This has to rank right up there as one of those "horrifying" chapters in the Old Testament that make us cringe and want to run to the "safety" of Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild in the New Testament. But there is a lot going on here, and I would suggest that there is much more going on than meets the eye.
There is a lot I could say about this chapter, but I don’t want this blog to turn into a lengthy theological treatise. So I’m just going to briefly touch on a few of the things that jumped out at me. I have a feeling that there will be plenty of opportunities to explore these ideas in more depth as we continue through the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, and — eep! — Judges.
1. The first thing I saw was that Balaam — you know, that "prophet" who received the stunning prophecy of Christ’s first advent — ended up being a very bad boy. When the returning soldiers brought the plunder back to Israel, Moses asked, "Have you allowed all the women to live? They were the ones who followed Balaam's advice and enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful to the Lord in the Peor incident..." (vs 15-16) Interesting, isn’t it? Balaam couldn’t curse the Israelites with his words, so it seems that he set about trying to get the Israelites to curse themselves by falling prey to the wiles of the Midianite women. We don’t know the specifics of his behavior, but apparently, it was egregious enough to warrant an explicit mention of his demise in verse 8. His actions certainly don’t negate the culpability of the Israelite men (as evidenced by the consequences they encountered), but I thought it was all the more revealing about God that He would use a man who was so bad to proclaim something about Him.
2. The second thing I saw in this chapter was that God isn’t greedy. When the Israelite soldiers returned from war with the Midianites, they brought 675,000 sheep; 72,000 cattle; 61,000 donkeys; and 32,000 women. What was God’s "share" in this booty? A tenth of one percent. What government, dictator, or king — let alone Universal Deity — settles for a tenth of one percent? Compared to God, modern governments charge their citizens an exorbitant amount for taxes. Unlike earth’s dictators — who live in gold-laden palaces whilst their subjects starve — God reserves the riches for His people. He doesn’t hoard anything for Himself.
3. And so now we come to the third observation from this chapter — and the one that made the headline. God is the strongest. That certainly must have been one of the motivations behind this war with the Midianites, just as it had been with the plagues in Egypt. In a world where every nation claimed to have the strongest god, idolatry was a serious offense. And wasn’t that the problem with what the Midianite women did with the Israelite men? Do you remember from Numbers 25? "While Israel was staying in Shittim, the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods. The people ate the sacrificial meal and bowed down before these gods. So Israel yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor." (vs 1-3) By worshiping Baal, the Israelites had proclaimed that he was stronger than the God of Israel. The war with the Midianites — where their nation was all but wiped out — would certainly have been the evidence to the Israelites and all the surrounding nations that this wasn’t true. As between the God of Israel and Baal of Peor, bet on Jehovah.
I chose this one as the title of the blog because I think it’s going to be a recurring and very important theme throughout the Old Testament. God is the strongest. Is there any doubt of that? I suppose there might have been some at certain points in history. But, given all the evidence we’ll encounter in our Biblical journey, we probably wouldn’t harbor those doubts for very long.
God is the strongest. But here’s what intrigues me most about that: as far as I can tell, that hasn’t won a single person over to love and trust in God. Not one. Think of some of the major events in the Old Testament that put God’s immense power on display — the flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the plagues in Egypt, thundering on Mount Sinai, and the list could go on and on. After which of these events did those who remained suddenly become trusting friends of God? I can’t think of a one.
So, what’s the point, then? God doesn’t use His power to win us over to "His side." He uses His power to get attention. Apparently, He had to do an awful lot of that in the Old Testament. Once He has our attention, though, He doesn’t continue the smoke, thunder, and lightning. Instead, He talks to us in a calm voice. He tries to reason with us. The fact that God is the strongest has never won Him any friends — and friends are what He wants. In the meantime, though, when we need the reminder that He is powerful, He will provide the evidence. Hopefully it gets our attention long enough for us to learn that we can trust Him!