Numbers 31
Pulpit Commentary
And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
Verse 1. - The Lord spake unto Moses. The command to "vex the Midianites, and smite them," had been given before (Numbers 25:17), but how long before we cannot tell. Possibly the interval had been purposely allowed in order that the attack when it was made might be sudden and unexpected. From the fact that no resistance would seem to have been made to the Israelitish detachment, and that an enormous amount of plunder was secured, we may probably conclude that the Midianites had thought all danger past.
Avenge the children of Israel of the Midianites: afterward shalt thou be gathered unto thy people.
Verse 2. - Avenge the children of Israel of the Midianites. The war was to be distinctly one of vengeance on the part of Israel. On the grave moral question which arises out of this war, and of the manner in which it was carried on, see the note at the end of the chapter. Afterward shalt thou be gathered unto thy people. It is quite possible that Moses himself had been reluctant to order the expedition against Midian, either because it involved so much bloodshed, or, more probably, because he foresaw the difficulty which actually arose about the women of Midian. If so, he was here reminded that his place was to obey, and that his work on earth was not done so long as the Midianites remained unpunished.
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.
Verse 3. - Avenge the Lord of Midian. God, speaking to Moses, had commanded a war of vengeance; Moses, speaking to the people, is careful to command a war of religious vengeance. In seducing the people of the Lord the Midianites had insulted and injured the majesty of God himself. On the question why Midian only, and not Moab also, was punished see on Numbers 25:17. It is to be remembered that, however hateful the sins of licentiousness and idolatry may be, they have never aroused by themselves the exterminating wrath of God. Midian was smitten because he had deliberately used these sins as weapons wherewith to take the life of Israel.
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.
Verse 5. - There were delivered, or "levied." יִמָּסְרוּ. Septuagint, ἐξηρίθμησαν The Hebrew word is only used here and in verse 16 (see note there), and in these two places not in the same sense. The context, however, leaves little or no doubt as to the meaning which it must bear.
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.
Verse 6. - And Phinehas the son of Eleazar. The high priest himself could not leave the camp and the sanctuary, because of his duties, and because of the risk of being defiled (see verse 19); but his son, who was already marked out as his successor, could act as his representative (see on Numbers 16:37). In after times the Messiah Milchama ("Sacerdos unctus ad bellum," alluded to in Deuteronomy 20:2) who accompanied the army to the field was a recognized member of the Jewish hierarchy. Phinehas was of course specially marked out by his zeal for the present duty, but we may suppose that he would have gone in any case. With the holy instruments, and the trumpets. Septuagint, καὶ τὰ σκεύη τὰ ἅγια καὶ αἱ σάλπιγγες. The word instruments (כְּלֵי) is the same more usually translated "vessel," as in Numbers 3:31, and is apparently to be understood of the sacred furniture of the tabernacle. It is difficult to understand what "holy vessels" could have accompanied an expedition of this sort, unless it were the ark itself. The Israelites were accustomed at all critical times to be preceded by the ark (Numbers 10:33; Joshua 3:14; Joshua 6:8), and the narrative of 1 Samuel 4:3 sq. shows plainly that, long after the settlement at Shiloh, no scruples existed against bringing it forth against the foes of Israel and of God. Indeed there is a resemblance in the circumstances between that ease and this which is all the more striking because of the contrast in the result. Most modern commentators, unwilling to believe that the ark left the camp (but cf. Numbers 14:44), identify the "holy instruments" with "the trumpets;" this, however, is plainly to do violence to the grammar, which is perfectly simple, and is contrary to the Septuagint and the Targums. The Targum of Palestine paraphrases "holy instruments" by Urim and Thummim; these, however, as far as we can gather, seem to have been in the exclusive possession of the high priest.
And they warred against the Midianites, as the LORD commanded Moses; and they slew all the males.
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.
