#9 Post of 2015 – Why Did Moses Separate the Virgins and Non-Virgins of Midian?

In Numbers 31:18, Moses commands the officers of the army to kill all the women who have had sex and only keep alive the girls who are virgins. What is going here? Why would Moses give this command?

In order to understand this verse, we first have to understand the background. The Midianites, under the counsel of Balaam, devised a plan to cause Yahweh, the God of Israel, to turn against his people. The plan, which was executed in chapter 25 of Numbers, was to seduce Israelite men into fornication (single men) and adultery (married men), and then formal worship of the Midianite gods, especially Baal of Peor.

According to Glenn Miller (Christian Thinktank website), the number of Midianite women involved in this conspiracy would have been 6 to 12,000. Yes, you read that correctly. It would also appear that the Midianite kings and husbands of these women were complicit in the conspiracy. They were willing to send their women into the Israelite camp as prostitutes, essentially, to cause the downfall of Israel.

God does indeed turn against his people, given the sexual and religious crimes they have committed. A plague kills some 24,000 children of Israel. The only reason the plague ends is Phinehas’s quick action to put an end to the sordid affair.

With this background in place, God orders the Israelites to subjugate the Midianites, taking vengeance for their moral atrocities. The Israelites easily win the battle and the army returns with thousands of women captives. At this point, Moses commands the officers to “kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.”

It should be clear now that the females who the army has brought back are a mix of women who participated in the conspiracy and young girls who did not. Moses understandably considers the non-virgin women to be directly culpable for the deaths of thousands of Israelites. Setting this aside, they have shown already that they will turn the men of Israel away from Yahweh and toward Baal, causing further death and suffering in the future. These women simply cannot be allowed to survive.

Given Moses’ command, how could the Israelites tell the women apart? Glenn Miller explains that there were simple visual tests that could be applied:

“1) Was the female pre-pubescent? 2) Was the female wearing any attire, jewelry, or adornments required for/associated with virginity for that culture? 3) Was the female wearing any attire, jewelry, or adornments required for/associated with non-virginity for that culture (e.g., veil indicating married status)?”

He continues:

Because virginity was generally associated with legal proof for blood-inheritance issues in ancient cultures (e.g., land, property, kinship, relationships), virginity itself was often marked by some type of clothing (e.g., the robe of Tamar in 2 Sam 13) or by cosmetic means (cf. the Hindu ‘pre-marriage dot’); as was more typically non-virginal married status (e.g., veils, headwear, jewelry, or certain hairstyles).  Of course, non-virginal unmarried status (e.g., temple prostitutes and secular prostitutes) were also indicated by special markings or adornments (e.g. jewelry, dress—cf. Proverbs 7.10; Hos 2.4-5).

The young girls who were virgins would be taken in and cared for by Israelite families, partially to help replace the population of 24,000 who had died by the plague. The young girls would, like all other Israelite women, be married when they matured.

  • nfq

    Just to be extremely clear here, Bill — am I correct in understanding that in your interpretation of this passage, the young virgin girls taken captive by the Israelite army were essentially being adopted, and would only marry Israelite men when they reached adulthood? (Also, do you mean our modern conception of adulthood? Or are you talking about whenever they first menstruated?)

    It just seems strange to me that you would take this angle, given the widespread custom in many cultures and through much of human history of raping the women in a defeated/conquered population. The language “keep alive for yourselves” (i.e. to possess, to enjoy, to do with as you like) – rather than something like “bring home and raise as your own children” – supports this more violent interpretation.

    Additionally, following your link on Numbers 31:18, Biblia.com itself shows a reference to Deuteronomy 21: “10 When you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord your God gives them into your hand and you take them captive, 11 and you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and you desire to take her to be your wife, 12 and you bring her home to your house, she shall shave her head and pare her nails. 13 And she shall take off the clothes in which she was captured and shall remain in your house and lament her father and her mother a full month. After that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife.” This only presents a one-month waiting period, and is certainly not a mature, consensual marriage as we might see between adult equals.

  • “Keep alive for yourselves” is in contrast to “dedicate them to God.” Dedication to God (the ban or herem) would have meant killing them in this context, which is what the Israelites were told to do with the men of the Midianite tribes who conspired against them.

    There is simply no evidence that the Israelite men were ever free to rape a woman. In the Deut 21 text, the end result of this was a marriage, not raping a girl and discarding her. To imagine that the Israelite men were given free license by Moses to rape these girls is not warranted by any text in the Bible.