Numbers 31
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges

The sacred war against Midian

The narrative in this chapter is of a peculiar character. It belongs to a late date in Hebrew Biblical literature, when the practice was becoming common of conveying religious instruction by means of narrative. One form of narrative uttered with a purely religious or moral purpose was the Parable, of which a few instances are found in the O.T., and many in the New. But another form, which was very common in post-Biblical literature, is known as the Midrash. ‘The Midrash may be defined as an imaginative development of a thought or theme suggested by Scripture, especially a didactic or homiletic exposition, or an edifying religious story’ (Driver). It is certain that such stories existed within the period of the O.T., for there are two references to them (2 Chronicles 13:22; 2 Chronicles 24:27 R.V. ‘commentary’). The Midrash referred to in these passages was probably a writing which emphasized the religious truths underlying the narratives of the kings by enlarging upon the narratives themselves in an imaginative manner. They were not intended to be, in any strict sense, historical, though they introduced historical personages and events. The present chapter has all the appearance of a Midrash. The writer wishes to convey three pieces of instruction which he felt to be important:—(1) the victorious success which should ideally attend a holy war, waged against an enemy who had enticed Israel into grievous sin (Numbers 31:1-18); (2) the purification necessary after contact with the dead (Numbers 31:19-24); (3) the right method of dividing the spoil (Numbers 31:25-54). In each case he develops a thought or theme suggested by Scripture:—(1) is based on Numbers 25:6-9; (2) on ch. 19; (3) probably on 1 Samuel 30:24 f. It is not unlikely that the story as a whole is based on a real historical tradition of a fight with Midian, but the numbers of the slain and of the spoil are alone enough to shew that in its present form it is imaginative and ideal.

And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
1–18. The utter destruction of every Midianite, with the exception of the virgins who are to be kept as spoil.

Avenge the children of Israel of the Midianites: afterward shalt thou be gathered unto thy people.
2. This command is anticipated by an editor in Numbers 25:16 ff. See note there.

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.
Of every tribe a thousand, throughout all the tribes of Israel, shall ye send to the war.
4. The selection of 1,000 soldiers from each tribe is purely artificial. The larger ones could send a much greater number.

So there were delivered out of the thousands of Israel, a thousand of every tribe, twelve thousand armed for war.
5. and there were delivered] The use of this verb וַיִמָּסְרוּ would, if the reading were certain, mark the chapter as a late composition. It occurs in Numbers 31:16 (see, however, note), but not elsewhere in the O.T., while it is frequent in post-Biblical Heb. and in Aramaic. But LXX. has καὶ ἐξηρίθμησαν, and perhaps the true reading is וַיִמָּפְרוּand there were numbered.

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.
6. The war being of a strictly religious character, the soldiers were apparently led not by Moses or Joshua but by Phinehas the priest, who had previously displayed his zeal against the Midianites (Numbers 25:6-8). Eleazar the chief priest is represented as staying behind in the camp, perhaps from fear of pollution by contact with the dead.

the vessels of the sanctuary] The word rendered ‘vessels’ is a general term which may denote any utensils or objects. It has been suggested that the writer had in mind the ephod containing the Urim and Tummim by which Phinehas could enquire of God concerning the conduct of the battle; but it is doubtful whether that right would be ascribed to any but the high priest (cf. Numbers 27:21).

And they warred against the Midianites, as the LORD commanded Moses; and they slew all the males.
7. they slew every male] An imaginative description of success. If it were historically true, Midian would have disappeared from history; but they are found not long afterwards as one of Israel’s most troublesome neighbours (Judges 6-8).

7–12. In this ideal picture of the war nothing is said of the place where the battle was fought, nor the length of time occupied by it, nor any details of the fight. It was a rapid and sweeping conquest.

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.
8. The five names of the kings may have been derived from an historical kernel of the story. They occur in the same order in Joshua 13:21; but there the tradition is different, since they are not only ‘princes of Midian’ but ‘chiefs of Sihon,’ who were slain in the battle against Sihon. There, as here, Balaam is mentioned in conjunction with them.

Zur] is mentioned in Numbers 25:15 as the head of a Midianite family.

Balaam also] See on Numbers 25:6.

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.
10. their encampments] A word specially used to denote the circular encampment of a nomad tribe: cf. Genesis 25:16.

And they took all the spoil, and all the prey, both of men and of beasts.
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.
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?
15–18. Commands to complete the destruction of the enemy. All male children and all women who are not virgins are to be killed in cold blood. This cruel command ascribed to Moses dates from an age when the Jews were approaching their narrowest and hardest state of exclusiveness, when piety consisted in rigid separateness from everything foreign. It need cause no difficulty to Christians who have received the command ‘Love your enemies.’

