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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible

Numbers 25

 

 

Introduction

E. FROM KADESH TO THE PLAINS OF MOAB (chapters 20-25).

The New Beginning.

After the gap for the wilderness wanderings and the return to Kadesh, there now follows a series of historical events which bring Israel to the plains of Moab, and point to a new beginning. History has become important again because Yahweh’s purposes were now going forward. The first section (Numbers 20:1 to Numbers 21:20) deals with the view that was to be taken of the future. It was to be a move from dearth to abundance, from death to life. The old was being put to one side, so that the new could take over, although only under Yahweh.

· It commences with the arrival at Kadesh (qdsh - the holy place) to find little water there, followed by the death of Miriam, the prophetess, who would have been greatly influential among those who had come out of Egypt. All is death. But at the same time it promises that the resulting seeming dearth will be followed by abundant water (Numbers 20:1-11), although even that at the cost of death for it goes on to reveal that neither Aaron nor Moses will enter the land. They will die in God’s time and be replaced by new leaders (Numbers 20:12-13).

· It warns against seeing the future simply in terms of aggression and spoliation. When Edom resist their advance they must not show aggression and seize their land but must go another way. For Edom’s land belongs to Edom and has been given to them by God (this is implicit in Numbers and explicit in Deuteronomy 2), just as shortly their land will belong to them (Numbers 20:14-21). Israel is only to offer death to those who deserve death.

· It tells of the death of Aaron and his replacement as ‘the Priest’ by his son, Eleazar, a member of the new generation, which will lead on to greater blessing (Numbers 20:22-29). Out of death comes life.

· It describes the first defeat of the Canaanites, a further indication of the new beginning and a firstfruit of what was to come. They are at last ready to take the land (Numbers 21:1-3).

· It then warns of what the result will be for those of the new generation who rebel against God, in the judgment of the fiery serpents which were a flashback to and reminder of the old wilderness days (Deuteronomy 8:15). Let them remember the wilderness, for that is what awaits those who rebel against Yahweh, as it had awaited their fathers (Numbers 21:4-10).

And it finally describes the arrival at a place of abundance of water sufficient to cause them to sing with joy and praise, a symbol of the new beginning, a symbol of life (Numbers 21:11-20 compare Numbers 22:5-8).

The second section (Numbers 21:21 to Numbers 25:18) will go on to deal with victory in the Wars of Yahweh including the defeat of the Amorites who had once defeated them (Numbers 21:21 to Numbers 22:1 compare Deuteronomy 1:44), the ‘battle’ with Balaam (Numbers 22:1 to Numbers 24:25), and their establishment in the plains of Moab having received their first instalment of Yahweh’s inheritance (Numbers 25:1 a) which results in the sin of Peor and deliverance by the hand of Phinehas, son of Eleazar (Numbers 25:1-18).


Verses 1-5

Chapter 25 Israel Are Lured Into Sin By The Moabites and Midianites.

4). The Defeat of the Evil Influence of Moab (Numbers 25:1-18).

It is noteworthy that just as the glorious revelation on Mount Sinai was followed by the lapse into idolatry with the molten calf, so here the glorious repetition and expansion of the promises by Balaam is followed by gross idolatry. In each case the one contrasts with the other, the proclamation of the grace of God with the disobedience of man.

For having settled down in the Moabite plain Israel now demonstrated their propensity for sin at Shittim by enjoying close relations with the daughters of Moab, and ‘joining themselves’ to Baal-peor. In spite of all Yahweh’s warnings they engaged in idolatry. This would finally result in the death of a Simeonite chieftain and a plague on the people.

Analysis of the chapter.

a Israel sin at Shittim in regard to Baal-peor (Numbers 25:1-3 a).

b Yahweh is angry with Israel and demands their punishment. Moses calls on the judges to slay those who worshipped Baal-peor (Numbers 25:3-5)

c A Midianitish woman brought into the camp by a Simeonite chief for evil purposes (Numbers 25:6).

d Phinehas, son of Eleazar slays the chieftain and the woman (Numbers 25:7-8 a).

e As a result of his action judgment by plague is stayed (Numbers 25:8 b).

e Those who died in the plague are enumerated (Numbers 25:9)

d Phinehas is confirmed in the priesthood for his action (Numbers 25:10-13).

c The chieftain and the woman are identified (Numbers 25:14-15).

b Yahweh demands the punishment of Midian (Numbers 25:16-17)

a The punishment is in respect of the sin regarding Baal-peor (Numbers 25:18)

Israel Sin at Shittim in Regard to Baal-peor (Numbers 25:1-3 a)

Numbers 25:1-2

‘And Israel abode in Shittim; and the people began to play the harlot with the daughters of Moab, for they called the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people did eat, and bowed down to their gods.’

