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Numbers 25:1-17

Text Comment

v.3       “Shittim” means “acacia trees,” the trees no doubt gave their name to the place. The full place name, which we read in 33:49, is “Abel-Shittim” which means “Brook of the Acacias.” No one knows today precisely its location. Cultic prostitution was a common feature of ANE worship: the sexual act was thought to animate the gods and thus the forces of nature. The sexual act of his worshippers would remind Baal and inspire him to impregnate the earth with his seed, that is rain, (Baal was the storm god), and so ensure the fertility of the crops and the flocks in the coming year. It was this sensual dimension that was one of the reasons why the pagan worship of the peoples around her proved such a constant temptation to Israel. That worship was radioactively sensual. Baal was the great Canaanite fertility god. This is, by the way, the first mention of Baal in the Bible, which is not surprising as, for the first time, Israel is on the border of Canaan. The nomads of Israel were first encountering the worship of a settled agricultural society. The Lord’s wrath was indication that for Israelites to participate in this fertility worship represented a root and branch repudiation of the faith of Yahweh and of his covenant with Israel. This danger was anticipated in the Law of Moses (Ex.34:15-16) where the sexual and romantic attraction for women of these pagan peoples is anticipated as a way of overcoming the exclusive commitment of Israelite men to Yahweh.

What we don’t read until 31:16 is that this was Balaam’s idea! If Balak couldn’t get the better of Israel by buying a curse on them, Balaam suggested another approach. What hadn’t been possible by sorcery might be by idolatry. Send some pretty girls over to the Israelite camp and have them invite some of the men to one of their idol-parties. Men who had been the desert as long as these men had would be strongly tempted by the offer of some good food and some time with an attractive, available woman.

The great Origen, who should have known better, took note of the fact that the text says that the Israelites bowed down to the Moabite idols but it does not say that they worshipped them. He didn’t think it possible that after the signs and wonders Israel had witnessed she could have thought the idols actually gods. [ACCS, iii, 250] Fact is, Israel made that mistake over and over again and always in defiance of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

v.5       There is some question as to the relationship between the instructions the Lord gave to Moses in v. 4 and those given in v. 5. It would seem that first the leaders were to be punished, executed indeed, for having allowed the behavior of people for whom they were responsible whether or not they were themselves involved in the immorality and idolatry. But then, in v. 5 the actual participants were to be executed.

We are not told in the following verses that either punishment was imposed. But what we are told later is that a plague broke out in the camp as judgment against the people. The Lord took matters into his own hands, as it were. Was this because Moses and the Israelite elders had not acted promptly or was this in addition to the formal executions that had been ordered? It is not clear.

v.6       The man’s bringing of the woman into the camp – we may assume that she wasn’t there to borrow a cup of sugar – at such a time represented open contempt for the notion that what Israel had done was a moral calamity of the first order and that God’s judgment of Israel’s sin was the cause of the plague that had swept through the camp. One assumes that the reason the people had gathered at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting was to plead with God to end the plague.

This woman was a Midianite though in v. 1 it is Moabite women who were proving the temptation to Israelite men. But the two peoples were closely associated (as we learned already in the Balaam narrative; remember delegates from both peoples traveled to secure Balaam’s services [22:4, 7]).

One question long asked of this text is why Moses didn’t act himself at the presence of this outrage. Why didn’t he immediately take matters into his own hands and deal with the offenders. People have wondered if he hesitated because he himself had a Midianite wife. In any case, it was left to another to right the wrong.

v.9       It is probably fair to conclude that the spear could pierce both bodies because Phinehas, Aaron’s grandson, caught the couple flagrante delicto.

