They fought against Midian, as the LORD commanded Moses, and killed every man. Among their victims were Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur and Reba - the five kings of Midian. They also killed Balaam son of Beor with the sword. The Israelites captured the Midianite women and children and took all the Midianite herds, flocks and goods as plunder. They burned all the towns where the Midianites had settled, as well as all their camps. They took all the plunder and spoils, including the people and animals, and brought the captives, spoils and plunder to Moses and Eleazar the priest and the Israelite assembly at their camp on the plains of Moab, by the Jordan across from Jericho.
Moses, Eleazar the priest and all the leaders of the community went to meet them outside the camp. Moses was angry with the officers of the army - the commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds - who returned from the battle.
"Have you allowed all the women to live?" he asked them. "They were the ones who followed Balaam's advice and were the means of turning the Israelites away from the LORD in what happened at Peor, so that a plague struck the LORD's people. Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man."
Weren't the virgin women raped?
There are two parts to this objection: did God instruct or permit the soldiers to rape the women, and did the soldiers actually rape them?
It's clear that God didn't intend for the soldiers to rape the women, but rather to take them captive. The law God had given to the Israelites condemned rape, in some cases punishing it with death (Dt 22:25-27). Also, immediately following the command to spare the virgin women, the soldiers were instructed to purify themselves and their captives (31:19), and rape (or consensual intercourse) would have violated this command (Lev 15:16-18). In the rest of the chapter, the women are usually referred to as people (using the masculine adam), not women or virgins, underscoring the notion that they were seen as captives rather than sexual objects.1
It's theoretically possible that some of the soldiers raped the women, but given the circumstances it seems very unlikely. The soldiers would have known that rape was a violation of both the law and the instruction to purify themselves, as shown above; they had also seen God punish such violations with death during their travels in the desert. In fact, they had recently experienced a plague and executions resulting from their relations with Midianite women (25:1-9), as Moses reminded them. At that time, all those who had sexual relations with the Midianites were killed. It's highly implausible that the soldiers would have wanted to have anything to do with the Midianite women given this context.
So what did happen to the women (and children)? God gave the Israelites permission to marry women they took captive, but they were to treat their wives with respect: the women were to have time to mourn their families first, and were not to be mistreated (Dt 21:10-14). Those who didn't marry would have become servants, but there were rules against mistreating them as well (Ex 21:26-27, Dt 23:15-16). See the article on slavery laws for more on the treatment of female slaves.
Weren't some of the women and children sacrificed (Num 31:25-41)?
No - they probably became servants of the priests. This passage is dealt with in the article on human sacrifice.
Why were the men and non-virgin women killed?
The Midianites conspired with the Moabites to curse Israel (Num 22:1-7). When the curse was turned into a blessing instead (24:10-11), the Moabite and Midianite woman agreed to seduce the Israelite men and in doing so entice them to serve their idols (25:1-9, 31:15-16, Rev 2:14). The Israelites who fell prey to this and engaged in idolatry were also held responsible, and were executed (25:4-5). Virgin women and young girls were obviously not participants in this, so they were spared.
Why was Balaam killed - didn't he bless Israel?
Balaam did follow God's instructions and blessed Israel instead of cursing it as Balak, the Moabite king, wanted him to (Num 24:10-11 - see ch. 22-24 for the whole story). However, following God was not habitual for Balaam: he often practiced sorcery (24:1) and in fact was his idea to bring destruction on Israel by having the women lure the Israelites into sexual immorality and idolatry (31:15-16, Rev 2:14).
What about the Moabites?
The Moabites were a special case - they were descendents of Lot (Gen 19:36-37), and were to remain in the land God had provided for them (Dt 2:9). However, they were excluded from the Israelite community as a result of their actions (Dt 23:3-6).
1. This can be verified by looking up Numbers 31 in an interlinear Bible. (Return to article)
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