THE DESTRUCTION FROM SPIRITUAL HARLOTRY CAN ONLY BE MITIGATED BY THE ATONING ZEAL OF A FAITHFUL HIGH PRIEST
Here we see the height of Israel’s rebellion and failure in the wilderness – just after experiencing victory and just before entering the promised land. The immorality and idolatry of spiritual harlotry compromises the covenant relationship between God and His people. God will surely bring judgment. Behind the scenes, Balaam is providing the counsel that precipitates this seductive attack by the Moabite women. He finally succeeds in his goal of enriching himself at the expense of the Israelites. Phinehas must be seen in this terrible story as a type of the faithful high priest Jesus Christ. His zeal and jealousy for the honor of God are commendable. His swift and decisive destruction of the two high profile offenders is described as an act of atonement.
Gordon Wenham: The Bible startles its readers by the way it juxtaposes the brightest of revelations and the darkest of sins. The lawgiving at Sinai was followed by the making of the golden calf (Exod. 20–32), the ordination of Aaron by the disobedience of his sons (Lev. 8–10), the covenant with David by the Bathsheba affair (2 Sam. 7–12), Palm Sunday by Good Friday. Here we have another classic example of this pattern, the wonderful prophecies of Balaam are succeeded by the great apostasy at Peor. In this way Scripture tries to bring home to us the full wonder of God’s grace in face of man’s incorrigible propensity to sin.
Raymond Brown: Behind Israel’s idolatrous defection was an opponent more sinister than Balak, one who is always at work to defile and damage God’s people—the devil. throughout the wilderness journey he had used every possible device to create disruption and devastation in the Israelite camp: discontent (11:1–6), damaged relationships within a leading family (12:1), jealousy (12:2), fear (14:31), rebellion (14:4, 10), disobedience (14:40–45), rivalry (16:1–3), disloyalty (16:41–17:5), quarrelling (20:3–5) and irreverence (21:4–5). At the Moabite border he had failed hopelessly with his pernicious strategy of sorcery, but now he was ready with a different device: the allurement of sexual immorality. When the devil fails at one enterprise, he quickly makes use of another.
Gordon Keddie: First sex, then false religion. . . “Those that have broken the fences of modesty,” remarks Matthew Henry, “will never be held by the bonds of piety.” There is a “domino effect” in personal morality and a spiritual life. One sin does lead to another. It gets easier as time goes on. And the same is true of unbelief. . .
The reason that sins follow one another with such ease, rapidity and escalating intensity is that sin is essentially a complex – a disposition, a life-style, a condition of the heart, a web of interrelated motivation.
Allen: So now we come to the ultimate rebellion of Israel in the desert. The time is the end of the forty-year period of their desert experience. The place is the staging area for the conquest of the land of Canaan. The issue is that of apostasy from the Lord by participation in the debased, sexually centered Canaanite religious rites of Baal worship-that which would become the bane of Israel’s experience in the land. This chapter is an end and a beginning. It marks the end of the first generation; it also points to the beginning of a whole new series of wicked acts that will finally lead to Israel’s punishment …. But this chapter is unique in the record of the experience of Israel in their move from Sinai to Moab-it describes their involvement in the worship of another deity [cf. Exodus 32].
Timothy Ashley: The chapter is placed between the Balaam oracles and the second census account for theological and literary reasons. In relation to the Balaam oracles it shows that, even while God was blessing Israel through Balaam on the heights of Peor, below on the plains of Moab Israel was showing its weak and sinful character. The parallel between this incident and that of the Torah at Sinai and the golden calf (Exod. 20–32) is obvious. God’s blessing is because of his grace, not because of his people’s merit. The juxtaposition of God’s blessing his people and their sin is jarring. This chapter brings the reader back to earth after the oracular utterances of Balaam. These Israelites are, after all, the generation condemned to die in the wilderness for faithlessness (ch. 14). Even though God has a plan and a future for Israel, these particular Israelites are doomed. In ch. 26, a new census is taken because the old generation has finally died (cf. 26:63–65). Ch. 25 narrates the final plague that extinguished the old generation for its iniquity. Lest the reader think that this iniquity is only the old sin of the spies, this chapter spells out that Israel’s sins, like God’s mercies, seem new every morning. The chapter also prepares the reader to enter the new day in ch. 26.
