Lesson 12: Chapters 30-32
Legislation Concerning Vows,
The Holy War against Midian and the Allocation of the Conquered Lands of the Transjordan

Holy and Eternal Lord,

It is Your promise to us that You are constant-You are the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, and You are just in Your dealing with mankind throughout their generations. When Your judgments seem harsh to us, viewing them on this side of salvation history, we should remember that a righteous and just God cannot live in the midst of a willfully sinful humanity. Your judgments on the wicked are meant to be a warning to call all men and women to turn away from sin and turn back to You before it is too late. Give us the ability to listen to Your warnings and to heed Your judgments, Lord, so that one day, when our wilderness journey is completed, that we will live in Your Divine Presence in the eternal Kingdom. We pray in the name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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If it is a serious matter to lie to another person, how much more to lie to God.
Procopius of Gaza (c. 465-530 AD), Catena on the Octateuch, On Numbers 30:2

But a deeper vengeance is taken on fiercer foes and on those that are false as well as on those who have done greater wrongs, as was the case with the Midianites. For they had made many of the Jewish people to sin through their women. For this reason the anger of the Lord was poured out upon the people of our fathers. Thus it came about that Moses when victorious allowed none of them to live.
St. Ambrose Bishop of Milan (c. 333-397 AD), Duties of the Clergy 1.29.139

Chapter 30: Legislation Concerning Vows for Men and Women

The previous legislation on the sacrifices associated with the daily Tamid and the sacrifices of the liturgical calendar ended with the statement in Numbers 30:1: So Moses told the Israelites exactly what Yahweh had ordered him. This statement is a fulfillment subscript, informing the reader that Moses went on to instruct the Israelites on all the commands God gave him associated with the cultic calendar.

In the previous verse (Num 29:39), Yahweh declared that the communal sacrifices offered at the liturgical worship service of the daily Tamid and the weekly, monthly and annual solemn feasts were sacrifices that were to be offered over and above a covenant member's voluntary offerings that included whole burnt offerings, cereal offerings and libations, and the three types of communion offerings: peace offerings (todah), voluntary offerings (nedavah) and vow offerings (neder). The mention of vow offerings introduces this next section of legislation on the vow (neder) a man or woman might feel called upon to make to Yahweh.

In the ancient Near East the practice of making promises or vows to a deity was a fairly common practice. Vows could be positive promises to do something by performing some duty (1 Sam 1:11), or it might be a negative promise to abstain from something (Num 6:2-8). In this legislation, the Hebrew word used to express a positive vow is the word neder, while a negative vow is expressed uniquely in this passage by the Hebrew word issar (The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew Lexicon, pages 623b-24a). Since most vows were made in moments of crisis (i.e., Gen 28:20-22; Num 21:2; 1 Sam 1:10-11), there was the temptation to neglect the vow once the crisis had passed. However, a vow to Yahweh was binding. It was a sin to neglect one's promise to God (Lev 5:4); hence there are frequent admonitions in Scripture not to desecrate one's vows (i.e., Dt 23:22/21; Ecc 5:3-5; Mt 5:33-37; Jm 5:12).

Divine instruction on vows was addressed earlier in the Pentateuch. For example:

  1. The legislation on vows and the sin in neglecting to fulfill them (Lev 5:4-6).
  2. Eating certain vow offerings (Lev 7:16-18).
  3. Vow offerings must be free of blemishes (Lev 22:17-25).
  4. The redemption fee for being released from a vow (Lev 27:1-31).
  5. The instructions for the Nazirite vow and related sacrifices (Num Chapter 6).
  6. The obligation of grain offerings and wine libations to accompany vow offerings (Num 15:1-10).

Additional legislation on vows in the Pentateuch will include:

  1. Specific legislation applied to specific situations of vows within the family (Num 30:2-17).
  2. The obligation for men and women to fulfill their temporary vows in a timely manner (Dt 23:22/21-24/23).

This passage will present case law associated with men and women making vows and a father's and husband's rights in absolving the vows of daughters and wives under certain circumstances. In the case law presented in this section, four classes of women are mentioned:

  1. The young, unmarried girl who still lives in her father's house (verses 4-6).
  2. The woman who makes a vow that is not completed before she marries (verses 7-10).
  3. The widow or divorced woman who makes a vow (verse 10).
  4. The married woman living with her husband who makes a vow (verses 11-12).

Numbers 30:2-6 The Validity of Vows for Men and the Validity and Annulment of Vows for Unmarried Women
2 Moses spoke to the tribal leaders of the Israelites and said, 'This is what Yahweh has ordered: 3 "If a man makes a vow to Yahweh or a formal pledge under oath, he must not break his word: whatever he promises by word of mouth he must do. 4 If a woman makes a vow to Yahweh or a formal pledge during her youth, while she is still in her father's house, 5 and if her father hears about this vow or pledge made by her and says nothing to her, her vow, whatever it may be, will be binding, and the pledge she has taken, whatever it may be, will be binding. 6 But if her father on the day he learns of it expresses his disapproval of it, then none of the vows or pledges she has taken will be binding. Yahweh will not hold her to it, since her father has expressed his disapproval. 7 If, being bound by vows or by a pledge voiced without due reflection, she then marries, 8 and if her husband hears of it but says nothing on the day he learns of it, her vows will be binding and the pledges she has taken will be binding. 9 But if on the day he learns of it he expresses his disapproval to her, this will annul the vow that she has made or the pledge that binds her, voiced without due reflection. Yahweh will not hold her to it."

Verse 2 begins with a general statement of obligation in making vows. When a man made a vow, he was legally bound by it.(1) As the head of his family, he was also responsible for vows made by the women in his household. All vows made by men or women to Yahweh were binding, including rashly made and ill conceived vows. One did, however have the option of going to the priest to request release from the vow by admitting one's sin of failure in completing the vow and by offering a redemption penalty fee (Lev 27:17-25).

