Conservative Colloquium

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Understanding Why God Commanded Killing of Midianite Women & Children

Posted by Tony Listi on December 4, 2012

They warred against Midian, as the LORD commanded Moses, and slew every male…. Moses said to them, “Have you let all the women live? Behold, these [women] caused the people of Israel, by the counsel of Balaam, to act treacherously against the LORD in the matter of Peor, and so the plague came among the congregation of the
LORD. Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him. But all the young girls who have
not known man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves. (Numbers 31:7, 15-18, RSV)

If God exists and is the source, author, and creator of human life, then the relationship between God and man is not on the same moral level as relationships among human beings. God is then well within His rights to take away human life, put those lives under a bond of marriage or servitude, and command others to do these things on His behalf. God can no more “murder” a human being than a human being can “murder” a clay pot. If one takes the premise of God’s existence seriously, then these accusations against God are really absurd. If one doesn’t take it seriously, then that’s a whole other discussion.

The case of the Midianites in Numbers 31 is a special historical case of God exercising such rights, not a promulgation of general law and morality for relationships among human beings. God gave the Israelites a special command with regard to the Midianites and gave the Israelites the 5th commandment “Thou shalt not murder” as a precept of general morality for human beings.

Why did God give this special command to the Israelites against the Midianites (and other similar peoples)? God judged the Midianites for their idolatry, sexual immorality, opposition to Israel, and dire threat to Israel’s culture and messianic mission (read chapters 22 and 25 of Numbers). He gave the Midianites the death penalty and commanded the Israelites to execute that penalty (“Arm men from among you for the war, that they may go against Midian, to execute the LORD’s vengeance on Midian.” Num 31:3). If we can assume these things in the mind of God, we can understand better how God was right to do and command what He did.

God gives no such special commands in our day and time.

***

And as for the captive Midianite virgins, God apparently permitted the Israelites to take them as wives or servants, but both wives and servants had particular rights under Mosaic law, including prohibitions against mistreatment  (Ex 21:26-27, Dt 23:15-16, Dt 21:10-14). Numbers 31 does not describe God establishing any moral precepts regarding marriage, sex, or servitude. Strictly speaking though, as one can read, Numbers does not say that the Midianite virgins were forced into marriage. Most of them were almost certainly too young for marriage anyway (pre-pubescent).

It’s important to understand that there’s a difference between command and permission. Just because God permitted or allowed certain things under Moses (e.g. divorce, polygamy, servitude, arranged marriages) does not mean that He commanded or approved of those things in themselves or intended for those permissions or allowances to last forever, for all times and people. (“[Jesus] said to them, ‘For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you….'” Mt 19:8-9)

The Israelites were a rough, barbaric, and stiff-necked people (as were all other ancient peoples of that time). They were little children in civilizational terms and could not handle the fullness of moral truth at that time with regard to human dignity and sexuality. God gave laws and allowances that met the Israelites where they were civilizationally as a people at that time. With the coming of Jesus, God fulfills the law and commands the fullness of truth, as well as giving us the grace to obey and live it out and to receive mercy when we disobey it. (Of course, considering how few are the people who actually accept and cooperate with this grace to live out this fullness, we cannot necessarily say that modern people today are more civilized. Modern barbarism cloaks itself in “civility” and “compassion.”)

God was right to make these allowances for Israel for a time, just as a parent is right to make certain allowances for children until it’s time for them to grow up. “[W]hen the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways” (1 Cor 13:10-11).

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6 Responses to “Understanding Why God Commanded Killing of Midianite Women & Children”

  1. Deu 20:10 When thou comest nigh unto a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace unto it.
    Deu 20:11 And it shall be, if it make thee answer of peace, and open unto thee, then it shall be, that all the people that is found therein shall be tributaries unto thee, and they shall serve thee.
    Deu 20:12 And if it will make no peace with thee, but will make war against thee, then thou shalt besiege it:
    Deu 20:13 And when the LORD thy God hath delivered it into thine hands, thou shalt smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword:
    Deu 20:14 But the women, and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that is in the city, even all the spoil thereof, shalt thou take unto thyself; and thou shalt eat the spoil of thine enemies, which the LORD thy God hath given thee.
    Deu 20:15 Thus shalt thou do unto all the cities which are very far off from thee, which are not of the cities of these nations.
    Deu 20:16 But of the cities of these people, which the LORD thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth:
    Deu 20:17 But thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee:
    Deu 20:18 That they teach you not to do after all their abominations, which they have done unto their gods; so should ye sin against the LORD your God.

  2. Thank you very much for this explanation. Very basic and very straightforward, and it doesn’t try to dodge the issue. This sort of objection to Biblical revelation seems to be getting more common, so we will need more people writing more stuff like this.

  3. azl said

    So then, with God being all about forgiveness, explain how death was the best thing for the Midianites. I mean, I assume God loved them and wanted what’s best, right? And they sinned, soo… what happened? Even if we buy the premise that they deserved it, God does not dole out the punishment that people deserve – in fact, we pray that he does not on a regular basis. Moreover, he refrains from doling out deserved punishment all over the Bible.

    Why do the Midianites get hit? What separates them from other sinners who don’t get wiped out?

    Even if we suppose that God is within his right to order a genocide, doesn’t it seem like a capricious enforcement?

    • Tony Listi said

      Well, if the Midianites had corrupted Israel thoroughly, Jesus, the Messiah, who is the source of all forgiveness, may have never been born, hypothetically. If you’re a sinner who gets in the way of God’s Big Messianic Plan, you can expect some direct earthly intervention. So it’s not capricious.

      God often doles out earthly punishment that people deserve. Forgiveness and mercy in a spiritual sense do not preclude earthly punishment.

      • azl said

        Forgiveness and mercy do not preclude earthly punishment, true enough – but death precludes repentance, which is what God wants of all sinners, right? Why did he not desire the repentance of the Midianites?

        And surely you are not suggesting that an omnipotent deity would have been unable to introduce his son into the world if some heretics messed with the distant ancestors – right?

        And what does it mean that they “corrupted Israel”? When did Israel stop being responsible for their own behavior?

      • Tony Listi said

        Strictly speaking, death does not absolutely preclude repentance/forgiveness. For Jesus says, “And whoever says a word against the Son of man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come” (Mt 12:32). How God offers sufficient grace for salvation to people like the Midianites may be a mystery.

        No, I’m not suggesting that. God is omniscient as well; He could not be surprised by the actions of any infidels or pagans. What I’m suggesting is that God foreknew what the consequences would have been had the Israelites not eliminated the Midianites, and thus He ordered the Israelites to act so that such consequences would never happen.

        Just because certain Israelites were being corrupted doesn’t mean that they weren’t responsible for their actions. But it may mean that that corruption has to be eliminated or neutralized in some way to protect the chosen people through whom the Messiah would come.

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