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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).


24 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.

  4. ha3x9blog said

    I would love to hear the author elaborate on the premise:
    “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.”
    And, the idea that He knew that the Israelites “could not handle the fullness of moral truth at that time with regard to human dignity and sexuality”
    And, the author’s notion that ” God gave laws and allowances that met the Israelites where they were civilizationally as a people at that time.”

    It would seem that in questioning the act of commanding that Midianite babies be beheaded, one might think that the theme of this entire post is to explain how some commands and decrees that were given to ancient peoples were acceptable, and understandable for those times, and for those peoples. but would be abhorrent today because we have attained a higher level of civilized behavior (this seems to be the author’s theme, not necessarily mine). For example, if we were to capture all of ISIS, and we took all the male babies of their families and beheaded them on the steps of the Capitol Building in Washington DC, I think the Christian Church as a whole would have a hard time justifying such a thing based on the teachings we find in Numbers. Thus, it can then be understood that your actual premise is that some things that were commanded by God in ancient times were not out-of-line at the time, but would be decidedly out of line today due to our society’s advanced status with regard to civility and human rights. Since I can determine that this is your de facto premise, I would say that such a stance would not sit well with many of those that I interact with that are associated with the advancement of Christian Conservativism, and a strict adherence to the literal word of the Old and New Testaments of the King James Bible. Can you imagine what I am trying to expand upon, as it relates to the social issues of our day, and things that were commanded to ancient peoples due to their less advanced nature with respect to civility and human rights, but should be disregarded and considered ‘out-dated’ for the modern world, as the author suggests??? Are you saying that man is obligated to pick and choose which commands are still acceptable, and which ones we should ignore??? Are you the one that gets to pick??? Should anyone get to pick??? Should we even question whether or not we should be questioning picking??? (I could go on and on…….)

    • Tony Listi said

      “the theme of this entire post is to explain how some commands and decrees that were given to ancient peoples were acceptable, and understandable for those times, and for those peoples. but would be abhorrent today because we have attained a higher level of civilized behavior…. your actual premise is that some things that were commanded by God in ancient times were not out-of-line at the time, but would be decidedly out of line today due to our society’s advanced status with regard to civility and human rights”

      This is a mischaracterization of what I wrote. First of all, you are confusing the reasons behind two distinct things, which I clearly separated out in my post: killing vs the taking of the virgins as captives

      One of the primary points of this post is that the command with regard to the killing of the Midianites was never meant to be a general command or precept, whether in ancient times or in our time, regardless of civilizational attainment. This is clear from even the Old Testament alone; God did not gives this command with respect to every people the Israelites encountered. It was a special command for a special situation in salvation history that will never be repeated. Thus your example with ISIS would never happen. The Church that Jesus founded (i.e. the Catholic Church) would never support such a thing as in your example.

      It is with respect to sexual morality specifically that God clearly chose to reveal the truth more gradually, permitting divorce, polygamy, arranged marriages, etc. until He re-established the original truths about marriage and sexuality through Jesus and His Church. Note that I never specifically said that God revealed the fullness of truth with respect to sexual morality in the 1st century AD and following centuries because the people(s) of that time had generally reached a much higher level of civilizational attainment. The peoples of the Roman Empire were in decadent decline. The Jewish authorities and Jewish people of the time largely rejected Jesus. What was primarily different in the time of Jesus is that God had prepared a small, core group of people to accept His Son and build His Church (though I personally believe that some degree of moral/civilization progress among the Jews since the Exodus was a necessary part of that preparation).

      The moral commands of the Old Testament were upheld in the New Testament; nothing changed with regard to moral commands. No one was commanded to divorce, take more than one wife, keep a slave, or arrange a marriage, but they were permitted under the Old Law. It was the ritualistic precepts of the Mosaic law and these permissions of divorce, polygamy, servitude, and arranged marriages specifically that were revoked in order to fulfill the Old Law and create a more perfect law.

      How can we know which laws were moral commands and which were merely permissive for a time? We can read the New Testament, and we can listen to the authority that Jesus gave to His apostles and their successors.

