Keil and Delitzsch OT Commentary
And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
The Campaign. - After the people of Israel had been mustered as the army of Jehovah, and their future relation to the Lord had been firmly established by the order of sacrifice that was given to them immediately afterwards, the Lord commanded Moses to carry out that hostility to the Midianites which had already been commanded in Numbers 25:16-18. Moses was to revenge (i.e., to execute) the revenge of the children of Israel upon the Midianites, and then to be gathered to his people, i.e., to die, as had already been revealed to him (Numbers 27:13). "The revenge of the children of Israel" was revenge for the wickedness which the tribes of the Midianites who dwelt on the east of Moab (see at Numbers 22:4) had practised upon the Israelites, by seducing them to the idolatrous worship of Baal Peor. This revenge is called the "revenge of Jehovah" in Numbers 31:3, because the seduction had violated the divinity and honour of Jehovah. The daughters of Moab had also taken part in the seduction (Numbers 25:1-2); 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.
Avenge the children of Israel of the Midianites: afterward shalt thou be gathered unto thy people.
And Moses spake unto the people, saying, Arm some of yourselves unto the war, and let them go against the Midianites, and avenge the LORD of Midian.
To carry out this revenge, Moses had 1000 men of each tribe delivered (ימּסרוּ, see at Numbers 31:16) from the families (alaphim, see Numbers 1:16) of the tribes, and equipped for war; and these he sent to the army (into the war) along with Phinehas the son of Eleazar the high priest, who carried the holy vessels, viz., the alarm-trumpets, in his hand. Phinehas was attached to the army, not as the leader of the soldiers, but as the high priest with the holy trumpets (Numbers 10:9), because the war was a holy war of the congregation against the enemies of themselves and their God. Phinehas had so distinguished himself by the zeal which he had displayed against the idolaters (Numbers 25:7), that it was impossible to find any other man in all the priesthood to attach to the army, who would equal him in holy zeal, or be equally qualified to inspire the army with zeal for the holy conflict. "The holy vessels" cannot mean the ark of the covenant on account of the plural, which would be inapplicable to it; nor the Urim and Thummim, because Phinehas was not yet high priest, and the expression כּלי would also be unsuitable to these. The allusion can only be to the trumpets mentioned immediately afterwards, the ו before חצצרות being the ו explic., "and in fact." Phinehas took these in his hand, because the Lord had assigned them to His congregation, to bring them into remembrance before Him in time of war, and to ensure His aid (Numbers 10:9).
Of every tribe a thousand, throughout all the tribes of Israel, shall ye send to the war.
So there were delivered out of the thousands of Israel, a thousand of every tribe, twelve thousand armed for war.
And Moses sent them to the war, a thousand of every tribe, them and Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest, to the war, with the holy instruments, and the trumpets to blow in his hand.
And they warred against the Midianites, as the LORD commanded Moses; and they slew all the males.
Of the campaign itself, the results are all that is recorded. No doubt it terminated with a great battle, in which the Midianites were taken unawares and completely routed. As it was a war of vengeance of Jehovah, the victors slew all the males, i.e., all the adult males, as the sequel shows, without quarter; and "upon those that were slain," i.e., in addition to them, the five Midianitsh kings and Balaam, who first advised the Midianites, according to Numbers 31:16, to tempt the Israelites to idolatry. The five kings were chiefs of the larger or more powerful of the Midianitish tribes, as Zur is expressly said to have been in Numbers 25:15. In Joshua 13:21 they are called "vassals of Sihon," because Sihon had subjugated them and made them tributary when he first conquered the land. The women and children of the Midianites were led away prisoners; and their cattle (behemah, beasts of draft and burden, as in Exodus 20:10), and their flocks, and their goods taken away as spoil. The towns in their dwellings, and all their villages (tiroth, tent-villages, as in Genesis 25:16), were burnt down. 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 Joshua 13:21, according to which these five Midianitish vassals of Sihon dwelt in the land, i.e., in the kingdom of Sihon. This also serves to explain why the conquest on their country is not mentioned in the account before us, although it is stated in Joshua (l.c.), that it was allotted to the Reubenites with the kingdom of Sihon.
And they slew the kings of Midian, beside the rest of them that were slain; namely, Evi, and Rekem, and Zur, and Hur, and Reba, five kings of Midian: Balaam also the son of Beor they slew with the sword.
And the children of Israel took all the women of Midian captives, and their little ones, and took the spoil of all their cattle, and all their flocks, and all their goods.
And they burnt all their cities wherein they dwelt, and all their goodly castles, with fire.
And they took all the spoil, and all the prey, both of men and of beasts.
