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Numbers 31:1-54

After having been away from Numbers for three Sundays, let’s remind ourselves where we are in the book. Some forty years have passed since the exodus from Egypt. Israel is now encamped on the plains of Moab, poised to cross the Jordan and enter the Promised Land. The death of Moses has already been forecast – an event that must take place before the conquest of Canaan begins – and, in obedience to Yahweh, and as the culmination of his life’s work on behalf of the people of Israel, the great man is putting the last touches on her preparation for life in the Promised Land. We have read recently of the schedule of Israel’s worship in the Promised Land and of the emphasis to be placed on the people’s fidelity to the promises she makes to God. Now we come to chapter 31.

It is a long chapter. That, however, does not bother me as much as it used to. Thank you all so much for the trip Florence and I enjoyed to the Holy Land and also to Greece. One of the things I learned on that trip was that other churches’ worship services are considerably longer than ours. Our service at an Anglican church near the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem on our first Sunday away easily exceeded two hours and the service at the Free Evangelical church of Heraklion, on Crete, was almost precisely two hours in length. So I have returned home cheerfully unconcerned about the time it might take adequately to expound a chapter with 54 verses!

Text Comment

v.1       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.

v.6       Moses musters what would be a relatively small force compared to the larger number of soldiers in the army reported elsewhere: twelve thousand men or twelve divisions or units of some size. Given the differences in the size of the tribes it is doubtful that the same precise number of men was mustered from each tribe. If the word thousand is taken to refer to a military grouping of some indeterminate size you might before think of a smaller, elite unit from each tribe. [Milgrom, 256] Remember, the numbers of soldiers committed to battle, as we have noted on a number of occasions throughout the book seem clearly too high. I read just recently that David Ben-Gurion, the first Prime Minister of the modern state of Israel, came to the conclusion that the 600 thousand men who are said to have left Egypt at the exodus were, in fact, six hundred families, based on what he took to be the ambiguity of the Hebrew word translated “thousand” in our Bibles. Whatever the particular size indicated, the uncertainty of the numbers is a point often made in the commentaries. [Martin Gilbert, Israel: A History, 342] As we pointed out early in our studies in this book, the biblical evidence itself is sometimes incompatible with the very large numbers often reported for the size of armies and the casualties of war, however those large numbers are to be understood: as an instance of textual corruption, a misunderstanding of the word “thousand,” or as a figure of speech, an instance of the ANE literary convention of exaggeration for effect. The fact that there were five ‘kings” or chieftains of Midian conquered in this particular fight does not mean that the number of Midianite soldiers would have been large by modern standards. The number of virgin women taken, according to v. 35 was 32,000. That number is almost certainly far too large as a literal accounting, however it is to be understood.

Phinehas’ function was not to lead the army but to act as a chaplain, to provide the priestly services to the army. [Milgrom, 257] It is not said which articles Phinehas took with him from the sanctuary, but perhaps it is more likely that he took the urim and the thummim as we know that elsewhere in the Old Testament these devices were consulted in war as a means to determine the Lord’s will.

v.7       Israel, according to v. 49, suffered no fatal casualties in the engagement. It has happened more often in warfare than you might think that a victory is so overwhelming. Roman historians recount battles in which Roman legions secured great victories without suffering a single fatal casualty or in which a thousand of the enemy were killed with the loss of only two Roman soldiers. [Keil, 230]. While visiting Israel I began reading Martin Gilbert’s history of the modern state of Israel. As you know, there have been several distinct wars that have punctuated Israel’s short life as a nation: the war of Independence in 1948, the Suez war in 1956, the six-day war in 1967, the Yom Kippur war of 1973 and so on. In a surprising number of the battles of these wars the Israeli army inflicted casualties in large numbers upon their Egyptian and Syrian enemies, suffering negligible casualties itself. Not all, by any means, but it is not unheard of in ancient or modern war for victories to be almost without cost to the victor. And here, of course, we are told that the Lord ordered Israel into battle and that Israel was an instrument of the Lord’s own vengeance against Midian. No wonder Israel’s success.

v.8       Much, of course, has gone unreported. Balaam was still obviously among the Moabites. He had not returned to his home near the Euphrates. In the episode reported in chapter 25 of Israelite men consorting with Midianite worship in the sensual worship of Moab, nothing is said of any role played by Balaam, whose prophesies actually had exalted Israel. But in v. 16 of this chapter we learn that it was Balaam who proposed to the Midianites sexual allurement as a way of undermining Israel’s faith in Yahweh and so her success in battle.

