A Detailed Historical Examination Of Numbers 31:18

𝐀 𝐃𝐞𝐭𝐚𝐢𝐥𝐞𝐝 𝐇𝐢𝐬𝐭𝐨𝐫𝐢𝐜𝐚𝐥 𝐄𝐱𝐚𝐦𝐢𝐧𝐚𝐭𝐢𝐨𝐧 𝐎𝐟 𝐍𝐮𝐦𝐛𝐞𝐫𝐬 𝟑𝟏:𝟏𝟖

Mohamad Mostafa Nassar



1. Introduction
2. The Hebrew word “taph” (children)
3. The Hebrew word “lachem” (“for yourselves”)
4. The Ancient Interpretation of Numbers 31:18
5. Contemporary Interpretation of Numbers 31:18
6. “Forced” – Deuteronomy 21:14
7. Conclusion

1. Introduction

The details that are given in Numbers 31:18 about the female captives caught and distributed to Moses’s men is disturbing for many reasons, as we read the verse closer. I have written about this verse before, however, I think we need to look at the Hebrew words closer and see how the verse was interpreted by classical ancient scholars.

2. The Hebrew word “taph” (children)

Although many of the translations for Numbers 31:18 render the females as being “women”, a closer look at the verse, it refers to “children”, prepubescent girls who have not hit puberty. This is what the Hebrew text reveals. The Hebrew word ‘taf’ (taph) refers to children only: BlueletterBible.org


The Hebrew word “taf (taph) according to Lexicons.

An English and Hebrew Lexicon – Professor Selig Newman:

CHILD , an INFANT … טַף… an offspring,… get with-……” (An English and Hebrew lexicon composed after Johnson’s directory, containing fifteen thousand English words, rendered into Biblical, or rabbinical Hebrew, or into Chaldee. To which is annexed a list of English and Hebrew words the expressions and meanings of which appear to be the same in both languages (1832), by Professor Selig Newman page 61)

A complete Hebrew-English pocket-dictionary to the Old Testament (1905) – Karl Feyerabend:

“טַף (TAF) ., i.p. .., w.s…. coll. CHILDRENLITTLE ONES. (A complete Hebrew-English pocket-dictionary to the Old Testament (1905]) By Karl Feyerabend page 118)

A Compendious Hebrew-Lexicon – Samuel Pike:

“טַף LITTLE ONES or CHILDREN… mincing in a childish manner, Isai. Iii. 16. –… to drop, or distil… to prophecy, or distil instruction, Micah ii. 6, 11.” (A Compendious Hebrew Lexicon, Adapted to the English Language, and Composed upon A New and Commodious Plan [Second Edition (1811)] by Samuel Pike page 59)

Here are three accurate translations which show that the verse only speaks about ‘female children’:

Jubilee Bible 2000 – “But all the FEMALE CHILDREN that have not known a man by lying with him KEEP ALIVE FOR YOURSELVES.” – Numbers 31:18

Webster’s Bible – “Translation But all the FEMALE CHILDREN that have not known a man by lying with him, KEEP ALIVE FOR YOURSELVES.” – Numbers 31:18

Living Bible (TLB) – “Only the LITTLE GIRLS may live; you may KEEP THEM FOR YOURSELVES.” – Numbers 31:18

3. The Hebrew word “lachem” (“for yourselves”)

The next line we need to look at, what does “keep alive for yourselves” mean? When we read the verse, it does not give us much information what is meant by that. The first time I came across the verse, reading the ending, I believed it was sexual.

When I got into few discussions with Christians what the end “for yourselves” means, they all said that the girls had to be taken care of, and wait until they grow up before they could marry an Israelite. Although such interpretation at the time was possibly plausible (so I thought), however, upon further investigation, I realized that this was not what the verse was relaying.

The words “for yourselves” in Hebrew is “lachem” (lakham):

Hebrew word "lachem" (lakham)

Although the word is unexplained, and deliberately left blank on Christian websites which explain the Bible word for word – when we consult Hebrew-English Lexicons, they give us the following meaning(s) for “lachem” (lakham).

A complete Hebrew and English critical and pronouncing dictionary – Professor William L. Roy:

“לָכֶֽם la-chem. The bread, flesh. P. N.
לָכֶֽם la-cham. 1 He ate, devoured; 2 partook of, participated; 3 accepted, received; 4 sustained, preserved; 5 CONSUMED, DEVOURED, swallowed up; contended, warred, as with an enemy. 3. M. s. Pret K. pl. Prob. 4:17. F. Ps. 141: 4. Prov. 23:6. Imp. 33:1. Pres. Part. Ps. 56: 2, pl. ver. 3. Paul. Pl. const. Deut. 32: 4. Inf. Prov. 23: 1. Niph. Num. 21: 26. Jud. 9: 17. Part. Deut. 3: 22. Pl. Jos. 11: 25. Inf. Exod. 17: 10. As a n. m. s. לָכֶֽם Food, bread, sustenace, a feast, or banquet, ANYTHING WITH WHICH WE ARE PLEASED, OR SATISFIED; figuratively, the Messiah, or bread of eternal life; also, the gospel, or salvation. Prov. 6: 17. 23: 6. Gen. 3: 19. Num. 28: 2. Job 6: 7. Ps. 105: 40. John 6: 31. 41: 50. 1 Cor. 10: 3. LXX. …, To feed, sustain, fatten, as with corn. Arab. … Lah-ma. Ro TO DEVOUR, AS FLESH, to make firm, strong.