Once made, a vow must be fulfilled without delay: If you make a vow to God, discharge it without delay, for God has no love for fools. Discharge your vow. Better a vow unmade than made and not discharged. Do now allow your mouth to make a sinner of you, and do not say to the messenger that it was a mistake. Why give God occasion to be angry with you and ruin all the work that you have done (Ecc 5:3-5)?(2) The vows of minor sons are not considered in this legislation. Evidently the vows of all males, no matter of what age, were binding unless a redemption fee was paid to God via His priests and as determined by the Law (Lev 27:1-8).

Question: What authority did fathers have over vows of daughters?
Answer: If he heard a daughter in his household make a vow of which he disapproved, he could nullify the vow by speaking out against it as soon as he heard of it. If he did not speak out, the vow was left to stand.

Numbers 30:7-17: The Validity of Vows for Married, Widowed or Divorced Women
7 "If, being bound by vows or by a pledge voiced without due reflections, she then marries,8 and if her husband hears of it but says nothing on the day he learns of it, her vows will be binding and the pledges she has taken will be binding. 9 But if on the day he learns of it he expresses his disapproval to her, this will annul the vow that she has made or the pledge that binds her, voiced without due reflection. Yahweh will not hold her to it. 10 The vow of a widow or a divorced woman and all pledges taken by her are binding on her. 11 If she has made a vow or taken a pledge under oath while in her husband's house, 12 and if when the husband learns of it he says nothing to her and does not express disapproval to her, then the vow, whatever it is, will be binding, and the pledge, whatever it is, will be binding. 13 But if the husband when he hears of it annuls it on the day he learns of it, no undertaking of hers, be it vow or pledge, will be binding. Since the husband has annulled it, Yahweh will not hold her to it. 14 Every vow or oath that is binding on the wife may be endorsed or annulled by the husband. 15 If by the following day the husband has said nothing to her, it means that he endorses her vow, whatever it may be, or her pledge, whatever it may be. He endorses them if he says nothing on the day he learns of them. 16 But if, having learnt of them, he annuls them later, he will bear the consequences for his wife's guilt." 17 Such were the laws which Yahweh prescribed to Moses, concerning the relationship between a man and his wife, and between a father and his daughter while still young and living in her father's home.

Question: How might a husband or father void a wife or a daughter's vow without the penalty of a redemption fee? See the legislation on redemption fees in Lev 27:1-8. How is the husband or father guilty of a sin if he voids a vow for a wife or daughter (also see Lev 5:4-6)?
Answer: When a man first hears of the vow, he may void the vow without any penalty. However, if he does not void the vow when he first hears of it, his silence is his acceptance and the vow is binding. He will be guilty of committing a sin if he attempts to void the vow at a later date, falling under the condemnation the woman would have been guilty of for willfully failing to fulfill her vow to God.

If the man is accused by witnesses he will have to make a sacrifice of reparation since he prevented his daughter or wife from fulfilling her vow.

Question: How was this legislation meant to protect the family and a woman's right to religious freedom?
Answer: If a wife or daughter made a rash vow her husband or father could nullify it without incurring a redemption penalty. It also prevented a vengeful wife from vowing away a man's children if he was away from home. As soon as he returned and heard about the vow, it could be nullified. Likewise, the legislation protected a woman from a husband or father who wished to punish her by nullifying a vow she had made to which he formerly gave his approval. If he attempts to nullify a vow he had previously accepted, he is guilty of committing a sin against his wife or daughter and against God.

Question: What was the legislation in the cases of a widow or divorced woman? See Num 30:9.
Answer: In the case of a widow or a divorced woman where there was no father or husband over the household, the word of the woman alone was sufficient.

The Rabbis and the Fathers of the Church saw an assumed culpability of Adam in his response to Eve's rash decision in his presence to take the forbidden fruit and eat it in Genesis Chapter 3.

Question: How might the interpretation of the vow legislation between a husband and a wife make Adam culpable for Eve's actions?
Answer: Adam's silence made him culpable for his wife's action because he did not intervene in her foolish decision, as was his duty as her husband and protector.

Question: What infertile woman vowed the life of her first born son in service to God if He would grant her the blessing of fertility? Did her husband, who had made his own vow, agree to her vow? Who was their son? See 1 Sam 1:9-11, 19-28; 2:11, 18-21.
Answer: Hannah and Elkanah both made vows to Yahweh concerning the birth of a son. Scripture does not name Elkanah's vow, but when their son was born he fulfilled his vow and agreed to Hannah's vow to commit their son to God's service for his lifetime. Their son was the great prophet Samuel who was adopted into the family of the High Priest Eli.

According to the Church Fathers, Anna and Joachim/Yoachim vowed their child to God if He would give Anna fertility in her old age. According to ancient Christian documents, their daughter Mary became a Temple virgin responsible for weaving the vestments of the priests and the Temple textiles (i.e., Gen 38:8; 1 Sam 2:23 Hebrew text). According to the same documents, Mary of Nazareth took a vow of virginity. When her marriage was arranged with an elderly Joseph, he knew of her vow and accepted her oath to remain perpetually chaste (i.e., The Protoevangelium of James, The History of Joseph the Carpenter, The Gospel of the Nativity of Mary, The Gospel of Psuedo-Matthew.).

Question: In the New Testament, what widow, who likely made a vow to serve God day and night in the Temple, was rewarded in her faithfulness by seeing the infant Jesus the day He was dedicated to God at the Jerusalem Temple? See Lk 2:36-38.
Answer: The widow and prophetess Anna.

Question: What did Jesus say about making vows/oaths in His Sermon on the Mount Discourse when He quoted from Deuteronomy 23:22-24/21-23? What did St. James of Jerusalem write about a Christian's oath? See Mt 5:33-37 and Jm 5:12.
Answer: Jesus affirmed the Law concerning vows and oaths, but He took the commitment a step farther in saying a sworn oath is not necessary if one is righteous and honorable and will simply do what he/she says he/she will do. It is a teaching St. James affirmed in his letter to Christians. Both Jesus and St. James warned that swearing an oath puts one under divine judgment.

