What is up with the God-sanctioned genocide of the Midianites in Numbers 31? Killing women and children? Taking virgins as plunder? This is the loving and merciful God I’m supposed to be worshiping?
I’m not gonna lie folks, it’s ugly. When Israel moved into the land of Canaan it was a virtual blood bath and yes, our God, the one we praise and worship and try to share with other people, was leading the charge.
In the interest of full disclosure I admit that I’ve been avoiding this question for about 3 weeks now. But at some point we all need to wrestle with these very hard sayings of the Bible. As a pastor I often need to deal with the fact that when people misunderstand passages like this, they often misunderstand God, discredit the faith, or discredit scripture. Then the door is wide open for us to define God the way we want him to be not the way he really is.
So before I look at what is happening in places like Numbers 31, where God and the Israelites wipe out Midianites, I first need to remind everyone of the character of God. God is perfectly loving, but God is also perfectly just. It may take a few moments, but eventually you will see the inherent problem in the character of God. Namely, if God is perfectly just, then he MUST have vengeance on people that he MUST love. Or you could say it the other way… If God is perfectly loving then he MUST love the people who he MUST punish.
Our tendency is to avoid this conundrum by jettisoning one side of God’s character. Very naturally many of us truncate our view of God so that we only see the ‘loving’ side of him. We can convince ourselves that he is worth worshiping if he is a loving God; but we question if he is worth worshiping if he is a just, vengeful, jealous, and wrathful God. So we put God in a box and then get grumpy when we read in scripture that he lead the genocide of an entire region of people. “That can’t be God. God is gentle, loving, and sensitive!”
Before I delve into the passage itself, I propose to you that passages like Numbers 31 are imperative to our understanding of who God is and ultimately what grace is. If we don’t understand that each one of us deserves to be wiped out just like the Midianites then we can’t fully understand God’s grace. What makes his grace so AMAZING is that each of us, every person on this planet, deserves one thing… death, BUT we get life.
Now which part of that statement shocks you? If you are shocked by the ‘everyone-deserves-death’ part, then you have been deceived by the lie that ‘you are a good person who has earned God’s favor.’ What should shock you about that statement is that God extends to you his grace, free of charge. You and I deserve death, but we get life. You and I deserve damnation, but we inherit eternity with God. You and I deserve his wrath, but we get his smile. That’s grace! But it means nothing if we don’t understand that we deserve death. In Numbers 31 we see the hard reality of God’s just character, but also his grace and divine restraint.
Now that we have dealt with the ‘character of God’ issue that is so hard to grapple with. We need to figure out the context of this passage and exactly why God went to this extreme. We could go all the way back to the beginning and talk about ‘Sin’, ‘The Fall’, etc. but I’m just gonna go back half way. Several hundred years before Joshua even set foot in the land of Canaan (see map), his forefather Abraham stood in the same place and received a powerful prophetic promise from God. It was there that God promised to give this land to Abraham’s descendants (Genesis 15:18-20), but perhaps more interesting, as it relates to Numbers 31 and others, was that in verse 16 God said to Abraham, “After four generations your descendants will return here to this land, for the sins of the Amorites [those people in the land of Canaan] do not yet warrant their destruction” (Genesis 15:16 NLT).
There are a couple important truths that we can draw from these Genesis 15:16-20.
1) God has a plan (see post on Jeremiah 29:11): Remember, God is loving and just. By all rights God should just start over again with creation, we are all sinners falling short of his glory (Romans 3:23), furthermore, we all deserve death because of our sin (Romans 6:23). But God loves those that he must destroy. This is a God-sized conundrum… thankfully God has a plan to fix it. In Genesis 15 we see God taking steps and making a covenant that would set things in motion toward a solution. A solution that would settle this conundrum once and for all (hint: it’s Jesus).
2) Destruction of the People in Canaan was in the Plan: God already anticipates the destruction of the Canaanites in Genesis 15, but he shows restraint. Even during the time of Abraham, the people of Canaan were wicked people. They dishonored God, they practiced injustice, they engaged in human sacrifice (even child sacrifice). You name it, they did it. But God shows his restraint, saying “their sins do not yet warrant their destruction” (Genesis 15:16 NLT). The NIV more accurately says, “their sin has not yet reached its full measure.” In other words, God was saying, ‘there sin is bad now, but it’s gonna get worse.” For the time being, God extended his mercy toward the people of Canaan. Thus, when God does annihilate these people, he is not acting preemptively toward them, it is their sin toward God that has built up over time. So we shouldn’t be surprised that God comes into Canaan and wipes out the people living there because he promised to do so generations ago if their sin continued.
Perhaps the greater issue in Numbers 31 is the extremity to which the genocide was carried out. Basically only virgin girls were spared. That makes it sound not only ruthless, but disturbingly kinky as well. The situation in Numbers is that the people of Midian had led the people of Israel into the sin of idol worship. This posed a huge threat to God’s plan. The people of Israel (from whom Christ would come), were the crucial element to God’s redemption plan. Thus, God was not only punishing Midian for their sin (which was great), he was protecting his plan (Israel). Only the female virgins were spared because only they would not pose a threat to Israel’s relationship with God, and even that might be seen as a great mercy. The virgins were taken as plunder (Numbers 31:32-33), but it was not for some sexually deviant ritual or pleasure, these girls were spared because there was no chance that they could have been pregnant with a Midianite son. This is ultimately is a sign of God’s mercy. These women would now be a part of the nation of Israel, part of the promise.
Some may say “if Israel sinned, why weren’t they exterminated as well?” Obviously all nations have sinned, but caring for the nation of Israel was a huge part of God’s plan so that ultimately all nations might be saved by him, not destroyed by him. God did punish Israel for their sin with the Midianites. In Numbers 25 we see that 24,000 Israelites were killed in a plague because of their sin with Midian/Moab (Numbers 25:8-9). But you might be surprised to learn that there was another time when God DID want to destroy all of Israel after they had worshiped the Golden Calf (see Exodus 32:9-10). After God’s people had practiced blatant idolatry he wanted to scrap the project and start over with Moses and his descendants. But Moses pleaded with God to have mercy on the people and God heard him. All that to say, God does not take sin lightly, no matter what nation it is, even his own people.
Always Remember the Cross (IMPORTANT!)
At the end of the day, we need to be able to look at a passage like Numbers 31 and shout, “THANK YOU GOD FOR SENDING YOUR SON!” In this passage we see the great wrath of God. It is the same wrath that God’s own son experienced on the cross. Jesus died a brutal death so that there wouldn’t have to be any more Midianite genocides. Why? Because he loves us so desperately. And guess what?!? he loved the Midianites desperately too, but remember he is a just God. Jesus received the justice that we deserved, even though he was innocent of all sin (2 Peter 2:22). He did this so that we would not be destroyed if we believe in him (Hebrews 10:39). Thus we freely receive God’s love without fear of his wrath and justice, because the sentence has already been carried out once and for all.