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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 31

Lange's Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal and HomileticalLange's Commentary

Verses 1-54


The new Separation from the Heathenism of Midian analogous to the earlier Separation from the Heathenism of Egypt. The war of Revenge against Midian as a prologue to the extermination of the Canaanites. The Midianitish spoil a parallel to the Egyptian.

Numbers 31:1-54

1, And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, 2Avenge the children of Israel of the Midianites: afterward shalt thou be gathered unto thy people. 3And 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. 4Of every tribe a thousand,1 throughout all the tribes of Israel, shall ye send to the war. 5So there were delivered out of the thousands of Israel, a thousand of every tribe, twelve thousand armed for war. 6And 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. 7And they warred against the Midianites, as the Lord commanded Moses; 8and they slew all the males. 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. 9And 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. 10And they burnt all their cities wherein they dwelt, and all their goodly castles, with fire. 11And they took all the spoil, and all the prey, both of men and of beasts. 12And 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.

13And Moses, and Eleazar the priest, and all the princes of the congregation, went forth to meet them without the camp. 14And Moses was wroth with the officers of the host, with the captains over thousands, and captains over hundreds, which came from the battle.2 15And Moses said unto them, Have ye saved all the women alive? 16Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the Lord. 17Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him.3 18But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves. 19And 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. 20And purify all your raiment, and all that is made of skins,4 and all work of goats’ hair, and all things made of wood.

21And Eleazar the priest said unto the men of war which went to the battle, This is the ordinance of the law which the Lord commanded Moses; 22Only the gold, 23and the silver, the brass, the iron, the tin, and the lead, Everything that may abide the fire, ye shall make it go through the fire, and it shall be clean; nevertheless it shall be purified with the water of separation: and all that abideth not the fire ye shall make go through the water. 24And ye shall wash your clothes on the seventh day, and ye shall be clean, and afterward ye shall come into the camp.

25And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, 26Take the sum of the prey5 that was taken, both of man and of beast, thou, and Eleazar the priest, and the chief fathers of the congregation: 27And divide the prey into two parts; between them that took the war upon them, who went out to battle, and between all the congregation. 28And levy a tribute unto the Lord of the men of war which went out to battle: one soul of five hundred, both of the persons, and of the beeves, and of the asses, 29and of the sheep: Take it of their half, and give it unto Eleazar the priest, for a heave offering of the Lord. 30And of the children of Israel’s half, thou shalt take one portion of fifty, of the persons, of the beeves, of the asses, and of the flocks,6 of all manner of beasts, and give them unto the Levites, which keep the charge of the tabernacle of the Lord. 31And Moses and Eleazar the priest did as the Lord commanded Moses. 32And 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 33sheep, And three score and twelve thousand beeves, 34And threescore and one thousand asses, 35And thirty and two thousand persons in all, of women that had not known man by lying with him. 36And the half, which was the portion of them that went out to war, was in number three hundred thousand and seven and thirty 37thousand and five hundred sheep: And the Lord’s tribute of the sheep was six hundred and threescore and fifteen. 38And the beeves were thirty and six thousand; of which the Lord’s tribute was threescore and twelve. 39And the asses were thirty thousand and five hundred; of which the Lord’s tribute was threescore and one. 40And the persons were sixteen thousand; of which the Lord’s tribute was thirty and two persons. 41And Moses gave the tribute, which was the Lord’s heave offering, unto Eleazar the priest, as the Lord commanded Moses. 42And of the children of Israel’s half, which Moses divided from the men that warred, 43(Now the half that pertained unto the congregation was three hundred thousand and thirty thousand and 44, 45seven thousand and five hundred sheep, And thirty and six thousand beeves, And 46thirty thousand asses and five hundred, And sixteen thousand persons,) 47Even of the children of Israel’s half, Moses took one portion of fifty, both of man and of beast, and gave them unto the Levites, which kept the charge of the tabernacle of the Lord; as the Lord commanded Moses.

