Lange Commentary on the Holy Scriptures
The Threatening Apostasy through the Seductions of Idolatrous Feasts Arrested by the Zeal of Phinehas
1AND Israel abode in Shittim, and the people began to commit whoredom with the daughters of Moab. 2And they called the people unto the sacrifices of their gods: and the people did eat, and bowed down to their gods. 3And Israel joined himself unto Baal-peor: and the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel. 4And 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. 5And Moses said unto the judges of Israel, Slay ye every one his men that were joined unto Baal-peor.
6And, behold, one of the children of Israel came and brought unto his brethren a Midianitish woman in the sight of Moses, and in the sight of all the congregation of the children of Israel, who were weeping before the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. 7And 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; 8And 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. 9And those that died in the plague were twenty and four thousand.
10And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, 11Phinehas, 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 sake1 among them, that I consumed not the children of Israel in my jealousy. 12Wherefore say, Behold, I give unto him my covenant of peace: 13And 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. 14Now 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 house2 among the Simeonites. 15And 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.
16And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, 17Vex the Midianites, and smite them: 18For they vex you with their wiles, wherewith they have beguiled you in the matter of Peor, and in the matter of Cozbi, the daughter of a prince of Midian, their sister, which was slain in the day of the plague for Peor’s sake.
TEXTUAL AND GRAMMATICAL
[Num 25:3. Yoked. צָמַד, to bind, fasten—to come under the yoke—to be subject to discipline or rule, and so to serve.—A. G.]
[Num 25:8. הַקֻבָּה. The arch—the alcove—applied here to the inner or rear part of the tent.—A. G.]
EXEGETICAL AND CRITICAL
[Balaam had not returned to his home, although he had turned towards it. It is not necessary to suppose that after leaving Balak he went to the Israelitish camp and revealed his prophecies to Moses in the hope that he might obtain the reward which he had failed to secure from Balak. The words he returned (Num 24:25) are hardly consistent with such a supposition. And there is nothing in the mental condition of Balaam, fallen now from the heights to which he had been taken, which should have led him to seek the camp of Israel. He was evidently burning with deep hostility towards Jehovah and His people. The loss of the coveted prize inflamed his anger. Moses may have learned his prophecies through other channels, may have received them directly from God, or perhaps, as KEIL supposes, Balaam may have communicated them to the Israelites or to Phinehas when he fell into their hands. On his way homewards, burning with his anger and disappointment, he falls in with the Midianites who were then dwelling upon the Moabitish highlands. And here we have the plot which his malice and cunning suggested.—A. G.]
The blessing of Balaam did not shield the people from the curse to which it exposed itself immediately afterwards without any suspicion of the protection which Jehovah had given it in that blessing. On the doctrinal side, with respect to its faith, the worldly spirit found no direct access to them; now it attempts, and with great success, to approach them on the practical side, undermining its faith by corrupting its moral character and practice. This also is a story of the most primitive antiquity, ever repeating itself anew, and too little studied in the instance before us.
It is worthy of notice in the first place that the people had just returned from their last great victory in the east of Perea, and were now, in a dangerous spiritual mood resulting from their victory, encamped with their spoil in the acacia plains, seeking repose. This encampment was their Capua.
Then begins the old story of the enticing idolatrous feasts, against which the earliest statutes had warned them, Ex. 23:32, 33; a story which is fatally repeated through the whole Israelitish history, comes out again in a new form in the first periods of the Christian Church (2 Peter and Jude), and in the Apocalypse casts its shadow down to the very end of time. In masked forms, especially under the guise of sensual and voluptuous delights, this temptation has often, even in the Protestant Church, wrought destructive results, e. g., in the army of Henry the IV.; among the Huguenots generally; among the Hungarian Protestants; at the court of the last of the Stuarts, and at many other times and places.
But in such cases the evil, the moral contagion, starts with the great, rather than with the humble, and this is strikingly exemplified in the present narrative. As the wrath of God broke out against Israel and revealed itself in its peculiar power and results, in impending death, in a terrible pestilence, then spake Jehovah to Moses, Take all the heads of the people (those who have been leaders in the sin) and hang them up before the Lord against the sun.—Moses intended substantially the same thing when in other terms he said to the judges: Slay ye every man his men that were joined unto Baal-Peor.—Just then occurs the most glaring example of the sin. Zimri, a prince of the tribe of Simeon, leads his paramour, a Midianitish princess, with shameless impudence, into his tent, in the presence of all the people. How much less guilty the common people were, in comparison with such effrontery, appears from the fact stated, that all the people who saw the outrage were weeping at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. Moses himself seems to have been confounded.
