Good question…What about God’s cruelty against the Midianites?

 


Draft: May 15, 2001


 

The incident recorded in Numbers 31 is frequently mentioned as an illustration of God’s cruelty or  His “nature as a human fabrication of twisted minds”. The passage is a troubling one, for many reasons, but there are many misconceptions about what actually happened in the text as well. Consider some of the statements people have sent into me about this event:

 

 

“Speaking of which, isn't this the same God who commanded the genocide of the Midianites? The same God who commanded the Israelites to slaughter all Midianite males (including infants) and all adult Midianite women? The same God who commanded that the young girls be tested for virginity and given to their captors as sex-slaves?

 

And

 

“In Numbers 31:15-18, after his soldiers had killed all of the men among the Midianites, Moses ordered his army officers to kill all of the male children, kill all of the nonvirgin females but to save alive all of the virgin girls for his troops. Prior to this, the Israelites had taken all of the animals and goods of the Midianites and then burned all of their towns. If genocide or "ethnic cleansing" is a war crime, then this act of Moses was clearly a war crime…What possible reason could Moses have given in order to justify this horrendous act of genocide? After all, wasn't he the great "law giver"? He claimed that Yahweh, the God of Israel, ordered him to do this, because the Midianites worshiped a deity named Baal Peor. The Midianites felt that Baal Peor was nature's god, the creator of the universe, whereas the Israelites believed that their god Yahweh was the creator. .. So, in effect, what we have here is a demonization of those people who refer to the creator by a different name. These people are accused of worshiping a false god.

 

And

 

The Bible is rife with examples of God's acting in a manner inconsistent with goodness… consider the passage relating the story of Israel's war with Midian (Num. 31), wherein, as I intend to show, God sanctions the very crimes that he should abhor, namely, murder, rape, enslavement, and child abuse.

 

First, he orders Moses to lead Israel in a war against the Midianites:  And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Avenge the children of Israel of the Midianites... (vss. 1-2)

 

Moses and the children of Israel obey: And they warred against the Midianites, as the Lord commanded Moses; and they slew all the males. (vs. 7, my italics)

 

The slaying continues in verse 8. Then in verse 9, the children of Israel take captive all the Midianite women and children, confiscating as well "the spoil of all their cattle, and all their flocks, and all their goods." Eventually, the captives are brought before Moses, who condemns to death all the male children and all the unvirginal women:  Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. (vs. 17)

 

Moses then encourages his men to use the female children for (presumably) sexual pleasure: But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves. (vs. 18)

 

Thus, in the 31st Chapter of Numbers occur God-sanctioned murder, rape, enslavement, and child abuse.

 

First, God specifically orders the war -- he does not simply allow the Israelites to visit pain, suffering, and death upon another people, in which case God's role would be a passive one -- on the contrary, he assumes an active role by demanding the carnage. Second, all the men are summarily killed. Third, all the Midianite boys and unvirginal women are ordered to their deaths. Fourth, the Israelite men are urged to (presumably) enslave and rape the virgin Midianite girls. Most civilized people abhor all such actions as these (with less accord on the issue of war itself), considering them so evil that they must be prevented, even at high cost, and punished when efforts at prevention fail.

……………………..

 

These are some serious accusations to make against the God portrayed in the bible, and allegations that should disturb the hearts of all warm-blooded people.

 

Right off the bat, though, there are several obvious historical errors in these brief statements, and several assumptions that have no warrant whatsoever in either the text itself, or in the historical background of the ANE. The passage will be difficult enough to our sensibilities as it is, but let’s first ‘weed out the chaff’ among these allegations. [These ‘easy’ errors, however, in themselves might not be enough to exonerate God, so we will to dig deep into the passage/situation to surface the actual ethical issues and dynamics.]

 

First of all, let’s look at the specific text they are referring to, in Numbers 31:

 

Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying,  “Take full vengeance for the sons of Israel on the Midianites; afterward you will be gathered to your people.”  And Moses spoke to the people, saying, “Arm men from among you for the war, that they may go against Midian, to execute the Lord’s  vengeance on Midian.  “A thousand from each tribe of all the tribes of Israel you shall send to the war.” So there were furnished from the thousands of Israel, a thousand from each tribe, twelve thousand armed for war.  And Moses sent them, a thousand from each tribe, to the war, and Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest, to the war with them, and the holy vessels and the trumpets for the alarm in his hand.  So they made war against Midian, just as the Lord had commanded Moses, and they killed every male.  And they killed the kings of Midian along with the rest of their slain: Evi and Rekem and Zur and Hur and Reba, the five kings of Midian; they also killed Balaam the son of Beor with the sword.  And the sons of Israel captured the women of Midian and their little ones; and all their cattle and all their flocks and all their goods, they plundered. Then they burned all their cities where they lived and all their camps with fire. And they took all the spoil and all the prey, both of man and of beast. And they brought the captives and the prey and the spoil to Moses, and to Eleazar the priest and to the congregation of the sons of Israel, to the camp at the plains of Moab, which are by the Jordan opposite Jericho.

 

And Moses and Eleazar the priest and all the leaders of the congregation went out to meet them outside the camp. And Moses was angry with the officers of the army, the captains of thousands and the captains of hundreds, who had come from service in the war. And Moses said to them, “Have you spared all the women?  “Behold, these caused the sons of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, so the plague was among the congregation of the Lord.  “Now therefore, 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.  “And you, camp outside the camp seven days; whoever has killed any person, and whoever has touched any slain, purify yourselves, you and your captives, on the third day and on the seventh day.  “And you shall purify for yourselves every garment and every article of leather and all the work of goats’ hair, and all articles of wood.”

 

 

And the division of the ‘booty’:

 

Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying,  “You and Eleazar the priest and the heads of the fathers’ households of the congregation, take a count of the booty that was captured, both of man and of animal;  and divide the booty between the warriors who went out to battle and all the congregation.  “And levy a tax for the Lord from the men of war who went out to battle, one in five hundred of the persons and of the cattle and of the donkeys and of the sheep;  take it from their half and give it to Eleazar the priest, as an offering to the Lord.  “And from the sons of Israel’s half, you shall take one drawn out of every fifty of the persons, of the cattle, of the donkeys and of the sheep, from all the animals, and give them to the Levites who keep charge of the tabernacle of the Lord.”  And Moses and Eleazar the priest did just as the Lord had commanded Moses. Now the booty that remained from the spoil which the men of war had plundered was 675,000 sheep,  and 72,000 cattle,  and 61,000 donkeys,  and of human beings, of the women who had not known man intimately, all the persons were 32,000.  And the half, the portion of those who went out to war, was as follows: the number of sheep was 337,500,  and the Lord’s  levy of the sheep was 675,  and the cattle were 36,000, from which the Lord’s levy was 72.  And the donkeys were 30,500, from which the Lord’s levy was 61.  And the human beings were 16,000, from whom the Lord’s  levy was 32 persons.  And Moses gave the levy which was the Lord’s offering to Eleazar the priest, just as the Lord had commanded Moses. (Num 31.26ff)

 

……………….

 

Now, first let me dispose of a couple of the historical mistakes made by the objections mentioned above, and then we can get on to analyzing the severity of the actual event.

 

First of all, there was no ‘test for virginity’ needed/used. In spite of the elaborate/miraculous one created by the later rabbis (ingenious, but altogether unnecessary) using the Urim and Thummim (!), the ‘test for virginity’ in the ANE was a simple visual one:

 

 

Because virginity was generally associated with legal proof for blood-inheritance issues in ancient cultures (e.g., land, property, kinship, relationships), virginity itself was often marked by some type of clothing (e.g., the robe of Tamar in 2 Sam 13) or by cosmetic means (cf. the Hindu ‘pre-marriage dot’); as was more typically non-virginal married status (e.g., veils, headwear, jewelry, or certain hairstyles).  Of course, non-virginal unmarried status (e.g., temple prostitutes and secular prostitutes) were also indicated by special markings or adornments (e.g. jewelry, dress—cf. Proverbs 7.10; Hos 2.4-5).

