by Al Maxey

Issue #694 ------- May 9, 2016
Collot d'Herbois committed atrocities in Lyons. It is incon-
ceivable how he could order the shooting of five or six thousand
individuals: certainly, in a city like Lyons, the execution of
fifty or sixty ringleaders would have been more than enough.

Napoleon (1769-1821)

Questioning God's Judgment
Reflecting on the Midianite Massacre

Okay, now that I have your attention with the above troubling title for this issue of Reflections, let me hasten to assure you that I'm in no way seeking to pass judgment on God's judgments, nor do I dare to question those judgments as though I were dragging Him before me to account for Himself and justify His divine decisions and actions. Job considered such a course, but God quickly put him in his place, saying, "Would you discredit My justice? Would you condemn Me to justify yourself?" (Job 40:8). Job was tempted, by his circumstances, and his rather confused, conflicted emotional/spiritual state, to challenge and contend with the Lord (vs. 2), but God shut that down in short order, which motivated Job to admit: "I have declared that which I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know" (Job 42:3). As you and I contemplate God's many dealings with His creation, we will at times, somewhat like Job, find ourselves confused and conflicted by divine actions and attitudes that may seem, at least to us, out of character with our perception and understanding of God. At such times it is quite easy to fall into the trap of questioning the judgment of God, and even challenging and condemning those judgments. Each of us, at various points in our journey through life, will likely find ourselves feeling troubled by some action or inaction of God, even to the point of desiring an accounting from Him. This is only natural when the creature seeks to grasp the will of the Creator, for the gulf between us is so vast that we can, at best, only perceive a small portion of His righteous interaction with and intent for His creation. Thus, I do not presume to question or challenge, and certainly do not presume to accuse or condemn, the judgments of God. Yet, I do have a number of questions about some of those judgments, for some of them truly trouble me. On the other hand, I realize that I may have to accept the fact, as did Job, that God is not bound to explain Himself to me; rather, I am simply called to trust Him, even when I may not fully understand Him.

With all of that said, I acknowledge that as I read and study the Scriptures I often find myself asking, "Why would God do such a thing? How can such an action be consistent with and reflective of His nature?" I believe there is nothing wrong with me asking such questions as I struggle to understand that which is "far above my pay grade." I also accept that, as it was with Job, I may never fully comprehend the wisdom and purpose of His ways. He is not obligated to justify Himself to me. He is God; I am not. I will always have questions, and may even dare to pose them to Him in my prayers, but I will never "call to account" my Creator, for that is not my place. As I read of His just dealings in the Scriptures, however, and as I read of how He dealt with certain peoples and nations, it is tempting to agree with the evaluation of the ancient Roman playwright Terence (aka: Publius Terentius Afer, c. 190-159 B.C.) that "Extreme justice is often extreme injustice." There are some things that are presented in Scripture as "just" and "righteous" that, to our imperfect perceptions, seem to be quite the opposite. Indeed, we at times are even horrified that God would even consider such an action, much less carry it out or command others to do so. By way of a singular example, although others could be cited, I would list the events depicted in Numbers 31 which transpired near the end of the Israelites forty years in the wilderness and just prior to the death of Moses. But first, let's set the scene with a bit of background information.

The people in question in the account of Numbers 31 were the Midianites. "Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 'Take full vengeance for the sons of Israel on the Midianites; afterward you will be gathered to your people'" (Numbers 31:1-2). Who were the Midianites? What had they done to the Israelites? Why was the Lord so upset with them, and did His required punishment "fit the crime"? According to the biblical record, Midian was the fourth of six sons Abraham fathered by Keturah, his third wife (Genesis 25:1-2; see also: 1 Chronicles 1:32, where she is characterized as being "Abraham's concubine"). "Now Abraham gave all that he had to Isaac; but to the sons of his concubines, Abraham gave gifts while he was still living, and sent them away from his son Isaac eastward, to the land of the east" (Genesis 25:5-6). Thus, the descendants of Midian (a name which meant "contention, strife") were "the people to the east," which most believe had reference to "the Syro-Arabian Desert. The territory over which the nomadic Midianites wandered, however, never seems to have had clearly demarked boundaries" [The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 3, p. 375]. They were largely wanderers (nomads), rather than a settled people. We first encounter them in the Bible when Joseph was handed over to a caravan of "Midianite traders who were passing by" (Genesis 37:28) who then sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. We also know that when Moses fled Egypt at the age of forty, after killing an Egyptian, "he settled in the land of Midian" (Exodus 2:15). There he met Jethro, a priest of Midian, and later married one of his seven daughters. Moses would remain here for the next forty years (Acts 7:30) until called to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt.