48And the officers which were over thousands of the host, the captains of thousands, 40and captains of hundreds, came near unto Moses: And they said unto Moses, Thy servants have taken the sum of the men of war which are under our charge,7 and there lacketh not one man of us. We have therefore brought an oblation for the Lord, what every man hath gotten,8 of jewels of gold, chains, and bracelets, rings, earrings, and tablets, to make an atonement for our souls before the Lord. 51And Moses and Eleazar the priest took the gold of them, even all wrought jewels. 52And all the gold of the offering9 that they offered up to the Lord, of the captains of thousands, and of the captains of hundreds, was sixteen thousand seven hundred 53and fifty shekels. (For the men of war had taken spoil, every man for himself.) 54And Moses and Eleazar the priest took the gold of the captains of thousands and of hundreds, and brought it into the tabernacle of the congregation, for a memorial for the children of Israel before the Lord.


[Numbers 31:3. הָלְצוּ, from the root, to detach some thing or person from its previous connection. A detailed portion.—A. G.]

[Numbers 31:5. ימָּסְרוּ, to give over, deliver. Here that which was given over to the special work. Ges. to separate, used only here and in Numbers 31:16.—A. G.]

[Numbers 31:6. The ו seems to be the ו explicative, to wit, or “and in fact.” Keil.]

[Numbers 31:10. טִרוֹתָם, either a walled place, or one encircled by a row or range. Here probably tent-villages or hamlets.—A. G.]

[Numbers 31:26. The living prey or booty, as in Numbers 31:12.—A. G.]

[Numbers 31:29. The word denotes simply offering. Omit the heave.—A. G.]

[Numbers 31:32. The מִלְקוֹח֤, the living prey, the only divisible portion.—A. G.]


The war of vengeance against the Midianites is specifically of the Old Testament; but as such also of world historical significance, it being no fortuitous occurrence, but a necessary element in the history of the Theocracy.

It is the after-piece to the judicial punishment to which the Israelites were doomed on account of their fall into the voluptuous cultus of the Midianites, and the precursor of the exterminating judgment which was soon to overtake the Canaanites. It was entirely fitting that with respect to the great apostasy to which the words of the prophet Amos (Numbers 5:25) clearly refer, not only the tempted Israelitish people should be punished, but much more, the people who were the tempters, an utterly depraved, nomadic horde, which camped in the east of Moab. When the Moabites themselves were involved in the guilt of the Midianites, there comes into view again with respect to them the blood-relationship which was ever an object of pious regard to the Israelites. But what was more important was the fact that the Midianites were the chief agents, both in the calling of Balaam to curse, and in the execution of his diabolical counsels. Even in a political point of view a war with Moab would have been an error.

The sins of the Midianites are related to the sins of the Canaanites as the lust cultus with the cultus of human sacrifices or the Moloch service. Both forms of conception are only the two sides of the one irremediable corruption, which consists in this, that a people has turned its public morals into a destructive immorality, because it has abandoned all reverence for a personal God and personal life, and sunk into the dark, magic sin, the sin of deifying the lust of the flesh, and into death, its fruit. The Canaanites could not live as a people under Israel without perverting Israel and with it the history of mankind. In a similar way the Midianites would have been a snare to the tribes east of the Jordan, if they had been left in their immediate neighborhood, and it may not have been without a real practical occasion, that immediately subsequent to the destruction of the Midianites, the narrative proceeds to speak of the settlement of the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and the half tribe of Manasseh in the East. But in addition to this, it is certain that the Midianites had incurred the penalty of death at the hands of the Israelites, because they had celebrated exultingly the seeming triumph of Baal-Peor with his shameless pollution, over Jehovah, the God of personal dignity and moral purity and discipline. The memory of this and its infectious influence must be extinguished with terrible earnestness. This explains the entirely destructive purpose of the attack, although we must distinguish between the divine direction (Numbers 25:17-18; Numbers 31:1) and its human execution, and also between the human weakness and the prophetic sternness and rigor (Numbers 31:14). If the women have made the lascivious cultus the national custom, the men who are the prime agents, active or passive, must bear the responsibility; and it is ever a symptom of the moral stupor into which a people have sunk, when the female sex takes its own course in every evil. Even if a feast, it is only an unrestrained indulgence in luxury. Among the Midianites the male sex appears to have been corrupt to the very core; but the female sex in the measure in which it had come to know the relations of the sexes, as a sphere of profligacy. Thus this history, with all its strangeness and terribleness, is designed to take its place among the means of salvation for the true humanity, and a sign of warning to the nations for all time. [It has been well said “that the question was whether an obscene and debasing idolatry, should undermine the foundations of human society, or the divine retribution interpose to stay the plague and deliver the people of God.” Sin must be destroyed at any cost, and we may be sure that He who loves man but hates his sin, shows his love to man by punishing that sin which draws him far away from God.” Hence the rigor with which the sin of idolatry is dealt with. It involves a total alienation from God, and must therefore always be debasing and ruinous. There is every thing in the record to show that the war was no common one, and is not therefore to be judged by the common principles which regulate ordinary wars. It was rather the execution of a divine judicial sentence. It was to avenge the Lord of Midian.—It was undertaken by His direction, and was shaped and controlled by Him throughout. The Israelites were the instruments of His vengeance. It was directed against the Midianites, who were then encamped upon the plain of Moab, because they were the prime movers in the temptation and fall of Israel. They were still practising their wiles after the plague had been stayed (Numbers 25:18). They knew against whom they were plotting, since Balaam was among them. Moab had sought the material victory over Israel, its subjugation as a political power, a mighty and conquering nation. The Midianites sought to sap the very spiritual and moral life of the people. They were seeking not victory, but the destruction of Israel. It was a fatal blow, if successful, or if not arrested. The object of the war is not directly the destruction of the Midianites, but the freeing of Israel from their arts and corruption, its moral and spiritual bearing. Every thing bears upon this: the smallness of the number chosen, but yet it must be selected from every tribe, and so represent the entire people whose life had been endangered; the appointment of Phinehas, whose zeal against the sin of the Midianites had made him conspicuous, as a priest, and with the instruments and trumpets to go with the army, not as a military leader, and the remarkable preservation of the warlike host, all show that the character of the war was peculiar, that it was judicial, that its ultimate purpose was the safety of the people of God in its highest aspects and life; and that it could not have been secured in any other way.

