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Apostasy at Peor

Category Articles
Date January 9, 2004

I was surprised at our last Presbytery meeting to learn that a minister of our Presbytery had recently joined the Presbyterian Church, USA, a liberal denomination with which our denomination has no relations. However, there is an explanation. This man has left his wife and is seeking a divorce. What seems so surprising, then, is not so surprising. There is a connection between the two. If you want to be a minister and divorce your wife without Biblical cause, the PCA is not the denomination for you. You will have to seek another denomination that can live with your life choices.

Something even more surprising happened while Israel was camped at Peor. There many of the Israelites changed religions. They left the God of Israel and joined the god called Baal. The change of religion was closely connected to a change of lifestyle.

I. Provocation

In chapter twenty-five of Numbers we find Israel on the east side of the Jordan River. The Promised Land is just across the river. But there we find see a sad and sordid scene of idolatry. The Bible says that “the people began to whore with the daughters of Moab.” Later in the chapter we find that the Midianites, as well as the Moabites were involved in this incident. The best way to understand this is that the Moabites and Midianites were mixed together in the same region and practiced the same religion.

At any rate what happened is that the women of these pagan peoples enticed the Israelite men into sexual relationships. Once the men had become involved with the women, the women invited them to their religious services that involved sacrifices followed by feasts. The men became involved in these worship practices that probably also involved ritual prostitution. The result of the sexual immorality and the participation in the pagan worship was that “Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor.” The name Baal means lord. The Baal was a nature god. He had a wife Asherah. He was a god of the land and of fertility. The Baal involved here is the Baal who ruled in the territory of Peor.The worship of Baal and Asherah included sexual orgies. Through the sexual relationships and the participation in the sacrifices and feasts Israel transferred her loyalty from the LORD to Baal Peor. It was something like an affair that creates intense fixation on the new partner, followed by a divorce of the life partner, followed by an impetuous new marriage.

Now I want to make three observations about this incident. The first is that what happened here was the outworking of a plot to bring curse upon Israel. The king of Moab, Balak, was afraid of the Israelites, and so hired a prophet named Balaam to put a supernatural curse on Israel. However, all attempts are cursing Israel failed. Repeatedly Balaam blessed Israel.

So, according to Numbers 31:16 it was on the advice of Balaam the people of Midian and Moab tempted the men of Israel sexually and led them to act treacherously against the LORD by worship Baal and uniting with Baal’s religion. In other words, what could not be done by supernatural means was accomplished by appealing to the sinful nature of the Israelites. Israel was led to violate the seventh commandment against adultery, then the second commandment against worshiping by using images, and finally the first commandment against having other gods.

People are very conscious of the supernatural today. There are those who talk about releasing God’s people from demon oppression and of releasing God’s blessing upon their lives. But the greater concern for us should be our own sinful flesh and its vulnerability to temptation and sin. Our Confession speaks of the importance of the mortification of sin – of putting to death the sin that remains even after we are united to Christ. Not much is said about this today, but Christians, who by the Spirit’s help put to death the flesh and its evil deeds, will do more to conquer evil and secure God’s best blessings than those who have an unbiblical obsession with the supernatural.

The second thing to notice is that we who are men need to be totally frank with ourselves about our vulnerability to sexual sins. Balaam knew exactly what he was dong when he advised the pagans to lure Israel into idolatry by using their women to tempt the men of Israel with sex. Sexual temptation confronts us almost everywhere – in mixed office settings, through the Internet, on broadcast television. Our culture is geared not only to put before us sexual temptation but to convince us that any kind of sexual behavior that pleases us is right and a right. Nothing less than brutal honesty with ourselves and brutal “plucking out the eye” mortification can put a wall between us and sexual temptation.

The third thing to notice is the connection between life and worship. Each feeds on the other. In the incident of the Golden Calf, false worship led to immoral behavior. Here immoral behavior led to false worship. It works both ways. If we are indulging the sinful flesh, we will want a worship that indulges the sinful flesh. If we are practicing a religion that indulges the sinful flesh, we will find that leading to sinful indulgence in our lives. This connection between worship and life is one of the reasons that in the Calvinistic Reformation so much attention was paid to the right way of worshiping God. Sinful worship will produce sinful lives and sinful lives will produce sinful worship.

