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Bible Commentaries

Calvin's Commentary on the Bible

Numbers 25

Verse 1

1 And Israel abode in Shittim. From this narrative we learn assuredly that the people were no more able to bear prosperity than adversity. Heretofore, either worn out by fatigue, or rendered impatient by abstinence and famine, they had often rebelled against God; now, when they have entered a habitable land, and are resting in the midst of fruitful fields, they are incited by their more comfortable dwelling-places, and more pleasant mode of life, to lasciviousness, and the indulgence of filthy lusts. Moses relates how, when they had given way to their lust, they fell at the same time into whoredom and idolatry. We shall presently see that this arose from the counsel of Balaam, that the Moabites should prostitute their women to the Israelites, in order to entice them by their blandishments to unholy worship. Balaam had learnt by experience that God’s favor was an invincible safeguard to protect the people from all injury. He, therefore, invents a plan whereby they may destroy themselves, by not only depriving themselves of God’s protection, but also by provoking His wrath against them. By this fan, then, Balaam stirred up the fire, which impelled these poor wretches, inflamed by blind lechery, to another crime, by which they might arouse against themselves the enmity of God. Consequently Paul, referring to this history, informs us that the punishment, which will be mentioned immediately, was inflicted upon them for fornication. (1 Corinthians 10:8.) For, although it was God’s design to avenge the violation of His worship, still it is fitting to examine into the origin and source of the evil. Just as, if a drunken man has killed a person, the murder will be imputed to his drunkenness, so Paul, seeing the Israelites impelled by fornication to idolatry, sets before us the punishment as a warning to deter us from fornication, which was the primary cause of their chastisement, and the means of their corruption. Since, then, the fall from one sin to another is so easy, let us hence learn to be more watchful, lest Satan should entangle us in his snares. Let us also observe that he creeps upon us by degrees in order to entrap us. The Moabitish damsels did not straightway solicit the Israelites to worship their idols, but first invite them to their banquets, and thus tempt them to idolatry; for, if mention had been made at first of idol-worship, perhaps they might have shuddered at the atrocity of the crime, to which they allowed themselves to be beguiled by degrees. Now, to be present at a feast which was celebrated in honor of false gods, was a kind of indirect renunciation of the true God; and when they had been attracted thus far, they threw aside all shame, and abandoned themselves to that extreme act whereby they transfer the honor due only to the one true God, to false and imaginary deities.

Verse 3

3. AndIsrael joined himself to Baal-peor. Moses amplifies their crime by this expression, that they bound themselves to the idol in an impious alliance; and thus he alludes to that holy union whereby God had connected Himself with the people, and accuses them of broken faith and wicked rebellion. Nevertheless, it is probable that the people were not impelled by superstition, but enticed by the wiles of the women to offer worship to idols which they despised. Yet we are told how God declared that they were “joined” to the idol, which they merely pretended to worship, in order to comply with the ungodly wishes of the women. Hence, therefore, this general instruction may be gathered, that when we turn aside from pure religion, we in a manner connect ourselves with idols, so as to coalesce in one body with them, and conspire to renounce the true God.

Baal was then the general name of almost all idols; but all epithet is added to the idol of the Moabites, taken from Mount Peor; nor does it appear that we need go in quest of any other etymology, since the name of this mountain has recently been mentioned. It was on the same principle as in Popery, when they name their Marys after particular places, (183) where the most famous statues are worshipped.

(183) “Comme qui diroit nostre Dame de Laurette, ou de Boulogne, ou de Cleri;” as one might say, our Lady of Loretto, or Bologna, or Cleri. — Fr.

Verse 4

4. And the Lord said unto Moses. We have often seen before how God executed His judgments by His own hand, as if He put it forth from heaven; He now imposes this office on Moses, although it is evident from the context that he was not appointed to execute it alone, but that the other judges were associated with him; for it immediately follows that Moses intrusted the same charge to them, and thus, what was obscure, on account of the brevity with which it is recorded, is more clearly expressed. At any rate, it was a notable judgment of God Himself, though He employed men as its ministers. Nor does Paul in vain exhort (184) us by this example to beware of fornication.

The mode of the punishment, however, was diverse, for the lower orders were slain (by pestilence,) but the leaders were hanged upon the gallows, that the sight might awaken more terror; for by “the heads of the people” he means those of the highest repute, whose ignominy must have been most notable, because the eyes of all men are generally upon the great and noble. Hence, also, they deservedly incur the heavier punishment, because obscure persons do less harm by their example, nor are their acts so generally the objects of imitation. Let, therefore, those who are held in esteem beware lest they provoke others to sin by their evil deeds, for, in proportion to each man’s pre-eminence, the less excuse he deserves. Others interpret it differently, as if Moses were commanded to fetch the princes to give their sentence against the criminals; thus by the pronoun “them” they understood whosoever should be convictcd; but it is hardly probable that so great a multitude were hanged, and therefore I do not doubt but that reference is made to their peculiar punishment:.

(184) “Les Corinthiens.” — Fr.

