The Salvation and Justice of God
Bible Study with Jairus – Numbers 31
One of the most disturbing stories in the entire Bible is the story of Moses’ extermination of the Midianites. Why did Moses want the Israelites to kill not only the males, but also all the boys and married women? How can we make sense of this tragic slaughter?
Although it is difficult to understand this passage, I believe that it points to a consistent pattern in God’s nature. When a nation remains unrepentant, God’s judgment will fall upon that nation. However, he always gives plenty of opportunities for salvation and repentance.
Plenty of Time to Repent
When God appeared to Abraham in Genesis 15:16, he told Abraham an important message about the Canaanites. God said that before he allowed Abraham’s family to inherit the land of Canaan, the people of Israel would first live in Egypt for 400 years. Why? Because the sins of the Amorites (a group of Canaanites) were not yet complete. In other words, their sins did not yet deserve complete annihilation.
Abraham’s descendants would live in Egypt, growing stronger and more numerous. They would eventually be used to destroy the Canaanites. But first, God would give these wicked people four centuries to repent.
Let’s look at a practical way that the Canaanites could have repented and entrusted their destiny to God’s plan. In the time of Joseph, there was a severe famine that affected not only all of Egypt, but also all of Canaan. Joseph’s brothers, who still lived in Canaan, went to Egypt to buy food. (See Genesis 41:56, 42:5, 29, 43:1)
The famine represented the discipline of God. It not only forced Jacob and his family to eventually move to Egypt, but it also forced Joseph’s brothers to come face to face with their sin of selling Joseph into Egypt many years ago. They repented of their sins because of this famine. The famine could have provided the same opportunity for the other Canaanites, but we have no record that they turned to God or repented during this time.
After his brothers repented, Joseph asked them to bring his father Jacob down to Egypt. Jacob and his sons arrived in Egypt two years after the famine began. Then were still five years of famine left for the entire land of Canaan.
The famine continued to worsen. Genesis 47:13 says, “There was no food in all the land, for the famine was very severe, so that the land of Egypt and the land of Canaan languished by reason of the famine.” Joseph sold food to the people of Canaan and Egypt. But when the money ran out, an interesting dynamic occurred.
Please pay attention to the following verses. “And when the money was all spent in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, all the Egyptians came to Joseph and said, ‘Give us food. Why should we die before your eyes? For our money is gone.’” (Genesis 47:15). Notice that although all the money in Egypt and Canaan was spent, only the Egyptians came to Joseph to continue to beg for mercy. Joseph allowed them to sell livestock, land, and themselves as slaves in exchange for seed to plant.
The gospel demands that we surrender ourselves as slaves to God. We trust our entire being to his care. Often, believers and nonbelievers alike will ask me, “Why do you entrust your destiny to a God you cannot see? Wouldn’t it be better for you to hold your destiny in your own hands?” Many people refuse to place their destiny in the hands of God by believing in Jesus Christ. It seems too risky to give up their very lives and wills to God.
In the same way, the Canaanites were unwilling to sell themselves to Joseph in exchange for food. They refused to acknowledge the judgment of God or repent of their sins because of this trial. They would not surrender themselves to Joseph, who was a picture of Christ.
- Joseph was the only one who had food, just like Jesus is the only one who can provide the food of eternal life.
- The Canaanites’ starvation and hunger represents the emptiness of people without Jesus. This emptiness should spur us on to seek the meaning of life and find a solution that truly satisfies: Jesus.
- The food signifies the Gospel. To receive this food, we commit our very lives to Jesus.
- Furthermore, we pay the price over a lifetime. Following Christ is not cheap, but he rewards us richly by supplying us with the daily food of his own presence.
The Egyptians came to Joseph and sold their livestock, their land, and their own bodies to get more food. This indicated that they accepted the salvation brought by Joseph. But there is no mention of the Canaanites taking any further action to get more food. The Bible doesn’t tell us what took place in Canaan during the next five years of famine. It is not difficult for us to imagine that chaos must have ensued. Cannibalism may have occurred among the Canaanite tribes. The Canaanites survived and became an even more evil race, the strongest fortress of evil spirits on the earth.
Salvation is the Goal
The purpose of the famine was not ultimately judgment, but the redemption of the people. God’s judgment is only a means to an end. God’s objective and ultimate purpose was to redeem the people. God allowed a famine in Egypt and Canaan so that the citizens of that land would repent and accept the salvation brought by joseph.
Trials in today’s world are also a means to an end. For example, the Covid-19 pandemic is a wake-up call that reminds people of their need for God. God’s desire is that all people would repent of their sins so they can accept the salvation provided by God through Christ.