II. Indignation

The immorality and idolatry of Israel provoked indignation, first from the LORD and then from His servant and priest, Phinehas.

“The anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel.” The LORD did not overlook the sin of His people. He was angry with them, and He determined to uphold His own honor and to enforce His rights to the exclusive and pure worship of His people and His demand that they should be holy because He is holy. The command the LORD gave was that the tribal chiefs should be hung in the sun before all the people. What this probably means is that they were supposed to be executed and that their corpses should be impaled in poles in the broad daylight so that all the people would see. Unless this was done the anger of the LORD would continue against the whole nation. The only way to turn away the anger of the LORD was to carry out His orders for the execution of the chiefs.

Were each of the chiefs involved in the apostasy? We don’t know. Now this may seem to violate our sense of fair play. Why should the chiefs be held responsible for the sins of the people, sins not all the chiefs necessarily committed? We American Christians have a very highly developed sense of individualism. We think each of us stands alone. Even in the church we have little sense of community and of corporate responsibility. But, in the Bible, God’s people are a community in covenant with God. The leaders of the community represent the whole of God’s people. There is a corporate solidarity between the people and their leaders, so that the leaders are held responsible for the sins of the people, whether they personally committed those sins or not. Then, also, the leaders were supposed to have led. They should have taken whatever actions necessary to restrain the people from the wickedness they were committing

We should not think that this has nothing to do with us and our leaders today. The church is covenant community. Elders today are responsible to watch over the flock to make sure that no one lives a wicked life or turns away from the Lord to worship the gods of this world. And, surely, on the Day of Judgment elders will give an account for the people whose souls they were to watch.

It appears that Moses did not follow the directions of the LORD. Rather than having the chiefs of the tribes killed, he ordered the judges of the people to find and execute those who had actually yoked themselves to the religion of Baal. We find out later in the text that the LORD sent a plague on the people. It is likely that the LORD sent this plague as a result of Moses’ failure to execute the leaders of the people.

So far we have seen the idolatry of the people and the indignation of the LORD. But then there is the report of the sin of an individual and the response of an individual to it. A man of Israel, whose name was Zimri, the son of some sort of official, brought a Midianite woman, whose name was Cozbi, into the camp. He was doing the proverbial “bring the girl home to the family” thing. But in addition, he took her into the inner part of the family tent where they began to engage in immorality. This was a flagrant sin – it seems he flaunted his sin before the people. This was bad enough, but he aggravated the sin by parading her before the people at a time when many of them had gathered at the entrance of the tabernacle for a time of corporate mourning. They were mourning the sin of those who aligned themselves with Baal. They were mourning over the displeasure of the LORD and perhaps over the plague that was already spreading among them. As the people were gathered at the tabernacle, and were weeping, this young man brought his new girlfriend into the camp and proudly led her to his family’s tent.

At that point Aaron’s grandson, Phinehas, took a spear and followed the couple into the tent. He thrust them both through with the spear. Again we may find this harsh. We might agree that what they did was wrong, but we find it hard to approve the action Phinehas, going after them and killing them while they were “in the act.” But, before we go too far along this line, we need to remember that the LORD approved and commended the action of Phinehas. Both the man and the woman were involved in highhanded immorality, and the man was also guilty of apostatizing from his faith, of offending the LORD’s people, and of dishonoring the LORD. Both deserved to die for their sins. It is wise for us to pay attention to this case and others like it. Our Shorter Catechism asks the question, “What does every sin deserve?” The answer is, “Every sin deserves God’s wrath and curse both in this life, and in the life to come.” Incidents such as this one bring that home to us.

We have seen the indignation of the LORD against His own people in His order for the execution of the chiefs, and we have seen the indignation of Phinehas as he executed Zimri and Cozbi. But there is more. The plague that had probably begun when Moses failed to execute the chiefs eventually consumed 24,000 people. And the LORD’s wrath also extended to the Midianites who “harassed” and “beguiled” the LORD’s people at Peor. The LORD instructed Moses to harass and strike them down.

