Why did Moses order female virgins to be kept alive but non-virgin females and all males to be killed in Numbers 31:17-18?

Is it equal to genocide, gendercide, and/or sexual slavery?

Please explain from all aspects.

  • Does not the Hebrew of v. 18 refer to all female children and women, regardless of age, who hadn't yet laid with a man? As to sexual slavery, would that not depend on the intent or marital status, or both, of the slave owner? (What would a Jewish wife had said about her husband using captured virgins as sex slaves?) IMO, Moses was ordered to keep alive--perhaps for future use as house servants (cooks, handmaidens, laundrywomen, and the like)--all females who had not yet indulged in sexual activities. Commented Aug 15, 2013 at 16:22
  • @RageshDAntony-the women were going to be incorporated into the Hebrew tribe through marriage, to adopt the ways of their husbands
    – Hello
    Commented Dec 1, 2014 at 18:42
  • @RageshDAntony - virgin was another way of saying unmarried woman, so therefore eligible for marriage.
    – Hello
    Commented Dec 1, 2014 at 18:43
  • This is not so much a hermeneutical question, as one about ancient warfare. Adult males constitute a direct physical threat; their wives might try to avenge them, or have otherwise been corrupted by their wicked ways, which caused the war in the first place. Boys might grow up and try to rebel or avenge their fathers. Girls would pose no discernible threat.
    – Lucian
    Commented Aug 13, 2020 at 0:08

5 Answers 5


The children of Moab comprised a smaller tribe within the larger federation of tribes referred to as Midianites, or simply Midian. Earlier in the book of Numbers, we learn that the Israelites "began to play the harlot with the daughters of Moab" (25:1). Moreover, the Israelites attended the sacrifices of the Moabites, they ate among the Moabites (perhaps partaking of foods God had declared unclean), and they bowed down to the Moabites' gods, including Baal (25:2,3). God judged Israel for her harlotry, both spiritual and literal, with a plague in which 24,000 Israelites died (25:9).

As the Jewish Encyclopedia says,

"It is commonly held that this form of Ba'al-worship especially called for sensual indulgence. The context seems to favor this view, on account of the shameful licentiousness into which many of the Israelites were there enticed. But all Ba'al-worship encouraged this sin; and Peor may not have been worse than many other shrines in this respect, though the evil there was certainly flagrant."

The Midianite virgins you refer to (31:18) were young girls who obviously were not involved in the licentiousness and immorality associated with Baal worship. They were therefore not implicated along with the adult men and women. These virgins grew up and were given in marriage to men in Israel.

As for why the young boys of Midian were not spared, I can only guess. Remember, the nation of Israel at this time in their history lived in an age of tribal warfare. The males of the nations around them were, of course, the warriors who made life difficult for Israel. Perhaps the boys were not spared because had they been allowed to grow up they would have sought vengeance for the deaths of their family members at the hands of Israel. Perhaps it is because the iniquities of their fathers were upon them just as the sin of Adam is on all humanity.

YHWH is not by nature a vengeful God who strikes out capriciously and randomly at whatever people-group He feels like killing off. YHWH does not take pleasure in the death of any man or woman, boy or girl. He is longsuffering and slow to anger, plenteous in mercy. He even provided for the acceptance of sojourners and strangers into the fold of Israel if they were willing to join Israel in the worship of the one true God, YHWH.

While He may visit the iniquity of the fathers to the third and fourth generations of those who do evil (Nu 14:18 ff.; De 5:9), He also shows "lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love [Him] and keep [His] commandments" (De 5:10).

Moreover, He waited for hundreds of years to liberate His chosen people, Israel, from bondage in Egypt because "the iniquity of the Amorites had not yet reached its full measure" (Ge 15:16). When it did, it was a stench in the nostrils of a holy God, not to mention a blot on humanity.

We need not go into detail on the depths of depravity into which the polytheistic peoples of Palestine had sunk by the time their iniquity had reached its full measure. Suffice it to say, that "full measure" was unimaginably depraved and likely included such aberrant behavior as child-sacrifice, cult prostitution, bestiality, pedophilia, and more, making Sodom and Gomorrah look like a Sunday school picnic!

The immorality of the human race became so egregious in the days of Noah, that God chose to wipe out humanity, save for Noah and the seven members of his family. Was God "justified" in doing so? Here's what the Bible says about humanity in the days of Noah:

"Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually" (Ge 6:5 NIV, my emphasis).

This verse is not hyperbole, but is a succinct summation of the depths to which humanity can go if left unchecked and without a moral compass. Utter annihilation of even a people guilty of heinous sins may seem to us today to be unthinkably cruel, but to a holy God it may in fact be an act of mercy and a way to purge the human race of unmitigated evil and thus safeguard succeeding generations.

