Several years ago I had endeavored to share my faith with a coworker. I had carefully built a friendship and had planted a few seeds regarding his relationship with the Lord. One day the opportunity presented itself and we talked for hours after work. He told me he once served Christ and that he had attended church in the past but he was not certain of his faith any longer. He pointed to Numbers 31 as an example of why he was in such doubt. I quickly found Numbers 31 in my Bible and as I read I too was puzzled. Here we have the account of 12,000 men from Israel killing all the men and burning the cities of the Midianites. They carried back the spoil of the land and all the women and children. When Moses saw that they spared all the women and children he was angry and ordered that all the women that were not virgins and all the male children be put to death. Now that is hard to explain when all you are looking at is chapter 31. When we look at chapter 31 in context with chapters 22-25 we begin to understand that God’s command was not to put an end to the wicked but rather to put and end to the wickedness. As one of my fellow bloggers pointed out, Balaam had been commissioned to curse Israel. When he couldn’t curse them he found a way that Israel could bring God’s judgment upon themselves. The men of Israel began to indulge in sexual immorality and attend sacrifices to foreign gods with the Moabite women. It was so rampant that while Moses was addressing the whole assembly one of the men brought a Midianite women to his tent in sight of them all. Phinehas used a spear to put a stop to this defilement of Israel but not before 24,000 of God’s chosen lay dead as a result of this great sin. It is no coincidence that Phinehas was chosen to blow the trumpet that was taken from the sanctuary. It was no coincidence that Balaam was among the men that was killed that day.
Numbers 31 is an image of God’s vengeance. It is the record of the destruction of those that would have destroyed Israel. It is the accounting of the dividing of spoil from those who would have carried away the spoil from Israel. If we look at only Numbers 31 then we see only a narrow view of God. When we frame Numbers 31 with Joshua 6:25 the story of Rahab, or God’s mercy shown to the city of Nineveh in the book of Jonah we see He is merciful to the repentant. Even to the pagan and the prostitute will he extend His grace. But those who willfully stand against His plan or oppose His purpose risk finding themselves of being separated from His mercy. As our New Testament reading underscores, Luke 1:50 “His mercy extends to those who fear Him.”