This is a chapter in the Pentateuch that the skeptics love, God commanding vengeance upon Israel’s enemies, in this case the Midianites. The Dawkins and Dennets of the world use this to prove that God is a “moral monster.” Leave aside the hubris of a mere human being sitting in judgment on God, maybe there is a mildly plausible reason God has for commanding such things. Of course I use the term mildly facetiously. God is God, the moral arbiter of the universe, and everything he does or commands is good and right and just, regardless of how it appears to us. If we accept that there is a God, and that the Bible is God’s revelation to us of himself and his will for us and humanity, then it is incumbent on us to try to understand what’s going on to the best of our ability, rather than to judge it based on some standard that seems right to us. God always gets the benefit of the doubt, always.
With that in mind, why would God command the Israelites to kill all the Midianites, even women and children? The precursor of this has to be Numbers 25. When the men of Israel were seduced by Moabite women and got them to worship their gods, the Midianites took advantage of it by sending the daughter of a tribal chief to do something bad. We’re not told exactly what it is, but God commands this after the event:
16 The Lord said to Moses, 17 “Treat the Midianites as enemies and kill them. 18 They treated you as enemies when they deceived you in the Peor incident involving their sister Kozbi, the daughter of a Midianite leader, the woman who was killed when the plague came as a result of that incident.”
Which leads to the command that starts this chapter, for them to “take vengeance on the Midianites for the Israelites.” I can only think that these people presented an existential threat to Israel, and God simply could not let that happen. This is obviously why he tells them to kill even the young boys, who will one day become men and also be a threat.
When God tells them to go out, he doesn’t tell the whole army, all the men to go out, only a thousand from each tribe, which obviously is 12,000 men. The Midianite army must have been much larger, so God wants Israel to understand that victory depends on him, not on their strength or numbers. Indeed, God is always only our victory.
We learn here that Balaam is killed with the sword, which must have been important for the writer to point this out. Balaam allowed himself to be used by Israel’s enemies, which made him an enemy of God, and as such he was taken down. Lesson? Don’t make yourself and enemy of God’s people and thus God. They also decimated every town, burned them to the ground and plundered everything they owned. God wanted them out for good, but as we know they come back later in Israel’s history as we see in Judges.
Brutally, God also has them kill all the women who have slept with a man (how could they tell, I wonder), and keep the 32,000 that have not. War is hell. Remember that the rulers of Midian tried to get Balaam to curse Israel so they could destroy them. You might just say all’s fair . . . Again, it’s easy to judge when you don’t know the full import of the situation, and God certainly does.
And they get lots of plunder, which God has them divvy up. I note that the priests and the Levites get a share; God is always providing for those who do his work. Which is something to keep in mind as the offering plate goes around every Sunday. Those who work in ministry deserve a living from God’s people, as God gives us many examples throughout the Pentateuch.