THIRTY-NINE years had passed since two million Israelites had fled from Egypt to escape their oppressors. (Numbers 1:1; Numbers 13:1-3, 26; Deuteronomy 2:14.) Because they usually chose the way of sin, thousands upon thousands had died of war and sickness. Only a few of the many adult men who had started from Egypt were still alive after wandering for so many years through the deserts and mountains. (Numbers 26:63-65.) But death and misery hadn't prevailed all the time. Whenever the people chose to repent of their wrong ways and had the good sense to live as God had instructed them to live, they enjoyed good health, a happy state of mind and God's protection. (Deuteronomy 12:29-32; Deuteronomy 30:15-20.) And through all the years God gave them nourishing manna and miraculously prevented their clothes and shoes from wearing out. (Deuteronomy 8:4.) Knowing only the rigors of desert living, they greatly enjoyed a few months of camping on a verdant, spring-fed, tree-studded plain a few miles east of the Jordan River. (Numbers 22:1.) About this time Moses was called to the tabernacle to receive special instruction.
"Do The Impossible!"
"The time has come for my people to strike against the Midianites," the Creator said to Moses. "They must be punished because of their evil plan to influence Israelite men to go over to pagan ways through the wiles of the Midianite women. The Midianite leaders hoped that if enough Israelites fell in with worshipping their gods, I would be displeased and withdraw my protection from Israel. Then they intended to attack. I was indeed displeased, but I did not abandon Israel. "Now follow my orders and avenge your God as well as yourselves because of the harm idolatrous Midian has brought to the people. Although the Midianites hoped to destroy all Israel, I will use one-fiftieth of the Israelite army to destroy the army of Midian. I will prove that mortal men cannot hinder my plans or destroy the nation I protect." (Numbers 25:16-18; Numbers 31:1-2.) Moses spoke at once to his officers, instructing them to choose a thousand fighting men from each tribe. (Verses 3-5.) This total of twelve thousand trained and armed men was only a small part of the total Israelite army. Moses felt certain that the Midianites had many more soldiers than twelve thousand, but he knew better than to add to the number God had chosen. The Israelites would have feared to go against the Midianite army with such a small force if God had not promised this new generation that they would live to cross over Jordan into the Promised Land. They had at last learned to trust God and they knew that through His power this task would be possible. Led by Joshua, the twelve thousand set out bravely across the plains to the southeast to do what they knew was humanly impossible. The high priest's son, Phinehas, was in charge of the few Levites who accompanied the army. These men were to preside at sacred services and to carry the two silver trumpets that were to be blown by the priest, at God's command, as battle alarms. (Numbers 10:1-3, 8-9; Numbers 31:6.) The movement of Israelite troops didn't go unnoticed. When Midianite spies noted what direction was taken by the twelve thousand troops, swift-riding Midianite messengers carried the news to all five rulers of Midian. The five kings preferred to meet their attackers in the desert, what with the Midianites having specialized in desert fighting for centuries. They agreed that their full forces should go against the Israelite army, which, from the reports, was only a fraction as large as it was imagined to be. The Midianites realized that more Israelite troops could follow, but their spies reported seeing no further preparation in the camps of the Israelites. This convinced the Midianites that their women had succeeded in demoralizing the Israelite men to such an extent that they were no longer a strongly united fighting force. They believed they could easily defeat Israel. Almost two days after he had started out with the soldiers, Joshua received a discouraging report from a scout who had hurriedly returned from observation duty far ahead.
Numbers Meant Nothing to Joshua!
"The desert is dark with approaching thousands of soldiers!" the scout panted. "If we hold our present course, we will meet that army head-on! From what I could see, it's much larger than our army, and could surround us!" Joshua had no intention of trying to evade the enemy, which then might march right on to the camps of the Israelites. He knew that since God had sent the Israelites on this mission as His executioners, He would supply them with enough skill and power to wipe out these idolaters. The troops continued their rather slow tramping across the sands and rocks, and it wasn't long before they were able to make out the Midianites in the distance. When the miles between the two armies had shrunk to only a few hundred yards, it was plain to the Midianites that their numbers were indeed much superior to those of the Israelites. Suddenly the Midianites split into three sections! The middle portion came directly at the Israelites! The other two parts swung out to right and left to surround the Israelite troops in a gigantic vise-like movement! The battle was set in array. When the twelve thousand soldiers of Israel realized that they were marching into the vast jaws of superior numbers of oncoming Midianites, many of them momentarily may have felt like wheeling about and fleeing in the opposite direction. In those first frightful moments they felt what it would mean never to return to their camps and families.
