Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, May 28th, 2024
the Week of Proper 3 / Ordinary 8
We are taking food to Ukrainians still living near the front lines. You can help by getting your church involved.
Click to donate today!

Bible Commentaries
Numbers 31

Coke's Commentary on the Holy BibleCoke's Commentary



The Midianites, by the command of God, are despoiled, Balaam and their five kings being slain. Moses is wroth with the officers, for sparing the women: the prey is divided.

Before Christ 1452.

Verses 1-2

Numbers 31:1-2. And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying After Moses had repeated to the people the laws in the foregoing chapters, God determined, before he took this great lawgiver to himself, to use his ministration for the punishment of the Midianites, who had so abominably seduced the Israelites to wickedness. The Moabites, though guilty also, were now spared; some circumstances which the sacred history has suppressed, no doubt, occasioned this distinction. Probably, the Midianites contributed more than the Moabites to the seduction of the Hebrews. See Parker's occasional Annotation on the chapter.

Verse 3

Numbers 31:3. Avenge the LORD of Midian What is called avenging the children of Israel, in Num 31:2 is here called avenging the LORD; because the war was with idolaters, the enemies of the true religion, and for the sake of God's peculiar people. Besides, the Midianites were particularly displeasing to God for having seduced the Israelites to the worship of idols; so that to avenge the one was to avenge the other. Onkelos renders this, to avenge the people of the Lord of Midian. See Ainsworth and Poole.

Verses 4-6

Numbers 31:4-6. Of every tribe a thousand Six thousand of the Midianites taken prisoners in the war (see the following verses) give us a sufficient proof of the strength of that nation, and that the laws of prudence required a numerous army to attack them; but a people favoured by heaven, and led on by the God of hosts, had a method of fighting superior to all human prudence. It pleased God, that Moses should command but a small army in this expedition, that the victory might appear owing to him, and not to man. A body of twelve thousand men was sent against Midian, (Numbers 31:5.) being a detachment of one thousand out of every tribe. Phinehas (Numbers 31:6.) was probably their general; at least, the words of Moses seem to suggest this opinion. Besides, the commission of revenging the injury done to the Israelites could not be entrusted to a more proper hand than his, who had begun to do it with so much zeal. However, the text is ambiguous, which has made it a question, Whether Phinehas was sent to command the troops, or whether only to inspire them with courage at the sight of the holy instruments, and with the sound of the trumpets? Those who espouse the first of these opinions, found it upon the silence of the Scripture in relation to the general who was to have commanded the army. Now, where is the historian, say they, who, in giving an account of any army, would forget to make mention of the general? Those who are of the other opinion affirm, that there is no instance of priests being put at the head of armies: there were, indeed, always some who went along with them; but it was only for performing their religious functions, and for summoning the enemy to implore the mercy of the Israelites. To this objection others reply, that the ministry of Phinehas was altogether extraordinary; that we are not to judge of this holy person by the ordinary custom; and that, as the zeal he testified in the matter of Zimri was not the less worthy of praise for having exceeded the usual laws; so he might have been appointed commander of an army upon so extraordinary an occasion, contrary to the common custom. It is also alledged, in opposition to the first of these opinions, that the commission of Phinehas seems to have been restrained to the bearing of the holy instruments, and to the sounding of the trumpet; but as, on the other hand, it cannot be denied that this commission was given him, so neither can it be proved that it was opposite to the other.

Nor is it more certainly determined, what were these holy instruments. Perhaps the historian meant nothing more thereby than the sacred trumpets, which, he says, were in the hands of Phinehas; the holy instruments, even the sacred trumpets. See Le Clerc. Some think that the ark is meant, in which case Phinehas would have been attended by several of the Levites: the Chaldee paraphrase thus explains the text; and Spencer adopts the same opinion. He says, that Eleazar, being loaded with years and infirmities, was no longer able to discharge the function annexed to his ministry, of carrying the Urim and Thummim; and that Phinehas was ordered to go in his father's stead. Though this should be but conjecture, yet it is certain, that the high-priests had their deputies to supply their inability. In case the high-priest should happen to be defiled, says Maimonides, the practice was to substitute a vicar to him, who officiated in his stead; this vicar was called his second, and used to succeed him; and he likewise had his vicars, who used to act with respect to him as he did to the high-priest. See Saurin's 66th Dissertation.

