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When Israel took vengeance on Midian they sent 12,000 troops (Numbers 31:4) and prevailed. We aren't told how numerous Midian was, only that the spoils includes 32,000 virgin women (31:35). This isn't enough information to go on, but it sounds like either Israel was outnumbered or Midian has some unusual proportions of virgins to non-virgins and women to men.

How numerous was the Midianite army? If large, why didn't Moshe send more soldiers (he had them, per the recent census)? Was there reason to believe that they would be an easy conquest (and maybe that's why Midian sent seducers first)? A commander usually doesn't want to send unnecessary troops (they get tired and become tamei), but he wants to send enough. What's going on in this case?

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One possibility that occurred to me is that this fight demonstrated a victory of the few against the many (so to speak), which might boost morale for the conquest to come. (That would require Moshe to be confident of the outcome, of course.) I don't see support for that in the text, though that doesn't mean it's not there. –  Monica Cellio Jul 18 '12 at 15:38
    
+1 It's odd that they only plundered the virgin women and didn't take any men for slave labor. –  Double AA Jul 18 '12 at 15:46
    
Did Midian even have an army? Numbers 31:7 using the language "va-Itzbe'u Al Midyan"( "ויצבאו על מדין") rather than "va-Yilachamu be-Midyan"( "וילחמו במדין"), suggest to me they weren't up against an army of any real sort. –  Tamir Evan Mar 31 '13 at 8:18
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@DoubleAA Considering the war being God's vengeance of Midian( 31:3), I'm actually surprise that they were even allowed to keep the young female virgins!( Or any of the loot, for that matter.) –  Tamir Evan Mar 31 '13 at 8:29
    
My understanding is that the war against Midian was God's vengeance( 31:3), and the number of soldiers sent was symbolic( 1000 from each tribe; 31:4-5), and the victory was meant to be miraculous( i.e. divine) in nature( for all the Midianites that were killed or taken captive, no Israelite died; 31:49). So applying rationality( size of Midianite army, ease of victory) to the question won't work. –  Tamir Evan Mar 31 '13 at 8:55

1 Answer 1

Ramban's commentary on Bamidbar 31:6 says:

וישלח אתם משה אלף למטה - לא שלח שם כל עם הצבא, ואע"פ שהיו המדיינים עם רב והערים בצורות גדולות מאד. ‏

והטעם כי הנכשלים בבנות מואב היו רבים ואינם ראויים לנקמת ה', על כן בחרו אנשים צדיקים וידועים לשבטיהם. ‏

...

ויתכן עוד שנאמר, כי משה נצטווה צרור את המדיינים (לעיל כה יז): ונקום נקמת בני ישראל (לפנינו פסוק ב), ושלח שם מועטים להכות בערי הפריזי וכל עץ טוב להפיל וכל מעין מים לסתום וכל חלקה טובה להכאיב באבנים כמנהג השוללים, ולא ציווה להם דבר רק להינקם כאשר תמצא ידם, והש"י אשר לו המלחמות נתן מדין ומלכיהם ועריהם בידם. ועל כן קצף על הנשים היודעות משכב זכר לא דבר אחר, וציוה בטף הזכרים לנקמה: ‏

In my translation:

And Moses sent them, a thousand of every tribe - He did not send all who were able to go to war, even though the Midianites were numerous and their cities very large and fortified.

And the reason is because those who failed through daughters of Moab were numerous and not fit for God's vengeance, so men who were righteous and well known [from] among their tribes were chosen.

...

It is also possible to say, that Mosheh was commanded "harass the Midianites" (25:17), and "avenge the children of Israel" (31:2), and sent a small number to attack the unwalled towns and take down every good tree and seal every water fountain and damage with stones every good plot of land as is the custom of plunderers, and only commanded them to avenge as much as they were able to, but the Lord, blessed be He, who to Him are all wars, delivered Midian, their kings and their cities into their hands. That is why he was angry over keeping the women alive but over nothing else, and commanded regarding the under-aged males for vengeance.

In short, according to Ramban, the Midianites were numerous and well fortified in their cities, and sending a larger army to fight them would have been expected. He suggests two possibilities for the small number sent:

  1. Only those who hadn't succumbed to the daughters of Moab were worthy of taking part in God's vengeance, and they were few.
  2. It was only meant to be a retaliation, and of a limited scale, so fewer men were needed. By God's graces, they achieved far more than they set out to do.
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Nice find! Thanks for coming back to this question. –  Monica Cellio Sep 24 '13 at 21:52

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