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Tuesday, May 28th, 2024
the Week of Proper 3 / Ordinary 8
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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 31

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


This chapter records the war of extermination commanded by God against Midian. It was not a war of personal vengeance, but a war of execution of the wrath of a just God against a people who deliberately became God’s enemies and sought by every device they knew to frustrate the Divine purpose with regard to Israel.

The Christian student will encounter a great freight of anti-Biblical and even anti-Christian comment in the books which allegedly “learned men” have written on Numbers. Here are random samples of such false comments from several authors throughout the current century:

This is not a history, but Midrash.(F1) The account is more ideal than historical.(F2) This tale… is commonly thought to be unhistorical. It may perhaps be a pious invention of later times.(F3) The report of the Midianite war contains little that is factual.(F4)

These comments dated from 1903, 1929, and 1968, respectively indicate that the critical scholars have learned absolutely nothing at all during the present century, but are still parroting the worn-out denials which first became prevalent in the infamous International Critical Commentary at the turn of the current century. What is the alleged evidence to support such denials? If we rule out the subjective opinions of unbelievers, there isn’t any! There is absolutely nothing in the text of Numbers that can be logically opposed to the acceptance of every word in the book as the truth of God! Great scholars, indeed the greatest scholars, have not ceased to shout this:

“There is no good ground for calling in question the correctness of the narrative… there is nothing in the statements (about the numbers of the animals taken, etc.) to astonish any one who has formed correct notions about the wealth of such nomad tribes in cattle, etc.(F5) The unique names of the five kings of Midian, etc… are details that run counter to the view of some that the chapter is late Midrash.(F6)

Another kind of objection to this chapter is found in the adverse judgment of wicked men who brazenly question the morality of God Himself in ordering the extermination of the Midianites. This type of objection has been parlayed by evil men into a general rejection not merely of the Bible, but of Christianity itself, man in his sinful arrogance supposing that “modern man” has improved upon the morality of the God of the Bible. This excerpt from the daily news (Houston Post, Christmas Day, 1985) is an excellent example:

“The Bible depicts God’s ruthlessness when He tells His chosen people to go into war and to save “nothing alive that breatheth” (Deuteronomy 20:16) and to `kill suckling babies’ (1 Samuel 15:3).

To a great extent, present-day wars stem from religious fanaticism. God has never intervened to stop a war! Contrary Biblical quotations offered will not erase those above, but will be an admission that the Bible is contradictory.”(F7)

Significantly, this article appeared without comment by Lynn Ashby, Editor of the Post. It is a type of the so-called “popular wisdom” with regard to the Holy Bible, frequently found in columns like Ashby’s, or Ann Landers’, or of some other self-appointed custodian of the public morality. A believer hardly needs to be told that such views are the ultimate in Biblical ignorance!

Yes, indeed! God did, in fact, order the Midianites exterminated. So what?

If God, instead of sending an earthquake, or a flood, or a pestilence, or a famine, was pleased to order His people to avenge his cause, such a commission was surely just and right… Unless it can be proved that the wicked Canaanites did not deserve their doom, objectors only prove their dislike of God and their love of God’s enemies.(F8) Other objections will also disappear in a more detailed examination of the sacred text.

Verses 1-12

“And Jehovah spake unto Moses, saying, Avenge the children of Israel of the Midianites: afterward shalt thou be gathered unto thy people. And Moses spake unto the people, saying, Arm ye men from among you for the war, that they may go against Midian, to execute Jehovah’s vengeance on Midian. Of every tribe a thousand, throughout all the tribes of Israel, shall ye send to the war. So there were delivered, out of the thousands of Israel, a thousand of every tribe, twelve thousand armed for war. And Moses sent them, a thousand of every tribe, to the war, them and Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest, to the war, with the vessels of the sanctuary and the trumpets for the alarm in his hand. And they warred against Midian, as Jehovah commanded Moses; and they slew every male. And they slew the kings of Midian with the rest of their slain: Evi, and Rekem, and Zur, and Hur, and Reba, the five kings of Midian: Balaam also the son of Beor they slew with the sword. And the children of Israel took captive the women of Midian and their little ones; and all their cattle, and all their flocks, and all their goods, they took for a prey. And all their cities in the places wherein they dwelt, and all their encampments, they burnt with fire. And they took all the spoil, and all the prey, both of man and of beast. And they brought the captives, and the prey, and the spoil, unto Moses, and unto Eleazar the priest, and unto the congregation of the children of Israel, unto the camp at the plains of Moab, which are by the Jordan at Jericho.”

