The text records Moses as having said,

"Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him." Numbers 31:17

The implication is that the women who had had sex were the ones who had engaged in the orgies with the men of Israel. This makes sense, since the Israelites were attacking only a group of Midianites, as indicated by the fact that there were Midianites who interacted with the Israelites after this event. But how would the Israelites have known which women had had sex and which women did not?

Thank you.

  • It seems pretty clear that the plague was some form of venereal disease. The symptoms would have been visible within days within the Israelite population, and well established in the locals.
    – enegue
    Jun 26, 2018 at 22:35
  • @enegue,I believe the OP is really asking about how did they identify the virgins Jun 27, 2018 at 6:38
  • @collenndhlovu The implication is the virgins wouldn't have symptoms of a sexually transmitted infection.
    – user2910
    Jun 27, 2018 at 15:10
  • @enegue Thank you for your answer. That makes sense. However, it is, by nature, a speculative answer. If it is the case, though, that the plague was a venereal disease, and that it affected the Midianite women as (as it seems to have been directed at the Israelites), then this would answer the question.
    – CMK
    Jun 27, 2018 at 23:03

2 Answers 2


The words describing the women are וְכָל־אִשָּׁ֗ה יֹדַ֥עַת אִ֛ישׁ. The word יֹדַעַת is a participle, so a more literal translation might be every woman knowing a man. This doesn't imply that the woman actually had intercourse, but that she potentially could have.

A similar construction with the participle is Deuteronomy 22:8, which says כִּֽי־יִפֹּ֥ל הַנֹּפֵ֖ל מִמֶּֽנּוּ, literally for the falling one will fall from it, where someone is already called a "falling one" only because he can potentially fall. Similarly, the redeemer (גֹאֵל) of Ruth 3-4 is called a redeemer because he was a potential redeemer, not because he actually ended up redeeming the field. And in Amos 9:1, he says that a fleeing person (נָס) won't be able to flee; since he won't be able to flee, describing him as a fleeing person is only appropriate since he could potentially flee.

What the verse is saying is not to kill the young girls who aren't at the age to have had intercourse (Numbers 31:18). The older women were killed based on their potential to have had intercourse, and not because they specifically had intercourse.

  • Thank you for your answer. Isn't it true, though, that children can have intercourse (although they shouldn't, of course)? Perhaps, based on this explanation, women who passed a certain age were killed based on the assumption that they had intercourse, and this were involved in the sex rituals.
    – CMK
    Jun 27, 2018 at 23:08
  • @CMK Yes, I think the question is who could potentially have been involved in the incident with Baal Peor (see 31:16), so the age range would depend on who was involved there
    – b a
    Jun 28, 2018 at 10:20
  • וְכֹל֙ הַטַּ֣ף בַּנָּשִׁ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר - v18 literally "But all the children among the women who..."
    – Perry Webb
    Jun 28, 2018 at 23:39
  • "The older women were killed based on their potential to have had intercourse, and not because they specifically had intercourse." Isn't killing the righteous along with the wicked frowned upon biblically? Its not like as if the women who previously incited the Israelites to sin at Baal-Peor stopped being evil at the moment off their execution, thus making it hard to differentiate between those who had sex and virgins. They were pretty bold in following Balaam's counsel to lead the Israelites astray so maybe they were still wearing their ritual (?) garments from their crimes at Numbers 25:1-3. Jun 1, 2019 at 1:56
  • @AngelusVastator The text mentions no ritual garments, much less that they were still worn after whatever time passed during a census and a few chapters of new laws
    – b a
    Jun 1, 2019 at 18:07

The answer may be as simple as a visible cultural indicator like a ring, band, piercing, or tattoo which indicates the female is "off the market", or no longer available for virgin marriage.

  • Thanks; that makes sense.
    – CMK
    Apr 30, 2020 at 21:34

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