Taking Sin Seriously

1 While Israel lived in Shittim, the people began to whore with the daughters of Moab. These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel. 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.” And Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Each of you kill those of his men who have yoked themselves to Baal of Peor.”

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 in the entrance of the tent of meeting. 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 and went after the man of Israel into the chamber and pierced both of them, the man of Israel and the woman through her belly. Thus the plague on the people of Israel was stopped. Nevertheless, those who 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 killed with the Midianite woman, was Zimri the son of Salu, chief of a father’s house belonging to the Simeonites. 15 And the name of the Midianite woman who was killed was Cozbi the daughter of Zur, who was the tribal head of a father’s house in Midian.

16 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 17 “Harass the Midianites and strike them down, 18 for they have harassed you with their wiles, with which they beguiled you in the matter of Peor, and in the matter of Cozbi, the daughter of the chief of Midian, their sister, who was killed on the day of the plague on account of Peor.” Numbers 25:1-18 ESV

There is no way to escape the fact that this is a graphic and disturbing text. And its close proximity to the oracles of blessing pronounced by God through Balaam makes it all the more difficult to reconcile. In what appears to be a relatively short period of time, King Balak’s hopes of placing Israel under a curse seem to take place without the help of Balaam or any other seer or sage. And the amazing thing is, the Israelites bring it on themselves.

Moses describes the situation in less-than-flattering terms: “ the people began to whore with the daughters of Moab” (Numbers 25:1 ESV). It seems that the residents of Moab had done what their king had not been able to do. They had managed to find a chink in the armor of God’s chosen people, and it involved the two evils of immorality and idolatry. While Balaam had been unsuccessful in pronouncing a curse on the people of God, the citizens of Moab had come up with an ingenious plan for destroying the Israelites from within.

While the Israelites were encamped in the plains of Moab, waiting for the next phase of their conquest of Canaan, the men became distracted by and attracted to the women of Moab. And before long, “the men defiled themselves by having sexual relations with local Moabite women” (Numbers 25:1 NLT).

Concessions were made, compromises were considered, and in no time the set-apart status of the Israelites was eventually jeopardized. What began as illicit sexual encounters between the men of Israel and the women of Moab turned into spiritual adultery and apostasy.

These women invited them to attend sacrifices to their gods, so the Israelites feasted with them and worshiped the gods of Moab. – Numbers 25:2 NLT

Uncontrolled sexual desires led to compromised convictions. Suddenly, the Israelites’ physical allure for the Moabite women created a spiritual attraction for their rogues’ gallery of deities. Forbidden fruit created an insatiable appetite for false gods.

What makes this whole affair so egregious is that it comes fresh on the heels of God’s promise to bless the people of Israel.

No curse can touch Jacob;
    no magic has any power against Israel.
For now it will be said of Jacob,
    ‘What wonders God has done for Israel!’” – Numbers 23:23 NLT

Balaam had not been allowed to curse them. His “magic” had proven unsuccessful. But the women of Moab had managed to cast a spell on the unsuspecting men of Israel. They simply used their feminine wiles to bewitch the hapless Israelites and cause them to turn their backs on Jehovah. And because men were responsible for the spiritual oversight of their households, it wasn’t long before the apostasy spread throughout the camp.

Israel joined in the worship of Baal of Peor, causing the Lord’s anger to blaze against his people. – Numbers 25:3 NLT

The fallout from this act of unfaithfulness was immediate and widespread. But God quickly intervened, ordering Moses to take immediate action.

“Seize all the ringleaders and execute them before the Lord in broad daylight, so his fierce anger will turn away from the people of Israel.” – Numbers 25:4 NLT

There would be no compromise on God’s part. He would not tolerate sin in the camp of Israel, especially that involving immorality and idolatry. The guilty were to be made examples of, delivering a sobering warning to the rest of the nation of Israel. And Moses was quick to follow God’s instructions, calling on the judges of the tribes of Israel to carry out the executions of all those who had taken part in this act of rebellion against God.

And this is where the story earns its NC-17 rating. What happens next is both shocking and unimaginable. As a result of this corporate act of sin and God’s prescribed solution, the people had been called to gather before the tabernacle. Moses describes the tone as sorrowful, likely because of sorrow for the deaths of some of their sons, fathers, and husbands. Yet as the people wept over their sin and the loss of their loved ones, one of the guilty men did something that is difficult to believe. He brazenly took a Moabite woman into his tent, in full view of Moses and the rest of the assembly. He exhibits no shame and, completely controlled by his sexual desires, he displays no self-control.

He does the unthinkable. Either he was flaunting his personal preferences in the face of Moses and God, or he was so consumed by his physical appetites that he could no longer control himself. The apostle Paul describes such people in condemning terms: “Their god is their appetite, they brag about shameful things, and they think only about this life here on earth” (Philippians 3:19 NLT).

As Moses and the rest of the people looked on in shock, this moral reprobate flaunted his disdain for the holiness of God and rejected his own personal guilt. He shows no regret, remorse, or repentance. But his unprecedented display of disrespect for God got the attention of Phinehas, the son of Eleazar the high priest. This young man was the grandson of Aaron the former high priest and he took his role as servant of God seriously. Unwilling to stand back and watch this affront to God’s holiness take place, he took matters into his own hands – literally. 

he jumped up and left the assembly. He took a spear and rushed after the man into his tent. Phinehas thrust the spear all the way through the man’s body and into the woman’s stomach. – Numbers 25:7-8 NLT

The actions of this man were more than an uncontrolled sexual encounter with a pagan woman. They were engaged in an act of worship associated with Baal, the false god of the Moabites. Sexual promiscuity was a regular feature in the rites and rituals associated with this pagan deity. But Phinehas refused to turn a blind eye to their immorality and idolatry, executing the guilty couple on the spot. And Moses indicates that the quick action of Phinehas brought an end to a plague that had already ravaged the lives of 24,000 Israelites.

And due to his actions, Phinehas received a covenant promise from God.

“Phinehas son of Eleazar and grandson of Aaron the priest has turned my anger away from the Israelites by being as zealous among them as I was. So I stopped destroying all Israel as I had intended to do in my zealous anger. Now tell him that I am making my special covenant of peace with him. In this covenant, I give him and his descendants a permanent right to the priesthood, for in his zeal for me, his God, he purified the people of Israel, making them right with me.” – Numbers 25:11-13 NLT

Phinehas was rewarded for his efforts. This young man had executed the righteous judgment of God but, in so doing, had spared the nation from further deaths. God’s anger was satisfied and the sins of the nation were atoned for. But God was not done carrying out His judgment. Because the woman found in the tent was of Midianite extraction, God ordered that the Midianites be completely destroyed for the role they played in Israel’s rebellion against Him.

“Attack the Midianites and destroy them, because they assaulted you with deceit and tricked you into worshiping Baal of Peor, and because of Cozbi, the daughter of a Midianite leader, who was killed at the time of the plague because of what happened at Peor.” – Numbers 25:17-18 NLT

In a sense, Cozbi had accomplished what Balaam had failed to do. She and the other Midianite and Moabite women had successfully cursed a portion of the Israelite camp by luring them into immorality and idolatry. And while this resulted in the deaths of 24,000 Israelites, it did nothing to thwart God’s plans to bless them and provide them with the inheritance He had promised to them. It would be the Moabites and Midianites who suffered the greatest losses due to this fateful event. But God would prove faithful to His covenant promises to Israel.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.