Numbers 25 – Israel Bows to Baal
A. Sexual immorality, idolatry, and the aftermath.
1. (1-3) Israel’s harlotry with the women of Moab.
Now Israel remained in Acacia Grove, and the people began to commit harlotry with the women of Moab. They invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. So Israel was joined to Baal of Peor, and the anger of the LORD was aroused against Israel.
a. And the people began to commit harlotry with the women of Moab: The women of Moab, coming among the men of Israel, seduced them to both sexual sin and idolatry (and bowed down to their gods). The two were commonly connected in perverse forms of idol worship in the ancient world.
i. “The verb used to describe the action of the men [commit harlotry] is one normally used to describe the behavior of a loose 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.” (Allen)
ii. “Whose fashion was, as soon as their sacrifice was ended, to step aside into the grove of their god, and there, like brute beasts, promiscuously to satisfy their lusts.” (Trapp)
iii. Israel’s sin at Baal-Peor also carries a strong sense of ingratitude. God had just wonderfully protected Israel against the best efforts of Balaam and Balak to curse them – instead, blessing Israel and cursing her enemies. Their harlotry, both sexual and spiritual, was their ungrateful response.
iv. In this chapter, the women and their people are sometimes described as Midianites and sometimes as Moabites. This is because the Midianites were a nomadic group, and in this period, they were in high numbers among the Moabites.
v. Acacia Grove: “Josephus identified the site with Abila of his day, a site located seven miles east of the Jordan and about five miles north of the Dead Sea. This general area just a few miles northeast of the Dead Sea, also referred to several times by the description ‘on the plains of Moab by the Jordan across from Jericho,’ was to be the geographical setting for the remainder of the Israelite sojourn prior to entering the Promised Land.” (Cole)
b. Israel was joined to Baal of Peor: Baal was the great Canaanite fertility god, and the worship of Baal was a constant temptation for the children of Israel. Balaam prophesied from the high places of Baal (Numbers 22:41), possibly from this same place – Baal Peor. Here, Israel was joined to – that is, yoked with or partnered with – the Canaanite god Baal.
i. To this point in the whole story of the exodus, Israel has sinned in many ways. They murmured, grumbled, and complained, not being grateful for God’s generous provision. They worshipped Yahweh in a false way, claiming an image of a golden calf could represent Him. They sinned by their unbelief, refusing to trust God and His promise. But before this, they had never plainly worshiped another god. This was a sin of idolatry unlike any previously seen in the exodus.
ii. “In doing this they were violating the principle of Balaam’s first vision of them as a people dwelling alone. It was an act of rebellion against God and so a corruption of the Covenant.” (Morgan)
iii. This is the first recorded encounter of Israel with Baal and sets a tragic pattern for Israel’s later dealings with this pagan deity popular among the Canaanites. Enticing the people of Israel to idolatry through sexual liaisons with pagan women was such a powerful temptation that it even captured Solomon, Israel’s king famous for his wisdom (1 Kings 11:1-10).
iv. It is not until Numbers 31:16 that we learn that this happened through the counsel of Balaam. In a sense, it was through Balaam’s counsel that Baal worship first came to Israel.
c. The anger of the LORD was aroused against Israel: Balak could never pay enough money to Balaam to make God curse Israel. In the previous chapter, Balaam tried to curse Israel and could not – instead, by the inspiration of the LORD, Balaam blessed Israel and cursed her enemies. Yet now, at Baal of Peor, Israel was cursed by having the anger of the LORD turned against them because of their sin against the LORD.
i. The anger of the LORD was aroused against Israel: According to Allen, this is literally “a reddening of His nose,” a metaphor used to describe a flashing of rage. We learn later in the chapter that the anger of the LORD showed itself in a plague that began to strike down thousands among Israel and seemed as if it would continue until the whole nation was consumed.
ii. 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.
iii. “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.” (Rabbi Hirsch, cited in Allen)
iv. “The Moabites being now neighbours to the Israelites, and finding themselves unable to effect their design against Israel by war and witchcraft, they now fell another way to work.” (Poole) In the same way, 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.
d. The anger of the LORD was aroused against Israel: Balaam did his best to curse Israel – but was unsuccessful. Yet, his love for money wouldn’t let the matter end without pleasing the man who hired him, Balak the king of Moab. Balaam’s greed motivated him to be persistent in finding a way to help Balak bring the anger of the LORD against Israel.
i. 2 Peter 2:15 speaks of Balaam the man who loved the wages of unrighteousness. Revelation 2:14 makes the connection between Balaam’s unsuccessful attempt to curse Israel and this subsequent idolatry: Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality.
ii. Essentially, after his failure to curse Israel, Balaam said something like this to Balak: “I cannot curse these people. But you can get them to curse themselves by luring them to rebel against their God. Send your most provocative girls among them and tell them to tempt the men of Israel to immorality and idolatry.” And it worked.
iii. Balaam, through his wicked counsel to Balak, got what he wanted – but he also ended up dead among the enemies of God (Numbers 31:7-8). He only enjoyed his wages for a short time.
