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God’s Word for You

Numbers 31:9-18 The terrible plunder of war

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Thursday, January 20, 2022

9 The Israelites took the women of Midian and their children captive. They plundered all their animals, property, and possessions. 10 They burned all their cities where they settled and all their camps. 11 They took all the plunder and all the spoils of war, both people and animals. 12 They brought the captives, the spoils of war, and the plunder to Moses, Eleazar the priest, and the Israelite community at the camp on the Plains of Moab, which was by the Jordan across from Jericho.

It might be hard for us to tell the difference between an unwalled Midianite “city” and a “camp,” since both were collections of tents and rough wooden structures. But whether a village was one or the other, it was burned by the Israelites. Moses reports that the men and buildings perished, but the women, children, animals and possessions became spoils of war. Everything was brought before Moses and Eleazar the high priest (along with everybody else) to the camp. The Hebrew preposition “to” (‘el) is used twice: “to the camp, to the Plains of Moab,” but why? I submit that this is because the people, animals and plunder were too numerous to bring them “into” the camp, so “to, up to” the camp is the geographical spot that’s meant.

13 Moses, Eleazar the priest, and all the tribal chiefs of the community went out to meet them outside of the camp. 14 Moses was angry with the officers of the army—the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds—who were coming back from the military campaign. 15 Moses said to them, “Have you allowed every woman to live? 16 Look, following Balaam’s advice, these women were the ones who incited the Israelites to be unfaithful to the LORD in the Peor incident, and so the plague came upon the community of the LORD. 17 Now, kill every male among the children, and kill every woman who has had sexual relations with a man. 18 But you may keep alive for yourselves all the young females who have not had sexual relations with a man.

Moses had all of the women who were no longer virgins put to death, but he allowed the virgins to live. To understand the serious decision to take all of those women and also every boy and put them to death, we need to look at the word masar. Here is the expression (lengthened in English), “the ones who incited the Israelites to be unfaithful.” The Hebrew Targum (translational note) says the same thing: “(the women) became an occasion for apostasy.” These were the women who had slept with the Israelite men to lead them into idolatry serving the Baal of Peor. Remember that 24,000 Israelite men had been put to death by a plague from the Lord because of this sin (Numbers 25:9; Psalm 106:28-29). “The object of the command to put all the male children to death” (Keil explains) “was to exterminate the whole nation.” The virgin girls would become servants or be married off into the Israelite tribes; the Midianites of Moab no longer existed after this. The mention of “Midian in the country of Moab” in 1 Chronicles 1:46 is part of their history before this time, repeating the list of Moabite kings “who reigned in Edom before any Israelite king reigned” in Genesis 36 (36:31-43; see 36:35).

This practice of fellowship with the sword has similarities with the American, indeed, Western, policy guarding against the ideology of communism, the Communist hostility toward capitalism, and the Muslim hatred of all non-Muslims. When the very beliefs of a nation threaten one’s way of life, mingling of the nations is a deadly danger, and war is often the only path that governments can find. As we have already shown, this was necessary for the survival of the Israelites and their church. The Midianites had proved by their actions that they would not join with Israel and submit to the Lord’s laws, therefore they had to be removed.

Here we also need to remember the command of God in Leviticus 18:26-29: “Do not do any of these detestable things—whether native born or a foreigner living among you (for all of these abominable things were done by those who lived in the land before you, and the land became defiled). Do not do these things so that the land will not vomit you out as well because you defiled it, as it vomited out the nations that were there before you. Anyone who does any of these abominable things will be cut off from among their people.” The extermination of the Canaanites and the command forbidding anyone in Israel from taking up the Canaanite practices was intended to keep the land pure, holy, and ready for the coming of the Savior. The punishment for sin was and is death, but the punishment for unbelief was and always shall be eternal damnation. We all sin, but turning away from God and causing someone else to turn from God is the everlasting crime.

Spare us from idolatry, O Lord! Keep our eyes and our hearts fixed firmly and only on Jesus our Savior! Forgive our loved ones who are caught in churches that preach that salvation is possible apart from Christ, and make them deaf to such claims! Pick us up in your loving hands like sheep straying on a hillside, heft us onto your shoulders, and never let go (Luke 15:5). Let the Word of the Gospel change hearts so that more and more people will be won for your kingdom, spared the judgment of Balaam, and brought safely home to heaven.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim Smith
About Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.


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