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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 30

The Pulpit CommentariesThe Pulpit Commentaries

Verses 1-16


OF VOWS MADE BY WOMEN (Numbers 30:1-16).

Numbers 30:1

And Moses spake unto the heads of the tribes. The regulations here laid down about vows follow with a certain propriety upon those concerning the ordinary routine of sacrifices, but we cannot conclude with any assurance that they were actually given at this particular period. It would appear upon the lace of it that we have in Leviticus 27:1-34, and in this chapter two fragments of Mosaic legislation dealing with the same subject, but, for some reason which it is useless to attempt to discover, widely separated in the inspired record. Nor does there seem to be any valid reason for explaining away the apparently fragmentary anti dislocated character of these two sections (see the Introduction). The statement, peculiar to this passage, that these instructions were issued to the "heads of the tribes" itself serves to differentiate it from all the rest of the "statutes" given by Moses, and suggests that this chapter was inserted either by some other hand or from a different source. There is no reason whatever for supposing that the "heads of the tribes" were more interested in these particular regulations than in many others which concerned the social life of the people (such as that treated of in Numbers 5:5-31) which were declared in the ordinary way unto "the children of Israel" at large.

Numbers 30:2

If a man vow a vow. נֶדֶר, a vow, is commonly said to be distinctively a positive vow, a promise to render something unto the Lord. This, however, cannot be strictly maintained, because the Nazarite vow was healer, and that was essentially a vow of abstinence. To say that the vow of the Nazarite was of a positive character because he had to let his hair grow "unto the Lord" is a mere evasion. It is, however, probable that neder, when it occurs (as in this passage) in connection with issar, does take on the narrower signification of a positive vow. Swear an oath to bind his soul with a bond. Literally, "to bind a bond upon his soul." אִסָּר, a bond, which occurs only in this chapter, is considered to be a restrictive obligation, a vow of abstinence. It would appear that the issar was always undertaken upon oath, whereas the neder (as in the case of the Nazarite) did not of necessity require it. He shall not break his word. This was the general principle with respect to vows, and, as here ]aid down, it was in accordance with the universal religious feeling of mankind. Whatever crimes may have claimed the sanction of this sentiment, whatever exceptions and safeguards a clearer revelation and a better knowledge of God may have established, yet the principle remained that whatsoever a man had promised unto the Lord, that he must fulfill. Iphigenia in Aulis, Jephthah's daughter in Gilead, proclaim to what horrid extremities any one religious principle, unchecked by other coordinate principles, may lead; but they also proclaim how deep and true this religious principle must have been which could so over-ride the natural feelings of men not cruel nor depraved.

Numbers 30:3

If a woman vow a vow. The fragmentary nature of this section appears from the fact that, after laying down the general principle of the sacredness of vows, it proceeds to qualify it in three special cases only of vows made by women under authority. That vows made by boys were irreversible is exceedingly unlikely; and indeed it is obvious that many cases must have occurred, neither mentioned here nor in Leviticus 27:1-34, in which the obligation could not stand absolute. In her father's house in her youth. Case first, of a girl in her father's house, who had no property of her own, and whose personal services were due to her father.

Numbers 30:5

If her father disallow her. It appears from the previous verse that the disallowance must be spoken, and not mental only. If the vow had been made before witnesses, no doubt the father's veto must be pronounced before witnesses also.

Numbers 30:6

If she had at all a husband. Literally, "if being she be to an husband." Septuagint, ἐὰν γενομένη γένηται ἀνδρί. Case second, of a married or betrothed woman. As far as the legal status of the woman was concerned, there was little difference under Jewish law whether she were married or only betrothed. In either case she was accounted as belonging to her husband, with all that she had (cf. Deuteronomy 22:23, Deuteronomy 22:24; Matthew 1:19, Matthew 1:20). When she vowed. Rather, "and her vows be upon her." Septuagint, καὶ αἱ εὐχαὶ αὐτῆς ἐπ αὐτῇ. The vows might have been made before her betrothal, and not disallowed by her father; yet upon her coming under the power of her husband he had an absolute right to dissolve the obligation of them; otherwise it is evident that he might suffer loss through an act of which he had no notice. Or uttered ought out of her lips. Rather, "or the rash utterance of her lips." The word מִבְטָא, which is not found elsewhere (cf. Psalms 106:33), seems to have this meaning. Such a vow made by a young girl as would be disallowed by her husband when he knew of it would presumably be a "rash utterance."

Numbers 30:9

Every vow of a widow, and of her that is divorced. This is not one of the cases treated of in this section (see Numbers 30:16), but is only mentioned in order to point out that it falls under the general principle laid down in Numbers 30:2.

Numbers 30:10

If she vowed in her husband's house. Case third, of a married woman living with her husband. The husband had naturally the same absolute authority to allow or disallow all such vows as the father had in the ease of his unmarried daughter. The only difference is that the responsibility of the husband is expressed in stronger terms than that of the father, because in the nature of things the husband has a closer interest in and control over the proceedings of his wife than the father has over those of the daughter.

Numbers 30:13

Oath to afflict the soul. No doubt by fasting or by other kinds of abstinence. The expression is especially used in connection with the rigorous fast of the day of atonement (Le Numbers 16:29; Numbers 29:7; and cf. Isaiah 58:5; 1 Corinthians 7:5).

Numbers 30:15

Then he shall bear her iniquity, i.e; if he tacitly allowed the vow in the first instance, and afterwards forbad its fulfillment, the guilt which such breach of promise involved should rest upon him. For the nature and expiation of such guilt see on Leviticus 5:1-19,


Numbers 30:1-16


This section, although fragmentary, yet reveals to us with great clearness the Divine mind concerning one important portion of practical religion. It lays down directly the principle that vows to God were lawful and binding. It lays down indirectly the limitation (although it only applies it to the case of women not sui juris) that no vows to God were valid without the consent of the lawful guardian, if such there were. It implies the general rule that no vows are binding to the damage of any who are not parties to the vow; and this is itself a part of the yet wider principle that God is not served nor honoured by anything which involves the injury or dishonour of man. In applying the teaching of this chapter there is indeed the serious preliminary difficulty of deciding whether vows are lawful at all under the Christian dispensation. Inasmuch as no direct utterance can be found in the New Testament upon the subject, it can only be argued upon broad principles of the gospel, and will probably for ever continue to be decided in different ways by different people. It will be truly said upon one side that by virtue of our Christian baptism and profession our whole self is dedicate unto God, to live a life of entire holiness, such as leaves no room for further and self-imposed limitations and restrictions. On the other side it will be truly replied that although in principle all that we have and are is "not our own," but "bought with a price," and only held in trust by us for the glory of God and the good of men, yet in practice there are many different degrees of self-renunciation between which a good Christian is often called in effect to make his choice, and that his vow may be simply his answer to the inward voice which bids him (in this sense) "go up higher." It will be said, again, and truly said, that the law of Christ is essentially a law of liberty, and therefore inconsistent with the constraint of vows; that as soon as a man crosses his natural will, not because his higher will deliberately embraces pain for the sake of God, but because he is bound by a vow, his service ceases to be free and ceases to be acceptable. On the other side it will be said, and truly said, that just because we are under the law of liberty, therefore we are at liberty to use whatever helps Christian experience finds to be for practical advantage in the hard conflict with self; the law of liberty will no more strip the weakling of the defensive armour which gives him confidence than compel the strong man to hamper himself with it. Once more, it will be said that the Christian service is "reasonable," i.e; one which continually approves itself to the honest intelligence of him that renders it; but since it may happen to any to have his convictions altered by growing knowledge or greater experience, it is not fit that the conduct of any be permanently restrained by vows. And this is to a certain extent unanswerable. No vow could oblige a Christian to act contrary to his matured convictions of what was really best for him, and so for God. If, e.g; one who had vowed celibacy came to feel in himself the truth of 1 Corinthians 7:9, he would be a better Christian in breaking than in keeping his vow; for we are not under the law, which rigorously enforces the letter, but under the Spirit, who loves only that which makes for true holiness. It may, however, be truly urged that while no vow ought to be held absolutely binding upon a conscience which repudiates it, yet many vows may be taken with all practical assurance that the conscience never will repudiate them. One thing of course is certain; all vows (at least of abstinence) stand upon the same footing in principle, however various an aspect they may wear in practice. A vow, e.g; of total abstinence from intoxicating liquors is in principle exactly as defensible or as indefensible as a vow of perpetual celibacy; nor can an attempt to defend one while condemning the other be absolved from the charge of hypocrisy. This being the doubtful state of the argument, of which the true Christian casuist can only say, "Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind," it remains to treat of vows in that sense in which they are allowed by all, viz; as promises made by the soul to God, whether fortified or not by some outward ceremonial, whether made in response to the more general persuasions of the gospel, or the more secret drawings of the Holy Spirit. Consider, therefore—

I. THAT A MAN MUST NOT BREAK HIS WORD UNTO GOD. If a man is obliged in honour (and wherever practicable in law too) to keep his promise to his brother man; if an honest man (even among savages), having Raven his word to his neighbour, may not disappoint him, though it were to his own hindrance (Psalms 15:4); if God himself have vouchsafed to make promises to man (and with an oath too—Hebrews 6:17, Hebrews 6:18), which promises he for his part will most surely keep and perform, how much more is man bound to keep his promise made to God!