2. (4-5) God’s judgment on the offenders.
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Take all the leaders of the people and hang the offenders before the LORD, out in the sun, that the fierce anger of the LORD may turn away from Israel.”
So Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Every one of you kill his men who were joined to Baal of Peor.”
a. Take all the leaders and the people and hang the offenders before the LORD: God thought it important that the offenders be judged openly; this was not a sin to be kept hidden. Such open sin had to be dealt with openly.
i. Considering the strong sense of disgrace associated with unburied corpses, this was truly a severe judgment. “Moses was to 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 the guilty members of their tribes, and execute them by impaling them on poles such that their bodies would hang out in the open in broad daylight.” (Cole)
b. Every one of you kill his men who were joined to Baal of Peor: This responsibility was given to all the leaders of the people. They would find those among them who had committed the sins of idolatry and immorality with the Moabite women. The penalty was to be death (every one of you kill his men).
i. “As if he had said, ‘Assemble the chiefs and judges, institute an inquiry concerning the transgressors, and hang them who shall be found guilty before the Lord, as a matter required by his justice.’” (Clarke)
ii. This was severe judgment, but consistent with what God promised Israel in the terms of the covenant He made with them at Mount Sinai. Now therefore, go, lead the people to the place of which I have spoken to you. Behold, My Angel shall go before you. Nevertheless, in the day when I visit for punishment, I will visit punishment upon them for their sin. (Exodus 32:34)
iii. When sin such as this is tolerated or even approved in a culture, it is a sure sign of decay, and the LORD – speaking through Moses – wouldn’t accept that decay. He commanded the community (the leaders and the people) to bring the offenders to be judged, to show they would not accept this kind of sin in their midst.
B. A flagrant sin judged.
1. (6-9) Phinehas’ stand for righteousness stops God’s plague of judgment.
And indeed, one of the children of Israel came and presented to his brethren a Midianite woman in the sight of Moses and in the sight of all the congregation of the children of Israel, who were weeping at the door of the tabernacle of meeting. Now when Phinehas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose from among the congregation and took a javelin in his hand; and he went after the man of Israel into the tent and thrust both of them through, the man of Israel, and the woman through her body. So the plague was stopped among the children of Israel. And those who died in the plague were twenty-four thousand.
a. A Midianite woman in the sight of Moses and in the sight of all the congregation: This was an especially offensive example of the sin that was happening all around Israel. A man of Israel and a Midianite woman were together near the door of the tabernacle of meeting.
i. Some commentators (such as Allen) believe this man was having sex with the Midianite woman right in front of the tabernacle, and the text tactfully obscures this, because it was so outrageous and offensive. “The man is a blasphemer in the strongest sense. His sin is a deliberate provocateur of the wrath of the Lord, flaunting and taunting holiness in an almost unbelievable crudity.” (Allen)
b. Now when Phinehas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose from among the congregation: Phinehas was one among those in Israel who would not accept this widespread rebellion against God. He brought God’s judgment by thrusting through the man of Israel and the Midianite woman with a spear – seemingly, during their immoral act.
i. In the presence of such shocking and outrageous sin, it is common for onlookers to freeze in stunned disbelief. One man did not remain motionless. Phinehas – a grandson of Aaron (Exodus 6:25) – was the one man who acted boldly against this outrage. “His anger mirrored the divine anger.” (Wenham)
ii. Phinehas was not a vigilante, and his bold act (and God’s praise of it) do not justify vigilantism. Numbers 3-4 explains that the priests were responsible for the security of the tabernacle, guarding it against intruders, and killing those who dared to trespass. Phinehas carried out this responsibility as an authorized protector of the tabernacle, and this was an outrageous attack against the holiness of the sanctuary.
iii. “The positioning and the ability to thrust the spear through both bodies, the man’s first and then the woman’s, suggests that they had involved themselves immediately in sexual intercourse upon entering the tent.” (Cole)
iv. The Hebrew of Numbers 25:6 has the Midianite woman, marking her as a person of some importance. “This suggests that this was not just one of the local sacred prostitutes but a person of prominence. I suggest that the article is used to mark her out as a pivotal player. Perhaps she is the high priestess of the religion at Baal Peor.” (Allen)
c. So the plague was stopped among the children of Israel: Phinehas was probably not the only one to make such a stand for righteousness. But what he did received the credit for stopping the plague.
