Chapter 25

NUMBERS CHAPTER 25

Moab Seduces Israel

    • While the Israelites were camped at Shittim (or Acacia Grove), the men began to engage in sexually immoral behavior, having sex with the local Moabite women. These women invited the men to come to their ritual sacrifices to their gods and the men went, participating in eating the sacrificial meal and bowing down in worship of their gods. Therefore, Israel aligned itself with Baal of Peor, and the Lord was furious with them.

      • Though Balaam had been unable to curse Israel, he did come up with an effective plan to lead them astray. NLT Illustrated Study Bible writes, “Israel was camped across the Jordan from Jericho, almost on the eve of conquest, but they plunged to a new low in moral failure and spiritual bankruptcy. Balaam’s advice led to the immorality and apostasy at Baal-peor (31:16); he found a way to damage Israel, if not through a curse, then through lust and idolatry.”

      • Throughout this chapter the pagan women and their people are referred to as both Moabites and Midianites even though these are two distinct people groups. Guzik explains, “This is because the Midianites were a nomadic group, and at this time, were in high numbers among the Moabites.”

      • Who was this Baal of Peor?

        • NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible notes, “In the latter half of the Late Bronze Age, Baal was emerging as one of the major operative deities in Canaan. From Ugaritic texts Baal was the agent of creative order, who with his consort Anath defeated the forces of evil, namely, Yamm (Sea), Mot (Death), and Lotan (Leviathon, ‘Sea Monster’)…His first appearance as a prominent deity in Canaan surfaces in the Hyksos -period texts from Egypt in the latter half of the Middle Bronze Age (c. 1720-1570 BC). The Egyptians bemoaned the fact that ‘foreign rulers’ from the land of Hurru and Retenu were not worshipers of Amon-Re, but of a god called Baal-hazor, which they associated with their god Seth. With the emergence of the classical Canaanites in the southern Levant, apparently a mix of Northwest Semitic peoples and some non-Semitic elements such as the Hurrians and the Hittites, came the emergence of Baal as the primary deity in the cults of the land.”

        • NLT Illustrated Study Bible adds, “Numerous place-names were formed with this deity’s name (eg Baal-gad, Baal-hermon, Baal-meon, Baal-peor), representing shrines for local manifestations of Baal. Peor was a mountain from which Balaam could see the Israelite camp in the plains of Moab; the mountain and the related shrine of Beth-peor (23:28; 25:3, 5, 18; 31:16; Deuteronomy 3:29; 4:3, 46; 34:6; Joshua 13:20; 22:17) were somewhere in the vicinity of Mount Nebo.”

        • In Guzik’s commentary he emphasizes the imperative lesson from this story: we are our own worst enemy, “What an enemy could never accomplish against Israel, Israel did to itself through disobedience. The same principle works among the people of God today. The mightiest attack of Satan against us can never do as much damage as our own sin and rebellion against the Lord…Satan’s violence and sorcery can have no lasting influence on the believer; but if he can lead us into sin, we can be destroyed. ” He continues by citing an additional source, Rabbi Hirsch cited in Allen, “The sword of no stranger, the curse of no stranger had the power to damage Israel. Only it itself could bring misfortune, by seceding from God and his Law.”

    • The Lord gave Moses the following command, “Gather all the leaders of these people, kill them, then leave them publicly exposed before the Lord in broad daylight so that My anger will be directed away from Israel.” Moses then commanded Israel’s judges to kill all the men who had aligned themselves with Baal of Peor.

      • Already a grisly scene, the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible discusses the obscure Hebrew term variously rendered among English translations, resulting in even more disturbing clarity, “That is, Moses must round up all the tribal leaders, those representatives of the people who presumably should have either prevented the idolatrous activities or carried out the punishment of guilty members of their tribes, and execute them by impaling them on poles so that their bodies hang out in broad daylight. The term ‘impale’ is a rare Hebrew verb that has been variously translated as ‘kill, execute, impale, dismember.’… Exposure to the elements usually followed this form of execution, as with Saul’s sons (2 Samuel 21:8-13). Such public exposure was reserved for only the most heinous of crimes in ancient Israel and Mesopotamia.”

Phinehas Intervenes

    • Then, an Israelite man (Zimri, whose father Salu was the leader of a family from the tribe of Simeon) brazenly brought a Midianite woman (Cozbi, whose father Zur was the leader of a Midianite clan) into his tent right in front of Moses and all of the Israelite community while they were crying at the entrance of the Tabernacle. Seeing this, Eleazar’s son (and Aaron’s grandson), Phinehas, immediately got up and left the group. Taking a spear, he went directly into Zimri’s tent and plunged the spear all the way through his body and into Cozbi’s stomach. Subsequently, the plague afflicting the Israelites stopped, but 24,000 people had already died.

      • Were Phinehas’ actions merely in response to a Midianite woman being brought into the camp? Many scholars infer from the text that Zimri’s offense was far more severe. NLT Illustrated Study Bible explains, “Phinehas…killed Zimri and Cozbi with one thrust of a spear (25:7-8), which probably indicates that they were engaged in sexual intercourse.” Guzik’s commentary agrees citing yet another source, “Allen believes this man was having sex with the Midianite woman right in front of the tabernacle, and the text deliberately obscures this, because it is so offensive.”

      • On the nature of the plague that Phinehas ended, the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible notes, “This is not the word used for the ten plagues in Exodus, but it is the same word for plague that is used in Numbers 14:37; 16:46-50. It is some sort of epidemic.”