לָכֶֽם le-cham. Fight, content thou. 2. M. s. Imp. K. aff. .. Ye, 2. M. p. .. my. R. –“ (A complete Hebrew and English critical and pronouncing dictionary: on a new and improved plan,containing all the words in the Holy Bible, Both Hebrew and Chaldee, with the vowel points, prefixes and Affixes, as they stand in the original text:

Together with their derivation, literal and etymlogical meaning, as it occurs in every part of the Bible and illustrated by numerous citations from the Targums, Talmud and cognate Dialects. [New York: Published by Collins, Keese & Co., 230 Pearl Street, University Press – J. F. Trow, Printer, 1837] by William L. Roy (profesor of oriental Languages in New York), page 394)

Hebrew-English Lexicon:

“לָכֶֽם (fut. לָכֶֽם; inf. לָכֶֽם; imp. לָכֶֽם).
– I. EAT, feast upon, DEVOUR; with … of … consummed of fever.
II. Make, WAGE WAR, with .. Niph. … (Inf. Abs. …; fut. Pl. …). – I. make war; with … against with … for. – for. With … besiege.” (Hebrew-English Lexicon – Containing all the Hebrew And Chaldee words in the Old Testament Scriptures, with their meanings in English [BJT – Maltae terricolis linguae, coelestibus una – London: Samuel Bagster And Sons, Limited, New York – james Pott & Co., 1898], page 135)

A Complete Hebrew-English Pocket-Dictionary to the Old Testament – Profesor Karl Feyerabend:

““לָכֶֽם 1 (LACHA’M) imp. לָכֶֽם, fut. לָכֶֽם, pt. לָכֶֽם, pl. … to compress, to FIGHT, to make war. – Ni. …, inf. …, … imp. …, fut. …, to fight. …, to fight, to make war.
לָכֶֽם 2 (lacha’m) fut. … pt. p. …, pl. c. …, to EAT, to CONSUME.
… (lache’m) m, c. לָכֶֽם, war, fight, siege.
… (le’chem) m, i.p. … w.s. …, food, grain, wheat, bread, loaf.” (A Complete Hebrew-English Pocket-Dictionary to the Old Testament, [Third edition, Berlin – Schoneberg (Prof. G. Langenscheidt), Langenscheidtsche Verlagsbuchhandlung, London, W. C. H. Grevel & Co. New York, The International News company – Johannesburg: Hermann Michaelis] by Profesor Karl Feyerabend, Ph, D. page 158)

A Manual Hebrew And English Lexicon, Including The Biblical Chaldee – Josiah W. Gibbs:

“לָכֶֽם, fut. …, to EATCONSUME; to war, fight. – Ni. …, infin. Absol. …, to fight, contend.
… or … m. a contest, siege. Judg. 5:8. (A Manual Hebrew And English Lexicon, Including The Biblical Chaldee – Designed Particularly for Beginners [Second edition revised and enlarged – New Haven: Published And sold By Hezekiah Howe: Also by Jonathan Leavitt, New-York; Crocker & Brewster, Boston; And Glagg & Gould, Androver, 1832] by Josiah W. Gibbs, A. M. (Prof. of Sacred Liter. In the Theol. School in Yale College), page 107 – 108)

An Hebrew And English Lexicon, Without Points, In Which The Hebrew And Chaldee Words Of The Old Testament Are Explained In Their Leading And derived Senses:

The radical idea of this wod may, I think, with the late learned Profsoor Robertson, be expressed by the Latin conseriut, inseruit, and in Eng. By insert, JOIN, LAY put, or ENGAGE TOGETHER, as the V. likewise signifies in Arabic.

I. As a N. לָכֶֽם, Food, victual, in general, which is added or inserted into the ody for the sustenance of life, whether of men; see Gen. iii. 10. 1 Sam. Xx. 27. Job xx. 14. Ps. Xli. 10. Cii. 5. Prov. Xxxi. 14. Comp. Dan. V. 1. – or of other animals, ps. Cxxxvi. 25. Cxlvii. 0. Prov. Vi. 8. xxx. 25. Hence as a V. in Kal, to EAT, Vesci. Occ. Job xx. 23.
Ps. Cxli. 4. Prov. Iv. 17. Ix. 5. Xxiii. I, 6, … Eaten up, consumed, with burning heat. Occ. Deut. Xxxii. 24. Comp. under … II. And … II.
… is aplied to that part of the sacrifice which was burnt upon the altar, and which is called … the food of God. See Lev. Iii. 11, 16. xxi. 6. Comp. Mal. i. 7, and Lowth’s note there.
Zeph. i. 17. … Their carcases (so Targ. …), literally, Their food, what might be so for the wild beasts of the field, and the fowls of the air. See Jer. Vii. 33. xix. 7.

… Fruiy, what is eatable, of a tree. Jer. Xi. 19, Let us destroy the three … with his fruit, i.e., the Prophet with hi Prophecies or doctrine. Comp. Mat. Vii. 16; and see Noldii Particul. Heb. Annot. 684. Chald. As a N. … An eating, a feast. Occ. Dan. V. 1. Comp. Job xx. 23.

II. As a N. … Bread, which was and is the principal part of the food of men in alsmost all countries, particularly of the eastern nations, who, Dr. Shaw observes (Travels, p. 230), ‘are great eaters of bread; it being computed that three persons in four live entirely upon it, or else upon such compositions as are made of bareley or wheat flour.

