New European Commentary

 

About | PDFs | Mobile formats | Word formats | Other languages | Contact Us | What is the Gospel? | Support the work | Carelinks Ministries | | The Real Christ | The Real Devil | "Bible Companion" Daily Bible reading plan


Deeper Commentary

 

Num 25:1 Israel stayed in Shittim; and the people began to play the prostitute with the daughters of Moab-
We learn from Num. 31:16 and Rev. 2:14 that at this time, Balaam advised Balak to entice Israel with Moabite prostitutes, so that the people would be cursed by their God for immorality. The events of chapter 25 were therefore on Balaam’s advice. This desperate strategy reflects how headlong was Balaam’s desire to receive the wealth promised him, and how he sacrificed the welfare of God’s people upon that altar. In essence we can do the same today. We note that Israel are called prostitutes because they slept with the Moabite prostitutes. They had committed prostitution against Yahweh. For the covenant at Sinai was their marital covenant. 

Num 25:2 for they called the people to the sacrifices of their gods; and the people ate, and bowed down to their gods-
Israel bowed down to the gods of Moab (Num. 25:1). But Israel were potentially above the Midianites (24:7,18); the Midianites vexed them (Num. 25:18) when Israel had been prophesied as vexing them (hence they were told to now vex the Midianites in :17).

Ps. 106:28 adds: "They joined themselves also to Baal Peor, and ate the sacrifices of the dead". To join oneself is the language of marriage. To eat sacrifice was a sign of fellowship with the god at whose table you were eating. And by doing these things they were effectively breaking their covenant relationship with Yahweh. But despite that, He still worked to save them and to preserve them nationally as His people. His grace is the more amazing, because He disregarded even their breaking of covenant with Him- because He was and is so passionate to save.

We see the connections between eating in spiritual fellowship with idols, and prostitution. These connections continued, and were the root reason why the church at Corinth came to have sexual immorality and inappropriate feasting and alcoholic drinking happening at the breaking of bread service. They turned the Christian fellowship meal into an idol feast. 


Num 25:3 Israel joined himself to Baal Peor, and the anger of Yahweh was kindled against Israel-
Baal Peor refers to the Baal who was worshipped at the town of Peor, near where they were now encamping (Dt. 3:29; 4:46). Each town and geographical area had its own gods, rather like today there is a geography to religion, different parts of the world or even areas within a country tend to have their local religions. The true God and His Truth is the same worldwide, which allows a unique international bond between those who know Him and are in His Son.

"Israel joined himself unto Baalpeor" (Num. 25:3) in a sexual context, and by doing so they were being unfaithful to Yahweh as their husband; see on :1. Hos. 9:10 comments on this as meaning that Israel "Separated themselves unto" Baalpeor. We cannot be 'joined to' something unless we are 'separated from' something else, and in this case, they were thereby separating themselves from Yahweh. If we are truly joined to Christ and each other, we must be separated from idolatry. It is impossible to experience this 'joining' with believers who are not 'separated'- one cannot be 'joined' in intercourse to more than one person. We cannot serve two masters without hating God. 

Paul's selfless relationship with Corinth was inspired by that of Moses with Israel. Thus Paul warns Corinth not to be unequally yoked with unbelievers (2 Cor. 6:14), or else he would come to them and not spare. He is quoting the LXX of Num. 25:3 concerning how Israel joined themselves to Baal-peor, resulting in Moses commanding the murder of all those guilty- just as Paul later did to Corinth.


Num 25:4 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-
The wrath of God can be turned away by the actions of those He is angry with (Num. 25:4; Dt. 13:15-17; Ezra 10:14; Jonah 3:7,10; 2 Chron. 12:7; Jer. 4:4; 21:12). And yet that wrath can also be turned away by the prayers of a third party (Ps. 106:23; Jer. 18:20; Job 42:7). This means that in some cases, our prayers for others can be counted as if they have repented. We can gain our brother for God's Kingdom (Mt. 18:15), as Noah saved his own house by his faithful preparation (Heb. 11:7). That all the tribal chiefs were to be executed shows the need for a purge of the leadership, and how widespread was idolatry. LXX "and make them examples of judgment for the Lord".

Ezra 10:14 speaks of God’s wrath turning away because those who had married Gentile women divorced them. God’s wrath is also turned away by the death of the sinner- the heads of the sinners in Num. 25:4 were to be ‘hung up’ before the Lord so that His wrath would turn away. A similar example is to be found in Josh. 7:26. Jeremiah often comments that God’s wrath is turned away by the execution of judgment upon the sinner (e.g. Jer. 30:24). In this sense His anger and wrath are poured out or ‘accomplished’, i.e. they are no more because they have been poured out (Lam. 4:11). The Lord's death on the cross as a representative of sinners therefore achieved the same. We are saved from wrath through Him.

