Was God Moral in Numbers 31

Was God moral in Numbers 31.


@Jaikar Great question :slight_smile: Numbers 31 is about the destruction of an isolated group of Midianites because they had plotted to seduce Israel away from worship of the true God (see Numbers 25). One thing that is important to understand is that the punishment for an Israelite participating in idolatrous practices was death. Balaam knew this fact full well and knew that God would punish Israel if they disobeyed.

And yet Balaam and the Midianites intentionally planned to use women to lure the Israelites into idolatry to destroy them. That is an act of war. Israel was not the aggressor in this situation.

Now, someone may say that the punishment of death is too severe for idolatry. But we must remember that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). In the OT, God was seeking to set apart a people for Himself to be a light to the nations to save us - humanity - from death and sin’s destruction.

Deuteronomy 13:12-18 - Suppose you should hear in one of your cities, which the Lord your God is giving you as a place to live, that some evil people have departed from among you to entice the inhabitants of their cities, saying, “Let’s go and serve other gods” (whom you have not known before). You must investigate thoroughly and inquire carefully. If it is indeed true that such a disgraceful thing is being done among you, you must by all means slaughter the inhabitants of that city with the sword; annihilate with the sword everyone in it, as well as the livestock. You must gather all of its plunder into the middle of the plaza and burn the city and all its plunder as a whole burnt offering to the Lord your God. It will be an abandoned ruin forever—it must never be rebuilt again. You must not take for yourself anything that has been placed under judgment. Then the Lord will relent from his intense anger, show you compassion, have mercy on you, and multiply you as he promised your ancestors. Thus you must obey the Lord your God, keeping all his commandments that I am giving you today and doing what is right before him.

After the conquest, 32,000 young women were taken captive. Half the spoil went to the warriors and half to the regular Israelites back in the camp. Both the warriors and the Israelites tithed a portion of their spoil to service among the Levites. The 32 young women was the warrior’s tithe. I would assume they served in the Levite camp in some manner. Paul Copan makes the point that women who were taken captive in war had to be treated with respect and could not be abused. He points to Deuteronomy 21:10-14.

When you go to war against your enemies and the Lord your God delivers them into your hands and you take captives, if you notice among the captives a beautiful woman and are attracted to her, you may take her as your wife. Bring her into your home and have her shave her head, trim her nails and put aside the clothes she was wearing when captured. After she has lived in your house and mourned her father and mother for a full month, then you may go to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife. If you are not pleased with her, let her go wherever she wishes. You must not sell her or treat her as a slave, since you have dishonored her. Deuteronomy 21:10-14

I agree this is not an easy text, but I pray the Lord would grant you wisdom and peace as you seek to understand it :slight_smile:


Good answer @SeanO - I think you can make a principle to the effect that whenever someone questions God’s morality in ordering or executing the destruction of some group, they’re simply getting their “good guys” and “bad guys” mixed up.

I’ve never heard anyone complain that the Nuremburg judges were immoral for ordering the execution of Nazi leaders - because we understand the context. But some people who know absolutely nothing about Midianites (or Amalekites, or the Anakim, or any other group God orders destroyed) arrogate to themselves the authority to accuse God for condemning them.

The moment someone accuses (not questions, but accuses) God of immorality, they expose a serious ignorance of the situation. Because the Judge of all the earth will invariably do right.


@jlyons That’s a good way of putting it :slight_smile: I think it is important that we admit that these texts are difficult, but that when we put them in their textual and cultural contexts, they are less difficult. There are many facts we simply do not know or that are not explained in these passages, and that is where some people let their imagination run wild in the wrong directions and make unwarranted assumptions.

When talking about the Canaanites, I do think we have to be sensitive. Many people have been taught (as I was in my OT class at university) that the Canaanites were just an unsuspecting group of people set upon by the Israelites. Even some scholars have tried to claim that the Canaanites did not participate in child sacrifice (though this has been largely disproven - they continued the practice in Egypt hundreds of years later).
Complicating the situation a bit further, the Midianites were descended from Abraham through his wife Keturah. However, not unlike the Edomites, Esau’s descendants, they had a track record of violence towards the Israelites and in this case were the aggressors.

When discussing the Canaanites with those questioning these texts I think we have to be careful to share historical facts showing that they had fallen into terribly violent ways living. The Canaanites were some bad dudes. They burned children alive in the arms of bronze statues of false gods and had fallen into gross immorality of other forms. The pdf below dives into this not entirely pleasant subject.

canaanites.pdf (873.7 KB)

I understand why people struggle with violence in the Bible. Sitting in our comfortable armchairs sipping a Starbucks coffee, it just doesn’t seem to make sense. But the world back then was very different - much more dangerous and much more violent.

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Exactly - think “Rwandan genocide”!

@jlyons I think we need to be careful about drawing direct parallels between modern events and ancient events. For example, I would be very careful about comparing comparing anything in Scripture to what happened in Rwanda or Germany. The Midianites were not Nazis and what happened in Rwanda was horrific in so many ways unrelated to the Biblical text. So I think we just need to be very careful.

Also, I think we have to recognize that in light of Jesus’ teaching to love your enemy and turn the other cheek, some people really struggle to understand violence in the OT. Jesus’ teaching to love your enemies is the reason some people became Christian — because it is such a radical, counter cultural ethic that is not found anywhere else.

Of course, John tells us the law came through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. And Jesus Christ inaugurated a New Covenant. So it is clear that God was doing a new thing in Jesus and that the OT covenant, which included a physical kingdom in this world, was a very different thing.

No, no - I meant the Rwandan violence in response to your statement about people aloof in their easy chairs not getting the danger and violence in the world - whether long ago (as in the Bible) or far away (as in parts of Africa or Asia).

And, of course, the Midianites were not Nazis, but when people criticize God for calling for the destruction of very evil people in the Bible, but then turn around and endorse the destruction of very evil people in our day, their selective application of justice seems to be biased against God.

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@jlyons Thank you for the clarification :slight_smile: Yes, there is certainly a strong bias in our current cultural environment. Though I think as the Church we need to admit that the behavior of people claiming the name of Jesus has contributed to that bias.

Granted - and some of those people claiming His name do so insincerely, using Him for their own convenience - but others are genuine Christians, all of whom are works in progress. We do need to be conscientious about representing well the faith we claim before a watching world.

I sure wish I could say I’ve never done anything that reflected poorly on Christ!