Saturday, April 21, 2012

War Against The Midianites (Numbers 31)

The following quote is taken from

 "Murder, rape and pillage of the Midianites - They attacked Midian just as the LORD had commanded Moses, and they killed all the men.  All five of the Midianite kings – Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba – died in the battle.  They also killed Balaam son of Beor with the sword.  Then the Israelite army captured the Midianite women and children and seized their cattle and flocks and all their wealth as plunder.  They burned all the towns and villages where the Midianites had lived.  After they had gathered the plunder and captives, both people and animals, they brought them all to Moses and Eleazar the priest, and to the whole community of Israel, which was camped on the plains of Moab beside the Jordan River, across from Jericho.  Moses, Eleazar the priest, and all the leaders of the people went to meet them outside the camp.  But Moses was furious with all the military commanders who had returned from the battle.  "Why have you let all the women live?" he demanded.  "These are the very ones who followed Balaam's advice and caused the people of Israel to rebel against the LORD at Mount Peor.  They are the ones who caused the plague to strike the LORD's people.  Now kill all the boys and all the women who have slept with a man.  Only the young girls who are virgins may live; you may keep them for yourselves.  (Numbers 31:7-18 NLT)

Clearly Moses and God approves of rape of virgins."
Let's examine the events of Numbers chapter 31.  You can read the full text here:

            At this point in Israel's history, the people were still wandering in the desert before entering the promised land of Canaan that God had vowed to give them.  Earlier, in Numbers chapter 22, the king of Moab and the elders of Midian, two nations that were distantly related to the Israelites but hostile towards them, felt threatened that Israel had come to live so close to them.  They hired a man named Balaam to curse them, but God caused Balaam to bless them instead (Numbers 22-24). 
            And so, taking further advice from Balaam (Numbers 31:16), the leaders of Moab and Midian came up with a new tactic to destroy the Israelites.  Moabite and Midianite women went to Israelite men and enticed them into sex and worship of their false god, "Baal of Peor" (Numbers 25).  God had repeatedly warned the Israelites that if they ever worshipped other gods or idols, they would be destroyed (see Exodus 20:3-6, 23; 23:13, 23-24; 34:17; Leviticus 19:4; 26:1; Deuteronomy 4:15-28; 5:7; 6:14-15; 8:19; 12:31; 17:2-7; 27:15; 29:17-18).  As a result of this sin, a plague killed 24,000 Israelite people (Numbers 25:9).  After this incident, compounded by an Israelite man named Zimri unashamedly bringing a Midianite woman named Kozbi into his tent to engage in sex and idolatry in front of all the Israelites, God determined that the Midianite people should be executed for their treachery (Numbers 25:16-18).    
            This brings us to the events of Numbers chapter 31.  God had pronounced his divine judgment on the nation of Midian, and he sent the Israelite army to carry it out.  Here, we are faced with a difficult question: Why did Moses command the army to kill the Midianite (non-virgin) women and the boys?
            This passage must be considered in a cultural and historical context.  In the Ancient Near East, tribal warfare was the way of life, and women and children were treated as little more than property [1].  Earlier in Israel's history, the Egyptian Pharaoh had ordered the murder of thousands of Israelite baby boys, because he was concerned that the Israelite population had grown too numerous and that they had become a threat (Exodus 1).  The mindset at that time was simply that it was dangerous to let the boys of a conquered nation or tribe live.  When the boys of the conquered nation grew up, there was the risk that they would take up arms and fight against their conquerors.  This is why they were ordered to be killed.  It is difficult for us to comprehend such an order in this day and age, but back then, it was commonplace.
            As for the Midianite women who were not virgins, the reason that they were killed was because they had directly participated in the calculated effort to destroy Israel (Numbers 25, 31:15-16).  They were responsible for the deaths of thousands of people, and they were sentenced to death for their crime.
            The crime of the Midianites in attempting to destroy Israel is all the more baffling considering that not long before these events, Midian was allied with Israel: Moses' wife Zipporah was a Midianite (Exodus 2:15-22) and her father, Jethro (aka Reuel), who was a priest of Midian, had heard about the power with which God had brought the Israelites out of Egypt, and had even given praise and thanks to God, and made offerings to him (Exodus 18:9-12).  He then aided Moses by giving him advice on settling disputes (Exodus 18:13-27).  The Midianites knew of the Israelites and of the power of God, but horribly betrayed them anyway.
            Now we come to the question: Why did Moses command them to spare the virgin Midianite girls, and "save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man" (Numbers 31: 18, NIV)?  What exactly did this mean?
            First of all, in the entire text of Numbers 31, there is no mention of rape.  None of the Hebrew words used to suggest rape, or even sexual intercourse, are used in the text.  Not only was rape forbidden by the Law (Deuteronomy 22:25-27), but immediately after these events, Moses commanded the soldiers to purify themselves and their captives for seven days (verse 19).  Rape would have violated that command (Leviticus 15:16-18).  The ultimate fate of the Midianite girls is not mentioned, but never once are they referred to as victims of rape or sex objects. 
            The situation of orphans in the Ancient Near East was not good.  If the Israelites had killed the older women and boys and left the girls to fend for themselves, they most likely would not have survived.  By sparing their lives, the Israelites became responsible for them and for their care.  The most likely scenario is that the Midianite virgin girls, when they were old enough, married among the Israelites.  

[1] Life In The Ancient Near East, Daniel C. Snell, 1997.  Pgs. 35-36.