|Matthew Henry's Concise Commentary|
31:48-54 The success of the Israelites had been very remarkable, so small a company overcoming such multitudes, but it was still more wonderful that not one was slain or missing. They presented the gold they found among the spoils, as an offering to the Lord. Thus they confessed, that instead of claiming a reward for their service, they needed forgiveness of much that had been amiss, and desired to be thankful for the preservation of their lives, which might justly have been taken away.
Verse 54. - Brought it into the tabernacle of the congregation. It is not said what was done with this enormous quantity of gold, which must have been a cause of anxiety as well as of pride to the priests. It may have formed a fund for the support of the tabernacle services during the long years of neglect which followed the conquest, or it may have been drawn upon for national purposes. A memorial. To bring them into favourable remembrance with the Lord. For this sense of זִכָּרון (Septuagint, μνημόσυνον) cf. Exodus 28:12, 29. NOTE ON THE EXTERMINATION OF THE MIDIANITES. The grave moral difficulty presented by the treatment of their enemies by the Israelites, under the sanction or even direct command of God, is here presented in its gravest form. It will be best first to state the proceedings in all their ugliness; then to reject the false excuses made for them; and lastly, to justify (if possible) the Divine sanction accorded to them.
I. That the Midianites had injured Israel is clear; as also that they had done so deliberately, craftily, and successfully, under the advice of Balaam. They had so acted as if e.g., a modern nation were to pour its opium into the ports of a dreaded neighbour in time of peace, not simply for the sake of gain (which is base enough), but with deliberate intent to ruin the morals and destroy the manhood of the nation. Such a course of action, if proved, would be held to justify any reprisals possible within the limits of legitimate war; Christian nations have avenged far less weighty injuries by bloody wars in this very century. Midian, therefore, was attacked by a detachment of the Israelites, and for some reason seems to have been unable either to fight or to fly. Thereupon all the men (i.e., all who bore arms) were slain; the towns and hamlets were destroyed; the women, children, and cattle driven off as booty. So far the Israelites had but followed the ordinary customs of war, with this great exception in their favour, that they offered (as is evident from the narrative) no violence to the women. Upon their return to the camp Moses was greatly displeased at the fact of the Midianitish women having been brought in, and gave orders that all the male children and all the women who were not virgins were to be slain. The inspection necessary to determine the latter point was left presumably to the soldiers. The Targum of Palestine indeed inserts a fable concerning some miraculous, or rather magical, test which was used to decide the question in each individual case. But this is simply a fable invented to avoid a disagreeable conclusion; both soldiers and captives were unclean, and were kept apart; and the narrative clearly implies that there was no communication between them and the people at large until long after the slaughter was over. To put the matter boldly, we have to face the fact that, under Moses' directions, 12,000 soldiers had to deal with perhaps 50,000 women, first by ascertaining that they were not virgins, and then by killing them in cold blood. It is a small additional horror that a multitude of infants must have perished directly or indirectly with their mothers.
II. It is commonly urged in vindication of this massacre that the war was God's war, and that God had a perfect right to exterminate a most guilty people. This is true in a sense. If God had been pleased to visit the Midianites with pestilence, famine, or hordes of savages worse than themselves, no one would have charged him with injustice. All who believe in an over-ruling Providence believe that in one way or other God has provided that great wickedness in a nation shall be greatly punished. But that is beside the question altogether; the difficulty is, not that the Midianites were exterminated, but that they were exterminated in an inhuman manner by the Israelites. If they had been so many swine the work would have been revolting; being men, women, and children, with all the ineffaceable beauty, interest, and hope of our common humanity upon them, the very soul sickens to think upon the cruel details of their slaughter. An ordinarily good man, sharing the feelings which do honour to the present century, would certainly have flung down his sword and braved all wrath human or Divine, rather than go on with so hateful a work; and there is not surely any Christian teacher who would not say that he acted quite rightly; if such orders proceeded from God's undoubted representative today, it would be necessary deliberately to disobey them. It is urged again that the question at issue really was, "whether an obscene and debasing idolatry should undermine the foundations of human society," or whether an awful judgment should at once stamp out the sinners, and brand the sin for ever. But no such question was at issue. There were obscene and debasing idolatries in abundance round about Israel, but no effort was made to exterminate them; the Moabites in particular seem to have been just as licentious as the Midianites at this time (see Numbers 25:1-3), and certainly were quite as idolatrous, and yet they were passed by. Indeed the argument shows an entire failure, so to speak, in moral perspective. Harlotry and idolatry are great sins, but there is no reason to believe that God deals with them otherwise than he does with other sins. It was no part of the Divine intention concerning Israel that he should go about as a knight-errant avenging "obscene idolatries." Many a nation just as immoral as Midian rose to greatness, and displayed some valuable virtues, and (it is to be presumed) did some good work in God's world in preparation for the fullness of time. Harlotry and idolatry prevail to a frightful extent in Great Britain; but any attempt to pursue them with pains and penalties would be scorned by the conscience of the nation as Pharisaical. The fact is (and it is so obvious that it ought not to have been overlooked) that Midian was overthrown, not because he was given over to an "obscene idolatry," wherein he was probably neither much better nor much worse than his neighbours; but because he had made an unprovoked, crafty, and successful attack upon God's people, and had brought thousands of them to a shameful death. The motive which prompted the attack upon them was not horror of their sins, nor fear of their contamination, but vengeance; Midian was smitten avowedly "to avenge the children of Israel" (verse 2) who had fallen through Baal-peor, and at the same time "to avenge the Lord" (verse 3), who had been obliged to slay his own people.
