Parts of the Hebrew Bible insist on the absolute purity of the Israelites – they are to have no contact with outside influences that might compromise their devotion to Yahweh, the God of Israel, in any way whatsoever. If they do come to be influenced by outsiders, God punishes them severely; and sometimes, as a further response, he orders the slaughter of the outsiders. This is the wrath of God in its most severe and unbending form, evidently against people who didn’t even know he existed.
Nowhere is this theme shown more graphically than in the case of Moses and the Midianites, as found in Numbers 25 and 31, passages that I would venture to say very few people on the blog or otherwise have ever read or at least paid much attention to. But they are among the most horrifying narratives of the entire Hebrew Bible.
The account begins with a group of outsiders, the Moabites (inhabitants of the land of Moab). While Israel is still in the wilderness during their 40 year wandering, prior to entering the promised land, some Israelite men have sexual relations with Moabite women, who invite them to worship the Moabite god Baal, at the city of Peor. The Israelite men go to some of the pagan festivals and participate in them, either keeping their lovers happy or for pure religious reasons.
God is incensed and orders Moses to punish the chiefs of the tribes of Israel, evidently because they have failed to keep their people in line. These Israelite leaders are to be publicly impaled in broad daylight (Num 25:4). Moreover, anyone who participated in this heinous worship of Baal is to be executed (Num 25:5). We learn later that God also then sent a plague against the entire people of Israel in retaliation for the sins of some of them, killing 24,000 people (Num 25:9).
But that’s just the beginning of the problem. As the Israelites are mourning over these events and dying from the plague, an Israelite man brings a woman from Midian into his tent, and a zealous relative of Moses deals with the problem right away out of righteous anger, bursting into the tent and driving a spear through both of them, apparently while joined in a sex act. God is very pleased with this religious fervor and brings the plague to an end (Num 25:9).
But the punishment does not end there. God then goes after the Midianites, who are a bad influence on his chosen ones (some readers find it odd that the Midianites and Moabites get a bit mixed up in the narrative; scholars typically argue that the editor of Numbers has combined two stories together because of their similar theme, the impurity of outsiders and God’s wrath against anyone who participates in it). And so God orders orders a holy war (Num 31). The Israelites are to wreak vengeance on the Midianites. Moses sends out an army of 12,000 soldiers. It is a war without mercy. The Israelite soldiers kill every single Midianite man, including all five kings ruling over different parts of their land (Num 31:7). The Israelites then take the women and children captive, along with all their animals and possessions, and they burn all the towns.
It turns out that even this is not enough to satisfy God’s demands. The Midianite women and children have been taken into slavery, but Moses is angry: the women were not supposed to be spared from the slaughter (Num 31:15). It was foreign women who had been the problem. They were the ones who had led Israelite men to the worship of Baal (all the women?!?). So they need to be dealt with. It’s not good enough that they are enslaved. Or the children either.
Moses orders that every male child be murdered, along with every woman who had ever had sex (even with her husband). He tells the Israelite soldiers to spare the Midianite girls who have never had sex. Well, sort of spared. Moses tells his soldiers that the virgin girls they can “keep alive for yourselves.” Kept for what? Either they are simply enslaved, or, more likely, since the criterion of their escape from death is sexual, they are made sex slaves (Num 31:16-18). All the booty –oxen, donkeys, sheep, goats, gold, jewelry, and so on – is divided up between the warriors and the rest of the Israelites, with a part being offered up to the sanctuary of God (the gold could be used for vessels connected with worship).
I have known very few readers of the Bible over the years who are even aware of biblical accounts like this. I guess that makes sense: how many people do you know who have read Numbers recently? But it’s in the Bible, the book that Jews and Christians have considered sacred Scripture from the outset. What does one do with this kind of story?
Those few who do know about it often try to soften it or justify it: God is just and he insists his people need to be pure and removed from outside influences; sometimes that requires harsh measures. But really? The women and boys (including infants!!) had to be slaughtered in cold blood so Israelites wouldn’t be drawn to the worship of other gods? The young girls who had never had sex can be “kept” by the Israelite men? What kind of religion is this?
I don’t think there is really any way to get around just how horrendous it is. And we might justifiably ask: Is this the God people want to worship? And, well, emulate? If so, shouldn’t they do what he demands, and slaughter everyone who might lead them into impurity? I suppose most readers would say that these were exceptional circumstances, not models of action. But even on those terms: slaughtering innocent people because they worshiped differently?
Many Christians, of course, simply assign it to the Old Testament and say either that this is how it *used* to be or that it shows how awful Judaism was in relation to what came after, with the religion of love found in the New Testament.
In my book I will be arguing that this (common) view cannot be held up in light of the book of Revelation. In fact, the slaughter of the Midianite innocents pales in comparison with God’s wrath at the end of time, when the angel of God sends forth his sickle to harvest the earth and throws the dead into the “wine press of the wrath of God” until the blood flows “as high as a horse’s bridle for a distance of about two hundred miles” (Rev 14:7) . And in Revelation that is *before* the worst happens at the end, when everyone on earth — man, woman, and child of every nation — who does not worship God properly is thrown into the Lake of fire.
It is a serious mistake to think that the God of the New Testament (from beginning to end) is all about love and mercy.
But it is also a mistake to think that all the authors of the New Testament all have the same views about God. Part of what I will be arguing in my book is that the God portrayed in these passages of divine wrath against those who fail to worship him in his divinely prescribed ways is not the God of Jesus. Jesus, and some of his followers, had a different idea, that it was far less about who or how you worshiped than about how you lived in relation to your fellow human.
Whether or not one finds that religiously important, interesting, or satisfying, I think it is true as a historical statement and worth noting even for those of us who are not believers.