The Slaughter of the Midianites
by Don R. Camp M.Div

One of the complaints often heard from skeptics and anti-theists against the God of the Bible is that he is evil. They point to the total destruction of the Flood and the command to destroy the Canaanites living in the land the Hebrews invaded and took possession of in the conquest of Canaan. And the Midianites. Somewhere in any discussion of the God of the Bible with atheists the "atrocities" God commanded Moses to commit against the Midianites and Moabites  in Numbers 21-31 is bound to come up. "God commanded Moses to kill all the Midianite women and children they had captured. Is that not beyond immoral?"

   In a recent conversation, a skeptic friend expressed the complaint against God regarding the slaughter of the Midianites as well as any I've heard, so in reply I've chosen to use his post.

    First, I'd recommend you read the story, including the background. Begin in Numbers 21.

   The Israelites (I'll call them Jews in the following) had been traveling toward the crossing of the Jordan just east of Jericho in preparation for entering the land promised to them by God centuries before. Their journey lay across territory occupied by a number of groups of people, including the Midianites, Moabites, Amorites, and Edomites.

The map shows the location of the peoples the Jews encountered in  their journey from Egypt to Canaan. The story of the Midianites took place on the east side of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea.

Travels of Israel

The land of the Amorites See biblical Amorites in Wiki lay east of the Jordan River. When the Amorities attacked the Jews (Numbers 21:21-26), the Jews responded by destroying the the Amorites and and took possession of their land  from the Arnon River in the south to the Jabbok River.

After that the northern Ammorites attacked the Jews (Numbers 21:32-35), and Moses destroyed them as well and extended the occupation of the east side of the Jordan River to the Yarmuk River.
The Moabites Map and info lived south of the Arnon River. They were related to the Jews as distant cousins, and God told Moses to avoid conflict with them.

The Edomites Map and info lived even farther south. The Jews avoided crossing their land.

The Midianites Map and info were a semi-nomadic people living east of the Sinai Peninsula and the Red Sea in what is now Saudi Arabia. On this map they would be south of Edom. In later centuries they regularly raided Israel (Judges 7).

Background History
In the case of the Edomites, the Israelites asked permission to cross their territory, but Edom refused. Moses ordered the Kings
                  HighwayIsraelites to skirt Edom because the Edomites were closely related to the Israelites and he did not want to fight against their brothers (Num. 20:14-21 and Deut. 2:2-6). The Jews traveled along what is now known as the Desert Highway that crosses the tableland to the east of Edom instead of the trade route known as the King's Highway that led through the area closer to the Dead Sea and connected the cities along the route. It was a desert route with little water. The lower Kings Highway was better. But it would have caused trouble.

The Kings Highway today.

    Moab was north of Edom and sandwiched between Edom and the Amorites a bit farther north. At this time the Amorites occupied Moab and so are often seen as the same people politically.

When the Jews reached the border between Moab and the Amorites at the Arnon River, they requested the same privilege of safe passage and promised no harm to the Moabites. Sihon, the king of the Amorites refused and sent out his army to oppose the Jews (Num. 21:21-23 and Deut. 2:26-30). The Jews defeated him.

    Then the northern Amorites under their king Og attacked the Jews, and he was defeated. At that point the Moabites allied with the Midianites to devise a strategy to oppose the Jews (Num. 22:1-4).

   The involvement of the Midianites is a bit of a surprise. They were a nomadic people who lived as shepherds and often as plunders of other peoples. But Moses married a  Midianite woman and lived among them for many years. In fact, Moses' father-in-law was a priest of Midian and a wise adviser to Moses.

   Nevertheless, these loosely organized Midianites saw an opportunity to benefit from the demise of the Jews and joined with Balak son of Zippor the king  of Moab in a strategy to destroy them. They together called on Balaam a prophet of Baal to curse the Jews.

   Balaam lived far north of Moab had no interest in the Jews, but the Balak offered a big reward.  God said no.

   Credit Balaam with taking God seriously. He refused to go. But Balak upped the reward, and God told Balaam to go but to say only what he told him to say. You can read the interesting and at times humorous back and forth between Balak and Balaam and between Balaam and God in Numbers 23 and 24.

   Balaam did not curse the Jews, but he devised the plan that would undermine their moral and spiritual integrity (Num. 31:16). The plan was to send Moabite or Midianite women to the Jewish men and entice them to engage in sex and worship the gods of the Moabites (Num. 25:1-3). That would have undermined God's purpose for the Jews and would have probably resulted in the assimilation of the Jews into the Moabite or Midianite people.

    It worked - for a while.

