I’ve said before that the book of Numbers alternates between historical narrative and legal instruction; between history and law. In the narrative sections, it tells the story of the Israelites in the wilderness. In the legal sections, the Lord gave laws to his people to keep. Chapters 28 to 30 contained legal instruction: laws about the offerings they were to bring before the Lord; and the feasts they were to keep; and laws about keeping vows.
The narrative resumes in chapter 31 with the account of the war on Midian. This, of course, links back to chapters 22 to 25 where we read that the king of Moab hired Balaam, that pagan prophet, to curse Israel. However, the Lord kept Balaam from cursing Israel. And, since Balaan didn’t do what he was hired to do, the king of Moab was annoyed with Balaam. It seems, though, that Balaam figured there were two ways to skin a cat. If they couldn’t destroy Israel by cursing them, they could destroy them by leading them astray so that the Lord’s anger would burn against them.
And sure enough, on Balaam’s advice, Moabite women were sent to the Israelites to seduce them with sex and to invite them to their pagan feasts where they forgot the Lord and bowed down to false gods. As a result, the Lord was angry with them and destroyed 24,000 of them with a plague. However, once the plague was over, the Lord told Moses to treat the Midianites — another name for the Moabites — as enemies and to kill them. And so, we come to chapter 31 when the Israelites went to war against the Midianites and killed them.
The chapter can be divided into two main parts: verses 1 to 24 tell us about the war with Midian; and verses 25 to 54 tell us what they did with the plunder.
Verses 1 to 24
In verse 1 the Lord commanded Moses to take vengeance on the Midianites for the Israelites. And in verse 2, Moses commanded the people to arm some of their men to go to war against the Midianites and to carry out the Lord’s vengeance on them. ‘Vengeance is mine’, says the Lord. ‘I will repay.’ That’s what Paul writes to the Romans, where he’s quoting from Deuteronomy 32. The Lord has the authority to punish all those who do wrong; and to repay those who trouble his people. And on this occasion, he was going to use the Israelite army to punish the Midianites for leading the Israelites astray.
And so, Moses instructed the people to send into battle a thousand men from each tribe. So, there would be 12,000 in Israel’s army. Phinehas — who was the son of Eleazar the high priest — accompanied them into battle; qnd he took with him some of the holy articles from the tabernacle as well as the trumpets used for signalling. The high priest himself remained in the camp, because the high priest could not risk becoming unclean. But Phinehas — who was also a priest of the Lord — went with the army to show that this was a holy war. The Lord, represented by Phinehas, was going to war against the Midianites.
And we’re told in verse 7 that they fought against the Midianites and killed every man; not one of the Midianites was left standing. The names of some of the kings of Midian who were killed are named. And we’re also told that Balaam was also killed. They took captive the women and children and took all their herds and flocks and goods as plunder. They also burned their towns and camps.
According to verse 15, Moses was angry with them for letting all the women live. It’s clear from what he says that he believed that since some of the women had deliberately enticed the Israelites and led them astray, they should not be allowed to live. And so, he ordered that the boys should be killed; presumably because — if they were allowed to live — they might grow up and seek vengeance on the Israelites. And he ordered that every woman who was not a virgin should be killed, because some of them had taken part in the seduction of Israel. However, those women who were still virgins were allowed to live. According to Deuteronomy 21, the Israelite men were allowed to marry women who were taken captive in war. Through marriage, they became part of Israel and integrated into God’s holy people.
And then, since the soldiers were now unclean, because they had come into contact with dead bodies, they were required to remain outside the camp for seven days in order to purify themselves, plus the people they had taken captive, plus the plunder they obtained from their victory. Anything that was fire-resistant had to be purified with fire and water. Anything that was flammable, had to be purified with water only. Moses refers to the water of cleansing, which we read about in chapter 19. The ashes of a red heifer — which had been slaughtered and burned — were added to water to make the water of cleansing which was then used to clean the people and plunder from uncleanness. Nothing impure was allowed to enter the camp; and so, everything had to be washed and cleansed.
Verses 25 to 54
Verses 25 to 54 tell us what they did with the plunder. According to verses 25 to 27 half of the plunder was to go to the soldiers and half was to go to the rest of the people.
According to verses 28 to 31 the soldiers and people were to pay tribute to the Lord. The soldier’s tribute was to be given to the priests; the people’s tribute was to be given to the Levites. And the plunder for the soldiers and their tributes are recorded for us in verses 36 to 40. And the numbers are massive, aren’t they? 337,500 sheep and 36,000 cattle and 30,500 donkeys and 16,000 people. And that’s only one half of the plunder, because verse 43 lists the same figures again as the plunder for the people.
