Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,XXXI.
(1) Avenge the children of Israel of the Midianites.—The time had now come for the fulfilment of the command which had already been given (see Numbers 25:16-18), after which Moses was to be gathered unto his people, as it had been revealed to him (Numbers 27:13). After Balaam had been dismissed by Balak, he appears to have gone, not to the Moabites, but to the Midianites; and it was in consequence of the counsel which he gave to the Midianites (Numbers 5:16) that the Israelites were reduced into the idolatrous and lascivious worship of Baal Peor. It is possible, also, that the Midianites, as the descendants of Abraham, may have possessed clearer light and greater privileges than the Moabites. They may have had many men as enlightened as Jethro amongst them, and consequently they may have incurred the greater guilt, and rendered themselves obnoxious to the severer punishment of those who, “after they have known the way of righteousness, turn from the holy commandment delivered unto them” (2Peter 2:21). But whether satisfactory reasons can or cannot be assigned why a more exemplary judgment should have been inflicted upon the Midianites than upon the Moabites, who were not left unpunished (see Deuteronomy 23:3-4), those only can maintain that the destruction of the Midianites is inconsistent with the justice or the goodness of God who deny that He has absolute control over the destinies of all the creatures of His hands, and that when it is His pleasure to recall the life which He has bestowed, it is for Him to determine what agents or what instruments it is best to employ.
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.(3) Arm some of yourselves . . . —Better, Arm from among you (or, from those with you) men for the war. The details of the selection are contained in the next verse.
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) With the holy instruments, and . . . —Or, with the holy instruments, even, &c. It does not appear whether the ark did or did not accompany the expedition. It has been inferred from Numbers 14:44 that the reference may be to the ark, but it does not appear probable that the ark would be so described. Moreover, Phinehas was not the high priest, and therefore would not have the ephod with the breastplate, which was worn at this time by-Eleazar. The reference may be only to the silver trumpets (see Numbers 10:9), or it may include other sacred instruments. This was emphatically a holy war; and we may learn, from the command given to the Israelites to take with them “the holy instruments,” that they who would engage in the war against sin and Satan must “take to them the whole armour of God” (Ephesians 6:13).
And they warred against the Midianites, as the LORD commanded Moses; and they slew all the males.(7) They slew all the males.—The reference appears to be to those who were engaged in the war. The words do not refer to the whole of the male population, as appears from Numbers 31:17; and it is probable that many of the Midianites who were not engaged in the war withdrew from the scene of conflict. The reference in this verse, unless the words are inserted proleptically, seems to be to the whole of the adult males who fell into the hands of the Israelites during the war.
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) And they slew the kings of Midian . . . —Those persons who are here described as kings appear to have been chiefs of the more powerful Midianitish tribes, just in the same way as Zur is represented in Numbers 25:15. They are described in Joshua 13:21 as “princes” or “chiefs,” and as “dukes” or “princes” of Sihon, by which expression it appears that they were his vassals.
Balaam also the son of Beor they slew with the sword.—The death of Balaam by the sword of the Israelites presents a strange and instructive contrast to the prayer which he uttered that he might die the death of the righteous (Numbers 23:10). Few of the ancient prophecies are more remarkable, as Bishop Wordsworth has observed, than those of Balaam for “spirituality of conception and sublimity of expression.” And if, as some think, we are to understand Micah 6:8 as containing the actual words which were addressed by Balaam to Balak, few men possessed a clearer perception of moral truth than that which is expressed in the words, “He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God? “And yet, notwithstanding the light which Balaam possessed, the sublimity of the prophecies which he uttered, and the purity of the motives by which he professed to be actuated, he “loved the wages of unrighteousness,” and gave himself up to do Satan’s bidding in “casting a stumbling-block before the children of Israel,” and miserably perished amongst the enemies of God and of His people. Bishop Wordsworth draws a striking and instructive contrast between Balaam and Moses, both of whom had visions of Christ and prophesied of Him, whilst one loved the wages of unrighteousness, and the other did all for God’s glory.
