Numbers 31, the Midianites, and Genocide, Part 2


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.

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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11 Responses to Numbers 31, the Midianites, and Genocide, Part 2

  1. Price Futrell says:

    I think most are familiar in some way with this passage… [1Sa 15:22 ESV] 22 And Samuel said, “Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams.”

    I wonder how many are aware that it is God’s response to King Saul NOT obeying God’s command to utterly destroy…. [1Sa 15:3 ESV] 3 Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.'”

    Some things are difficult….

  2. David Himes says:

    This is one of those passages, which compels me to reconsider how we read the Scriptures. Personally, I remain a little skeptical that the Text is intended to be analyzed at such a microscopic level. If it was, I think God would have been capable of removing the vagaries we so often debate.

  3. Jay Guin says:

    Saul is recorded as preserving the life of king Agag and the animals, but not the women and children. I wonder if God wanted the animals destroyed to send the message that these are not wars of conquest but of judgment, that is, that Israel wasn’t fighting to take away other people’s stuff — the usual reason for war — but as agents of God’s wrath for the sins of the Amalekites (Exo 17)?

    Now, if that’s true, it may also be true that women and children were treated as chattel in that culture. That is, part of the spoils of war was getting to have the women and children as slaves. Again, God purpose was not to enrich Israel with an abundance of slaves gained through warfare but to rid the world of the Amalekites as a consequence of their sins against Israel.

    So the calculus of ANE warfare is dreadful, of course. For example, if you defeat the army, you may well kill every male old enough to father a child, leaving nothing but women, children, and perhaps very old men — in an age when life expectancy for most was maybe 40.So very few old men.

    Leave them alive and what happens? Well, they may all starve because they lack the men needed to do the manual labor involved in agriculture, etc. Or because you left them without war-ready men, they may be looted by other rapacious tribes that steal their harvests, leaving them to die.

    Due to the honor culture, you may have just set yourself up for yet another brutal war in 20 or so years when the boys grow up and train for vengeance. In fact, there’s a fair question of how you show mercy to an honor culture without setting up an endless cycle of violence and vengeance?

    The usual “solution” was to enslave the women and children, either assimilating them or so repressing them that they can never seek vengeance due to living lives of backbreaking labor. And so they disappear from history. (This is what the Romans did to Carthage, for example.)

    One might argue for the more “civilized” European approach — just kill the men old enough to fight — but the history of Europe is that this led to wars that lasted over a century. As soon as the population produced enough men to go back at it, the war reignited, meaning they had centuries of warfare and lived under constant threat of war — a cycle that didn’t end until WWII.

    So I’m not persuaded that there’s a good way to fight a war in a culture that rejects the Sermon on the Mount as ethic. That is, so long as we’re fighting over resources or for honor, the warfare never ends until an ethnic group is rendered extinct — a horrifying thought but, I think, true to history.

    The cure is Jesus’ teachings in Matt 5-7. Going the extra mile. Turning the other cheek. Refusing to judge. That is, leaving behind ancient notions of honor and enriching oneself through violence or threats of violence.

    We would like to imagine that Christian nations gave up warfare as a means of enrichment or vengeance due to the teachings of Jesus. But, in fact, the modern model of peace is far more driven by the Wealth of Nations than the Bible. That is, even non-Christian nations have learned enough economics to understand that wealth does not come from war, slavery, and colonialism. Hence, honor and tribute have been replaced with trade and globalization.The Japanese make far more money selling Toyotas than by occupying Manchuria.

    Now, if YHWH wishes to rid the land of certain tribes who have a culture that is destructive to humanity (such as human sacrifice), that’s his call. But as soon as YHWH decides to use Israel to execute his wrath, there are no nice, clean, bloodless options. And it was necessary that Israel receive its Promised Land.

