Al recently wrote a post on one of the most difficult passages in the Bible, the massacre of the Midianites. My goal here is not to disagree with anything Al said (I pretty much agree with it all) but to look for additional insights into the text.
Al gives a good description of the background, and I’ll not repeat that material here. For our present purposes, here’s Al’s introduction to the problematic part of the text:
At the end of [Num 25], God gave this charge to Moses, “Treat the Midianites as enemies and kill them, because they treated you as enemies when they deceived you” (verses 17-18). God demanded an avenging of His people for the deaths that had come as a result of the evil seductions by the Midianites (with most of that seduction coming from the women, though they were ordered to do it by the Midianite men).
… It is quite possible that Moses himself had been reluctant to order the expedition against Midian” [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 2, p. 399].
That reluctance, if it existed, would be understandable, for what God appears to be demanding is nothing less than the extermination of an entire population; what some might term a genocide. Men, women, children, babies! Wipe them out! To carry out the Lord’s will, Moses raised an army of 12,000 men (a thousand from each tribe) to make war against the Midianites. … “So they made war against Midian, just as the Lord had commanded Moses, and they killed every male” (vs. 7).
Now, warfare results in the deaths of soldiers. This is not the hard part. Rather,
These victors, however, did not get the reception they expected. Instead of being welcomed with celebration, “Moses was angry with the officers of the army” (vs. 14). Why? Because they hadn’t killed the women and children also (vs. 15). Moses then issued this order: “Kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man intimately. But all the girls who have not known man intimately, spare for yourselves” (vs. 17-18). These soldiers were faced with a situation where they were being ordered to kill thousands of unarmed women and children; to slaughter them on the spot without mercy.
Further, how were they to know if a female was a virgin or not? Were they to be subjected to the humiliation of a physical exam prior to execution?
Yeesh. How do we reconcile this account with the Jesus and the God of the NT?
Al offers some helpful thoughts —
God Himself declares, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways” (Isaiah 55:8). We “do not know the thoughts of the Lord,” and we “do not understand His plan” (Micah 4:12). Thus, we (who are but “dust” – Genesis 18:27) should exercise great caution in condemning our Creator for not measuring up to OUR standards!
The truth is: God had a reason for dealing with the Midianites the way He did, even though I might not fully understand what His thinking was. These were people who had sought to undermine His will to establish a people from whom would come the Messiah. They (and this included especially the women) sought to seduce the men of Israel to sexual excesses, which would then lead (as it did) to spiritual excesses (such as idolatry).
The soldiers of this nation, and the seducing women, were to be destroyed; this, as it always does in war, impacted some not directly involved. But, there was a “bigger picture” (God’s will for mankind) that could not be allowed to fail, even though the corrective action would prove to be both horrifying and painful (such is the consequence of departing from His will).
I fully believe that God was just in what He did with the Midianites (as He will also be just in His dealings at the end of time when His righteous judgment is rendered against mankind one last time), even though such actions are horrific to contemplate. There is a part of me that wants to set aside His divine objectives and perspectives (as best as I understand them, which is probably minimal) and focus on the pain and suffering of those being slaughtered.
The scene before me sickens me; it breaks my heart; it angers me; it raises questions and doubts that are troubling. I am left at a crossroads: I will either call my God to account based on MY understandings and sensibilities, or I will acknowledge my limited grasp of my Creator and His eternal design for His creation and bow myself before Him. I choose the latter. I am but dust with doubts!! Yet, I have a Father who has never failed me, even though I don’t always understand His ways or His will. I have questions; I have doubts; I have frustrations … I also have faith. Dear God, please let the latter overpower the former in my life. Lord, “I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24).
(Emphasis in quoted material in original; paragraphing modified to facilitate reading.)
So one entirely understandable (and sensible) position is to believe despite all the difficulties engendered by the account. In addition to the passages quoted by Al, we could refer to Job (entire chapters) and the Psalms (entire psalms) for the fact that we have no right to judge God and just need to get over it.
But my experience is that this text especially is often used by skeptics to challenge the faith of Christians. Some Christians have enough faith not to be shaken by the account, but others find the story too horrendous to get past.
Is there a better understanding? A deeper understanding?
First, we know from scripture that the story is an exaggeration. The Midianites were not exterminated by Joshua’s army because they were later defeated by Gideon (Judges 6 – 8).
(Jdg. 6:1-2 ESV) The people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and the LORD gave them into the hand of Midian seven years. 2 And the hand of Midian overpowered Israel, and because of Midian the people of Israel made for themselves the dens that are in the mountains and the caves and the strongholds.
Evidently, the language of Numbers was not expected to be read literally. If your football team utterly defeats a hated rival, you might describe your team as “killing,” “murdering,” “annihilating,” or “destroying” your opponent. Scholars thousands of years later may read your writings and think you really meant what you said!
In Did God Really Command Genocide (2014), by Paul Copan and Matt Flannagan, the authors argue that much of the Old Testament’s language was never meant to be taken literally. The argument is well summarized by Mark Foreman —
As evidence to support this claim, F&C offer studies of other ancient Near Eastern conquest accounts where the use of hyperbole and formaulaic styles, often referred to as “transmission codes,” similar to those found in Joshua are employed in a variety of ways such as appeals to divine intervention and in similar structural relationships. Most striking are where victories over enemies are described in exaggerated hyperbolic terms of “total conquest, complete annihilation and destruction of the enemy killing everyone, leaving no survivors, etc.” (97). F&C cite renowned Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen as affirming this point:
The type of rhetoric in question was a regular feature of military reports in the second and first millennia, as others have made clear. . . . In the later fifteenth century Tuthmosis III could boast “the numerous army of Mitanni was over thrown within the hour, annihilated totally like those (now) non-existent” whereas, in fact, the forces of Mitanni lived to fight many another day in the fifteenth and fourteenth centuries. Some centuries later about 840/830, Mesha king of Moab could boast that “Israel has utterly perished for always”—a rather premature judgment at that date, by over a century! And so on ad libitum. It is in the frame of reference that the Joshua rhetoric must also be understood. (quoted by F&C, 97)
Lawson Younger is also cited as offering many examples such as Merneptah’s Stele describing a skirmish in which Egypt totally annihilated Israel and Sennacherib’s claim that he cut down the soldiers of Hiramme and “not one escaped” (98). Several other examples are cited by F&C to drive home the point that it was common for the extensive use of hyperbole to be employed as description of battle and victory over one’s enemies in ancient Near Eastern literature.
It is evident that such hyperbolic rhetoric was never meant to be taken literally. This can be seen especially in biblical texts where such a literal interpretation would not even make sense given the entire context of the passage. Oftentimes a text will make a claim that all of the inhabitants of a city were eradicated only to speak of survivors later in the passage, sometimes in the very next verse.
[to be continued]