I. (:1-5) GOD’S REACTION TO EXTREME CORPORATE SPIRITUAL HARLOTRY –
IDOLATRY AND IMMORALITY UNDERMINE LOYALTY TO THE COVENANT RELATIONSHIP AND WILL BE SEVERELY PUNISHED
A. (:1-2) Divine Loyalty Abused – Committing Spiritual Harlotry
1. (:1) Sexual Harlotry with Moabite Women
“While Israel remained at Shittim,
the people began to play the harlot with the daughters of Moab.”
Gordon Wenham: Play the harlot has both a physical and a spiritual sense. Sacred prostitution was a common feature of Canaanite religion; through it some of the Israelites were allured to participate in pagan sacrifices and bowed down to their gods.
Iain Duguid: In Numbers 25, however, we descend from the lofty heights of Balaam’s prophecy to the harsh reality of the defiled people of God in the valley below. Far from being “the upright” who remain separate from the nations, the men of Israel engaged in sexual immorality with Moabite women (v. 1). This initial sin led naturally to the further step of joining in the Moabites’ sacrifices and entering into a covenant with the god of Moab, Baal of Peor (vv. 2, 3). What is more, this incident involved more than a little compromise on the part of one or two individuals. It was “the people” as a whole who went after Moabite women; it was “the people” who partook of the sacrifices and worshiped their gods; all “Israel” joined themselves to Baal of Peor (vv. 1–3). In other words, this was nothing less than the Israelites’ total abandonment of their status as the covenant people of God, separated to the Lord and devoted to him alone. The sexual immorality that preceded the idolatry provided a graphic picture of the underlying spiritual reality. In offering sacrifices to Baal, Israel was abandoning her true husband, the Lord, and was taking up with a foreign lover. God might never be unfaithful to his promises or change his mind about his love for his people, but Israel was certainly capable of unfaithfulness.
J. Ligon Duncan: Balaam suggests to Balak one more idea: ‘If they can’t be destroyed by my sorcery, if they can’t be destroyed by a supernatural curse, perhaps they will destroy themselves by apostasy. Perhaps they will destroy themselves through immorality and through idolatry. So here’s an idea. Take some of your Moabite women — in fact, take some of the prostitutes that are all around those temples of Baal, and have them invite some of those Israeli soldier boys to a feast. Israel has been in the wilderness a long time, and they’ve been eating the same thing over and over and over again. And you tell them about all the wonderful Midianite/Moabite food that it going to be at this feast, and you let them see some of those beautiful women, and you invite them to come to that great feast. And of course, when you feast it entails you bowing down to your gods. And so when this happens, when they come to your feast, bring them some of your prominent, attractive daughters, and have those daughters seduce them and invite them to worship your god. And then, by doing this you will assimilate them into your culture rather than experience them conquering you.’ It’s a pretty good plan. And unlike all of Balaam’s other efforts, it worked.
R. K. Harrison: It is not easy to say why the Israelites submitted to the temptations instigated by Balaam (Num. 31:8, 16). Perhaps they were feeling flushed with victory, and even though they were conscious of their covenant obligations they perhaps felt superior to the moral laws that those commitments enshrined.
Ronald Allen: The phrase “Moabite women” is the connecting link that ties this chapter to the preceding ones (22-24). What the fathers of Moab could not do, their daughters were able to accomplish, to bring Israel to its knees – sexually, morally, in false worship, and in great judgment. The verb used to describe the action of the men is one normally used to describe the behavior of a loos woman, a harlot. Here the people, as a man, bewhore themselves with foreign, pagan women. Always in the ancient Near Eastern context, references to sexual imagery such as this suggest interconnecting circles of sexual immorality tied to sacral rites of prostitution, essential parts of pagan religious systems of the day.
2. (:2) Participation in Idolatrous Worship of Moabite Gods
“For they invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods,
and the people ate and bowed down to their gods.”
Elmer Smick: The subject they is feminine, referring to the daughters of Moab, with whom the men of Israel committed fornication.
