Scripture: While Israel lived in Shittim, the people began to whore with the daughters of Moab. These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel. Numbers 25:1-3 ESV
Observation: The author of Numbers shifts the narrative from the poetic oracles of Balaam that speak blessings and prophecies of triumph for Israel to their utter failure at Shittim (located in the plains of Moab, equal distance from Jericho on the opposite side of the Jordan). This egregious incident of whoring after the lifestyle of a godless, pagan neighbor would foretell the horrific exile awaiting the nation six and half centuries later when they abandon their God for the indulgent, fleeting pleasures of the neighbors. Indeed, as nineteenth-century Rabbi Samson Hirsch writes, “The sword of no stranger, the curse of no stranger had the power to damage Israel. Only it itself could bring misfortune, by seceding from God and his Torah.”
Consequently, God instructs Moses to command the judges of the people to “kill those men who have yoked themselves to Baal of Peor” (v.5). In particular, Phinehas, the grandson of Aaron, zealously impales an Israelite man (and his Midianite mistress), who publically thumbs God’s law. With this stand for the Lord’s holiness, the plague ceases after losing twenty-four thousand Israelites (vv.7-9). Afterward, God bestows on Phinehas his covenant of peace because “he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the people of Israel” (vv.12-13). Lastly, the Lord speaks to Moses and instructs him to lead Israel in striking down the rest of the Midianites for beguiling his people (vv.16-17).
Takeaway: Moses fully apprised his people of God’s laws and the consequences of violating them. Yet, here at the gateway to the Promised Land, after forty years of wandering in the desert, they appear to be no further along in their faith journey. Sadly, for the few elders who remain, this becomes their legacy for the next generation. And their DNA will pass on through future generations, except for brief moments of repentance under intermittent godly leadership, until the Son of God breaks the curse of disobedience at Calvary. So while Phinehas could only in part adhere to Yahweh and his command and foreshadow the atoning work of Christ, the Son of God fulfilled the law we lawbreakers failed to uphold and has bridged the divide caused by our secession.
So what does this mean for us here and now? The promises and blessings pronounced through the breadth of Scripture are no magical formulae for Israel or us outside of obedience to God’s laws. When we seek his will, we come under his blessings. But like Israel, we will not succeed in obeying our Lord and Savior outside a loving relationship with him. During Jesus’ final discourse with his disciples before his arrest, he challenged the Twelve to nurture a loving relationship with him, evidenced by obedience to his commands (John 14:15, 23, 24, and 15:10). The Eleven would soon realize what he meant by this when they faced hardship spreading the Gospel. In short, while fear can motivate, only love inspires obedience. And in this age of our New Covenant of Grace, a deeper understanding of Christ’s grace matures our love for him and fosters our desire to please him over fleeting worldly pleasures.
Prayer: Father God, we thank you for your incarnate Son who sought to please you in all matters of his life and mission and thus stood in the gap for us lawbreakers. Would you please deepen our understanding of your grace and love for us so that we might desire you and your Son over all fleeting pleasures of this world? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling