Balaam’s Advice: “If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em”
When we move from Numbers 24 to Numbers 25, we might suppose that we have left Balaam behind. In chapters 22-24, Balak, the king of Moab, employs Balaam, a diviner from Mesopotamia, to manipulate the God of Israel so that He will curse the Israelites, rather than bless them. His hope is to weaken the nation Israel militarily, so that the Moabites and Midianites might defeat them in battle and drive them out of the land. Balaam appears to “change God’s mind” with respect to his going to meet with Balak, but as he learns on his journey, he persists in his efforts at great peril to himself. In spite of Balak’s pressure and Balaam’s desire to do otherwise, this false prophet consistently pronounces blessings on Israel and cursings on Israel’s enemies. In the end, Balak dismisses Balaam, sending him home without pay.
And so when we come to Numbers 25, we do not expect to hear any more about Balaam. Indeed, Balaam is not even named in this chapter. But these later texts make it clear that Balaam and Balak were behind the events of our text in Numbers 25:
8 And they slew the kings of Midian in addition to those slain, namely Evi, and Rekem, and Zur, and Hur, and Reba—five Midianite kings. And Balaam the son of Beor they slew with the sword. 9 And the Israelites took the women of Midian captives, and their little ones, and took all their herds, and all their flocks, and all their goods as plunder. 10 And they burnt all their towns that they had inhabited, and all their encampments with fire. 11 And they took all the plunder and all the booty, both people and animals. 12 And they brought the captives and the booty and the plunder to Moses, and to Eleazar the priest, and to the Israelite community, to the camp on the steppes of Moab, along the Jordan across from Jericho. 13 And Moses and Eleazar the priest and all the leaders of the community went out to meet them outside the camp. 14 And Moses was furious with the officers of the army, the captains over thousands, and captains over hundreds, who had come from service in the war. 15 And Moses said to them, “Have you allowed all the women to live? 16 Look, these people, through the counsel of Balaam, caused the Israelites to act treacherously against the LORD in the matter of Peor—and there was the plague among the community of the LORD. 17 Now therefore kill every boy, and kill every woman who has had intercourse with a man. 18 But all the young women who have not had intercourse with a man will be yours” (Numbers 31:8-18, emphasis mine).
12 “To the angel of the church in Pergamum write the following: “This is the solemn pronouncement of the One who has the sharp double-edged sword: 13 ‘I know where you reside, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you continue to cling to my name and you have not denied your faith in me, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was killed in your city where Satan dwells. 14 But I have a few things against you: you have some people there who follow the teaching of Balaam, who instructed Balak to put a stumbling block before the people of Israel so they would eat food sacrificed to idols and commit sexual immorality. 15 In the same way, there are also some among you who follow the teaching of the Nicolaitans. 16 Therefore, repent! If not, I will come against you quickly and make war against those people with the sword of my mouth. 17 The one who has an ear had better hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers, I will give him some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, and on that stone will be written a new name that no one can understand except the one who receives it’” (Revelation 2:12-17, emphasis mine).
The seduction of the Israelites and the death of 24,000 is, at its roots, the result of one man’s counsel. The man is Balaam. Fortunately, the satisfaction of God’s anger and the termination of the plague is also the result of one man’s courage. This man is Phinehas. Let us learn what God has to teach us from the lives of these two men, and from the nation Israel in this dark chapter in Israel’s history.
1 When Israel dwelt in Shittim,34 the people35 began to commit fornication with the daughters of Moab. 2 And these women36 invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods; and then the people ate, and bowed down to their gods. 3 So Israel joined themselves to Baal-peor. And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel. 4 And the LORD said to Moses, “Arrest all the leaders of the people, and hang them up before the LORD in sun,37 that the fierce anger of the LORD may be turned away from Israel.” 5 So Moses said to the judges of Israelites, “Each of you must slay those of his men who were joined to Baal-peor.
The Israelites were camped by a grove of Acacia trees, on the east side of the Jordan River. They were waiting for the time when God would lead them into the promised land. Unknown to the Israelites, a spiritual attack against them had been waged by the Moabites and the Midianites, who had hired Balaam to persuade God to curse the nation Israel. Balaam knew that the heathen gods could be manipulated, or at least so it seemed. We know that there are no other gods, but God alone. Because the “gods” are gods of man’s making, they are gods of man’s shaping as well. They are “gods” whose minds can be changed, whose wills can be influenced, even manipulated.
It must have been quite an adjustment for Balaam to finally encounter the One True God, Yahweh, the God of Israel. Did Balaam think too highly of himself? Was he impressed by the fact that Balak wanted his services, and was willing to pay outrageous wages to get him? Did he look at himself as the one through whom God would speak and act? God spoke to Balaam by means of a donkey, Balaam’s donkey. Did Balaam suppose that because God appeared to change His mind by allowing him to go to Balak that He would also change His mind about cursing Israel? Balaam discovers that God is speaking through him, as He spoke to him by means of his donkey. God would speak words of blessing upon Israel, and words of cursing upon any who would oppose Israel.
Can you appreciate how difficult the task facing Balaam was? Balak offered Balaam a lucrative fee for his services if he could persuade God not to bless Israel, but to curse them. Balaam found that it was impossible to induce God to curse those whom He had blessed. If this was the case, then surely Balaam had miserably failed; surely there was no way that Balaam could achieve the result Balak so strongly desired, and for which he would so richly reward Balaam.
I can almost see Balaam trudging back toward Mesopotamia, muttering to himself about lost wages and a fruitless journey. (I wonder if he tried to engage the donkey in conversation again?) I’m virtually certain that he did not attempt to beat her again! Suddenly, Balaam stops in his tracks. “I’ve got it,” he cries out. “Of course! Why didn’t I think of it before?” Balaam had been using the wrong approach. He was trying to get the unchanging God to change His plans and purposes. That would never happen, as he discovered. God would never go back on His Word; Balaam had said so himself (Numbers 23:19). So Balaam now devises a devious plan, a plan that seeks to “use” God’s faithfulness to His Word for his own personal gain.
God had promised to bless Israel, but His blessings under the Law were conditional. Israel would be blessed as they obeyed God’s commandments. In Leviticus 18, very specific laws are set down which regulate the sexual conduct of God’s chosen people, the Israelites. Israel is to be careful not to practice the abominations of Egypt, from which they have been delivered, or of Canaan, which they are about to possess:
1 The LORD spoke to Moses saying: 2 “Speak to the children of Israel and say to them, ‘I am the LORD your God. 3 As they do in the land of Egypt in which you have been living, you must not do, and as they do in the land of Canaan into which I am about to bring you, you must not do; you must not walk in their statutes. 4 You must observe my regulations and you must be sure to walk in my statutes. I am the LORD your God. 5 So you must keep my statutes and my regulations by which anyone who does them will live. I am the LORD” (Leviticus 18:1-5).
