Numbers 31:13 Moses, Eleazar the priest, and all the leaders of the congregation went to meet them outside the camp. 14 Moses became angry with the officers of the army, the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds, who had come from service in the war. 15 Moses said to them, “Have you allowed all the women to live? 16 These women here, on Balaam’s advice, made the Israelites act treacherously against the LORD in the affair of Peor, so that the plague came among the congregation of the LORD. 17 Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known a man by sleeping with him. 18 But all the young girls who have not known a man by sleeping with him, keep alive for yourselves.
One of the last acts of Moses as leader of the Israelites was to direct battle against the people of Midian who were enemies of God. We’re talking about an entire nation of people, and by “nation” we mean a mid-sized city by today’s standards. Hundreds of thousands of people. And, as was common practice in ancient times, the conquering peoples took EVERYTHING of value as plunder: silver/gold, livestock, people.
God was generally cautious in giving the Israelites permission to keep people from other ethnic groups/cultures as plunder, despite their great potential value as slaves/servants, because they brought with them pagan religious practices. God feared the Israelites would be tempted to adopt these pagan practices, which is what happened in many cases. So, God commanded that all males (men and children) and all sexually active females be put to death. The only human survivors were to be virgin girls. That’s it. We’re talking hundreds of thousands of people put to death. An entire nation wiped out. At God’s command.
This is nothing short of GENOCIDE.
One of the things that makes Western culture different than some other parts of the world is the high value we place on human life. This Judeo-Christian ethic was instrumental in ending slavery in much of the world, radically reducing the practice of capital punishment, even giving voice to the idea that “all men are created equal”. God has, and does, place great value on the human life he creates, even lives of those opposed to God. Jesus revealed the nature of the Father when he said to his disciples, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
And then there’s this.
As a pastor I’m conditioned to defend God when contradictions like this arise, to help explain away the stories in scripture that do not square with the “God is love” narrative. The tribal God revealed in this passage, the God who directs the Israelites to commit genocide, is not consistent with the God who gave his son Jesus for our sins. I don’t understand it and I doubt I ever will.
Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.