1 - 2 Command to Take Vengeance on the Midianites
1 Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Take full vengeance for the sons of Israel on the Midianites; afterward you will be gathered to your people.”
Moses gets his last task here. Before the people can take possession of the blessings of the land, the people must take the LORD’s vengeance on Midian. The evil connections with these enemies must be broken, otherwise the blessing cannot be enjoyed. These connections are wicked in God’s eye and form an obstacle to His blessing. God does not allow His servant Moses to leave the world until he has seen the full revenge. We also see here that a servant is not taken away until after his task has been completed.
Midian is a brotherhood. He also descends from Abraham, but his mother is Ketura (Gen 25:1-2). They are neighbors of Moab and have connected themselves with them to destroy Israel (Num 22:4; 25:1-15). On that basis God has pronounced His judgment on them (Num 25:16-18) and now let it be executed by His people.
It is good to say again that the people of God have different kinds of struggles to fight. One of those kinds is the fight against Amalek. This is a defensive struggle that takes place in the wilderness. This struggle represents for us the daily struggle against which surrounds us in the world in which we live. Another kind of struggle is against the Canaanites. This is a struggle of attack, which takes place in the land to conquer it. This struggle represents the struggle we have to fight to master the spiritual blessings God has given us.
Here it is the struggle against Midian. This is a struggle of attack, which takes place in the wilderness. But there is a difference with the fight against Amalek. The fight against Amalek is inevitable. The one against Midian could have been prevented, but has become necessary because of the people’s own unfaithfulness. The people had connected with that enemy as a result of the teachings of Balaam.
It does happen that we have become enemies of the world because we have maintained friendly relationships with her. That friendship has become a trap for us. Nevertheless, God gives us a complete victory as soon as we start to regard the world as hostile. However, everything that has seduced us must be completely destroyed, without compromise.
This is what we also find in Christianity, for example when a Christian does not reside in the world as a stranger, but mixes with it, often with nice but unbiblical motives. We can have fun with the people of the world. But where is the limit? When we become aware that we have gone too far, we notice how much effort it takes to get rid of it. If we have gone into something where we don’t belong, it requires struggle to get out of it. That would not have been necessary if we had remained faithful.
3 - 6 Who Should Go to the War
3 Moses spoke to the people, saying, “Arm men from among you for the war, that they may go against Midian to execute the LORD’s vengeance on Midian. 4 A thousand from each tribe of all the tribes of Israel you shall send to the war.” 5 So there were furnished from the thousands of Israel, a thousand from each tribe, twelve thousand armed for war. 6 Moses sent them, a thousand from each tribe, to the war, and Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest, to the war with them, and the holy vessels and the trumpets for the alarm in his hand.
The LORD speaks of the vengeance for the sons of Israel on the Midianites (verse 1). When Moses speaks of it, he speaks of the LORD’s vengeance (verse 3). A small part of the people must fight the enemy so that it is clear that God has given them victory (cf. Jos 7:1). The whole people, every part of them, must have a share in that struggle. Each tribe furnishes the same number of men.
The leader is not Joshua but Phinehas, the priest. The circumstances of the failure of the people require that. A priest is the leader of this fight, because this fight must work the cleansing of the defilement that has come over Israel through the connection with Midian. Phinehas leads the battle because he has already distinguished himself before in the battle against Midian (Num 25:7-8). He has already used his sword once to judge Midian. If we let ourselves be carried away, away from God, and we want to go back, then Phinehas must be in front, with the sword. He is the man who knows the holiness of God.
Phinehas knows that the victory must come from the LORD. Therefore he has the trumpets with him, that the LORD may hear them (Num 10:9). Priests can sound the alarm and seek God’s help in this necessary battle. By “the holy vessels” are probably meant the trumpets. The fact that they are mentioned after that means that “the trumpets” are a more detailed description of these holy vessels. It seems unlikely that “the holy vessels” mean for example the Urim and the Thummim (Exo 28:30), because Phinehas was not yet the high priest.