And they burnt all their cities wherein they dwelt, and all their goodly castles, with fire.(10) All their cities wherein they dwelt.—Better, all their cities in their dwelling-places. This expression is explained by a reference to Joshua 13:21, from which it appears that the five kings or chiefs of the Midianites who are mentioned in Numbers 5:8 dwelt in the territory which Sihon, king of the Amorites, had wrested from the Moabites. The Midianites were a nomad people, and were not likely to have built cities for themselves.
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.(12) The captives, and the prey, and the spoil.—The first word denotes the women and children; the second, which in Numbers 5:11 includes both the captives and the cattle, appears in this place to refer to the animals only; whilst the third refers to the rest of the spoil.
And Moses said unto them, Have ye saved all the women alive?(15) Have ye saved all the women alive?—It was the women, as is expressed in the following verse, who had been the cause, at the instigation of Balaam, of the apostacy of the Israelites; and consequently the command to “avenge the Lord of Midiani” implied the punishment of those who had been the instruments employed in the seduction of the Israelites.
But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.(18) Keep alive for yourselves.—The Israelites were allowed to make slaves of their captives. Shortly after the capture of these Midianitish women, and, it may be, as arising out of it, the law concerning marriage with captives was enacted. (See Deuteronomy 21:10-14.)
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:(27) And divide the prey into two parts . . . —It was reasonable that those who had encountered the perils and hardships of the war should receive a larger share of the spoil than those who had remained in the camp. It was equally reasonable that the latter should not be left without some substantial benefit from the victory miraculously achieved over the enemies of the Lord and of His people. A similar direction is found in Joshua 22:8 in regard to the division of spoil taken from enemies, but no general ordinance appears to have been made in regard to the division of the spoils of war until the time of David. (See 1Samuel 30:24-25.)
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) And levy a tribute unto the Lord.—Literally, and thou shalt lift up (or, heave), &c. The portion assigned to the priests, which was taken from the prey that fell to the lot of the warriors, and which is described in Numbers 31:29 as “the heave offering of the Lord,” was one-five-hundredth part of the maidens and of the cattle which had fallen to their share. The maidens were probably employed as slaves, and the cattle used for the maintenance of the priests. Inasmuch, then, as the entire booty consisted of 32,000 maidens, 675,000 small cattle, 72,000 oxen, and 61,000 asses, the portion which fell to the lot of the 12,000 warriors was 16,000 maidens, 337,500 sheep and goats, 36,000 oxen, and 30,500 asses, of which the portion of the priests was 32 maidens, 675 sheep and goats, 72 oxen, and 61 asses.
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.(30) One portion of fifty.—The Levites were much more numerous than the priests, and consequently it was ordered that they should have two per cent. of the spoil which fell to the congregation, whereas the priests had only one-fifth percent, of a like amount. The portion of the Levites, therefore, was 320 maidens, 6,750 sheep and goats, 720 oxen, and 610 asses.
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) And the booty, being the rest of the prey . . . —The reference may be to the residue of the captives after the slaughter of all the males and of a large number of the women, and to the cattle which were brought to the camp, some, it may be, having been lost or slaughtered for food; or it may be to the booty which had been taken in captives and animals, as distinguished from the gold and silver, &c.
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) There lacketh not one man of us.—It is obvious from the smallness of the number of the Israelitish warriors, as well as from the reference to those chiefs only of the Midianites who were the vassals of Sihon, and from the strength of the Midianitish nation in the time of Gideon (Judges 6-8), that the attack was made only upon that particular portion of the nation which had been concerned in the seduction of the Israelites to the worship of Baal Peor. The Midianites were probably attacked in an unprepared and defenceless state. After due allowance, however, has been made for all these circumstances, the fact that not a single Israelitish warrior perished can be satisfactorily explained only on the supposition that God vouchsafed to grant to His people miraculous aid and protection.
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.(52) Sixteen thousand seven hundred and fifty shekels.—This quantity of golden ornaments is quite in harmony with the well-known habits of nomad and even barbarous tribes. The peculiar affection of the Midianites for such ornaments is shown further in the account which is contained in Judges 8:26 of the weight of the golden earrings which were given to Gideon after his victory over that nation.