The first five books of the Bible are full of stories of the conquest of Caanan. But one story
that sometimes stands out in the
minds of skeptics is the one found in Numbers 31, where God seemingly gives no reason for killing
defenseless women and male children.
In addition, it has been suggested that the young girls mentioned in the account were spared so
that the Israelite men could rape them.
Such accusations are baseless, however, as is evident when they are viewed in light of other
The most widely questioned section of Numbers 31 is verses 17-18: “Now therefore kill
every male among the little ones, and
kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women-children, that have not
known man by lying with him, keep
alive for yourselves.” To understand this passage, one must realize that Numbers 25 is the
“prequel” to the events
recorded in Numbers 31. Numbers 25 tells how the Midianites, specifically the women, led the
Israelites astray into worshiping the Baal
or Peor. The Lord’s anger burned against Israel, and He struck them with a plague. The plague
ended when Phinehas, the grandson of
Aaron, killed an Israelite man and the Midianite woman he brought into his family (Numbers
25:6-9). The relations with Midianite women
were in direct violation of God’s commands in Deuteronomy 7:3-4: “[N]either shalt thou
make marriages with them; thy daughter
thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son. For he will turn
away thy son from following me, that
they may serve other gods: so will the anger of Jehovah be kindled against you, and he will
destroy thee quickly.”
As a result of these events, God instructed the Israelites to “Vex the Midianites, and
smite them; for they vex you with their
wiles, wherewith they have beguiled you in the matter of Peor, and in the matter of Cozbi, the
daughter of the prince of Midian, their
sister, who was slain on the day of the plague in the matter of Peor” (Numbers 25:17-18).
When, in Numbers 31, the army brought
back the women, it was in direct violation to God’s order in Numbers 25 to destroy the
Midianites, who would lead the Israelites
But how can we explain the destruction of the young boys? Why were they not spared along with
the young girls? Skeptics read of
events such as the conquest of Canaan, and contend that no God could be so cruel as to call for
the destruction of an entire nation.
The mere idea of the God of heaven ordering the death of women and innocent children so outraged
infidel Thomas Paine that he said such
a scenario was sufficient evidence in and of itself to cause him to reject the divine origin of
the Bible (1795, p. 90). In fact, he
condemned the Bible for its alleged moral atrocities, and even went so far as to blame the Bible
for virtually every moral injustice
ever committed. He wrote:
Whence arose the horrid assassinations of whole nations of men, women, and infants,
with which the Bible is filled; and the
bloody persecutions, and tortures unto death and religious wars, that since that time have laid
Europe in blood and ashes; whence arose
they, but from this impious thing called revealed religion, and this monstrous belief that God has
spoken to man? (p. 185).
However, to allege that the God of the Bible is some sort of “monster” for ordering
Israel to destroy the inhabitants of
Canaan exhibits an ignorance of biblical teaching. Those inhabitants were destroyed because of
their wickedness (Deuteronomy 9:4;
18:9-14). They were so evil that their Creator no longer could abide their corruption. That they
had numerous opportunities to repent
is evident from the prophetic books (Nineveh did repent, for example, and for a time stayed the
day of destruction). Complaining about
Jehovah’s order to destroy innocent children is a vain gesture when one realizes that the
children were spared an even worse fate
of being reared as slaves under the domination of sin. Instead of having to endure the scourge of
a life of immorality and wickedness,
these innocents were ushered early into the bliss of Paradise. If the male children had been
allowed to mature, they most likely would
have followed the pagan ways of their forefathers, and eventually would have taken vengeance on
the Israelites. Killing the males not
only prevented them from falling into the same abominable sins as their parents, but also kept
Israel from having to battle them later.
Man hardly can blame God and His Word for the awful consequences of sin; rather, he has only
himself to blame (Romans 3:23; 5:12). A
parent who warns a child of the consequences of disobedience, threatens an appropriate punishment,
and then is true to his word at the
event of infraction, generally is considered to be a firm-but-loving parent by clear-thinking
people. Yet, critics ask us to view God
as some type of ogre for following the same course of action. The discrepancy is not with the
Almighty, but with His cowering critics.
The allegation that the Israelite men spared the young girls in order to rape them is nothing
but baseless supposition predicated
upon a lack of biblical knowledge. In the custom of the time, marriages were conducted at a young
age. Therefore, the reference to the
young girls who had not “known man by lying with him” would indicate that they were very
young, likely under the age of
twelve. These girls were too young to be able to lead the men of Israel away from Jehovah;
therefore, these girls were allowed to live.
As to raping them, it is more logical to assume that they wanted these girls for servants. This
would be similar to Joshua 9, where
Joshua allowed the Gibeonites to live in compelled servitude to the Israelites. Moreover, it would
have been sinful for the Israelite
men to rape the Midianite girls because rape was (and still is) abhorrent to God (Deuteronomy
22:23-28, esp. 25).
The simple answer to the questions surrounding Numbers 31 is that God ordered the Midianites to
be killed in Numbers 25:17-18. When
the army did not carry out this order at the time of the Midianite defeat, it was carried out in a
delayed fashion when the army
returned with the captives. As to Moses allowing the young girls to remain alive, that was a
judgment call from the man with God’s
authority over the Israelites.
God is the omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and all-righteous “I Am” Who is over
all things—so He may do whatever He
wishes, so long as it is not in violation of His character. However, God does everything for a
reason. Sometimes that reason may be
unclear to us. In the case of the destruction of people like the Canaanites, God’s reasoning
had to do with His justice.
Deuteronomy 32:3-4 records: “For I will proclaim the name of Jehovah: Ascribe ye greatness
unto our God. The Rock, his work is
perfect; For all his ways are justice: A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, Just
and right is he” (emp.
added). Men may not always understand God’s justice, or His reasons for exercising it as He
does. As Job 4:17 asked: “
Shall mortal man be more just than God? Shall a man be more pure than his Maker?” (emp.
added). The fact is, God does condone
killing—in the name of justice (whether it be justice in regard to one person, or a whole nation).
Even in modern times, the death
penalty is an acceptable means of administering justice (Romans 13:1-7; cf. Genesis 9:6). While
God is all loving, He also is a God of
justice, and He will execute that justice in the most propitious manner—including by means of
Paine, Thomas (1795), Age of Reason (New York: Knickerbocker Press, 1924 reprint).
Copyright © 2002 Apologetics Press, Inc. All rights reserved.
We are happy to grant permission for items in the "Alleged Discrepancies" section to be reproduced in their entirety, as long as the following stipulations are observed: (1) Apologetics Press must be designated as the original publisher; (2) the specific Apologetics Press Web site URL must be noted; (3) the authors name must remain attached to the materials; (4) any references, footnotes, or endnotes that accompany the article must be included with any written reproduction of the article; (5) alterations of any kind are strictly forbidden (e.g., photographs, charts, graphics, quotations, etc. must be reproduced exactly as they appear in the original); (6) serialization of written material (e.g., running an article in several parts) is permitted, as long as the whole of the material is made available, without editing, in a reasonable length of time; (7) articles, in whole or in part, may not be offered for sale or included in items offered for sale; and (8) articles may be reproduced in electronic form for posting on Web sites pending they are not edited or altered from their original content and that credit is given to Apologetics Press, including the web location from which the articles were taken.
For catalog, samples, or further information, contact:
230 Landmark Drive
Montgomery, Alabama 36117
Phone (334) 272-8558