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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 31

Sutcliffe's Commentary on the Old and New TestamentsSutcliffe's Commentary

Verses 1-54

Numbers 31:2 . Avenge the children of Israel of the Midianites. If it were just to cut off twenty four thousand of the Israelites for the awful feast, apostasy, and fornication at Baal-peor, it was equally just to punish Midian.

Numbers 31:4 . Of every tribe a thousand. The twelve thousand sent against the Midianites were picked men, such as the enemy could not resist; and they were the more encouraged to see the priests and the ark of God marching at their head. The people of Midian seem to have been surprised in their sins, and to have made no defence.

Numbers 31:6 . The holy instruments and the trumpets. Phinehas took the ephod, that he might on an emergency consult the Lord by Urim and Thummim. Trumpets, being mentioned in the plural number, any person it appears, might aid the priest in blowing them for various purposes. All Gideon’s men were allowed to blow their trumpets.

Numbers 31:8 . Five kings. As every tribe had its prince, so when they built cities every town had its king: greater kingdoms and empires were all formed by conquests.

Numbers 31:15 . Have ye saved all the women alive? These were to be saved alive, according to Deuteronomy 20:14; but exceptions were made here, because these women had seduced the Israelites; and exceptions were made also against the women of the seven nations. Deuteronomy 20:16. In all the east, the married were known by their dress. The prostitutes of Baal-peor must not be turned loose on the Hebrew camp. The sentence, though severe, was just.

Numbers 31:22 . The tin; בדיל Bedil, stannum or tin is mentioned four times in the old testament. There is no doubt that this beautiful metal came even at that early age from Cornwall in Phœnician ships, as Pliny afterwards reports.

Numbers 31:24 . Ye shall wash your clothes. Livy says that the Macedonian army, on returning from war, marched between the two parts of a dog cut across, and hung on each side of the road. Men with bloody hands ought to wash their hands and hearts before they enter the house of God. Numbers 31:34 . Sixty one thousand asses. Horses are not named; they were not so well adapted for the mountainous ranges of Moab. In Spain also the asses are preferred for the hills.

Numbers 31:40 . Sixteen thousand female children. The boys slain would be the same in number: yet great numbers of this nation must have saved themselves by flight, for in less than two hundred years the Midianites gained the ascendancy over the Hebrews. See Judges 6:0.


We have seen in chapter 25th, how the Midianites basely ensnared the Israelites, to whom they were brethren by Keturah, Genesis 26:2, by sending artful and impudent women with favours to the camp. We have seen how twenty four thousand of the guilty perished for the sin. Now, the day of Midian is come. Their judgment did not slumber long. On the part of Midian, the crime was fairly a national act. The diabolical scheme had originated with Balaam; it had been adopted by the king and his nobles; the whole nation had not only consented, but now they triumphed in its success. Therefore the fathers, in all cases of this nature, acting for the children, caused the covenant of God’s protection to be forfeited, and justly incurred on their country the penalty of destruction. How soon do the judgments of God, on many occasions, follow the commission of crimes, and even involve the children in the punishment of their fathers!

We have next the singular success of this expedition. They surprised and took the whole country, or southern branch of this nation; they slew every male whether old or young, who did not escape beyond the limits of the sword; burnt their cities, and brought the women and the spoil to the camp. The affrighted heathen fell as grass behind the scythe, while the Israelites lost not a single man. When God has commissioned an enemy to invade a nation, all counsel is but confusion, and defence itself is an unavailing effort. The enemy is inspired as a minister of justice, and the guilty victims faint with fear. How vain then to promise ourselves security in our sins, indulgence in vice, and exemption from punishment.

The fall of Balaam is here particularly noticed. He had been dismissed with shame from Moab; but still lingering in Midian, he had scarcely time to rejoice in the success of his counsel before vengeance fell upon him. God taketh the wise in their own craftiness. The wicked dig a pit, and fall into it themselves. Neither men nor nations have so great an enemy as those who seduce them to sin. How wretched are the people who seek counsel in man, instead of help from the Lord.

The officers mistaking their instructions, to kill every woman who had known man, and to spare the female children only, acted on the general law in Deuteronomy 20:14, and spared all the women; and the distinction was obvious, from their ornaments and dress. This singular oversight, which seemed in itself a mere accident, brought the delinquents once more to the camp, where they had ensnared the Israelites, and occasioned the death of twenty four thousand men. The wages of sin is death, and these wages they received on the spot where the crimes and the calamities began. How striking is the retributive justice of God!

In Moses, who was wroth with the officers, for sparing the women alive, and firm in administering the just sentence of God, as one of the last and best actions of his life, christian magistrates have a high model of conduct, when women of ill-fame are brought before them. It is true the lenient laws of nations do not now inflict so great a punishment on offenders in this way; yet the mere sight of a group of women, who have caught the unwary in their net, and occasioned disease and death to so many persons, ought to inspire the guardians of the public with every sentiment of abhorrence and indignation. Connivance at houses of ill-fame, and violations of the marriage covenant once allowed, are sure omens of destruction to a nation. Hence it is the smallest punishment that women of this character should be secured in places of retreat, and be compelled to labour for their bread, till some family will take them under protection. Oh how dearly did Israel and Midian pay for one day of divination, and consummate wickedness!

In the respect and condescension of Moses and the elders who went to meet and congratulate the victorious army, we see the duty which a nation owes to the men who risk their lives for the defence and independence of their country; and in the purifications and oblations of the conquerors, we see the duty of soldiers; they should purge themselves from every sin before they dare to approach the church of God.

Bibliographical Information
Sutcliffe, Joseph. "Commentary on Numbers 31". Sutcliffe's Commentary on the Old and New Testaments. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/jsc/numbers-31.html. 1835.
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