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 associated with the people of Moab in Numbers 25. God commanded that they be attacked in retribution for their part in the seduction of Israel into sexual immorality and idolatry.
i. “The Midianites were a large confederation of tribes, associated with various smaller groups…. They roamed through the arid lands of the Sinai, the Negev and Transjordan. Here it is those Midianites associated with Moab that are picked out for vengeance.” (Wenham)
ii. The emphasis is on the fact that the LORD spoke to Moses in initiating this attack. This wasn’t about personal revenge, the conquest of territory, or the lust for plunder. “The war is announced by the Lord, not Moses. The war was not regarded by Moses as motivated by petty jealousy. It was ‘the Lord’s vengeance’ because of the wickedness of the Midianites, who caused the seduction of the Israelites in the pagan worship system of Baal of Peor.” (Allen)
iii. Because it was specifically commanded by the LORD, this was also a test of Israel’s obedience. “The second generation of Israel, now poised in the plains of Moab opposite Jericho, was facing the same moral, ethical, and spiritual dilemma that the first generation had faced in the wilderness. Would they be faithful to their unique covenant relationship with Yahweh their God or succumb to the temptations that lay ever before them?” (Cole)
iv. “The Moabites also were guilty, but God out of his own good pleasure, and in kindness to Lot, was pleased to spare them, the rather, because the measure of their iniquity was not yet full.” (Poole)
b. Take vengeance: We are often 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 pursues.
i. The Scriptures repeatedly speak of the vengeance of God as a positive thing. Evil comes with the vengeance of man. “That Moses was directed by God to ‘take vengeance’ (NIV, NKJV) on the Midianites reflects one side of the Hebrew verb nqm, which can also mean ‘vindication.’ God directs his vengeance against the immoral, idolatrous, and unjust; and yet his vengeance is often self-limiting according to his great mercy.” (Cole)
ii. In this circumstance, Israel was in a unique role – with a special call to be an instrument of God’s vengeance upon the varied people of and near Canaan. This is something no individual, acting on their own authority, can rightly take upon themselves today. There is also no community defined as the people of God (such as a church congregation or denomination) that has the same unique place that ancient Israel had in God’s plan.
iii. While God has not called the church as His instrument of vengeance, God has ordained certain instruments of society (such as government) to take vengeance on evildoers (Romans 13:1-4).
c. Afterward you shall be gathered: Moses did die some months after this. He did not die immediately afterward, but this was something that had to be accomplished before his work could be considered complete.
2. (3-5) Moses organizes the army to battle against the Midianites.
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.
a. Arm some of yourselves for war: Moses promptly obeyed what God told Israel to do.
i. “Degrading idolatry was to be held in abhorrence, and those who clung to it suppressed. Now the time comes for an exterminating war. While hordes of Bedouins occupy the hills and the neighbouring desert, there can be no security either for morals, property, or life. Balaam is among them plotting against Israel; and his restless energy, we may suppose, precipitates the conflict.” (Watson)
b. A thousand from each tribe of all tribes of Israel you shall send to the war: This was something God called Israel to do together as a people, not just a few individual tribes. God wanted them to think and act as a unified people, despite their tribal differences.
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. This was unusual and marked this, in a unique way, as God’s battle.
i. “Who then was general? Joshua, without doubt, though not here mentioned, because the battle being the Lord’s, he alone is to have the supreme direction, and all the glory.” (Clarke)
ii. Holy articles: “Commentators cannot decide whether this means ‘with the ark’ (cf. Joshua 6:6; 1 Samuel 4), or with the trumpets of alarm (Numbers 10:1-10; Joshua 6), or ‘wearing priestly garments’ (keli, ‘vessel’ [articles], means ‘garment’ in Deuteronomy 22:5).” (Wenham)
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 slaves, with all the possessions being taken as spoil.
i. Just as the LORD commanded Moses: This phrase is repeated four times in this chapter (also in Numbers 31:31, 41, 47). There is a strong emphasis on the idea that this was the LORD’s battle, not Israel’s.
