Rulers have often used the promise of dividing up the booty or spoils to motivate soldiers to fight in wars. They would allow the victorious army to plunder and ransack the goods, animals, women, and children of the losers.
A “winner-take-all” victory is described in today’s passage—but with some important differences. One was that God received a share, which went to the priest and Levites. This acknowledged that He was the reason for the victory, which had been won without casualties (vv. 48–50). Another difference was that, whereas the custom was for soldiers to get ten times more, the Lord mandated the spoils to be divided equally between the soldiers and the civilian community (v. 27). This acknowledged that the main motives for fighting were spiritual and not material.
Dealing out God’s justice on the Midianites was Moses’ last official act as leader (v. 1). This was a warm-up for the conquest of Canaan, as he sent not the full army but one thousand men from each tribe to “carry out the Lord’s vengeance” (v. 3). This battle had been coming ever since the Moabite-Midianite alliance had first tried to get Balaam to curse Israel and then corrupted God’s people with idolatry and sexual immorality. Balaam had joined the wrong side, and now he paid for it with his life (v. 8).
After the battle, two problems needed to be solved. One was that the army had allowed the women to live—but since these were the same women who had led the Israelites into sin, God decreed that only the virgins would be spared. The second problem was that the army had not purified themselves after their victory. Cleansing rituals were thus performed for the soldiers, their captives, everyone’s clothing, and the plunder from the battle.