Bible Readings for May 22nd
The text of Numbers 31 raises many difficult questions about subjects like warfare, genocide, plundering, and slavery. Yahweh instructs Moses to “avenge the people of Israel on the Midianites” (Num. 31:2) for two major events. First, the Midianites were involved along with the Moabites in hiring Balaam, the son of Beor, for the purpose of cursing Israel (Num. 22:7). Second, the Moabites and the Midianites had led the people of Israel astray to worship the Baal of Peor (Num. 25:1–3, 6, 17–18; 31:16).
For these crimes, Yahweh commands that they be destroyed—including not only the adult males whom they met in battle (Num. 31:7) but also every male child and every woman who was not a virgin (Num. 31:17). The virgin girls who were captured were available as slaves or as wives (Num. 31:18). Then, the spoils of war were divided into two parts, one part for the people of Israel generally and the other part for those who had gone out into battle (Num. 31:27).
This is not an easy passage to read, and many people would point to passages like this as evidence that the God of the Bible is not righteous in all that he commands. What, then, should we make of this?
First, we should recognize that attempting to curse Israel and leading them into the worship of a false god represented reprehensible wickedness. Yahweh had called Israel to be his special possession in all the earth, so leading them into apostasy was a horrific crime.
This helps us to see that God is not a genocidal maniac. Rather, he commanded this vengeance against Midian and the destruction of all the peoples in the Promised Land for the same reason: justice. In fact, Yahweh had told Abraham all the way back in Genesis 15:16 that Israel would not receive the Promised Land until the wickedness of the people living there reached a tipping point.
We see in these stories not unrestrained violence but the kingdom of God breaking into this world, punishing evildoers and preserving the people of God through grace. These scenes are not given to us for imitation today, since all vengeance belongs to Yahweh alone (Rom. 12:19). Rather, these stories announce in advance what King Jesus will do when he returns. He came once in peace as a meek, suffering servant, but he will come again as a mighty warrior king to execute justice among the nations.
And as we approach that day, let us heed the words of the psalmist: “Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear; and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way; for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him” (Ps. 2:10–12).
Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.