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Barnes' Notes on the Bible
1And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
2Avenge the children of Israel of the Midianites: afterward shalt thou be gathered unto thy people.
The Midianites - The Moabites are not included. It would thus seem that it was the Midianites, and they only, who deliberately set themselves to work the corruption of Israel.
3And Moses spake unto the people, saying, Arm some of yourselves unto the war, and let them go against the Midianites, and avenge the LORD of Midian.
Avenge the Lord of Midian - The war against the Midianites was no ordinary war. It was indeed less a war than the execution of a divine sentence against a most guilty people.
Doubtless there were many among the Midianites who were personally guiltless as regards Israel. But the rulers deliberately adopted the counsel of Balaam against Israel, and their behests had been but too readily obeyed by their subjects. The sin therefore was national, and the retribution could be no less so.
But the commission of the Israelites in the text must not be conceived as a general license to slay. They had no discretion to kill or to spare. They were bidden to exterminate without mercy, and brought back to their task Numbers 31:14 when they showed signs of flinching from it. They had no alternarive in this and similar matters except to fulfill the commands of God; an awful but doubtless salutary manifestation, as was afterward the slaughter of the Canaanites, of God's wrath against sin; and a type of the future extermination of sin and sinners from His kingdom.
4Of every tribe a thousand, throughout all the tribes of Israel, shall ye send to the war.
5So there were delivered out of the thousands of Israel, a thousand of every tribe, twelve thousand armed for war.
Were delivered - Or, "were told off."
6And Moses sent them to the war, a thousand of every tribe, them and Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest, to the war, with the holy instruments, and the trumpets to blow in his hand.
Phinehas - He was marked out as the fitting director of the expedition by his conduct (compare Numbers 25:7-13) in the matter of Zimri and Cozbi.
With the holy instruments, and the trumpets - Or rather, "with the holy instruments, to wit, the trumpets," for the trumpets themselves seem to be the instruments intended.
7And they warred against the Midianites, as the LORD commanded Moses; and they slew all the males.
8And they slew the kings of Midian, beside the rest of them that were slain; namely, Evi, and Rekem, and Zur, and Hur, and Reba, five kings of Midian: Balaam also the son of Beor they slew with the sword.
And they slew ... were slain ... - Render: And the kings of Midian they put to death, beside those that fell in the battle; namely, etc. From which it would seem that beside these five, put to death after the battle, there were other Midianite kings who perished fighting. The five chieftains here mentioned were vassals of Sihon the Amorite Joshua 13:21.
9And the children of Israel took all the women of Midian captives, and their little ones, and took the spoil of all their cattle, and all their flocks, and all their goods.
10And they burnt all their cities wherein they dwelt, and all their goodly castles, with fire.
Goodly castles - Rather, both here and in Genesis 25:16, hamlets. The word is derived from a word טוּר ṭûr,) signifying "a row" or "range" (compare Ezekiel 46:23); and probably indicates those collections of rude dwellings, made of stones piled one on another and covered with tent-cloths, which are used by the Arabs to this day; and which are frequently mentioned as douars in narratives of the French campaigns in Algeria. These dwellings would be formed usually in a circle. See the word "Hazeroth," in Numbers 11:35.
11And they took all the spoil, and all the prey, both of men and of beasts.
The "prey" refers to the captives and live-stock: the "spoil" to the ornaments and other effects.
12And they brought the captives, and the prey, and the spoil, unto Moses, and Eleazar the priest, and unto the congregation of the children of Israel, unto the camp at the plains of Moab, which are by Jordan near Jericho.
13And Moses, and Eleazar the priest, and all the princes of the congregation, went forth to meet them without the camp.
14And Moses was wroth with the officers of the host, with the captains over thousands, and captains over hundreds, which came from the battle.
15And Moses said unto them, Have ye saved all the women alive?
16Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the LORD in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the LORD.
Caused ... to commit trespass - More literally, "became to the children of Israel for a cause (or, incitement) of treachery to the Lord."
17Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him.
18But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.
19And do ye abide without the camp seven days: whosoever hath killed any person, and whosoever hath touched any slain, purify both yourselves and your captives on the third day, and on the seventh day.
20And purify all your raiment, and all that is made of skins, and all work of goats' hair, and all things made of wood.
21And Eleazar the priest said unto the men of war which went to the battle, This is the ordinance of the law which the LORD commanded Moses;
22Only the gold, and the silver, the brass, the iron, the tin, and the lead,
Brass - Render copper. See Genesis 4:22 note. The verse is curious as illustrating the variety of metals in use at this early date for domestic purposes. All these metals were common in Egypt centuries before the date of the Exodus.
23Every thing that may abide the fire, ye shall make it go through the fire, and it shall be clean: nevertheless it shall be purified with the water of separation: and all that abideth not the fire ye shall make go through the water.
24And ye shall wash your clothes on the seventh day, and ye shall be clean, and afterward ye shall come into the camp.
