THE KILLINGS OF NUMBERS 31
by Zach Smith
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ARTICLE ON CANAANITE HUMAN SACRIFICE OF INFANTS BY BURNING THEM ALIVE
Did The Canaanites Really Sacrifice Their Children? | Bible Reading Archeology
The first five books of the Bible are full of stories of the conquest of Caanan. But one story that sometimes stands out in the minds of skeptics is the one found in Numbers 31, where God seemingly gives no reason for killing defenseless women and male children. In addition, it has been suggested that the young girls mentioned in the account were spared so that the Israelite men could rape them. Such accusations are baseless, however, as is evident when they are viewed in light of other related passages.
The most widely questioned section of Numbers 31 is verses 17-18: "Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women-children, that have not known man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves." To understand this passage, one must realize that Numbers 25 is the "prequel" to the events recorded in Numbers 31. Numbers 25 tells how the Midianites, specifically the women, led the Israelites astray into worshiping the Baal or Peor. The Lord’s anger burned against Israel, and He struck them with a plague. The plague ended when Phinehas, the grandson of Aaron, killed an Israelite man and the Midianite woman he brought into his family (Numbers 25:6-9). The relations with Midianite women were in direct violation of God’s commands in Deuteronomy 7:3-4: "[N]either shalt thou make marriages with them; thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son. For he will turn away thy son from following me, that they may serve other gods: so will the anger of Jehovah be kindled against you, and he will destroy thee quickly."
As a result of these events, God instructed the Israelites to "Vex the Midianites, and smite them; for they vex you with their wiles, wherewith they have beguiled you in the matter of Peor, and in the matter of Cozbi, the daughter of the prince of Midian, their sister, who was slain on the day of the plague in the matter of Peor" (Numbers 25:17-18). When, in Numbers 31, the army brought back the women, it was in direct violation to God’s order in Numbers 25 to destroy the Midianites, who would lead the Israelites into apostasy.
But how can we explain the destruction of the young boys? Why were they not spared along with the young girls? Skeptics read of events such as the conquest of Canaan, and contend that no God could be so cruel as to call for the destruction of an entire nation. The mere idea of the God of heaven ordering the death of women and innocent children so outraged infidel Thomas Paine that he said such a scenario was sufficient evidence in and of itself to cause him to reject the divine origin of the Bible (1795, p. 90). In fact, he condemned the Bible for its alleged moral atrocities, and even went so far as to blame the Bible for virtually every moral injustice ever committed. He wrote:
Whence arose the horrid assassinations of whole nations of men, women, and infants, with which the Bible is filled; and the bloody persecutions, and tortures unto death and religious wars, that since that time have laid Europe in blood and ashes; whence arose they, but from this impious thing called revealed religion, and this monstrous belief that God has spoken to man? (p. 185).
However, to allege that the God of the Bible is some sort of "monster" for ordering Israel to destroy the inhabitants of Canaan exhibits an ignorance of biblical teaching. Those inhabitants were destroyed because of their wickedness (Deuteronomy 9:4; 18:9-14). They were so evil that their Creator no longer could abide their corruption. That they had numerous opportunities to repent is evident from the prophetic books (Nineveh did repent, for example, and for a time stayed the day of destruction). Complaining about Jehovah’s order to destroy innocent children is a vain gesture when one realizes that the children were spared an even worse fate of being reared as slaves under the domination of sin. Instead of having to endure the scourge of a life of immorality and wickedness, these innocents were ushered early into the bliss of Paradise. If the male children had been allowed to mature, they most likely would have followed the pagan ways of their forefathers, and eventually would have taken vengeance on the Israelites. Killing the males not only prevented them from falling into the same abominable sins as their parents, but also kept Israel from having to battle them later.
Man hardly can blame God and His Word for the awful consequences of sin; rather, he has only himself to blame (Romans 3:23; 5:12). A parent who warns a child of the consequences of disobedience, threatens an appropriate punishment, and then is true to his word at the event of infraction, generally is considered to be a firm-but-loving parent by clear-thinking people. Yet, critics ask us to view God as some type of ogre for following the same course of action. The discrepancy is not with the Almighty, but with His cowering critics.
The allegation that the Israelite men spared the young girls in order to rape them is nothing but baseless supposition predicated upon a lack of biblical knowledge. In the custom of the time, marriages were conducted at a young age. Therefore, the reference to the young girls who had not "known man by lying with him" would indicate that they were very young, likely under the age of twelve. These girls were too young to be able to lead the men of Israel away from Jehovah; therefore, these girls were allowed to live. As to raping them, it is more logical to assume that they wanted these girls for servants. This would be similar to Joshua 9, where Joshua allowed the Gibeonites to live in compelled servitude to the Israelites. Moreover, it would have been sinful for the Israelite men to rape the Midianite girls because rape was (and still is) abhorrent to God (Deuteronomy 22:23-28, esp. 25).
