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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 Kings 25:0; 26 ). [ Tiyrotaam (H2918), 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 (Numbers 31:2-3), 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 ... [ wªnepesh (H5315) 'aadaam (H120) min (H4480) hanaashiym (H802)] - and the human persons of women. Adam, being the generic name of the human race, is here applied to women only [cf. hee (G3588) anthroopos (G444), a woman, 'Herodotus,' b. 1:, ch. 60; Septuagint, psuchai anthroopoon apo toon gunaikoon]. Michaelis thinks that the young women and cattle appropriated to the Levites (Numbers 31:47) were not given to them, but to the sanctuary (cf. Joshua 9:3; 26:27; 1 Samuel 2:22).

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 (H5921) napshiteeynuw (H5315)] - our lives (Psalms 44:2-3). 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 [ hatªruwmaah (H8641), a heave offering; Septuagint, afairema, an oblation] by the "captains" alone, whose pious feelings were evinced by the dedication of the spoil which fell to their share.

There were jewels to the amount of 16,750 skekels, equal to 87,869 pounds sterling, 16 shillings, 5d. The large size of the earrings worn in the East would make them alone, independently of the other articles enumerated, a splendid and valuable offering. The Midianites, like the other nomadic tribes, were conspicuous for these personal ornaments (Judges 8:24). 'There is not a man in a thousand who does not wear an earring or a finger ring; for without such an ornament a person would be classed among the most unfortunate of his race' (Roberts' 'Oriental Illustrations on Numbers 31:50 '); and if, as is most probable, the Israelites attached the same importance to earrings as the people generally do in that quarter of the world, we may judge of the extent of liberality on the part of "the officers," and the fullness of their gratitude in dedicating these as votive offerings to God.

This narrative of the war on Midian has ever been a favourite subject for the attacks of infidelity;-writers of a sceptical cast dwelling in unmeasured terms of abhorrence not only on what they allege is the manifestly merciless cruelty displayed by the Israelites during that campaign, but the unreliable character of the whole story, and the gross exaggerations of some of the details. It may be expedient, therefore, to advert to their leading objections:

(1) It is asserted to be impossible that so small a territory as that of Midian, extending, according to computation, eight leagues in length and somewhat less in breadth, could contain 30,000 girls; because since that would necessitate an equal number of boys, there would be 64,000 young persons of both sexes, constituting, according to the most approved statistics, the half of the population, which would thus amount to 128,000 persons. Now, 'a country of the estimated extent of Midian must contain about 248,000 acres of land, and an acre of good ground can maintain four persons; even if we limit it to three, 43,000 acres would have been more than sufficient to maintain 128,000 Midianites. Let us add 15,000 acres, as we may suppose that the lands of Midian did not yield crops annually, and that it was necessary to leave the third part of them fallow every year; we shall then have in all but 58,000 acres employed in the support of the inhabitants. Is it inconceivable that out of 248,000 acres there should be found 58,000 of common fertility? Therefore, 32,000 girls do not necessarily imply that there were too many inhabitants for a land of this extent.'

With regard to the number of cattle, the allegations may be met in a similar strain of reply. Agricultural statists say that an acre of land can support three oxen; therefore, 24,000 acres would suffice for 72,000 oxen, and 10,170 acres for 71,000 donkeys, even supposing that a donkey eats half as much as an ox. According to the same writers, an acre of land can support twelve sheep; therefore, 58,250 acres would suffice for 675,000 sheep. Put these sums together, and you will find that 90,420 acres would be sufficient for the whole stock of cattle; and if you add to this the 58,000 acres which were reserved for the support of the inhabitants, you will perceive that the sum of 148,420 acres only was employed for the maintenance of all together. Now, was it impossible that out of 248,000 acres, of which the country of Midian consisted, there should be 148,420 that were fit for pasture or tillage? And may it not be fairly concluded from this, that it is no way incredible that this country supported so many people and cattle as Moses says, and that his account cannot appear absurd to any except to those who are unacquainted with the resources of ancient or modern agriculture? (Abbe Guenee's 'Letters to Voltaire,' 7:, vol. 1:, p. 364, English edition.)

These general arguments are confirmed by the accounts given of the actual state of nomadic tribes in the pastoral regions of the East. 'Anyone,' says Porter, 'who has had an opportunity of visiting the great Arab tribes of the Syrian desert, can see that the difficulties arising from the number of young women and cattle are purely imaginary. On one occasion I rode for two successive days in a straight line through the flocks of a section of the Anazeh tribe, and the encampment of the chief was then at a noted fountain thirty miles distant at right angles to my course; yet the country was swarming with men and women, boys and girls, looking after the cattles.'

(2) It is declared to be incredible that 12,000 warriors could have not only committed such havoc as to have destroyed every man and boy in the Midianite nation, but at the same time have captured so many female prisoners; and not only collected, but secured and taken away, such an immense amount of booty.

