THE SEVERITY OF GOD’S VENGEANCE EXPOSES THE FALLACY OF ATTACKING THOSE WHO ARE UNDER HIS PROVIDENTIAL PROTECTION AND PROMISED BLESSING
Balaam thought he had figured out a way around God’s prohibition of cursing the Israelites so that he could cash in on his desired payday. The people of Moab and Midian gained a foothold in the Israelite community through the age-old temptations of immorality and idolatry. But their strategy was short-sighted and doomed to failure. God would not allow His honor and His name to be abused. He responded by using Israel under the leadership of Moses and Joshua to execute His full vengeance on Midian. Despite the failures of the elect nation, God remained faithful to His covenant commitment of providential protection and promised blessing. This conquest of Midian and division of the spoils of war became the model for how Israel would trust the Lord for conquesting the promised land. Each section of the text highlights specific attributes of God that would prove essential to victory for the Israelites.
Gordon Wenham: Nevertheless it is right to say that the narrator is more concerned with the aftermath of the battle than with the battle itself. The decimation of the Midianites fulfilled the divine command issued in 25:16–18 and reiterated in 31:1ff. But it also looks forward to the conquest of the Canaanites, who were to be treated similarly (cf. 21:2–4; 32), and the distribution of the spoils on this occasion between warriors, people, priests and Levites serves as a model for the big campaign. The percentage of booty allocated to the priests and Levites anticipates the allocation of special cities to them in chapter 35.
Roy Gane: For me, a believer in the divine authority of the Bible, Israel’s holy wars were unique because that nation was a true theocracy acting on the basis of direct revelation from God and carrying out retributive justice on his behalf. When God tells you to do something, you do it, even if it is unusual and unpleasant. . .
The Lord’s goal was to provide a spiritually and physically secure home for his people within a limited geographic area so that they could flourish in their own land without being destroyed by idolatrous, corrupt, and predatory neighbors.
Raymond Brown: This encounter with the Midianites was the last military engagement in Moses’ life. It must have been a rich inspiration to those Israelite soldiers to know that the old leader was there in the camp, confident that, because God had sent them, they would return as victors. Moses knew that, although it was his last battle, it was certainly not theirs. Moses’ final conflict confirmed God’s sovereignty over the nations and his supremacy over the meaningless idols of paganism, the religious nonentities of Israel’s new neighbours.
Timothy Ashley: Outlining four aspects of holy war methodology, which follow the brief section on the battle against the Midianites (vv. 1–12):
(1) inflicting the ban or hērem, vv. 13–18,
(2) cleansing the soldiers, vv. 19–24,
(3) dividing the booty, vv. 25–47, and
(4) bringing an offering to Yahweh, vv. 48–54.
I. (:1-12) CONDUCTING THE BATTLE –
GOD’S POWER AND SOVEREIGNTY
‘Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying,”
A. (:2) Mandating the Final Mission for Moses
“Take full vengeance for the sons of Israel on the Midianites;
afterward you will be gathered to your people.”
Dennis Cole: God vindicates the righteous and punishes the sinner as an essential part of his ethical, moral, and just character. God is not out for retaliatory revenge but for vindication of the honor of his people and himself and ultimately for restoration of the well-being of humanity.
Robert Rayburn: The Midianites were a confederation of tribes, associated with if not overlapping with the Moabites, Amalekites, and other smaller tribal groupings. They roamed the Sinai and the Transjordan. So the total destruction of this particular group of Midianites did not mean that the Midianites themselves ceased to exist. Israel is found having to deal with Midianites in the book of Judges (chapters 6-8). These are the Midianites who were associated with the Moabites and had been involved in the fiasco related in chapter 25 when some Israelite men consorted with Midianite women and participated in their worship of Baal.
B. (:3-6) Mobilizing the Troops to Attack Midian
1. (:3) Explaining the Need for Troops to Attack Midian
“And 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.’”
2. (:4-5) Enlisting the Troops for War
“A thousand from each tribe of all the tribes of Israel you shall send to the war.
So there were furnished from the thousands of Israel,
a thousand from each tribe, twelve thousand armed for war.”