 
Num 25:5 Moses said to the judges of Israel, Everyone kill his men who have joined themselves to Baal Peor-
This command perhaps didn’t need to be carried out, because Phinehas took the initiative in killing the chief offenders (:7,8) and this act so impressed God that the plague was ended (:11). Here we have an example of how God sets up one plan or purpose, but is prepared to amend or change it according to human initiative suggesting another one, as Moses did several times. We see here therefore how open God is to dialogue, to living relationship with His people. Or it could be that we have in :5 an explanation of how :4 came about; the princes of Israel were slain by the judges of Israel.


Num 25:6 Behold, one of the children of Israel came and brought to his brothers a Midianite 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-
Seeing that multiple Israelites slept with Moabites, there must have been particular significance in this man and woman. The whole incident is called "the matter of Cozbi the daughter of the prince of Midian" (:18). The weeping at the tabernacle door was presumably in repentance "before Yahweh", the Angel of the presence within it. Moses was present there, and then the Israelite man and Moabitess leader appear and enter "into the chamber" (:8). I suggest the implication is that they entered the holy place or even the most holy, and there they were slain. They intended to perform a sexual ritual to Peor in the tabernacle of Yahweh. Hence the urgent need Phinehas felt to immediately stop this.


Num 25:7 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-
We note from Ex. 6:25 that "Eleazar Aaron’s son took one of the daughters of Putiel as his wife; and she bore him Phinehas". Putiel isn't mentioned elsewhere, but it appears to be a common Egyptian name. So the mother of Phinehas was an Egyptian, whom his father ought not to have married. Although we could argue the other way- that for an Egyptian to marry one of the slave Hebrews could be a reflection of this woman's acceptance of Yahweh as her God, even though most of His people were very far from Him. Perhaps this explains how incensed he was to see Israel returning to idolatry.

Num 25:8 and he went after the man of Israel into the pavilion and thrust both of them through, the man of Israel and the woman through her body. So the plague was stayed from the children of Israel-
 
It seems from 1 Chron. 9:19,20 that it was at the door of the tabernacle / tent of the congregation that Phinehas stopped the apostasy of Israel. LXX "into the chamber". I have suggested on :6 that they entered the holy place or even the most holy, and there they were slain. They intended to perform a sexual ritual to Peor in the tabernacle of Yahweh. The vagueness of the word used for "pavilion" or "chamber" is perhaps to avoid the apparent blasphemy of having to admit that such acts had been performed in the holy place. We note that in this case, Phinehas would have charged in to sacred space with no regard for his ritual cleanliness, especially if he entered the most holy. But as ever, the spirit of the law triumphed over the letter.

It seems from Num. 25:6-8 that the Midianite woman and the Israelite were having sex within "the tent", the tabernacle. Phinehas was remembered for this by his descendants directing the guards at the door of the tent (1 Chron. 9:19,20). The actions of the couple were therefore intended to turn the holy place into a place where Yahweh was supposedly worshipped through sex with prostitutes, exactly the way of pagan religions, and which was a problem in the churches at Corinth and Ephesus.   

The spear connecting Jew and Gentile in death could be seen as pointing forward to the cross of Christ.


Num 25:9 Those who died by the plague were twenty-four thousand-
Some editions of the LXX, followed by Paul in 1 Cor. 10:8, gives 23,000. Dt. 4:3 implies that all who followed Baal Peor were destroyed, and only those who "were faithful" to Yahweh survived (Dt. 4:4). But Num. 25:9,11 suggests that virtually all Israel went after Baal Peor and would all have been destroyed, had not Phinehas and his men slain 24,000 of them. What Phinehas did therefore had real and absolute meaning for God- those who did follow Baal Peor were counted as if they hadn't done so. This was imputed righteousness, and looks forward to the even greater effect of the intercession of the Lord Jesus for us.

