How can a loving holy God command the killing of children?

Question
In Numbers 31:17, I understand why sparing only the virgin women makes some sense in context, but killing the little ones? What's going on there? I can imagine that like many things, reporting an event isn't the same as endorsing it. So is Moses going too far? But again, in context the Lord seems to be quoted in surrounding texts giving instruction about the use and division of the plunder. Though it seems he would say don’t kill the babies. What do we do with this?
Answer
Numbers 31:17: Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him. (ESV)

As I'm sure you are aware, Numbers 25 is the introduction to the events recorded in Numbers 31. It informs us of some of the sins of the Midianites and how they led Israel into worshipping a false god named Baal Peor. Because of the Midianites, Israel disobeyed God and a plague ensued. The plague ended when Phinehas killed an Israelite man and the Midianite woman he brought into his family (Num. 25:7-9). While marrying such women was against the law of God (Deut. 7:3-4), parading a worshipper of Baal in front of the Tent of Meeting (Num. 25:6) while the Israelites were supposed to be asking for forgiveness for idolatry was even worse. Covenant infidelity is detestable to God. The result of these great sins against God was that the Lord ordered the destruction of the Midianites (Num. 25:17-18). But Israel disobeyed again when their army brought back captured Midianite women and children (Num. 31:14-16). So, the Midianite children (boys) were ordered to be destroyed (Num. 31:17).

We see many such commands in Scripture that may make us pause and wonder. For example: (1) the Samaritan's little ones being dashed to the ground and their pregnant women ripped open (Hos. 13:16); (2) the sacking of Tiphsah and ripping open all the pregnant women (2 Kings 15:16); (3) the killing of Amalekite men, woman, infant and nursing children (1 Sam. 15:3); and (4) the Lord ordering the total destruction of all the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites (Deut. 20:16-18). Indeed, we shouldn't forget Noah's flood or the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. What about hell itself? Won't some children be there too? How on earth do we square all these texts with a loving God?

In Scripture, the Midianites (along with the others Israel was supposed to destroy) are a picture of the non-elect or reprobate. The earth was originally created for just God's elect, and Adam and Eve were supposed to be fruitful and multiple and fill the earth with elect little ones (Gen. 1:28). Apart from the Fall, the world would look like that today — only the elect would be upon the earth. However, in the Fall Eve still became the mother of “all living,” both the elect and non-elect (Gen. 3:20). Even Adam and Eve's first recorded child, Cain, was non-elect (Gen. 4:1). However, redemption came in Christ and the new heavens and new earth will one day be filled with only the elect from every nation, tribe, and people and language (Rev. 5:9; 7:9). (Please see "Calvinism in Genesis 1-3? " and "Calvinism and Matthew 13?" below.)

So, election and reprobation concern two different people or seed groups:

Groups
The Elect
The Non-Elect Text
Two Seeds Seed of the Woman Seed of the Serpent Gen. 3:15
Two Seeds Wheat Tares Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43
Two Seeds Sheep Goats Matt. 25:31-46
Two Kingdoms Kingdom of Light Kingdom of Darkness Eph. 6:10-18; Col 1:13

Satan hates God and wants what is his. Satan and his seed are always doing battle with God, God’s angels, and God’s people. This covenant war between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent is seen throughout Scripture. Some examples may help:

Seed of the Woman
The Elect
Gal. 3:29; 4:4
vs.
Seed of the Serpent
The Non-Elect
John 8:44
Text
Adam vs. Serpent Gen. 3
Noah vs. World Gen. 6-10
Abraham vs. Four kings Gen. 14
Moses vs. Egypt Exodus
David vs. Goliath 1 Sam. 17
Christ vs. Satan Matt. 4:1-11; John 8:43-44; 14:6;
Gal. 1:4; 4:4; Col. 2:15; Phil. 2:10;
Rev. 12:4
Invisible Church vs. Satan, World Matt. 24:4-12; John 3:19-21; 16:33;
1 Cor. 6:14-15; 2 Cor. 2:11;
Eph. 6:10-18; 2 Tim. 4:17; Jas. 4:7;
1 Pet. 5:8; 1 John 2:16; Rev. 11:15

So, there are two types of people in the world who are always at odds with one another: the elect (saved) and the non-elect (lost).

Now, back to Numbers 31. Israel was at odds with the non-elect Midianites. What we are seeing in these Old Testament texts is the justice of God being righteously poured out upon the seed of the serpent or the reprobate. These reprobate are the enemies of God, invaders of his very creation (Psa. 24:1). These armed trespassers (cf. Eph. 6:11-12; 1 Pet. 5:8) come but to kill, steal, and destroy (John 10:10) God's chosen people (cf. Deut. 7:7). These seed of Satan were made for destruction (Prov 16:4; Matt. 25:41; John 3:18; Rev. 13:8; 17:8) and death. (Please see "Wasn't hell made for the Devil and his angels and not real people?" and "What is Reprobation?" below).

The just punishment for sin is death, temporal and eternal. (Please see "An Eternal Hell is for Real - The Heresy of Annihilationism?" below). The Bible does not say when this death will take place, only that it is at an appointed time (Heb. 9:27). For the Midianites it took place as described in Numbers 25 and 31.

God's judgments are always just (cf. Gen. 18:25; Rom. 2:5; 7:12). God is loving, but he is also holy, just, and righteous. God must always judge and punish sin. While his method for dealing with sin can vary, the ultimate judgment is still death (Rom. 6:23; cf. Gen. 2:17). Even for the saints the wrath of God had to be carried out against sin, so he sent his only begotten Son to die for his people (John 3:16; Rom. 5:12-21). God loves his people. He protects them – even from themselves. As the article below on reprobation points out, God uses the non-elect (the seed of the serpent, Gen. 3:15; John 8:44) to fulfill his purposes and for his glory (Rom. 9:16-18; cf. Prov. 11:8; 21:18). God reigns! He is sovereign. He is just.

Related Topics

Calvinism in Genesis 1-3?
Calvinism and Matthew 13?
What is Reprobation?
Wasn't hell made for the Devil and his angels and not real people?
An Eternal Hell is for Real - The Heresy of Annihilationism?

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).