And Israel abode in Shittim, and the people began to commit whoredom with the daughters of Moab.Numbers 25:1. Israel abode in Shittim — And this was their last station, from whence they passed immediately into Canaan. This is noted as a great aggravation of their sin, that they committed it when God was going to put them into the possession of their long-expected land. The people — Many of them. Whoredom — Either because these women prostituted themselves to them upon condition of worshipping their god, or because their filthy god was worshipped by such filthy acts as Priapus and Venus were. The daughters of Moab — And of Midian too; for both these people being confederated in this wicked design, the one is put for the other, and the daughters of Moab may be named, either because they began the transgression, or because they were the chief persons, probably the relations, or courtiers of Balak.
And they called the people unto the sacrifices of their gods: and the people did eat, and bowed down to their gods.Numbers 25:2. They called — The Moabites, being now neighbours to the Israelites, and finding themselves unable to effect their design by war and divination, fell another way to work, by contracting familiarity with them, and, perceiving their evil inclinations, they, that is, their daughters, invited them unto the sacrifices — Unto the feasts which were made of their parts of the sacrifices, after the manner of the Jews and Gentiles too, the participation whereof was reckoned a participation in the worship of that God to whom the sacrifices were offered. Of their gods — Of their god Baal-peor, the plural Elohim being here used, as commonly it is for one God.
And Israel joined himself unto Baalpeor: and the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel.Numbers 25:3. Joined himself — The word implies a forsaking God, to whom they were joined, and a turning to, and strict conjunction with, this false god. Baal-peor — Called Baal, by the name common to many false gods, and especially to those that represented any of the heavenly bodies; and Peor, either from the hill Peor, where he was worshipped, Numbers 23:28; or rather from a verb signifying to open and uncover, because of the obscene posture in which the idol was set, as Priapus was; or because of the filthiness which was exercised in his worship.
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.Numbers 25:4. Take — That is, apprehend; all the heads (or chief) of the people — Such as were chief in this transgression, and in place and power. These are singled out to this exemplary punishment for their concurrence with others in this wickedness, which was more odious, and of more pernicious tendency in them. Hang them up before the Lord — That is, either before the sanctuary, as men who had forsaken the worship of God, and were by his sentence adjudged to die; or, to the vindication of his honour and justice. Others interpret the words thus: Take unto thee, or to thine assistance, the heads, or judges of the people, and hang them up; that is, hang up such as have joined themselves to Baal-peor. This interpretation seems to be justified by the next verse, in which Moses directs the judges to do their duty by punishing the offenders. Against the sun — Publicly and openly, as their sin was public and scandalous, that all the people might see, and fear to sin; and speedily, before the sun went down. It was provided by the Jewish law, that the bodies of malefactors should hang no longer than till the evening of the day on which they suffered, Deuteronomy 21:22-23.
And Moses said unto the judges of Israel, Slay ye every one his men that were joined unto Baalpeor.Numbers 25:5. Slay ye every one his men — Moses having, in conjunction with the judges, searched out such as had been guilty of this lewdness and idolatry, allots to each magistrate his number of malefactors for execution, that they might either put them to death with their own hands, as Phinehas did, (Numbers 25:7,) or by proper officers. It seems probable that the judges were dilatory in executing this order, since God himself thought fit to visit the heads of the idolaters with exemplary punishment, Numbers 25:8.
And, 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.Numbers 25:6. Behold one came — This was done when Moses had given the charge to the judges, and, as it may seem, before the execution of it; otherwise it is probable he would not have been so foolish as to have run upon certain ruin, when the examples were frequent before his eyes. To his brethren — Into the camp of the Israelites. In the sight of Moses — An argument of intolerable impudence and contempt of God and of Moses. Weeping — Bewailing the wickedness of the people, and the dreadful judgments of God, and imploring God’s mercy and favour.
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;Numbers 25:7. Phinehas rose up — The psalmist says, He stood up and executed judgment; which seems to import that he acted as a judge; but in a crime so presumptuous, and so openly committed, he thought it not necessary to wait for a judicial process against the offenders, but cut them off directly with his own hand. It is thought too, not without reason, that the number and dignity of the offenders intimidated the judges from executing their office. So that unless Phinehas, by this seasonable zeal for God, and the interests of the public, had supported the authority of the laws, either a total anarchy had ensued, or the whole body of the people been exposed to the severest judgments from God.
