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

CLAIM: After the war with Midian, Moses rebukes the Israelites for not killing the women and children. Moses states, “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: A number of responses can be made:

First, the women were not innocent. The virgins and young girls were spared for a specific purpose: they were not guilty of seducing the men of Israel. 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 participated in the sin of the Midianites (remember Num. 25:1-2). In other words, 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.

Second, by Israelite law, the surviving women were not allowed to be raped. For one, the text nowhere says that the women were raped. It merely states that the women should be “spared for yourselves” (Num. 31:18). A critic can read into this text that the women were raped, but this is never stated by the text. Instead, Israelite law prohibited rape in these exact circumstances. Women were to be married—not raped (“take her as a wife for yourself,” Deut. 21:11). These women were given a “full month” to mourn before being married (Deut. 21:13). And finally, these women could “certainly not be sold for money” in the case of a divorce (Deut. 21:14).

All of this is different from typical ancient Near Eastern warfare, where women were raped on the spot, killed, and sold into slavery. By contrast, the Israelites had to wait a month, marry the woman, and respect her personhood.

Third, all of the Midianite males were killed, but so were the Israelite males. When the Israelite males had been seduced into sin (Num. 25), their punishment was death. God was not playing favorites. This definitively shows that this is not a case of prejudicial “ethnic cleansing” or the like. Instead, God brought capital punishment on both Midianites and Israelites for their participation.

For more on these topics, see “What about Rape?” and “What about the Canaanite Genocide?”

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