    Consider child sacrifice. Rome ended Carthage’s child sacrifice by defeating their army, destroying their city, salting their fields, and selling the survivors into slavery. In the ANE, child sacrifice seems to have been ended by the Greeks and Romans, who enforced their rejection of the practice by killing child-sacrificers. Rome banned human sacrifice in 97 BC, evidently in emulation of Hellenistic rejection of the practice — which the Jewish prophets had failed to eliminate despite centuries of decrying the practice. It required an army. Persuasion by the prophets failed. Persuasion by the armies of the Hellenists and Romans succeeded — a sad commentary.

    So how does YHWH establish a nation of worshipers? How does he remove the existing inhabitants? How does he rid the land of infant sacrificers? How does he avoid centuries of warfare as vengeance is sought for earlier losses? There are no antiseptic, pretty solutions. There are no better choices. Every choice is bad — because of how very destructive honor cultures are.

    Nonetheless, there is evidence in the scriptures that in most cases tribes weren’t destroyed but dispossessed — relocated out the Promised Land. (There was much more available land in those days of much lower populations.) Resettlement served as the most common tool — which was not bloodless but avoided the need to exterminate the nations dispossessed. My guess is that resettlement was not pursued either when the nation was guilty of despicable practices that could only be eliminated by warfare or when the nation refused to accept resettlement. That is, God found that the world would be better off with some cultures entirely eliminated. I mean, who would argue that we’d be better off if Carthage had won the Punic Wars and defeated Rome, making child sacrifice standard practice in Europe?

    Sorry for my disorganized ruminations. Just trying to think through all this …

  4. Monty says:

    Our society has become one where people are outraged over the killing of a gorilla to save a child’s life. Animal life has the same value(if not greater)than human life for many these days. I love God’s animal kingdom and It was certainly a sad situation that the gorilla was put down and one that perhaps could have possibly had a better outcome if another choice was made but what parent would want the authorities in charge to “roll the dice” if it were their child in the gorilla cage and what sane sensible authorities would have chosen to in effect “roll those dice” with just the gamble that something else might have worked? As sad as the situation was it was the right call. Many people aren’t even willing to consider that the child very possibly could have been killed and that a much sadder outcome was just as much a reality as hoping the gorilla wouldn’t kill the child.

    The lives of tens of thousands of innocent human babies are ended every year in the name of reproductive rights without any outrage whatsoever by many of those who would decry the gorilla’s death. And that’s a real shame.

  5. JES says:

    Amen Monty

  6. Alabama John says:

    Wonder if we can eat a Gorilla?

  7. Gary says:

    Jay, your description of honor societies reminds me of the modern problem of criminal gangs. In El Salvador gangs constitute a shadow government except that they are far too bold to stay in the shadows.

  8. Jay Guin says:


    I’m sure you’re right. Criminal gangs are often based on an honor code. It’s very much about how you are perceived by your peers — and vengeance is usually part of the code, even when self-destructive.

  9. How many innocent infants, babies, and virgins were destroyed during the Great Flood? Why? (Genesis 6). Answer those questions and you will not be “perplexed” by the posted incident(s). Tough and heartbreaking, but God has His ways.

  10. Alabama John says:

    Earthly bodies destroyed but that doesn’t mean those children and others are not in heaven.
    Suffer little children to come unto me. That doesn’t mean just those of the Jewish or Christian faith.
    Big difference in destroying body and soul. Fear one far more than the other.
    One life dies here on earth in about 60-70 years and the other lives forever, so which one should be be more concerned about?
    WE see a very small amount of the plan, God sees it all.

  11. Ellen Williams says:

    It troubles me that to even ask the questions is somehow viewed as “judging God”. The questions need to be asked. if not, we’re lead to wonder if God in the Old Testament is a different God than in the New as revealed in Christ. Some people have concluded that God evolved. Does God change? Has he ever changed? Has He always been love? How can we know what’s right and good if “right and good” keeps changing? I appreciate the work you’ve put into this. It’s very helpful. I don’t think the accusation of “judging God” is particularly, though.

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