Moab Seduces Israel
Although Balaam could not curse the Israelites, he did seduce Israel into idolatry. Balaam then suggests a clever tactic to the people of Moab. He told them that the best way to destroy the Israelites was by making their God Himself to turn against them.
And the best way to make God turn against His people was by making them immoral. So he asked them to send their pretty daughters into the Israeli camp to seduce the Israeli men. Thus, Israel fell not only into immorality but also into the worship of the idols that these Moabite girls brought into the Israeli camp.
Let’s Read Numbers Chapter 25 Together
What an undulating path Israel seems to travel: the high rises, followed by the low lows; mountain tops to valleys and back again.
- From holy obedience to casual irreverence,
- From proper worship of the Almighty to great and high-handed sins against Him.
No sooner have we finished the episode of Balaam pronouncing glorious and victorious prophetic blessings over an Israel that bears no guilt in God’s eyes, then we find the Hebrews cavorting with the enemy, reveling with their gods, and partying with their women.
We might ask ourselves at this point, “don’t they ever learn?” How many deaths at God’s hand must they suffer before they fully submit to His Lordship? Well, on the one hand, we see the infamous description of the Hebrews as being a “stiff-necked” people being developed.
But on the other, we see that it’s less a matter of short memories and more a matter of a different group of people having to learn the same lessons that had previously been taught to their elders.
By now God’s curse upon Israel that none of the people who came up out of Egypt (who had attained an age of 20 by the time they left) were still alive except for Joshua and Caleb.
So while the 1st Exodus generation had suffered much as a result of their rebellions, this new generation was either not yet born or had failed to absorb the lessons meted out upon their elders.
And this may also answer the often-asked question: why do Numbers, and later Deuteronomy, tend to repeat so much of what had already been given to Israel (and us) from the book of Exodus? The reason is no different than how it has always been with humanity: we never seem to learn from history.
It is said that a wise man learns from his mistakes, but a WISER man learns from the mistakes of others. The new generation of Israelites didn’t take God seriously and so were about to pay a terrible price.
Verse 1 tells us that Israel was probably still at the same encampment they were when Balaam and Balak stood on three different hilltops, gazing at this vast horde of Hebrews, with King Balak trying to convince the gentile sorcerer Balaam to curse Israel for him. And this was at a place called Shittim, which means Acacia tree.
Let’s begin by understanding that it is highly unlikely that at the moment it was occurring Israel had no idea of the shenanigans that had taken place with Balaam and Balak. That is to say that the folks of Israel had NO idea at the time it was happening that King Balak was working furiously to have Israel spiritually cursed.
In fact, it is Tradition that Balaam suggested as he was leaving to go back to Mesopotamia that as an alternative means of defeating Israel that King Balak infiltrate Israel with his people and befriend them in an attempt to turn Israel away from God slowly.
The immediate goal would be to get Israel to worship the gods of Moab because this was a culturally universal sign of alliance and respect. Sure enough, we’re told that the Hebrews (the men) started messing around with the Moabite women; almost for sure these were the younger and eligible men but it might have also included a few of the middle-aged who felt free to cavort with the ladies other than their wives.
Further, it is said at the beginning of verse 2 that the setting for this “whoring” was a sacrifice to the gods of Moab. What is happening here is a festival to Ba’al: or as he was officially called during this era in the Trans-Jordan region, Chemosh.
And this whoring also likely revolved around the pagan practice of religious prostitution that was common among most of the Mystery Religions of this time. Chemosh who is here called Ba’al -Peor (or better “the Ba’al of Peor”) was one of the several gods involved with fertility so sacred sex was at the core of every celebration in honor of any fertility god or goddess.
Therefore we have two major violations of God’s commandments at play:
- Israel was coveting other gods than Yehoveh, and
- They were committing fornication (and in some cases adultery) with foreign women.
And this could all be lumped into the category of idolatry.
