The End Of Wandering
I tend to place Numbers 25 about five to ten years before Numbers 26. But that is pure guess1. There are 38 years – with no interim date markers – between Numbers 14 and Numbers 26. The exact amount of time judged to pass between Numbers 25 and 26 is a trivial matter. But it seems odd to call a census immediately after a plague wipes out 24,000 people.
Numbers 25 deserves more careful attention than it usually gets. Israel has completed their wandering. They have arrived at the North end of the Dead Sea (to the East of the land area marked “Kingdom of Judah”), and they are ready to cross the Jordan River into Jericho (marked on the map). The map I could find is a much newer map, reflecting the geography about 570 years later. At the time of Numbers 25, they were in Moab territory.
After the Canaan Conquest
At the time of the Kadesh Barnea rebellion, the space between Philistia and Edom was narrower. It was not a barren land, but it was not nationally occupied by anyone. The spies of Numbers 13 gained access to Canaan (Judah plus Israel on the map) from the South. God was now ready to grant them entry.
The rebellion changed things. Israel will now enter Canaan through Jericho. The map shows how much an inconvenience was caused when Israel honored Edom’s refusal to let them pass through. The backtracking took them much further west than the map implies, and that brings them back to the Egyptian border. They went around Moab as well (“East of Moab”; Numbers 21:11). And at the time, there were two smaller nations tucked between Ammon and Moab: Arnon and Bashan, both of which also denied permission for Israel to pass through.
Smaller nations are easier to ignore than Edom. For Moses ignored the refusals of Arnon and Bashan, and battled his way through – battles they had no trouble winning. They were headed for northwest Moab, and that is when Balak, King of Moab sought to curse Israel (Numbers 22). Moses never asked permission to pass through the bulk of Moab. Moab was characterized with debauchery and a god system called Baal Peor (Literally, “the lord of Peor,” Peor being a major mountain within Moab. It’s easy to guess that God knew that Israel’s dedication to the one true God would face certain collapse if the people got a major exposure to Moabite activity.
And if a few days in the outskirts of Moab is indicative, that is exactly what happened. Israel was within days of being able to enter the Promised Land. But their focus got re-directed to Moabite women2. We don’t know what about them the Israelite men found themselves unable to resist. But it was a widespread attraction (Numbers 25:1). What proves amazing is that God’s judgment (Numbers 25:4) was not against the harlotry. God’s judgment was against Israel’s consequent adoption of Moab’s gods.
Whatever the character was of the Moabite women, it appears that the Midianites were the controlling force (Numbers 25:18). For the Midianites were blamed for both the pornographic (see 1 Corinthians 10:8) worship rituals of Baal Peor, and for Cozbi’s union with Zimri, the Israelite. Moab does not in this context face God’s judgment. Whatever dynamic there was between Moabite women and Israelite men, it was understood that in order to continue, the men must convert their belief to Baal Peor-ism. And that offended God more than the lust that provoked it. Numbers 25:5 - Moses said to the judges of Israel3, “Every one of you kill his men who were joined to Baal of Peor.” To Baal Peor – not to a harlot.
In Numbers 25:6, an Israelite man comes in with a Midianite4 bride5. This was no average couple – the bride and groom had prominent political status in their respective nation (Numbers 25:14-15). Whatever you may think of the retaliation of Phinehas in Numbers 25:8, God was pleased (Numbers 25:11). And God stopped the PLAGUE (Numbers 25:9).
Numbers 25:9 is the first mention of a plague. A “plague” is an unusual word to describe a mass series of hangings. And 1 Corinthians 10:8 says that 23,000 of the 24,000 deaths occurred on one day. 23,000 hangings executed by 70 judges comes to more than 300 hangings per judge per day, a faster rate than seems likely. It seems better to comprehend that 1,000 hangings took place over some (unspecified) compact period of time, that too many bodies decomposing started a bacteria that spread through the population (that is, a “plague”) quite rapidly, killing 23,000 people.
As a result of Phinehas’ actions, Phinehas was granted that the Priestly line would run through him6. (See Numbers 25:12-13.) And God continues His pursuit against the Midianites in Numbers 31.
1 There will be plenty of speculation in this comment. It is not my preferred method of Bible study.
2 This adds a certain flavor to the book of Ruth. Ruth was a Moabite woman who chose to adopt the God of Israel.
3 Probably the 70 elders appointed in Numbers 11:16, and following.
4 The Midianites were descended from a later wife of Abraham after Sarah died (Genesis 25:2). They were actively engaged in slave trading (Genesis 37:28). Their religious practices included worship of Baal Peor. Their location is debated, and though again speculative, they may have been nomadic. For even though their male population was wiped out in Numbers 31, the Midianites were Israel’s captors in Judges 6:2. If the Midianites were Nomadic, then the raids of Numbers 31 was limited to their local presence, and not against the entirety of the race.
5 It is speculative that they were married, but the man and woman are open about their relationship, whereas the harlotries (25:1) likely took place more discretely. That the children of Israel were weeping when they saw them approach suggests that they knew that God would be displeased, and that trouble was about to follow.
6 Aaron’s line was granted the (High) Priesthood, but only the portion of the line that ran through his grandson, Phinehas. Similarly, Abraham’s seed was the seed of promise, but only the portion of that seed that ran through his grandson, Jacob (also named Israel).
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