The Signal to Attack
Then came the shrill, piercing sounds of the silver trumpets of the Israelites. It was an instant and powerful reminder to the soldiers that their God was with them, and that He would protect and strengthen them — and take them all safely into Canaan as He had promised. (Numbers 14:29-31.) Spurred to action and confidence, it was the Israelites' turn to make a surprise move. At a signal passed backward from Joshua, the rear flanks of the Israelites suddenly divided and curved out in opposite directions to swiftly get outside the flanking troops of the Midianites, even though many of them were mounted! Thus the enemy soldiers, attempting to surround the Israelites, found themselves bottled up except for their rear troops. But even those, within minutes, were hemmed in by the nimble Israelites. Then the fighting broke out in fierce, bloody fury. Considering the many thousands of soldiers involved, the battle could have been expected to last for hours. However, it went on only for a very short time, and then the awful sounds of slaughter suddenly died down. Weary men grouped together to stare in silence at the thousands of corpses strewn over the rocky ground. It was hard to believe at first, but the Israelites soon realized that they had slain every soldier who had come out to war against them, and that included all five kings of the Midianites! They also found Balaam the prophet, who had taught the Midianites how to lead Israel astray, and killed him because of his evil deeds. (Numbers 31:1-8.) Because Balaam had set his affections on the gold Balak offered instead of eternal life which God offered, everything went wrong for him. He got neither gold nor eternal life, but was executed by God's servants. What was even more amazing was that not even one dead or critically wounded Israelite could be found. True to His word, God had protected all of them. Through Moses, God had instructed Joshua to proceed to the Midianite cities and capture everything of value. After stripping the dead Midianites of their possessions, the Israelites marched on to the nearby Midianite centers of civilization. Having wiped out the Midianite army, the Israelite forces split into small groups and took over the Midianite towns and unprotected strongholds as soon as the soldiers could reach them. All Midianite men were slain, and the towns and strongholds burned. Women and children were captured. Flocks, herds and valuables were seized. (Numbers 31:9-12.) Mounted messengers raced back to the Israelite camp to excitedly inform Moses of the overwhelming victory. Moses was not surprised, but he was pleased and thankful. He called the tribal heads together, and with them and Eleazar, rode out east of the camp to meet and welcome the returning victors. (Verse 13.)
Don't Give Idolatry a Foothold
After congratulating Joshua and other officers, Moses noticed that the prisoners consisted of many thousands of boys, girls and women. "Why have you brought back these boys?" Moses asked Joshua. "And why have you spared these many thousands of women? Have you forgotten that these Midianite women recently drew our men into idolatry? God put a plague on us because of them, and also decreed that they should not live! Besides, they would have slain all our women and children had they won the battle." "Our soldiers didn't have the heart to kill the youngsters," Joshua replied. "As for the women, we couldn't know which were the offenders. Therefore we brought back all except those who fell before us by accident." "God sent us to destroy the Midianites," Moses told Joshua. "Tell your officers to instruct their men to slay all the male youngsters you have brought with you. Then determine as far as possible, which females have never had personal relations with men. Set them aside to spare, and slay all the other women!" (Verses 14:18.) Within a few hours thousands of Midianite women and male children lost their lives. The only Midianites who were spared were girl babies, young girls and any females who could prove to the Israelite officers that they had not taken part in the evil practices by which other Midianite women had led many Israelite men astray. These young Midianite women and girls could live among the Israelites as servants without any danger of their leading the Israelites into idolatry. Some who read this account will wag their heads in doubt, believing that God would never allow such slaughter, regardless of what the inspired scriptures tell us. However, the slaying of the Midianite women and children was an act of mercy. The Israelites who carried out the task of executing these idolaters had no appetite for such grisly business. They acted under orders from God, who had good reasons for using the Israelites to wipe out an idolatrous nation. These people were so evil, warlike, and lewd that they and their children were better off dead. When they are resurrected in the judgment, along with other evil nations of past ages, they will live under God's government, not their own. And they will be taught how to live in righteousness and happiness. (Matthew 12:41-42; 