II. THAT A PROMISE MADE, TO GOD IN SICKNESS OR DISTRESS MAY NOT BE DEPARTED FROM IN HEALTH AND PROSPERITY. No doubt most vows were made under stress of some calamity or need, as Jacob's (Genesis 28:20), Hannah's (1 Samuel 1:11), and others (cf. Psalms 66:13; Psalms 76:11). Yet how often do men treat their God with such indignity! (1 Corinthians 10:22).

III. THAT A RESOLUTION DELIBERATELY FORMED AND OFFERED UNTO GOD IS QUITE AS SACRED AS THOUGH MADE WITH AN OATH. For an oath is on the part of God a condescension which has no meaning for him (Hebrews 6:17), on the part of man a device to overawe his own sinful weakness, but it adds nothing to the real sacredness of the vow. How many vows have we taken upon ourselves, either openly or secretly! They are all as binding on us as though we had imprecated the most frightful penalties upon our failure to observe them. The punishment of Ananias and Sapphira was intended to mark the extreme malediction of such as secretly withhold from God what of themselves or of their own they have deliberately dedicated to his service.

IV. THAT NO PROMISE CAN BE MADE TO GOD IN DEROGATION OF THE JUST RIGHTS OF ANOTHER OVER US. God can never be served with that upon which another has a rightful claim, nor honoured by anything which involves dishonour of another. Only that which is really ours to give can we give unto God. If it be unworthy to offer unto the Lord of that which doth cost us nothing (2 Samuel 24:24), it is unjust to offer unto the Lord of that which doth cost another something.

V. THAT IN PARTICULAR A DAUGHTER'S PRIMARY DUTY IS TO HER PARENT, A WIFE'S TO HER HUSBAND. Only what lies beyond the sphere of their legitimate claims can she sacrifice in the name of religion.

VI. THAT THE "RASH UTTERANCE OF THE LIPS" IS NOT HELD BINDING BY THE LORD. Since he utterly rejects any service which is not truly willing, and since he is infinitely above taking advantage of the folly of man, it is mere obstinacy, not religion, which leads a man to abide by what he has ignorantly and rashly said that he will do.

VII. THAT A FATHER OR A HUSBAND MAY NOT PLAY FAST AND LOOSE WITH THE RELIGIOUS PRACTICES OF THOSE DEPENDENT UPON HIM, NEITHER DISALLOW ONE DAY WHAT HE ALLOWED THE DAY BEFORE. It is given to them to exercise control even in religious matters, but not to exercise it capriciously. It is a fearful responsibility to cross the devout purposes of God's servants from any but the purest motives, and for any but the weightiest reasons.

VIII. THAT IF WE, THROUGH NEGLIGENCE OR CAPRICE, DISTURB THE SPIRITUAL LIFE, AND HINDER THE HEAVENLY DESIRES OF THOSE DEPENDENT ON US, WE MUST BEAR THEIR INIQUITY. We do not know indeed how such responsibility will be apportioned at the day of judgment, but we do know that God will exact vengeance for every injury done to souls, and especially for injury done to such as are committed to our care (Matthew 18:6).


Numbers 30:1, Numbers 30:2


I. NOTICE THE ABSENCE OF ANY REFERENCE TO THE SUBJECT MATTER OF THE VOW. Moses does not say anything as to certain vows being right and certain others being wrong. This was not needed, and would only have taken away from the sharp and clear announcement that a vow once made was not to be lightly esteemed. Even the exemptions from obligation which Moses mentions in the remainder of the chapter are those caused not by anything unlawful in the subject matter of the vow, but by the fact that it proceeded from one who was not a sufficiently free agent to make a vow. It was quite evident that a vow must not contradict any commandment of God, nor infringe any right of other men. It must lie within the proper province of a man's own free will; it must concern such things as he can really control. This was what gave the vow its virtue and significance. Certain things were commanded, with respect to which there was no choice but obedience; and outside of these there was still a large field, where the Israelite was left to his own control. What use he would make of this freedom was of course a test of his own disposition. That he must keep clearly within his own freedom was a thing that needed no insisting upon.

II. CONSIDER THE NECESSITY THERE WAS FOR IMPRESSING ON THE ISRAELITES THE SOLEMN OBLIGATION OF THEIR VOWS. How came the Israelite to make a vow? We must recollect that in those days there was a general and practical belief in the power of supernatural beings to give help to men. The Israelites, only too often found unbelievers in Jehovah, were not, therefore, wanting in religious feeling-. When they lost faith in the God of Israel, the lapse was not into atheism, but into idolatry. And thus when their hearts were strongly set on some object, not only did they put forth the effort of self and solicit the aid of others, but especially the aid of Jehovah. And as they sought the aid of their fellow-men under the promise of a recompense, so they sought the aid of Jehovah under a similar promise. Under the influence of strong desires and highly excited feelings all sorts of vows would be made by the Israelites, and some of them, probably, very difficult to carry out. Doubtless there were Israelites not a few with somewhat of Balak's spirit in them. They felt how real was the power of Jehovah, and, being as little acquainted with his character as Balak was, they concluded that his power could be secured on the promise of some sufficient consideration in return. Among an unspiritual people whose minds were filled with a mixture of selfishness and superstition, vows would take the aspect of a commercial transaction. So much indispensable help from God, and, as the price of it, a corresponding return from man. And as the help of God would be felt to require a much greater return than the help of man, so the vow would undertake something beyond the ordinary range of attainment. May we not conclude that the petition connected with the vow was oftentimes answered, and that God for his own wise purposes did give people the desires of their own hearts, even as he did to Hannah? If so, we see at once the difficulty that would often arise in fulfilling the vow. We know how the desire of a man's heart, once accomplished, is often felt to be unworthy of the effort and expenditure. Thus there would be a strong temptation to neglect the fulfilling of the vow if it could be safely managed. It was an invisible God who had to be dealt with; and ready enough as the Israelite might be to believe in Jehovah as long as it was for self-advantage, the faith in him and the fear of him would begin to wax feeble when it wan a question of meeting what had proved a profitless engagement. A vow to an idol was really a vow to be paid to avaricious and watchful priests. A promise made to a fellow-man he may be trusted to exact. But what is a vow to the invisible God? "I may neglect it with impunity," is the thought in the Israelite's heart (Psa 1:1-6 :21; Psalms 73:11). But the impunity was a delusion. God had marked the vow only too carefully; and it was less harm for a man to go with some heavy burden and great hindrance hanging about him all the days of his life, than that the sanctity of the vow or oath should be slighted in the smallest degree.

III. CONSIDER HOW THE PRINCIPLES THAT UNDERLIE THIS INJUNCTION ARE TO BE CARRIED OUT BY CHRISTIANS. We are passed into an age when vows are not commonly made. Most of those whose thoughts are filled with the desires of their own hearts do not believe in the power of God to help them. And Christians ought to be free from such desires. It is their part to pray the prayer of the Collect for the fourth Sunday after Easter: "Grant unto thy people that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise." But though modern Christians may not have the same inducements to make vows as ancient Israelites, still there are certain principles and duties underlying this injunction of Moses which deserve our careful regard.

1. Consider well the great projects and ruling views of your life. Let the prayer of the above Collect be uttered on every Sunday and week-day throughout the year. Enter only on such undertakings as not merely accord with God's will, but spring from it, Nothing really accords with God's will save what springs from it. The sooner we discover that the most practicable life and the most blessed one is that of being not our own masters, but what the apostles learned to be, servants of the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 1:1; Philippians 1:1; James 1:1; 2 Peter 1:1; Revelation 1:1), the better it will be for us. We shall not then enter upon undertakings which we lack the skill, the resources, and perhaps the heart to finish. This very injunction of Moses is a suggestion of the difficulties which come from a wrong choice. Under the power of excitement and in the ignorance of inexperience we may enter into engagements which afterwards become the burden and curse of life.

2. Consider wherein the evil of a broken vow really consists. Do not suppose that God considers it worse to violate a vow or an oath than to violate any other promise. Truth for the sake of truth is a sacred thing in the eyes of God. Who can doubt that in his sight the affirmation, now happily allowed in courts of justice, is as binding as any oath whatsoever? Not but what a solemn appeal to the universal presence and all-seeing eye of Almighty God, if made voluntarily, and with evident conviction, earnestness, and sincerity in the mode of expression, is of great service in pressing home the truth. Witness the force of such an appeal in the writings of Paul. The evil has been in forcing the oath on all men irrespective of their disposition. No forced oath will make the liar really truthful; and no forced oath can make the truthful man anything more than truthful. Administering oaths to a man of veracity is like holding a candle to make the sun shine. As has been truly said, the compelled oath makes the ignorant and superstitious to think that there are two kinds of truth, and that it is harmless to say, free from an oath, what it would be very wicked to say under it.