A number of commentators assume that included among the 24,000 would have been all remaining members of the original adult generation that had come out of Egypt. This plague completed the purification of Israel. In this case the people were strengthened by subtraction.

v.11     The priest represented God to the people and the people to God. It was necessary, therefore, that he be a fit representative of God, not only in his body – which had to be unblemished, as you remember – but in his character. He needed to have God’s concern for holiness and righteousness. And this Phinehas proved he had. But he needed to be as well an ideal Israelite and this too Phinehas proved himself to be.

v.13     In making atonement, usually an animal was killed in the place of the worshipper and the worshipper died vicariously, through his animal substitute. But here since the sinners were dying themselves, being punished for their crimes, there is no need for an animal to die.

In any case, Phinehas’ line becomes the line of the Israelite priesthood, just as David’s line would later become, by God’s covenant with him, the line of Israelite royalty. We read in 8:19 that the Levites, as guards of the sanctuary, would make atonement for Israel and so keep a plague from striking the Israelites when they went near the sanctuary. That is what happened here.

v.14     Zimri’s stature as the son of a Israelite chieftain and Cozbi’s as the daughter of a Midianite chieftain made his sin more reprehensible and more dangerous to the faith of Israel. When the leaders, the elite culture of a nation sin boldly, the corrosive effect is much the worse, as we are finding in our American public life.

Florence and I have been making plans for our trip to the Middle East in May. We have gone online, as one does nowadays, to find hotels. We didn’t want to stay in a generic, businessman’s type of hotel, the same as one might use here in the United States. We were looking for one with local charm: a hotel that was an expression of the local culture, usually smaller, more intimate; the kind of hotel where one meets the proprietor and has chats about the sites and the best restaurants and so on.

We came across the entry for one such hotel on a website that listed a number of hotels. It said it was located near the center of the city and just a few minutes walk from the famous sites. It offered great views and had all the modern amenities as well (air conditioning, internet access, and so on). This particular website, however, also offered some customer reviews of the hotel and so we clicked on that button to see what others thought of it who had stayed there.

“In my room there were bugs and ticks in the bed. My friend and I got a skin rash. We needed to see a doctor. When we complained to the staff they said, ‘You say you saw the bugs, but I don’t see any.’ When they visited the room they said, ‘It’s not my problem.’

That was the first comment we came to. Here is the second.

“Terrible staff. I booked a double bed but they gave me a twin so I complained. She said, ‘If you don’t like the room, leave.’ Breakfast was bad. The bathroom was very dirty; I saw a roach. Whatever you do, don’t stay in this hotel.’”

The outward appearance of things is not always the same as the actual experience of them. And the impression that we are given can sometimes be very different from the facts as we actually encounter them. As so often in the Bible, we encounter this profoundly puzzling dialectic in regard to the people of God. We hear a good report and then we are dismayed to learn that all is not as we expected it would be. We have just heard Balaam say the words that Yahweh put in his mouth: that Israel is “a people who live apart” but now we find them intertwined with her neighbors sexually and theologically. [Alter, The Five Books of Moses, 817-818] We were just treated to a report of how charming and beautiful Israel is and now suddenly we are finding bugs in the bed, surly help, and a roach in the bathroom!

Actually, this is altogether typical of the Bible’s description of the people of God. Over and over again we have juxtaposed to one another descriptions of Israel and the church as the people of God, the bride of Christ, the covenant people, and the saints or holy ones on the one hand, and as rebellious, foolish, worldly ingrates on the other. Time and time again a wonderful account of the Lord’s grace and goodness to this favored people is followed immediately by an account of the people’s ingratitude, rebellion, and foolishness. The lawgiving at Sinai was followed by the making of the golden calf; the covenant the Lord made with David and his house was followed by adultery and murder on David’s part. The Last Supper was followed by Peter’s betrayal and on and on it goes. I Corinthians begins with Paul addressing “the saints in Corinth” and continues with his dealing with all manner of very unsaintly behavior.

