Numbers Chapter 31: Seven Lessons from the Jews’ Slaughter of the Midianites

1. A Just God Must Judge Sin, and His Judgment Comes First Upon God’s House

  • The foreshadow of the day of judgment. “There is an appointed time for everything.” (Ecc. 3:1). God does not always try to make us feel warm and fuzzy inside. Sometimes, He wants you to feel uncomfortable and He does this for a reason. Here, 12,000 Jews burned Midianite villages in an act of vengeance. The Jews killed all the men, and they took captive the woman, children, and property. At Moses’ direction, the leaders then killed the captured women and boys, sparing only the virgin girls. God wants you to feel horrified at this story. It foreshadows what He will be forced to do on a global scale during the Day of Judgment. Moses felt pain in judging the Midianities. He married a Midianite, and they gave him shelter for 40 years in the wilderness after he fled Egypt. His actions foreshadow the pain God will feel in judging the very peoples that He created. Moses represented the Law. Under the Law, God must also judge sin. Yet, He tells us these things to motivate us to act. You can help prevent judgment on the people you love by telling them about Jesus.

  • Justice requires judgment. Some claim that a loving God would never judge others. He is in fact the source of all love: “He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.” (1 Jo. 4:8). Yet, He is also just: “For I, the Lord love justice . ..” (Is. 61:8). As a just God, He cannot ignore sin. Those who have trouble accepting this need only ask if they would like to live in a society were murders, rapists, and robbers are not judged. Anarchy would reign, and people would live in fear. We demand justice because God has put the law in our hearts (Ro. 2:15). As the source of all justice, God must also judge wrongs.

  • Before judging others, God judges His own children. Because God is fair, He judges His people before He judges others: “For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God . . .” (1 Pet. 4:17). When the Jews worshipped the golden calf (their seventh rebellion in the wilderness) He responded by killing 3,000 (Ex. 32:26-28). Yet, the Jews ignored His warning. After the Jews tried to overthrow Moses (their twelfth rebellion) He killed 14,700 (Nu. 16:49). Again, they ignored the warnings. At Shittim, He killed 24,000 (Nu. 25:9). Why did so many die? The sorcerer Balaam, the Moabite King Balak, and the Midianites formed an unholy trinity against God’s people (Nu. 22:4). They sent temple prostitutes to deceive the Jews (Nu. 31:16). The prostitutes told the Jewish men that they could have free sex if only they agreed to eat foods sacrificed to Baal of Peor, the Canaanite fertility god, and worship him. The Jews agreed and violated both the Ten Commandments and God’s other statutes (Ex. 20:3-4; 34:14-15; Dt. 23:17; Jdgs. 2:17; 1 Kgs. 14:22-24).

  • Christians will be held to account at the judgment seat of Christ. The Bible is clear that we are saved by our faith alone and not by our works (Eph. 2:8; Ro. 3:28-30; 4:5; 10:4; Gal. 2:16; 3:24). But that doesn’t mean that your works don’t matter to God. We shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ to account for our deeds (Ro. 14:10). “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad.” (2 Cor. 5:10). If you know the truth and do nothing for the Kingdom, your time at the judgment seat of Christ will be uncomfortable. Don’t make your time there filled with regrets. You can make your life a living sacrifice to Him (Ro. 12:1). This will give Him lots to reward you for in heaven.

