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Bible: Does Numbers 31:18 sanction pre-pubescent marriages (child marriage)?

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Before one of our brothers or sisters get into conclusion, thinking this is an article bashing Judaic-Christian faith, this is not true. The main reason I took to task to write this article, is in response to some individuals who are of Judaic-Christian faith, who constantly bash, twist Islamic scripture claiming that the Quran somehow sanctions ‘Prepubescent marriages’. This is a lie, far from the truth. I will address this fictitious claim very soon, God willing. It is only right to write this article and give these individuals (missionaries), who spread lies about Islam, a taste of their own medicine. Let’s see what their Holy Bible, God breathed scripture have to say on pre-pubescent marriages. Does the Bible sanction pre-pubescent marriages or is it forbidden? We shall find out shortly.

Webster’s Bible Translation Numbers 31:17-18
Now therefore kill every male among the little ones (taph), and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the female children (taph), that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.

In order for me to go further on the verse, let’s first show the part where the Hebrew word ‘taph’ is used in verse 17 and 18 for chapter 31 of Numbers that, it only refers pre-pubescent girls and boys. Below is the text in Hebrew for Numbers 31: 17-18

Hebrew word taph (or taf), pre-pubescent

What does the word ‘taph’ (or taf) in verse 17 and 18 for chapter 31 of Numbers mean? According to Webster’s Bible translation it means ‘children’ or ‘little ones’, meaning pre-pubescent girls or boys. Hebrew lexicons on the word ‘taph’:

Professor Selig Newman:
Child , an infant … טַף… an offspring,… get with-……[1]

Karl Feyerabend:
טַף (taf) ., i.p. .., w.s…. coll. Children, little ones. [2]

Samuel Pike
טַף little ones or children… mincing in a childish manner, Isai. Iii. 16. –… to drop, or distil… to prophecy, or distil instruction, Micah ii. 6, 11 [3]

English – Hebrew Lexicons commenting on the word ‘taph’, the word only refers to children or infants. As we have got this out of the way and made plain that the verse is referring only to children (pre-pubescent) and not grown up girls. Let’s now read the verse again to get a better understanding that it sanctions child marriage:

Webster’s Bible Translation Numbers 31:17-18
Now therefore kill every male among the little ones (taph), and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the female children (taph), that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.

As you start reading from verse 17, the verse begins by Moses commanding the soldiers to execute all the male children (infants), and all the women who have slept with a man, in other words woman who are not virgin. When we get to the next verse (verse 18), Moses tells the soldiers that they can take for themselves all the female children. Why would the male children be not shown any mercy, get executed but the female children left alive? It is obvious from the words:- “for yourselves”, Moses meant that they can have the female children for their own pleasure, to cohabit with. When I started investigating Numbers 31:17-18, reading the Hebrew words for verse 18 at the end, one word was left un-explained. This is not the case of just one English Bible translation; all the modern Bible translations have blatantly crossed out the word. The word I am referring to is ‘lakhem’ (or lacham), this word is left unexplained. This same word (lacham) is used in many other passages such as: Exd 1:10, Deu 1:41, Jos 10:5, Jdg 1:8, 1Sa 31:1, 1Ki 12:24, Isa 19:2, in all these verses mentioned, when the Hebrew word ‘lacham’ is used , it means:- ‘fight’, ‘fought’, or ‘warred’. Here is Hebrew text for the mentioned passage:

Hebrew word laqach or lakakh, meaning, fight, warred, fought, sexually, sexual

You can see I have circled in red, where the word ‘lacham’ is used in them verses. If you go to any Judaic-Christian website, where they give definitions for any word from the Bible, they have always left the word ‘lacham’ unexplained for Numbers 31:18. Usually when I do research on certain words which are disputed from Biblical verses, I visit these sites such as; Blueletterbible.org, biblestudytools.com, and they have always given an explanation in detail, what a word means. But when I started examining Numbers 31:18, what caught my eye was the word ‘lacham’, it was left blank. What made it even strange is, I was not allowed (able) to click on the word, to see what the meaning of the word is. I have many Scholars who agree, that Numbers 31:18 is referred to sexually and there is no doubt about it. First in line of experts, who gives their view is Shaye J. D. Cohen who is a renowned Professor, he writes:
“Moses enjoins upon the returning warriors to kill their Midianite female captives who have lain with a man, but ‘spare for yourselves every young woman who has not had carnal relations with a man’; WE MAY BE SURE THAT ‘FOR YOURSELVES’ MEANS THAT THE WARRIORS MAY ‘USE’ THEIR VIRGIN CAPTIVES SEXUALLY.52 The law in numbers differs from the law in Deuteronomy- perhaps the most significant distinction is that the law in Deuteronomy does not care whether the captive is a virgin or not- but it too permits Israelite warrior to marry (or ‘marry) a foreign woman.”