Nothing less than the exercise of a holy burning zeal, such as came upon Phinehas, could have stayed the tide of corruption. It is useless here to attempt to trace back to a definite statute or institution the zealot right which appears here in its strongest form. It wells up from the depths of the theocratic life, as a primitive form of police, having its precedent in the judgment exercised upon the more guilty offenders at the worship of the golden calf, and its analogies in the arbitrary exercise of justice, now in the vehme courts, now in lynch-law, etc. In Israel Zealotism was the complement of the law in its practical aspect, as Urim and Thummim were the complement of prophecy. There was here also a priestly basis and support. Phinehas was the son of Eleazar, the successor of Aaron. His heroic act confirmed to him the inheritance of his priesthood. The energetic character of his deed comes out in the strongest light in the text. This act was accepted as the decisive, satisfactory atonement of the collective guilt of the people. The plague was stayed.—As the Israelites had before determined upon a later war of revenge against the king of Arad, so now Moses resolves to be avenged upon the Midianites. The breach between the easily deluded Israel, and this dangerous neighboring people, should be made sure and lasting.
There is moreover a very remarkable delicacy in the narrative, in omitting any allusion here to the instigator of the temptation. The great villain and his villanous deed, lies deeply concealed in the background, and the story leaves him in his concealment for the present, because it is concerned mainly to bring out the fact that the people, or rather the heads of the people, are chargeable for the sin. It knows nothing now of any sentimental palliation of their conscious guilt; but the demoniacal wickedness of the tempter, and the judgment which overtook him are related later, and from thence onward in all the theocratic tradition, he is the great type of such seducers. We may perhaps regard it as a consoling truth, that while retribution was so long delayed, while his godless villany lay hidden for so long a period, yet judgment overtakes him at last.
Balaam appears moreover to have reached the Moabites, through the mediation of the nomadic Midianites lying upon the borders of Moab. The Midianites accordingly form the connecting link between Israel and Moab; but the princes of Moab obviously consecrate their own daughters to the work of seduction.
Num 25:1. Shittim.—An abbreviation for Abelshittim, see 22:1, a part of the plains of Moab in the direction of Palestine, Josh. 2:1; 3:1. It does not appear from the text that the fall of the people began with carnal lewdness. It began apparently with the invitation from the daughters of Moab to attend the sacrificial feasts of their gods. [The אֵל in the text, in its position and form, intimates that the invitation came from the daughters of Moab. And this is explicitly stated in the following verse. They, the daughters of Moab, called the people unto the sacrifices of their gods, the gods of those who extended the invitation. It is the usual process in the falls of Israel.—A. G.]. Sins of the flesh and the falling away to idolatrous service were the results. But both sins are bound up in the one conception of whoredom. The prostitution, the selling as it were of human personality, follows upon the concessions of the personality of God. [The acacia and palm groves, with their shade, gave a welcome retreat after these long wanderings in the barren desert, and the sore struggles through which they had passed.—A. G.]
Num 25:3. Baal-peor.—Lascivious rites were widely spread and prevalent in Babylonia and Syria. See KNOBEL. [Also article Baal in SMITH’S Bible Dictionary.—A. G.]. It was Baal, especially as he was worshipped at Peor, with lustful practice (hence Baal is sometimes called Peor). Beth-Peor, Deut. 3:29; 4:46. “He was a Moabitish Priapus, in honor of whom virgins and women prostituted themselves. As the god of war he was called Chemosh,” KEIL. We distinguish in the same divinity between the god of fortune and the god of misfortune, thus: the first was worshipped with voluptuous sacrifices, the latter with human sacrifices—Moloch-sacrifices. And the anger of the LORD was kindled. See Ex. 4:24; Ps. 90.