2. After Judgment Comes Upon God’s House, Everyone Else Will Face Judgment.

  • God’s judges those who war against Him. (the flesh verses the spirit). Because God is fair, He must also judge those who perpetrate deceit (Job 12:16). The Moabites and the Midianites both symbolized the war of the flesh against the spirit. Both nations were related to the Jews. The Midianites were the descendants of Abraham through his concubine Keturah (Gen. 25:1-6). They later purchased Joseph from his brothers and sold him as a slave to the Egyptians (Gen. 37:27-28). They settled near the gulf of Acaba and in modern Saudi Arabia (Gal. 4:25). The Moabites, like the Amalekites, were the descendants of incest between Lot and one of his daughters (Gen. 19:30-38). They settled in modern day Jordan. These nations of the flesh formed an alliance against Israel, the people of God’s promise (Nu. 22:4). Our flesh is likewise at war with the Spirit (Gal. 5:17). “[T]he mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God . . .” (Ro. 8:7-8). Unless you become an adopted child of the Spirit, you cannot inherit eternal life. For “. . flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” (1 Cor. 15:50). “For the mind set on the flesh is death . . ” (Ro. 8:6). Thus, “[i]f you live according to the flesh, you must die. . . ” (Ro. 8:13). God will one day judge the nations of the flesh who wage war against His people. “[A]nd if it [judgment] begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God?” (1 Pet. 4:17).

  • God’s judgment is impartial. (the Midianites). God directed Moses to carry out His judgment against the Midianites for their deceit against Israel (Nu. 25:17; 31:1-3). The rabbis observed that Moses did not hesitate in carrying out God’s judgment. Yet, imagine the anguish that Moses must have felt. His first marriage was to Zipporah, the daughter of a Midianite priest (Ex. 2:15; Acts 7:29). The Midianites gave Moses shelter in the wilderness for 40 years after both the Egyptians and the Jews rejected him. He trusted his Midianite father-in-law Jethro so much that he let him advise him on how to delegate and govern (Ex. 18:17-27). Moses also once asked his Midianite brother-in-law Hobab to advise him as he led the Jews through the wilderness (Nu. 10:29-32). Moses’ children were one-half Midianite. Moreover, because the Jewish line is carried through the mother and not the father, his children were not even Jewish. God picked Moses to carry out the judgment so that we can understand how much God’s judgment will cause Him pain. He does not want any to perish (2 Pet. 3:9). Judgment will also come to many people that we love. God wants you to be so horrified that you will be motivated to help save them.

  • God’s judgment is fair. (the Moabites). The Moabites played a primary role in the deceit against the Jews (Nu. 25:1). Yet, God commanded Moses not to attack them (Dt. 2:9). When Abraham and Lot divided up the land, they agreed that Lot’s descendants would take modern day Jordan (Gen. 13:1-18). Thus, the Jews were uninvited guests in the Moabite’s land. Moses also previously promised the Moabite king that the Jews would not attack them (Nu. 20:14-19). God could not force Moses to break his vow (Nu. 30:2). Thus, God forced Moses to carry out a judgment against a people that He loved and forego retribution against a people that he most likely did not like. We are like the Moabites. We have all worked against God’s will. We are deserving of death. Through no merit of our own, we will be spared because Christ paid our debts. Many others have lived more noble, caring, and selfless lives than us. Like Moses must have felt toward the Midianites, God desperately wants to save them. Yet, because they have no one to pay their debts, they will be judged.

  • God’s judgment is proportionate. The Midianites caused 24,000 Jewish men to die (Nu. 25:9). The Bible does not tell us the number of adult Midianites who died, but we can infer that the number was less than the number of Jews. The Jewish men captured a total of 32,000 girls (Nu. 31:36-37). Assuming an equal distribution of boys and girls, the total number of children was 64,000. If we assume a conservative birth rate of four children per family (at the time the rate was much higher) a total of 16,000 Midianite parents were killed. If we assume six kids per family, the number of killed Midianite parents exceeded 10,600. Under either scenario, the number of Jewish men who died in God’s plague exceeded the number of Midianite parents who died. The 12,000 men sent to fight the Midianites (Nu. 31:5) also suggests that the parents who died were fewer than the Jews who died.

