Moses Massacres Midian
Filed under: Answering an Atheist, Old Testament, Political Issues
Answering An Atheist
Original arguments are found in the post “Top Ten Worst Bible Stories”
On the web site “Not A Potted Plant” (NAPP)
Author – Transplanted Lawyer (TL)
There are two absolute No-No’s when reading the Bible. One is never wear rose tinted glasses (Christians do this) and the other is don’t precondition the text with modern perspectives (critics do this). Christians tend to extract from the text sentiments that aren’t there. Critics do just the opposite, imposing on the text preconceived ideas. Both start with an assumption and then proceed to draw it out or weave it into the text. Both approaches narrow the mind and have the same affect, distortion. Neither is really honest.
Take Abraham for example. He fathered his first child by Hagar, his wife’s handmaid – polygamous. According to cultural practices of the day this was acceptable but according to biblical teachings it was not.
It is fair to be forgiving. Abraham and Sara were faced with difficult and unusual circumstances. But justifying polygamy as anything other than adultery is going a little too far and that is what believers tend to do.
Non-believers, particularly atheists, are quick to pounce on that. Polygamy, or any other form of sexual divergence, may or may not be a problem for them but they are clever enough to see the contradiction between what the Bible teaches in one place and what believers say it teaches in another.
And God is the one implicated. Suggesting that polygamy is right on some occasions and wrong on others means we are dealing with more than one set of rules. That doesn’t reflect favorably on God. If polygamy is wrong at any time it is wrong at all times. God can’t be immutable – what the Bible says He is – if He is constantly changing the rules.
In actual fact polygamy is nothing more than a legalized, culturally sugar coated form of adultery. I have made that argument here.
But, some people get confused on the issue. With so many prominent Bible figures involved in this practice – Abraham, Jacob, David and Solomon – it is assumed to be OK on occasions. It is hard for believers to think God would or could use anyone who does anything that we consider so abhorrent – the effect of rose tinted glasses and therefore, certain things get justified.
Compounding this problem is the fact that God actually regulated polygamy in the Law of Moses. The assumption is, if it is allowed in the law it must have been acceptable on some level. There is, however, a big difference between creating legislation to control a practice and endorsing it.
Although I see Abraham as a great man of faith I don’t see him as perfect and don’t feel the need to justify his every action. He and every other person in the Bible – Old or New Testament, prominent or not – made bad decisions or possibly did detestable things. We must read through that, not around it, and we must see it in light of actual truth. Sentiments and/or preconceived ideas blind us to the reality that God found a way to use people who were far less than perfect and He led them through situations that were messy. He is still doing that today.
These things are hard for believers to contemplate and their explanations are hard for non-believers to swallow. The more believers try to explain (justify), the more unbelievable it becomes. Following are a few outcomes of the “rose tinted effect” by some of the more popular groups:
- Catholics have suggested Mary was an eternal virgin and recommend virginity (or celibacy) as a form of religious devotion thus implying that sex is intrinsically wrong.
- Orthodox Hebrews read the law as absolutely prescriptive wearing their hair and garments exactly like Moses.
- Mormons tried to perpetuate polygamy and fortunately failed.
- The Amish have taken separation to the extreme.
- Ultra conservatives, primarily Baptist and Bible churches, have transformed “church” into belligerent special interest groups justifying the hatred of enemies if they happen to be political.
- The Grace churches have used God’s elective purposes to emasculate human choice.
There are well meaning people in all these groups and they all claim to represent God. The problem is, they can’t all be right.
Their intent, of course, is to mold everyone to their vision of perfection and it never really works. The people in each group work hard to maintain acceptance, according to the “rules,” and feel smudged forever if they cross the established lines of moral code, or God forbid, disagree with an interpretation or definition of a word.
The unwritten understanding is, you can’t break certain “commandments” and be used of God. That, of course, is rubbish. If it were true, God could use no one.
