Take vengeance on the Midianites for leading the Israelites into idolatry. After that, you will die and join your ancestors. – Numbers 31 :2 NLT
This is a difficult chapter. As I read it this morning I was struck by the seeming violence and barbaric nature of the scene it portrays. Something about it jars our modern-day senses as we read about an entire civilization being wiped out, of innocent women and children being slaughtered. It seems reminiscent of the tribal warfare and genocide taking place in remote places around the world and chronicled in the media. Yet this is the story of the people of God doing the will of God. In reading this story we run the risk of being repulsed by the violence and becoming judgmental of a God who would justify such actions. Or we can become callous and insensitive to the very real battle the people of God found themselves in as they attempted to live as a people of faith in the midst of a fallen world. Either extreme is wrong. Many have rejected the God of the Old Testament as a blood-thirsty god who slaughtered indiscriminately and almost joyfully. Others have reduced the details surrounding the lives of the Old Testament characters as simply moralistic stories that have lost their vitality and any sense of reality. These were real people living real lives and having to fight real battles. The fight of faith was real.
To understand what was going on, we have to step outside of our modern context. We have to immerse ourselves in the culture into which the Israelites were entering as they prepared to take possession of the land. This was not Disney Land. This was a hostile environment inhabited by pagan people groups who were vehemently opposed to Israel and their God. The NET Bible makes the following comment regarding the nature of the war that God commanded Moses to wage against the Midianites: "The command in holy war to kill women and children seems in modern times a terrible thing to have been done (and it was), and something they ought not to have done. But this criticism fails to understand the situation in the ancient world. The entire life of the ancient world was tribal warfare, necessitating warfare. God's judgment is poured out on whole groups of people who act with moral abandonment and in sinful pursuit."
The Midianites had led the people of Israel into sin. We read about it in chapter 25. The Midianite women had seduced the men of Israel into sexual immorality and idolatry. They had convinced the people of God to turn their backs on God. They were a moral threat, not necessarily a militaristic threat. But that is what made them dangerous. They would destroy the people of God from within, without ever having to raise a sword. So God commanded that they be destroyed. Otherwise their presence would be a constant threat to the spiritual well-being of the people of God. The danger was real and the solution was sobering. God was not going to tolerate the potential threat. He was willing to get rid of it. But the people of God were more tolerant. Even when they had defeated the Midianites, the men of Israel brought back the women and children. Moses reacted with disbelief and anger. "Why have you let all the women live? These are the very ones who followed Balaam’s advice and caused the people of Israel to rebel against the LORD at Mount Peor. They are the ones who caused the plague to strike the LORD’s people" (Numbers 31:15-16 NLT). The men of Israel were willing to live with the Midianite women in their midst, even though they posed a threat to their safety. They were the very women who caused them to rebel against God to begin with.
God called the people to action. He demanded that they deal with the threat to their spiritual safety. And they did. This was an act of faith. In fact, every battle the Israelites fought was an act of faith. They were not a warring people. They had been slaves. For the last 4o years they had been wandering vagabonds. They had no military training. They had never fought a battle before. So to form an army and fight against the Midianites was an act of faith. And God rewarded their faith. It is interesting that the preceding chapter outlines the sheer numbers of sheep, goats, and bulls the people were required to offer in sacrifice to God each year. Then this chapter outlines the number of sheep, cattle, and donkeys the people took as plunder from the Midianites.
It seems that the sacrifices were all about faith. They were to offer to God their best, even thought it cost them dearly. The battle was all about faith, trusting God to lead them in an endeavor they had no skills for. But the result was the reward of God. He repaid their faithfulness with abundance. God gave them back far more in the way of livestock than they ever had to give to Him. He was testing their obedience. He wanted to see if they would step out in faith and obey what He told them to do. And He is asking us to do the same today. He is asking us to sacrifice, even when it seems costly. He is asking us to do battle with the things in our lives that threaten us, to remove things that tempt us to rebel against Him. If we will, He will reward us. He will bless us.
Father, Your Word is full of not-so-subtle reminders of the need for faith in my life. I doubt You. I disobey You. But You ask me to trust You and to step out in faith and do what You command me to do. You have a reason for Your requirements. You know what is best. May I learn to trust You more and disobey You less. Amen