 

For example, the erotic art of the ANE shows a consistent difference in hairstyles between women and sacred prostitutes:

 

“In fact, the physical characteristics of the women on the [erotic] plaques are totally different from those of other female representations in Mesopotamian and Syrian art. As with the clay figurines, they are frequently naked and their hair is loose—none of these traits is to be found in statues or seals that represent women...These groups [associations of cultic prostitutes] were defined by a generic name [the ‘separated ones’], while their specific names of individual associations hinted at their garments, which were particularly luxurious, or odd, their coiffure, or to their general appearance, which distinguished them from other women.” [OT:CANE:2526]

 

Some of these patterns varied by culture/age:

 

 “Once married, women were not veiled in Babylonia. Legal texts imply that married women were veiled in Assyria.” [OT:DLAM:135]

 

“The bride was covered with a veil that the groom removed. Married women were not veiled in Babylonia but seem to have had a special headgear; legal texts, however, suggest that married women were veiled in Assyria.” [OT:CANE:489]

 

 

In other words, the process of identifying the females who were (a) not married and (b) not prostitutes, either sacred or secular, would have been relatively straightforward—at the precision level required by the event.

 

 

Secondly, the accusation that these girls were for “sex slave” purposes contradicts what we know about the culture and about the event. [But at least one of the writers above--to their credit--added the word ‘presumably’, realizing that the text doesn’t actually say anything about it…]

 

1. Most girls were married soon/immediately after they began menstruating in the ANE (circa 12 years of age), and since infant and child mortality was so high, the average age of the girls spared would have been around 5 years of age or slightly lower (life expectancy wasn’t a straight line, with childhood risks so high). Of all the horrible things ascribed to Israel in the OT, pedophilia is the one conspicuous omission. That these little kids would have been even considered as ‘sex slaves’ seems quite incongruent with their ages.

 

And, at this tender age, they would not have been very useful as ‘slaves’ at all! Children raised in Israelite households were ‘put to work’ around this age, sometimes doing light chores to help the mother for up to four hours per day by the age of 7 or 8 [OT:FAI:27], but 5 is still a bit young. Instead, the Israelite families would have had to feed, clothe, train, care, protect, and shelter them for several years before they could make much contribution to the family’s existence and survival. [Also note that ‘slavery’ in the ANE/OT generally means something quite different from “New World” slavery, which we normally associate with the world ‘slavery’, and most of what is called that in popular literature should not be so termed. See qnoslave.html for the discussion and documentation.]

 

 

2. Unlike the Greeks and Romans, the ANE was not very ‘into’ using slaves/captives for sexual purposes, even though scholars earlier taught this:

 

“During the pinnacle of Sumerian culture, female slaves outnumbered male. Their owners used them primarily for spinning and weaving. Saggs maintains that their owners also used them for sex, but there is little actual evidence to support such a claim” [OT:EML:69]

 

3. And the Hebrews were different in this regard ANYWAY:

 

“This fidelity and exclusivity [demands on the wife] did not apply to the husband. Except among the Hebrews, where a husband’s infidelity was disparaged in the centuries after 800 BC, a double standard prevailed, and husbands were routinely expected to have sex not only with their wives, but with slavewomen and prostitutes.” [WS:AHTO:39; note: I would disagree with the remark about ‘after 800 bc’ because that dating presupposes a very late date for the composition of the narratives under discussion…If the narrative events occurred closer to the purposed times, then this ‘disparagement’ applied earlier in Israel as well as later.]

 

4. Even if we allow the age range to be older, to include girls capable of bearing children, the probability is that it was not sex-motivated, but population/economics-motivated, as Carol Meyers points out [“The Roots of Restriction: Women in Early Israel”, Biblical Archaeologist, vol 41):

 

“Beyond this, however, the intensified need for female participation in working out the Mosaic revolution in the early Israelite period can be seen in the Bible. Looking again at Numbers 31, an exception to the total purge of the Midianite population is to be noted. In addition to the metal objects which were exempt from utter destruction, so too were the “young girls who have not known man by lying with him” (Num 31:18). These captives, however, were not immediately brought into the Israelite camp. Instead, they and their captors were kept outside the camp for seven days in a kind of quarantine period. (Note that the usual incubation period for the kinds of infectious diseases which could conceivably have existed in this situation is two or three to six days [Eickhoff 1977].) Afterward, they thoroughly washed themselves and all their clothing before they entered the camp. This incident is hardly an expression of lascivious male behavior; rather, it reflects the desperate need for women of childbearing age, a need so extreme that the utter destruction of the Midianite foes—and the prevention of death by plague—as required by the law of the herem could be waived in the interest of sparing the young women. The Israelites weighed the life-death balance, and the need for females of childbearing age took precedence.”

 

[But note that the traditional rabbinic interpretation of the passage is that all females which were capable of bearing children were killed—not just those who actually were non-virginal. This would drive the average age quite low, although the Hebrew text offers only limited support at best for their interpretation.]

 

[I should also point out that the “for yourselves” phrase (31.18) is NOT actually referring to “for your pleasure”, but is a reference to the opposite condition of  “for YHWH” which applied to all people or property which was theoretically supposed to be destroyed in such combat situations. The herem (or ‘ban’) specifically indicated that all enemy people or property which was ‘delivered over to YHWH’ was to be killed/destroyed. By referring to ‘for yourselves’, then, in this passage, means simply ‘do not kill them’. This can also be seen in that this ‘booty’ was not ‘for themselves’ actually, but was distributed to others within the community.]

 

 

 

 

Third, the accusation that the Midianites were singled out for destruction “because the Midianites worshiped a deity named Baal Peor  is not at all present in the text (actually, NO reason is given in this passage). In fact, the reason for the warfare is explicitly given in 25.16ff as the unprovoked hostility and treachery of Moab/Midian (which we will look at in detail below):

 

“The LORD said to Moses,  17 “Treat the Midianites as enemies and kill them,  18 because they treated you as enemies when they deceived you in the affair of Peor and their sister Cozbi, the daughter of a Midianite leader, the woman who was killed when the plague came as a result of Peor.”

 

 

The reasons are stated in this passage as (1) hostilities taken by the Midianites; and (2) deception of Israel by them, in the ‘affair of Peor’. Nothing at all is said about treating them as enemies because they worshipped a different god…

 

So, at least we should see that some of the accusation elements above are contra-indicated by the data. There was no need for ‘virginity testing’; rape and sexual slavery is not in the passage at all; and the reason for the combat is not ‘disagreement over religious terminology’…

 

 

So, then, what WAS all this bloodshed about?

 

To establish the ‘why’ of this, we need to tell the whole story…and look at all the players: Midian, Moab, Israel.

 

Who were the Midianites?