Raymond Brown: When those 12,000 men left for the Midianite encampment, their confidence was not in the size of their army but in the power of God. The slender troops returned victorious, boasting not in their numerical strength, physical prowess or military tactics but in the abundant generosity of a God who, fulfilling his promise, had met their weakness with his incomparable strength.
Ronald Allen: On hearing the commandment of the Lord, Moses turns to the people and calls for a strike force, an elite corps of soldiers who will carry out the punitive war. This is a limited, contained, special task calling for a limited army of special forces.
3. (:6) Engaging the Troops with Holy Support
a. Deploying the Warriors
“And Moses sent them, a thousand from each tribe, to the war,”
b. Deploying Phinehas
“and Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest, to the war with them,”
Roy Gane: Phinehas and the unspecified holy objects that he takes with him represent the Lord’s presence with the troops. When he blows the teruʿah signal on a silver trumpet (cf. 10:9), they will know that the divine King in their midst (cf. 23:21) will give them victory. Another reason to send Phinehas, specifically, is the fact that this unsqueamish priest has energetically begun the process of vengeance by slaying Cozbi (25:8, 15). So his presence will inspire the Israelite soldiers to finish the job.
David Thompson: The duty of the priest before a battle was to build morale by encouraging the men to have courage and trust God (Deut. 20:2-4). It was Phinehas who specifically upheld the righteousness of God and put a stop to the plague by executing the culprits responsible for idolatry (Numbers 25:6-13). So he went with Israel back to confront the Midianites.
c. Deploying the Holy Vessels and the Trumpets
“and the holy vessels and the trumpets for the alarm in his hand.”
Ronald Allen: The blowing of the sacred clarion was an act of celebrative worship. While the concept is alien to us today, even the warfare that Israel was to engage in was regarded as a sacral act – in some way an act of the worship of God (see Ps 149:6, the praise of God linked to the wielding of a sword). “Onward Hebrew Soldiers” was more than a metaphor for Israel; it was a descriptive reality of army life.
C. (:7-8) Making War Victoriously Against Midian
1. (:7) Killing all the Males – the Warriors
“So they made war against Midian, just as the LORD had commanded Moses, and they killed every male.”
2. (:8a) Killing the Five Kings of Midian – the Leaders
“And they killed the kings of Midian along with the rest of their slain: Evi and Rekem and Zur and Hur and Reba, the five kings of Midian;”
Warren Wiersbe: Many enemy leaders were killed during the battle, and after the battle Joshua killed five remaining Midianite kings, including Zur, the father of Cozbi the woman with whom Zimri had sinned in the camp of Israel (25:14-15).
3. (:8b) Killing Balaam – the Instigator
“they also killed Balaam the son of Beor with the sword.”
D. (:9-12) Mopping Up Activities of Capturing, Burning, Plundering and Possessing
1. (:9) Capturing
“And the sons of Israel captured the women of Midian and their little ones; and all their cattle and all their flocks and all their goods, they plundered.”
2. (:10) Burning
“Then they burned all their cities where they lived and all their camps with fire.”
3. (:11) Plundering
“And they took all the spoil and all the prey, both of man and of beast.”
4. (:12) Possessing
“And they brought the captives and the prey and the spoil to Moses, and to Eleazar the priest and to the congregation of the sons of Israel, to the camp at the plains of Moab, which are by the Jordan opposite Jericho.”
II. (:13-18) INFLICTING THE BAN –
GOD’S JUSTICE AND RIGHTEOUSNESS
A. (:13) Battle Assessment
“And Moses and Eleazar the priest and all the leaders of the congregation
went out to meet them outside the camp.”
B. (:14) Blaming Anger
“And Moses was angry with the officers of the army, the captains of thousands and the captains of hundreds, who had come from service in the war.”
C. (:15-16) Botched Assignment
1. (:15) Key Failure
“And Moses said to them, ‘Have you spared all the women?’”
2. (:16) Key Justification for Their Eradication
“Behold, these caused the sons of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to trespass against the LORD in the matter of Peor,
so the plague was among the congregation of the LORD.”
D. (:17-18) Brutal Adjustment
1. (:17) Kill All Young Males and Sexually Active Women
“Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones,
and kill every woman who has known man intimately.”
David Thompson: There is another Day of Vengeance coming against the entire Gentile world. God will avenge Israel and He will destroy men, women and children who were Israel’s enemies.
