Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Did Moses (and God) Sin In Judging the Midianites (Numbers 31)?



Moses (Rembrandt)



I encountered a question on the CHNI board from a person who was trying to answer a friend, regarding the text of Numbers 31:14-18 (RSV):
And Moses was angry with the officers of the army, the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds, who had come from service in the war. Moses said to them, "Have you let all the women live? Behold, these caused the people of Israel, by the counsel of Balaam, to act treacherously against the LORD in the matter of Pe'or, 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.
This second person puzzled over why Moses would want to command the killing of males, young and old, and non-virgin women, while keeping alive the virgins? This created a doubt as to whether Moses was two-faced, or a prophet some of the time, and giving merely his own sinful, arbitrary opinions on other occasions.

The solution to the "dilemma" is that God is judge. He has the prerogative to judge nations, with perfect justice. The entire human race is fallen and subject to original sin. If God chooses to judge a nation (as in this case) it is the right decision. He also judged Israel on various occasions; most notably by the Babylonians in the 6th century B.C. -- when the Temple was destroyed and the Jews were taken into captivity for a long time. He gives life and can take it away. God is not just another man.

The massacres of the OT involve a long, complicated explanation. I've given the nutshell version. If anyone wants a great deal of depth and "meat" they can consult my paper (with lots of related links to other material):

"How Can God [in the OT] Order the Killing and Massacre of Innocents?" [Amalekites, etc.] (+ Discussion)

Some argue that Moses was speaking fallibly and without divine inspiration in this instance. But that doesn't apply here at all because Moses was applying God's express command. In Numbers 31:17-18, Moses states:
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.
This was an instance of divine judgment or wrath. Moses cannot, therefore, be blamed with giving immoral advice without implicating God in the same charge. God had commanded Moses earlier in the chapter (Numbers 31:1-3,7):
The LORD said to Moses, "Avenge the people of Israel on the Mid'ianites; afterward you shall be gathered to your people." And Moses said to the people, "Arm men from among you for the war, that they may go against Mid'ian, to execute the LORD's vengeance on Mid'ian. . . . They warred against Mid'ian, as the LORD commanded Moses, and slew every male.
The reason Moses was justifiably mad was because the armies hadn't fully followed God's instructions. This had long been a problem in Israel, and would be on many occasion: they would incompletely follow what God told them to do, only to be corrupted by the evil pagan nations that they conquered. This is not my speculation only; it is in the text itself, in the two verses before our passage under consideration:
Moses said to them, "Have you let all the women live? Behold, these caused the people of Israel, by the counsel of Balaam, to act treacherously against the LORD in the matter of Pe'or, and so the plague came among the congregation of the LORD.
Moses was referring ("matter of Pe'or") to an earlier incident, recorded in Numbers 25:1-13,16-18:
While Israel dwelt in Shittim the people began to play the harlot with the daughters of Moab. These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate, and bowed down to their gods. So Israel yoked himself to Ba'al of Pe'or. And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel; . . . And the LORD said to Moses, "Harass the Mid'ianites, and smite them; for they have harassed you with their wiles, with which they beguiled you in the matter of Pe'or, . . . (cf. Deut 4:3-4)
Numbers 25:6-15 discusses an incident of Zimri and a Midianite woman named Cozbi. This was how the Israelites become corrupted: by intermarriage with those who practiced idolatry. God wanted to eliminate this possibility (25:8,10-11). While He is judging one wicked nation, He is also preserving His chosen people for His purposes. The New Bible Dictionary ("Midianites" - p. 821) states:
Later, in the plains of Moab, the chiefs of Midian and Moab combined in hiring Balaam to curse Israel (Num 22 ff.) and their people led Israel into idolatry and immorality (Num 25), and so had to be vanquished (Num 25: 16-18, ch. 31).
This is a very common OT motif. It happens again and again. In Ezra 10:1-19,44 (cf. 9:1-2,14-15), many Israelites “sent away” the “foreign women” they had married, not simply because they were foreigners, but because they caused them to become corrupted by false religions and idolatry (see. e.g., Deut 17:17, Neh 13:23-28). This was, by the way, essentially the same as an annulment, as opposed to a divorce. See, e.g.:
Deuteronomy 12:29-31 "When the LORD your God cuts off before you the nations whom you go in to dispossess, and you dispossess them and dwell in their land, take heed that you be not ensnared to follow them, after they have been destroyed before you, and that you do not inquire about their gods, saying, `How did these nations serve their gods? -- that I also may do likewise.' You shall not do so to the LORD your God; for every abominable thing which the LORD hates they have done for their gods; for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods.
Others argue that passages such as these are taken out of context and divorced from the overall meaning of this book of Scripture. Again, that is not applicable here precisely because I put the passage in context and showed how Moses was following God's instruction. This is inspired Scripture. We can't simply pass off something as an error of man unless the text instructs us clearly that this is so. I gave the larger meaning and context too, in showing how this was an instance of divine judgment, and provided some of the sordid history of the Midianites, whom God judged.