3. Consider what deliberation is required in entering on the obligations of the Christian profession. Here are promises which it is right to make; yet they must be made with due caution, circumspection, and inquiry. Christ would have us avoid with equal care the perils of haste and procrastination. We cannot begin too soon seriously to consider the claims of God upon us, but we are warned against hastily plunging into obligations which before long may be altogether too much for our worldly hearts. It is only too evident that many are led into a profession of religion, either in a fit of excitement which cannot be sustained, and which, indeed, would be of no use if it could be sustained, or by an insufficient consideration of all that a profession of religion includes. Our Lord stops us at the very beginning with an earnest entreaty to measure well what we are about, and understand exactly what it is that he asks. We must not mistake his demands and claims, and put some notion of our own in place of them (Matthew 7:21-29; Matthew 16:24-26; Luke 9:57, Luke 9:58; Luke 14:25, Luke 14:35; John 6:44).

4. Consider the great peril of being unfaithful to the knowledge of what is right. It is a dreadful thing to fall away from truth when it is done in the light of knowledge, and in spite of the prickings of conscience. A broken promise, whether to God or man, broken not through infirmity, but of set and selfish purpose, is in God's eye a great transgression. No doubt in many infractions of promise there are complications and difficulties, pros and cons, which prevent every one save the all-searching God himself from determining the real character of the action. We need not make estimates of particular cases unless we are compelled. Let us keep our own hearts with all diligence, and labour to be on the side of self-denial and a good conscience rather than on that of carnal inclinations. God has made his yea and amen felt in Christ Jesus. So may Christ Jesus be able to make his yea and amen felt in the sincerity, simplicity, and straightforwardness of the lives of his people.—Y.

Numbers 30:3-16


The command contained in this section of the chapter secures a double result.

1. By specifying certain exceptions to the validity of the vow, it makes that validity all the more manifest where the exceptions do not obtain. Stating exceptions to a rule is only another way of stating the rule itself.

2. These exceptions relate to the interests of the household, to the preservation of its integrity, and, to this end, of the rights and authority of the person whom God has placed at its head. Moreover, that which secures the right of the father and the husband equally secures the interests of the daughter and the wife. Consider—

I. WHAT THIS COMMAND IMPLIED WITH RESPECT TO THE HEAD OF THE HOUSEHOLD. Let us take the relation of the father and daughter, similar things being true, mutatis mutandis, with respect to the husband and wife.

1. This command honoured parental authority. God had laid a solemn injunction on children to honour father and mother, and we see here how careful he was to honour the parental relation himself. He puts everything in the shape of a vow, everything which the daughter was otherwise free to choose, under the father's control He requires no reason to be given; the simple veto is enough, if only it be uttered at the appointed time. The father had a responsibility which the daughter had not, and it was fitting that God should give the father all possible help in meeting that responsibility.

2. This command required much watchfulness on the part of the father. To act rightly here demanded the whole compass of paternal duty. The father was not allowed to say that his daughter's vow was no business of his. He himself might not be a vowing sort of person, and therefore under no temptation to neglect a vow he was not likely to make. But even if indifferent to vows himself, he was bound to be interested in his daughter's welfare, and do his best to keep her from future difficulties. Her limited life hid many difficulties from her eyes. It was not for a father to expose himself in later days to reproach from the lips of his own daughter. It was not for him to run the risk of hearing her say, "Why did not your larger knowledge and experience shelter me from difficulties which my inexperience could not possibly anticipate?"

3. This command required much consideration on the part of the father. He must not let the vow pass without notice, and when he noticed it must be with proper consideration. While it was within his right to stop the vow, he might in stopping it be doing a very unfatherly thing, a thing very hurtful to the religious life of his daughter. As God had honoured him and undertaken to help him in his fatherly relation, he must honour that relation himself. That relation from which God expects so much must be prepared to yield much in the way of care and consideration. The father may think too much of his own wishes, too little of his daughter's needs, and too little of the will of God. The vow of the daughter might be a rightful, helpful, and exemplary one, a vow of the Nazarite indeed (Numbers 6:2). It was not enough, therefore, for the father to fall back on the mere assertion of authority. It is a serious thing to offend one of the little ones—a serious thing for any one to do; but how unspeakably serious when the hand which casts down the stumbling-block is that of a father!

4. This command required, in order to be fully complied with, sympathy with the voluntary spirit in religion. A father who felt that the services of religion consisted chiefly in exact external conformity with certain rules for worship and conduct would be very likely to stop his daughter's vow as mere whimsicality. But religion must go beyond obedience to verbal commands; it must aim at something more than can be put into even the most exact and expressive of them. Commands are nothing more than finger-posts; and the joys of hope and preparation during the journey are directed towards something lying beyond the last of the finger-posts, The father who would act rightly by all possible wishes of his children must be one who comprehends that experience of John: "We love him because he first loved us" (1 John 4:19). He must be one who feels that love can never be satisfied with mere beaten tracks and conventional grooves. He must be such a one as appreciates the act of the woman who poured the precious ointment on the head of Jesus. If he be a man of the Judas spirit, grudging what he reckons waste, he is sure to go wrong. He will check his children when he ought to encourage them, and encourage when he ought to check. If God opens their eyes he will do his best to close them again, so that the blind father may go on leading the blind children, till at last both fall into the pit.


1. Their right to make a vow was itself secured. The command did not say that daughter and wife were to make no vow at all. They were as free to make a vow at any man in all Israel; and if it had not been for more important considerations connected with the household, they would also have been free to keep the vow. God would have us to understand that inferior and mutilated duties or privileges are no necessary consequence of a subordinate position.

2. A gentle and patient submission was recommended on the part of the daughter and the wife. The right to propose the vow being secured to every woman, it was no fault of hers, and would be counted no blame, if the father or husband cancelled it. The Nazarite vow might be thwarted in the very freshness of it, but the spirit of zeal which produced it needed not to grow languid. We cannot be hindered in the attainment of any good, save by our own negligence. God will meet us amid all restraints which untoward circumstances may impose upon us. The claims rising out of natural relations and the present needs of human society are imperative while they last, and must be respected. But they will not last for ever. "In the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage" (Matthew 22:30).—Y.

Numbers 31:1-54



Numbers 31:1

The Lord spake unto Moses. The command to "vex the Midianites, and smite them," had been given before (Numbers 25:17), but how long before we cannot tell. Possibly the interval had been purposely allowed in order that the attack when it was made might be sudden and unexpected. From the fact that no resistance would seem to have been made to the Israelitish detachment, and that an enormous amount of plunder was secured, we may probably conclude that the Midianites had thought all danger past.

Numbers 31:2

Avenge the children of Israel of the Midianites. The war was to be distinctly one of vengeance on the part of Israel. On the grave moral question which arises out of this war, and of the manner in which it was carried on, see the note at the end of the chapter. Afterward shalt thou be gathered unto thy people. It is quite possible that Moses himself had been reluctant to order the expedition against Midian, either because it involved so much bloodshed, or, more probably, because he foresaw the difficulty which actually arose about the women of Midian. If so, he was here reminded that his place was to obey, and that his work on earth was not done so long as the Midianites remained unpunished.

Numbers 31:3

Avenge the Lord of Midian. God, speaking to Moses, had commanded a war of vengeance; Moses, speaking to the people, is careful to command a war of religious vengeance. In seducing the people of the Lord the Midianites had insulted and injured the majesty of God himself. On the question why Midian only, and not Moab also, was punished see on Numbers 25:17. It is to be remembered that, however hateful the sins of licentiousness and idolatry may be, they have never aroused by themselves the exterminating wrath of God. Midian was smitten because he had deliberately used these sins as weapons wherewith to take the life of Israel.

Numbers 31:5

There were delivered, or "levied." יִמָּסְרוּ. Septuagint, ἐξηρίθμησαν The Hebrew word is only used here and in Numbers 31:16 (see note there), and in these two places not in the same sense. The context, however, leaves little or no doubt as to the meaning which it must bear.

Numbers 31:6

And Phinehas the son of Eleazar. The high priest himself could not leave the camp and the sanctuary, because of his duties, and because of the risk of being defiled (see Numbers 31:19); but his son, who was already marked out as his successor, could act as his representative (see on Numbers 16:37). In after times the Messiah Milchama ("Sacerdos unctus ad bellum," alluded to in Deuteronomy 20:2) who accompanied the army to the field was a recognized member of the Jewish hierarchy. Phinehas was of course specially marked out by his zeal for the present duty, but we may suppose that he would have gone in any case. With the holy instruments, and the trumpets. Septuagint, καὶ τὰ σκεύη τὰ ἅγια καὶ αἱ σάλπιγγες. The word instruments (כְּלֵי) is the same more usually translated "vessel," as in Numbers 3:31, and is apparently to be understood of the sacred furniture of the tabernacle. It is difficult to understand what "holy vessels" could have accompanied an expedition of this sort, unless it were the ark itself. The Israelites were accustomed at all critical times to be preceded by the ark (Numbers 10:33; Joshua 3:14; Joshua 6:8), and the narrative of 1 Samuel 4:3 sq. shows plainly that, long after the settlement at Shiloh, no scruples existed against bringing it forth against the foes of Israel and of God. Indeed there is a resemblance in the circumstances between that ease and this which is all the more striking because of the contrast in the result. Most modern commentators, unwilling to believe that the ark left the camp (but cf. Numbers 14:44), identify the "holy instruments" with "the trumpets;" this, however, is plainly to do violence to the grammar, which is perfectly simple, and is contrary to the Septuagint and the Targums. The Targum of Palestine paraphrases "holy instruments" by Urim and Thummim; these, however, as far as we can gather, seem to have been in the exclusive possession of the high priest.