As the forty years of wandering in the wilderness neared its conclusion, the people of Israel camped for a time "in the plains of Moab beyond the Jordan opposite Jericho" (Numbers 22:1). Fearing the Israelites, the Moabites entered into somewhat of an alliance with the Midianites, and it was at this time that the whole sordid affair with Balaam and Balak occurred (Numbers 22-24). Although the Moabites were part of this plot, the greater offence against God and His people was perpetrated by the Midianites, with their women seducing the men of Israel to engage in sexual immoralities and forbidden marital unions, and ultimately to begin worshipping their idols. Israel, as a set apart people unto God, was being threatened with extinction, as they were being absorbed into the customs and religion of the Midianites. As punishment, God sent forth a plague and killed 24,000 Israelites who had been seduced by the Midianites (Numbers 25). At the end of this chapter, God gave this charge to Moses, "Treat the Midianites as enemies and kill them, because they treated you as enemies when they deceived you" (verses 17-18). God demanded an avenging of His people for the deaths that had come as a result of the evil seductions by the Midianites (with most of that seduction coming from the women, though they were ordered to do it by the Midianite men). It appears, however, that Moses did not hasten to set this commanded action in motion, and had to be called to it again: "Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 'Take full vengeance for the sons of Israel on the Midianites; afterward you will be gathered to your people'" (Numbers 31:1-2). "The command had been given before (Numbers 25:17), but how long before we cannot tell. It is quite possible that Moses himself had been reluctant to order the expedition against Midian" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 2, p. 399].

That reluctance, if it existed, would be understandable, for what God appears to be demanding is nothing less than the extermination of an entire population; what some might term a genocide. Men, women, children, babies! Wipe them out! To carry out the Lord's will, Moses raised an army of 12,000 men (a thousand from each tribe) to make war against the Midianites. This was to be a "holy war," as it was designed "to execute the Lord's vengeance on Midian" (Numbers 31:3). Therefore, to underscore this fact, Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest went along with this army, bringing with him "the holy vessels" of Israel (vs. 6). "So they made war against Midian, just as the Lord had commanded Moses, and they killed every male" (vs. 7). They also killed five of the kings of the Midianites, as well as the prophet Balaam (vs. 8). It is unlikely that every single male was slain, as the Midianites are encountered again in Scripture. Thus, "the report that they 'killed every male' does not necessarily mean that they killed every individual, but that there was a complete defeat, with a focus on the males of the enemy army who were slain. Some of the enemies must have fled. The emphasis in this report is that they killed the men only, which allows for the report of vs. 9 respecting women and children" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 2, p. 964]. "The words do not refer to the whole of the male population; it is probable that many of the Midianites who were not engaged in the war withdrew from the scene of conflict. The reference in this verse seems to be to the whole of the adult males who fell into the hands of the Israelites during the war" [Dr. Charles Ellicott, Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 1, p. 562]. The Israelites took no male prisoners from among the enemy army: they killed them all. "All the men (i.e., all who bore arms) were slain" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 2, p. 402]. They also burned all their cities and camps, captured all the women and children, and plundered the land of all its cattle, flocks and material possessions (verses 9-11). "So far, the Israelites had but followed the ordinary customs of war" [ibid]. There is nothing really that outrageous in one army seeking to destroy another, and doing so without mercy, and taking the spoils of war, especially when going against a nation that had previously sought their own destruction. Rather, it was what took place after the victors returned that has horrified readers of the account for centuries!