      • vohlman said

        ROTFL. First you say he mischaracterizes what he wrote, and then you pretty much support exactly what he said. Basically the modern church people are embarrassed by what God actually did and taught… and try to excuse their disobedience and rebellion under the guise of ‘progressive revelation’.

      • Tony Listi said

        He said that I explained the killing of the Midianites in terms of “good command for that time, not for our time.” That was a mischaracterization of what I said, and I corrected him.

        I’m not embarrassed by what God did in the Old Testament; read the first paragraph of this post and show me where the embarrassment is.

        But seeing as it is an obvious fact that Jesus (and the New Testament Church) revoked some of what was permitted and commanded in the Old Testament, that deserves an explanation. And the explanation with regard to marriage and sexuality that Jesus Himself gives is implicitly one of pedagogy: “[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
        How about taking the obvious changes between Old and New Testaments seriously?

        Yes, in some sense one could term it “progressive revelation,” for Jesus said the Holy Spirit would lead the Apostles/the Church into all truth (“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (Jn 16:13). Yet in the case of divorce, at least, it is clear that Jesus is “regressing” in a sense, going back to the beginning, back to Genesis, back to the original truth, not revealing something new per se.

      • vohlman said

        I always find it extremely funny when people take Jesus saying ‘from the beginning…’ and say ‘So, see, this is a change between the Old Testament and the New Testament…” Hint: ‘The Old Testament begins with the words ‘In the beginning’.

        Jesus was changing nothing here. He was authoritatively interpreting what had always been true from the very beginning of the creation. Paul, in I Corinthians 7 does the same thing as Moses… requiring women not to leave their husbands but IF THEY DO then requiring them not to remarry but to attempt to reconcile or live separately. No statement about *the beginning* is a change from the Old Testament to New Testament. Jesus stated what had always been true.

        Your ‘obvious fact’ is only obvious either when it is stated directly in the New Testament and tied to the actions of Christ (try the book of Hebrews for an example) or when our modern sin makes it ‘obvious’ to us that things have changed.

        Indeed many churches make it sound ‘obvious’ that the rules concerning capital punishment have changed, even tho both earlier generations of Christians have not seen it so, the NT does not teach it as so, and the arguments they use would apply equally against God’s direct commands in the OT.

        And it would be interesting to see how you get your ‘permission’ argument past the direct commands of God which I posted above.

      • Tony Listi said

        The Old Testament explicitly allowed divorce. Just because Jesus appeals to “the beginning” in Genesis does not change this fact. The Old Testament implicitly but clearly allowed polygamy; this was later prohibited by the early Church. etc. etc.

        You only make yourself seem disingenuous when you deny any changes have been made, especially when one goes issue by issue.

      • ha3x9blog said

        The wording of your reply sounds as if you disagree with my thesis, BUT the substance of your reply aligns your point quite clearly in agreement with my thesis.

        -There were commandments and decrees given to ancient peoples that were only for them, and should not be confused as commandments for future generations (He went out of his way to lay down the 10 commandments that were to be followed perpetually generation to generation). We seem to both share that point.
        -Trying to apply all ancient decrees and commandments in today’s world would not be acceptable due to our advanced human rights standards. (You stated, in your original post, and in your reply, that this sort of thing would not be accepted by today’s church).

        As stated in my original post, I want to look closer at the standard for which you are deciding what ancient laws, decrees, rules, and instructions should be handed down perpetually, and which ones we are expected to revise or otherwise move past? It would seem from the closing statements of your post that you suggest we give the authority to make those decisions to the “successors” of the apostles, i.e. the the modern ‘church’. Are you saying that Peter’s church through the ages was the one that, with supposed divine intervention and guidance, were the ones we should look to in deciding what Old Testament laws, rules, and commands we are to follow today, and which ones we are to look past as only applying to ancient civilizations?

      • Tony Listi said

        “would not be acceptable due to our advanced human rights standards”
        No, not due to that, but due to the new situation in salvation history. Jesus has already overcome the world and has given a higher law of love and mercy.

