May 30, 2007

Numbers 31-32: What did I do to you?

Today's reading is Numbers 31-32 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the war against the Midianites; the division of the spoils from that war; and the agreement made between Moses and the tribes of Reuben and Gad to inhabit the trans-Jordan lands.

At first glance, Num. 31 looks like just another chapter from the long chronicle of the Israelite wars of conquest. The Israelites go in, kill the Midianites, and divide up their spoils. An open-and-shut case, to the casual reader. However, once we begin looking at the details of this war, we realize that none of it makes sense. From the reason for the war to the division of the spoils, the reader seems to be tossed into a world twists that make absolutely no sense.

Let us begin with the war's targets, the Midianites. If we turn back a few chapters, to Num. 25, we will recall two incidents. The first, in Num. 25:1-5, recounts how the Moabite women seduced the sons of Israel and led them to idol-worship. The second, Num. 25:6-15, describes how Zimri (a Simeonite prince) and Cozbi (the daughter of a Midianite prince) walked in front of the tabernacle and will killed by Phineas, son of the high priest. Just so we are absolutely clear, there is no mention of the Midianite women other than Cozbi. It was the Moabites, not the Midianites, who were involved in fornication and idol-worship. Though we may want to assume the Midianites were also involved in these activities -- indeed, it is the only way Num. 31 makes any sense -- the text does not tell us this. Nonetheless, God tells Israel to go to war against the Midianites.

Before leaving the Midianites, my thoughtful readers might remember another episode, this one from Exodus. In Ex. 2, Moses flees the wrath of Pharaoh after he slew an Egyptian taskmaster. Where did he flee? Midian. Not only that, but he married a Midianite woman, and had a Midianite priest, Jethro, as a father-in-law. (Ex. 3:1) Not only that, but Jethro was the one who set up the Israelite system of judges so that Moses would not need to bear the burden of judging all the Isrealites' law cases. (Ex. 18) We would think that because of this, Moses would have a soft spot in his heart for the Midianites. But, as the text makes clear, this is not so.

Moses picks out 12,000 fighting men, 1,000 from each tribe, to wage war. Along with them, he sends Phineas, son of Eleazar the high priest. The text has already established in Num. 25 that Phineas is a fighting man, as well as a priest. Moses sent him, along with the "holy instruments and trumpets" to ensure the Israelites' victory. (Num. 31:3-6)

The Israelite warriors are, to say the least, brutal. They kill all the men of Midian and their five kings. They capture their women and children. They claim all their goods as spoils of war. They burn their cities and castles. In short, they do a fine job of ensuring the Midianites will never be a problem again. (Num. 31:7-12)

The text notes that they also kill Balaam, son of Beor. (Num. 31:8) The last time we encountered Balaam, son of Beor, was in Num. 22-24. For those who don't remember, here is a brief recap of that story: Balak, king of Midian (who is not, we should note, listed among the five kings of Midian in Num. 31) had seen the incoming Israelite army and asked Balaam to curse them. Though Balaam at first refused to come, since God had blessed the Israelites, he eventually was persuaded and even encountered an angel along the way to visit Balak. Though Balak repeatedly asked Balaam to curse the Israelites, Balaam blessed them a half-dozen times and foretold the destruction of Midian and the other non-Israelite nations in the region. Balaam was absolutely loyal to God. And yet, in Num. 31:8, the text points out specifically that he was killed in the war.

So, the Israelite soldiers, weary from a long day of slaughter and arson, return to the camp. There, they meet Moses. We might expect that Moses would be pleased that the soldiers were so thorough, but in fact, he is angry. He is not angry because the soldiers were so brutal, which we might expect, but because they were not brutal enough! Moses commands the soldiers to kill all the male children and every woman who has slept with a man. The virgins, he explains graciously, "keep alive for yourselves." (Num. 31:13-18)

Now surely after doing God's work, at Moses' command, killing not only the Midianite men but the women and male children as well, the Israelite soldiers would be welcomed back into the camp with open arms. But this is, again, not the case. Moses instructs them that they must stay outside the camp for seven days to purify themselves and their belongings. The old rules about being around dead bodies (Num. 19) still need to be obeyed, even by decorated soldiers. (Num. 31:19-24)

Finally, the moment every soldier has been waiting for, the division of the spoils. Moses commands that the spoils (675,000 sheep, 72,000 cattle, 61,000 donkeys, and 32,000 virgin girls) be divided in two halves, the first going to the soldiers and the other going to the rest of the congregation. This, I'm certainly, would seem very fair to the warriors, who after all did all the fighting, though less fair to the other 600,000 Israelites, who didn't. Furthermore, the tithes for these two groups are different. The soldiers need only give one out of every five hundred heads as a tithe; the congregation must give one out of every fifty. (Num. 31:25-47)

While this is just another way of honouring the soldiers, we note one interesting fact from this division: the priests receive about 350 virgin Moabite girls, the soldiers about 16,000 (that's more than one per soldier, remember), and the congregation in general another 16,000 (about one for every 35 men). (Num. 31: 35; 31:40; 31:47) Recall that the entire reason the Israelites were fighting the Midianites in the first place was because their women had seduced the Israelite men into adultery and idol-worship. Why, we must ask ourselves, are the Israelites allowing themselves to fall into the same trap? Just because the virgins didn't seduce the Israelite men until now doesn't mean they won't do so in the future.

Though I'm certain it made sense to the Israelites at the time, the passage of millennia seems to have confused issues so that all we can do is scratch our heads and ask, "huh?"

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