Verse 6

6. And, behold, one of the children of Israel came. Moses here relates a case which was foul and detestable beyond others. There is no doubt but that many, in the midst of such gross licentiousness as had now for some time generally prevailed, had filled the camp with various scandalous offenses; but there was something peculiarly enormous in the atrocity of this act, in that this impious despiser of God wantonly insulted both God and men amidst the tears and lamentations of all, as if he were triumphing over all shame and modesty. The multitude were weeping before the tabernacle, that is to say, all the pious who trembled at the thought of approaching calamity, since they were fully persuaded that this licentiousness, accompanied by idolatry and sacrilege, would not be unpunished; meanwhile, this abandoned man rushes forward, and, in mockery of their tears, leads his harlot in procession as it were. No wonder, therefore, that God should have exercised such severity, when things had come to this extremity. But it must be observed that the order of the history is inverted, since it is not credible that, after the Judges had begun to perform their office, such an iniquity should be committed. But this narrative is thus inserted, in order that it may be more apparent how necessary it was to proceed speedily to severe chastisement, since otherwise it would have been impossible to apply a remedy in time to so desperate an evil.

Verse 7

7. And when Phinehas, the son of Eleazar. The courage of Phinehas is celebrated, who, whilst the rest were hesitating, inflamed with holy zeal, hastens forward to inflict punishment. The backwardness of others is therefore condemned by implication, though their tears were praiseworthy; but, since they were almost stupified by grief, their virtue was not dear from all defect. And certainly, whilst the yet unbridled licentiousness of the people was foaming like a tempestuous sea, we cannot wonder that the minds of the good were altogether or partially disabled. Hence was the zeal of Phinehas the more distinguished, when he did not hesitate to provoke so many worthless and wicked persons infuriated by their lechery. If any object that he transgressed the limits of his calling, when he laid hold of the sword with which God had not armed him, to inflict capital punishment, the reply is obvious, that our calling is not always confined to its ordinary office, inasmuch as God sometimes requires new and unusual acts of His servants. As a priest, it was not the office of Phinehas to punish crime, but he was called by the special inspiration of God, so that, in his private capacity, he had the Holy Spirit as his guide. These circumstances, indeed, ought not to be regarded as an example, so that a general rule may be laid down from them; though, at the same time, God preserves His free right to appoint His servants by privilege to act in His behalf as He shall see fit. God’s judgment of this case may be certainly inferred from its approval, so that we may correctly argue that Phinehas was under His own guidance, since He immediately afterwards declared that He was pleased with the act, as is also stated in Psalms 106:30

Now, if any private person should in his preposterous zeal take upon himself to punish a similar crime, in vain will he boast that he is an imitator of Phinehas, unless he shall be thoroughly assured of the command of God. Let the answer of Christ, therefore, always be borne in mind by us, whereby he restrained His disciples, when they desired, like Elijah, to pray that those who had not received them should be destroyed by fire from heaven, “Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of.” (Luke 9:54.) In order, therefore, that our zeal may be approved by God, it must be tempered by spiritual prudence, and directed by His authority; in a word, the Holy Spirit must go before and dictate what is right.

Verse 9

9. And those that died in the plague. Paul, when he says that only twenty-three thousand died, appears to differ from Moses; but we know that the exact account of numbers is not always observed, and it is probable that about twenty-four thousand were slain. Paul, therefore, subtracted one thousand, and was content with the lesser number; (185) from which, however, we may perceive how severe and terrible was the punishment, teaching us to beware of provoking God by fornication. For, as it is a monstrous thing that so great a multitude should have been infected by this foul and shameful sin, so God’s fearful judgment against adulterers and fornicators is set before us. We have already seen that, although they were guilty of a wicked rebellion, still the punishment is justly ascribed to their lust, which impelled them to idolatry.

(185) C. in his Commentary on 1 Corinthians 10:8, enlarges somewhat more on this point: “There perished in one day twenty-three thousand, or, as Moses says, twenty-four thousand. Though they differ as to number, it is easy to reconcile them, as it is no unusual thing, when it is not intended to number exactly and minutely each head, to put down a number that comes near it, as among the Romans there were those that received the name of ceatumviri, (the hundred,) while in reality there were two above the hundred. As there were, therefore, about twenty-four thousand that were overthrown by the Lord’s hand — that is, above twenty-three thousand, Moses has set down the number above the mark, and Paul the number below it, and in this way there is in reality no difference.” — Cal. Soc. Edit., vol. 1, p. 324.

Verse 10

10. And the Lord spake unto Moses. In these words God makes it appear that He was the author of the death (of Zimri and Cozbi;) (186) not only because He was thus propitiated towards the people, but because He calls the zeal of Phinehas His own. (187) It will, however, accord equally well whether we take it actively or passively, viz., either that Phinehas was inflamed with zeal to vindicate God’s glory, or that he took upon him the zeal of God Himself. Whichever be preferred, God refers to Himself what was done by Phinehas. When He declares that He was appeased by the punishment inflicted, let us not imagine that there was a meritorious satisfaction, whereby the Papists feign that their punishments are redeemed before God. For although the just chastisements of sin are sacrifices of sweet savor, they are by no means expiations to reconcile God. Besides, there is no question here of compensation, but what is meant is, that it was a means of appeasing God, when the ungodliness of the people which had, as it were, fanned up His wrath into a flame, was repressed by this severe correction. Thus, in Psalms 106:0, the atonement is ascribed not to the act of Phinehas, but only to his prayer, (188) because, in right of his priesthood, he had humbly interceded for the people. At the same time, the statement of Paul is true, that those are not judged by God who voluntarily judge themselves, (1 Corinthians 11:31,) since, by their penitence, they in a manner prevent this judgment.

