Following the prophecies of Balaam in chapters 22-24, the author of Numbers, in chapter 25, records the last rebellion against God before the Israelites enter the Promised Land. Verses 1-4 describe the catastrophe that occurred. The Israelite men are seduced by Moabite (and also Midianite, as we’ll learn later) women. These women, by the thousands, offer themselves to the men of Israel as sexual partners. The text then tells us that sexual immorality quickly moved to formal worship of other gods, Baal of Peor in particular.
R. Dennis Cole writes:
Milgrom suggests some kind of covenant agreement was enacted in the process by which the Israelites were permitted (after being invited) to engage in the various forms of debauchery associated with the Baal cult. By engaging in such worship practices, the Israelites had violated both the first and second Commandments—to have no other gods and to worship no other deities by bowing down and serving them in the cult (Exod 20:2–5; Deut 5:7–9). Abrogation of any one of the Ten Commandments was punishable by death, and hence the punishment to be meted out against the idolatrous Israelites was severe.
God instructs Moses to execute the leaders of the men who have worshiped Baal, but Moses instead instructs the judges of Israel to execute those men known to have worshiped Baal. It is not clear whether Moses is disobeying God or not, as the text simply doesn’t tell us, but it certainly looks like Moses softens the command from God, perhaps leading to the plague that spreads throughout the camp.
In verse 6, Moses has gathered the leaders of Israel in front of the tabernacle entrance in repentance when something shocking happens right in front of them. An Israelite family leader (Zimri son of Salu) walks right by the assembled crowd with a Midianite woman and takes her to a tent where, evidently, ritualistic sex would occur between the two of them. In other words, the goal of their encounter was to “worship” Baal right in the midst of the Israelite camp.
Phinehas, the son of Eleazar the high priest, sees the couple and follows them. He finds them having sex and he drives a spear through both of them. This act by Phinehas stops the plague that is killing the Israelites, but already 24,000 had died.
God is pleased with Phinehas’s quick action to put an end to the Baal worship within sight of the tabernacle. He tells Moses to tell Phinehas that “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.”
Why would God be pleased that Phinehas killed these two people? Gordon Wenham explains that
because Phinehas executed the sinner, expressing so clearly and visibly God’s own anger through his deed, [God’s] anger was turned away. . . . To make atonement (kipper) is the usual phrase to describe the effect of sacrifice (e.g. Lev. 1:4; 4:20; 5:16). In normal circumstances the animal died in place of the guilty man. Here the sinners themselves are put to death and consequently animal sacrifice is unnecessary. . . . Israel had broken the covenant by worshipping foreign gods. Phinehas had restored that covenant by his deed, and is therefore rewarded with the covenant of a perpetual priesthood a reward that mirrors the sin atoned for.
The chapter concludes with God proclaiming that the Midianites were to be treated as enemies because of their treachery. The seduction of the Israelite men by the Midianite women led to the deaths of thousands of Israelites. Israel has once again broken its covenant with Yahweh.
Chapter 31 picks up where chapter 25 leaves off. God tells Moses to take vengeance on the Midianites, so Moses calls for 1000 soldiers from each of the 12 tribes of Israel to join the fighting force. Phinehas leads them into battle.
The Israelites kill all of the men of the Midianite clans involved in the treachery against Israel. Cole writes:
Taken in the historical context of this being a divinely directed follow-up campaign after the sinful Baal Peor incident (25:16–18; 31:3–8), this crusade was directed at the tribes or clans of Midianites who dwelled in the central and northern Transjordan highlands, in the vicinity of the lands of the Moabites, Ammonites, and Amorites. The Midianites of the southern regions, such as those of Moses in-laws, were on better terms with the Israelites or were not involved on this occasion.
They also execute the 5 tribal leaders, or kings, of these Midianite clans. In addition, we see that Balaam, the prophet from chapters 22-24, is also killed. We discover in verse 16 that Balaam stayed with the Midianites and counseled them to seduce the men of Israel with the women of Midian.
Verses 9-12 describe the aftermath of the battle:
The Israelites captured the Midianite women and children and took all the Midianite herds, flocks and goods as plunder. They burned all the towns where the Midianites had settled, as well as all their camps. They took all the plunder and spoils, including the people and animals, and brought the captives, spoils and plunder to Moses and Eleazar the priest and the Israelite assembly at their camp on the plains of Moab, by the Jordan across from Jericho.
Moses, however, is unhappy with the soldiers who bring back the women of Midian as captives. He instructs them to kill all of the women and only keep alive young girls who are virgins.