I don’t question the sincerity of these groups, just their sense. I also think this presents a problem to the non-religious. Outsiders, instead of reading the Bible for what it actually says, view it in light of what believers say about it, much of which doesn’t measure up.
Honestly speaking, believers treat the Bible like a fairy tale, expecting every character to be absolutely right or wrong and the good guys to always win. That isn’t the case and they shouldn’t get upset when atheists make a big deal out of the failures of our favorite personalities.
Some of these people did some terrible things and suffered appropriate consequences for doing so. Others suffered terribly even though they seemingly did nothing to deserve it. In many cases innocents got caught in the middle. Sounds a bit like life. We learn important lessons from studying these things but I won’t elaborate now.
Everything I have said so far is a rather long introduction but it brings us to another important question raised by one particular unbeliever, “Transplanted Lawyer” (TL). He is the owner of the blog, “Not A Potted Plant” and recently posted the article, “Top Ten Worst Bible Stories.” The title speaks for itself. He also offered a challenge to anyone who wished to debate the issues raised. I accepted.
I have already responded to several other questions. You can read them here.
One of his stories focused on the conflict between the Hebrews and Midian. This particular battle:
- Happened after the Exodus and just before the Israelites entered Palestine.
- Was only one of several conflicts occurring following the Exodus.
- And more detail was provided with this incident than any of the others.
TL’s complaint is summarized as:
God Likes Genocide
In developing his argument he sites several passages from the Bible and he reads a few assumptions into the text. We forgive this because believers have not really answered the questions and on some occasions have responded to the observations with, “God did it and therefore it is OK because God can do anything He wants.”
On one level that answer is true but it can also be very misleading. Yes, God can do anything He wants but because He is righteous there are certain things He will not do, e.g., lie, steal, be untrustworthy or unfair.
This story is number one on TL’s list which means he considers it to be the most damning of all. In presenting his arguments he quotes several passages from the Bible including:
In the conclusion of the battle, the Midianite clan in question, not to mention the Moabite clan, is entirely wiped out with the exception of virgin girls, and all of their possessions and land, are taken. On the surface it sounds gruesome and TL doesn’t hesitate to accuse God, Moses and Israel of grievous crimes against humanity.
Statements he uses to make his point are:
- “It would appear that the Midianites had not done anything directly to provoke the war…”
- “If you can figure out how to describe these things as anything other than ‘genocide,’ I’d be interested in hearing it.”
- He refers to the Israelite soldiers as “killing, raping, and plundering” and suggested Moses complained not because they had raped or plundered but because the “killing” part was proportionately less than the raping and plundering.
- He describes the event as, “Massive murder. Massive destruction. Open, unprovoked warfare. Thousands of innocents raped and slaughtered. All of it — every drop of blood — justified by the word of God.”
- He suggests these observations are a fair representation of “Biblical Morality” and, therefore, no parent should subject their children to Sunday School.
- He sums up the moral lesson gained from these observations as, “Literally anything, including crimes against humanity itself, are morally justified if a priest tells you God wants you to do them.”
As a disclaimer I would say that if these observations were accurate I would have to agree with TL. Throw the Bible out and let’s get on with it. However, I offer the following as the basis for a different interpretation of the text.
There were many conflicts during Israel’s journey to Palestine, none of which were provoked by Israel. Their response in every case was defensive not aggressive.
The truth is, the land traversed in the Exodus was the most heavily embattled territory in history with at least twenty major conflicts being waged in the vicinity, beginning from the 1500’s BC, and that doesn’t include the smaller hit and run wars that occurred continuously.
The War Scholar presents an extensive but partial list of all wars – primarily the major ones – and the list includes 14 different wars in western Asia between 1499 and 1400 BC. Some of those wars lasted most of the century and some were off and on for even longer.
The Bible also mentions smaller wars occurring in Palestine regularly and describes the situation as tense.