REFLECTIONS.—The Midianites had been, with the Moabites, greatly instrumental in drawing Israel aside from God; they are therefore to be punished among the first; for they are our worst enemies who draw us into sin. Note; Our lusts are those Midianites, and on them we must wage unrelenting war. 1. God orders Moses to avenge the people on their enemies, that though he may not see all their victories, he may behold the first-fruits of them before he dies. It is a comfort in death to leave the church of God in a state of growing prosperity. 2. Moses obeys, and draws out a detachment of a thousand men from each tribe; enough, if God was with them, to consume the more numerous hosts of Midian. God will thus teach them, that it is not so much the arm of flesh, as his favour, that ensures them victory. 3. Phinehas, who had distinguished himself by his zeal against the Midianites, is sent with them. Note; Where the battle is the Lord's, and to avenge his quarrel in so good a cause, we may boldly advance.

Verses 7-12

Numbers 31:7-12. And they warred against the Midianites, &c.— The twelve thousand men chosen out by Moses marched against the Midianites. The battle they gave them was less an ordinary combat, than an execution of justice upon criminals; and, being performed by the immediate direction of God, can certainly never be brought into example to warrant a similar conduct. All the males of Midian, and five kings, i.e. princes or governors, Jos 13:21 were slain with the edge of the sword. Balaam also underwent the same punishment. It is not certain how this prophet (of whom the historian says, that he went and returned to his place, or country, i.e. Mesopotamia, chap. Num 24:25 where see the note) happened to come again into Midian.—The Jews are of opinion, that he thought the defeat of the Israelites would be the punishment of that idolatry into which he had been the cause of seducing them; (see Numbers 31:16.) and that therefore he was desirous of sharing in their spoils. To him may be applied, Ezekiel 25:17; Ezekiel 25:17.* The wives of the enemy, their little children, and all the cattle, both great and small, fell into the hands of the Israelites; their cities and fenced towns were delivered up to the flames, and a general plunder was the consequence of a general slaughter. The captives, (Numbers 31:12.) i.e. the women and children; the prey, i.e. the cattle and flocks; and the spoil, i.e. the money and the goods, were brought to Moses and Eleazar. Now here it may be proper so observe, 1. That the word all, in these verses, is not to be taken in the strictest sense, as if it admitted of no exception; it only means the much greater number; and this observation may be extended to many other passages in Scripture; without which, it would be impossible to reconcile what Moses says here with what we read in Judges 6:1. The children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord delivered them into the hand of Midian seven years. 2. There was something very singular in the conduct which the people of God observed towards those of Midian; nor can it be accounted for, either by those directions which God had given in relation to the wars which the Israelites were to wage against the seven nations, or by those rules which concerned their wars with other nations, and which were called by the Hebrews, wars for the good of the commonwealth. With respect to the first, God commanded, of the cities of those people which the Lord thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save nothing alive that breatheth; but thou shalt utterly destroy them, that they teach you not to do after all their abominations, &c. Deuteronomy 20:16. With respect to other nations, it is thus commanded in the same chapter, Numbers 31:10, &c. When thou comest nigh unto a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace unto it. And it shall be, that all the people that is found therein shall be tributaries unto thee, and they shall serve thee. And if it will make war against thee, then thou shalt besiege it. And when the Lord thy God hath delivered it into thine hands, thou shalt smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword. But the women, and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that is within the city, even all the spoil thereof, shalt thou take unto thyself. We cannot determine whether the Israelites were obliged to put in practice these orders rigidly, as the command of God seems to require; or whether God only gave them a right, but left them at liberty to spare whom they should think fit, and particularly all who were willing to renounce idolatry. The author of the book Sithri is of this latter opinion; and he builds it upon the reason which God himself assigns, when he commands them utterly to destroy the seven nations; namely, lest they should teach them to do after all their abominations; which seems to imply, that they who were willing to return from their abominations, should be exempted from such rigorous treatment. The object, however, is, to remove the difficulty which consists in the Midianites suffering the extremity of the law, though they were not of the seven nations. We do not find that Moses offered them peace, and that they refused it. Some interpreters think that they obviate this objection, by saying, that the laws above quoted were not given when Israel fought against Midian; and yet it appears, that this battle was fought immediately before the death of Moses. See Num 31:2 and chap. Numbers 27:13. May we not rather suppose, that this law of mercy which God gave, was to regulate the conduct of the Israelites when God himself did not subjoin an exception; but that in this case he expressly orders, as it appears, the Midianites to be put to the sword, and their cities reduced to ashes? See Saurin's 66th Dissertation.