Frequent mention is made of this simple diet in the Holy scriptures.’ So Niebuhr, Voyage en Arabie, tom. i. p. 188, tells us that “the principal nourishment of the Orientals in general is fresh-baked bread, and that therefore they take especial care not to want for meal when they travel in the desert.” Freq. occ. Hence

III. Bread-corn. Occ. Isa. xxviii. 28. Comp. Isa. xxx. 23. Num. iv. 7. Job xxvii. 5. Eccles. Xi. 1, and Bp. Lowth’s Note on Praelect. X. De Sacra Poesi Heb. P. 120, edit. Oxon, svo. And p. 211, edit. Gotting.
IV. In Kal, RO ENGAGE in fighting, to fight, Manum seu praelium conserere. Occ. Ps. Xxxv. 1. 1vi. 2, 3. Comp. Jud. V. 8. In Niph. TO BE ENGANGED in war or battle to fight. In this form it occurs very frequently; and with … following, it denotes To Fight for one, or one his side. Exod. xiv. 14, 25. Josh. X. 14. (comp. Ps. 1vi. 3.) But followed by … Num. xxi. 1, & al. freq. – by … Deut. xx. 4. …” (An Hebrew And English Lexicon, Without Points,

In Which The Hebrew And Chaldee Words Of The Old Testament Are Explained In Their Leading And derived Senses, the Derivative Words Are ranged Under Their Respective Primitives, And The Meaning Assigned To Each Authorized By references To Passages of Scriptures, And Frequently Ilustrated And Confirmed By Citations From various Authors, Ancient And Modern.

To This Word are Prefixed, An Hebrew And Chaldee Grammar, Without Points. [the Eighth Edition, Corrected And Improved. London: Printed for C. And J. Rivington; J. Cuthell; Longman, Hurst, Bees, Orme, And Brown; T. Cadell; John Richardson; J. Mawman; Baldwin, Cradock, And Joy; Ogle, Duncan, and Co.; G. And W. B. Whittaeker; W. Mason; R. Scholey; Baynes And Son; Simpkin And Marshall; J. Nisbet; J. Bohn; G. Mackie; R. Saunders; T. Tegg; T. Redshaw; Hurst, Robinson, And Co.; E. Edwards; And Stirling And Slade, 1823], page 357)

An Exposition of the Prophet Ezekiel: With Useful Observations Thereupon – Rev. William Greenhill (b. 1581):

“’And of Phut.’ Phut was one of the sons of Ham, Gen. x. 6, from whom both posterity and country were so named. Ezek. xxxviii. 5, Phut is translated Libya, and Jer. Xlvi. 9, Libyans, the Libyabs; so the Vulgate; and these were famous warriors, and therefore hired to be defenders of the city of Tye.

Those joined with their own men, made up their army, fighting for them at sea when occasion was, and constantly guarding their city. The word for ‘war’ is milchamah, from LACHAM, TO EAT, and to fight, because wars do EAT UP men, AND THEIR ESTATES; hence the sword is said to DEVOUR, and that from one end of the land to the other, Jer. xii. 12; and to be drunk with blood Jer. xlvi. 10. War is bloody, consuming, and DEVOURING.”

(An Exposition of the Prophet Ezekiel: With Useful Observations Thereupon [London: Samuel Holdsworth, Amen Corner, Paternoster-Row. Stereotyped And Printed by J. R. And C. Childs, Bungay. MDCCCXXXVII.] by Rev. William Greenhill (b. 1581), James Sherman (editor), page 605)

Just so readers are aware, Lachem here is a proposition. When we read from the above Lexicons and a commentary, the Hebrew ‘lacham (Lechem) means to “engage”, “eat” or “devour”, this definitely is sexual in the context for Numbers 31:18. It could not mean that the verse commanded Moses’s men to commit cannibalism, rather to “engage”, “eat” and “devour” is understood to mean sexually. This is how the earliest of scholars and historians understood the verse to mean.

4. The Ancient Interpretation of Numbers 31:18

The ‘Voice’ Translation of the Bible which was produced by a two dozen or more scholars and pastors, give an accurate rendering for “yourselves”, to mean that the warriors can do anything they “desire” to the female children:

As for the virgins, you can take them, as you DESIRE.” – Numbers 31:18

Shaye J. D. Cohen who is the Littauer Professor of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations of Harvard University, explains that “ for yourselves” is clear that that Moses’s soldiers could use the females “sexually”:

“Moses enjoins upon the returning warriors to kill their Midianite female captives who have lain with a man, but ‘spare for yourselves every young woman who has not had carnal relations with a man’; WE MAY BE SURE THAT ‘FOR YOURSELVES’ MEANS THAT THE WARRIORS MAY ‘USE’ THEIR VIRGIN CAPTIVES SEXUALLY.52 The law in numbers differs from the law in Deuteronomy- perhaps the most significant distinction is that the law in Deuteronomy does not care whether the captive is a virgin or not- but it too permits Israelite warrior to marry (or ‘marry) a foreign woman.”

(The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties [University of california Press, Berkeley / Los Angeles / London, The Regents of the University of California, 1999] by Shaye J. D. Cohen [chapter 8] page 255 – 256)

In footnote 52, Professor Shaye J.D. Cohen continues, this time explaining the Hebrew word “lakhem” (lachem) that it is “sexual” and this is how it was the understood by ancient scholars:

“I do not know why the new Jewish version omits ‘for yourselves’; the Hebrew LAKHEM IS UNAMBIGUOUS. That the intent of ‘FOR YOURSELVES’ IS SEXUAL OR MATRIMONIAL IS OBVIOUS; the passage is correctly understood by Rabbi Simeon Yohai in the Sifrei ad loc (177 212H).” (The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties [University of california Press, Berkeley / Los Angeles / London, The Regents of the University of California, 1999] by Shaye J. D. Cohen [chapter 8] page 255 – 256 – [Footnote 52])

