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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 31

Calvin's Commentary on the BibleCalvin's Commentary

Verse 1

1.And the Lord spake unto Moses. Amongst the other prerogatives which God conferred upon His Church, this one is celebrated, that He armed the godly “to execute vengeance upon the heathen, — to execute upon them the judgment that is written,” (Psalms 149:7) and although the Spirit declares that this should happen under the kingdom of Christ, still He refers to ancient examples, one of which, well worthy of remembrance, is here recorded. The Midianites had organized a wicked conspiracy for the destruction of God’s people: and God, in undertaking to punish this cruel act of theirs, gave a striking proof of His paternal favor towards the Israelites; whilst this grace is doubled by His constituting them the ministers of his judgment. This passage, therefore, shews us how anxious God was for the welfare of His elect people, when He so set Himself against their enemies, as if He would make common cause in all respects with them. At the same time we must observe this additional favor towards them, that although the Israelites themselves were not without blame, He still deigned to appoint them as judges of the Midianites. Inasmuch, however, as He everywhere prohibits His people from indulging the lust of vengeance, we must not forget the distinction between men’s vengeance and His own. He would have His servants, by patiently bearing injuries, overcome evil with good; while, at the same time, He by no means abdicates His own power, but still reserves to Himself the right of inflicting punishment. Nay, Paul, desiring to exhort believers to long-suffering, recalls them to the principle, that God takes upon Himself the office of avenging. (203) Since, then, God is at liberty to execute vengeance, not only by Himself, but also by His ministers, as we have already seen, these two things are not inconsistent with each other, that the passions of the godly are laid under restraint by the Word, that they should not, when injured, seek for vengeance, or retaliate the evils they have received, and still that they are the just and legitimate executioners of God’s vengeance, when the sword is put into their hands. It remains, that whosoever is called to this office, should punish crime with honest zeal, as the minister of God, and not as acting in his own private cause. God here intrusted the office of vengeance upon His people, but by no means in order that they might indulge the lust of their nature: for their feeling ought to have been this, that they should have been ready to pardon the Midianites, (204) and still that they should heartily bestir themselves to inflict punishment upon them.

That, whilst God so severely judged the Midianites, he spared the Moabites, was for the sake of Lot, who was the founder of their race. But I have already frequently reminded my readers that, when God’s judgments surpass our understanding, we should, in sober humility, give glory to His secret, and to us incomprehensible, wisdom: for those who, in this respect, seek to know more than is fitting, elevate themselves too high, in order to plunge with head-long audacity into a profound abyss, in which, at length, all their senses must be overwhelmed. Why was He not at liberty to remit the punishment of the Moabites, and at the same time to repay to the Midianites the recompense which was their due? Besides, it was only for a time that he pardoned the Moabites, until their obstinacy should render them inexcusable, after they had not only abused his forbearance, but tyrannically afflicted their brethren, by whom they had been treated with kindness.

Moreover, God desired, whilst Moses was still alive, again to testify by this final act His love towards His people, in order that they might more cheerfully advance to the possession of the promised land: for this was no feeble encouragement, when they saw that God spontaneously put Himself forward to avenge them. At the same time it was expedient for Moses that, at the very moment of his death, he should feel, by a fresh instance, what care God took for the welfare of the people. For he was able joyfully to leave them in God’s keeping, whose hand he had so recently seen put forth to fulfill to the utmost His gracious purposes towards them. To the same effect were the words, “Thou shalt be gathered unto thy people,” which were undoubtedly spoken as a consolation in death. It was also a reason for making haste; for if the dearth of the holy Prophet had been waited for, perhaps the Israelites would not have dared to attack, with arms in their hands, a peaceful nation, from whom there was no peril or inconvenience impending. But so great was the authority of Moses over them, that they were more ready to obey his bidding than that of any other person.

Although it is said indifferently of the reprobate as well as believers, that they are gathered or congregated to their fathers by death, still this expression shews that men are born for immortality; for it would not be appropriate to say this of the brute animals, whose death is their final destruction, inasmuch as they are without the hope of another life.

(203) The reference here, both in Lat. and Fr., is to Romans 13:4, though I presume it ought to be to Romans 12:19, — the former citation being transferred to what follows.

