When in seminary we had a professor from Europe was was/is the kindest, most humble, most extraordinarily intelligent man. His courses were ridiculously tough. His love for the Lord was warm and genuine. And his life a blessing to so many. And then something startling happened.
In the last few years he has left his professorship and has left the Lord. It has been devastating as he is one of the most wonderful men you will ever meet. The issue? From what I hear it was God’s judgment on other nations that included the killing of women and children. He just couldn’t get past that issue.
God says to Kill even the Women and Boys?
And so we come to Numbers 31 which is one of the harder Scriptures in all the Bible. The Midianites had dealt treacherously and seductively with Israel. The women in particular had enticed the Israelites to worship the fertility god Baal which meant sexual indiscretion of any and all kinds, including beastiality and sex with kids.
Put a warrior in the face of the Israelites and they could fight. Put a seductive woman before their eyes and…they were led astray. It was a terrible moment in their history.
God tells the Israelites to exercise judgment on the Midianites and go to war with them. The Israelities go out and with limited numbers kill the Midianite men. But they bring back to the camp the women and children.
Moses was furious. He wanted to know why they didn’t kill the women also, as it was the women who acted treacherously and seduced the people of Israel. They were the ones who were the instigators with Balaam’s encouragement.
Then Moses gives the order to have all the women killed who had been with a man. They were also to kill all the young boys. The virgin young women who had never been with a man were allowed to live.
It’s understandable that the men were killed. This is the way of war from the beginning of mankind. And it’s somewhat understandable that the women were also killed. It was an act of justice from God and they were the ones who led Israel astray. Women are not exempt from the consequences of doing evil just because they are women. But the boys? All of them? That is so much more difficult.
But let’s let’s imagine that the boys were left to live. Israel would need to assimilate them into the nation for their care. What do you think they would do when they grew up to become men? What would you do?
I can assure you they wouldn’t have peace on their mind. No matter the situation, those boys would grow up and revolt against Israel. No question.
And the young women who were virgins? They were marriage worthy. When the young girls came to age, they could both their own people and the Israelites and have families of their own. This assimilation would mean that the women would be less likely to war against Israel as their children were half-Israeli.
Things to Think On
How are we to understand texts like these?
First of all its important to understand that if God wiped away every single man, woman and child off the planet, he would be justified in doing so and he would still be good. We have all sinned, rebelled and committed crimes against God.
Our sin nature is like a cancer that is genetic to the next generation. Because of the fall of Adam, it’s inevitable that all will eventually commit evil, including children. It’s God’s mercy that anyone lives.
Second we must trust God’s judgment. Who are we to judge God? It is making God beneath us to think we have greater moral authority. He sees things we do not see. He understands things we do not understand. His ways are higher than our ways.
For example if you loved steak and hated rice cakes, and I offered you a choice between steak and rice cakes, you would choose steak. But if I strongly urged you to choose the rice cakes, you might think I didn’t care for your very best, and was even mean, cruel and immoral.
But if you had one piece of knowledge that the steak was from road-kill that had been sitting for several weeks. Anyone who ate it would die a miserable death. With this one piece of information you might think my judgment was different. Loving even.
Why didn’t I tell you that it was road-kill in the first place? The reality is that sometimes there are further reasons that we cannot explain every action we do. Culturally and especially in the internet age, we want answers and explanations for everything done so we ourselves can make the moral decision. But that’s not how it works. Does a parent explain every time to their kid why they says “no” to something? Not typically.
Third, we can never diminish the horror of sin and the wrath from God because of it. We tend to think sin as no big deal, but it is. God abhors evil and as a righteous God he is compelled to act with justice. And as God, he has that authority to make that judgment.
In the big picture with issues like these, we really don’t understand. But we do not have the whole picture, nor the moral supremacy over God. So we must ask ourselves, “Will not the judge of all the earth do that which is right?” (Gen 18:25).
Having said this we do have several questions that come up during this text.
- Did this mean that the men of Israel raped the young girls after their captivity? By no means. There is no basis of support for this considering rape was a wrong that warranted the death penalty. They were more than likely made into servants who married when they came of age.
- And how was it possible that 12,000 men could have routed so many? Isn’t that an unrealistic victory? Some have thought that the word for 1000 (eleph) may mean a thousand units of men. This would make more sense but even if not, remember that Gideon and his 300 routed the entire Midianite with the Lord’s help. There is much more to the battle story than we know.
- Were the Midianites destroyed so that “every man” (v. 7) was killed? Isn’t that genocide? Actually the Midianites were a collection of many tribal groups. Five of those groups and their kings were killed. But not all the Midianites everywhere. There were many more Midianites and tribes. We see this only a few centuries later when they become a formidable force causing issues for Israel yet again.
Without a doubt the recounting of history like this is not palatable. It causes us to pause and ask hard questions. They are not easy questions to deal with.
It’s important to understand that scenarios like these were the exceptions and not the norm. But at times God has executed judgment on people of the earth.
We must turn to him in trust of his character. He sees a bigger picture that we do not. Perhaps if we saw as God saw (like with the meat and rice cake), we would understand the wisdom of God.
When the Disciples were Bothered Too
The way to handle a text like this is similar to how the disciples handled things when they didn’t understand Jesus. It was the key moment in the life of faith when many abandon the faith.
Jesus was speaking about “eating his flesh and drinking his blood,” (Jn 6:54) and “whoever eats this bread will live forever” (v. 58). It was troubling in every way and because of it, “many of his followers left him and stopped following him” (v. 66). I can’t imagine what Jesus was thinking or feeling. But he turned to his disciples and said this:
“Do you want to leave, too?”
We almost hear in this the heart of Jesus. Uncompromising. But saddened also. But then there was Peter.
Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, who would we go to? You have the words that give eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One from God.” (v. 67-68).
They didn’t understand and were troubled too, but they trusted Him anyway. Many walked away but the Twelve ended up staying. Faith is not for when we do understand, it’s for when we don’t understand and still trust His character.