All this booty (shalal, booty in goods), and all the prey in man and beast (malkoach), was brought by the conquerors to Moses and Eleazar and the congregation, into the camp in the steppes of Moab. In Numbers 31:12, שׁבי applies to the women and children who were taken prisoners, מלקוח to the cattle taken as booty, and שׁלל to the rest of the prey.
And they brought the captives, and the prey, and the spoil, unto Moses, and Eleazar the priest, and unto the congregation of the children of Israel, unto the camp at the plains of Moab, which are by Jordan near Jericho.
And Moses, and Eleazar the priest, and all the princes of the congregation, went forth to meet them without the camp.
Treatment of the Prisoners. - When Moses went out to the front of the camp with Eleazar and the princes of the congregation to meet the returning warriors, he was angry with the commanders, because they had left all the women alive, since it was they who had been the cause, at Balaam's instigation, of the falling away of the Israelites from Jehovah to worship Peor; and he commanded all the male children to be slain, and every woman who had lain with a man, and only the young girls who had hitherto had no connection with a man to be left alive. החיל פּקוּדי, lit., the appointed persons, i.e., the officers of the army, who were then divided into princes (captains) over thousands and hundreds. - "Which came from the battle," i.e., who had returned. The question in Numbers 31:15, "Have ye left all the women alive?" is an expression of dissatisfaction, and reproof for their having done this. למסר־מעל...היוּ, "they have become to the Israelites to work unfaithfulness towards Jehovah," i.e., they have induced them to commit an act of unfaithfulness towards Jehovah. The word מסר, which only occurs in this chapter, viz., in Numbers 31:5 and Numbers 31:16, appears to be used in the sense of giving, delivering, and then, like נתן, doing, making, effecting. On the fact itself, see Numbers 25:6. The object of the command to put all the male children to death, was to exterminate the whole nation, as it could not be perpetuated in the women. Of the female sex, all were to be put to death who had known the lying with a man, and therefore might possibly have been engaged in the licentious worship of Peor (Numbers 25:2), to preserve the congregation from all contamination from that abominable idolatry.
And Moses was wroth with the officers of the host, with the captains over thousands, and captains over hundreds, which came from the battle.
And Moses said unto them, Have ye saved all the women alive?
Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the LORD in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the LORD.
Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him.
But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.
And do ye abide without the camp seven days: whosoever hath killed any person, and whosoever hath touched any slain, purify both yourselves and your captives on the third day, and on the seventh day.
Purification of the Warriors, the Prisoners, and the Booty. - Moses commanded the men of war to remain for seven days outside the camp of the congregation, to carry out upon the third and seventh day the legal purification of such persons and things as had been rendered unclean through contact with dead bodies. Every one who had slain a soul (person), or touched one who had been slain, was to be purified, whether he were a warrior or a prisoner. And so also were all the clothes, articles of leather, materials of goats' hair, and all wooden things.
And purify all your raiment, and all that is made of skins, and all work of goats' hair, and all things made of wood.
And Eleazar the priest said unto the men of war which went to the battle, This is the ordinance of the law which the LORD commanded Moses;
To this end Eleazar, whose duty it was as high priest to see that the laws of purification were properly observed, issued fuller instructions with reference to the purification of the different articles, in accordance with the law in ch. 19. למּלחמה הבּאים, those who came to the war, i.e., who went into the battle (see at Numbers 10:9). "The ordinance of the law:" as in Numbers 19:2. The metal (gold, silver, copper, tin, lead), all that usually comes into the fire, i.e., that will bear the fire, was to be drawn through the fire, that it might become clean, and was then to be sprinkled with water of purification (Numbers 19:9); but everything that would not bear the fire was to be drawn through water. - The washing of clothes on the seventh day was according to the rule laid down in Numbers 19:19.
Only the gold, and the silver, the brass, the iron, the tin, and the lead,
Every thing that may abide the fire, ye shall make it go through the fire, and it shall be clean: nevertheless it shall be purified with the water of separation: and all that abideth not the fire ye shall make go through the water.
And ye shall wash your clothes on the seventh day, and ye shall be clean, and afterward ye shall come into the camp.
