Numbers 31: Spoils of War

In battle, someone always loses. Numbers 31 relays the devastation brought about by the Midianites' desire to disrupt Israel's rise to power.


Photocredit: Camilo
Numbers 31 is about the battle between Israel and Midian. The call to war is issued by God, who is furious at the Midianites' hand in tempting the Israelites to idolatry.

About the Midianites

The Midianites are descended from Abraham and Keturah's son Midian (see Genesis 25). Thought to be a confederation of semi-nomadic tribes, Midian allies itself with the Ishmaelites, Amalekites, and Moabites sometimes.[4] The Midianites consulted with Balak and were complicit in the attempt to convince Balaam to curse Israel. According to Numbers 31:16, they followed an order given by Balaam to derail the Israelites.

The Battle

Each tribe sends 1000 armed men for the battle. On the first pass, I assumed this excluded Levi and gave a total of 12,000 soldiers. However, Phineas (son of Eleazar) carries the holy objects to the battle, which implies the Levites may have sent men as well. If so, the total would have been 13,000 soldiers. During the battle, God commands Moses and the Israelites to kill all the men, including the kings. Initially, it would seem obvious that the kings would be a primary target for defeating a nation; however if we look at conquests throughout history, it is easy to see that controlling a king is also an efficient manner of controlling a kingdom. God did not want the old leadership of Midian to remain because He didn't want any leeway for idolatry to spring up. By leaving the kings and men alive, the Israelites may have had an easier mechanism to control the conquered people, but they would risk an uprising as well. Interestingly, one person mentioned in Moses' list of people killed is Balaam (from Numbers 22-24)


The Israelites take the women and children as captives in addition to the Midianites' livestock and goods. The cities are then burned just as God instructed, destroying all pagan artifacts and worship enters. The captives are taken to Moses and Eleazar for instruction.

Moses becomes angry when he sees the captives. His anger is explained by the fact that these are the same women who convinced the Israelites to commit idolatry in Numbers 25. Moses demands that all the male children be killed; this would ensure that they would not rise up once they came of age, as well as, force all new children to be part of the Israelite nation by blood.

In addition, Moses ordered only virgin women were to be kept alive. Considering the law surrounding nudity, I doubt they actually checked the hymen on each woman, thus it is possible that young women who did not have children but were not virgins may have lied to save their lives.


From a modern point of view, it seems quite excessive to kill all the men and even more excessive to kill the young boys. However, we must remember that the Midianites provoked God by complying in the effort to curse the Israelites. While the Moabites were also complicit in this act, it is obvious that both Moses and God place the blame on the Midianite women for seducing the Israelite men into idolatry.[1] Likely, the effort was led by Midianite as opposed to an equal partnership.

The purpose of God's instructions to utterly defeat or destroy the nations they came against was to destroy idolatry. It is much easier to disregard God's law and fall into idolatry than to convert others to the will of God. Much like drunk partying and promiscuousness, things that are ultimately bad for us often seem like harmless fun. Sometimes even as consequences play out, we are too blind to see the link between the sin and our troubles. This makes it all the more simple for someone to sway us from God. For this reason, He did not want His people surrounded by the temptation of these pagan religions.

We have to remember that unlike our limited human abilities, God has the power to see the future, as well as, to know the hearts and minds of each person. The Israelites may not have known how deep the plot to overthrow them was, but God did. The Israelites may not have surmised any trouble to come from allowing these people to live, but God did.[3]

In short, God's order to kill the Midianites was a consequence of their attempt to deceive the Israelites. Like Satan, false prophets, and others who lead God's people astray, the Midianites were being held responsible for their actions. The virgin women would have been innocent concerning the incident at Baal-peor, and thus Moses did not hold them responsible for the crime. On top of that, the women would not be able to recreate the Midianite population, which meant they posed no threat to the Israelites or God's law.

Why was the law so strict concerning punishment of idolatry back then? Jesus never suggests that we kill pagans; He even suggests that we turn our cheek to our enemies.[2] Some people suggest it is because God meant to bring Jesus through the Israelites and needed to maintain a pure line. Whether this was to maintain purity or not, the observance of the law both foretold and paved the way for Jesus. God expected the Israelites to keep these laws to usher in our Savior. If Satan had succeeded in derailing Israel and tainting the Messianic line, we may have never received our salvation, they suggest.[1] Another thought (my own) is that the penalty for idolatry within Israel was death, and since the Midianites had taken it upon themselves to infiltrate the Israelite nation, God was subjecting them to His law. Today, the payment of our deserved death is fulfilled by Christ when we repent. This means followers of Christ are not obligated to fight the battle; if the person does not repent the price will be exacted during judgment day. I think this is one of those passages that drills home the true meaning of salvation and Jesus' sacrifice.

An in depth study of the ethics concerning this event was written by Glenn Miller and can be found here Top

Soldiers and Plunder Purified

Touching the dead was considered unclean, which meant the soldiers had to be purified for their contact with dead bodies on the battlefield. Anyone who killed someone or touched a dead body was to be set out of the camp for 7 days. They were to purify themselves on the 3rd and 7th days according to the purification rituals. Clothes and objects made of skin, goat hair, or wood were also to be purified. If an item could not go through the fire, it had to go through the water. Metals such as gold and silver had to pass through both the fire and the water of separation for purification. On the 7th day, the unclean were to wash their clothes before becoming clean.

Dividing the Spoils

Moses and Eleazar take inventory of the spoils, dividing everything into 2 equal parts. One part was given to the soldiers who fought in battle and the other part was given to the congregation. Before the spoils were divyed out, a levy tribute was given to God through Eleazar. From the spoils belonging to the soldiers, 1 of every 500 was given. From the spoils that went to the civilians of Israel, 1 of every 50 was given.
TotalLord's Tribute (from soldiers)Lord's Tribute (from civilians)Lord's Tribute (total)
Virgin Women32,00032320352


Oblation to God

The soldiers bring jewels and gold that they have taken from the battle to give to Eleazar for God. This totaled to 16,750 shekels.

Further Reading

  1. Midian and Midianites:—Jewish Encyclopedia
  2. Mididanite—Bible Encyclopedia


  1. "Why were only the virgins left alive among the Midianites?". Christian Apologetics & Research Ministries (CARM). 2016
  2. Matthew 5:39
  3. Miller, Glenn. "What about God’s cruelty against the Midianites?". Christian Think Tank. 2001
  4. Holman Bible Publishers. Holman KJV Study Bible. pg. 286. 2014

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