    At that point God instructed Moses to execute all the leaders of the Jews who participated in this perversion and he sent a plague upon the Jews that killed another 24,000 of the Jews. The woman most brazen was Cozbi, the daughter of a Midianite chief (Num. 25:14,15).  That is how Midian became intimately involved and came under God's judgment. And that is the answer to my skeptic friend's first question:

Numbers 22 differentiates between the Moabites and the Midianites, and although it is likely that they worshiped the same deities, why make a distinction there, and later in Numbers 25, blame all the “whoredom” on just Moab?

  The answer to the second part of his question is that God did not blame it all on Moab. Actually, he blamed it on the Midianites. In Numbers 25:16 God told Moses to treat them as enemies. And in Numbers 31, it was the Mdianites  Moses was commanded to punish.

My friend continued:

A further reading of Numbers 25 shows that the real sin was intermarrying and a desire for racial purity. Remind you of any events from, say, the 1940’s? Zumri, a Jew, brought Cozbi, a Midianite, to meet the family and Phinehas, a priest, runs them both through with a spear! Then Yahweh commands Moses to “vex and smite” the Midianites. Not only does Moses maintain racial purity of the tribe, but manufactures a reason to steal the Midianites’ land and possession, and take sexual slaves.

    This is misreading the passage. While purity was important, it wasn't racial purity;  the Moabites were closely related to the Jews by race. And Moses himself was married to a Midianite woman. It was spiritual and moral purity. The Midianites  and Moabites were very different spiritually. Specifically, they worshiped a god who was not only not the one true God, but was a god who lead worshipers into immorality.

    In addition, Zumri did not bring Cozbi home to meet the family. He brought Cozbi into the camp of his brothers and into his tent (a euphanism for having sexual relations with her) in a brazen flaunting of God's command and in contempt of Moses and the Jews who were at that very moment suffering from the plague that was their punishment and were mourning over their sin.

Numbers 25:6 Then an Israelite man brought into the camp a Midianite woman right before the eyes of Moses and the whole assembly of Israel while they were weeping at the entrance to the tent of meeting. 7 When Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, saw this, he left the assembly, took a spear in his hand 8 and followed the Israelite into the tent. He drove the spear into both of them, right through the Israelite man and into the woman’s stomach. Then the plague against the Israelites was stopped;

    As for stealing the Midianites land, they had no land to steal. They were nomads. Neither did the Jews steal the land of the Moabites. We find later in the Bible that Moab continued to exist in the land which had been their ancestors'.  (See the book of Ruth)

    As for taking sexual slaves, a charge that is a favorite among skeptics, everything in the law fobade mistreating captives of war and especially the women. Any captive woman, boy, or girl, would become servant/slaves (the word can mean either or both). But they had the same protections as an indentured servant who was a Jew - with the one exception, they would not be released from slavery after seven years. 

    If the man of the house or his son married a slave girl, she had even greater protection under the law than a wife married from among his people. She could not be divorced or sold. If she was mistreated, the man was held in serious violation of the law. There was no condoning of sex slavery; slavery was a serious issue for the Jews. They had been slaves and had been mistreated in Egypt. The laws God gave them were designed to prevent them from treating anyone as they had been treated.

    My skeptic friend's accusations were baseless.

One of the issues that skeptics cannot understand is justice. No one, of course, argues with the law's requirement for a thief to repay what he had stolen and pay, in addition, a penalty. No one argues with the law's requirement for payment for damages done by an animal or by accident.  No one argues with the law's requirement for a rapist or murderer to be punished. Yet when the Moabites and Midianites with no provocation sought to harm the Jews, even destroy them, punishment is considered extreme. Confused.

    But God is not confused. Justice reestablishes the moral and spiritual foundation of a society and in the community of nations. Without justice a society falls into chaos. Crime must be punished for there to be justice. When the Midianites and Moabites conspired to do harm to the Jews by luring them into immorality and the spiritual adultery of worshiping Baal, justice demanded punishment.

    The punishment that God sent upon the Jews - the execution of the men who took part in the immorality and the plague upon the nation for allowing it -  resulted in repentance and mourning for their sin. But there remained the sin of the Midianites. That too demanded justice.

    To that end God instructed Moses to muster a force of 12,000 men to destroy their enemies. That was not the destruction of the whole nation of Moab. In fact, the Moabites are not specifically mentioned as being punished. It was not the total destruction of the Midianites, only the Midianites who conspired to do harm to the Jews and to lure them into sin. But it was ALL of those Midianites, men women and children, not just the combatants, who were judged.

