Was God Cruel to the Midianites?

09 Feb

Baal-peorSome Biblical critics seem to want to demonize the God of the Bible over his treatment of the Midianites in Numbers 31. What really occurred there and why did Moses command Israel to slay all the non-virgin women and all the male children with the sword? Some have accused God of genocide in this passage, and that over the trifle matter of calling him by a different name. Is that true, and if not why was God so upset over the worship of Baal-Peor? How was the virginity of the young females found out? Is it true that Israel violated these innocent girls by performing an inspection of some kind on their genitals? Serious accusations such as these arise out of emotional outrage and usually a misunderstanding of the text, but let’s try to understand what really went on.

First of all let’s look at what occurred in Numbers 31. Moses ordered Israel to wage war against the Midianites (Numbers 31:1-3). Israel went out and was successful in battle, destroying all the males, including five Midianite kings and also Balaam, the prophet and son of Beor (Numbers 31:7-8). Moreover, all the women were taken alive with their children and all the spoil (Numbers 31:9). However, when they took everything and presented it before Moses, he became angry with the military leaders (Numbers 31:12-14)[1] saying:

Numbers 31:15-18 Have ye saved all the women alive? (16) Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the LORD in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the LORD. (17) Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. (18) But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.

The Scripture is very incriminating when read by a cursory reader not understanding the context. We may begin by eliminating the charge of genocide, because the Midianites were a nation of several tribal clans descended from Abraham through his concubine, Keturah. They settled on the Sinai peninsula around the Gulf of Aqaba, some of whom were Kenites and friendly with Israel. Moses’ father-in-law was among these tribes (Exodus 2:15-21). Still other tribal groups were nomads and raiders. Israel, apparently, destroyed five tribal clans of nomadic Midianites with their chieftains (Numbers 31:7-8). So, genocide is not a consideration (cf. 1Samuel 15:6). Also, we may set aside violating the virgin females through a bodily inspection. The sexual state of a woman in the ANE culture was known by the attire she wore (adornments, jewelry, clothes etc.). Her virginity was known to all by what she wore, as was the state of a married woman (e.g. they were veiled). Archaeology even distinguishes married women from temple prostitutes by the way their hair was worn.

What about the argument that war was waged over the trivial matter of calling God by a different name (Baal-Peor instead of Yahweh)? This is actually a ridiculous assumption, as anyone who is even vaguely familiar with ANE traditions would understand that the God of the Bible is very different from the gods of the other ANE nations. The God of the Bible absolutely abhors the worship practices of the other nations. Nevertheless, this is not even among the reasons offered in Numbers 31 for Israel being sent to war! Moses commanded Israel to attack the five Midianite tribes, because of their hostilities and the deceit they bore against Israel (cf. Number 25:16-18). Israel is never sent to wage war against any other nation because that nation doesn’t worship Yahweh. Rather, Israel is warned to never worship Yahweh in the same manner as the other nations worship their gods (Deuteronomy 12:30-32).


[1] I’ll discuss why the women and male children were killed in another blog post.

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Posted by on February 9, 2016 in apologetics


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