Here we have our first account of Israel’s Holy War. Up until now, most of the nations Israel have fought have tried to attack them first. Here, however, Israel goes out of its way to destroy a nation they believed to be evil. A contamination on the land. The way they go about it can seem barbaric to us, but once again let’s try to get into their way of thinking.
Looking back to Leviticus, anything that was unclean and impure was to be destroyed and removed from the camp. If there was anyone who had intentionally sinned, then they too had to be cast out or killed. The Israelites are now about to step into the promised land. The same rules that are applied in the camp are now going to apply to all the land.
These Midianites were definitely an issue. They had previously gone out of their way to tempt the Israelites into sexual sin and into worshipping other gods. This contamination and temptation needed to be removed and so the Israelites proceed to kill all the Midianites, apart from the women who were young enough to be trained to live like Israelites.
Now let’s be clear, this doesn’t justify Holy Wars now. The way of dealing with unclean things before Jesus was destroying things. You couldn’t risk them contaminating more things.
But once Jesus came on the scene, everything changed. In the Kingdom of God that Jesus brought, there is no fear that unclean things will contaminate clean things, but that clean things will purify unclean things. This is why Jesus went round touch a bunch of sick people, because his purity makes others pure. So as Christians we have no excuses for ‘Holy Wars’. Instead we are to purify the rest of the world by loving right, not by killing and destroying.
After conquering this part of the land, two and a half of the tribes decide they want to settle here. The thing is, this wasn’t part of the promised land. They were about to step over the river Jordan into the promised land. Yet these guys decided they would prefer to live here.
Moses initially says no. This would break up the unity of Israel. These tribes then decide to bargain with him. They would continue to fight for the rest of Israel until they had also claimed their land, then they would finally get to live in this land. This idea seemed good to Moses, so he went for it.
Unfortunately, we will find out in future books that this division between the tribes east of the Jordan and the tribes west of the Jordan would come up again and again. An idea might seem really good, we might be able to find lots of good reasons to go ahead with it, but we can’t always see the full extent of our actions. This is why it’s always important to check in with God, something the people didn’t do this time.
This psalm is one of twelve attributed to Asaph. Asaph was a Levite musician who was key in leading worship under David (1 Chronicles 16:4-5). The psalm falls into the category of wisdom psalm.
It was likely read during a regular ceremony where Israel renewed the covenant of God. It describes God inviting the people into his presence, teaching them the true meaning of sacrifice, and then warning those who do not live according to the covenant they were committing themselves.
Psalm 50:1-6 - God comes and invites his people to come before him
Psalm 50:7-15 - The true meaning of sacrifices
Psalm 50:16-23 - The true meaning of the covenant
The psalm opens with God entering the scene. He is the mighty one over all the earth. He shines with perfection and beauty. He comes with mighty wind and fire, ready to judge his people. And so God invites his people forward. The Israelites, the ones who made this covenant with him.
There are actually three summons in this section. God first summons the entire earth to observe what is about to happen, and then he invites the heavens and the earth to come and watch.
While this is poetic language, God wasn’t actually inviting the whole word to come to this ceremony, the point is that God’s will includes non-Israelites. The Israelites may have been the one to make the covenant with God, but God wants the other nations to learn from Israel’s example, be it good or bad.
Having gathered the people together, God begins to explain to them the true meaning of their sacrifices. God does not need their sacrifices. It’s not like he needs more bulls or goats, he owns the whole world. And it’s also not like he’s hungry and needs the Israelites to prepare him food.
No, what God wants from their Israelites is their thanksgiving. As they commit themselves to this covenant relationship, God doesn’t want them to take it for granted. They are to be grateful and recognise their constant need for God. The sacrifices are a regular demonstration and reminder of this.
Then God turns to the wicked, those that know the law, God’s word, but don’t live by it. These are the people who would stand in this ceremony and commit themselves to God’s covenant and then go out and ignore it.
They live however they want and presume they’ve got away with it because God hasn’t said anything yet. But God is coming now to bring judgement. He has seen their wickedness, and he is giving them an opportunity to change their ways. If not, then they are choosing their own destruction.
From this psalm we learn what it means to commit ourselves to God. We are not to do out of habit or because we’re meant to. An example you might find in the church is those that take communion because that’s what you’re meant to do, without any real reflection on what it means.
We are also not called to commit ourselves to God and then go on living however we want. This kind of hypocrisy will be our downfall. Instead, our commitment to God should be genuine and from the heart each time.
Anything you think I've missed? Maybe you've got a question that still needs answering. Send me a message over on my Instagram (@brynjoslin). I'd love to talk it through with you some more.
This Bible study devotional covers Numbers chapters 31-32. Here God commands the younger generation of Israel to go to war against the Moabites.
As always, Spoken Gospel are committed to showing you how Jesus fulfills these specific passages. In Numbers 31-32, we see that Jesus won the final war over sin and death so that, instead of treating us like the Moabites, he could dwell with us like Israel.
Understanding the context of your passage is always important. BibleProject always do an incredible job of breaking down each book so you can see how your passage fits into the wider story.
BibleProject have done an animated recap of Leviticus to help you fit today's passage into the overarching story of Numbers.
Spoken Gospel outlines the book of Numbers and point out some of the key themes, all in the medium of spoken word.