Raymond Brown: In contemporary society, people idolize homes, jobs, possessions, sexuality, relationships, food, drink, entertainment. All these things, harmless or appropriate in their proper setting, become controlling powers that displace God in human thinking.
Roy Gane: Like modern people, the Israelites felt social pressure to conform. Idolatrous worship was a normal and integral part of the culture of other peoples, so friendship with them could easily lead to social influence and assimilation that naturally included participation in idolatry (Ex. 34:15–16; Deut. 7:3–4).
B. (:3) Divine Anger Manifested
1. Cause for Divine Anger
“So Israel joined themselves to Baal of Peor,”
Timothy Ashley: It is clear that, after sexual relationships had led to participation in the pagan sacrificial feasts, the next step was a formal association with a particular god. That god was Baal-Peor. Baal was the name of the great Canaanite god of vegetation.21 It was common to speak of him in various local manifestations. In combinations such as the present one, the second term is often the place-name where that local Baal was worshiped, hence this Baal was worshiped at (Beth) Peor (cf. Deut. 3:29; 4:46.)
Dennis Cole: The idolatrous sin of the Israelites at Baal Peor is summarized by the verbal phrase “joined in worshiping,” which translates the single Hebrew term wayyiṣṣāmed, thus “he yoked himself to.” As to verbal usage this term is rare in biblical Hebrew, found elsewhere only in v. 5 and Ps 106:28, the latter being a summary of this incident. The noun form ṣemed is usually translated “yoke.” Milgrom suggests some kind of covenant agreement was enacted in the process by which the Israelites were permitted (after being invited) to engage in the various forms of debauchery associated with the Baal cult. The Israelites yoked themselves together in the formal cultic ritual with the Moabites and Midianites in the worship of Baal and Beth Peor (“house/temple of Peor”).
2. Reaction of Divine Anger
“and the LORD was angry against Israel.”
Raymond Brown: The Israelite men had offended his holiness, ignored his word, dishonoured his name, marred his testimony and incurred his wrath.
C. (:4-5) Divine Judgment Commanded
1. (:4) Execution Orders from the Lord
a. Extreme Measures
“And the LORD said to Moses, ‘Take all the leaders of the people and execute them in broad daylight before the LORD,’”
Roy Gane: To turn away divine wrath from corporate Israel and thereby save the nation from destruction, the Lord orders Moses to take all the chiefs (lit., “heads”) of the people, who are apparently the leading culprits, and expose them (i.e., their dead bodies) before the Lord in full public view (25:4). Undoubtedly the frightfulness of the penalty, which makes a public spectacle out of rebels under divine judgment, is also calculated to stop the apostasy dead in its tracks by deterring any other Israelites inclined to have dates with Moabite girls.
b. Extreme Danger
“so that the fierce anger of the LORD
may turn away from Israel.”
Ronald Allen: Chapter 25 is the nadir of the Book of Numbers. It is worse even than the sins of chapters 12-14. Here is the great sin at the end of the road. This may be one of the most indelicate texts of Scripture, where Israel’s judges are commanded to kill their own people who are engaged in the worship of Baal (v. 5). We have trouble at times coming to grips with the commands of Scripture for Israel to kill here enemies. This chapter is harder for us to face; it is the command to kill some of their own people.
But these rebellious persons are like a cancer in the body. If they are not excised, they will soon ruin the whole. So the call is to kill, to execute, and to do it quickly.
2. (:5) Execution Orders from Moses
“So Moses said to the judges of Israel, ‘Each of you slay his men who have joined themselves to Baal of Peor.’”
Iain Duguid: At this point, however, things went from bad to worse. Moses did not do what the Lord commanded him. Instead of a covenantal punishment, in which the family heads were held responsible for the rebellion of those under their care, he advocated a policy of individual punishment, instructing the judges to put to death only those individuals who had actually participated in the worship of Baal Peor (v. 5). What is more, there is no report of even this more limited punishment being carried out: the next scene shows us Israel weeping before the Lord instead of acting to carry out his judgment (v. 6). The leadership of the people, including Moses, seems to have been totally paralyzed by the situation. The result of their inaction was even greater loss of life. While Moses and the leadership dragged their feet, the Lord’s judgment descended on all of the people in the form of a plague (v. 8). No one seemed prepared to take the kind of decisive action necessary to bring it to an end.