Leviticus 18:6-23 then specifies what the practices are which God has forbidden, and they are virtually all related to sexual purity. Moses then concludes:
24 “‘Do not defile yourselves with any of these things, for the nations, which I am about to drive out before you, have been defiled with all these things. 25 Thus the land has become unclean and I have brought the punishment for its iniquity on it, so the land has vomited out its inhabitants. 26 Your yourselves must keep my statutes and my regulations and must not do any of these abominations, both the native citizen and the foreigner who resides in your midst, 27 for the men who were in the land before you have done all these abominations, and the land has become unclean. 28 So do not let the land vomit you out because you defile it just as it has vomited out the nation which was before you, 29 for anyone who does any of these abominations, the persons who do them will be cut off from the midst of their people. 30 You must keep my charge to not practice any of the abominable statutes which have been done before you, so that you do not defile yourselves by them. I am the LORD your God’” (Leviticus 18:24-30).
In the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses reiterates the Law that was given at Mount Sinai to the second generation of Israelites, who are about to possess the land of Canaan—the same people who fall into sin in Numbers 25. In Deuteronomy 28:1-14, Moses spells out all the ways that God will bless Israel, if they but obey His law. The remaining 55 verses in Deuteronomy 28 describe the “curses” that will fall upon Israel if they disobey His law. Balaam now seems to realize that he has been foolishly seeking to change God, which cannot be done. He now sees that while God cannot be changed, the Israelites are a fickle people, whose hearts can easily be turned from God. If he can succeed in seducing the Israelites, and causing them to engage in sexual and religious adultery, then he knows that God must keep His own Word and bring a curse upon this people. It was perfect! At least Balaam thought it was. He would use Israel’s weaknesses (stiff-necked and prone to wander) and God’s strength (He does not change, keeping His Word) against Israel and for Balak and the Moabites. What a stroke of genius! Balaam must have congratulated himself all the way back to Balak.
It was impossible to persuade God to forsake His purpose of blessing Israel, but history had proven that it would be very easy to turn Israel from the right path by rebelling against God’s Word, thereby incurring His wrath. All Balaam had to do was to tempt the Israelites to sin in such a way that they would fall under the curse of God as laid out in the law. It was an ingenious plan, and incredibly simple. The Israelites could be seduced to follow other gods, and this would anger God to the point that they would incur the curses God had pronounced on those who practiced such sins! The plan that quickly formed in Balaam’s mind seemed to be flawless. If God is faithful and does not change, man is fickle and prone to wander. He would counsel Balak: “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” By inviting them to dinner (and thus to participate in idol worship with them), the Moabites would entice the Israelites to engage in sexual and spiritual harlotry. This was an abomination to God and would thus bring a curse upon them. Here was a sure-fire, indirect way to bring about the same objective Balaam had failed to accomplish directly. Israel’s waywardness throughout their time in the wilderness gave Balaam confidence his plan would work.
Following Balaam’s counsel, the Moabite women invited the Israelites to dinner. There is a strange irony to all of this:
3 An Ammonite or Moabite may not enter the assembly of the LORD; to the tenth generation none of their descendants shall do so, forever, 4 for they did not meet you with food and beverage on the way as you came from Egypt and, furthermore, they hired against you Balaam son of Beor of Pethor in Aram Naharaim to curse you. 5 But the LORD your God was unwilling to pay heed to Balaam and he changed the curse to a blessing, for the LORD your God loved you (Deuteronomy 23:3-5).
The Moabites were indicted by God for not offering “bread and water”—the simplest fare—to the Israelites when they fled from Egypt. And now they are tempting the Israelites with “bed and breakfast.” None of this seems to have registered with the Israelites. No one appears to suspect impure motives on the part of the Moabites. I do not wish to underestimate just how tempting a “dinner invitation” would be to the Israelites. When my wife and I were flying back from Europe a few years ago, our airplane circled over the city of Atlanta before landing. As we came in over the city, there, outside our window, we could see the “golden arches” of a McDonalds restaurant before us. The whole plane spontaneously erupted with cheers and shouts of joy—for a McDonalds! Now I have always enjoyed the coffee at McDonalds, and their french fries are great, too. But I’ve never heard such a cheer for a fast food restaurant before. The reason these folks cheered was because they had been away from the USA, and they had missed some of their favorite foods. Somehow, the golden arches of a McDonalds restaurant symbolized the availability of American foods not available overseas.
This second generation of Israelites had been wandering in the wilderness for nearly 40 years. They had eaten manna and water, with almost no exceptions. The spices of Egypt were no more. And suddenly the “welcome wagon” arrives at the Israelites’ camp. Some friendly neighbors come by to welcome them to the neighborhood and to offer them steak and ale. One should not minimize the temptation here, even though such a meal was wrong.38 Perhaps the Israelites did not initially realize that to share such a meal with the Moabites was to join them in the worship of their gods. But eventually they willingly participated, not only in the meal, but in the sexual immorality that also was a part of their “worship.”
In verse 1, we read that the people began to commit this terrible sin. I would therefore understand that God responded very quickly to this sin. We may be grateful that He did. How many more would have sinned and been put to death had God delayed dealing with this matter? Seldom are we as prompt to deal with sin.
Many translations render the text in such a way as to indicate that the sin was that of sexual immorality. I have no doubt that sexual immorality was involved. This was typical of Canaanite religion. The word rendered “commit fornication” in verse 1 is one employed in the Old Testament for literally playing the harlot (Genesis 34:31; 38:15, 24). Very often, however, it is employed when referring to spiritual harlotry, the forbidden (and thus adulterous) worship of other gods (see Exodus 34:15-16; Leviticus 17:7; 20:5-6). I think when it is used in our text it refers to both sexual and spiritual immorality. By participating in the pagan sacrificial meals, and by engaging in sexual relations with the Moabites as an act of worship, the Israelites both committed sexual immorality and engaged in spiritual harlotry.
