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Deeper Commentary


Num 31:1 Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying-
Yahweh was to be avenged upon Midian (:3), and so was Israel (:2). Yahweh is His people and what is done to His people is done to Him. Just as the Lord Jesus asked Saul to stop persecuting Him. The Father and Son feel all done to their people as done to them. For the nature of true love is that identifies with others.

Num 31:2 Avenge the children of Israel for the Midianites. Afterward you shall be gathered to your people-
But in :3 we read of avenging Yahweh. The insults against God’s people are against Him. Many of His children struggle today with a sense of justice not having been done to them, and a desire to see some level of justice or vengeance against their abusers. This day will come, if indeed the injustice has been done to us because of our devotion to God; because whatever is done to God’s people is done to Him.

Num 31:3 Moses spoke to the people, saying, Arm men from among you for the war, that they may go against Midian, to execute Yahweh’s vengeance on Midian-
See on :2,3. This conflict was apparently just before the people entered the land of promise and approached Jericho. So this was to provide them with battle experience, and more especially with experience of God's saving grace; for not one of them was to perish in the conflict.  The victory was to so clearly be from God.

Moses personally was commanded to destroy the Midianites and then die. But he sends Phinehas to do this job, possibly reflecting his continued struggle with God's command to die without entering Canaan. Perhaps Moses ordered only 12000 men to go war against a much larger enemy because he hoped they would be defeated and thus delay his death. They took 32000 virgin women prisoner, so the combined force of the enemy would have been huge. Israel had 600000 soldiers available according to the census. We likewise might probe why in :2 God tells Moses to avenge Israel against Midian, whereas here in :3 Moses tell Israel that they are going to war only because Yahweh wants His vengeance against Midian- possibly making Yahweh out to be a vengeful God. In all this we see how Moses was weak at the very end, and yet still saved. Like Gideon, Samson, Jacob, David etc.

Num 31:4 Of every tribe one thousand, throughout all the tribes of Israel, you shall send to the war-
A "thousand" is not necessarily 1,000, but can refer to a group, family or military regiment. See on :5.

Num 31:5 So there were delivered out of the thousands of Israel a thousand of every tribe, twelve thousand armed for war-
12,000 was a small army compared to what could have been raised- for there were over 600,000 fighting men numbered amongst Israel at this time. But throughout His military history, God has taken special pleasure in using small numbers to defeat far larger ones, and that principle continues in how He works today. However, 12,000 fighting men may be a way of describing a particular kind of military division, as it occurs later in Jud. 8:25; 21:10; 2 Sam. 10:6; 17:1 and Ps. 60:1.

Num 31:6 Moses sent them one thousand of every tribe to the war, them and Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest, to the war, with the vessels of the sanctuary and the trumpets for the alarm in his hand-
God chose Phinehas the priest to be the army commander, whereas Joshua was the more obvious human choice for that job at this time. But God wished to demonstrate that it is spiritual principle which must lead His people rather than human strength and appropriacy. It was Phinehas who had so well perceived the spiritual danger of the Moabites earlier (Num. 25:7).

Num 31:7 They warred against Midian, as Yahweh commanded Moses; and they killed every male-
The idea is every adult male, for the children were initially taken captive (:9). There is no record given of the strategy for the battle. The fact there was not a single Israelite casualty all contributes towards the impression that this was an unusual and Divine deliverance. It was given to them to encourage them that the whole of Canaan could be conquered in this way. For from this point they were based opposite Jericho, poised to enter Canaan.

Num 31:8 They killed the kings of Midian with the rest of their slain: Evi, and Rekem, and Zur, and Hur, and Reba, the five kings of Midian: Balaam also the son of Beor they killed with the sword-
Zur's daughter Cozbi means "liar", the daughter of "the rock" (Zur)- a fake god. For Yahweh alone is a rock to His people. Her message was indeed a huge lie: that Yahweh and Baal worship could be fused through her as a leader of Midian openly performing a sex act with a similarly ranking leader of Israel. In the tabernacle of Yahweh (see on Num. 25:6,8). Zur was one of the five leading princes of Midian who was later slain along with Balaam. Balaam and Zur were clearly associated. And so it seems that Balaam suggested that Zur's daughter Cozbi be used to lead Israel into sin, so that their God would curse them- and Balaam would get his coveted reward which he so obsessed about.