The similarity between this episode and that of the golden calf is particularly striking and has often been commented on. Both involve the worship of idols, both are punished by men of the tribe of Levi, and both result in Yahweh’s promise to the line of Levi: in the first case to the Levites as a whole, in the second to the Aaronic line in the form of Phinehas, Aaron’s grandson. There are striking similarities as well to the account of the people’s rebellion at Kadesh Barnea. There too the Lord sent a plague to punish the people and there too one or two faithful people separate themselves from the majority and act on Yahweh’s behalf. [Milgrom, 211] History is repeating itself and the people of God are described once more by contrast, light and darkness, good and evil, faith and unbelief, obedience and rebellion.

We are, in this way, of course, being reminded that our hope must always be in the grace of God and not in our own virtue or even the strength of our faith. If I may be allowed to stretch the analogy further, there are too many bugs in our bed and too many roaches in our bathrooms to qualify for admittance into the heavenly website! It will always be God’s faithfulness to his word and his promise and his covenant, not our faithfulness to him that will tell the tale. We must be people for whom that is a first principle of life every day we live! Soli Deo Gloria. If there is anything, anything at all that should be and should be seen to be the distinctive characteristic of our lives it should be this: the humble acknowledgement of our sinfulness and our gratitude to and love for God because of his forgiveness through Jesus Christ. But that is but one pole of the dialectic. The other is the righteous living of the followers of Christ. That we find here as well, a concentration on the righteous living of God’s people.

We are reminded in this text of two standing temptations that the people of God must prepare themselves to meet. The first is sexual immorality. The Apostle Paul refers to this history in 1 Cor. 10:7-8 and turns it into a warning against sexual immorality. How often in the past has sexual sin been the undoing of a people or a person and how often of people in the church. From Sodom and Gomorrah to Samson and David, it has been illicit sexual behavior that brought men and women to ruin. The double life, the profound hypocrisy that is always involved in such sin; the assault on the sanctity of a marriage and family; the breaking of trust; the selfish use of other human beings; the abandonment of the mind to impure thoughts when it might have been put to so much better and purer employment; and so much more. Sexual temptation is a terrible power, an evil power, a corrupting power and it is, as it has always been, everywhere.

Christian men should read a passage like this, the Apostle Paul effectively says, and say to themselves: “I am not going to do this. I am not going to be like this. I am not going to be a man who uses a woman for my own pleasure, either a real woman or the picture of a real woman. I am not going to leave behind me a trail of shame. I am never going to be a man whose wife wonders what he may be doing when he is not at home. I am not going to be a young man who needs a young woman to be a better Christian than I am to prevent tragedy. I am going to be a man my girlfriend and later my wife can trust; a man other women can trust; a man who is in control of his appetites; a man wise enough to see the end of the matter when first tempted; a man who for the love of God and Christ knows what he is about and considers it a matter of honor that he will live a pure life, the life of a Christian knight. I guarantee you, in a culture like this, with sexual temptation riding into our homes on the cable or flying in from the satellite, with more and more people ready and willing to be accomplices in sexual sin, it will be the determined only, the rock-steady men, the men who live to be pure and whose pride is their purity, who will stand fast and honor the Lord in this area of life.

The second standing temptation highlighted in this text is idolatry. We know the Bible well enough to appreciate that one does not have to bow down to wood or stone figures to be an idolater. Paul, among others, makes it clear that anything we put in God’s place, anything besides God that we count on for our happiness and wholeness as human beings, anything to which we devote ourselves as the source of pleasure, satisfaction, and fulfillment is an idol. “Greed is idolatry,” Paul says, because greed – the inordinate desire for money and the things money can buy – is a false god. The heart, Calvin said, is an “idol factory.” We are always putting things in God’s place and looking to them for what God alone can truly give us. We live in a culture of idolatry as surely as Israel did in the 2nd millennium B.C. We are rubbing shoulders with idolaters every day. And to avoid becoming such ourselves we must keep our wits about us and, above all, constantly search our hearts to be sure that God and God alone stands in the center of all our hope, our expectation, our love, and our loyalty.

