Sin—and the inevitable death that it brings to all—has lost its shock for many of us. Postmodern sensibilities do not allow for the existence of God in the first place, let alone One completely sovereign in His execution of judgment upon all humanity. Gordon J. Wenham wisely observes that, despite prohibitions across the ancient world against adultery that specifically and near universally carried the penalty of death, still we read this difficult text in Numbers 31 and, “..are appalled”—despite Israel’s spiritual adultery and Midian’s seductive incitement to idolatry. Wenham further notes,

“Thus the same principles governed judgment within Israel and among the nations. All would perish for their sins, but for the grace of God (cf. Gen. 6:7ff; Amos 1–2). But Israel was punished first, then it was the turn of the surrounding peoples. The New Testament endorses these principles. ‘There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek’ (Rom. 2:9).”

Before a single Midianite woman or child was killed in battle, 24,000 Israelites fell by a plague from the Lord (Numbers 25). The focus of the text is not on the presumptive innocence of women and children, but rather the guilt and spiritual adultery of Israel, the treachery of Balaam and those Midianite seductresses who convinced thousands to abandon the God of Israel in favor of Baal and Peor, and over and against the entire scene, the holiness and righteousness of God.

As we approach Good Friday and Easter, it is critically important to remember that God is righteous and sin must be judged. Midian was not "singled out". Judgment came first to God’s own people. And indeed the New Testament reminds us still that “That there will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil…” (Romans 2:9). As we wrestle with this passage, let us not ultimately be appalled by the bloodshed therein, but rather by the spiritual adultery of us all that led to death of the Son. Let us see ourselves in this passage and be thankful that God has not left us to perish alone in our sins—but in Christ has given us great grace and eternal life.

Gordon J. Wenham, Numbers: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 4, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1981), 235.

by Craig Lester

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