I want to draw a parallel for you that I hope to cause us all a little discomfort. Sometimes we get the wrong mental picture of what was happening in the Bible, as thus it can be hard for us to relate to it on a personal level.
So many of the great pivotal moments in the Bible were subtle and not particularly noticeable at first. It’s like that in humanity’s history in general.
When those first Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, it was a minor blip on the radar screen. A handful of people commissioned a ship to reach the New World and start a new life there. They didn’t come to claim it for another nation (which would have been noticed and significant); they just came to escape religious persecution (primarily by the institutional Church in Europe).
Thus here in Moab, the actions of the people of Israel in interacting with the Moabites would have at first seemed welcome and natural. It would have seemed peaceful, respectful, and neighborly on both sides.
Moab was not the home of savages who sought to do terrible things to all who came near to them; they were just pretty much regular folks. For the young men of Israel to spy some beautiful girls from another and different (probably appealing) culture was something to be humanly expected.
Moab worshiped various gods including Ba’al as the chief god. It was not Israel’s calling to convert foreigners as they journeyed towards the Promised Land and they certainly felt no obligation to attempt it.
So, people being people, Israel showed some respect for the Moabites’ beliefs even if they didn’t agree with them; how else would they be able to get along in a civil manner?
But, NEVER in the Holy Scriptures are God’s followers EVER taught to show respect to false gods of other cultures, not even as a means to peaceful co-existence.
And the reason why is demonstrated right here in the first two verses of Numbers 25. Invariably the respect and tolerance of pagan ways and their gods turns to the adopting of some of those means and the watering down or perversion of the ways of God Almighty.
God calls this whoring because for Him idolatry practiced by His set-apart people is unfaithfulness. Whoring doesn’t necessarily mean that the Israelite men were going after Moabite prostitutes (though some did), rather it means that by having closer and closer relationships with a foreign people whose culture was all about honoring other gods the men of Israel were automatically unfaithful to God.
Let me fast forward to the 21st century. No group of people as a whole more than Christians and Jews are seeking to find a way to forge a relationship with a large group of individuals who openly worship a false god.
Over and over Christian and Jewish leaders, and political leaders who claim Christian beliefs, say that we must show respect for Islam (at least peaceful Islam). And the thing is, that respect BEGINS with showing esteem for the god of Islam because that is what Muslims demand.
We had President Obama who made his Christian faith front and center but who, not long after 9/11, stood in a Mosque as 100’s of millions of viewers who watched and listened to what the President said.
President Obama told the whole world that Allah is the same as the Christian God and that Christianity and Islam must show respect for each other’s beliefs as the obvious route to peace and co-existence. We must compromise and make allowances for one another.
The applause was thunderous, and the world acclaimed him for it, as did the bulk of Christianity and Judaism. After all, didn’t Jesus preach peace at any price?
Right there in Moab, the deadly spiral of apostasy and idolatry began subtly and unnoticed with Hebrew men merely forming acquaintanceships with Moabite women. Pretty soon, it says in verse 2; the Moabite women did what was natural: they invited their New Hebrew friends to join them at some of their national festive occasions (an honest and sincere attempt to be social).
And of course, just as it was for Israel, all of Moab’s festive occasions revolved around one of their gods or another. Many within Israel had no qualms with this, and in attending some of Moab’s religious celebrations saw no conflict with that versus their worship of God. For them, they were but forging a peaceful relationship with the Moabites.
We are attempting the same exact thing today, for the same reasons. Judaism invokes humanitarianism and Christians refer to the love and peace commanded by Jesus as our platform for reaching out a hand of tolerance to Islam. God’s reaction to these kinds of human efforts and misuse of His commandments is stated firmly in Numbers 25:3: “…the anger of Adonai blazed up against Israel”.
