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The great importance of this chapter arises from the pivotal nature of it in the subsequent history of Israel. Right here began the religious apostasy of Israel that was to continue for centuries, resulting in the total corruption: (1) of the Northern Israel, and (2) later of the Southern Israel also, with the result that both nations went into captivity, and only the southern remnant survived. A careful study of the episode also reveals the basis of Israel's rejection of their sacred covenant with God. It simply came down to this, that the people rejected the strict moral requirements of the Decalogue.
Not all of this appears on the surface of the narrative, but it is clear enough that we are not dealing with two different episodes, but with one, and in order to appreciate the more comprehensive event and the relationship of the two phases of it appearing in this chapter to the total situation, some reading between the lines is necessary. A failure to do this is sure to result in the most ridiculous conclusions, as, for example, that of Marsh:
"This chapter contains two stories, from JE and P respectively, concerning Israel's intercourse with foreign women and the consequent idolatry. The first, featuring Moabite women, lacks an ending; the second, introducing Midianite women, has no beginning. The interests of the two stories are widely different."F1
That such conclusions are absolutely false has been known for ages. As Keil stated it, "There is no discrepancy in these `two' accounts. The points offered as proof of such assertions fall to the ground when the history is correctly explained."F2 Even Martin Noth who frequently followed a critical pattern in his commentaries stated that, "There is a lack of any convincing indications which would enable us to divide the narrative into various `sources,' (as J or P)."F3
It is easy enough to reconstruct the larger narrative of which the seemingly isolated events of this chapter are vital ingredients. First, the Moabites and the Midianites were allies, their kingdoms at the moment being under a common ruler, Balak, a Midianite who was also king of Moab.F4 Balak was serving the interests of both Midian and Moab by his seeking to frustrate the progress of Israel. Balaam had not succeeded in cursing Israel, but his hatred of God's people was an invariable element in his activities first to last. Therefore, Balak and Balaam eventually teamed up in the plot for the seduction of Israel. Hengstenberg supposed that Balaam's suggestion for using the Moabite women as instruments of their seduction (Numbers 31:16), came about as follows:
"Balaam having failed to get all those rich rewards he had hoped to get from Balak, decided that he would try to get them from the Israelites. So he went to Moses and told him all about his blessing Israel so many times and the prophecies about their triumphs over Moab and other enemies, and then asked Moses to pay him rich rewards! Moses refused, and then Balaam went back to Balak and said, "Well, I cannot curse Israel, but I can tell you how to bring them down by seduction." We see how this diabolical plot worked out in this chapter."F5
Such happenings are not related in the Bible, but even Keil allowed the "possibility" that that is exactly what happened. True, only the Moabite women are mentioned first, but the Midianites came through on schedule with their part of the plot also, when Cozbi, a Midianite princess, married one of the princes of Israel, Zimri, who was the spokesman and outstanding leader of an all-out rebellion against Moses and the Decalogue which he protested and repudiated in its entirety, declaring it not to have been from God at all, but only from Moses! With the understanding of such a background, strongly supported by the most vigorous statements in the word of God, it is easy to see that we have one narrative here and not two, and that the whole rebellion and apostasy against God in evidence here was part of the evil work of Balaam, "who loved the wages of unrighteousness."
This means Acacia Trees.F6 It was the very last stopping place of Israel prior to crossing the Jordan (Josh. 2:1; 3:1). It was not very far from Mount Peor, from which the last effort of Balaam to curse Israel was attempted. It is thought that a special shrine or temple to Baal-peor was located on the top of it.
are mentioned in Num. 25:2; but only Baal-Peor is mentioned in Num. 25:3. The Baalim were in fact plural and consisted of many `gods.' Here the noted Baal-Peor stands for all of them. These pagan gods were worshipped with the most abominable sexual ceremonies in which the people acted out the mating of their fertility gods, supposing that such orgies led to abundant crops, etc.
The particularly Satanic action of this chapter appears in the "design" and purpose of the event. Having already broken over to "commit whoredom" with the seductive women of Moab, it was natural enough that the women should have invited the Jews to attend the services of "their gods"! It appears that this "party" was a howling success indeed with a thousand of the judges of Israel among the invited guests! This was the purpose of the Midianite-Moabite conspiracy from the beginning.
To play the harlot with the daughters of Moab
(Numbers 25:1). Orlinsky rendered this: They profaned themselves by whoring.F7
WHY ISRAEL DID THIS
At this point, we shall address the question of what actually lay behind this conduct, and the whole conception of implacable hatred against God's people by the pagan nations. All of it went back to the strict moral code of the Decalogue. In a pagan world organized around the temples of Aphrodite, Bacchus, a host of Baals, and a whole stable of pagan gods and goddesses, where the sale and exploitation of sex and all other vices was their appeal, their source of income, and the evil evangelistic apparatus of their orgiastic religion ... what a challenge the pure morality of the Decalogue presented to that kind of world! No wonder the world of that day hated it.
