1 - 5 Israel Joins Themselves to Baal of Peor
1 While Israel remained at Shittim, the people began to play the harlot with the daughters of Moab. 2 For they invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. 3 So Israel joined themselves to Baal of Peor, and the LORD was angry against Israel. 4 The LORD said to Moses, “Take all the leaders of the people and execute them in broad daylight before the LORD, so that the fierce anger of the LORD may turn away from Israel.” 5 So Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Each of you slay his men who have joined themselves to Baal of Peor.”
In Numbers 23-24 we see how God thinks about His people: as objects of His grace and care. Numbers 25 is therewith in great contrast. We often see this great contrast in our lives. On the one hand we may know that God looks at us in Christ. On the other hand, we often let the flesh work in our daily lives.
In the previous chapters Balaam did not succeed in letting God become unfaithful to His people. God has remained faithful to His view of the people. Now the enemy tries to do it on the side of the people. Balaam knows how to distract the people from God by a trick, to let them become unfaithful to God (Num 31:16). He succeeds in this with a people who have all the experience of the wilderness journey behind them. They got to know themselves and they got to know God’s faithfulness. Here we learn that there will never be a time in our lives when we can say that the enemy can no longer get a grip on us.
The people “remained” in Shittim, while they had previously camped in the plains of Moab (Num 22:1). ‘To camp’ is done with a view to immediately moving on, while ‘to remain’ has a more permanent character. Could it mean that Israel is beginning to lose sight of the purpose of the journey and that they are moving towards a more permanent stay in Shittim? In any case, it is significant that the enemy manages to connect with them there. If we lose sight of the fact that we are pilgrims, on our journey to our final destination, and start focusing on our stay on earth, we are open to wrong connections.
The people are invited to come and eat from the sacrifices that are brought to the idols. It seems like a friendly invitation. So people from the world can invite us to come and eat with them and that can be considered. It does not need to be rejected (1Cor 10:27). However, in such cases it may also be friendships of the world that are more to fear than its enmity.
In this case it does not stop with eating. The people also bow down before the idols of the Moabites. Although they have already had an idol in the golden calf (Exo 32:1-6), we find a new aspect here in the people’s unfaithfulness against God. They have grumbled about food and drink and also about the leadership of Moses. They have always revolted against God and Moses and Aaron. Now they go one step further. In this idolatry they not only put the LORD aside, but replace Him by an idol. The persistence of this evil will be evident in the history of Israel. It will be one of God’s main indictments against the people.
The application of this history for us is in Revelation 2 (Rev 2:14). There we read about the teachings of Balaam, not about his deceit. The deceit he uses here has become a doctrine. The mixing of the people of God with the world is not rejected, but encouraged. This turns the people’s gaze from the Lord to the world. He is no longer in the first place, but the world is.
It says of the church in Pergamum that it “dwells where Satan’s throne is” (Rev 2:13). Satan is the prince of the world. ‘Dwell’ means feeling at home there. The church lives in the heart of the world, where the government is exercised. The teaching is that Christians should not be separated from the world. The world council of churches is an example of this. Christians are called upon to connect with the world and to exert their influence in order to move towards a better world.
But the Lord says: “I have a few things against you” (Rev 2:14) Then He speaks of the teaching of Balaam and its effect on the people of God. The attitude that fits with this teaching is not a soft resistance. The Lord Jesus stands opposite this church with “the sharp, two-edged sword” (Rev 2:12). The use of the sword can be seen here in the next verses with Phinehas.
God was angry against Israel, because His people have joined themselves to Baal of Peor. The word ‘joined’ has the power of ‘going together under one yoke with’. Israel moves under one yoke with a pagan people in the worship of the idols (2Cor 6:14-15). Baal of Peor, or lord of Peor, is the local god worshipped on Mount Peor (Num 23:28). There a plague and a judgment come. God punishes what bears His Name, that His people may not alienate themselves from Him. For that purpose, the fierce anger of God has also struck Christianity many times.
The most responsible persons have taken the lead in this infidelity. They should therefore be judged. The seriousness of sin requires a special punishment: “Execute them in broad daylight before the LORD.” They must be hung in public before the LORD. The people must see it and fear, for the judgment is executed because of the LORD’s charge. God’s wrath of sin must deter man from committing sin. And the wrath of God over sin is the proof of His righteousness. Thus He wants evil to be punished.