 

Essentially, the Midianites were descendants of Abraham through Keturah, and by the time of Numbers 31, were a ‘tribal league’ of different clans and families. Some of the kin-group lived around the Gulf of Aqaba, in perhaps settlements, while other groups remained as nomads and raiders:

 

“The extreme northwestern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, immediately east of the Gulf of ‘Aqaba, was associated by the classical and medieval Arab geographers with the place name Madian or Madiama. It is generally agreed that these persevere the name of Midian, the son of Abraham and Keturah and the ancestor of the Midianites of the Hebrew Bible.” [HI:OEANE, s.v. “Midian”]

 

“The Midianites are portrayed in these [Biblical] traditions as nomadic sheep and camel herders, caravaneers, and raiders, ranging over a wide territory to the south and east of Canaan. There is no reason to suppose that this portrayal is not essentially correct, at least in part. However, recent archaeological survey in northwestern Arabia—the heartland of Midian—has indicated that this is not the whole story. There also existed, during the final centuries of the second millennium BCE, sedentary communities that should, in all, probability, be included among the Midianites…At the site of Qurayyah [Qurayyah is on the east of the Gulf of Aqaba, on a major trade route between Yemen and the Levant.].” [HI:OEANE, s.v. “Midian”]

 

 

“As indicated above the biblical evidence suggests that the Midianites ranged over a large area, including northwest Arabia, southern Transjordan, the Arabah, portions of the Negeb, and possibly northern Sinai. Although northwest Arabia eventually became associated with the land of Midian, probably the range of the Midianites at one time was much larger…Further, some research has raised the possibility that Midian refers not to a land but to an amorphous league of tribes. This league dominated the people and areas of the southern Transjordan, Negeb, and portions of Arabia from the Late Bronze Age until approvimately the 11th century B.C., when other people gradually supplanted the league.” [ISBE]

 

“The presence of Midianite shepherd bands in the Sinai should not be a problem since the discovery of the Mari documents. Large-scale sheepherding requires considerable travel between summer and winter pasturages, often involving tens or hundreds of kilometers. There is no plausible objection to the presence of shepherd bands in the Sinai who were identified or identified themselves as adherents of the political/cultural system of the Midianites. The same is true of populations in the Jordan valley just N of the Dead Sea. The Midianites can no longer be regarded naively as primitive nomadic barbarians; they were a complex and cosmopolitan civilization with a highly diverse economy and, in all probability, an extensive control system for a few decades that included parts of Palestine and Transjordan. [ABD, “Midian”, Mendenhall]

 

 

Around the time of the exodus, the Midianites closer to Egypt (where we have the evidence of settlements and industry), were hospitable to Moses and have a positive image in the biblical tradition (as Kenites):

 

“The hospitality of Jethro to Moses is commendable, but beyond that the Midianites were a people hostile to Israel.” [ZPEB]

 

“The Kenites were a Midianite tribe (Nu. 10:29; Jdg. 1:16; 4:11). The name means ‘smith’, and the presence of copper SE of the Gulf of Aqabah, the Kenite-Midianite region, confirms this interpretation. The Kenites first appear as inhabitants of patriarchal Canaan (Gn. 15:19). Subsequently Moses becomes son-in-law of Reuel (Ex. 2:18), and invites Hobab his son to accompany the Israelites, coveting his nomadic skill (Nu. 10:29). Kenites accompanied Judah into their inheritance (Jdg. 1:16; 1 Sa. 27:10). They were spared by Saul in his Amalekite war (1 Sa. 15:6), and David cultivated their friendship (1 Sa. 30:29). The Rechabites were of Kenite stock (1 Ch. 2:55), and were prominent in post-exilic times (Ne. 3:14). [NBD, s.v. “Kenites”]

 

 

 

At the time of Numbers, the group of Midianites ‘up north’ were a dominant military force, albeit still with ‘ethics’ of raiders/slavetraders:

 

“For the Egyptians, the inhabitants of the arid regions of Sinai, the Hijaz, and Transjordan seem to have been subsumed under the term shasu and depicted as pastoralists and raiders, much as the Midianites are depicted in the Hebrew Bible.” [HI:OEANE, s.v. “Midian”]

 

 

So when the Midianite merchants came by, his brothers pulled Joseph up out of the cistern and sold him for twenty shekels of silver to the Ishmaelites, who took him to Egypt. ..36 Meanwhile, the Midianites sold Joseph in Egypt to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard. (Gen 37:28, 36)

 

“Being desert people, their existence was nomadic. When some of them picked up Joseph, it was typical of their way of life—trading, traveling, and troubling others.” [ZPEB]

 

“The Midianites, along with the Amalekites and the ‘people of the East,’ periodically harassed certain tribes of Israel during the period of the Judges. Since Palestine at this time was particularly vulnerable due to the collapse of the Canaanite city-states and the decline of Egyptian influence,  groups from the fringe areas could penetrate deeply into otherwise secure areas. Moving from the Transjordan region into the Jezreel Valley and beyond, the Midianites preyed upon Israel, apparently during the harvest times (Jgs. 6:1-6). The Israelites had difficulty dealing with the Midianites, who used the camel to make long raids and retreat quickly.” [ISBE, s.v. “Midian”]

 

“There is evidence that Midian exercised a protectorate over Moab, Edom, and Sinai from ca. 1250-1000 BC (Eissfeldt). Often Midian opposed Israel or became a subversive influence. [But note that both Midian and Moab at this time were vassals under the power of Sihon of the Amorites—cf. Josh 13.21]

 

The Midianites were allied with Moab, under the control of Sihon (who had already been defeated by Israel):

 

“The expression ‘towns in their dwellings’ leads to the conclusion that the towns were not the property of the Midianites themselves, who were a nomad people, but that they originally belonged in all probability to the Moabites, and had been taken possession of by the Amorites under Sihon. This is confirmed by Josh., xiii.21, according to which these five Midianitish vassals of Sihon dwelt in the land, i.e. in the kingdom of Sihon.” (p.226)

 

Moab was closely associated with the Midianites, so much so that the elders of both peoples acted as one group when they went to the town of Pethor to bring back Baloam (Num 22:4–7). The Bible depicts the Midianites as largely a nomadic people. The point is this: for the Moabites to have been on such friendly terms with the Midianites, the former also were probably still largely nomadic, since from time immemorial there has been strife between the inhabitants of the desert and the residents of the towns in agricultural areas. Therefore the time of Moses must have been before the thirteenth century B.C. when the Moabites began to build permanent towns. [“New Light on the Wilderness Journey and the Conquest”—Grace Journal—V2—Spring 1961]

 

 

As a tribal league, the various tribal leaders could have radically different attitudes toward life, ethics, and Israel. Moses’ father-in-law (Jethro) and other Kenites were allied with Israel, but those farther north were generally hostile and predatory (cf. Heber the Kenite who was allied with Syria in Judges 5, the Midianite/Amalekite raids, and the Midianites in our passage). The more nomadic ones seemed to have been operating as raiders and slavetraders, wheras the less nomadic ones were more pastoralist in culture (cf. Jethro). The ‘northern’ Midianites are often linked with the cruel Amalekites and Canaanites in the biblical narratives (e.g., Judges 6,7).

 

 

Who were the Moabites?

 

The Moabites were a TransJordanian people, descended from Lot. They were generally hostile toward Israel, and appear to be somewhat insignificant at the time of our incident. Later, however, they became a significant nation, and was consistently hostile to Israel (along with her neighbors).

 

“Moab was the son of Lot by incestuous union with his eldest daughter (Gn. 19:37). Both the descendants and the land were known as Moab, and the people also as Moabites. The core of Moab was the plateau E of the Dead Sea between the wadis Arnon and Zered, though for considerable periods, Moab extended well to the N of the Arnon. The average height of the plateau is 100 m, but it is cut by deep gorges. The Arnon itself divides about 21 km from the Dead Sea and several times more farther E into valleys of diminishing depth, the ‘valleys of the Arnon’ (Nu. 21:14). The Bible has preserved the names of many Moabite towns (Nu. 21:15, 20; 32:3; Jos. 13:17-20; Is. 15-16; Je. 48:20ff.).