If you remember, it was the daughter of Zur, Cozbi, who had been sexually involved with an Israelite man of the tribe of Simeon, and who had been executed by Phinehas.

v.18     The laws of Israel’s wars of conquest distinguished between the nations of the Promised Land that were to be exterminated and those of other territories who were to be defeated only. But the Midianites were not being fought because they inhabited particular real estate but because of their sin against God and Israel at Beth-peor. The women of Midian were, of course, directly involved in the debauchery at Shittim (chapter 25). Those who were virgins, of course, were innocent of any involvement in the sin at Baal-peor and were allowed to live. Women were generally considered less liable for the sins of a nation. These women, of course, horrible as the experience must have been for them, were, in the final analysis, incorporated into the elect community of Israel and many of them, as a result, must now be with the Lord in heaven, a destiny far from possibility when living as Midianites in Midian!

v.24     The contamination of the soldiers was due to their contact with the dead on the battlefield. According to regulations already laid down in the law, they were excluded from the camp until they had been purified (5:1-4; 12:14-14). Purification required the sprinkling of the contaminated person with the water of cleansing (remember the water prepared according to the elaborate ritual described in chapter 19) on the third and seventh days. Metal objects had to be fired as well as sprinkled; other items had simply to be washed. In any case, even a great victory did not render purity unimportant in the camp of the Lord!

One commentator provides some important insight into all of this.

“The regulations in verses 21-24 and the statement that all the golden objects listed in verse 50 were given to the priests to make atonement for the soldiers give a more nuanced picture of holy war than appears at first. All loss of human life, whether natural, willful murder, accidental manslaughter, or executions carried out in response to divine command, may defile…and require cleansing. 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, 212]

There is a tendency, especially among young men who have not actually fought in a war, to glorify it. Horace, the Roman poet, penned the famous line: “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.” But, he knew better. He fought in the battle of Philippi in 42 B.C., an engagement of the Roman civil war, and, far from dying gloriously on the field of battle, ran with his routed army, throwing his shield away as he ran. People who have fought in wars do not remember them as glorious. “War is hell,” was General Sherman’s reminder. [Duguid, 329]. Modern Israel has been unusually successful in its wars, but Martin Gilbert reminds us that the personal toll has been as great as it always is in war. He recounts the reminiscence of an Israeli wife whose husband returned alive from the Yom Kippur war of 1973.

“Yehuda’s normal voice was deep and measured, but when he woke one night in terror, it was to scream in a whimper, kicking convulsively, trying to escape from some horror that pursued him. When I had woken him from this nightmare for the third or fourth time, he told me what it was. There was a young reservist with whom he had shared a tent in Sinai, a pleasant young man who had been married only a few days before the war. One day he had gone out and been blown to pieces by a shell. Yehuda, together with the unit’s chaplain, had collected the remnants of the bridegroom’s body and once more they shared a tent: the plastic body-bag lay under Yehuda’s camp-bed for days, because the shelling was too heavy for it to be sent, with the unit’s other corpses, to the rear.” [461]

The Yom Kippur war was, in fact, a great victory for Israel and, relatively speaking, her casualties were inconsiderable compared to those suffered by her enemies. But war was hell even in victory. There is the honest recognition of the terrible face of war in these regulations that sound so strange to us today.

v.31     What we have in the rest of the chapter is an account of the division of the booty from the conquest of Midian. The booty is shared equally between those who fought and the rest of the citizenry. Soldiers do not fight for themselves! The soldiers took the greater risks and so they received a greater share per person, as there were many fewer soldiers sent into battle than citizens who were not. One five-hundredth of the warrior’s share went to the priests and one fiftieth of the congregation’s share went to the Levites. There were many more Levites than priests of course. This fits with the ten to one ration of the tithe. [Wenham, 212]

v.40     The girls who went to the priests either became their slaves or were appointed to work at the sanctuary.

v.50     It is not entirely clear why the soldiers felt this need to make atonement for themselves, literally, to pay a ransom for themselves to the Lord. There apparently was some sense of moral guilt and some fear of penalty, but the reason for this is not recorded. It is suggested by some that it was the census, referred to in v. 50, that produced their sense of disquiet. Remember David’s sin in taking a census. Others propose that the soldiers felt responsible for having not carried out the total destruction of the adult women in the first place.

After his death a collection of writings by Mark Twain was published entitled Letters from the Earth. One reason it was not published sooner is because the work includes some bitter criticism of Christianity. And one of the offenses that Twain takes to biblical Christianity that is highlighted in the work concerns our passage tonight. He refers contemptuously to the instructions Moses gave to Israelite soldiers regarding battle with Midian. Think, he says, of the brutality of all of this, the execution of the boys – children only – of husbands and fathers. And think of the indignity forced upon the women. How was it to be determined that a woman was a virgin. Twain supposes they were examined. And the murder of the women who were not. It was barbaric, says Twain, and so, therefore, is the Bible and the Christian faith built upon it.

