Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at sacred-texts.com
The Campaign. - After the people of Israel had been mustered as the army of Jehovah, and their future relation to the Lord had been firmly established by the order of sacrifice that was given to them immediately afterwards, the Lord commanded Moses to carry out that hostility to the Midianites which had already been commanded in Num 25:16-18. Moses was to revenge (i.e., to execute) the revenge of the children of Israel upon the Midianites, and then to be gathered to his people, i.e., to die, as had already been revealed to him (Num 27:13). "The revenge of the children of Israel" was revenge for the wickedness which the tribes of the Midianites who dwelt on the east of Moab (see at Num 22:4) had practised upon the Israelites, by seducing them to the idolatrous worship of Baal Peor. This revenge is called the "revenge of Jehovah" in Num 31:3, because the seduction had violated the divinity and honour of Jehovah. The daughters of Moab had also taken part in the seduction (Num 25:1-2); but they had done so at the instigation of the Midianites, and not of their own accord, and therefore the Midianites only were to atone for the wickedness.
To carry out this revenge, Moses had 1000 men of each tribe delivered (ימּסרוּ, see at Num 31:16) from the families (alaphim, see Num 1:16) of the tribes, and equipped for war; and these he sent to the army (into the war) along with Phinehas the son of Eleazar the high priest, who carried the holy vessels, viz., the alarm-trumpets, in his hand. Phinehas was attached to the army, not as the leader of the soldiers, but as the high priest with the holy trumpets (Num 10:9), because the war was a holy war of the congregation against the enemies of themselves and their God. Phinehas had so distinguished himself by the zeal which he had displayed against the idolaters (Num 25:7), that it was impossible to find any other man in all the priesthood to attach to the army, who would equal him in holy zeal, or be equally qualified to inspire the army with zeal for the holy conflict. "The holy vessels" cannot mean the ark of the covenant on account of the plural, which would be inapplicable to it; nor the Urim and Thummim, because Phinehas was not yet high priest, and the expression כּלי would also be unsuitable to these. The allusion can only be to the trumpets mentioned immediately afterwards, the ו before חצצרות being the ו explic., "and in fact." Phinehas took these in his hand, because the Lord had assigned them to His congregation, to bring them into remembrance before Him in time of war, and to ensure His aid (Num 10:9).
Of the campaign itself, the results are all that is recorded. No doubt it terminated with a great battle, in which the Midianites were taken unawares and completely routed. As it was a war of vengeance of Jehovah, the victors slew all the males, i.e., all the adult males, as the sequel shows, without quarter; and "upon those that were slain," i.e., in addition to them, the five Midianitsh kings and Balaam, who first advised the Midianites, according to Num 31:16, to tempt the Israelites to idolatry. The five kings were chiefs of the larger or more powerful of the Midianitish tribes, as Zur is expressly said to have been in Num 25:15. In Jos 13:21 they are called "vassals of Sihon," because Sihon had subjugated them and made them tributary when he first conquered the land. The women and children of the Midianites were led away prisoners; and their cattle (behemah, beasts of draft and burden, as in Exo 20:10), and their flocks, and their goods taken away as spoil. The towns in their dwellings, and all their villages (tiroth, tent-villages, as in Gen 25:16), were burnt down. The expression "towns in their dwellings" leads to the conclusion that the towns were not the property of the Midianites themselves, who were a nomad people, but that they originally belonged in all probability to the Moabites, and had been taken possession of by the Amorites under Sihon. This is confirmed by Jos 13:21, according to which these five Midianitish vassals of Sihon dwelt in the land, i.e., in the kingdom of Sihon. This also serves to explain why the conquest on their country is not mentioned in the account before us, although it is stated in Joshua (l.c.), that it was allotted to the Reubenites with the kingdom of Sihon.
All this booty (shalal, booty in goods), and all the prey in man and beast (malkoach), was brought by the conquerors to Moses and Eleazar and the congregation, into the camp in the steppes of Moab. In Num 31:12, שׁבי applies to the women and children who were taken prisoners, מלקוח to the cattle taken as booty, and שׁלל to the rest of the prey.