 

“In pre-Exodus times Moab was occupied and had settled villages until about 1850 bc. Lot’s descendants found a population already there, and must have intermarried with them to emerge at length as the dominant group who gave their name to the whole population. The four kings from the E invaded Moab and overthrew the people of Shaveh-kiriathaim (Gn. 14:5). Either as a result of this campaign, or due to some cause unknown, Transjordan entered on a period of non-sedentary occupation till just before 1300 bc, when several of the Iron Age kingdoms appeared simultaneously. Moab, like the others, was a highly organized kingdom with good agricultural and pastoral pursuits, splendid buildings, distinctive pottery, and strong fortifications in the shape of small fortresses strategically placed around her boundaries. The Moabites overflowed their main plateau and occupied areas N of the Arnon, destroying the former inhabitants (Dt. 2:10-11, 19-21; cf. Gn. 14:5). These lands were shared with the closely related Ammonites.

 

“Just prior to the Exodus, these lands N of the Arnon were wrested from Moab by Sihon, king of the Amorites. When Israel sought permission to travel along ‘the King’s Highway’ which crossed the plateau, Moab refused (Jdg. 11:17). They may have had commercial contact (Dt. 2:28-29). Moses was forbidden to attack Moab despite their unfriendliness (Dt. 2:9), although Moabites were henceforth to be excluded from Israel (Dt. 23:3-6; Ne. 13:1).” [NBD, s.v. “Moab”]

 

Moab figures prominently in the OT period as a nation, all the way up until the exile, but after the conquests of Babylon, Persia, and Alexander Janneaus, they are only known as a racial/ethnic group.

 

At the time of our incident, Moab occupies a territory thirty miles south of these events in Numbers 22-25,31.

 

“During periods of national strength, the Moabites controlled land that stretched from the Zered (Num. 21:12; Deut. 2:13-14) to the vicinity of ancient Heshbon, a territory whose maximum north-south extent was only about sixty miles and beyond whose northern frontier lay the kingdom of Ammon. When Moabite power waned, as in the heydey of the Amorite king Sihon and during periods of Israelite control in Transjordan, their domain was reduced to the undisputed heartland of Moab—the region between the Zered and the biblical River Arnon (modern Wadi el-Mujib).” [POTW:319]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What was Israel doing there, at the time of this event?

 

Israel had come up from the Wilderness Journeys, and was camped in the plains of Moab, across from Jericho. They were preparing to cross the river Jordan, to begin taking possession of the Land. They were at the end of forty years of nomadic, desert existence, and were STILL in desert surroundings (the Plains of Moab, by the Jordan). They had been resisted by the Transjordanian chiefdoms during their travels, and had been victorious in several unprovoked combat encounters.

 

Israel had been forbidden by God to attack Moab, or try to take their land [Deut 2:9: Then the LORD said to me, “Do not harass the Moabites or provoke them to war, for I will not give you any part of their land. I have given Ar to the descendants of Lot as a possession.” ], and they had already passed by Moab’s territory, but Moab’s chief—Balak—was nonetheless afraid of Israel, and attempted to mount an (unprovoked) campaign against them.

 

Having been refused right of passage on the ‘easier’ Kings Highway, Israel had traveled north from the Sinai peninsula through the Way of the Wilderness, just to the east of the various Transjordanian nations of Edom, Moab, and Heshbon. The conflict with the Amorite Sihon, ruler of Heshbon, created a passageway from the Syrian desert over to the river Jordan. This pathway would have been some 30 miles north of the Arnon river, the then northernmost border of Moab.

 

 

Since Israel had already defeated Moab’s protector nation-state (i.e., the part of the Amorite kingdom controlled by Sihon), Balak was smart enough not to launch a ‘normal’ military attack on unsuspecting Israel (camping down in the plain, getting last minute instructions/laws from God, and generally resting up for the march across Jordan into Palestine), but decided to attempt to use sorcery against Israel. He consulted with his military advisors/superiors (Midian) and they persuaded an internationally known sorcerer/mantic to travel from Mesopotamia to Moab, to place a ‘curse’ on Israel:

 

The negotiation account is given in Numbers 22-24:

 

“Now Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. 3 So Moab was in great fear because of the people, for they were numerous; and Moab was in dread of the sons of Israel. 4 And Moab said to the elders of Midian, “Now this horde will lick up all that is around us, as the ox licks up the grass of the field.” And Balak the son of Zippor was king of Moab at that time. 5 So he sent messengers to Balaam the son of Beor, at Pethor, which is near the River, in the land of the sons of his people, to call him, saying, “Behold, a people came out of Egypt; behold, they cover the surface of the land, and they are living opposite me. 6 “Now, therefore, please come, curse this people for me since they are too mighty for me; perhaps I may be able to defeat them and drive them out of the land. For I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed.” 7 So the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian departed with the fees for divination in their hand; and they came to Balaam and repeated Balak’s words to him. 8 And he said to them, “Spend the night here, and I will bring word back to you as the Lord may speak to me.” And the leaders of Moab stayed with Balaam. 9 Then God came to Balaam and said, “Who are these men with you?” 10 And Balaam said to God, “Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab, has sent word to me, 11 ‘Behold, there is a people who came out of Egypt and they cover the surface of the land; now come, curse them for me; perhaps I may be able to fight against them, and drive them out.’” 12 And God said to Balaam, “Do not go with them; you shall not curse the people; for they are blessed.” 13 So Balaam arose in the morning and said to Balak’s leaders, “Go back to your land, for the Lord has refused to let me go with you.” 14 And the leaders of Moab arose and went to Balak, and said, “Balaam refused to come with us.” 15 Then Balak again sent leaders, more numerous and more distinguished than the former. 16 And they came to Balaam and said to him, “Thus says Balak the son of Zippor, ‘Let nothing, I beg you, hinder you from coming to me; 17 for I will indeed honor you richly, and I will do whatever you say to me. Please come then, curse this people for me.’” 18 And Balaam answered and said to the servants of Balak, “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not do anything, either small or great, contrary to the command of the Lord my God. 19 “And now please, you also stay here tonight, and I will find out what else the Lord will speak to me.” 20 And God came to Balaam at night and said to him, “If the men have come to call you, rise up and go with them; but only the word which I speak to you shall you do.” 21 So Balaam arose in the morning, and saddled his donkey, and went with the leaders of Moab. (Numbers 22)

 

Balak takes Balaam up to several mountains overlooking where Israel is camped (implying that Balak is substantially north of his territory, and is now in Amorite territory), and assists Balaam in trying to curse Israel with powers from the local gods of each mountain. Balaam is not allowed by God to place a curse on Israel, but instead pronounces a blessing and prophecies of Israel’s eventual rulership and future  Messiah.

 

Balak, disappointed that he cannot get God to help him defeat Israel and ‘drive them far out of the land’, is angry at Balaam:

 

“Then Balak’s anger burned against Balaam, and he struck his hands together; and Balak said to Balaam, “I called you to curse my enemies, but behold, you have persisted in blessing them these three times! 11 “Therefore, flee to your place now. I said I would honor you greatly, but behold, the Lord has held you back from honor.”  (Num 24.10)

 

Indeed, it looks as if the “tables are turned”:

 

“Since Israel had defeated the Amorite king, Sihon, who had himself defeated the Moabites, the Moabites had good reason to fear the Israelites (Num 21:23-31). Consequently, the Moabite king, Balak, in agreement with the Midianites, hired Balaam  to curse Israel. In a series of prophetic oracles, Balaam pronounces a blessing on Israel but a curse on Moab (Num 22-24)! Specifically, Balaam prophesies of a royal figure, designated metaphorically as a “star” and “scepter” coming out of Jacob/Israel, who would militarily crush the Moabites (24:17). [NIDOTTE, s.v. “Moab, theology”]

 

The final verse of chapter 24 has Balaam leaving Balak’s presence and setting off for home, and Balak beginning his long ride home as well. It seems that Israel is safe from an unprovoked attack by Moab and Midian, and that they can prepare for crossing the Jordan ‘in peace’. They are dwelling ‘opposite’ Moab (22.5) and so do not have any interchanges with the Moabites/Midianites at that time. Israel seems poised to enter the Promised Land, and get on with their destiny…

 

But not so…for in Chapter 25 we have an amazing story that will be remembered in shame and horror by Israel throughout its history—the events and idolary of Baal Peor:

 

“The cultic center Beth Peor and the worship of the Baal of Peor became symbolic of religious apostasy for subsequent generations (Deut 4:3-4; Josh 22:17; Ps 106:28; Hos 9:10).” [NIDOTTE, s.v. “Moab, theology”]

 

Chapter 25 opens like this (translation taken from WBC):

 

And Israel stayed at Shittim, and the people began to have sexual relations with the Moabite women. 2 And these invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods. And the people ate, and bowed down to their gods. 3 And Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of Yahweh was kindled against Israel.