But I want to finish with the point that the text itself draws our particular attention to: namely the zeal of Phinehas. Everyone else stood by, for whatever reason. Even Moses stood there when Zimri and Cozbi walked brazenly by and entered their tent. Presumably Eleazar, Phinehas’ father, would have been present at so urgently called a meeting at the sanctuary itself. But he did nothing either when the two walked into camp. The text makes a point of saying that everyone saw the Israelite man and the Midianite woman, everyone knew what was going on – this was the sort of cohabitation expressly forbidden and of the same type that had brought the plague down upon Israel in the first place – but no one sprang to take action except Phinehas. Phinehas, by the way, is an Egyptian name, not a Hebrew one. We are reminded of his past, of his family origins by his name. His family was a family the Lord brought out of slavery in Egypt on eagles’ wings. Phinehas had not forgotten what the Lord had done for him. Phinehas could not stand by while the nation suffered because of the brazen rebellion of a few. He did what needed to be done.

And if we wonder if what he did was right – the rabbis wondered that and debated that for a long time (after all there was no trial, no investigation of the facts; here was a man taking matters into his own hands) – but the Lord puts an end to all of that pettifoggery, that quibbling over trifles while thousands were dying. He said straightaway that he not only approved of what Phinehas had done, but so much approved that he would guarantee Phinehas a lasting inheritance in Israel as the ancestor of the priests of God. He was as much as saying that he wanted every one of his priests to be men like Phinehas. He wanted Israelite men and even women, necessary changes being made, to look to Phinehas in his zeal for the purity of the Lord’s people as an example of what every believing man and woman ought to be and always aspire to be. Luther once defined zeal as “love made angry.” And that is Phinehas here. He loved the Lord’s name, he loved the Lord’s people, and he was angry that both had suffered reproach because of the sins of Israelite men who dared to act as if they would rather have Moabite god and Moabite worship rather than Yahweh and as if they preferred women who knew nothing and cared nothing for the covenant that God had made with Israel. And in that anger he took action to right the wrong and God approved his action and rewarded it.

We have here a contrast between two men: one, Zimri, an Israelite who was perfectly willing to enjoy the world’s way; the other, Phinehas, who was committed to the Lord and his covenant. And in that contrast we see the rest of the Bible’s history unfolding and the history of the church ever since. Always there are those who want to belong to the church but don’t want that belonging to interfere with or compromise their place in the world. And then there are those who understand how absolute the antithesis must be between church and world, between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world, between the ways of the saints and the ways of the wicked.

And there is another contrast, between those who truly belong to the church, who see the evil of the world’s ways, who are committed to the life of God’s covenant, but who are reticent to take action or provide leadership. That is the significance of the Lord’s reward of Phinehas. He had proved himself a leader and so the Lord as much as said that he wanted leaders like this man and so would take them from his descendants.

Now a careful, thoughtful, and interested reader of the Bible, in considering this text and the incident it records, is supposed to ask himself or herself: what is there in me, in my conduct, like that which the Lord found so admirable in Phinehas? How am I like this man? What is the evidence of my zeal for the house of the Lord? Remember the Lord Jesus and how zeal for the Lord’s house consumed him? Remember how he cleansed the temple with a whip? Remember how he spent himself for the sake of the people of God? Remember what great injustices he bore because he would not be distracted from the mission he had been given to atone for his people’s sins; just what Phinehas is said to have done here in v. 13? We will not be asked to drive a spear through two bodies, but we are told in Romans 12:11 never to be lacking in zeal.

In the Bible zeal is a mark of true faith. Remember Jeremiah 48:10?

“A curse on him who is lax in doing the Lord’s work!”

