Numbers 31:7 "And the Israelites killed every male among the Midianites."
Well, dear friends, we only have had one question for the past few weeks, and it is a doozy.
Q: "How should we read and understand Numbers 31?"
A: Often described as the "Massacre of the Midianites," Numbers 31 tends to rank high on anyone's list of difficult Scriptural passages. Due to the complexity of this question, then, we are going to break up the response to it over several weeks. One could practically write a whole book about this passage, which raises all sorts of questions. In this first post, I simply want to note some of the necessary details to consider and note some of the groundwork which must be done before answering anything about this passage. In the next week or so, after we have had some more time to reflect on this passage, we'll roll out a few more posts on the topic.
First off, we want to recommend that anyone reading this post considers the full text of Numbers 31 first, along with Numbers 25 (and, indeed, most of the second half of the book is relevant). The important backstory is this: the Israelites are on the way to the Promised Land, where they will drive out the inhabitants of the land, with God as the warrior leading the charge. Along the way, however, they are beset by a whole range of different peoples and situations which complicate that task, ranging from tribes that attack them first to the Israelites' rebellion against their own cause and against God. From ch. 22 onwards, the Israelites are beset by attacks from the Moabites and Midianites. The attacks by these two groups differ, however, from Israel's battles with other people along the path to the Promised Land. Rather than attack them in direct, hand-to-hand combat, the Moabites and Midianites first hire Balaam, a local seer and (it appears) sorcerer, to try and curse Israel. However, the conflict between Israel, Moab, and Midian arguably culminates in Numbers 25, with the involvement of the Israelites in worshipping (with the Midianites) another God beside the Lord at a place called Peor, in violation of the first commandment. They worship Baal with both ritual feasting and, it appears, ritual sex, a combination not uncommon in Ancient Near Eastern religions. This is the backstory to Numbers 31, in miniature.
Second, though, we want to note something else about this passage as well: it is not difficult to interpret simply because of the moral issues we've briefly mentioned (e.g. the "massacre"). It also offers some confusing textual details which are difficult to understand on any level. For instance, after the battle, we might note that the spoils of war which the Israelites capture are outrageously large (32:31-47). They seem to seize over half a million sheep, among other massive captures. Now, while we don't have statistics on what was "normal" for animal husbandry in the Ancient Near East, particularly among small, nomadic tribes like the Midianites, this number seems a little overblown. It is only since the population boom and the advent of new farming techniques in the modern period that we have seen such a huge amount of sheep in one place. In other words, it is hard to believe that it was even possible for the Israelites to have captured such a high level of spoils from another tiny nation. We bring up these details only to note some features of the text which must be puzzled over, when we come to answer what's going on in the portrayal of this incident and when we decide "what to do" with this passage. There are several other, similar questions this text raises.
The reason we are puzzling over these features, though, is rather important and leads to the point I want to bring up. Several times in the past few weeks, while chatting with a few of you about this topic, I have mentioned why I think it's fruitful for us to dwell on this for a while. One thing I have tried to note in those conversations is how this passage doesn't do much for most interpreters. For conservatives, it is often viewed as an untroubling example of God's wrath on human sin. The various textual difficulties and moral quandaries generate no commentary. On the other hand, for more liberal interpreters, this passage is often brought up as an example of what we believe we have transcended. It, again, serves little theological purpose. The book of Numbers also doesn't feature largely in the ancient, medieval, and Reformation commentary traditions prior to the modern period. For us then, this passage can be a site for tremendous new theological reflection, if we can but wrap our minds around it. It is, in many ways, largely untrod ground.
So, that is what we will try to do. We're going to have a few different posts, outlining some relevant information and questions related to this passage. Emily, first of all, is going to note some of the relevant moral quandaries this passage raises. I will likely, then, note some ancient and contemporary responses to these quandaries. We'll have a post on the historical-critical approach to the passage. And, hopefully, we plan to cap off our little series on Numbers 31 with a post which synthesizes all the details, questions, and issues, before sketching a theological exploration and response to the whole passage.