Numbers 27-36: “Kill all the boys and married women, but save for yourselves every virgin”

Today marks the end of book 4 of the Pentateuch, we have only a few more Numbers to count. It’s provided us with the same high quality death and destruction we’ve come to expect of a Bible book so far, but just wait until you see what it has for a finale! The last entry finished with another big census, but just before that you may remember that Midianite women had been having sexual relations with Israelite men. One women was so bold to even come into camp (luckily she was killed)! Do not worry, the crime these women have committed (the men are of course innocent) will be met with firm Biblical justice!

But before that, we have a few other matters to attend to, first of all Zelophehad’s daughters.

Num 27, Verses 2-4: They came forward and stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders and the whole assembly at the entrance to the tent of meeting and said, “Our father died in the wilderness. He was not among Korah’s followers, who banded together against the Lord, but he died for his own sin and left no sons. Why should our father’s name disappear from his clan because he had no son? Give us property among our father’s relatives.”

Now you’d be forgiven for thinking that they would be rebuked and told to jog on, but the Bible actually shows some progressiveness here, and God tells Moses that they should inherit.

Num 27, Verses 8-9: “Say to the Israelites, ‘If a man dies and leaves no son, give his inheritance to his daughter. If he has no daughter, give his inheritance to his brothers.

Of course some could say “why do sons come first?” etc. etc. but I can’t really slate the Bible on this, as sons being the primary inheritors regardless of age has been in practice basically everywhere until very recently. In fact they only just changed the succession laws for the United Kingdom to have women on equal standing as men in the Royal family.

Num 27, Verses 12-13: Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go up this mountain in the Abarim Range and see the land I have given the Israelites. After you have seen it, you too will be gathered to your people, as your brother Aaron was.

Oh my! Moses is going to die soon!? He’s been around so long, I’m almost starting to get attached to the old clown! (If you too are getting attached to Moses, don’t worry, he doesn’t actually die til the end of Deuteronomy)

Num 27, Verses 15-17: Moses said to the Lord, “May the Lord, the God who gives breath to all living things, appoint someone over this community to go out and come in before them, one who will lead them out and bring them in, so the Lord’s people will not be like sheep without a shepherd.”

That’s actually very admirable of you Moses, still thinking of the people even though you’ve been told of your impending death. God then chooses Joshua, because he was a great lad, apparently.

Chapters 28 and 29 are yet more repeats of stuff we’ve heard a billion times before, i.e. how to sacrifice stuff, Sabbath offerings, the Passover festival etc. And then we come to chapter 30 which is about Vows.

Num 30, Verse 2: When a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said.

So vows are taken seriously here. Fair enough.

Num 30, Verses 3-4: “When a young woman still living in her father’s household makes a vow to the Lord or obligates herself by a pledge and her father hears about her vow or pledge but says nothing to her, then all her vows and every pledge by which she obligated herself will stand.

My Bible sexism sense is tingling . . .

Num 30, Verse 5: But if her father forbids her when he hears about it, none of her vows or the pledges by which she obligated herself will stand; the Lord will release her because her father has forbidden her.

Ah. What a surprise. Notice how her mother isn’t mentioned, it isn’t anything to do with the seniority of the parent, it’s all about a female requiring male approval.

Num 30, Verse 8: But if her husband forbids her when he hears about it (A vow), he nullifies the vow that obligates her or the rash promise by which she obligates herself, and the Lord will release her.

In case you didn’t believe me about the last point I made, yeah, husbands can ban wives too.

And then we arrive at chapter 31. This chapter is entitled ‘Vengeance on the Midianites’ and in case you couldn’t tell from that, this is the bloody finale I was talking about. If you have a very short memory, the Midianites are the group of people whose women had sex with Israelite men. So vengeance needs to be taken for that, apparently.

God tells Moses to “Take Vengeance on the Midianites” so Moses sets about getting the lads ready.

