The following is an excerpt from the book, The Ways of God.
“But Moses was angry with the officers of the army, with the captains over thousands and captains over hundreds, who had come from the battle. 15 And Moses said to them: ‘Have you kept all the women alive? 16 Look, these women caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to trespass against the Lord in the incident of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the Lord. 17 Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones (taph zakar, “little male children”), and kill every woman who has known a man intimately. 18 But keep alive for yourselves all the young girls (ishshah taph, “little female children”) who have not known a man intimately.” (Num 31:14-18)
It is common for critics to quote verses 17 and 18 out of context, presenting Moses as telling them to kill all the women who were not virgins, keeping only the virgins for themselves as sex objects. However, this is a gross misrepresentation of what Moses actually said. The term “young girls” is ishshah taph which literally means “little female children.” The same word, taph is used to refer to “little male children” in verse 17. The root meaning of taph, which is translated throughout the Old Testament as “little child” is “to trip.” It refers to little children who are still learning to walk and easily trip and fall.
Critics often sardonically depict the men of Israel as invasively examining all the young women to see whether or not they were virgins. However, this would not have been necessary, since they were all obviously little children still in prepuberty. Even if they had been young virgin women rather than little girls, and Moses had told them that they could keep them for themselves, he could not have meant what the New Atheists are imagining, since premarital sex in all its forms is strictly forbidden throughout the Scriptures.
In order to understand what is taking place here, it is necessary to go back a few chapters. In Numbers 22 we see that Balac, the Moabite, and the elders of Midian, called upon Balaam to curse Israel. They were willing to pay Balaam a considerable amount, so he wanted to curse Israel on their behalf. But every time Balaam opened his mouth to curse Israel, God spoke through him words of blessing instead. After the fourth failed attempt to curse Israel, Balaam counseled them to send women into the camp of Israel to seduce the men to commit fornication with them and worship their god Baal-peor and thereby bring the wrath of God down upon them because of their abominations.
The men of Israel began to fornicate with the Midianite women and bowed down to their god, thereby bringing God’s wrath upon His own people. God ordered Moses to slay all the men who had joined themselves to Baal-peor and 24,000 of the men of Israel were struck down as a result (Num 25:4-9). This may sound severe, but considering how quickly the leaven of idolatry was spreading throughout the whole camp of Israel, it is evident that if God had not taken such drastic measures when He did, Israel would have utterly defiled itself in short order, just as they did at the foot of Mount Sinai. For that reason, God acted swiftly, putting the men who had defiled themselves to death. Also, because the Midianites had been a stumbling-block for Israel, God told Moses to go to war against them:
“Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 17 "Harass the Midianites, and attack them; 18 for they harassed you with their schemes by which they seduced you in the matter of Peor and in the matter of Cozbi, the daughter of a leader of Midian, their sister, who was killed in the day of the plague because of Peor.” (Num 25:16-18)
This explains why Moses was so angry when the armies returned from battle with the very women who had seduced the men of Israel, provoking God’s wrath. Moses said: “Have you kept all the women alive? Look, these women caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to trespass against the Lord in the incident of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the Lord.” It is in this context that Moses commanded them to slay all the women who had had relations with a man.
He also ordered them to kill all the young boys, which is something more difficult for some to accept. However, God is the giver of all life and only He knows when to take a life. We must remember that these children went to paradise upon dying, rather than being left to fend for themselves in a foreign land. However, apart from the reasons mentioned under the heading “Is God infanticidal,” doubtlessly the primary reason Moses ordered that they be put to death was in order to make a full end of the Midianite people. The Midianite girls would grow up and marry Israelites, giving birth to Hebrew children, since the Israelite men were allowed to take them for themselves in marriage (when they became of age), but even if a Midianite boy were to later marry an Israelite, his children would still be Midianites, and in that culture, tribal loyalties bound the surviving sons to take vengeance for their fathers, and for that reason, they had to be put to death for Israel’s security.
We see an example of this in Haman, who plotted to kill all of the Israelites while Ester was queen of Persia. Haman was an Agagite, or a descendent of king Agag who was slain by the prophet Samuel when Saul failed to slay him along with the rest of the Amalekites. Apparently one of Agag’s sons escaped alive, and generations later, Haman was still determined to take vengeance for his people against Israel.
In conclusion, we can see in this passage both the severity and the goodness of the Lord. We see God’s severity in making an end of an entire people group for placing a stumbling block before His chosen people. In the New Testament Jesus also gives a stern warning to those who would cause His little ones to stumble:
“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea. 7 Woe to the world because of offenses! For offenses must come, but woe to that man by whom the offense comes!” (Matt 18:6-7)
Here we see that the God of the Old Testament is the same as the God of the New Testament. Jesus here warns that the post-mortem judgment for an unrepentant sinner who causes one of His children to sin will be worse than being drowned in the depts of the sea. In the case of the Midianites, their whole tribe was removed from the earth in judgment and deprived of descendants for causing His covenant people to fall into sin.
On the other hand, His goodness is also seen in that He made provision for the little girls, allowing them to grow up in Israel and eventually marry Hebrew men, thereby becoming one with God’s chosen people Israel. So, while this passage may be a stumbling block for the casual reader, for those who fear God and seek to know His ways, He is seen to be Just, wise and good, even in this troubling passage.