(204) Added inFr. , “s’il les eust voulu laisser impunis:” if He had been willing to leave them unpunished.

Verse 3

3.And Moses spake unto the people. There is no doubt but that Moses delivered the commands which he had received from God; although, therefore, it is stated (205) that only ten thousand went forth to the war, yet the facts themselves demonstrate that the number, as well as the mode of warfare, was prescribed by God. And assuredly it would have been inconsiderate of Moses to attack so great a people with so small a band; and thus he would have deservedly incurred the penalty of his rashness, if he had attempted it of his own accord; still, when God’s command had preceded, he happily concluded the matter, which had been properly and rightly undertaken. Nor can it be questioned but that God desired by this test to prove the faith of His people. For, according to human apprehension, it was folly to endanger themselves without cause; and the objection was obvious that it was by no means advisable, when six hundred thousand men were at hand, to restrict to so few the office of waging such a perilous war. Just, therefore, as God afterwards destroyed the great army of the Midianites by only four hundred men under the guidance of Gideon, so also under the hand of Moses He sent forth only a single thousand from every tribe for the destruction of that nation. The tribe of Zebulon alone could have furnished five times as many soldiers as God took from the whole people. Thus, then, they proved their faith, when in reliance on the aid of God alone, they did not hesitate boldly to rush forward against their enemies. And the event itself more fully illustrated God’s grace than as if they had fought with all their forces, for then it would have been believed that the Midianites were overwhelmed by the infinite multitude of men. As, therefore, the people testified their obedience by prompt compliance, so they experienced in the result that there is nothing better than to submit ourselves to God, and to leave the prospect of success so completely in His hand, as that our confidence may depend solely upon him.

Lest either of the tribes should boast itself against the others, they were each of them commanded to give the same number of soldiers. Moreover, Phinehas was sent with them, not so much that he might engage personally with the enemy, or be their General, as that he might rule and control their minds as God’s messenger and interpreter. They were to be kept in the fear of God, and to be elevated to the expectation of victory, and therefore God’s priest was their leader, so that the war might be a holy one; and the same was the object of the silver trumpets, with which, in obedience to the Lw, as we have elsewhere seen, (206) the Levites were accustomed to sound, that it might be manifest that their battles were not fought without the will and authority of heaven. Amongst “the holy instruments,” some commentators, in my opinion rightly, include the Ark of the Covenant.

(205) “Combien doncques qu’il n’y est rien exprime d’avantage, sinon que, etc.;” although, therefore, nothing more is stated than that, etc. — Fr.

(206) See ante, on Numbers 10:2, vol. 2, p. 104.

Verse 7

7.And they warred against the Midianites. It was a signal example of obedience, that 12,000 men did not refuse to engage in a war which was full of danger, when it was reasonable for them to object that it was not right for them to be exposed to butchery, as it were, whilst the people sat idly in the camp, who by their great numbers and with little trouble would have routed and overcome the enemy. It was therefore no common proof of piety, that they obeyed God’s command, and sought for no pretext to cover their cowardice. God, too, shewed by the result that He did not rashly expose His servants to danger; for it is in His power to rescue those whom He takes under His protection, from a hundred deaths. From hence also we are taught that there is no surer means of safety than to follow whither He leads. What Moses afterwards adds, tends to render praise to their perseverance, with one exception, they were right in killing all the males, even to the kings, whom Moses relates to have been slain in the general slaughter; and especially that they inflicted punishment on Balaam, who by his cunning and his snares, had endeavored to destroy the people of God. They were right, too, in spoiling the whole land; nor did they act with less propriety and discretion in razing all the cities and towns, which might have been a temptation to the timid and inactive to take up their abode there; for, as we have seen before, all hindrances were to be taken away, so that the people might advance freely and without incumbrance into the land of Canaan; else, when there was an opportunity of repose, many would have willingly foregone the promised inheritance. Hence the cities were consumed by fire, lest they should afford any hold for those who were willing to stay. Thus far the selected soldiers faithfully performed their duty: in one respect they failed, in that, under the impulse either of avarice or lust, they preserved the women alive: on which point we shall see more presently.