Think of it. God’s law laid down strict regulations concerning sexual conduct, and immorality was labeled as a sin that was abhorrent to God. Sexual immorality was contrary to true religion—to Israel’s religion—because it offended a holy and righteous God. But the Canaanites incorporated sexual immorality into their religion, as (can you believe it?) an “act of worship.” No wonder church attendance was good among these pagans! Going to bed was, so to speak, going to church. How clever Satan is, to take what God has condemned as contrary to religion, and make it a vital part of religious worship.
In his excellent commentary on the Book of Numbers, Gordon J. Wenham points out the parallels between the experiences of the first generation of Israelites to leave Egypt and the second generation, which will enter the land of Canaan.39 The sin of the second generation of Israelites in Numbers 25 is remarkably similar to the sin of the first generation Israelites at Sinai, when Moses had gone up the mountain to receive the law from God:
1 When the people saw that Moses delayed in coming down from the mountain, they gathered together around Aaron, and they said to him, “Get up, make us gods that will go before us. As for this fellow Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” 2 So Aaron said to them, “Break off the golden earrings which are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3 And all the people broke off the golden earrings that were on their ears, and they brought them to Aaron. 4 And he received them from their hand and he fashioned it with an engraving tool, and he made a molten calf. Then they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” 5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it, and Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow will be a feast to Yahweh.” 6 So they rose up early on the next day, and they offered up burnt offerings, and they brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play (Exodus 32:1-6).
Several things impress me in verses 1-5. First, I am amazed at how quickly this sin occurs. Second, I am impressed with how widely spread the sin has become in such a short period of time. The whole nation seems to have been affected. Third, I am amazed at how easily the entire nation succumbs to temptation. Fourth, I am troubled by how far—how deeply into sin—Israel has fallen. Finally, I find it difficult to believe how little it took to turn Israel from serving God to serving pagan deities. An invitation to dinner, and suddenly Israel finds itself engaged in the worship of false gods.
God’s response is not surprising. He had made it very clear to His people whom they were to worship, and how. He promised to bless His people when they obeyed His law, and to curse them when they rebelled against Him (Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 28-31). Numbers 15 records very specific instructions as to how the Israelites were to offer sacrifices. Further instructions concerning the priests and sacrifices were set down in Numbers 18 and 19. These instructions, so clearly and so recently set down, were cast aside by the “worship” the Israelites engaged in with the Moabites and Midianites. And because of their immorality and idolatry, God was angry (Numbers 25:3).
God instructs Moses concerning how he is to deal with this spiritual disaster in verse 4:
And the LORD said to Moses, “Arrest all the leaders of the people, and hang them up before the LORD in sun [i.e., “in broad daylight”]40, that the fierce anger of the LORD may be turned away from Israel.”
In my opinion, anyone reading these words in the original text would not have any difficulty understanding exactly what God meant.41 The problem is not that God’s words are unclear, but rather that they are difficult to accept. Why would God require such severe action? Why would God command Moses to put all of the leaders of the people to death publicly? Why did God command that only the leaders be put to death? And if God did command that all the leaders be publicly executed, why does Moses command something less than this in verse 5? He orders that the offenders be put to death, and he does not specifically require that their bodies be publicly exposed.
So Moses said to the judges of Israelites, “Each of you must slay those of his men who were joined to Baal-peor.”
The Lord instructs Moses to publicly execute all the leaders of the nation Israel publicly. Why all of them? Surely every leader has not committed this sin of harlotry. There are several factors which we should take into account:
Leaders have a higher level of responsibility, because they have been given more authority, and because they serve as examples to those who follow them:
“From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, even more will be asked” (Luke 12:48b).
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, because you know that we will be judged more strictly (James 3:1).
Some of the corruption was undoubtedly being practiced by Israel’s leaders. Corruption often flows from the top down. Leaders are responsible to promote righteousness by ridding the nation of the wicked:
A king sitting on the throne to judge separates out all evil with his eyes (Proverbs 20:8).
A wise king separates out the wicked; he turns the threshing wheel over them (Proverbs 20:26).
Remove the wicked from before the king, and his throne will be established in righteousness (Proverbs 25:5).
If a ruler listens to lies, all his ministers will be wicked (Proverbs 29:12).
It would appear that the leaders did little or nothing to deal with the idolatry and immorality of the people. The only person who is said to have acted in response to Israel’s great sin was Phinehas. Even Moses seems to have done nothing more than to order the judges to locate the guilty and see to it that they were punished.
Leaders are responsible for the sins they tolerate, especially those within their family:
11 The LORD said to Samuel, “Look! I am about to do something in Israel such that when anyone hears about it, both of his ears will tingle. 12 On that day I will fulfill against Eli everything that I spoke about his house—from start to finish! 13 You should say to him that I am about to judge his house forever because of the iniquity that he was aware of. For his sons were cursing God, and he did not rebuke them (1 Samuel 3:11-13).
2 The overseer then must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher, 3 not a drunkard, not violent, but gentle, not contentious, free from the love of money. 4 He must manage his own household well and keep his children in control without losing his dignity. 5 But if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for the church of God? (1 Timothy 3:2-5).
These are general statements, which may help us to understand why God would call for the execution of all of Israel’s leaders. It is the following verses which serve to explain God’s command more precisely. But before we press on to consider these verses, let us pause momentarily to consider why Moses appears to have called for action that was less severe than what God commanded.
I must begin by pointing out that our text does not tell us why Moses did what he did. Indeed, some commentaries seek to persuade us that Moses did not depart from God’s command. Their explanations are strained, however.42 Before we become too critical of Moses, let me remind you that most Christians today fail to carry out a number of the commands of our Lord in the Gospels literally. We need only to read the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) to see this.
Moses had great compassion on the Israelites. He did not desire to see a large-scale execution. Moses also knew that God was merciful and compassionate (Exodus 34:6-7). When the first generation of Israelites worshipped the golden calf, God threatened to wipe out the entire nation, but due to the intercession of Moses, the nation was spared (Exodus 32). We should recall that on this occasion Moses commanded the Levites to take their swords and to kill friends and neighbors (Exodus 32:27). This was without a specific command from God to do so. This dramatic response brought the people back under control and spared them from much more extensive punishment. I would like to believe that Moses did not take the dramatic action God commanded because he knew that God would be gracious, and indeed He was, as the following verses of Numbers 25 will indicate.
