Thirty Nine years had passed since the millions of Israelites had fled from Egypt to escape their oppressors. (Num 1:1, Num 13:1-3, 26 Deu 2:14) Because they usually chose the way of sin, thousands upon thousands had died of war and sickness. Only a few of the many adult men who had started from Egypt were still alive after wandering for so many years through the deserts and mountains. (Num 26:63-65)
Choose You This Day...
But death and misery hadn't prevailed all the time. Whenever the people chose to repent of their wrong ways and had the good sense to live as God had instructed them to live, they enjoyed good health, a happy state of mind and God’s protection. (Deu 12:29-32, Deu 30:15-20) And through all the years God gave them nourishing manna and miraculously prevented their clothes and shoes from wearing out. (Deu 8:4)
Knowing only the rigors of desert living, they greatly enjoyed a few months of camping on a verdant, spring-fed, tree-studded plain a few miles east of the Jordan river. (Num 22:1)
The stay there would have continued pleasant if the Israelites hadn't become careless again. Many men became involved with the women and heathen religious customs of the nearby Moabites and Midianites. (Num 25:1-3) God was so angered that He commanded that the tribal heads stone as many guilty leading men as they could find and hang their bodies on poles as warnings to others. After about a thousand men had been slain, God caused a sudden, mysterious plague to strike others who tried to hide their guilt. (Num 25:4-9) Twenty-three thousand men fell dead in one day. (I Corinthians 10:8.)
Shortly afterward God reminded Moses that he wouldn't be allowed to enter the land promised to Israel. (Num 27:12-14.) Moses had been disobedient at Kadesh, where he had failed to follow instructions in getting much-needed water out of a boulder. (Num 20:2-13) Moses had to content himself with merely gazing across the Jordan river into the promised land. (Deu 34:1-8)
God chose Joshua, an officer who had long been very helpful to Moses, as the man who would next lead Israel. (Num 27:15-23) Joshua was soon to see much more blood spilled, inasmuch as it was God’s plan for the Midianites to suffer great loss because of the way they had worked Balak's scheme to weaken Israel. Much of the misery of war could have been avoided by the Israelites if they had obeyed instructions to have nothing to do with foreign nations and their idols. About this time Moses was called to the tabernacle to receive special instruction.
Do The Impossible!
The time has come for my people to strike against the Midianites," the Creator said to Moses. "They must be punished because of their evil plan to influence Israelite men to go over to pagan ways through the wiles of the Midianite women. The Midianite leaders hoped that if enough Israelites fell in with worshipping their gods, I would be displeased and withdraw my protection from Israel. Then they intended to attack. I was indeed displeased, but I did not abandon Israel. Now follow my orders and avenge your God as well as yourselves because of the harm idolatrous Midian has brought to the people. Although the Midianites hoped to destroy all Israel, I will use one-fiftieth of the Israelite army to destroy the army of Midian. I will prove that mortal men cannot hinder my plans or destroy the nation I protect." (Num 25:16-18, Num 31:1-2.)
Moses spoke at once to his officers, instructing them to choose a thousand fighting men from each tribe. (Verses 3-5.) This total of twelve thousand trained and armed men was only a small part of the total Israelite army. Moses felt certain that the Midianites had many more soldiers than twelve thousand, but he knew better than to add to the number God had chosen.
The Israelites would have feared to go against the Midianite army with such a small force if God had not promised this new generation that they would live to cross over Jordan into the Promised Land. They had at last learned to trust God and they knew that through His power this task would be possible.
Led by Joshua, the twelve thousand set out bravely across the plains to the southeast to do what they knew was humanly impossible. The high priest's son, Phinehas, was in charge of the few Levites who accompanied the army. These men were to preside at sacred services and to carry the two silver trumpets that were to be blown by the priests, at God's command, as battle alarms. (Numb 10:1-3, 8-9; Num 31:6)
The movement of Israelite troops didn’t go unnoticed. When Midianite spies noted what direction was taken by the twelve thousand troops, swift-riding Midianite messengers carried the news to all five rulers of Midian. The five kings preferred to meet their attackers in the desert, what with the Midianites having specialized in desert fighting for centuries. They agreed that their full forces should go against the Israelite army, which, from the reports, was only a fraction as large as it was imagined to be.
The Midianites realized that more Israelite troops could follow, but their spies reported seeing no further preparation in the camps of the Israelites. This convinced the Midianites that their women had probably succeeded in demoralizing the Israelite men to such an extent that they were no longer a strongly united fighting force. They believed they could easily defeat Israel.
Almost two days after he had started out with the soldiers, Joshua received a discouraging report from a scout who had hurriedly returned from observation duty far ahead.
Numbers Meant Nothing to Joshua!
"The desert is dark with approaching thousands of soldiers!" the scout panted. "If we hold our present course, we will meet that army head-on! From what I could see, it's much larger than our army, and could surround us!"
Joshua had no intention of trying to evade the enemy, which then might march right on to the camps of the Israelites. He knew that since God had sent the Israelites on this mission as His executioners, He would supply them with enough skill and power to wipe out these idolaters. The troops continued their rather slow tramping across the sands and rocks, and it wasn't long before they were able to make out the Midianites in the distance.
When the miles between the two armies had shrunk to only a few hundred yards, it was plain to the Midianites that their numbers were indeed much superior to those of the Israelites.
Suddenly the Midianites split into three sections! The middle portion came directly at the Israelites!
An excited scout rushed up to Joshua to blurt out news of the approaching Midianites.
The other two parts swung out to right and left to surround the Israelite troops in a gigantic vise-like movement!