Fact! The neighborhood of the Exodus route was filled with militaristic groups who were well exercised in and armed for the art of war. The most prominent diplomatic tools were weapons and Israel was attacked or threatened several times. They had no option but to fight their way through. No self-respecting nation could do otherwise:
- In Rephidim, days after the Red Sea crossing and just before reaching Mt. Sinai, they were attacked by Amalek. In this case, God, rather than protect them from the inevitable, allowed them to stretch their military and spiritual muscles. Israel was generally untrained in military exercises but fought and won primarily because Moses prayed. It was the boot camp for conflicts yet to come. (Exodus 17:8-16)
- Later, Moses pleads for safe passage through Edom and when refused, defers, traveling around rather than through Edomite territory. In the exchange Moses did promise to do no harm to local farms and even offered to pay for any water they drank. Edom, however, denied their request and followed the denial with a bit of military posturing. Israel travelled a long way out of their way to avoid the conflict. It should be noted that the route running through Edom was the King’s highway – an international highway of sorts. Merchants travelled this highway constantly and no one objected especially the resident thieves. (Numbers 20:14-21)
- Shortly afterward, Arad, a Canaanite King, attacked Israel by surprise and took captives. The Israelites led a successful counter attack destroying the cities under his control. (Numbers 21:1-3)
- The next stop was at the door of Amorite territory and, again, Moses “requested” they be allowed to pass through the land – on the King’s highway – promising to do no damage to local farms or take water from their wells. Sihon, the Amorite King, didn’t bother with diplomatic responses. He mounted arms and attacked, losing everything. It is significant to note that Sihon came into possession of this land only because he had attacked and driven out the previous inhabitants. (Numbers 21:21-25)
- The next encounter was with Og, King of Bashan, and true to form, he and all his people attacked Israel, again losing everything. No forewarning or diplomatic exchanges were made before attacking. (Numbers 21:33-35)
Most of these events happened in rapid succession and in none of them is “raping” mentioned or encouraged. It may have happened but there is no direct reference.
Israel did take possession of the land and material resources but calling it “plundering” may be a little excessive given the circumstances. They didn’t start these battles and leaving everything behind would have been wasteful.
And that brings us to the Midianites of Moab. Before we look at the details of the encounter we need to make a clarification.
This conflict was not between Israel and every living Midianite. It involved only those Midianites who lived in Moab. The term “Midianite” was a broad reference to people who had spread out into all areas of the Levant. Some were very rural and others very urban. They lived mostly toward the east but no doubt some migrated toward the coast. Some were travelling merchants.
- They were descendants of Abraham’s fourth son by Keturah – his wife following Sara’s death.
- Various groups had fought for dominance in Moab for hundreds of years (Gen. 36:35). During the Exodus Moab and Midian maintained a strained sense of peace but were completely allied in opposition to Israel.
- Joseph was sold as a slave to travelling Midianite merchants.
- Moses’ father-in-law was a Midianite priest.
- Moses requested his brother-in-law be their guide in the Exodus journey.
- Many years after this conflict the Midianites dominated and oppressed Israel.
So, some Midianites were friendly and cooperative with Israel and others were not but the only Midianites involved in this skirmish were those living in Moab and, again, Israel was not the aggressor.
It is also important to note that in recent history Midian had been closer and friendlier toward Israel than any other group. The good relations may have been the reason the Israelites were susceptible to the stratagem used to subvert them. They assumed good will on the part of all Midianites and didn’t see it coming. This also may be the reason Moses acted so personally. He married a Midianite girl. He honored his Midianite father-in-law, Jethro, before the entire nation. To them, Midianites were friends.
More detail is provided for this conflict than any other and, in contrast to the few verses devoted to other conflicts, this one takes up five lengthy chapters: Numbers 22, 23, 24 25 and 31. The details provided are very significant.
It was clearly the intention of Moab/Midian to destroy Israel but their strategy was particularly underhanded. Having watched the previous communities fail using a militaristic approach they decided to do something different. Their approach was much more deliberate and strategic. The following explains how the story unfolds:
- Balak, the Moabite leader, encourages Midianite leaders to join him in countering Israel.