The victorious army returned, without having lost anyone in battle (Numbers 31:49): "And they brought the captives and the prey and the spoil to Moses, and to Eleazar the priest and to the congregation of the sons of Israel, to the camp at the plains of Moab, which are by the Jordan opposite Jericho. And Moses and Eleazar the priest and all the leaders of the congregation went out to meet them outside the camp" (vs. 12-13). These victors, however, did not get the reception they expected. Instead of being welcomed with celebration, "Moses was angry with the officers of the army" (vs. 14). Why? Because they hadn't killed the women and children also (vs. 15). Moses then issued this order: "Kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man intimately. But all the girls who have not known man intimately, spare for yourselves" (vs. 17-18). These soldiers were faced with a situation where they were being ordered to kill thousands of unarmed women and children; to slaughter them on the spot without mercy. Further, how were they to know if a female was a virgin or not? Were they to be subjected to the humiliation of a physical exam prior to execution? "The Targum of Palestine indeed inserts a fable concerning some miraculous, or rather magical, test which was used to decide the question in each individual case. But this is simply a fable invented to avoid a disagreeable conclusion" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 2, p. 402]. The disagreeable conclusion was: virgins would be set aside for their own use later ("spare them for yourselves" - vs. 18 = slaves, wives, concubines), and all others, women and children and babies, would be butchered on the spot.

Biblical scholars and commentators for centuries have found themselves so shocked by this event that they are left wondering how this could possibly be a justified action, and yet they dare not condemn the Lord God. Thus, many voice their confusion and confliction, and declare their lack of understanding. Adam Clarke (1715-1832) stated, "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 ... 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" [Clarke's Commentary, vol. 1, p. 716-717]. Clarke thus sought to soften the event somewhat so as to present God in a more merciful light. Albert Barnes (1798-1870) saw this as "an awful but doubtless salutary manifestation of God's wrath against sin, and a type of the future extermination of sin and sinners from His kingdom," thus suggesting this was a foretelling of the Day of Judgment upon mankind in which there would be a similar slaughter without mercy [Notes on the Bible, e-Sword].

"There is a sense of perspective here that is so very difficult to grasp and yet which permeates the Word of God: Divine judgment is sure for the nations who are a threat to the existence of God's people or who have rejected His grace. And that remains true in our own 'sophisticated' day. The nations today, and the ungodly among all peoples, are at risk from the judgment of God. This is true whether they acknowledge it or not. One day that judgment will come. At that time there will be no weeping over women and boys who died in ancient Midian three and a half millennia ago; at that time the judgment of God will transcend anything ever written in the harshest Scripture. And God will still be merciful and holy, maintaining glory and honor in the midst of havoc and ruin. The God of Israel will still do right" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 2, p. 967]. Drs. Jamieson, Fausset and Brown characterize this action of God against the Midianites as "the severity of a righteous God falling heavily on a base and corrupt race" [Commentary Practical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, p. 135]. This brings to mind Romans 11:22 where Paul states, "Behold the goodness and severity of God." This is the Greek word "apotomia," which is found only here in the NT writings, and it means "to cut off; exterminate." Metaphorically it conveys the concept of severity, fierceness and strict sternness (and is translated as such in some versions). To the Midianites we most definitely behold His severity. The question that enters many minds, though, and which troubles and tempts us, is: was it truly justified, or was this a case where the punishment did not fit the crime?

