The Word Made Fresh
1While the Israelites were encamped at Shittim the men began sleeping with Moabite women 2who in turn lured them to join in the ritual sacrifices to their gods. They ate the sacrifices and worshiped the Moabite gods 3and bowed down to the Baal of Peor.
The LORD was furious with Israel 4and said to Moses, “Take the leaders of these people and pierce them through with spears and lay their corpses out, exposed in the sun to turn the LORD’s anger away from Israel.”
5Moses summoned the men who had been appointed judges in Israel and told them to put to death any of their people who had worshiped the Baal of Peor. 6While Moses was telling them this, a man brought a Midianite girl home with him, in front of Moses and all the Israelites while they were grieving, gathered at the entrance to the meeting tent.
7Then Phinehas, the son of Aaron’s son Eleazar, saw it, and he left the gathering, grabbed a spear, 8followed the man and his girlfriend into their tent and drove the spear through both of their bellies. Then the plague that had begun among the Israelites ceased, 9but only after killing twenty-four thousand of them.
10The LORD said, “Moses, 11Phinehas has turned away my anger. His extraordinary action on my behalf has saved Israel. 12Tell him that what he did has earned for him and his family my promise of peace, 13a promise to him and his descendants after him. They shall be priests of Israel from now on because he was determined to uphold the honor of his God and took my anger away from Israel.”
14The Israelite man who was killed with the Midianite woman was Zimri son of Salu, who was the chief of a family belonging to the tribe of Simeon. 15The Midianite woman was Cozbi daughter of Zur, who was the chief of an ancient Midianite clan.
16The LORD said to Moses, 17“The Midianites are your enemies, and you must overcome them. 18They as much as declared war against you in this scheme to deceive the people in that activity in Peor. This woman Cozbi, who was the daughter of a leader in Midian, was killed because of the plague that spread from Israel’s involvement in the rituals in Peor.”
1-5: Israel has left the wilderness, settled in the plains of Moab and taken over the towns and villages of the Amorites (21:32, 35). They begin to be assimilated into Moabite culture. They are enticed by the women of Moab to worship their gods, particularly Baal of Peor (a fertility cult). God is angry and orders Moses to impale the leaders of the people. Moses responds by ordering the tribal leaders to kill any who have “yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor” (that is, had sex with the cult prostitutes). Moses’ action is less severe than God’s command, relieving the leaders of the responsibility for their people’s actions.
6-9: The crisis is then illustrated by a man bringing a Midianite (Moabite) woman into his house. The priest Phinehas (Aaron’s grandson, Eleazar’s son) kills both the man and his lover as they lay in his tent, impaling them with a spear (the action God wanted Moses to take in verse 4). Thus, Phinehas carries out God’s command more completely than Moses. In verse 8 we learn that a plague has already resulted in the death of 24,000 Israelites. We might wonder if the plague has to do with the kinds of diseases that accompany sexual promiscuity. In any case the plague is averted when the sexual misconduct is stopped by Phinehas’ action.
10-13: Phinehas is praised for his impulsive response, and he is insured of the continuation of his family’s prominence in the priesthood of Israel.
14-15: Curiously, the name and family of both the Israelite (Zimri son of Salu) and his Midianite/Moabite lover (Cozbi daughter of Zur) are given. They are both members of prominent families within their respective clans.
When we wander away from the path God wants us to follow, we will find ourselves at odds with the rewards of God’s grace. But when we realize where we are and call upon the Lord, the shepherd seeks us out, lifts us to his shoulders and carries us home, rejoicing.