6 Just then one of the Israelites came and brought to his brethren a Midianite woman, before the eyes of Moses, and in the plain view of all the whole community of the Israelites, while they were weeping at the entrance of the tent of meeting. 7 When Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he got up from the midst of the assembly, took a javelin in his hand, 8 and went after the Israelite man into the tent and thrust both the Israelite man and the woman through to her belly. So the plague was stopped from the Israelites. 9 And those that died in the plague were 24,000. 10 And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 11 Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, has turned my wrath away from the Israelites, when he was zealous with my zeal for my sake among them, that I did not consume the Israelites in my zeal. 12 Therefore, announce: ‘I am going to give to him my covenant of peace; 13 and so it will be to him and his descendants after him a covenant of a permanent priesthood, because he has been zealous for his God, and has made atonement for the Israelites. 14 Now the name of the Israelite who was stabbed, the one who was stabbed with the Midianite woman, was Zimri, the son of Salu, a leader of a clan of the Simeonites. 15 And the name of the Midianite woman that was slain was Cozbi, the daughter of Zur. He was a leader over the people of a clan of Midian. 16 Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 17 “Bring trouble to the Midianites, and destroy them, 18 because they bring trouble to you by their treachery with which they have deceived you in the matter of Peor, and in the matter of Cozbi, the daughter of a prince of Midian, their sister, who was slain in the day of the plague for Peor’s sake.
The Israelites had accepted the invitation to dine with the Moabites, and thus they became participants in sexual and religious harlotry. God had commanded Moses to publicly execute all the leaders of the nation. Moses commanded the judges to put those to death who had engaged in this sin. So far as our text indicates, not so much as one person had been put to death by any Israelite. God began to take action personally by means of a plague. We are not told when the plague started, but only that it stopped (verse 8).
It has taken me a while to catch the significance of verse 6, but this verse really goes a long way in explaining why God took this matter so seriously: Just then one of the Israelites came and brought to his brethren a Midianite woman, before the eyes of Moses, and in the plain view of all the whole community of the Israelites, while they were weeping at the entrance of the tent of meeting.
For some time the plague had been taking its toll among the Israelites; thousands were dying. Verse 6 informs us that “the whole community of the Israelites” were assembled near the entrance to the tent of meeting (verse 6). These weeping Israelites seem to have been godly Jews who were mourning there on account of this sin, and the outburst of divine displeasure that it had produced. This large crowd of mourners was assembled when a certain Israelite fellow boldly brought a Midianite43 woman home “to his brethren.”
It takes little imagination to figure out what was happening inside that tent when Phinehas arrived, but we must certainly conclude that from his actions, this fellow has involved his family in his sin. The family tent into which the couple entered appears to have been a certain distance from the tent of meeting. If the man brought this Midianite woman “to his brethren,” then we would have to assume that his family was at their tent, and not at the “tent of meeting.” While “the whole community of Israelites” was at the tent of meeting, this Israelite family seems to have stayed home, to meet this fellow and his bride (or at least his lover). There is no mention of this fellow’s family disapproving his actions, or of any of them seeking to stop what was taking place, before their eyes, and in the family tent. His family became his partners in crime.
I want to pause for a moment to reflect upon the mention of this family and their passive acceptance of what this young man has done. I do not think the mention of this family is merely trivial detail, especially in the light of these later verses in our text:
14 Now the name of the Israelite who was stabbed, the one who was stabbed with the Midianite woman, was Zimri, the son of Salu, a leader of a clan of the Simeonites. 15 And the name of the Midianite woman that was slain was Cozbi, the daughter of Zur. He was a leader over the people of a clan of Midian.
My friend, Lee Hall, called an important observation to my attention. The parents of this young man and young woman were both leaders. The man’s father was the son of a Simeonite leader, Salu (verse 14). The woman’s father was Zur, one of the Midianite leaders who was later killed by the Israelites (Numbers 31:8). It was not the leaders who committed this specific sin, but their children. Does this not help to explain why God commanded Moses to put all the leaders to death? I think it does. Zimri had chosen to disobey God’s commands and was in the act of committing spiritual and physical immorality. His family seemed to be watching it all happen, without raising so much as a word of protest. There, at the tent of meeting, stood virtually all of Israel’s leaders; yet when they saw what was happening, they did nothing either. I believe an important principle is evident here: the sins which leaders knowingly choose to condone or to tolerate become sins for which the leaders are also responsible.
Is this not evidenced in Scripture? Was Eli not partially responsible for tolerating the sins of his sons (1 Samuel 2)? 44 Did Samuel also not bear some responsibility for what his sons did (1 Samuel 8:1ff.)? Then there was Jacob before them, who seemed all too passive in dealing with the violation of his daughter and the revenge brought about by his sons (Genesis 34). David’s passivity in dealing with the sin of Amnon led to even more violence (2 Samuel 13). No wonder the Israelites were admonished as parents to deal with their disobedient children (Deuteronomy 21:18-21; Proverbs 13:24; 19:18; 29:17). This is why Paul sets this qualification down for church leaders:
2 The overseer then must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher, 3 not a drunkard, not violent, but gentle, not contentious, free from the love of money. 4 He must manage his own household well and keep his children in control without losing his dignity. 5 But if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for the church of God? (1 Timothy 3:2-5, emphasis mine).
It is sad to say that in the church today, there are parents who choose to cling to their children rather than to rebuke and discipline them, because their commitment to their children is greater than their commitment to their God and to His Word. Often they seek to sanctify their action by calling it “unconditional acceptance.” Why do we think that the New Testament texts which call for church discipline (e.g., Matthew 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 5:1-13; Galatians 6:1; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15; 1 Timothy 5:19-20; Titus 3:9-11) exclude the members of our family?
It is hardly coincidental that on the one hand God commanded that all of Israel’s leaders be put to death in broad daylight, even though no one does anything to carry out the command. Now, on the other hand, we read that an Israelite deliberately carries out his sin in view of all, and once again no one does anything about it. Among the many who looked on as this Israelite blatantly disregarded God’s Law was Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron, the priest (verse 7). He knew (as all Israel should have known) that God had forbidden such immorality and idolatry.
11 “Keep that which I am commanding you this day. I am going to drive out before you the Amorite, and the Canaanite, and the Hittite, and the Perizzite, and the Hivite, and the Jebusite. 12 Be careful that you do not make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, where you are going, lest it should become a snare in your midst. 13 But you will destroy their altars, you will smash their images, and you will cut down their Asherah poles. 14 For you will not worship any other god, for Yahweh, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God. 15 Be careful not to make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, for when they prostitute themselves to their gods and sacrifice to their gods, then you will be invited, and you will eat from his sacrifice; 16 and you take from their daughters for your sons, and their daughters prostitute themselves to their gods, and they make your sons prostitute themselves to their gods. 17 You will not make molten gods for you” (Exodus 34:11-17, emphasis mine).
