Plague in the Book of Numbers:
What is the reason for this plague story?
This story accomplishes certain purposes:
Without knowing about the nature of infection and disease transmission, the writer recognizes that the disease has resulted from the Israelites intermingling with Moabites and Midianites. Of course, in the writer’s understanding, the disease came as a result of God’s anger with his people, who are violating the covenant with God (see also Numbers 31:16).
The story also explains the specialness of the priesthood, which God has validated through Phinehas’ impulsive but decisive action. As Psalm 106:28-31 reads:
Then they attached themselves to the Baal of Peor,
and ate sacrifices offered to the dead;
they provoked the Lord to anger with their deeds,
and a plague broke out among them.
Then Phinehas stood up and interceded,
and the plague was stopped.
And that has been reckoned to him as righteousness
from generation to generation for ever.
Jewish tradition has linked Phinehas with Elijah. In Jewish worship, the “haftarah” is the passage from the prophets that complements the Torah story. The haftarah for Numbers 25 is 1 Kings 18:46-19:21, wherein Elijah defeats and slays the priests of Baal. (1)
By the end of the plague, the remainder of the generation that left Egypt are gone. Unfortunately, the new generation has difficulties of faith as well. Earlier, they had complained to Moses about the unavailability of water (Numbers 20, echoing a much earlier story of grumbling in Exodus 17), and easily slipping into idolatry here, in Numbers 25.
1.Off the top of your head, what do you know about Elijah?
2.In several Bible stories, disease is attributed directly to God. Today, we know about the nature of diseases and their spread. Does it bother you to say, “We can no longer believe that God causes illness, but this is how the Bible authors understood illness.”