Numbers 31 – Vengeance on Midian
A. The command to destroy the Midianites and its fulfillment.
1. (1-2) God commands Israel to take vengeance on the Midianites.
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “Take vengeance on the Midianites for the children of Israel. Afterward you shall be gathered to your people.”
a. Take vengeance on the Midianites: The Midianites were a nomadic people, at this time associated with the people of Moab. God commanded they be attacked in retribution for their seduction of Israel into sexual immorality and idolatry (Numbers 25).
i. “The Midianites were a large confederation of tribes, associated with various smaller groups… They roamed through the arid lands of the Sinai, the Negeb and Transjordan. Here it is those Midianites associated with Moab that are picked out for vengeance.” (Wenham)
b. Take vengeance: We are generally uncomfortable with the idea of vengeance because it doesn’t seem consistent with God’s love. Yet, in the right context, vengeance is something good that God is interested in.
i. The Scriptures repeatedly speak of the vengeance of God as a positive thing. Evil comes when we take vengeance into our own hands.
ii. In this circumstance, Israel was in a unique place – with a special call to be an instrument of God’s vengeance. This is something no person should take upon themselves today, knowing that ancient Israel had this unique place in God’s plan.
iii. So, when God-ordained instruments of authority (such as government) take vengeance on evildoers, we as Christians can be at peace, knowing that good has been done when vengeance has been executed.
c. Afterward you shall be gathered: As it turned out, not immediately afterward, but afterward none the less.
2. (3-5) Moses organizes the army to battle Midian.
So Moses spoke to the people, saying, “Arm some of yourselves for war, and let them go against the Midianites to take vengeance for the Lord on Midian. A thousand from each tribe of all the tribes of Israel you shall send to the war.” So there were recruited from the divisions of Israel one thousand from each tribe, twelve thousand armed for war.
3. (6-11) The battle fought, Midian defeated, and spoil taken.
Then Moses sent them to the war, one thousand from each tribe; he sent them to the war with Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest, with the holy articles and the signal trumpets in his hand. And they warred against the Midianites, just as the Lord commanded Moses, and they killed all the males. They killed the kings of Midian with the rest of those who were killed; Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba, the five kings of Midian. Balaam the son of Beor they also killed with the sword. And the children of Israel took the women of Midian captive, with their little ones, and took as spoil all their cattle, all their flocks, and all their goods. They also burned with fire all the cities where they dwelt, and all their forts. And they took all the spoil and all the booty; of man and beast.
a. He sent them to war with Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest, with the holy articles and the signal trumpets in his hand: Significantly, the priests went with the nation into this battle, and the priests went with the holy articles.
b. And they warred against the Midianites: According to the custom of the day, all the males were killed, and the women and children were taken as servants, with all the possessions being taken as spoil.
c. Balaam the son of Beor they also killed with the sword: Balaam, who had masterminded the strategy by which Israel would be seduced into sexual immorality and idolatry, and who did it all for money, was now dead. He was judged by the vengeance of God, and his money did him no good.
i. There is reason why Jude 1:11 speaks of the error of Balaam for profit; it is just plain error to sell out God for money – you end up a loser every time.
ii. Balaam had longed, Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my end be like his! (Numbers 23:10) But Balaam had no interest in living the life of the righteous, so he died the death of the sinner, in the company of sinners.
B. The division of the spoil.
1. (12-20) Moses is angry when Israel keeps the women of Midian following the attack against Midian.
Then they brought the captives, the booty, and the spoil to Moses, to Eleazar the priest, and to the congregation of the children of Israel, to the camp in the plains of Moab by the Jordan, across from Jericho. And Moses, Eleazar the priest, and all the leaders of the congregation, went to meet them outside the camp. But Moses was angry with the officers of the army, with the captains over thousands and captains over hundreds, who had come from the battle. And Moses said to them: “Have you kept all the women alive? Look, these women caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to trespass against the Lord in the incident of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the Lord. Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known a man intimately. But keep alive for yourselves all the young girls who have not known a man intimately. And as for you, remain outside the camp seven days; whoever has killed any person, and whoever has touched any slain, purify yourselves and your captives on the third day and on the seventh day. Purify every garment, everything made of leather, everything woven of goats’ hair, and everything made of wood.”
a. Have you kept the women alive? Moses was angry because the children of Israel failed to see the great danger of sexual immorality and idolatry posed by these women who before led the men of Israel into these exact sins.
i. Christians are often tripped up by things that were a threat, but they did not see them as a threat. Though most Israelites thought these women were safe, they were more dangerous to Israel than an army of mighty warriors. Israel could overcome mighty warriors if they were spiritually strong; but if they were seduced into immorality and idolatry, they would certainly fall.
ii. We often think of many things as dangerous to us as Christians – hostile government, secular humanism, academic attack, and so forth. But the things we accept in our midst as Christians that open the door to immorality and idolatry can do far more real damage than any of those other things.
b. Keep alive for yourselves all the young girls who have not known a man intimately: Therefore, all the women who had known a man intimately were to be killed. But ones who had not been connected with the immorality and idolatry of the Midianites could be kept alive.
c. Every male among the little ones: These also had to be killed. This was harsh but done with the understanding that in that ancient culture, the boys would have grown into men with the solemn responsibility to avenge their father’s death and to perpetuate Midianite culture – which in itself was anti-God.
d. Purify every garment, everything made of leather, everything woven of goats’ hair, and everything made of wood: As well, anything that had come into contact with the Midianites and the spoil taken from them had to be purified. Then it could be used.
i. This is a valid principle for us to observe when Christians want to “plunder” things from the world and use them for the cause of the gospel, such as music, media, and other things. But some things cannot be cleansed and must be done away with; other things can be cleansed and may be used by the people of God for the glory of God.
