Home  |  Old Testament Studies  |  Numbers Table of Contents  |  Previous Section   |  Next Section  |



(MT versing)
The Slaughter of Midian Vengeance on the Midianites Holy War Against Midian
The Holy War Against Midian The Holy War Against Midian
31:1-12 31:1-11 31:1-12 31:1-2 31:1-2
31:3-4 31:3-4
31:5-8 31:5-6
Return From the War 31:9-12
31:12-20 The Army Returns The Slaughter of the Women and Purification
31:13-20 31:13-20 31:13-20 31:13-20
31:21-24 31:21-24 31:21-24 31:21-24 31:21-23
Division of the Booty Division of the Plunder Division of the Loot The Allocation of the Booty
31:25-31 31:25-31 31:25-30 31:25-31 31:25
31:31 31:31-41
31:32-35 31:32-41 31:32-35 31:32-41
31:36-41 31:36-41
31:42-47 31:42-47 31:42-47 31:42-47 31:42-47
The Offerings
31:48-54 31:48-54 31:48-54 31:48-54 31:48-52

READING CYCLE THREE (see "Bible Interpretation Seminar")


This is a study guide commentary, which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Read the chapter in one sitting. Identify the subjects. Compare your subject divisions with the five translations above. Paragraphing is not inspired, but it is the key to following the original author's intent, which is the heart of interpretation. Every paragraph has one and only one subject.

  1. First paragraph
  2. Second paragraph
  3. Etc.


1Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2"Take full vengeance for the sons of Israel on the Midianites; afterward you will be gathered to your people." 3Moses spoke to the people, saying, "Arm men from among you for the war, that they may go against Midian to execute the Lord's vengeance on Midian. 4A thousand from each tribe of all the tribes of Israel you shall send to the war." 5So there were furnished from the thousands of Israel, a thousand from each tribe, twelve thousand armed for war. 6Moses sent them, a thousand from each tribe, to the war, and Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest, to the war with them, and the holy vessels and the trumpets for the alarm in his hand. 7So they made war against Midian, just as the Lord had commanded Moses, and they killed every male. 8They killed the kings of Midian along with the rest of their slain: Evi and Rekem and Zur and Hur and Reba, the five kings of Midian; they also killed Balaam the son of Beor with the sword. 9The sons of Israel captured the women of Midian and their little ones; and all their cattle and all their flocks and all their goods they plundered. 10Then they burned all their cities where they lived and all their camps with fire. 11They took all the spoil and all the prey, both of man and of beast. 12They brought the captives and the prey and the spoil to Moses, and to Eleazar the priest and to the congregation of the sons of Israel, to the camp at the plains of Moab, which are by the Jordan opposite Jericho.

31:2 "Take full vengeance" This VERB (BDB 667, KB 721, Qal IMPERATIVE) relates to YHWH's justice against the Midianites for being involved in the purposeful trap of involving Israel's fertility worship at Peor (cf. Num. 25:1-3,16-18).

Notice the VERB is followed by the NOUN of the same root (BDB 668), a COGNATE ACCUSATIVE for emphasis. What Moab and Midian desired for Israel is now given to them.

▣ "afterward you will be gathered to your people" This refers to the imminent death of Moses (cf. Num. 27:12-14), which is related to his disobedience at Num. 20:8-13,24.

In the OT, at death people went to the holding place of the dead (i.e., Sheol, see SPECIAL TOPIC: WHERE ARE THE DEAD?) to await resurrection/judgment day (cf. Isa. 25:8; 26:19; Ezek. 37:12-14; Dan. 12:2). It was a gloomy, silent existence. Only with the progressive revelation of the NT does the picture become clearer.

Often in the OT the afterlife is expressed by the idiom "slept with their fathers." This does not imply an unconscious state but a gathering of the family.

31:2-4 Moses directs a portion of the army (i.e., one thousand or one military unit from each tribe). See SPECIAL TOPIC: THOUSAND (eleph).

  1. arm men ‒ BDB 323, KB 321, Niphal IMPERATIVE
  2. go against Midian ‒ BDB 224, KB 243, Qal IMPERFECT used in a JUSSIVE sense

31:3 "Arm men from among you for war" This VERB (BDB 323 II, KB 321, Qal PASSIVE PARTICIPLE) seems to mean "conscript." Apparently these were not professional soldiers but just men of the different tribes (like Gideon's men in Judges 7).