If it be objected that many innocent persons must have fallen in the judgment, the obvious and satisfactory answer is, that the objection lies as well against the whole judicial providence of God in the world; and secondly, that the sin was national. The rulers listened to the counsel of Balaam, and found ready obedience on the part of the people. The people sinned, and the people are punished. It is not only that judgments of this nature must be indiscriminate in their sweep, but that God deals with nations as moral agents. We must bear in mind too that this was not a self-undertaken invasion of Israel. They were sent upon it, they had definite instructions how to execute their painful task, and they were held to its spirit, when they would have swerved into leniency. It was no mere slaughter inspired by feelings of animosity; it is not a display of blood-thirsty and cruel passion, but the execution of a solemn trust. The whole history is an impressive exhibition of the wrath of God against sin—here executed by human agents—and a standing type of the ultimate destruction of sinners. If we put ourselves in the true position at the outset, see the true nature and purpose of the war, all is plain.—A. G.]

Numbers 31:1-6. The avenging host.—A thousand were chosen from each tribe, which constituted an army of 12,000 men, under the priestly leadership of Phinehas, the heroic enthusiast, and with the sound of the holy trumpets. Keil reminds us that Phinehas was not their commander, but was sent along with the sacred trumpets as the priest, because the war was a holy war. But he seems to overlook the fact that all the wars of Israel in these days were holy wars, and that the scribes and priests belonged to the army organization.

[It is worthy of notice, however, that in the earlier wars against Sihon, Og, the Amorites, we have no mention of the presence of the priests with the holy trumpets. Phinehas was chosen avowedly as a priest, and he was doubtless selected from the company of priests, because he had displayed such conspicuous zeal, and would be the fittest person to inspire the army with sacred zeal in the mission.—A. G.]. Who the military leader of the army was we are not certainly told. [Presumably it must have been Joshua.—A. G.]. The holy vessels cannot mean the ark of the covenant, nor the Urim and Thummim, but the sounding trumpets. The Urim and Thummim were borne by the high-priest, and they would have been superfluous when everything was decided. [The trumpets themselves seem to have been the instruments.—A. G.].