    In those days and across the Middle East, warfare was total. It was rarely one army facing another army. War was between cultures, and cultures included men, women, and children. The defeated people were either totally annihilated or taken into captivity, and the cities and towns of the defeated nation became the the victor's as the spoils of war. In this case, the Midianite men were killed and their property - gold and precious metals, livestock, and slaves - were taken as the spoils of war. But the women and children were spared.

    They would have become war captives and the slaves of the Jews. But Moses pointed out that the women were actually the more culpable. They were those who tempted the Jewish men into sin and worship of the Midianites' gods. Justice demanded that they be punished, and Moses commanded that they be killed. Only the young girls were saved.

    Modern westerners react. That is harsh.  But it was how war was done when one culture threatened another. That can be seen both in the Bible narrative and in the history of the Middle East.

    Moses' command, however, was an act of mercy by which the innocent were spared. These underage girls had not participated in tempting the Jews to sin. They bore none of the guilt of Midian or Moab. They offered no danger to the Jews. There was no justice in their dying for the sin of their elders. And as the captives/slaves given to Jewish families and eventually marrying a Jewish husband, they would be in submission to a Jewish guardian or husband, as was normal for every woman.

    What about the young boys? Most English translations distinguish between the young girls and young boys in Numbers 31:17. The ESV reads: "17 Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him."

    But verse 7 indicates that all the males were dead already. Only the women had been saved, verse 15. In both cases the words describe male (zakar) and female (neqebah) without regard to age or marital status. So all the males were dead, ALL.

    What about the boys in verse 17? The best answer is that it is built around an idiomatic phrase, taph and ishah, that literally means child and mother. Taph and ishah is a phrase found in many places (Jeremiah 43:6; Gen. 45:19; Esther 3:13 and 8:11; Gen. 34:29; Gen. 46:5; 2 Chron. 20:13, et al.) .  In every place it means the whole family  - mother and children. It does not distinguish the sex of the children.

    In Numbers 17 this idiom for mother and children includes a word to to emphasize what Moses meant. It is zakar, the word for male and also generically for people. In verse 17 zakar is used both ways. The verses, 17 and 18, should be written this way, paying attention to the idiom:   "Now (therefore) kill all -  young and old, males (zakar) and every adult female, those who have slept with a man - kill them (zakar) all. But the girls who are younger than marriageable age leave alive. 

    Those killed, however, in this instance, were only the adult females; the males both young and old were already dead.

    Total war as practiced by societies in the ancient Middle East was not and is not today pretty. It is not a 1950s movie where the young and the innocent are somehow spared. Real war is never like the movies. Children are killed.  Women are killed.  Sometimes viciously. And many times intentionally, even now. It was and is "shock and awe" intended to put fear into the hearts of the enemy and prevent future attacks.

    Was God culpable in an atrocity? That is what the skeptics charge.

  • No. This was not an atrocity; it was just punishment for what the Midianites had done to the Jews.
  • No. Moses actually provided for mercy for the innocent girls.

     My friend goes on:

Numbers 31: 26-28 lists the types of booty – beeves, asses, sheep, and persons (female virgins, since all males and non-virgins were already murdered) – and specifies how to divide it up. Verse 29 then commands that a share be given to Eleazar, the priest, as a “heave offering”.

But what is a “heave offering”? According to Leviticus 7:29-34, Heave and Wave offerings are the “right shoulder and breast”, held up and waved before the congregation, before the priests eat them. So it’s actually worse: human sacrifice and cannibalism!

    The idea that the heave offering was a sacrifice to be killed - and eaten, by the way -  misrepresents the scripture. It was an offering that was presented (lifted up) to the priests as their portion. And that was all.  A heave offering, if it was a portion of a burnt offering, "right shoulder and breast,"  was to be eaten by the priests as a participation in the worshiper's thanksgiving offering. But here these were not burnt offerings. They were the spoils of war. The spoils were shared with the people who did not go out to war and with the priests who also did not go out to war.  And among the spoils in Numbers 31and  offered to the priests were sixty-one donkeys. They were not only not a clean animal to be eaten but they were not an animal that was acceptable as a sacrifice. And neither were people. Indeed, God is very clear in various places in the Bible that human sacrifice was absolutely forbidden and cannibalism was despicable. The idea that this was human sacrifice and cannibalism is absurd.

    My skeptic friend's suggestion is way off base. Beware of those twists that skeptics put forth.

   My skeptic friend continues:

But let’s return to your claim that the reason the Midianites deserved such a horrible end was that they seduced the Israelites. A little illicit sex demands a death sentence?