- At his suggestion, everyone agrees to employ a priest, Balaam, to curse Israel.
- A contingent of leaders is sent to hire Balaam but, being warned by God, he initially refuses.
- Next, a second, and more prestigious contingent of leaders, is sent with more money and greater promises of promotion. Reluctantly, Balaam agrees.
- Balaam attempts to curse Israel three times and instead blesses them on each occasion.
- Realizing Israel could not be cursed, Balaam counsels Moab/Midian to undermine Israelite morale by enticing them to participate in their sexually oriented religious schemes and it worked (Numbers 31:16). The Israelite camp was divided, morale was lost and progress was impeded. And the circumstance nor their being God’s special people mitigated Israel’s responsibility. They suffered the consequences of their actions. It was an act of war and the Israelites who got involved were committing treason. It rendered them vulnerable to attack and defeat.
It was only following this subterfuge that Israel took action and the first matter of business was the execution of their own people, the traitors who engaged with the enemy in their sexually oriented religion.
For several reasons, Israel nor God can be implicated:
This was not genocide – “the deliberate and systematic extermination of a national, racial, political, or cultural group” – but rather a conflict between Israel and those Midianites who inhabited a certain location.
There was no rape
In fact, since the plan was to entice them sexually, we could hardly accuse Israel of rape. Weak maybe but not rape. Given the fact that this sexual activity was considered an act of national and religious treason, and punished by death, we can hardly accuse God of encouraging rape.
Non-virgin women were soldiers
The death of these women did not constitute collateral damage. They were front line soldiers in this conflict and knew exactly what the stakes were. Actually, they were more like spies and were subject to the same consequences as male soldiers or spies in any other war.
As mentioned in a previous post, “slavery” in antiquity could be, but wasn’t always, as harsh as slavery in recent history. The ancients afforded slaves options for advancement and in some cases slaves could earn the privileges associated with a higher class. Ruth – a Moabitess by the way – started out very poor and very low but earned a very special place in Israelite history.
Slavery is mentioned at various times in the long history of Israel and it was usually positive. Enslaved Israelites honored their masters (Naaman’s wife’s maid – 2 Kings 5:1-3) and Israelite masters honored their servants. Abraham’s number one administrator (servant/slave) was born in Abraham’s house and started out as nothing more than a slave benefiting from his master’s protection and care. He did the menial tasks reliably enough to earn the right to do more important work. He became a friend and counselor to Abraham. When you think of it, the person who flips hamburgers at Micky D’s is nothing more than a slave if they don’t find a way to better their situation.
Additionally, the Midianites who survived the war may very likely have been descendants of those who were enslaved to Moab. It was a common practice. The question to ask is not, who had slaves, but who were the most humane masters.
Yes, Israel did take all the Midianite resources but it wasn’t exactly “plundering” in the strict sense of the word. There was no drunken brawl or rape. All the resources were publicly accounted for and divided up fairly among everyone, those who went to war and those that didn’t.
I’m sure the resources would have been used in rebuilding the area and the Midianite survivors would have benefited as much from that as anyone.
TL quotes Deuteronomy 7:1-6 and Deuteronomy 20:10-19 and uses these statements to accuse God of genocide. The first passage refers to local residents in Palestine when Israel invaded and the order was to obliterate them completely.
The second passage refers to nations residing beyond Palestine proper. They were to be offered peace and if accepted they would be the servant laborers of Israel.
From our perspective this sounds harsh. In defense I would say that these rulings, though on the surface brutal, are not so unreasonable and they served as general guidelines only:
- One, the “battling – enslaving” cycle occurred constantly anyway and wasn’t getting any better. Israelites, as mentioned, were at times sensitive to the down trodden and the new legal system afforded equal rights to slaves/servants. Israel would have provided a better and more humane government for all.