Num 31, Verses 3-5: So Moses said to the people, “Arm some of your men to go to war against the Midianites so that they may carry out the Lord’s vengeance on them. Send into battle a thousand men from each of the tribes of Israel.” So twelve thousand men armed for battle, a thousand from each tribe, were supplied from the clans of Israel.

There are, according to the Bible, 600,000 fighting men in the tribe of Israel. Surely sending only 12,000 is a bit risky, especially when you have such large reserves? It’s almost as though there isn’t actually 600,000 fighting men . . .

Num 31, Verse 7: They fought against Midian, as the Lord commanded Moses, and killed every man. 

Ah, it’s been too long since we’ve had a good old Biblical genocide, top job on sorting out another one, God.

Num 31, Verse 8: They also killed Balaam son of Beor with the sword.

This is the guy that refused to curse Israel, and instead blessed them. He wasn’t part of the tribe though, so of course he had to die.

Num 31, Verse 9: The Israelites captured the Midianite women and children and took all the Midianite herds, flocks and goods as plunder.

The Israelites had only been gone for say 200 years, it was hardly fair that the Midianites should make a home there. The Israelites were totally justified in taking it back, right?

Num 31, Verse 10: They burned all the towns where the Midianites had settled, as well as all their camps.

It doesn’t even make any sense to do this. All the Midianite men are dead, and you’re going to start living here, so why destroy it?

Num 31, Verse 11: They took all the plunder and spoils, including the people and animals

The use of the word ‘including’ is very important here, as it means that women are considered ‘plunder and spoils’, merely objects. How barbaric.

Num 31, Verse 14: Moses was angry with the officers of the army—the commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds—who returned from the battle.

Oh thank goodness, here comes Moses to sort them out and tell them to release the women.

Num 31, Verse 15: “Have you allowed all the women to live?” he asked them.

What.

Num 31, Verse 16: “They were the ones who enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful to the Lord in the Peor incident, so that a plague struck the Lord’s people.

So the fault is entirely with the Midianite women for Israelite men having sex with them, and because of it they are to be put to death? Seriously Bible, you’re messed up.

Num 31, Verses 17-18: Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.”

Not content to slaughter all the men, the Israelites now have to not only murder unarmed women, but infants as well? This is truly disgusting. The only Midianites which survive this genocidal assault are virgin women, and I think I have an idea of what the Israelite men have in mind for them.

The rest of the chapter details how the plunder was split up, who got which cattle/sheep/sexual slaves as well as all the gold and silver they took. Isn’t it great for the Israelites that it just so happened that God wanted them to conquer somewhere so rich?

The rest of the Book of Numbers doesn’t contain much of note, boundary allocations/disputes and a few more boring laws, so I shall move onto my summary of Numbers as a whole:

Summary

It’s all well and good me joking about how crazy these genocidal attacks are, because it is very difficult for us to see them as real. This is probably because they almost certainly didn’t happen, but if they did, they happened so long ago that it’s hard for us to connect with them. Unfortunately, there is a similar group who carries out similar actions today: Islamic State.

When writing about the genocide of the Midianites I couldn’t help but think of the similarities to the Islamic State’s attack on the Yazidis in Iraq. The Islamic State killed any Yazidi male they could find, but took the women as plunder, and they were then used a sexual slaves. If you think this is a one off similarity, and that my comparison is invalid because hundreds of other groups have carried out similar actions, then take a look at these Verses from Numbers 33:

Num 33, Verses 52-53: “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you cross the Jordan into Canaan, drive out all the inhabitants of the land before you. Destroy all their carved images and their cast idols, and demolish all their high places.

Those of you who keep up to date with current affairs will know that IS just occupied the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria, and there are fears that they will destroy priceless world heritage artifacts, as they have done in Nimrud in Iraq and many other places in the region. IS destroy these things because they believe they are ‘idols’ and/or ‘false Gods’ which sounds a bit familiar doesn’t it.

The Book of Numbers really is just another example of how religion is used to excuse aggressive expansionist behaviour, or justify heinous and degrading acts against fellow human beings. Anyone who really reads it and is still in support of this Book should have a good look at themselves.

By Rory McDowell
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