Is Moses' instruction to be doubted as sinful in this passage, or restricted only to the time and place, as a way to sort of dismiss it as a mere time-bound observation (whereas now we know better)? No. We are not at liberty to question an instruction by Moses that was following what God had told Him, as revealed in the same passage, earlier in the chapter. These are things that we all have to study and think through, rather than try to explain them away because we find them difficult to understand. They can be understood. Whether people will accept the biblical revelation in faith is another question . . .

The Bible often talks about the sins of its prominent figures (Paul, David, Moses himself, who -- like both David and Paul -- committed a murder). But this is not an instance of sin (unless God is also accused of sin). "The LORD" is instructing Moses all through this chapter, before and after our passage: 31:1,3,7,21,25,31,41. No indication whatsoever is given that Moses disobeyed anything he was told by God. If he had done so, the text would certainly note that, as in the incident where he struck the rock (to get water) too many times in disobedience and was punished for it by not being able to enter the Promised Land.

The Bible is very frank about the sins of man, even in some of the greatest heroes of the Bible. This is is not, repeat, NOT, an instance of Moses giving false, sinful advice, or wrongly losing his temper or what not. This was righteous anger because Moses was implementing God's express instructions.

It's a question of understanding a motif that is very common throughout the OT (in fact, virtually the "moral of the story" of the entire OT): God's people follow Him for a while, then become corrupted by outside influences, then God judges the nations that are wicked influences and judges Israel too after they have gone too far into idolatry. Then He restores them for His purpose and the whole process starts over again. See, e.g., Nehemiah 9:26-36.

God reaches a point when sins of a nation or people have become so outrageous, that He judges them. Sodom and Gomorrah is a clear example of this. Note the following passage:
Genesis 15:16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.
If nations repent, then God doesn't destroy them (Jer 18:7-8; Nineveh: Jonah 3:4-10). The OT is filled with instances of nations being judged (or prophecies of same). For example, here are some shorter passages:
Jeremiah 12:17 But if any nation will not listen, then I will utterly pluck it up and destroy it, says the LORD."

Ezekiel 14:19 Or if I send a pestilence into that land, and pour out my wrath upon it with blood, to cut off from it man and beast;

Ezekiel 33:29 Then they will know that I am the LORD, when I have made the land a desolation and a waste because of all their abominations which they have committed.

Ezekiel 36:17-18 "Son of man, when the house of Israel dwelt in their own land, they defiled it by their ways and their doings; . . . So I poured out my wrath upon them for the blood which they had shed in the land, for the idols with which they had defiled it.

Micah 6:13 Therefore I have begun to smite you, making you desolate because of your sins.
For many many more passages, see my paper:

The Judgment of Nations: Biblical Passages and Commentary

Sometimes these divine judgments entail killing men, women, and children, by God's command:
1 Samuel 15:2-3 Thus says the LORD of hosts, `I will punish what Am'alek did to Israel in opposing them on the way, when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and smite Am'alek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.'" (cf. 1 Chron 4:43)
The motif of such judgment is not absent from the NT (lest anyone think that there was some huge change in God between the two Testaments, which is intrinsically impossible):
1 Corinthians 10:5-12 Nevertheless with most of them God was not pleased; for they were overthrown in the wilderness. Now these things are warnings for us, not to desire evil as they did. Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, "The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to dance." We must not indulge in immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put the Lord to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents; nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as a warning, but they were written down for our instruction, upon whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let any one who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.

Matthew 23:29-38 [Jesus] "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, saying, 'If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.' Thus you witness against yourselves, that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent
Abel to the blood of Zechari'ah the son of Barachi'ah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all this will come upon this generation. "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! Behold, your house is forsaken and desolate.

Luke 10:13-15 "Woe to you, Chora'zin! woe to you, Beth-sa'ida! for if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it shall be more tolerable in the judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Caper'na-um, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades. (cf. 19:41-46)

Acts 7:6-7 And God spoke to this effect, that his posterity would be aliens in a land belonging to others, who would enslave them and ill-treat them four hundred years. 'But I will judge the nation which they serve,' said God, 'and after that they shall come out and worship me in this place.' (cf. Rev 18:4-10)

Revelation 19:11-16 Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! He [Jesus] who sat upon it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems; and he has a name inscribed which no one knows but himself. He is clad in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, followed him on white horses. From his mouth issues a sharp sword with which to smite the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, King of kings and Lord of lords.

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