Verse 11

11.And they took all the spoil. It was a sign both of their disinterestedness and modesty, that they brought the booty, which they had taken in the ardor of battle, to Moses and Eleazar; nor was it a mere empty and pompous ceremony, as many boastingly parade the wealth which they desire to keep to themselves; but their intention was, to acquiesce in the determination of Moses as to its distribution. For, when Moses soon afterwards allots half of it to the people, they are so far from rebelling against his decision, that they do not even murmur. It is clear, then, that in this respect they were no less submissive than they had been when, at the outset, they took up arms, and boldly went forth to battle, whilst the rest were quietly reposing out of the reach of the darts.

Verse 14

14And Moses was wroth with the officers. A successful issue usually obtains pardon for any errors in performance, nay, in a manner covers them, so that they are not taken into account; but, although the army brought with it many causes of congratulation, still Moses does not forbear from severely reproving their single fault. By this example we are taught that, whilst we give praise to virtuous actions, we are not to approve of anything which deserves reprehension. The anger of Moses might appear to us inhumane, when he severely reproves his soldiers because they had not treated the female sex with the greatest cruelty; but it is not our business to canvass the judgments of God, before whose tribunal we must all hereafter stand. Although, therefore, they may be repugnant to our own feelings, still we must rest assured that, even where they may seem to be excessive, He nevertheless tempers the most severe punishments with the most perfect equity; yea, that although He may for a time overlook, or at any rate not so severely punish, the same sin in the Moabites which He sorely avenged upon the Midiantes, there is still a most just cause for this distinction, although it may be hidden in His own breast. It is not our part to murmur against Him, lest He should absolve Himself by condemning our blasphemous audacity and temerity.

The Israelites sinned, in that, when they were only the ministers of God’s vengeance, it rested not in their own discretion to relax any part of it. And this is worthy of observation, that those who are armed with the sword, must not go out of the way on either side one tittle, but faithfully execute whatever God prescribes. By the praise which: is given to the anger of Moses, the imagination of the Stoics is refuted, with whom indifference (207) (ἀπάθεια) is the highest of virtues. But rather are we to labor that all our affections should proceed from a good motive, and that they should be kept under such restraint, that they may contain no ebullition of carnal passion, but that spiritual zeal may preside in them. Moses, however, gives the reason why the women were no more to be spared than the men, viz., because they had prostituted themselves in order to lay deadly snares for the Israelites. As regards the little ones, the same reasoa did not affect them, inasmuch as they were guilty of no crime; yet is it not doubtful but that God justly desired that the very name of this wicked and irrecoverable nation should be utterly blotted out; just as He afterwards gave over to destruction the nations of Canaan, together with their offspring. The question, however, arises by what means the women, who “had not known a man,” were to be distinguished from virgins. The Jews, according to their custom, invent a fable (208) in reply, whereas it is probable that the decision was only come to on the ground of their age.

(207) “De n’avoir nulle passion;” to be without any passion. — Fr.

(208) “(Eleazar) made them pass before the plate, (i.e., the golden plate engraved like a signet, Exodus 28:36,) and the face of her who was suited for marriage grew yellow as a crocus.” — See R. Sal. Jarchi, in loco. Ed. Breithaupt. p. 1270.

Verse 19

19.And do ye abide without the camp seven days. We have elsewhere seen, (209) that, if any one had touched a dead body, he was accounted unclean. Moses, by now extending the ceremony of expiation to lawful homicide, intimates how carefully we ought to abstain from shedding human blood. It was required of the Israelites that they should strenuously advance through the midst of carnage; but, inasmuch as it is in a manner contrary to the order of nature that men should be killed by men, as if they were raging against their own bowels, God would have some vestiges of humanity preserved even in just punishments, so as to put a restraint upon all cruelty in the abstract. Nor is it without cause that Scripture, even in commending heroic bravery, uses this form of expression, that “they have polluted their hands with blood,” who have slain any of their enemies, i.e., in order that we may abhor all acts of homicide, as being repugnant to the preservation of the human race. Although, therefore, the Israelites had slain the Midianites not only justly, but by God’s command, still, lest they should accustom themselves to the indiscriminate shedding of blood, they are commanded to purify themselves on the third and the seventh day, before they returned to the camp, so that their pollution should not infect the people. The reason for purifying the booty was different, viz., because the uncleanness of their vessels indicated how detestable was this people, whose very utensils, until they were purified either by fire or water, defiled every one by the mere touch. Lest, however, the soldiers should refuse to obey, or should comply unwillingly, Eleazar reminds them that nothing more was required of them than the observance of an old injunction. Nor is it to be doubted but that Moses designedly resigned the office of teaching to his nephew, because the interpretation of the law was hereafter to be sought from the mouth of the priest

(209) See ante, on Numbers 19:11, vol. 2, p. 42.

