In a Nutshell…
Read the passage here.
Our passage today is directly connected to the passage we looked at a couple of weeks ago in chapter 25. If you recall from that passage, we find out that while Balaam is on the mountain pronouncing God’s blessing over Israel, the Israelites are on the plain with the Moabites, sacrificing to their gods. God announces judgement on those Israelites that rebelled against God – those Israelites who rebelled against God are to be killed. While that judgement is being carried out, another Israelite man is caught bringing a Midianite woman into the camp. Both that Israelite and the Midianite woman are killed by Phineas, which stops the judgement against Israel.
As a result of this incident, we get the following command of God to Moses and the Israelites
16 The Lord said to Moses, 17 “Treat the Midianites as enemies and kill them. 18 They treated you as enemies when they deceived you in the Peor incident involving their sister Kozbi, the daughter of a Midianite leader, the woman who was killed when the plague came as a result of that incident.”Numbers 25:16
So our passage today is a direct result of what we saw in chapter 25. As you can see, in response to the previous episode, God’s command to Moses is to go to war against the Midianites – they killed every man, including the five kings of Midian, captured the women and children, took all of their livestock and goods, and burned all the towns. Further, Moses was angry with the Israelites, essentially saying they did not go far enough. He commanded them to kill all the women who had slept with a man, as well as kill all the boys.
Now obviously this passage – and passages like this – present all kinds of problems for Christians. Because what we appear to have is a God who is violent, vengeful, and cruel. It’s passages like this that some non-Christians point to when they say they want nothing to do with a God like that. And it’s passages like this that some Christians point to when they say that the Old Testament has nothing to do with the God that they worship (that is, the New Testament God).
So what we want to try to do today is understand what passages like this are doing in the Bible. How are we supposed to understand God as He is presented in episodes like this?
Now, the issue or topic of war, specifically war in the Old Testament, and more specifically the Israelite wars of conquest, is a pretty large topic. There are a number of perspectives from which the questions around it have been pursued. To a certain respect, the answers that one comes up with will depend on the perspective you bring to the questions.
So, having said that, what I want to do is try to connect our passage today with some of the themes that we’ve been discussing over the past many months. In particular, I want to think about how it is related to the topic of creating a people. We’re not going to be looking at this textually or canonically, but rather merely considering some thematic connections.
Firstly, a couple of notes on the story – because it’s a pretty harsh, if not shocking, one. Note that the text tells us that Moses was angry with the Israelites for letting the women live. It was Moses who demands that all the women who have slept with a man and all the boys be killed. There’s no actual indication in the text that this was also God’s will (it may have been – it’s just not in the actual text). Further, there’s no actual indication that this was actually carried out. Also, while the text indicates that every man was killed, we see Midian again in later stories in the Bible (that is, Midian survives). For example, Judges 6-8 with Gideon. This is related to the Hebrew word herem (though it’s not found in this passage).
The word herem is the word used in Deuteronomy 7 (for example) in which God commands the Israelites to completely destroy their enemies.
1 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—2 and when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally.Deuteronomy 7:1-2
Apart from any other considerations (theological, lexical, or otherwise), what we find is that these enemies are never “exterminated” in the way we might expect.
My point simply being that the destruction – and therefore judgement/vengeance – may not be as complete or as severe as we could be led to believe.
Of course, this doesn’t really diminish the impact of this story. What it does do, perhaps, is suggest that God’s grace is evident even in His judgement. However, this is a topic which we don’t have time and space to explore here and is probably better left for a later discussion. (We’ll take it up again when we get to those passages, later in the OT).
So then, what’s going on in this story? I said that we’re going to be considering this story thematically – what did I mean by that?
Firstly, commentators argue that this passage is more midrash than history. Midrash is essentially Jewish teaching or interpretation (usually applied to Jewish scripture). In other words, the story is intended more to convey a point (or points) than it is intended to convey facts. (This doesn’t mean that the story is not factual, nor should it diminish the historicity of the events – we simply mean that it’s told in such a way to convey a point or a lesson).
Secondly, especially by the specific textual connections with chapter 25, it seems that (at least) chapters 25 through 31 (our passage today) are connected. (Almost definitely more – the Balaam and Balak story is closely connected to chapter 25. The following chapters are also likely connected).