In the same page, in footnote 52, Professor Shaye J.D. Cohen goes further on Numbers 31:18, he writes:
“I do not know why the new Jewish version omits ‘for yourselves’; the Hebrew lakhem is unambiguous. That the intent of ‘FOR YOURSELVES’ IS SEXUAL OR MATRIMONIAL IS OBVIOUS; the passage is correctly understood by Rabbi Simeon Yohai in the Sifrei ad loc (177 212H).” [4]

If you remember earlier I commented that the word ‘lakhem’ was left out blank without any definition, the professor highlighted this. We can see the deceit of missionaries trying hard to cover up the truth. Thankfully we have sincere Scholars as Shaye J.D. Cohen. The other thing I also pointed out is the word ‘lakhem’ can only referred to sexually, Professor Shaye Cohen also highlighted this and made it clear that the word can only mean ‘sexual’ or ‘matrimonial’. Either way the passage we have examined refers to pre-pubescent girls being married to fully grown man.

Wil Gafney, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia in Pennsylvania, and is an Episcopal Priest canonically resident in the Diocese of Pennsylvania. She is another line of Scholars who comments on Numbers 31:18, she writes:
“The ‘one woman, one man’ relationship of Eve and Adam becomes one man and two women in Genesis 4:19, ONE MAN AND AN UNTOLD NUMBER OF PREPUBESCENT GIRL CAPTIVES IN NUMBER 31:18 and in several other texts. IT APPEARS THAT GOD HAS LEFT IT TO HUMANITY TO DECIDE WHO ARE APPROPRIATE INTIMATE PARTNERS AND UNDER WHAT CIRCUMSTANCES. The evolution of polygamy, both CONSENSUAL AND FORCED, as a human-initiated cultural practice in the scriptures is particularly striking because of God’s lack of condemnation of it (not to mention, according to Deuteronomy, God’s sanction of abduction or rape-marriage during armed conflicts).
When inviting individuals and their descendants into eternal covenant relationships with God, God never required that the matriarchs and patriarchs revert to an Eve-Adam, monogamous pairing.” [5]

Notice Professor Wil brings up Numbers 31:18 and at the same time she writes:- “God has left it to humanity to decide who are appropriate intimate partners and under what circumstances.” She was referring to the pre-pubescent girls, in other words, she is saying God left it to humanity to decide whether it is ok to cohabit with a pre-pubescent girls or not. Yahweh did not forbid it. Actually as you have read so far, he sanctioned it in Numbers 31:18 for men to marry pre-pubescent girls.

Another Professor by the name Miguel A. De La Torre, mentions that Numbers 31:18 found Biblical justification of raping female slaves and that it was considered ordained by God, by Christian slave owners of the past, he writes:
“The Bible was masterfully used by those in power to justify the owning of black bodies. This was an easy feat; nowhere in either the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament is slavery categorically condemned. The supporters of slavery in the antebellum south were the ones who had the biblical chapters and verses to quote to justify their way of life. The abolitionists were hard pressed to find any biblical passage that outright condemned the institution of slavery. EVEN THE RAPE OF FEMALE SLAVES FOUND BIBLICAL JUSTIFICATION AND WAS CONSIDERED TO BE ORDAINED BY GOD. SPECIFICALLY, NUMBERS 31:18 INSTRUCTS CONQUERORS AS FOLLOWS: ‘YOU SHALL KEEP ALIVE ALL YOUNG FEMALES WHO HAVE NOT HAD SEX WITH A MALE FOR YOURSELVES.’ [6]

The Popular Commentary by Paul E. Kretzmann
“v. 18. But all the women children that have not known a man by lying with him keep alive for yourselves, as slaves or handmaids, FOR MARRIAGE WITH SUCH WAS NOT FORBIDDEN. The great God is terrible in His judgments, a fact which should teach us to fear His wrath and not act contrary to His commandments.” [7]

Even the Bible commentator Paul E. Kretzmann, makes it clear, commenting on Numbers 31:18, that marriage with the pre-pubescent females ‘was not forbidden’.

