In today's reading we get a taste of what will happen as the Israelites enter the promised land and begin to destroy the people living there. Chapter 31 takes us back to chapter 25 and the debacle there with the Midianites. This is a bit confusing because in most of the Old Testament the Moabites and the Midianites were separate people. But in Numbers 25 they seem to become one and the same. It is possible the Midianites were a nomadic people with no specific land to call their own. When King Balak sent a delegation to Balaam it consisted of the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian. Perhaps the Midianites were encamped in Moab somewhere. Scholarship is not totally clear here. What we do know is an Israelite man brings a Midianite woman of rank to his tent in the Israelites camp for sexual relations. It is Aaron's grandson Phinehas who runs to the man's tent and runs a spear through both of them, saving the Israelites from the plague. There are two guilty parties in this story. The Israelites were wrong in getting entangled with the Midianite women at Baal Peor. But the Midianites were wrong in following Balaam’s counsel to try to destroy Israel. At the end of chapter 25 God told Moses to treat the Midianites as enemies and kill them. That brings us up to today's reading.
The time had come to punish Midian. This would be Moses’ last battle before he would die and be gathered up to his people. This was the dress rehearsal for the Israelites’ next battles. Phinehas would be the commander in the field along with Joshua. 12,000 men, 1,000 from each tribe went out to fight accompanied by holy articles and the trumpets for signaling. This was not just any war. This was a holy war, done in the name and power of God. God was fighting against Midian because they had led the Israelites into sin. Israel’s victory was assured because God had blessed the army of Israel. The Israelites killed all the men and the five Midianites kings. And they killed Balaam. They took the women and children as captives, plus all their livestock and possessions. The Midianite cities were burned, and the territory given to the tribes of Reuben and Gad. Moses was incredibly angry because the army did not destroy the women and children. It was the Midianite women who had led Israel into sin, and this would provide further opportunity to sin again. Israel had won the battle but was in danger of losing the victory because of these opportunities. But we see the provision and protection of God. 12,000 men went out to fight the Midianites and 12,000 men returned from battle. Not a man was lost.
Because all the people and the plunder were connected to idol worshipers they needed to be purified before they could enter camp. The soldiers also needed to be purified because they had touched impure things. It was a seven-day process involving the passing through fire of those things that would withstand fire. The rest was washed with the water of purification. The amount of the spoils was huge. Hundreds of thousands of head of livestock and thousands of people who would become slaves. We read how the spoils were to be divided up and how much was given to the Lord. In this case the Israelites were allowed to keep the spoils minus the portion for the Lord. But that will not always be the case. In some battles everything is devoted to the Lord which means all of it goes up in smoke as a burnt offering that is pleasing to the Lord. Israel had to be very careful to obey the instructions given so they did not bring the wrath of God upon themselves and the camp. We see a glimmer of hope for the Israelites when the commanders of the tribes count their men and discover none have been lost. Out of their thankfulness to the Lord the commanders bring an additional offering to the Lord of the gold they had taken as plunder. The gold weighed about 420 pounds.
We also see a sense of unity among the Israelites here. The land of Og and Sihon was good land for grazing livestock and the men of the tribes of Reuben and Gad were herders. They requested of Moses the lands east of the Jordan River for their portion. Moses reacted very quickly to their request. Perhaps he was just tired. Maybe he thought they were being disobedient like the men who scouted out the promised land 40 years earlier. Moses did not want to spend more time with these stiff-necked people in the wilderness. The representatives of the tribes probably didn't appreciate being called a brood of sinners either. Once cooler heads prevailed everything was worked out. We too jump to conclusions sometimes and find ourselves having to backtrack and make amends. Later half of the tribe of Manasseh joined the tribes of Reuben and Gad on the east side of the Jordan.
Moses would not be alive when the tribes crossed the Jordan to begin to take possession of the promised land. He called both Joshua and Eleazar to let them know the agreement and that the men of the two and a half tribes would fight along with the rest of the Israelites until the tribes were established. They would then return across the Jordan and settle in.
Chapter 33 is Moses' travelogue. From Rameses in Egypt to the plains of Moab across the Jordan River from Jericho, God commanded Moses to keep a record. There are 40 places listed. Most of the places cited are not known today because they were not cities but encampments in the wilderness of Sinai. We might be tempted to just skim this chapter. After all the places do not exist anymore and none of us can pronounce the names. But...this chapter is really a song of praise to God's faithfulness and provision. It is at testimony of the sovereignty of God in dealing with His people. No difficulty was too great for God. He opened the Red Sea to let His people March through and then He closed it, drowning the Egyptians army that was pursuing His people. God supplied them with water, manna, and quail. When they were in danger God provided victory for them.
During the March, the old, unfaithful generation died off and the new generation took over. Miriam died at Kadesh, and another woman had to take over the choir. Aaron died at Mount Hor, and his son Eleazar became high priest. Before Moses died, he named Joshua as his successor. But in all these changes God remained the same. Once again, the Israelites are given specific instructions from the Lord through Moses. It was much the same as the Israelites heard at Sinai. We will read them again in Deuteronomy in Moses' farewell address to the nation. The nations living in the promised land were wicked. They worshiped idols and engaged in many kinds of immoral practices. By removing them from the land God was giving the Israelites a better chance of succeeding in being faithful to Him in their new land. God commanded the Israelites to eradicate the Canaanites from the land. This was an expression of God's mercy. The idolatrous Canaanites would have been a constant source of trouble for the Israelites, like a thorn in the side or an irritant in an eye. Failure to follow these commands of the Lord would result in Israel losing the promised land. The Israelites may be close to the end of their wilderness wandering but the hard work was about to begin.
In His Grip,
Pastor Matt W.