Numbers 31:8

They slew the kings of Midian, beside the rest of them that were slain. This is more accurately rendered by the Septuagint, τοῦς βασιλεὶς; ἀπέκτειναν ἅμα τοῖς τραυματίαις: "they put to death (הָרַג) the kings, in addition to those who fell in battle" (from חָלַל, to pierce, or wound). These five kings, who are mentioned here as having been slain in cold blood after the battle, are said in Joshua 13:21 to have been vassals (נְסִיכֵי) of the Amoritish king Sihon, and to have dwelt "in the country." From this it has been concluded by some that the Midianites at this time destroyed included only certain tribes which had settled down within the territory afterwards assigned to Reuben, and had become tributary to Sihon. This would account for the fact that the present victory was so easy and so complete, and also for the otherwise inexplicable fact that the Midianites appear again as a formidable power some two centuries later. Zur. The father of Cozbi (Numbers 25:15). Balsam also … they slew with the sword. Not in battle, but, as the context implies, by way of judicial execution (see on Numbers 24:25; Joshua 13:22).

Numbers 31:10

Their goodly castles. טִירֹתם. Septuagint, ἐπαύλεις. This word, which occurs only here and in Genesis 25:16, no doubt signifies the pastoral villages, constructed partly of rude stone walls, partly of goats-hair cloth, which the nomadic tribes of that country have used from time immemorial. Probably these were the proper habitations of the Midianites; the "cities" would have belonged to the previous inhabitants of the land.

Numbers 31:11

The spoil. הָשָּׁלָל. Septuagint, τὴν προνομήν. The booty in goods. The prey. הַמַּלְקוֹח. Septuagint, τὰ σκῦλα. The booty in live-stock, here including the women and children, who are distinguished as "captives" (שְׁבִי) in the next verse.

Numbers 31:14

Officers of the host. Literally, "inspectors." Septuagint, τοῖς ἐπισκόποις τῆς δυνάμεως

Numbers 31:16

To commit trespass. לִמְסָר־מַעַל See on Numbers 31:5. The word מסר seems to be used here much as the English word "levy" is used in such a phrase as "levying" war against a person.

Numbers 31:18

Keep alive for yourselves, i.e; for domestic slaves in the first instance. Subsequently no doubt many of them became inferior wives of their masters, or were married to their sons. Infants were probably put to death with their mothers.

Numbers 31:19

Do ye abide without the camp. In this case at any rate the law of לִמְסָר־מַעַל Numbers 19:11 sq. was to be strictly enforced. And your captives, i.e; the women and children who were spared. No peculiar rites are here prescribed for the reception of these children of idolaters into the holy nation with which they were to be incorporated beyond the usual lustration with the water of separation. In after times they would have been baptized.

Numbers 31:20

Purify all your raiment, and all that is made. Literally, "every vessel" (כְּלִי). This was in accordance with the principle laid down in Numbers 19:1-22 that everything which had come into contact with a corpse needed purifying.

Numbers 31:21

And Eleazar the priest said, This is the ordinance of the law (חֻקַּת הַתּוֹרָה, "law-statute, as in Numbers 19:2) which the Lord commanded Moses. There is something peculiar in this expression which points to the probability, either that this paragraph (Numbers 31:21-24) was added after the death of Moses, or that "the law was already beginning, even in the lifetime of Moses, to assume the position which it after. wards held—that, viz; of a fixed code to be interpreted and applied by the living authority of the priesthood. This is the earliest instance of the high priest declaring to the people what the law of God as delivered to Moses was, and then applying and enlarging that law to meet the present circumstances. It is no doubt possible that Eleazar referred the matter to Moses, but it would seem on the face of the narrative that he spoke on his own authority as high priest. When we compare the ceremonial of the later Jews, so precisely and minutely ordered for every conceivable contingency, with the Mosaic legislation itself, it is evident that the process of authoritative amplification must have been going on from the first; but it is certainly strange to find that process begun while Moses himself was alive and active.

Numbers 31:22

The brass. Rather, "copper." The six metals here mentioned were those commonly known to the ancients, and in particular to the Egyptians and Phoenicians.

Numbers 31:23

Ye shall make it go through the fire. This was an addition to the general law of lustration in Numbers 19:1-22 founded on the obvious fact that water does not cleanse metals, while fire does. The spoils of the Midianites required purification, not only as being tainted with death, but as having been heathen property.

Numbers 31:26

Take the sum of the prey. No notice is taken here of the spoil (see on Numbers 31:11), but only of the captured children and cattle. And the chief fathers. Perhaps אַבוֹת (fathers) stands here for בֵּית־אָבוֹת (fathers' houses). So the Septuagint, οἱ ἄρχοντες τῶν πατριῶν.

Numbers 31:27

Divide the prey into two parts. This division was founded roughly upon the equity of the case; on the one hand, all Israel had suffered from Midian; on the other, only the twelve thousand had risked their lives to smite Midian. For the application of a like principle to other cases see Joshua 22:8; 1 Samuel 30:24; 1 Samuel 2:0 Macc 8:28, 30.

Numbers 31:29

An heave offering unto the Lord. Septuagint, τὰς ἀπαρὰς Κυρίου. The Hebrew word רוּם (to lift) from which terumah is derived, had practically lost its literal significance, just as the English word has in the phrase "to lift cattle;" hence terumah often means simply that which is set aside as an offering. No doubt the offering levied on the portion of the warriors was in the nature of tithe for the benefit of Eleazar and the priests.

Numbers 31:30

One portion of fifty. Two percent of the prey. This probably corresponded very closely to the number of Levites as compared with the twelve tribes, and would tend to show that God intended the Levites to be neither better nor worse off than their neighbours.

Numbers 31:32

The booty, being the rest of the prey. Rather, "the prey (הַמַּלְקוֹחַ, see on Numbers 31:11), to wit, the rest of the booty" (הַבָּז, as in Numbers 14:3, Numbers 14:31). Septuagint, τὸ πλεόνασμα τῆς προνομῆς, i.e; what actually remained to be divided. The numbers given are obviously round numbers, such as the Israelites seem always to have employed in enumeration. The immense quantity of cattle captured was in accordance with the habits of the Midianites in the days of Gideon (Judges 6:5) and of their modem representatives today.

Numbers 31:49

There lacketh not one man of us. The officers naturally regarded this as a very wonderful circumstance; and so indeed it was, whether Midian made any resistance or not. It was, however, in strict keeping with the promises of that temporal dispensation. It would have been no satisfaction to the Israelite who fell upon the threshold of the promised land to know that victory remained with his comrades. His was not the courage of modern soldiers, who fling away their lives in blind confidence that some advantage will accrue thereby to the army at large; rather, he fought under the conviction that to each, as well as to all, life and victory were pledged upon condition of obedience and courage. In this ease no one was found unfaithful, and therefore no one was allowed to fall.

Numbers 31:50

What every man hath gotten. The whole, apparently, of their booty in golden ornaments was given up as a thank offering, and in addition to this was all that the soldiers had taken and kept. The abundance of costly ornaments among a race of nomads living in squalid tents and hovels may excite surprise; but it is still the ease (under circumstances far less favourable to the amassing of such wealth) among the Bedawin and kindred tribes (see also on Judges 8:24-26). Chains. אֶצְעָדָה. Septuagint, χλιδῶνα. Clasps for the arm, as in 2 Samuel 1:10. Tablets. כּוּמָז. Probably golden balls or beads hung round the neck (see on Exodus 35:22). A different word is used in Isaiah 3:20.

Numbers 31:52

Sixteen thousand seven hundred and fifty shekels. If the shekel of weight be taken as 66 of an ounce, the offering will have amounted to more than 11,000 ounces of gold, worth now about £40,000. If, according to other estimates, the golden shekel was worth 30s; the value of the offering will have been some £25,000.

Numbers 31:54

Brought it into the tabernacle of the congregation. It is not said what was done with this enormous quantity of gold, which must have been a cause of anxiety as well as of pride to the priests. It may have formed a fund for the support of the tabernacle services during the long years of neglect which followed the conquest, or it may have been drawn upon for national purposes. A memorial. To bring them into favourable remembrance with the Lord. For this sense of זִכָּרוֹן cf. Exodus 28:12, Exodus 28:29.

Note on the Extermination of the Midianites

The grave moral difficulty presented by the treatment of their enemies by the Israelites, under the sanction or even direct command of God, is here presented in its gravest form. It will be best first to state the proceedings in all their ugliness; then to reject the false excuses made for them; and lastly, to justify (if possible) the Divine sanction accorded to them.