        “successors” of the apostles, i.e. the the modern ‘church’.”
        No, I really mean those men chosen by the Twelve and the men those men chose, all the way down to today. That succession can be traced historically to the Catholic Church of today.

        Yes, the succession of Peter does have unique divine protection, promised by Jesus’ own words. The authority found in his succession is the decisive guide between Old and New.

  5. vohlman said

    >>The Old Testament explicitly allowed divorce. Just because Jesus appeals to “the beginning” in Genesis does not change this fact. The Old Testament implicitly but clearly allowed polygamy; this was later prohibited by the early Church. etc. etc.

    >>You only make yourself seem disingenuous when you deny any changes have been made, especially when one goes issue by issue.

    No one disagrees that the Mosaic covenant included a divorce provision. However as Christ Himself pointed out, He made no *change* to God’s position *from the beginning*. You seem to be arguing that the Old Testament came before ‘the beginnin’g. Christ, far from promoting change, pointed and points us back to God’s original purpose and plan from the beginning., Hardly ‘change’.

    Yes, He pointed out that the divorce regulations were because of the hardness of their heart. You may recall that the divorce provisions got a little bit complex. You may also note that there were other laws that included ‘hardness’ provisions… see the levirate law, for example.

    And no one denies that the modern church has also prohibited things that God’s law does not prohibit and the like. If you wish to point to ‘change’ and you point to the church then I will be in full agreement with you… the church has indeed insituted ‘change’. The blasphemous idea of ‘annulment’, for example, is a pretty massive change and pretty dramatic contradiction to Christ’s own words, “What God has put together…”

    • Tony Listi said

      Not sure it’s worth arguing further over change vs no-change. We’ve reached the point of agreeing and arguing over semantics. The issue was not whether Jesus changed “God’s position *from the beginning*” but rather the Mosaic Law, the law binding on God’s household.

      The apostolic Church speaks with the authority of God. Otherwise, there would be no Bible, no written God’s Word, and no authoritative interpretations of the Bible. The primary matter is first and foremost determining which Church has in fact held apostolic authority going all the way back historically to Jesus and The Twelve. This is the primary task that most Protestants fail to recognize as such and have never troubled themselves to tackle.

      “Annulment” is not a breaking of what God joined together but rather a decree that God never did join together two people. To the cynic and critic, it may seem like the same thing, but it’s not, objectively. Certain criteria must have been met for the marriage to have been validly contracted in the Church.

  6. Kit Carson said

    God is blamed for many things, when God had nothing to do with war. It is man who becomes God in his own mind that commands others to go to war. Just like Moses who came down off the mountain and found the Golden Calf and commanded his men to kill thousands of people. Read the Bible carefully, you never do see God actually say anything, you do see men who declare they are the voice of God say much.

    No one knows the mind of God, all we are aware of is the voice of man who declares that he is the voice of God.

    We learn by age six we cannot trust other men. So much for God commanding war.

    I have a holy roller preacher next door, and I am sure God commands him to come and burn me at the stake and put me in Hell. Lol! Does God really say such or is it but just a man seeking his own power. Eh?


    • Tony Listi said

      Actually, God has a lot to do with war. He is described as the Lord of Hosts (that’s an army). The spiritual realm is a battleground between God and His Hosts against Satan and his demons. The soft-soap “God” of many modern people just doesn’t exist and cannot be found in the Bible. God cannot be reduced merely to the softer virtues of mercy and forgiveness; He is also all-powerful and all-just, using His power for justice, sooner or later.

  7. Max Barshled said

    Historically, whenever things become bad for one people they will rationalize an existential threat for war on another people. It is convenient that two million starving, grumbling, spent-40-years-in-the -desert, nomads would want what the Midianites had. Specifically, beef, sheep, donkeys, gold and young women.

    Midianites were no fighters. This is evidenced by how a population large enough to sustain 32,000 virgins could be easily defeated by 12,000 men without those men losing a single soldier.

