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Wednesday, July 24th, 2024
the Week of Proper 11 / Ordinary 16
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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 31

Whedon's Commentary on the BibleWhedon's Commentary



The sentence of Midian, pronounced in Numbers 25:17, and suspended during the census requisite for the more perfect military organization of Israel, is now to be rigorously executed. This war, short, sharp, and decisive, was proclaimed by Moses as his last administrative act before his rehearsal of the law and his death as recorded in the Book of Deuteronomy. The war resulted in the conquest of the promised land east of the Jordan.

Verses 1-2


2. Avenge the children of Israel This is stronger than an ordinary declaration of war. It is the execution of the righteous sentence of Jehovah. Midian had deliberately plotted the moral and national ruin of Israel, clearly demonstrated to be the people of God by the favours shown them. The means employed by the Midianites to compass the downfall of Israel reveals a moral obliquity so marked and contagious as to call for the seven punitive measures ordered.

Gathered unto thy people Numbers 27:13, note.

Verse 3

3. Arm some of yourselves The strong faith of Moses that Jehovah would signally interpose in behalf of Israel is seen in the order to call out but one fiftieth of the army, though Midian, judging from the five kings slain, and the greatness of the spoils, was a mighty foe.

Avenge the Lord It was pre-eminently Jehovah’s war in vindication of his own honour, for he who touches his people touches the apple of his eye.

Verses 5-7

5-7. Twelve thousand The conscription of so small a number against the hosts of Midian; the appointment, as commander, of Phinehas, who had recently so greatly signalized himself by his zeal against the sin to which Midian had decoyed Israel; the holy instruments, the trumpets, and other furniture of the tabernacle borne with the army all indicate that the arm of Jehovah is to be made bare in victory; and the indication is strikingly confirmed by the miraculous preservation from death of every Israelite sent to the war.

The trumpets These were for the double purpose of giving an alarm blast and of a memorial or pledge that Israel should be remembered by Jehovah in the day of battle. Numbers 10:9, note.

And they warred There is no record of the decisive battles and brave deeds of this campaign; only the results are noted. Since Jehovah signally fought on this occasion, it is fitting that little or no mention should be made of his humble human allies.

Slew all the males The adults were slain on the field of battle and in the sacking of cities, since it was a war of vengeance.

Verse 8

8. Slew the kings of Midian “Our translators have not exhibited the distinction between the two Hebrew words here employed. Render thus: And the kings of Midian they put to death, besides those that fell in battle; namely, etc. From which it would seem that besides these five, put to death after battle, there were other Midianitish kings who perished fighting; and also that Balaam (chap. xxii-xxiv, notes) did not fall in battle, but was judicially executed.” Canon Cook.

Five kings Vassals of Sihon, the Amorite. Joshua 13:21, note. These, together with Balaam, were reserved for a more formal execution because they were instigators (Numbers 31:16) of the wicked plot to draw Israel into the pollution of idolatry and whoredom.

Verse 10

10. Cities wherein they dwelt Literally, towns in their dwellings. These were not built by the Midianites a nomad race, but probably by the Moabites who had been dispossessed by the Amorites under Sihon. This country was allotted to Reuben. Joshua 13:15-23.

Goodly castles Not modern castles, but “encampments,” (R.V.,) rude dwellings made of stone walls surmounted by a canvass or skin covering. These, arranged in a circle, constituted a pastoral hamlet such as are found today among the Arabs and in Algeria.

Verse 11

11. Prey… of men Human beings, women and children, prisoners of war.

Verse 12

12. The plains of Moab Numbers 22:1, note.

Verse 13


13. Went forth to meet them As Melchizedek, king and priest, met Abram after the slaughter of the kings, (Genesis 14:18,) to bless the victor and receive tithes. Moreover, the law required the cleansing of the soldiers after a battle before entering the holy camp of Israel. Numbers 5:2-3; Numbers 19:11-18, notes.

Verse 14

14. Moses was wroth The meekest man on earth was, (Numbers 12:3, note,) under personal abuse, often angry in the interest of justice. The more Godlike a man is, the more capable he is of indignation against sin. Plato compares the man who is not angry against injustice to one who has a withered muscle. Mark 3:5, note.

Verse 15

15. All the women In the gradation of guilt Balaam, Balak, and the princes were first as contrivers of the nefarious scheme to draw Israel into crime, and the women of Midian were second as the agents in its execution. Hence the indignant surprise of Moses that the latter had been spared when punishment for the past and security for the future demanded their death.

Verse 16

16. Matter of Peor See Numbers 25:3; Numbers 25:18, notes.

Verse 17

17. The little ones The object of the command to kill every male was to exterminate the whole nation, the cup of whose iniquity was full. For the righteousness of the mode see Joshua 6:21, note. Every woman who might possibly have been engaged in the licentious worship of Peor was to share the fate of the male children, to preserve Israel from all taint of that abomination. The pure maidens could be incorporated into Israel without peril to the national religion. Joshua 6:23-25, notes. They could not be treated as concubines, since the law against fornication was in full force, (Deuteronomy 22:25-29,) but they could be lawfully married to their captors. Deuteronomy 21:10-14.

