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Bible Commentaries

Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible - Unabridged

Numbers 31

Verses 1-2

And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,

The Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Avenge ... of the Midianites - a semi-nomadic people, descended from Abraham and Keturah, occupying a tract of country east and southeast of Moab, which lay on the eastern coast of the Dead Sea. They seem to have been the principal instigators of the infamous scheme of seduction planned to entrap the Israelites into the double crime of idolatry and licentiousness, by which it was hoped the Lord would withdraw from that people the benefit of His protection and favour.

Moreover, the Midianites had rendered themselves particularly obnoxious by entering into a hostile league with the Amorites (Joshua 13:21). The Moabites were at this time spared in consideration of Lot (Deuteronomy 2:9), and because the measure of their iniquities was not yet full. God spoke of avenging "the children of Israel;" Moses spoke of avenging the Lord, as dishonour had been done to God, and an injury inflicted on His people. The interests were identical. God and his people have the same cause, the same friends and assailants. This, in fact, was a religious war, undertaken by the express command of God against idolaters who had seduced the Israelites to practice their abominations.

Verse 3

And Moses spake unto the people, saying, Arm some of yourselves unto the war, and let them go against the Midianites, and avenge the LORD of Midian.

Arm ... yourselves. This order was issued but a short time before the death of Moses. The announcement to him of that approaching event seems to have accelerated, rather than retarded, his warlike preparations.

Verse 4

Of every tribe a thousand, throughout all the tribes of Israel, shall ye send to the war.

No JFB commentary on this verse.

Verse 5

So there were delivered out of the thousands of Israel, a thousand of every tribe, twelve thousand armed for war.

There were delivered - i:e., draughted, chosen, an equal amount from each tribe, to prevent the outbreak of mutual jealousy or strife. Considering the numerical force of the enemy, this was a small quota to furnish. But the design was to exercise their faith, and animate them to the approaching invasion of Canaan.

Verse 6

And Moses sent them to the war, a thousand of every tribe, them and Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest, to the war, with the holy instruments, and the trumpets to blow in his hand. Moses sent them ... and Phineas the son of Eleazar the priest. Although it is not expressly mentioned, it is highly probable that Joshua was the general who conducted this war. The presence of the priest, who was always with the army (Deuteronomy 20:2), was necessary to preside over the Levites who accompanied the expedition, and to inflame the courage of the combatants by his sacred services and counsels.

Holy instruments. Since neither the ark nor the Urim and Thummim were carried to the battlefield until a later period in the history of Israel, the "holy instruments" must mean the "trumpets" (Numbers 10:9). And this view is agreeable to the text by simply changing "and" into 'even,' as the Hebrew particle is frequently rendered.

Verse 7

And they warred against the Midianites, as the LORD commanded Moses; and they slew all the males.

They slew all the males. This was in accordance with a divine order in all such cases (Deuteronomy 20:13). But the destruction appears to have been only partial-limited to those who were in the neighbourhood of the Hebrew camp, and who had been accomplices in the villanous plot of Baal-peor, while a large portion of the Midianites were absent on their pastoral wanderings, or had saved themselves by flight (cf. Judges 6:1).

Verse 8

And they slew the kings of Midian, beside the rest of them that were slain; namely, Evi, and Rekem, and Zur, and Hur, and Reba, five kings of Midian: Balaam also the son of Beor they slew with the sword.

The kings of Midian - so called because each was possessed of absolute power within his own city or district; called also dukes or princes of Sihon (Joshua 13:21), having been probably subject to that Amorite ruler, as it is not uncommon in the East to find a number of governors or pachas tributary to one great king.

Zur - father of Cozbi (Numbers 25:15).