2. (21-24) The purification of the spoil.
Then Eleazar the priest said to the men of war who had gone to the battle, “This is the ordinance of the law which the Lord commanded Moses: Only the gold, the silver, the bronze, the iron, the tin, and the lead, everything that can endure fire, you shall put through the fire, and it shall be clean; and it shall be purified with the water of purification. But all that cannot endure fire you shall put through water. And you shall wash your clothes on the seventh day and be clean, and afterward you may come into the camp.”
a. Everything that can endure fire, you shall put through the fire, and it shall be clean: All the material spoil had to either be purified by fire or cleansed with water. Only then was it fit for use by God among the people of God.
b. Fire… and it shall be purified with the water of purification: God uses the same means to purify believers today – the fire of trials and the water of washing.
i. When God uses the fire of purification, we can say with Job: When He has tested me, I shall come forth as gold (Job 23:10). The fire purifies precious metal by causing the impurities (the dross) to rise to the top, where the refiner can skim them away. The refiner can tell when the gold is pure because he can then see his reflection in the pool of gold.
ii. When God wants to wash us clean, He not only uses the waters of baptism, but also the ministry of the Word as described in Ephesians 5:26: That He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word.
3. (25-54) The spoil is divided among the soldiers and the nation at large.
Now the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “Count up the plunder that was taken; of man and beast; you and Eleazar the priest and the chief fathers of the congregation; and divide the plunder into two parts, between those who took part in the war, who went out to battle, and all the congregation. And levy a tribute for the Lord on the men of war who went out to battle: one of every five hundred of the persons, the cattle, the donkeys, and the sheep; take it from their half, and give it to Eleazar the priest as a heave offering to the Lord. And from the children of Israel’s half you shall take one of every fifty, drawn from the persons, the cattle, the donkeys, and the sheep, from all the livestock, and give them to the Levites who keep charge of the tabernacle of the Lord.” So Moses and Eleazar the priest did as the Lord commanded Moses. The booty remaining from the plunder, which the men of war had taken, was six hundred and seventy-five thousand sheep, seventy-two thousand cattle, sixty-one thousand donkeys, and thirty-two thousand persons in all, of women who had not known a man intimately. And the half, the portion for those who had gone out to war, was in number three hundred and thirty-seven thousand five hundred sheep; and the Lord’s tribute of the sheep was six hundred and seventy-five. The cattle were thirty-six thousand, of which the Lord’s tribute was seventy-two. The donkeys were thirty thousand five hundred, of which the Lord’s tribute was sixty-one. The persons were sixteen thousand, of which the Lord’s tribute was thirty-two persons. So Moses gave the tribute which was the Lord’s heave offering to Eleazar the priest, as the Lord commanded Moses. And from the children of Israel’s half, which Moses separated from the men who fought; now the half belonging to the congregation was three hundred and thirty-seven thousand five hundred sheep, thirty-six thousand cattle, thirty thousand five hundred donkeys, and sixteen thousand persons; and from the children of Israel’s half Moses took one of every fifty, drawn from man and beast, and gave them to the Levites, who kept charge of the tabernacle of the Lord, as the Lord commanded Moses. Then the officers who were over thousands of the army, the captains of thousands and captains of hundreds, came near to Moses; and they said to Moses, “Your servants have taken a count of the men of war who are under our command, and not a man of us is missing. Therefore we have brought an offering for the Lord, what every man found of ornaments of gold: armlets and bracelets and signet rings and earrings and necklaces, to make atonement for ourselves before the Lord.” So Moses and Eleazar the priest received the gold from them, all the fashioned ornaments. And all the gold of the offering that they offered to the Lord, from the captains of thousands and captains of hundreds, was sixteen thousand seven hundred and fifty shekels. (The men of war had taken spoil, every man for himself.) And Moses and Eleazar the priest received the gold from the captains of thousands and of hundreds, and brought it into the tabernacle of meeting as a memorial for the children of Israel before the Lord.
a. Divide the plunder into two parts, between those who took part in the war, who went out to battle, and all the congregation: Customarily, the spoil belonged to the soldiers alone, but God did not want soldiers who were looters or pirates. So, He commanded that they also grant some of the spoil to the people of Israel who did not fight.
b. All the gold of the offering that they offered to the Lord: A portion of the spoil also was to be given to the Lord. Even with the spoils of war, God wanted Israel to have the heart of givers.