II. (:6-9) PHINEHAS’ REACTION TO SPECIFIC HIGH PROFILE INSTANCE OF BLATANT SPIRITUAL HARLOTRY –
EGREGIOUS VIOLATIONS OF THE COVENANT RELATIONSHIP MUST BE DEALT WITH DECISIVELY IN ORDER TO MITIGATE THE DAMAGE
A. (:6) Reality of Blatant Spiritual Harlotry
“Then behold, one of the sons of Israel came and brought to his relatives a Midianite woman, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of all the congregation of the sons of Israel, while they were weeping at the doorway of the tent of meeting.”
Gordon Wenham: Up to this point intercourse with foreign girls had taken place outside the camp. Now under the nose of Moses and the other people, Zimri showed his contempt for the covenant and the divine sentence pronounced against leaders like his father.
Timothy Ashley: Commentators have been divided on what this sin was: illicit sex, foreign marriage, or some cultic offense.30 All three factors seem to apply. Foreigners were seen as the source of the trouble, which began with illicit sexual relations leading to cultic violations (vv. 1–3a). That this act was done out in the open (i.e., in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the whole congregation of the children of Israel) contributed to its blatant appearance. The Midianite woman could be one of those called a daughter of Moab in v. 1, since the Midianites and Moabites are connected elsewhere.
Brueggemann: For whatever reason, Moses didn’t react immediately. The rabbis suggest it was because he himself had a Midianite wife.
B. (:7-8a) Response of Atoning Anger
1. (:7) Rapid Response
“When Phinehas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he arose from the midst of the congregation, and took a spear in his hand;”
Robert Rayburn: We have here a contrast between two men: one, Zimri, an Israelite who was perfectly willing to enjoy the world’s way; the other, Phinehas, who was committed to the Lord and his covenant. And in that contrast we see the rest of the Bible’s history unfolding and the history of the church ever since. Always there are those who want to belong to the church but don’t want that belonging to interfere with or compromise their place in the world. And then there are those who understand how absolute the antithesis must be between church and world, between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world, between the ways of the saints and the ways of the wicked.
C.H.M.: God’s glory and Israel’s good were the objects that ruled the conduct of the faithful Phinehas on this occasion. It was a critical moment. He felt there was a demand for the most stern action. It was not time for false tenderness. There are moments in the history of Gods people in the which tenderness to man becomes unfaithfulness to God; and it is of the utmost importance to be able to discern such moments. The prompt acting of Phinehas saved the whole congregation, glorified Jehovah in the midst of His people, and completely frustrated the enemy’s design. Balaam fell among the judged Midianites, but Phinehas became the possessor of an everlasting priesthood.
2. (:8a) Atoning Attack
“and he went after the man of Israel into the tent, and pierced both of them through, the man of Israel and the woman, through the body.”
Gordon Wenham: The description of the crime may be intended to suggest that Phinehas slew them in the very act of intercourse.
J. Ligon Duncan: But there’s a grandson of Aaron who is at this meeting. He’s the son of Aaron’s son Eleazar. This is one of Aaron’s grandsons, and he watches this, and he is absolutely enraged. And that’s the fourth scene that we see. You see it in verses 7-9. It is a stunning, priestly, zealous response. He takes it upon himself to mete out immediate judgment and justice on the wickedness that he has seen in Israel. There’s no trial; there’s no warning; there’s no court; there’s no jury; there’s no permission; there’s no arrest warrant. There is just immediate death. Phinehas kills this Israelite chieftain’s son and this Midianite chieftain’s daughter in the very act of their consummating a multiple immorality. They’re not only involved in sexual immorality, they’re involved in spiritual immorality. It’s not just fornication that’s going on here: it’s idolatry; it’s apostasy. It’s turning the back on the God of Israel, the God who saves. And Phinehas kills them both right on the spot.
C. (:8b) Result of Executing the Offenders
1. Termination of Divine Judgment
“So the plague on the sons of Israel was checked.”
2. Tally of the Dead
“And those who died by the plague were 24,000.”