And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
Distribution of the Booty. - God directed Moses, with Eleazar and the heads of the fathers' houses ("fathers" for "fathers' houses:" see at Exodus 6:14) of the congregation, to take the whole of the booty in men and cattle, and divide it into two halves: one for the men of war (המּלחמה תּפשׂי, those who grasped at war, who engaged in war), the other for the congregation, and to levy a tribute upon it (מכס equals מכסה, computatio, a certain amount: see Exodus 12:4) for Jehovah. Of the half that came to the warriors, one person and one head of cattle were to be handed over to Eleazar the priest out of every 500 (i.e., one-fifth per cent.), as a heave-offering for Jehovah; and of the other half that was set apart for the children of Israel, i.e., for the congregation, one out of every fifty (i.e., 2 per cent.) was to be taken for the Levites. אחז, laid hold of, i.e., snatched out of the whole number during the process of counting; not seized or touched by the lot, as in 1 Chronicles 24:6, as there was no reason for resorting to the lot in this instance. The division of the booty into two equal halves, one of which was given to the warriors, and the other to the congregation that had taken no part in the war, was perfectly reasonable and just. As the 12,000 warriors had been chosen out of the whole congregation to carry on the war on their behalf, the congregation itself could properly lay claim to its share of the booty. But as the 12,000 had had all the trouble, hardships, and dangers of the war, they could very properly reckon upon some reward for their service; and this was granted them by their receiving quite as much as the whole of the congregation which had taken no part in the war-in fact, more, because the warriors only gave one-fifth per cent. of their share as a thank-offering for the victory that had been granted them, whilst those who remained at home had to give 2 per cent. of their share to Jehovah for the benefit of the priests and Levites. The arrangement, however, was only made for this particular case, and not as a law for all times, although it was a general rule that those who remained at home received a share of the booty brought back by the warriors (cf. Joshua 22:8; 1 Samuel 30:24-25; 2 Macc. 8:28, 30).
Take the sum of the prey that was taken, both of man and of beast, thou, and Eleazar the priest, and the chief fathers of the congregation:
And divide the prey into two parts; between them that took the war upon them, who went out to battle, and between all the congregation:
And levy a tribute unto the LORD of the men of war which went out to battle: one soul of five hundred, both of the persons, and of the beeves, and of the asses, and of the sheep:
Take it of their half, and give it unto Eleazar the priest, for an heave offering of the LORD.
And of the children of Israel's half, thou shalt take one portion of fifty, of the persons, of the beeves, of the asses, and of the flocks, of all manner of beasts, and give them unto the Levites, which keep the charge of the tabernacle of the LORD.
And Moses and Eleazar the priest did as the LORD commanded Moses.
The booty, viz., "the rest of the booty, which the men of war had taken," i.e., all the persons taken prisoners that had not been put to death, and all the cattle taken as booty that had not been consumed during the march home, amounted to 675,000 head of small cattle, 72,000 oxen, 61,000 asses, and 32,000 maidens. Each half, therefore, consisted of 337,500 head of small cattle, 36,000 oxen, 30,500 asses, and 16,000 maidens (Numbers 31:36 and Numbers 31:43-46). Of the one half the priests received 675 head of small cattle, 72 oxen, 61 asses, and 32 maidens for Jehovah; and these Moses handed over to Eleazar, in all probability for the maintenance of the priests, in the same manner as the tithes (Numbers 18:26-28, and Leviticus 27:30-33), so that they might put the cattle into their own flocks (Numbers 35:3), and slay oxen or sheep as they required them, whilst they sold the asses, and made slaves of the gifts; and not in the character of a vow, in which case the clean animals would have had to be sacrificed, and the unclean animals, as well as the human beings, to be redeemed (Leviticus 27:2-13). Of the other half, the Levites received the fiftieth part (Numbers 31:43-47), that is to say, 6750 head of small cattle, 720 oxen, 610 asses, and 320 girls. The וגו מחצית ("the half," etc.), in Numbers 31:42, is resumed in Numbers 31:47, and the enumeration of the component parts of this half in Numbers 31:43-46 is to be regarded as parenthetical.
And the booty, being the rest of the prey which the men of war had caught, was six hundred thousand and seventy thousand and five thousand sheep,
And threescore and twelve thousand beeves,
And threescore and one thousand asses,
And thirty and two thousand persons in all, of women that had not known man by lying with him.
And the half, which was the portion of them that went out to war, was in number three hundred thousand and seven and thirty thousand and five hundred sheep:
And the LORD'S tribute of the sheep was six hundred and threescore and fifteen.
And the beeves were thirty and six thousand; of which the LORD'S tribute was threescore and twelve.
And the asses were thirty thousand and five hundred; of which the LORD'S tribute was threescore and one.
And the persons were sixteen thousand; of which the LORD'S tribute was thirty and two persons.
And Moses gave the tribute, which was the LORD'S heave offering, unto Eleazar the priest, as the LORD commanded Moses.
And of the children of Israel's half, which Moses divided from the men that warred,
(Now the half that pertained unto the congregation was three hundred thousand and thirty thousand and seven thousand and five hundred sheep,
And thirty and six thousand beeves,
And thirty thousand asses and five hundred,
And sixteen thousand persons;)
Even of the children of Israel's half, Moses took one portion of fifty, both of man and of beast, and gave them unto the Levites, which kept the charge of the tabernacle of the LORD; as the LORD commanded Moses.