Throughout we see the holy jealousy of the LORD for His own holiness, and honor, and worship. He will bring to justice and judgment all who disregard Him, whether His own or the pagan peoples. It is dangerous and extreme foolishness to trifle with the LORD. In a time when sexual immorality is all too common among the LORD’s people, and when there are many temptations to corrupt worship and to follow false gods, we Christians will be wise to be warned that the LORD will not spare His own people when they depart from Him and His ways.

III. Commendation

The action of Phinehas gained a commendation and reward from the LORD.

The LORD said of Phinehas’ action: “He was jealous with my jealousy” and, “he was jealous for his God.” He was commended because of the character of his jealousy. What Phinehas did revealed that he shared the LORD’s holy jealousy. He acted in zeal to uphold the LORD’s holiness and honor. The LORD spoke of Himself, when He gave the Ten Commandments, as a jealous God who visits the iniquities of the fathers on the third and the fourth generations of those that who hate Him. The LORD commends Phinehas for being like Him. That is why, though we may be tempted to condemn Phinehas’ action, we cannot, because the character displayed in his action is the character of the LORD. Of course, there is one greater than Phinehas who showed jealousy for the LORD’s honor in all He did. That is the God’s own Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, who twice displayed a holy zeal and anger when He cleansed His Father’s house. As the disciples predicted, that zeal eventually consumed Him, as for the sake of God’s honor and justice He went to the cross.

But Phinehas’ action was commended also for its effect. By thrusting the spear through the man and woman Phinehas “turned away God’s wrath from the people of Israel” and “made atonement for the people Israel.” Phinehas’ action stopped the plague before the whole nation was consumed by it. Twenty-four thousand died, but there would have been a lot more, had Phinehas not taken action. His killing of Zimri and Cozbi made a partial and temporary atonement for the apostasy of God’s people – enough of an atonement to turn His wrath away for that time.

But there is One greater than Phinehas. God’s Son turned away God’s wrath, not by thrusting a spear through others, but by dying on a cross where a spear was thrust through His own side. Phinehas made an atonement by executing God’s wrath on two offenders. Jesus made atonement by receiving God’s wrath for a multitude of sinners too great to number. Phinehas make a partial atonement. Jesus made full atonement to which nothing can or need be added. All the atonement sinners need is in the death of Jesus. Phinehas made a temporary atonement. But Jesus made an eternal atonement for sins, an atonement that turns away God’s wrath for time and for eternity. Anyone who is concerned about his sins and God’s wrath need look for relief no further than by looking to the cross of Jesus where He was consumed by God’s wrath and thrust through with God’s judgment for every sinner who will repent and believe this good news.

Phinehas was rewarded with a covenant of peace and with the promise that his family would hold the office of high priest as long as the Aaronic priesthood continued. God committed Himself to bestow peace upon Phinehas and his family. The Hebrew word shalom, translated peace, means full salvation. To have shalom with God is to be at peace with Him, to enjoy His favor, and to have the wholeness that comes from a right relationship with Him. The concrete blessing the flowed from this peace with God was the privilege of his and his descendants’ service as the high priests who followed Aaron.

Great as was Phinehas’ reward, Jesus’ reward was greater still. Phinehas was blessed with God’s peace for himself and his family. But Jesus got peace with God for sinners who number like the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore. All sinners who turn to Jesus in faith are reconciled to God, forgiven of all their sins, counted as righteous in His sight, adopted into His family, and promised wholeness of body and soul in the world to come. And the priesthood of Jesus is of a different order than the priesthood of Phinehas. Jesus has been given an eternal priesthood. He is the High Priest who makes full and final atonement for the sins of His people. He has now entered into the heavenly Most Holy Place where He has sprinkled the mercy seat with the his own blood – the blood of the covenant – and this blood is effective to take away sins forever. Even His eternal priesthood Jesus uses for us, for He lives forever to make intercession for us.

The scene as Peor is sordid and bloody – sordid with the sins of God’s people, bloody with the wrath of God against sinners. Calvary is more so – there the Son of God was made sordid with our sins and there His precious blood was poured out unto death. Peor can only remind us of the ugliness of man’s sin and the certainty of God’s wrath. But from Calvary flows “life, and health, and peace.”
Readings: Numbers 25:1-18 and I Corinthians 10:1-13

WILLIAM H SMITH
WESTMINSTER PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH
HUNTSVILLE
ALABAMA

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