Num 31:9 The children of Israel took captive the women of Midian and their little ones; and all their livestock, and all their flocks, and all their goods, they took for a prey-
They were criticized for taking the women alive (:14,15). Although the more specific commandments about engagement with enemies are given in Deuteronomy, just a short time later, they were expected to use sanctified common sense. They ought to have realized that the women who had led them into sin in Num. 25 needed to be destroyed and not taken as trophies. Whilst there was no specific command about this, they were expected to have perceived it. We see again that the law of Moses was not presented as a legal code to be obeyed in a literalistic way, but rather as a source of principle intended to guide behaviour in matters not specifically covered by the law.

Num 31:10 All their cities in the places in which they lived, and all their encampments, they burnt with fire-
The phrase "burnt with fire" is used many times in the Pentateuch and nearly always about sacrifices. These were to be offered to God rather than lived in by the Israelites; for it was God's intention that all Israel should go over Jordan, although He later made concessions to those who wanted to inherit east of Jordan. But the destruction of the cities east of Jordan reflects His desire that the people should not inherit there at that time; the promise of Canaan was that they would live in the houses which they had not built (Josh. 24:13).

Num 31:11 They took all the spoil and all the prey, both of man and of animal-
"The prey" is literally "the jaws", and refers to the animals; "the spoil" refers to the men. As the male adults were all killed, this must refer to the underage males who would have been seen as good potential slaves and were therefore "spoil". But they were later rebuked for this (:17). They were intended to have worked out how to behave in this matter, despite the lack of specific commandment. But the people failed to use the law of Moses as it was intended to be- a springboard towards personal engagement and relationship with God. Instead at best they used it as a mere legal code. The areas where the law was silent were intended to be those areas where the Israelites worked out the implications of God's revealed will, and saw for themselves how to behave.

Num 31:12 They brought the captives and the prey and the spoil to Moses, and to Eleazar the priest, and to the congregation of the children of Israel, to the camp at the plains of Moab which are by the Jordan at Jericho-
Eleazar had now effectively replaced the aged Phinehas. We note that Israel were encamped opposite Jericho when they won this amazing victory. It was clearly intended to encourage them that this is how all their conflicts could go in Canaan. We too are given encouragement for later trials and situations we will experience. Life is not at all a random path. All is designed to confirm us in an upward spiral of faith and spiritual achievement.  

Num 31:13 Moses and Eleazar the priest and all the princes of the congregation went forth to meet them outside of the camp-
The Lord Jesus suffered and died, shedding the blood of atonement, "outside the camp" (Heb. 13:13). We are bidden go forth to the Lord Jesus "outside the camp", just as those who "sought Yahweh" did when there was no tabernacle (Ex. 33:7). The people watching Moses as he walked out to it, without the camp, therefore looks ahead to a faithless Israel lining the via Dolorossa and watching the Lord walk out to His place of crucifixion. And we are to get behind Him and follow Him there, stepping out from the mass of Israel. As the Lord Jesus suffered "outside the camp", so various parts of the Mosaic sacrifices were to be burnt there (Lev. 4:12,21; 8:17; 9:11; 16:27); and yet it was the blood of those sacrifices which achieved atonement (Heb. 13:11; Num. 19:3,9). "Outside the camp" was the place of excluded, condemned sinners (Lev. 13:46; 24:14; Num. 5:3,4; 15:35,36; 31:13,19), and it was here that the Lord Jesus died, in identification with us. 

Num 31:14 Moses was angry with the officers of the army, the captains of thousands and the captains of hundreds who came from the service of the war-
As discussed on :9, they were intended to have worked out for themselves, despite the lack of specific commandment, that taking these women was wrong and a way of entering into temptation; see on :16. Moses' anger was with the captains because this was a conscious policy decision they had made, and it would lead the people into sin (:16).

Num 31:15 Moses said to them, Have you saved all the women alive?-
Moses was distressed that the Israelite army had failed to perceive the spiritual reason for the battle- it was to stop the Midianites posing a temptation to Israel with their women as they had in chapter 25. Sometimes God’s people can fight His battles and even be given victory, whilst failing to perceive the spiritual intent behind the war.

