Today we are studying Numbers 31. This chapter concerns the holy war Yehoveh has ordered of Israel against Midian. Why war against Midian? It was because of the Midianites allegiance with Moab, and therefore their participation in leading the Hebrews into idol worship of Chemosh, the chief god of Moab.
In some ways, this is but an extension of the Balak and Balaam story, whereby Balak, the king of Moab, asked a Mesopotamian sorcerer named Balaam to come and put a curse on Israel so that Moab (and their ally Midian) could fight against Moses and his forces and defeat them in battle.
Why did Moab want to fight Israel? Because Israel would, with it’s 3 million population and 600,000 mighty armies, be the biggest dog in the kennel and therefore able to dominate any other people group in the region.
Almost all kings (King Balak included) assumed the throne with the goal of expanding their territory and influence. If Israel came into their area and survived, King Balak could kiss his hopes of regional domination good-bye.
The Lord God intervened in Balak’s plan, had direct contact with Balaam (and his donkey), and Balaam conceded that
- Even if he DID curse Israel it would have had no effect because whatever Yehoveh blessed cannot be cursed, and whatever Yehoveh cursed cannot be blessed; and
- God made it clear that if Balaam ever attempted to utter a curse to bolster Israel’s enemy, Moab, that God would summarily kill Balaam. Balaam told King Balak; therefore, that he would not and could not curse Israel and so went back home to Carchemish without being paid.
However, immediately following the Balaam and Balak story we find out that Israel remained in the area of Moab, and that Balaam suggested to Balak that Moab could infiltrate Israel and thus weaken them by getting the Midianite (and Moabite) women to entice the Hebrew men sexually. And in the process persuade Israel to worship Chemosh, and it worked.
And, as a result, Yehoveh brought a plague upon Israel or its idolatry that killed 24,000 Hebrews. It ended only when a priest named Phinehas speared a Hebrew man having intercourse with a Moabite woman (while they were in his tent inside the camp of Israel), killing them both. The Lord considered this atonement for the national sin of apostasy and idolatry Israel had committed, and so the plague ceased.
But, as often happens in the Bible, when someone leads Israel astray, FIRST Israel is punished for following, and then there is retribution against those who did the leading. That is what is occurring here in Numbers 31 against Midian.
Now, before we begin studying this verse by verse, let me add some information. By reading this story, it would appear that all of Midian was destroyed, brought to extinction. That after this event there would not have existed a “Midian” anymore. But, as we move forward in our Torah study, and even later in the Bible, we’ll find other encounters with Midian; and archaeology proves that Midian remained alive and well far beyond this era. So what gives?
Well, the answer is that Midian was much like Canaan in that era: there was no sovereign nation called Canaan. Canaan was just a general geographical area where several tribes resided that claimed Noah’s grandson Canaan as an ancestor (as well as many other cultures that had no relation to Canaan).
Midian (recall Midian was where Moses went when he fled Egypt. It was also where he met and married his Midianite wife, Tzippora. And it was where he met God at the Burning Bush, and therefore I claim that Midian was the location of Mt. Sinai), the land of Midian was also just a general geographical area, not a nation with defined boundaries.
Midian was composed of several tribes, all ancestors of a man named Midian, who was the son of Abraham’s second wife, Keturah. So, Midianites were Semites, descendants of Abraham, and distant cousins to Israel.
Various of the Midian tribes and clans were spread out over the western portion of the Arabian Peninsula, and ranging all the way north to Moab, and west to Edom and the Negev.
In our Numbers 31 story Moses and the Hebrews only destroyed those Midianite clans who settled in the area of Moab…not ALL Midianites of every tribe. What Israel did was quite significant in scope.
Our story begins, in verse 1, with the Lord telling Moses that this battle with Midian would be the last major assignment He would have for him because, soon after that, Moses would die.
We’ll continue our study in my next blog post.