Saturday, July 3, 2010

The 32,000 Virgins of God and Moses

"If there is a God, he is a malign thug." ~ Mark Twain

"The death of one is a tragedy / But death of a million is just a statistic." ~ Marilyn Manson

The Biblical story of the Israelites' massacre of the Midianites and their capture of 32,000 virgin girls in the Old Testament stands as one of the clearest demonstrations of the fact that the Bible promotes great evil. The forcefulness of this particular story is shown by the fact that no matter what form or version of Christianity or Judaism one chooses to embrace, there is no possibility of shying away from the truth that this story portrays a horrible evil as just and good.

The story is found in the Book of Numbers, chapter 31. The first aspect of this story that needs to be emphasized is expressed in the first two verses, which read, "And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, 'Avenge the children of Israel of the Midianites: afterward shalt thou be gathered unto thy people.'" From the very beginning of this chapter, it is clearly stated that Moses was not the only one who ordered the attack. The order originates from God, who uses Moses as his primary messenger and overseer of the orders. Thus, Jehovah cannot be let off the hook for what ensues in the remainder of this chapter. This war of vengeance against the Midianites was not the work of Moses, but was conceived and planned by God.

Moses dutifully sends out 12,000 of his men (one thousand from each tribe) to make war against the Midianites. The Israelite soldiers slay all the Midianite males, and take all of the women, children, goods, cattle and sheep captive before burning down all their cities and castles. The Israelite soldiers return to their camp at the plains of Moab, bringing the captives and spoils of war and presenting them to Moses and Eleazar the Priest. Moses is furious; he asks the soldiers, "Have ye saved all the women alive?" (v. 15). Moses proceeds to explain irately that "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" (v. 16).

The Midianite men, of whom there were no survivors, had turned their backs on God and therefore deserved to die. But Moses is here telling his army that the women who had been taken captive were the ones responsible for leading them away from God in the first place, and that consequently they were deserving of death. And because the sins of the fathers are to be carried out upon the sons, Moses declares all of the little boys worthy of death. Thus, Moses commands, "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" (vv. 17-18). Thus, after completely destroying the entire city of the Midianites, the Israelite army kills all the women and children they took captive, except for the virgin girls. After this massacre is carried out, the Israelite army undergoes a process of ritual purification outside the camp for seven days as prescribed by Eleazar, then return to divide the spoils. Moses has another conversation with God in which God instructs him on exactly how to divide up the spoil. Verses 25-47 describe in detail the process by which a thorough inventory of the spoils is made and divided up among the warriors who took part in the battle and the rest of the tribes making up the Congregation of Israel, which portion was given to the priests, and the amount that God demanded as a tax to himself. It turns out that there are 32,000 virgin girls in total (v. 35). Of those, a total of thirty-two are turned over to the temple as God's tribute portion (v. 40).

I have read through this chapter in the Book of Numbers several times. I know the story very well, to the point where I can readily imagine a number of different ways a fundamentalist preacher might deliver a sermon on this particular passage. The most common rationalization employed by a fundamentalist preacher is likely the one that declares how unfortunate it is that God had to kill the Midianite men for turning their backs on him, that the men, women and little boys deserved death because of this, and yet proceeds to assert how wonderful it is that God spared all those young Midianite girls in his infinite love and mercy so that they could grow up in the service of the one true religion, knowing Jehovah and knowing his love! This is one of the most transparently ridiculous as well as despicable rationalizations one can concoct in an attempt to defend the story's immoral theme of young girls being raped after just witnessing all the people they love get killed by the people who are raping them. The Christian attempts at rationalizing the actions of God, Moses and the Israelite army in this story completely ignore this obvious implication. Rather, they prefer to focus their apologetic energies on pointing out the wickedness of the Midianites, much as they do with the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Book of Genesis.

Of course, it is also true that there are not many sermons being preached on this particular passage. While one could come up with ways to rationalize the story, it is not a particularly pleasant or relevant sermon to prepare, considering the vast array of other Bible passages to choose from. Indeed, I consulted, the Internet's largest library of audio sermons from conservative Christian churches, to get a sense of how often this passage is preached on. Out of over 335,000 sermons collected on the site, a mere 13 sermons based on Numbers 31 is to be found [1].