Israel had been in the wilderness environment for forty years, and now that renewed conflict with the pagan world was available, many found the temptation more than they could overcome. That the Moabite-Midianite conspiracy was aimed squarely at breaking the influence of the Decalogue in Israel cannot for a moment be doubted. Josephus has a very interesting account of the part played by Zimri. In no sense was he just an innocent who became enamoured with a beautiful princess. No, he was a rebel against God! In a great assembly before all the people, Zimri said the Ten Commandments were not of God, but of Moses, and that Moses had made up those laws himself, and that he was "harder on the Hebrews than were the Egyptians themselves"! Zimri further boasted that he had "married a strange woman" and that "of course, he had sacrificed to her gods," saying, "I think it is right to seek the truth by inquiring of many people (gods) and not of merely one."F8 It is certain that Zimri had a large popular following. Josephus stated that unless he had been executed, the contagion might have become far greater.
There is a textual problem with just who were hanged before God in the sun, following God's command to Moses. Whitelaw stated unequivocally that there is no authority for reading "them" in Num. 25:4 as a reference to any except the judges. The lines in Num. 25:5 that mention those "who have joined themselves unto Baal-Peor" merely state what the offense of the judges was.F9 With the subsequent death of 23,000 by the plague, when added to the thousand judges that were "hanged," the total number comes to 24,000. Paul devoted a significant part of 1 Cor. 10 to the events of this chapter, in fact, shedding additional light upon what the people here did.
Hang them up
Many scholars agree that the mode of execution here is not certainly known. Orlinsky rendered it, impaled.F10 Many believe that the exposure of the bodies in the sun was merely to advertise the penalty and not for the purpose of causing death, that being inflicted before the impaling.
The severe penalty executed upon the incompetent judges who had not only made no move to prevent such a defection but who had actually participated in it themselves, along with the announced fierce anger of Jehovah brought the host of Israel into a great public convocation where the people were weeping and pleading for God's anger to be turned away from them. Right in the midst of that pitiful and tragic situation, the rebellious advocate of Satan himself, Zimri, made his daring attempt to take the people away from Moses. The next paragraph tells how. As Noth stated it, "A certain amount has to be read between the lines to understand what follows."F11
From this instance, and from the example of Samuel's slaying of Agag, the Jews formulated what they called the "jus zelotarum," by which, any person seeing another in the very act of violating divine law might take vengeance into his own hand and slay the offender. God authorized no such thing. It was under this corrupt law (so-called) that the Jews stoned the Christian martyr Stephen to death, and under which, more than once, they tried to stone the Christ himself. The blind error of the Jews on this is that they failed to see why God commended Phinehas. It certainly was not for his taking justice into his own hands. It was his zeal that God commended. The next paragraph deals with God's commendation of Phinehas.
Many scholars have expressed a surprise approaching consternation that Almighty God would so reward a ruthless murderer, but they have merely misread the reason for God's reward of Phinehas. His zeal is what God commended and what he rewarded. We have exactly the counterpart of this in the N.T. in Jesus' parable of the Unjust Steward upon whom the Lord poured out the very highest of praises, not for his dishonesty, of course, but for the intelligence and zeal with which he handled his earthly affairs. We have the same kind of situation here. Somebody had to do something. Most of the incompetent judges had proved their inability to do anything, and as the heir apparent to the high priesthood, Phinehas took it upon himself to act in defense of the Word of God. The critical superstition to the effect that this was invented in later generations to defend the claim of the descendants of Phinehas to the office of High Priest is unprovable, without foundation, and required by no intelligent reason whatever. As a matter of fact, beginning with Ely, the descendants of Eleazar were high priests until the times of Solomon who took the office away from Eleazar's descendants in the person of Abiathar and gave it to Zadock of the line of Phinehas where it continued throughout the history of Israel.
In the extremely high rank of the principals in this sordid drama one may read the undeniable evidence that nothing casual or accidental occurred here. This was a well-planned, skillfully-coordinated, and boldly-executed plan to free the people of the obligations imposed by the Decalogue. In Zimri's marriage to a Midianite princess, the purpose was to violate and negate God's prohibition against Israel's intermarriage with foreign peoples. We agree with Cook that, "Her (Cozbi's) high rank proves that Zimri had not fallen in with her by mere chance, but had been deliberately singled out by the Midianites as one whom, at any price, they must lead astray."F12 Why Zimri? Perhaps because of his popularity and open opposition to the policies of Moses. That the Midianites employed the services of Cozbi to ensnare Zimri was also due evidently to the rare beauty and attractiveness of Cozbi, the very word "Cozbi," having the meaning of "voluptuous in a sexual sense."F13
The immediate result of the events related in this chapter was a war of extermination waged against the Midianites by Israel. In this Divine order, we read the truth that the Midianites indeed were the perpetrators of this evil assault upon God's people. The Moabites were merely tools of the Midianites in the whole episode.
Carson is correct in his statement that the fact of God's order calling for war against Midian, but not against Moab, was "because it was the Midianites that Balaam counseled (Numbers 31:16), and they (the Midianites) were the chief agents in the corruption of Israel."F14 Israel would never fully recover from the disastrous events unfolded in this chapter. Sure, God would go right on with his plans. They would fight and win wars against all their enemies. The debauched kingdoms of Canaan would fall like over-ripe figs when the tree sustains a mighty wind. But here at Baal-Peor the cancer began that would eventually consume the Chosen Race. The rest of the Bible is the record of how God dealt with the problems that resulted.
James Burton Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.