25And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
26Take the sum of the prey that was taken, both of man and of beast, thou, and Eleazar the priest, and the chief fathers of the congregation:
27And divide the prey into two parts; between them that took the war upon them, who went out to battle, and between all the congregation:
28And levy a tribute unto the LORD of the men of war which went out to battle: one soul of five hundred, both of the persons, and of the beeves, and of the asses, and of the sheep:
29Take it of their half, and give it unto Eleazar the priest, for an heave offering of the LORD.
An heave-offering - Render simply an offering, and compare Numbers 18:24. The verb from which the word here rendered "heave-offering" is derived, is rightly translated "levy" in Numbers 31:28.
30And of the children of Israel's half, thou shalt take one portion of fifty, of the persons, of the beeves, of the asses, and of the flocks, of all manner of beasts, and give them unto the Levites, which keep the charge of the tabernacle of the LORD.
31And Moses and Eleazar the priest did as the LORD commanded Moses.
32And the booty, being the rest of the prey which the men of war had caught, was six hundred thousand and seventy thousand and five thousand sheep,
Compare Numbers 31:11, and render "And the prey" (i. e., the live prey) "in addition to the spoil which the men of war seized, etc." The "spoil" is described in Numbers 31:50.
The number of sheep, beeves, asses, and persons taken is given in this and following verses in round thousands. Hence, the Lord's tribute (Numbers 31:29, Numbers 31:37-38, etc.), being the 500th part of the half, comes out also in round numbers. The enormous amount both of live stock and of personal ornament was characteristic of the Midianites. When they invaded Israel in the days of the Judges, their wealth was still of the same kind (Judges 6:5; Judges 8:24 ff). The Bedouins, notwithstanding their wild nomadic life, retain their ancestral love of finery to the present day.
33And threescore and twelve thousand beeves,
34And threescore and one thousand asses,
35And thirty and two thousand persons in all, of women that had not known man by lying with him.
36And the half, which was the portion of them that went out to war, was in number three hundred thousand and seven and thirty thousand and five hundred sheep:
37And the LORD'S tribute of the sheep was six hundred and threescore and fifteen.
38And the beeves were thirty and six thousand; of which the LORD'S tribute was threescore and twelve.
39And the asses were thirty thousand and five hundred; of which the LORD'S tribute was threescore and one.
40And the persons were sixteen thousand; of which the LORD'S tribute was thirty and two persons.
41And Moses gave the tribute, which was the LORD'S heave offering, unto Eleazar the priest, as the LORD commanded Moses.
42And of the children of Israel's half, which Moses divided from the men that warred,
43(Now the half that pertained unto the congregation was three hundred thousand and thirty thousand and seven thousand and five hundred sheep,
44And thirty and six thousand beeves,
45And thirty thousand asses and five hundred,
46And sixteen thousand persons;)
47Even of the children of Israel's half, Moses took one portion of fifty, both of man and of beast, and gave them unto the Levites, which kept the charge of the tabernacle of the LORD; as the LORD commanded Moses.
48And the officers which were over thousands of the host, the captains of thousands, and captains of hundreds, came near unto Moses:
49And they said unto Moses, Thy servants have taken the sum of the men of war which are under our charge, and there lacketh not one man of us.
There is no mention of any resistance on the part of the Midianites. The Israelites saw in this and in the preservation of all those engaged, proofs that the Lord had been with them in the work, and hence, the free-will oblation of Numbers 31:50.
50We have therefore brought an oblation for the LORD, what every man hath gotten, of jewels of gold, chains, and bracelets, rings, earrings, and tablets, to make an atonement for our souls before the LORD.
The "chains" were "armlets" 2 Samuel 1:10. The "rings" were "finger-rings," or "seal-rings;" and the "tablets" were worn suspended from the neck Exodus 35:22.
To make an atonement for our souls before the Lord - Compare Exodus 30:11-16. The atonement was not for any special offence committed (which would have called for a sacrifice of blood-shedding), but rather like the half-shekel given at the census in the Book of Exodus (loc. cite), was an acknowledgment of having received undeserved mercies. These, if unacknowledged, would have entailed guilt on the soul.
51And Moses and Eleazar the priest took the gold of them, even all wrought jewels.
52And all the gold of the offering that they offered up to the LORD, of the captains of thousands, and of the captains of hundreds, was sixteen thousand seven hundred and fifty shekels.
The value of the offering was about 20,000 British pounds.
53(For the men of war had taken spoil, every man for himself.)
This verse seems to imply that the soldiers, as distinct from the officers (compare Numbers 31:49), did not make any offering from their plunder. Of course besides the gold there would be much spoil of less precious materials; see Numbers 31:20, Numbers 31:22.
54And Moses and Eleazar the priest took the gold of the captains of thousands and of hundreds, and brought it into the tabernacle of the congregation, for a memorial for the children of Israel before the LORD.