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Striking Justice

Numbers 31:15-17
Moses said to them, “Have you let all the women live? Behold, these, on Balaam’s advice, caused the people of Israel to act treacherously against the LORD in the incident of Peor, and so the plague came upon the congregation of the LORD. Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him.”

How can the very LORD Who said, “Let the little children come to me, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” speak a word like this: “Kill every male among the little ones”? We expect that sort of command from a Herod or a Pharaoh or a Sennacherib, not from a merciful God.

Perhaps it helps to point out that a dialogue between God and Moses is missing in the text. That is, we aren’t directly told that God commands Moses to do this. This episode might be similar to when Moses came down from Sinai, saw the people adulterating before a false idol, and forced them to drink water mixed with ashes. But even if God doesn’t explicitly command this genocide, He doesn’t step forward to condemn it either, which leaves a difficult hermeneutical hurdle to overcome. This is one of the many instances in the Old Testament where it isn’t quite clear where godly men are acting on their own accord and where they are executing God’s specified instruction.

Regardless, this retribution bears both a moral and a practical element to it. The moral is that these women are deserving of death for their idolatry, and, by extension, the offspring of their idolatrous fornications are also deserving of death (as in the case of the Passover, where Egyptian infants became the collateral damage of parental sin), and the practical element is that Moses decides to only kill the male infants in order to prevent them from growing up in captivity where they’d surely seethe with bitterness and foment an uprising.

But don’t forget the context, friend: this is an ancient world where victors mutilated boys, violated women, and tortured, killed, and impaled men on stakes as trophies of war. So even though Moses’ command here is difficult for us to stomach due to our modern sensitivities, it isn’t tainted by man’s sadistic abuses. In fact, even in its severity, God’s justice towers as a beacon in world where injustice prevailed.