i. It is easy to think that the stand for righteousness made by one person makes no difference in the massive presence of sin in a community. But God can honor just one righteous act and cause it to make the difference. It could be said that through one righteous act, Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world (John 12:32).
ii. “Some Christian commentators have seen Phinehas as a type of Christ. In that he embodied the ideal of Israelite priesthood this is surely legitimate: our Lord was angry more than once with sin (e.g. Mark 3:5, 11:15ff.). Yet there is another side to it: whereas it was Phinehas’ spear that pierced the sinners that made atonement for Israel, it was the nails and spear that pierced Jesus that made atonement for the sins of the whole world.” (Wenham)
iii. “The account of the action of Phinehas the priest is a revelation of how one man in loyalty to God and jealous for His honor may stand against the false attitude of a people. Phinehas dared refuse to take part in these false conventionalities and visited with immediate and terrible punishment the two notorious wrongdoers.” (Morgan)
d. Twenty-four thousand: This many died in the plague. This must have delighted Balak, king of Moab. He knew that Balaam had succeeded in cursing Israel – or, rather, in getting them to curse themselves.
i. Those who died in the plague were twenty-four thousand: It seems that Paul refers to this incident in 1 Corinthians 10:8, but Paul says it was 23,000 killed instead of 24,000. “The two places may be reconciled thus: 1000 men were slain in consequence of the examination instituted Numbers 25:4, and 23,000 in consequence of the orders given Numbers 25:5; making 24,000 in the whole. St. Paul probably refers only to the latter number.” (Clarke)
2. (10-13) God honors Phinehas for his zeal.
Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: “Phinehas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the children of Israel, because he was zealous with My zeal among them, so that I did not consume the children of Israel in My zeal. Therefore say, ‘Behold, I give to him My covenant of peace; and it shall be to him and his descendants after him a covenant of an everlasting priesthood, because he was zealous for his God, and made atonement for the children of Israel.’”
a. Because he was zealous with My zeal among them, so that I did not consume the children of Israel in My zeal: It wasn’t only Phinehas’ obedience God noticed; it was also that he was zealous with My zeal among them. Phinehas was passionate about the things God was passionate about. In this situation, Phinehas faithfully demonstrated the zeal of God against Israel’s unfaithfulness to their covenant with God.
b. It shall be to him and his descendants after him a covenant of an everlasting priesthood: God blessed Phinehas with the promise that he would be the descendant of Aaron through whom the priesthood passed.
i. 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.
3. (14-18) God commands Israel to harass and attack the Midianites.
Now the name of the Israelite who was killed, who was killed with the Midianite woman, was Zimri the son of Salu, a leader of a father’s house among the Simeonites. And the name of the Midianite woman who was killed was Cozbi the daughter of Zur; he was head of the people of a father’s house in Midian.
Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: “Harass the Midianites, and attack them; for they harassed you with their schemes by which they seduced you in the matter of Peor and in the matter of Cozbi, the daughter of a leader of Midian, their sister, who was killed in the day of the plague because of Peor.”
a. Zimri the son of Salu…. Cozbi the daughter of Zur: These were the names of the previously unnamed (Numbers 25:6, 8) Israelite man and Moabite woman who so publicly and offensively sinned. This naming was to their everlasting shame. Both of them came from fathers who were leaders.
i. The name Zimri means “my remembrance,” and he was remembered in the worst way. The name Cozbi means “my lie” or “deception,” and it is possible that her name was deliberately changed to make it more appropriate to her disgrace.
ii. Cozbi, the daughter of a leader of Midian: “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.” (Allen)
iii. In Israel, only men could be priests. In most of the peoples surrounding Israel, women were often priests, and their priestly “service” was often associated with prostitution.
b. Harass the Midianites, and attack them; for they harassed you with their schemes by which they seduced you in the matter of Peor: God commanded Israel to show no tolerance towards the Midianites, who played a role in seducing Israel to these sins of immorality and idolatry. Israel was commanded to battle against the Midianites at every opportunity they had.
i. Harass the Midianites, and attack them: Numbers 31:1-20 records that “Twelve thousand Israelites attacked the Midianites, destroyed all their cities, slew their five kings, every male, and every grown up woman, and took all their spoils.” (Clarke)
ii. “With the plague of Baal Peor the punishment of the first generation was complete, and the process of preparing the second generation to enter the Promised Land was at hand.” (Cole)