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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 31

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-54



Numbers 31:1-54

THE command to vex and smite the Midianites {Numbers 25:16-17} has already been considered. Israel had not the spiritual power which would have justified any attempt to convert that people. Degrading idolatry was to be held in abhorrence, and those who clung to it suppressed. Now the time comes for an exterminating war. While hordes of Bedawin occupy the hills and the neighbouring desert, there can be no security either for morals, property, or life. Balaam is among them plotting against Israel: and his restless energy, we may suppose, precipitates the conflict. Moses conveys the command of God that the attack on Midian shall be immediately made, and himself directs the campaign.

The details of the enterprise are given somewhat fully. A thousand fighting men are called from each tribe. The religious purpose of the war is signified by the presence in the host of Phinehas, whose zeal has given him a name among the warriors. He is allowed to carry with him the "vessels of the sanctuary"; and the silver trumpets are to be sounded on the march and in the attack. The Midianitish clan apparently gives way at once before the Hebrews, and either makes no stand or is totally defeated in a single battle. All the men are put to the sword, including Balaam and five chiefs, whose names are preserved. The women and children are taken; the whole of the cattle and goods becomes the prey of the victors; the cities and encampments are burned with fire. On the return of the army with the large band of captives, Moses is greatly displeased. He demands of the officers why the women have been spared, -the very women who caused the children of Israel to trespass against the Lord. Then he orders all above a certain age, and the male children, to be put to death. The young girls alone are to be kept alive.

The purification of those who have been engaged in the war is next commanded. For seven days the army must remain outside the camp. Those who have touched any dead body and all the captives are to be ceremonially cleansed on the third and seventh days. Every article of raiment, everything made of skins and goats’ hair, and all woollen articles, are to be purified by means of the water of expiation. Whatever is made of metal is to be passed through the fire.

Details of the quantity and division of the prey, and the voluntary oblations made as an "atonement for their souls" by the officers and soldiers out of their booty, occupy the rest of the chapter. The numbers of oxen, sheep, and asses are great-six hundred and seventy-five thousand sheep, seventy-two thousand beeves, sixty-one thousand asses. No mention is made of horses or camels. The girls saved alive are thirty-two thousand. The army takes one half, and those who remained in the camp receive the other. But of the soldiers’ portion, one in five hundred both of the persons and of the animals is given to the priests, and of the people’s portion one in fifty to the Levites. The jewels of gold, ankle-chains, bracelets, signet-rings, earrings and armlets offered by the men of war as their "atonement," not one of them having fallen in the battle, amount in weight to sixteen thousand seven hundred and fifty shekels, the value of which may be estimated at some thirty thousand of our pounds. The gold is brought into the tent of meeting for a memorial before the Lord.

Now here we have to deal with an accumulation of statements, every one of which raises some question or other. The war of national and moral antipathy is itself easily understood. But the slaughter of so many in battle and so many others in cold blood, the statement that not a single Israelite fell. the number and kinds of the animals captured, the order given by Moses to put all the women to death, the quantity of gold taken, of which the offering appears only to have been a part-all of these points have been criticised in a more or less incredulous spirit. In apology it has been said, with regard to the slaughter of the women, that when brought as captives by the soldiers they could not be received into the camp, and there was only this way of dealing with them, unless indeed they had been sent back to their ruined encampments, where they would have slowly died. Again, it has been explained that the Midianites were so debased and enfeebled as to have no power to, withstand the onset of the Hebrews. The droves of oxen, sheep, and asses are held to be not greater than a wealthy nomadic clan, numbering perhaps two hundred thousand, would be likely to own; and the quantity of gold is likewise accounted for by the well-known fact that among Orientals the wealth represented by precious metals is fashioned into ornaments for the women.

In detail the difficulties may thus be partly overcome; yet the whole account remains so singular, both in its spirit and incidents, that Wellhausen has roundly declared it to be fictitious, and others have had no resource but to fall back, even for the slaughter of the women, on the Divine command. It is true there were other peoples, the Moabites, for instance, as idolatrous, and almost as degraded. But a terror of Jehovah’s name had to be created for the moral good of the whole region, and the Midianites, it is said, who had so grossly assailed the purity of Israel, were fitly selected for Divine chastisement. The opinion that the whole account is an invention of the "Priests’ Code" may be at once dismissed. The ideas of national purity that prevailed after the exile and are insisted upon in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah would not have countenanced the dedication of any spared from the slaughter, even young girls, as a tribute to Jehovah. The attack and the issue of it were, no doubt, recorded in the ancient documents of which the compilers of the Book of Numbers made use. And the fact must be held to stand, that there was a grim slaughter relentlessly carried out at the command of Moses in accordance with the moral and theocratic ideas that ruled his mind.

But it remains doubtful whether the numbers can be trusted, even although they appear to be in the substance of the narrative. The disproportion is enormous between the twelve thousand Israelites sent against Midian and the number of men who, if we accept the figures given, must have fallen without ‘striking one effective blow for their lives. Of these there would have been some forty thousand at least. Assuming that somehow the numbers are exaggerated, we find the story a good deal cleared. It was entirely in harmony with the spirit of the age that a war an outrance should have been commanded in the circumstances. If, then, an adequate force of Hebrews marched against the Midianites and took them at unawares, perhaps by night, or when they were engaged in some idolatrous orgy, their defeat and slaughter would be comparatively easy. The Hebrews with Phinehas among them were, we may believe, filled with patriotic and religious ardour, assured that they were commissioned to execute Divine justice and must not shrink from any work that lay in their way, however dreadful. Does the thing they did still seem incredible? Perhaps the recollection of what took place after the Indian Mutiny, when Great Britain was in the same temper, may throw light upon the question. The soldiers then, bent on punishing the cruelty and lust of the rebels, partly in patriotism, partly in revenge, set mercy altogether aside. If we had the whole history of the war with Midiah, instead of the mere outlines preserved in Numbers, we might find that, apart from figures, the statements are by no means over-coloured. Moses had the entire responsibility of ordering the women to be put to death. When he saw the train of female captives, some of them possibly using their arts of blandishment not without success, he might well be afraid that the very end for which the war had been undertaken was to be frustrated. He was a man who did not scruple to shed blood when the law of God and the purity of morals and religion seemed to be endangered. He knew Jehovah to be gracious-gracious to those who loved Him and kept His commandments. But was He not also a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generations of them that hated Him? It was this God Moses sought to serve when in the heat of his indignation, and not without reason, he gave the terrible order.

The appropriation of some of the captive girls to the priests and Levites as "Jehovah’s tribute," the offering by the soldiers of part of their booty as an "atonement" for their souls, the presence of Phinehas with the "vessels of the sanctuary," and the sacred trumpets in the ranks-these manifestly belong to the time to which the history refers. And it may be said in closing that circumstances might be well known to Moses on account of which the attack had to be made promptly and the dispersion of the Midianites had to be complete. We cannot tell what Balaam may have been plotting; but we may be pretty sure there was nothing too base for him to scheme and the Midianites to carry into effect. They knew themselves to be under suspicion, perhaps in danger. With what craft and vehemence the Bedawin can act we are well aware. Life even yet is of no account among them. Another day, perhaps, and the ark might have been carried off or Moses put to death in his tent. But the nature of the wrong done to Israel is a sufficient explanation of the war. And we can also see that the Hebrews themselves had a lesson in moral severity when their soldiers went forth to the massacre and returned red with blood. They learned that the sin of Midian was abominable in the sight of God and should be abominable in theirs. They were taught, whether they received the teaching or not, that they were to be enemies for ever of those who practised idolatry so vile. A deep gulf was made between them and all who sympathised with the worship and customs of the tribe they destroyed.