Question: When do we take vows within the covenant community and are they binding? See CCC 2101-03.
Answer: We vow to raise our children in the fullness of faith in the Catholic Church when they are baptized as infants. Adults vow fidelity to God and to the Church in Baptism and Confirmation vows and to their spouses in the Sacrament of Matrimony. Men who are called to serve God in the Sacrament of Holy Orders take vows as do women who enter religious life. All vows made to God are binding. The Church can, however, for certain reasons and in certain cases dispense a person from vows and promises.

Society has always recognized that vows to a higher power are binding and that divine retribution accompanies the willful breaking of a vow. This was why one swore an oath to tell the truth in an American courtroom by placing one's left hand on the Bible and raising one's right hand to heaven. Sadly, this act of giving a swore oath under divine judgment is no longer observed, and today in an American court of law one swears to no higher power and to nothing but oneself-hardly a binding oath.


Chapter 31: The Holy War against Midian

They are a branch of Sodom's vine-stock, from the vineyards of Gomorrah. Poisonous are their grapes and bitter their clusters ... Close at hand is the day of their disaster and their doom is rushing upon them! Surely, the LORD shall do justice for his people; on his servants he shall have pity. When he sees their strength failing, and their protected and unprotected alike disappearing ... "Learn then that I, I alone, am God, and there is no god besides me. It is I who bring both death and life, I who inflict wounds and heal them, and from my hand there is no rescue ... With vengeance I will repay my foes and requite those who hate me."
Deuteronomy 32:32, 35b-36, 39 (NAB)

God's judgment is especially harsh on those who cause the downfall of others. The men and women who bring God's children to sin are the "seed of the Serpent" (prophesied in Genesis 3:15) who make war on the collective "promised seed" of the Woman (Rev 12:17). They have contrived, like their "father" Satan, to lead others astray and to cause them to forfeit their salvation (Rev 12:17). Such was the case with the Midianites who, with Balaam's evil counsel (Num 31:16; Josh 13:22; Rev 2:14), conspired to lead the Israelites into the sins of idol worship and sexual perversion in their plan to separate the Israelites from God's blessings.

Question: What did Jesus say would happen to someone who led an innocent child into sin and caused the child to loose his faith in Him or even an adult, who is a child of God, to sin and loose faith? See Mt 18:5-7; Mk 9:42 and Lk 17:1-3.
Answer: Jesus said the judgment against that person would be severe.

Numbers 31:1-6 God's Judgment on the Midianite Tribes Allied with Moab
1 Yahweh spoke to Moses and said, 2 'Exact the full vengeance for the Israelites on the Midianites. Afterwards you will be gathered to your people.' 3 Moses said to the people, 'Some of you are to take up arms for Yahweh's campaign against Midian, to carry out the vengeance of Yahweh on Midian. 4 You will put a thousand men in the field from each of the tribes of Israel.' 6 In this way Israel's thousands provided twelve thousand men equipped for war, one thousand from each tribe: 6 Moses put them in the field, one thousand from each tribe, with Phinehas, son of the priest Eleazar, to go with them carrying the sacred objects and the trumpets for the battle cry.

Numbers 31:2-3 'Exact the full vengeance for the Israelites on the Midianites. Afterwards you will be gathered to your people.' 3 Moses said to the people, 'Some of you are to take up arms for Yahweh's campaign against Midian, to carry out the vengeance of Yahweh on Midian. The literal translation of verse 2a is "avenge the vengeance of the Israelites on the Midianites" (Levine, Numbers, page 450). The declaration of a holy war against the Midianites will be Moses' last official act as God's covenant mediator to the Israelites.

Question: How many fighting men was each tribe to provide?
Answer: One thousand men from each of the twelve tribes.

The division of military units into a thousand men is a system known from the Bible and from secular documents of the ancient world. Moses sent twelve thousand hand picked men. It was a number that was a multiple of two symbolic numbers: ten (perfection of divine order) and twelve (perfection of divine government).(3)

Question: What was the reason God told Moses to send the Israelites to war against the Midianites?
Answer: He was commanded to execute retribution upon the Midianites for having acted on the advice of Balaam to incite their women to seduce the Israelites into sexual orgies in worship of Baal of Peor.

The "vengeance of Yahweh" was to seek vindication for Midianite treachery. The vengeance or "wrath of God" was not revenge but retribution for the sake of righteousness. The Hebrew verb nakam has two closely associated meanings: "to redress past wrongs" and "to exact retribution." The first meaning takes the preposition min, meaning "from" in verse 2, and the later meaning the preposition be, meaning "on", found in verse 3 (The JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers, page 255).

When one thinks of the strength of the Midianites (five tribes of Midian), twelve thousand Israelites is a small army (the tribe of Judah alone had 76,500 fighting men), but their strength was not in numbers-their strength was their belief in the Lord God of Israel.

Question: What was the sign that this was "holy war" of divine judgment?
Answer: Phinehas, the son and heir of the High Priest, was selected by God to accompany the Israelites into battle, carrying the divine oracles of the urim and thummin to determine battle decisions and the silver trumpets to signal the warriors.

Question: Why was Phinehas sent instead of his father Eleazar, the High Priest? Give two reasons.

  1. Phinehas was the hero who, like his grandfather Aaron, had the courage to step between Israel's sin and the wrath of God when he stopped the sinful orgy in the festival of Baal and averted God's judgment on the Israelites.
  2. The High Priest was forbidden to expose himself to contamination by close contact to death (Lev 21:10-12).

Question: What was Phinehas commanded to carry into the battle? See Num 31:6 and Num 10:1-2, 9; and 27:21
Answer: Phinehas was in charge of the silver trumpets that were to be blow with a battle cry as the signal for the soldiers to attack, and he also carried the sacred oracle objects of the urim and thummin to determine the will of Yahweh for the strategy of the battle.

Once again, Phinehas became God's agent as an antidote to Balaam and his plans to separate Israel from God's blessings. Just as Phinehas answered God's call to put an end to Balaam's plan to seduce the Israelites, he now served as the spiritual leader of Israel's hand-picked commandoes as they become the instruments of God's divine judgment against the Midianites, in whose midst Balaam continued as their advisor. Joshua, Moses ordained successor and the commander of the battle with the Amalekites, is not mentioned, but he probably led the attack under Phinehas' direction according to the divine oracles, the urim and thummin, as God commanded Joshua to be divinely instructed at his ordination ceremony (see Num 27:21).