Num 31:16 Behold, these caused the children of Israel through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against Yahweh in the matter of Peor, and so the plague was among the congregation of Yahweh-
"These..." could suggest that these were the very women who had offered their bodies to the Israelites in return for worship of Baal Peor. They were cult prostitutes and should have been destroyed. 

Num 31:17 Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him-
There is a harder side of God, the side we'd rather not see. God almost seems to underline the hardness of it in the way He records His word; thus He emphasizes that the "little ones" of the Canaanite cities were to be killed by the sword (Dt. 2:34), the male babies of the Midianites were to be killed by God's command (Num. 31:17; which was exactly what Herod ordered). The unfulfilled believer will accept the gracious side of God (which is undoubtedly the aspect more emphasized in the Bible), but refuse to really accept this other side, while passively admitting that this harder aspect of God is revealed in His word. But it's all or nothing. We either accept the self-revelation of God in the Bible, or we reject it- that's how He sees it. Our temptation is to think that God sees things as we see them, to think that God is merely an ideal human being. But the day of judgment will reveal otherwise (Ps. 50:21). He is God, not man. It is not for us to set the terms.

Num 31:18 But all the girls, who have not known man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves-
God makes concessions to human weakness. Having reminded Israel of how they sinned with the Midianites, He allows them to keep unmarried Midianites as wives (Num. 31:16,18).

Num 31:19 Encamp outside of the camp seven days: whoever has killed any person and whoever has touched any slain, purify yourselves on the third day and on the seventh day, you and your captives-
This all rather sounds like the laws for purification from 'leprosy', which I elsewhere suggested was not Hansen's disease but a specific stroke from God. This legislation was also geared against the men immediately sleeping with the young women whom they had captured. They were to enter into serious relationship with them, and not use them as sexual trophies in hot blood. See on :46.

Num 31:20 As to every garment, and all that is made of skin, and all work of goats’ hair, and all things made of wood, you shall purify yourselves-
As noted on :19, this recalls the legislation about 'leprosy', which I have suggested was a specific stroke of Divine judgment. Their taking of the Midianite women was seen by God as a serious sin, and they had as it were been stricken with judgment for this and had to be cleansed from it.

Num 31:21 Eleazar the priest said to the men of war who went to the battle, This is the statute of the law which Yahweh has commanded Moses-
They had been expected to follow the principles inculcated by the law, although they hadn't been given specific legislation about spoil at this point. But they had failed to grasp this and so now they were given laws to precisely govern their behaviour. But these laws could have been given before the event. They were given after it. Because it was God's intention that Israel ought to have perceived the right course of action on the basis of the principles so far revealed, rather than needing endless sets of laws to define behaviour in every life situation. But they failed in this, and so further law was given. See on :28.

Num 31:22 whatever gold, silver, brass, iron, tin and lead-
There appears to be an allusion to this passage in 1 Cor. 3:11-15: "For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is already laid, which is Jesus Christ. But if anyone builds on the foundation gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay, stubble, each man's work shall be revealed. For the day of judgment shall declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire itself shall test each man's work of what sort it is. If anyone's work shall endure which he built thereon, he shall receive a reward. If anyone's work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, yet as having passed through fire". Paul doesn't really quote in direct context, but uses words and phrases apparently out of context, which was typical of Jewish midrash. 1 Cor. 3:12-15 likens all the faithful to material which can pass through the fire of judgment- and this surely is a reference to the way that Jericho was burnt with fire, and only the metals along with Rahab and her family came through that fire to salvation (Josh. 6:24). And it's the same idea here with the spoils from the Midianites. They represent our converts in the war of preaching the gospel. Their worth will be revealed at the last day. The fire of condemnation will as it were burn at them and remove all their surface spirituality. And as through death comes life, so through condemnation of the flesh comes salvation of the spirit.