The simple answer to the questions surrounding Numbers 31 is that God ordered the Midianites to be killed in Numbers 25:17-18. When the army did not carry out this order at the time of the Midianite defeat, it was carried out in a delayed fashion when the army returned with the captives. As to Moses allowing the young girls to remain alive, that was a judgment call from the man with God’s authority over the Israelites.
God is the omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and all-righteous "I Am" Who is over all things—so He may do whatever He wishes, so long as it is not in violation of His character. However, God does everything for a reason. Sometimes that reason may be unclear to us. In the case of the destruction of people like the Canaanites, God’s reasoning had to do with His justice. Deuteronomy 32:3-4 records: "For I will proclaim the name of Jehovah: Ascribe ye greatness unto our God. The Rock, his work is perfect; For all his ways are justice: A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, Just and right is he" (emp. added). Men may not always understand God’s justice, or His reasons for exercising it as He does. As Job 4:17 asked: "Shall mortal man be more just than God? Shall a man be more pure than his Maker?" (emp. added). The fact is, God does condone killing—in the name of justice (whether it be justice in regard to one person, or a whole nation). Even in modern times, the death penalty is an acceptable means of administering justice (Romans 13:1-7; cf. Genesis 9:6). While God is all loving, He also is a God of justice, and He will execute that justice in the most propitious manner—including by means of death.
Paine, Thomas (1795), Age of Reason (New York: Knickerbocker Press, 1924 reprint).
ARTICLE ON CANAANITE HUMAN SACRIFICE OF INFANTS BY BURNING THEM ALIVE
Did The Canaanites Really Sacrifice Their Children? | Bible Reading Archeology
Did The Canaanites Really Sacrifice Their Children?
Were the Canaanites merciless child killers or gentle nature worshippers?
Warning: Subject matter may disturb
Historical revisionist theories regularly receive more traction among
Bible critics than the facts would warrant. For example, consider the
subject of polytheism verses monotheism. Most religious history books
teach that cultures that were polytheistic (believers in many gods)
naturally progressed towards becoming monotheistic (believers in one
God). This is seen, even by agnostics as being a necessary step toward
becoming a more mature society. Increasingly however, Bible critics
challenge that idea. They see the move from polytheism to monotheism as
a negative development. According to their version of history, gentle
nature worshipping polytheistic societies such as Canaan were
supplanted by aggressive monotheistic cultures like the Hebrews which
were less tolerant, sexually repressed and war-like.
The answer to this charge is obvious to Bible students. For the Bible
paints a picture of Canaanite society dominated by a religious system
that was both licentious and cruel. Canaanite gods demanded human
sacrifice and more specifically, the sacrifice of children. In the
Bible book of Jeremiah , God states, “They built the high places
of Baal in order to burn their sons in the fire as whole burnt
offerings to Baal, something that I had not commanded or spoken of and
that had never even come into my heart.” (Jeremiah 19:5) The Bible is
clear that child sacrifice was a regular feature of the religion of the
Canaanites and the surrounding nations. “…they do for their gods every
detestable thing that Jehovah hates, even burning their sons and their
daughters in the fire to their gods.” (Deuteronomy 12:31) Did the
Canaanites really ritually burn their children? The revisionists say
no. Any mention of Canaanite child sacrifice in the Bible is just
propaganda to justify the subjection of Canaan. Recent scientific
studies may have resolved the question.
According to the Bible, centers of worship for Canaanite gods such as Molech and the Baal’s were set up in Judah and Israel by apostate kings. Child sacrifice was even practiced in the Valley of Hinnom just outside of Jerusalem. Yet religious reformers such as King Josiah pulled down these places and rendered them unfit for use, “He also made unfit for worship Topheth, which is in the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom, so that no one could make his son or his daughter pass through the fire to Molech.” (2 Kings 23:10) So it is no surprise that these sites which Josiah sought to erase have not been positively identified. Other Canaanite places of worship in Israel that have been identified have not yet yielded evidence of child sacrifice.*(see footnote) Yet absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. There is good reason to believe the Bible did not exaggerate Canaanite barbarism.
Although Canaanite civilization was largely driven out of the land of
Israel, it emigrated elsewhere, founding colonies along the
Mediterranean coast of North Africa, where it thrived for centuries.
Most notable among these was the colony of Carthage in modern-day
Tunisia. That city-state became so powerful it at one time rivaled the
Roman republic. Carthaginians spoke the Canaanite language and
importantly, practiced Canaanite religion. They also seemed to have
brought with them their cruel predilection for child sacrifice.
Ancient Authorities Reported Child Sacrifice In Carthage
Writing in the 4th century B.C.E, the Greek historian Cleitarchus said
of the Carthaginian practice, “There stands in their midst a bronze
statue of Kronos, its hands extended over a bronze brazier, the flames
of which engulf the child. When the flames fall upon the body, the
limbs contract and the open mouth seems almost to be laughing until the
contracted body slips quietly into the brazier. Thus it is that the
‘grin’ is known as ‘sardonic laughter,’ since they die laughing.”
