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When Israel took vengeance on Midian they sent 12,000 troops (Numbers 31:4) and prevailed:

אֶלֶף, לַמַּטֶּה, אֶלֶף, לַמַּטֶּה--לְכֹל מַטּוֹת יִשְׂרָאֵל, תִּשְׁלְחוּ לַצָּבָא.
Of every tribe a thousand, throughout all the tribes of Israel, shall ye send to the war.

We aren't told how numerous Midian was, only that the spoils includes 32,000 virgin women (31:35):

וְנֶפֶשׁ אָדָם--מִן-הַנָּשִׁים, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָדְעוּ מִשְׁכַּב זָכָר: כָּל-נֶפֶשׁ, שְׁנַיִם וּשְׁלֹשִׁים אָלֶף.
and thirty and two thousand persons in all, of the women that had not known man by lying with him.

(We know that "persons" here doesn't include the males because they were all killed, as reported in verse 7, and we know it doesn't include non-virgin women because they were all to be killed per v.17.)

This isn't enough information to go on, but it sounds like either Israel was outnumbered or Midian has some unusual proportions of virgins to non-virgins and women to men.

How numerous was the Midianite army? If large, why didn't Moshe send more soldiers (he had them, per the recent census)? Was there reason to believe that Midian would be an easy conquest (and maybe that's why Midian sent seducers first)? A commander usually doesn't want to send unnecessary troops (they get tired and become ritually impure), but he wants to send enough. What's going on in this case?

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Related: judaism.stackexchange.com/a/31313/472 –  Gone Quiet Sep 24 '13 at 21:53
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2 Answers 2

It should be noted that the numbers given in the census at the beginning of Numbers are also disputed (which would affect the numbers available for Midian's army here).

The most probable solution at this point is to understand that the numbers given here are mixtures. Since the Hebrew word translated “thousand” (‘lp) looks the same as the word translated “military division,” a number like 74,600 (v. 4) may be read as 74 military divisions, (totaling) 600 men. The total in verse 32 would originally have been written 598 military divisions (‘lp), 5 thousand (‘lp) and 5 hundred men. But at some point in the transmission of the text the two words were confused and added together to make 603 thousand. If this solution is correct, the size of the Israelite group that left Egypt would have been about 20,000.

Victor Harold Matthews, Mark W. Chavalas and John H. Walton, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, electronic ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), Nu 2:32.

According to R. Dennis Cole,

Numbers 31 is said to be dependent on Deuteronomy 20, Judges 8, and 1 Samuel 30. Yet, as Wenham and Ashley have so astutely pointed out, none of these arguments is conclusive; and in fact if one hypothesizes that the chapter derives from the Mosaic era, the three passages above derive from Numbers 25 and 31 sequentially and logically. In a general sense Gray may have been correct in describing Numbers 31 as midrashic (a literary tool for teaching certain lessons or principles) in its literary structure, but that need not imply that it should be associated with midrashic exegesis of the late postexilic era (second century B.C. and later). The basis of the passage is material that should be taken as historically reliable, which was fashioned into a literary composition that had the function of providing case law precedents for future holy war endeavors for this generation that would enter the land and for generations to come. J. Milgrom concluded that “the assembled evidence clearly points to the historic reality that Midian was the most powerful and menacing enemy that Israel had to encounter during its migration into Canaan.”

Critics have observed that several components in the account seem incredulous, including the annihilation of all the males of Midian, the enormous numbers of various animals seized in the plunder, and that none was missing or lost from Israel’s battalions. G. Wenham and Ashley have provided answers to these and other questions regarding the content and character of the narrative. First, it is an overstatement of the data in the narrative to suggest that the report of vv. 7–8, that Israelites “killed all the males of Midian” including the kings (or tribal chiefs), implies that every male of every Midianite tribe from the Transjordan to Arabia to Sinai was exterminated in this one campaign. Obviously this was not the case since the Midianites are well attested in the biblical and ancient Near Eastern texts. Taken in the historical context of this being a divinely directed follow-up campaign after the sinful Baal Peor incident (25:16–18; 31:3–8), this crusade was directed at the tribes or clans of Midianites who dwelled in the central and northern Transjordan highlands, in the vicinity of the lands of the Moabites, Ammonites, and Amorites. The Midianites of the southern regions, such as those of Moses in-laws, were on better terms with the Israelites or were not involved on this occasion.

Second, the large numbers of animals taken as spoils of war seem incredulous. The totals are much higher by comparison with those confiscated in the campaign of Thutmose III of Egypt ca. 1460 B.C. during his campaign against Megiddo and other northern Canaanite cities. The Karnak temple account lists booty of 1,929 cattle, 2,000 goats, 20,500 sheep, and 2,503 slaves (men, women, and children), along with a variety of physical objects such as gold bowls and ebony statues. G. Wenham suggests an adjustment should be made to the numbers by analogy with the two census summaries of 1:1–46 and 26:1–51. Taking the alternative meaning of the word for thousand (ʾelep), that of “clans” or “battalions of troops,” as perhaps herds or flocks in this analogy, the totals of the animals might be interpreted as 67,500 or even fewer sheep (vs. 675,00 in v. 32), 3,600 or fewer cattle taken by the men of war as their share (vs. 36,000 in v. 38), et cetera. Yet within the text there is consistency in the resultant numbers of animals and persons provided as gifts to the Lord (and hence the priests) on the basis of the 1:500 ratio delineated in v. 28. Of 32,000 persons captured, 32 (1/500 of the warriors’ half=16,000) were presented as the Lord’s tribute (v. 40).

