Numbers 31, the Midianites, and Genocide, Part 1

maps-bible-archeology-exodus-arabia-midianites-ishmaelitesI’m a fan of Al Maxey’s work. He began posting on the Internet long before me, and he’s done a world of good for a great many readers, myself included.

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]

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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19 Responses to Numbers 31, the Midianites, and Genocide, Part 1

  1. Price Futrell says:

    Would you consider I Sam 15:3ff a similar over statement ? It seems to be a direct quote…

  2. Chris says:

    So very interesting, I had never heard this. Seems like those old fishing stories, where the fish that was caught got bigger everytime the story was told. It really helps to understand culture, context and history, especially when it comes to those difficult passages.

  3. Alabama John says:

    As I posted earlier, the children killed were like the mentally off and they both went to heaven. That same, rescuing them from ultimate hell, thinking, is used throughout our wars when we bomb or use artillery on cities where children are and kill them.

    We still teach and believe that today don’t we. Nothing new! We, as the Israelite did to the Midianite children and mentally off do them a big favor really.

    It is terrible on the enemy, but think of how those doing the killing of women and children feel and think, and dream the rest of their lives.
    Wonder if they had as many of their military committing suicide as we do.

    Memorial Day brings back a lot of memory. Maybe that is another reasson why its called that!!!

  4. laymond says:

    “Evidently, the language of Numbers was not expected to be read literally.”

    Jay, do you believe the language of Genesis was meant to be believed, what makes your story better or worse than the story of an intentional flood that killed every living thing except a few. I am sure there were women and children there. New born children could not have been evil, unless they were born evil. How could that happen , only one way. The wrath of God is not a thing you want to endure.
    AJ do you really think the offspring of those who anger God to the point of destruction, are heaven bound. He already threw a third of the angels out of heaven, according to the bible. I believe Paul said pay no mind to “Fables, and wife’s tales ” . Human nature hasn’t changed that much over the years, can you imagine how tall Wilt Chamberlin will be in a thousand years.?

    I believe what Jesus told us about God, not what someone who never saw God blamed him for.
    I believe it is written “no man has seen God, Jesus describes him to us” (paraphrase )
    Why do you think Jesus brought a new story, a new covenant.?

  5. laymond says:

    1Ti 1:4 Neither give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which minister questions, rather than godly edifying which is in faith: so do.
    1Ti 4:7 But refuse profane and old wives’ fables, and exercise thyself rather unto godliness.
    2Ti 4:4 And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.
    Tit 1:14 Not giving heed to Jewish fables, and commandments of men, that turn from the truth.
    2Pe 1:16 ¶ For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty.
    2Pe 1:17 For he received from God the Father honour and glory, when there came such a voice to him from the excellent glory, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.
    2Pe 1:18 And this voice which came from heaven we heard, when we were with him in the holy mount.

  6. laymond says:

    Does anyone here believe “Katrina” was a God given punishment for evil people? How about Alabama tornados , flash floods. The bible warns of wars, and rumors of war, but it mentions nothing about God causing them. Paraphrasing Forest Gump — happens.

  7. S.A. native says:

    I remember when people jumped on the Katrina disaster as God’s punishment. Same people were all mute when, sometime later, devastating floods left a Church of Christ preacher in Tennessee in a tree hanging on for his life.

  8. Andrew says:

    I love poplar trees. Each summer there will be a day when the State Road Dept. will drive by my house mowing the hillside next to the road. Between those mowing times, when the weeds are insufferably tall, I’ll bite the bullet and do some weed trimming myself. Just last week, as I was trimming, I found a poplar tree sapling growing about 6″ off the road that had made it to around 12″ tall. Normally, I’d let that sucker grow because, as I said before, I love poplar trees.
    Yet, I destroyed it with my weed eater. Why? I knew that where it was and in that situation it would never grow to maturity. I’d rather see it destroyed on my terms than being allowed to grow for a year and destroyed by the big tractors next summer. Knowing it would ultimately be destroyed anyway, It seemed merciful to me to destroy it sooner than later.

    Now, make that same application to human life.

    As Al said, I don’t understand God all the time; his ways aren’t mine. But, that being said, here is at least one situation, in my limited mortal mind, when the death of infant would be better than its ultimate demise in adulthood.