The Talmud Of The Land of Israel (also known as ‘Palestinian Talmud’) mentions how the earliest (ancient) of scholars interpreted Numbers 31:18 to mean that the females could be kept as “slave girls”:

“[H] R Simeon says, ‘The requirement is that her [age of] virginity [that is, three years] occur within the sanctity of Israel.’
[I] It was taught [along these same lines] in the name of R. Simeon, ‘A girl who converted at the age of less than three years and one day is valid for marriage into the priesthood.’
[J] What is the scriptural basis for this view? ‘But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him, ‘keep alive for yourselves’ (Num. 31:18).
[K] And Phineas [a priest] was with them, [and hence they are valid for marriage into the priesthood, since he was a priest].
[L] How do rabbis interpret ‘KEEP ALIVE FOR YOURSELVES?’ To them it says that they SHOULD KEEP THEM ALIVE FOR THEMSELVES AS SLAVE boys and SLAVE GIRLS.
[M] R. Yosa, R. Yosa in the name of R. Yohanan, R. Jonah, R. Hiyya in the name of R. Yohanan: ‘The law is in accord with the position of R. Yose.’
[N] Hanin bar Ba in the name of Rab: ‘The Law is in accord with the opinion of R. Yose.’
[O] But the priests for their part acted in accord with R. Eliezer b. Jacob.” (The Talmud Of The Land of Israel – Qiddushin: A Prelimnary Translations and Explanation [Translated by Jacob Neusner, University of Chicago Press, 1984], volume 26, page 239 – 240 [Qiddushin 4:6. Chap. 4])

This is also mentioned in Tractate Bikkurim – [Chap. 1] Halakhah 5:

“It was stated in the name of Rebbi Simeon: “A girl which became a proselyte being less than three years and one day of age if acceptable for the priesthood since it was said (NUM. 31:18): ‘All the female children unfit for sleeping with a male you shall let live for yourselves,’ and Phineas was with them.’ But the Rabbis [say] YOU SHALL LET LIVE AS SLAVES and SLAVE GIRLS FOR YOURSELVES.”

(The Jerusalem Talmud – First Order: Zeraim, Tractates Ma’aser Seni, Hallah, Orlah, And Bikkurim [WDEG – Studia Judaica – Forschungen Zur Wissenschaft Des Judentums, (Editor, Translation and, commentary by Herausgeben Von E. L. Ehrlich) – (BAND XXIII) Walter De Gruyter – Berlin – New York, 2003], page 565)


“R. ELIEZER B. JACOB SAID: A PROSELYTE [etc.}. It was taught: R. Simeon b. Yohai said: A female proselyte less than three years and a day is ELIBLE to the priesthood, as it is said: But all the women children … keep alive for yourselves; now, was not Phineas among them? But the Rabbis [interpret] ‘KEEP THEM ALIVE FOR YOUR SELVES’ AS bondwomen AND BONDWOMEN. (Talmud – Mas. Kiddushin 78a:45 – page 261 – 262, online source)

In the Footnote section for the above it says that these female “children” were “permitted in marriage”, meaning they could be married off:

“(34) Num. XXXI, 18; it refers to the war captives.
(35) And though he was a priest, these CHILDREN were PERMITTED IN MARRIAGE.” (Talmud – Mas. Kiddushin 78a:45, page 261 – 262 – online source)

Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Yebamoth Folio 60a, goes into a little more detail. The ancient scholars say that marriage with these female children is “permitted” as long as they are “fit for cohabitation”. In other words, the females did not have to hit puberty before the warriors slept with them:

‘”Unto him”, includes one who is adolescent’. But surely R. Simeon stated that ‘virgin’ implied a perfect virgin!12 — His reason there is also derived from here, because he makes the following exposition: since [the Scriptural text], ‘unto him’, was required to include one who is adolescent, it is to be inferred that ‘virgin’ implies a perfect virgin.

It was taught: R. Simeon b. Yohai stated: A proselyte who is UNDER THE AGE OF THREE YEARS AND ONE DAY IS PERMITTED TO MARRY A PRIEST,13 for it is said, But all the women children that have not known man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves,14 and Phinehas15 surely was with them.

And the Rabbis? 16 — [These were kept alive] as bondmen and BONDWOMEN.17 If so,18 a proselyte whose age is three years and one day19 should also be permitted! — [The prohibition is to be explained] in accordance with R. Huna. For R. Huna pointed out a contradiction:

It is written, Kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him,20 but if she hath not known, save her alive; from this it may be inferred that children are to be kept alive whether they have known or have not known [a man]; and, on the other hand, it is also written,

But all the women children, that have not known man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves,14 but do not spare them if they have known. Consequently 21 it must be said that SCRIPTURE SPEAKS OF ONE WHO IS FIT 22 FOR COHABITATION.23

It was also taught likewise: And every woman that hath known man;20 Scripture speaks of one who is fit 23 for cohabitation. You say, ‘Of one who is fit for cohabitation’; perhaps it is not so but of one who had actual intercourse? — As Scripture stated, But all women children, that have not known man by lying with him,24 it must be concluded that Scripture speaks of one who is fit for cohabitation.23

Begins Whence did they know?25 — R. Hana26 b. Bizna replied in the name of R. Simeon the Pious: They were made to pass before the frontplate.27 If the face of anyone turned pale28 it was known that she was fit for cohabitation; if it did not turn pale28 it was known that she was unfit for cohabitation.” (Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Yebamoth Folio 60a – online source)

We may infer from this, although marriage is permitted with these female children who have not hit puberty, the condition for the marriage to be consummated rests on the female being “fit for cohabitation”, this, however, is vague, how would one know if one is fit?

The Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Yebamoth Folio 60a footnote section, for the above quote, says some scholars disputed that one has to be “fit for cohabitation” since the text is clear:

“14 Num. XXXI, 18.
15 Who was a priest.
16 How could they, contrary to the opinion of R. Simeon b. Yohai, which has SCRIPTURAL SUPPORT, FORBID THE MARRIAGE OF THE YOUNG proselyte?
17 Not for matrimony.
19 So long as she has ‘not known man’.
20 Num. XXXI, 17.
21 To reconcile the contradiction.
22 I.e., one who had attained the age of three years and one day.
23 Not one who had actually experienced it.
24 Implying that any grown-up woman is not to be spared, even if she hath not known man.
25 Which of the Midianite women, referred to in the texts quoted, was, or was not fit for cohabitation.
26 Cur. [edd.], ‘Huna’.
27 [H] the gold plate which was worn by the High Priest on his forehead. V, Ex. XXVIII, 36ff.
28 Lit., ‘(sickly) green’. (Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Yebamoth Folio 60a FOOTNOTE: – online source)

In other words, there were other scholars who ruled that the female does not even have to be “fit” for sexual intercourse.

In the Targums of Onkelos And Jonathan Ben Uzziel On The Pentateuch it states that the girls were used as “prey” [1] for the men:

“And Mosheh and Elazar the priest did as the Lord commanded Mosheh; THE BOOTY, the rest of the PREY which the people went forth to the war HAD TAKEN, was, sheep six hundred and seventy-five thousand, oxen seventy-two thousand, asses sixty-one thousand, persons, WOMEN WHO HAD NOT KNOWN MAN, EVERY SOUL THIRTY-TWO THOUSAND. …” (The Targums of Onkelos And Jonathan Ben Uzziel On The Pentateuch; with the fragments of the Jerusalem Targum: From the Chaldee – Leviticus, Numbers, And Deuteronomy [London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, And Green, 1865] by J. W. Etheridge, M.A., page 326)

The above translation inferring “women” is incorrect as the text clearly, states that these females were “children”. The above is corrected 100 pages further down.

The Targums of Onkelos And Jonathan Ben Uzziel On The Pentateuch continues:

“Now, therefore, slay every male among the children, and every woman who hath known a man; but every FEMALE CHILD STAND BEFORE THE CROWN OF HOLINESS, (THE PRIEST’S TIARA),) AND LOOK UPON HER: SHE WHO IS A VIRGIN WILL BLUSH IN THE FACE, LIKE FIRE; THEM YOU SHALL SPARE. But as for you, abide without the camp seven days; whoever hath slain a man, or touched the dead, you shall sprinkle on the third; and on the seventh day, both you and your captives, and every garment, and whatever is made of skin, goats’ hair, horn, or bone, and every vessel of wood, you shall sprinkle.

And the Lord spake with Mosheh, saying: Take the sum of the PREY of the captives, both of man and beast, and take their amount, thou and Elazar the priest, and the chiefs of the fathers of the congregation; and divide the spoil between the men of war who took the spoil in the conflict of battle, having gone forth with the host, and between all the congregation; and separate that which is to be given up to the Name of the Lord by the men of war who went firth with host: one woman out of five hundred; so, likewise, of oxen, asses, and sheep.

From their half, the portion of the men of war, shalt thou take them, and give to Elazar the priest, as a separation unto the Name of the Lord; but of the half (failing to) the children of Israel thou shalt take one out of fifty of fifty of the women, and of the oxen, the asses, and of all the cattle, and give them to the Levites who keep charge of the Lord’s tabernacle; and Mosheh and Elazar the priest did as the Lord commanded Mosheh.

(The Targums of Onkelos And Jonathan Ben Uzziel On The Pentateuch; with the fragments of the Jerusalem Targum: From the Chaldee – Leviticus, Numbers, And Deuteronomy [London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, And Green, 1865] by J. W. Etheridge, M.A., page 453 – 454)

The historian Flavius Josephus (37 – 100 AD) also confirms the above account:

“The Hebrew War With The Midianites, And Overcome them. Num. xxxi.
1. Now Moses sent an army against the land of Midian, for the causes forementioned, in all twelve thousand, taking an equal number out of every tribe, and appointed Phineas for their commander; of which Phineas we made mention a little before, as he that had guarded the laws of the Hebrews, and had inflicted punishment on Zimri when he had transgressed them.

Now the Midianites perceived beforehand how the Hebrews were coming, and would suddenly be upon them: so they assembled their army together, and fortified the entrances into their country, and there awaited the enemy’s coming. When they were come, and they had joined battle with them, an immense multitude of the Midianites fell; nor could they be numbered, they were so very many:

and among them fell all their kings, five in number, viz. Evi, Zur, Reba, Hur, and Rekem, who was of the same name with a city, the chief and capital of all Arabia, which is still now so called by the whole Arabian nation, Arecem, from the name of the king that built it;

but is by the Greeks called Petra. Now when the enemies were discomfited, the Hebrews spoiled their country, and TOOK A GREAT PREY, and destroyed the men that were its inhabitants, together with the women; only they let the VIRGINS alone, as Moses had commanded Phineas to do, who indeed came back, bringing with him an army that had received no harm, and a great deal of PREY;

fifty-two thousand beeves, seventy-five thousand six hundred sheep, sixty thousand asses, with an immense quantity of gold and silver furniture, which the Midianites made use of in their houses; for they were so wealthy, that they were very luxurious. THERE WERE ALSO LED CAPTIVE ABOUT THIRTY-TWO THOUSAND VIRGINS.

