Why did God spare the young girls in Numbers 31?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

Question: As a Christian girl, I'm having trouble with Numbers 31:17-18. Is this rape or slavery?

“Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.” (Numbers 31:17–18, NIV)

Answer: Greetings sister. You have referenced a “critic’s favorite” in Numbers 31, because, through the eyes of a God-hater or an acerbic skeptic, God looks like a bully, an ogre — and perhaps even a rapist — upon a quick (and decontextualized) examination of the text. Richard Dawkins (one of the “New Atheists”) has amassed a fortune asserting the same… but he’s just repeating an old complaint. Thomas Paine (1737-1809) was way ahead of him here.

"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).
Paine, Thomas (1795), Age of Reason (New York: Knickerbocker Press, 1924 reprint).

Now, God did indeed order these killings (Numbers 25:17-18) … and they did indeed occur (Numbers 31) — so Christians must face the facts of the case. But mature believers understand that whatever God decrees is done in perfect holiness and in perfect justice… and whatever the outfall — be it the death of idolaters or of innocents — it is a righteous act by definition since it is the act of the Righteous One. But this argument has little weight among skeptics or non-believers who prefer to build a straw-man God. They filter God’s actions through their own sinful eyes and postulate a god who is cruel, petty and impetuous… and our God is none of those.

Furthermore, this challenge to the faith has no quick answer — and people are increasingly impatient. But this issue requires us to make a larger than usual investment in the historical and cultural context to fully understand the issue. Now, I’ve found some ministries that have done this well, so I’m going to include rather than restate their work. But since your demographic tells me that you are a younger woman, let me personally address the “younger girls” issue in the biblical account in case that’s what’s on your mind.

Ancient women had one career path: being wives and mothers… and they began these careers early in life by our standards — often as young teens. But this was how the economy worked back then… and it worked that way for most of human history. So, we should not judge those ancient societies by today’s more egalitarian standards.

As such, the first thing to note is that the “younger girls” part of the story records nothing untoward. In fact, it records an act of mercy. When these girls were absorbed into the nation Israel — the nation which was declaratively God’s people — that was their salvation! If they had remained at home and took succor from their idolatrous native culture, they likely would have been lost for eternity. After all, it was their mothers who were complicit in Israel’s’ idolatry… so, how would these girls have escaped otherwise?

It is also important to note that sparing the lives of these girls was Moses’ idea, not God’s… although God allowed this field modification of his original instructions to stand. Israel’s commanders brought back a lot of non-combatants as plunder — including the very women that caused Israel to sin! If these commanders had done their job, all these people would have been killed in the campaign… and we might not even have a footnote regarding the women and children. But instead of having implied deaths, we have this big hook that snags a lot of skeptics.

Since the commanders disobeyed God and brought back some people (instead of letting their deaths be implied) we have this big account of Moses managing their incompetence… which is the account of Moses forcing them to apply God’s justice … and right near their camp… instead of back in the invisible fields of Midian. But God created a teachable moment here… because it’s also the account of Moses applying mercy-on-the-fly to the young girls who did not participate in their mothers’ sins… and note that mercy is only for the condemned… which these girls were before Israel absorbed them.

Although these verses can be troubling on the surface, they are actually a two-fold blessing apologetically. First, verses like these have an “embarrassment factor,” and an embarrassment factor speaks to the authenticity of the narrative. If people were inventing a religion, they would not invent this narrative… or if it were somehow a true event, they wouldn’t include it in their “holy book.” But the true God works through real people who are flawed by definition and are in need of redemption… and then he tells us about it — warts and all!

The second apologetics benefit is that critics must assign credibility to Scripture before they complain about God as he’s revealed in the Bible… or else their project is absurd. It’s one thing to dismiss God philosophically or dismiss his purported documents. It’s quite another to use those very documents to complain about God because you are trying to prove that he does not exist… and that’s what’s happening here. For critics to complain about God’s dealings in Scripture, they must grant that the documents are true... or else their complaints are absurd… because such complaints are based only on those documents, and they can’t have it both ways.

I’ll now include what other people have said on this topic, and I’ll begin with an offering from an apologetics ministry called Evidence Unseen. They address the Dawkins issue, and their short piece gives us a good overview of this issue from an apologetics perspective.

(Num. 31:18) Why were the virgins spared from being killed?

