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Did the Israelites destroy the Midianites under Moses?

Posted on Dec.11, 2008. Filed in Judges, Numbers. Average rating: 5.7 / 10 (Rate It).

Substantial parts of the Old Testament are concerned with wars between the Israelites and their neighbouring tribes. In Numbers, we read of the vengeance of the Israelites against the Midianites. There the Israelites defeat the Midianites in battle, and kill every man, every boy, and every woman who isn’t a virgin:

They did battle against Midian, as the Lord had commanded Moses, and killed every male. They killed the kings of Midian: Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba, the five kings of Midian, in addition to others who were slain by them; and they also killed Balaam son of Beor with the sword. The Israelites took the women of Midian and their little ones captive; and they took all their cattle, their flocks, and all their goods as booty. All their towns where they had settled, and all their encampments, they burned, but they took all the spoil and all the booty, both people and animals. Then they brought the captives and the booty and the spoil to Moses, to Eleazar the priest, and to the congregation of the Israelites, at the camp on the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho.

Moses, Eleazar the priest, and all the leaders of the congregation went to meet them outside the camp. Moses became angry with the officers of the army, the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds, who had come from service in the war. Moses said to them, ‘Have you allowed all the women to live? These women here, on Balaam’s advice, made the Israelites act treacherously against the Lord in the affair of Peor, so that the plague came among the congregation of the Lord. Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known a man by sleeping with him. But all the young girls who have not known a man by sleeping with him, keep alive for yourselves.’  [Numbers 31:7-18 (NRSV)]

This would have reduced the Midianites to a tribe of virgin slaves, and so should have put an end to them. However, in Judges the Midianites are back, oppressing the Israelites once more:

The Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord gave them into the hand of Midian for seven years. The hand of Midian prevailed over Israel… [Judges 6:1-2a (NRSV)]

So did the Israelites destroy the Midianites the first time or not?

N.B. All posts are written in a style sympathetic to the claim of Biblical error, even in cases where the author ("Errancy") disagrees with the claim. See the About page for the site's philosophy.

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  1. 1
    WisdomLover

    Notice that if you take “killed every male” from the Numbers account in a strict sense, you don’t even have to go to Judges to find a problem. Just a few verses down (verse 17), you find Moses commanding the death of all the male children. Did they kill all the males in verse 7 or not?

    Am I suggesting another Biblical error?

    No.

    What I am suggesting is that there is a context to verse 7 that limits the extent of the slaughter. For starters, the translation of the Hebrew word “zakar” may give the passage the wrong flavor. The Hebrew word “zakar” can mean “male” or “man”. So the passage might have read:

    They did battle against Midian…and killed every man.

    This doesn’t mean that they killed every Midianite male (as already noted, we know that they didn’t do that just from verse 17). What they did do was kill every man that fought against them in the battle.

    With Midian thus unprotected, the Israelites then burned every city and encampment. They took prisoner every surviving person in every burnt city and camp. These people were later killed (except for the virgins).

    But this does not mean that countless Midianites who fled before the battle was even joined might not have escaped. Nor does it mean that Midianites who were traveling at the time of the war were caught in the Israelites’ net. The remnant of the Midianites continued, and their descendants later got the upper hand against the Israelites as recounted in Judges.

    Furthermore, the virgin slaves would not remain virgins. They would become the wives or concubines of Israelite men. Many Midianites had already intermarried with the Israelites (including Moses’ own wife). It is conceivable that some of these half-Midianites within the Israelite host would eventually defect and join the Midianite remnant.

  2. 2
    thewalrus19

    Ah but if the Midianite children were all that survived, and their mothers taken away, considering the slim chance that enough of them survived to grow back to enough strength to take over the Israelites, they would not have their parents to tell them how to do tasks like weapon making, and they would not have been taught to hate the Israelites.

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