2. (:18) Spare Only Female Virgins
“But all the girls who have not known man intimately, spare for yourselves.”
Brueggemann: This slaughter was not the result of “collateral damage” in the heat of battle, or even an outrage committed in the heat of war’s bloodlust. It was purposeful judicial slaughter after the battle was already over. In fact, this action fits the modern definition of ethnic cleansing or possibly even genocide. The conquest was a holy war aimed at driving out an entire human population from Canaan (33:50–53), annihilating everyone there to purge idolatry and remove its temptations (Deut 20:16–18). It was a divine act against a people who had filled up their cup of wrath (cf. Gen 15:16), as at the flood and in Sodom (Gen 6:19). And it should be noted that the Lord threatened the same against Israel if she mimicked their sins (Lev 18:24–30; 20:22; Deut 18:12). Allen (1990:967) notes that this ties in with eschatological judgment, which will exceed the scope of anything like the losses that Midian suffered that day.
III. (:19-24) PURIFYING THE PEOPLE AND THE POSSESSIONS –
A. (:19-20) Purifying Instructions Given by Moses
1. (:19) Purifying the People
“And you, camp outside the camp seven days; whoever has killed any person, and whoever has touched any slain, purify yourselves, you and your captives, on the third day and on the seventh day.”
2. (:20) Purifying the Possessions
“And you shall purify for yourselves every garment and every article of leather and all the work of goats’ hair, and all articles of wood.”
B. (:21-24) Purifying Instructions Given by Eleazar the Priest
“Then Eleazar the priest said to the men of war who had gone to battle,
‘This is the statute of the law which the LORD has commanded Moses:”
1. (:22-23) Purifying the Possessions by Fire and Water
a. (:22-23a) Purifying by Fire
“only the gold and 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, but it shall be purified with water for impurity.”
b. (:23b) Purifying by Water
“But whatever cannot stand the fire you shall pass through the water.”
Ronald Allen: Purification extends to things as well as to people. Things that are ritually impure will contaminate people who are otherwise clean. Hence it is another mark of the grace of God to provide a means for the purification of goods as well.
2. (:24) Purifying the People
“And you shall wash your clothes on the seventh day and be clean,
and afterward you may enter the camp.”
Gordon Wenham: Though the Midianite war was a holy war carried out in obedience to the divine command and sanctified by the presence of the priest, those involved became unclean through killing or contact with the dead. They were, therefore, excluded from the camp until they were purified (cf. 5:1–4; 12:14–15). Purification involved sprinkling with the water of impurity (19:11–22) on the third and seventh day after contact. The booty too had to be purified. Metal objects had to be passed through fire and then sprinkled with the water of purification. Other items simply had to be washed (23–24).
Warren Wiersbe: Whether in peace or in war, it was important to Israel that they maintain a holy relationship with the Lord. They had to make a difference between the clean and the unclean, and no compromise was permitted. This week-long period of purification would remind the 12,000 soldiers and the people in the camp that the nations they would face in Canaan were dangerous, not only because they were enemies but they were also unclean sinners who could tempt them and defile them. Moses wanted to prevent another defeat like Baal Peor.
IV. (:25-47) DIVIDING UP THE SPOIL –
GOD’S BLESSING OF ABUNDANCE AND PROVIDENTIAL CARE
“Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying,”
1. (:26) Count the Total Spoil
“You and Eleazar the priest and the heads of the fathers’ households of the congregation, take a count of the booty that was captured, both of man and of animal;”
2. (:27) Divide Between the Warriors and the Non-Warriors
“and divide the booty between the warriors who went out to battle
and all the congregation.”
Robert Rayburn: Here we have a beautiful and powerful illustration of this principle of community or corporateness in the Christian life. A relatively few Israelite soldiers are sent into action and achieve a great victory. But the victory is won on behalf of the entire people. So much is this the case that the spoils of the victory are distributed almost equally between those who won them on the battlefield and those who did nothing except perhaps to pray for a successful outcome. The individual soldier and the community are in this way inextricably related to one another: the one fights for the other, the one benefits from the work of the other. But even those in the community who receive the spoils of war won for them by the soldiers must then pass on to the officers of the church a share of what they have received. Always there is the church: always its worship, always its corporate life and the individual and the individual family must always attend to the life and work of the church and the sanctuary. Surely there were some who grumbled. “I risked my life; why should I give half the spoils to those who did not?” But in the answer to that question is found an important part of our philosophy of life.
