Kill every woman who has known man intimately. But all the girls who have not known man intimately, spare for yourselves. (Numbers 31:17-18)
The women were put to death for their role in leading Israel into idolatry. The boys were put to death to prevent them from growing into men who would seek vengeance. The virgin women of the Midianites were spared.
In my opinion, the execution of those defenseless prisoners presents an irreconcilable moral problem. Ironically, the revulsion I feel at the thought of the Israelites putting women and children to death comes as a result of an ethical worldview that was originally derived from the Torah and the Scriptures of Israel. The pagan world of that day and age would have had little compunction over the atrocity. We have inherited and cultivated an ethical worldview that originally sprang from the soil of Torah, grew in the prophets, and bore fruit in the gospel.
But how did the Israelites know if a girl was a virgin or not?
According to one midrashic folktale, they would pass each girl in front of the high priest Eleazar while he was wearing the golden miter on his forehead on which the name of God was written. If the woman was not a virgin, when she saw the high priest with the words “Holy to the LORD” engraved on his golden crown, her face would grow pale. If she was a virgin, she’d blush a fiery red. The pale face indicated that she had participated in the plot to seduce Israel; the blushing face indicated that she was innocent.
This may not be what really happened, but it teaches us something about the beauty of innocence. We live in a culture that has discarded that virtue. At a young age, children are exposed to sensual images in entertainment and media. Sexuality is constantly flaunted in front of our eyes. The culture has lost all sense of modesty and decency in dress. “Having become callous, [they] have given themselves over to sensuality” (Ephesians 4:19). No subject seems too vulgar or shameful for the comedians and entertainers of today. Yesterday’s taboos are today’s fads. All of it contributes to an increasingly brazen culture where nothing is shocking and everything is permissible. As a society we have lost the ability to blush.
As believers and disciples of Messiah, we need to strive to recapture innocence.
“Immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints; and there must be no filthiness and [foolish] talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks” (Ephesians 5:3-4).
The fact that we feel uncomfortable with the Torah’s story of Moses and the Israelites putting the women and children of Midian to death indicates that we have internalized the spirit of the Torah. We must recover our innocence and protect the innocence of our children. We need to learn to blush again that we might not grow pale before the Name of God.