(14) So Moses parted the PREY into parts, and gave one fiftieth part to Eleazar and the two priests, and another fiftieth part to the Levites; and DISTRIBUTED THE REST OF THE PREY among the people. After which they lived happily, as having obtained an abundance of good things by their valor, and there being no misfortune that attended them, or hindered their enjoyment of that happiness.”

(The Works of Flavius Josephus: Comprising The Antiquities Of the Jews; A History Of The Jewish Wars; And Life Of Flavius Josephus, Written by himself [Translated from the original Greek by William Whiston, A. M., (Professor In the University of Cambridge) together With Numerous explanatory Notes – Philadelphia: Porter & Coates], page 133 – 134)

There is also a passage from the Christian Saint, Justinian the great (483 – 565 AD) which suggests, where males have to hit puberty, it was not necessarily required for a female to contract a marriage if she did not hit puberty. [2] We may infer that he took this law from Numbers 31:18,

“Roman citizens form the tie of lawful marriage with each other when they are united according to law, the males having attained the age of puberty, and the FEMALES A MARRIAGABLE AGE, whether they are patresfamilias or filiifamilias;

but if the latter, they must first obtain the consent of their ascendants, in whose power they are. For both natural reason and the law require this consent so much so, indeed, that it ought to precede the marriage. Hence the question has arisen, whether the daughter of a madman could be married, or his son marry.

And as opinions were divided as to the son, we decided that as the daughter of a madman might, so may the son of a madman marry without the intervention of the father, according to the mode established by our constitution.” (The Institutes Of Justinian With English Introduction, Translation, And Notes,

[Fifteenth Impression, Seventh Edition, – Longmans, Green And Co. 39 Paternoster Row, London, E.C. 4 – New York, Toronto, Bombay, Calcutta And Madras, 1922] by Thomas Collett Sandars, M. A. (Barrister-At-Law, Fellow Of Oriel College, Oxford), page 30 [LIB. I. TIT. X.])

A more accurate translation:

“Roman citizens contract valid marriages with each other, if they come together in accordance with the bidding of the laws, the males physically mature, the FEMALES CAPABLE OF TAKING A MAN [i.e., of sexual intercourse].” “Justinian Institutes, 1. 10 pr) (cited in, Gentile Impurities and Jewish Identities: Intermarriage and Conversion from the Bible to the Talmud, [Oxford University Press, 2002] by Christine E. Hayes page 277 – 278)

The foregoing evidence from the Hebrew Lexicons  shows that the verse was speaking about children who were either married to warriors or sexually used outside of marriage (i.e., rape). We also have seen from the ancient scholars that they understood the verse giving permission to Moses’s men to use these females for their own sexual desires or be married to them, as “child brides”.

5. Contemporary Interpretation of Numbers 31:18

The contemporary (few hundred years to date) commentaries also highlighted that the females were used as slaves or Moses’s men married the prepubescent girls.

A Commentary Upon The Fourth Book Of Moses, Called: Numbers – Symon Lord Bishop Of Ely [Simon Patrick]:

“Ver. 18. But all the women-Children that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive.] Being young, there was some hope they might be brought off from idolatry, and become proselytes to the true Religion. FOR YOURSELVES.] To be sold as SLAVES to any other nation; or to be kept as servants; or TAKEN TO BE THEIR WIVES, after such preparation as the Law required, XXI Deut. 16, 17, &c. This was a peculiar case, wherein the middle course was held, between those that were of the seven Nations of Canaan, and those that were not. If they were not of those seven Nations, the Israelites take the women, and little ones unto themselves, XX Deut. 14, 15.

If they were, everything that breathed was to be destroyed, v. 16, 17. But here the Midianites being guilty of a very great Crime against the Lord, and against his people, are punished more heavily than other nations; though not so heavily as those of Canaan were to be.

For they killed all the women that were not virgins, as well as all the males, both little and great; but spared the rest, together with the cattle, &c. Such an execution was made, in after times, upon one of the cities of Israel, upon an high contempt of Publick authority, in a very great Exigency, XXI Judges 11. …”

(A Commentary Upon The Fourth Book Of Moses, Called: Numbers, [London: Printed for Ri. Chitwell at the Rose and Crown in St. Paul’s Church Yard. MDC XCIX] by Symon Lord Bishop Of Ely [Simon Patrick], Page 592 – 593)

A Bible Commentary For English Readers – Charles John Ellicott:

“(18) Keep alive for yourselves.—The Israelites were ALLOWED TO MAKE SLAVES OF THEIR CAPTIVES. Shortly after the capture of these Midianitish women, and, it may be, as arising out of it, the law concerning MARRIAGE WITH CAPTIVES was enacted. (SEE DEUT. XXI. 10-14.)” (A Bible Commentary For English Readers by various writers (Genesis To Numbers), [Cassell And Company, Limited – London, Paris, New York & Melbourne] by Charles John Ellicott, D.D., volume 1, page 563)

A Commentary On The Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal And Homiletical – John Peter Lange:

“The women were certainly the cause of the great sin and fall of Israel, and associated with the Israelitish families they might have become more destructive to the people than before. But how was it with the boys? Knobel reminds us, that they would have risen up later as the avengers of their slain fathers. But they might also, according to their Midianitish nature, have corrupted the Israelitish women.

The terrible result of the command was the death penalty to every male, and also to EVERY FEMALE, except those whose virginity could be established, and who might become fused into the popular life of Israel without danger, in the position of SLAVES, handmaids.”