Num 25:4. After the destructive pestilence had broken out among the people, Jehovah Himself appoints the first remedy. According to KNOBEL, whom KEIL follows here, the heads of the people are only called out in order to hang the guilty ones among them. The whole narrative will thus lose its very nerve and substance, and surely this can scarcely be the true interpretation of וִחוֹקֵע אוֹתָם. All the heads of the people must clearly refer only to the guilty: but these are to be discriminated by the judges. Hang them up before the LORD (as a curse-offering) against the sun.—There were two principal modes of Oriental hanging. The one was fatal in its operation—a literal crucifixion—which however divided itself again into two kinds; nailing and impalement. In the other the criminals were slain first, and then fastened to a pole for exhibition or atonement, “so that the impalement or crucifixion was only an aggravation of the capital punishment, like the burning in Lev. 20:14, and the hanging in Deut. 21:22. The rendering of the Sept. and Vulg. is πάραδειγματίζειν and suspendere.” KEIL.
[KNOBEL: “Crucifixion was a mode of capital punishment in use among the nations of antiquity, and could not have been strange to the Hebrews; but among the older Hebrews rarely if ever, except in the suspending of the dead corpse as an aggravation of the punishment.” Against the sun, i. e., publicly not in concealment. It was a public and shameful exhibition—as if the heaven and the earth were both unwilling to receive them—and therefore added to the severity of the punishment. Before the Lord: not merely as sinners against Him, and hence in His presence, but as the preposition means to Him—as a satisfaction to Him, to appease His wrath.—A. G.].
Num 25:5. KEIL says: “This command of Moses to the judges was not carried out because the matter took a different turn.” He adds, however, later, twenty-four thousand were killed by the plague. The Apostle Paul gives the number that fell as twenty-three thousand, probably from a traditional interpretation of the schools, that one thousand out of the twenty-four, perished by the judges, and only twenty-three thousand fell by the plague literally—to whom alone Paul refers.” We must make a distinction also between the execution of the guilty generally, and the hanging up against the sun, the latter sentence being inflicted only upon the criminals of higher stations, and for purposes of intimidation.
[Slay ye every one his man.—There is a reference to the local or tribal courts which existed even then. The judges were severally to execute the sentence upon the guilty belonging to his jurisdiction. HIRSCH: “The Jewish court had no right to intervene unless upon a public accusation. There need not be, however, any official public accuser. The whole people virtually occupied that position. Any two men might arrest the criminal and bring him before the court, and demand a punishment according to the offence. But as in cases like this, in which there is a wide and public apostacy, these steps were not taken, perhaps could not be—therefore God Himself lets His anger flame against Israel—assumes the responsibility and exercises the functions of the judge.—A. G.].
Num 25:6–9. He leads her before the eyes of Israel into the female apartment of his tent. Phinehas pierced both of them through in the very act. The original will scarcely admit any other view, and the deviations from it among the Rabbins are untenable. [KEIL: “Upon this act of Phinehas and later examples of Samuel (1 Sam. 15:33) and Mattathias (1 Macc. 2:24), the later Jews erected the so-called ‘Zealot-right,’ according to which any one, even though not qualified by his official position, possessed the right, in cases of any daring contempt of the theocratic institutions, or any daring violation of the honor of God, to execute vengeance upon the criminals. See BUDDEUS’ de jure zelotarum apud Heb. 1699.” KURTZ, Geschich. des A. B. reminds us however that Phinehas as an actual priest and designated successor to the High Priest, had an official position, that Moses’ command to slay the transgressors had already been issued, that the circumstances were extraordinary, the boldness of the crime, the great interests, even the highest good imperilled, justified his assumption of authority, and his consecration to his judicial act. It would be very strange to construe such an act, by such a person, under such circumstances, into a precedent for irregular acts of zeal.—A. G.].
Num 25:10–12. קִנְאָתִי “is not zeal for me, but my zeal, the zeal of Jehovah, with which Phinehas was filled, and impelled to put the daring sinners to death,” KEIL. The zeal of Jehovah manifested itself in the plague. Here the zeal of Phinehas for Jehovah is exalted according to its real merit. [Hath turned my wrath away. He made an atonement for the children of Israel.—וַיְכַפֵּר and covered, or was for a covering. BIBLE. COM.: “The signal example thus made by Phinehas of a leading offender, was accepted by God as an expiation, and the exterminating wrath which had gone out against the whole people was arrested.” I give him my covenant of peace.—Give or fulfil. “The covenant granted to Phinehas consisted in the fact that an eternal priesthood (i. e., the eternal possession of the priesthood) was secured to him; not for himself alone, but for his descendants also as a covenant, i. e., in a covenant or irrevocable form, since God never breaks a covenant that He has made. In accordance with this promise the high priesthood which passed from Eleazar to Phinehas continued in his family, with the exception of a brief period from Eli to David, until the typical priesthood of Aaron was merged into the actual priesthood of Christ.” KEIL. The covenant of peace, because it is only through the priesthood and its atoning sacrifices that peace between God and the sinful world can be established, as it was through the act of Phinehas, by which God’s right was vindicated and established in Israel, that His wrath was stayed, and peace restored.—A. G.].