Verse 8. - They slew the kings of Midian, beside the rest of them that were slain. This is more accurately rendered by the Septuagint, τοῦς βασιλεὶς., ἀπέκτειναν ἅμα τοῖς τραυματίαις: "they put to death (הָרַג) the kings, in addition to those who fell in battle" (from חָלַל, to pierce, or wound). These five kings, who are mentioned here as having been slain in cold blood after the battle, are said in Joshua 13:21 to have been vassals (נְסִיכֵי) of the Amoritish king Sihon, and to have dwelt "in the country." From this it has been concluded by some that the Midianites at this time destroyed included only certain tribes which had settled down within the territory afterwards assigned to Reuben, and had become tributary to Sihon. This would account for the fact that the present victory was so easy and so complete, and also for the otherwise inexplicable fact that the Midianites appear again as a formidable power some two centuries later. Zur. The father of Cozbi (Numbers 25:15). Balsam also... they slew with the sword. Not in battle, but, as the context implies, by way of judicial execution (see on Numbers 24:25; Joshua 13:22).
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.
Verse 10. - Their goodly castles. טִירֹתם. Septuagint, ἐπαύλεις. This word, which occurs only here and in Genesis 25:16, no doubt signifies the pastoral villages, constructed partly of rude stone walls, partly of goats-hair cloth, which the nomadic tribes of that country have used from time immemorial. Probably these were the proper habitations of the Midianites; the "cities" would have belonged to the previous inhabitants of the land.
And they took all the spoil, and all the prey, both of men and of beasts.
Verse 11. - The spoil. הָשָּׁלָל. Septuagint, τὴν προνομήν. The booty in goods. The prey. הַמַּלְקוח. Septuagint, τὰ σκῦλα. The booty in live-stock, here including the women and children, who are distinguished as "captives" (שְׁבִי) in the next verse.
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.
Verse 14. - Officers of the host. Literally, "inspectors." Septuagint, τοῖς ἐπισκόποις τῆς δυνάμεως
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.
Verse 16. - To commit trespass. לִמְסָר־מַעַל See on verse 5. The word מסר seems to be used here much as the English word "levy" is used in such a phrase as "levying" war against a person.
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.
Verse 18. - Keep alive for yourselves, i.e., for domestic slaves in the first instance. Subsequently no doubt many of them became inferior wives of their masters, or were married to their sons. Infants were probably put to death with their mothers.
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.
Verse 19. - Do ye abide without the camp. In this case at any rate the law of לִמְסָר־מַעַל 19:11 sq. was to be strictly enforced. And your captives, i.e., the women and children who were spared. No peculiar rites are here prescribed for the reception of these children of idolaters into the holy nation with which they were to be incorporated beyond the usual lustration with the water of separation. In after times they would have been baptized.
And purify all your raiment, and all that is made of skins, and all work of goats' hair, and all things made of wood.
Verse 20. - Purify all your raiment, and all that is made. Literally, "every vessel" (כְּלִי). This was in accordance with the principle laid down in chapter 19 that everything which had come into contact with a corpse needed purifying.
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;
Verse 21. - And Eleazar the priest said, This is the ordinance of the law (חֻקַּת הַתּורָה, "law-statute, as in Numbers 19:2) which the Lord commanded Moses. There is something peculiar in this expression which points to the probability, either that this paragraph (verses 21-24) was added after the death of Moses, or that "the law was already beginning, even in the lifetime of Moses, to assume the position which it after. wards held - that, viz., of a fixed code to be interpreted and applied by the living authority of the priesthood. This is the earliest instance of the high priest declaring to the people what the law of God as delivered to Moses was, and then applying and enlarging that law to meet the present circumstances. It is no doubt possible that Eleazar referred the matter to Moses, but it would seem on the face of the narrative that he spoke on his own authority as high priest. When we compare the ceremonial of the later Jews, so precisely and minutely ordered for every conceivable contingency, with the Mosaic legislation itself, it is evident that the process of authoritative amplification must have been going on from the first; but it is certainly strange to find that process begun while Moses himself was alive and active.
Only the gold, and the silver, the brass, the iron, the tin, and the lead,
Verse 22. - The brass. Rather, "copper." The six metals here mentioned were those commonly known to the ancients, and in particular to the Egyptians and Phoenicians.