  • God’s judgment of the wicked is certain. (the kings, the sorcerer, and the prostitutes). God’s army “killed every male,” the five Midianite kings, and the sorcerer Balaam (Nu. 31:7-8). This was God’s judgment on the wicked. When the army brought back the captured women, Moses asked “Have you spared all the women?” (Nu. 31:16). He pointed out that these women “caused the sons of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, so that plague was among the congregation of the Lord.” (Nu. 31:16). As the deceivers of the men of faith, they also faced judgment (Job 12:16). Because a total of 24,000 Jewish men were enticed by temple prostitutes, this suggests that several thousand women were directly involved in the plot to deceive them. Again, God never wanted any to die. Yet, a just God must eventually judge sin.

  • The consequences of sin, but not eternal judgment, carries across families. The judgment sadly also included some boys (Nu. 31:17). Previously, the Jews killed “every male.” (Nu. 31:9). The Hebrew word “kal zkr” for “male” is different than the word for an adult male or man. This suggests that the boys who could fight (including those in their teens) had already died in battle. What happened to the rest of the boys? The earlier church writer Philo wrote that the younger boys who had not reached the age of accountability were spared. Even if Philo is correct, the text is clear that some boys under age 18 were killed while in captivity (Nu. 31:17). Because this was a divine judgment, the Bible explains why this happened. In the Bible, the consequences of the sins of fathers are passed down to their children. “[F]or I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.” (Ex. 20:5). Yet, this does not mean that children will suffer eternal judgment because of the sins of their fathers. “The soul who sins is the one who will die. The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son.” (Ezek. 18:20). On the Day of Judgment, God will be forced to reign fire down upon the entire Earth. Men, women, and children will die a physical death. But only those who have reached an age of accountability will be judged for their actions. Again, God wants you to be horrified at the thought that anyone will suffer eternal punishment. As a result, He wants you to be motivated by this horror to warn others.

  • God will not punish the innocent. (the spared villages and virgins). Although the text says that “every” Midianite man and woman was killed (Nu. 31:7, 17), the Jews later faced an even larger Midianite army when Gideon’s army of 300 fought them (Jud. 7:1-2). This establishes that God only had the Jews kill the Midianite villages directly involved in trying to defile God’s people. He gave the spared Midianites a chance to repent, a chance that they again ignored. The virgins who were spared represent the women who did not become temple harlots. We are like the virgins. We are part of a line of people that began with Adam who are set against God. Through Christ, we may be purified of our sins and become spiritual virgins. In heaven, Christ will marry His purified Church (Rev. 19:6-8; 21:2).

3. Christians are the Instruments of God’s Judgment of the Wicked.

  • We are also engaged in spiritual warfare. God could have had Moses select a large army. Instead, he only asked Moses to select 12,000 soldiers (Nu. 31:5). God could have also picked Joshua, a man of faith and a proven military hero to lead the battle (Ex. 17:8-16). Instead, God chose Phinehas, the son of the High Priest Eleazar (Nu. 31:6). God previously commended Phinehas for his zeal in aggressively rooting out sin (Nu. 25:10-13). Phinehas slayed the Jewish man Zimri after he brought home the Midianite cult prostitute Cozbi for all to see (Nu. 25:7-8, 14-15). Phinehas was not a vigilante engaged in an “honor killing.” He was instead an appointed “judge” (Nu. 25:5) given authority to judge sin (Ro. 13:3). He was later remembered as a hero amongst those who resisted foreign conquerors and their influences (Ecc. 45:23-24; 1 Macc. 2:26). After Eleazar’s death, the office of the priesthood would be led first by him and then by his descendants (1 Chr. 6:4-15). By selecting him, God showed that their battle was symbolic of our spiritual warfare today. In our spiritual warfare, our sword is God’s Word (Heb. 4:12). The kind of sword you carry is related to the amount of knowledge you have in the Word. Are you carrying a sword, a dagger, a pocket knife, or are you completely unarmed in your knowledge of the Word?