* It is not necessary to suppose that Balaam dwelt upon the borders of the Euphrates.—He lived among the Aramites, and Aramea extended to the Elanitic Gulf of the Red Sea: so that, perhaps, Balaam had not so far to go, on his return to the country of Midian, as some imagine.

Verse 8

Numbers 31:8. And they slew the kings This would be more intelligible, if rendered, after Houbigant, "and in the midst of the slaughter, they slew five kings of Midian, Evi, &c."

REFLECTIONS.—The success was answerable to their wishes. Their enemies fell before them, and justly suffered for the evil they had seduced Israel to commit. Note; God will often make the tempters to sin to be tormented of those whom they deceived. They slew all the males, not all in the nation, but, probably, all they met with in that part of the country where they made their attack. Among them, five kings or princes of Midian fell; and, as an instance of especial judgment, Balaam, the author of all the mischief, was among the slain. God will take severe vengeance on those who have been the introducers of corruption among the people. If judgment overtake them not on this side the grave, it infallibly will on the other.

See commentary on Num 31:7

Verse 14

Numbers 31:14. And Moses was wroth with the officers The Israelites obeyed the order in general; but, with a false pity, saved the lives of those Midianitish women whom they ought to have treated with the utmost rigour. They did not look upon them with that horror which they ought to have had for such seducers, but rather with a complacence, owing, perhaps, to a remembrance of their past criminal pleasures. This very justly provoked the spirit of Moses, by whose peremptory command sentence was immediately passed on all those women who had committed fornication with the Israelites, and all the male children which proceeded from that infamous commerce. The women children, Num 31:18 who were too young to be corrupted by unchastity or idolatry, were to be kept alive for themselves, either to be employed as servants, or, in case they turned proselytes, to marry with themselves, after the preparations required, Deuteronomy 21:11; Deuteronomy 21:23. Moses, I doubt not, followed some particular order which God had given him in this matter. But if this were not the case, the Israelites ought to have believed, that what was most odious in the sight of God in the whole country of Midian, was these impure and idolatrous women, who had seduced them to impurity and idolatry. They ought to have known, that the best use they could make of the sword which God had put into their hands, was to turn it against such notorious offenders. Thus the guilt of this people was so highly aggravated, that they were punished more severely than any other nations with whom they were at war, except those of Canaan; the like execution was, indeed, performed in after-times. See Judges 21:11. Saurin as above, and Virgil, AEn. ii. ver. 584, &c.

Verse 15

Numbers 31:15. Have ye saved all the women alive? See on chap. Numbers 22:9.

Verse 16

Numbers 31:16. Through the counsel of Balaam We have, in the course of the former chapters, spoken of this evil counsel. As the Moabites and Midianites, strongly infected with the ideas of local and tutelary gods, conceived Jehovah to be only the tutelary God of the Jews; we may well account, from this persuasion, for their proceedings, and for their rather choosing to entice the Israelites to their idolatry, than to embrace with them the worship of Jehovah.

