SynopsisFor the last few chapters, Israel has been doing pretty good. Through the LORD’s strength they have won battle after battle. In this chapter, however, they stumble. (Incidentally, in the NIV, the heading for this section is “Moab Seduces Israel,” but I thought “Israel is Seduced” might be a bit more accurate; true, Moab might have seduced them, but they let themselves be seduced, even though they knew better. This was probably presumptuous of me, since the LORD also has harsh words for Moab, on this subject.)
While the Israelites are camped near the Moabites, the Moabite women start inviting the Israelite men to the sacrifices to their gods, where they indulge in sexual immorality. The god they were worshipping was the “Baal of Peor” (verse 3). This angers the LORD, who commands Moses to take the leaders of the people, kill them, and expose them in broad daylight, to turn His anger away from the rest of the Israelites. It says “the leaders of these people” (verse 4, emphasis added), which leads me to indicate He is referring to the leaders of the guilty people, not the overall Israelite leaders.
Moses delegates this responsibility; he talks to the judges, and commands them that they must kill any of their men who have joined in the Baal worship. While this is happening, although it’s not explicitly stated, there is also a plague from the LORD, which is killing the Israelites, because of His anger.
As Moses is talking to the judges, the “whole assembly of Israel” (verse 6) has gathered at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, and are weeping, which indicates to me that it’s not the entire nation who has sinned; it’s a subset of the people. (Either that or they’re just weeping because of the plague.) But, as this is all going on, an Israelite man brings a Midianite woman home to his tent, in full view of everyone. (Later, in verses 14–15, the names of the man and woman are given, although you probably don’t care too much about their names.)
Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, takes a spear, and goes into the man’s tent. He drives the spear through the man and the woman, killing them. At this point, the plague against the Israelites is stopped, although 24,000 people have died.
The LORD is pleased with Phinehas’ action, “for he was as zealous as I am for my honor among [the Israelites], so that in my zeal I did not put an end to them” (verse 11). Because of this, the LORD makes a covenant with Phinehas, that his descendants will have a lasting priesthood.
God then commands Moses to treat the Midianites as enemies, and kill them, since they treated the Israelites as enemies, by deceiving them.
ThoughtsThis chapter emphasizes, once again, that the Israelites are to worship God, and God alone. He will not tolerate another “god” taking His place in the Israelites’ lives. His response, when they worship other gods, may seem extreme, to us, but that’s because we don’t hold God as high in our esteem as we should. Even Christians—especially in North America, which is a very individualistic society—tend to have a view of God which is much smaller than He really is. We also have a view of His role in our lives which is smaller than it should be. (If you’d like to read a book, along these lines, I highly recommend Concerning the End for Which God Created The World, by Jonathan Edwards. Or you can get God’s Passion for His Glory, by John Piper, which starts out as a synopsis of the Edwards book, and then ends with the complete text. It’s a very hard read, but well worth it, in my oh-so-humble opinion.)
I’m led to believe that worship of many pagan gods included sexual activities—some temples to pagan gods even had “temple prostitutes”—which, to my mind, goes at least part of the way to explaining why the Israelites fell into idolatry so often, in their history. If the Moabites had asked the Israelites, “Hey, do you want to come and sacrifice to our gods?” the answer would probably have been “No, we have our own God, thank you very much.” But when the Moabites asked them, “Hey, do you want to come and join in on our sexual activities, as part of our worship?” it was much more tempting. (That’s not 100% true; the Israelites might also worship other gods simply to “hedge their bets;” they might worship God, but also worship another god to try and get good crops, and another god to have many children, etc. But my point is that the sex was probably also a huge lure to them.)
Get used to hearing the name “Baal” because you’ll be encountering it throughout the rest of the Old Testament. I believe it’s pronounced similar to “bail,” although when I first started reading the Bible I didn’t go to church, and, never having heard the name, had always assumed it was pronounced more like “ball.” I had thought that “Baal” was the name of one particular god, but in this case, the god is referred to as “the Baal of Peor,” which leads me to wonder if there were multiple gods named “Baal.”