III. The true justification of these proceedings - which we should now call, and justly call, atrocities - divides itself into two parts. In the first place, we have to deal only with the fact that an expedition was sent by Divine command, to smite the Midianites. Now, this does indeed open up a very difficult moral question, but it does not involve any special difficulty of its own. It is certain that wars of revenge were freely sanctioned under the Old Testament dispensation (see on Exodus 17:14-16; 1 Samuel 15:2, 3). It is practically conceded that they are permitted by the New Testament dispensation. At any rate Christian nations habitually wage wars of revenge even against half-armed savages, and many of those who counsel or carry on such wars are men of really religious character. It is possible that if the principles of the New Testament take a deeper hold upon the national conscience, all such wars will be regarded as crimes. This means simply, that in regard to war the moral sentiment of religious people has changed, and is changing very materially from age to age. Even a bad man will shrink from doing today what a good man would have done without the least scruple some centuries ago; and (if the world last) a bad man will be able sincerely to denounce some centuries hence what a good man can bring himself to do with a clear conscience today. Now it has been pointed out again and again that when God assumed the Jews to be his peculiar people, he assumed them not only in the social and political stage, but in the moral stage also, which belonged to their place in the world and in history. Just as God adopted, as King of Israel, the social and political ideas which then prevailed, and made the best of them; in like manner he adopted the moral ideas then current, and made the best of them, so restraining them in one direction, and so enforcing them in another, and so bringing them all under the influence of religious sanctions, as to prepare the way for the bringing in of a higher morality. What God did for the Jews was not to teach them the precepts of a lofty and perfect morality, which was indeed only possible in connection with the revelation of his Son, but to teach them to act in all things from religious motives, and with direct reference to his good pleasure. Accordingly God himself, especially in the earlier part of their history as a nation, undertook to guide their vengeance, and taught them to look upon wars of vengeance (since their conscience freely sanctioned them) as waged for his honour and glory, not their own. If this seem to any one unworthy of the Divine Beings let him consider for a moment, that on no other condition was the Old Testament dispensation possible. If God was to be the Head of a nation among nations, he must regulate all its affairs, personal, social, and national. We escape the difficulty, and wage wars of vengeance, and commit other acts of doubtful morality, without compromising our religion, because our religion is strictly personal, and our wars are strictly national. But the Old Testament dispensation was emphatically temporal and national; all responsibility for all public acts devolved upon the King of Israel himself. It was absolutely necessary, then, either that God should reveal Christian morality without Christ (which is as though one should have heat without the sun, or a poem without a poet); or that he should sanction the morality then current in its best form, and teach men to walk bravely and devoutly according to the light of their own conscience. That light was dim enough in some ways, but it was slowly growing clearer through the gradual revelation which God made of himself; and even now it is growing clearer, and still while religion remains fundamentally the same, morality is distinctly advancing, and good people are learning to abhor today what they did in the faith and fear of God but yesterday. Take, e.g., that saying, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay." For the Jew it meant that in waging wars of vengeance he fought as the Lord's soldier and not as in a private quarrel. For the Christian of the present day it means that revenge of private injuries is to be left altogether to the just judgment of the last day. To the Christian of some future age it will mean that all revenge for injuries and humiliations, private or public, individual or national, must be left to the justice of him who ordereth all things in this world or the world to come. Each has a different standard of morality; yet each, even in doing what another will abhor, may claim the Divine sanction, for each acts truly and religiously according to his lights. This being so, it is only necessary further to point out that the slaying of all the men whom they could get at was the ordinary custom of war in those days, when no distinction could be drawn between combatants and non-combatants. The practice of war in this respect is entirely determined by the sentiment of the age, and is always in the nature of a compromise between the desire to kill and the desire to spare. As these two desires can never be reconciled, they divide the field between them with a curious inconsistency. The first is satisfied by the ever-increasing destructiveness of war; the second is gratified by the alleviations which strict discipline and skilled assistance can procure for the vanquished and the wounded. Whether ancient or modern wars really left the larger tale of misery behind them is a matter of great doubt; but at any rate the custom of war sanctioned the slaughter of all the combatants, i.e., of all the men, at that time; and if war is to be waged at all, it must be allowed to follow the ordinary practice. In the second place, however, we have to deal with horrors of an exceptional character, in the subsequent slaughter of the women and boys. Now it is to be observed that the orders for this slaughter proceeded from Moses alone. According to the narrative of verse 13 sq., Moses went out of the camp, and on perceiving the state of the case, gave instructions at once while his anger was hot. It is possible that he sought for Divine guidance, but it does not appear that he did, but rather that he acted upon his own judgment, and under the ordinary guidance of his own conscience. We have not, therefore, to face the difficulty of a direct command from God, but only the difficulty of a holy man, full of heavenly wisdom, having ordered a butchery so abhorrent to our modern feelings. Let it then in all fairness be observed -
1. That Moses was not responsible for the presence of these captives. They ought either to have been killed, or left in their own land; it was either the cupidity or the mistaken pity of the soldiers which brought them there.
