Commentary on the Bible, by Adam Clarke, , at sacred-texts.com
The command of the Lord to make war on the Midianites, Num 31:1, Num 31:2. One thousand men are chosen out of each of the twelve tribes, and sent with Phinehas against the Midianites, Num 31:3-6. They slay all the males, Num 31:7; their five kings and Balaam, Num 31:8. They take all the women captives, with the flocks and goods, Num 31:9; burn their cities, and bring away the spoil, Num 31:10, Num 31:11. They bring the captives, etc., to Moses, who is wroth with the officers for sparing the women, who had formerly been the cause of their transgression and punishment, Num 31:12-16. He commands all the male children and all the grown up females to be slain, Num 31:17, Num 31:18. How the soldiers were to purify themselves, Num 31:19, Num 31:20; and the different articles taken in war, Num 31:21-24. They are commanded to take the sum of the prey, to divide it into two parts; one for the 12,000 warriors, and the other for the rest of the congregation, Num 31:25-27. One of 500, both of persons and cattle, of the share of the warriors, to be given to the Lord, Num 31:28, Num 31:29; and one part of fifty, of the people's share, to be given to the Levites, Num 31:30. The sum of the prey remaining after the above division; sheep 675,000, beeves 72,000, asses 61,000, young women 32,000, Num 31:31-35. How the soldiers' part was divided, Num 31:36-40. How the part belonging to the congregation was divided, Num 31:41-47. The officers report that they had not lost a man in this war, Num 31:48, Num 31:49. They bring a voluntary oblation to God, of gold and ornaments, Num 31:50, Num 31:51; the amount of which was 16,750 shekels, Num 31:52, Num 31:53. Moses and Eleazar bring the gold into the tabernacle for a memorial, Num 31:54.
Gathered unto thy people - Where? Not in the grave surely. Moses was gathered with none of them, his burial-place no man ever knew. "But being gathered unto one's people means dying." It does imply dying, but it does not mean this only. The truth is, God considers all those who are dead to men in a state of conscious existence in another world. Therefore he calls himself the God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob; now God is not the God of the dead, but of the living; because all Live to Him, whether dead to men or not. Moses therefore was to be gathered to his people - to enter into that republic of Israel which, having died in the faith, fear, and love of God, were now living in a state of conscious blessedness beyond the confines of the grave. See the note on Gen 25:8, and Gen 49:33 (note).
Avenge the Lord of Midian - It was God's quarrel, not their own, that they were now to take up. These people were idolaters; idolatry is an offense against God; the civil power has no authority to meddle with what belongs to Him, without especial directions, certified in the most unequivocal way. Private revenge, extension of territory, love of plunder, were to have no place in this business; the Lord is to be avenged; and through Him the children of Israel, (Num 31:2), because their souls as well as their bodies had been well nigh ruined by their idolatry.
A thousand of every tribe - Twelve thousand men in the whole. And Phinehas, the son of Eleazar; some think he was made general in this expedition, but this is not likely. The ark and its contents must proceed to this battle, because the battle was the Lord's, and he dwelt between the cherubim over the ark; and Phinehas, who had before got a grant in the eternal priesthood, was chosen to accompany the ark in place of his father Eleazar, who was probably now too far advanced in years to undergo the fatigue. Who then was general? Joshua, without doubt, though not here mentioned, because the battle being the Lord's, he alone is to have the supreme direction, and all the glory. Besides, it was an extraordinary war, and not conducted on the common principle, for we do not find that peace was offered to the Midianites, and that they refused it; see Deu 20:10, etc. In such a case only hostilities could lawfully commence; but they were sinners against God; the cup of their iniquity was full, and God thought proper to destroy them. Though a leader there certainly was, and Joshua was probably that leader, yet because God, for the above reason, was considered as commander-in-chief, therefore no one else is mentioned; for it is evident that the sole business of Phinehas was to take care of the holy instruments and to blow with the trumpet.