Dr Judith E. McKinlay also mentions that the Bible ‘seems’ at times to turn a blind eye and allow ‘free romance’ commenting on Numbers 31:18. In other words what she is saying is that Yahweh was not against grown man cohabiting with female children:
“Where the texts have a concern for the circumcised status, this clearly does not apply to women! And where there is a concern for lineage the importance of patrilineal descent meant a lesser concern regarding the potential mothers. So, in the war against Midian, Moses says to the people in Num 31.18 that of the captured Midian women, ‘all the young women who have not known a man by sleeping with him, keep alive for yourselves’. AT TIMES IT SEEMS AS IF THE BIBLE WANTS TO TURN A BLIND EYE TO THE MATTER ALTOGETHER AND ALLOW FREE ROMANCE A FREE HAND.” [8]

Further evidence, the following law from the Bible commands that when females are captured in war, that soldiers can take (by force) home ,if the man likes her:

Deuteronomy 21:10-14 Good News Translation (GNT)
10 “When the Lord your God gives you victory in battle and you take prisoners, 11 you may see among them a beautiful woman that you like and want to marry. 12 Take her to your home, where she will shave her head, cut her fingernails, 13 and change her clothes. She is to stay in your home and mourn for her parents for a month; after that, you may marry her. 14 Later, if you no longer want her, you are to let her go free. Since you forced her to have intercourse with you, you cannot treat her as a slave and sell her.

According to the above passage, when victory is given to YHWH’s soldiers and they take captives and if the soldiers see a nice looking (beautiful) female, the soldier can ‘TAKE’ her to his own home. The soldier has to shave her head and cut her fingernails, and also she has to stay in his house for one month, after which the man can force her to be his wife. Then the husband can go into her by raping her, as the last words are clearly laid out: “Since you forced her to have intercourse with you”.

We have read that the waiting period for a captive female, this command is to any female whether she is virgin, non-virgin, prepubescent, the waiting period is one month only. After which the man can marry the female child and cohabit with her. There is no mention of YHWH saying anything that there has to be longer waiting periods for girls who are pre-pubescent. The command does not exist. So we can see from the vast amount evidence presented already that YHWH did indeed sanction pre-pubescent marriages.

For more information on this passage (Deuteronomy 21:10-14), read the following article I have written recently:


Missionary objection against Numbers 31:18

One of the fictitious arguments raised against Numbers 31:18 by Evangelists is that they say ‘it does not sanction Child marriage’, they cite this passage:

Ezekiel 16 New International Version (NIV)
Jerusalem as an Adulterous Wife
1 The word of the LORD came to me: 2 “Son of man, confront Jerusalem with her detestable practices3 and say, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says to Jerusalem: Your ancestry and birth were in the land of the Canaanites; your father was an Amorite and your mother a Hittite. 4 On the day you were born your cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to make you clean, nor were you rubbed with salt or wrapped in cloths. 5 No one looked on you with pity or had compassion enough to do any of these things for you. Rather, you were thrown out into the open field, for on the day you were born you were despised.
6 “‘Then I passed by and saw you kicking about in your blood, and as you lay there in your blood I said to you, “Live!” 7 I made you grow like a plant of the field. You grew and developed and entered puberty. Your breasts had formed and your hair had grown, yet you were stark naked.
8 “‘Later I passed by, and when I looked at you and saw that you were old enough for love, I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your naked body. I gave you my solemn oath and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Sovereign LORD, and you became mine.

According to the above passage cited by missionaries, they say that God ‘forbids pre-pubescent marriages’.

Questions for missionaries:

1. Nowhere in the above verse does it say ‘that you are forbidden from marrying pre-pubescent females’, where does it say that you are forbidden from marrying pre-pubescent girls, where is the verse that abrogates Numbers 31:18 explicitly?
2. How does Ezekiel 16:1-8 A PARABLE (not a command) override (abrogate) the laws of the Torah, when in two places: Deuteronomy 21:10-14 and Numbers 31: 18 explicitly state that you can take, marry female captives by force?
3. How is Ezekiel in anyway relevant to Moses and his soldiers, when Ezekiel was born nearly 700 years after Moses? Ezekiel did not even exist when Moses and his soldiers were raping, marrying pre-pubescent females.