ii. Killed all the males: “The report that they ‘killed every man’ does not necessarily mean that they killed every individual but that there was a complete defeat, with a focus on the males of the enemy army who were slain. Some of the enemies must have fled. The emphasis in this report is that they killed the men only.” (Allen)
c. Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba, the five kings of Midian: The name of Zur is of some interest. He was the father of Cozbi (Numbers 25:15), the Midianite woman who so flagrantly drew an Israelite man into immorality and idolatry at the very tabernacle itself and was killed with a spear by Phinehas. Cozbi, coming from such a powerful family, was probably something of a priestess of Baal.
d. Balaam the son of Beor they also killed with the sword: Balaam, who had suggested the strategy to seduce Israel into sexual immorality and idolatry, and who did it all for money, was now dead. The vengeance of God judged him, and whatever money he gained was no longer of any benefit to him.
i. This was the error of Balaam for profit mentioned in Jude 1:11. Balaam was in error to do evil against God and His people for the sake of money. When the vengeance of God came against Midian, this error cost him his life.
ii. “Balaam’s name, amid the recital of the names of the Midianite kings, suggests that he was their advisor, their spiritual guru. Always after a shekel, Balaam had a new gig.” (Allen)
iii. In Numbers 23:10 Balaam spoke of this desire: Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my end be like his! But Balaam had no interest in living the life of the righteous, so he died the death of the wicked, in the company of those under God’s judgment.
B. The division of the spoil.
1. (12-20) Moses becomes 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 all 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 had led the men of Israel into these exact sins.
i. God’s people may be deceived by things that were a threat, but do not seem to be a present danger. The Israelite officers of the army thought these women were safe, but 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. “Moses was wroth with the officers, not because of the severity of the judgment they had executed on Midian, but rather because they had failed to carry out the judgment completely.” (Morgan)
iii. We often think of many things as dangerous to us as the people of God – hostile government, secular humanism, academic attack, and so forth. But when God’s people accept things among them that open the door to immorality and idolatry, this can be a much greater danger 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 were not related to the immorality and idolatry of the Midianites could be kept alive.
i. “Women who had known men sexually, whether Midianite or sinful Israelite men, were to be considered unclean, since they were the main instrument of Israel’s demise at Baal Peor. Only the young girls would be allowed to live so that they may be taken as wives or slaves by the Israelite men, according to the principles of holy war (Deuteronomy 20:13-14, 21:10-14). By this they could be brought under the umbrella of the covenant community of faith.” (Cole)
ii. Who have not known a man: “As far as they could conjecture by their age.” (Trapp)
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 fathers’ death and to perpetuate Midianite culture – which was under God’s judgment.
i. This was a strong, even harsh judgment against the Midianites. It did not wipe them out as a people, because they are often found later as enemies of Israel (as in Judges 6).
ii. God has the right to judge not only individuals but also communities of all different sizes. Such judgments go beyond punishing individuals for their personal guilt; judgment comes upon the society as a whole, including those who may not be personally and individually guilty (such as children; the little ones). Sometimes God sends these judgments directly (as in the Genesis flood or with Sodom and Gomorrah), and sometimes God sends nations as instruments of His judgment (as with the Assyrians against the northern kingdom of Israel and the Babylonians against the southern kingdom of Judah). In the broader conquest of Canaan, God uniquely used His people (Israel) as that instrument of judgment.
iii. This harsh judgment often makes us uncomfortable but is rooted in both God’s fundamental right to judge (Psalm 9:8, 50:6), and in His merciful granting of much time for people to repent (Genesis 15:16). We can trust that God is a righteous judge (Genesis 18:25, Psalm 7:11).
iv. “For this action I account simply on the principle that God, who is the author and supporter of life, has a right to dispose of it when and how he thinks proper; and the Judge of all the earth can do nothing but what is right.” (Clarke)
v. “The nations today are at risk from the judgment of God. This is true whether they acknowledge it or not. One day that judgment will come. At that time there will be no weeping over women and boys who died in ancient Midian three and a half millennia ago; at that time the judgment of God will transcend anything ever written in the harshest Scripture.” (Allen)
d. As for you, remain outside the camp seven days: Israel’s soldiers were triumphant and carried out God’s will in attacking and defeating these Midianites. Yet, their carrying out of God’s will involved much death, so the soldiers were commanded to wait seven days before coming back into the camp of Israel.
