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Why did Moses tell his men to spare the Midianite virgins for themselves in Numbers 31:18?

Midianite virgins

In Numbers 31, in the aftermath of a battle between the Israelites and the Midianites, Moses tells his men that “the young girls who are virgins may live; you may keep them for yourselves” (Numbers 31:18, NLT). This allowance seems rather outlandish, if not debauched, to modern readers. Why would the soldiers be allowed to keep the virgins for themselves?

To understand what’s happening in Numbers 31, we need to look at the events leading up to the battle:

• the Israelites were nearing the end of their time in the wilderness and were about to enter Canaan (Numbers 22)

• Balak, king of the Moabites conspired with the Midianites to launch a hostile campaign against the unsuspecting Hebrews, although Israel posed Moab no danger or threat (Numbers 22)

• Balak hired the prophet Balaam to curse Israel; when the curses failed, Balaam suggested a different strategy. Greedy for the reward Balak offered, Balaam advised the Moabite/Midianite leaders on how to infiltrate the Israelite camp and corrupt them from within. The result was a sexual deception on a massive scale (Numbers 22—25)

• Balaam’s plan was to entangle the Israelites in idolatry by sending “honeypots” into the camp: “The men [of Israel] began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods. The people ate the sacrificial meal and bowed down before these gods. So Israel yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor. And the Lord’s anger burned against them” (Numbers 25:1–3).

• God judged His people for their sin with a plague, and 24,000 people died in Israel (Numbers 25:9).

• God then told Moses, “Treat the Midianites as enemies and kill them. They treated you as enemies when they deceived you in the Peor incident” (Numbers 25:17–18).

That brings us to Numbers 31. God says, “Take vengeance on the Midianites for the Israelites” (Numbers 31:1). Moses obeys, sending an armed force of 12,000 men (Numbers 31:5). Their attack was focused: only the Midianites involved in the treachery were targeted, not the Moabites. And the Israelites were successful: “They fought against Midian, as the Lord commanded Moses, and killed every man” (Numbers 31:7). But then, rather than wiping out the Midianites completely, the fighting force “captured the Midianite women and children and took all the Midianite herds, flocks and goods as plunder. They burned all the towns where the Midianites had settled, as well as all their camps” (verses 9–10). But there was a problem.

The soldiers, in a shockingly poor choice, spared the Midianite women. In so doing, they brought back to camp the very people who had used sex as a weapon against them! The women’s sexual ploy was a main reason that vengeance had to be enacted—in the incident of Baal-Peor, women were the primary criminals. Moses orders the fighting men to finish the job: “Kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man” (Numbers 31:17–18).

Killing all the Midianite males would have the effect of wiping out the people of Midian. Normally, total annihilation was reserved for the Canaanites. Midian was not in Canaan, but they fell under the curse of Canaan for these reasons: 1) their idolatry; 2) their hiring of Balaam to curse Israel; 3) their luring of Israel into sin; and 4) their alliance with the Amorites, a nation slated for destruction (see Joshua 13:21).

Moses gave the instruction to “keep alive for yourselves all the young females who have not gone to bed with a man” (Numbers 31:18, CSB). According to Numbers 31:35, the virgins spared numbered 32,000. Of that amount, half were given to the soldiers who fought in the battle, and half were given to the rest of the people of Israel. Of the 16,000 given to the soldiers, 32 were given to Eleazar the priest as a tribute to the Lord. Of the 16,000 given to the rest of Israel, 320 were given to the Levites, who maintained the tabernacle (verse 47). These 32,000 girls were made servants or taken as wives—the law in Deuteronomy 21:10–14 delineated the process by which an Israelite man could marry a female prisoner of war.

In considering the sparing of the Midianite virgins, here are some points to remember:

• Sparing the virgins was just, as they were innocent in the sin that prompted the battle.

• Keeping the virgins was merciful, as they had nothing to go home to—the Midianite towns and encampments were destroyed. The conflict left the girls with no protection or provision. As per Moses’ instructions, the girls lived and were absorbed into Israelite families.

• The virgins were not raped. Numbers 31 does not mention rape, and the Bible never condones rape. In any passage dealing with the conquest of Canaan (which fulfilled the curse on Canaan in Genesis 9:25), there is never a command to rape or torture, and there is never an account of it occurring. If rape did take place, it was a crime in violation of the law of God. Deuteronomy 21:10–14 strongly implies that a POW could not be treated as a sex object.

• According to the custom of the day, girls were married around the age of 13, so the virgins older than that were probably taken as wives. The younger girls were taken into families, provided for, trained, and most likely worked for the families as servants. They would eventually be assimilated into Israelite culture and trained in the ways of the Lord. Later, in Joshua 9, something similar happens with the Gibeonites.

Philosopher and theologian Paul Copan points out the difference between Israel and other ancient civilizations in their treatment of women POWs: “Although rape was a common feature in ancient Near Eastern warfare, Israelite soldiers were prohibited from raping women, contrary to what some crassly argue. Sex was permitted only within the bounds of marital commitment, a repeated theme laid out in the Mosaic law. Rape in warfare wasn’t a grand exception to the requirement of sexual fidelity” (Copan, P., Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God, Baker Books, 2011, p. 120).

In light of all this, it could be argued that sparing the Midianite virgins was an act of mercy. We know that God is just and righteous in all that He does. “I will proclaim the name of the Lord. Oh, praise the greatness of our God! He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he” (Deuteronomy 32:3–4).

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Why did Moses tell his men to spare the Midianite virgins for themselves in Numbers 31:18?
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This page last updated: May 31, 2023