More Scholarly evidences on pre-pubescent marriages

The following quotations I am going to present are all from my other article, click on the link for more info:

Jacob Neusner is an American academic scholar of Judaism. In the Book: ‘The Comparative Hermeneutics of Rabbinic Judaism: Seder Tohorot. Tohorot through Uqsin.’ The Jewish oral Torah“i.e. Mishnah says:
M. 5:4 A girl three years and one day old is betrothed by intercourse. And if a Levir has had intercourse with her, he has acquired her. And they are laible on her account because of the law [Prohibiting intercourse with] a married woman. And she imparts uncleanness to him who has intercourse with her [when she is menstruating] to convey uncleanness to the lower as to the upper layer. [If] she was married to a priest, she eats heave offering. [If] one of those who are unfit [for marriage] has intercourse with her, he has rendered her unfit to marry into priesthood. [If] one of all those who are forbidden in the Torah to have intercourse with her, he is put to death on her account, but she is free of responsibility.”

A Commentary on the above verse, in the Book: ‘A history of the Mishnaic Law of Purities. 15. Niddah, by Jacob Neusner, it says:
M. 5:4-5 bring us to the next stage in the matter of the legal status of children, female and male. The girl three years and one day old is deemed capable of sexual relations, which accounts for A, B, and C. D. Presumably should not be apply to M. 5:3-a; if the girl is unclean as a menstruant but is incapable of sexual relations, one who has (or attempts) relations with her is not made unclean as is one who has had sexual relations with a menstruant. E simply goes over familiar ground; since the girl can be acquired as a wife, she also may eat heave-offering. F. Follows, and G. Repeats what is already obvious. But H limits the matter. The girl is not held responsible in a matter of forbidden sexual relations. I is a minor gloss. If the girl is less than three years and one day old, we do not regard the sexual relationship as of legal consequence. The theory is that the tokens of Virginity are restored before that time but not afterword.

Pay close attention to the above statements, how Scholar Jacob Neusner says that a female of three year old ‘could be deemed capable of sexual relations.’ And in the first quotation he says that the Mishnah approves that a man could have sexual relations with a betrothed girl when she is only just three years old.

Professor of Sociology Mary De Young writes:
“The possession of Children by their parents was also given religious sanction in the teachings of both the Talmud and the Bible. Rush (1880) states that the Talmud teaches that a girl of ‘three years and one day’ could be betrothed through an act of sexual intercourse.”

Even Professor Geza Vermes who is a well known and highly respected scholar comments that Pre-pubescent marriages were allowed:
“…the Greek parthenos could also mean that the girl was young and/or unmarried. In fact, in the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament parthenos was used to render three distinct Hebrew words, ‘Virgin’, ‘girl’ and ‘young woman’. Already Rabbis in the Tannaitic era (first to second century ad) subscribed to further nuances, and there is no reason to think that all these were invented by them. Even the word betulah, which normally means virgo intact, when used by them could carry the laternal sense of bodily immaturity with the consequential inability to conceive. In Rabbinic terminology this type of virginity in a woman ceased with the physical onset of puberty. The Mishnah, the oldest of the rabbinic codes, defines a virgin as a female who ‘has never seen blood even though she is married’ (mNiddah 1:4). The Tosefta, another early Jewish code of law, claims in the name of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus (late first century ad) that such a woman would continue to count as a virgin even after she had conceived and borne children without prior menstruation (tNiddah 1:6)! To understand these statements, we must remember that in the InterTestamental and early rabbinic age, pre-puberty marriage was generally permitted. In fact rabbis seriously debated whether bloodstains found after the wedding night in nuptial bed of a minor, i.e. a ‘virgin in respect of menstruation’, marked her first period or the consummation of the marriage.”

Reverend Kathryn J. Riss who is a Christian also makes mention that in first century parents married off their daughters who were pre-pubescent to much older men. What is interesting is she does not mention once that Rabbis or anyone higher up in authority speaking against such marriages:
“The longest New Testament passage on marriage is found, not in Ephesians, but in 1 Corinthians chapter 7. In stark contrast to the legal positions and social expectations of the first century, here the rights and responsibilities of man and woman are upheld as equal. Although marriages were arranged by parents, who often espoused their pre-pubescent daughters to much OLDER MEN….”

Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, Volume 8 edited by three great Scholars: G. Johannes Botterweck, Helmer Ringgren and Heinz-Josef Fabry says:
“One might counter that the expression mohar habbetulot (Ex. 22:16[17]) refers rather to the pretium virginitatis. In this case, the mohar would be compensation to the girl for the loss of her virginity. This explanation, however, is unacceptable, since it proceeds on the assumption that the term betula means ‘virgin.’ This may doubtlessly be the case in many passages, but in joel 1:8, betula thus refers to a married woman who had been ‘possessed’ by her husband (ba’al); betula thus refers to a marriageable girl who was physically able to cope with a man, ‘taking her into his possession.’ Here the term betula says nothing about her virginity. Ex.22:16 (17) (kesep yisqol kemohar hab betulot) can thus be translated ‘he shall weigh out as much silver as is required for marriageable girls.’ In this context we should point out that ancient Hebrew custom did not associate marriageability with puberty. In contrast to the marriageable girl (betula), the…. Alma refers to a girl in puberty capable of conception. Girls could in fact already be given marriage long before actual physical maturity, perhaps even as young as five years old (cf. Lev. 27:5), and it did happen that marriages were already consummated with prepubescent girls.”

Notice how all these Jewish and Christian experts agree that pre-pubescent marriages were approved of in ancient Israel and as the in the Mishnah it encouraged men to sleep with 3 year old girls. We must remember that the Bible in it encourages/approves of pre-pubescent marriages.

We can conclude by that the Bible encourages pre-pubescent marriages with females. I even cited Deuteronomy 21:10-14 as proof that Yahweh encouraged his men to marry female captives by force, whether the girls were pre-pubescent or not, it didn’t matter. I also cited Scholarly references that agreed that, Numbers 31:18 is about marriage with pre-pubescent girls, the scholars agreed that the passage is referred to sexually. What I mean is, when the words in Numbers 31:18 are used as ‘keep alive for YOURSELVES’, this meant that soldiers can keep alive the female pre-pubescent for their own pleasure. Furthermore I went over one objection raised by Evangelist, it was of no value whatsoever, the passage cited nowhere condemned pre-pubescent marriages. Why I say it was of ‘no value’, because Ezekiel was born 700 years after Moses. Last but not least I cited many scholarly quotes that agreed that pre-pubescent marriages was sanctioned and was practiced among Jews and Christians. We know historically among Jews and Christians in Ancient times that, pre-pubescent marriages was a norm. Question to the hatemonger’s who spout lies on Islam: Why is there not one verse in the Old Testament or the four Gospels that explicitly condemns Numbers 31:18? Why did Jesus not speak against pre-pubescent marriages?

[1] An English and Hebrew lexicon composed after Johnson’s directory, containing fifteen thousand English words, rendered into Biblical, or rabbinical Hebrew, or into Chaldee. To which is annexed a list of English and Hebrew words the expressions and meanings of which appear to be the same in both languages (1832). By Professor Selig Newman page 61
[2] A complete Hebrew-English pocket-dictionary to the Old Testament (1905]) By Karl Feyerabend page 118
[3] A Compendious Hebrew Lexicon, Adapted to the English Language, and Composed upon A New and Commodious Plan [Second Edition (1811)] by Samuel Pike page 59
[4] The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties By Shaye J. D. Cohen [chapter 8] page 255 – 256
[5] Christian Holiness and Human Sexuality: A Study Guide for Episcopalians [Chapter 2 Scripture: Sexuality and Sexual Orientation] Professor WIL GAFNEY
[6] A Lily Among the Thorns: Imagining a New Christian Sexuality [Copy Right 2007] By Miguel A. De La Torre page 45
[7] The Popular Commentary by Paul E. Kretzmann http://www.studylight.org/com/kpc/view.cgi?bk=3&ch=31http://www.kretzmannproject.org/PENT/NUM/NUM_31.htm
[8] Reframing Her: Biblical Women in Postcolonial Focus [Copy Right 2004] By Judith E. McKinlay page 27

Bible child marriage, numbers 31:18


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