Numbers 31:7-12 Israel's Holy War against Five Tribes of Midian
7 They made war on Midian, as Yahweh had ordered Moses, and put every male to death. 8 What is more, they killed the kings of Midian, Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur and Reba, the five Midianite kings; they also put Balaam son of Beor to the sword. 9 The Israelites took the Midianite women and their little ones captive and carried off all their cattle, all their flocks and all their goods as booty. 10 They set fire to the towns where they lived and to all their encampments. 11 Then, taking all their booty, everything they had captured, man and beast, 12 they brought the captives, spoil and booty to Moses, the priest Eleazar and the whole community of Israelites at the camp on the Plains of Moab, near the Jordan by Jericho.

Rekem (verse 8) is the ancient name for the city of Petra located in Edomite territory. The Midianite tribes were apparently numerous and formed alliances with or had authority over different peoples in the Transjordan: The Ishmaelites, Israelites, Edomites and Moabites are all mentioned as having an association with Midianite tribes. Bible scholar Jacob Milgrom suggests that the five tribes of Midianites formed a protectorate over all the Transjordan with the other Transjordan countries operating as their vassal states (The JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers, page 491).

Milgrom's suggestion is credible. At one time the Midianites must have controlled Edom and Moab since Genesis 36:35 records that Hadad son of Bedad the Edomite defeated the Midianites in the country of Moab, evidently reestablishing independence for Edom. That Moses was able to obtain sanctuary from the Egyptians in Midian suggests that the tribes of Midian were strong enough to provide refuge for Egyptian fugitives, and that the Egyptians did not pursue the Israelites when the crossed into Midianite territory suggests the Egyptians were not prepared to initiate a war with a powerful Midianite tribal confederacy. You will recall that Moses' father-in-law Jethro came to join the Israelites as soon as they reached Mt. Sinai (Ex 18:5). He must have joined them as soon as they crossed into Midianite territory.

Joshua 13:21 also records that Midianite princes lived in the land of Sihon, king of the Amorites, probably as ambassadors representing Midianite interests and exerting their influence just as they exercised hegemony over Balak of Moab's court (Num 22:4, 7). Milgrom also notes that the names of the Midianite kings are authentically old and reveal the early interrelationship between Midian and Edom (The JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers, page 491). All this evidence points to the necessity for Israel to defeat the Midianites, the most powerful and menacing enemy that Israel had standing in the way of the conquest of Canaan.(4)

Numbers 31:8 ... they also put Balaam son of Beor to the sword.

The narrative makes a point of recording the death of Balaam. Jewish Midrash concludes that it was Phinehas himself who slew Balaam.(5)

After their victory, the soldiers and their leaders returned to the Israelite camp with all the Midianite women, children, and the booty collected from the defeated Midianites.

Numbers 31:13-20 Divine Judgment on the Women who seduced the Israelites to Worship Baal at Peor
13 Moses, the priest Eleazar and all the leaders of the community went out of the camp to meet them. 14 Moses was enraged with the officers of the army, the commanders of the thousands and the commanders of the hundreds, who had come back from this military expedition. 15 He said, 'Why have you spared the life of all the women? 16 They were the very ones who, on Balaam's advice, caused the Israelites to be unfaithful to Yahweh in the affair at Peor: hence the plague which struck Yahweh's community. 17 So kill all the male children and kill all the women who have ever slept with a man; 18 but spare the lives of the young girls who have never slept with a man, and keep them for yourselves. 19 As for you, bivouac outside the camp for seven days, everyone who has killed anyone or touched a corpse. Purify yourselves and your prisoners on the third and seventh days, 20 and purify all clothing, everything made of skin, everything woven of goats' hair and everything made of wood.' 21 The priest Eleazar said to the soldiers who had come back from the campaign, 'This is a article of the Law which Yahweh prescribed to Moses: 22 although gold, silver, bronze, iron, tin and lead, 23 everything that can withstand fire can be cleaned by being passed through fire, it must still be purified with water for purification. 24 Whatever cannot resist fire you must pass through water. Wash your clothes on the seventh day and you will then be clean. You may then re-enter the camp.'

Question: Why were the captured adult Midianite women condemned to death?
Answer: The bodies of the Midianite women were polluted by ritual prostitution and sex with animals in the worship of Baal and other false gods; it was sin they willingly used to seduce the Israelite men. Their sin would continue to pollute God's holy people should they become part of the community.

It is more difficult to understand why all the Midianite sons were also condemned to death. However, all male children would be bound by the ancient tradition of blood feud and to have these boys growing to manhood within the community would have been the cause of future rebellions and the disintegration of the community. God had to protect the "promised seed" of Israel that would one day bring forth the promised Messiah. The girl children, on the other hand, were expected to marry into the community and become mothers. These girl children would become suitable brides for the Israelites men and eventually they and their children would be completely assimilated into the community. This decree fell short of the severity of the harshest herem that demanded the total destruction of all spoils, including humans and animals. The harshest form of herem will be imposed on the Canaanites (Dt 7:1-11). There were to be no treaties and no intermarriage with the Canaanites who were the descendants under the curse imposed on Ham and his son Canaan (Gen 9:25). The Midianites, however, were descendants of Abraham and his second wife Keturah (Gen 25:1-4).(6)

Question: Why were the soldiers refused entrance into the camp for seven days? See Num 5:1-3; 19:11-22.
Answer: The soldiers and the girl children that were to be admitted into the community had been contaminated by the sin of death, and according to the Law they must be ritually purified with the waters of the red heifer before re-entering the camp.

Think of the importance physiologically of the seven day purification period and the separation from the community. These men had witnessed and perpetrated horribly acts of violence. This was a period that provided a healing and cleansing of body, mind, and spirit before the men were re-united with their families and began again the normal routine of the camp and family life.

