“And Israel abode in Shittim, and the people began to commit whoredom with the daughters of Moab. And they called the people unto the sacrifices of their gods: and the people did eat, and bowed down to their gods.” (Numbers 25:1-2)
Israel was occupying land once owned by the Moabites that they had taken from the Amorites, and there were still a lot of Moabites living in the land. As descendants of Lot, they were distant relatives of the Israelites. After their defeat of the Amorites, the King, Balak was terrified that Israel would conquer Moab.
Balaam had said, “He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither hath he seen perverseness in Israel: the LORD his God is with him, and the shout of a king is among them. God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn. Surely there is no enchantment against Jacob, neither is there any divination against Israel: according to this time it shall be said of Jacob and of Israel, What hath God wrought!”
Remembering that Balak used the familial relationship, and the proximity to encourage Israel to participate in their religious practices and customs. Some of these sexual perversions had been learned by Lot’s daughters in Sodom. Many Israelites went along with it.
“And Israel joined himself unto Baalpeor: and the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel. And the LORD said unto Moses, Take all the heads of the people, and hang them up before the LORD against the sun, that the fierce anger of the LORD may be turned away from Israel.
And Moses said unto the judges of Israel, Slay ye every one his men that were joined unto Baalpeor. ” (Numbers 25:3-5)
God had given a specific command about worshipping other Gods in Exodus 20:3-5. “Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.” Their participation in worship of Baalpeor was a deliberate breaking the covenant with God. Later in Deuteronomy 8:19-20, God would warn, “And it shall be, if thou do at all forget the LORD thy God, and walk after other gods, and serve them, and worship them, I testify against you this day that ye shall surely perish. As the nations which the LORD destroyeth before your face, so shall ye perish; because ye would not be obedient unto the voice of the LORD your God.”
God had also specifically warned them of the consequences of sexual sin in Leviticus 20:10. “And the man that committeth adultery with another man's wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbour's wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.” Israel had also ignored and violated this part of their agreement with God. That a large number of people were involved in the sin did not change the penalty. Moses’ command to execute the guilty was simply fulfilling the commandment in an effort to turn away God‘s wrath. He had already set a plague in motion that was killing people.
“And, behold, one of the children of Israel came and brought unto his brethren a Midianitish woman in the sight of Moses, and in the sight of all the congregation of the children of Israel, who were weeping before the door of the tabernacle of the congregation.
And when Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose up from among the congregation, and took a javelin in his hand; And he went after the man of Israel into the tent, and thrust both of them through, the man of Israel, and the woman through her belly. So the plague was stayed from the children of Israel. And those that died in the plague were twenty and four thousand.” (Numbers 25:6-9)
Right in the middle of the whole thing, one man came dragging in a Middianite woman to entertain his brothers, publicly defying them to do anything about it. There was no question of his guilt, and Phineas fulfilled the Law’s demand by killing both the man and the woman. The plague had already killed twenty four thousand, and the man’s action made a mockery of their deaths.
“And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, hath turned my wrath away from the children of Israel, while he was zealous for my sake among them, that I consumed not the children of Israel in my jealousy. Wherefore say, Behold, I give unto him my covenant of peace: And he shall have it, and his seed after him, even the covenant of an everlasting priesthood; because he was zealous for his God, and made an atonement for the children of Israel.” (Numbers 25:10-13)
In Leviticus 18 God gave specific instructions about sexual sin, warning that if allowed, it would defile the land and cause the inhabitants to lose it, Leviticus 18:24-25 warns, “Defile not ye yourselves in any of these things: for in all these the nations are defiled which I cast out before you: And the land is defiled: therefore I do visit the iniquity thereof upon it, and the land itself vomiteth out her inhabitants.” This is true of any country, not just Israel.
Numbers 35:31-33 makes a similar statement about allowing murderers of those guilty of manslaughter. “Moreover ye shall take no satisfaction for the life of a murderer, which is guilty of death: but he shall be surely put to death. And ye shall take no satisfaction for him that is fled to the city of his refuge, that he should come again to dwell in the land, until the death of the priest. So ye shall not pollute the land wherein ye are: for blood it defileth the land: and the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it.”
Because of our acceptance of sexual sin and even murder the frequency is on the rise in modern America. As Ecclesiastes 8:11 states, “Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil.” In essence, our allowing such sin to be unpunished, we tacitly approve it. We thus expose ourselves to God’s judgment. I Corinthians 11:31 promises, “For if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged.”
In the church, we are commanded to separate those who are in deliberate sin to prevent it’s spread. I Corinthians 5:4-6 instructs, “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. Your glorying is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump?”
Though it may seem harsh, Phineas’ action spared the lives of a great many people.
“Now the name of the Israelite that was slain, even that was slain with the Midianitish woman, was Zimri, the son of Salu, a prince of a chief house among the Simeonites. And the name of the Midianitish woman that was slain was Cozbi, the daughter of Zur; he was head over a people, and of a chief house in Midian.” (Numbers 25:14-15)
The man who was slain had considerable prestige and probably figured he could get off as a result, especially as they would not want to antagonize the Midianites by killing one of the indianite leader’s daughters. God is no respecter of persons, and the same rules are to apply to everyone. James 2:9 warns, “But if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin, and are convinced of the law as transgressors.”
“And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, Vex the Midianites, and smite them: For they vex you with their wiles, wherewith they have beguiled you in the matter of Peor, and in the matter of Cozbi, the daughter of a prince of Midian, their sister, which was slain in the day of the plague for Peor's sake.” (Numbers 25:16-18)
Rather than avoiding antagonizing the Midianites, God instructed Israel to punish them for their part in causing Israel to sin in worshipping other Gods and sexual misconduct.