As a priest, Phinehas knew how precise God’s Law was governing Israel’s worship. He also knew that those who practiced this kind of immorality were to be put to death. He did not need a special revelation from God—God’s will was clear. Filled with zeal for God, Phinehas stood up in the middle of the assembly (in the sight of all), took a spear in hand, and went after the Israelite man and his mistress. It would appear that by the time he reached the tent they were already engaged in sexual sin, and so with one thrust of his spear he put both the man and the woman to death.
With this one act of religious zeal, Phinehas not only puts an end to the sin of these two people, he also brings to an end the plague which God had brought upon Israel, a plague which had already taken the lives of 24,000 Israelites.45 What no one else seemed willing to do, Phinehas did. He is the only one who is reported to have lifted a hand against this terrible sin which threatened the existence of the nation. The action of this one man seems to have saved the nation.
One cannot avoid considering the possibility that Phinehas was, in one sense, foreshadowing the coming of our Lord and His atoning work at Calvary. As Phinehas acted in his zeal for the Lord by putting this couple to death, our Lord revealed His zeal by cleansing the temple (John 2:17). By his actions, Phinehas atoned for the sins of Israel and propitiated the righteous anger of God. By laying down His own life, our Lord atoned for the sins of the world and satisfied the righteous anger of God. As a result of his zealous act, God made a “covenant of peace”46 with Phinehas and with his descendants. For Phinehas and his descendants, it meant the assurance of a permanent priestly role. Later on, this expression, “covenant of peace” seems to refer to the salvation which will be accomplished through the coming of Messiah. Because of breaking the Mosaic covenant with God, the whole nation was under God’s curse. Because of Phinehas’ zealous act, God made a “covenant of peace” with him and with his descendants. Does this not suggest that Israel would be blessed through Phinehas, and does it not further illustrate the fact that while we are under the curse, our one chance at having peace with God is to be one of the descendants of our Lord, who has made peace with God for us?
But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed (Isaiah 53:5, NIV).
11 Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh—who are called “uncircumcision” by the so-called “circumcision” that is performed in the body by hands—12 that you were at that time without the Messiah, alienated from the citizenship of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who used to be far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace, the one who turned both groups into one and who destroyed the middle wall of partition, the hostility, in his flesh, 15 when he nullified the law of commandments in decrees. The purpose of this was to create in himself the two into one new man, thus making peace, 16 and to reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by which the hostility has been killed. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18 so that through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father (Ephesians 2:11-18, emphasis mine).
There is a blessing here, for the plague on Israel is terminated, and a blessing is pronounced upon Phinehas and his descendants. There is also a curse, and this curse is upon the enemies of God, those who sought the downfall of Israel:
16 Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 17 “Bring trouble to the Midianites, and destroy them, 18 because they bring trouble to you by their treachery with which they have deceived you in the matter of Peor, and in the matter of Cozbi, the daughter of a prince of Midian, their sister, who was slain in the day of the plague for Peor’s sake.
For a brief period of time, it looked as though Balaam had succeeded. The nation had been seduced and had fallen into spiritual harlotry. God’s wrath had been provoked, and thus He had sent a plague upon Israel. Thanks to the zealous action of one man—Phinehas—the nation was spared. Balaam had not succeeded in turning God’s blessing to a curse. Instead, God spared His people through the action of one righteous man. Verses 17 and 18 set the scene for the rest of the Book of Numbers. Because the Moabites and the Midianites had cursed God’s people rather than bless them, they brought a curse upon themselves. God therefore commanded Moses to see to it that the Midianites were destroyed for their treachery. And so they were, along with Balaam:
8 And they slew the kings of Midian in addition to those slain, namely Evi, and Rekem, and Zur, and Hur, and Reba—five Midianite kings. And Balaam the son of Beor they slew with the sword. (Numbers 31:8, emphasis mine).
Before we seek to underscore some of the things this text should teach us to do, let me begin by emphasizing something that it does not require or justify. This text does not justify violence in seeking justice in the name of God. I am greatly concerned that no one read this biblical text or this sermon and conclude that they are justified—even commended—in bombing abortion clinics, in shooting abortionists, and performing other acts of terrorism in the name of God. Israel in those days was a theocracy, and God was their king (1 Samuel 10:19; 12:12). God had ordered “capital punishment” for those who had willfully broken His law. Phinehas was acting under divine orders. Today, God has ordained human government as the means by which justice is meted out (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-15). Let us beware, then, of finding any sanction here for lawlessness or vigilante justice.
This text does have much to teach us about leadership. Israel fell into sin, and God called for the death of all of its leaders. Its leaders were not doing their job, part of which was to remove evil from the nation. These leaders were guilty, and worthy of death for knowing about sin and doing nothing about it. How much greater their sin if they were actually practicing this sin, and by so doing, encouraging others to do so as well? I find it most distressing that a significant number of Americans recently brushed aside the immorality of its president. “I don’t care about his personal life,” they said, “I only care about the economy.” They saw no connection between the morality of leadership and the task of leadership. Little wonder that a president who would practice immorality would also seek to protect those who practice immorality as the Bible defines it. As many Americans expressed their desire to leave the president in office, so the Israelites refused to remove their leaders from office, even though God ordered not only their removal, but their execution. Those who lead must be men of character, and men of courage. No wonder Paul places so much emphasis on the character of those who lead in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1.
Leaders must not only be men of character, they must also be men who truly lead, men who take action when it is required. Phinehas teaches us that leadership is not just a matter of holding an office, although he did serve in a leadership role as a priest. Leadership is not just instructing or commanding others to act as they should. Phinehas could have commanded, “What this couple is doing is sin. Now one of you go over there and kill them!” The simple fact was that all the nation knew it was wrong, and no one was willing to act, even though they knew what they were to do. The sin of this young Israelite was deliberate; he took the initiative to act as he did. The sin of the nation was in remaining passive, even though they knew how they were to respond to this sin. Phinehas was a leader because he was willing to stand alone, and to act alone, when no one else was willing to do what was right.
There are two words that are commonly understood to refer to a “leader” in the New Testament. One word is found in 1 Corinthians 12:28, and it is often rendered “administrations.” The NET Bible renders it “managements,” which I rather like.
27 Now you are Christ’s body, and each of you is a member of it. 28 And God has placed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, gifts of healing, helps, managements, different kinds of tongues (1 Corinthians 12:27-28, emphasis mine).