In verses 21-23 the High Priest reminded the men that the booty they collected must also be purified by water, even those objects that could be purified by fire. The term used for the water is "waters of lustration", a reference to the cleansing waters of the red heifer (verse 23). The objects had to be sprinkled with the purifying ritual water but they also had to be passed through fire and bathed in water. This was necessary so that any cooking vessels could be completely cleansed from contaminated pagan food.

Numbers 31:24b Wash your clothes on the seventh day and you will then be clean. You may then re-enter the camp. This command includes washing of bodies as well as clothes (see Lev 11:25; 28:40; Num 19:19b) before all the combatants and their captives could return to the camp.

Numbers 31:25-47 The Allocation of the Spoils and Captives
25 Yahweh spoke to Moses and said: 26 'With the priest Eleazar and the heads of families in the community, take as count of the spoils and captives, man and beast. 27 You will then share out the spoil, half and half, between those who fought the campaign and the rest of the community. 28 From the share of the combatants who took part in the campaign, you will set aside one out of every five hundred persons, oxen, donkeys and sheep as Yahweh's portion. 29 You will take this from the half share coming to them and give it to the priest Eleazar as the portion set aside for Yahweh. 30 From the half coming to the Israelites, you will take one out of every fifty persons, oxen, donkeys, sheep, and all other animals, and give them to the Levites who are responsible for Yahweh's Dwelling.' 31 Moses and the priest Eleazar did as Yahweh had ordered Moses. 32 The spoils, the remainder of the booty captured by the soldiers, came to six hundred and seventy-five thousand sheep and goats, 33 seventy-two thousand head of cattle, sixty-one thousand donkeys, 35 and in persons, women who had never slept with a man, thirty-two thousand in all. 36 Half was assigned to those who had taken part in the war, namely three hundred and thirty-seven thousand five hundred sheep and goats, 37 of which Yahweh's portion was six hundred and seventy-five, 38 thirty-six thousand head of cattle, of which Yahweh's portion was seventy-two, 39 thirty thousand five hundred donkeys, of which Yahweh's portion was sixty-one, 40 and sixteen thousand persons, of which Yahweh's portion was thirty-two. 41 Moses gave the priest Eleazar the portion set aside for Yahweh, as Yahweh had ordered Moses. 42 As for the half coming to the Israelites which Moses had separated from that of the combatants, 43 this half, the community's share, came to three hundred and thirty-seven thousand five hundred sheep and goats, 44 thirty-six thousand head of cattle, 45 thirty thousand five hundred donkeys 46 and sixteen thousand persons. 47 From this half, the Israelites' share, Moses took one out of every fifty, man and beast, and gave them to the Levites who were responsible for Yahweh's Dwelling, as Yahweh had ordered Moses.

Question: By divine decree, how were the persons and animals taken as spoil divided?

The soldiers paid one-tenth as much as the civilians and the Levites received ten times as much as the priests. For every thousand persons or animals taken, the soldiers received nine more than the civilians.(7)

Totals of the Midianite spoils:

Numbers 31:48-54 The Commanders Voluntary Contribution to the Sanctuary
48 The officers of the thousands who had fought the campaign, the commanders of the thousands and commanders of the hundreds, came to Moses and said, 49 'Your servants have numbered the soldiers under their command: none of our men is missing. 50 So, as an offering [korban] for Yahweh, we have brought what each of us has found in the way of gold ornaments, armlets and bracelets, rings, earrings and breastplates, to make expiation [kipper] for ourselves before Yahweh.' 51 Moses and the priest Eleazar accepted this gold from them, all this jewelry. 52 This portion of gold given to Yahweh by the commanders of the thousands and commanders of the hundreds amounted to sixteen thousand seven hundred and fifty shekels. 53 Each of the soldiers took his own booty. 54 But Moses and the priest Eleazar, having accepted the gold from the commanders of the thousands and commanders of the hundreds, brought it into the Tent of Meeting, to be a reminder of the Israelites before Yahweh. [..] = literal translation (The Interlinear Bible: Hebrew-English, page 440).

Question: What did the officers discover after they had polled their men?
Answer: They discovered that they had not lost a single man in the battle.

The Rabbis point out that this miraculous preservation of all the soldiers proved that the Israelite commandoes did not take advantage of the captive women but maintained a state of sexual purity. It was sexual sin that had led to the war in the first place.

Question: Why did they offer Yahweh all the gold they had amassed from the defeated Midianite settlements? What was required under the Law for polling the soldiers compared to what they gave? See Ex 30:11-16 and Num 31:50.
Answer: According to the Law, when a census was taken by the Israelites, each one polled in the census must pay a ransom for his life of half a shekel to be paid to the Sanctuary. However, in gratitude for Yahweh's mercy in sparing all the Israelite warriors, they did not simply pledge the 6,000 shekels owed for polling each of the 12,000 the soldiers. Instead they offer as korban (the gift offering of "drawing near" to God) and kipper (a ransom for atonement), the voluntary gift of all the treasure in recognition of the miracle that God had spared his holy warriors. Their gift amounted to 16,750 shekels. They gave more than double above and beyond that which was required.

Question: What did Moses and Eleazar do with the gold?
Answer: The gold was used in the Sanctuary as a reminder of the victory and God's mercy. Since the soldiers wished to make expiation for their sins, it may also have been used to purchase the animals for the sin sacrifices for the troops.

Even in a "holy war", the sin of killing, even justifiable homicide, must be expiated for peace to be re-established with God.

Much of the gold was probably made into Sanctuary vessels or used to repair damaged vessels and damaged portions of the gold covered wood frames of the Tabernacle.