Balaam - they slew with the sword - This man had probably committed what St. John calls the sin unto death - a sin which God punishes with temporal death, while at the same time he extends mercy to the soul. See the remarks at Num 24:25 (note).
Kill every male among the little ones - For this action I account simply on the principle that God, who is the author and supporter of life, has a right to dispose of it when and how he thinks proper; and the Judge of all the earth can do nothing but what is right. Of the women killed on this occasion it may be safely said, their lives were forfeited by their personal transgressions; and yet even in this case there can be little doubt that God showed mercy to their souls. The little ones were safely lodged; they were taken to heaven and saved from the evil to come.
The water of separation - The water in which the ashes of the red heifer were mingled; See Num 8:7 (note), Num 19:2 (note), etc. Garments, whether of cloth or skins, were to be washed. Gold, silver, brass, iron, tin, and lead, to pass through the fire, probably to be melted down.
And levy a tribute unto the Lord - one soul of five hundred, etc. - The person to be employed in the Lord's service, under the Levites - the cattle either for sacrifice, or for the use of the Levites, Num 31:30. Some monsters have supposed that one out of every five hundred of the captives was offered in sacrifice to the Lord! but this is abominable. When God chose to have the life of a man, he took it in the way of justice, as in the case of Midianites above, but never in the way of sacrifice.
The booty - It appears from the enumeration here that the Israelites, in this war against the Midianites, took 32,000 female prisoners, 61,000 asses, 72,000 beeves, 675,000 sheep and small cattle; besides the immense number of males who fell in battle, and the women and children who were slain by the Divine command, Num 31:17. And it does not appear that in this expedition, a single man of Israel fell! This was naturally to be expected, because the battle was the Lord's, Num 31:49.
As the booty was divided into two equal parts, Num 31:22, one for the soldiers employed in the expedition, and the other for those who, being equally willing to be employed, were ordered to stay in the camp; so each of the parties in this booty was to give a certain proportion to the Lord. The soldiers to give to the Lord one out of every five hundred persons, beeves, asses, and sheep, Num 31:28. The people, who by staying at home risked nothing, and had no fatigue, were to give one out of fifty of the above, Num 31:30. The booty, its divisions among the soldiers and people, the proportion given by each to the Lord and to the Levites, will be seen in one view by the following table, which I copy from Houbigant.
Total of sheep - 675,000
To the soldiers - 337,500
To the Lord from the soldiers - 675
To the people - 337,500
To the Levites from the people - 6,750
Total of beeves - 72, 00
To the soldiers - 36,000
To the Lord from the soldiers - 72
To the people - 36,000
To the Levites from the people - 720
Total of asses - 1,000
To the soldiers - 30,500
To the Lord from the soldiers - 61
To the people - 30,500
To the Levites from the people - 610
Total of persons - 32,000
To the soldiers.. 16,000
To the Lord from the soldiers - 32
To the Levites from the people - 320
To the people - 16,000
In this table the booty is equally divided between the people and the soldiers; a five-hundredth part being given to the Lord, and a fiftieth part to the Levites.
We have - brought an oblation for the Lord - So it appears there was a great deal of booty taken which did not come into the general account; and of this the soldiers, of their own will, made a very extensive offering to God, because he had preserved them from falling in battle. That not one man should have been slain is a most extraordinary circumstance, and powerfully marks the peculiar superintendence of God's especial providence. The Midianites must certainly have made some resistance; but that was ineffectual, because it was against the Lord. When any nation undertakes a crusade against those whom they are pleased to call the Lord's enemies, let them bring from the contest this proof of their Divine mission, viz., that not one man of them is either lost or missing; and then, and not till then, shall we believe that God hath sent them.
To make an atonement for our souls - That is, to make an acknowledgment to God for the preservation of their lives. The gold offered on this occasion amounted to 16,750 shekels, equal to 37,869, 16s. 5d. of our money. See the note on Exo 25:39, where the true value of the shekel is given, and a rule laid down to reduce it to English money.