Let us pray:
To you we pray, O God, as we hear your word. Give us understanding; give us faith. And may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
There’s no use avoiding it: this story in Numbers is horrifying.
God tells Moses to send the people into battle against the Midianites, to “Avenge the Israelites on the Midianites”. The people organize and go; they fight and win. They kill every man they can find, and round up the women and children and cattle, to bring back to the camp along with the gold and silver and other precious things they’ve taken as rewards. But Moses stops them outside the camp, angry that they’ve left so many people alive–and so, right there, they kill every married woman and every boy, leaving only the unmarried girls so they can become slaves.
Avenge? What are they avenging? What could they possibly be avenging?
The answer lies a few chapters earlier (Numbers 25), just after the story of Balaam (Numbers 22-24): a seer for the Moabites and Midianites, who is told to curse the people of Israel but can only bless them. But then the men of Israel begin to fall in love with the women of Moab and Midian–or perhaps more accurately, fall into lust–and they begin to worship another god. God is so angry that there is a plague among the people, and God promises consequences.
This story of war is so uncomfortable that I wanted instead to keep researching: to read about the Midianites before this, and discover that Moses married a Midianite (Exodus 2:21), received sanctuary from them when he fled from Egypt (Exodus 2:15) and advice from his Midianite father-in-law earlier in the wilderness wanderings (Exodus 18).
Research didn’t make it any better.
Basically, that leaves me with no answers. I still don’t know what to do with this passage. I still have more questions than answers, however much I may be able to recite the explanations.
So… I will let you decide for yourself. I will talk about how people explain this, and you can decide for yourself. Maybe it will make sense to you, maybe not.
If we take the text as it stands: we can talk about simmering resentment and distrust that has built up between the Israelites and the Midianites, ever since some Midianites refused to convert to this early form of Judaism earlier in the book (Numbers 10:29-30). Trying to curse the Israelites certainly didn’t help; cursing was a sneaky way to win, and taken quite seriously: perhaps like using hacking or chemical weapons today, instead of open warfare. And then the Israelites are seduced away from God by these Midianite and Moabite women. The Midianites are a threat to Israel’s place in the land and worship of God. Of course they needed to defend themselves.
Which sounds nice, I guess, and logical. In these books all threats are met with violence. But it ignores the fact that the Israelites committed what would today be termed war crimes–killing women and children? In their time, sure, this is how war is done. They’re not being any crueler than any other nation.
I’m not gonna lie, that doesn’t make me feel any better. It makes me feel even worse when I remember that God is the one who sent them into battle.
Or another perspective: those who study the book of Numbers say that evidence points to Numbers having been written long after it’s taken place, to being written during the time of the exile. This is important for a few reasons: the first is that the events were far removed from the writers, that these weren’t first-hand accounts. Instead, these were written hundreds of years after the fact, from stories that had been passed down for generations and undoubtedly been changed and edited and embellished. And embellished they were: archaeology has found no evidence of a sudden series of destructions and battles as it’s described in Numbers and Deuteronomy and Joshua. There’s nothing that lines up at all. There’s evidence of skirmishes and low-level warfare, but nothing on the destructive scale as this.
Instead, Numbers was meant to say as much about when it were written as about when it were written about. More than that: these stories were written in a time when the Israelites had no power to kill much of anyone, let alone entire people groups. They were isolated across the Babylonian empire. These really were stories far more than history.
That doesn’t mean they don’t hold truth–they do. But a massacre of this scale never happened. Instead, it’s about idolatry and purity: about the need to worship God alone, to remain pure and separate from other cultures. It’s a longing for the time when God will remove temptation, remove the enemies of the people who repeatedly try to destroy them and bring them to false worship.
Again, this doesn’t make me feel all that much better.
As I said, I don’t know what to do with this passage, with how disturbing it is. I’m left instead with questions, but knowing that questions are good and healthy, that it’s okay to read the Bible and ask questions and not find answers. Sometimes we don’t find answers. But the questions are still worth asking.