Today we read Numbers 31, and we see God sending Israel to war against the Midianites. After Israel’s victory we see God, through Moses, giving this order:
Then they brought the captives and the booty and the spoil to Moses, and to Eleazar the priest, and to the congregation of the people of Israel, at the camp on the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho. Moses, and Eleazar the priest, and all the leaders of the congregation, went forth to meet them outside the camp. And Moses was angry with the officers of the army, the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds, who had come from service in the war. Moses said to them, “Have you let all the women live? Behold, these caused the people of Israel, by the counsel of Balaam, to act treacherously against the LORD in the matter of Peor, and so the plague came among the congregation of the LORD. Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him.
Passages like this are always disturbing. How can an all good and holy God order the death of all the women and children?
First, we can say that God is the author of life. He gives it and he can take it away, at any time for any reason. This of course happens for all of us, it just happens “naturally”, but we know it can happen unnaturally or tragically. Thus, if God chooses to end life, even in a violent or unfair way, that is his prerogative.
Second, we can say that God will judge these people fairly. They might be good people or they might be bad people. A violent death in war might be justice or it might be unfair but if these people go to heaven as a consolation that would be a fair tradeoff. As Paul says, an eternity in heaven is not even worth comparing to suffering for the tiny amount of time we spend on earth.
However, these standard explanations still ring a little hollow to our modern ears. What else can we say about what is happening here?
If we look at events like this in the context of the ancient world we can see better why God is doing this and what important lessons he is teaching the Israelites and us. In ancient times, when you conquered a people, you took everything they had, including the women and children as the spoils of war. The non-combatant / survivors became your slaves.
Now can you see what God is doing here? He is showing the Israelites that they will not be like other nations. They will not be allowed to do to other peoples what was done to them by Egypt and Babylon. They will not be allowed to make slaves of those whom they have conquered. God is teaching Israel that war is NOT FOR SPOILS.
By ordering the death of the women and children God is denying Israel even the temptation of taking the spoils. He does the same with the Gold and Silver and valuables. Instead of Israel and her soldiers becoming rich on the looted valuables, each soldier is only allowed to keep a token amount as just compensation for his work. The rest must go to God and the Temple. God is teaching Israel that while there might occasionally be just cause for war, profit is not a legitimate reason to go to war. Today, we look back on God’s order to kill the women & children and are disturbed and confused by something that seems so awful. Our modern values that war is only legitimate for defense of your home is born from these battles that Israel fought and that are depicted in the bible. God in his wisdom, through Israel, taught man that war is evil by separating it from profit & glory.