These acts were then, and still are, considered “high-handed” sins, the worst of the worst, and so the punishment will be commensurate with the crime. It is clear that the Lord (and so the writer of these Scriptures) sees what is happening as a social rebellion of Israel against God; all of Israel is held responsible for this apostasy. The Lord’s response is swift and severe: He orders that the chiefs or heads of the people are punished first.
Now we run into a bit of a problem with what was intended here because the wording in the Hebrew is ambiguous. What it says is that the “rosh” (Hebrew for “heads”) of the people should be singled out for retribution. Usually, this is taken to mean the tribal princes (literally the top man over each of the 12 tribes) and possibly some clan leaders as well.
Many translations say that the Lord ordered that these tribal chiefs are to be hung (by the neck) meaning to be executed by hanging. It is doubtful that hanging, as we think of, was what the Lord had in mind.
Strangulation was seen as most inhumane and wasn’t even allowed as a method to kill animals for food; so probably this was not ordered for men no matter how terrible their sin.
Therefore this is a standard term that means to be impaled on a pole, which was fairly usual for that era. It was habitual enough that in Deuteronomy a law was created to deal with it.
In Deuteronomy 21:22 we read, “… If a man is guilty of a capital offense and is put to death, and you impale him on a pole, you must not let his corpse remain on that pole overnight, but must bury him in the same day.”
But that solves only half of our problem. Did the Lord order the execution of all the tribal chiefs of Israel? Overall the Rabbis and Sages say that He did.
It makes the plainest sense of the text, and in the context of the story, and the lesson from it is also transparent: when national or corporate sin is involved the leadership is most to blame and shall bear the worst consequences.
But the Scripture takes this even a step further. It is not just that the leaders’ execution is a matter of punishment for state idolatry; it is an issue of atonement for Israel that the leaders be killed. As is said at the end of verse 4 when it says that these men should die so that “the Lord’s wrath may turn away from Israel.”
And this is a principle that the modern Church has done everything it can to disavow, I’m sorry to say. We’ve even gone so far as to say that the New Testament God doesn’t even punish us anymore.
I defy you to find that principle anywhere in the Word. What He doesn’t do with the true Believer is to CONDEMN us (meaning, eternal damnation). But to think that somehow we’re immune from the Lord’s just discipline (that can be very painful) is dangerously outside of Scripture.
We have encountered the principle of the high-handed sin in Leviticus, and the only atonement for this sin is the blood of the person who committed it. In other words, there is a kind of sin for which God will not accept the blood of an animal (an animal sacrifice) as a substitute for the death of the sinner. When we hear the phrase, “his blood his on his own head,” that is what it is getting at: no substitution is allowed.
So Moses says to certain other leaders to go and kill those who gave themselves over to Baal-Peor…that is the god of Moab.
Let’s stop here for a second: this is another of those spots where the ancient sages had some trouble; because what Moses ordered these individual leaders to do was NOT what the Lord had told Moses should be done.
In essence, God made all the tribal princes personally responsible for allowing their people to consort with Chemosh, the Ba’al of Moab, even if those princes had not themselves been directly involved.
Moses, however, turned around and ordered only the people who had participated in the pagan rituals to be punished. Hmmmmmm. And this is not the first time Moses has veered away from one of the Lord’s commands.
Why would Moses have done this? Why was he so reluctant to execute those leaders? Well in order not to go into great detail, I only ask you to think about the scenes we regularly see play out on our TV’s, from Iraq.
Tribal members and Muslim sect members will do anything to protect their leaders. And the leaders will sacrifice any amount of their people to maintain their position and power; this is the essence of the tribal system.
It’s unthinkable that a Hebrew tribal prince, the head of an entire tribe of people, would have willingly submitted to his execution. It’s also unthinkable that the people of that tribe would have stood idly by and allowed it to happen.
So from a human government sense, Moses took an easier path and one which felt better to him personally: get the tribal princes (who God told Him to execute) to instead execute some of the lesser leaders UNDER them as punishment for this apostasy. Anyone who’s ever spent much time in corporate management understands this principle very well.