Balaam also ... they slew with the sword. This unprincipled man, on his dismissal from Balak, set out for his home in Mesopotamia (Numbers 24:25); but, either diverging from his way to tamper with the Midianites, he remained among them, without proceeding further, to incite them against Israel, and to watch the effects of his wicked counsel; or, learning in his own country that the Israelites had fallen into the snare which he had laid, and which he doubted not would lead to their ruin, he had, under the impulse of insatiable greed, returned to demand his reward from the Midianites. He was an object of merited vengeance. In the immense slaughter of the Midianitish people; in the capture of their women, children, and property; and in the destruction of all their places of refuge, the severity of a righteous God fell heavily on that base and corrupt race. But, more than all others, Balaam deserved and got the just reward of his deeds, for 'teaching Balak to cast a stumbling-block before the children of Israel' (Revelation 2:14). His conduct had been atrociously sinful, considering the knowledge he possessed, and the revelations he had received of the will of God. For anyone in his circumstances to attempt defeating the prophecies he had himself been the organ of uttering, and plotting to deprive the chosen people of the divine favour and protection, was an act of desperate wickedness, which no language can adequately characterize.

Verses 9-10

And the children of Israel took all the women of Midian captives, and their little ones, and took the spoil of all their cattle, and all their flocks, and all their goods.

The children of Israel took ... The taking captive the women and children, seizing the cattle and effects as booty, and reducing to a heap of ruins the towns and habitations of a conquered enemy, was the usual style of ancient warfare, (2 Kin. 25; 26 ). [ Tiyrotaam (Hebrew #2918), their castles, Bedouin fortresses, the strongholds of a nomadic tribe (Stanley); nomadic encampments, usually enclosing a space in which the cattle were secured (Genesis 25:16; 1 Chronicles 6:54; Ezekiel 25:4) (Gesenius).]

Verse 11

And they took all the spoil, and all the prey, both of men and of beasts.

No JFB commentary on this verse.

Verse 12

And they brought the captives, and the prey, and the spoil, unto Moses, and Eleazar the priest, and unto the congregation of the children of Israel, unto the camp at the plains of Moab, which are by Jordan near Jericho.

They brought the captives, and the prey, and the spoil ... The booty obtained from a fallen town or a devastated country was not, according to the rules of ancient war, retained by the first captor. It was thrown into a general stock, and then, at a time of respite, a division of the collected treasure was made in certain established proportions, a large share being allotted to the king or ruler. In order to insure a fair distribution of the spoil, an accurate account of it was taken by eunuch scribes, who attended to register, on rolls of papyrus or leather, every article as it was brought in. (Botta, pl. 140, 141; representation on a bas-relief at Khorsabad of the plundering of the city of Mekhatseri, where the process of examining the spoils is depicted-not only the cattle, but precious metals, which are being weighed in broad scales: also Layard, 'On the Kouyunjik Sculptures.')

A distinction was made between the "prey" and the "spoil" at this period among the Israelites, (see the note at Numbers 31:26, etc.) Under the monarchy a modification of this rule obtained, the "spoil" being reserved for the sovereign, and half of the "prey" also, while the remaining half of the latter was all that was distributed among the soldiers. The Greeks had a similar usage (Homer, 'Iliad,' 9:, line 396; 'Laws of Menu,' 7:, 96, 97).

Verse 13

And Moses, and Eleazar the priest, and all the princes of the congregation, went forth to meet them without the camp.

Went forth to meet them without the camp - partly as a token of respect and congratulation on their victory, partly to see how they had executed the Lord's commands, and partly to prevent the defilement of the camp by the entrance of warriors stained with blood.

Verse 14

And Moses was wroth with the officers of the host, with the captains over thousands, and captains over hundreds, which came from the battle.

Moses was wroth. The displeasure of the great leader, though it appears the ebullition of a fierce and sanguinary temper, arose in reality from a pious and enlightened regard to the best interests of Israel. No order had been given for the slaughter of the women, and in ancient war they were commonly reserved for slaves. By their antecedent conduct, however, the Midianitish women had forfeited all claims to mild or merciful treatment; and the sacred character, the avowed object of the war (), made their slaughter necessary without any special order. But why "kill every male among the little ones"? It was designed to be a war of extermination, such as God Himself had ordered against the people of Canaan, whom the Midianites equalled in the enormity of their wickedness. In regard to the women, all of mature age, having been engaged in the work of seduction, were to share the same merciless fate as the men; but the younger girls, being guiltless of that crime, were to be spared, and treated according to the humane rules prescribed for the disposal of female captives, whom their masters, it is presupposed, would marry (see the notes at Deuteronomy 21:10-14).