Treatment of the Prisoners. - When Moses went out to the front of the camp with Eleazar and the princes of the congregation to meet the returning warriors, he was angry with the commanders, because they had left all the women alive, since it was they who had been the cause, at Balaam's instigation, of the falling away of the Israelites from Jehovah to worship Peor; and he commanded all the male children to be slain, and every woman who had lain with a man, and only the young girls who had hitherto had no connection with a man to be left alive. החיל פּקוּדי, lit., the appointed persons, i.e., the officers of the army, who were then divided into princes (captains) over thousands and hundreds. - "Which came from the battle," i.e., who had returned. The question in Num 31:15, "Have ye left all the women alive?" is an expression of dissatisfaction, and reproof for their having done this. למסר־מעל...היוּ, "they have become to the Israelites to work unfaithfulness towards Jehovah," i.e., they have induced them to commit an act of unfaithfulness towards Jehovah. The word מסר, which only occurs in this chapter, viz., in Num 31:5 and Num 31:16, appears to be used in the sense of giving, delivering, and then, like נתן, doing, making, effecting. On the fact itself, see Num 25:6. The object of the command to put all the male children to death, was to exterminate the whole nation, as it could not be perpetuated in the women. Of the female sex, all were to be put to death who had known the lying with a man, and therefore might possibly have been engaged in the licentious worship of Peor (Num 25:2), to preserve the congregation from all contamination from that abominable idolatry.
Purification of the Warriors, the Prisoners, and the Booty. - Moses commanded the men of war to remain for seven days outside the camp of the congregation, to carry out upon the third and seventh day the legal purification of such persons and things as had been rendered unclean through contact with dead bodies. Every one who had slain a soul (person), or touched one who had been slain, was to be purified, whether he were a warrior or a prisoner. And so also were all the clothes, articles of leather, materials of goats' hair, and all wooden things.
To this end Eleazar, whose duty it was as high priest to see that the laws of purification were properly observed, issued fuller instructions with reference to the purification of the different articles, in accordance with the law in ch. 19. למּלחמה הבּאים, those who came to the war, i.e., who went into the battle (see at Num 10:9). "The ordinance of the law:" as in Num 19:2. The metal (gold, silver, copper, tin, lead), all that usually comes into the fire, i.e., that will bear the fire, was to be drawn through the fire, that it might become clean, and was then to be sprinkled with water of purification (Num 19:9); but everything that would not bear the fire was to be drawn through water. - The washing of clothes on the seventh day was according to the rule laid down in Num 19:19.
Distribution of the Booty. - God directed Moses, with Eleazar and the heads of the fathers' houses ("fathers" for "fathers' houses:" see at Exo 6:14) of the congregation, to take the whole of the booty in men and cattle, and divide it into two halves: one for the men of war (המּלחמה תּפשׂי, those who grasped at war, who engaged in war), the other for the congregation, and to levy a tribute upon it (מכס = מכסה, computatio, a certain amount: see Exo 12:4) for Jehovah. Of the half that came to the warriors, one person and one head of cattle were to be handed over to Eleazar the priest out of every 500 (i.e., one-fifth per cent.), as a heave-offering for Jehovah; and of the other half that was set apart for the children of Israel, i.e., for the congregation, one out of every fifty (i.e., 2 per cent.) was to be taken for the Levites. אחז, laid hold of, i.e., snatched out of the whole number during the process of counting; not seized or touched by the lot, as in Ch1 24:6, as there was no reason for resorting to the lot in this instance. The division of the booty into two equal halves, one of which was given to the warriors, and the other to the congregation that had taken no part in the war, was perfectly reasonable and just. As the 12,000 warriors had been chosen out of the whole congregation to carry on the war on their behalf, the congregation itself could properly lay claim to its share of the booty. But as the 12,000 had had all the trouble, hardships, and dangers of the war, they could very properly reckon upon some reward for their service; and this was granted them by their receiving quite as much as the whole of the congregation which had taken no part in the war-in fact, more, because the warriors only gave one-fifth per cent. of their share as a thank-offering for the victory that had been granted them, whilst those who remained at home had to give 2 per cent. of their share to Jehovah for the benefit of the priests and Levites. The arrangement, however, was only made for this particular case, and not as a law for all times, although it was a general rule that those who remained at home received a share of the booty brought back by the warriors (cf. Jos 22:8; Sa1 30:24-25; 2 Macc. 8:28, 30).
