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Monday, September 12, 2011

The Midianite Assault

One of the most troublesome passages of Scripture can be Numbers 31. It is a popular one for skeptics to flag as proof that the Bible is false (at best). It is a popular for so-called Christians to point to as proof that we can't take the Bible as written. Even the genuine Christian who is trying to make sense of the Bible will find that this one can be tough.

The first problem is the text. Taking the text out of context is a real problem (and that's usually how you're going to get it):
"Have you spared all the women? 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. Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man intimately. But all the girls who have not known man intimately, spare for yourselves. 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. And you shall purify for yourselves every garment and every article of leather and all the work of goats' hair, and all articles of wood" (Num 31:15-20)
See? That's pretty tough. So let's take a look at it. First question: Who is speaking? If you guessed that it is God, you'd be normal ... but wrong. It's Moses. Second question: What exactly is Moses telling them to do ... and why? That is the real question.

Note, first that this text follows Num 25. In that passage, Midian and Moab launched a massive campaign to destroy Israel. Balaam had been called in to curse Israel but couldn't. But before he left, he told Midian how they could get Israel's God to destroy them. The attack wasn't by army, but by sex. Based on the fact that 24,000 Israelites died in Numbers 25, the sex attack must have been massive. Tens of thousands of Midianite women were involved with their husbands' and fathers' and government's full knowledge.

Note that the first to pay for this sin was Israel (24,000 dead).

Only 12,000 Israelites went to war (Num 31:5). That fact combined with the Midian nomadic culture of the day and the fact that Midian came back later to cause more problems for Israel says that this was not genocide. It was a small portion of Midian that was attacked. Note, also, that the one(s) who commits a crime is responsible for the crime. Taking away someone's freedom may seem bad, for instance, but a judge who sends a thief to prison isn't guilty of anything bad; that's the responsibility of the thief.

Note that this fight was not to gain sex slaves. Moses was angry that they spared the women (Num 31:15). Justice was in mind, not conquest.

The women that were not killed in the battle were ordered put to death because of their involvement in the Midianite plot. Girls not involved in the plot were spared.

We consider it evil that the male children were killed, and that's tough for anyone to defend. However, keep in mind that in a blood-succession based civilization like Midian's, the living males represented a threat. (See, for instance 1 Sam 29. David served slave the Philistines, but the Philistines recognized that he could turn on them.)

Please, please, please, when you get this accusation against the Bible and against God, be sure to notice this. There is no reference in the text to rape. When it says to keep them "for yourselves", this is not a reference to sexual slavery, but used in distinction to statements regarding things "for the Lord". Since females wed as soon as they were able to bear children and these girls were virgins, it is most likely that these girls were under the age of 12. They were absorbed into Israel's care as household servants, not sex slaves.

This passage, without a doubt, is not pleasant to our modern thinking. I don't like it either. However, keep in mind that there is no command to rape. The intent of this battle was not conquest or loot or acquiring sex slaves, but divine justice. There are no innocents. The fact that they saved so many speaks of a greater mercy than might have been expected. Assuming that rape took place requires an assumption, an a priori belief that God is bad or Scripture is unreliable (in the final analysis) or both. Nor did the command regarding women and children come from God. Don't make the mistake of seeing this as either a false representation or normative. The suggestion that "God commands killing the men and saving the women for sex slaves" is a lie, and, again, we know who the father of lies is.

13 comments:

starflyer said...

You rock Stan! I love the way you defend the Bible. Please, please write a book.

Glenn E. Chatfield said...

Another excellent post defending the faith. This is one I have routinely encountered in our book table ministry. While I have not been as thorough as this, I have given similar responses. This one beats mine with its thoroughness and I will add it to my references.

Marshall Art said...

The one question I see remaining is this: Wasn't Moses acting on God's behalf? In other words, though he gave the order, do we assume it was "all his idea", so to speak, or God acting through him? I don't think it really changes anything else regarding your analysis, but some might think so.

Stan said...

I would be cautious about assuming that Moses was "acting on God's behalf". We remember that Moses provided water for the people in the desert by striking the rock when he should have spoken to it. God provided the water out of the rock and Moses was even indignant with the people on God's behalf, but Moses didn't get into the Promised Land for that little stunt.

Marshall Art said...

But the story of the water from the rock was told in a manner where it is clear he erred. Or am I doing the erring here? I would have to review both stories before I go any further.

Stan said...

First, we're told that he erred in that story, but would the observers of the day know it? I mean, he sounded righteous in his indignation, and God apparently honored his efforts by giving them water.

Second, we know that, for instance, Moses gave instructions regarding divorce that "from the beginning was not so" (Matt 19:8). In that case, God allowed it "because of your hardness of heart", but it wasn't optimum.