31:6 Then Phinehas, the zealous priest from Numbers 25, went into battle with them (i.e., symbol of YHWH's presence and power with them). He took with him

  1. "the holy vessels," which may refer to
    1. the ark of the covenant (cf. Num. 10:35-36; 14:44; Josh. 6:6-7; 1 Sam. 4:3-11; see SPECIAL TOPIC: ARK OF THE COVENANT)
    2. JPSOA footnote, following Targums, cf. Num. 27:21, the Urim, cf. Num. 27:21; 1 Sam. 14:41; 28:6
    3. the silver trumpets, cf. Josh 6:6-7
  2. The trumpets, which refers to the silver trumpets of Num. 10:1-10; see SPECIAL TOPIC: HORNS USED BY ISRAEL)

31:7-12 This was YHWH's war against Midian but it was not "holy war," as Jericho was, where everything that breathed was killed and all the spoils belonged to YHWH (i.e., "under the ban"). See SPECIAL TOPIC: CURSE (OT) and Roland deVaux, Ancient Israel, pp. 258-267.

Here, only selected people were put to the sword.

  1. the kings (five are listed by name, which is a very specific historical detail)
  2. every male of fighting age (in Israel that would be 20 years old and above)
  3. Balaam is killed (cf. Num. 31:16) because apparently he was part of the purposeful plan to involve Israel in fertility worship so YHWH would judge them.

    Why Balaam is with the Midianites is not stated. Numbers 31:16 is the most negative verse about Balaam in all this context (i.e., chapters 22-24).

Everyone was not killed (v. 11).

  1. all women
  2. all children
  3. all animals

This was not a complete destruction of Midian because they reappear in great numbers in Judges 6.

13Moses and Eleazar the priest and all the leaders of the congregation went out to meet them outside the camp. 14Moses was angry with the officers of the army, the captains of thousands and the captains of hundreds, who had come from service in the war. 15And Moses said to them, "Have you spared all the women? 16Behold, these caused the sons of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, so the plague was among the congregation of the Lord. 17Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man intimately. 18But all the girls who have not known man intimately, spare for yourselves. 19And you, camp outside the camp seven days; whoever has killed any person and whoever has touched any slain, purify yourselves, you and your captives, on the third day and on the seventh day. 20You shall purify for yourselves every garment and every article of leather and all the work of goats' hair, and all articles of wood."

31:13-20 "Moses and Eleazar" It seems from v. 6 that Phinehas, the zealous priest, was with the Israelite soldiers and was part of the decision-making process that allowed some to be spared.

But Moses, Eleazar, and the tribal leadership were angry at the Midian women for their purposeful participation in the trickery of Peor (v. 16). For this reason a "partial holy war" judgment was issued against

  1. all married women or those involved in fertility worship
  2. all the male children

What a gruesome scene this must have been (i.e., ritual slaughter). This is so offensive to modern western individualism. But remember this is a theocratic, monotheistic community surrounded by pagan polytheism. Preventing the spiritual corruption of the covenant people was crucial. YHWH's love for all will later be expressed in the Messiah (cf. Isaiah 53; see SPECIAL TOPIC: YHWH'S ETERNAL REDEMPTIVE PLAN).

NASB, NKJV  "trespass"
NRSV  "act treacherously"
TEV, NJB  "to be unfaithful"
REB  "disloyalty"

This VERB (BDB 588, KB 608, Qal INFINITIVE CONSTRUCT) is used twice in this chapter (only in this chapter) with very different senses.

  1. Num. 31:5 ‒ "provided," "selected," or "assigned to"
  2. Num. 31:6 ‒ KB, "to become the occasion for apostasy "
  3. Num. 31:6 ‒ BDB, "offer (commit) a trespass against"

31:18 All the virgins were spared and incorporated into Israel (i.e., Deut. 20:14; 21:10-14). This, like Rahab and Ruth, shows Israel was not primarily an ethnic focus but a religious focus. The initial promise was to Abraham and his seed, but the NT shows the purposeful widening of the inclusion (i.e, Rom. 2:8, 29; Gal. 3:23-29; 4:12-31; Eph. 2:11-22; see SPECIAL TOPIC: YHWH'S ETERNAL REDEMPTIVE PLAN and SPECIAL TOPIC: OT PREDICTIONS OF THE FUTURE VS. NT PREDICTIONS.

21Then Eleazar the priest said to the men of war who had gone to battle, "This is the statute of the law which the Lord has commanded Moses: 22only the gold and the silver, the bronze, the iron, the tin and the lead, 23everything that can stand the fire, you shall pass through the fire, and it shall be clean, but it shall be purified with water for impurity. But whatever cannot stand the fire you shall pass through the water. 24And you shall wash your clothes on the seventh day and be clean, and afterward you may enter the camp."

31:21-24 The spoils of war must be

  1. cleansed (Num. 31:23)
    1. by fire
    2. by the water of the red heifer's ashes
    3. by washing their clothes (Num. 31:24)
  2. shared with the priests and Levites (Num. 31:28)

31:21 "the statute of the law" See SPECIAL TOPIC: TERMS FOR GOD'S REVELATION.

31:23 "fire" See SPECIAL TOPIC: FIRE.

▣ "purified with water" This seems to refer to the ashes of the Red Heifer (cf. Num. 19:1-10).

25Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 26"You and Eleazar the priest and the heads of the fathers' households of the congregation take a count of the booty that was captured, both of man and of animal; 27and divide the booty between the warriors who went out to battle and all the congregation. 28Levy a tax for the Lord from the men of war who went out to battle, one in five hundred of the persons and of the cattle and of the donkeys and of the sheep; 29take it from their half and give it to Eleazar the priest, as an offering to the Lord. 30From the sons 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 sheep, from all the animals, and give them to the Levites who keep charge of the tabernacle of the Lord." 31Moses and Eleazar the priest did just as the Lord had commanded Moses.

31:25-31 This is a discussion of a percentage of the spoils that belongs to the tribe of Levi (i.e., priest, v. 4 and Levites, v. 47). It was a symbolic way of acknowledging that the victory was YHWH's victory!

Notice that the Levites received much more than the priests. This must mean there were many more Levites than priests. Only the family of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam were priests. All the other Levite families were Levites who serve the Tabernacle and the priests.

32Now the booty that remained from the spoil which the men of war had plundered was 675,000 sheep, 33and 72,000 cattle, 34and 61,000 donkeys, 35and of human beings, of the women who had not known man intimately, all the persons were 32,000.

36The half, the portion of those who went out to war, was as follows: the number of sheep was 337,500, 37and the Lord's levy of the sheep was 675; 38and the cattle were 36,000, from which the Lord's levy was 72; 39and the donkeys were 30,500, from which the Lord's levy was 61; 40and the human beings were 16,000, from whom the Lord's levy was 32 persons. 41Moses gave the levy which was the Lord's offering to Eleazar the priest, just as the Lord had commanded Moses.

31:40 It is unstated how the virgins dedicated to YHWH were used.

  1. wives of priests (normally priests married from tribe of Levi)
  2. servants at the temple (i.e., Exod. 38:8; 1 Sam. 2:22)

42As for the sons of Israel's half, which Moses separated from the men who had gone to war— 43now the congregation's half was 337,500 sheep, 44 and 36,000 cattle, 45 and 30,500 donkeys, 46 and the human beings were 16,000— 47 and from the sons of Israel's half, Moses took one drawn out of every fifty, both of man and of animals, and gave them to the Levites, who kept charge of the tabernacle of the Lord, just as the Lord had commanded Moses.

48Then the officers who were over the thousands of the army, the captains of thousands and the captains of hundreds, approached Moses, 49and they said to Moses, "Your servants have taken a census of men of war who are in our charge, and no man of us is missing. 50So we have brought as an offering to the Lord what each man found, articles of gold, armlets and bracelets, signet rings, earrings and necklaces, to make atonement for ourselves before the Lord." 51Moses and Eleazar the priest took the gold from them, all kinds of wrought articles. 52All the gold of the offering which they offered up to the Lord, from the captains of thousands and the captains of hundreds, was 16,750 shekels. 53The men of war had taken booty, every man for himself. 54So Moses and Eleazar the priest took the gold from the captains of thousands and of hundreds, and brought it to the tent of meeting as a memorial for the sons of Israel before the Lord.

31:48-54 The military leaders informed Moses that during the military action against Midian not one Israeli soldier was killed. In gratitude and recognition of YHWH's power/mercy, they wanted to give an extra gift from the spoils to YHWH. It became a "memorial" in the Tabernacle.

31:50 The voluntary gifts of precious metals were to make atonement for the slaughter of so many people. They felt guilty being in contact with dead bodies. This is one of the very few OT examples of a non-bloody, atonement sacrifice.

31:52 The amount of gold is shocking, as are all the numbers in the latter part of this chapter. One wonders if

  1. it is literal
  2. it is symbolic
  3. it is textual error

Even the NET Bible, p. 328, is uncomfortable with these large numbers, "Until a solution for numbers in the book can be found, or the current translation confirmed, one must remain cautious in interpretation."

These large numbers were a cultural (ANE) way to show the power of Israel's God (i.e., Jdgs. 7:2-8). The victory was not the 12,000 of Israel but the wrath of God on Midian's evil schemes and lifestyle choices. The religious purity of Israel was the main issue.


This is a study guide commentary which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

These discussion questions are provided to help you think through the major issues of this section of the book. They are meant to be thought-provoking, not definitive.

  1. How is Numbers 31 related to Numbers 25?
  2. Why could the High Priest not go into battle with the Israeli soldiers?
  3. What did Phinehas take with him from the Tabernacle into battle (v. 6)?
  4. Is the war against Midian "holy war"? Define "Holy War."
  5. Why was Balaam with Midian? Why was he killed?
  6. Why were the women and male children killed?
  7. Why is the tax for Levites so much higher than for priests?
  8. How does one deal honestly with these huge numbers?

Home  |  Old Testament Studies  |  Numbers Table of Contents  |  Previous Section   |  Next Section  |