Verses 15-18

And Moses said unto them, Have ye saved all the women alive?

No JFB commentary on these verses.

Verse 19

And do ye abide without the camp seven days: whosoever hath killed any person, and whosoever hath touched any slain, purify both yourselves and your captives on the third day, and on the seventh day.

Abide without the camp seven days. Though the Israelites had taken the field in obedience to the command of God, they had become defiled by contact with the dead. A process of purification was to be undergone, as the law required (Leviticus 15:13; Numbers 19:9-12); and this purifying ceremony was extended to dress, houses, tents-to everything on which a dead body had lain, which had been touched by the blood-stained hands of the Israelite warriors, or which had been the property of idolaters. This became a standing ordinance in all time coming (Leviticus 6:28; Leviticus 11:33; Leviticus 15:12).

Verses 20-25

And purify all your raiment, and all that is made of skins, and all work of goats' hair, and all things made of wood.

No JFB commentary on these verses.

Verse 26

Take the sum of the prey that was taken, both of man and of beast, thou, and Eleazar the priest, and the chief fathers of the congregation:

Take the sum of the prey - i:e., of the captives and cattle, which, having been first slumped together according to ancient usage (Exodus 15:9; Judges 5:30), were divided into two equal parts-the one to the people at large, who had sustained a common injury from the Midianites, and who were all liable to serve; and the other portion to the combatants, who, having encountered the labours and perils of war, justly received the largest share. From both parts, however, a certain deduction was taken for the sanctuary, as a thank offering to God for preservation and for victory. The soldiers had greatly the advantage in the distribution; because a 500th part only of their half went to the priest, while a 50th part of the congregation's half was given to the Levites.

Verses 27-31

And divide the prey into two parts; between them that took the war upon them, who went out to battle, and between all the congregation:

No JFB commentary on these verses.

Verse 32

And the booty, being the rest of the prey which the men of war had caught, was six hundred thousand and seventy thousand and five thousand sheep,

The booty, being the rest of the prey. Some of the captives having been killed (Numbers 31:17), and find part of the cattle taken for the support of the army, the total amount of the booty remaining was in the following proportions: Sheep, 675,000: half to soldiers, 337,500; deducted to God, 675: half to congregation, 337,500; deducted to the Levites, 6,750. Beeves, 72,000: half to soldiers, 36,000; deducted to God, 72: half to congregation, 36,000; deducted to the Levites, 720. Asses, 61,000: half to soldiers, 30,500; deducted to God, 61: half to congregation, 30,500; deducted to the Levites, 610. Persons, 32,000: half to soldiers, 16,000; deducted to God, 32: half to congregation, 16,000; deducted to the Levites, 320.

Verses 33-34

And threescore and twelve thousand beeves,

No JFB commentary on these verses.

Verse 35

And thirty and two thousand persons in all, of women that had not known man by lying with him.

Persons ... of women ... [ w

Verses 36-47

And the half, which was the portion of them that went out to war, was in number three hundred thousand and seven and thirty thousand and five hundred sheep:

No JFB commentary on these verses.

Verses 48-54

And the officers which were over thousands of the host, the captains of thousands, and captains of hundreds, came near unto Moses:

Officers ... said ... there lacketh not one man of us. A victory so signal, and the glory of which was untarnished by the loss of a single Israelite soldier, was an astonishing miracle; and, so clearly betokening the direct interposition of heaven, might well awaken the liveliest feelings of grateful acknowledgment to God for the preservation of "our souls" [ `al (Hebrew #5921) napshiteeynuw (Hebrew #5315)] - our lives (). The oblation they brought for the Lord 'was partly an atonement,' or reparation for their error (Numbers 31:14-16), because it could not possess any expiatory virtue, and partly a tribute of gratitude for the stupendous service rendered them. It consisted of the "spoil," which, being the acquisition of individual valour, was not divided like the "prey," or live stock, each soldier retaining it in lieu of pay. It was offered [ hat

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Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.
Bibliographical Information
Jamieson, Robert, D.D.; Fausset, A. R.; Brown, David. "Commentary on Numbers 31". "Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible - Unabridged". 1871-8.