    So, was it ever God’s will for Moses’ to profit so much for punishing the Midianites? Why would God need his own share of gold and virgins? Was not sex, meat, and unlawful prayer the reason God was punishing the Midianites in the first place? Finally, where else in all the biblical scripture does God become a fastidious bookkeeper for war spoils? Oy vey!

    • Tony Listi said

      Typical of the ignorant cynical critic who assumes a self-serving Israelite population wrote the Old Testament and fabricated a God to rationalize their selfish interests? And what about when the Israelites fell into civil war, subjugation by outside powers, and exile?? Invented a God who then removes their material self-interests?? Doesn’t sound very convenient. Make up your mind, or maybe you’ve never read the whole history….

      “Midianites were no fighters.”
      Oh, really? An expert on Midianites? Your “logic” doesn’t follow. The Bible reports that the Midianites often previously attacked the Israelites.

      It was certainly God’s will that the Israelites should profit from the Midianites destruction. God chose them to be His people and had special plans for them. But notice that God specifically tells the Israelites that His reason for commanding them into wars was not primarily to enrich the Israelites but to punish pagan peoples:
      “Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land; but because of the wickedness of these nations the LORD your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word which the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. Know therefore, that the LORD your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness; for you are a stubborn people.”

      “Was not sex, meat, and unlawful prayer the reason God was punishing the Midianites in the first place?”
      Again, typical ignorance. God created sex and commanded sex to Adam and Eve. Again, God has never been against “meat” in general. “Unlawful prayer” is just not the best way to put it. Their “gods” led them into evil acts, including child sacrifice likely.

  8. Jason Davies said

    Great job on this. This explains the chapter 31 of numbers so much more to me. Thankyou and God Bless!

  9. marion said

    I don’t understand any of it. So frustrates me to read the bible

  10. Chris said

    You say that God can’t murder a human any more than a human can murder a clay pot. But humans don’t profess to love and care for pots. God supposedly does that to humans though. So the analogy breaks down there. Also, the idea that God would make allowances for ancient Jews due to their cultural beliefs makes it seem like he’s not in control. If he truly is absolute morality, then it shouldn’t matter what they believe, God’s word would be final. Therefore, the acquiescence to their own understanding of how things should be really makes it appear that humans wrote down their own opinions and then justified it through a divine backing. “This is what God said is allowed, so we can do it.” Yet once civilization and law improves, suddenly the rules change.

    Sorry about this. It’s just how it appears to me.

    • Tony Listi said

      You assume that killing/taking life is inherently unloving and cannot be a loving action, but that’s just not true.
      On a human level, the best way to love an unjust violent aggressor is often to kill him and put an end to his unjust violence.
      On the divine level, God can act lovingly by taking the life of any evildoer.

      But even if a person is completely innocent, God can take back the life that He gave. Nothing unloving about that; just a matter of authority.
      Moreover, unlike the analogy to pots, God does not actually completely obliterate anyone into non-existence, even the most evil of persons, and this is a manifestation of His love. The soul is immortal. And though we human beings die, we will all receive our bodies again at the resurrection of the dead.

      Just because someone in authority makes allowances for the weaknesses for those under his authority doesn’t mean that he is not in control or that he has any less authority. When a parent makes allowances for a toddler who is weak in understanding and self-control that doesn’t mean the parent is not in control. It just means that the person in authority is exercising prudence with his authority and power/control. If a parent makes moral demands upon a toddler way beyond his understanding and capability, the parent will be exercising control, but it won’t do the toddler any good and may even cause harm.

      It is extremely important to have historical perspective when it comes to the morality of the Old Testament. You have to compare it to the general moral/immoral values of all the other pagan cultures of the time. It was a huge step forward on all counts. It was radically different than that of other cultures. This topic alone is a whole other important discussion and merely a matter of history. So the notion that the Israelites made everything up for their own benefit makes absolutely no sense, considering the overall culture of peoples at that time and place.

      Civilization and law do not just improve by themselves! Jesus fulfilled and completed Jewish law and culture, which did require some changes, especially in areas of sexuality and marriage. God Himself intervened to cause an improvement.

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