i. “Over every war, however glorious its outcome from the victor’s point of view, hangs the shadow of death. These purification rules reminded Israel that the death of one’s fellow men was a catastrophic disruption of God’s creation, even though in some cases it was the Creator himself who demanded the execution of the sinner.” (Wenham)
e. Purify every garment, everything made of leather, everything woven of goats’ hair, and everything made of wood: As well, anything of the Midianites and the spoil taken from them had to be purified. Then it could be used. This was also the case in some of Israel’s later wars of judgment against the Canaanites – some of the plunder could be accepted, but not by individuals (Joshua 6:18-19).
i. There is some application of this principle among the people of God today. They must properly discern what aspects of the culture can be “plundered,” “purified,” and used among God’s people. They must also properly discern what aspects of the culture have no place at all among God’s people and must be “destroyed.”
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 among the people of God.
i. “The great aim of this enactment was to render these articles ceremonially clean. They had been in the use of the Midianites, and required cleansing, before they could be appropriated by Israel. But the cleansing processes were to be determined by their texture. Fire for what would stand fire; water for what could not stand fire.” (Meyer)
b. Fire…and it shall be purified with the water of purification: Things that would be destroyed by passing through fire could be purified with the water of purification, which seems to be the water in which the ashes of the red heifer were sprinkled (Numbers 19).
i. This is a pattern of how God uses fire and water to purify His people today – the fire of pressing difficulty and the water of God’s pure word.
ii. 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.
iii. When God wants to wash us clean, He not only uses the waters of baptism, but also the ministry of His 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. Here, God commanded that the plunder be divided between the soldiers and the congregation, with a portion given to the LORD from each.
i. “The booty is equally divided between the people and the soldiers; a five-hundredth part being given to the Lord, and a fiftieth part to the Levites.” (Clarke)
b. The half belonging to the congregation was three hundred and thirty-seven thousand five hundred sheep, thirty-six thousand cattle: This accounting of spoil from the defeat of the Midianites shows a remarkable amount of plunder. The numbers are so large that some commentators wonder if an error was made in the copying of the text. If this is the case or not, this was a significant bonus for Israel to gain as they prepared to enter Canaan.
i. “The listing of the plunder as a whole is given in Numbers 31:32-35. The numbers were enormous; the victory was staggering. This was just the beginning; on the other side of the Jordan lay the rest of the land of God’s promise.” (Allen)
ii. “It has been suggested that in all probability some of the actual numbers in this chapter are inaccurate, that in the process of translation and copying, mistakes have been made. That is quite possible. It is, however, a matter of no real moment.” (Morgan)
c. Your servants have taken a count of the men of war who are under our command, and not a man of us is missing: Israel’s officers made this remarkable report to Moses and Eleazar. They took 12,000 men to battle against the Midianites, and not a man of them was missing.
i. “This wondrous indication of Yahweh’s providence and protection would provide the armies of Israel with assurance and confidence for the coming campaigns in the land of Canaan.” (Cole)
ii. “We have no reason to believe that the protection of the lives of every soldier in the wars of Israel ever happened again. This must have been a solitary act in the history of Israel.” (Allen)
d. All the gold of the offering that they offered to the LORD: This was a special gift from the officers, made in gratitude for God’s remarkable protection of Israel’s army. This generous gift belonged to the LORD and would be used as a memorial and in the service of the tabernacle. The new generation of Israel, soon to take the Promised Land, was showing itself to be generous – in contrast to the generation of their fathers that perished in the wilderness.
i. Sixteen thousand seven hundred and fifty shekels: “The total amount of the gold offered by Israel’s commanders on behalf of their enumerated troops far exceeded the minimal requirement of one-half shekel per person…. Instead they presented almost 2.8 times the minimal amount.” (Cole)
ii. To make atonement for ourselves before the LORD: “That is, to make an acknowledgment to God for the preservation of their lives. The gold offered on this occasion amounted to 16,750 shekels.” (Clarke)
iii. The persons were sixteen thousand, of which the LORD’s tribute was thirty-two persons: “As to the use to which the women would be put in the service of the priests… It is possible that they were given menial tasks to do in the service of the Lord, as many commentators suggest (see Exodus 38:8).” (Allen)