Numbers 31:7-12. The vengeance.—In an assault by storm, as it appears, all the men of Midian were slain [i.e., obviously, all the men of war, the men who were in the battle, the adult males all being present probably. See v. 17.—A. G.]. The five shepherd kings of the people, who were probably slain as captives, are recorded by name. [These were slain ־עַל upon or in addition to those who perished in the battle.—A. G.]. Balaam, too, the instigator of the sin and mischief, meets his doom, in whose case a separate judicial execution seems to be intimated. The cities and encampments of the enemy were destroyed by fire, their wives and children carried captive, and thus the Midianites as a people were utterly blotted out of existence.10 From Joshua 13:21 it appears that the Midianite princes were vassals of the Amorite king Sihon, and the cities of the habitation were originally Moabite, and subsequently Amorite cities. The region itself fell afterwards to the tribe of Reuben. “In v. 12, שְׁבִי applies to the women and children who were taken prisoners, מַלְקוֹחַ to the cattle taken as booty, and שָׁלָל to the rest of the prey.” Keil. [Goodly castles, “rather hamlets. LXX. ἐπαύλεις—partial enclosures. It indicates probably those collections of such dwellings made of stones piled one on another and covered with tent-cloths, which are used by the Arabs to this day.” Bib. Com.—A. G.].

Numbers 31:13-18. The uprooting of the Midianites as a people. The victorious army was received at the front of the camp by Moses, Eleazar the high-priest, and the elders. But Moses addresses the leaders of the host with reproaches, because they had left all the women alive.

The women were certainly the cause of the great sin and fall of Israel, and associated with the Israelitish families they might have become more destructive to the people than before. But how was it with the boys? Knobel reminds us, that they would have risen up later as the avengers of their slain fathers. But they might also, according to their Midianitish nature, “have corrupted the Israelitish women. The terrible result of the command was the death penalty to every male, and also to every female, except those whose virginity could be established, and who might become fused into the popular life of Israel without danger, in the position of slaves, handmaids. And this Old Testament doom was accomplished under the wrath, under the killing power of the law. Still later in the history, Elijah, in following out the law, had it in his purpose to destroy his people by fire. It was not the Jewish nation which introduced such conflicts, but the tendency and result of the law led to them, brought about the struggles in which the higher humanity, had to be protected against the humanity of the mere natural feelings. Thus Moses rebuked the clemency of the captains. Thus Samuel rebuked the leniency of Saul (1 Samuel 15:0.)

[Numbers 31:16. These caused—commit trespass. They have become to the Israelites to work unfaithfulness towards Jehovah, for a cause or incitement to treachery to the Lord, or perhaps with a more distinct allusion to the manner in which the inducement was brought to bear, and possibly the intent on their part—these were to the sons of Israel—gave themselves to them, to give them in unfaithfulness or disloyalty to God, on account of Peor.—A. G.].

Numbers 31:19-24. The purification of the host and of the spoil without the camp. The purification of the warriors who had slain any one, or who had touched any slain one, takes place according to the rule prescribed (Numbers 19:11). But all the plundered stuffs and fabrics must also be purified. For this Eleazar the high-priest now prescribes more definite rules. Every metal must be cleansed through the fire, and all non-metallic substances must be purified by water; and yet each must finally be sanctified and consecrated by the water of separation.

Numbers 31:25-47. The division of the spoil. The whole sum of the prey was taken in charge by Moses, the high-priest, and the heads of the fathers’ houses. Then it was divided into two equal parts, one of which fell to the army and the other to the congregation. The warriors, however, were to yield one-fifth of one per cent of the persons and the cattle to the high-priest for Jehovah, while the congregation must yield two per cent., or one out of fifty for the Levites. [The division of the prey into two equal parts was just. For as those who went to war were chosen out of the whole—and thus represented the whole—the congregation were fairly entitled to a share in the spoil which their representatives had taken; while the large proportion was justly due to those who had all the peril.—A. G.]. In the same way the non-combatants were usually considered in the distribution of the spoil—even the captives were considered. Joshua 22:8; 1 Samuel 30:24; 1 Samuel 2:0 Maccab. Numbers 8:26 to Numbers 30:16. Upon the likelihood of so great a spoil being taken [Keil says, “There is nothing in these numbers to astonish any one who has formed correct notions of the wealth of nomad tribes in flocks and herds. The only thing which is surprising is that there is no mention of camels. But it is not certain that the Midianites were in the habit of rearing camels, and if they had been the Israelites would probably have put these to death as useless to them in their present circumstances. The quantity of jewelry seized is quite in harmony with the well-known love of Nomads for ornaments of this kind, and with the peculiar liking of the Midianites.” See Judges 8:26.—A. G.]. It seems extremely improbable to the critics that not an Israelite should have fallen in the war. The account, however, seems to imply that the attack was sudden and furious, that the enemy were probably taken utterly by surprise, and that it was rather a rout than a battle in any true sense. Keil cites as analogous instances Tacitus Ann. Numbers 13:19; Strabo xvi. 1128; and Havernick Introduction 1, 2, p. 452. [This is one of the features of this narrative which shows that we are dealing here with the execution of a divine sentence. It implies an extraordinary divine protection, which is in accordance with the view that they were in a peculiar sense the Lord’s instruments.—A. G.]