Verse 19

Numbers 31:19. And do ye abide without the camp seven days The whole army were to stay without the camp seven days; and such of them as had stained their hands in blood, or touched a dead body, were to purify themselves by the water of separation, ch. Numbers 19:9. For, though it was lawful to kill men in a just war; yet, because of the common affinity which subsists between all mankind, and to preserve sentiments of humanity, it was thought fit and decent to oblige all who had shed blood, as well as those who had touched the slain, to undergo a purification, before they were admitted to free conversation and public worship. It appears to have been a very ancient custom among most nations, to appoint certain purifications in all such cases; in order, no doubt, to inspire an uncommon dread and horror of bloodshed. On these occasions, it was usual, particularly, to wash their hands in water, for the purification of the defilement. Thus Homer makes Hector declare himself unfit for performing any offices of divine worship before he was purified:

Ill fits it me, with human gore distain'd, To the pure skies these horrid hands to raise, Or offer heav'n's great Sire polluted praise. POPE, Iliad. 6:
And Virgil makes AEneas say the same thing:
These hands, yet horrid with the stains of war, Refrain their touch unhallow'd, till the day When the pure stream shall wash their guilt away. PITT, AEn. 2:
It was upon this account that the man-slayer, who had involuntarily shed blood, was forced to fly his country, and repair to one of the cities of refuge, ch. 35: For the same reason David was not allowed to build the temple of God, because he had been a man of war, and had shed much blood, 1 Chronicles 28:3. See Philo, de vita Mosis; and Grotius de Jure B. & P. lib. 2: cap. 24.

It is demonstrable, says Mr. Saurin, that if Moses did not here prescribe particular rules to those who returned from any military expedition, he had already given general ones, of which he now makes the application. See Leviticus 21:1.Numbers 19:4; Numbers 19:4.Leviticus 6:28; Leviticus 6:28; Leviticus 15:12.

Verse 20

Numbers 31:20. Purify all your raiment, and all that is made of skins La Roque, says the author of the Observations, mentions, as part of the common Arab's furniture, hair sacks, and trunks, and baskets covered with skin, to put up and carry their things in, which are kettles or pots, great wooden bowls, hand-mills, and pitchers; with these they content themselves, and they are all their furniture in common, or nearly so. I mention them distinctly, because this account seems to me to explain, in a clearer manner than commentators have done, (who are, indeed, in a manner silent upon the text,) the passages in Leviticus and Numbers which describe the furniture of the habitations of Israel in the wilderness. Upon whatsoever any of them, when they are dead, doth fall, it shall be unclean; (Leviticus 11:32-33.) whether it be any vessel of wood; their wooden bowls, that is, according to this representation of the utensils of those who live in tents, to which there is reason to believe those of the Israelites were like, who lived so many years like Arabs in the wilderness;—or raiment or skin, any trunks or baskets covered with skins, i.e. or sack, any hair-cloth sack used for the better carrying of goods from place to place. Whatsoever vessel it be, wherein any work is done, it must be put into water, and it shall be unclean until the evening; so it shall be cleansed. And every earthen vessel—the pitchers, used for holding liquids, and drinking out of, wherein any of them falleth, whatsoever is in it; shall be unclean, and ye shall break it. We meet with much the same account of their furniture in the present passage. La Roque's account, therefore, may serve to explain both that and the foregoing, and must be acknowledged a more natural illustration of them than that of the rabbis, who, suppose that the work of goats, (which our translators determine to mean goat's hair) implies instruments made of the horns and hoofs, and bones of goats; few or no instruments being to be found among those who now dwell in tents. See Ainsworth on these passages. There is the like agreeable simplicity in explaining the things made of wood, of their wooden bowls, instead of reckoning up all the particular things which were afterwards made of wood, in the most remote sense of the word, as Maimonides has done, who introduces the mention of vessels of bulrushes, of reed, of the shell of nuts, and the bark of trees; things, which there is reason to think were not in use in these migratory families, and consequently not immediately referred to by Moses; and, if so, not coming under the observation of a commentator, however they may, with propriety enough, have engaged the attention of a Jewish Casuist.

Verses 21-24

Numbers 31:21-24. And Eleazar—said—This is the ordinance of the law i.e. "This is a law to be observed hereafter by all who go to war." The law before was, that he, who touched a dead body should be purified with water; but nothing had been hitherto said of him who killed a man in war; nor of the spoil, concerning which Moses here prescribes two sorts of purifications, the fire for metals, and the water for all combustible matters. Purifying by water was a rite of the earliest antiquity, (see Genesis 35:2.) and the use of fire in purification appears to have been not much less ancient. Hence Homer makes Ulysses call for sulphur and fire, to fume the house wherein the riotous suitors had been killed, Odyss. b. xxii. v. 518 of Pope's translation; who, in the note upon the place, observes, that Job 18:15 seems to refer to this same custom; brimstone shall be scattered upon his habitation. Livy mentions this practice among the Romans; Habet et in religionibus locum ad expiandas suffitu domus, lib. xxx. cap. 15. The natural reason why fire is proper for that use is assigned by Ovid, Fast. lib. iv. ver. 785.