Unbelievers usually begin their analysis here by shouting that the size of the victory makes it impossible that such a great triumph was achieved by only 12,000 men. First, it was God’s triumph, not that of the 12,000! Their status was exactly the same as that of the 300 helpers of Gideon to whom God also gave a great victory. Secondly, the word rendered “thousand” here is actually [~’eleph]; “This word is here and elsewhere translated `a thousand,’ but more likely means contingent or unit.”(F9) If this recent light (1979) on the meaning of the ancient word [~’eleph] is received, there is envisioned here not the triumph of a mere 12,000 men, but of twelve divisions, a far different thing. Also, the fact that the soldiers actually participating in the struggle received exactly half of all the booty seems much more consistent with this understanding of the word.

Another “alleged difficulty” occurs in the fact that God spoke of “avenging Israel” (Numbers 31:2) and of “the vengeance of Jehovah” (Numbers 31:3). The Jewish writer Yakar pointed out that, of course, “It was both.”(F10) These Midianites had sinned against God in that they had tricked and deceived God’s people into apostasy and immorality, but this was also a sin against God’s people, for as a result of their actions at Baal-Peor, 24,000 of them died in a plague.

Another quibble often encountered here is that “it was the women of Moab” who took the lead in Israel’s seduction, but Divine execution fell upon Midian. Yes, “The daughters of Moab had also taken part in the seduction (Numbers 25:1-2), but they had done so at the instigation of the Midianites, and not of their own accord. And, therefore, the Midianites only were to atone for the wickedness.”(F11) Also, in this connection, it is good to remember that, “However hateful the sins of licentiousness and idolatry may be, they have never by themselves alone aroused the exterminating wrath of God. Midian Was smitten because he had deliberately used those sins as weapons wherewith to take the life of Israel.”(F12)

“The vessels of the sanctuary and the trumpets for the alarm” (Numbers 31:6). It is ambiguous as to just what articles were carried by Phinehas, but the only thing certain is that the silver trumpets (Numbers 10) were carried. In fact, it may be that they alone accompanied the army. T. Carson read the coordinate conjunction “and” in this passage as also having an explanatory meaning, thus identifying the trumpets as which vessels of the sanctuary were taken.(F13)

It should always be remembered that in this terrible act of vengeance, Israel did not act upon their own behalf at all, but as instruments of God, and upon his express command to do so. As Henry pointed out, they had authority for their actions which no man or nation on earth today can claim. They had Moses to relate to them, “what God commanded.” People today have no such authority.

The failure of some people today to understand what happened here is due to their failure to take into account God’s total abhorrence of sin, and of his eternal anger against arrogant and wicked men who rebel against God’s authority. The record of the deluge is a record of God’s destruction of the whole human race (except for a remnant), because of their incurable wickedness, so great that the family of Adam at that point had become a cancer upon the earth itself. God’s destructions of nations and cities as extensively revealed in the Bible are but other facets of this same characteristic of the Eternal Justice, and our evil world has by no means seen the last of it. Is it right, just, or moral, for God to do this? Certainly! Because of its application in this very chapter, we are impelled to repeat again our illustration of the derail switches near Moffatt Tunnel, Colorado, where once the intercontinental railroad climbed the mighty switchbacks over the continental divide. A traveler asked the old station master at the village lying at the base of the great divide, what the derail switches were for at the apex of each switchback. He said, “In case a train got out of control, it would have been thrown into a canyon, for it could not have been saved. The loss of the train would have spared the ruination of the whole switchback complex and the village also.” If people can understand that, they should have no trouble with God’s throwing the derail switch on any city, nation, or civilization, hopelessly given over to wickedness and violence.

Before leaving these twelve verses, we should note another thing. “Midian” as used in these lines evidently does not mean the whole extensive race of the Midianites, but, as indicated by the names of the kings slain, and especially the limited number of them, they were that portion of the Midianites who “dwelt in the country,” namely, that part of the country about to be occupied by Israel, as related in Joshua 13:20. This understanding harmonizes with the fact that, “The Midianites appeared again some two centuries later as a very formidable power.”(F14) Whitelaw was also of the opinion, based upon the context, and the separate mention of the five kings, and Zur, and Balaam, that, “They were slain, not in battle, but as the context implies, by way of judicial execution. (See Numbers 25 and also Joshua 13:22.”(F15)

In Numbers 31:11, the mention of the prey and the spoil refers to two different portions of the total booty. “Prey refers to the captives and livestock; the spoil refers to the ornaments and other effects.”(F16)

For some, the most difficult part of this narrative comes next.