(A Commentary On The Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal And Homiletical, With special reference to Ministers and Students – Numbers And Deuteronomy. by John Peter Lange, D. D., [Translated, Enlarged And Edited by Philip Schaff, D. D., (professor of sacred Literature In the Union Theological seminary, New York) – New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1884], volume 3, page 168)

Rev. Dr. Mary Donovan Turner:

“A comprehensive survey of practices in ancient Israel to gender and sexuality is not possible here. Yet, the identification of some of the more problematic aspects will demonstrate the difficulty of ‘transporting’ Old Testament practices into contemporary, healthy practices. In ancient Israel sex was political, something tied to war treaties, and definitely related to power.

In the Old Testament, Moses encourages his men to use captured virgins FOR THEIR OWN PLEASURE. After urging his men to kill male captives and female captives who are not virgins, he says, ‘But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves’ (Num. 31:18)

This implies that women were commodities, a SPOIL OF WAR, property that could be bartered or won, used, and EXPLOITED after the last battle is fought and the goods are conquered or divided. …” (Parental Guidance Advised: Adult Preaching from the Old Testament [Editors: Alyce M. Mckenzie and Charles L Aaron Jr, Chalice Press – St. Louis, Missouri, 2013], Rev. Dr. Mary Donovan Turner, page 49)

Theological Bible Commentary – Samuel E. Balentine:

“…those ‘who have not known a man by sleeping with him’ (31:18), must be spared. The text does specify what keeping them ‘ALIVE FOR YOURSELVES’ (31:18) means, but we may reasonably assume from other legislation concerning the treatment of women captured in war (cf. DUET. 21:10-14) that sparing their lives opens possibility that they may be incorporated into Israelite community and, upon MARRIAGE TO AN ISRAELITE, be granted full citizenship.” (Theological Bible Commentary: [WJK – Westminster, John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 2009] (editors: Gail R. O’Day, David L. Petersen), by Samuel E. Balentine page 55)

Joseph Benson’s Commentary of the Old and New Testaments:

“Verse 17
Numbers 31:17. Kill every male among the little ones — Which they were forbidden to do to other people, (DEUTERONOMY 20:14,) except the Canaanites, to whom this people had equalled themselves by their horrid crimes; and therefore it is not strange, nor unjust, that God, the supreme Lord of all men’s lives, who, as he gives them, so may take them away when he pleaseth, did equal them in the punishment. Kill every woman, &c.— Partly for punishment, as having, in general, either prostituted themselves to the Israelites, or some way been accessary in enticing them to idolatry, in which they were so confirmed that there was no hope of reclaiming them;

and partly for prevention of the like mischief in future; for had they been saved alive, they would probably have continued to lead the Israelites into the sin of fornication, and have poisoned their minds by their superstitions. 

THE FEMALE CHILDREN were to be spared, because, being young, there was some hope they might be reformed from idolatry, and become proselytes to the true religion. These they might have as servants, or might MARRY THEM. (Joseph Benson’s Commentary of the Old and New Testaments – Numbers 31:18 – online source)

Study Bible: English Standard Version (ESV):

NUMBERS – Note on 31:13-18 Moses anger with his officers. Normally in wars outside Canaan, the women were spared (DEUT. 20:14). But as these women were responsible for seducing the Israelites, they had to be killed. In addition, if every male among the little ones were killed, this would preclude the perpetuation of the Midianite people and eliminate the Midianites as a nation forever. 

GIRLS WITHOUT SEXUAL EXPERIENCE (NUM. 31:18), who were not involved with the sin of Baal-peor, were allowed to live and MARRY ISRAELITE WARRIORS.” (Study Bible: English Standard Version (ESV) [2008 by Crossway Bibles], page 688)

Professor of the Old Testament, Carolyn J. Sharp:

“The implicit suggestion of threatened sexual violence in this story begs for analysis as well. The practice of sexual violation of enemy women for the purpose of long-term destabilization of the enemy is a well-known and amply documented strategy of male warriors in many cultures, from ancient times to today.

Scripture testifies to this abhorrent practice in holy-war texts such as NUMBERS 31:18, in which Moses commands the execution of non-virgin Midianite women but allows his army to ‘keep alive for’ themselves MIDIANITE VIRGIN GIRLS, AND DEUTERONOMY 20:14, WHICH INSTRUCTS THAT ENEMY WOMEN MAY BE TAKEN AS BOOTY. …” (Wrestling the Word: The Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Believer, [First edition, WJK – Westminster, John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 2010] by Carolyn J. Sharp, Page 131)

Professors Ronald M. Holmes, and Stephen T. Holmes:

In Old Testament times, women were seen as property, (Deuteronomy 22). In the Old Testament, Moses encouraged his men to use the CAPTURED VIRGINS FOR THEIR OWN USE AND SEXUAL PLEASURE. Moses encouraged his men to kill the male captives and female captives who were not virgins: ‘But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves’ (NUMBERS 31:18). …”

Fatal Violence: Case Studies and Analysis of Emerging Forms [CRC Press, Taylor & Francis Group, Boca Raton, London, New York, 2012] by Ronald M. Holmes, Stephen T. Holmes, page 130)

Thus as we have read the above exegesis, these female children were used as “slaves”, or “married” to the warriors.

6. “Forced”  – Deuteronomy 21:14

If you read closely, many of the exegesis refer to Deuteronomy 21:10-14 as evidence that they were married off (child brides). The verse reads:

Deuteronomy 21:10-14 Good News Translation (GNT) – “When the Lord your God gives you victory in battle and you take prisoners, 11 you may see among them a beautiful woman that you like and want to marry. 12 TAKE HER to your home, where she will shave her head, cut her fingernails, 13 and change her clothes.