Chapter 32: The Allocation of the Transjordan Lands

The outline of Chapter 32 is arranged in a chiastic pattern:

A. Gad and Reuben request to occupy land in the Transjordan (vs. 1-5)
     1. They specify nine towns (vs. 1-5)
     2. Moses rejects their request citing a historical judgment (v. 6-15)
          B. Moses accepts their revised proposal (vs. 16-24)
               1. The two tribes' compromise (vs. 16-19)
               2. Moses accepts but requires a double condition (vs. 20-24)
               X. Gad and Reuben accept Moses' revisions (vs. 25-27)
          B* Moses' takes their revised proposal to Israel's leaders (vs. 28-32)
     1. Consequence changes if double condition is rejected (vs. 29-30)
     2. Gad and Reuben repeat their acceptance (vs. 31-32)
A* Moses provisionally grants the requests for Gad and Reuben to occupy land in the Transjordan (vs. 33-42)
     1. Gad and Reuben rebuild fourteen towns (vs. 34-38)
     2. Two Manassite clans conquer and rename towns (vs. 39-42)

Numbers 32:1-5 The Proposal Put Forward by the Tribes of Reuben and Gad
1 Now, the Reubenites and Gadites owed very large herds of cattle. Having seen that the territories of Jazer and Gilead formed an ideal region for raising stock, 2 the Gadites and Reubenites went to Moses, the priest Eleazar and the leaders of the community, and said to them, 3 'The territory of Ataroth, Dibon, Jazer, Nimrah, Heshbon, Elealeh, Sebam, Nebo and Beon, 4 which Yahweh has conquered before the advancing community of Israel, is ideal land for raising stock, and your servants are cattle breeders. 5 So', they said, 'if you approve, give your servants this land for us to own; do not make us cross the Jordan.'

The chapter begins with the two tribes in order as Reuben and Gad, but all other references are listed as Gad and Reuben-seven times in verses 2, 6, 25, 29, 31, 33, 34/37. The reason for the reversed order is not clear. Reuben was the first in the birth order of the tribal ancestors and was only a slightly larger tribe than the Gadites, however, David's census in 2 Samuel 24:5 only mentions Gad. It is assumed that the tribe of Reuben no longer existed in the time of the monarchy.

Question: Where did the tribes of Reuben and Gad camp in the order of the tribes? See Num 2:10-15.
Answer: They both camped on the south side of the Sanctuary.

Question: In addressing Moses with their request, who do the tribes of Reuben and Gad give the credit for the conquest of the Transjordan?
Answer: They give the credit for the victory to Yahweh.

Question: What reason did these two tribes give for not wanting to cross the Jordan River into Canaan with the rest of the Israelites?
Answer: The conquered lands the Transjordan had excellent pastures for their herds of animals.

These two tribes did not want to cross the Jordan to conquer lands in Canaan. The land conquered land on the east side of the Jordan River was excellent grazing land for their large herds of livestock. The addition of their portion of the herds of animals from the Midianites may have increased their already large herds of animals to an unmanageable number and may have contributed to their desire to stay in the Transjordan region. The territory they wanted to claim extended from the Arnon on the south to where the Yarmuk River is intersected by the Jabbok in the north. The southern Gilead in particular was noted for its fertile pasture lands and its herds and flocks of animals (Mic 7:14; SS 4:1; 1 Chr 5:9).(8)

Numbers 32:6-15 Moses' Distress over Their Request
6 Moses said to the Gadites and Reubenites, 'Do you intend your brothers to go into battle while you stay here? 7 Why are you discouraging the Israelites from crossing to the country which Yahweh has given them? 8 Your fathers behaved in the same way when I sent them to see the country from Kadesh-Barnea, 9 for having gone as far as the Valley of Eshcol and seen the country, they discouraged the Israelites from entering the country which Yahweh had given them. 10 Hence Yahweh's anger was aroused that day and he swore this oath, 11 "No man of twenty years and over, who left Egypt, shall set eyes on the country which I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob ..., for they have not followed me absolutely, 12 except for Caleb son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite, and Joshua son of Nun: these indeed have followed Yahweh absolutely." 13 Yahweh's anger being aroused by Israel, he made them wander in the desert for forty years, until the generation that offended Yahweh had all disappeared. 14 And now you rise up in your father's place, offshoot of sinful stock, to increase Yahweh's burning anger with Israel even more! 15 If you turn away from him, he will prolong the time spent in the desert, and you will bring about this entire people's ruin.'

Question: The request of the tribes of Rueben and Gad angered Moses. What accusation did he make against them?
Answer: He accused them of being like their fathers who were not willing to fulfill God's plan for Israel's conquest of Canaan.

It was Moses' fear that if ten disheartened men could convince the Israelites not to invade Canaan at Kadesh-Barnea thirty-nine years ago, what affect would the refusal to cross into Canaan of two entire tribes have on the Israelites. Moses accused the Gadites and Reubenites of selfish disregard for Israel's unity and God's ordained destiny for Israel for their own economic prosperity. Joshua will make a similar accusation against the Transjordan tribes (Josh 22:16-20).(9)

Numbers 32:16-19 The Tribe's Counter Proposal
16 They came to Moses and said, 'We should like to build sheepfolds here for our flocks and towns for our little ones. 17 We ourselves will take up arms [nehalets] and lead the Israelites until we have brought them to the place appointed for them, while our little ones stay in the fortified towns to be safe from the local inhabitants. 18 We will not return to our homes until every one of the Israelites has taken possession of his heritage. 19 For we shall have no heritage with them on the other bank of the Jordan or beyond, since our heritage has fallen to us here, east of the Jordan.'

Question: What were the three main points of their counter proposal?
Answer: If Moses will let them build enclosures for their herds and flocks and settle their families in captured towns:

  1. They will lead the Israelite army across the Jordan.
  2. They will help the other tribes secure their lands in Canaan.
  3. They will make no claim on the lands west of the Jordan River .

It was a reasonable suggestion that they were willing to take up the vanguard position to lead the Israelites on the conquest of Canaan. The Gadites and Reubenites, having settled their women, children, elderly, possessions and herds in the towns of the Transjordan, would have greater mobility than the other tribes and could therefore undertake the mission of Israel's shock troops, leading the march and scouting out the terrain. The Hebrew word nehalets used in Numbers 32:17, literally "we shall be picked out", is the same word used in Numbers 31:3, hehaletsu = "let (them) be picked out", for the hand-picked commandoes sent in the war against the Midianites. The root of this word [hlts] is used seven times in this chapter in verses 17, 20, 21, 27, 29, 30 and 32 (The JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers, page 270; The Interlinear Bible: Hebrew-English, page 442-43).