6 And we have different gifts, according to the grace given to us. If the gift is prophecy, that individual must use it in proportion to his faith. 7 If it is service, he must serve; if it is teaching, he must teach; 8 if it is exhortation, he must exhort; if it is contributing, he must do so with sincerity; if it is leadership, he must do so with diligence; if it is showing mercy, he must do so with cheerfulness (Romans 12:6-8, emphasis mine).
In 1 Corinthians 12:7, the gift of administration(s) is, I believe, a supportive gift. The one with this gift “stands behind,” so to speak, helping, facilitating, and coordinating ministry. I think that many women have and exercise this gift in a way that does not violate biblical prohibitions against women leading men in the church. The person with this gift does not compel others to act in a certain way, but assists in such a way that others do their jobs better. That, in my opinion, is what administration is all about. Bureaucracy reverses this, and the administrator is the one in charge, who tells others how they must do their jobs, rather than to listen to those they are helping and assisting them to do what they believe their job requires.
In Romans 12:8, we find the kind of leadership exemplified by Phinehas. The Greek word literally means “to stand before.” This is the kind of leadership that occurs when a man steps out of the crowd and does what he knows to be God’s will. It is often after one has taken his stand in this manner that others follow. This is far different from standing behind, and ordering others to march on ahead of you. It is a kind of leadership that is sadly lacking in our country today. It was in ancient times as well, and this is why Phinehas stands out in our text as a true leader.
We should also note that the zealous and courageous action of Phinehas in our text did enhance his leadership role. The divine response was the “covenant of peace” God made with Phinehas and his descendants. There was also a human response. When Moses sent the Israelites to war against the Midianites, he sent Phinehas with them, along with the holy instruments and signal trumpets. It was in this battle that the five Midianite kings were slain, along with Balaam (Numbers 31:6-8). In Joshua 22, we find that when a report reached the Israelites that the Reubenites, Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh had built an altar at the entrance to the land of Canaan (22:11), they assumed their brothers had turned from worshipping God to worshipping the gods of the Canaanites. They sent a leader from each tribe of Israel and Phinehas. If their brothers had turned away from worshipping God in truth, the Israelites knew that Phinehas was the man to deal with it. When a serious moral problem arose in the tribe of Benjamin, Phinehas was very much a part of Israel’s dealing with it (Judges 20, note especially verse 28). No wonder we read in 1 Chronicles 9:20 that “the Lord was with him.” Here is a leader who truly stood before his people.
There is surely a lesson here for us concerning what we might call “sin in the camp.” There certainly appears to be great reluctance to deal with sin decisively. Sin is like a cancer—the longer we leave it alone, the more likely it is to kill us. The Corinthian church was reluctant to deal with a man living in sexual immorality—immorality so serious that it shocked even the Corinthians. Paul described sin as a kind of leaven that would corrupt the whole church, and thus must be rooted out:
1 It is actually reported that sexual immorality exists among you, the kind of immorality that is not permitted even among the Gentiles, so that someone is cohabiting with his father’s wife. 2 And you are proud! Shouldn’t you have been deeply sorrowful instead and removed the one who did this from among you? 3 For even though I am absent physically, I am present in spirit. And I have already judged the one who did this, just as though I were present. 4 When you gather together in the name of our Lord Jesus, and I am with you in spirit, along with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 turn this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. 6 Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast affects the whole batch of dough? 7 Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch of dough, just as you are, in fact, without yeast. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 8 So then, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of vice and evil, but with the bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth (1 Corinthians 5:1-8).
Jesus likewise took a hard line when it came to sin, and urged others to do likewise:
6 “But if anybody causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a huge millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. 7 Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks. It is necessary that stumbling blocks come, but woe to the person through whom they come. 8 If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it from you. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame, than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it from you. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye, than to have two eyes and be thrown into fiery hell” (Matthew 18:6-9).
Surely our text, like many others in the Bible, warns us about being soft on sin. These days sexual sin is looked upon lightly by some who profess to be Christians, and it is not even regarded by sin by many others. Let us remember these words from Proverbs:
3 For the lips of the adulteress woman drip honey, and her mouth is smoother than oil. 4 but in the end she is bitter like wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword. 5 Her feet go down to death; her steps lead straight to the grave (Proverbs 5:3-5).
Immorality is deadly, so let us deal with it as a deadly disease. Let us not pamper it or protect it, but let us root it out with all diligence.
We learn from Numbers 25 that we are never more safe and secure than when we are hated and opposed by the enemies of God. As I read the religious news and as I hear Christians praying, I find that a great deal of their interest and attention is riveted on those who are being persecuted for the sake of Christ. Now the Bible has a great deal to say about our responsibility toward those who are being persecuted for their faith (Hebrews 10:32-35; 13:1-3), and I do not wish to minimize our obligations here. But I do wish to point out that we are often most vulnerable at those times when we are not under direct attack. As I look back to Numbers 21, I find that the Israelites were attacked on a number of occasions, and in each case God gave the Israelites the victory. The Israelites were more vulnerable to the dinner parties of the Moabites and Midianites than to the war parties of their enemies. Let us remember this when we or others are suffering persecution. We may very well be in greater danger from those who would befriend us than from those who would attack us. There are today a number of efforts to bring various religious groups together, into some kind of union. We are to manifest Christian unity within the faith, but let us beware of those unions which join belief with unbelief, which join true worship with false worship.
According to the Apostle Paul, there is a lesson to be learned from our text. In his First Epistle to the Corinthians, Paul turns our attention to the sin of Israel in Numbers 25 and uses it as a warning to the Christians of his day, and of ours as well:
1 For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea, 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3 and all ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they were all drinking from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. 5 But God was not pleased with most of them, for they were cut down in the wilderness. 6 These things happened as examples for us, so that we will not crave evil things as they did. 7 So do not be idolaters, as some of them were. As it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” 8 And let us not be immoral, as some of them were, and twenty-three thousand died in a single day. 9 And let us not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by snakes. 10 And do not complain, as some of them did, and were killed by the destroyer. 11 These things happened to them as examples and were written for our instruction, on whom the ends of the ages have come. 12 So let the one who thinks he is standing be careful that he does not fall. 13 No trial has overtaken you that is not faced by others. And God is faithful, who will not let you be tried too much, but with the trial will also provide a way through it so that you may be able to endure (1 Corinthians 10:1-13, underscoring mine).
