Numbers 31 is a tough look for anyone who uses a surface-level reading of the Old Testament. By that I mean those who literally take each verse at face value without ever trying to make it make sense in light of the person of Jesus (who God is later revealed to look like).
To begin with, God instructs Moses to fight a war of revenge. It reminds me of hearing that George Lucas originally wanted to name the third of his Star Wars movies “Revenge of the Jedi,” but realized that Jedis wouldn’t seek revenge. That movie became “Return of the Jedi.” And later he made a movie called “Revenge of the Sith.”
Apparently, Jedis are above seeking revenge, but according to a literal reading of Numbers 31, God isn’t. Does this make the Old Testament God a Sith Lord? But I digress.
The revenge battle in Numbers 31 is a huge success, especially as Israel evidently doesn’t lose a single soldier in the fight (v. 49). Which is why it’s understandable to be a bit surprised in learning that Moses is pissed when the army returns. Why is he mad? According to verse 15, the first thing out of Moses’ mouth is the question: “Why have you let all the women live?”
Yep, this is our man of God in the Old Testament after the immense success of God’s revenge war. But it gets worse. Moses instructs God’s people on how to remedy this problem. “So kill all the boys and all the women who have had intercourse with a man. Only the young girls who are virgins may live; you may keep them for yourselves” (vv. 17-18).
The message Moses gives God’s people is that these conquered little girls (who just had their parents, brothers, and older sisters murdered) are theirs to enjoy however they want as plunders of war. Half of the girls go to the soldiers, and the other half go to the people. As we learn in verse 35, this adds up to 32,000 virgin girls. Even more bizarrely, God gets 32 of the virgins personally (vv. 28, 40).
Have I made you uncomfortable yet?
This is why I dismiss the theology of those who claim to “just read the Bible for what it says.” I once met with a disgruntled member of my church who told me that he didn’t like how I interpreted the Old Testament. I asked him if he thought passages like Numbers 31 pointed us to Jesus. I assumed this would provide us with common ground to move forward. Instead, he sincerely told me he had no issue saying that Jesus was capable of this too. Our meeting didn’t end well.
You should be horrified by Numbers 31 if you follow Jesus. That’s because Jesus looks nothing like this.
It’s understandable if you feel totally confused right now. It’s actually a good thing to feel as most Christians ignore passages like this. Do you know who doesn’t ignore Numbers 31? Atheists who choose not to follow God because God looks like a monster. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t follow a God like this.
How are followers of Jesus supposed to read one of the worst chapters in the Bible? Fear not, I believe there’s more going on here. If God looks like Jesus, there has to be something else happening in passages like Numbers 31 (and much of the Old Testament). This is an example of God stooping down to meet God’s people where they are. God allows them to think God is like this and takes their sin upon God in the process.
Just like Jesus does.
The absolute best book I’ve read on this subject is called Cross Vision and completely changed the way I read the Bible. If you’ve stayed with me this far you owe it yourself to figure out how to make sense of chapters in the Bible like this. I had the chance to write a promo blurb for the book and here is what I said:
“What if the harshest aspects of God in the Old Testament actually help us see the most beautiful aspects of Jesus on the cross? Sound like wishful thinking? Reading this is like staring at a two-way mirror and suddenly being able to see what’s happening on the other side. This book will show you how to read the Bible with fresh eyes and cause you to never see God the same way again! Easily one of the best and most transformative books I’ve ever read.”
CLICK HERE to get a copy of Cross Vision
CLICK HERE for the academic version called The Crucifixion of the Warrior God
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