And the whole circumstances, remote as they are from our own time, may bring home even to Christians the duty of moral decision and relentless war against the vices and lusts with which too many are inclined to make terms. We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against the "wiles of error," the "lusts of deceit," against "ornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, enmities, strife, jealousies, wraths, factions, divisions, heresies, envyings, drunkenness, revellings and such like,"-the works of the flesh. These Midianites are with us, would draw our hearts away from religion and destroy our souls. Not only are we to assail the grosser forms of sin and exterminate them, but we are with equal severity to strike down the fair-seeming vices that come with blandishment and insidious appeal. This is our holy war. The old form of it required the suppression or extermination of those identified with vice, men and women, all in whom the impurity was rooted. Young girls alone could be spared, whose character might still be shaped by a higher morality. Even yet, to a certain extent, that way of dealing with evil has to be followed. We imprison felons and put murderers to death; but the new power that has come with Christianity enables us to deal with many transgressors as capable of reformation and a new life. And this power is far as yet from being fully developed.

It is the fault of our age to be on one side too lenient, on another wanting in patience, charity, and hope. Excuses are found for sin on the ground that it is useless to fight against nature that we must not be hypocritical nor puritanical. Temptations that come with mincing gait, cajolery, and smiles, are allowed to disport themselves untouched. Why, it is asked, should life be made sombre? A stern religion that would banish gaiety is declared to be no friend of the race. Under cover of art-pictorial, dramatic, literary - the customs of Midian are not only admitted but allowed to have authority. And religion even is invoked. Are not all things pure to the pure? Should not life be as free and joyous as the Maker clearly intends in giving us the capacity for those gratifications to which art of every kind ministers? Is not full freedom indispensable to the highest religion? Ought not genius, in every department, to have complete liberty in guiding and developing the race?

Without hypocrisy, without banishing the sunshine of life or denying the freedom which is necessary to progress and vigour, we are to be jealous for morality, severe against all that threatens it. And here our age is impatient of direction. The tendency is to a civilisation without morality, that is, a new barbarism. The strenuous mind of the old theocratic leaders is required anew, with a difference. Life and thought have so far advanced under Christianity that liberty is good in things which once had to be sternly reprobated; but only the same guidance will carry us higher. To those who lead in arts and literature the appeal has to be made in the name of God and men to regard the fitness of things The old ideas of Puritanism are not to be the standard? True. Neither are the tastes of Greece nor the manners of Pompeii. Every artist must, it appears, be his own censor. Let each, then, use his right under a sense of responsibility to the God who would have all to be pure and free. There are pictures exhibited, and poems sent out from the press, and novels published, which, for all the skill and charm that are in them, ought to have been cast into the fire. In private life, too, the Midianitish talk, the jest, the anecdote, the innuendo, all but indecent, the hint, the laugh that breaks down the barriers of integrity and sobriety, show the license of a barbarism which is bent on conquest. Every Christian is called to wage against these immoralities an exterminating war.

On the other hand, charity and patience are needed. It is difficult to forbear with those who seem to find their pleasure in what is evil, more difficult to continue the efforts necessary to win them to religion, purity, and honour. We feel it a hard task to track our own unholy desires to their retreats and slay them there. Proteus-like they elude us; when we think they have been destroyed, a passing word or thought revives them. And if in the task of our own purification we need long patience, it is not wonderful that even more should be required in the attempt to set others free from their besetting sins. Much of our philanthropy, again, is useless because we try to cover too large a field. Few are engaged in comparison with the enormous region over which effort has to extend, and we treat the hurt slightly, with too much haste. Then we grow despondent. Impatience, hopelessness, should never be known among those who undertake the Divine work of saving men and women from their sins. But to cure this, new ideas on the whole subject of Christian endeavour and new methods of work are required. The evil forces, a host arrayed against true life, must be followed into the desert places where they lurk, and there, with the sword of the Spirit, which is the bright strong word of God, attacked and slain. When Christians are brave and loving enough, when they have patience enough, the gospel of purity will begin to have its power.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Numbers 31". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/numbers-31.html.
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