Notice how some scholars have struggled with this account. "The brutality demanded by this verse is nearly unimaginable: the killing of boys and babies. One has to ask, 'What separates this from the Egyptian killing of the Hebrew boy babies in Exodus 1?' Since most women were married young in biblical times, most women would have had to be killed as well. Here is the sort of text that troubles us deeply. It is one thing to kill a man. It is one thing to kill a woman in battle. It is one thing even to kill children in a frenzy of hatred. But this verse demands the calm, selective, purposeful killing of women and children after the battle was over. Such stories are bound to raise questions about the morality of the OT. Ultimately, these questions are darts directed to the person of God. And once one begins to ask, 'Is God moral?', the very question damns the speaker. For who is man to be the instructor of the Lord? (see Job 40:1-2). This is not to say that these passages do not cause us to shriek with inner tension, for they do! But our shout had best not be an arrogant attack on Majesty. Ultimately, people of faith affirm - in the midst of the most negative environment - 'The God of Israel will do right'" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 2, p. 967].

The Pulpit Commentary dramatically and directly challenges our thinking with this statement: "To put the matter boldly, we have to face the fact that, under Moses' directions, 12,000 soldiers had to deal with perhaps 50,000 women, first by ascertaining that they were not virgins, and then by killing them in cold blood. It is a small additional horror that a multitude of infants must have perished directly or indirectly with their mothers. It is commonly urged in vindication of this massacre that the war was God's war, and that God had a perfect right to exterminate a most guilty people. This is true in a sense. If God had been pleased to visit the Midianites with pestilence, famine, or hordes of savages worse than themselves, no one would have charged Him with injustice. All who believe in an over-ruling Providence believe that in one way or other God has provided that great wickedness in a nation shall be greatly punished. But that is beside the question altogether; the difficulty is, not that the Midianites were exterminated, but that they were exterminated in an inhuman manner by the Israelites. If they had been so many swine the work would have been revolting; being men, women and children, with all the ineffaceable beauty, interest, and hope of our common humanity upon them, the very soul sickens to think upon the cruel details of their slaughter. An ordinary good man, sharing the feelings which do honor to the present century, would certainly have flung down his sword and braved all wrath human or Divine, rather than go on with so hateful a work; and there is not surely any Christian teacher who would not say that he acted quite rightly. If such orders proceeded from God's undoubted representative today, it would be necessary deliberately to disobey them" [vol. 2, p. 402].

The above writer, who is one of many who have contributed to the content of The Pulpit Commentary, comes about as close as anybody I've read over the years to calling for open rebellion against God and His commands. To this person's credit, however, he later provides "an out" to his strong comments by declaring it is his belief that the events following the "holy war" against the Midianites (that is: the carnage against women and children) was ordered by Moses, NOT by God. Thus, we can continue with the assurance that the judgments of God are just and good, whereas mere men (such as Moses) may at times become overly zealous and commit acts inconsistent with His nature! Moses "acted upon his own judgment, and under the ordinary guidance of his own conscience. We have not, therefore, to face the difficulty of a direct command from God, but only the difficulty of a holy man, full of heavenly wisdom, having ordered a butchery so abhorrent to our modern feelings" [ibid, p. 404]. The writer then somewhat gives Moses a pass by suggesting he acted as he thought best, given his situation and the cultural norms of that day and age. "It seems cowardly to slay a helpless child; yet to suffer a generation of Midianites to grow up under the roofs of Israel would have been madness and worse, for it would have been to court a great and perhaps fatal national disaster. For the sake of Israel the captive women and children must be got rid of, and this could only be done either by slaughtering the women and boys, or by taking them back to their desolated homes to perish of hunger and disease. Of the two courses Moses certainly chose the more merciful. The nation was exterminated; the girls only were spared because they were harmless then, and likely to remain harmless; distributed through the households of Israel, without parents or brothers to keep alive the national sentiment, they would rapidly be absorbed in the people of the Lord; within a few weeks these girls of Midian would be happier, and certainly their future prospects would be brighter, than if they had remained unmolested at home" [ibid, p. 405]. So, according to this argument, Moses was angry (after all, he was 80 years old, had been wandering in the wilderness for 40 years, and was about to die without entering the land of promise -- it was not a good day!!), and he overreacted. But, his heart was in the right place, so we should give him a pass! Sorry, I don't buy it!!

