I read Numbers 31 for my daily quiet time through the Book of Numbers. God commanded the Israelites to go to war against Midian to execute God’s wrath against her, for the Midianites, on the advice of Balaam, had sent Midianite women to seduce Israelite males and to influence them to worship the Midianite gods. The Israelites defeated the Midianites and killed every human being of Midian, except for the female virgins. The Israelites also took plunder, which Eleazar the priest (appealing to a law that God commanded to Moses) required to be purified. The LORD also had requirements regarding the distribution of the plunder: the warriors were to get half of it and donate 1/500th of it to the LORD, while the other Israelites got the rest and donated 1/50th to the Levites. In addition, Israelite commanders gave golden items to the LORD for the purpose of atonement.
I have two thoughts on this:
1. My first thought will be rather negative. My problem with this story is that the Israelites themselves were complicit in sin, for, while the Midianites tempted them with their women and their gods, the Israelites said “yes” to that temptation. So how were the Israelites in any moral position to get high and mighty and to fight the Midianites, when the Israelites had a role in their own sin? One could argue that the Israelites were not in any moral position to do so—-that they were not fighting out of their own sense of outrage and self-righteousness, but rather to execute God’s wrath on God’s behalf. They were instruments of God, who was in a moral position to punish the Midianites. Okay, but the Israelites still got to profit off of the whole situation by taking plunder. In my opinion, that (among other things) tends to sully the whole operation. I think that the rituals of cleansing, donations, and atonement were intended in this case to add a measure of solemnity to the whole enterprise—-so that the Israelites wouldn’t pat themselves on the back as if they were righteous but would remember that they were fighting for God and that they themselves were guilty because they had acceded to the Midianites’ temptations. But I question whether the rituals were enough for that. It reminds me of a person who robs the bank and tries to make himself feel better by giving some of the money to charity. It just doesn’t sit right with me, I’ll say that!
2. I do try to get something edifying from the text, and that’s what I’ll do in this second item. Many of you may see my attempt as rather weak or a stretch from the text, and that’s your right.
I feel that I need to remind myself on a continual basis of the importance of letting God be the judge. I know that I often want to be the judge. But the fact is that we’re all imperfect, and God knows what we deserve and what we need. I may want for God to punish certain people, but God knows where those people are coming from and what makes them tick, and God may choose to be merciful to them. Meanwhile, I am aware that I myself am far from perfect, and there are people who love to sit in judgment of me. In the case of Numbers 31, yes, Israel was guilty, but God realized that Midian put a stumblingblock in front of Israel’s path, and God decided to avenge that. Moreover, I find it rather comforting that, although Israel had made a serious mistake, she could still have a future before God.
I won’t lie, though: I wish that God in the story also showed some degree of love and mercy towards Midian, since one could argue that Midian only did what she did because she was insecure and feared Israel, and it would have been nice had God recognized that. But I still try to take comfort in the notion that God knows all of our hearts and shows us justice and mercy when they are needed. For me, that’s better than me being the judge of others.