1 While Israel dwelt in Shittim the people began to play the harlot with the daughters of Moab. 2 These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate, and bowed down to their gods. 3 So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel; 4 and the LORD said to Moses, “Take all the chiefs of the people, and hang them in the sun before the LORD, that the fierce anger of the LORD may turn away from Israel.” 5 And Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Every one of you slay his men who have yoked themselves to Baal of Peor.”
6 And behold, one of the people of Israel came and brought a Midianite woman to his family, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the whole congregation of the people of Israel, while they were weeping at the door of the tent of meeting. 7 When Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose and left the congregation, and took a spear in his hand 8 and went after the man of Israel into the inner room, and pierced both of them, the man of Israel and the woman, through her body. Thus the plague was stayed from the people of Israel. 9 Nevertheless those that died by the plague were twenty-four thousand.
10 And the LORD said to Moses, 11 “Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy. 12 Therefore say, ‘Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace; 13 and it shall be to him, and to his descendants after him, the covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God, and made atonement for the people of Israel.’”
14 The name of the slain man of Israel, who was slain with the Midianite woman, was Zimri the son of Salu, head of a fathers’ house belonging to the Simeonites. 15 And the name of the Midianite woman who was slain was Cozbi the daughter of Zur, who was the head of the people of a fathers’ house in Midian. Num. 25:1-15
Baal means lord, master, or husband, Peor is a mountain in Moab, but its verb root means to open wide, giving us a literal meaning of, Lord of the hole or opening. Many have speculated that this has to do with the mod of immorality that his worship took, (pick an orifice).
We have both the Moabite and the Midianites here. Moab was the son of Lot by his eldest daughter [Gen 19]. Midian was a son of Abraham by Keturah [Gen 25]. These two nations were settled in what is now southern Jordan.
The whole passage seems out of order or fragmentary, and lacks certain details that the English thinker finds annoying to say the least. The English mind demands order and sequence. Our verb tenses force us to think in this way. We only have past, present, and future. The Hebrew thinker is very different, for their verb tenses are very different. There is complete and incomplete action, as well as several intensities of causation. In the Hebrew the daughters of Moab caused the Israelites to play the harlot. Because of this the judges went through the tribes and killed all the men that had participated in this betrayal of their God. Many of the leaders of the people were killed by the sword and hanged.
While all this carnage is going on. Moses and the people stand weeping at the tabernacle. A Simeonite named Zimri walks right pass them with a Midianite Princess into the tent. (Zimri roots from a word that means mountain goat or sheep, and Cozbi means to deceive.) They have sexual relation right in the Tent of Meeting. There is some question as to whether this is the Holy Place or the Holy of Holies. Which ever it was the whole congregation could see them. This act so enraged Phinehas that he left the weeping, and grabbed a spear and put it through both of them and on into the ground. By this act he stopped a plague.
The text never states how the plague started. This is what seems out of order. We are not told what the plague consisted of either. Nor are there any other passages that give any light to this. We only know that 24,000 died of it.
FYI: Some misguided persons in America have from time to time, have used this passage to denounce and try to make illegal interracial marriage. Which is total nonsense as Midianites and Israelites are both descended from Abraham.
SPECULATION: Why this public display of copulation would even have occurred to Zimri and Cozbi’s minds is unclear.
- Maybe Cozbi wanted to introduce everyone to a less jealous and hateful god. After all there were dead bodies hanging in trees. Perhaps this is an attempt to give the people a god of love. As many people today have created a false god of love, who would never judge anybody.
- It was common for traveling or relocated people to worship the local gods. We see this in the Samaritans [2 Kings 17:24-28].
- Zimri may have thought that he was two important a person in Simeon for the judges to deal with. But many commentators suggest that Phinehas was more than likely one of these judges. As the Grandson of Aaron, he was more than likely one of the leaders in the tribe of Levi [Ex. 18:21], and as such a judge over thousand or perhaps hundreds. So it then is no surprise that he would stand up and do his duty.
FYI: This is the only time in Scripture where the death of a human is said to have made atonement.
The reason for all this apostasy with accompanying sexual worship is not explained until chapter 31 as being the result of the teachings of Balaam. Even though is seems that the Moabite women and the Midianite woman were separate events, both Moses and the Psalmist indicates they were one in the same.