This may be a little convoluted, so bear with me. A couple of weeks ago, we looked at chapter 25, the story with the Moabites and Midianites which provides the prelude to our story today (and note that our passage makes a point of demonstrating the narrative and logical connection). And we suggested that this story in chapter 25 is, in part, about a clash of cultures. The Israelites, encountering a foreign culture, were drawn into, or captivated by, that culture. In our discussion, we are reminded not to be seduced by the ways of the world. (And we won’t re-hash that discussion here, but remember that these “worldly” things are often not what we think they are).
Last week, we looked at the verses (chapter 28, specifically) having to do with the Laws about offerings and feasts (that is, the offerings at the feasts). And we looked at how these laws, for example, seem to be concerned about the formation of character – specifically a God-directed character – rather than things we cannot do and things we have to do.
And in today’s passage, we have, what is a new generation of Israelites (remember that the older generation was destroyed as a result of chapter 25 – also, this was the census and succession plan in chapters 26 and 27), once again confronting the Midianites – though, this time, instead of “falling victim” to the Midianites, they are instructed to go to war with them and destroy them.
What I want to suggest to you (and is probably obvious) is that all three of these passages, and thus the whole series of passages, is bound together by the theme of creating a people. This is the same theme that we’ve been exploring throughout the Pentateuch (so far). So I’ll try not to be too repetitive in re-visiting and re-explaining what we’ve already done.
Last week, we talked about the Law (some laws) as more closely related to virtue ethics than deontological (rule-based) or consequentialist (outcome based) ethics. Without digressing back into our discussion last week, a key distinction between these are that (or it could be argued that) deontological and consequentialist ethics are action-based, and virtue ethics is character-based. Or, to put it more simply, the former are focussed on what you do and the latter is focussed on who you are. Now this is a simplification because actions arise out of character, and character is defined by actions (i.e. they are inter-related).
Stanley Hauerwas is a theologian who argues that character is rooted in community. To put it very simply, the formation of character only makes sense and only happens in the context of the story and history of a community. To put it yet another way, to be a loving person (or a courageous, or kind, or faithful person) only makes sense in the context of a community that gives shape and content to what those things mean. Further, which virtues (or which characteristics) are worth pursuing is defined by the community of which one is a part.
Now, we are all members of various communities. Some of those communities agree on which virtues we should pursue (or the virtues look similar). But some of those communities don’t – either they disagree on the virtues, or the disagree on how to define the virtues.
And what virtues arise out of what communities depends on what story is constitutive of that community. What story forms the identity of the community?
So the fundamental question for a person who is striving to be a person of virtue – a person of character – is, what community, and therefore what story, will define (or shape) who you are.
Why am I even talking about this? Why does this even matter to any of us? Partly, I want to bring this up because last week, we introduced the notion of ethics (i.e. one way the Law functions) as virtue, or building character.
However, according to Hauerwas, virtue is not merely “being a good person.” Being a Christian, being a child of God, is not merely trying not to harm or offend anyone else and trying to be a good person. Virtue is about what story are you participating in?
Being a Christian, being a child of God, is not about “being a good person.” It’s about inhabiting the story of a holy, gracious God who is determined to deliver creation from sin and death. It’s the story of God the Son, Jesus Christ, giving up His life on the cross so that we could have life eternal. It’s the story of a final future where sin and death are done away with and we become, fully and completely, the people that we were meant to be.
Are we inhabiting that story? Are we allowing that story to inhabit us? Does that story change the way that we see the world and the way that we see our role, our purpose, in the world?
The Israelites, when they first encountered the foreign peoples, forgot that they were called to be part of God’s story – and instead chose to bow before the idols of Moab. They chose to turn their backs on God for the sake of Midian.
So What Now…?
Now that’s a really long walk, but it brings us all the way back to the question we asked last week – what kind of community are we trying to be? Whose story are we a part of?
Our story today is obviously very graphic. But this is the question that is being posed to the Israelites as they leave behind Egypt and enter the promised land of Canaan. What kind of people are they going to be?
The historical situation (and thus, the methodology – i.e. warfare and conquest) is very different than it is for us, but the challenge is largely the same.
That the historical situation is different means that, unlike the Israelites, we are not battling other people and we are not struggling for land. Paul tells us, in no uncertain terms, that God’s kingdom is available to all peoples. But the aim (the telos) is still the same – to become a people; to become God’s people.