 

4 And Yahweh said to Moses, “Take all the leaders of the people, and hang them in the sun before Yahweh, that the fierce anger of Yahweh may turn away from Israel.” 5 And Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Put to death, each of you, those of his men who have yoked themselves to Baal of Peor.”

 

Shittim is a small village about 5 miles from the Jordan, which had been recently captured by Israel from Sihon. Although Israel had destroyed all the ‘towns’ (fortified cities—the Hebrew in Deut 2.36 says “not a town was too high for us”—a reference to fortifications), outlying villages and hamlets may have been left without damage, and would have therefore presented temporary living quarters. There could have also been some of the local populace of Amorites and Midianites there (we shall see latter that they were occupying some of these towns).

 

Then, all of sudden, Moabite women (“daughters of Moab”) start showing up there--in large numbers—having traveled in groups from the kingdom of Moab thirty miles south of there. Travel in this part of the country, and at this time essentially was done by caravan, and under armed guards:

 

“Such difficulties and perils doubtlessly contributed to the fact that most international travel and communication was undertaken by caravans; in numbers, there was some protection against alien elements and agents. Considerable literary evidence from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor indicates that caravans were generally large and almost always escorted by security guards, armed by the public powers for their tasks, and that the caravanners were expected to stay strictly on the preordained route. It was not uncommon for caravans to include as many as 100 to 200 donkeys, sometimes carrying priceless commodities, and one extraordinary text from Mari refers to a caravan of 3,000 donkeys “ [ABD, “Travel and Communication (Old Testament World)”]

 

And the trip would have taken 2-3 days:

 

“The evidence is generally uniform and mutually corroborating that one day’s journey in the ancient world (for efficient non-military travel) incorporated between 17 and 23 miles” [ABD, “Travel and Communication (Old Testament World)”]

 

“As W. W. Hallo has calculated from the distances between known points in an Old Babylonian itinerary, the length of a daily stage of a caravan was between twenty-five and thirty kilometers [15.5-18.6 miles].” [OT:DLAM:275]

 

 

Ezra’s caravan, for example, likely only averaged 9 miles per day [ABD, “Travel and Communication (Old Testament World)”]

 

So, these Moabite women show up, with government funding and security escorts, having carefully planned the trip, and having left all family responsibilities on indefinite “hold” back in Moab…and the sequence of events runs like this (according to the text, which is a series of stark waw-consequtives):

 

  1. The Moabite (and Midianite, as we know from verse 6) women show up at the Israel encampment.
  2. The Israelite men immediately start having ‘regular’ sex with them--the Hebrew indicates extreme lustful abandon. (“The verb used to describe the action of the men is one normally used to describe the behavior of a loose woman, a harlot. Here the people, as a man, bewhore themselves with foreign, pagan women. Always in the ancient Near Eastern context, references to sexual imagery such as this suggest interconnecting circles of sexual immorality tied to sacral rites of prostitution, essential parts of pagan religious systems of the day.” [EBCOT, Num 25])
  3. This first reference to sex does not contain the notion of ‘sacred prostitution’—that will show up in a later step.
  4. THEN, these women invited the Israelite men to their religious sacrifices (where meat and wine would have been served—the Israelites had not had very much meat during the 40 years in the wilderness). These would have likely been held at the religious shrines at or around the mount of Peor (one of the sites where Balak took Balaam), especially the shrine of Baal Peor, although smaller shrines, high places, and even shade-trees would have fit the Baal cult.
  5. The Israelite men went with them and ate the sacrificial meal.
  6. Then the Israelite men would have ‘bowed down’ to their pagan gods (probably as part of the ceremony), and engaged in ‘sacred sex’ due to the fertility nature of the Baal Peor god.
  7. Then, a ‘critical mass’ of the people (i.e., “Israel” in the text)—including their leadership—were ‘yoked’ to Baal Peor.

 

This last step—a ‘yoking’—is likely an ancient cultic term, but we don’t have much indication of its meaning from history. It could mean something as formal as “joining in a covenant” (in violation of the exclusive Mosaic one they were already in!), or something as vivid as “sexual union” with the God, through ritual intercourse (a standard fertility motif). Almost any meaning of this word, since it is undoubtedly “worse than” just “bowing down” (v. 2), would be enough to seriously jeopardize Israel’s protection by Yahweh.

 

The Baal god, as we have described in more detail in the article on the Canaanites elsewhere (qamorite.html), had some particularly “family-unfriendly” destructive rituals:

 

“The Moabites worshipped the war god Cheomsh, but they must have also indulged in the fertility religion of Baal. This cult was marked by some of the most depraved religious practices in Canaan. In lurid and orgiastic rites, the worshippers would emulate the sacred prostitution of their gods and goddesses, often also participating in a ceremonial meal.”  [HSOBX, at Num 25]

 

“It is clear that, after sexual relationships had led to participation in the pagan sacrificial feasts, the next step was a formal association with a particular god. That god was Baal-Peor. Baal was the name of the great Canaanite god of vegetation.” [NICOT, Numbers, p517]

 

“Baal-peor or Baal of Peor was one of the leading gods of the Moabites, Midianites, and Ammonites, but akin to the Canaanite Baal and Moloch. The sensual rites of worship indicate a connection with the Phoenician Baal and the Moabite Chemosh. [ABD, “Baal Peor”]

 

 

 

This event was almost a recapitulation—with some heightening—of the sacred orgy Israel had started the Wandering with, back in Exodus 32, and God’s response was the same—anger at such disloyalty and treachery.

 

“In a sense this chapter matches the grim account of Israel's involvement in the pagan rites of the worship of the golden calf at the base of Sinai (Exod 32). The apostasy of Israel in their flagrant worship of the golden calf points back to Egypt. The golden calf was a symbol of the Egyptian bull-god Apis, likely referred to in Jeremiah 46:15. Apis was the sacred bull in Egypt, the incarnation of Osiris, the principal deity of Egypt. Exodus 32:6 reads, "So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry." The verb translated "to indulge in revelry" (lesaheq Piel infinitive construct of sahaq; meaning "to laugh" in the Qal--the word that forms the base for the name "Isaac") sometimes speaks of sexual involvement. It is a euphemism for "caressing" in sexual play (as in Gen 26:8). So in this chapter Israel engages in sexual acts of the worship of a god of Canaan.” [EBCOT, at Num 25]

 

 

One very detailed zoom-in of the situation is given in 25.6ff:

 

Then an Israelite man brought to his family a Midianite woman right before the eyes of Moses and the whole assembly of Israel while they were weeping at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting.  7 When Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, saw this, he left the assembly, took a spear in his hand  8 and followed the Israelite into the tent. He drove the spear through both of them—through the Israelite and into the woman’s body. Then the plague against the Israelites was stopped;  9 but those who died in the plague numbered 24,000…The name of the Israelite who was killed with the Midianite woman was Zimri son of Salu, the leader of a Simeonite family.  15 And the name of the Midianite woman who was put to death was Cozbi daughter of Zur, a tribal chief of a Midianite family.