  • Where God guides, He provides. Gideon later raised an army of 32,000 men (Jdgs. 7:3). Yet, before God would let him go into battle, God had him send home all but 300 of these men. Gideon won the battle because God was with him (Jdgs. 7:7, 22). Likewise, Phinehas was victorious because God was with him. Indeed, not a single Jewish soldier died! (Nu. 31:49). Although impossible for us to imagine. “[we] can do all things through Him who strengthens [us.]” (Phil. 4:13). God did not give us a spirit of fear (2 Tim. 1:7). “Do not be afraid, or panic, or tremble before them, for the Lord your God is the one who goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies to save you.” (Dt. 20:1-4).

4. Christians Must Be Purified After Their Spiritual Battles.

  • God’s soldiers must be purified of sin. Moses instructed that any person who had killed another person or who had touched a dead person had to purify themselves (Nu. 31:19). The Jews knew that they were to be the instruments of God’s justice. God told Abraham of His coming judgment against the Amalekites after the Jews completed 400 years of captivity (Gen. 15:16). He planned to use His appointed judges to execute His vengeance against sin (Ro. 13:3). Yet, He could not have His people be the instruments of divine justice if the people were contaminated by sin. Thus, they had to purify themselves. Their things made of metal had to be purified by fire (Nu. 31:23). Their clothes and everything else had to be washed (Nu. 31:24). Only after seven days could they rejoin the camp (Nu. 31:24).

  • Cleanse yourself by the washing of Christ’s word. We also are commanded to wash ourselves and our clothes (Nu. 19:19). This symbolized the cleansing of sin (Ps. 51:2; Jer. 2:22). When Peter asked Jesus to wash his feet, hands and head, Jesus responded: “He who has bathed needs only to wash his feet.” (Jo. 13:10). In other words, Christ died once to cover our sins, but our flesh must still be washed from our daily sins. There are two things we must do to cleanse ourselves. First, we must read the Word to expose our sins and to wash ourselves (Eph. 5:26; Prov. 30:5). Second, we confess any sins that the Word reveals “to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 Jo. 1:9; Acts 3:19; Jo. 15:3; 1 Cor. 6:11).

  • Cleanse yourself by the fire of the Holy Spirit. We are also “living stones.” (1 Pet. 2:5). We must therefore also be purified by God’s consuming fire (Heb. 12:28-29). God “shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness.” (Mal. 3:3). The Holy Spirit purges sin from us through fire and tribulation (1 Cor. 3:13-15; 1 Pet. 1:7). If you have experienced pain and hardship as a believer, that may have been the Holy Spirit burning away the sin in your life.

  • The cure for post-traumatic stress disorder. America has lots of war veterans and law enforcement officers who carry the scares of battle. Some have post-traumatic stress disorder. Others suffer from sleeplessness, depression, become homeless, and otherwise have trouble reintegrating into society. Imagine if we gave our soldiers the same instructions that Moses gave his soldiers. If they cleansed themselves through the reading of the Word, confessed their sins, and then purified themselves through the Holy Spirit during a time of isolation (the seven days), many of these people would be leading healthy productive lives.

5. Spiritual Rewards Await Those Who Battle for the Lord.

  • The spoils of the war. The property divided amongst the tribes included 675,000 sheep, 72,000 cattle, and 61,000 donkeys. In addition, 32,000 virgin girls (who were not corrupted by temple prostitution) were adopted or married off (Nu. 31:36-37). The spoils, however, were not simply divided between the soldiers. God meticulously counts the items to ensure that they are given equally to the non-combatants. In our spiritual warfare, Christ has won the battle for us. Yet, He shares the Holy Spirit with us (Jo. 14:15-31). There are some like pastors, missionaries, and evangelists who are on the forefront on the battle. Yet, we should be grateful that God does not limit the spiritual gifts to only those on the front lines. Through faith, the fruit of the Spirit is available to all of us (Gal. 5:22-23).

  • Always give thanks for God’s provision. After winning the battle, the Jews returned as a gift to God jewelry and precious stones worth 16,750 shekels (Nu. 31:48-54). In modern prices, this would be worth millions of dollars. In “everything”, we are to “give thanks.” (1 Thess. 5:18). We do this by, among other things, tithing (Mal. 3:8). Are you giving back to God?

