We’re continuing to look at ways to deal with one of the Bible’s most difficult passages, Num 31, where Moses commanded that upon defeat of an enemy, all the people were to be killed, regardless of age, other than virgin girls.
In Part 1, we considered, as a first possibility, the likelihood that the text contains hyperbolic or exaggerated language typical of the Ancient Near East. We now consider some additional possibilities.
Second, Matt Lynch has posted a series on the battles recorded in Joshua with interesting insights as to the methods of early Hebrew recording of history. Here and here. (The other posts in the series are fascinating reads as well.)
His point is that, closely read, the passages regarding devoting an enemy to utter destruction were in fact understood by the Hebrews to mean that the Jews should completely separate themselves from their neighbors’ idolatrous practices and destroy every idol and idolatrous temple.
Read his arguments before reacting.
Third, the Expositor’s Bible Commentary sees things in terms of the necessity of preserving God’s chosen people against the risk of destruction as a distinct people. Had the Midianites succeeded in having their women seduce the Hebrew men (Num 25), there’d have been no Israel left to carry on God’s purposes.
The only way to understand such a ghastly command is to realize what was at stake in the story of Baal Peor (ch. 25), the incident that gave rise to the holy war in the first place. This story is not just another account of sin and rebellion in the desert. Indeed, if the story of Baal Peor is not an unusual and remarkable account, then the punishment meted out in chapter 31 is not in keeping with the crime.
Numbers 25 is unique. It records an altogether new type of sin and rebellion—one that bears within itself the threat of the doom of the nation as a whole. As we know, from our distance, it was the very type of evil described in chapter 25 that finally destroyed the Hebrew kingdoms in the land. While it is difficult to say such a thing, the destruction of the women and the boys was an act of God’s mercy—for Israel. There is a sense of perspective here that is so very difficult to grasp and yet which permeates the Word of God: Divine judgment is sure for the nations who are a threat to the existence of God’s people or who have rejected his grace.
Ronald B. Allen, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, 1990, 2, 967.
Fourth, we might analogize to the use of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Babies and young boys were killed, along with male and female adults. These bombs destroyed the population of entire cities indiscriminately — in order to end a brutal war that was killing hundreds of thousands of soldiers and would have continued much longer but for the bombing. The bombing of Dresden was similar, although involving only conventional bombs. The city was filled with factories equipping the Nazi war machine, and it was burned by Ally incendiary bombs — killing thousands of civilians.
Obviously, not everyone is comfortable with the moral calculus of the atomic bombing of Japan, but there is truth to the observation that killing young men drafted into the army is not much more moral than killing babies. Our culture distinguishes killing soldiers from civilians, even though a soldier may be drafted and fighting against his will while the civilian is very happily working in a napalm factory.
The Geneva convention allows the intentional killing of soldiers — generally adult males but often adult males who’ve never married, had children, perhaps who’ve never had sex, or finished college. Virgins. “Boys” is the correct word. So I’m not sure that we get to claim much moral superiority here, as awful as the account in Numbers is.
That, of course, argues two ways: either than modern warfare is just as immoral as Num 31 or that Num 31 is no more immoral than what the US (and many other nations) do every day in war. I’m no pacifist, but I believe most of our wars fail to meet the “just war” teachings of the church. But even when the war is just, children die — intentionally when they are soldiers and often unintentionally as “collateral damage,” but if you declare a war, you know that you’re going to kill some children. The “just war” argument is that some warfare justifies even that horrific cost. World War II would be the classic example.
Fifth, the question of determining virginity seems superscilious to me. In most cultures of that time, girls were married shortly after reaching puberty, meaning there weren’t any 18-year old virgins. And if they’d married, their marital status was shown by their clothing, jewelry, or the like. Virgins dressed differently to indicate their availability for marriage. In fact, 50 years ago, in the US, you could tell whether a girl was a virgin by looking for a wedding ring. The odds of that working today have greatly shifted, but in the Ancient Near East, there was very little pre-marital sex because marriage came so early.
Sixth, it’s unclear whether the virgins were taken as slaves, concubines, or wives. They would have been too young to marry initially, and so likely became slaves. How they were treated after that was a matter of Torah, which treated slaves much better than the surrounding nations. And so it’s an overreach to read rape into the text.
(Num. 31:18 ESV) “But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him keep alive for yourselves.”
Seventh, the undertones of the story may be more important than the obvious narrative —
The teaching of the priestly writers is that war pollutes. [The soldiers could not return to the camp for a week because they were unclean.] … For the priestly writers, participation in war requires the most rigorous form of purification. Killing in war does not sanctify its participants but defiles them even when the war has been commanded by God, raising the question of whether there is such a thing as “holy war” in priestly teaching.
Thomas B. Dozeman, “The Book of Numbers,” in Numbers-2 Samuel (vol. 2 of NIB, Accordance electronic ed. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), 247.
So that’s seven arguments — in addition to Max’s excellent thoughts quoted in Part 1. I’ll not offer a conclusion. I just point out that there’s much more here to think about than simply: “Moses ordered the deaths of children.”
We hop on our moral high horses all too easily. We pretend to some sort of moral superiority, while the US is waging war in Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq (at least), and children are dying. Many church members are urging the president to turn the Middle Eastern sands into glass with nuclear bombs. Others would happily have us leave these nations regardless of the cost to the children we leave behind. The moral calculus is not easy — and we rarely bother to actually weigh the costs in any terms other than American lives and American dollars, as though our lives and dollars are the only ones that matter.
I guess my point is that (a) Moses is not nearly as bad as he is pictured in these discussions and (b) we need to be willing to withstand the same moral scrutiny we impose on him. If he was wrong, how well do we stand up to the standards by which we judge?
One more point: We assume that those who die in war go to hell, when the scriptures say no such thing. If God wants to eradicate a nation to make room for Israel, perhaps the dead in that nation wind up in eternal bliss? Perhaps God in his compassion gave the war-dead in Canaan a reprieve from hell. We don’t know, and we shouldn’t assume.
To return to a point Al made, we really aren’t in a position to judge God. We have no right. And what is wrong for us may not be wrong for him. For us to kill someone is to permanently end his chance to be redeemed. And it’s to permanently change the future of the world by taking a life irrecoverably from it. Who can measure the consequences?
Only God. But God can redeem those who would have been redeemed but for his intervention. And he knows the future contingent consequences of his decisions. We do not. He knows what makes for a better world. We rarely have a clue. He is not subject to the same standards that we are — not just because he’s God, but because, being God, he knows the consequences of his decisions and can change the consequences of his decisions when his justice and mercy so require.