Others suggest that it is we, men and women far removed by time, place and culture, who have reacted to actions and attitudes far removed from our own time, place and culture. If we had lived back then we would not have been as "horrified." Thus, we need to read this account through their eyes (with their understanding), rather than judging them harshly and condemning them based on modern day sensibilities. "This chapter tells the story of the holy war of Israel, the vendetta of Yahweh, against these enemies of God and His people. That such an idea as 'holy war' is distasteful to many believers today is granted, but the reader of Scripture can only come to a sense of its meaning if he or she abandons for a moment the ethical and moral stances of our day and attempts to read it within the standards of the day in which the text stands. This is not to present an idea of moral relativism or to censor the morality of the Bible. It is merely to observe that different conditions obtain in the robust and rugged world of the ancient Near East than we are used to or are comfortable with in our own living. On its own grounds, the frightful events of this chapter are moral and are from God. The most important issue in texts such as this is not to concentrate on the suffering and pain that the chapter describes, but to reflect on the holiness of the Lord that the chapter celebrates. In the midst of terrible wrath, God remembers mercy, which is also the story of this chapter" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 2, p. 961-962]. Although it may seem insensitive, and even godless, to minimize the obvious pain and suffering experienced by a large number of people (and we likely find this difficult to do), there is some wisdom in the advice given in the above statement. Far too frequently we read ancient accounts, including those in Scripture, and seek to understand them through the lenses of our own cultures, customs and convictions. I would suggest reading an excellent book titled "Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders To Better Understand The Bible" by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O'Brien.

Not only is it true that God's ways are far above man's ways, but it is also true that the perceptions and practices of ancient peoples are also vastly different from those you and I may know (and which have a bearing on our understanding of those other times, places and cultures). God Himself declares, "My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways" (Isaiah 55:8). We "do not know the thoughts of the Lord," and we "do not understand His plan" (Micah 4:12). Thus, we (who are but "dust" - Genesis 18:27) should exercise great caution in condemning our Creator for not measuring up to OUR standards! The truth is: God had a reason for dealing with the Midianites the way He did, even though I might not fully understand what His thinking was. These were people who had sought to undermine His will to establish a people from whom would come the Messiah. They (and this included especially the women) sought to seduce the men of Israel to sexual excesses, which would then lead (as it did) to spiritual excesses (such as idolatry). The soldiers of this nation, and the seducing women, were to be destroyed; this, as it always does in war, impacted some not directly involved. But, there was a "bigger picture" (God's will for mankind) that could not be allowed to fail, even though the corrective action would prove to be both horrifying and painful (such is the consequence of departing from His will). I fully believe that God was just in what He did with the Midianites (as He will also be just in His dealings at the end of time when His righteous judgment is rendered against mankind one last time), even though such actions are horrific to contemplate. There is a part of me that wants to set aside His divine objectives and perspectives (as best as I understand them, which is probably minimal) and focus on the pain and suffering of those being slaughtered. The scene before me sickens me; it breaks my heart; it angers me; it raises questions and doubts that are troubling. I am left at a crossroads: I will either call my God to account based on MY understandings and sensibilities, or I will acknowledge my limited grasp of my Creator and His eternal design for His creation and bow myself before Him. I choose the latter. I am but dust with doubts!! Yet, I have a Father who has never failed me, even though I don't always understand His ways or His will. I have questions; I have doubts; I have frustrations ... I also have faith. Dear God, please let the latter overpower the former in my life. Lord, "I believe; help my unbelief" (Mark 9:24).

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Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in Virginia:

I can't imagine how I missed knowing that you were undergoing radiation treatment for prostate cancer!! I thought I had read everything sent out by you, but somehow I missed this! The only explanation I can think of is that I had been recently swamped by my husband's surgery and various medical problems with other members of our family. Anyway, if I had known I would have been praying, and I most certainly will start now! Your writings, Al, have been enormously helpful to me in organizing and augmenting my thoughts about some of the ways in which we have been "slaves to patterns" to the detriment of unity and peace. Thank you, Al, for all you do to help promote that understanding. Again, you are in my sincere prayers for a quick recovery.