The booty, viz., "the rest of the booty, which the men of war had taken," i.e., all the persons taken prisoners that had not been put to death, and all the cattle taken as booty that had not been consumed during the march home, amounted to 675,000 head of small cattle, 72,000 oxen, 61,000 asses, and 32,000 maidens. Each half, therefore, consisted of 337,500 head of small cattle, 36,000 oxen, 30,500 asses, and 16,000 maidens (Num 31:36 and Num 31:43-46). Of the one half the priests received 675 head of small cattle, 72 oxen, 61 asses, and 32 maidens for Jehovah; and these Moses handed over to Eleazar, in all probability for the maintenance of the priests, in the same manner as the tithes (Num 18:26-28, and Lev 27:30-33), so that they might put the cattle into their own flocks (Num 35:3), and slay oxen or sheep as they required them, whilst they sold the asses, and made slaves of the gifts; and not in the character of a vow, in which case the clean animals would have had to be sacrificed, and the unclean animals, as well as the human beings, to be redeemed (Lev 27:2-13). Of the other half, the Levites received the fiftieth part (Num 31:43-47), that is to say, 6750 head of small cattle, 720 oxen, 610 asses, and 320 girls. The וגו מחצית ("the half," etc.), in Num 31:42, is resumed in Num 31:47, and the enumeration of the component parts of this half in Num 31:43-46 is to be regarded as parenthetical.
Sacred Oblations of the Officers. - When the officers reviewed the men of war who were "in their hand," i.e., who had fought the battle under their command, and found not a single man missing, they felt constrained to give a practical expression to their gratitude for this miraculous preservation of the whole of the men, by presenting a sacrificial gift to Jehovah; they therefore brought all the golden articles that they had received as booty, and offered them to the Lord "for the expiation of their souls" (see at Lev 1:4), namely, with the feeling that they were not worthy of any such grace, and not "because they had done wrong in failing to destroy all the enemies of Jehovah" (Knobel). This gift, which was offered as a heave-offering for Jehovah, consisted of the following articles of gold: אצעדה, "arm-rings," according to Sa2 1:10 (lxx χελιδῶνα; Suidas: χελιδόναι κοσμοὶ περὶ τοὺς βραχιόνας, καλοῦνται δὲ βραχιάλια); צמיד, bands, generally armlets (Gen 24:22, etc.); טבּעת, signet-rings; עגיל, hoops, - according to Eze 16:12, ear-rings; and כּוּמז, gold balls (Exo 35:22). They amounted in all to 16,750 shekels; and the men of war had received their own booty in addition to this. This gift, presented on the part of the officers, was brought into the tabernacle "as a memorial of the children of Israel before Jehovah" (cf. Exo 30:16); that is to say, it was placed in the treasury of the sanctuary.
The fact that the Israelites did not lose a single man in the battle, is certainly a striking proof of the protection of God; but it is not so marvellous as to furnish any good ground for calling in question the correctness of the narrative.
(Note: Rosenmller has cited an example from Tacitus (Ann. xiii. 39), of the Romans having slaughtered all the foe without losing a single man on the capture of a Parthian castle; and another from Strabo (xvi. 1128), of a battle in which 1000 Arabs were slain, and only 2 Romans. And Hvernick mentions a similar account from the life of Saladin in his Introduction (i. 2, p. 452).)
The Midianites were a nomad tribe, who lived by rearing flocks and herds, and therefore were not a warlike people. Moreover, they were probably attacked quite unawares, and being unprepared, were completely routed and cut down without quarter. The quantity of booty brought home is also not so great as to appear incredible. Judging from the 32,000 females who had never lain with a man, the tribes governed by the five kings may have numbered about 130,000 or 150,000, and therefore not have contained much more than 35,000 fighting men, who might easily have been surprised by 12,000 brave warriors, and entirely destroyed. And again, there is nothing in the statement that 675,000 sheep and goats, 72,000 oxen, and 61,000 asses were taken as booty from these tribes, to astonish any one who has formed correct notions of the wealth of nomad tribes in flocks and herds. The only thing that could appear surprising is, that there are no camels mentioned.
But it is questionable, in the first place, whether the Midianites were in the habit of rearing camels; and, in the second place, if they did possess them, it is still questionable whether the Israelitish army took them away, and did not rather put to death all that they found, as being of no value to the Israelites in their existing circumstances. Lastly, the quantity of jewellery seized as booty is quite in harmony with the well-known love of nomads, and even of barbarous tribes, for ornaments of this kind; and the peculiar liking of the Midianites for such things is confirmed by the account in Jdg 8:26, according to which Gideon took as much as 1700 shekels in weight of golden rings from the Midianites alone, beside ornaments of other kinds. If we take the golden shekel at 10 thalers (30 shillings), the value of the ornaments taken by the officers under Moses would be about 167,500 thalers (L.25,125). It is quite possible that the kings and other chiefs, together with their wives, may have possessed as much as this.