11:20-24; Isaiah 65:19-25.) Is it sensible that people should consider God harsh for what He ordered done to the Midianites, while at the same time they want to believe the pagan lie (still voiced from so-called Christian pulpits all around the world) that God has allowed billions of souls to be dumped into everlasting, blistering torment in some fiery place — some suppose in the center of the Earth — just because they never heard of God? Contrary to this unscriptural teaching, God justly gives every human being, at one time or another, the opportunity to learn right from wrong and choose to serve God. For most people, that opportunity doesn't come in this life. If it doesn't it will come when all those Midianites and others who have died without an opportunity for salvation will be resurrected after the Millennium. At that time people will live together in peace and prosperity while they are privileged to learn the way that leads to salvation. (Ezekiel 37:1-14; Isaiah 65:19-25.)
Because of being well outside the camps of the Israelites, it was an appropriate place for Moses to advise the soldiers who had any part in killing the Midianites or touching their bodies. "All of you who have touched a dead body must stay outside of camp for seven days. On the third and the seventh days you and your captives must bathe yourselves, and wash your clothes and anything you have that has touched a corpse if those things are made of skins, goats' hair or wood." (Numbers 31:19-20.) Eleazar, the priest, added to these directions by telling the soldiers that while they were waiting out those seven days, they should purify all battle equipment and booty made of gold, silver, brass, iron, tin or lead. This meant that objects made of these metals were to pass through flames of a hot fire to kill vermin and germs, and in some cases even to be melted down. Also they were to be washed in a specially prepared purifying water. Nothing could be taken back to the camps of the Israelites unless it was purified. (Verses 21:24.) If all people today would obey such strict rules of sanitation and quarantine, contagious diseases would not spread as they do. There was great celebration in the Israelite camps when at last the victorious soldiers were prepared to return to their homes and families. But now there was the problem of how to fairly distribute the captured property. Happily, it didn't remain a problem, because God spoke to Moses of this matter. The people did not use their own human reason.
Dividing the Spoils
"Divide what has been taken into two equal parts," God told Moses. "One part shall go to the soldiers who brought it back. The other half shall be distributed among the people. From the first part, for the soldiers, one part in five hundred shall go to Eleazar the high priest for offerings and to supply household needs. From the second half, for the people, one part in fifty shall go to the Levites." Joshua and his officers made an immediate count of the captives and livestock that had come from the campaign against Midian. It turned out that the soldiers had brought in 32,000 female Midianites, 675,000 sheep and goats, 72,000 cattle and 61,000 donkeys. Of the female Midianites, 32 (one out of every 500 of the soldiers' half) went to Eleazar and his assistants. They were to be used as household servants and helpers to the wives of Eleazar and of the priests. At the same time, 320 Midianites (one out of every 50 in the congregation's half) went to the Levites to be household servants for their families. As for the sheep and goats, 675 of them went to the priests, and 6,750 went to the Levites. In the matter of cattle, 72 went to the priests, and 720 went to the Levites. Of the donkeys, 61 of them went to the priests, and 610 went to the Levites for service as beasts of burden. (Numbers 31:25-47.) As soon as these matters were worked out, officers in charge of soldiers in the campaign against Midian came to Moses to remind him that a careful check of their men had proved what seemed evident right after the battle — that not a one of them had been lost! God had proved that He was able to protect every individual of those whom He had promised to take over the Jordan River into the Promised Land. (Verses 48-49.) "We took much spoil that wasn't included in the count of prisoners and livestock," a spokesman explained. "Among the things was jewelry of all kinds fashioned from precious stones, gold and silver. To show our thanks to God for sparing us, we now bring you a part of these valuables." Moses and Eleazar gratefully accepted the offering — the gold alone of which was worth hundreds of thousands of our dollars or pounds — and they had it taken to the tabernacle as a memorial before God. (Verses 50-54.) Having conquered the nations bordering Canaan on the east side of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea, the Israelites were well aware of the condition of all parts of that territory. Much of the land to the east was arid, but there were regions like Jazer and Gilead where the grass grew thick and green, and where there were many shade trees, especially oaks.
