Numbers 31

The Midianite War

This lengthy chapter records the mobilization of the troops (vv. 1–5), the war itself (vv. 6–13), the death of the captive women (vv. 14–18), the purification of the nations (vv. 19–24), and the distribution of the spoils (vv. 25–54). For more detail, see G. W. Coats, “Moses in Midian,” JBL 92 (1973): 3-10; and W. J. Dumbrell, “Midian – a Land or a League?” VT 25 (1975): 323-37.
The Lord spoke to Moses:
“Exact vengeance
The imperative is followed by its cognate accusative to stress this vengeance. The Midianites had attempted to destroy Israel with their corrupt pagan practices, and now will be judged. The accounts indicate that the effort by Midian was calculated and evil.
for the Israelites on the Midianites
The war was commanded by the Lord and was to be divine vengeance on the Midianites. So it was holy war. No Israelites then could take spoils in this – it was not a time for plunder and aggrandizement. It was part of the judgment of God upon those who would destroy or pervert his plan and his people.
– after that you will be gathered to your people.”
This would be the last major enterprise that Moses would have to undertake. He would soon die and “be gathered to his people” as Aaron was.


So Moses spoke to the people: “Arm
The Niphal imperative, literally “arm yourselves,” is the call to mobilize the nation for war. It is followed by the jussive, “and they will be,” which would then be subordinated to say “that they may be.” The versions changed the verb to a Hiphil, but that is unnecessary: “arm some of yourselves.”
men from among you for the war, to attack the Midianites and to execute
Heb “give.”
the Lord’s vengeance on Midian.
You must send to the battle a thousand men from every tribe throughout all the tribes of Israel.”
Some commentators argue that given the size of the nation (which they reject) the small number for the army is a sign of the unrealistic character of the story. The number is a round number, but it is also a holy war, and God would give them the victory. They are beginning to learn here, and at Jericho, and later against these Midianites under Gideon, that God does not want or need a large army in order to obtain victory.
So a thousand from every tribe, twelve thousand armed for battle in all, were provided out of the thousands of Israel.

Campaign Against the Midianites

So Moses sent them to the war, one thousand from every tribe, with Phinehas son of Eleazar the priest, who was in charge
The Hebrew text uses the idiom that these “were in his hand,” meaning that he had the responsibility over them.
of the holy articles
It is not clear what articles from the sanctuary were included. Tg. Ps.-J. adds (interpretively) “the Urim and Thummim.”
and the signal trumpets.
They fought against the Midianites, as the Lord commanded Moses, and they killed every male.
Many modern biblical scholars assume that this passage is fictitious. The text says that they killed every male, but Judges accounts for the Midianites. The texts can be harmonized rather simply – they killed every Midianite who was in the battle. Midianite tribes and cities dotted the whole region, but that does not mean Israel went and killed every single one of them. There apparently was a core of Midianites whom Balaam had influenced to pervert Israel.
They killed the kings of Midian in addition to those slain – Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba – five Midianite kings.
Here again we see that there was no unified empire, but Midianite tribal groups.
They also killed Balaam son of Beor with the sword.
And what was Balaam doing among the Midianites? The implication is strong. This pagan diviner had to submit to the revealed will of God in the oracles, but he nonetheless could be hired. He had been a part of the attempt to destroy Israel that failed; he then apparently became part of the plan, if not the adviser, to destroy them with sexual immorality and pagan ritual.


The Israelites took the women of Midian captives along with their little ones, and took all their herds, all their flocks, and all their goods as plunder. 10 They burned
Heb “burned with fire.”
all their towns
The ban applied to the encampments and forts of this group of Midianite tribes living in the region of Moab.
where they lived and all their encampments.
11 They took all the plunder and all the spoils, both people and animals. 12 They brought the captives and the spoils and the plunder to Moses, to Eleazar the priest, and to the Israelite community, to the camp on the plains
Or “steppes.”
of Moab, along the Jordan River
The word “River” is not in the Hebrew text, but has been supplied in the translation for clarity.
across from Jericho.
Again this expression, “the Jordan of Jericho,” is used. It describes the intended location along the Jordan River, the Jordan next to or across from Jericho.
For the location of Jericho see Map5-B2; Map6-E1; Map7-E1; Map8-E3; Map10-A2; Map11-A1.
13 Moses, Eleazar the priest, and all the leaders of the community went out to meet them outside the camp.

The Death of the Midianite Women

14  But Moses was furious with the officers of the army, the commanders over thousands and commanders over hundreds, who had come from service in the war. 15 Moses said to them, “Have you allowed all the women to live?
The verb is the Piel perfect of the word חָיָה (khayah, “to live”). In the Piel stem it must here mean “preserve alive,” or “allow to live,” rather than make alive.
16 Look, these people through the counsel of Balaam caused the Israelites to act treacherously against the Lord in the matter of Peor – which resulted in the plague among the community of the Lord! 17 Now therefore kill every boy,
Heb “every male among the little ones.”
The command in holy war to kill women and children seems in modern times a terrible thing to do (and it was), and something they ought not to have done. But this criticism fails to understand the situation in the ancient world. The entire life of the ancient world was tribal warfare. God’s judgment is poured out on whole groups of people who act with moral abandonment and in sinful pursuits. See E. J. Young, My Servants, the Prophets, 24; and J. W. Wenham, The Enigma of Evil.
and kill every woman who has had sexual intercourse with a man.
Heb “every woman who has known [a] man by lying with a man.”
18 But all the young women
Or “girls.” The Hebrew indicates they would be female children, making the selection easy.
who have not had sexual intercourse with a man
Heb “who have not known [a] man by lying with a man.”
will be yours.
Many contemporary scholars see this story as fictitious, composed by the Jews during the captivity. According to this interpretation, the spoils of war here indicate the wealth of the Jews in captivity, which was to be given to the Levites and priests for the restoration of the sanctuary in Jerusalem. The conclusion drawn from this interpretation is that returning Jews had the same problem as the earlier ones: to gain a foothold in the land. Against this interpretation of the account is a lack of hard evidence, a lack which makes this interpretation appear contrived and subjective. If this was the intent of a later writer, he surely could have stated this more clearly than by making up such a story.


