Numbers 20 begins the narrative of the Israelites’ final months in the Wilderness. Between the end of Numbers 17 and the start of Numbers 20, we jump over thirty-eight years without comment or story. In Numbers 20, Miriam dies, Moses is forbidden to enter the Land, and then Aaron dies. In Numbers 22-24, we learn of Balaam, the non-Israelite prophet whom the king of Moab (Balak) authorized to place a curse upon the Israelites. But an angel of the Lord gives language to Balaam’s donkey, and then convinces Balaam to bless rather than curse the Israelites.
The story of the Phinehas and the plague is found next, in Numbers 25. The story has two parts, verses 1-5, which mostly has to do with the Israelites’ idolatry with a local deity, and the related 6-18, which has to do with immorality among the Israelites. As Numbers 25 begins, the people are staying at Shittim. Shittim is the forty-second and final place of encampment of the Israelites in the Wilderness, and it became Joshua’s headquarters from which he sent spies into the Land (Joshua 2:1). It is in the biblical Moab, east of the Jordan River and nearly straight east of Jericho.
At Shittim, the Israelites begin to have sexual relations with Moabites, even sacrificing to Moabite gods and yoking themselves to the Baal of Peor. The word “Baal” means “lord” and was applied to various gods of the ancient Levant, and Peor, mentioned a bit earlier in Numbers 23:25, was a mountain peak. So this Baal was a local deity.
The Lord becomes angry with the people, and orders Moses, “Take all the chiefs of the people and impale them in the sun before the Lord, in order that the fierce anger of the Lord may turn away from Israel.”
Moses told the judges of Israel, “Each of you shall kill any of your people who have yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor.”
If we look ahead to verses 9 and 18, we learn that during this discussion, a plague is spreading through the Israelites. What was the epidemic? We don’t know, but the Israelites caught it through contact with the Midianites or Moabites or both, and soon the illness spread among them.
At that point, an Israelite man brought a Midianite woman into his family, and took her into the tent of meeting, in view of Moses and all the weeping people outside. Again, it helps to look ahead, this time to verses 14 and 18. The man’s name was Zimri, son of Salu of the Simeonite tribe of Israelites, and the woman was Cozbi, daughter of Zur, of a Midianite clan. Verse 18 indicates that the Midianites had instigated both the idolatry of Baal-Peor and the relationship of Cozbi and Zimri.
What was the meaning of Zimri’s blatant action—having relations with Cozbi in the tent of meeting? Through prostitution rites of the local religion, the plague might be averted. So his actions violated Israel’s covenant with the Lord.
Phinehas, the son of high priest Eleazar and grandson of Aaron (who had died by this time), left the congregation. He took his spear, followed the man and the Midianite into the tent, and ran both of them through with one spear thrust.
With Phinehas’ action, the plague stopped. God declares to Moses that Phinehas “has turned back my wrath from the Israelites by manifesting such zeal among the on my behalf that in my jealousy I did not consume the Israelites.” Thus, God makes a perpetual priesthood for Phinehas and his descendants. This has been called the Aaronic priesthood.
God commanded Moses to harass and defeat the Midianites, since they had harassed and tricked the Israelites in the affair of Peor and of Cozi. That subsequent story is found in Numbers 31.
1.As you read this chapter of Numbers, what is your “gut reaction” to the story? What surprises you about it?