The subject Biblical passage above often brings criticism from those who have disdain for the word of God, and when read without considerable understanding of the Holy Bible, it is readily construed as drastic. But with a strong knowledge and understanding of the omniscience of God, His purpose and expectations of man, the reasoning behind this event becomes much more evident. Even so, many still contend that it is unreasonable.
Let us begin with a statement from God in Isaiah chapter 55. If one desires to seriously study this particular situation, it would be highly advisable to read the entire chapter 55.
“Seek ye the LORD while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near: Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the LORD, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:6-9 KJV)
Now, let us keep in mind what God has said in the above passage. He created this massive universe and even more importantly, He created man. He has the ability and the right to handle any of His creation in any way he prefers. But notice the first two verses in the quote. they appeal to man to give up his wickedness and serve God as he was created to do.
Long before the situation explained in Numbers 31, the world had become so thoroughly wicked that God determined to destroy all mankind except for Noah, his wife and his three sons with their wives. No one knows how many were destroyed, but with man having been on the earth for some 1500 years and with the much extended lifespan of those before the flood, there could have been billions. God destroyed them all because of disobedience. Man, woman and child.
Now, let us look at the subject scripture, Numbers 31:17-18:
“Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.” (Numbers 31:16-17 KJV)
The setting of all of this is that of the promise to Abraham that his seed would be given the land of the Canaanites. And when they were finally brought out of Egyptian bondage and was allowed, by God, to take the land, currently occupied by the various peoples, all of whom had totally abandoned God (similarly to those before the flood). Moses and the children of Israel had been instructed to totally destroy those nations who had turned their back on God. They were given completely to idolatry, the one thing that God has abhorred since the creation. The prime reason for the total eradication of the people, was because there was no possible hope for them to be converted back to God. The Israelites were forbidden to take any of the women for wives.
This chapter records the war of extermination commanded by God against Midian. It was not a war of personal vengeance, but a war of execution of the wrath of a just God against a people who deliberately became God's enemies and sought by every device they knew to frustrate the Divine purpose with regard to Israel. (Burton Coffman Commentary of the Bible)
It would be indeed profitable for those seeking the truth of this chapter to read the entire Coffman commentary on it. Click the above link.
As to the last phrase in the Numbers quotation above, this may sound as if Moses was inferring that they keep the virgin females for their sexual pleasure. That is definitely not the case. Their laws were very strict concerning adultery and also just as firm against marrying outside their own people. They were kept as servants.
The infinite wisdom of God recognized the fact that marriage into the pagan nations would lead the Israelites into the worship of false gods and idolatry. In many cases they did not completely eradicate the surrounding nations, some married into the idolatrous groups and indeed, it became Israel’s final downfall.
Again, God knew that these people were beyond the point of being reclaimed and, as was the case with the antediluvian world, His choice was to eliminate them. Man was created by God to worship and serve Him.
According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: (Ephesians 1:4 KJV)
Considering this statement in Ephesians, it can be readily seen that man has totally disregarded the purpose for which they were created. Those who deny or ridicule God, can expect nothing from him. People tend to forget that the human bodies are of no value to God. Only the spirit which is to: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.” Jesus speaking in Matthew 22:37. Love in that sentence means reverence and awe.
For mine eyes are upon all their ways: they are not hid from my face, neither is their iniquity hid from mine eyes. And first I will recompense their iniquity and their sin double; because they have defiled my land, they have filled mine inheritance with the carcases of their detestable and abominable things. (Jeremiah 16:17-18 KJV)