Purification After Battle

19  “Any of you who has killed anyone or touched any of the dead, remain outside the camp for seven days; purify yourselves and your captives on the third day, and on the seventh day. 20 You must purify each garment and everything that is made of skin, everything made of goat’s hair, and everything made of wood.”
These verses are a reminder that taking a life, even if justified through holy war, still separates one from the holiness of God. It is part of the violation of the fallen world, and only through the ritual of purification can one be once again made fit for the presence of the Lord.


21  Then Eleazar the priest said to the men of war who had gone into the battle, “This is the ordinance of the law that the Lord commanded Moses: 22 ‘Only the gold, the silver, the bronze, the iron, the tin, and the lead, 23 everything that may stand the fire, you are to pass through the fire,
Purification by fire is unique to this event. Making these metallic objects “pass through the fire” was not only a way of purifying (burning off impurities), but it seems to be a dedicatory rite as well to the Lord and his people. The aspect of passing through the fire is one used by these pagans for child sacrifice.
and it will be ceremonially clean, but it must still be purified with the water of purification. Anything that cannot withstand the fire you must pass through the water.
24 You must wash your clothes on the seventh day, and you will be ceremonially clean, and afterward you may enter the camp.’”

The Distribution of Spoils

25  Then the Lord spoke to Moses: 26 “You and Eleazar the priest, and all the family leaders of the community, take the sum
The idiom here is “take up the head,” meaning take a census, or count the totals.
of the plunder that was captured, both people and animals.
27 Divide the plunder into two parts, one for those who took part in the war – who went out to battle – and the other for all the community.

28  “You must exact
The verb is the Hiphil, “you shall cause to be taken up.” The perfect with vav (ו) continues the sequence of the instructions. This raised offering was to be a tax of one-fifth of one percent for the Lord.
a tribute for the Lord from the fighting men who went out to battle: one life out of five hundred, from the people, the cattle, and from the donkeys and the sheep.
29 You are to take it from their half-share and give it to Eleazar the priest for a raised offering to the Lord. 30 From the Israelites’ half-share you are to take one portion out of fifty of the people, the cattle, the donkeys, and the sheep – from every kind of animal – and you are to give them to the Levites, who are responsible for the care of the Lord’s tabernacle.”

31  So Moses and Eleazar the priest did as the Lord commanded Moses. 32 The spoil that remained of the plunder which the fighting men
Heb “people.”
had gathered
Heb “had plundered.”
was 675,000 sheep,
33 72,000 cattle, 34 61,000 donkeys, 35 and 32,000 young women who had never had sexual intercourse with a man.
Here again we encounter one of the difficulties of the book, the use of the large numbers. Only twelve thousand soldiers fought the Midianites, but they brought back this amount of plunder, including 32,000 girls. Until a solution for numbers in the book can be found, or the current translation confirmed, one must remain cautious in interpretation.


36  The half-portion of those who went to war numbered 337,500 sheep; 37 the Lord’s tribute from the sheep was 675. 38 The cattle numbered
The word “numbered” has been supplied in the translation for clarity.
36,000; the Lord’s tribute was 72.
39 The donkeys were 30,500, of which the Lord’s tribute was 61. 40 The people were 16,000, of which the Lord’s tribute was 32 people.
Heb “soul.”


41  So Moses gave the tribute, which was the Lord’s raised offering, to Eleazar the priest, as the Lord commanded Moses.

42  From the Israelites’ half-share that Moses had separated from the fighting men,
Heb “the men who were fighting.”
43 there were 337,500 sheep from the portion belonging to the community, 44 36,000 cattle, 45 30,500 donkeys, 46 and 16,000 people.

47  From the Israelites’ share Moses took one of every fifty people and animals and gave them to the Levites who were responsible for the care of the Lord’s tabernacle, just as the Lord commanded Moses.

48  Then the officers who were over the thousands of the army, the commanders over thousands and the commanders over hundreds, approached Moses 49 and said to him,
Heb “to Moses”; the proper name has been replaced by the pronoun (“him”) in the translation for stylistic reasons.
“Your servants have taken a count
Heb “lifted up the head.”
of the men who were in the battle, who were under our authority,
Heb “in our hand.”
and not one is missing.
50 So we have brought as an offering for the Lord what each man found: gold ornaments, armlets, bracelets, signet rings, earrings, and necklaces, to make atonement for ourselves
Heb “our souls.”
before the Lord.”
The expression here may include the idea of finding protection from divine wrath, which is so common to Leviticus, but it may also be a thank offering for the fact that their lives had been spared.
51 Moses and Eleazar the priest took the gold from them, all of it in the form of ornaments. 52 All the gold of the offering they offered up to the Lord from the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds weighed 16,750 shekels.
Or about 420 imperial pounds.
53 Each soldier had taken plunder for himself. 54 So Moses and Eleazar the priest received the gold from the commanders of thousands and commanders
The Hebrew text does not repeat the word “commanders” here, but it is implied.
of hundreds and brought it into the tent of meeting as a memorial
The purpose of the offering was to remind the Lord to remember Israel. But it would also be an encouragement for Israel as they remembered the great victory.
for the Israelites before the Lord.

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