Numbers 31 - Vengeance on Midian
A. The command to destroy the Midianites and its fulfillment.
1. (1-2) God commands Israel to take vengeance on the Midianites.
a. The Midianites were a nomadic peoples, at this time associated with the people of Moab; God commands they be attacked in retribution for their seduction of Israel into sexual immorality and idolatry (Numbers 25).
i. "The Midianites were a large confederation of tribes, associated with various smaller groups . . . They roamed through the arid lands of the Sinai, the Negeb and Transjordan. Here it is those Midianites associated with Moab that are picked out for vengeance." (Wenham)
b. Take vengeance: We are generally uncomfortable with the idea of vengeance; it doesn't seem to be consistent with God's love. Yet, vengeance is something God is interested in.
i. The Scriptures repeatedly speak of the vengeance of God as a positive thing; evil comes when we take vengeance into our own hands.
ii. In this circumstance, Israel was in a unique place - with a special call to be an instrument of God's vengeance. This is something no person should take upon themselves today, knowing that ancient Israel had this unique place in God's plan.
iii. So, when God-ordained instruments of authority (such as government) take vengeance on evildoers, we as Christians can be at peace, knowing that good has been done when vengeance has been executed.
c. Afterward you shall be gathered: As it turned out, not immediately afterward, but afterward none the less.
2. (3-5) Moses organizes the army to battle Midian.
3. (6-11) The battle fought, Midian defeated, and spoil taken.
a. Significantly, the priests went with the nation into this battle, and the priests went with the holy articles - and the battle was won.
b. According to the custom of the day, all the males were killed, and the women and children were taken as servants, with all the possessions being taken as spoil.
c. Balaam the son of Beor they also killed with the sword: Balaam, who had masterminded the strategy by which Israel would be seduced into sexual immorality and idolatry, and who did it all for money, now is dead - judged by the vengeance of God, and his money does him no good! There is reason why Jude 11 calls it the error of Balaam for profit; it is just plain error to sell out God for money - you end up a loser every time!
i. Balaam had longed, Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my end be like his! (Numbers 23:10) But Balaam had no interest in living the life of the righteous, so he died the death of the sinner, in the company of sinners.
B. The division of the spoil.
1. (12-20) Moses anger at keeping the most "dangerous" aspect of the spoil.
a. In killing all the men, but keeping all the women as servants, the children of Israel were following the custom of the day. It was thought to be "safe" to keep the women alive, because they posed no military threat.
b. Yet Moses is angry, because the children of Israel have failed to see a more substantial threat - the threat of sexual immorality and idolatry posed by these women who led the men of Israel into these exact sins.
i. How often have we been tripped up by something we did not perceive to be a threat? Though most Israelites thought these women were "safe," they were more dangerous to Israel than an army of might warriors! Israel could overcome such an army if spiritually strong; but if they were seduced into immorality and idolatry, they would certainly fall.
ii. We often think of many things as dangerous to us as Christians - hostile government, secular humanism, academic attack, and so forth. But the things we accept in our midst as Christians that open the door to immorality and idolatry can do far more real damage than any of those other things.
c. Therefore, all the women who had known a man intimately were to be killed; but ones who had not been connected with the immorality and idolatry of the Midianites could be kept alive.
d. Every male among the little ones must also be killed; this is harsh, but done with the understand that in that ancient culture, the boys would have grown into men with the solemn responsibility to avenge their father's death and to perpetuate Midianite culture - which in itself was anti-God.
e. As well, anything that had come into contact with these Midianites and the spoil taken from them had to be purified; then it could be used.
i. This is a valid principle for us to observe when Christians want to "plunder" things from the world and use them for the cause of the gospel, such as music, media, and other things. But some things cannot be cleansed, and must be done away with; other things can be cleansed, and may be used by the people of God for the glory of God.
2. (21-24) The purification of the spoil.
a. All the material spoil had to either be purified by fire or cleansed with water; only then could it be fit for use by God among the people of God.
b. God uses the same means to purify believers today - the fire of trials and the water of washing.
i. When God uses the fire of purification, we can say with Job: When He has tested me, I shall come forth as gold (Job 23:10). The fire purifies precious metal by causing the impurities (the dross) to rise to the top, where the refiner can skim them away; the refiner can tell when the gold is pure - when he can see his reflection in the pool of gold!
ii. When God wants to wash us clean, He not only uses the waters of baptism, but also the ministry of the Word, as described in Ephesians 5:26: That He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word.
3. (25-54) The spoil is divided among the soldiers and the nation at large.
a. Customarily, the spoil belonged to the soldiers alone; but God did not want soldiers who were pirates - so He commanded that they also grant some of the spoil to the people of Israel who did not fight.
b. A portion of the spoil also was to be given to the Lord; even with the spoils of war, God wanted Israel to have the heart of givers.