Num 25:14, 15. Zimri was a prince out of the chief house of the tribe of Simeon, but the father of the Midianitish woman Cozbi was the head of several tribes, and of a chief house in Midian, and is called king, and numbered among the five kings of Midian who were slain by the Israelites, Num 31:8.
Num 25:16–18. Cozbi their sister.—The repetition is emphatic, the clauses form a climax. It was an extreme case of the grossest outrage that Cozbi, a Midianitish princess, the sister of the people, i. e., of their chiefs, should herself be led in clear sunlight, into the sacred camp, to glorify lust, and render it an act of service or worship. [BAUMGARTEN: “Moses was commanded to vex the Midianites in order that the practical zeal of Phinehas against sin, by which expiation had been made for the guilt, might be adopted by all the nation.”—A. G.].
DOCTRINAL AND ETHICAL
The history of the fall and sin of Israel through its participation in the idolatrous festivals of the Midianitish gods, can scarcely be too strongly emphasized, in its significance for the Christian history of the Church and world. Its particular features are, 1. The stealthy diabolical counsel of Balaam to destroy the people of the faith by beguiling them into lascivious worship, and worldly lusts and passions generally. This fiendish method has played a larger part in secret than has ever found publicity in history, poisoning individual characters, and whole nations. 2. The dangerous situation of Israel, as it is encamped in the acacia groves and celebrates its victories. 3. The alluring invitation to the idolatrous festivals and sacrifices. 4. The evil example of the great, and of the upper class in general. The fearful result of the enticement and sin of Israel, appears morally in a lapse from the faith and its pure morality, and physically in the outgrowth of deadly pestilences. On the other hand these offences call out in unexampled vigor the spirit of zeal, the primal source and type of all moral police, as it has celebrated its triumphs in Florence, Geneva and elsewhere. Such acts of moral defence and safety must be broadly distinguished from deeds of fanaticism; although the flame rarely begins without smoke. Generally we have here the primitive type of that ever returning freeing of the kingdom of God from all antinomianism, from all libertinism in the great, and all hypocrisy in the small, from all mingling of holiness with glittering fleshly lusts, and from all mingling of hallowed festal service, with seductive and corrupting feasts. The name Cozbi has especially furnished a basis for a long catalogue of sister names, who, like the Jezebel of the Apocalypse, have wrought fatal mischief in both worldly and spiritual circles.
[The history shows that the “curse causeless never comes.” God’s people are safe from the curse unless they bring it upon themselves. They never experience it unless they have practically renounced God and His law. The floodgates are open, then, and nothing but a vindicated divine right will stem the tide.—A. G.].
The enticement of Israel through the idolatrous Midianitish festivals. An old and new story. Cozbi a type of the historical and corrupting woman. The zeal of Phinehas or the distinction between religious and fanatical zealotism. The idolatrous Midianitish festivals, a lasting warning for Christendom. A warning also against the mingling of religious devotion with the sexual life, characteristic of some sects. The twofold correction of the divine righteousness for the Midianitish excesses. The plague or the pestilence, and the sword of Phinehas. How often may the judicial sword hinder or remove a pestilence. [HENRY: “We have here: 1. The sin of Israel. 2. Its punishment by the hand of the magistrate and by the immediate hand of God. 3. The zeal of Phinehas in slaying the impudent offenders. 4. God’s commendation of his zeal; and 5. The enmity put between the Israelites and the Midianites their tempters, as at first between the woman and the serpent. The heads of the people who were guilty are first slain. Ringleaders in sin ought to be made examples of justice. Zimri’s sin was a daring affront: 1. To the justice of the nation, and bid defiance to that. 2. To the religion of the nation, and put contempt upon that. In the face of the command to stay the criminals, and while the congregation were weeping at the door of the tabernacle.” It was also a bold affront against God. Since it was committed while the plague was raging. God will surely deal with those who do the devil’s work in tempting men to sin.—A. G.].
1Marg. with my zeal.
2Marg. house of a father.
And Israel abode in Shittim, and the people began to commit whoredom with the daughters of Moab.