Bible study 147 – Numbers 31

Moses sends an army of 12,000 men to the far-away country of Midian, as ordered by God in chapter 25. They kill all adult males (including Balaam, who doesn’t even live there), burn all their towns, and bring back captured children, women and animals as booty. The warriors’ appalling conduct angers Moses, and he chides them: “Have you allowed all the women to live?” You can never trust warriors these days! He thereupon orders the execution of all adult women and male children, only allowing virgin girls to live for the pleasure of the Israelite men.

Until this chapter, I thought I had finally found a character in the Pentateuch that I could cheer for. Moses usually tends to prefer less violent action, and is always suitably distressed at the more insane of God’s plans. Although I had to go to great lengths to rationalize Moses’ actions in my story in chapter 16, I felt like my interpretation (that he was forced to kill all those people against his will) was believable. His decision in this chapter, though, is hard to excuse. It doesn’t seem to be an order from God, and there is no strategic value in in executing women, who would at the very least make perfectly good slaves. It really just strikes me as evil. I bet Zipporah (Moses’ Midianite wife, presumably with lots of family in Midian) gave him a cold shoulder that night (unless she was herself still in Midian and was slaughtered like everyone else).

The human booty to be shared among the Israelites totals 32,000 virgin girls. If we assume everyone younger than 15 years are virgins, and the average lifespan is 50 years, the whole population would be about 200,000 people. So each Israelite warrior must have killed 17 people or so each.

Numbers 31:17-18
Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known a man by sleeping with him. But all the young girls who have not known a man by sleeping with him, keep alive for yourselves.

chapter_31

Full text.

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