7 - 12 The Battle and Its Outcome
7 So they made war against Midian, just as the LORD had commanded Moses, and they killed every male. 8 They killed the kings of Midian along with the [rest of] their slain: Evi and Rekem and Zur and Hur and Reba, the five kings of Midian; they also killed Balaam the son of Beor with the sword. 9 The sons of Israel captured the women of Midian and their little ones; and all their cattle and all their flocks and all their goods they plundered. 10 Then they burned all their cities where they lived and all their camps with fire. 11 They took all the spoil and all the prey, both of man and of beast. 12 They brought the captives and the prey and the spoil to Moses, and to Eleazar the priest and to the congregation of the sons of Israel, to the camp at the plains of Moab, which are by the Jordan [opposite] Jericho.
All men are killed. That not all the people have been killed we see later, when Midian is again a formidable enemy of the people (Jdg 6:1-3). The five kings are heads of Midian tribes. In Numbers 25 Zur is called “chief” (Num 25:15), and in Joshua 13 “princes” is mentioned (Jos 13:21).
Also Balaam cannot escape judgment. His name is associated with that of the five kings. It seems that he was their advisor. He falls with the enemies of God’s people with whom he has joined. He has wished to die the death of the upright (Num 23:10), but he has continued to live in his wickedness. He did not want to join the people of the righteous. What he is separated from in his life, he is separated from in his death and will remain so forever.
In His grace God gives His people a great victory with much spoil. He fights for his people, because his honor is involved. If we are dragged along by false influences, it also involves God’s honor.
13 - 20 Further Commands from Moses
13 Moses and Eleazar the priest and all the leaders of the congregation went out to meet them outside the camp. 14 Moses was angry with the officers of the army, the captains of thousands and the captains of hundreds, who had come from service in the war. 15 And Moses said to them, “Have you spared all the women? 16 Behold, these caused the sons of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to trespass against the LORD in the matter of Peor, so the plague was among the congregation of the LORD. 17 Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man intimately. 18 But all the girls who have not known man intimately, spare for yourselves. 19 And you, camp outside the camp seven days; whoever has killed any person and whoever has touched any slain, purify yourselves, you and your captives, on the third day and on the seventh day. 20 You shall purify for yourselves every garment and every article of leather and all the work of goats’ [hair], and all articles of wood.”
On the side of the people there is no loss (verse 49), which is a proof that this battle is from and for God. Now the people still have to learn that evil must be radically eradicated. We must learn that too. The men are killed, because they are a great danger by their strength. But also the women must be killed, because their danger is even greater because of their temptation. It is they who have caused so much harm to the people. The virgins of Midian do not need to be killed. They have not lent themselves to fornication. That teaches us that we must distinguish in the exercise of judgment.
Furthermore, we learn that being engaged in evil, even though it is commissioned by the Lord, defiles. It is necessary to purify, to cleans and use the cleansing water. Reading God’s Word brings about that cleansing.
21 - 24 Requirements for Cleansing
21 Then Eleazar the priest said to the men of war who had gone to battle, “This is the statute of the law which the LORD has commanded Moses: 22 only the gold and the silver, the bronze, the iron, the tin and the lead, 23 everything that can stand the fire, you shall pass through the fire, and it shall be clean, but it shall be purified with water for impurity. But whatever cannot stand the fire you shall pass through the water. 24 And you shall wash your clothes on the seventh day and be clean, and afterward you may enter the camp.”
Everything that Israel has captured must be purified. The cleansing is done by putting it in the fire and then washing it with water. What cannot stand the fire should only be cleansed with water. The cleansing is carried out under the responsibility of Eleazar, who as a high priest must ensure that the cleansing is done strictly according to the prescription of Numbers 19 (Num 19:1-22).
Nothing can be used by Israel without first going through the fire. The spoils that come from our unfaithfulness must also be cleansed to make them suitable for our own use. Everything that has been in the hands of Midian and is therefore unclean must be cleansed.
We can apply this to unbiblical practices of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. These unbiblical practices are a consequence of our unfaithfulness. When baptism and supper are brought back to the foundation of the Bible, when they are cleansed of what is contrary to it, they can again be accepted as a blessing from God’s hand and used for His glory.
