I was talking with a skeptic about the solution of the classic Euthyphro dilemma – God’s commands are good because God is good – and the skeptic asked, “If God commands rape, would that make rape good?” I replied that rape is an objectively evil act and therefore a good God would never command it. The skeptic then responded that God had in fact commanded rape in the Bible and provided a reference, Numbers 31:17-18. God ordered the Israelites,
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.
The skeptic took this as God commanding – or at least allowing – the Israelites to rape the Midianite virgins, and concluded that the Christian God cannot possibly be the standard of moral goodness. Let’s examine this objection, relying heavily on Paul Copan’s book, Is God a Moral Monster?
Kill the boys & non-virgins
Oddly, the skeptic complained about God sparing some people’s lives instead of His ordering others to be killed, so let’s look at the command to kill first. Why would God order boys to be killed? In ancient times, there were generally two options for the survivors of a nation defeated in war: kill them or enslave them. This ensures that they don’t come back and kill you, explaining why even young boys would be killed. Is this unpleasant? Absolutely, but remember that these cultures are thousands of years old, and the threat of war was a constant reality.
But why kill non-virgin women? Referencing Numbers 25, Copan says, “the Midianite women deliberately seduced the Israelite men into orgiastic adultery as well as Baal worship” (179). Those women were to be killed, and so were the Israelite men they seduced. Similar to the destruction of the Canaanites, this was not arbitrary slaughter, this was judgment. God was protecting his people from false gods and was judging sinful people. Thus, the virgins were spared since “they hadn’t degraded themselves by seducing Israelite men” (180).
Keep the virgins for yourselves
But what to do with the Midianite virgins? Were the Israelite men free to use them however they wished, including raping them, as my skeptical friend assumed? Let’s go back to the text. Does it say what the Israelites could do with the virgins? No. Does the word “rape” appear? No. Of course my objector thought the worst, that they were to be kept as sex slaves or something. But they could have become tennis partners or platonic friends. Thus, there is nothing at face value that compels us to think these women were raped.
Furthermore, Copan states,
“Although rape was a common feature in ancient Near Eastern warfare, Israelite soldiers were prohibited from raping women, contrary to what some crassly argue. Sex was permitted only within the bounds of marital commitment, a repeated theme laid out in the Mosaic law. Rape in warfare wasn’t a grand exception to the requirement of sexual fidelity” (120).
And according to Deuteronomy 21:10-14, Copan says,
“a Gentile female POW couldn’t be used as a sex object. An Israelite male had to carefully follow proper procedures before she could be taken as a wife. In light of the highly sensitive nature of sexual purity in Israel and for Israel’s soldiers, specific protocols had to be followed. Rape was most certainly excluded as an extracurricular activity in warfare” (180).
While it was common for other nations to rape female POWs, there is NO reason to think the Israelite men raped the Midianite virgins. And if they had, they were violating God’s law. Either way, God in no way commanded or permitted rape.
God gave some harsh commands in the Old Testament, but to rape the Midianite virgins is definitely is not one of them. Rape was explicitly forbidden in the Mosaic law, including female prisoners of war. Instead, these women would have been treated with dignity and there was provision for them to become integrated into the Israelite society.
For a fuller discussion of this topic, see Paul Copan’s book, Is God a Moral Monster?, specifically the sections “Was Rape Allowed?” and “Women POWs as War Booty?” in chapter 11 and “The Midianites (Numbers 31)” in chapter 16.