From Lee Fiske:

Al, over the years I have seen how you enjoy song writers, as evidenced in your last Reflections article ("The Redeemer's Redemptive Restraint": Issue #693) in which you wrote about Ray Overholt ("He Could Have Called Ten Thousand Angels"). Our band is made up of previous a cappella Church of Christ members (I preached for them for 35 years; a Bear Valley graduate). I've written a few Christian based songs and have some of them on our band's web site. Give it a try. The one we get the most comments on is "Reason to Sing." The band is High Desert Ayre. Keep up the good work. You are a real blessing!

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

"He Could Have Called Ten Thousand Angels" is my very favorite song, and it constantly reminds me that no matter how tough things get in my life they pale in comparison to what the Lord endured for mankind (and for me). How beautiful it is to know that His blood shed on that cross continually keeps me cleansed of sin! I have instructions that this song be sung at my memorial service when that day arrives! I am glad you are back to your writing ministry, Al, following your struggle with cancer and also the death of your mother, but please don't overdo things! You are not 19 any longer, and you really can't burn the candle at both ends without paying a heavy price! Love you, brother!!

From a Reader in Hawaii:

Long time since I last wrote to you, Al. We have moved from Georgia to the island of Maui, which isn't all that far from your old stomping grounds (where you preached for many years for the church in Honolulu). I have really appreciated all your articles, research and insights through the years. I also like the pictures and graphics you choose for each issue, although I was a little curious about the latest. I know the article was about 10,000 angels (or the guy who wrote the hymn), but the figure reminded me more of Joan of Arc.

From a Reader in Georgia:

Hey, buddy! It's been crazy busy around here, and I just now was able to read through this week's Reflections. I can't tell you how much I enjoy the way you highlight a person who used Scripture to produce the music and words to our hymns. I doubt that I'm the only one who would have never known about some of these folks who made such wonderful contributions if it were not for your writings. But, maybe even more neat to me are the accounts of those persons who touched the lives of these people and motivated them to write such impactful lyrics and/or music. This week's article was no exception! Oh, and that passage about the angels in fiery chariots surrounding them has been quite comforting to me over the years. Open the eyes of us all, Lord! Love ya, brother!

From a Reader in California:

Al, I appreciate you for doing this article, and would urge you to please continue to present these studies that glorify Jesus. By telling "the Jesus story" the way you do, you help us to appreciate even more the great power and glory of Jesus and His ability to save: and that salvation is ONLY through Him. The more that disputable matters are venerated (one cup, singing a cappella, women not cutting their hair, and way too many other issues), the farther people are led away from Jesus. If we would just help others appreciate Jesus (what He has done and is doing), and help them cultivate faith in Him, we would do far better in our work of motivating people to be submissive to His will: to love God and love one another. Keep up the great work you are doing, brother! You are in my constant prayers.

From a Missionary in Peru:

I am personally within the Baptist fellowship, but I cannot agree with their affirmation that the wrath of God is one of His attributes. I can't see anywhere that the Word of God affirms such a thing. I see His wrath as a reaction to human sin and rebellion motivated by His holiness and justice. I can't find anywhere where it says, "God is wrath." There was a time when nothing existed but God alone, and, as I see it, that fellowship was one of continual love within the Godhead. Yet, some theologians go so far as to suggest that He created all things to display His glory and attributes: one of which is wrath. This seems to me to be nothing more than a philosophical idea out of the minds of men. Are we actually to assume that, prior to the creation, God was in some way unfulfilled because there was nowhere to display His wrath?! That seems the logical conclusion if wrath is an attribute of God. It also validates their view of an eternally burning hell as a manifestation of (outlet for) His wrath. But nowhere in Scripture do I find His wrath is everlasting, but rather it is consuming and destructive, and is poured out with a view to a certain end for the wicked. How on earth could one possibly envisage such a place of endless torment existing in the new heavens and new earth?! It would suggest a God whose wrath is never, ever satisfied, which seems absolutely preposterous.

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