CLAIM: Numbers explains, “But all the girls who have not known man intimately, spare for yourselves” (Num. 31:18). Critics object that this is a case of war-conquering rape and conquest. For instance, atheist Richard Dawkins criticizes, “This merciful restraint by his soldiers infuriated Moses, and he gave orders that all the boy children should be killed, and all the women who were not virgins… Moses was not a great role model for modern moralists.”[1]

RESPONSE: This passage needs to be read in context with the entire book of Numbers. The virgins and young girls were spared for a specific purpose—not for rape—but because they were innocent of the earlier crimes of the Midianites. In Numbers 25:1-2, we read that the Midianite women were culpable for seducing the Israelite men. This act was more than simply sleeping around. These men were seduced into Pagan worship, as a result (Num. 31:16-18). Remember, ancient Near Eastern worship was not an innocent or innocuous form of religious worship; it was a child-sacrificing abomination! For this reason, Dawkins (and other critics) apparently miss the point. The virgin women were spared, because they hadn’t seduced the men earlier in the history of their conflict (remember Num. 25:1-2). Therefore, the culpable ones were killed, and the innocent ones were spared. Moreover, this was a defensive battle in response to the Midianite aggression from earlier. This reading is not being forced into the text. In fact, Moses explains the reason for their corporate capital punishment in the text itself. Moses said, “Behold, these caused the sons of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, so the plague was among the congregation of the Lord” (Num. 31:16).

[1] Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. 275.


I’ll also include the “grown-up” explanation of these issues from the no-nonsense divine, Mathew Henry (1662-1714). My point in including Henry here (and Paine at the beginning) is that this is an old issue, one which has been settled by scholarly consensus… and one which has been reactivated for today’s shallow audience by sensationalists posing as scholars.

The sword of war should spare women and children; but the sword of justice should know no distinction, but that of guilty or not guilty. This war was the execution of a righteous sentence upon a guilty nation, in which the women were the worst criminals. The female children were spared, who, being brought up among the Israelites, would not tempt them to idolatry. The whole history shows the hatefulness of sin, and the guilt of tempting others; it teaches us to avoid all occasions of evil and to give no quarter to inward lusts. The women and children were not kept for sinful purposes, but for slaves, a custom every where practised in former times, as to captives. In the course of providence, when famine and plagues visit a nation for sin, children suffer in the common calamity. In this case parents are punished in their children; and for children dying before actual sin, full provision is made as to their eternal happiness, by the mercy of God in Christ.

The Matthew Henry Commentary on Numbers 31:13-18


CARM Ministries publishes apologetics materials of just the right density for the internet. Their offering follows.

Why were only the virgins left alive among the Midianites in Numbers 31:17-18?

by Matt Slick

Numbers 31:17-18

"Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man intimately. 18 But all the girls who have not known man intimately, spare for yourselves," (Numbers 31:17-18).

The Midianites were descended from Abraham and Keturah (Gen. 25:1). They inhabited the land of Moab and were apparently involved in seducing Israel into going after false gods. Because the Israelites fell into idolatry this way, God told Moses to order the deaths of all who had bowed to the false gods in that land.

"While Israel remained at Shittim, the people began to play the harlot with the daughters of Moab. 2 For they invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. 3 So Israel joined themselves to Baal of Peor, and the Lord was angry against Israel. 4 And the Lord said to Moses, "Take all the leaders of the people and execute them in broad daylight before the Lord, so that the fierce anger of the Lord may turn away from Israel." 5 So Moses said to the judges of Israel, "Each of you slay his men who have joined themselves to Baal of Peor," (Num. 25:1-5).

God later instructs the Israelites to deal harshly with the Midianites: "Be hostile to the Midianites and strike them; 18 for they have been hostile to you with their tricks, with which they have deceived you in the affair of Peor, and in the affair of Cozbi, the daughter of the leader of Midian, their sister who was slain on the day of the plague because of Peor." (Num. 25:17-18). Later, when Moses meets the returning Israeli army he was angry because he saw the Medianite survivors. "The Midianite women, he said, should have died because they were directly culpable in Israel’s sin at Baal of Peor. All the women except the virgins were then sentenced to death along with all the boys. This insured the extermination of the Midianites and thus prevented them from ever again seducing Israel to sin...The virgins were spared because they obviously had had no role in the Baal of Peor incident nor could they by themselves perpetuate the Midianite peoples."1

Some may object that the Israelites then married the virgins, the daughters of those whom they had killed; and that this would be a horrible thing for the virgins. Perhaps it was a horrible thing for them. But, their lives were spared. Also, in that culture at that time, warfare and plunder was a necessary evil. The reality of taking women as wives was unfortunate but true.

Why was God so harsh with those in idolatry?

We must understand that God dealt very harshly because it was through the people of Israel that the Messiah would later come. Satan, in his perpetual effort to oppose God, sought to have the people of God fall into false worship and through intermarriage with other people to destroy the messianic line and make not only the promises of God null and void but also destroy means by which the Messiah could be born. If this could be accomplished, then none would have any hope of deliverance from sin. Therefore, we see in the Old Testament God being very harsh and strict according to the Law.

1.Walvoord, John F. The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Nu 31:13, Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985.


But the most thorough popular-level work I’ve seen done on this is from Apologetics Press, so I’ll close with their offering.

The Killings of Numbers 31

by AP Staff

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).


(For comments, or to join the Monday Musings mailing list, contact us at mainsailep@gmail.com. To submit a question about God, the Bible or the Christian culture, click here.)