I am full of Martin Gilbert’s history, his fascinating account of the origins and the short history of the modern state of Israel. You know, of course, that from the beginning, not just today, terrorist acts have blighted Israeli life. Arab and Palestinian bombs and guns have mowed down men, women, and children at random in attacks meant only to terrorize the population. There were also Israeli elements, of course, during the time of the British mandate, that were terrorist organizations. Menachem Begin, later to become Prime Minister, was a leader of such an organization, the Irgun, that blew up buildings, killed civilians, and assassinated both Arab and Israeli leaders. But it was precisely because they did such things that for the first 30 years of Israel’s existence as a state, Begin was refused a place in the Israeli government and was widely regarded with contempt by many, if not most, Israelis. Most of the time Israel has responded to terrorist attacks against her civilians with reprisals of her own. Early on in the existence of the state there were some sanctioned Israeli reprisals that were in kind, that is, involved the killing of civilians without regard to sex or age. But that practice, when it was first tried, was hugely controversial in Israel itself and widely condemned: many regarded it as descending to the moral level of their enemies. After the public outcry the government changed its tactics and ever since reprisals to terrorist attacks have had to be justified as attacks on militarily significant targets. Are the modern Jews more moral than Israel in the days of Moses?

We have faced this criticism before in Numbers, but let me remind you of the answers to be given whenever the draconian judgments of God become an issue.

  1. First, this is not ordinary war that is described in Numbers 31; it is holy war, war at the command of God himself to secure his interests in the world. That is clear from the express purpose of this attack on Midian, which was to punish them for their moral and spiritual attack on Israel; from the fact that Israel went to war under the direct orders of the Lord, relayed through Moses, from the fact that Phinehas was present with the troops, and from the fact that the sexually mature women – those who had belonged to the company of Midianites who had subverted Israel’s faith at Baal-peor – had to be executed as expressly guilty for the crime for which these Midianites were destroyed. The complaint against what Israel did is, in fact, a complaint against what God commanded. It is not uncommon for men to think themselves wiser and better than God, but it is universally a catastrophic error in judgment.
  2. Second, the sin that Midian was punished for was a sin that served to separate God’s people from God himself, the worst possible thing that could happen in a human being’s life. Midian was not being punished for stealing or for lying. She was being punished for sending people to hell. Accept the reality of the divine judgment of human life, the reality of perdition and eternal loss, and the worst crime that human beings can commit in this world becomes the undermining of faith in God and loyalty to him and to his Word. Midian got what it deserved. It may be that more than anything else that Twain and everyone else protests, but, accept reality as the Bible describes it and that conclusion becomes inevitable. What did our Savior say? “Things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they come. It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin.” And, of course, by “little one” the Lord means simply one of his followers.
  3. Third, when Paul says that the sorrows and afflictions of life are not to be compared with the glory that is to follow – and, remember, in his case he suffered torture, the threat of death and finally execution himself – he is reminding us that the terrors of time pale in comparison with eternity. If that is so for a Christian, a fortiori it is the more so for an unbeliever. People should worry less about Midianites dying in battle or by execution and worry much more about what became of them in the world to come. How a person dies is, at last, of little consequence. Where he goes, what happens to him or her when he dies is what really matters. A failure to reckon with this fact, with this fundamental truth of biblical revelation, goes a long way toward explaining the offense people take at texts such as this one.
  4. Fourth, the penalty that Midian suffered was the very penalty that Israel herself suffered when she committed like sins. There is nothing racial here: it is moral from beginning to end; it is the consequence of the moral equation of human life and of the existence of the infinite personal God whose holiness and justice will be and must be served. One may dislike this fact; one may be deeply offended by it as many are. But fact it is and there is little to be gained by protesting it.
  5. And, finally, as always in thinking about divine judgment, we are to remember that God himself bore that judgment in our place that we might be spared it. The God who imposes judgment is not unknowing of the terrible pain and sorrow of it. Justice may demand payment, but love provided the payment and both the justice and the love come from God. We cannot protest what happened to the Midianites without cheapening what happened to Jesus and what Jesus willingly did on the cross. The destruction of Midian was a foretaste of eternal divine judgment, the very judgment Jesus suffered in the place of his people.


But there is something more in this chapter that deserves our attention and I don’t want us to miss it. The division of the spoil expresses a fundamental truth about life in the world and in the kingdom of God and a truth that is growing less and less obvious to people in our world. I am speaking of the place of the church in the life of God’s people. The relationship between individual and family and church in the Bible is not without its complications, but is fundamental to an understanding of the believer’s place in the world. And in a highly – one might say obsessively – individualistic culture such as ours, appreciating that relationship has become more difficult for Christian people.

There is in the gospel and the experience of the Christian faith that which is profoundly personal and individual. The Bible stresses this. Each man or woman, boy or girl stands himself or herself before God. Each must practice his or her own faith. Each must give an account of himself or herself to God at the judgment. The practice of our faith in Jesus Christ is in many ways necessarily personal and individual: the guarding of the heart, the offering of love and praise, the practice of prayer, the resisting of temptations, the loving of others, and on and on it goes. All of this must be done, indeed can only be done by the individual acting as an individual. Much of it is so personal that only the individual and God know what has been done or left undone.