We’re then told that the officers reported to Moses that they had counted their men. And it’s hard to believe — isn’t it? — but not one of them was missing. Not one of them was killed in the battle. The Lord had preserved them all. And so, they were now bringing an offering to the Lord of gold articles to make atonement for themselves before the Lord. They were offering the gold to the Lord as a ransom to set them free from God’s wrath.
It’s not clear why they were liable to God’s wrath, but some commentators think it’s connected to Exodus 30, where the Lord commanded the people to pay a ransom whenever a census was taken, so that no plague should come on them. And that seems to be the most likely explanation. Following the pattern of Exodus 30, since the officers had taken a census of the soldiers, they now needed to pay a ransom for each man to avoid the wrath of God. And at the end of the chapter, we read that their offering of gold was brought to the tabernacle to be a memorial for the Israelites before the Lord. It was a memorial for them of the time the Lord kept them safe when they went to war against their enemies. And it was a memorial for the Lord that the lives of the people had been ransomed so that he would not destroy them despite their sinfulness.
One of the commentators points out that this chapter takes up matters recorded in many other passages in this book. Vengeance on Midian is one obvious example, because the war in this chapter relates — as I’ve already said — to the events of chapters 22 to 25. But we’re read before about the water of cleansing and the purification needed after coming into contact with the dead; we’ve read about how the people were to support the priests and Levites and provide for them; the counting of the solders in this chapter recalls the taking of the census in chapters 1 and 26. And back in verse 1 of this chapter, the Lord referred to the imminent death of Moses, which we’ve read about before. In some ways, the events of this chapter recall many of the things we’ve read before in the book of Numbers.
Of course, when we read about a battle like this one — when the Lord sent his army to destroy his enemies — it speaks to us of the coming day of judgment, when the Lord Jesus will come in glory and with power to judge and to condemn all his enemies. On that day, none of his enemies will escape the wrath of God; and everyone will be condemned and punished who has not turned from their sins and sought God’s mercy in this life. And so, when we read of these battles, and are reminded of the coming day of judgment, we’re reminded of how we must all repent and believe: repent of our sins and believe in Christ, the only Saviour of the world who alone is able to save us from the coming wrath. When Israel killed the Midianites is was a historical foretaste of that great and terrible day when the Lord will come to destroy his enemies.
But then, in this chapter, we also read about purification. The soldiers and their captives and their plunder were unclean and unfit to come into the camp of the Lord. However, in his grace and mercy, the Lord provided for their purification, so that they could be made clean and could enter the camp.
And the water of cleansing — which contained the ashes of a heifer which had been slaughtered and burnt — speaks to us of Christ our Saviour, who died on the cross and shed his blood for the forgiveness of our sins. And through faith in him, we’re washed and cleansed inwardly to remove the stain of our sins and the guilt of all that we have done wrong. And having been cleansed by his blood, we’re able to come into the presence of the Lord to pray to him. And one day, we’ll come into his presence in the heavenly Jerusalem to be with him forever and forever in glory.
Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness. And the shedding of animal blood is not sufficient to cover our sins forever. But the shedding of Christ’s blood is sufficient to cover our sins forever. And the sacrament of baptism — which the Lord has given to his church — speaks to us of his promise to wash away the guilt of our sins for the sake of Christ the Saviour. And so, whoever believes in the Lord — who shed his blood for sinners — can rejoice in the good news of salvation; and we can rejoice in the grace of the Lord who does not count our sins against us, but who has blotted them out forever.
So, we read here about cleansing and purification. And we also read here about atonement. After the battle, the soldiers brought an offering of gold to make atonement for themselves before the Lord. By means of that atonement offering, they paid the ransom price to set them free from the wrath of God. You see, they were just as sinful as the Midianites. They too deserved to be judged and condemned for their sinfulness. They too deserved to suffer the wrath of God. They too deserved to die, because the wages of sin is death. But when the Lord looked at their offering in the tabernacle, it would remind him that they had paid the price for their life.
And the Lord Jesus came into the world in order to give his life as the ransom price to set us free from the condemnation we deserve. He gave his life to pay for our sins — our past, present and future sins — so that we might escape his coming wrath and have peace with God forever. He laid down his life so that we might have eternal life. And so, once again, we can rejoice in the good news of salvation; and we can rejoice in the grace of God to us. And because of his grace, we don’t need to fear the coming day of judgment, but we can look forward to it, because there’s now no condemnation for those who are united with Christ through faith; and on the day of judgment, we’ll be acquitted of all our sins; and we’ll be invited to come into the presence of God to be with him forever.
And so, there you have it. The battle speaks to us of the coming day of judgment. The water of cleansing speaks to us of the forgiveness of our sins through Christ who shed his blood for us. And the atonement offering speaks to us of Christ who laid down his life to ransom us from condemnation, so that we might live with God forever.