Omnia purgat edax ignis, vitiumque metallis Excoquit.

We may observe, that it is only said, go through the fire, not that it should be melted. See 1 Corinthians 3:13. For more upon this subject, the learned reader is referred to the works of Scacchi, Bonfrere, and Spencer.

Verses 26-27

Numbers 31:26-27. Take the sum of the prey—both of man and beast The goods and money called the spoil, Num 31:12 are not ordered to be divided, the warriors being allowed to keep these entirely to themselves. Indeed we find, Numbers 31:50, &c. that they made a voluntary oblation thereof. This prey was to be divided into two equal parts; one for those who went to the war, the other for the rest of the congregation. By which partition a far larger share, in proportion, was given to the warriors, who were but twelve thousand. This was but just; for they had hazarded their lives, which the others had not; yet they enjoyed some fruit of their brethren's labours, because they seem, from Num 31:3 to have been ready to fight as well as the others. The heathens, in the division of the spoil, acted nearly in the same manner. It was Cato's principle, that the generals, and great commanders in the army, were to be satisfied with the glory of a victory, and the inferiors were to have the whole booty. Scipio died poor after all his conquests, and the prodigious spoils which he must have found in so many noble cities, and such tracts of country as he had reduced. Plutarch gives us another instance of true military greatness in Themistocles, who, coming to view the dead bodies of the enemy after the victory, would not so much as take up any of the rich chains and bracelets with which the field of battle was covered. "Take you what you think proper," said he to one of his friends, "for you are not Themistocles." It is well known, that among the ancient Greeks the spoil was divided into two lots; the one for the general, the other for the army. See Potter's Antiq. b. iii. c. 13. The Romans in after-times administered an oath to their warriors, when they were to go upon a campaign or expedition, not to embezzle the booty which should fall into their hands; which as they divided into two parts, the one for those detached for action, the other for those who were left to guard the camp, they made by this wise law provision against avarice and rapine. See Polyb. Hist. lib. x.

Verses 28-29

Numbers 31:28-29. A tribute unto the Lord—one soul of five hundred As the word soul refers to the cattle as well as to the men, it would be better to render this, one life, or living being, of five hundred. God being the sovereign of the nation, this tribute was an homage of submission and gratitude justly due to him; and the custom was imitated by the heathens. The Philistines hung up the arms of Saul in the temple of Ashteroth; 1Sa 31:10 and the Greeks and Romans, in like manner, consecrated them to their different divinities. See Virg. AEn. iii. ver. 222. and Saurin's 67th Dissertation. The Lord's tribute of persons was a tribute or donation for the use of the priests and Levites, to be employed by them as the ministers and servants; i.e. they were to be to the tribe of Levi what the rest of the captives were to the other tribes: they, as well as the other part of this tribute, the beeves, asses, &c. were to be a heave-offering to the Lord. Now the heave-offering, or terumah, was never burnt or consumed upon the altar; but, after certain rites of consecration, it was allotted to the service of the priests and their families, or for other sacred uses; see chap. Num 18:19 compared with Exo 29:27 and Dr. Sykes's Connection of Nat. and Rev. Religion. This, which is the just explication of the passage, shews the absurdity, and iniquity of Voltaire's remark in the 12th chapter of his treatise on Toleration, where, catching at an ambiguous version of the 40th verse in the Vulgate, he says, (with a view to fix upon the Israelites the odium of offering human sacrifices,) that "some of the commentators even pretend, that thirty-two of the virgins were sacrificed to the Lord; cesserunt in partem domini trigintae duae animae:" whereas all that the sacred writer says, is, that the Lord's tribute, or heave-offering, was thirty and two persons; i.e. thirty and two persons were assigned from the prey as slaves to the priests and Levites.

