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Israel had a constant problem with mixing it up with other pagan cultures even though Yahweh told them not to interbreed. Funny how when you sleep with a woman, you start taking interest in her gods. So while the Israelite men were running around fornicating with foreign women, they started attending sacrificial rituals to a bunch of idols and before you know it, they were bowing down in worship. Is Yahweh ticked? Oh, yes.
This time the irresistible babes are a bunch of Moabite women—worshipers of the detestable Baal of Peor. The king of Moab recently tried to curse Israel using a sorcerer for hire (see Balak & Balaam: God Wars). The idea was that by weakening Yahweh through an evil curse, the Moabites would be able to drive the massive Israelite army away from their territory. Unfortunately for Moab, the cursing plan was a bust, but the sorcerer who was involved in it found another way of taking Israel down. He enticed the promiscuous women of Moab to entice the lusty men of Israel to come and experience just how friendly foreigners could be. Then the women pressured their buff soldier boys to take part in the formal sacrifices to Baal and pretty soon Israel had fallen in love with a whole new god.
“And Yahweh’s anger burned against them.” (Num. 25:3)
Nothing gets Yahweh mad faster than when His people start worshiping someone else. It’s only thanks to Him that Israel has been so successful in conquering those who oppose her and now this is the thanks He gets.
Yahweh issued the following command to Moses: “Seize all the ringleaders and execute them before Yahweh in broad daylight, so His fierce anger will turn away from the people of Israel.”
So Moses ordered Israel’s judges, “Each of you must put to death the men under your authority who have joined in worshiping Baal of Peor.” (Num. 25:4-5)
It’s a dark day in Israel. Bloody corpses are strewn all over the ground, plus Yahweh has sent a deadly plague sweeping through camp and people are dropping over dead in all directions. Those who are still living have gathered at the entrance to the Tabernacle, where they are weeping and wailing in terror. Moses is standing there with them when along comes an Israelite man with his Midianite lover on his arm. Wow. Talk about blatant defiance. Either he didn’t get the memo about Yahweh’s wrath being unleashed, or he just doesn’t care. We can almost picture him with a “What are you going to do about it?” look on his face as he saunters on past Moses to give his girlfriend a personal tour of the inside of his tent.
We’re not told how the general mob reacted, for now the focus zooms in on Phinehas: the grandson of high priest Aaron. Phinehas takes one look at this smug scene, and immediately goes off to find a spear. Then he barges into the tent of the Israelite man who is probably lying on top of his lover in the midst of intimate things. In one swift move, Phinehas rams his spear through the man’s body and into the woman’s. The moment he does, the plague outside stops and we’re told that the death toll is 24,000.
Phinehas thrust the spear all the way through the man’s body and into the woman’s stomach. So the plague against the Israelites was stopped, but not before 24,000 people had died.
Then Yahweh said to Moses, “Phinehas, the son of Eleazar and the grandson of Aaron the priest, has turned My anger away from the Israelites by being as zealous among them as I was. So I stopped destroying all Israel as I had intended to do in My zealous anger. Now tell him that I am making a special covenant of peace with him. In this covenant, I give him and his descendants a permanent right to the priesthood, because he was zealous for his God and made atonement for the Israelites.” (Num. 25:8-13)
Phinehas scores some major points with God for his actions. God establishes a covenant of peace with him right then, promising that Phinehas’ descendants will always serve as Yahweh’s priests. Now it’s time to get revenge on the Midianites.
Then Yahweh said to Moses, “Attack the Midianites and destroy them, because they assaulted you with deceit and tricked you into worshiping Baal of Peor.” (Num. 25:16-18)
According to God, the Midianites purposely set out to get the Israelites entangled with their god, perhaps as a way to protect themselves from military attack. After all, men aren’t going to want to kill their own lovers or tear down the worship places of their own gods.
We don’t hear about the details of Israel’s attack on the Midians until Chapter 31. There we read that Moses sends Phinehas out with 12,000 men and they slaughter all the men in Midian. They also kill five kings of Midian along with the sorcerer Balaam who tried to curse Israel back in Numbers 22-24. They burn their cities, take their animals, and bring back women and children as captives. When Moses sees all of the women who were left alive, he recognizes some familiar faces—these were some of the same women who had tried to trick the Israelite men back in Chapter 25. More murdering takes place until there are 32,000 Midianite virgins left who Moses allows to stay alive. What a bloody mess.
Now on this side of the cross, we’re not authorized to murder those who blatantly defy our God. But our hero Phinehas still serves as a great example about how important loyalty is to God–especially in a moment when everyone else is jumping ship.
Another lesson we glean from this story is that Yahweh is very zealous for His own honor and glory. Zeal is an extremely intense combination of passion and jealousy. It’s when you are so devoted to something that you will shred anything that tries to mess with it. God has an insatiable appetite for being worshiped and honored. He becomes angry when we who know Him give His due glory to anyone else–and that includes people. This is why we must be very guarded about our admiration. We need to check our attitudes at the rock concerts and at the church house. We don’t want to start admiring people too much because our God is extremely jealous. Just because He isn’t killing us off by the thousands doesn’t mean He doesn’t notice when we start over-adoring someone other than Him. God deserves, expects, and demands to be our First Love. No one else should come before Him in our hearts–not even our families. God is first. Our friend Phinehas understood this. He had his priorities right. Seeing God honored was at the top of his list, so when someone dared to mess with God, Phinehas’ protective instinct was triggered and he went into massacre mode. God was greatly honored and He blessed Phinehas for it. The fact that He set Phinehas’ family line apart for the special honor of serving God as priests teaches us another lesson: God invites those who truly honor Him to come the closest to Him.
Now, let’s be clear: Christians are not authorized to kill whenever they feel like it. Even on battlefields, it is our responsibility to ensure that we have God’s direct Authorization before we start taking lives. But we do want Phinehas’ heart. We should be zealous for God to be glorified and honored. We should never act like God has no right to get angry when His own creatures are insulting Him. Although God will usually tell us not to lash out at others like Phinehas did, we can still please Him just as much by making it clear to Him in our hearts where our loyalty lies.
Choosing the Right Priorities: How does God want us to treat our brothers?
Does God kill? What is the difference between killing and murdering?
Embracing the Wrath of God
Understanding Yahweh: Why Moses & Aaron Were Banned From The Promised Land
Learning from Yahweh: What It Means To Be Holy
Understanding Idolatry: The Problem & the Cure