I. That the Midianites had injured Israel is clear; as also that they had done so deliberately, craftily, and successfully, under the advice of Balaam. They had so acted as if e.g; a modern nation were to pour its opium into the ports of a dreaded neighbour in time of peace, not simply for the sake of gain (which is base enough), but with deliberate intent to ruin the morals and destroy the manhood of the nation. Such a course of action, if proved, would be held to justify any reprisals possible within the limits of legitimate war; Christian nations have avenged far less weighty injuries by bloody wars in this very century. Midian, therefore, was attacked by a detachment of the Israelites, and for some reason seems to have been unable either to fight or to fly. Thereupon all the men (i.e; all who bore arms) were slain; the towns and hamlets were destroyed; the women, children, and cattle driven off as booty. So far the Israelites had but followed the ordinary customs of war, with this great exception in their favour, that they offered (as is evident from the narrative) no violence to the women. Upon their return to the camp Moses was greatly displeased at the fact of the Midianitish women having been brought in, and gave orders that all the male children and all the women who were not virgins were to be slain. The inspection necessary to determine the latter point was left presumably to the soldiers. The Targum of Palestine indeed inserts a fable concerning some miraculous, or rather magical, test which was used to decide the question in each individual case. But this is simply a fable invented to avoid a disagreeable conclusion; both soldiers and captives were unclean, and were kept apart; and the narrative clearly implies that there was no communication between them and the people at large until long after the slaughter was over. To put the matter boldly, we have to face the fact that, under Moses' directions, 12,000 soldiers had to deal with perhaps 50,000 women, first by ascertaining that they were not virgins, and then by killing them in cold blood. It is a small additional horror that a multitude of infants must have perished directly or indirectly with their mothers.

II. It is commonly urged in vindication of this massacre that the war was God's war, and that God had a perfect right to exterminate a most guilty people. This is true in a sense. If God had been pleased to visit the Midianites with pestilence, famine, or hordes of savages worse than themselves, no one would have charged him with injustice. All who believe in an over-ruling Providence believe that in one way or other God has provided that great wickedness in a nation shall be greatly punished. But that is beside the question altogether; the difficulty is, not that the Midianites were exterminated, but that they were exterminated in an inhuman manner by the Israelites. If they had been so many swine the work would have been revolting; being men, women, and children, with all the ineffaceable beauty, interest, and hope of our common humanity upon them, the very soul sickens to think upon the cruel details of their slaughter. An ordinarily good man, sharing the feelings which do honour to the present century, would certainly have flung down his sword and braved all wrath human or Divine, rather than go on with so hateful a work; and there is not surely any Christian teacher who would not say that he acted quite rightly; if such orders proceeded from God's undoubted representative today, it would be necessary deliberately to disobey them.

It is urged again that the question at issue really was, "whether an obscene and debasing idolatry should undermine the foundations of human society," or whether an awful judgment should at once stamp out the sinners, and brand the sin for ever. But no such question was at issue. There were obscene and debasing idolatries in abundance round about Israel, but no effort was made to exterminate them; the Moabites in particular seem to have been just as licentious as the Midianites at this time (see Numbers 25:1-3), and certainly were quite as idolatrous, and yet they were passed by. Indeed the argument shows an entire failure, so to speak, in moral perspective. Harlotry and idolatry are great sins, but there is no reason to believe that God deals with them otherwise than he does with other sins. It was no part of the Divine intention concerning Israel that he should go about as a knight-errant avenging "obscene idolatries." Many a nation just as immoral as Midian rose to greatness, and displayed some valuable virtues, and (it is to be presumed) did some good work in God's world in preparation for the fullness of time. Harlotry and idolatry prevail to a frightful extent in Great Britain; but any attempt to pursue them with pains and penalties would be scouted by the conscience of the nation as Pharisaical. The fact is (and it is so obvious that it ought not to have been overlooked) that Midian was overthrown, not because he was given over to an "obscene idolatry," wherein he was probably neither much better nor much worse than his neighbours; but because he had made an unprovoked, crafty, and successful attack upon God's people, and had brought thousands of them to a shameful death. The motive which prompted the attack upon them was not horror of their sins, nor fear of their contamination, but vengeance; Midian was smitten avowedly "to avenge the children of Israel" (Exodus 28:2) who had fallen through Baal-peor, and at the same time "to avenge the Lord" (Exodus 28:3), who had been obliged to slay his own people.

III. The true justification of these proceedings—which we should now call, and justly call, atrocities—divides itself into two parts. In the first place, we have to deal only with the fact that an expedition was sent by Divine command, to smite the Midianites. Now, this does indeed open up a very difficult moral question, but it does not involve any special difficulty of its own. It is certain that wars of revenge were freely sanctioned under the Old Testament dispensation (see on Exo 17:14-16; 1 Samuel 15:2, 1 Samuel 15:3). It is practically conceded that they are permitted by the New Testament dispensation. At any rate Christian nations habitually wage wars of revenge even against half-armed savages, and many of those who counsel or carry on such wars are men of really religious character. It is possible that if the principles of the New Testament take a deeper hold upon the national conscience, all such wars will be regarded as crimes. This means simply, that in regard to war the moral sentiment of religious people has changed, and is changing very materially from age to age. Even a bad man will shrink from doing today what a good man would have done without the least scruple some centuries ago; and (if the world last) a bad man will be able sincerely to denounce some centuries hence what a good man can bring himself to do with a clear conscience today. Now it has been pointed out again and again that when God assumed the Jews to be his peculiar people, he assumed them not only in the social and political stage, but in the moral stage also, which belonged to their place in the world and in history. Just as God adopted, as King of Israel, the social and political ideas which then prevailed, and made the best of them; in like manner he adopted the moral ideas then current, and made the best of them, so restraining them in one direction, and so enforcing them in another, and so bringing them all under the influence of religious sanctions, as to prepare the way for the bringing in of a higher morality. What God did for the Jews was not to teach them the precepts of a lofty and perfect morality, which was indeed only possible in connection with the revelation of his Son, but to teach them to act in all things from religious motives, and with direct reference to his good pleasure.

Accordingly God himself, especially in the earlier part of their history as a nation, undertook to guide their vengeance, and taught them to look upon wars of vengeance (since their conscience freely sanctioned them) as waged for his honour and glory, not their own, If this seem to any one unworthy of the Divine Beings let him consider for a moment, that on no other condition was the Old Testament dispensation possible. If God was to be the Head of a nation among nations, he must regulate all its affairs, personal, social, and national. We escape the difficulty, and wage wars of vengeance, and commit other acts of doubtful morality, without compromising our religion, because our religion is strictly personal, and our wars are strictly national. But the Old Testament dispensation was emphatically temporal and national; all responsibility for all public acts devolved upon the King of Israel himself. It was absolutely necessary, then, either that God should reveal Christian morality without Christ (which is as though one should have heat without the sun, or a poem without a poet); or that he should sanction the morality then current in its best form, and teach men to walk bravely and devoutly according to the light of their own conscience. That light was dim enough in some ways, but it was slowly growing clearer through the gradual revelation which God made of himself; and even now it is growing clearer, and still while religion remains fundamentally the same, morality is distinctly advancing, and good people are learning to abhor today what they did in the faith and fear of God but yesterday. Take, e.g; that saying, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay." For the Jew it meant that in waging wars of vengeance he fought as the Lord's soldier and not as in a private quarrel. For the Christian of the present day it means that revenge of private injuries is to be left altogether to the just judgment of the last day. To the Christian of some future age it will mean that all revenge for injuries and humiliations, private or public, individual or national, must be left to the justice of him who ordereth all things in this world or the world to come. Each has a different standard of morality; yet each, even in doing what another will abhor, may claim the Divine sanction, for each acts truly and religiously according to his lights.

This being so, it is only necessary further to point out that the slaying of all the men whom they could get at was the ordinary custom of war in those days, when no distinction could be drawn between combatants and non-combatants. The practice of. war in this respect is entirely determined by the sentiment of the age, and is always in the nature of a compromise between the desire to kill and the desire to spare. As these two desires can never be reconciled, they divide the field between them with a curious inconsistency. The first is satisfied by the ever-increasing destructiveness of war; the second is gratified by the alleviations which strict discipline and skilled assistance can procure for the vanquished and the wounded. Whether ancient or modern wars really left the larger tale of misery behind them is a matter of great doubt; but at any rate the custom of war sanctioned the slaughter of all the combatants, i.e; of all the men, at that time; and if war is to be waged at all, it must be allowed to follow the ordinary practice.

In the second place, however, we have to deal with horrors of an exceptional character, in the subsequent slaughter of the women and boys. Now it is to be observed that the orders for this slaughter proceeded from Moses alone. According to the narrative of Exodus 28:13 sq; Moses went out of the camp, and on perceiving the state of the case, gave instructions at once while his anger was hot. It is possible that he sought for Divine guidance, but it does not appear that he did, but rather that he acted upon his own judgment, and under the ordinary guidance of his own conscience. We have not, therefore, to face the difficulty of a direct command from God, but only the difficulty of a holy man, full of heavenly wisdom, having ordered a butchery so abhorrent to our modern feelings. Let it then in all fairness be observed—

1. That Moses was not responsible for the presence of these captives. They ought either to have been killed, or left in their own land; it was either the cupidity or the mistaken pity of the soldiers which brought them there.

2. That Moses could not tolerate their presence in the host. It seems a vile thing to kill a woman, but it was the women more than the men of Midian of whom they bad just reason to be afraid. In justice to the men, in fairness to the wives, of Israel, it was simply impossible to let them loose upon the camp. Again, it seems cowardly to slay a helpless child; yet to suffer a generation of Midianites to grow up under the roofs of Israel would have been madness and worse, for it would have been to court a great and perhaps fatal national disaster. For the sake of Israel the captive women and children must be got rid of, and this could only be done either by slaughtering the women and boys, or by taking them back to their desolated homes to perish of hunger and disease. Of the two courses Moses certainly chose the more merciful. The nation was exterminated; the girls only were spared because they were harmless then, and likely to remain harmless; distributed through the households of Israel, without parents or brothers to keep alive the national sentiment, they would rapidly be absorbed in the people of the Lord; within a few weeks these girls of Midian would be happier, and certainly their future prospects would be brighter, than if they had remained unmolested at home.

