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).

14 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.

      • 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.

      • 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.

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