In Chapter 31 we have an example of God using His people to enforce His judgment and punishment upon nations. What this looked like cannot be avoided. In our own time, it would be considered a form of genocide. However, we should keep in mind that this was common military practice in ancient societies. In this situation it was chosen as judgment for the sins that drew Israel into idolatry.
The history behind the events referred to here involved the people of Moab and Midian who had enlisted a false prophet, Balaam, to bring a curse upon the Israelites to destroy them. When this proved impossible because of God’s protection upon Israel, the prophet Balaam advised the Moabites and Midianites to send their women into the Israelites’ camp to entice the men into participating in the sexual rites of their fertility cult. This included drawing the men into sexual practices and worshiping false, pagan gods and goddesses in the process.
This is the context of the judgment leveled against these women. It is also behind the reason the men of Israel kept these women alive. It should be clear to us all that this action against these women, like many other aspects of ancient, primitive cultures, is not a solution we would consider today. For any nation or group to take upon itself enforcing judgment in this way has been and would still be far from God’s solution for dealing with evil.
Yet all that being said, let us not forget that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). This is the price Jesus paid upon the cross, as He died for the sins of all humanity. Death is the ultimate experience awaiting our sin if we reject His substitutionary death for us on the cross. God—not a man—will exact that punishment.
In our own time no nation has been sovereignly chosen by God to represent Him in human society as ancient Israel had done. It would therefore be wrong for any nation to justify their military actions as solely and wholly representing the judgment and will of God. Nations can seek to be led by the principles of God’s Kingdom, but none can claim its actions are automatically and/or directly sanctioned by God. In fact, believers today must first identify with their citizenship in heaven. Theirs is a kingdom that no nation, political group, or ideology can claim they alone represent. The best we can hope for is that those who lead our nation respect the full breadth of biblical principles that guide human society.