Pages 5-7: summer 1993
SEXUAL CONDUCT PENTATEUCHAL STYLE
Robert Countess, Ph.D.
There are several biblical passages that I consider unambiguous in their
implications or the inferences that may be drawn from them concerning sexual
beliefs and practices of the times in which they were written. One is found in
Numbers 31: "But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with
him, keep alive for yourselves" (v:18, RSV).
The context is the overall conquest of the land after the exodus. Specifi-
cally, chapter 31 treats a war with Midian. Yahweh required revenge against
Midian for its previous wrong of Israel (Num. 25). After this military expe-
dition, Moses was to be gathered to his people (31:1), a euphemism for his
Paramount here is Yahweh's vengeance (v:3)--not justice or
rehabilitation--and this vengeance was to take on the form of a nearly total
annihilation of men, women, children, and animals. The cities were to be
burned also, but we are not told if the fruit and olive trees and the vine-
yards were to be cut down.
Twelve thousand Israelite men warred against Midian and killed every
(adult) male (v:7). So far, there was obedience, but we then read that
captivity rather than destruction was the end result for the women, children,
animals, and other goods (v:9). On the return of his army, Moses upbraided
the officers for sparing "all the women" (v:15), who were of the same nation-
ality as the women who had enticed some 24,000 Israelite men to idolatry and
sexual relations in an earlier incident (Num. 25).
Moses ordered that "every male among the little ones" be killed (v:17),
but he did not enjoin the killing of every Midianite female--only those who
had had sexual intercourse with men. The text does not put this command of
Moses in Yahweh's mouth, but the context implies that Moses was here carry-
ing out Yahweh's word. So now the warriors killed all women who had had
I find it interesting, even though it might not be all that significant, that
those spared were not called virgins [bethulah] but simply "the young girls
who have not known man by lying with him" (v:18). Was the writer implying
by this that pagan women could not be virginal in a high, ethical sense, but
that they were only those with a physical qualification called hymen intactus?
At any rate, the stated purpose for sparing these "intact" females was a
sort of dative of advantage: "for yourselves." And according to verse 35,
there were some 32,000 "intact" females spared. The formula for dividing up
this fortuitous bounty was 50:50 for warriors and congregation (v:27).
Thereupon, Yahweh's portion was 1:500 (v:28) of the 50% that the warriors
received, whereas the Levites' share was considerably larger: 1:50 of the 50%
given to the congregation.
The "intact" females were divided as follows: 16,000 to the warriors (and
since there had been only 12,000 warriors to begin with, and all had sur-
vived, this balanced out to one and one-third virgins per warrior); 16,000
for the congregation (how they were distributed to the hundreds of thousands
of Israelites was left unsaid); then 32 females for Yahweh and 320 for the
At issue here is the question: For what purpose(s) were these "intact"
females spared? What did Yahweh want or need? And what did he actually
do with them? Since the Levites were ministers at the cultic site, it is only
logical to conclude that these 32 were turned over to them for use. In the
context of this story, the answer was apparently one of aposiopesis. What
kind of stated answer really could have been given the readers? Here, silence
is truly golden.
In the division of the captives, last in the list were the congregation's
15,680 females. This was the 16,000 less the Levites' 320. Parceling them out
to the twelve tribes gave about 306 per tribe and thus not really very many
to go around. Again, in the various households to which they did in fact
go, if used as menials, sexual temptation would certainly ensue for fathers
and sons. Question: could these females have ever become full Israelite
women through marriage?
Precedent supports an affirmative answer on the analogy of the "mixed
multitude" that accompanied Israel out of Egypt, even though the matter can
be treated only indirectly from the texts. More directly might be the prece-
dent in which Moses, having taken a Cushite woman to wife (LXX: aithiops,
the common Greek term for "burnt faced" peoples, that is, Hamitic types).
Although Miriam and Aaron were highly critical of this marriage (even though
their explicit reason was not given), Yahweh's siding with his servant Moses
supports the inference that a foreign woman could become as legitimate a
member of Israel as any other (Num. 12).
On the other hand, because of the immediate association of these Midianite
females, it seems unlikely that they would have been regarded fit for mar-
riage. Hence, the interpretation that I deem most genial with the context's
"for yourselves" (v:18) is that these virgins were for whatever general
disposition that comported with the Yahwistic milieu. Namely, that they could
be handled sexually. Analogy for this is Leviticus 19:20-22, which made
provisions for an Israelite to lie sexually with a female slave even though she
was betrothed to another man (slave?). The two of them were not to be put
to death, since "she has not been freed" (RSV). Thus, I construe that
Israelite men could have similarly related to these Midianite females.
CONCLUSION: The thesis question for this study, assuming only the
Pentateuch for guidance, asks about both content and practice for us today.
As for belief content, we might hold that sexual relations on a somewhat
casual basis are acceptable as long as the female is (1) intact, (2) not idola-
trous, and (3) not married, even though perhaps betrothed. We can be (1)
warriors, (2) laymen, (3) priests, (4) married, and, inferentially, (5)
Yahweh himself. The latter is most shocking to the sensibility, but we are to
remember that Yahweh was directing Israelite life in great detail during this
period, and, secondly, the people were called upon to be followers, that is,
emulators of Yahweh. For interpretations that seek to give adequate emphasis
to the tribal significance of Yahweh, my inference cannot seem too far-
APPLICATION: Were I, as chaplain, to have taken Numbers 31 for my
sermon text and spoken to a combat arms unit on the eve of a battle, say, in
Vietnam, and further, say, My Lai, Vietnam, I might have said the following:
Men, you have read with me this chapter of God's word to
Israel just before attacking the Midianites. Let me reemphasize
the salient points. When you go into battle, you will, with
success, reach a village called on our maps My Lai, and you are
to utterly destroy it with napalm and explosives. Kill every male
without regard to age, even those sucking at the breasts of their
mothers. Kill the mothers too. Kill also every female who is not
a virgin. Our medics will provide clinical direction about those in
doubt as to their intact status.
You are free to take spoils of sheep, donkeys, and cattle as
you have opportunity, as well as any valuables you come across.
After this battle is over--and I pray that all of you will return
safely--our commander will divvy up the virgins and the spoils on
an equitable basis. The virgins will be for yourselves. You who
are married, I'm sure, have understanding wives, because, after
all, it is our God who has outlined our mission and its execution.
After it's all over, men and women (of our all- volunteer,
nonsexist army), I'll lead you in a postvictory chapel service of
praise and thanksgiving to Yahweh. May God go with you all!
As distasteful and even ludicrous as the above scenario might sound, I
believe that what I have inferred and reconstructed is an accurate reflection
mutatis mutandis when placed within the context of the thesis of this article.
Perhaps in no other way can we enter into the Old Testament milieu and see
what it might have been like to have lived in a certain slice of that era. One
may call my approach "heuristic" in the sense of our trying to emulate the oft
repeated dictum: "Follow the scriptures." Are avid preachers of that dictum
really willing to follow this example?
(Dr. Robert Countess is a former army chaplain, who holds the Ph.D. in
NT Greek text and is a history adjunct at Alabama A & M University in
Huntsville. His address is 120 Sagewood Circle, Toney, AL 35773.)
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