Fire and water must thus be applied to every truth we confess and every practice we connect to it in order to use it for God. The fire speaks of judgment, the water speaks of the Word of God. Fire consumes what cannot exist for God, water removes dirt and cleanses. Everything that has been under God’s judgment and is in accordance with God’s Word can be used for His glorification. If we get to this point, it is the result of the high priestly work of the Lord Jesus that He, as the true Eleazar, does for us. He leads us to see and to do everything so that God can accept it.
25 - 31 How to Distribute the Booty
25 Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 26 “You and Eleazar the priest and the heads of the fathers’ [households] of the congregation take a count of the booty that was captured, both of man and of animal; 27 and divide the booty between the warriors who went out to battle and all the congregation. 28 Levy a tax for the LORD from the men of war who went out to battle, one in five hundred of the persons and of the cattle and of the donkeys and of the sheep; 29 take it from their half and give it to Eleazar the priest, as an offering to the LORD. 30 From the sons of Israel’s half, you shall take one drawn out of every fifty of the persons, of the cattle, of the donkeys and of the sheep, from all the animals, and give them to the Levites who keep charge of the tabernacle of the LORD.” 31 Moses and Eleazar the priest did just as the LORD had commanded Moses.
The booty must be divided into two parts. One half is for the warriors, the other half is for the people. The booty is not only for the warriors. David later acts in the same way (1Sam 30:21-25; cf. Jos 22:8). In proportion, the warriors get more. They have also experienced the difficulties, efforts and dangers of war.
The LORD makes sure that every Israelite can share in the joy of victory. He chooses who takes part in the war and honors them. He also wants to honor those who have stayed behind according to His sovereign will and who have faithfully fulfilled their task according to His will at their designated place.
Not everyone is equally capable of taking part in the battle. When believers achieve spiritual victories, the spoils must be shared with all. The spiritual riches one acquires must be shared with other believers.
Peter once made a fall. He has denied the Lord Jesus. The cause of this is the connection he has made with the world. He sat down in their midst (Lk 22:55). The Lord has even foretold this denial, but he said that Peter would convert from that evil way. He even connects to it a command for Peter: after that bitter experience Peter will become an instrument of blessing for others (Lk 22:31-34). His letters are proof that he has carried out that task.
The warriors must also give part to the LORD. This part is for the benefit of the Levites. Their service is also dedicated to the priestly service. Levites are encouraged in their task as they share in the spoils. Our spiritual victories should contribute to the promotion of the Levite service and through them also to the priestly service.
Everything is connected to the tabernacle (verses 30,47) where ultimately the spiritual gain of each victory ends up. There God is served and God’s people have fellowship with Him and with each other. The meetings of the believers are then places where believers come from richer than they came.
32 - 47 Distribution of the Booty
32 Now the booty that remained from the spoil which the men of war had plundered was 675,000 sheep, 33 and 72,000 cattle, 34 and 61,000 donkeys, 35 and of human beings, of the women who had not known man intimately, all the persons were 32,000. 36 The half, the portion of those who went out to war, was [as follows]: the number of sheep was 337,500, 37 and the LORD’s levy of the sheep was 675; 38 and the cattle were 36,000, from which the LORD’s levy was 72; 39 and the donkeys were 30,500, from which the LORD’s levy was 61; 40 and the human beings were 16,000, from whom the LORD’s levy was 32 persons. 41 Moses gave the levy [which was] the LORD’s offering to Eleazar the priest, just as the LORD had commanded Moses. 42 As for the sons of Israel’s half, which Moses separated from the men who had gone to war— 43 now the congregation’s half was 337,500 sheep, 44 and 36 The half, the portion of those who went out to war, was [as follows]: the number of sheep was 337,500, 37 and the LORD’s levy of the sheep was 675; 38 and the cattle were 36,000, from which the LORD’s levy was 72; 39 and the donkeys were 30,500, from which the LORD’s levy was 61; 40 and the human beings were 16,000, from whom the LORD’s levy was 32 persons. 41 Moses gave the levy [which was] the LORD’s offering to Eleazar the priest, just as the LORD had commanded Moses. 42 As for the sons of Israel’s half, which Moses separated from the men who had gone to war— 43 now the congregation’s half was 337,500 sheep, 44 and 36,000 cattle, 45 and 30,500 donkeys, 46 and the human beings were 16,000— 47 and from the sons of Israel’s half, Moses took one drawn out of every fifty, both of man and of animals, and gave them to the Levites, who kept charge of the tabernacle of the LORD, just as the LORD had commanded Moses.