    • Then the Lord told Moses, “Phinehas has turned my wrath away from Israel by being as zealous for My honor among them as I was. I had intended to kill all of the Israelites, but because of Phinehas’ atoning actions, I have stopped. Tell him that I am making a peace covenant with him. In this covenant I will give him and his descendants the right to the priesthood permanently because in his zeal he purified the people of Israel, giving them right standing (atonement) before Me.”

      • Guzik writes, “It wasn’t only Phinehas’ obedience God noticed. He was also noticed because he was zealous with My zeal among them. Phinehas was passionate about the things God was passionate about, and in this respect, he was a man after God’s own heart…God blessed Phinehas with the promise that he would be the descendant of Aaron through which the priesthood passed…This was fitting, because it was the zeal of Phinehas that made atonement for the children of Israel, just as a priest should be the one ministering atonement.”

Vengeance Against the Midianites

    • The Lord continued, telling Moses, “Attack and destroy the Midianites because they attacked you by tricking you into worshiping Baal of Peor just as they did in the incident with Cozbi, who was killed while the plague was in effect because of what happened at Peor.”

      • They were to show no tolerance towards that which brought the sin in their midst and turned their hearts away from God. They were to battle against the Midianites every opportunity they had.” (Guzik)

**Note**

    • Skeptics have a field day with this chapter, painting God as a cruel bloodthirsty maniac. This is not surprising. However, many Christians also struggle to reconcile two particular elements of this story: (1) God’s harsh commands for judgment combined with the public display of the bodies and (2) God’s praise of Phinehas’ actions which seems like a call to religious violence therefore apparently at odds with the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament. How can we respond to these concerns?

      • (1) God’s harsh commands for judgment and public display of the perpetrators.

        • God’s response here makes perfect sense in light of the stage in His plan that the Israelites are occupying in this context- they are poised to enter the promised land. HCSB notes, “The nation is about to be reconstituted in preparation for receiving its inheritance in the promised land…this is a pivotal occasion in Israel’s history, during which the Lord is laying the foundation for Israel’s understanding of itself as His faithful people. He could permit no doubt about the seriousness of His purpose.” Additionally, His judgment here aligns with His previous dealings with the Israelites regarding events similar in severity.

        • As Bob Deffinbaugh reminds us in Part 3 of his series on Balaam, “When the first generation of Israelites worshipped the golden calf, God threatened to wipe out the entire nation, but due to the intercession of Moses, the nation was spared (Exodus 32). We should recall that on this occasion Moses commanded the Levites to take their swords and to kill friends and neighbors (Exodus 32:27). This was without a specific command from God to do so. This dramatic response brought the people back under control and spared them from much more extensive punishment.” I don’t know about you, but I imagine the scene of the guilty impaled on poles for all to see would be quite a stimulating reminder. Sin is serious in the eyes of God- whether we personally agree with God’s estimation of sin’s seriousness is inconsequential.

      • (2) God’s praise of Phinehas’ actions which seems like a call to religious violence and therefore at odds with the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament.

        • This topic is a little more difficult to address. As one blogger aptly states, “A follower of Jesus can’t help but notice the radical contrast between the portrait of God commending Phinehas for his use of the sword, on the one hand, and Jesus’ rebuke of Peter for using the sword, on the other (Mt 26:51-52).” He continues, “Unfortunately, it’s an undeniable truth that throughout history the example of Phinehas has exercised more influence on Christian attitudes toward violence than Jesus’. As J.J. Collin’s has demonstrated, the ‘zeal of Phinehas’ has served as a paradigmatic slogan for religiously motivated violence in the Judeo-Christian tradition throughout history.”

      • What’s the answer? Some people struggle with the concept that God does not change, yet His rules and commands for different people living in different times can and do vary. This is an excellent example. Nothing at all as changed regarding how God feels about idolatry and sexual immorality- He hates them as much today as He did in Phinehas’ day. What has changed is how His people are to respond to these sins in their midst. Deffinbaugh writes:

        • This text does not justify violence in seeking justice in the name of God…Israel in those days was a theocracy, and God was their king (1 Samuel 10:19; 12:12). God had ordered ‘capital punishment’ for those who had willfully broken His law. Phinehas was acting under divine orders…As a priest, Phinehas knew how precise God’s Law was governing Israel’s worship. He also knew that those who practiced this kind of immorality were to be put to death. He did not need a special revelation from God—God’s will was clear. Filled with zeal for God, Phinehas stood up in the middle of the assembly (in the sight of all), took a spear in hand, and went after the Israelite man and his mistress. It would appear that by the time he reached the tent they were already engaged in sexual sin, and so with one thrust of his spear he put both the man and the woman to death. With this one act of religious zeal, Phinehas not only puts an end to the sin of these two people, he also brings to an end the plague which God had brought upon Israel, a plague which had already taken the lives of 24,000 Israelites. What no one else seemed willing to do, Phinehas did. He is the only one who is reported to have lifted a hand against this terrible sin which threatened the existence of the nation. The action of this one man seems to have saved the nation.”

        • How are things different for us today? We are NOT a theocracy. Deffinbaugh continues, “Today, God has ordained human government as the means by which justice is meted out (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-15). Let us beware, then, of finding any sanction here for lawlessness or vigilante justice.”

        • What about dealing with sin among believers? Again- different methods today. Steven Cole tackles that issue in his article for Bible.org. This is handled by the church leadership via rebuke or even disfellowshiping when and if necessary. NOT according to commands per Mosaic Law which is no longer applicable. Relevant Scripture includes: 1 Corinthians 5:7; Hebrews 12:6, 10; 13:17; Galatians 2:11-14; Titus 1:13

        • Does this mean God is softer on sin in the New Testament than in the Old Testament? Anyone who believes this to be the case has not read the end of the New Testament…

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