God had one final assignment for Moses before he was to die: he was to lead the Israelites in a holy war – a war of vengeance on the Midianites for their treacherous alliance with the Moabites in a scheme to lead the Israelites away from their God.
We read about that in Numbers 25. The Moabite women – probably with the approval of or even orders from the Moabite and Midianite leaders – were sleeping with the Israelite men, who were joining them in worshipping Baal of Peor. God had Moses kill all the leaders of the Israelites – and a plague killed about 24-thousand more people.
While the Israelites were mourning their dead, Zimri – a leader in the tribe of Simeon – took a Midianite princess, Cozbi, as his mistress and brought her home to his family. As they were in the act of adultery, Phineas – the son of the High Priest – ran the two of them through with a spear.
Moses was not going to lead the troops physically – that was probably Joshua’s job – but Moses passed along God’s orders and he sent them off into battle. Phineas – because of his zeal for God – was to carry sacred objects from the Tent of Meeting into the battle as a sign that God was with the army. He was also to carry the trumpets used to call people to celebrations – a sign that the Israelites had won the battle before it began.
And you just heard how that turned out for the Midianites. All the men were slaughtered – including Balaam – then Moses sent the soldiers back to kill all the adult women and all the boys. The girls were spared so that they could become servants or wives for the Israelite soldiers. There is a bitter irony in this: the Midianites and Moabites tried to destroy the Israelites through immorality – now their daughters will be wives for the Israelites.
We as 21st-century Christians struggle with this bloodbath. Many scholars have tried to explain it away as a parable or a metaphor. But there is strong evidence that this really happened.
We must remember that the Midianites were long-time enemies of the Israelites. They were descendants of Midian – the son of Abraham with his second wife, Keturah. The Midianites settled in a strip of land south of what is now Jordan on the eastern shore of the Gulf of Aqaba in what is now northwest Saudi Arabia. While Midian was not on the road to the Promised Land – as was Moab – the Midianites and the Moabites did not want that huge group of Israelites settling near them.
They did not share their cousins’ faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but worshipped Baal – a fertility God – and his mistress, Ashtoreth. So they were not only a military threat to God’s people – but were also a spiritual threat. The survival of Israel as a nation was at stake.
And God was not going to let His people be destroyed by their pagan enemies. To be clear – this Holy War was waged by the command of God. In verse 3 Moses tells the men that they will “carry out the Lord’s vengeance on [their enemies}”
The Israelite soldiers – and there were only twelve-thousand of them – were to fight on God’s behalf. And God gave them a stunning victory: in killing all the Midianite men, they did not lose a single one of their own. It was utter defeat for the Midianites – as God showed His amazing grace to His people.
But still our modern Christian minds find it hard to imagine God’s judgment being so brutal. Many Christians reject this story, saying that they “could never believe their God would give such an order.”
Yet we all love a story in which God directly killed far more people than the Israelites did in the battle with Midian and Moab. We sing fun songs, make cute picture books and cuddly kids toys and Veggie Tale cartoons about it. DeNoon Lumber has even made a humorous commercial about it.
It’s the story of Noah and the Ark. And there is nothing cute about that story. God killed EVERYONE on the face of the earth except for Noah, his wife, their three sons, and their three daughters-in-law. Yet no one seems to cringe at that story.
But it is also a story about God’s judgment on sin in His creation – and His grace toward His people in the middle of it. God’s judgment is never pretty, but it is always JUST – and God’s grace is always amazing.
But the boys? Boys grow up to be men, so they represented an ongoing threat to the future of Israel. But the women? They were the ones who took Balaam’s advice and invited the Israelite men to join them in Baal’s fertility cult.
Maybe that makes sense strategically, but it still bothers us – especially when the expression “Holy War” is used. It makes us think of the gratuitous violence of the Crusades, or the widespread use of attacks on so-called “soft targets” by Al-Qaeda and other Jihadists.
But when evil created an existential threat to entire ethnic groups and nations, we firebombed German cities like Dresden and dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – killing far more men and women and children and elderly people than the Israelites killed in Midian. We don’t celebrate the slaughter, but we generally acknowledge that “It had to be done” to bring an end to the wars.
So the only way to make any sense of this awful command from God to the Israelites is to accept that God – who sees all and knows all – knew that it had to be done to preserve His people. And that God – who is good – will do what is good – and that is good for His people.
Still, when the killing was over, the 12-thousand soldiers had to purify themselves, their captives, and the items they had seized. They had been doing God’s work, but that certainly put them into contact with dead bodies. The purification process was a grim reminder that sin leads to death.
Then it was time to divide the plunder – the spoils of war. Half of it went to the soldiers, and the other half to the rest of the Israelites. Both groups were to give a share to the priests and Levites. The officers, however, gave a significant extra share to the Lord out of gratitude.
This horrifying episode was so significant in the history of God’s people that Isaiah referred to it in one of his prophecies about the coming Messiah. From Isaiah 9:
You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as men rejoice when dividing the plunder. For as in the day of Midian’s defeat, you have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor.
So the coming of Jesus into the world will deal a death blow to the forces of evil – but it will come at the cost of Jesus’ life. Which appeared to be – for about 30 hours – utter defeat for Him. And Jesus underwent that because of God’s amazing grace toward us.
And lest we think that God is done with judgment on a sinful world, let’s go to the last book of the Bible for our New Testament Lesson:
[READ Revelation 19:11-21]
A final judgment on the sin of the world is yet to come – and this time, Jesus (whose name in Hebrew is Yehoshua – Joshua) will lead the armies of heaven to strike down all who threaten His people. Notice how the description is even more gory than what we read in Numbers 31.
The day is coming when the enemies of God and God’s people – including Satan himself – will suffer utter defeat. But praise God – God will do that because of His amazing grace toward us.