Num 31:23 everything that may withstand the fire you shall make to go through the fire, and it shall be clean; nevertheless it shall be purified with the water for impurity; and all that doesn’t withstand the fire you shall make to go through the water-
"The fire" refers to the fire of the altar which was ideally intended to be that kindled at the time of Lev. 9:24 when the tabernacle was consecrated. It was to be kept perpetually burning by the sacrifices being continually placed upon it, a lamb every morning and every evening. The fire which never went out or was 'quenched' (Lev. 6:13). is a double symbol. The phrase is used multiple times with reference to the wrath of God in condemning sinners; it is the basis of the idea of eternal fire which will not be quenched. Rather like the cup of wine from the Lord being a symbol of either condemnation or blessing. So we have a choice- be consumed by the eternal fire now as living sacrifices, or be consumed by it anyway at the last day. "The water" may refer specifically to the water of separation made from the ashes of the red heifer.

Num 31:24 You shall wash your clothes on the seventh day, and you shall be clean; and afterward you shall come into the camp-
Lev. 14:9, 15:13 uses this as the ritual for the cleansing of the leper. The people had been smitten with a stroke of punishment, which is what 'leprosy' was rather than what we now know as leprosy. And they were to repent and go through the cleansing process.

Num 31:25 Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying-
The principle is that the fighters / achievers must not keep their achievements for themselves but share them. This has never been popular, and so at David's time it was as if this law was instituted for the first time (1 Sam. 30:21-25).

Num 31:26 Take the sum of the prey that was taken, both of man and of animal, you, and Eleazar the priest, and the heads of the fathers’ households of the congregation-
We note that the booty was not to be numbered (:32). The idea was that people and animals could be used in the service of God in the tabernacle. Whereas the general booty couldn't be.

Num 31:27 and divide the prey into two parts between the men skilled in war who went out to battle, and all the congregation-
This kind of policy of sharing the spoils of war with the congregation was repeated in Israelite history (1 Sam. 30:24,25; Ps. 68:12). It ensured that the minority called upon to do highly visible and humanly heroic work didn’t do it for themselves nor to settle their own scores, but always with an eye to benefitting the community of God’s people.

Num 31:28 Levy a tribute to Yahweh of the men of war who went out to battle: one soul of five hundred, of the persons, of the cattle, of the donkeys, and of the flocks-
The idea of giving a portion of the spoils of war to Yahweh was taught by Abraham's example (Gen. 14:20). I suggested on :21 that they had been expected to follow the principles they already knew, without being given specific laws for every situation. Perhaps they likewise should have worked this out from Abraham's pattern of tithing the spoils of war. But they didn't make the connection, and so had to be given this specific legal command. See on :48. 

Num 31:29 Take it of their half, and give it to Eleazar the priest, for Yahweh’s wave offering-
The portion of meat to be waved was placed on the priests hands (Ex. 29:25), and then 'waved' or 'swung' towards the altar and then back- not from right to left. The idea was that the offerings were first given to God, recognizing they should be consumed on the altar to God; but then given back to the priest by God. So they ate them having first recognized that their food was really God's, all was of Him, and He had given it back to them to eat. This should be our spirit in partaking of any food, as we are the new priesthood. Our prayers of thanks for daily food should include this feature. All things are God's and anything we 'offer' to Him is only giving Him what He has given to us (1 Chron. 29:14,16). As people and live animals were involved, this waving or swinging before God must have been done in spirit.

Num 31:30 Of the children of Israel’s half, you shall take one drawn out of every fifty, of the persons, of the cattle, of the donkeys, and of the flocks, of all the livestock, and give them to the Levites, who perform the duty of the tabernacle of Yahweh-
"Duty" is a military term, implying warfare. They were therefore to be given the spoils of war, as their regimented, disciplined devotion to serving God was to be seen as a kind of military service. Just as we too fight the good fight of faith (Acts 20:28; 1 Tim. 1:18; Heb. 13:17).  

Num 31:31 Moses and Eleazar the priest did as Yahweh commanded Moses-
The obedience of Moses to God is continually emphasized, and he thereby became a type of the Lord Jesus (Heb. 3:2-5).

Num 31:32 Now the prey over and above the booty which the men of war took, was six hundred and seventy-five thousand sheep-
The numbers given here are huge. We must remember that the term "thousand" doesn't have to mean 1,000 as a number, but can refer to a group or subdivision of some sort. 