And the officers which were over thousands of the host, the captains of thousands, and captains of hundreds, came near unto Moses:
Sacred Oblations of the Officers. - When the officers reviewed the men of war who were "in their hand," i.e., who had fought the battle under their command, and found not a single man missing, they felt constrained to give a practical expression to their gratitude for this miraculous preservation of the whole of the men, by presenting a sacrificial gift to Jehovah; they therefore brought all the golden articles that they had received as booty, and offered them to the Lord "for the expiation of their souls" (see at Leviticus 1:4), namely, with the feeling that they were not worthy of any such grace, and not "because they had done wrong in failing to destroy all the enemies of Jehovah" (Knobel). This gift, which was offered as a heave-offering for Jehovah, consisted of the following articles of gold: אצעדה, "arm-rings," according to 2 Samuel 1:10 (lxx χελιδῶνα; Suidas: χελιδόναι κοσμοὶ περὶ τοὺς βραχιόνας, καλοῦνται δὲ βραχιάλια); צמיד, bands, generally armlets (Genesis 24:22, etc.); טבּעת, signet-rings; עגיל, hoops, - according to Ezekiel 16:12, ear-rings; and כּוּמז, gold balls (Exodus 35:22). They amounted in all to 16,750 shekels; and the men of war had received their own booty in addition to this. This gift, presented on the part of the officers, was brought into the tabernacle "as a memorial of the children of Israel before Jehovah" (cf. Exodus 30:16); that is to say, it was placed in the treasury of the sanctuary.
The fact that the Israelites did not lose a single man in the battle, is certainly a striking proof of the protection of God; but it is not so marvellous as to furnish any good ground for calling in question the correctness of the narrative.
(Note: Rosenmller has cited an example from Tacitus (Ann. xiii. 39), of the Romans having slaughtered all the foe without losing a single man on the capture of a Parthian castle; and another from Strabo (xvi. 1128), of a battle in which 1000 Arabs were slain, and only 2 Romans. And Hvernick mentions a similar account from the life of Saladin in his Introduction (i. 2, p. 452).)
The Midianites were a nomad tribe, who lived by rearing flocks and herds, and therefore were not a warlike people. Moreover, they were probably attacked quite unawares, and being unprepared, were completely routed and cut down without quarter. The quantity of booty brought home is also not so great as to appear incredible. Judging from the 32,000 females who had never lain with a man, the tribes governed by the five kings may have numbered about 130,000 or 150,000, and therefore not have contained much more than 35,000 fighting men, who might easily have been surprised by 12,000 brave warriors, and entirely destroyed. And again, there is nothing in the statement that 675,000 sheep and goats, 72,000 oxen, and 61,000 asses were taken as booty from these tribes, to astonish any one who has formed correct notions of the wealth of nomad tribes in flocks and herds. The only thing that could appear surprising is, that there are no camels mentioned.
But it is questionable, in the first place, whether the Midianites were in the habit of rearing camels; and, in the second place, if they did possess them, it is still questionable whether the Israelitish army took them away, and did not rather put to death all that they found, as being of no value to the Israelites in their existing circumstances. Lastly, the quantity of jewellery seized as booty is quite in harmony with the well-known love of nomads, and even of barbarous tribes, for ornaments of this kind; and the peculiar liking of the Midianites for such things is confirmed by the account in Judges 8:26, according to which Gideon took as much as 1700 shekels in weight of golden rings from the Midianites alone, beside ornaments of other kinds. If we take the golden shekel at 10 thalers (30 shillings), the value of the ornaments taken by the officers under Moses would be about 167,500 thalers (L.25,125). It is quite possible that the kings and other chiefs, together with their wives, may have possessed as much as this.
And they said unto Moses, Thy servants have taken the sum of the men of war which are under our charge, and there lacketh not one man of us.
We have therefore brought an oblation for the LORD, what every man hath gotten, of jewels of gold, chains, and bracelets, rings, earrings, and tablets, to make an atonement for our souls before the LORD.
And Moses and Eleazar the priest took the gold of them, even all wrought jewels.
And all the gold of the offering that they offered up to the LORD, of the captains of thousands, and of the captains of hundreds, was sixteen thousand seven hundred and fifty shekels.
(For the men of war had taken spoil, every man for himself.)
And Moses and Eleazar the priest took the gold of the captains of thousands and of hundreds, and brought it into the tabernacle of the congregation, for a memorial for the children of Israel before the LORD.