The charge, therefore, which remains against Moses is, that he ordered the slaughter in cold blood of many thousands of women and children, not unnecessarily nor wantonly, but for reasons which were in themselves very weighty. It is of course an axiom of modern times that we do not wage war against women and children. But this, while partly due to Christian feeling, is partly due to the conviction that they are not formidable. If in any war the women of the enemy habitually attempted to poison, and often did poison, our soldiers, they would probably meet with scant mercy. In blockading a fortified city a modern army deliberately starves to death a great many women and children; and if they seek to escape they are sent back to starve, and to induce the garrison to surrender by the spectacle of their sufferings. If this is justified (as no doubt it is if war is to be prosecuted at all) by the plea of necessity, Moses' plea of necessity must be heard also. He deliberately thought it better that these women and boys should be slaughtered than that the future of Israel should be gravely imperiled. In these days, indeed, he would be wrong in coming to that conclusion, and his name would be justly branded with infamy. It would be unquestionably better to incur any loss, rather than outrage in so violent a manner the Christian sentiment of pity and tenderness towards the young, the innocent, the helpless; it would be better to run any risk than to brutalize the soldiery by the execution of such an order. So slowly do sentiments of mercy establish themselves in the hearts of mankind, and so unspeakably valuable are they when established, that he would be a traitor against humanity and against God who should on any pretence outrage any one of them. But there was no such sentiment to outrage in the time of Moses; none thought it wrong to slay captive women and children if any necessity demanded their lives. It was an axiom of war that a captive belonged absolutely to his captor, and might be put to death, or sold as a slave, or held to ransom, as pleased him best, without any scruple of conscience. Moses, therefore sharing as he certainly did the sentiments of his age, was morally free to act for the best, without any thought whether it was cruel or not; and God did not interfere with his decision because it was cruel, any more than he did with the similar decision of other good men who warred, and slew, and spared not before the coming of Christ, and indeed since that coming too. Finally, if the method of separation was odious, it was still the only way possible under the circumstances of separating the harmless from the harmful, and of clearing mercy towards the captives from danger to the captors. And here again a proceeding could be sanctioned without sin then which perhaps no necessity could excuse now, because the sentiment of modesty which it would violate did not exist then, or rather did not exist in the same form.


Numbers 31:1-54


The religious value of this chapter for Christian people must be based upon a "spiritual" interpretation; otherwise it can but excite abhorrence, and can only serve the negative purpose of showing by contrast with that darkness how fair is the light which now shineth. But "all these things," says St. Paul, writing of the events which followed the exodus (1 Corinthians 10:11), "were written for our admonition;" and "all Scripture God-inspired is profitable" for some directly religious purpose. Those who reject all "spiritual" application (albeit directly sanctioned by apostolic example—1 Corinthians 9:10; Galatians 4:24, &c.) must in honesty deny that such a chapter as this is "profitable" for anything except to afford some data for the science of comparative morality, an object valuable in itself, but certainly not worthy of Divine inspiration. If there be here nothing for immortal souls beyond the details of a horrid slaughter and of an enormous booty, it might better be omitted at once from the Bible. But if the hosts of Midian represent in an "allegory" the "fleshly lusts which war against the soul," then may Samson's riddle be found true—"Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness" (Judges 14:14); and a passage which has given occasion to many fierce and dangerous invectives against religion may yield store of food and refreshment for the souls of the wise. Having, therefore, this clue in our hands to guide us through these dark paths, slippery with blood of slaughtered infants, and ringing with the cries of frantic women, we may see at once a profound meaning in the broad and apparently unwarrantable distinction drawn between Moab and Midian. As to fleshly sin, there was nothing to choose between them; yet Midian only was smitten, because he alone had practiced with design against the life of Israel. Even so it is against "fleshly lusts which war against the soul," i.e; which are prepared and used by a malignant will to alienate the soul from God, and so to destroy it—it is against such that Christianity denounces bitter and implacable war. Against "fleshly lusts," as they exist among the heathen, springing out of the mere wantonness of natural life untrained to any higher aim than present enjoyment, Christianity (rightly understood) has no vindictive sternness. It may look with sadness upon a melancholy degradation; it may avoid with anxiety a most perilous contamination; but it neither condemns, nor seeks to repress, save by the gentle force of a better example and a higher teaching. Consider, therefore, with regard to the Midianites—

I. THAT GOD HIMSELF PRESSED ON THE WAR WITH MIDIAN TO THE BITTER END, and that although there did not seem any present danger to Israel from that quarter. Even so in his holy word God ever urges us to wage an implacable war with the lusts of the flesh, and not to be content because we are not presently assailed by them, but to exterminate them wholly. Nothing is more striking than the urgency and the breadth of these exhortations. The Scripture assumes that all classes of believers (however respectable in outward life and position) have need to strive earnestly against their passions (Galatians 5:17-24; Colossians 3:5, and parallel passages). And note that subsequent events fully justified the slaughter then made of Midian (Judges 6:1-40, Judges 7:1-25, Judges 8:1-35). We have, and shall have, but too good reason to know that fleshly sins are always a formidable danger.

II. THAT MOSES MUST FINISH THE DESTRUCTION OF MIDIAN ERE HE BE CALLED TO HIS REST, AND ERE ISRAEL MAY CROSS THE JORDAN. Even so the moral law, the wrath of God against sin declared by Moses, must remain in force until sin be destroyed in our mortal members. When the lusts of the flesh are wholly mortified, then, and only then, shall there be "no law," but only grace and love and heaven close at hand (Galatians 5:23; 1 Timothy 1:9, &c.).

III. THAT WAR WITH MIDIAN WAS COMMANDED OF GOD IN ORDER TO "AVENGE THE CHILDREN OF ISRAEL," BUT OF MOSES IN ORDER TO "AVENGE THE LORD." Even so has God commanded us to strive against hurtful lusts because they "drown men in perdition" (1 Timothy 6:9), and have caused incalculable loss of those who should have had inheritance with us; but we on our part fight against these sins because they dishonour God, and destroy the souls for which Christ died. And both these motives are in effect one, and unite to make our warfare a holy war, albeit a war of vengeance, in which no mercy may be shown.

IV. THAT THE WAR WITH MIDIAN WAS DISTINCTLY ONE OF VENGEANCE FOR INJURIES INFLICTED ON THEMSELVES AND ON THE LORD. Even so in the strife of the Christian against carnal sin there is a true element of revenge, and abundant room for holy indignation, and even for sharp reprisals; albeit these are all directed against that in himself which is hateful to a man's better self and to God (1 Corinthians 9:27; 2 Corinthians 7:11; Romans 8:13).

V. THAT IF ONLY 12,000 ACTUALLY WENT TO THE WAR, ALL ISRAEL WENT BY REPRESENTATION—1000 FROM EACH TRIBE. So the conflict against sin may be in a few only conspicuous and acute, yet these only represent what is going on secretly more or less in the hearts and lives of Christian people generally. The stress of fight may fall on some, but all are called to fight.

VI. THAT TO THIS WAR ISRAEL WAS ACCOMPANIED BY THE PRIEST (Phinehas—see on Numbers 25:1-18), THE SACRED TRUMPETS, AND, AS IT SHOULD SEEM, THE ARK ITSELF. Even so the Christian warfare against sin is guided, sanctified, and cheered by the High Priest himself of our profession (Hebrews 2:18; Hebrews 12:2; Revelation 3:4, Revelation 3:5), and by the stirring tones of the gospel, and by the glorious mystery of the incarnation itself—God with us, the All-holy tabernacled in our flesh, Christ in us, the hope of glory hereafter and the sweet constraint unto purity now.

VII. THAT ALL THE MEN OF MIDIAN WERE SLAIN, TOGETHER WITH THEIR KINGS. Even so it is the destiny of the Church at large, and may be our individual happiness, to overthrow and destroy all hurtful lusts, however strong and active, which are in enmity with the law of God. So also their princes, "the world-rulers of this darkness," shall not stand before us, hut shall perish (1 Corinthians 15:25; Ephesians 5:27; Ephesians 6:12, &c.).

VIII. THAT THE SOLDIERS ERRED IN SPARING SUCH AS SEEMED WEAK AND HARMLESS, AND MIGHT BE SAFELY TURNED TO PROFIT. The women were in fact more dangerous than the men; the boys would become as dangerous as their fathers. Even so do we err in setting our faces strongly against certain sins which are accounted disgraceful, while we tolerate others because they seem comparatively harmless, or even profitable. This is exactly what civilization does: it puts down very thoroughly the ruder vices of mankind, but it spares the softer vices, partly because it feels no repugnance to them, partly because they actually make for wealth. But these softer vices are even more fatal to morality, because more insidious and more fascinating; and these sins which seem to add to the general wealth are preparing a disastrous future for the nation. The moral law of the gospel bids us wage an equal war with all sins without exception, and takes no account whether they are offensive or inoffensive, hateful or pleasant, to the natural man, to public opinion, or to the sentiment of the age.