Settling down at Shittim after a period of continual travel, Israelite males began to take a fancy to certain young women who lived in Moab, and who seemingly made themselves available. (Note that the Midianitish woman is seen as ‘a daughter of Moab’, that is a woman who lived in Moabite territory. There was clearly a very close relationship between these Midianites and Moab). Not being constantly on the move themselves their women were able to make themselves up more attractively, and the men of Israel clearly enjoyed the novelty. These were worshippers of Baal-peor, and we note that the sin is not said to have been sexual, although that no doubt occurred, but a turning to their idols, although in view of what follows sexual relations might well be seen as implied. And in view of the nature of the religion of Baal with its fertility rites there may well have been ritual sex acts between them. Outwardly, however, the sin is said to be that of being present at the sacrifices to their gods, eating sacred meals with them and bowing down to their gods. Among others they were disobeying the first two commandments.

Yahweh Was Angry with Israel and Demanded The Punishment Of Those Who Had Sinned (Numbers 25:3-4).

Numbers 25:3

‘And Israel joined himself to Baal-peor: and the anger of Yahweh was kindled against Israel.’

Thus Israel joined themselves to Baal-peor (the lord of Peor). That is they became involved in idolatry and all the behaviour that went with it. The lord of Peor may have been Chemosh, the Moabite god, or a local Baal favoured by the Midianites. This resulted in Yahweh’s anger being aroused, His righteous aversion to such evil behaviour. They had deserted Him and what He stood for and had chosen to follow idols and what they stood for.

Numbers 25:4

‘And Yahweh said to Moses, “Take all the chiefs of the people, and hang them up to Yahweh before the sun, that the fierce anger of Yahweh may turn away from Israel.’

That the failure took in a large number of Israelites is made apparent by the fact that only the chieftains among them were to be executed. Yahweh told Moses to hang up before Yahweh, in the sun, all the chieftains of the people who had been misbehaving. This suggests that a good number of chieftains were involved, which made the position even worse. Only then would His anger be turned away. (‘Them’ cannot mean all the chiefs in Israel, for Moses now turned to some of them for assistance. It refers to those who were among those who had sinned - see Deuteronomy 24:16).

Numbers 25:5

‘And Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Slay you every one his men who have joined themselves to Baal-peor.” ’

So Moses went to the high chiefs of Israel with special responsibility as judges and bade them slay all in their tribes who had committed idolatry and participated in the worship of Baal-peor, thereby ‘joining themselves’ to him.


Verse 6

A Midianitish Woman Is Brought Into the Camp by a Simeonite Chieftain (Numbers 25:6).

Numbers 25:6

‘And, behold, one of the children of Israel came and brought to his brethren a Midianitish woman in the sight of Moses, and in the sight of all the congregation of the children of Israel, while they were weeping at the door of the tent of meeting.’

But even while the judges were meeting, and there was weeping at the door of the Tent of meeting, because of the sin of Israel and presumably because of the plague which had now broken out, ‘one of the children of Israel’ (a Simeonite chieftain - see Numbers 25:14) boldly and blatantly brought into the camp a Midianitish woman in the sight of Moses and all who were gathered before Yahweh. He appears to have had no shame in the matter. He presented her to his brethren before taking her to his ‘pavilion’ or inner portion of the tent. His open and brash involvement with the Midianite women was made very clear. It was high handed sin.

Prior to this it would appear that all the ‘sinning’ occurred outside the camp. So this was an increase in offence by the introduction of idolatrous behaviour into the holy camp of Yahweh. That was what justified Phinehas’ instant action.


Verse 7-8

Phinehas, Son of Eleazar, Slays the Chieftain and The Woman (Numbers 25:7-8 a).

Numbers 25:7-8 a

‘And when Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose up from the midst of the congregation, and took a spear in his hand, and he went after the man of Israel into the inner portion of the tent, and thrust both of them through, the man of Israel, and the woman through her body.’

Phinehas, the son of the High Priest Eleazar, was appalled at this behaviour, and constrained at the plague which had broken out. He rightly saw the man’s behaviour as an insult against Yahweh and as bringing shame on Yahweh’s name, and as defiling the camp. And leaving the gathered throng he seized a spear, and followed them into their tent, and thrust the spear, first through the man and then the woman. Someone who saw it remembered that it was through her stomach. That was where her childbearing would become apparent, and he made the punishment fit the crime

In acting like this Phinehas would see himself as fulfilling his priestly duty, for the penalty for idolatry was instant death. He was acting as public executioner against an open sin (see Deuteronomy 13:9), but because the plague had broken out he had recognised the need for fast action. He was also in principle carrying out Yahweh’s command in Numbers 25:4, for those who were hung out in the sun would have to be slain before they were hung out.