6. The Destruction of the Midianites Foreshadows the Day of Judgment.

  • Both Moses and Phinehas foreshadowed Christ. Moses told Phinehas “to execute the vengeance of Jehovah upon Midian.” (Nu. 31:3). We know that this symbolized the Day of Judgment because God says that vengeance belongs to Him (Heb. 10:30). Moses represented the Law because he gave it. Christ came to fulfill the Law (Matt. 5:17-20). Yet, He will one day judge the nonbelievers who have breached the Law. Phinehas also foreshadowed Christ. Like Phinehas, Jesus Christ became our High Priest (Heb. 4:14-15). One day, like Phinehas, Jesus will also judge the enemies of God (Is. 11:4; 63:1-6; 2 Thess. 1:7-9; Rev. 9:6). “The Lord is at your right hand; He will shatter kings in the day of His wrath. He will judge among the nations, He will fill them with corpses.” (Ps. 110:4-7). Knowing that Jesus will come with vengeance, are you warning others? (Matt. 28:19).

  • Those who repent will be spared. The virgins who are allowed to join the Jewish nation symbolized the gentiles who accept the bridegroom Christ and become grafted onto God’s holy line. What then should we be telling people who want to avoid being judged on the day of Christ’s judgment? (Matt. 4:17; Lk. 13:3; Mk. 1:14-15; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 26:20.)

7. Aggressively Root out Sin like Moses and Phinehas.

  • Personal sins. God commands us to be holy (Lev. 11:44-7). For we are His light in this world (Matt. 5:14). Yet, we are warned that “if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light that is in you is darkness, how great is the darkness.” (Matt. 6:23). What kind of a light for God are we if our light is filled with darkness, sin, and hypocrisy? Will you change things in your life so that God can use you to influence others?

  • Church sins. Jesus warned the church of Pergamum: “you have there those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality.” (Rev. 2:14). Pergamum symbolized the union of the church and the world. Today, Satan uses television, movies, strip clubs, magazines, and online entertainment to glorify immorality. The Church has become silent while the rates of divorce, pre-marital sex, adultery, sexually transmitted diseases, and depression have exploded. The rates of divorce within the church and other vices are the same as society at large. How can we be agents of change when our own house is not in order. Are you praying to root out “the Doctrine of Balaam” from our churches?

  • Societal sins. After purifying ourselves and our churches, we were meant to be agents of change in society. Consider Jesus’ words: “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.” (Matt. 5:13). There are three meanings to Jesus’ words. First, salt was a preservative in that time to keep meat from rotting. Without our prayers and our actions to keep society pure, it will rot in its sins. Second, salt is a symbol of judgment. Lot’s wife was turned into salt (Gen. 19:26). Salt was also scattered on destroyed cities to destroy crops (Dt. 29:23; Jdgs. 9:45; Ps. 137:34; Jer. 17:5-6; 48:9; Zeph. 2:9). Unless we act through prayer and politics to root out sin in our society, it will face judgment. If God repeatedly judged Israel, the west should not feel immune. Third, salt (or judgment) is an important ingredient in our grain (life) offering (Lev. 2:13). We are not to take personal vengeance against others (Ro. 12:19). We are to always be kind to and love those who are enemies of the Gospel (Matt. 5:44; Ro. 12:20). Yet, through prayer and politics, we can and should be agents for change. “For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” (Ro. 13:4). In this context, salt is an irritant in a wound of sin. When acting in an official or political capacity, we can become God’s avengers. Before he become the High Priest, Phinehas was a judge and one of God’s appointed avengers against evil. He became a hero of the Jews by purging ungodly influences through the Spirit. You too can be a hero in God’s eyes. Through prayer, politics, and with love, will you zealously seek to keep society pure of ungodly influences?