Numbers 31

The Word Made Fresh

1The LORD said to Moses, 2“Help the Israelites retaliate against the Midianites. Then you will join your ancestors.”

3Moses gathered the people and said, “Equip some of your men to attack Midian and carry out the LORD’s revenge against them. 4Each tribe must prepare a thousand men for battle.”

5Out of Israel’s thousands, a thousand from each tribe were drafted to form an army. 6Moses sent them to the battle front, twelve thousand in all, led by Phinehas son of Eleazar, the priest who carried in his hands sanctuary vessels and trumpets to sound the charge. 7They attacked Midian as the LORD had commanded, and put every Midianite soldier to death, 8including their five kings; Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba. They also killed Balaam son of Beor, putting him to death with the sword. 9They took the Midianite women and children captive, and all the cattle, flocks, and wealth as spoils of their victory. 10They burned the enemy’s towns and military encampments, 11but kept the spoils of battle, all the people and animals, for themselves. 12They brought everything to Moses and Eleazar the priest in front of all the Israelites at their camp in the plains of Moab across the Jordan River from Jericho.

13Moses, along with Eleazar and the tribal leaders met them on the outskirts of the camp. 14Moses was very angry with the officers of the army who had commanded hundreds or thousands of the troops and had now returned from the battle. 15Moses said in disbelief, “You let the women live? 16These very women followed Balaam’s advice and lured the Israelites to offend the LORD in the business at Peor that resulted in the plague that spread through the LORD’s people. 17Kill every male child! Kill every woman among them who has been sexually active! 18You may keep for yourselves the girls who are still virgins. 19But all of you who killed anyone or came into contact with a dead body must stay outside the camp for seven days and observe the rituals of purification for yourselves and your captives on the third and seventh days. 20Wash every article of clothing, every item made of animal skins or goats’ hair, and every item made of wood.”

21Eleazar the priest then instructed the men who had gone into battle: “The law the LORD gave to Moses specifies that any item of 22gold, silver, bronze, iron, tin, or lead, 23and anything else that can withstand fire, must be passed through fire to be untainted, and also they must be cleansed with water to be purified. Whatever you captured that cannot stand fire must be cleansed with water. 24Then wash your clothes on the seventh day. You will then be cleansed and may return to the camp.”

25Then the LORD said to Moses, 26“You and Eleazar, along with the leaders of the tribes, make a list of everything brought back from the battle, human and animal. 27Divide the spoils, with half going to the men who went into battle and the other half distributed among the people. 28The men who went into battle must then set aside for the LORD one out of every five hundred people, oxen, donkeys, sheep, or goats they captured. 29Take this from the men who went to battle and give it to Eleazar the priest as the LORD’s portion. 30From the other half of the spoils, the half given to the people, take one out of every fifty people, oxen, donkeys, sheep, and goats and give them to the Levites who take care of the accessories in the sanctuary of the LORD.” 31Moses and Eleazar followed the LORD’s orders.

32What remained from the spoils was 675,000 sheep, 3372,000 oxen, 3461,000 donkeys, 35and 32,000 women who were virgins. 36So, the share of the men who had gone into battle was 337,500 sheep and goats, 37and the LORD was given 675 of them.38Of the 36,000 oxen, the LORD’s share was 72. 39Of the 30,500 donkeys, the LORD’s share was 61. 40From the 16,000 captives the LORD’s portion was 32. 41Moses gave the LORD’s share to Eleazar the priest as the LORD had specified.

42Moses separated the spoils between the soldiers and the people. 43The people’s half was 337,500 sheep and goats, 4436,000 oxen, 45 30,500 donkeys 46and 16,000 people. 47From their half, Moses took one of every fifty, animals and people, and gave them to the Levites who took care of the LORD’s sanctuary, as the LORD had ordered.

48Then the officers who led the army out, the commanders of thousands and of hundreds, came to Moses 49and said, “We have counted the men who served under us, and no one is missing. 50We bring to you these items we have found, an offering to the LORD of articles of gold: armlets and bracelets, signet rings, earrings, and pendants. This is to make amends for ourselves before the LORD.”

51Moses and Eleazar took the gold from them, all of it in the form of jewelry. 52All the gold the commanders offered to the LORD weighed about 450 pounds. 53The troops had also taken some loot for themselves. 54Moses and Eleazar brought the gold the commanders had given them into the meeting tent as a gift from the Israelites to the LORD.


1-12: We return to the main story line from the end of chapter 25 that has to do with the rift between Israel and Midian. God tells Moses that his last act of leadership will be the defeat of the Midianites. Notice that gradually God has been allowing Moses more and more authority to make decisions. God tells Moses to make war on the Midianites but leaves the details up to Moses. Moses decides to commit only 1000 men from each tribe for the army. This done, he sends them into battle with Phinehas (the priest, the son of Eleazar who killed Cozbi and Zur for their sexual transgression) at their head. In verse 8 we learn that Balaam son of Beor is killed in the ensuing battle, so he apparently has not gone home as immediately as we thought. In this chapter Balaam is painted as an enemy of Israel whereas before he was painted as God’s instrument who could only pronounce blessings on Israel. Now, however, he is identified as the one who suggested the strategy of using the women of Midian to lure the men of Israel. The Israelites are brutally successful in the battle, killing all the Midianite men. They take the women and children as booty along with animals and valuables and bring all of it triumphantly to Moses.

13-20: Moses, however, is angry that they have preserved the lives of the very women who have been trouble from the beginning, for they had corrupted the Israelites by enticing them to worship Baal (chapter 25).  He orders them to kill all the male children and all the women except the virgins. (God did not order the complete eradication of the inhabitants of the land, but it becomes a tactic Moses uses more than once, as we shall see.) Moses is also careful to order the soldiers to follow the holiness code which calls for rituals of purification after contact with death.

21-24: Eleazar, who has succeeded Aaron as high priest, gives instructions about purifying the spoils of battle; metal objects with fire and other booty with water.

25-47: There is an elaborate accounting of the spoils of battle and an intricate system of dividing it between the soldiers, the rest of the people, and God (that is, the priests).

48-54: The officers of the army bring some of the spoil to Moses as an offering of atonement. Notice that, although they approach Moses, Moses receives it in company with Eleazar, and the two of them see to it that it is all added to the treasury. This is a subtle lesson to all who would lead a congregation: never handle the money by yourself!


There is a song called “the Preacher,” a spoof on a popular song recorded by Kenny Rogers called “the Gambler,” that goes:

“You’ve got to know when to shout it, know when to flout it,
Know when to rant and rave, know when to weep;
You never count your money when the offering is taken,
Just say ‘thank y’all for coming and tune in again next week!'”  

This, of course, has nothing to do with the text, but I thought you might enjoy a laugh after all this killing.