The testimony that not a man was missing from those who went out to war against the Midianites (v. 49) seems exaggerated on the surface, yet such claims are not unknown from the Bible or the texts of the ancient Near East. The account of Gideon’s night raid against the Midianites suggests that all three hundred men survived the initial confrontation and continued their efforts by pursuing their enemies down into the Jordan Valley and beyond (Judg 7:7, 16, 19–22; 8:4). The Persian King Cyrus, for example, who captured the city of Babylon only after conquering the rest of the Babylonian kingdom, claims to have captured this seemingly impregnable city “without any battle” in 539/538 B.C. The victory over the Midianites was a remarkable one indeed, but with the providential direction and protection of the armies of Israel, such was definitely not out of the realm of possibility.

R. Dennis Cole, vol. 3B, Numbers, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000), 490-92.

Thus it is possible that the numbers are incorrect. They have either been confounded, embellished, or the meanings of some of the words have been lost or changed. This is not a satisfactory position for some, but I'm sure someone else will chime in with an alternate one ;)

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Midian's army was not stronger than the Lord.

When Jonathan and his armor-bearer slew twenty Philistines (1 Sam 14:14), there occurred a "great trembling" or quaking of the earth (1 Sam 14:15), which preceded "very great confusion" wherein the Philistines started killing each other (1 Sam 14:20), and thus the rout that followed (1 Sam 14:22-23).

This confusion, or derangement, had come from the Lord.

Exodus 23:27-28 (NASB):
27 I will send My terror ahead of you, and throw into confusion all the people among whom you come, and I will make all your enemies turn their backs to you.
28 I will send hornets ahead of you so that they will drive out the Hivites, the Canaanites, and the Hittites before you.

Thus Gideon and his paltry army of 32,000 (Judg 7:3), whittled down to just 300 men at the explicit command of the Lord (Judg 7:7), were able to kill over 135,000 enemy soldiers (Judg 8:10). The text indicates that this rout was possible due in part to the confusion among the Midianites, who had started killing one another in the general melee (Judg 7:21-22).

One excellent example of direct divine intervention was when the Assyrians besieged Jerusalem. In one night, the Angel of the Lord killed over 185,000 soldiers (2 Ki 19:35 and Is 37:36), which is why the Assyrians were not able to lay seige and thus plunder Jerusalem.

Thus, while against great numerical odds, within the Hebrew Bible the Israelites were able to see their enemies defeated on many occasions, since the Lord had fought before, or in front of, and on behalf of them (Deut 7:23). These victories were due in part in some cases to the disorientation of numerically superior armies, who, in turn, had turned on one other as the above examples show.

One more observation bears mention. The Hebrew Bible indicates that the Lord gives general confusion to people as a means of judgment. For example, the Egyptians at the Red Sea (Ex 14:24); or the Philistines for capturing and holding the Tabernacle (1 Sam 5:9-11); or even upon those who call upon him, but who are disobedient to his name (Deut 28:20; Is 22:4-6; Is 59:4; and Mic 7:4).

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God is stronger than anybody, but by that logic Moshe could have sent one guy. Please reread my final paragraph; I'm trying to understand, within the context of the narrative, why this was so unbalanced (or, if it wasn't, why it isn't). –  Gone Quiet Apr 28 '13 at 2:51
    
Gideon is the only other episode of war with the Midianites. The reduction in forces (to 300 men) was intended to preclude any inference that the Israelites could take the credit for the victory over Midian (Judg 7:2). Gideon could have used 32K of his men (Judg 7:3) to take on 135K Midianites (Judg 8:10). Under those circumstances, the odds would be 17:4 in favor of the Midianites. That ratio had to be "reduced" to 450:1, in order for God to claim the credit --thus Gideon's army of 300 men. So, if we assumed the same 17:4 ratio with Moses, then Moses faced 50K Midianites with 12K Israelites. –  Joseph Apr 28 '13 at 3:52
    
Oh I see -- you're saying that the victory had to be clearly ascribable to God, hence unbalanced numbers, and therefore Moshe wouldn't want to send a superior force? –  Gone Quiet Apr 28 '13 at 3:55
    
Moshe sent the force, and they defeated Midian. When the next episode of war occurred with Midian (with Gideon), the arbitrary assignment of forces was not allowed. At that time, if he used ALL his forces, Gideon was outnumbered 17 to 4. If that ratio was "bad" (since the Israelites could claim victory by their own strength at those ratios), and we calculate that ratio to the 12,000 Moshe used, then Midian had a force of 50,000 opposed to Moshe (17 to 4 ratio). That was the "bad" ratio. The "good" ratio was 450:1, which pitted 300 of Gideon's men against 135,000 Midianites. God got the credit. –  Joseph Apr 28 '13 at 19:40
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