Verse 19


19. Without the camp seven days The duration of pollution by the dead. Numbers 19:11, note.

Any person Hebrew, soul. Numbers 5:2, note.

Purify With the water of separation. Captives were not rendered unclean by contact with the dead until they were incorporated into Israel as lawful possessions. Then they must be purified on the third and on the seventh day. Numbers 19:12, note.

Verses 20-23

20-23. All raiment Or cloth for any use. Numbers 4:6-7, notes. Every thing that could not bear the fire was to be drawn through water.

The metals were to be passed through the fire and then to be sprinkled with the water of separation. Fire and water as purifiers are symbols of spiritual sanctification. Matthew 3:11; Psalms 66:10; Psalms 66:12; John 3:5, notes.

Verse 24

24. Wash your clothes According to the law. Numbers 19:19.

Verse 26


26. Chief fathers This means heads of the fathers’ houses. See full form, Exodus 6:14.

Verse 27

27. The prey The spoils and captives.

Two parts The soldiers and the congregation were to share equally. Joshua 22:8, note.

Verse 28

28. Levy a tribute One fifth of one per cent. of the portion of the army of the human captives and animals was to be set apart for the Lord in acknowledgment of him as the God of battles and the author of victory.

Verse 29

29. A heave offering Numbers 15:19, note. This was for the support of the priests, as were the tithes. Numbers 5:9, note. They might put the cattle into their own flocks as did the Levites, (Numbers 35:3,) and slay them as they required them. The maidens were employed as servants. The asses they sold.

Verse 30

30. One… of fifty,… unto the Levites Two per cent. of the spoils shall be given by the people to Levi, the priestly tribe. These in turn, according to law, (chap. Numbers 18:26-28,) would give a tenth of their receipts, or a five hundredth of the whole booty, to the priests, making their entire receipts two five hundredths of the whole. But in this case the law was not applied, as appears from the following allotment of the spoils:

Sheep. Beeves. Asses. Persons. Whole number 675,000 72,000 61,000 32,000 To the army 337,500 36,000 30,500 16,000 To the people 337,500 36,000 30,500 16,000 To the Levites 6,750 720 610 320 To Jehovah 675 72 61 32 If the Levites gave a tithe of their portion to Jehovah, of which we have no record in this case, his portion would have been double that which is shown in the account. The spoils, strictly so called, armour, household goods, clothing, and money were not divided in common, but belonged to the individual captors. We are not to suppose that the above scheme includes the sheep and beeves consumed by the army in the field, but only those brought to the camp on the plains of Moab. The enormous quantity of the booty indicates the strength of the foe and the magnitude of the victory.

Verse 49


49. There lacketh not one man The supernatural element in this campaign is seen in this astonishing report of the officers of the army, that not a man of the twelve thousand who went forth to this war failed to answer to the roll call on their last review before entering the camp. It is remarkable that in all the record of Joshua’s conquest of Western Palestine there is no dead list, save in the case of the defeat before Ai, which was in consequence of unpunished sin in the camp. Joshua 7:0, notes.

Verse 50

50. An oblation for the Lord A practical expression of gratitude shown by every man for his miraculous preservation.

Jewels Modern scholarship thus revises this list: ankle chains, (R.V.,) or arm rings, (2 Samuel 1:10,) bands or bracelets, signet rings, hoops, (Ezekiel 16:12,) earrings, and gold buckles or balls, Or, R.V., armlets, (margin,) necklaces.

An atonement for our souls Knobel, in his attempt to find some sin to be expiated, fixes upon Israel’s failure to destroy all the Midianites, but Keil and Baumgarten think that the feeling of the soldiers that they were unworthy of any such grace as had been shown them in exemption from death in war justifies this strong expression, “for the expiation of their souls.” Hence the oblation constructively “covers” the guilt incurred by unacknowledged mercies by preventing its imputation. In the same manner the half shekel was an atonement. Exodus 30:15. Sin actually incurred was usually expiated by blood, (Leviticus iv and Numbers 17:11, notes,) but sometimes by intercession (Exodus 32:30) or its symbol, the burning of holy incense, (Numbers 16:46, note,) and once by extraordinary zeal in punishing crime. Numbers 25:8; Numbers 25:13.

Verse 52

52. All the gold 16,750 shekels of gold are equal to nearly $123,000. Considering the greater purchasing power of gold in ancient times, this amount would be probably equal to nearly a million of dollars. This shows the greatness of the conquered foe. Estimating the 32,000 maidens to be one fifth of the population ruled by the five kings, the sum total would be 160,000. The military strength would be about 40,000 men. “The quantity of jewelry seized as booty is quite in harmony with the well known love of nomads, and even of barbarous tribes, for ornaments of this kind; and the peculiar liking of the Midianites for such things is confirmed by the account in Judges 8:26, according to which Gideon took as much as 1,700 shekels in weight of golden rings from the Midianites alone, besides ornaments of other kinds.” Keil and Delitzsch.

Verse 53

53. The men of war The common soldiers seem not to have contributed to this memorial offering. Possibly all the golden booty was a perquisite of the officers, and the privates took the less valuable spoil.

Verse 54

54. A memorial The ornaments may have been melted and wrought up into one piece of a monumental form.

Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Numbers 31". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/whe/numbers-31.html. 1874-1909.
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