    I’m not claiming God thought like that with Midian, but I’m not saying he didn’t either. He being higher than we, can see further down the road of time than any of us.

  9. Alabama John says:

    When the innocent die that unknowing innocence gets them a free ticket to heaven. Only ones going to hell are those that knowingly, intentionally sin and don’t get forgiveness. All babies, young children and mentally off, anyone that does not know what sin is, get a pass regardless of time, race or nationality.

  10. laymond says:

    AJ, what is the difference between mentally deficient, and knowledge deficient . Do you think the men of mars hill were saved before Paul taught them about the unknown God, Paul said the time of ignorance had passed.

  11. Price Futrell says:

    Andrew… that’s kind of where i am on the issue… Doesn’t seem to me to make much difference in the end if God terminates them now or later… Either way they’re terminated… The innocent, as AJ says…are innocent… I think our anxiety comes from our expectation that we have a right to live and do as we please… Seems God doesn’t think much of that view.

  12. Jay Guin says:


    As is true of the Midianites, there are several references to the Amalekites after Saul is said to have destroyed them all. 1 Sam. 30:1, 13, 18; 2 Sam. 1:1, 8, 13; 8:12; 1 Chr. 18:11.

  13. Price Futrell says:

    Jay, yet the instruction from God remains……..

  14. R.J. says:

    This is an interesting discussion. Copan makes a compelling case for the literary motif argument. Could the same hyperbole argument be applied to God’s other judgments recorded in scripture? Like when 24,000 Israelite’s perished(by snakebites) as a result of violently protesting God.

  15. Alabama John says:

    Laymond, one can learn if they have access and the other can’t.
    Interestingly, all of your and my ancestors since Noah will be judged according to their availability to get and understand God and His wants.
    Since all of our ancestors were not Isrealites, Jews, or even members of the coC (either one of the 27 or more splitoffs) and even most today worldwide are not, I don’t believe that sends them all to hell. Seeing them in heaven is looked forward to.
    All those before us, including the ones we give much credit to like Martin Luther, The Campbell’s were of another religious persuasion that today is taught erroneously by the coC that those will burn in hell for not understanding and obeying exactly as we say do.
    Gods judgment and grace is far more fair and understanding than ours it seems.

  16. Alabama John says:

    R.J. Don’t fear the one that can kill only the body, fear the one that can kill both the body and soul.
    Those 20,000 died. How many were innocent children and how is their soul, spirit today?
    Those 20,000 might of been a long way from the children, who knows? God has a way of arranging things His way and its always just right for the BIG picture He can see and we can’t. Remember how much larger and higher is His ways then ours!

  17. Monty says:

    Take nothing at face value it would seem. I think Paul used this same hyperbole in the 1st Corinthian letter when he said he “didn’t baptize any of you”, oh yeh except there was that guy and this guy and oh I forgot about that family, and so on…but people will build a case for not needing baptism because of what Paul said and miss his point all together.

    Perhaps scholars will tell us that God didn’t really destroy “everyone” save for Noah and his family, it was just a literary device, just like 6 days weren’t really 6 literal days. Was Goliath really that tall or was it hyperbole? Just like that 2 pound bass became a 10 pounder. I’m all for scholarship but man oh man it seems to get to a point where nothing you read(in scripture) can be taken at face value.

  18. laymond says:

    Monty, if we could see what God sees every day, death would not bother us nearly as much. I wonder just how many human lives cease to be every second in time. we are being born, and dropping dead every second, many more each hour. I can’t even imagine how tally can be kept. we look at our community, God sees the earth. I don’t know how many here have been to war, but in war death is not only there it is expected. What is not expected is to live a long productive life.
    Yes God sees things differently.

  19. Dustin says:

    I think it helps to realize that a myth doesn’t mean an untrue story, it is a greater story that simply lining up the facts. NT Wrights says it better than I can in his videos at BioLogos:

    “When anthropologists talk about myth, what they mean is not ‘an untrue story.’ What they mean is, ‘A story which is full of power for how we understand ourselves individually, for how we understand ourselves as a community, for how we understand what the human project is all about, and some of its paradoxes, tradgedies, and so on.”

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