- Two, the order to “destroy” applied primarily to the ideology and, obviously, any person who adhered to the old policies died with it. The same thing happened with Nazism following WW2. The party was outlawed and many who defended it died in the process, even the foot soldier and their families. The leaders who survived were tried as criminals and no one complained about it. Germany is better off because of it. The same could be said for Israel’s conquest of Canaan. Unfortunately, Israel didn’t do any better with political plagues than we did with Nazism. It is still a blight on humanity.
- Three, mercy was readily offered. The Gibeonites, residents of Palestine, in an attempt to avoid annihilation approached the leaders of Israel posing as people alien to the area. Israel discovered the ruse only after making a contract of peace but they kept their word and even defended the Gibeonites from other groups in Palestine. Also, Rahab, the famous harlot of Jericho, made peace with Israel saving her entire family and becoming a prominent person in the history of Israel.
Execution of Boys
The one incident that is difficult to understand is Moses’ order to execute all the Midianite males, even the children, but there are a couple of possible explanations to consider:
One, this was the command of Moses not God. Moses didn’t become angry often but when he did people died. Anger was his worst character quality. Even when this event occurred, he was already under God’s judgment for an angry outburst and God’s unbiased treatment of Moses is an indication that He didn’t give tacit approval to everything Moses or any other Israelite did.
When God ordered this retaliatory strike (Numbers 31:1-2) He also reminded Moses that he would be taken away (die) following this event, not being allowed to enter the land of promise. No doubt Moses was smarting on a personal level and he clearly showed his anger in the text. That doesn’t excuse the action but it does explain it.
Two, war is messy. Even with the Geneva Convention, it is difficult to get it right. War brings out the worst in even the best of people. We shouldn’t be surprised if unthinkable things happen when fighting breaks out.
These observations don’t make the carnage right but it does put a different perspective on a very ugly situation.
Now, to be fair, TL doesn’t believe the text of the Bible to be an accurate representation of historical events. Obviously, that would make it hard for him to seriously consider all relevant textual details and this offering is not an attempt to address the historicity of the Bible or to change his thinking on that issue.
It is a statement around which friendly discussion can occur.
This also is not a final answer. Anyone is welcome to offer ideas, suggestions, additional pertinent details or raise more questions for discussion. There are many ideas to consider.
Others who question the morality of this event are:
The following are pro-Bible sites:
I don’t completely agree or disagree with any of these sites but I do think it is fair to entertain their observations.
Please have a read and tell us what you THINK!AboutIt.
When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you-and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods, and the LORD’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you. This is what you are to do to them: Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire. For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.
When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. When the LORD your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the LORD your God gives you from your enemies. This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby. However, in the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the LORD your God has commanded you. Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the LORD your God.
The LORD said to Moses, “Take vengeance on the Midianites for the Israelites. After that, you will be gathered to your people.” So Moses said to the people, “Arm some of your men to go to war against the Midianites and to 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. Moses sent them into battle, a thousand from each tribe, along with Phinehas son of Eleazar, the priest, who took with him articles from the sanctuary and the trumpets for signaling. They fought against Midian, as the LORD commanded Moses, and killed every man. Among their victims were Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur and Reba—the five kings of Midian. They also killed Balaam son of Beor with the sword. The Israelites captured the Midianite women and children and took all the Midianite herds, flocks and goods as plunder. They burned all the towns where the Midianites had settled, as well as all their camps. They took all the plunder and spoils, including the people and animals, and brought the captives, spoils and plunder to Moses and Eleazar the priest and the Israelite assembly at their camp on the plains of Moab, by the Jordan across from Jericho. Moses, Eleazar the priest and all the leaders of the community went to meet them outside the camp. Moses was angry with the officers of the army—the commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds—who returned from the battle. “Have you allowed all the women to live?” he asked them. “They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and were the means of turning the Israelites away from the LORD in what happened at Peor, so that a plague struck the LORD’s people. 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.”