His action was actually very similar to that commanded by Moses at the incident of the molten calf at Sinai when he had commanded the responding Levites to slay those who had sinned (Exodus 32:27). Indeed he may well have remembered that and been determined to demonstrate that he was on Yahweh’s side.

As A Result of His Action Judgment By Plague Is Stayed (Numbers 25:8 b).

Numbers 25:8 b

‘So the plague was stayed from the children of Israel.’

We are now told that in fact a plague, previously unmentioned, had broken out in the camp. But as a result of the decisive action of Phinehas the plague was now stayed, and its effect began to die down


Verse 9

‘And those that died by the plague were twenty and four thousand.’

And the number who died in the plague were the equivalent of twenty four larger families. These deaths would probably occur over a period. Paul picks up on this and speaks of ‘twenty three thousand’ dying ‘in one day’ (1 Corinthians 10:8). As with the number here it is not to be taken arithmetically. He lessened the number to mean ‘the great majority of them’ died in one day because he recognised, or someone from whom he quoted recognised, that not all would have died on the same day, and that if he did not reduce the number this would quickly be pointed out by his opponents. But he wanted to utilise the idea of ‘in one day’ in order to make the greater impact. Numbers in fact does not say how long a period was in mind during which people died through the plague.


Verses 10-13

As A Result of His Action Phinehas Was Confirmed In The Priesthood (Numbers 25:10-13).

Numbers 25:10

‘And Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying, “Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, has turned my wrath away from the children of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I consumed not the children of Israel in my jealousy.” ’

God then spoke to Moses and praised what Phinehas had done. Note now the emphasis on the fact that he was a grandson of Aaron the Priest. Like God Himself he had been jealous for the name and honour of Yahweh (Exodus 20:5). As a result he had turned away Yahweh’s wrath directed at the children of Israel. If we would deal with sin in our midst, Yahweh would not have to.

Numbers 25:12-13

‘For that reason say, “Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace, and it shall be to him, and to his seed after him, the covenant of an everlasting priesthood; because he was jealous for his God, and made atonement for the children of Israel.” ’

Because Phinehas had done what he had done out of concern for Yahweh’s name and honour God now gave him and his descendants His ‘covenant of wellbeing’. That is, the covenant of an everlasting priesthood. By his act he had shown himself a true priest by being jealous for his God and by making a covering for the sins of Israel, an atonement or reconciliation for the children of Israel. Thus he and his were confirmed in a permanent priesthood.


Verse 14-15

The Man and The Woman Are Identified. Both From Chieftain’s Houses (Numbers 25:14-15)

Numbers 25:14

‘Now the name of the man of Israel who was slain, who was slain with the Midianitish woman, was Zimri, the son of Salu, a prince of a fathers’ house among the Simeonites.’

The man who had done this thing was now named and shamed (note how this parallels what he had done in the analysis above). He was Zimri, son of Salu, a chieftain of a father’s house in Simeon. As we noted earlier he had introduce the woman among his brethren and they had not protested. Thus it would appear that the tribe of Simeon had been heavily involved in the idolatry. This explains why, when a name had to be omitted in the list of tribes publicly blessed by Moses, Simeon’s name was missing (Deuteronomy 33). They had to do penance for their failure by being temporarily ‘blotted out of Israel’. Levi had proved faithful once again and Simeon had sinned grievously, so that they could not be coupled together as they had been by Jacob (Genesis 49:5).

Numbers 25:15

‘And the name of the Midianitish woman who was slain was Cozbi, the daughter of Zur. He was head of the people of a fathers’ house in Midian.’

The name of the Midianitish woman was also given. She was Cozbi, daughter of Zur, a Midianite high chieftain, a ‘head of a father’s house’ (see byn 31:8; Joshua 13:21). We note again how easily Moab and Midian are linked.


Verses 16-18

Numbers 25:16

‘And Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying,’

Then Yahweh added a further sentence to His judgment.

Numbers 25:17-18

‘Vex the Midianites, and smite them, for they vex you with their wiles, with which they have beguiled you in the matter of Peor, and in the matter of Cozbi, the daughter of the prince of Midian, their sister, who was slain on the day of the plague in the matter of Peor.’

What had happened had been a result of a deliberate policy by the Midianites. They had hoped that by wooing Israel from Yahweh they would turn Him against them. Thus they had approved of their young women and the young women of Moab leading Israelite males astray for this purpose. It was seen to be Midianite policy (Numbers 31:16) that had brought the plague on Israel and had led so many into idolatry and death. They were thus murderers. Therefore, like the Canaanites, they had to be slain. There had to be death for death.

It is noteworthy that this section of Numbers, which has contained so much of victory should end with Israel’s failure. It was Yahweh’s constant reminder that pride comes before a fall. It was an early warning of how careful they must be when they entered the land.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Numbers 25:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/numbers-25.html. 2013.

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