Roy Gane: The body count of 24,000, an average of 2,000 from each of the twelve tribes, is the highest ever suffered by the Israelites during their long and painful passage from Egypt to Canaan. It is even higher than at Kadesh, where 14,700 died in addition to Korah & Co. before Aaron’s propitiatory (kipper) intercession with incense brought the onslaught of divine plague to a halt (Num. 16:46–49). The only divine punishment on Israel during biblical times that slew more was the plague that took the lives of 70,000 as a result of David’s census (2 Sam. 24:15).
III. (:10-13) PHINEHAS’ REWARD FOR HIS ZEAL AND FAITHFULNESS –
THOSE WHO ARE JEALOUS FOR GOD’S HONOR EARN A PERPETUAL REWARD FOR THEIR ZEAL AND FAITHFULNESS
A. (:10-11) Righteous Jealousy
“Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 11 ‘Phinehas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, has turned away My wrath from the sons of Israel, in that he was jealous with My jealousy among them, so that I did not destroy the sons of Israel in My jealousy.’”
Raymond Brown: God was to be exalted and adored within their community; not ignored, disgraced and despised as he was both by the offensive practices at Baal-Peor and by the adulterous behaviour of the couple back in the Israelite camp. Phinehas personified the priestly ideal: ‘he revered me and stood in awe of my name’. The honour of God’s name is a crucial priority for the contemporary believer, living as we do in a society that has scant regard for spiritual values and moral purity.
B. (:12-13) Reward of Covenant of Peace
1. Nature of the Reward
“Therefore say, ‘Behold, I give him My covenant of peace;’”
Iain Duguid: In the rest of this chapter we see the consequences for those involved. Phinehas received the Lord’s blessing because of his action. His zeal for the Lord’s honor was rewarded with a “covenant of peace” (v. 12), a lasting commitment by the Lord that his sons would share in his priestly ministry and that the high priesthood would descend through his line. The Midianites, meanwhile, were condemned to be the enemies of Israel from then on for their part in the affair. This is because the Israelites’ apostasy was the result of the pursuit of a deliberate policy of seduction on the part of the Moabites and Midianites in accordance with Balaam’s counsel (31:16). Those who lead God’s people into sin face serious consequences for being the agents of temptation.
2. Duration of the Reward
“and it shall be for him and his descendants after him,
a covenant of a perpetual priesthood,”
Roy Gane: God’s covenant of eternal priesthood for Phinehas is similar to the later divine covenant of dynastic monarchy for David (2 Sam. 7; Ps. 89). Both covenants promise loyal individuals that they and their descendants will fill existing institutional positions of national leadership within the framework of the covenant established with Israel at Sinai. According to the New Testament, Christ occupies both positions within the “new covenant”: He is eternal High Priest (but after the order of Melchizedek; Heb. 7) and the Davidic King (e.g., Mark 11:10; Luke 1:32–33; Rev. 19:11–16; 22:16).
Thomas Constable: The priests were to represent God to the people. This is exactly what Phinehas did on this occasion. He executed God’s wrath against sin and punished the sinners. In so doing he atoned for the sin by representing Israel before God, and he restored the covenant. God rewarded him by promising that his descendants would enjoy peace and would occupy the office of the high priest forever (cf. Psalm 106:30-31). This they did (cf. Judges 20:28) with the exception of a short interruption in Eli’s days. The Romans finally broke up the Israelite priesthood.
This everlasting covenant of peace guaranteed a privileged position of service to God to Phinehas and his descendants. It will find final fulfillment when the descendants of Phinehas, through Zadok’s branch of Phinehas” family, serve God in the millennial system of worship by offering memorial sacrifices in the temple.
3. Reason for the Reward
a. Jealous for God’s Honor
“because he was jealous for his God,”
b. Mediatorial for God’s People
“and made atonement for the sons of Israel.”
