The account of Israel in Numbers 30-33 provides a view of how God further prepared Israel for the conquest of Canaan. Here the text ties up some loose ends—matters needing clarification before Israel received final instructions for life in Canaan in Numbers 33-36. While upon first glance the issues addressed in Numbers 30-33 may not seem related, each is an appropriate manifestation of the holiness of Israel’s God, the holiness Israel was to reflect.
Israel was to demonstrate holiness in their vows (Numbers 30). The overriding principle of the chapter is that God takes vows seriously and thus they must be kept. Yet women under the authority of a man could be freed from their vow if the one over her prohibited the vow straightway (Num 30:5, 8, 12-15). The summary of regulations about vows, especially as they pertained to the vows of a woman in the family unit, was concluded: “These are the statutes that the LORD commanded Moses concerning the relationship between a man and his wife, or between a father and his daughter in his house during her youth” (Num 30:16).
Israel’s vengeance against their enemies was to be rooted in God’s holiness (Numbers 31). The war with Midian was to be Moses’ final leadership task (Num 31:1-2). Under the direction of Eleazar, an Israelite band killed the five Midianite kings, plundered their property, burned their cities, and brought the spoils of war to Moses (Num 31:3-12). Upon hearing that the warriors had not executed vengeance on the Midianite women who had led to the deaths of 24,000 Israelites (see Numbers 25), Moses was infuriated (Num 31:13-18). In Moses’ opinion, the soldiers lack of zeal was an affront to God’s holiness. The remainder of the chapter records how everything associated with the attack—the Israelite warriors (Num 31:19-20), the spoils of Midian (Num 31:21-47), and the gold articles each man found (Num 31:48-54)—had to be sanctified unto the Lord.
Israel’s holy status unto the Lord was to shape their unity as a people (Numbers 32). When the Reubenites and Gadites originally approached Moses, Eleazar, and the leaders of the community with the request to settle in the livestock-friendly Transjordan plains, they were met with severe opposition (Num 32:1-15). Moses had interpreted their request in light of the report of the doubtful spies (cf. Numbers 13). But upon receiving the pledge that these tribes would remain united in the conquest, Moses commanded Joshua and Eleazar to see that the request of the tribes was granted (Num 32:16-38). The half-tribe of Manasseh drove out the Amorites of Gilead and settled there (Num 32:39-42). Within the diverse preferences of the community, Israel was to remain a united people—holy unto the Lord.
God had demonstrated His holiness in sustaining Israel throughout their journey from Mount Sinai to Canaan (Num 33:1-49). The review of the wilderness travels is a breathtaking statement of God’s ability to protect, purify, and provide for His own. The final segment records the forty-year travel log—time enough for a generation to pass (Num 33:37-49). Numbers 33 concludes with reminders for Israel to remember their holy God as they take the land: “You are to take possession of the land and settle in it because I have given you the land to possess” (Num 33:53); “But if you don’t drive out the inhabitants of the land before you, those you allow to remain will become thorns in your eyes and in your sides; they will harass you in the land where you will live. And what I had planned to do to them, I will do to you” (Num 33:55-56).
In the storyline of Scripture, Jesus’ teaching in the New Testament contrasts with some of these ideas in Numbers 30-33. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spoke against vows altogether (Matt 5:33-37) and commanded love instead of vengeance (Matt 5:43-48). Nowhere in the Gospels did Jesus instruct His followers to attack a people and plunder their land. What should the reader make of this? Jesus’ entrance into the world brought a new era. Jesus manifested God’s holiness in the flesh (see John 1:1, 14-18; Col 2:9) and marked a shift in redemptive history. Since God’s kingdom is Christ-focused and no longer Canaan-focused, territorial vows and national vengeance have lost their place as acceptable means of showing devotion for our Holy God. Paul summarized Christian ethics by stating “What matters is faith working through love” (Gal 5:6).