Verse 25

25.And the Lord spake unto Moses. A most equitable distribution of the booty is here described, in which the law of proportion was so well observed that, whilst the soldiers were not defrauded of the reward of their labor, at the same time some advantage accrued to the rest of the people in whose name the war was carried on. The share of the multitude was indeed small, for the same proportion was awarded to the 12,000 as to the remaining 600,000. But, since the booty had been already won by the soldiers in right of their victory, it ought not to have been a cause of complaint to the people who had not borne arms, that they received an honorary gift, although it might be of little value. And assuredly it would have been a shame that those who remained in the camp should be altogether without any part of the spoil, as if they had been convicted of cowardice, whereas it did not depend on themselves that they had not taken part with their brethren in the conquest of the enemy. For it was from no want of courage that they had escaped the burden and the perils of war, but they had modestly allowed the general glory to be appropriated by a few, because it had so pleased God. But, whilst it was just that some of the fruits of the victory should be communicated to all, so it. was no less right that the fuller and more liberal reward should be received by those who had borne the whole brunt of the war.

It appears to some that David pursued the same rule, when he distributed the spoil equally amongst his followers who had gone down to the battle, and those who had stood by the baggage. (1 Samuel 30:24.) In my opinion, however, what David then decided was very different; for if the portion of those who remained with the baggage had been equal with that of those who were actually engaged, it would have been far more advantageous to remain out of the reach of the weapons. For, when a battle is fought, only a few men out of a large army are generally left with the baggage, and thus half the booty would have accrued to a few idlers. The partition, therefore, which is there mentioned, must have been an equal distribution to each individual; and very justly did David enjoin that those who remained stationed in the camp should have a full share of the spoil, lest (210) the condition of those should be dissimilar who were under the operation of the same rule. But in this case the actual warriors are justly rewarded above those who quietly attended to their own domestic cares.

(210) The Fr. gives a different turn to the sentence, “veu que tous a la verite guerroyoyent;” seeing that in truth all were alike engaged in the war.

Verse 28

28.And levy a tribute unto the Lord. God now requires a tribute, or holy oblation, out of the spoil from both parties, but in unequal portions, the people paying ten times more than the soldiers. There was a twofold reason and object for this tribute; for it was not fair that the Levites alone should be sent away empty, as if their condition were worse than that of the rest, because they were occupied in the service of God, and in taking care of the holy things. But the part which He assigns to them, God commands to be offered to Himself, that men may not only regard equity amongst each other, but that religion may stand in the foremost place; for nothing can be more unreasonable than that the rights of men should be maintained inviolate, whilst God himself is overlooked. In order, then, to testify their piety, the offering was enjoined, as if God claimed for Himself the glory of the victory in taking this fiftieth and five-hundredth portion. But, inasmuch as He has no want of anything, having full satisfaction in Himself alone, the Levites are substituted in His stead, that they may receive some reward for their ministry.

Again, we perceive that God dealt more liberally with the soldiers than with the rest of the multitude; nor is this a matter of surprise, for, since He had laid a greater burden upon them, it was just that they should be enriched by more fruits of the victory, for He heaps blessings upon blessings according to His pleasure.

From this distribution we also gather that it depends upon His ordinance that some should be richer than others; for, if there were no such thing as property, there would be no test of justice and integrity.