Numbers 32:20-27 Moses' Compromise
20 Moses said to them, 'If you do as you have said, if you are prepared to fight before Yahweh, 21 and if all those of you who bear arms cross the Jordan before Yahweh, until he has driven all his enemies out before him, 22 then, once the country has become subject to Yahweh [before YHWH], you may go back, and will have discharged your obligation to Yahweh [shall be clear before YHWH] and Israel, and Yahweh will consider this territory yours. 23 But if you do not, you will sin against Yahweh, and be sure your sin will find you out. 24 Build towns, then, for your little ones and folds for your flocks; but do what you have promised.' 25 The Gadites and Reubenites said to Moses, 'Your servants will do as my lord directs. 26 Our little ones, our wives, our flocks and all our livestock will stay in the towns of Gilead, 27 but your servants, each armed for war, will cross in Yahweh's name [before YHWH] and fight, as my lord says.' [..] = literal translation (The Interlineal Bible: Hebrew-English, vol. I, page 443).

Moses agreed to their counterproposal and placed the tribes under oath to fulfill their promise. He also warned them that they must do what they promise or they will face Yahweh's divine retribution for their noncompliance. Moses accepted their proposal to march in the conquest "before Yahweh". The phrase lifnei/lipne YHWH, meaning "before Yahweh/ in front of Yahweh", occurs seven times in this section of the chapter in verses 20, 21, 22 twice, 27, 29, and 32 (The Interlineal Bible: Hebrew-English, vol. I, page 443-44), signifying the importance of the phrase.

Question: Where is Yahweh's presence that they must march "before/in front of Yahweh"?
Answer: Yahweh's presence rests between the cherubim of the Ark of the Covenant. The tribes of Reuben and Gad must march in front of the Ark as the vanguard of the army.

The phrase identifies Gad and Reuben as the vanguard of the army. They will precede the Ark of the Covenant carried by the priests (The JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers, page 271). Therefore, the formation would consist of Gad and Reuben as the vanguard, followed by the priests bearing the trumpets and those bearing the Ark and the rear guard being the rest of the Israelites (see this arrangement in the Battle of Jericho in Josh 6:7-13). The two tribes agreed to be the shock troops in the vanguard of the conquest, leading the Ark of the Covenant into battle (verse 27). Gad and Reuben will be the vanguard for Yahweh the Great King as He marches to dispossess the sinful inhabitants of Canaan and to subdue the land of Canaan to be occupied by His holy people. The war is Yahweh's war (Num 32:21; Josh 4:13).

Numbers 32:28-33 The Compromise is presented to the Leaders
28 So Moses gave orders about them to the priest Eleazar, Joshua son of Nun, and the heads of the families in the Israelite tribes. 29 Moses said to them, 'If the Gadites and Reubenites, all those under arms, cross the Jordan with you to fight in Yahweh's name, then, once the country has become subject to you, you will give them the territory of Gilead as theirs. 30 But if they will not cross with you under arms, they will receive their domains in Canaan with the rest of you.' 31 To this, the Gadites and Reubenites replied, 'What Yahweh has said to your servants, we shall do. 32 Under arms, we shall cross in Yahweh's name [before YHWH] into Canaan, so that ownership of our heritage on this side of the Jordan will be ours.' 33 Moses then gave them-the Gadites, the Reubenites and the half-tribe of Manasseh son of Joseph-the kingdom of Sihon king of the Amorites and the kingdom of Og king of Bashan, the country and the towns within its territory, and the country's frontier-towns. [..] = literal translation (The Interlinear Bible: Hebrew-English, page 443-44).

Moses repeated to the leaders the oath under which he placed the tribes of Gad and Reuben and they again affirmed their acceptance of the conditions for them to take possession of the conquered Transjordan lands.

Moses included the tribe of Manasseh in the division of the Gilead, probably because the land was to be allocated according to the population of the tribes (Num 26:52-56) and the area was larger that what the two tribes of Gad and Reuben could rightfully occupy. The clans of the sons of Machir son of Manasseh had to conquer parts of the land of the upper Gilead since the territory include lands that the Israeli army had not conquered in the Transjordan war.

Question: How was the Transjordan divided among the two tribes of Gad and Reuben and the half of Manasseh? See Josh 13:15-27; 17:1-13.
Answer: Manasseh was to occupy lands on both sides of the Jordan River. On the east side of the Jordan River the clans of the sons of Machir son of Manasseh were to receive the land of the upper Gilead along the Jordan from the Yarmuk to the Jabbok and as far east as Ashtaroth. This region and its towns had been part of the kingdom of Basham (Josh 9:10; 13:29-31). Gad was to occupy the land and towns of the lower Gilead running from the tip of the Sea of Galilee (Chinneroth) including the Jazer, which was the land south of the Jabbok and as far north as Aroer facing Rabbah (Josh 13:24-27). Reuben was to receive the entire table land from Aroer on the edge of the Arnon Valley to the highlands of the Arabah and all the towns that belonged to the entire kingdom of Sihon king of the Amorites (Josh 13:15-21).

Numbers 32:34-42 The Transjordan Tribes establish their Towns
34 The Gadites rebuilt Dibon, Ataroth, Aroer, 35 Athroth-Shophan, Jazer, Jogbehah, 36 Beth-Nimrah and Beth-Haran as fortified towns with folds for the flocks. 37 The Reubenites rebuilt Heshbon, Elealeh, Kiriathaim, 38 Nebo and Baal-Meon (the names of which were altered), and Sibmah, giving new names to the towns which they rebuilt. 39 The descendants of Machir son of Manasseh went to Gilead. They conquered and drove out the Amorites who were there. 40 Moses gave Gilead to Machir son of Manasseh, and he settled there. 41 Jair son of Manasseh went and seized their encampments, renaming them the Encampments of Jair [Havvoth-jair]. 42 Nobah went and seized Kenat with its dependent townships, and called it Nobah after himself.

