In an earlier post I briefly mentioned the genocide ordered by Moses against the Midianites. There’s some confusion in this story that warrants another look. No, it’s not confusion over the genocide–chapter 31 is VERY clear about that. Rather, it’s the object of God’s vengeance shifts without any explanation.
The beginning of this story takes place back in Numbers 25. While the Israelites were staying in Shittim they became quite cozy with the Moabite women. As it turns out, a little too cozy. These women lead the Israelite men to indulging in “sexual immorality” and worshiping the Baal of Peor (Num. 25:1-3). The penalty for the latter, of course, is death, and God doesn’t waver: he orders the offenders’ execution so that his “fierce anger may turn away from Israel” (Num. 25:4).
But then something odd happens. While everyone is busy mourning the impending executions, an Israelite man and a Midianite woman are murdered (presumably mid-copulation) by Phinehas, which then stops “the plague against the Israelites” that had claimed 24,000 lives (Num 25:6-9). God decrees that Phinehas’s zeal will work as atonement for the Israelites (Num. 25:10-13). He goes on to say that the Midianites should be treated as enemies since they are responsible for the Peor incident (Num. 25:16-18).
What did the Midianites have to do with the Israelite men fooling around with the Moabite women and subsequent Baal worshipping? And what about that plague? That’s new information.
Unfortunately for the Midianites, this shift of blame from the Moabites sticks. After the Midianite army’s defeat, Moses reminds Israel that the Midianite women are to blame for the Peor incident and demands the execution of the remaining survivors. The female virgins were spared, though they were still taken as plunder (Num. 31:1-18).
It’s obvious that something isn’t right with the text. The shift from Moabite to Midianite and the end to a plague that we didn’t even know had started suggest that perhaps these are two stories that were smushed together at one time. According to the documentary hypothesis, this very well may be the case.
Regardless, the inconsistencies found in Numbers 25 discredit the absurd claim that the Bible is an inerrant text. Or, as we like to say around here, it is quite holey, indeed.