Verses 13-20

“And Moses, and Eleazar the priest, and all the princes of the congregation, went forth to meet them without the camp. And Moses was wroth with the officers of the host, the captains of thousands and the captains of hundreds, who came from the service of the war. And Moses said unto them, Have ye saved all the women alive? Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against Jehovah in the matter of Peor, and so the plague was among the congregation of Jehovah. Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women-children, that have not known man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves. And encamp ye without the camp seven days: whosoever hath killed any person, and whosoever hath touched any slain, purify yourselves on the third day and on the seventh day, ye and your captives. And as to every garment, and all that is made of skin, and all work of goats’ hair, and all things made of wood, ye shall purify yourselves.”

Moses’ outrage because the soldiers had brought the vast company of women (along with their children) with the purpose of bringing them into the camp of Israel is easily understood. To have permitted this would have been an unqualified disaster for Israel. Therefore, Moses ordered all except the virgins to be slain at once. Whitelaw, usually a very dependable scholar, was especially troubled by this, commenting on the “necessity of the inspecting of the women by the soldiers which this order required” in order to separate the virgins from others, calling it “odious.”(F17) However, it would appear that the great scholar just let his imagination get away from him. The determination of who were and who were not virgins presented no problem at all, and certainly did not involve any “examination” by the soldiers. They merely killed all the female children old enough to have had sex relations with men.(F18)

“Have ye saved all the women alive…?” (Numbers 31:15). This is actually more clearly understood if the punctuation is changed. Orlinsky suggested that it should be made an exclamation, “Ye have saved all the women alive!”(F19)

The ceremony of purification mentioned in Numbers 31:20 is fully elaborated in Numbers 19.

We hold no agreement whatever with those scholars who speak of the “immorality” of God’s actions here. In the very nature of things, if Israel was to be given the land of Canaan, Canaan’s populations being forced off their lands, and all their religious institutions destroyed, there was simply no other way to accomplish it. Owens seemed to believe that the present morality of the human race is far superior to “this vestige of ancient Semitic religion that remains chaff amidst the wheat of ancient Israel’s faith.”(F20) However, we do not believe that human morality is in any manner “above” what is written here. The godless humanism which widely prevails on earth today is actually a deification of humanity, with the axiom that nothing that any man could do is a just reason why society should take his life. This “religion,” and that is what it is, rejects capital punishment, and does not even allow that God Himself has the right to judge and destroy either men or nations. The doom of any society stupid enough to adopt such a religion is certain. Dummelow pointed out that God did not fail to give specific and adequate reasons for the slaughter commanded in the O.T. (See Numbers 25:16-18; Numbers 33:55; Deuteronomy 20:17-18; and Joshua 23:12).(F21) “Refusal to reckon with the prerogative of a Righteous Sovereign (God) to judge sin (and execute His wrath upon it) reduces Him to something less than sinful man.”(F22)

The remainder of this chapter deals with division of the booty, an extensive enumeration of numbers and amounts of the prey and of the spoils, and the devotion of certain small fractions of the enormous booty to the tabernacle and to the Levites. No special interest focuses upon the balance of the chapter.

Verses 21-24

“And Eleazar the priest said unto the men of war that went to the battle, This is the statute of the law which Jehovah hath commanded Moses: howbeit the gold, and the silver, the brass, the iron, the tin, and the lead, everything that may abide the fire, ye shall make to go through the fire, and it shall be clean; nevertheless it shall be purified with the water for impurity: and all that abideth not the fire ye shall make to go through the water. And ye shall wash your clothes on the seventh day, and ye shall be clean; and afterward ye shall come into the camp.”

This Divine vengeance against Midian was scheduled as the final act of Moses’ leadership of Israel, and a glimpse of the subsequent order as it would prevail after the death of Moses appears in the fact that, not Moses, but Eleazar, explains the law of purification as previously given by God through Moses.