3. (:28-29) Tax the Warriors and Give to Eleazar
a. (:28) Amount of the Tax
“And levy a tax for the LORD from the men of war who went out to battle, one in five hundred of the persons and of the cattle and of the donkeys and of the sheep;”
b. (:29) Recipient of the Tax
“take it from their half and give it to Eleazar the priest,
as an offering to the LORD.”
Timothy Ashley: The purpose of the levy was to provide for the priests and the Levites. The care of priest and Levite is a theme found elsewhere in Numbers (e.g., 5:9–10; 6:19–20; 18:8–32). The levy was one out of 500 (0.2%) of both humans and animals from the half of the soldiers for the support of the priests, and one out of 50 (2%) from the half of the congregation for the support of the Levites. This 1:10 ratio is about the same as for the tithe (cf. 18:26). Since the soldiers took the lion’s share of the risks in war, their share was larger than that divided among the rest of the population, and the amount given to support the priests was less.
4. (:30) Tax the Non-Warriors and Give to the Levites
a. Amount of the Tax
“And from the sons of Israel’s half, you shall take one drawn out of every fifty of the persons, of the cattle, of the donkeys and of the sheep, from all the animals,”
b. Recipients of the Tax
“and give them to the Levites who keep charge of the tabernacle of the LORD.”
5. (:31) Compliance with the Instructions
“And Moses and Eleazar the priest did just as the LORD had commanded Moses.”
Dennis Cole: This verse functions as a transitional colophon between the giving of the instructions (vv. 25–30) and the carrying out of each step of the process (vv. 31–40), with repetition of the clause at the end of the distribution for the priests (v. 41) and at the conclusion of the accounting and distribution of that which was apportioned for the Levites from the people. Moses, Eleazar, and the patriarchal leaders of the Israelite tribes faithfully followed the instructions from the Lord regarding the counting and distribution of the spoils of war. Again this principle of faithful obedience to the instructions from the Lord was a key to the success and well-being of the Israelite community.
B. (:32-35) Tally of the Total Spoil
1. (:32) Sheep
“Now the booty that remained from the spoil which the men of war had plundered was 675,000 sheep,”
2. (:33) Cattle
“and 72,000 cattle,”
3. (:34) Donkeys
“and 61,000 donkeys,”
4. (:35) Virgin Women
“and of human beings, of the women who had not known man intimately, all the persons were 32,000.”
C. (:36-41) Tally of Half the Spoil for the Warriors
1. (:36-37) Sheep
a. (:36) Warriors’ Portion
“And the half, the portion of those who went out to war, was as follows: the number of sheep was 337,500,”
b. (:37) Lord’s Portion
“and the LORD’s levy of the sheep was 675,”
2. (:38) Cattle
a. Warriors’ Portion
“and the cattle were 36,000,”
b. Lord’s Portion
“from which the LORD’s levy was 72.”
3. (:39) Donkeys
a. Warriors’ Portion
“And the donkeys were 30,500,”
b. Lord’s Portion
“from which the LORD’s levy was 61.”
4. (:40) Virgin Women
a. Warriors’ Portion
“And the human beings were 16,000,”
b. Lord’s Portion
“from whom the LORD’s levy was 32 persons.”
Gordon Wenham: The thirty-two girls assigned to the priests either became their slaves or were employed in the sanctuary (Exod. 38:8; 1 Sam. 2:22).
5. (:41) Lord’s Portion Given to Eleazar the Priest
“And Moses gave the levy which was the LORD’s offering to Eleazar the priest, just as the LORD had commanded Moses.”
D. (:42-47) Tally of Half the Spoil for the Non-Warriors
1. (:42-43) Sheep
“As for the sons of Israel’s half, which Moses separated from the men who had gone to war —
now the congregation’s half was 337,500 sheep,”
2. (:44) Cattle
“and 36,000 cattle,”
3. (:45) Donkeys
“and 30,500 donkeys,”
4. (:46) Virgin Women
“and the human beings were 16,000”
5. (:47) Lord’s Portion Given to Levites
“and from the sons of Israel’s half, Moses took one drawn out of every fifty, both of man and of animals, and gave them to the Levites, who kept charge of the tabernacle of the LORD, just as the LORD had commanded Moses.”