A Shocking Request!
The tribes of Reuben and Gad, having long specialized in raising sheep and cattle, were greatly impressed by these fine grazing lands. They felt that there couldn't be greener and broader pastures on the west side of the Jordan. Therefore their chieftains came to Moses and Eleazar to ask if they could remain east of the Jordan to raise their flocks and herds. (Numbers 32:1-5.) Moses was upset at this request. He believed that these two tribes could be using this as an excuse to get out of going with the other tribes to drive their enemies out of the land west of the Jordan. And he wondered if they weren't showing a lack of gratitude to God for the land He promised them on the west side of the Jordan River. "Your wanting to stay here reminds me of what your fathers said forty years ago," Moses answered, "when they refused to go into Canaan because they feared that the inhabitants might slay them. Then God sent them into the desert to wander and die! This request of yours is a bad example to the other tribes and might make them fear to cross the Jordan. If they, too, should choose not to cross the river, God might again be so angered that He might destroy all of us!" (Verses 6-15.) The leaders of Reuben and Gad recognized the wisdom of Moses' statements, but since this was such fine pasture land, they had more to say before giving up. After a hasty meeting among themselves, they again approached Moses and Eleazar. "We aren't being rebellious," they explained, "and we would not want to discourage our brethren or bring disunity to Israel. We can quickly take over the vacant cities from which we recently drove the Amorites, then build them into fortresses for our women and children, and build folds for our livestock. Knowing that our people and livestock would be safe, our soldiers could then return here and cross Jordan at the front of the other tribes to spearhead the attack and help overcome our enemies. We will not return to our homes until the other tribes are safely settled on the other side of Jordan. We will not ask for land on the other side, but will be satisfied with the grazing land here." (Verses 16-19.) This explanation put a different light on the matter in Moses' thinking. After all, if these tribes preferred this land God had given to Israel, Moses could think of no good reason not to give it to them as long as the whole Israelite army went westward to take Canaan. "If you will do as you say," Moses told them, "then these regions you desire shall become your inheritances. But be warned that if you fail to go with the rest of the people and fight until the inhabitants of Canaan are entirely driven out, then you will have to pay for such a great sin!" (Numbers 32:20-24; Deuteronomy 3:18-20.) "We will not fail to go," the chieftains promised Moses. "Do we have your permission to leave for Jazer and Gilead?" "Whenever you wish," Moses replied. Because he realized that he wouldn't live to cross the Jordan, Moses instructed Eleazar, Joshua and the chiefs of the other tribes to make certain that when the time came, they should see to it that these tribes who had taken eastern territory should live up to their promises. Otherwise, they were to give up the land they desired, and would have to get their inheritance west of the Jordan. (Numbers 32:25-30.) Thus Reuben and Gad were the first families of Israel to be allotted their possession from God, though half the tribe of Manasseh also promptly received permission to settle north of the area taken by Gad. The two and a half tribes were so anxious to get to their lands that they set out as soon as possible. The people of Reuben turned to the east and south. The people of Gad and Manasseh went northward. (Numbers 32:31-33; Deuteronomy 3:1-17.) They worked hard to rebuild swiftly the broken buildings of the ravaged towns and turn them back into walled strongholds. And as they had promised, they set up shelters and corrals for their vast numbers of stock. (Numbers 32:34-42.) With their families and livestock in secure strongholds, the two and one-half tribes would not need to leave many men behind to care for them. Meanwhile, back on the plains of Moab, God was in the process of giving more instructions to Israel through Moses, whose life was soon to be taken. (Numbers 33:50-56.)