 

 

Commentators are generally quick to point out that this is VERY flagrant and VERY anti-covenant behavior, by two leaders, signifying complete abandonment of the God who was about to give them the Land:

 

“Among the Israelites, then, the Midianite and Moabite women continued to prostrate themselves in Baal worship, imitating fertility rituals. And one day, as all the Israelites were gathered in front of the tabernacle confessing their sin, the son of one of the leaders in the tribe of Simeon paraded before them with a Moabite [sic] woman, headed for his tent…Reading the situation clearly, Phinehas swung into action. By the time he reached them in the back (bedroom) part of the tent, the couple were already involved in sexual intercourse.” [HSOBX]

 

“By bringing a Midianite woman to his family, this man was encouraging all of his male kin to participate in this forbidden ritual—even though the people were supposed to be repenting for their previous idolatry. The ‘chamber’ into which they enter appears to be in the sacred enclosure and therefore suggests ritual intercourse. Though the ritual may have been fertility-oriented, the Israelites are not engaging in agriculture, so it is difficult to imagine what connection that might have here. “ [OT:BBCALL]

 

Where did this Midianite woman come from? The Moabite women would have traveled north, but the Midianite women (and presumably the leadership, since this woman is called the daughter of a prince/chieftain) would have also have had to have moved into the area. [For nomads, this is not much problem, and indeed, they could even have facilitated the travel of the Moabite women from the south.] In Numbers 31.10,11, they are said to have been in camps and in towns (which they were only occupying at the time). This would have situated them in either (a) Sihon’s old territory, toward Moab; or (b) Sihon’s old territory toward the east, now vacated by Israel. If the latter, they were ostensibly attempting to engage Israel somehow.

 

 

The scale and scope of this sexual atrocity was extensive, indicating that the number of Israelite men and Midianite/Moabite women would have been quite high:

 

 

This would have required several thousand (maybe even over 10,000) foreign women, to have precipitated and effected such a large scale apostasy, in such a short period of time. And these women would have had to have traveled deliberately to do just this…

 

And it is here at this point that the treachery of the Midianites becomes visible in the narrative: this was deliberate strategy on the part of the Midianite leadership to use ‘sex’ as a weapon, and have Israel abandon the protection and life-source of their God.

 

The verses give us the substance of the treachery and deceit:

 

The LORD said to Moses,  17 “Treat the Midianites as enemies and kill them,  18 because they treated you as enemies when they deceived you in the affair of Peor and their sister Cozbi, the daughter of a Midianite leader, the woman who was killed when the plague came as a result of Peor.” [Num 25.16f]

 

“Have you allowed all the women to live?” he asked them.  16 “They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and were the means of turning the Israelites away from the LORD in what happened at Peor, so that a plague struck the LORD’s people. [Num 31.15]

 

 

So, Balaam somehow is back into the picture?! Somehow Balaam advised the women on how to turn the Israelites away from the Lord?!

 

“It appears that the Israelite men began to have sexual relations with the Moabite and Midianite women (Num 25:1,6). How such liaisons began we can only guess, but they seem to be connected with the bad advice given to the Moabites by the prophet Balaam, son of Beor. Prior to this event, the king of Moab had hired Balaam to curse the people of Israel; because of the strong hand of God on his life, however, Balaam had only been able to bless them. Apparently still bent on helping the Moabite king, Balaam had stayed on in the land of Moab and Midian. Numbers 31:16 informs us the ‘[the Midianite women] were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and were the means of turning the Israelites away from the LORD in what happened at Peor, so that a plague struck the LORD’s people.’ (Apparently the Midianites were in Moab giving military advice to the Moabites at this time). [HSOBX]

 

“Chs. 22-24 highlighted Moab’s attempt to overthrow Israel; Midian played a minor role in these chapters. Here the reverse is true—Midian is the chief actor, with Moab taking a supporting role.” [NICOT, Numbers, p516]

 

“In the further course of history, we learn that Balaam went to the Midianites, and advised them to seduce the Israelites to unfaithfulness to Jehovah, by tempting them to join in the worship of Peor. He was still with them at the time when the Israelites engaged in the war of vengeance against that people, and was slain by the Israelites along with the five princes of Midian.” [KD:1:202]

 

“As the princes of Midian, who were allied to Moab, had been the advisers and assistants of the Moabitish king in the attempt to destroy the Israelites by a curse of God; so now, after the failure of that plan, they were the soul of the new undertaking to weaken Israel and render it harmless, by seducing it to idolatry, and thus leading it into apostasy from its God.” [KD:1:203

 

 

I should also point out that for the Israelite male, the temptation/seduction was purely sexual at first—there was literally no religious motivation to seek Baal out:

 

“It is clear that, after sexual relationships had led to participation in the pagan sacrificial feasts, the next step was a formal association with a particular god. That god was Baal-Peor. Baal was the name of the great Canaanite god of vegetation.” [NICOT, Numbers, p517]

 

“By bringing a Midianite woman to his family, this man was encouraging all of his male kin to participate in this forbidden ritual—even though the people were supposed to be repenting for their previous idolatry. The ‘chamber’ into which they enter appears to be in the sacred enclosure and therefore suggests ritual intercourse. Though the ritual may have been fertility-oriented, the Israelites are not engaging in agriculture, so it is difficult to imagine what connection that might have here. “ [OT:BBCALL]

 

 

In other words, Israel had no religious interest in an agricultural/vegetation god—the ‘attraction’ was purely physical…sex, then expensive meat/wine…

 

Only Balaam would have had the theological ‘sophistication’ to know that this would separate Israel from Yahweh, and so make Israel vulnerable to ‘normal’ military forces.

 

 

Let’s think about the implications of this for a second, in terms of how this would have occurred:

 

  1. Balaam cannot help Moab in military ‘curses’, but on his way home he realizes that the God who protects Israel can inflict much more ‘damage’ than could Moab
  2. He stops and counsels the Midianite princes on how to get Israel to abandon their Great Protector.
  3. The Midianite princes agree to let Balaam appeal to the Midianite people (especially the women: “they are the ones who followed Balaam’s advice”) to enlist their aid in using sex as a weapon against Israel.

 

Then, one or more of the following absolutely incredible events had to have happened:

 

  1. Either the women agreed with Balaam’s plan, and then talked their husbands into letting them commit wholesale, pre-meditated, and government-facilitated adultery (for the sake of Balak’s paranoia, and Midianite anti-Israel sentiment) [the wording of the text suggests that THIS is the most probable historical reconstruction];
  2. Or the men agreed with Balaam’s plan and then talked their wives into committing wholesale, pre-meditated, and government-facilitated adultery (for the sake of Balak’s paranoia, and Midianite anti-Israel sentiment);
  3. Or the men agreed with Balaam’s plan and then forced their wives into committing wholesale, pre-meditated, and government-facilitated adultery (for the sake of Balak’s paranoia, and Midianite anti-Israel sentiment)
  4. Or the chiefs/elite of Midian forced both men and women to agree on committing wholesale, pre-meditated, and government-facilitated adultery (for the sake of Balak’s paranoia, and Midianite anti-Israel sentiment);

 

Additionally,

  1. Fathers and mothers may have talked their unmarried daughters into (or forced them into) committing wholesale, pre-meditated, and government-facilitated adultery (for the sake of Balak’s paranoia, and Midianite anti-Israel sentiment);
  2. The Midianite power forced the Moabite women to ‘lead the charge’ (but they disappear in the narrative after the first mention—everything else is ‘Midianite only’).
  3. The government plans, funds, and orchestrates the mass caravans of Moabite women, and Midianite migration to the area where Israel is camping.

