Numbers 31: Revenge Against the Midianites
Earlier in Numbers we read that the LORD had appointed Joshua to succeed Moses, as the Israelites’ leader. Moses gave Joshua some of his authority, and was allowed to see the Promised Land, even though he wasn’t going to be allowed to enter it.
But Moses has another task to perform, before he will be gathered to his people:
The LORD said to Moses, “Take vengeance on the Midianites for the Israelites. After that, you will be gathered to your people.” (verses 1–2)
This is relating back to Numbers 25, when the Israelites let themselves be seduced by the Midianites—literally, because the “seduction” took the form of sexual immorality and worship of the Midianites’ god(s). (Those two things are related; the sexual immorality was part of the idol worship.)
So Moses sends out 12,000 troops, to fight the Midianites, 1,000 from each tribe of Israel. He also sends with them Phinehas, Eleazar’s son, who takes with him some articles from the sanctuary and some trumpets, for signaling.
The Israelites soundly defeat the Midianites, killing every man, and taking the women, children, and plunder for themselves. They also kill the five kings of Midian—Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba—and Balaam. Balak, the king of Moab, is not mentioned, although there seemed to be some kind of relationship between him and the Midianites, in Numbers 22. They bring all of the spoils of war back to Moses, Eleazar, and the rest of the community, but Moses is angry with them:
“Have you allowed all the women to live?” he asked them. “They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and were the means of turning the Israelites away from the LORD in what happened at Peor, so that a plague struck the LORD’s people. Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.” (verses 15–18)
He then instructs anyone who killed anyone, or who touched a dead body, to stay outside the camp for seven days, for their cleansing. They are to follow all of the rules for a person who had touched a dead body. Eleazar also instructs them that any articles they have that can be passed through the fire must be passed through, and then cleansed with the water of cleansing. Anything that can’t be passed through fire must be cleansed with the water of cleansing.
Moses now instructs the people to divide the spoils between the soldiers, who took part in the battle, and the rest of the Israelites. Then they are to take the Levites’ share, as follows: From the spoils allocated to the soldiers, the Levites would get 1 out of every 500 “items”—i.e. 1 out of every 500 sheep, 1 out of every 500 girls, etc.; from the spoils allocated to the rest of the Israelites, the Levites would get 1 out of every 50 items. They go ahead and divide everything as instructed.
The officers of the army then come back to Moses and report to him that not a single member of the Israelite army is missing. In other words, they wiped out the entire Midianite nation, without a single casualty. So, to thank the LORD for this, they present an additional offering: all of the gold articles that they acquired. (Verse 52 reports that the offering consisted of 190 kilograms of gold.)
I don’t know how common this was, in that day and age, but I note that the Israelite soldiers took a priest with them into battle, and then, when they came back, they purified themselves. The rules that applied to a person who had touched a dead body applied equally to soldiers, who killed in battle.
I was also interested in the fact that the soldiers got to keep a specific share of the spoils for themselves, and that the portion removed from their share for the Levites was smaller than the portion removed from the share allocated to the rest of the Israelites.
But probably the part of the chapter that I’m most focused on is the destroying of an entire nation, but the LORD allowing the Israelites to keep any virgin girl/woman as “spoils of war.” I actually do understand why the Israelites were commanded to wipe out the Midianites; this was the LORD’s judgement on them, for their sin. But why allow the girls to live? What’s especially jarring to me is the fact that, in this chapter, the girls are quite explicitly being captured as the Israelites’ property. I realize this was basically the position of women altogether—even chapter 30 made that quite clear, when talking about vows—but this idea of treating the Midianite girls in the same manner as they treated the gold taken from them as plunder seems pretty jarring, to me.