Dennis Cole: The righteous act of Phinehas in executing the two defiant Baal worshipers also brought about atonement (kipper) for the children of Israel. Again this act of grace by vigilant defense of the faith resulted in the survival of the majority of the Israelites, and the nation was restored on account of God’s grace. Milgrom remarks, “Phinehas provided a ransom for Israel, and God’s wrath was assuaged. So too, when the Levitical guard cuts down the encroacher on God’s sancta, he also provides a ransom that stays God’s wrath from venting itself upon Israel.”681 By virtue of Phinehas’s priestly role in being a mediator between God and man, the covenant of peace extended well beyond him and his priestly descendants; it included the entire nation that survived the plague. Now in the third generation of the lineage of Aaron, the first high priest, the priesthood is reconfirmed as everlasting (1 Chr 6:4–15). Phinehas demonstrated through his defense of the sanctum that he was a worthy mediator between God and man in the Israelite cult.
IV. (:14-15) SHAMEFUL LEGACY FOR THE TWO HIGH PROFILE OFFENDERS –
HIGH PROFILE SPIRITUAL TRAITORS EARN A PERPETUAL LEGACY OF SHAME
A. (:14) Slain Israelite Man = Zimri
“Now the name of the slain man of Israel who was slain with the Midianite woman, was Zimri the son of Salu, a leader of a father’s household among the Simeonites.”
Wiersbe: Zimri was a prince in Israel and Cozbi was the daughter of a prince, so perhaps they thought their social status gave them the privilege of sinning.
J. Ligon Duncan: The names of these two brazen sinners are recorded for all time.
B. (:15) Slain Midianite Woman = Cozbi
“And the name of the Midianite woman who was slain was Cozbi the daughter of Zur, who was head of the people of a father’s household in Midian.”
Ronald Allen: Zimri (“My Remembrance”) had been named in praise of God. However, he has come to be forever remembered as the one who nearly destroyed his people in his flagrant, wanton attack on the pure worship of God. With his name turned on its head, he serves as a memorial to destruction. The name of his Midianite partner is given as Cozbi daughter of Zur (v. 15). Her name is an example of names deliberately changed by Israel because of their contempt for her. “Cozbi” means “My Lie” or “Deception.” She stands forever memorialized as a prime example of the deception of the allure of pagan worship. Verse 18 speaks of her as one who was also from a noble house of her own people. Likely she was a priestess of her religion, a prototype of Jezebel who would later be instrumental in bringing Baal and Asherah worship into the center of the life of Israel.
V. (:16-18) CALL FOR RETALIATION AGAINST THE MIDIANITES –
THE ENEMIES OF GOD’S PEOPLE MUST SUFFER RETRIBUTION
A. (:16-17) Command to Retaliate
“Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying,
17 ‘Be hostile to the Midianites and strike them;’”
R. K. Harrison: Reprisals against the Midianites were called for, and accordingly God instructed Moses to commence harassing attacks against Midian. The time was not yet opportune for a full-scale war, since Israel’s military strength had been weakened by the most recent plague. But the nation had experienced a foretaste of the idolatry that she could expect to encounter in Canaan. From the disastrous outcome of the Moabite temptation the people also learned that the covenant ideal would demand of them rejection of such invitations to apostasy and evil in the future.
B. (:18) Charge of Hostility and Deception
“for they have been hostile to you with their tricks, with which they have deceived you in the affair of Peor, and in the affair of Cozbi, the daughter of the leader of Midian, their sister who was slain on the day of the plague because of Peor.”
Dennis Cole: The Baal Peor incident would provide a reminder to the Israelites throughout their history of the dangers of intermarriage with the women of the nations whose strong religious influence could lead men astray to worship other gods. This incident served as a case study in understanding the inviolability of God’s holiness and righteousness. The prophet Micah would use the sequence of the Exodus and Baal Peor to challenge the Israelites with the need to remember God’s faithfulness in redemption so that they might not succumb to the world’s influences and that they “may know the righteousness of the Lord.” By this they would understand the will of God for their lives, to be a distinctive people for whom Yahweh meant the greatest good and by whom the world would see the fullness of God’s grace and mercy. Micah then summarized the essential issues of man’s response to God in this special relationship, “He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (Mic 6:5–8).
Thomas Constable: This incident, as the others in which Israel departed from God, shows the inveterate sinfulness of humans even when God blesses us greatly. It also demonstrates the holiness of God, the seriousness of sin in that it destroys fellowship with God, and the necessity of atonement by blood to restore sinners to fellowship with God.