in the 8,000-15,000 person range. This, of course, means that we are not dealing with all of the Midianites, but only just this small tribal sub-group (i.e., its not a genocide thing). [Other Midianites will be attacking Israel in force within 30 years, as will Moab.] This number would fit roughly with the estimated number of wives/mothers/daughters that would have participated in the sexual warfare on Israel (in the 8,000-15,000 person range), providing further support for our understanding of the scale of this action.”

        • (2) “The Moabites are NOT included in this judgment—only the specific Midianites behind the atrocity (the 5 chieftains)…”

        • (3) The author also reminds us that the Israelites did not go unpunished. “…the number of adult Israelites who died in the plague of judgment” was “24,000…they were the subject of God’s judgment first.”

          1. But what about the treatment of the female virgins? How exactly did the Israelites know if a female was a virgin or not? Some skeptics claim that young girls were subjected to horrific “virginity testing” at the hands of the Israelite troops.

          • This is reading modern day culture into an ancient context. Today, you cannot generally tell if a woman is a virgin by merely looking at her. This was not the case in Ancient Near Eastern culture. The Christianthinktank link notes that, “…there was no ‘test for virginity’ needed/used.” The author notes the following visual indications:

          • Was the female pre-pubescent?”

            • Was the female wearing any attire, jewelry, or adornments required for/associated with virginity for that culture?”

            • Was the female wearing any attire, jewelry, or adornments required for/associated with non-virginity for that culture (e.g., veil indicating married status)?”

          • The author further notes, “Because virginity was generally associated with legal proof for blood-inheritance issues in ancient cultures (e.g., land, property, kinship, relationships), virginity itself was often marked by some type of clothing (e.g., the robe of Tamar in 2 Sam 13) or by cosmetic means (cf. the Hindu ‘pre-marriage dot’); as was more typically non-virginal married status (e.g., veils, headwear, jewelry, or certain hairstyles). Of course, non-virginal unmarried status (e.g., temple prostitutes and secular prostitutes) were also indicated by special markings or adornments (e.g. jewelry, dress—cf. Proverbs 7.10; Hos 2.4-5).”

          1. When verse 18 says that the troops can “keep the female virgins for themselves” does this mean that the women became sex slaves?

      • The Christianthinktank author again notes that, “the accusation that these girls were for “sex slave” purposes contradicts what we know about the culture and about the event” and provides the following corroboration:

        • The probable age range of the majority of these “female virgins” doesn’t lend itself to sex slavery. “Most girls were married soon/immediately after they began menstruating in the ANE (circa 12 years of age), and since infant and child mortality was so high, the average age of the girls spared would have been around 5 years of age or slightly lower (life expectancy wasn’t a straight line, with childhood risks so high). Of all the horrible things ascribed to Israel in the OT, pedophilia is the one conspicuous omission. That these little kids would have been even considered as ‘sex slaves’ seems quite incongruent with their ages.”

        • Even for the female virgins that were old enough to actually have been utilized as sex slaves, Mosaic law specifically condemned such practice. As this rationalchristianity article notes, sex outside of marriage (whether consensual or not) was explicitly condemned (Exodus 22:16-17 and Deuteronomy 22:28-29). Furthermore, there were very clear laws in place for the protection of female captives that Israelite men chose as wives: “Captive women were given a month to mourn their families and adjust to their new home before marrying (Dt 21:13); If divorced by their husband, they were freed (Dt 21:14); They could not be sold to anyone else (Dt 21:14).”


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