The Gadites and Reubenites rebuilt the conquered towns and settled their families and their livestock in the conquered territory. The clans of the sons of Machir son of Manasseh (son of Joseph) conquered the lands of the upper Gilead (north of the Jabbok), driving out the Amorites who were part of the kingdom of Og (Num 21:33-35). Moses affirmed the conquest of the upper Gilead by the clans of Machir's sons (descendants), as he had confirmed the claims of the other tribes in the Transjordan.

Questions for group discussion:

The first two reasons the tribes of Reuben and Gad gave for occupying the conquered land in the Transjordan was that it was good for their cattle and they did not want to cross the Jordan River into Canaan. Their desire to not cross the Jordan was correctly understood by Moses to mean that they did not want to be part of the struggle to take Canaan and they valued their wealth above their commitment to the covenant nation of Yahweh. When Moses chastised them and compared them to their father's generation that refused to invade the land of Canaan, they revise their proposal and agree to fight in the conquest to secure the land of Canaan for their brother tribes on the west side of the Jordan River. However, the requests of Gad and Reuben to occupy lands on the east side of the Jordan River essentially separated them from the united body of Israel in Canaan across the river. They became separated physically and spiritual from Israel and Yahweh. In Scripture movement to the east has always symbolized movement away from God (i.e., Gen 3:23; 4:16; 13:11-13), while movement to the west has always symbolized drawing closer to God. Eventually the tribes that settled on the east side of the Jordan (Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh), separated from the united Old Covenant Church, died out and disappeared as they were absorbed into the pagan population (see footnote 9).

Question: What comparisons can be made between the decision of Reuben, Gad and half of Manasseh to separate from the body of Israel and the historical divisions of the Body of Christ as different factions, not wanting to give obedience to the Bishop of Rome or seeking their idea of "greener pastures", followed their own ideas of what they decided God wanted for the Church?

Question: What happens to the individual Catholic and his family who abandons the Church with the argument that too much is required (the struggle is too great) to be a faithful Catholic? Are the Church's teachings and requirements meant to restrict our freedom or are the laws meant to protect us from a sinful world and a sinful self? Is it worth risking one's salvation and the salvation of one's children for such selfish reasons as not wanting to keep the obligation to participate in the Lord's Day Eucharistic celebration or to keep the other Holy Days of Obligation by having the "freedom" to do what seems more appealing by neglecting the vows made to God in the Sacrament of Confirmation? What are the implications of such actions? See CCC 845-48, 865.


1. In a document recording a Mesopotamian ritual, a sick person confessed: I promised then reneged; I gave my word but then did not pay. Failure to keep one's oath/vow meant the desecration of the oath and the possibility of divine retribution (JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers, page 251).

2.... and do not say to the messenger that it was a mistake (Ecc 5:5a). The "messenger" may refer to the angel who kept the record of individual good works in the Book of Deeds in the heavenly Sanctuary (see Tb 12:12b; Dan 7:10; Rev 20:12) where our charitable works have been accepted by God (Acts 10:4). The word translated as "angel" means "messenger" in both Hebrew (malak) and Greek (angelos). The reference may also be to the priest who assists in the fulfillment of a vow (Num 6:16, 19-20).

3. In the rebellion against King David, Ahithophel advised David's son, Absalom, to allow him to handpick twelve thousand soldiers to pursue David (2 Sam 17:1), King Solomon had a cavalry of twelve thousand men (1 Kng 10:26), and in the sectarian documents of the Dead Sea Scrolls, it was written that the king should handpick twelve thousand men, one thousand from each tribe, based on this verse, as his permanent bodyguard (11QTemple 57:9-11).

4. There may have only been five tribes of Midian; five sons of Midian are listed in Gen 24:4.

5. Targum Yerushalmi verse 8; Sanhedrin 106b; The JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers, page 257.

6. According to the Targums, the virginity of the girl children was tested when questioned by the High Priest, who determined if the girl lied or told the truth (The JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers, page 259). The people of the Transjordan practiced abominable acts in their worship of false gods, including human sacrifice (2 Kng 3:26-27).

7. David also decreed that the combatants and non-combatants should divide the spoils of war equally (1 Sam 30:23-25). Scripture records the impact of David's decree: And from that day on, he made that a rule and custom for Israel, which obtains to the present day (verse 25).

8. Geographer G. A. Smith's description of the territory of Jazer and the Gilead written a century ago: Gilead, between the Yarmuk and the Jabbok, has its ridges covered by forests ... The valleys hold orchards of pomegranates, apricot, and olive; there are many vineyards; on the open plain are fields of wheat and maize, and the few moors are rich with fragrant herbs ... South of the Jabbok, the forests gradually cease and Ammon and Moab are mostly high, bare moors ... We passed through at the height of the shepherd's year. From the Arabian deserts the Bedouin were swarming to the fresh herbage of these uplands. We should never have believed the amount of their flocks had we not seen and attempted to count them ... The herds of the settled inhabitants were still more numerous. In Moab the dust of the roads bears almost no marks but those of the feet of sheep. The scenes which throng most our memory of Eastern Palestine are ... the streams of Gilead in the heat of the day with the cattle standing in them, or the evenings when we sat at the door of our tent near the village well, and would hear the shepherd's pipe far away, and the sheep and goats, and cows with heavy bells, would break over the edge of the hill, and come down the slope to wait their turn at the troughs (Smith cited in The JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers, page 267).

9. Eventually these tribes were lost to Israel and absorbed into the Gentile world: But since they were unfaithful to the God of their ancestors and prostituted themselves to the gods of the peoples of the country whom God had destroyed before them, the God of Israel roused the hostility of Pul, king of Assyria, that is the wrath of Tiglath-Pileser, king of Assyria who deported them-the Reubenites, the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh-taking them off to Halah, Habor, Hara and the river of Gozan. They are still there today (1 Chr 5:26-26).

Michal Hunt, Copyright 2010 Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved.

Catechism References for this lesson:

Num chapter 30

CCC 2101-03

Num chapter 31

CCC 2304, 2307-09, 2312-16, 2313, 2317

Num chapter 32

CCC 791, 813-19, 820-22, 1396, 1416

Michal Hunt, Copyright 2010 Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved.