Question: "Why did God command the Israelites to completely destroy the Midianites in Numbers 31:17?"
Answer: Understanding and applying passages from the exodus and conquest of Canaan can be challenging. The passages about putting certain inhabitants to death are among the most difficult. Among those is Numbers 31.
God told Moses, “Take vengeance on the Midianites for the Israelites” (Numbers 31:1). The Israelites obediently armed themselves and attacked the Midianites, killing the men (verse 7). Also, “the Israelites captured the Midianite women and children and took all the Midianite herds, flocks and goods as plunder” (verse 9). When the troops returned to Moses, he was angry that they had not fully carried out the Lord’s vengeance (verse 14; cf. verse 3). The Midianite women were those who had caused Israel to sin at Baal Peor (see Numbers 25). So Moses commanded that the women be killed, and also “kill all the boys” (Numbers 31:17).
When we look at the command to kill the male Midianite children, there are two perspectives we might take. One is the more understandably temporal. During the timeframe in question, tribal warfare was rampant. It was highly likely that the male Midianite children would grow up and seek revenge for their fathers and grandfathers against Israel. Avenging the death of one’s father is a commonly accepted necessity in every culture and even in popular fiction—it’s what motivates Hamlet in Shakespeare’s classic play and what energizes Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride.
Further, the utterly disgusting depravity in which these Midianite boys had been raised is well documented. Regular behaviors among the Midianites included child sacrifice, cult prostitution, and bestiality. The divine prohibition of these acts was codified, and the acts were known to the Israelites (Leviticus 18:21, 23–24). Male inhabitants carrying on the lineage of this culture would have been a perennial problem for Israel.
The other perspective we should consider is the divine. Now, we cannot know the mind of God or comprehend the depths of His wisdom (Isaiah 55:8–9). But we can know that, given the depravity of the Midianites, God’s command to kill the Midianite boys might have been an act of divine mercy. In His perfect knowledge—including His knowledge of what would happen in the lives of those young Midianites, had they lived—it’s possible that God brought them to Himself before they had the opportunity of choosing to reject Him. It is highly possible that, had these males grown to maturity, they would have embraced the wanton rebellion and idolatry of their fathers. From God’s perspective, it may have been better for them to die at a young age than to endure a life of depravity and the attending temporal (and eternal) consequences.
In all this, we must remember that God is goodness. He is not simply a good moral agent like humans are commanded to be; He is not beholden to or measured by a standard outside of Himself. We cannot look at God’s actions as being in any moral category like human actions. God is not a man (Numbers 23:19). The very nature of God is such that He cannot do evil. “The LORD is righteous in all his ways” (Psalm 145:17). This is the point by which we must reconcile passages such as Numbers 31:17 with the likes of John 3:16.
Moreover, a major mistake we sometimes make is to think that our lives are our own. We are creatures, not the Creator. We could not exist for one moment without God’s willing our existence (Hebrews 1:3; Acts 17:28). We should not think that God owes us anything, be it a long life, a life free of suffering, or anything else. God desires our ultimate good, which is everlasting union with Him (2 Peter 3:8–10). Our ultimate good may not be realized in a long life or one devoid of pain and suffering. As strange as it may sound, the ultimate good of the Midianite males may not have come about without their being killed by the Israelites in warfare. This is “brass tacks” and gets to the root of whether one thinks that man was made in the image of God or whether one makes a god in the image of man.
It is difficult to discuss these topics rationally because emotions often take over, and proclamations of “the innocence of children” grow loud. We sometimes hear things like “I could never believe in a God like that.” We are correct in the visceral reaction to children suffering and dying. At the same time, we must differentiate the cause and circumstance of the young Midianites’ deaths from current situations. Suffering today is not brought about by God’s people taking possession of their promised land against a morally depraved and militant people group.
Also, we are profoundly incorrect when we start embracing notions like “if I were God, I certainly would not have done that.” God does not see human events as we do; He sees them as only God can. Thus, we have no basis by which to say that God would not have a humanly understandable, morally sufficient reason for commanding the death of children during the conquest of Canaan.