Verse 37

37.And the Lord’s tribute of the sheep. The greatness of the victory is shewn by the result, since such an abundance of cattle could only have been collected from a wide and populous country. It is probable that it was not very fertile, and consequently only live stock, and not corn and wine, are enumerated as amongst their wealth. Still, we may conjecture that it was famous for pastures, since barren mountains could not have fed so many oxen, and goats, and sheep, and camels; besides, it is most evident, from the number of young women, that the men who were slain were more in number than their conquerors who had been sent to the battle; for suppose they each of them had an unmarried daughter, they would have almost three times outnumbered the 12,000 Israelites. Hence, again, it is manifest that the victory was effected by Divine power. It may, however, seem strange that, although the nation was almost destroyed, nevertheless their posterity existed some little time afterwards, as if new Midianites had been begotten from the ashes of their sires. For it was not a very long time that elapsed between this slaughter and the time of Gideon, when they again dared voluntarily to attack the Israelites, and in reliance on their multitude, to rush into the very heart of Canaan; nay, they had already brought all the neighboring nations into subjection. How this could have happened, since the Scriptures do not inform us, it only remains for us to make the conjecture, that many of them, as is often the case in a season of confusion, fled elsewhere, and soon afterwards returned into the land, which was now unoccupied. For the sudden irruption of the Israelites was like a storm which soon passed away; nor was flight a difficult thing for this unsettled and wandering nation. It might also have been the case, that many immigrants from various quarters flowed into the land, when stripped of its inhabitants; or even that the Israelites, having performed their work but slackly, sounded the recall sooner than they ought, and that God afterwards punished their remissness. At any rate, we are taught by this example that the wicked sprout up like foul and noxious weeds, so that, though often cut down, they soon cover the ground again.

Verse 48

48.And the officers which were over the thousands. We have here an example of signal gratitude, that the leaders of the army, when they saw that none of their men were lost, consecrated their spoils of gold and silver to the Lord. By the offering of the first-fruits, they had already sufficiently testified their piety and obedience; nor, indeed, after they had faithfully complied with God’s command, could anything more have been expected from them; hence does their liberality deserve so much the more praise, when they lay themselves under the obligation of a new and extraordinary vow. At the same time, Moses magnifies God’s special blessing in bringing them all back safely to a man from this great battle. Surely, since their spoils must have been driven from many villages, it was strange that some few of them at least had not been slain in their very passage from one place to another. Hence, therefore, it was more than ever manifest that the war was thus successfully concluded under the guidance of God, who had protected the 12,000 men. Hence the incredible goodness of God towards his people is here celebrated, as well as the pious profession of the officers, when it is expressly stated that, having mustered their forces, they had found them all safe, so that there could be no doubt nor question about the grace of God. In acknowledgment, therefore, of His wondrous power in the preservation of the soldiers, they offer as the price of their redemption whatever gold and silver they had taken among the spoils. Moses records the sum, so that it may more clearly appear that, in the performance of this act of homage, it was no trifling amount of gain that they despised, for its amount is more than 10,500 livres of French money. (211)

But what becomes of the soldiers? whilst these vows are being paid for their safety, they quietly enjoy their plunder: for there is an implied comparison here, when Moses, after having praised the centurions and tribunes, presently adds the exception, that “the spoil which each man had taken was his own.” It is, indeed, amazing that the soldiers, as if they had conquered by themselves, and for themselves alone, should have been so ill-conditioned and mean, as not to imitate this laudable example. And, in truth, it often happens, that the multitude indulges its meanness without shame, as well because it is ignorant of what true nobility is, as because the crowd conceals the disgrace. Meanwhile, those in office are reminded to take care, that the higher the dignity may be to which they are called, the more eminent should their virtues be.

(211) 16,750 shekels. C.’s calculations are, as far as I have observed, rarely accurate. The equivalent for the shekel in French money, which he professed to adopt, was somewhat more than 14 sous, or 14-20ths of the franc or livre. See ante, vol. 1, p. 483, and vol. 3, p 416

Verse 51

51.And Moses and Eleazar the priest took the gold. It was fitting that this should be added, lest any should suppose that Eleazar made a profit by the liberality of others. Moses, therefore, relates, that whatever gold was offered, was faithfully laid up as an ornament for the sanctuary. When it is said, “for a memorial for the children of Israel,” it may be taken either actively or passively; viz., either that the gift may be a monument of their gratitude, or that it might conciliate favor for the people in the eyes of God; as if that offering of expiation brought before God, and represented, all those who thus professed themselves to be preserved by His grace. I prefer the latter sense myself, i.e., that this memorial was set before His eyes, in order that God might hereafter also be favorable to His people.

Bibliographical Information
Calvin, John. "Commentary on Numbers 31". "Calvin's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/cal/numbers-31.html. 1840-57.
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