The Corinthians had corresponded with Paul and had inquired about eating meat sacrificed to idols (1 Corinthians 8:1ff.). Chapters 8-10 of 1 Corinthians contain Paul’s response to the question. In chapter 8, Paul temporarily takes the viewpoint of some of the Corinthians: “There are no other gods than the one true God, and thus idols represent nothing. If this is true, then there can be nothing wrong with eating meats offered to idols” (see 1 Corinthians 8:4-6). If this logic were valid, eating meats offered to idols would be wrong for a different reason. A weaker brother would be caused to stumble by following our example of eating such meats, and thus our actions would be sin because they would cause a weaker brother to sin (8:7-13). Paul then takes most of chapter 9 to show how the Christian should be willing to lay aside his or her “rights.” Paul uses himself as an example. He and Barnabas have the right to marry, and to take a wife along as they minister. The saints would be obliged to support these men and their wives. Paul has chosen not to do so because some might look upon him as being just like the false teachers, who minister primarily for the money. Even though he has the right to be supported in ministry, he sets it aside for the greater good, for the cause of the gospel (9:1-23).
It is at 1 Corinthians 9:24ff. that Paul gets to the heart of the matter at hand—self discipline vs. self-indulgence. The Corinthians seek to justify eating meats offered to idols because they wish to indulge themselves in the festive dinners of their heathen neighbors (not unlike the Israelites gladly accepted a dinner invitation from the Moabites and Midianites in Numbers 25). The self-indulgent Corinthians have developed a line of reasoning that seems to justify the satisfaction of their appetites. That argument we have already seen in 8:4-6 (since there are no other gods than God, idols are no big deal, nor is eating meats offered to them). Paul now cuts to the quick, beginning with verse 24 of chapter 9:
24 Do you not know that all the runners in a stadium compete, but only one receives the prize? So run to win. 25 Each competitor must exercise self-control in everything. They do it to receive a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. 26 So I do not run uncertainly or box like one who hits only air. 27 Instead I subdue my body and make it my slave, so that after preaching to others I myself will not be disqualified.
The Christian should be living his life to win the prize of God’s approval, just as an athlete strives hard to win the prize given for winning a race. In order to win the prize, the contestant must exercise great self-control. Those who are self-indulgent simply do not have the stamina or endurance to win. The Corinthians are caught up in a self-indulgent lifestyle, and thus they insist upon attending those ceremonies where false gods are worshipped, and where delicious meats are served—meats offered to idols. Paul temporarily granted the Corinthian view that idol-meats were not a problem, since there are no other gods. But now Paul strongly warns the Corinthians about the dangers of their theology and practice. The Corinthians have gotten soft, and they are living indulgent lives, rather than the disciplined lives of an athlete, or a disciple.
In the first half of chapter 10, Paul reviews the history of Israel, and especially of the major failures of the nation. In each case, disaster came upon the nation for insisting upon the satisfaction of fleshly lusts. The Christian must live a disciplined life, bringing their bodily desires and appetites under control (9:24-27). Israel failed and fell under divine discipline when their fleshly appetites prevailed (10:1-13).
Paul is not finished yet. He now exposes “eating meat offered to idols” for what it truly is (10:14-22). Eating these meats is not an insignificant issue. It is not a matter of personal liberty; it is forbidden (see Acts 15:29; 21:25). Eating meats offered to idols involves participation in a heathen meal, which is the exact counterpart and contradiction to the Lord’s Table (10:14-18). To eat meats offered to idols is to participate in the “demon’s table” (10:20). The guiding principle for the Christian is that everything we do should be to the glory of God (10:31), and not the satisfaction of fleshly lusts.
Is it any wonder that when we come to 1 Corinthians 11 we find Paul dealing with misconduct at the Lord’s Table (11:17-34)? Some Corinthian saints were all too willing to participate in heathen idol worship in order to enjoy a good meal (including meats offered to idols). If Christians were willing to participate in heathen worship rituals, is it any wonder that they would act like pagans at the Lord’s Supper? And, wonder of wonders, the problem at the Lord’s Table was self-indulgence. There, too, the saints were so eager to enjoy a good meal that they made pigs and fools of themselves.
Self-indulgence may seem like a rather innocent vice, especially in certain forms. But I must warn you that it is often the beginning of a deadly departure from the true worship of the one and only God. Americans are living indulgently, even many who would consider themselves to be poor. Let us remember that being a disciple of our Lord means bringing our bodies under discipline; it means crucifying the flesh daily (Romans 8:13; Colossians 3:5). Let us beware of so indulging the flesh that it rules us, rather than us ruling it.
Having said this, please do not misunderstand me, as though I was advocating some form of asceticism. There are those who think that abusing the flesh and refusing to enjoy the good things God has provided is truly spiritual. They are wrong:
16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you with respect to food or drink, or in the matter of a feast, new moon, or Sabbath days 17 that are only the shadow of the things to come, but the reality is Christ. 18 Let no one who delights in humility and the worship of angels pass judgment on you. That person goes on at great lengths about what he has supposedly seen, but he is puffed up with empty notions by his fleshly mind. 19 He has not held fast to the head from whom the whole body, supported and knit together through its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God. 20 If you have died with Christ to the elemental spirits of the world, why as though you lived in the world do you submit to them? 21 “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” 22 These are all destined to perish with use, founded as they are on human commands and teachings. 23 They have the appearance of wisdom with their self-imposed worship and false humility, by an unsparing treatment of the body, but they are thoroughly useless when it comes to restraining the indulgences of the flesh (Colossians 2:16-23).
1 Now the Spirit explicitly says that in the later times some will desert the faith and occupy themselves with deceiving spirits and demonic teachings, 2 influenced by the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared. 3 They will prohibit marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. 4 For every creation of God is good and no food is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving. 5 For it is sanctified by God’s word and by prayer (1 Timothy 4:1-5).
17 Command those who are rich in this world’s goods not to be haughty or to set their hope on riches, that are uncertain, but on God who richly provides us with all things for our enjoyment. 18 Tell them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, to be generous givers, sharing with others. 19 In this way they will save up a treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the future and so lay hold of what is truly life (1 Timothy 6:17-19).
Our text teaches what observation confirms: sexual sin is often linked with spiritual adultery and apostasy. The statistics are alarming when it comes to how many pastors are leaving the ministry. When I hear of a pastor who had to resign from his position, without hesitation my first thought is that he has fallen into sexual sin. Very few abandon their faith or their ministry because they have thought through their biblical beliefs and found them to be false. The pattern is so consistent and so frequent, it is entirely predictable. A man who loves the Lord encounters a woman whom he finds attractive. If not dealt with decisively, this often leads to sexual immorality. Initially, the man acknowledges his sin and guilt, and agrees that he must cease from his sinful behavior. All too often, the man fails to carry out his commitment by making a decisive break in the illicit relationship. And before long, you begin to hear statements like this: “Well, I know that some people believe that the Bible condemns what I am doing, but.…” Sexual sin is a serious sin, and it is often the gateway to a host of other sins. Beware of sexual sin.
As I read our text in Numbers 25, I am reminded of these words of Scripture:
Now without faith it is impossible to please him, for the one who approaches God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him (Hebrews 11:6).
4 For if God did not spare the angels who sinned, but threw them into hell and locked them up in chains in utter darkness, to be kept until the judgment, 5 and if he did not spare the ancient world, but did protect Noah, a herald of righteousness, along with seven others, when God brought a flood on an ungodly world, 6 and if he turned to ashes the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah when he condemned them to destruction, having appointed them to serve as an example to future generations of the ungodly, 7 and if he rescued Lot, a righteous man in anguish over the debauched lifestyle of lawless men, 8 (for while he lived among them day after day, that righteous man was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard) 9 —if so, then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from their trials, and to reserve the unrighteous for punishment at the day of judgment, 10 especially those who indulge their fleshly desires and who despise authority (2 Peter 2:4-10).
God rewards the righteous. He rewarded Phinehas for his faithfulness. And God punishes the wicked. God punished those wicked Israelites who engaged in sin. He punished the Midianites and the Moabites. He punished Balaam. God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked.
Our text and the story of Balaam remind me of several other Scriptures:
The memory of the righteous is blessed, But the name of the wicked will rot (Proverbs 10:7, NKJ).
But the wicked shall perish; And the enemies of the LORD, Like the splendor of the meadows, shall vanish. Into smoke they shall vanish away.The name of the wicked will vanish (Psalm 37:20, NKJ).
15 If I had said, “I will speak thus,” Behold, I would have been untrue to the generation of Your children. 16 When I thought how to understand this, It was too painful for me—17 Until I went into the sanctuary of God; Then I understood their end. 18 Surely You set them in slippery places; You cast them down to destruction. 19 Oh, how they are brought to desolation, as in a moment! They are utterly consumed with terrors. 20 As a dream when one awakes, So, Lord, when You awake, You shall despise their image (Psalm 73:15-20).
It took a while for me to see it, and then it was as plain as day. According to my electronic concordance program, the name “Balaam” occurs 51 times in Numbers 22-24. It occurs two times in Numbers 31. It does not occur at all in Numbers 25. When Balaam was used of God to speak words of blessing on the nation Israel, he received a great deal of prominence. But the minute Balaam chose to deliberately oppose Israel and bring the nation under God’s wrath, Balaam disappears. We have to remind ourselves that the events of Numbers 25 were the fruit of Balaam’s labors. Surely the wicked vanish; their days of disobedience and of fleshly indulgence are few. What a warning this man Balaam should be to all those who would ignore the Word of God and go their own sinful way. What kind of person are you, my friend? Are you a Phinehas, who trusted and obeyed God, and who was rewarded for his faith? Or are you a Balaam, who knows a great deal about God, but does not know God personally, and whose destiny is eternal destruction? My prayer is that you will be a Phinehas, and not a Balaam.
The final lesson I wish to highlight is the faithfulness of God and the fickleness of men. Think of it; for three long chapters Balaam seeks to change God’s mind. Balaam seeks to persuade God to forsake His promise to bless Israel, and to curse them instead. Balaam not only fails to do this, he ends up pronouncing blessings on Israel and cursings on their enemies. Israel’s future was safe in the hands of God, “For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29). While God would not forsake His plans, purposes, and promises, fickle Israel was willing to cast God aside for a mere meal. How quickly and easily Israel fell. If it were not for the faithfulness of God, we would be hopeless. It is not our faithfulness to Him which assures us of His promises, but His faithfulness to us. Why is it that some people find the sovereignty of God such a distressing truth? It should be the most comforting truth there is, at least for the believer. May we find both warning and comfort in this text, and may God grant that we, by His grace, discipline our bodies and our appetites, so that we may win the prize of His commendation, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
35 Notice how the expression “the people” is interchanged with “Israel.” The verbs used in verse 1 are singular, rather than plural. It is as though the author is suggesting that the nation is acting in unison. It is not just individuals who have sinned, but the nation. Everyone seems to have been implicated in one way or another. This must be why God could command Moses to publicly execute all the leaders in verse 4.
36 The translator’s note in the NET Bible reads: “The verb simply says “they called,” but it is a feminine plural. And so the women who engaged in immoral acts with Hebrew men invited them to their temple ritual.”
37 God commanded Moses to execute the leaders publicly, and to publicly expose their bodies. The same expression is employed in 2 Samuel 21, where seven of the sons of Saul were put to death in the same fashion, because of the sin of Saul against Gibeah. The Septuagint appears to attempt to water this down but the Hebrew term (especially as it is used in 2 Samuel 21) just doesn’t seem to allow it.
41 The rendering of verse 4 by the NKJV is quite amazing: “Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Take all the leaders of the people and hang the offenders before the LORD, out in the sun, that the fierce anger of the LORD continued…may turn away from Israel.’” The original KJV does not render it this way, nor does the NIV, the NRS, or the NASB. The NKJV is not a translation at this point, but an interpretation, and I fear that it is not a good one.
42 I especially like Wenham’s assessment of Keil’s interpretation: “Keil [p. 205] indeed argues that verse 5 correctly interprets ‘hang them’ (4): ‘them’ refers to the Baal worshippers, not the chiefs, he claims. However, this is not the natural interpretation of the Hebrew, and most commentators suppose the death of the chiefs is being called for.” Wenham, Numbers, p. 186.
43 It is obvious from this that just as both the Moabites and Midianites worked together to hire Balaam, so the two peoples are working together to seduce the Israelites, and to lead them to commit immorality and to engage in idol worship.
45 One can quickly see that when Paul refers to this plague in 1 Corinthians 10:8, he speaks of the death of 23,000. There are many possible explanations, but it would be good to keep in mind that in Numbers 25:9 we are told the total number of Israelites who died in the plague. In 1 Corinthians 10:8, we are told how many died in one day. If the plague was some kind of physical malady, then some may have lingered in their illness for more than a day, before they died.