And yet, God has woven that individual life, that intensely personal experience of the knowledge of himself, into a corporate and community life. For most Christians faith in Christ itself is formed in the heart through the life of the Christian family. It is impossible to unravel all the influences that bear on a child’s heart and form and ripen true and living faith in Christ and love for Christ’s cause in a child’s heart. The individual’s faith in Christ is in a very important way both an extension and the result of his life in a family.

And for every Christian this continues to be true as he or she is part of the church, the community of faith, the family of God. There too, among the saints and especially at worship faith is nurtured and the life is changed through ways both obvious and predictable, on the one hand, and subtle and imperceptible on the other.

But the Bible leaves us in no doubt that both the individual and the community, the Christian and the church, are essential to one another and fundamental to God’s plan for the life of his people. It is not enough to be an individual Christian, however pious and devout; it is not enough to be a church member, however active. One must be both and at the same time for true Christian faith to flower and bear fruit as God intends.

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.

Florence and I have just come back from a part of the world in which the place of the church in the life of people is much more visible than it is here in the Northwest of the United States. There, especially in Europe, a church building typically dominates a community. The community surrounds the church and looks up to it. And that was a reality and not simply an appearance as, alas, nowadays it has come to be. The community met at the church, the church was its community hall as well as its sanctuary. Babies were baptized there, young people were married there, the dead were buried there, and Sunday by Sunday the life of everyone was interpreted and explained and nurtured there. But whether or not the relationship between individual and church is expressed very clearly, it remains a biblical reality and a biblical demand.

I have reminded you many times through the years that there is one institution in this world and only one that will be found in the world to come. It is not your family; it is certainly not any human government or institution. It is the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. You live as a Christian, your family lives as a Christian family for the church of God, the Israel of God, as Paul calls it.

It is a way to examine your own commitments to ensure that they are the commitments the Lord expects of you and that you are actually fulfilling them. Are you living in and for the church, the community of God? Are you tithing? That is one simple way of practicing and demonstrating this commitment: the way that such a commitment was expressed by Israel on this occasion. Are you faithfully at work in contributing to the life and work of the church? You can do that when asked to serve as a soldier; but you can do that by praying for those on the battle field. You can do that by offering your support in a hundred ways to the life and work of the house of God.

Just imagine where we would be if every Christian felt it not only his or her duty, but the fulfillment of his or her life to be really, seriously, significantly contributing to the work of the church of God. Each one first walking with the Lord in the privacy of his or her own heart, but then demanding of oneself a true and faithful contribution to the larger work. Every prayer meeting would be overflowing with contributors and the “Amen” said after every prayer would sound like what Tertullian said amens sounded like in his day: a thunderclap. Every worship service would be crowded with people who had come to honor the sanctuary of God, to contribute heart and voice to the praises of the Lord, to attend with thoughtful reverence to his word, and to rejoice with all the saints in the grace and salvation of God. Every piece of ministry would be quickly subscribed by eager believers ready to put their shoulders to the wheel. And individual Christians would discover what great things can be done when all of God’s people are working together to accomplish them in the Lord’s name. Enemies, like the Midianites, can be laid in the dust when the entire nation, as a nation, heeds the Lord’s call and works together.

For many Christians the church is a helping institution. It exists to help the individual. There is truth in that, of course. The Lord has put many of his blessings in the church for the individual Christian. But it is also true that the Christian exists to help the church, that, as our Savior put it, he is building his church, he gave himself for the church.

Florence and I several weeks ago toured the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. It stands above what is thought to be the likely spot of both Calvary and the Lord’s tomb. Alas it has become a perfect symbol of Christian disunity. There are six Christian groups that claim some historic right to the place and their jealousy of one another and the history of their conflict with one another are uniquely depressing for a thoughtful Christian. At Christianity’s most sacred shrine is the visible evidence of her disunity and of her tendency to selfish squabbling. And, of course, there is far too much of this everywhere. The church seems less the great commitment and purpose of Christians’ lives than a shop that exists to provide the services the individual believer may need from time to time. And among the various shops there is fierce competition.

Israel is poised on the border of the Promised Land. What she learned in this battle with Midian is what can be achieved when in obedience to the Lord God’s people act in concert with the welfare of the whole most clearly in view. We are always poised on the border of the Promised Land, the church always has her deadly enemies, and there is always the greater purpose to fulfill. And so it is always the case that a true Christian life is a church life, a true Christian service is service in and for the church of God, and true faith in Christ produces a love of and commitment to his house and his people and his cause.

Any Christian today should be able to say from the heart what every loyal and faithful Jew said in the ancient epoch:

“If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.”