Moses, and Eleazar the priest, and all the leaders of the congregation, went forth to meet them outside the camp. 14 And Moses was angry with the officers of the army, the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds, who had come from service in the war. 15 Moses said to them, “Have you let all the women live? 16 Behold, these caused the people of Israel, by the counsel of Balaam, to act treacherously against the LORD in the matter of Peor, and so the plague came among the congregation of the LORD. 17 Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him. 18 But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves. 19 Encamp outside the camp seven days; whoever of you has killed any person, and whoever has touched any slain, purify yourselves and your captives on the third day and on the seventh day. 20 You shall purify every garment, every article of skin, all work of goats’ hair, and every article of wood.” Num. 31:13 -20
They sat down to eat sacrifices offered to the dead.
Then they attached themselves to the Baal of Peor,
and ate sacrifices offered to the dead;
they provoked the LORD to anger with their doings,
and a plague broke out among them.
Then Phinehas stood up and interposed,
and the plague was stayed.
And that has been reckoned to him as righteousness
from generation to generation for ever. Psa. 106:28 -31
Balaam had taught the Moabites that the only way to curse God’s people was to get them to sin so that God would judge them. For this evil teaching Balaam is used throughout the Scriptures as an anathema for those who teach compromise and the mixing of pagan festivals and ideas, with the true faith. He is condemned as a soothsayer [Josh. 13:22], and we are told to forsake his ways [2 Pet. 2:15; Rev. 2:14 ].
His advice was to cast a stumbling block before God’s people. If Moab had openly attacked the people of Israel, they would surly have been defeated. But instead they sent in beautiful women who invited them to their idolatrous feast. It is often easier to fight off a great army then to deal with a temptress. Those who conquer with charm rather than a sword, are far more dangerous to our faith.
Now these things are warnings for us, not to desire evil as they did. 7 Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to dance.” 8 We must not indulge in immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. 9 We must not put the Lord to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents; 10 nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. 11 Now these things happened to them as a warning, but they were written down for our instruction, upon whom the end of the ages has come. 12 Therefore let any one who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. 13 No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. 1Cor. 10:6 -13
The people were guilty of both physical and spiritual whoredom. Not only were they being unfaithful to their God by worshiping Baal Peor, but they were openly taking on the pagan tradition of temple prostitutes. Something the Torah expressly forbid [Deut. 23:17]. Temple prostitution was quit common in the ancient world.
Phinehas is blessed because he kept the temple clean. He removed the abominable act, stopped the plague, and lead the people to worship God according to the instructions God gave, and not according to what people may want. To the 21 century American Phinehas’ actions seem rash, unjust and prejudicial. Our culture and history of jurisprudence wants rights read, an adversarial trial by jury, then and only then can there be an execution. That is not the system in the Bible. The crime was there for all to see, there is no need for trials, only justice. Which Phinehas handed out quite efficiently. As a priest is one that fears God, and stands in awe of His name [Mal 2:5]. His respect was for God and not the people. He did not bow to peer pressure. He only had respect for the unseen God and a total disregard for the fear of men. He did not need or seek their approval. He simply acted. The whole nation was drifting into idolatry and immorality. Yet his action made atonement.
There is no longer a temple of stone and wood. In our own bodies we are the temple of the Holy Spirit. It is important to God that we keep our temple clean and free of paganism. We are our own priests.
. . . and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 1Pet. 2:5
We need to be free of our lusts, free of our own desires, free of our own fantasies, and totally submitted to our God.
“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be enslaved by anything. 13 “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food” — and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. 14 And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. 15 Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! 16 Do you not know that he who joins himself to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two shall become one flesh.” 17 But he who is united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. 18 Shun immorality. Every other sin which a man commits is outside the body; but the immoral man sins against his own body. 19 Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; 20 you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. 1Cor. 6:12-20
“And now, O priests, this command is for you. 2 If you will not listen, if you will not lay it to heart to give glory to my name, says the LORD of hosts, then I will send the curse upon you and I will curse your blessings; indeed I have already cursed them, because you do not lay it to heart. 3 Behold, I will rebuke your offspring, and spread dung upon your faces, the dung of your offerings, and I will put you out of my presence. 4 So shall you know that I have sent this command to you, that my covenant with Levi may hold, says the LORD of hosts. 5 My covenant with him was a covenant of life and peace, and I gave them to him, that he might fear; and he feared me, he stood in awe of my name. 6 True instruction was in his mouth, and no wrong was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and he turned many from iniquity. 7 For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and men should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts. 8 But you have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by your instruction; you have corrupted the covenant of Levi, says the LORD of hosts, 9 and so I make you despised and abased before all the people, inasmuch as you have not kept my ways but have shown partiality in your instruction.” Mal. 2:1 -9