The booty and its distribution are as follows:
Booty of sheep: 675,000
1. for the soldiers: 337,500 of which 675 (=1/1000 of 675,000) for the LORD
2. for the people: 337,500 of which 6,750 (=1/100 of 675,000) for the Levites
Booty of cattle: 72,000
1. for the soldiers: 36,000 of which 72 for the LORD
2. for the people: 36,000 of which 720 for the Levites
Booty of donkeys: 61,000
1. for the soldiers: 30,500 of which 61 for the LORD
2. for the people: 30,500 of which 610 for the Levites
Booty of people: 32,000
1. for the soldiers: 16,000 of whom 32 for the LORD
2. for the people: 16,000 of whom 320 for the Levites
48 - 54 The Voluntary Gift of the Spoils
48 Then the officers who were over the thousands of the army, the captains of thousands and the captains of hundreds, approached Moses, 49 and they said to Moses, “Your servants have taken a census of men of war who are in our charge, and no man of us is missing. 50 So we have brought as an offering to the LORD what each man found, articles of gold, armlets and bracelets, signet rings, earrings and necklaces, to make atonement for ourselves before the LORD.” 51 Moses and Eleazar the priest took the gold from them, all kinds of wrought articles. 52 All the gold of the offering which they offered up to the LORD, from the captains of thousands and the captains of hundreds, was 16,750 shekels. 53 The men of war had taken booty, every man for himself. 54 So Moses and Eleazar the priest took the gold from the captains of thousands and of hundreds, and brought it to the tent of meeting as a memorial for the sons of Israel before the LORD.
A spontaneous action of the superiors takes place out of gratitude. They are impressed by the fact that no one has died. They do not attribute this to their own competence. Many have perished in Numbers 25 because of their unfaithfulness. Now that no one has perished, they give God the honor for it.
The Lord Jesus will also make sure that no one who belongs to Him will be lost (Jn 17:12). No one will be missed in eternal glory from all those who have fought for the Lord on earth. All who abide by the Word of God attain salvation. We see this in the picture in Acts 27, which concludes with: “And so it happened that they all were brought safely to land” (Acts 27:44). The Lord Jesus will be praised for this for all eternity. This certainty will lead us now to worship Him in “the tent of meeting” (verse 54).
From spiritual leaders it may be expected to have more understanding of God’s goodness. Here it is even mentioned that these things are given to make atonement. It is exceptional that atonement is attributed to materials. That is always reserved for the blood.
However, there are exceptions. Atonement is also done in Numbers 16 by incense, although there is connection with the altar where the fire comes from (Num 16:46-48). In Exodus 30, atonement takes place through silver (Exo 30:11-16). In order to exist for God, a price must be paid. Then someone becomes one of the numbered. Atonement means covering.
Normally that atonement has to do with sins, that they are covered. Here it is about God’s glory covering His people after they have failed. This is about recognizing that it is only His glory that matters and that we want to hide in it, even if it is due to causes which we ourselves are to blame for.
The gold is brought by Moses and Eleazar into the tent of meeting (cf. 1Chr 18:11; 2Chr 15:18). All experiences should enrich our meetings. Every meeting should reflect all the experiences we have had over the past week that have impressed us with God’s goodness and faithfulness and glory.
In the history of this chapter we see an illustration of Samson’s riddle: here something to eat comes out of the eater and something sweet comes out of the strong (Jdg 14:14). What the enemy (the eater, the strong) wants to do to destroy the people, works out for the glory of God and blessing for His people (something to eat and something sweet).