We are fast approaching Israel's conquering of the promised land. This is a violent and bloody time and much of this reading is difficult, even for Christians. This violence seems out of character for a God who calls us out of his great love for us. Remember that vengeance should always be reserved for God. God is holy and righteous and his vengeance is for those same purposes. Israel was created by an act of God for the purpose of creating an example of a nation that is led by God. Properly enacted out of obedience to God and his decrees, that nation would draw others to God and a Theocracy of justice and righteousness would prevail. Israel's inability to be obedient to God's decrees, even in vanquishing the inhabitants of Canaan would ultimately lead to the fall of Israel as a nation-state.
The Midianites had been used by Balaam to lure the Israelite men into sexual immorality and into Idol worship. We read earlier how God sent a plague upon Israel as a result. Now God strikes out to destroy Balaam and Midian for fomenting Idol worship in his chosen people. Not a single Israelite soldier was lost in these battles....truly God was with this new Israeli army.
Moses is angry when Israel keeps women as hostages. He orders the death of the women and all boys. This sounds very harsh. Remember that throughout Israel's history, Satan seeks to destroy God's chosen by introducing Idol worship and the Idol worship always comes when the men of Israel marry into cultures that do not honor God. The women that Moses orders killed are part of that Idol worshipping culture and are a danger to Israel's devotion to God. The culture of the Middle East insured that the boys would grow up seeking to avenge the deaths of their fathers and of their Midianite culture. If they were left alive to grow into adulthood, they would be a thorn in the flesh of Israel.
In Chapter 32 the tribe of Rueben and Gad want to stay on the East side of the Jordan to settle. Moses fears that they have not learned the lesson of 38 years earlier when Israel feared taking the promised land. Moses feared that if they did not all stick together that other tribes might fear that they would be incapable of capturing the land. Moses insisted that they go to war with the other 10 tribes before returning to settle in the lands east of the Jordon with their wives and their families.
I think the important part of chapter 33 is found in Moses reminder to the 12 tribes that they must drive all of the inhabitants out of the land promised to them. Failure to do so would eventually mean their own demise and ultimately they do fall to the sin that remains in their land after the settle without driving out all of the Canaanites. A little sin left in the camp will grow and corrupt. How do we say it, "a rotten apple can spoil the barrel." God knew this about the weakness of the character of these men and of us as well. We cannot serve two masters. While it may have seemed Barbaric, God who is all-knowing, knew that if Idol worshippers remained in Israel, they would ultimately win over some parts of Israel and destroy the very thing that he was seeking to build with these frail and flawed human beings.
Doesn't the frail and flawed sound very much like us? We must always guard against the poison in the culture around us. if we fail to recognize it as evil, it may well lead us to accept greater and greater evil as normal until we are mastered by the sin that we cannot see until it is to great to defeat.