Vengeance on the Midianites
31 The Lord said to Moses, 2 “Take vengeance on the Midianites for the Israelites. After that, you will be gathered to your people.”
This chapter refers back to chapter 25, the disaster of Israel’s sin at Baal Peor and the role of Midianites in orchestrating the event. The Midianites were a nomadic people, at this time associated with the people of Moab. God commanded they be attacked in retribution for their seduction of Israel into sexual immorality and idolatry. In this circumstance, Israel was in a unique place with a special call to be an instrument of God’s vengeance. This is something no person should take upon themselves today, knowing that ancient Israel had this unique place in God’s plan.
3 So Moses said to the people, “Arm some of your men to go to war against the Midianites so that they may carry out the Lord’s vengeance on them. 4 Send into battle a thousand men from each of the tribes of Israel.” 5 So twelve thousand men armed for battle, a thousand from each tribe, were supplied from the clans of Israel. 6 Moses sent them into battle, a thousand from each tribe, along with Phinehas son of Eleazar, the priest, who took with him articles from the sanctuary and the trumpets for signaling.
The preparations for battle included setting apart a thousand men from each tribe. Phinehas, the heroic figure who stemmed a plague with his bold action in ch.25:7,8, was commander in the field. A priest, he led the armies of Israel with holy articles and signal trumpets. This was no ordinary conflict; it was a holy war, waged in the name and power of God.
7 They fought against Midian, as the Lord commanded Moses, and killed every man. 8 Among their victims were Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur and Reba—the five kings of Midian. They also killed Balaam son of Beor with the sword. 9 The Israelites captured the Midianite women and children and took all the Midianite herds, flocks and goods as plunder. 10 They burned all the towns where the Midianites had settled, as well as all their camps. 11 They took all the plunder and spoils, including the people and animals,
The victory was assured by the blessing of God on the armies of Israel. The Lord commanded that every male be killed. So the Israelites did as commanded and killed all the men including the five kings of Midian as well as Balaam who was killed with a sword. We remember from ch.25 Balaam, was the one who had masterminded the strategy by which Israel would be seduced into sexual immorality and idolatry, and who did it all for money, was now dead. He was judged by the vengeance of God, and his money did him no good. Balaam had longed, ”Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my end be like his” in ch.23. But Balaam had no interest in living the life of the righteous, so he died the death of a sinner, in the company of sinners.
The Israelites took all the women and children captive and took all the Midianite’s herds, flocks, and goods as plunder. They burned the Midianite towns and camps as well. They took all the plunder and spoils including people and animals.
12 and brought the captives, spoils and plunder to Moses and Eleazar the priest and the Israelite assembly at their camp on the plains of Moab, by the Jordan across from Jericho.
13 Moses, Eleazar the priest and all the leaders of the community went to meet them outside the camp. 14 Moses was angry with the officers of the army—the commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds—who returned from the battle.
15 “Have you allowed all the women to live?” he asked them. 16 “They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful to the Lord in the Peor incident, so that a plague struck the Lord’s people. 17 Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, 18 but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.
19 “Anyone who has killed someone or touched someone who was killed must stay outside the camp seven days. On the third and seventh days you must purify yourselves and your captives. 20 Purify every garment as well as everything made of leather, goat hair or wood.”
21 Then Eleazar the priest said to the soldiers who had gone into battle, “This is what is required by the law that the Lord gave Moses: 22 Gold, silver, bronze, iron, tin, lead 23 and anything else that can withstand fire must be put through the fire, and then it will be clean. But it must also be purified with the water of cleansing. And whatever cannot withstand fire must be put through that water. 24 On the seventh day wash your clothes and you will be clean. Then you may come into the camp.”
When the victorious soldiers returned to the camps of Israel they were met with anger instead of praise. Moses’ anger was because they had kept the sinful women alive. These women had caused Israel to sin, as they had followed the counsel of Balaam, who was killed along with the five kings in v.8. Now the women and the male children had to be killed as well. The killing of the male children was harsh but done with the understanding that in that ancient culture, the boys would have grown into men with the solemn responsibility to avenge their father’s death and to perpetuate Midianite culture which was anti-God. Only the young girls who were virgins were to be kept alive because they were considered innocent of the sexual sins of their mothers.
Because this was a holy war the soldiers and their possessions needed to go through extraordinary purification rites which demanded both cleansing by fire (items that could withstand fire) and water. Anything that had come into contact with the Midianites and the spoils taken from them had to be purified. Then it could be used by the people of God, for His glory.
Dividing the Spoils
25 The Lord said to Moses, 26 “You and Eleazar the priest and the family heads of the community are to count all the people and animals that were captured. 27 Divide the spoils equally between the soldiers who took part in the battle and the rest of the community. 28 From the soldiers who fought in the battle, set apart as tribute for the Lord one out of every five hundred, whether people, cattle, donkeys or sheep. 29 Take this tribute from their half share and give it to Eleazar the priest as the Lord’s part. 30 From the Israelites’ half, select one out of every fifty, whether people, cattle, donkeys, sheep or other animals. Give them to the Levites, who are responsible for the care of the Lord’s tabernacle.” 31 So Moses and Eleazar the priest did as the Lord commanded Moses.
32 The plunder remaining from the spoils that the soldiers took was 675,000 sheep, 33 72,000 cattle, 34 61,000 donkeys 35 and 32,000 women who had never slept with a man.
36 The half share of those who fought in the battle was:
337,500 sheep, 37 of which the tribute for the Lord was 675;
38 36,000 cattle, of which the tribute for the Lord was 72;
39 30,500 donkeys, of which the tribute for the Lord was 61;
40 16,000 people, of whom the tribute for the Lord was 32.
41 Moses gave the tribute to Eleazar the priest as the Lord’s part, as the Lord commanded Moses.
42 The half belonging to the Israelites, which Moses set apart from that of the fighting men— 43 the community’s half—was 337,500 sheep, 44 36,000 cattle, 45 30,500 donkeys 46 and 16,000 people. 47 From the Israelites’ half, Moses selected one out of every fifty people and animals, as the Lord commanded him, and gave them to the Levites, who were responsible for the care of the Lord’s tabernacle.
48 Then the officers who were over the units of the army—the commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds—went to Moses 49 and said to him, “Your servants have counted the soldiers under our command, and not one is missing. 50 So we have brought as an offering to the Lord the gold articles each of us acquired—armlets, bracelets, signet rings, earrings and necklaces—to make atonement for ourselves before the Lord.”
51 Moses and Eleazar the priest accepted from them the gold—all the crafted articles. 52 All the gold from the commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds that Moses and Eleazar presented as a gift to the Lord weighed 16,750 shekels.[a] 53 Each soldier had taken plunder for himself. 54 Moses and Eleazar the priest accepted the gold from the commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds and brought it into the tent of meeting as a memorial for the Israelites before the Lord.
The remainder of the chapter details the division of the plunder. The numbers are huge, proving a great victory. The division among those who had gone to war and those who had not set the standard for future battles. The portion that belonged to the Lord also set a standard.
The report from the officers of Israel was that not a man from Israel’s armies was killed or missing. None of their soldiers, not one, was lost in battle. In atonement to God, the officers made a special offering, which Moses brought to the tabernacle as a memorial. The size of the officers’ gift was extraordinary, a total of 400 pounds of gold.
- Numbers 31:52 That is, about 420 pounds or about 190 kilograms