Third, even in the text here Moses was clearly angry that anyone survived (Num 31:14-15). So we that God's plan was total annihilation. Moses was operating on making the best of what he had.

Finally, there was a group of young women who, if left to themselves, would have perished. I don't know if Moses was speaking for God in this instance, but taking them in (if you notice, there is nothing in the text that says "marry them" or "have sex with them"), putting them to work, and taking care of them doesn't seem to me to be an outrageous act at all regardless of whether it was Moses's idea or God's.

von said...

It almost seems to me like you have already decided what right and wrong are, and then you read it back into the text.
a) 'Sex Slavery' is wrong
b) God doesn't do wrong
ergo
c) God didn't commend 'sex slavery'

eh?

Stan said...

Um ... no. Do you find "sex slavery" somewhere in the text? (Beyond that, do you suggest that sex slavery is good?)

von said...

First of all I put 'sex slavery' in quotes, which should give a certain indication of my view of finding it i n the text.... and my view of its 'goodness'.

Reading over the last couple of posts, though, I do believe you have misread the culture and what God said... in fear of what you might find and how it looks to modern eyes.

Not what I ordinarily expect from you.

Stan said...

Well, I certainly don't know what you are suggesting I've said that 1) wasn't supported by the text or 2) was written out of fear of what the text might say. Maybe you could enlighten me.

von said...

This quote, for example, left me with the impression that you were then going to work on 'explaining away' the text:

Even the genuine Christian who is trying to make sense of the Bible will find that this one can be tough.


But enough of the vague, and perhaps inaccurate, accusations. Let me outline how I see this subject and you tell me how/why you disagree.

First of all the term 'sex slaves'. I believe our ordinary reader hears this as, "A woman, bought or captured, and kept by force, who is forced to have sex with many different people, who pay her owner.'

This kind of idea is utterly repudiated by both the text and the law, in contrast to what God did, actually, command and teach.

Now let me outline what I do see in this text, and in the entire law:

Unlike our society, I believe that Biblical society, and historical society in general, assumed the early marriage of every single post-pubescent person. The free woman would be 'given in marriage' by her father, to whoever paid the bride price and/or convinced her father.

For the slave, however, it was the owner who had that power, and that responsibility. Since he was not physicaly related to her, he could take her for himself in marriage, give her to his son, or give her to one of his slaves.

The free woman then became a 'wife' in the normal sense, while the slave woman became a 'concubine' (also called a wife). However both wife and concubine had the same legal rights over their husband, with very few exceptions. They were guaranteed food, clothing, and their conjugal rights.

Keeping in mind the incredible importance, in that society (and which should be in our society) of children. A woman's children were, literally, her inheritance, her future. It was an advancement, not a degredation, to actually be taken in marriage by the master himself, instead of being given to one of his slaves; to bear sons which would be heirs to the master himself. Once in Scripture we even read of the daughter of a house being given to a slave of the house! Hardly an indication of degradation.

The incredible ironic rejection of this pattern by the modern Christian is that the female 'sex slave', or concubine, is who the church is to Christ! We are, we are told, 'bought with a price', and being bought, betrothed to Christ, our master's son (and thus our master Himself). We see this reflected over and over again, once in the OT even literally.

So, I believe, that this is a pattern which, far from being fled from, should be embraced (metaphorically speaking) by every Bible believer. The grace of the Midianite young women being saved from destruction was *added to* by the incredible grace of being given in marriage to Israelite men and bearing chosen offspring... some perhaps even in the very line of Christ: as we see with other foreigners such as Ruth and Rahab.

Stan said...

First, I tried to explain the text, not explain it away. (Did I explain it away, or did I simply unpack it?)

Second, by "sex slaves" I simply meant "people who were kept for the primary (sole?) purpose of having sex". That's the accusation by skeptics against texts like these.

I actually went into the whole "concubine" thing a few weeks ago. Said the same thing, in fact.

I would like to point out that nothing in this text mentions marriage at all. The accusation comes with the phrase "for yourselves", but that is vague enough not to require any meaning at all except to differentiate with "for the Lord" (Num 31:28). In fact, since these girls were likely under the marrying age (having not known a man), I don't see how it is marriage in mind. These girls could have been for housework or to take care of until they could be married off, but there is nothing in the text that calls for sex, either as wife or concubine.

Oh, and the "can be tough" part ... you didn't mention the fact that all the male children were put to death. To me, that was the most difficult part. I see it and I get it, but it does offend the emotions of modern culture.

Oh, yeah, and I also talked about the parallel of arranged marriages to Christ and His Bride. So I don't see where your comments are so far off mine.

von said...

Great. You will recall I said 'seems' :)

The male children is 'hard', I would argue, because we are rather 'soft' on sin.