  • 1
    I sensed in the OP's question a common train of thought and "sticking point": a cause of stumbling for many people who want to believe in God but cannot get past the notion that God is cruel, sadistic, vengeful, and perhaps even arbitrary in His judgments. Since the OP asked specifically, "Please explain from all aspects," I attempted to do so by contextualizing 1) the slaughter of Midian in Nu 31, going back to its roots in Nu 25; and 2) God's earlier judgments during Israel's conquest of Canaan and earlier still on all humanity in the days of Noah. Commented Aug 10, 2013 at 0:58
  • Contextualizing is at the heart of hermeneutics. My approach to contextualizing may seem to you to be mere sermonizing, riffing, or projecting my personal interpretation on a text, but I assure you it is none of the above. Having been a believer for 56 years; having read the Bible cover to cover numerous times; having sat under the tutelage of gifted biblical scholars (in person and via books and journals) for most of my life; and being of a bent to see the big picture--this concatenation of factors informs my approach to biblical hermeneutics. Edit away, if you feel you "have to." Commented Aug 10, 2013 at 1:22
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    My 2c: this is just the sort of answer we need on this site, it starts from the text and where the question leaves off, building conclusions logically and with support. I've made an edit to add references (please check you are happy with them) and adjusted the language slightly, but +1 from me regardless. Commented Aug 10, 2013 at 8:54
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    @JackDouglas: Thank you for your encouragement and for adding references. While my answers may seem at times to wax on and on, ad infinitum, there is a method to my madness. I subscribe to the notion of "the analogy of Scripture," according to which the cardinal sin to avoid is eisegesis. Scripture is its own best interpreter, and troublesome passages (e.g., Nu 31:17,18) become more understandable (though not necessarily more palatable to our sensibilities) when interpreted in the largest possible context: all of Scripture! Would to God I knew the Scriptures better. Commented Aug 10, 2013 at 19:44
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    What is the evidence or support for the claim, "These virgins grew up and were given in marriage to men in Israel"?
    – Schuh
    Commented Mar 8, 2015 at 1:29

The general rules for the treatment of human captives were laid out in Deut.20:10-17a:

When you march up to attack a city [far from the ‘promised land’], make its people an offer of peace. If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you.

If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. When the LORD your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the LORD your God gives you from your enemies. This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby.

However, in the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them... (NIV)

So the war against Midian, far south of Canaan, seems to have been a special case. Numbers 25:17-18 indicates God told Moses to kill the Midianites in retaliation for their having led the Israelites into idolatry. But when the army returned with women, children, and animal booty, Moses said,

“Have you allowed all the women to live? They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful to the LORD in the Peor incident, so that a plague struck the LORD’s people. Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man” (Nu.31:15-18, NIV).

The text gives no reason for Moses’ direction to the kill the male children, though perhaps because lineage was determined patriarchally, only the girls were thought to pose no danger of producing Midianite sons who might avenge their families.(1) The general rule above, however, suggests this was not the usual concern. The text itself offers nothing more.

As for the girls, after being divvied up with the rest of the booty among the soldiers and other tribes, most of them were likely absorbed into Israelite community, perhaps in accordance with the Deuteronomic instruction for female prisoners-of-war taken as wives (Deut 21:10-14).

There remained, however, the 32 virgin girls Moses gave to Eleazer the priest as a ‘tribute’ to the Lord, literally an offering (תְּרוּמָה, H8641). Again, the text here does not explain the purpose or service for which these girls were offered, but this story – as cast centuries later by the Priestly writers – may retain echoes of human sacrifice and temple prostitution as warned against in the Law and reported, sadly, in Israelite history.


(1) Nili S. Fox, 'Numbers', The Jewish Study Bible (Adele Berlin, Marc Zvi Brettler, editors), Oxford University Press, 2004; p.345.

  • It frustrates modern readers that many of the texts that appear to command genocide and sex slavery (per the OP's question) often do not offer explanations. @rhetorician offers a contemporary theological view, but this is not from the text itself. Related question: hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/a/21576/6884
    – Schuh
    Commented May 12, 2016 at 16:15
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    I spot a typo in this paragraph: “Have you allowed all the women to live? They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful to the LORD in the Peor incident, so that a plague struck the LORD’s people. Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man” (Nu.21:15-18, NIV). It is Nu.31:15-18, not Nu.21... Commented Dec 29, 2018 at 19:40
  • The word used in relation to the bounty is ‘tribute’ not ‘offering’. those are two very different things.
    – ellied
    Commented Sep 14, 2022 at 13:08
  • The text uses both words for this bounty, including the 32 girls: “And Moses gave the tribute, which was the offering for the LORD, to Elea’zar the priest, as the LORD commanded Moses” (Nu.31:41, RSV).
    – Schuh
    Commented Sep 15, 2022 at 15:52

Chapter 25 of Numbers begins:

1 And Israel abode in Shittim, and the people began to commit whoredom with the daughters of Moab. 2 And they called the people unto the sacrifices of their gods: and the people did eat, and bowed down to their gods. And Israel joined himself unto Baalpeor: and the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel. -- Numbers 25:1-3 (KJV)

The narrative then details:

  • (v. 4) God's instruction to Moses to hang the people involved in the sin.

