15 Moses said to them, “Have you let all the women live? 16 Behold, these, on Balaam's advice, caused the people of Israel to act treacherously against the Lord in the incident of Peor, and so the plague came among the congregation of the Lord. 17 Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him. 18 But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him keep alive for yourselves. (Numbers 31:15-18)
I’ll be honest. Numbers 31 bothers me. God, through Moses, seems to be sanctioning both genocide and rape of Midian. It’s not a good look, and it actually doesn’t look any better when the Israelites come into the Promised Land and begin to systematically wipe our the inhabitants of the land.
A man in my church walked away from Christianity a few years ago because of passages like this. His exact words to me were, “I look at the Old Testament, and I can’t accept that God would allow–much less command– the slaughter of people in His name.” So when Numbers 31:17 commands that every male is killed, even the little ones, and verse 18 commands the men to take young virgins for themselves as the spoils of war, it raises questions for me.
Christians are fond of pulling verses out of the Koran that “prove” Islam is not a peaceful religion. What is to stop Muslims from doing the exact same thing with large sections of the Old Testament? As a Bible teacher, how do I defend a verse like Psalm 137:8-9?
8 Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us. 9 Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.
Context matters. Of course it does. My one comfort when comparing the Old Testament to the Koran is that the Koran doesn’t give context. It is the collection of the sayings of Mohammed. “Koran” actually means “recitations,” and it was compiled by Mohammed’s disciples who wrote down his pronouncements. So you don’t get narrative in the Koran. You don’t get context.
And it is context that helps us understand that the command in Numbers came because the Israelites were again being led into idolatry. Context tells us that the Psalmist in 137 was lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians.
I’m still bothered by the brutality of Numbers 31, but I can live with the tension because I read the Bible in context, and I see it as the whole gospel story of how God rescues, delivers, redeems, and safeguards His people. I can see how it shows God’s hatred of sin, and that Numbers 31 is specifically about the need for us to be zealous about eradicating sin, as Moses and Phinehas were, and not nurturing and coddling of sin; like the men who brought back some of the very women who led them into sin in the first place.
I can live with the tension because this is the story of my faith. But I have to be very, very careful with how I talk about other people’s faith. I wouldn’t want a Muslim to take Scripture passages out of context to try to prove to me that Christianity isn’t a religion of peace. Thus, I should think twice before I do that to Islam.