Feb. 24 Reading: Numbers 31-32 Commentary
” And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Take vengeance on the Midianites for the children of Israel’…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.'” (Num. 31:1-3)
Numbers 31 – Israel’s First All-Out War
One of the big challenges people have when reading Old Testament history, is the constant theme of war. The big question is “If God is a God of love, then why does he seem to condone the use of violence?” (like we see in Num. 31, going to war against the Midianites). How can He justify the killing of people?
We have to remember a couple of things. First, God had laid claim to the Promised Land as the home for Israel. Any other people group claiming territory rights would have to be removed. That could only happen through war because the people groups did not share the same ideology as God and would not willingly hand over the land to the rightful owner(s).
And in case you doubt God’s right to claim the land, remember the words of Psalms 24:1-2: “The earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness, the world and those who dwell therein. For He has founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the waters.” God can claim anything he wants because he created it all.
God’s Judgment on Sin
But a second and probably more important point about war is this: God is holy and righteous and hates sin. And the people he is removing through the armies of Israel were involved in deep, terrible sins. False god worship, murder, sexual immorality and child sacrifice are just a few of the things we know about. God could not allow these sins to go unpunished.
Furthermore, God did not want their beliefs and behavior to influence his people. They actually already had, which is why the war on Midian. God was against all that the heathen nations stood for. If he allowed them to remain, their worldview would entice the people to disobey his commands.
So all these nations had to go and the only way that would happen is through battles. In the end, God is love but also a God of justice. He holds people accountable for their sin.
That is a lesson we can take away from this today. Believers and unbelievers alike will one day bow a knee to him and answer for their actions (Phil. 2:10-11). No one will escape God’s judgment, whether good or bad.
War Against Midian
Up to this point in their journey to Canaan, Israel has engaged in some minor skirmishes (see Num. 21). Now it’s time for their first all-out war. The foe is the Midianites.
This is a holy war – God vs. a heathen nation. We know that because Phinehas, the son of Eleazar the priest, took the holy articles and signal trumpets into battle (v. 6). It’s a clear sign of God’s presence being with the people and leading them into battle.
And this particular nation already had enticed Israel to turn away from the Lord. Numbers 25 details how Midian led the people into idol worship and sexual sin. So God told Moses to take vengeance on the people for this action (vv. 1-2).
Not many details are given about the actual battle strategy. We know that initially all the Midian men were killed, as well as the five kings of Midian. Additionally, Balaam is killed (vv. 7-9). All the women and children are brought back to as captives, along with all the spoil and booty from the cities and country they conquered.
An Unhappy Moses
Moses is not pleased when the men return from battle with the women and children in tow. It was in fact the women who had caused Israel to commit sexual sins under the advisement of Balaam (Num. 25). So Moses orders all the women “who has known a man intimately” (v. 17) to be killed, as well as all the young boys. Only the virgin girls were allowed to live, seemingly because they would have been innocent of the sexual sins of their mothers.
The rest of the chapter describes the division of the plunder taken in battle. That amount was substantial: 675,000 sheep, 72,000 cattle, 61,000 donkeys, 32,000 persons (all women who had not known a man)(vv. 32-35). This does not include any other spoils such as gold, silver, clothing, etc. taken from the conquered cities (v. 53). We know at least that a lot of precious metals were taken because the men who went to battle brought an offering to the Lord of 400 pounds of gold (v. 52).
The most remarkable thing about this battle is that not a man of Israel died. When the officers returned from battle they told 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” (v. 49). God was truly with the people and the officers responded in gratitude with the offering mentioned above.
Numbers 32 – A Land Bargain
It had always been God’s intent to divide the Promised Land among the 12 tribes of Israel. Each tribe would get their own share based on how God wanted to divide it. But two of the tribes wanted something different.
The tribes of Reuben and Gad evidently had a great deal of livestock. They saw the land east of the Jordan River (the land of Jazer and Gilead) was good for raising livestock (v. 1). So they spoke to Moses asking him if they could be granted that land as their possession (v. 2-5).
At first, Moses is displeased with their request. He thinks they are trying to abandon their brethren and get out of their responsibility to fight for the Promised Land. It would greatly discourage the people’s hearts to know that two tribes would not be joining them (v. 7). And he’s worried that they are stirring up the anger of the Lord like their fathers had done in the wilderness (vv. 14-15).
But these two tribes have a deal in mind. They ask to first build cities for their families and sheepfolds for their herds. Then their men will cross over and fight with their fellow tribes to secure the Promised Land. Only then would they return to the land granted them east of the Jordan River (vv. 16-19)
Moses agrees to this and essentially makes them swear an oath that they will do this. Otherwise, they would be guilty of sin against the Lord (v. 23). Moses issues this command to Eleazar the priest, the soon-to-be leader Joshua and the chief fathers of the tribes (v. 28). Additionally, half the tribe of Manasseh joins in on this deal (vv. 39-42).
Questions to Consider:
Does the issue of war in the Old Testament bother you? How do you reconcile God being loving but also holding people accountable for their sin?
Do God’s character qualities of love and justice clash in your mind? Can he be both loving and judge at the same time? It would seem so because throughout the Bible, we see him doing both, loving people and judging them for their actions.
What other points would you want to know about in our Numbers 31-32 commentary? Email us here with questions or comments.