Perhaps the key to understanding the difference is the phrase "in one day". Num. 25:9 says that 24,000 died as a result of a plague sent to punish them- but it is not recorded how quickly they died from the plague. We can assume that a "plague" took some time period to kill them. But Num. 25:4,5 records that immediately, that day, the judges of Israel were commanded to kill by the sword those who had committed the fornication, and Phinehas arose in response. Those deaths by the sword were different to those from the plague- perhaps 23,000 died that day from these executions, and then 24,000 died from the plague subsequently. Another option is to note that there were 23,000 Levites (Num. 26:62). If each Levite killed a man (which Num. 25:5 "Let every one kill his man" might imply, cp. Ex. 32:27), this would mean 23,000 died in that one day, and if 1,000 died subsequently from the plague, we then have the 24,000 of Num. 25:9. Or it may be that 1 Cor. 10:8 is actually continuing to refer to the golden calf incident mentioned in :7; for Ex. 32:28 LXX says that 23,000 died at that time. The Masoretic text says 3,000. This possibility is strengthened by the fact that Ex. 32:28 specifically states that this slaughter happened in one day.

Num 25:10 Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying-
Had Phinehas not killed the man who was teaching that marriage out of the Faith was quite acceptable, God would have punished all the people of Israel (Num. 25:11). God is a jealous God, and Phinehas  is commended for his jealousy for God in terms of separating from that false teacher. We naturally turn away from the seriousness of these things. Within our humanity, we would rather God were not like this. But there is a harder side of God, a side which we come to know, to respect, understand and appreciate as we grow spiritually. We see here the power of intercession, and how the actions of one person can save others (as in Mk. 2:5 James 5:20). This came to full term in the work of the Lord Jesus.


Num 25:11 Phinehas the son of Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest has turned My wrath away from the children of Israel-
He was perhaps inspired by how Moses had turned away Yahweh's wrath from Israel (s.w. Ps. 106:23). Others likewise tried to turn away God's wrath from Israel (s.w. Jer. 18:20; Dan. 9:16). The fact is, His emotions concerning a person or nation can change in accordance with the reasoning with Him of a third party. This is the whole basis of the Lord's intercession for us with the Father. With Phinehas, it was his actions more than his words; whereas with Moses, Jeremiah and Daniel, it was more a matter of words. The actions of the Lord on the cross, along with His ongoing words of intercession, achieve the same end for us.

In that he was jealous with My jealousy among them, so that I didn’t consume the children of Israel in My jealousy-
Phinehas "executed judgment and the plague was stayed" (Ps. 106:30). The Hebrew for "executed judgment" is the same word more usually translated to pray or entreat. His actions were understood by God as a prayer, just as our actions and situations can be understood as a prayer- see on Num. 24:13. God’s feelings are to be ours; Phinehas "was jealous with My jealousy". His colossal love for His people means that He is also therefore jealous over their devotions to any other god.

Elijah’s description of himself in his prayer as being very jealous / zealous for God (1 Kings 19:10,14) is an allusion of his to Phinehas, whose zeal in destroying the apostate in Israel saved the nation (Num. 25:11,13). But Elijah is praying against Israel, for their total destruction, and making only a surface level allusion back to Phinehas. And likewise, much of the unbrotherly behaviour that has divided our own community has been justified by half-baked allusions to Biblical examples of ‘defending the faith’.


Num 25:12 Therefore say, ‘Behold, I give to him My covenant of peace-
The priests "corrupted the covenant of Levi" (Mal. 2:8), in that they married out of the Faith (Neh. 13:29), thus violating the Spirit of the Levitical covenant- which was given in recognition of zealous action against relationships with Gentile women (Num. 25:12,13). A number of prophets condemn the priests for sexual malpractices.

Ps. 106:31 slightly extends this reward: "That was credited to him for righteousness, for all generations to come". Psalm 106 is a list of examples of grace. The grace of this was in that righteousness was counted to Phinehas. For none are righteous in their own strength; as Paul explains in Romans, it is credited to us by grace through faith. But how was it eternally credited to him? For descendants aren't counted righteous just because of their ancestors. The implication would therefore be that this imputed righteousness meant that he would therefore not die eternally; but he resurrected to life eternal. And this again is nothing but pure grace.


Num 25:13 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’-
It was God's intention that all Israel should be His servants, a nation of priests. But He changed and ammended His approach, and chose just the Levites for this. And then out of them He chose just the descendants of Phinehas to be the priests. We see here how open God is to change and recalculation, so that by all means He may have relationship with His people. Under the new covenant, all believers are part of a royal priesthood (1 Pet. 2:5) as He initially intended even under the old covenant. And yet there is always the tendency to leave the priestly work to specialists rather than perceiving our personal call to do it.