2. That Moses could not tolerate their presence in the host. It seems a vile thing to kill a woman, but it was the women more than the men of Midian of whom they bad just reason to be afraid. In justice to the men, in fairness to the wives, of Israel, it was simply impossible to let them loose upon the camp. Again, it seems cowardly to slay a helpless child; yet to suffer a generation of Midianites to grow up under the roofs of Israel would have been madness and worse, for it would have been to court a great and perhaps fatal national disaster. For the sake of Israel the captive women and children must be got rid of, and this could only be done either by slaughtering the women and boys, or by taking them back to their desolated homes to perish of hunger and disease. Of the two courses Moses certainly chose the more merciful. The nation was exterminated; the girls only were spared because they were harmless then, and likely to remain harmless; distributed through the households of Israel, without parents or brothers to keep alive the national sentiment, they would rapidly be absorbed in the people of the Lord; within a few weeks these girls of Midian would be happier, and certainly their future prospects would be brighter, than if they had remained unmolested at home. The charge, therefore, which remains against Moses is, that he ordered the slaughter in cold blood of many thousands of women and children, not unnecessarily nor wantonly, but for reasons which were in themselves very weighty. It is of course an axiom of modern times that we do not wage war against women and children. But this, while partly due to Christian feeling, is partly due to the conviction that they are not formidable. If in any war the women of the enemy habitually attempted to poison, and often did poison, our soldiers, they would probably meet with scant mercy. In blockading a fortified city a modern army deliberately starves to death a great many women and children; and if they seek to escape they are sent back to starve, and to induce the garrison to surrender by the spectacle of their sufferings. If this is justified (as no doubt it is if war is to be prosecuted at all) by the plea of necessity, Moses' plea of necessity must be heard also. He deliberately thought it better that these women and boys should be slaughtered than that the future of Israel should be gravely imperiled. In these days, indeed, he would be wrong in coming to that conclusion, and his name would be justly branded with infamy. It would be unquestionably better to incur any loss, rather than outrage in so violent a manner the Christian sentiment of pity and tenderness towards the young, the innocent, the helpless; it would be better to run any risk than to brutalize the soldiery by the execution of such an order. So slowly do sentiments of mercy establish themselves in the hearts of mankind, and so unspeakably valuable are they when established, that he would be a traitor against humanity and against God who should on any pretence outrage any one of them. But there was no such sentiment to outrage in the time of Moses; none thought it wrong to slay captive women and children if any necessity demanded their lives. It was an axiom of war that a captive belonged absolutely to his captor, and might be put to death, or sold as a slave, or held to ransom, as pleased him best, without any scruple of conscience. Moses, therefore sharing as he certainly did the sentiments of his age, was morally free to act for the best, without any thought whether it was cruel or not; and God did not interfere with his decision because it was cruel, any more than he did with the similar decision of other good men who warred, and slew, and spared not before the coming of Christ, and indeed since that coming too. Finally, if the method of separation was odious, it was still the only way possible under the circumstances of separating the harmless from the harmful, and of clearing mercy towards the captives from danger to the captors. And here again a proceeding could be sanctioned without sin then which perhaps no necessity could excuse now, because the sentiment of modesty which it would violate did not exist then, or rather did not exist in the same form.
Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible
And Moses and Eleazar the priest took the gold of the captains of thousands and of hundreds,.... Which they so freely and generously offered:
and brought it into the tabernacle of the congregation; and laid it up in some chamber there:
for a memorial for the children of Israel before the Lord: in remembrance of the signal victory these men obtained, and of the singular care of divine Providence in protecting them, that not one was lost in the expedition; and of their sense of gratitude and thankfulness for the favours granted them, and to put the children of Israel in mind for their imitation, when favoured with mercies from the Lord.
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