The people are unfaithful in all the points God has mentioned in blessing on His people:
1. It is a people that dwells alone (Num 23:9), but here they mix with the nations.
2. It is a people in which God sees no iniquity (Num 23:21), but here they commit iniquity.
3. It is a people in which He sees beauty (Num 24:5), but here they commit fornication in their tents.
4. It is a people that will subdue their enemies (Num 24:19), but here they subdue themselves to their enemies.
Here we find no Moses who intercedes for the people. That says something about the seriousness of sin. There is no intercession here, but judgment. The memory of this sin is strongly kept alive throughout the history of Israel (Jos 22:17; Psa 106:28-31; Hos 9:10).
6 - 15 Phinehas Is Jealous for the LORD
6 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. 7 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, 8 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. So the plague on the sons of Israel was checked. 9 Those who died by the plague were 24,000. 10 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. 12 Therefore say, ‘Behold, I give him My covenant of peace; 13 and it shall be for him and his descendants after him, a covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the sons of Israel.’” 14 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. 15 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.
There is a man, an Israelite, who defies the judgment that has been carried out. He ignores God’s judgment and, with incredible hubris, brings a Midianite woman to his brothers. This is not just any sin. It is a frontal attack on the true, high and pure service to God. With his deed he slaps God’s face and he is not interested in anything that he does to his brothers with his deed. His brothers mourn about the situation and he indicates with his deed that they are behaving overly dramatic. So he defies God and despises the crying people.
The Israelites cry – is it just because of the plague or also because of the unfaithfulness to God that has been committed? – and watch as this great sin takes place. But not only do they have to cry, they also have to act here. Phinehas understands what is happening. For the superficial reader, his action seems merciless. But in his action he shows true love for God and for His people. True love “does not rejoice in unrighteousness” (1Cor 13:6a). Not acting is sin. Such shameless sin can be dealt with only in one way: without pardon he kills those who sin without shame and cause the plague.
When he has executed the judgment, the plague stops. With the execution of the judgment, Phinehas works reconciliation. 24,000 people have died by the plague. This seems contrary to the 23,000 mentioned in 1 Corinthians 10 (1Cor 10:8). But there it says “in one day”. This could mean that on another day a 1,000 people died from the plague. It is also possible that the figure of 24,000 includes the death of the leaders of the people who have been executed. It would be about 1,000 leaders. In any case, it shows the extent of the unfaithfulness.
Phinehas is the son of Eleazar, the high priest, and the grandson of Aaron. All three are a picture of the Lord Jesus, the true High Priest. Aaron has died. He is a picture of the Lord Jesus Who made atonement and brought His blood in the sanctuary. Eleazar, as a high priest, is a picture of the Lord Jesus in what He is doing for us now, after He rose from the dead.
Phinehas is also a high priest and also a picture of the Lord Jesus, but then in judging power. Judgment is given to the Lord Jesus as the Son of man (Jn 5:27). Phinehas’ judgment of sin means that the whole people are spared. The Lord Jesus judges the church so that the relationship between Him and His people may be maintained. Hard measures are sometimes needed that we remain His people with whom He can have fellowship.
For his decisive action God rewards Phinehas and his descendants with the eternal priesthood (Jdg 20:28; 1Chr 6:4-15). When listing the gatekeepers, Phinehas is remembered with great respect (1Chr 9:19b-20). He has behaved like a true gatekeeper and made sure that evil is removed from God’s presence. The spirit of Phinehas must characterize us all. It is the spirit of priesthood, practiced in God’s presence. For us it is about the service in the sanctuary, especially when we come together as a church.
The man who dared to commit such a sin is the son of a leader of a father’s household. This teaches us that origin or position is no guarantee whatsoever not to fall into the most awful sin. For this we are only kept if we put our trust not in ourselves but in the Lord.
16 - 18 Be Hostile to the Midianites
16 Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 17 “Be hostile to the Midianites and strike them; 18 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.”
Israel’s attitude towards the Midianites is determined by Midian’s attitude towards Israel. The Midianites have previously connected with Moab in an attempt to curse the people of God (Num 22:4). They have also had a hand in this history to seduce Israel to commit fornication with the daughters of Moab.
The judgment on Moab is carried out in Numbers 31 (Num 31:1-12). We have to be hostile to anything that can lead us to sin.