On Friday and Saturday we learned that the prophet Balaam advised King Balak of Moab to instruct the women of Moab to try to seduce the Israelite men into sexual immorality and idolatry. The true goal, I am sure, was the idolatry. Sex was just an means to an end because the idolatry was to be achieved through lust. The women were able to entice some of the Israelite men to attend pagan feasts and to bow down before idols through sexual allure.
The Lord's anger burned against the men who went up to the Baal-honoring feast at Peor and ate and drank things sacrificed to idols and bowed down to idols. He told Moses to have the judges of Israel put to death the "leaders" from among the Israelites who had done such a thing. This is how we know the corruption reached some of the highest levels in the community. Even men in positions of authority, who had a responsibility to set a godly example, allowed themselves to be blinded by desire to the point of betraying their principles and their God. A plague also broke out in the community as judgment from God, as we'll see momentarily.
You'll recall from yesterday's study that one Israelite man boldly strode into the camp with a pagan Midianite woman on his arm. He walked right past Moses, the priests, the elders, the judges, and all the people of Israel as he led the woman to his tent where he had sexual relations with her. In the Bible we'll often find the words "Moabite" and "Midianite" used interchangeably. This is because they lived side by side and mingled together in society and intermarried with each other. As a result, their bloodlines had merged and the Bible makes very little distinction between the two groups. Earlier in the book of Numbers we found the Moabites and Midianites meeting together to discuss the "problem" of Israel being camped nearby. We found the Moabites and Midianites being equally fearful of the Israelites, though the Israelites weren't threatening them in any way. The Moabites and Midianites both wanted to be able to drive Israel out of the territory and both groups wanted Balaam the prophet to put a curse on Israel.
In yesterday's study, a priest named Phinehas was horrified when he saw the Israelite man take the Midianite woman into his tent. Phinehas was deeply offended for the sake of the Lord and for the sake of the Lord's people. He defended the honor of the Lord by going into the man's tent with a spear and driving the spear through the man and into the woman while they were in the very act of sexual immorality. Today we'll find the Lord commending Phinehas for defending His honor.
First we'll be informed that a plague broke out among those who had sinned against the Lord. As soon as Phinehas takes his bold action, the Bible says: "Then the plague against the Israelites was stopped; but those who died in the plague numbered 24,000." (Numbers 25:8b-9) We don't know what form this plague took. It would be fitting if it were some type of especially virulent and deadly venereal disease but the Bible doesn't describe the plague for us. 24,000 is a shockingly high number but to put it into perspective we learned earlier in Numbers that the men of army age in Israel numbered over 600,000. That number excludes men who were under twenty and men who were too old to serve as soldiers or who had various ailments or disabilities that would have disqualified them as soldiers. The number also excludes all the men from the tribe of Levi. 24,000 is a lot, but not enough to severely affect the population of the nation going forward, especially if some of these men had already fathered children before committing idolatry.
It was the swift action of Phineas that the Lord credits with stopping the plague. "The Lord said to Moses, 'Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, has turned My anger away from the Israelites. Since he was as zealous for My honor among them as I am, I did not put an end to them in My zeal. Therefore tell him I am making a covenant of peace with him. He and his descendants will have a covenant of a lasting priesthood, because he was zealous for the honor of his God and made atonement for the Israelites.'" (Numbers 25:10-13) One man turned the Lord's wrath away from the nation. We have a tendency to think, "I'm just one person. What can I really do for my community or my nation?" A godly person can do a lot for his community or nation. Time and time again in the Bible we'll find the prayers of just one person making a difference. We'll find the godly behavior of just one person making a difference. What if Phinehas had said to himself, "I'm just one man. What can I do by myself that could possibly help my people?" If he'd thought like that, a lot more than 24,000 people would have perished in Numbers 25. As the children of the living God, we must never think, "I'm just one person; how can I possibly do much for my people?" Our prayers and our godly example can affect not only the people around us right now but can also have far-reaching benefits. Phinehas' desire to honor his Lord was so great that the Lord blesses not only Phineas but his entire family line to come. The prayers you and I pray today are capable of paying off for generations. The example we set, and the stories of our faith and courage, are able to live on long after we are gone from this world.
King Solomon once said that "a good name is more desirable than great riches" (Proverbs 22:1a) Phinehas has earned himself a good name. We still know his name today. But it's possible to earn such a bad name that one's deeds are remembered for many generations to come. The Israelite man and Midianite woman who flaunted their sin before every set of eyes in Israel dishonored themselves so much that their names are still known today, for Moses wrote their names in the Bible as an example of what not to do. "The name of the Israelite who was killed with the Midianite woman was Zimri son of Salu, the leader of a Simeonite family. And the name of the Midianite woman who was put to death was Kozbi, daughter of Zur, a tribal chief of a Midianite family." (Numbers 25:14-51)
Zimri was one of the family leaders in Israel. I think that, when Moses related the Lord's instructions to the judges to put to death the leaders in Israel who had committed idolatry, Phinehas was the first man to take action. I believe the judges followed his example and carried out their duties, but Phineas (who was a priest and not a judge) took the initiative to put the first sinful leader to death. If Phinehas had not done what he did, the judges may not have followed through with the task set before them. So what I think happened was that Phinehas killed the first idolatrous leader and then the judges killed the other idolatrous leaders and then the plague killed the other men (the ordinary citizens) who had sinned. The Apostle Paul states in 1 Corinthians 10:8 that 23,000 men died of the plague and many scholars believe Paul phrased it this way because 1,000 leaders were executed and then 23,000 were killed by the plague, bringing the total who lost their lives to 24,000 just as we are told here in Numbers 25.
The Lord instructs the Israelites to consider the Midianites their enemies from now on. "The Lord said to Moses, 'Treat the Midianites as enemies and kill them. They treated you as enemies when they deceived you in the Peor incident involving their sister Kozbi, the daughter of a Midianite leader, the woman who was killed when the plague came as a result of that incident.'" (Numbers 25:16-18) The Lord will give Israel victory over the Midianites later in the book of Numbers and then there will be an even more decisive victory over them in the book of Judges, after which time the Midianites will not be mentioned again. The Midianites (and their kinsmen the Moabites) knew the source of Israel's great power was her God. If they could cause Israel to anger her God, they hoped God would no longer fight with Israel's army.
The wicked and idolatrous Midianites will disappear from the pages of the Bible. The Lord has always said He would curse whoever curses Israel. The Midianites cursed Israel in their hearts and intended to bring a literal curse upon them. The Lord kept His promise to Israel. There is no Midianite nation in the world today. But there is a nation of Israel.