What hasn’t been said yet, though, is that a plague was now raging among the Israelites as God poured out His wrath on the nation of Israel for their rebellion. So the idea is that the deaths of these leaders would satisfy God’s justice, and the plague would end before too many more Israelites died.
In the midst of all this, while people were dying by the thousands and the rest were partying with the pagans, a particular Hebrew man brought a Midianite woman into the camp and introduced her to his kinsman.
We have discussed in previous blog posts, that Moab and Midian had some alliance at this time; that in fact, some Midianites had even been part of the official entourage sent from King Balak of Moab up to Mesopotamia to fetch the famous sorcerer Balaam.
So at this moment in history, the Lord puts the Moabites and Midianites in the same boat: enemies of God. That this Israelite would bring a foreigner into camp at this moment and brazenly walk her right in front of Moses who was standing at the entrance to the Wilderness Tabernacle, is meant to demonstrate the corrupt state of mind to which Israel had (once again) succumbed.
Naturally, since the Tent of Meeting was where the priests operated, Phinehas (who was the priest in charge of the Tabernacle guards) saw this Hebrew man and a Midianite woman wander by, and he became incensed at their disregard for the Lord’s holiness.
He picked up a spear (undoubtedly from the hand of one of the hundreds of his Levite guards stationed around the Tabernacle area) and followed the licentious couple to this Hebrew man’s tent that was so near to the sacred tent. And while this couple is in the act of fornication Phinehas runs them both through with the spear.
I don’t think I need to draw a picture of how he could kill this couple at one time, with one spear. And just so we understand, the Scripture says he stabbed them through the belly. And this is a Hebrew euphemism for the reproductive organs; the idea being they were in the act of sinning with those organs, and by that means will they, therefore, die.
Interestingly, it was that act which stopped the plague: but not before 24,000 people had died from it. Now I’m sure that some of you have a bit of trouble with this priest taking the law into his hands and killing this couple. Well so did the ancient Rabbis. They attempted all sorts of gyrations so that Phinehas does not look too good in all this.
Be that as it may, in verse 10, God honors Phinehas for taking the lives of these two rebels (a Hebrew and a foreigner). The gist of the situation is that Phinehas had what we Christians like to call a “righteous” burst of anger. It was not that Phinehas was personally offended so much as he stepped forward when no one else would defend the Lord’s honor.
The Lord declares that what Phinehas did was not only NOT murder, that in fact, it was the needed act of expiation that prevented God from wiping out Israel for their high-handed sinning. Even more, the Lord says I grant Phinehas my Shalom; He blessed Phinehas.
Abba then went on to declare that as a reward for his decisive action, Phinehas would be the clan of Levites that would be the priests. And this didn’t CHANGE anything; it just clarified something. Phinehas was Eleazar’s son, and Eleazar was Aaron’s son. Aaron was dead, and Eleazar was now the High Priest. So, one of Eleazar’s sons would, naturally, become the next High Priest. The Lord just decided which son that would be: Phinehas.
We see the whole tone of chapter 25 shifts after Phinehas executes the couple. The plague ends, the Lord’s justice met, and it seems as if this shocking act brings Israel to its senses.
The generation that would enter the Promised Land had just received a sobering lesson on God’s kindness and His severity; His severity to destroy those who casually and callously rebel against Him, and His affection in providing a means of atonement for those who had not yet died from His wrath. A lesson that they’re parents had received on more than one occasion, but their parents were also prevented from ever entering Canaan.
The chapter ends by the Lord declaring war on the Midianites, people who seduced the rather easily led Hebrews into worshipping other gods and into unlawful sexual activity.
The coming war against Midian (and naturally, their ally Moab) meant that a call to arms of Israel’s army would be needed; and as was always done before beginning a war or conquest a census would be taken. A census would both alert the men to arm themselves and give the leader a count of his troops. And this is what Numbers 26 is going to concern itself with.