A perpetual priesthood is promised to Phinehas as his reward. If any object, that he thus obtained nothing new, since, in accordance with the rule of the law, he was the undoubted successor of his father, I reply, that it is not un-common that what God had already freely promised, He declares that He will give by way of reward. Thus, what had been promised to Abraham before the birth of Isaac, is again repeated after he was prepared to sacrifice him, (Genesis 22:16 :) “Because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son,” therefore, “in blessing I will bless thee, and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.” Besides, the privilege of a single individual is not simply in question here, but it refers to a perpetual succession, as if God had promised that his posterity should never fail. And assuredly, the change which took place at the commencement of Solomon’s reign, is not repugnant to this promise, for it may be probably inferred that Zadoc, no less than Abiathar, was of the race of Phinehas. This covenant is called a “covenant of peace,” because it was to be surely established; consequently, it may be properly rendered, “My covenant in peace.” At any rate, it indicates prosperity, as if He had said that Phinehas, together with his posterity, should prosperously execute the sacerdotal office.

(186) Added from Fr.

(187) Margin, A.V., “ Heb. , with my zeal.”

(188) Psalms 106:30 A.V. , “Then stood up Phinehas, and executed judgment;” in the English Prayer-book, the Chaldee, Syriac, and other versions, “and prayed;” with this, however, C., in his Commentary, does not agree: “Some render the word פלל, pillel, to pray, (he says;) but the other rendering, to execute justice, is more in accordance with the context.” — Cal. Sec. Edit., vol. 4, p. 230

Verse 14

14. Now the name of the Israelite. Even as the memory of the just is blessed, so also it was equitable that the author of this foul sin should be condemned to perpetual infamy. It appears, however, from the fact of a part of the disgrace being thrown upon the whole tribe, how greatly displeasing to God was this gross enormity. For although the tribe of Simeon is not here actually involved in the charge of participating in the sin, yet are they all branded with the common mark of ignominy for their humiliation, in order that each one of them may learn severely to correct whomsoever amongst his relatives he may see offending, and by no means to encourage their vices, if he desires to do credit to the founder of his race. (189) It is recorded that both Zimri and the Midianitish woman were of noble and principal families, not only that we may be taught that God’s judgment is no respecter of persons ( ἀπροσωπόληπτον,) in that it does not spare rank, but also that the higher a person may be in position, the greater is the disgrace he is exposed to if he conduct himself dishonorably, since their very dignity renders men’s actions more conspicuous.

Because the paternal house of the harlot is said to have been in Midian, some conjecture that she was born in the land of Moab, or, at any rate, brought up there among her maternal relatives; but, as the matter is unimportant, I leave it undecided.

(189) “Car e’est le vray moyen d’honorer sa famille et son sang;” for this is the true way to honor one’s family and blood. — Fr.

Verse 17

17. Vex the Midianites, and smite them. Inasnmch as God constantly forbids His people to take vengeance, it is surprising that the people of Israel should now be instigated to do so; as if they were not already more than enough disposed to it. We must bear in mind, however, that since God, who is the just avenger of all wickedness, often makes use of men’s instrumentality, and constitutes them the lawful ministers for the exercise of his vengeance, it must not be altogether condemned without exception, but only such vengeance as men themselves are impelled to by carnal passions. If any one is injured, straightway he is carried away to the desire of vengeance by the stimulus of his own private injury; and this is manifestly wrong: but if a person is led to inflict punishment by a just and well-regulated zeal towards God, it is not his own cause, but that of God which he undertakes. God did not, therefore, desire to give reins to His people’s anger, so as to repay the Midianites as they had deserved in the violence of its impulse; but He armed them with His own sword for their punishment; as if He had declared that there was a just cause for their war, and that they need not fear the charge of cruelty, if they exterminated such obnoxious enemies. For, although Balaam alone had imagined this snare, still the guilt is laid upon the whole people. In the meantime, the punishment of the Moabites is delayed, although they had apparently inflicted the grosser injury. Because no good reason here appears why God should mercifully bear with the one nation, whilst He hastens speedily to the punishment of the others, let us learn to regard His judgments with reverence, and not to presume to discuss them further than is lawful. Let it be sufficient for us to know that war was justly declared against the Midianites, because it was not their fault that Israel was not ruined by their iniquitous impiety. (190)

(190) “Par l’impiete a laquelle ils l’induisoyent;” by the impiety to which they induced them. — Fr.

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Bibliographical Information
Calvin, John. "Commentary on Numbers 25". "Calvin's Commentary on the Bible". 1840-57.