In addition to standing as an example of extreme immorality portrayed as heroic justice, this story contains logical absurdities that become apparent when one does the math. Consider: how many people would the Israelites have to kill in order to end up with 32,000 virgins? On average, based on the population of girls age 0-17 in most U.S. cities of comparable size, a total population of about 300,000 is required to come up with a figure of 32,000 for girls in that age range. It should be duly noted that this figure is generous; it is likely that in the time period in which the Book of Numbers is set, girls were probably engaging in intercourse as early as age fourteen. We do not know for sure, of course. But in any case, a required total population of 300,000 to account for thirty-two thousand virgin girls is a good and generous estimate. Now, according to population figures from 2008, there are only 60 cities in the U.S. that have more than 300,000 in total population. Pittsburgh is at the bottom of that list at 60, with a population of 310,037 [2]. Thus, the Israelite army in our story would have had to wipe out the equivalent of Pittsburgh ca. 2008 in order to end up with 32,000 virgin girls.

Let us place the numbers in perspective: 300,000 casualties of attack is one hundred 9/11s. It is seventy times the number of U.S. soldiers who have died in the Iraq War to date. But it is only half the number of Iraqis who have been killed to date. Exactly where did all of this take place? What huge city did the Midianites have? How were all of the women and children, 32,000 of which are young virgin girls to be spared, corralled to a location where the rest are killed en masse?

There are many numbers in the Bible that are demonstrably and completely wrong. This is one particularly implausible example. There has been an enormous population explosion in just the last century. It is doubtful that there even existed cities the size of Pittsburgh at that time in ancient history. While it is true that the Roman Empire was comprised of five million people by about 14 A.D., the Roman Empire was atypically enormous for one city. In fact, it constituted the entire known world and was spread out in many wide-ranging locations. But historical/archaeological evidence for the existence or plausibility of one city with 300,000 people in circa 1400s B.C. is lacking. Rather, we are presented with the picture of a roving band of murderous barbarians wandering in a desert, juxtaposed against very specific details concerning the Midianites. Throughout the Bible, especially in the Old Testament, there are numerous stories of the Israelites utterly destroying tribes left and right, stories that do not provide any specifics but only lengthy lists of destroyed and defeated tribes. The sheer number of people that were killed at the direct instructions of God add up quickly to a formidable figure in this manner.

One of the most important considerations to come away with upon reading and contemplating this story is that no matter how Christians attempt to rationalize the details away, this story would be incredibly appalling even if it happened to concern a single family. Imagine this scenario: a loyal servant of Jehovah heads to the house next door and murders the father, the mother and the little boy because they were deserving. He spares the twelve year-old daughter of the murdered parents, keeping her to himself. One instance, applied to one family makes the scenario described in Numbers 31 one of the most immoral and appalling events that could possibly happen, as is readily recognized and acknowledged as such by all people. Yet it is presented as a moral requirement when this same act is carried out on a mass scale! Controversial rock musician Marilyn Manson had the right idea when he observed human nature to be such that too often we tend to perceive that "The death of one is a tragedy / But death of a million is just a statistic."

The alternative to believing that this horrible slaughter of a city with a population size equivalent to Pittsburgh actually occurred is to concede that the Bible is wrong about the number. We certainly should hope that the numbers are very wrong! However, the important point to bear in mind is that it does not matter if the story is true or not. For the record, I do not think this story ever actually occurred; I contend that it is far-fetched and that the numbers are indeed all wrong. But this pales in importance, because the massacre and plunder is portrayed as something that was just and good. It is an act that God is described as having executed and placed his seal of approval on. If the events described in this story ever really happened, it would be an example of horrible evil. This is precisely why I agree with Mark Twain when he said, "If there is a God, he is a malign thug." In my estimation, Mark Twain was being particularly generous in his description of the God of the Bible, and "malign thug" is possibly the most pleasant description one could give to this fictional character. As some of my readers may remember, I have in past writings described the God of the Bible (specifically as depicted in Genesis) as an immature teenager who experiments carelessly with humankind. However, a more fitting parallel is to be made between God and Al Capone the farther one reads through the Old Testament. The God character certainly does develop into a malign thug, and today we are confronted with thugs for God, also known as radical evangelists.

As always, I look forward to feedback from my Christian friends who may wish to exercise their apologetic skills. I can be convinced.



2. "Table 1: Annual Estimates of the Population for Incorporated Places Over 100,000, Ranked by July 1, 2008 Population: April 1, 2000 to July 1, 2008" (CSV). 2008 Population Estimates. United States Census Bureau, Population Division.