The sorry incident of the prophet Balaam attempting to curse the Israelites had many consequences. King Balak of Moab had teamed up with his allies the Midianites to hire Balaam to facilitate the destruction of God’s people. That method didn’t work, so Balaam suggested another way to achieve the same result. He counseled that the women of these nations should seduce the Israelite men to accomplish their purposes (Numbers 31:16).
This approach worked so well that the Israelites openly sinned in defiance of God’s commands (e.g. Numbers 25:6), and overall because of the plague the Lord brought on the for their disobedience, 24,000 of them died before Phinehas courageously stepped into the fray to intercede.
Midianites and Moabites are somewhat interchangeable in this account, although they are distinct people groups. Their association with each other must have been quite close because the narrative speaks of them often in the same breath. To punish the Midianites for their part in this drama, God instructed Moses to send 12,000 men against Midian. In the course of battle, Balaam was killed (Numbers 31:8).
Often, when God wants certain people groups totally annihilated, He’ll command the Israelites to devote their enemies to destruction. He doesn’t do this here. However, following the battle, Moses is upset with his commanders because they didn’t deal appropriately with the women who caused the Israelite men to sin (Numbers 31:15-16). He tells them to kill these women so that they can no longer be a temptation to anyone.
In the accounting that follows, we see that the Israelites took large numbers of livestock in their victory. We don’t get a count of the Midianite women who Moses said must die, but 32,000 virgins from their tribe remained. If there were that many young women who hadn’t lain with a man, how many might there have been who’d had sexual relations? The text doesn’t tell us, but from the overall numbers of livestock and virgins the Israelites took from the five Midianite kings, there were probably a lot! Beyond that, given those numbers, how many Midianite men were put to the sword? Again, we don’t know, but it’s probably a good estimate that there were several hundred thousand.
Why does this matter?
Consider the statement the officers of the Israelite army made to Moses in Numbers 31:49:
”Your servants have counted the men of war who are under our command, and there is not a man missing from us.”
How could this be? The Israelites had taken part in what was certainly a fierce battle. The amount of plunder – livestock and women – surely wasn’t taken without significant resistance. How in the world could there be no – zero! – casualties among the Israelites?
The answer lies in Leviticus 26, which is later echoed in Deuteronomy 28. Yahweh had laid out for His people the blessings and curses He would bring based upon their obedience or disobedience. The battle with Midian was still early in the process, so God needed to show Israel what His Word meant and why she could rely on Him. Leviticus 26:8 details what more than likely happened in the battle with the Midianites:
Five of you shall chase a hundred, and a hundred of you shall chase ten thousand, and your enemies shall fall before you by the sword.
If five Israelite soldiers chased and killed one hundred of their enemies, or one hundred Israelites took down 10,000 men, how do those numbers shake out? We know that 12,000 Israelites went to battle. If my math is correct, there could have been as many as 240,000 to 1,200,000 of the enemy destroyed based on these percentages.
We don’t have confirmation of those high numbers, but we do know what is possible from the Word of the Lord. Even if only half this quantity of enemy troops came against Israel, for 12,000 men to rout and kill them, this was an astounding display of God’s might and supernatural protection of His people.
Let’s consider the numbers from another perspective. When Gideon confronted these same Midianites some years later, we’re told his 32,000 men were outnumbered four to one; the Midianites had at least 132,000 soldiers (Judges 7) God whittles Gideon’s men down so that he ends up with only 300; the rest go home. Thus, the percentage of Gideon’s men to the enemy came down to one Israelite versus 426 Midianites. To put it another way, if Gideon had the 12,000 men that Moses had from the twelve tribes, he could have dispatched over 5,000,000 enemy troops! Gideon’s victory was such a piece of cake, it’s a wonder God didn’t reduce his number of men down to thirty or so!
The point of all this math is that human numbers actually mean very little to the Lord. He has the ability to eliminate huge numbers of His enemies with a single Word. Can you imagine how great Israel might have been in the past if she had obediently followed Yahweh?
Of course, we’ll see a similar display of God’s power at the very end of the Tribulation when the armies of the world gather on the plains of Armageddon to destroy Jerusalem and presumably God Himself. Jesus comes in His glory with the Raptured saints – His Bride whom He’d snatched from the earth to fulfill His vows – to do battle against this great assembly. But, it’s not much of a battle. One Word from Jesus and all are destroyed.
Aren’t you glad you’re on God’s side?