  • (v. 5) Moses' instruction to the leaders to kill all the men of their clans who took part in the sin.

  • (v. 6) A man of Israel appears before Moses and the people of Israel with a foreign woman.

  • (v. 7) Phinehas stands up and takes a javelin.

  • (v. 8) He then chases the man and women into the tent of meeting and kills them, thus stopping "the plague". [There is no mention of a plague during this incident, prior to this verse. However, one can be sure it was related to a venereal disease, whose symptoms would have been visible within days of their sexual misbehaviour].

  • (v. 9) Twenty four thousand die in "the plague". [There is clearly divine intervention here, that such a great number of people died so quickly. It was necessary, though, to speedily cleanse the people of Israel of those infected by the disease.]

    So, God instructs Israel to destroy the Midianites, who were the source of the outbreak of disease.

    17 Vex the Midianites, and smite them: 18 For they vex you with their wiles, wherewith they have beguiled you in the matter of Peor, and in the matter of Cozbi, the daughter of a prince of Midian, their sister, which was slain in the day of the plague for Peor's sake.
    -- Numbers 25:17 (KJV)

Now, in Numbers 31 the LORD's command is effected, and the narrative continues with:

15 And Moses said unto them, Have ye saved all the women alive? 16 Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the LORD in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the LORD. 17 Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. 18 But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.
-- Numbers 31:15-18 (KJV)

Given the venereal disease that had come from the Midianites, it is clear why women who had not had sexual intercourse would be preserved. Not so obvious, though, is the reason for doing so.

The very first thought that seems to come to modern minds here is: these woman are going to be sex slaves of Israelite men. But such an idea betrays a shallow understanding of the nature of life under the Law.

Most people who are familiar with the Law of Moses know that women are ritually unclean and are quarantined, during the time of their menstruation and after the birth of children. This means they cannot fulfill normal domestic duties like cooking and cleaning, since they would make others ritually unclean as well. Under such circumstances, who would cook the meals, clean the home, and look after the children? Their handmaidens!!!!

God so cared for the women of Israel, that He enshrined in Law a regular period of rest during times when their bodies were most in need of it.


The virginal women who were taken were never intended to be the sex slaves of the men, but handmaidens to their wives and daughters.


He killed them because of medical reasons, God is not just a spiritual being, he is a logical and intelligent being. The debauchery and sexually promiscuous acts meant that every man, teenage boy and woman had dangerous sexually transmitted diseases that they would have spread to the Israelites. He spared women, virgins and children who were disease free and so could be assimilated into the Hebrew community. It was an act of necessity not one he enjoyed.

  • 1
    Which diseases please?
    – fdb
    Commented Aug 27, 2014 at 17:06
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    Biblical Hermeneutics Beta encourages answerers to provide proof to back up their statements. That proof may come from either biblical and/or extra-biblical sources. OPs and readers alike find citations helpful, particularly in the form of hyperlinks, particularly if they want to follow up on (or even check out!) your answer. Intelligent opinions, guesses, and hypotheses are welcome, but again, you need either to back them up with respected authorities or simply identify them as opinions, best guesses, and hypotheses. Even then, they should be backed up by logical proof. Best wishes! Don Commented Aug 28, 2014 at 1:15
  • @DCM Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange! Thank you for taking the time to share your insights. This is a very different place from the other Stack Exchange sites. Be sure to take our site tour. Commented Aug 28, 2014 at 3:35
  • Poorly presented to be sure, but I also wondered if there was a STD aspect to this. Proof? None, but we have many examples of commands from God that made little to no sense without a medical understanding. The treatment for mold in homes in the wilderness. Circumcision and details involving vitamin k and the 8th day. God's commands often were farther reaching than they appear at first glance.
    – Joshua
    Commented Mar 9, 2015 at 2:18

God ordered moses to take vengeance on the Midianites, but he NEVER told moses to kill any of the children. Moses stepped beyond the letter of the command. The male children were innocent, and so should have been spared along with the female children.

In going beyond the letter of Gods command, Moses effectively became a mass murderer. I say this as a Christian....Moses became a war criminal.

  • 3
    To make this assertion, you need to support your argument. Granted the passage in Num 31 is vague (what does God mean by "vengeance," or as some translations state, "full vengeance," v.2)? But Dt 20:16 is an instance where God clearly stated everyone (including all children) were to be destroyed from among those peoples listed in v.17 (especially compare to v.14, where of some nations, children were to be spared). This was so they would not corrupt Israel (v.18). There is a parallel the issue referenced in Num 31:16.
    – ScottS
    Commented Jun 11, 2014 at 14:06

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