Also, another curiosity here is Numbers 31:22, where one has a list of six metals commonly found in those days. Cook says that all of the metals mentioned here were already known for centuries in Egypt.(F23)

Verses 25-31

“And Jehovah spake unto Moses, saying, Take the sum of the prey that was taken, both of man and of beast, thou, and Eleazar the priest, and the heads of the fathers’ houses of the congregation; and divide the prey into two parts: between the men skilled in war, that went out to battle, and all the congregation. And levy a tribute unto Jehovah of the men of war that went out to battle: one soul of five hundred, both of the persons, and of the oxen, and of the asses, and of the flocks: take it of their half, and give it unto Eleazar the priest, for Jehovah’s heave-offering. And of the children of Israel’s half, thou shalt take one drawn out of every fifty, of the persons, of the oxen, of the asses, and of the flocks, even of all the cattle, and give them unto the Levites, that keep the charge of the tabernacle of Jehovah. And Moses and Eleazar the priest did as Jehovah commanded Moses.”

Whitelaw believed the division of the booty enjoined here was equitable because “only twelve thousand” suffered the exposure and dangers of war, and it was therefore fitting that they should receive half of the loot.(F24) Our own opinion inclines toward the possibility that there were a great many more soldiers who participated in that struggle than a mere “twelve thousand.” (See under Numbers 31:21.)

Gray’s summary of the instructions in this paragraph is this: “Of the half that fell to the warriors, one five hundredth was to be paid as a tax to the priests; of the other half, one fiftieth went to the Levites.”(F25)

Verses 32-41

“Now the prey, over and above the booty which the men of war took, was six hundred thousand and seventy thousand and five thousand sheep, and three-score and twelve thousand oxen, and threescore and one thousand asses, and thirty and two thousand persons in all, of the women that had not known man by lying with him. And the half, which was the portion of them that went out to war, was in number three hundred thousand and thirty thousand and seven thousand and five hundred sheep: and Jehovah’s tribute of the sheep was six hundred and three-score and fifteen. And the oxen were thirty and six thousand; of which Jehovah’s tribute was threescore and twelve. And the asses were thirty thousand and five hundred; of which Jehovah’s tribute was threescore and one. And the persons were sixteen thousand; of whom Jehovah’s tribute was thirty and two persons. And Moses gave the tribute, which was Jehovah’s heave-offering, unto Eleazar the priest, as Jehovah commanded Moses.”

The enormous quantities of live-stock mentioned here were “in accordance with the habits of the Midianites in the days of Gideon (Judges 6:5) and of their modern representatives today.”(F26) It is also noticeable that the numbers given here are “round numbers,” apparently being calculated in round thousands. Whitelaw also stated that, “The Israelites seem always to have employed this device in enumerations.”(F27)

Verses 42-47

“And of the children of Israel’s half, which Moses divided off from the men that warred, (now the congregation’s half was three hundred thousand and thirty thousand, seven thousand and five hundred sheep, and thirty and six thousand oxen, and thirty thousand and five hundred asses, and sixteen thousand persons), even of the children of Israel’s half, Moses took one drawn out of every fifty, both of man and of beast, and gave them unto the Levites, that kept the charge of the tabernacle of Jehovah; as Jehovah commanded Moses.”

Again, we are amused at the verbose manner of presenting these figures; and, as frequently pointed out, this was the style of ancient writings dating from about the mid-second millennium B.C. This whole paragraph says only that the people’s half (which was identical, of course, with the soldiers’ half was taxed one out of fifty for the benefit of the Levites!

Verses 48-54

“And the officers that were over the thousands of the host, the captains of thousands, and the captains of hundreds, came near unto Moses; and they said unto Moses, Thy servants have taken the sum of the men of war that are under our charge, and there lacketh not one man of us. And we have brought Jehovah’s oblation, what every man hath gotten, of jewels of gold, ankle-chains, and bracelets, signet-rings, ear-rings, and armlets, to make atonement for our souls before Jehovah. And Moses and Eleazar the priest took the gold of them, even all wrought jewels. And all the gold of the heave-offering that they offered up to Jehovah, of the captains of thousands, and of the captains of hundreds, was sixteen thousand seven hundred and fifty shekels. (For the men of war had taken booty, every man for himself.) And Moses and Eleazar the priest took the gold of the captains of thousands and of hundreds, and brought it into the tent of meeting, for a memorial for the children of Israel before Jehovah.”

Whitelaw noted that we should not be surprised by such enormous quantities of gold and jewels captured from a race of nomadic wanderers. “It is still the case with peoples of that area and under circumstances far less favorable.”(F28) The same author also calculated the weight of the gold mentioned here as some 11,000 ounces (Troy).(F29) At the current price of gold $325.00 per ounce, the value of this free-will offering was more than $3,500,000.00!

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Numbers 31". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/numbers-31.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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