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.
16. The wording of this verse is obscure in the Heb., but the R.V. gives the general sense. The rendering ‘to commit trespass’ is obtained by adopting a probable emendation, לִמְעֹל, for the late and difficult word לִמְסר ‘to deliver’ (see Numbers 31:5).

through the counsel of Balaam] Perhaps better in the matter of Balaam. This is a reference to an incident which is now lost, but which probably preceded Numbers 25:6 (see note there).

with regard to the matter of Peor] The writer refers in this clause to the quite distinct narrative in Numbers 25:1-5. In Revelation 2:14 reference is made to the enticement by Balaam both to idolatry and to immorality.

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.
19. purify yourselves] The same word as in Numbers 8:21, ‘unsin yourselves.’ Purification after battle is a custom found among various primitive tribes. The Hebrews had not yet received the higher teaching that only ‘the things which proceed out of the man are those that defile the man’ (Mark 7:15).

19–24. The purification necessary after contact with the dead. Moses bids all who are defiled to remain outside the camp for seven days and perform the requisite ritual of purification.

And purify all your raiment, and all that is made of skins, and all work of goats' hair, and all things made of wood.
20. all that is made of skin] such as sandals, saddles, coverings for packages &c.

work of goats’ hair] such as tent-coverings (Exodus 25:4) and bed-coverings (1 Samuel 19:13; 1 Samuel 19:16).

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;
21–24. Further injunctions given by Eleazar, drawing a distinction between objects which could not stand purification by fire, and metals which could.

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.
23. the water of impurity] Its preparation and use are described in ch. 19.

to go through water] i.e. ordinary pure water, not the ‘water of impurity’ as R.V. suggests. Objects which will stand the fire must pass through it, and then their purification must be completed by the application of the specially prepared mixture. Objects, on the other hand, which cannot stand the fire, must pass through ordinary water instead of fire. It is perhaps implied that their purification must afterwards be completed, as in the former case, by the special mixture.

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,
25–54. The apportionment of the spoil. Those who fought and those who remained behind were to receive equal shares. This was an ancient custom, which was traced to the action of David (1 Samuel 30:24 f.). But before the appropriation by individuals, a religious tax was to be paid. The fighters were to pay from their share 1/500th to the priests, and the others 1/50th to the Levites. Such a tax is not mentioned elsewhere in the O.T., but perhaps, like the foregoing regulation, it had an ancient custom behind it. Mohammed, whose religion was ultimately based on the O.T., enjoined a similar tax of 1/5th (Koran viii. 42, cited by Gray).

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:
28. levy a tribute] lit. ‘lift off a fixed proportion.’ The verb has the technical sense which is more often found in the corresponding subst. terûmâh (Numbers 31:29); see on Numbers 31:9.

one soul out of (every) five hundred] The word nephesh (‘soul’) denotes the life or animating principle of every living creature, man or beast, and here stands for an ‘individual’ person or a ‘head’ of cattle.

the beeves] an archaic plural of ‘beef,’ used for the live animals; cf. Shakespeare, Merch. of Venice, 1. iii. 68, ‘flesh of muttons, beefs or goats.’ The word occurs in R.V. and A.V. five times in this chapter, and in Leviticus 22:19; Leviticus 22:21 (R.V. in the latter verse ‘herd’).

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.
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,
32. over and above the booty] the remainder of the booty. The revisers connected the words with Numbers 31:53 (see marg. there), but that is concerned only with the private looting of gold ornaments. Here ‘the booty’ is synonymous with ‘the prey,’ and the words may be paraphrased ‘the prey, or rather that which remained of it.’ That which was captured on the field of battle would be diminished from a variety of causes, e.g. the necessary slaughter of animals for food, possibly the death from hardships on the return journey of some among the prisoners who were ill or infirm; also by the slaughter commanded in Numbers 31:17.

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:
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.
49. The officers report the safe return of every single Israelite soldier. No element of success must be absent from the ideal picture of a sacred victory.

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.
50. jewels of gold] Golden ornaments were taken from the Midianites when Gideon won his victory (Jdg 8:24-26). They were worn by roving nomads and traders, such as the Midianites were (cf. Genesis 37:28), more than by the members of settled communities. This seems to be the meaning of the parenthesis in Jdg 8:24, where ‘Ishmaelites’ is apparently a general term for nomads.

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.
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