Today’s reading begins with Israel battling the people of Midian and concludes with instructions about driving out all inhabitants of the land in which the people of Israel are about to inhabit.
The Midianites had inflicted great harm on the Israelites the past by causing them to stray from God and worship Baal. As one of his last actions as the leader of the people of Israel, God commanded Moses to attack and destroy the Midianites. The Israelites were commanded by Moses to take 1000 fighting men from each tribe, totaling a fighting force of 12,000. The people went to battle against the Midianites and killed every man and each of the rulers of the Midianites. Among those killed was Balaam, the prophet who Balak had attempted to use to pronounce a curse on Israel. What was stunning about the conquering of the Midianites by Israel was the fact that of the 12,000 men who went into battle, not a single one died in battle.
In addition to killing all of the men of Midian, the Israelites took captive all of the women and children of Midian. The fact that the soldiers of Israel let live all of the women greatly displeased Moses because he said that it was because of the women of Midian that the men of Israel strayed from God and worshiped the Baal of Peor. Moses then commanded the fighting men of Israel to kill all of the non-virgin women of Midian and every male child.
Israel was permitted to take plunder from the Midianites so long as they abided by the commands of Eleazar the priest for the purification of the goods taken. All of the plunder that the Israelites had taken from the Midianites was to be divided in half. Half of the items belonged to the warriors who went into battle and half belonged to the congregation. A portion from each half of the plunder was to be dedicated to God. The portion for dedication taken from the warriors was one out of 500 and the portion for dedication taken from the congregation was one out of 50.
Before coming to the Promised Land of Israel, the people of Reuben and Gad saw the land of Jazer and Gilead and that it was able to sustain their large herds of livestock and wished to cease their journey with the rest of the people of Israel. This displeased Moses because he felt that these two tribes were abandoning the rest of the people before the journey was complete. Their desire to end their journey with their brothers was reminiscent to Moses of the lack of faith displayed by the spies sent to report on what was to be found in the Promised Land. After vowing to continue fighting with the rest of the congregation of Israel until the Promised Land had been conquered, Moses permitted the people of Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh to settle in the land of Jazer and Gilead.
The reading for today concludes with a warning from the LORD and spoken to the people of Israel by Moses. God knew that the people of Israel would be tempted to make concessions to the people of the land that they were about to conquer if they let any of the inhabitants live. They had shown reluctance to follow fully all of the commands of the LORD over the previous 40 years, and when they had rest from battle and hardship it seemed likely that they would return to old habits. God’s command to the people of Israel is that when they took possession of the Promised Land that they drive out all of the people of the land in their entirety and destroy all of their items and places of worship. The LORD warned that if the people did not drive out the inhabitants that they would become like barbs in their eyes and thorns in their sides, and the people would mean trouble for the Israelites. God concluded His warning to the Israelites by telling them if they didn’t drive out the people of the land that, “I will do to you as I thought to do to them.” Numbers 33:56