However, things are not always that simple. Life’s trials can have different effects on different people, depending on their responses. When faced with a trial or difficulty, some people repent of their sins and are saved. Others not only refuse to repent, but also harden their hearts. Perhaps you’ve seen examples of this phenomenon in the believers and unbelievers you meet every day. When great suffering, disease and difficulty come upon people, some will surrender to God more and more. Their hearts will become very soft and humble. However, others will harden their hearts and become more and more rigid.
We can also see examples of this phenomenon in the Bible. When faced with trials, Joseph and his brothers softened their hearts, repented of sins, and received forgiveness as they trusted in God. But Pharoah and the Canaanites only hardened their hearts more and more in response to difficulty.
God prepared hell for Satan and his subordinates; yet many people go to hell. Why? Because they are hard-hearted. They would rather go to hell with Satan than repent of their sins. In other words, it is not God who sends people to hell. Instead, when people choose not to accept God’s salvation, they are choosing to go to hell.
In the same way, God did not destroy the Canaanites and Midianites. They had opportunities to repent and accept salvation, but they stubbornly rejected God’s salvation. Ultimately, they chose to perish.
God’s Salvation Offered to the Midianites
God is love, and he is also righteous. In His love, he keeps trying to save us. But in his righteousness, he will not excuse the guilty (Exodus 34:7). After giving them many opportunities to repent, God will ultimately judge those who are guilty of their sins.
When we fail to notice God’s loving efforts to provide a way of salvation, we may feel that God’s judgment on the Midianites may be too severe. Let’s look at the opportunities God gave them to surrender their lives to him.
The Bible gives us clues about how this may have happened. When Moses killed an Egyptian and fled into the wilderness, he sought refuge among the Midianites. In fact, he married into a Midianite family. The Midianites provided protection and shelter for Moses, and he gave them a chance to learn to know God.
When Moses met God in the burning bush in the wilderness of Midian, imagine the conversations he had that evening with his wife and in-laws. Perhaps he told them about his encounter with God. Imagine how shocked his Midianite family must have been. Should they believe Moses’ accounts? After all, Moses’ father-in-law was a priest of Midian, and he served other gods (Exodus 2:18).
Moses’ father-in-law was a priest, showing that he was open to spiritual things. At first, he served other gods, but he came to know the True God through Moses’ testimony. Years later, he began to worship the True God, saying, “The Lord is greater than all the gods” (Exodus 18:11).
The Bible doesn’t specifically record Moses’ verbal testimony to his family early on. Exodus 4:18 says that Moses kept his mission vague when he talked to his father-in-law: “Moses went back to Jethro his father-in-law and said to him, “Please let me go back to my brothers in Egypt to see whether they are still alive.” And Jethro said to Moses, “Go in peace.” (Exodus 4:18). In this account, Moses doesn’t tell his father-in-law a lot about his experience of meeting the Lord, or about God’s calling to lead the Israelites out of Egypt.
However, Moses’ later actions and words were a powerful testimony to Jethro. After a series of confrontations with Pharaoh and a series of miracles, Moses finally led the Israelites out of Egypt. Exodus 18:1 tells us that Moses’ father-in-law was impressed by the testimony of Moses’ life. “Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses and for Israel his people, how the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt.” He then brought Moses’ wife and two sons to find Moses.
When Moses recounted the stories of what God had done for him, Jethro was deeply moved. He acknowledged that Jehovah was the greatest of all gods, and he offered burnt offerings and peace offerings to God. Jethro accepted that Jehovah was the One True God. He received eternal life. After that, Jethro left Moses and returned to his own land.
What did Jethro do after returning to his country? As a priest of Midian, did he testify to the rest of Midianites that Jehovah is the One True God? We can assume that he did. A natural result of knowing God is sharing him with others. When someone is truly saved, it’s hard to suppress the urge to preach the gospel. Jethro likely shared his faith with his people.
However, even when we preach the gospel, it doesn’t ensure the salvation of those who hear. Paul said that we who preach the gospel are the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. To one we are a fragrance of death, and to the other a fragrance of life. (2 Corinthians 2:15-16). When the gospel is preached, those who refuse to accept it will be judged. Those who accept the gospel will have eternal life.
It’s not God’s desire to send people to hell. He loves the world and desires that everyone believe in Jesus Christ so that they can have eternal life. However, a person who refuses to accept the Gospel rejects eternal life by his own choice.
Similarly, when Jethro testified to the Midianites that Jehovah is greater than all gods, the Midianites had a choice. They could either accept Jethro’s testimony and trust in the One True God, or they could reject Jethro’s testimony and continue to worship their idols.
The Midianites’ response to Jethro’s testimony divided them into two groups. Their response to the True God had a life-changing impact on their future trajectory.
Numbers 10:29 says, ”And Moses said to Hobab the son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses’ father-in-law, “We are setting out for the place of which the Lord said, ‘I will give it to you.’ Come with us, and we will do good to you, for the Lord has promised good to Israel.” Was Moses talking to his father-in-law or his brother-in-law? The word can be translated both ways in Hebrew. Judges 4:11 also mentions “Hobab the father-in-law of Moses”. Again, the word can be translated as “father-in-law” or “brother-in-law.” I personally believe Hobab was Moses’ brother-in-law. His father-in-law had returned to his country in his old age, and Moses did not stop him (Exodus 18:27).
Numbers 10:30-32 records Hobab’s response. “’But he said to him, I will not go. I will depart to my own land and to my kindred.’ And he said, ‘Please do not leave us, for you know where we should camp in the wilderness, and you will serve as eyes for us. And if you do go with us, whatever good the Lord will do to us, the same will we do to you.’”
Moses was begging Hobab to go with him here. However, the Bible clearly says that Moses did not prevent his father-in-law from leaving (Exodus 18:27). This seems to imply that these are two different people.
After realizing that the Lord was the true God, Jethro felt like he was too old to continue such a hard journey with Moses. Hobab, Moses’ brother-in-law, also wanted to go back to his land. However, Moses promised that if he stayed with the Israelites, he would be a fellow recipient of God’s blessings. The Bible doesn’t tell us how Hobab replied. Perhaps he led some Midianites to follow Moses into the wilderness.
This story creates a beautiful spiritual picture. When Jethro went home to the Midianites and testified that the LORD was the true God, some people had accepted the Lord and decided to join the Israelites on their journey. These people received the benefits promised by Moses.
Judges supports this conjecture. Judges 1:16 tells about the first time the Israelites went to war: “And the descendants of the Kenite, Moses’ brother-in-law, went up with the people of Judah from the city of palms into the wilderness of Judah,… and they went and settled with the people.” From this verse, we see that Hobab might have agreed to Moses’ request, thereby receiving God’s blessing and acquiring land alongside the tribe of Judah. Judges 4:11 says, ”Now Heber the Kenite had separated from the Kenites, the descendants of Hobab the father-in-law (or brother-in-law) of Moses, and had pitched his tent as far away as the oak in Zaanannim, which is near Kedesh.” Jael, the wife of Heber, the descendant of Hobab, killed Sisera, Israel’s enemy. These verses imply that Midianites descended from Moses’ father-in-law were an active part of the Israelite community.
On the other hand, the Midianites who refused to accept Jethro’s testimony were unwilling to embark on a journey of faith with the Israelites. Their community became a stronghold of evil spirits. Later, the evil spirits used the Midianites to tempt the Israelites into sexual sin. The evil spirits wanted to corrupt the Israelite family tree in order to prevent Jesus Christ from being born through the Israelite family line.
These Midianites had a chance to join the Israelites, but they chose to follow evil spirits instead. There may have been other opportunities to repent that the Bible does not record.
Human Flesh and Evil Spirits
There is a difference between the way God treats our flesh and the way he treats evil spirits. The tribe of Moab is sometimes used symbolically to represent the flesh. The ancestor of the people of Moab was born as the result of incest between Lot and his daughter. For this reason, Moab was often used to represent the flesh. God is patient with the flesh, allowing it to slowly experience the dealings of the cross. God didn’t require the Israelites to wipe out the Moabites. Instead, he asked them to take a detour around their land (Deuteronomy 2:9).
However, God treated the Midianites differently. The Midianites represent the evil strongholds of demons inside us. God’s method of dealing with them was to kill them all. The reason Moses asked the Israelites to kill all Midian’s men, boys, and married women was partly because the Midianites rejected God’s testimony and cooperated with evil spirits to incur their own harsh judgment.
Hope for the Midianite children.
From an eternal perspective, we can see that there may be hope for the Midianite boys who died. Not everyone who dies physically goes to hell. Those who die await the verdict of God’s Great White Throne Judgment. All who have died will be resurrected and judged. Those whose names are not in the Book of Life will be thrown into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:11-15). Even though these boys died physically, they may not have died spiritually.
In a prophetic dream, I was taken to heaven. There, I saw some children who had died prematurely. They were living happily in heaven. This scene shocked me. Perhaps the Midianite children are in heaven. By dying physically, they may have been spared the eternal destruction that their adult actions may have merited. Even Paul said that some sinners should be handed over to Satan to destroy the body so that their souls can be saved in the day of the Lord (1 Corinthians 5:5). Perhaps there is mercy hidden inside God’s judgment.
God is Love. When we look at this tragedy from an eternal perspective, we see God’s mercy, justice, and love on display.