Good morning! And then, I’m sad to say that it’s all downhill from that brief greeting. In today’s passage, we see in graphic detail how the writers of Numbers 31 imagined the early fighting and conquest would have gone (and we are likely moved to prayer that it was not actually so). Numbers 32 seeks to answer the question of how some Israelites settled east of the Jordan, when the “Promised Land” was presumably only on the other side, after crossing over the river. The latter chapter needs no further commentary, but the former is truly incendiary.
Numbers 31 has characters and tone in common with the barbaric treatment we’ve read about already in Numbers 25. There, Phinehas runs through an Israelite man and a Midianite woman, but here the encounter is magnified among thousands. Phinehas joins an army of Hebrews who seek “vengeance” against Midian at God’s command to Moses. Presumably this is vengeance for the idolatry and resulting plague of divine judgment which is referenced (though never described) in Numbers 25. In getting their revenge on Midianites, the Hebrew soldiers kill every adult male, and take captive all the women, children and animals. (Balaam son of Beor is among the dead, and there’s no trace of the earlier story where he blessed Israel contrary to Barak’s instruction. According to this, it was Balaam’s advice that led to the intermingling of Midianite and Hebrew in the first place.) Moses is angry that soldiers let the women live, and he commands that every non-virgin woman be killed, while the virgins are given to the soldiers as captives (likely sex slaves). Little boys are to be killed also—Moses has become Pharaoh.
The writer spends more than half the chapter then describing how the plunder of battle is divided between the warriors and the whole assembly, with a portion of each part given to the priests and Levites as an offering to the Lord. This reveals the utmost concern of those who wrote this: that battles and their aftermath be dealt with using absolutely dispassionate calculation. This is the type of narrative you write if you are only making a theological point, not considering the implications for human beings on the ground. I hope that such a story was written long after the fact, and entirely separate from what actually might have happened. However, those with such brutal theological imagination DO exist in real life now, and still unleash terror in God’s name using similar all-encompassing means. Today, they are known as ISIS.
Numbers 31 is an example of why I cannot imagine the Bible to narrate God’s actual, inerrant way with the world. Rather, this is a record of what one section of Hebrew scribes once thought was the will of God, and a theological description of “history” according to that way. Even with that orientation, I find it most disturbing to have a story like this in the Bible, from which we also have so many brilliant and holy verses. If I had my druthers, I’d take a utility knife and cut out this chapter (with some others) from every Bible in existence. Yet, refusing to face the worst of human impulses in my own sacred book might give me the illusion that my “tribe” is better or more advanced than any other. Instead, this chapter remains in the Bible to challenge, humble and confound. The inspiration of God is certainly not found in the text, but perhaps it will be found in the aghast community which reads this and responds, “Never again, in God’s name.”
Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. Tomorrow’s passage is Numbers 33-34. Thanks for reading!