In Summary: This chapter recounts the battle between Israel and Midian. Having fallen to the temptations of the Midianites earlier in the narrative, God commands the Israelites to attack.
There’s something about that, isn’t there? Had the Midianites been content to let Israel pass by, God would have saved judgment on the Midianites for some other time. Yet they had to go after the people of God, who held no harm for them. This brought destruction. I think there is something to that in terms of how God reacts to those who oppose Him. When one opposes God, He continues to work to bring us back to Him. He extends grace in a wide path.
Yet when we start to cross over into harming others, God draws a firmer line. It is true that He still allows evil in this world, but I would suggest the argument that this evil opens opportunities for God’s people to do good. This allows us to live up to the name of Christian: one who is like Christ but smaller. He came into a world of evil and did the ultimate good—we can do smaller goods that point people to Him.
Back to the chapter, we see the overall battle is a rout. The Israelites lose no soldiers, while Midian is defeated and slaughtered. This is an area that continues to trouble me, and others, regarding warfare in the Old Testament. Was it truly necessary to execute everyone? Apparently it was commonplace, but I cannot wrap my head around it as a good thing.
Going forward, the Israelites then breakdown and divide the spoils of war between those who fought and those who stayed behind. This was not a matter of rewarding the lazy. Remember that God only called for one thousand from each tribe, so many who would have fought were not needed. Additionally, the Levites were not part of the fighting forces, so these also were left out. However, those who had the risk received the greater reward. (Numbers 31:25-27)
In Focus: I would put the spotlight on Numbers 31:8. Notice who is put to death, along with the kings of the Midianites: Balaam, son of Beor. Remember him from earlier in Numbers?
All of his posturing about only doing what YHWH commanded, all of his religious talk meant exactly nothing. I do not think there is anything in this passage that supports the idea that he was among the enemies of God doing mission work. Instead, we get the sense that he is there advising the Midianites in their opposition to Israel.
And in the end, all the wealth he received from Balak came to naught. It ends up part of the plunder of the people of Israel. Had Balaam listened to God and not gone (Numbers 22) or bailed out after God blessed Israel (Numbers 23-24), he would have lived—and perhaps profited. Instead, he spoke more than what YHWH gave him to say, because he advised Balak how to trap Israel.
In Practice: So, let us think on Balaam one more time here. God gave him a prohibition, a commandment regarding his behavior. And Balaam chafed at it. First he chafed at not going. Then he seemed to chafe at restricting his speech. Then he chafed at seeking YHWH for words and spoke his own oracle of blessing. In the end, he chafed at leaving it alone.
We do that, don’t we? We chafe at the commands of God. We think God does not know well enough, and so we get around His commands. We find loopholes or issue provisos. We look for ways to not do what we should or to do what we should not.
In the end, it ends up leading to death. And then we’re surprised. We wonder what happened…I wonder if Balaam thought the same. Why is this happening? He should have turned back. So should we—the Word of God is plain on this, that we must flee to Christ first, and then follow Him.
In Nerdiness: I think there is something interesting in Numbers 31:28 and Numbers 31:30. The offering to YHWH from the warriors (the first verse) is 1 from 500. The offering from the Israelites that did not fight is 1 from 50.
I think there may be something here that sets a precedent of giving thanks to God for those who fight on our behalf. Even to the point of offering sacrifices on their behalf rather than asking it from them. I am not fully certain how much we should base on this, but you see a precedent here that sounds a lot like a support-the-veteran’s event in Israel.
It is noteworthy that items were not given to the warriors but all was part of the worship. I’m not sure how (or exactly if) this should apply in a Christian church. But it is part of our Scriptures, and should be examined.