She is to stay in your home and mourn for her parents for a month; after that, you may marry her. 14 Later, if you no longer want her, you are to let her go free. Since YOU FORCED HER TO HAVE INTERCOURSE WITH YOU, you cannot treat her as a slave and sell her.”

So we read from the Law of Moses, spells out the purification ritual to prepare female captives. The verses require that the warrior shaves her head and trim her nails and give one month for her to mourn, before sexual intercourse.

Although some of the translations try to give it a rendering (meaning) that no rape took place, a closer look at the verse tells us that these female captives were “forced” to have intercourse with the warriors. The GNT translations give an accurate portrayal of what happened.

In fact, the Hebrew word “annah” (inna) that is used for Deuteronomy 21:14, as “forced” intercourse (rape), the same word is used in Lamentations 5:11Judges 20:5Genesis 34:2Deuteronomy 22:29Ezekiel 22:11 and 2 Samuel 13:14, in all these verses, the scholars who translated them, rendered the word “anah” as “rape”.

7. Conclusion:

As we looked in the Book of Numbers (31:18), Moses’s warriors were to keep all the female children for themselves. The Hebrew lexicons rendered “yourselves”, it was understood to be sexual. The ancient scholars further interpreted the verse (Num. 38:18) to mean that Israelites, Moses’s soldiers were to keep the female children for themselves, to be used sexually. Furthermore, the text does lean towards that no marriage took place when the warriors kept the females for themselves.

The piece of evidence we looked at is very disturbing and ungodly for one to believe, and say that it came down from an All Merciful God.

There are few alternatives for Bible believers in relation to this story:

1. Don’t judge what happened few 1000s of years ago.

2. Find manuscripts or other evidence that tell us that these children were not used by Moses’s warriors for their own sexual needs.

3. Or reject this story as not being historically true, not from God, was inserted by men to satisfy their own evil lustful desires.


[1] The word “prey” used in some of the ancient commentaries for the verse (Num. 31:18), means “booty”, something that is “snatched” in warfare, “women” taken as spoils of war:

“PREY. – Prey, from Lat. Praeda, BOOTY (perhaps from prae-hendo, TO SEIZE beforehand), though Old Fr. Praie, preie, is now narrower in meaning than formerly. In AV it includes booty or spoil. Heb. Words properly denoting a wild beast’s prey are (1) … tereph, from … to tear, to rend (the verb itself is tr. ‘prey’ in Ps 17:12 like as a lion that is greedy of his prey,’ …, AVm ‘THAT DESIRETH TO RAVIN,’ Cheyne ‘longing to tear in pieces’). Tereph is tr. ‘prey/ in Gn 49:9, Nu 23:24, Job 4:11, 24:5 (RV ‘meat’), Ps 76:4, 104:23, 124:6, Is 5:25, 31:4, Ezk 19:3, 6, 22:25-37. Am 3:4, Nah 2:12, 13, 13.

This is also the proper meaning of (2) … hetheph (from […]] TO SEIZE), and it is so tr. In its only occurrence, Pr 23:28 ‘she also lieth in wait as for a prey, AVm ‘as a robber,’ which is the RV text, RVm ‘as for a prey.’

Also (3) … ad (from … to attack?, means ‘prey,’ and is so tr. In Gn 49:27, Is 33:23, Zeph 3:8, its only occurrences (against the view of Hitzig and others that it is … in this sense that appears in … of Is 9:5 (6), see Dillmann, ad loc.). And (4) … okhel, which means ‘food,’ is legitimately tr. ‘prey’ in Job 9:36, 39:29. But all the remaining words mean BOOTY or SPOIL TAKEN IN WAR or SNATCHED AS ONE’S SHARE.

The chief word is … baz TO PLUNDER, TAKE AS SPOIL; the verb itself is rendered ‘TAKE FOR A PREY’ in Dt 2:35, 3:7, Jos 8:2. 27, 11:14, Est 3:12, 8:11; ‘make a prey’ in Ezk 26:12; and ‘Prey upon’ in Neh 4:4 (‘give them for a prey,’ RV ‘give them up to spoiling,’ Amer.RV ‘for a spoil’), Est 9:15, 16 (RV ‘spoil’), Dn 11:24 (so RV).

The common word … shalal (from … to plunder, the Hithpolel is tr. ‘make oneself a prey’ in Is 59:15), which over sixty times is rendered ‘SPOIL,’ is tr ‘prey’ in Jg 5:30, 8:24, 45:5 (so RV). The only remaining word is … malkuah, which simply means something captured (from … TO TAKE), which is given as ‘prey’ in AV and RV in Nu 31:11, 12, 26, 27. Is 49:24, 25:

in Num 31:22 AV gives ‘BOOTY,’ RV ‘prey.’ (A Dictionary of the Bible – Dealing with its language, Literature, and Contents, including the Biblical Theology – [Edited by James Hastings, M. A., D. D., university Press of the Pacific, Honolulu, Hawaii, 2004], volume 4 [part 1 – Pleroma – Shimon], page 66)

[2] Some may object, and say the female children (in Num. 31:18) grew up when they were married off, and use Ezekiel 16:1-8 as evidence. There are a few issues, (1) This verse (Ezek. 16:1-8) does not prohibit the things that were permitted in Numbers 31:18. (2) Ezekiel passage is a “parable”, how could a parable override (abrogate) a command direct from YHWH? (3) The last point is the biggest issue, how is the verse relevant to Moses and his warriors when Ezekiel came 700 years after Moses?

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