V. (:48-54) OFFERING GOLD TO YAHWEH –
GOD’S GRACE AND FORGIVENESS – EXPRESSION OF THANKSGIVING
A. (:48-50) Giving the Offering
1. (:48) Initiation of the Offering by the Military Leaders
“Then the officers who were over the thousands of the army, the captains of thousands and the captains of hundreds, approached Moses;”
2. (:49) Motivation for the Offering = Providential Protection During Battle
“and they said to Moses, ‘Your servants have taken a census of men of war who are in our charge, and no man of us is missing.’”
3. (:50) Presentation of the Offering
a. Based on Personal Plunder
“So we have brought as an offering to the LORD what each man found,”
b. Consisting of Gold Jewelry
“articles of gold, armlets and bracelets, signet rings, earrings and necklaces,”
c. Designed to Make Atonement
“to make atonement for ourselves before the LORD.”
Raymond Brown: When these items had been counted, the soldiers realized that they had not lost a single man in battle; and as an expression of gratitude and to make atonement for themselves (50) they offered sacrifices to the Lord.
Ronald Allen: For a chapter that begins with such a grim story, there is a perfectly lovely ending. This is the account of a spontaneous extra gift of the officer corps to the Lord. Beyond the tax that they were required to give of the animals and persons that had been distributed to them in the sharing of the booty of the war, there were innumerable objects that the soldiers had taken for their own use as they looted the camps (v. 53). Now the captains of thousands and of hundreds approached Moses (v. 48) and made a magnanimous offering of numerous beautiful objects of gold – armlets, bracelets, signet rings, earrings, and other ornaments (v. 50). This gift, they assured Moses, was in gratitude for a most remarkable fact: not one soldier of the elite Hebrew corps had died in the war (v. 49)! The only explanation for this is the presence of the Lord among his people in his holy sanctuary.
B. (:51-52) Receiving the Offering
1. (:51) Recipients = Moses and Eleazar
“And Moses and Eleazar the priest took the gold from them, all kinds of wrought articles.”
2. (:52) Total Amount = 16,750 Shekels of Gold
“And all the gold of the offering which they offered up to the LORD, from the captains of thousands and the captains of hundreds, was 16,750 shekels.”
C. (:53) Seizing the Offering
“The men of war had taken booty, every man for himself.”
D. (:54) Commemorating the Offering
“So Moses and Eleazar the priest took the gold from the captains of thousands and of hundreds, and brought it to the tent of meeting as a memorial for the sons of Israel before the LORD.”
Roy Gane: Moses and Eleazar bring the commander’s contribution into the sacred tent as a memorial/reminder for the Israelites before the Lord (31:54), testifying to the fact that their lives have been ransomed (cf. the terminology in Ex. 30:16). The rich endowment shows the fine attitude of Israel’s military leaders, who care about the men under their command, are unselfish, respectfully acknowledge the human authority over them, and are grateful to the Lord. This is a breath of fresh air for Moses, who can end his career on an upbeat. His ransomed people are becoming like that memorial: gold purified through fire (cf. Num. 31:22–23; Rev. 3:18).
Gordon Keddie: Israel’s gold memorial was a monument of God’s goodness to them. It pointed to the Lord. It reminded them of his power to give them victory over their enemies. It encouraged them for their approaching clash with the Canaanites. It preached that God is able to keep his people, and called them all to trust in him as they sought to serve him day by day. The true memorials of the modern Christian are similarly simple, spiritual and God-centered. They are the sacrifices of praise, the worship o full hearts, the grateful remembrances of signal blessings in our past and the present testimonies of the Holy Spirit to out spirit that we are children of God.
Some curious aspects of the story that have scholars debating its veracity:
1) the killing of all the male Midianites – while we see that later Midian becomes a threat again to Israel (Judges 6-8)
2) the waging of this battle with no casualties for the Israelites
3) the large numbers of animals seized
But the Lord intended this historical event to be remarkable.