    This too misrepresents the scripture. It was not a "little illicit sex." The Midianites were not destroyed because of sex. They were destroyed because they enticed the Jews to disobey God and turn to other gods. They were destroyed because they sought to lead the Jews away from God. They were destroyed because they opposed God.

    Most skeptics don't count this very important. They consider a "little illicit sex" no big deal, and they they don't believe in God. They have no respect for God. That is all a matter of religion and trivial. But to God, spiritual unfaithfulness among his people is serious and a disaster for them. Those who tempt his people to unfaithfulness were guilty of a serious sin. God's judgement upon them is decisive.

   As an aside, God's judgment on Nazi Germany and upon the men who rounded up and gassed six million Jews - along with an equal number of others -  was just as decisive. German cities and their whole populations were bombed and burned. That included the young and the innocent just as the Germans' execution of the Jews included the young and the innocent. The men who ordered and who took part in the holocaust were judged guilty of war crimes and executed just as the kings of the Midianites were. None of that was pretty. But it was God's judgement.  God does have vengeance upon those who attack his people. 

Further problems you fail to address are: 1) what possible excuse can you offer to justify
the murder innocent babies (presumably they weren’t seducing grown men); 2) how weak was the Israelites’ faith that they could be so easily seduced by a false god; and 3) how can you put any trust in an eternal/unchangeable god who is just as capable of atrocity now as he was then?

   Regarding the murder of innocent babies, what I've written above covers that issue.

    Regarding the seduction by a false god. This was not merely your average ordinary temptation. It was a temptation that would have destroyed the Jews. It was an existential issue. Had it not been averted, the Jews would have been assimilated into the Midianites culture and religion and ceased to be a distinct people.

   In addition,  God's purpose for them as the people of promise (see Genesis 12:1-3) would have come to an end. But it is even more serious than that. That promise looked forward to blessings for all nations through the Jews, the family of Abraham. God had a absolutely critical mission for these Jews. It was through them that the Messiah and Savior would come. That plan depended upon the Jews remaining distinct as a people and faithful to God and his purpose. The Midianites' plan would have resulted in the absorption of the Jews into the culture and racial line of the Midianites. They would have essentially disappeared. The promise could not have been fulfilled.

    God would not allow that.

    Whatever the strength of their faith, the fact is that many Jewish men succumbed. And what was the big deal? Most skeptics have no appreciation of the seriousness of the consequences.  It appears from the report we have in Numbers, many of the Jews did not either. But they were wrong.

    Regarding the character of God, he is indeed capable of protecting his people and willing to do so. But he is just. He does not judge rashly. He does not judge to excess. But he judges. The word "atrocity" implies wicked and cruel. God is neither. But he does repay upon those who attack his people the judgement they deserve.

    My friend goes on:

These Israelites are the same people who witnessed God’s judgment of the Egyptians, the parting of the Red Sea, the whirlwind, pillar of fire, and manna from Heaven and yet, they risked death and damnation for a little “strange”??? I'm not buying that. And why punish women/people who have not been exposed to “god’s love”? Is it not more just to punish the Israelites? Why not a really bad case of the clap, or hemorrhoids, or just have their peckers fall off (that would definitely put an end to dalliances with strange women!) That seems like real justice!

    Yes. they risked death and damnation and likely got both. The issues, however, were far greater than a little sexual dalliance.

    There is no reason that the Midianites did not know about God. There is every evidence that they did not care.  The Canaanite Levant world of the mid-second millennium B.C. was not without knowledge of God. The Midianites in particular knew the Jews, who had according to the Bible, had spent almost forty years either in the land of the Midianites or very close. They knew of Moses much longer since he spent years among them before bring the Jews out of Egypt and was married to a Midianite woman whose father was a Midianite priest. They knew how the Jews had been protected in their sojourn in Midian. Yes. They knew about God.

    Even if the exodus narrative is not accepted, as most skeptics do not, the history of Egypt and the Canaanite people, who included Abraham's family was extensive. The God who adopted Abraham and his family and protected them, even in Egypt, was not unknown. (See the series of blogs on the Jews and the exodus at

    But one thing is certain; the Midianites knew that the Jews had avoided conflict with the Moabites and Edomites and that neither had been harmed. They also knew that the Amorites, a powerful people who had tried to destroy the Jews, had themselves been totally defeated. That knowledge alone should have been convincing.  The Jews were not a threat to them. But if attacked  the God of the Jews protected them. They did not need to know that God loved them to know that messing with the Jews was stupid.

    But why not something less as a judgment? That question trivializes the threat. The threat was existential. The judgement fit the crime. And in this story of judgment there is a clear warning for all today who think opposing God carries no consequences.  But it also holds out this promise. God is no threat to those who do right.