The Sabbath is described as a perpetual, eternal ordinance between God and His people (Ex. 31:16). Yet in the New Testament we read that the Old Covenant has been done away; and the Old Covenant clearly included the ten commandments (Dt. 4:13), one of which was concerning the Sabbath. For this reason the New Testament is at pains to explain that Sabbath keeping is not now required of God’s people (Col. 2:14-17; Rom. 14:1-3). Indeed, the whole Law of Moses is described as an everlasting covenant (Is. 24:5; Dt. 29:29), but it has now been done away (Heb. 8:13). The feasts of Passover and Atonement were to be “an everlasting statute unto you” (Lev. 16:34; Ex. 12:14); but now the Mosaic feasts have been done away in Christ (Col. 2:14-17; 1 Cor. 5:7). The Levitical priesthood was “the covenant of an everlasting priesthood” (Ex. 40:15; Num. 25:13), but “the priesthood being changed (by Christ’s work), there is made of necessity a change also of the law” (Heb. 7:12). There was an “everlasting covenant” between God and Israel to display the shewbread in the Holy Place (Lev. 24:8). This “everlasting covenant” evidently ended when the Mosaic Law was dismantled. But the same phrase “everlasting covenant” is used in 2 Samuel 23:5 concerning how Christ will reign on David’s throne for literal eternity in the Kingdom. In what sense, then, is God using the word olahm, which is translated “eternal”, “perpetual”, “everlasting” in the Old Testament? James Strong defines olahm as literally meaning “the finishing point, time out of mind, i.e. practically eternity”. It was God’s purpose that the Law of Moses and the associated Sabbath law were to continue for many centuries. To the early Israelite, this meant a finishing point so far ahead that he couldn’t grapple with it; therefore he was told that the Law would last for ever in the sense of “practically eternity”. For all of us, the specter of ultimate infinity is impossible to intellectually grapple with. We may glibly talk about God’s eternity and timelessness, about the wonder of eternal life. But when we pause to really come to terms with these things, we lack the intellectual tools and linguistic paradigms to cope with it. Therefore there is no Hebrew or Greek word used in the Bible text to speak of absolute infinity. We know that death has been conquered for those in Christ, therefore we have the hope of immortal life in his Kingdom. But God speaks about eternity very much from a human viewpoint.


Num 25:14 Now the name of the man of Israel that was slain, who was slain with the Midianite woman, was Zimri, the son of Salu, a prince of a father’s house among the Simeonites-
These two are named, showing they were more than just random examples of the many who had sinned that day. Their intention was to perform a sex ritual to Peor in Yahweh's tabernacle; and they were both in leadership positions.


Num 25:15 The name of the Midianite woman who was slain was Cozbi, the daughter of Zur: he was head of the people of a fathers’ house in Midian-
Cozbi means "liar", the daughter of "the rock" (Zur)- a fake god. For Yahweh alone is a rock to His people. Her message was indeed a huge lie: that Yahweh and Baal worship could be fused through her as a leader of Midian openly performing a sex act with a similarly ranking leader of Israel. In the tabernacle of Yahweh. Zur was one of the five leading princes of Midian who was later slain along with Balaam (Num. 31:8). Balaam and Zur were clearly associated. And so it seems that Balaam suggested that Zur's daughter Cozbi be used to lead Israel into sin, so that their God would curse them- and Balaam would get his coveted reward which he so obsessed about.


Num 25:16 Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying-
Initially, God didn't want Israel to interfere with Moab but rather to leave them in peace (Dt. 2:9). But Moab had become obsessed with cursing Israel and leading them away from Yahweh so that He would curse Israel; and so God's purpose and plans again changed, and He now commands Israel to fight them; for Moab and Midian were united at this time, and the "wiles" of the Midianites in :18 are clearly those used by the Moabites in :1. Balak was a Midianite but king of Moab at the time. God's purpose is so deeply responsive to human behaviour, and takes it all into account.


Num 25:17 Harass the Midianites, and strike them-
LXX "Plague the Madianites as enemies, and smite them, for they are enemies to you". This clear definition of Midian as enemies was necessary; for Moses had been married to a Midianite and had lived there for 40 years. His Midianite father in law had once been well respected within Israel.


Num 25:18 for they harassed you with their wiles, with which they have deceived 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-
"Harassed" is "vexed". Israel bowed down to the gods of Moab (Num. 25:1). But Israel were potentially above the Midianites (24:7,18); the Midianites vexed them (Num. 25:18) when Israel had been prophesied as vexing them (hence they were told to now vex the Midianites in :17). "The matter of Cozbi the daughter of the prince of Midian" shows the particular significance of this woman; see on :14,15.