Num 31:33 seventy-two thousand head of cattle-
LXX "Oxen".

Num 31:34 sixty-one thousand donkeys-
We can summarize the distribution:
675000 Sheep: 337500 to the soldiers, 337500 to the congregation; 675 to God, 6750 to the Levites
72000 Oxen; 36000 to the soldiers, 36000 to the congregation; 72 to God, 720 to the Levites
61000 Donkeys; 30500 to the soldiers, 30500 to the congregation; 61 to God, 610 to the Levites
32000 People [virgin women and young girls]; 16000 to the soldiers, 16000 to the congregation; 32 to God, 320 to the Levites.

Num 31:35 and thirty-two thousand persons in all, of the women who had not known man by lying with him-
This would indicate a huge number of the Midianites in total. To have slain say 100,000 men without a single casualty (:49) was the kind of miracle possible only in God's strength. But I have noted that "thousand" and "hundred" may be technical terms for groups or subdivisions rather than literal numbers.

Num 31:36 The half, which was the portion of those who went out to war, was in number three hundred and thirty-seven thousand five hundred sheep-
The apparently pointless repetition of the figures was perhaps to show that indeed, not one person nor animal went missing, but the division of the prey was made precisely as commanded. For at times like these, things do tend to 'go missing'. But there was absolute integrity at this point.

Num 31:37 and Yahweh’s tribute of the sheep was six hundred and seventy-five-
We wonder whether this tribute given "to Yahweh" was the number of animals sacrificed to Him, or whether they too were given to the Levites.

Num 31:38 The cattle were thirty-six thousand, of which Yahweh’s tribute was seventy-two-
We wonder if the Lord had this in mind when sending out the otherwise strange number of 72 apostles. They were "Yahweh's", dedicated to Him, to serve as oxen in His service.

Num 31:39 The donkeys were thirty thousand five hundred, of which Yahweh’s tribute was sixty-one-
The donkey was an unclean animal, and yet God was still able to find a use for 61 unclean donkeys. We all have some way of being useful for Him whatever our status.

Num 31:40 The persons were sixteen thousand, of whom Yahweh’s tribute was thirty-two persons-
32 to God, 320 to the Levites makes 352 Midianite females devoted to God. This is the numerical value of the word "Hebrew". These women were to become true Hebrews, again indicating that racial purity was never significant to God in defining His people.

Num 31:41 Moses gave the tribute which was Yahweh’s wave offering to Eleazar the priest, as Yahweh commanded Moses-
Again the obedience of Moses to God is continually emphasized, and he thereby became a type of the Lord Jesus (Heb. 3:2-5).

Num 31:42 Of the children of Israel’s half, which Moses divided off from the men who warred-
Sharing the results of our own labour has never been popular, it's why people don't like paying taxes. The ideal principle was as in 1 Sam. 30:21-25, that those who fought should have the same part as those who didn't. But in this case there was a large concession to human weakness; for the division was not proportionate per head of population. There were far more people in Israel than the 12,000 soldiers who fought, and per head, they each received far more than the other Israelites.

Num 31:43 (now the congregation’s half was three hundred and thirty-seven thousand five hundred sheep-
We enquire how exactly such a huge number of animals was divided amongst them. If proportionately, then each family would likely have received a few sheep. So they each individually felt and saw the blessing of the victory God had given.

Num 31:44 and thirty-six thousand head of cattle-
Or, oxen. The only time we read the figure 36,000 again is in the number of soldiers in Issachar in 1 Chron. 7:4. But Issachar was a strong ox (Gen. 49:14 LXX). I see no great semantic moment in this connection. But as with many such connections which appear to have no great interpretive significance, we sense here the same Divine mind throughout all Scriptural revelation.

Num 31:45 and thirty thousand five hundred donkeys-
This huge number of donkeys implied they would be doing a lot of travelling and transporting. And indeed this was the intention- for they were about to enter Canaan and go to their specific inheritances. Although many of the people didn't do so, and were satisfied just with a bit of fertile land wherever they found it, this was the Divine intention which He empowered potentially to be fulfilled.