Now, no one can tell, because the sacred history has not recorded, the numbers of the Midianite people. But Now, no one can tell, because the sacred history has not recorded, the numbers of the Midianite people. But we know those of their assailants; and although the Israelite warriors levied are stated exactly at 1,000 from each tribe, it does not follow that they had no attendants in this expedition. If so, their case would have been exceptional to the general character of eastern armies, which have always been accompanied by a large number of sutlers and other hangers-on with the camp, whose services would undoubtedly be available in helping to carry the spoil; and besides, as the vast number of prisoners they had made consisted of young women who had been accustomed from their early years to take care of cattle, we have only to suppose that these were kept in their usual employment, to find a natural and easy solution of the difficulty involved in the collection and removal of such immense droves as are stated in the narrative.

(3) Credibility is still further taxed, it is averred, by the circumstance specially recorded, that the Israelite army lost not a single man during this expedition. But there is nothing wonderful in this, because the war originated in the command, and was carried on under the direction, of Him who is the Lord of hosts, the God of battles; and while in the retributions of His righteous providence He cut off, by the sudden and resistless stroke of a fatal pestilence, all the Israelite profligates who had participated in the licentious rites of Peor, He employed the steadfast and faithful portion of them as the executioners of His vengeance on the guilty Midianites; and against them, therefore, while directly engaged in furthering His purposes, no wisdom, device, or opposition of man could prevail (cf. Psalms 140:7; Proverbs 21:31).

(4) It is objected that the reservation of the young female prisoners, by an express order of their leader, to the captors themselves, was an infamous act-an encouragement to debauchery. But there is not only no hint that such a purpose was contemplated, but it could not be, as the law for the protection and virtuous treatment of a female war-captive was stringent, and an Israelite incurred the risk of severe penalties, if he did not fulfill all the legal conditions which were required previous to obtaining conjugal possession of her person. In the instance of the Midianite girls who had not sinned as their mothers and sisters, their preservation was just, and their being brought into the service of a people with whom they would be better educated than among their idolatrous countrymen, was a privilege and a benefit, not a misfortune.

(5) Astonishment is expressed that Yahweh is represented as encouraging slavery, by the fact of 32 persons being apportioned for His tribute. It is not true, however, that any encouragement was given to slavery under the divine law; but as that system had existed from a very early period, and was so deeply rooted in practice that it could not be as once eradicated, many wise and excellent regulations were enacted, in the Mosaic dispensation, that tended to mitigate its severity and free it from much of its inherent evil (Exodus 21:16; Deuteronomy 24:7).

Thus the 32,000 young women, who were not slaves in the modern sense of the term, but war-captives from Midian, were incorporated with a nation where they enjoyed the protection of a beneficent law, while on a select portion of them was conferred the special privilege of being appointed to the service of the sanctuary.

(6) It is maintained that the record of such a horrid massacre, which was committed by God's direction, is a libel on the character of the Divine Being. It must be admitted that God, the Sovereign Creator, has a right when He sees fit to take the life which He gave; and as we find that in the actual conduct of Providence multitudes are carried off in childhood, and the innocent offspring are often involved in the punishment of their parents' crimes, nothing occurred in the slaughter of the Midianites but what commonly happens in great and widespread calamities.

But there was a special reason for the Midianite boys being involved in the fate of their fathers; and that arose from the usage of Go'elism, which has been from time immemorial established among the nomadic tribes of the East, and according to which every young Midianite who should have been spared, when he grew up to manhood, would have lain under a solemn obligation to avenge the death of his slaughtered relatives. With regard to the men and women of Midian, the one of whom encouraged, while the others executed, the infamous plan of seduction, they were both base and malignant criminals, whom 'vengeance would not suffer to live.' But that man is a superficial, inattentive reader of the Scriptures who concludes from the order, to slay "all the males," that the tribe of Midian was utterly exterminated (Judges 6:3-6: cf. Numbers 21:26, where "all the nation who, by public authority, had the impious audacity to tempt, through an artful scheme of allurement, a people chosen by God to be the guardians of true religion, into the abominations of a grossly licentious idolatry, they incurred the righteous displeasure of heaven, and were doomed to suffer in their national capacity.

The judgments of God are sent to punish the sins of mankind, sometimes directly, as by earthquakes, pestilences, etc., and at other times indirectly, as by war, which He appoints as a scourge to the nations. In either way it is the doing of the Lord;" and in all of these cases every Christian mind will believe that, whether He acts instrumentally or not, "the Judge of all the earth will do right."

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Bibliographical Information
Jamieson, Robert, D.D.; Fausset, A. R.; Brown, David. "Commentary on Numbers 31". "Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible - Unabridged". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/jfu/numbers-31.html. 1871-8.