 

Now, I can perhaps see this occurring on a individual small scale—I’m sure it happens today in even ‘modern cultures’ to ‘get ahead’, but to think that a culture/nation would deliberately do this marriage-destructive, family-destructive, and de-humanizing atrocity on the scale of 5,000-15,000 wives/families (perhaps constituting most/all of the tribal group or sub-culture involved!), is staggering. As destructive as regular ‘ritual prostitution’ would have been to “healthy family life” in Canaanite areas in Palestine, this action by Midian makes that look wonderfully innocent and harmless by comparison…

 

 And then, not content with destroying their own families (and teaching/showing the kids that ‘questionable national goals’ are more important than loyalty/intimacy in marriage), they use this to destroy another nation’s families and marriages.

 

What the fathers of Moab could not do, their daughters were able to accomplish, to bring Israel to its knees--sexually, morally, in false worship, and in great judgment. . [EBCOT, Num 25]

 

And this is called a nakal—a deliberate deception:

 

“In every instance the essence of the meaning is to engage in deception, guile, craft through a deliberate plan/act [NIDOTE, s.v. “nakal”]

 

Pre-rabbinic Jewish tradition ‘remembers’ this event in similar images [Pseudo-Philo/LAB 18:13]:

 

“And then Balaam said to him, ‘Come and let us plan what you should do to them. Pick out the beautiful women who are among us and in Midian, and station them naked and adorned with gold and precious stones before them. And when they see them and lie with them, they will sin against their LORD and fall into your hands; for otherwise you cannot fight against them’” [OTP:2:326]

 

 

There was nothing ‘noble’ or ‘innocent’ or even ‘neutral’ about this plan—however it was actually implemented--it was deliberate, hostile, treacherous deception and destruction. And it wasn’t even characteristic of all of the Midianites—many of the Midianites were only ‘semi-bad’, some of them were good, some of them were ‘okay’…but this little pocket of Midianites perpetrated this de-personalizing and de-humanizing atrocity on their own families, on some of the Moabite women, and on many of the Israelite families. And God said “enough”…

 

I struggle with trying to come up with a modern analogy to this, that communicates the atrocity level…It’s almost like 10,000 women, in advanced stages of the Ebola virus (or perhaps AIDS, since they would survive longer), were persuaded by their city leadership, to whole-heartedly travel to a different city and aggressively seduce and offer “sex for free” to all the married men, deliberately concealing or lying about the fact that they had Ebola/AIDS, and for the specific intent of inflicting the men (and their wives and families) with this horrible and quickly fatal disease. And, this decision was supported by their husbands and fathers (“in front of” the children), and the trip funded and planned by their government. And this all done against a people who were no threat to them now, and were actually friends/allies of a related group.

 

Why would anyone “defend” the “values” of such a sub-culture? It was not just a matter of their “own consensual sexual preferences and ethics”—this was aggressive, deliberately destructive malice toward others/outsiders, and self-destructive abuse of the precious gift of feminine allure…

 

 

 

So, what did the judgment on Midian ‘look like’ in Numbers 31?

 

Now let’s go back through the judgment/battle scene and see the details in it:

 

Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying,  “Take full vengeance for the sons of Israel on the Midianites; afterward you will be gathered to your people.”  And Moses spoke to the people, saying, “Arm men from among you for the war, that they may go against Midian, to execute the Lord’s  vengeance on Midian.  “A thousand from each tribe of all the tribes of Israel you shall send to the war.” So there were furnished from the thousands of Israel, a thousand from each tribe, twelve thousand armed for war.  And Moses sent them, a thousand from each tribe, to the war, and Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest, to the war with them, and the holy vessels and the trumpets for the alarm in his hand.  So they made war against Midian, just as the Lord had commanded Moses, and they killed every male.  And they killed the kings of Midian along with the rest of their slain: Evi and Rekem and Zur and Hur and Reba, the five kings of Midian; they also killed Balaam the son of Beor with the sword.  And the sons of Israel captured the women of Midian and their little ones; and all their cattle and all their flocks and all their goods, they plundered. Then they burned all their cities where they lived and all their camps with fire. And they took all the spoil and all the prey, both of man and of beast. And they brought the captives and the prey and the spoil to Moses, and to Eleazar the priest and to the congregation of the sons of Israel, to the camp at the plains of Moab, which are by the Jordan opposite Jericho.

 

And Moses and Eleazar the priest and all the leaders of the congregation went out to meet them outside the camp. And Moses was angry with the officers of the army, the captains of thousands and the captains of hundreds, who had come from service in the war. And Moses said to them, “Have you spared all the women?  “Behold, these caused the sons of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, so the plague was among the congregation of the Lord.  “Now therefore, 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.  “And you, camp outside the camp seven days; whoever has killed any person, and whoever has touched any slain, purify yourselves, you and your captives, on the third day and on the seventh day.  “And you shall purify for yourselves every garment and every article of leather and all the work of goats’ hair, and all articles of wood.”

 

 

Let’s make some observations first, from the text and the historical background:

 

1. Only 12,000 Israelite men go into the battle. That would imply that the Midianite force would have been estimated in the 8,000-15,000 person range. This, of course, means that we are not dealing with all of the Midianites, but only just this small tribal sub-group (i.e., its not a genocide thing). [Other Midianites will be attacking Israel in force within 30 years, as will Moab.]

 

This number would fit roughly with the estimated number of wives/mothers/daughters that would have participated in the sexual warfare on Israel (in the 8,000-15,000 person range), providing further support for our understanding of the scale of this action.

 

2. The Moabites are NOT included in this judgment—only the specific Midianites behind the atrocity (the 5 chieftains):

 

“The daughters of Moab had also taken part in the seduction; but they had done so at the instigation of the Midianites, and not of their own accord, and therefore the Midianites only were to atone for the wickedness.” [KD:1:225]

 

“Moabites tried by every means to be rid of Israel. Midian, on the other hand,  had no cause for undertaking hostilities against Israel, and yet they not only joined the Moabites, but outdid them in their hatred against Israel. [Ginzberg]

 

3. The combat theater is NOT Moab, but Midian—their “encampments” and the towns there were temporarily occupying.

 

4. The number of women who would have been executed for their personal involvement in the deceptive and malicious treachery might be estimated from the number of girls spared. If the 32k girls were spared, we might estimate the number of boys at around 20k (infant mortality for males is 30% higher than for females), and with a 3-4 kids/family ratio, we get around 12,000 sets of parents. This 12,000 number accords well with the troop count and estimates of the number of women who approached the Israelites in the deception  of Baal Peor. [And this also confronts us with the sobering fact that the number of adult Israelites who died in the plague of judgment—24,000—roughly matches the number of adult Midianite deaths, under this scenario. Israel did not get off ‘scot free’ from this horror…they were the subject of God’s judgment first.]