Num 31:46 and sixteen thousand persons)-
We wonder why the term "persons", literally nephesh adam, is used rather than "virgin females" or something similar. I suggest it is in order to remind the Israelites that these females were persons and should be valued as such; see on :19.

Num 31:47 even of the children of Israel’s half, Moses took one drawn out of every fifty, both of man and of animal, and gave them to the Levites, who performed the duty of the tabernacle of Yahweh; as Yahweh commanded Moses-
"The duty" is "the warfare". They were therefore to be given the spoils of war, as their regimented, disciplined devotion to serving God was to be seen as a kind of military service. Just as we too fight the good fight of faith (Acts 20:28; 1 Tim. 1:18; Heb. 13:17).   

Num 31:48 The officers who were over the thousands of the army, the captains of thousands, and the captains of hundreds, came near to Moses-
They had been commanded by God to give part of the spoils of war in terms of the women and animals captured. The idea of giving a portion of the spoils of war to Yahweh was taught by Abraham's example (Gen. 14:20). I suggested on :21 that they had been expected to follow the principles they already knew, without being given specific laws for every situation. Perhaps they likewise should have worked this out from Abraham's pattern of tithing the spoils of war. But they didn't make the connection, and so had to be given this specific legal command to share out the people and animals. But now they get the point, and of their own initiative come to Moses and offer the rest of the spoils of war, apart from the people and animals. The law of God is not a chain, a leash, for man is not a dog ever seeking freedom from the Divinely imposed ties that bind. Rather is His law a springboard to the freedom of serving God upon our own initiative. And here we have a rare example of where men 'got it' and did just that. See on :53.

Num 31:49 and they said to Moses, Your servants have taken the sum of the men of war who are under our command, and there lacks not one man of us-
It’s usual for military men to consider themselves as an elite in their own right. But these leading military leaders considered themselves as nothing but servants to their spiritual leader. Humility in leadership is vital amongst God’s people. That such vast numbers had been slain without a single Israelite casualty was clear evidence that this very large scale victory was of God. The victory was to encourage them that they could likewise conquer Canaan in God's strength.

Num 31:50 We have brought Yahweh’s offering, what every man has gotten, of jewels of gold, armlets, and bracelets, signet rings, earrings, and necklaces-
Even in times of spiritual victory, we are to never lose sight of our basic sinfulness and need for atonement with God. The situation is similar to that at the exodus, when the wealth of Egypt was taken by the Israelites and then given back to God for the construction of the tabernacle.

To make atonement for our souls before Yahweh-
They are clearly aware of their serious failure in taking the Midianite women, which had resulted in their being stricken down in some way (see on :19,24). But we wonder whether they had made the mistake which many make- thinking that material wealth and donating it can somehow atone fore sins. When it was the shedding of blood, and faith in the Lord's future sacrifice foreshadowed in it, which alone is the basis for atonement (Lev. 17:11).

Num 31:51 Moses and Eleazar the priest took their gold, even all the worked jewels-
I suggested on :50 that this donation of wealth was given under the misunderstanding that gold could atone for sin; when it was faith in God's grace and His purification which was required. But despite that misunderstanding, God still accepted their offering. As He accepts all those who truly love Him, despite their misunderstandings.

Num 31:52 All the gold of the wave offering that they offered up to Yahweh, of the captains of thousands and of the captains of hundreds, was sixteen thousand seven hundred and fifty shekels-
This was a significant amount, likely around 200 kg. of gold and jewels (:51). They were so deeply moved by the principle of giving to Yahweh they had just been taught, that they now of their freewill offered this to Him. See on :48.

Num 31:53 (The men of war had taken booty, every man for himself)-
I suggested on :48 that the way they now offer that booty to God was an act of repentance, realizing that indeed all they had taken "every man for himself" should not have been taken "for himself". Rather it was to be shared back to God as the giver of all. And they came to this position on their own initiative.

Num 31:54 Moses and Eleazar the priest took the gold of the captains of thousands and of hundreds and brought it into the Tent of Meeting, for a memorial for the children of Israel before Yahweh-
Likewise the bronze from the censers of the rebels were made a memorial for Israel "before Yahweh" by being made into plates around the altar. So we can assume that something was made from this gold and it remained in the tabernacle.