(trans. Paul G. Mosca) “Kronos” was a regional name for Baal Hammon,
the chief of Carthage’s gods.
Another Greek historian named Diodorus Siculus writing less than a
hundred years after the fall Carthage affirms his countryman’s account.
“There was in their city a bronze image of Cronus extending its hands,
palms up and sloping toward the ground, so that each of the children
when placed thereon rolled down and fell into a sort of gaping pit
filled with fire.”
Carthaginian inscription of a priest carrying an infant.
Around the same time the famous Greek historian Plutarch charged, “with
full knowledge and understanding they themselves offered up their own
children, and those who had no children would buy little ones from poor
people and cut their throats as if they were so many lambs or young
birds; meanwhile the mother stood by without a tear or moan; but should
she utter a single moan or let fall a single tear, she had to forfeit
the money, and her child was sacrificed nevertheless; and the whole
area before the statue was filled with a loud noise of flutes and drums
took the cries of wailing should not reach the ears of the
It is important to note that these are not Biblical claims but these
come from secular Greek sources. Roman sources make the same charge as
the nearly contemporaneous Greek historians. Still some historians
claimed that, like the Biblical charge, the Greek/Roman charges of
child sacrifice were merely exaggerated propaganda.
Archeological Evidence Of Infant Sacrifice
In 1921, French archeologists excavated some of the ancient Carthage.
One site appeared to be an ancient graveyard. The site had hundreds of
grave markers. Underneath each one was a clay urn containing the
cremated remains of human infants and animals (sometimes as many as
seven urns were found one on top of another under a single marker). The
soil was rich with olive wood charcoal indicating fires had been kept
burning here for long periods of time.
This Carthaginian “Tophet”contained the remains of approximately 20,000 children.
The archeologists dubbed this place a “Tophet”, which is the Hebrew word for the place of child sacrifice near Jerusalem at Jeremiah 7:31. In time, many more Tophet cemeteries were discovered. The largest contained the remains of approximately 20,000 infants in urns as well as some animals.
From the “Tophet” in Carthage. Burial urn containing the remains of an infant.
The fact that animals were buried here along with human infants seemed
to suggest that this was not a normal cemetery for children. One urn
containing the remains of an animal had an inscription indicating that
animal was a “substitute”. This supports the archeologists conclusion
that the “Tophet” contained the remains of sacrificial victims who had
been burned to death as the Bible as well as the Greek and Roman
historians had all claimed. Yet some skeptics remained. Perhaps the
children had been burned after they had died of natural causes?
The inscriptions on the urns are helpful in this regard. Some of them record that vows to Tanit and Baal Hammon had been met (Tanit was the consort of Baal Hammon. She is known as Ashtoreth in the Bible – 1 Kings 11:23). Many other inscriptions record dedications from the children’s parents to Baal Hammon or Tanit, ending with the explanation that the god concerned had “heard my voice and blessed me”.
Tanit, consort of Baal Hammon
Dr Josephine Quinn of the University of Oxford conducted extensive
research on the burial urns. Regarding the dedication inscriptions, she
concluded, “People have tried to argue that these archaeological sites
are cemeteries for children who were stillborn or died young, but quite
apart from the fact that a weak, sick or dead child would be a pretty
poor offering to a god, and that animal remains are found in the same
sites treated in exactly the same way, it’s hard to imagine how the
death of a child could count as the answer to a prayer.”
The final line of evidence came from analysis of bones and teeth
found in the urns. In the last few years, experts from a number of
Academic institutions examined the contents of over 340 burial urns.
Determining the exact age of the infants from the burnt bones is
difficult because the heat of the fire degrades, shrinks and warps
them. However in most cases, the teeth of the infants survived in
better condition. As teeth grow in length, the enamel and dentine grow
in thickness at a universal rate. Thus it is possible to determine the
age of a baby from the thickness of the enamel and dentine.
What the researchers found is that 67% of the infants were between 1
and 2 months old and that the percentage of infant remains from babies
who lived longer is very low. This does not come close to the expected
pattern of mortality rates in ancient times. Rather it is strongly
suggestive that a particular age group was deliberately selected and
that these did not die of natural causes.
Put together the Biblical evidence, the evidence of multiple highly regarded ancient historians, the archeological evidence and the conclusion becomes overwhelming and inescapable. The Canaanites really did practice child sacrifice. Human sacrifice was widespread amongst many cultures in ancient times but infant sacrifice was relatively unknown outside of Canaanite civilization. The deliberate murder of infant children was a pronounced feature of Canaanite religion. The Bible does not exaggerate the crimes of the Canaanites.
*Footnote: The first archaeological work at the Judean city of Gezer in
the early twentieth century revealed several burial jars full of the
bones of infants buried beneath standing stones. The archeologist
Robert A.S. Macalister identified this as a Canaanite “High Place” were
child sacrifice had taken place. Yet his excavation techniques were so
primitive and his work so poorly documented that his conclusions remain