Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
And Israel abode in Shittim, and the people began to commit whoredom with the daughters of Moab.XXV.
And they called the people unto the sacrifices of their gods: and the people did eat, and bowed down to their gods.(2) And they called the people . . . —The Moabitish women invited the Israelites to their sacrificial feasts, which were celebrated in honour of Baal-peor, who was worshipped in the city of Beth-peor (Deuteronomy 3:29). He is supposed to be identical with Chemosh, the Moabitish god of war.
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.(4) Take all the heads of the people.—The “heads” or “chiefs” of the people seem to be identical with the “judges” of the following verse. Some understand by “all the heads” those only who had been the chief offenders, whilst others understand the word “take” as equivalent to “assemble,” or “bring before thee,” and refer the word “them” to the offenders.
Hang them up . . . —It is obvious from Numbers 25:5 that the punishment of impaling or crucifying was not to be inflicted until after death. The LXX. renders the Hebrew verb which is here used (and which is found also in 2Samuel 21:6; 2Samuel 21:9) by the same word which occurs in Hebrews 6:6, and is there translated “to put to an open shame.”
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;(7) And when Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest . . . —In accordance with this punctuation, the designation the priest (which generally denotes the high priest) refers to Aaron, not to Phinehas. Eleazar was the high priest at this time (Numbers 20:26); and consequently—although as a general rule any designation which follows the words “the son of such an one” refers to the former, not to the latter noun—it appears most probable that the designation the priest has reference here to Aaron, not to Phinehas, who, although a priest, was not the high priest at this time. He was invested, however, with civil as well as ecclesiastical authority. (See 1Chronicles 9:20, where he is described as a ruler—Hebrew, nagid.)
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.(8) Into the tent.—The word kubbah (tent, or alcove) occurs only in this place. The reference may be to the inner part of the ordinary tent which was occupied by the women; or it may denote an arched or vaulted tent (probably of skins), which the Israelites had erected whilst joining with the Moabites and Midianites in the lascivious worship of Baal-peor. The LXX. has kaminos, the Vulgate lupanar.
Through her belly.—Or, within her tent. It is thought by some that the word which is here used was originally the same word which occurs in the earlier part of the verse, and which is there rendered tent.
So the plague was stayed . . . —It is probable that the judges were not duly obedient to the command of Moses, and, consequently, that a plague broke out from the Lord upon the people.
And those that died in the plague were twenty and four thousand.(9) Twenty and four thousand.—In 1Corinthians 10:8 the number of those who “fell in one day” is said to have been “three and twenty thousand.” It has been supposed that a thousand were put to death by the judges, and that these were not included in St. Paul’s enumeration. Presuming, however, that there has been no error in either place on the part of the scribes in recording the numbers, the words “in one day” may account for the apparent discrepancy.
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.(11) Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest . . . —The description of Phinehas, as in Numbers 25:7, is repeated in full, as if to denote that he was not a private individual, but one invested with public authority.
While he was zealous for my sake among them.—Better, in that he was jealous with my jealousy (or, in that he displayed my jealousy).
Wherefore say, Behold, I give unto him my covenant of peace:(12) My covenant of peace.—Phinehas, as one who was zealous for the honour of God and of the house of the Lord, was a fitting type of Christ, in whom the prediction of the Psalmist received its accomplishment, “The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up” (Psalm 69:9; John 2:17). The covenant of grace is described in Isaiah 54:10 and in Malachi 2:5 as the 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.(13) And he shall have it, and his seed after him.—The covenant of peace, which was made by the blood of the Cross, and all the blessings which belong to that covenant, stand fast with Christ, and are secured to His spiritual seed. (Comp. Psalm 89:28-29.)
Even the covenant of an everlasting priesthood.—Phinehas succeeded his father Eleazar as high priest (Judges 20:28). After a temporary interruption in the succession, which existed in the time of Eli, and continued until the time of David, when there appears to have been a joint high-priesthood, the office was restored by Solomon to Zadok, the descendant of Phinehas, and so continued until the gradual dissolution of the Jewish state. Christ’s priesthood is “an unchangeable priesthood” (Hebrews 7:24): “Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec” (Hebrews 7:17).
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.(14) A prince of a chief house among the Simeonites.—Better, of a father’s house, &c. It is probable that the tribe of Simeon was deeply implicated in the transgression, and that those who belonged to that tribe were the chief sufferers in the plague. (See Numbers 26:14, and Note.)
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.(15) Head over a people, and of a chief house in Midian.—Better, head of the tribes (or, communities) of a father’s house in Midian. Several of the Midianitish tribes, or smaller divisions of a father’s house, may have descended from one tribe-father. In Numbers 31:8, Zur is described as one of the five kings of Midian who were slain by the Israelites.
Vex the Midianites, and smite them:(17) Vex the Midianites, and smite them.—The Midianites appear to have been joint actors with the Moabites throughout the whole of the opposition which was offered to Israel, and the chief actors in the wiles by which the Israelites were seduced. As the descendants of Abraham, the father of the faithful, the Midianites ought to have feared and obeyed Abraham’s God, and to have shown brotherly kindness to His people, who were their own kindred. The special judgments of God are directed against the sins of apostacy and of seduction. (Comp. Revelation 2:14; Revelation 18:6.) Although the Moabites were not to be smitten with the Midianites (see Deuteronomy 2:9), nevertheless they did not escape punishment, but were shut out, even to the tenth generation, from the congregation of the Lord. (See Deuteronomy 23:3-4.) Their exemption at this time from the judgment executed upon the Midianites was probably due, not to their descent from Lot (for the Midianites were descended from Abraham), but to the fact that the measure of their sin was not yet full. (Comp. Genesis 15:16.)