IX. THAT MOSES COMMANDED ALL TO BE SLAIN EXCEPT THE YOUNG GIRLS, WHO BY REASON OF THEIR YOUTH AND INNOCENCE MIGHT SAFELY BE DISTRIBUTED THROUGH THE HOUSEHOLDS OF ISRAEL. Even so all passions which belong to the lower and conquered nature of man must be "mortified" and exterminated, except such as can be safely and thoroughly absorbed in the sanctified life. This is the only test. Whatever natural desires can be taken up into the Christian life without remaining as a foreign element (and therefore a source of danger) within it may be spared, and ought to be welcomed, but no others. All the rest must at any cost be got rid of.

X. THAT ALL THE REST OF THE SPOIL MUST BE PURIFIED EITHER BY FIRE OR WATER, OR BOTH, BEFORE IT COULD COME INTO THE CAMP. Even so whatever is to be brought over (and it is indeed very much) from the natural life of passion into the sanctified life of grace must be purged by the cleansing virtue of the atonement, and by the baptism of the Holy Spirit (see on Matthew 3:11). Nothing which has been contaminated with sin can be turned to Christian uses unless it is first sanctified according to its nature. But, subject to this purifying, all that is not in itself sinful may be adapted to Christian ends, and used by Christian people.

Consider again, with respect to the booty taken—

I. THAT IT WAS VERY GREAT, AND GREATLY ENRICHED THE PEOPLE. Even so there is more spiritual gain to be made by attacking and destroying sins than by anything else. Churches and souls would never need to complain of spiritual poverty if they busied themselves in waging zealous and unsparing war against the sins within their own reach, within themselves.

II. THAT ALL SHARED IN THE SPOIL, BUT THOSE THAT WARRED HAD BY FAR THE LARGER SHARE INDIVIDUALLY. Even so it is for the profit and edification of all that sins should be successfully assailed; but those who bear the brunt of temptation and strive against sin even "unto blood" have by far the greater reward in themselves. Let this be our Christian ambition, to earn the higher prizes of "him that overcometh".

III. THAT AMONGST THE SPOIL THERE WERE A MULTITUDE OF HUMAN BEINGS, AND THESE PROBABLY THE MOST VALUABLE PART OF IT. Even so in the Christian warfare against sin there are a multitude of souls rescued from slavery, and these of priceless worth, beyond all other rewards which we could ask or think of. The girls of Midian seemed to be delivered into slavery; they were in fact delivered from a horrible slavery, and made free in the only way which was then possible. So are those souls which are brought into the service and strictness of Christ made free by the truth.

IV. THAT THE LORD'S PORTION AND THE PORTION OF HIS MINISTERS WAS EXACTED BEFORE THE SPOIL MIGHT BE APPROPRIATED. Even so, whatever is allowed to Christian use which has belonged to a sinful world, God and his Church have a first claim upon it. It is only through the sanctifying influences of grace that Christian people can freely and safely enjoy the many comforts and luxuries and profits which else they must have forsworn. It is but right that these should first of all be willingly taxed for the glory of God among men, and for the support of all outward ministries of grace (Luke 11:41).

Consider again, with regard to Balaam's death—

I. THAT HE FELL AT LAST WHERE HE HAD NO REASON TO APPREHEND DANGER. Israel had passed by these tribes of Midian, and Balaam no doubt believed that all present danger from them was over. Even so vengeance overtakes the wicked at the moment when he is least afraid, and when justice seems to have forgotten him.

II. THAT HE FELL BY THE SWORD OF ISRAEL, i.e; BY THE HAND OF THOSE WHO HAD BEEN THE VICTIMS OF HIS GUILE. Even so it is a just thing with God that evil men and seducers should receive their punishment through those whom they have wronged.

III. THAT BALAAM, THE ENCHANTER AND TEMPTER OF ISRAEL, FELL WITHOUT A STRUGGLE WHEN THE PRINCES OF MIDIAN HAD BEEN SLAIN. Even so the tempter himself the arch-enemy of souls, will (as far as we are concerned) come utterly to an end as soon as we have overcome the allurements to sin which he uses against us (Romans 16:20).

Consider again, with regard to the offering of the officers—

I. THAT NOT ONE HAD FALLEN IN THE RANKS OF ISRAEL—a thing clearly beyond expectation in any ordinary expedition. Even so there is no reason why any should fall or fail in the warfare against fleshly lusts. For the promise of victory is not to all in general, or to the Church at large only, but to each soul in particular that will earnestly strive. And victory over sin implies eternal life (Ezekiel 18:23; Amos 9:9; Micah 7:8; Mal 3:17; 1 Corinthians 10:13, &c.).

II. THAT THE OFFICERS FELT THAT THIS IMMUNITY WAS DUE TO THE SPECIAL PROVIDENCE OF GOD. Even so that we escape from sin and death, that we come unhurt through so many perils to the soul, is not of our strength, but of God's assistance, and to him all the glory is due (Isaiah 40:29; 2 Corinthians 12:9; Philippians 4:13; 2 Timothy 4:17, 2 Timothy 4:18, &c.).

III. THAT THEY OWED A GREAT DEBT OF GRATITUDE TO GOD FOR THE PRESERVATION' OF THOSE WHO HAD BEEN COMMITTED TO THEIR CHARGE (literally, "in their hand "). Even so we ought to feel and to show great gratitude to God for the spiritual safety of such as are put in our charge, whether as children or otherwise. According to our responsibility for them, and our sorrow if they were lost, so should be our thankfulness if the good hand of God be upon them to keep them in the way of life (Philippians 1:3 :1Th Philippians 1:2, Philippians 1:3, &c.).

IV. THAT THEY SHOWED THEIR GRATITUDE BY THE SPECIAL DEDICATION TO GOD'S SERVICE OF THOSE PRECIOUS THINGS WITH WHICH THAT WARFARE HAD ENRICHED THEM. Even so when we and ours come unscathed out of the temptations of the world and of the flesh, we may well dedicate to God in some special way all the costly gifts of knowledge, of sympathy, of spiritual power and freedom which come of temptation and trial bravely overcome.

And note that the numbering of the men who had been to the war, and the offering of the golden spoil, may be interpreted of the last day.

1. That not one true soldier of Christ shall be missing then (John 10:28, John 10:29; Philippians 1:6; Revelation 7:3, Revelation 7:4 compared with Revelation 14:1).

2. That all the precious gifts yielded by human life amid strife and danger shall be brought into the holy city of God, to the glory of God (Revelation 21:24, Revelation 21:26).

3. That every one that overcometh shall be the better and the richer for his warfare against sin (see Numbers 31:53).


Numbers 31:1-54


In two of his prophecies Balaam had been compelled to speak of Israel as the lion (Numbers 23:24; Numbers 24:9). We now behold, in the destruction of Midian, the rousing of the lion-spirit. Something of it had been seen already in the conduct of Phinehas (Numbers 25:1-18), and now there is a manifestation on a larger scale in the achievement of these 12,000 men.

I. THE COMPLETENESS OF THE DESTRUCTION. All the males of Midian were slain, and the five kings are particularly mentioned as being among them. The women and their little ones were taken captive. The whole of their property was turned into spoil, and how large that spoil was we learn from the latter part of the chapter. Their cities and goodly castles were all burnt. And might not this seem destruction enough? Apparently not; for we read that Moses was wroth because the women had been spared, and they, as well as all the males of the little ones, had to be added to the slain. Thus the impression left upon us, and evidently intended to be left, is that of utter and merciless extermination. None were left to continue the race of Midian.

II. THE INSPIRATION OF THIS DREADFUL BLOW WAS EVIDENTLY FROM GOD. It was undertaken at his command, and not only so, but laid on Moses as his last great service before his departure.

"Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done."

Midian did not lie in the way of advancing Israel, as did the hosts of Sihon and Og. In one sense Israel had to turn out of its way in order to inflict this blow. We need to keep distinctly before our minds that God gave special command and made special preparation for it. The motive of this act is not to be found in the vindictive spirit of a half-savage people. The wrongs which, by natural disposition, they would have burned to avenge were not such as those inflicted by Midian. In truth there is no occasion either for blame anywhere, or for attempt at palliation. We must read this dreadful record in a spirit of humble submission to the authority of God, who sees need for temporal destruction where we may fail to see it.

III. That this blow came from God is made still clearer as we consider how HIS POWER GAVE THE BLOW ITS EFFICACY. Observe how small a part of the whole army was required—about a fiftieth, There is no mention of a selected company to engage against Sihon and Og, but now this small force is enough to crush the whole of Midian. If Israel had gone forth of its own accord, it would have made the result as sure as possible by taking a far larger force than actually went. But where God is not present he can turn mere numbers into loss rather than gain. It was an occasion for the excellency of the Divine power to be manifested. No actual leader is mentioned. Moses sent them forth, and on their return he went out to meet them, but they evidently lacked what inspiration his presence and counsel might give them in the field. Phinehas went with them, but he was in charge of the holy instruments and trumpets. We are made to feel that the invisible Jehovah himself was leader, not only directing the attack, but also providing sufficient defense; for when the officers came to count up the army on its return, they were able to say, "There lacketh not one man of us."

IV. THE REASON FOR THIS DREADFUL DESTRUCTION IS FOUND IN THE PECULIAR INJURY WHICH MIDIAN HAD DONE TO ISRAEL (Numbers 25:16-18). It must needs be that offences come, but woe to the Midianites through whom they come! Although they were not a very difficult people to defeat and destroy in battle, they had been very powerful to tempt Israel into idolatry. A thing which is comparatively easy to deal with in one way is impossible to deal with in another. Israel could annihilate Midian, and do something in that way to secure safety, but there was no chance of safety in having friendly intercourse with Midian. It had to be dealt with as a people saturated with the infecting corruptions of idolatry. Everything had to bend to the interests of Israel, as both typifying and cradling the Church of the future. For the sake of Israel God plagued and spoiled the tyrannous Egyptians; for the sake of Israel he made one whole generation of its own people to perish in the wilderness. What wonder then that for the sake of Israel he utterly destroyed the Midianite tempters! When a fire is extending it may be necessary to pull down other buildings to stop it—many buildings perhaps, as Evelyn tells us was the case in arresting the great fire of London. There is something very significant in the following sentence from his diary:—"This some stout seamen proposed early enough to have saved nearly the whole city, but this some tenacious and avaricious men, aldermen, &c; would not permit, because their houses must have been of the first." There may have to be a great deal of temporal destruction to make sure of eternal salvation.—Y.

Numbers 31:8, Numbers 31:16


I. How CLEAR IT IS MADE THAT BALAAM DID NOT DIE THE DEATH OF THE RIGHTEOUS! He was slain among those who were slain by the vengeance of God. He might, of course, have died in circumstances more peaceful and less indicative of his wickedness, and yet died the death of the wicked all the same. But now the manner of his end is left in no doubt. He had not only suffered himself to be drawn into opposition to the people of God, he had not only been disobedient to God himself, but it seems that he had been the chief provoking agent in bringing destruction on a portion of the present generation of Israel. Moreover, the very people whom he thought to help he had unconsciously led to their own ruin. He certainly could not have done all this if he had not found the materials ready to hand—actual idolatry in Midian, and the spirit of lust and idolatry in Israel. But it was he who saw with a sort of Satanic quickness all that could be done with the material. A man cannot cause an explosion unless he has explosive substances to deal with, but we reckon him responsible who applies the exploding agent. One sinner not only destroyeth much good, but, as we see here, produceth much evil Wicked men should learn from the history of Balaam that they may do a great deal more harm than they are conscious of. How much better it is to be on the other side, striving to draw men, even though it be with few apparent results, into the paths of purity, self-denial, and love!

II. FROM THE CHARACTER OF BALAAM WE SEE HOW REAL AND DESPERATE SPIRITUAL INSENSIBILITY MAY BE. Rightly considered, the whole conduct of Balaam is a great deal more perplexing than is the speaking of his ass. There we have to do just with the momentary occupation of the vocal organs of a brute by the speech of a human being. For a moment or two the ass was honoured beyond its natural faculties. But here is a man, raised above other men in many respects, acting in a way most humiliating to humanity. Favoured again and again with light which came to him in different ways, he remained in gross darkness with respect to the character of God as a whole. He saw not the folly, the absurdity, of the path in which he was treading. The conduct of Balaam in the essential principles of it /ms often been repeated, and is being repeated still. We are all spiritually blind unless God be pleased to open our eyes. Seeing the things of God by the light of nature, and judging of them by natural reason, we come to some strange and impotent conclusions. Balaam's indifference to the interferences of God is not one whit more marvelous than the unmoved, matter-of-fact way in which we can bear to have truths presented to our minds which, if they concern us to any extent, concern us more than all outward circumstances taken together. It is easy to say as one reads of Balaam, "What a fool! what an enigma! what a bundle of contradictions! what a mixture in his life of unwilling obedience to God and most obstinate persistence in his own path!" Take care lest it be said to one thus speaking, "Thou art the man." There is not a man of the world living in a land of open Bibles but whose conduct might be so described as to appear quite as perplexing as that of Balaam here.

III. A MAN MAY ENJOY GREAT PRIVILEGES, AND YET BE RUINED AT LAST. A seeing man may be quite safe in a dangerous path, and on the darkest night, with a little lamp, if it is enough to show him where his feet are to be placed. But a blind man will fall into the pit by noonday. A firmament radiant with a score of suns would avail nothing to such a one. A man may live in a land of Bibles, churches, and every conceivable variety of gospel ministrations, and yet die, after a long contact with all these, knowing nothing of his own state as a sinner, or of the power of Christ as a Saviour. Another man, in the midst of Africa, with no more than a torn leaf of the New Testament, might come to know the one thing needful, and be effectually led to repentance, faith, salvation, and eternal life. Privileges, as we call them, are nothing in themselves; all depends on how they are received. It was the same seed that was sown in the four different kinds of ground. One seed sown in the good ground will bring forth more than a cartload scattered by the wayside.

IV. BALAAM KNEW JUST ENOUGH OF THE TRUTH TO MISLEAD HIM, NOT ENOUGH TO LEAD HIM RIGHT. He apprehended the real power of Jehovah without apprehending his character as a whole. He had made the discovery that if Israel fell away into the worship of any other god, it would be very severely dealt with. Doubtless he had found his way into some intercourse with the Israelites, and been made acquainted with their past history, particularly with the commandment of God at Sinai against idolatry, and the sufferings which came upon the people because of the golden calf. But he did not know that in the midst of the most faithless and apostate of generations there would still be preserved a faithful seed; he did not reckon on the energetic and efficacious zeal of a Phinehas. And thus the great mischief to many arises not so much from total indifference to God as from misleading conceptions of him. It is only too easy for us to miss the full view which a sinner ought to have of God, and remain all our lifetime with erroneous and most limited conceptions. Some make too much of God's anger with sin, forgetting his love, his mercy, his patience, his revelation of himself as a Father; others make too much of his mercy, forgetting his unyielding righteousness, and the need of a radical change in man—a change in his motives, purposes, sympathies, and delights. Nothing is more perilous than to see so much of one side of the Divine character as not to see the rest. We must see it as it is revealed in Scripture. There the living God moves before us in his actions. We see his actions, and they cannot be understood unless as the harmonious outflow of all his character.—Y.

Numbers 31:25-47


I. GOD TAKES THE DISTRIBUTION INTO HIS OWN HANDS. The victory was his, and it was for him to arrange the spoils as might best serve his own purposes. It was the only effectual way of blighting in the bud all discord and jealousy. It was also the means of teaching important lessons to all in the community who were willing to learn. It helped to manifest afresh the unity of Israel. Those who had gone to the war had gone as representatives of the whole of Israel, hence it was for the whole of Israel to share in the spoil. While part was away, avenging the Lord of Midian, another part stayed at home, also serving God in its own way, and looking after the interests of those who were absent. We must not get into the way of looking at one part of the community as more necessary than another. It was not for the army to say, "What would Israel have done in taking vengeance on Midian but for us?" seeing that God had made it plain how he was working in and through the army. Nor was it for the people who stayed at home to say, "What right have twelve thousand men to half the spoils?" The twelve thousand were not looked at in themselves; they stood for Israel militant. All Israel gained a real blessing by this expedition, and the chief gain to them was in so far as they were effectually warned against the perils of idolatry. Whatever there might be in the way of improved perception of truth and duty and the Divine character was far more than all the spoil. God did not send them against Midian for the sake of the spoil, but for the sake of vengeance.

II. THE SPECIAL TRIBUTE TO THE LEVITES. It was very appropriate that this should be strictly exacted, after all the service which Phinehas had rendered. The tribe of Levi had done its part in a way which could not be mistaken. Upon this great occasion, when so much had to be distributed, God taught the lesson that distribution should be made according to the needs of men. The Levites had need not only to be supported, but well supported. The work they had to do, in the reality, the extent, the continuity, and the minuteness of it, had been lately indicated in more ways than one. Consider all the Levitical service that was involved in the offerings mentioned in Numbers 28:1-31 and Numbers 29:1-40. It was becoming more and more clear that Levi must be set apart and properly maintained; for thus only could there be regularity and efficiency in the service of God.

III. BALAAM'S ASS WAS PROBABLY AMONG THE ASSES THAT WERE TAKEN (Numbers 29:34). It is pleasant to imagine that it may have found its way into the Lord's tribute, and that the animal which had so long borne a wicked man faithfully, would now with equal faithfulness be able to bear perhaps Eleazar himself. We need much of the spirit of obedience to God to use rightly that vast multitude of the brute creation which God has put under our control. How pitiable to see the horse carefully trained for war, and, as one might almost think, taught to cherish feelings which by nature are alien to it! May we not well wish for the day when not only the sword of the dragoon shall be turned to the ploughshare, but the horse on which he tides shall draw that share along? Think how the horse and other animals are degraded by the occasions for gambling which they furnish. Think of all the cruel field-sports in which man finds such pleasure. When be leaves the pleasures which are appropriate to his nature, what a tyrannous and hideous monster he may become! Man in all his life should be drawing nearer to God, and, rising higher himself, should raise all creation with him. Whereas he is drawn downward, and in his willing descent he degrades even the lower creation.—Y.

Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Numbers 30". The Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tpc/numbers-30.html. 1897.
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