Verse 30

Numbers 31:30. Of the children of Israel's half, thou shall take one portion of fifty The congregation, not having hazarded their lives, are enjoined to part with ten times as much as those who went to battle, and in such a proportion as the number of them that went to battle held to the whole number of warriors, which was about the fiftieth part; for that is the proportion between the twelve thousand men of war, and the whole company of warriors, which make up the number of six hundred thousand and upwards, ch. 26: See Bishop Kidder.

Verse 32

Numbers 31:32. And the booty, being the rest, &c.— Hence it appears, that Midian must have been an extremely populous and fertile country; for the sum total of the divided booty was as in the following table, wherein the reader will see, at one view, what portion fell to the share of the soldiers, the congregation, the Levites, and the LORD.

Sheep, 675,000 {To the soldiers, 337,500} To the Lord from the soldiers, 675
{To the people, 337,500} To the Levites from the people, 6750
Beeves, 72,000 {To the soldiers, 36,000} To the Lord from the soldiers, 72
{To the people, 36,000} To the Levites from the people, 720
Asses, 61,000 {To the soldiers, 30,500} To the Lord from the soldiers, 61
{To the people, 30,500} To the Levites from the people, 610
Persons, 32,000 {To the soldiers, 16,000} To the Lord from the soldiers, 32
{To the people, 16,000} To the Levites from the people, 320

To this must be added, what was necessarily spent for their subsistence during the war, and while they lay out of the camp, Numbers 31:19.; and from Num 31:30 it is plain, that there were other kinds of beasts taken, besides those which are enumerated; among which, most probably, were camels and dromedaries, for which this country was famous.

Verses 48-50

Numbers 31:48-50. The officers which were over thousands, &c.— After their return from war, the officers of the army made a muster of the soldiery to see what number they had lost. Three kinds of officers are distinguished: 1. Those who had the command of several thousands as the generals and lieutenant-generals. 2. Those who were over a thousand men each, as our colonels. 3. Centurions, or captains. Upon this muster they found, that not one man had fallen in the battle, Numbers 31:49. A surprising victory, which abundantly shewed the immediate hand of God! See Exodus 14:14; Exodus 23:22,1Ma 5:3-5. We find in prophane history some similar facts. In the famous battle of Leuctra, the Lacedemonians lost not one man; and Osorius Lusitanus tells us of a battle at sea, between the Portuguese and Indians, in which the Portuguese Admiral Pacheo killed an incredible number of Indians without the loss of one man. But, be these facts as they may, the present event clearly demonstrated the interposition of God; and in this light the officers considered it: for, with great joy, on account of so singular a protection, they unanimously resolved, out of the free plunder, to make a voluntary offering to God for the service of religion. This they did according to the piety of ancient times, Gen 14:20 and as was practised in after ages, 2Sa 11:12. 1 Chronicles 26:26; 1 Chronicles 26:32. This offering consisted of chains, i.e. ornaments for their arms, or which were worn about their necks, 2 Samuel 1:10 bracelets, i.e. ornaments for their wrists, Gen 24:47 ear-rings; in which we follow the Syriac version, which seems agreeable to the sense of the word elsewhere, particularly Eze 16:12 where it plainly signifies jewels for the ear, and tablets. See Exodus 35:22.

Verse 52

Numbers 31:52. Sixteen thousand seven hundred and fifty shekels See Exodus 25:39.

Verse 53

Numbers 31:53. (For the men of war had taken spoil, every man for himself)— But the men of war had every one their own booty. Houbigant; or, had reserved the spoil, every man for himself: see on Numbers 31:26.

REFLECTIONS.—The piety of the officers of Israel appears here as great as their prowess. On calling their muster-roll, not a man was lost, either by disease or the sword, in this expedition. An instance of Divine protection so amazing could not but affect them: and as they loved their soldiers as brethren, and were tender of their lives, (as every good general should be,) they make the most grateful acknowledgments to God for his preservation of them. Note; 1. Great deliverances deserve particular thankfulness. (2.) Where God gives plenty, we must abound in works of piety and charity.

Bibliographical Information
Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on Numbers 31". Coke's Commentary on the Holy Bible. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tcc/numbers-31.html. 1801-1803.
Ads FreeProfile