 

5. The 32,000 girls who were absorbed/assimilated into Israel would have been actually a small number. According to the distribution of them, the 12,000 ‘soldiers’ received 16,000 (half of them), making an average of between 1 and 2 per household, depending on the soliders-per-household ratio. The other half (16,000) was distributed throughout all of Israel, meaning that very few families would get one. This would still have been some hardship for the Israelite families, who at this time are still nomadic peoples without any material base from which to live. More than one commentator has noted that this seems to be a surprise act of mercy, and it is interesting to note that Whiston, in a footnote on his 18th-century translation of Josephus’ account of this passage [Antiq, VII] argues that this sparing of the little girls is a surprise of mercy, given the practical demands of this type of combat in the OT/ANE (which we will discuss later):

 

“The slaughter of all the Midianite women that had prostituted themselves to the lewd Israelites,  and the preservation of those that had not been guilty therein; the last of which were no fewer than thirty-two thousand…and both by the particular command of God, are highly remarkable, and shew that, even in nations otherwise for their wickedness doomed to destruction, the innocent were sometimes providentially taken care of, and delivered from that destruction”

 

Later, when Israel was more established and settled in the land, and had adequate economic means, they would be able to absorb all the women and children (from hostile-but-conquered foreign cities), but at this early stage this was quite an impossibility. They had no need for “slaves,” nor means to support them at this time.

 

6. The only way they could absorb the 32,000 girls was that 24,000 (mostly) adults citizens of Israel had died as a result of the treachery of their mothers at Peor earlier. This created some ‘capacity’ for absorbing innocents into Israel for the moment.

 


7. The remaining people were the non-combat age boys (sub-12?). Philo asserted that the Israelites actually spared the little boys, although the Hebrew text doesn’t provide much support for this (Moses 1.57):

 

“And they led away a perfectly incalculable number of prisoners, of whom they chose to slay all the full-grown men and women, the men because they had set the example of wicked counsels and actions, and the women because they had beguiled the youth of the Hebrews, becoming the causes to them of incontinence and impiety, and at the last of death; but they pardoned all the young male children and all the virgins, their tender age procuring them forgiveness” (311)]

 

According to the text, though, the number of these boys present at this scene would have been very minimal. According to 31.9, they had already killed “every male (kal zkrnot the normal word for adult male, or ‘man’)”. This would mean that the reference in verse 17 to kill kal zkr (‘every male’) “among the children” would likely be a reference to any boys who had somehow ‘hidden’ or been unnoticed among the group of captive children. Given the general statement of verse 9, this would imply that this would have likely been a very small number of boys left.

 

 

I have discussed the situation, ethics, and unfortunate realities of children victims (in this case the boys) in ancient warfare in the preceding pieces on the Canaanites (qamorite.html) and on the Amalekites (rbutcher1.html), so I won’t repeat those arguments and supporting documentation here. But let me point out again that:

 

  1. The Midianite parents would have been legally/ethically responsible for this situation falling upon their children—NOT the Israelites;
  2. This situation was forced upon the Israelites by the unprovoked treachery of the Midianites;
  3. No ANE land-based and/or blood-succession-based civilization had means for assimilating foreign males into them, except as severely constrained/debilitated slaves (e.g., “prisoners were often blinded en masse. When brought to their captors’ land, they could still perform certain tasks, such as carrying water from a well or canal with a bucket and a rope” [OT:DLAM:237]);
  4. All ANE civilizations recognized the military threat/risk that male slaves (even children) of foreign stock represented. Even the case in which David ‘served’ the Philistines, the Philistine leaders were sensitive to the issue—that David might ‘turn on his Philistine masters’ in the heat of battle (1 Sam 29);
  5. There were no ‘social relief’ institutions in this world [only the largest of empires could afford to take in destitute women and children as temple ‘personnel’—see OT:CANE:445], and the land in which this event occurred was depopulated .(“Those who were able to flee from their conquerors often died of exposure, starvation, or thirst” [OT:DLAM:237])
  6. There would be no practical way to transport these boys to their ‘next of kin’ down south, and there was no guarantee that they would take them in anyway. Even the Kenites, generally loyal to Israel, were divided in policy, as Heber the Kenite’s alliance with Syria in Judges indicates. “The propensity of pastoral nomads for raids, or razzias, both against one another and against sedentists is well attested in the near eastern historical record.” [OT:CANE:251]
  7. As in the case of the Amalekites, Israel was forced--by the Midianite atrocity--into the difficult situation of selecting the ‘most humane way’ of dealing with the boys, which, in most situations in the ancient world, was killing them very quickly  (similar to ‘euthanasia’, perhaps, which was also considered the ‘most humane’ way of doing this, according to ANE testimony—see the discussion/documentation in the case of the Amalekites, at rbutcher1.html)

 


 

Summary:

 

  1. The judgment scene in Numbers 31 has nothing to do with lewd ‘tests for virginity’
  2. The judgment scene in Numbers 31 has nothing to do with ‘sex slaves’ or even slavery in the sense of New World Slavery
  3. The judgment scene in Numbers 31 has nothing to do with a religious war against the Midianites, “because they worshipped a different god than Israel
  4. The Midianites were a tribal league of generally nomadic peoples, with a wide variation in orientation, ethics, and practices.
  5. They were known to engage in kidnapping and international slave trading, as well as raiding and pillage of sedentary peoples/villages.
  6. The Moabites, who start the chain of events leading to Numbers 31, are under no danger or threat from Israel, but nonetheless begin unprovoked attempts to vanquish the unsuspecting Israelites
  7. After the Mesopotamian diviner/sorcerer/prophet Balaam fails to curse Israel, he nevertheless advises the Midianite leadership on how to overcome Israel—by a sexual deception of a massive scale.
  8. Moab transports women into the area en masse, and Midian moves into the territory east of Shittim, to begin this initiative. Some 6,000-12,000 married women aggressively offer sex to the Israelite men (most of whom are married), and after having sex/adultery, convince them to participate in further acts (involving both sex and disloyalty to the Lord).
  9. Israel ‘falls for it’, and likely makes a ‘covenant’ with a Canaanite fertility god of vegetation (Baal Peor), and are judged by God (at least 24,000 Israelites die of a plague, most of which are males)
  10. The Moabite and Midianite women retreat out of the area, having successfully used their sex as a weapon (with full knowledge, consent, support, and encouragement from their husbands, fathers, and civic leaders).
  11. For this atrocity, God orders Israel to attack this specific group of Midianites (not the Moabites) and eliminate them.
  12. The Israelite force of 12,000 men travel east/southeast to where the Midianite sub-group is camping, and engage in combat. (They are NOT instructed to hunt “all the Midianites in the world down and kill them”—just this group that did the treachery at Baal Peor.) They kill almost all of the males in this battle, but return to the Israelite camp with the herds and property of the Midianites, as well as with the women and (mostly girl) children.
  13. Moses is shocked to find out that they spared the very women who used the sex-weapon against them, and even brought these women back to the Israelite camp! He orders them to execute the women, who had been involved in the treachery (but only the Midianite women—the Moabite women are spared), and any remaining males among the children.
  14. The remaining young girls—with an average age of 5 years—were spared and distributed throughout the people, into families. They would eventually be assimilated into Israel families, but from this moment on, they would care for them, feed them, train them, etc. for family life in Palestine.
  15. The 32,000 young girls could be assimilated into Israel, largely because of the death of the 24,000 adult Israelites.
  16. The judgment for the atrocity at Baal Peor fell both on Israel and Midian—both would have lost around 24,000 adult members of the population, and the consequences on the Midianite children (especially the boys) would have been a direct result of the choices of their parents and leaders.
  17. The realities of life in the ANE precluded absorption of the residual boys into the people—in keeping with realities of the time.

 

 

This action/atrocity by the Midianites is an intensely sordid and depressing tale, of greater scale than even that of Sodom and Gomorrah, and of greater anti-Hebrew malice and calculating treachery than even that of the Amalekites…The removal of this exact sub-culture (without impacting the Moabites or the rest of the Midianites—for good or ill), while mercifully sparing a very large number of innocent young girls, yet without sparing the guilty Israelites, seems neither cruel nor unfair nor unwarranted, given the horrendously dehumanizing character of this crime, and given the unavoidable consequences of conflict upon children in the ancient world…

 

Glenn Miller

May 2001

 

 


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