Numbers 31:48-54. The consecratory gifts of the officers. In gratitude for their wondrous preservation, they are ready to present as a thank-offering—a second gift—all the golden ornaments, as bracelets, rings, etc., which they had received as booty. It brings the sum of 16,750 shekels into the treasury of the sanctuary. With their thanks, they recognize their obligation to atone for their souls, their lives, i. e., they acknowledge their marvelous preservation as an undeserved mercy, since on account of their sinfulness they might well have suffered death. “An atonement for our souls. (See Leviticus 1:4), namely in the feeling that they were not worthy of any such grace, not because they had done wrong in failing to destroy all the enemies of Jehovah. [This could not have been any real atonement for any error or sin, such as they were chargeable with in neglecting to do as they were told, for such an atonement, as they well knew, would have required a bloody offering. The very magnitude of the mercy makes them more sensible of their unworthiness of it, and awakens deeper gratitude.—A. G.]. Besides these thank-offerings, the captains had taken other spoil of the nation which remained in their possession.


The avenging march against the Midianites, as the after-piece to the drama of judgment (chap. 25), wherein the Jews had made an atonement, but not the Midianites; and as a preface to the storm which should come upon the Canaanites, was designed to draw at once a broad line of demarcation between Judaism and heathenism, and to impress the Israelitish people with an inextinguishable abhorrence of the cruelties and abominations of a lustful cultus.
[Israel, as the sacred people of God, now restored to His favor, must execute His judgment and vengeance upon His enemies. As Jehovah is Israel’s God, who has bound Himself with them, so every attack upon Israel is an attack upon God. The analogy which holds between the war of Israel against the Midianites and the Christian warfare of all the people of God against His foes and theirs, is suggestive and instructive. The Midianites suffering their just desert at the hands of Israel, whom they had brought into sin, is only an instance of a general principle, which finds frequent illustration in history .—A. G.]


The dark and fearful enigmas in the world’s history. In the theocratic history, they are illuminated by the word of God, and stand out as judicial visitations. And indeed according to impartial justice. For as Jehovah here allows the Israelites to prevail over the heathen Midianites, so afterwards as the Lord of Hosts He allows the heathen to prevail over the Israelites. But the world-historical judgments are always preventives of endless corruption; e. g. preventing the permanent lapse of the people into a lustful worship by the poisoning of their fancies and morals. Thus often humanity is saved by the remedies of fire and brimstone from the fearful corruptions of the sexual life. The war of extermination destroyed on the one hand a nest of corruption, a great hotbed of impurity, and on the other hand opened an abyss between the heathenish depravity (in which the union of vice with religious enthusiasm and the general debased condition of a whole people come into view) and the family life of Israel. The booty. Its explanation is, that it was property without an owner, and that as such it was a gift from Jehovah. Finally these facts in the history of Israel are obscured by considering them out of their connection in time and place. This is true of all historical facts. [We are all called to essentially the same warfare, and may not shrink from it. The Christian called to be the executioner of judgment upon his own sins. The tendency to spare those which wear the most attractive appearance must be restrained. The deep-lying corruption in the tendency to self-worship.—A. G.]


[1]Marg. a thousand of a tribe, a thousand of a tribe.

[2]Marg. host of war.

[3]Marg. a male.

[4]Marg. instrument or vessel of skins.

[5]Marg. of the captivity.

[6]Marg. goats.

[7]Marg. hand.

[8]Marg. found.

[9]Marg. heave offering.

[10][Kurtz, however, holds that the destruction only concerned those tribes of the Midianites dwelling on the high-lands of Moab; that the main stock of the tribe shared neither in the sin nor judgment, and hence later in the history (Judges 6:8) they appear as a mighty and hostile power against Israel.—A. G.].

Bibliographical Information
Lange, Johann Peter. "Commentary on Numbers 31". "Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal, and Homiletical". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lcc/numbers-31.html. 1857-84.
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