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.
Verse 23. - Ye shall make it go through the fire. This was an addition to the general law of lustration in chapter 19 founded on the obvious fact that water does not cleanse metals, while fire does. The spoils of the Midianites required purification, not only as being tainted with death, but as having been heathen property.
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,
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:
Verse 26. - Take the sum of the prey. No notice is taken here of the spoil (see on verse 11), but only of the captured children and cattle. And the chief fathers. Perhaps אַבות (fathers) stands here for בֵּית־אָבות (fathers' houses). So the Septuagint, οἱ ἄρχοντες τῶν πατριῶν.
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:
Verse 27. - Divide the prey into two parts. This division was founded roughly upon the equity of the case; on the one hand, all Israel had suffered from Midian; on the other, only the twelve thousand had risked their lives to smite Midian. For the application of a like principle to other cases see Joshua 22:8; 1 Samuel 30:24; 2 Macc. 8:28, 30.
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.
Verse 29. - An heave offering unto the Lord. Septuagint, τὰς ἀπαρὰς Κυρίου. The Hebrew word רוּם (to lift) from which terumah is derived, had practically lost its literal significance, just as the English word has in the phrase "to lift cattle;" hence terumah often means simply that which is set aside as an offering. No doubt the offering levied on the portion of the warriors was in the nature of tithe for the benefit of Eleazar and the priests.
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.
Verse 30. - One portion of fifty. Two percent of the prey. This probably corresponded very closely to the number of Levites as compared with the twelve tribes, and would tend to show that God intended the Levites to be neither better nor worse off than their neighbours.
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,
Verse 32. - The booty, being the rest of the prey. Rather, "the prey (הַמַּלְקוחַ, see on verse 11), to wit, the rest of the booty" (הַבָּז, as in chapter Numbers 14:3, 31). Septuagint, τὸ πλεόνασμα τῆς προνομῆς, i.e., what actually remained to be divided. The numbers given are obviously round numbers, such as the Israelites seem always to have employed in enumeration. The immense quantity of cattle captured was in accordance with the habits of the Midianites in the days of Gideon (Judges 6:5) and of their modern representatives today.
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.
Verse 49. - There lacketh not one man of us. The officers naturally regarded this as a very wonderful circumstance; and so indeed it was, whether Midian made any resistance or not. It was, however, in strict keeping with the promises of that temporal dispensation. It would have been no satisfaction to the Israelite who fell upon the threshold of the promised land to know that victory remained with his comrades. His was not the courage of modern soldiers, who fling away their lives in blind confidence that some advantage will accrue thereby to the army at large; rather, he fought under the conviction that to each, as well as to all, life and victory were pledged upon condition of obedience and courage. In this case no one was found unfaithful, and therefore no one was allowed to fall.
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.
Verse 50. - What every man hath gotten. The whole, apparently, of their booty in golden ornaments was given up as a thank offering, and in addition to this was all that the soldiers had taken and kept. The abundance of costly ornaments among a race of nomads living in squalid tents and hovels may excite surprise; but it is still the case (under circumstances far less favourable to the amassing of such wealth) among the Bedawin and kindred tribes (see also on Judges 8:24-26). Chains. אֶצְעָדָה. Septuagint, χλιδῶνα. Clasps for the arm, as in 2 Samuel 1:10. Tablets. כּוּמָז. Probably golden balls or beads hung round the neck (see on Exodus 35:22). A different word is used in Isaiah 3:20.
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.
Verse 52. - Sixteen thousand seven hundred and fifty shekels. If the shekel of weight be taken as 66 of an ounce, the offering will have amounted to more than 11,000 ounces of gold, worth now about £40,000. If, according to other estimates, the golden shekel was worth 30s., the value of the offering will have been some £25,000.
(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.
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.

The Pulpit Commentary, Electronic Database. Copyright © 2001, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2010 by BibleSoft, inc., Used by permission

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