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The "vengeance" Israel was to take (Numbers 31:2) was for the spiritual and sexual seduction the Midianites had led the Moabites to practice with them. This had resulted in the defeat of God’s people (ch. 25). Her enemies had lured Israel away from her true husband, Yahweh.
Moses did not give us the name of Israel’s military leader in this battle. However Phinehas, the high priest’s son, is the prominent person in the record (Numbers 31:6). This phenomenon points to the nature of the battle as being primarily for spiritual purposes. Israel did not annihilate the Midianites simply because they were her political and military enemies. She did so primarily because she was God’s instrument of judgment for the Midianites’ spiritual sins (idolatry, sacred prostitution, etc.). This was holy war.
"The battle . . . had the character of an execution, in the form of a ban. The ban was a religious institution exercised for a time in Israel as well as among some of its Semitic neighbors that placed people judged to be hostile to the deity under a sentence of destruction." [Note: Ibid., p. 107. Cf. Joshua 6-7; 1 Samuel 15.]
"The command in holy war to kill women and children seems in modern times a terrible thing to have been done (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, necessitating warfare. God’s judgment is poured out on whole groups of people who act with moral abandonment and in sinful pursuit." [Note: The NET Bible note on 31:17.]
The Israelites killed every male Midianite (Numbers 31:7) yet we read about the Midianites existing after this battle. Perhaps Moses meant they killed every Midianite they encountered. [Note: Ashley, p. 592.] Another writer explained this problem as follows.
"The Midianites were a larger confederation of tribes, associated with various smaller groups such as the Ishmaelites (Genesis 37:28; Judges 8:22; Judges 8:24), the Moabites (Numbers 22:4; Numbers 22:7), the Amalekites (Judges 6:3; Judges 6:33), and Ephah (Genesis 25:4; Isaiah 60:6). They roamed through the arid lands of Sinai, the Negeb and Transjordan. Here it is those Midianites associated with Moab that are picked out for vengeance (8, 16; cf. chapters 22 and 25), not the whole group." [Note: G. Wenham, Numbers, p. 209.]
Among the men killed were Zur and Balaam (Numbers 31:8). Zur was probably the father of Cozbi (cf. Numbers 25:15).
Burning enemy cities and taking spoil and living beings captive, mainly women and children, became standard procedure in Israel’s wars with the Canaanites (Numbers 31:10-11). The soldiers brought what they had captured to the leaders of the congregation rather than personally appropriating these things (Numbers 31:12).
Normally Israel spared the enemy women in battle since the Israelites viewed them as less responsible for the war than the men. However in this case the women had actively solicited the Israelites to idolatry through their prostitution. Therefore God ordered that His people should spare only women who were virgins in this battle. They brought these women into Israel, and in due course most of them married Israelite men.
"It is, it seems, essential for the very existence of a new emergent community that discipline be harsh and stringent." [Note: Philip, p. 313. Cf. Joshua 7; Acts 5.]
The warriors had to undergo the rites of purification as did the prisoners because they had contracted ritual uncleanness through contact with dead bodies. They also purified the booty taken as the spoils of war. The objects that were not combustible they passed through fire, and the others they washed with water. These laws reminded the Israelites that even in victory death is a terrible disruption of God’s creation.
". . . this is the only example of fire being required for purification in the Bible and is therefore highly unique.
"Fire, a more intensive form of purification, is chosen to accord with corpse-contamination, a more intensive form of impurity." [Note: David Wright, "Purification from Corpse Contamination in Numbers XXXI 19-24," Vetus Testamentum 35:2 (1985):222, 223. Cf. Leviticus 11:32; Numbers 19:11-22.]
"Moses’ speech in Numbers 31:19-20 is based solidly on the prescriptions of Num xix, deviating only in regard to how they apply to the particular war situation. Had Moses continued with Numbers 31:22-23, it would have appeared that he was inventing the new regulations out of thin air. Consequently, Eleazer begins to speak, prefacing his remarks by the statement ’this is the decree of the ritual prescription which the Lord commanded Moses,’ showing that what he is about to say is not in fact new, but actually part of the original revelation given to Moses. From a literary point of view, to have Eleazer speak allows the law of Num. xix to be amended or clarified without raising the suspicion of human invention." [Note: Ibid., p. 223.]
3. Reprisal against the Midianites and the settlement of the Transjordanian tribes chs. 31-32
Moses’ last campaign ch. 31
The writer now recorded the fulfillment of God’s instructions to Moses that Israel should destroy the Midianites (Numbers 25:16-18). In this account, the aftermath of the battle receives more attention than the battle itself. Evidently God included this chapter here for two reasons at least. It records Israel’s victory over one of her enemies, and it explains the way she conducted the war and the manner in which she handled the spoils of war. These procedures provided a precedent for the Israelites in their future battles with the Canaanites. This section then gives more information concerning God’s preparations of the Israelites for entering the land.
The warriors shared the booty equally with the Israelites who remained in the camp. They were no privileged class nor did they receive a special reward for their actions. They simply served one function and the other Israelites served another in carrying out the will of God (cf. 1 Samuel 30:24-25). From the warriors’ share 1/500 went to the priests and from the congregation’s share 1/50 went to the Levites (cf. Numbers 18:26).
The 32 virgins that the priests received (Numbers 31:40) probably became servants in the tabernacle (cf. Exodus 38:8; 1 Samuel 2:22).
Not one Israelite soldier died in this battle (Numbers 31:49). God gave His people a complete victory. This unusual record makes sense in part because the Midianites were not a warring people. They were nomads who normally moved on when they encountered trouble. Apparently they were not ready to defend themselves against the attacking Israelites. However there is a more important reason for Israel’s success.
"There is a clear line that runs from Numbers 31:1-24 to the conquest of Jericho according to Joshua 6, 7. For in fact that city fell not by military violence but by the force of Israel’s obedient faith. And the same thing is true of the conquest of Midian described in Judges 7 : it was not the military might of Gideon’s band that was decisive but rather the power of faith. In all three cases the stories have about them something unnatural, something unreal, something exaggerated, and in all three it was obedience to God’s command that turned the tide." [Note: Maarsingh, p. 107.]
The officers brought a large gift to the Lord to recompense Him for the lives of the Israelite soldiers He had granted Israel in this victory, (Numbers 31:50). This payment was an "atonement" (ransom) in that it replaced the Israelite lives that God had spared. The officers realized that He could have taken many of the Israelites’ lives in the battle. The gift consisted of a large quantity of gold jewelry that the soldiers had captured. Midianite traders had a great love for gold jewelry (cf. Judges 8:26). The people made this gift a memorial of this victory and kept it in the tabernacle (Numbers 31:54).
In this chapter we have a basic model for Israel’s battles with the Canaanites in the land. This battle with the Midianites was a preparation for those later encounters. It was also a great encouragement to the Israelites as they looked forward to more battles like this one. [Note: On Israel’s policy of completely annihilating the Canaanites, see John W. Wenham, The Goodness of God, especially ch. 8.]
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Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Numbers 31". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/
the Fourth Week after Epiphany