Paul reminds us that alacrity, eagerness in doing what is right is something the Lord had always in his mind when he gave himself for us. He wasn’t giving his life to create a community of the half-hearted but of those eager to do what is good. And why not? When eternity is at stake, when it is the living God we are serving, when our forgiveness and our hope of heaven rest on so great a love and so terrible a sacrifice, why indeed should we not be devoted people, ardent lovers of God, eager servants of his cause, determined to do what is pleasing to him. Think of the biblical heroes – for all their faults – they were big men, they worked hard at serving the Lord, they aimed high and were not deterred by the temptations of ease and worldly acceptance. They wanted to do something for the Lord.

Let me say this especially to our young people. This is what we want most from you. We don’t care if you make a lot of money or enjoy what the world calls success. We don’t care so much that your manners are polished though that is always a good thing. We don’t care that much if you still have a great deal to learn. That goes without saying. We don’t even care if you stub your toe from time to time. We must all learn the hard way. What we care about, what matters most to your parents and to your elders and to your ministers and to your church family is that you care about the Lord and his kingdom. We want to see real commitment. We won’t even mind if that commitment leads you to criticize us for what you feel is an insufficient commitment in one way or another on our part. We ought to be doing more, you think; or we shouldn’t allow that; or we ought to insist on this. T.C. Hammond, the 20th century Irish and then Australian preacher and writer who knew a great deal about such things, once said, “If a young man has anything to offer he’ll be a bit troublesome.” Troublesome is okay with us, if it is the fruit of Christian zeal! More of that troublesomeness is what we very much need.

Surely young people, every now and then, the thought rises in your heart that the great God we trust and love, the great salvation we have been given, the great calling with which we have been called ought to produce in you something extravagant, forceful, white-hot; that there can be no half-heartedness about the Christian life. Such would be a grave offense to God who was the furthest from half-hearted in loving and saving us. When that thought rises in your mind, when you feel the force of that truth, then, then you are thinking and feeling as a Christian should. Then you are seeing your life as you ought always to see it.

I guarantee you, there were those who felt Phinehas needed to have his wings clipped. They wanted to be sure that he wasn’t going to execute someone else in his zeal for the Lord’s name and people. They said such things as, “Well, I can see the young man’s point, but he needs to know that there are rules to be followed and that things ought to be done decently and in good order.” But the Lord said, “I want Phinehas to be your role model. I want more like him.” And no wonder. Who can argue with the logic of Charles Kingsley’s famous verse?

God! Fight we not within a cursed world,
Whose very air teams thick with leagued fiends –
Each word we speak has infinite effects –
Each soul we pass must go to heaven or hell –
And this our one chance through eternity
To drop and die, like dead leaves in the brake…
Be earnest, earnest, earnest, mad if thou wilt:
Do what thou dost as if the stake were heaven,
And that thy last deed ere the judgment day.

Are you half-hearted? Is there very little in your life that an observer would compare to Phinehas’ zeal for the name and the people and the kingdom and the cause of the Lord God? Do you wonder what eagerness, what ardor, what measure of commitment the Lord might find in you to commend to others? Could you serve as a role model as Phinehas did: someone who takes it all with absolute seriousness?

Believe me when I tell you there will be times and occasions enough in your Christian life when you will have the opportunity to stand up and be counted as a faithful servant of the Lord. Alas there will always be such times. Your Christian friends are speaking in a way or making plans that you know very well are not right, not honoring to the Lord. Will you speak up and declare yourself or will you stand there doing and saying nothing? Your church will begin making compromises with the world. Will you protest or will you simply go along?

Most of the church’s failure in the world has happened because most folk – real Christians all – just stood there. They could not see themselves grabbing a spear, walking into a tent, and running two sinners through! What would have happened if Phinehas had not done what he did? How many more would have died?

In a sermon preached in Aberdeen in the later 18th century, the Scottish preacher Alexander Shields, is reported to have recommended to his congregation: “a pint of hope, three pints of faith, and nine pints of hot, hot, hot burning zeal!” [S. Ferguson, John Owen on the Christian Life, 17]