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.Numbers 25:8. Thrust them both through — Phinehas was himself a man in great authority, and did this after the command given by Moses to the rulers to slay these transgressors, and in the very sight, and no doubt by the consent of Moses himself, and also by the special direction of God’s Spirit.
And those that died in the plague were twenty and four thousand.Numbers 25:9. Twenty and four thousand — St. Paul mentions only twenty and three thousand, who, he says, fell in one day, 1 Corinthians 10:8. But it seems that one thousand were slain by the judges, (Numbers 25:5,) and twenty- three thousand by the hand of God. For what we render plague does not signify pestilence only, but any other sudden stroke. Thus did the people fall by their own wickedness, whom Balaam and Balak could never have harmed any other way.
And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
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.Numbers 25:11. That I consumed not the children of Israel in my jealousy — When God ascribes jealousy and the passions to himself, in Scripture, he speaks after the manner of men, and in conformity to our apprehension. The meaning is, that his own glory and the salvation of mankind render it necessary that he should proceed with severity against some particular crimes, like that wherewith men proceed when they are prompted by jealousy and other angry passions.
Wherefore say, Behold, I give unto him my covenant of peace:Numbers 25:12. My covenant of peace — That is, the covenant of an everlasting priesthood, as it is expounded Numbers 25:13, which is called a covenant of peace, partly with respect to the happy effect of this heroical action of his, whereby he made peace between God and his people, and partly with regard to the principal end of the priestly office, which was constantly to do that which Phinehas now did, even to mediate between God and men, in order to their peace and reconciliation with him, by offering up sacrifices and prayers to God on their behalf; as also by turning them away from iniquity, which is the only peace-breaker; and by teaching and pressing upon them the observation of that law, which is the only bond of their 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.Numbers 25:13-14. An everlasting priesthood — To continue as long as the law and commonwealth of the Jews did. But this promise was conditional, and therefore might be made void by the miscarriages of Phinehas’s sons, as it seems it was, and thereupon a like promise was made to Eli, of the line of Ithamar, that he and his should walk before the Lord, namely, in the office of high-priest, for ever, which also for his and their sins was made void, 1 Samuel 2:30. And the priesthood returned to Phinehas’s line in the time of Solomon, 1 Kings 2:26-27; 1 Kings 2:34. Because he was zealous for his God — God, who searches the heart, saw that this emotion proceeded not from private passion, but from just indignation against such infamous lewdness, and a truly pious zeal for the honour of God. And made an atonement for Israel — Procured pardon and peace for them from God. Zimri, a prince of a chief house — This is mentioned to do honour to Phinehas, who in this brave act feared not the dignity of a man of so great interest in his tribe.
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.
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.
And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
Vex the Midianites, and smite them:Numbers 25:17. Vex the Midianites — It is probable, from Numbers 25:6, compared with Numbers 21:16, that the Midianites had had the principal hand in seducing the Israelites into this shameful revolt from the worship of God to the vile sacrifices of Baal-peor, and in causing this open and impudent affront to be put upon the professors of the true religion in the matter of Zimri, to whom they prostituted a daughter of one of their most honourable families, to procure the disgrace and destruction of the Israelites; therefore, in just retribution for their wickedness, God commands Moses to be ready at a time he should appoint to attack their country with his whole force, and give them a fatal overthrow.
For 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.Numbers 25:18. With their wiles — For under pretence of kindred, and friendship, and leagues, which they offered to them, instead of that war which the Israelites expected, they sought only an opportunity to insinuate themselves into their familiarity, and execute their hellish plot of bringing that curse upon the Israelites which they had in vain attempted to bring another way. We see here that we have more to fear from our passions than from the malice of our enemies, and that it is a very dangerous thing to suffer ourselves to be seduced by voluptuousness and the desires of the flesh. This is the application which St. Paul makes of this history in the passage above referred to; where he tells us that “these things were written for our admonition, on whom the ends of the world are come.” Again, the zeal which Moses and Phinehas showed on this occasion, and God’s rewarding Phinehas, prove that we must zealously oppose, by all just and lawful means, those that offend God openly; that this is in particular the duty of magistrates and ministers of religion; and that God rewards the fidelity of those who thus express their zeal for his glory.