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Idolatry and Immorality of the Israelites at Shittim. The Zeal of Phinehas
1-5. The Israelites, who have just been exhibited as proof against enchantments, are not able to resist the temptations to idolatry, and its connected sin of immorality, arising from their proximity to the tribes of Moab and Midian. In Numbers 31:16 their apostasy is attributed to the counsel of Balaam (see also Revelation 2:14), who is afterwards put to death for it (Numbers 31:8; Joshua 13:22). But it is difficult without violence to reconcile this conduct on the part of Balaam with his former attitude towards Israel, and his utterances regarding them. Moreover, the last verse of the preceding chapter is evidently intended to mark his return to the Euphrates and his disappearance from the subsequent history of Israel. It seems almost beyond doubt that there was from early times a double tradition regarding this famous soothsayer. According to one, Balaam is a Mesopotamian soothsayer who becomes the instrument of God in blessing His people and foretelling their future greatness; according to the other, he is a Midianitish counsellor who sets himself to seduce the people of Jehovah and suffers the extreme penalty of his error.
1. Shittim] (’the acacias’) is the name of the encampment in the plains of Moab: see Numbers 33:49 and cp. Joshua 2:1.
3. Baal-peor] There appears to have been a sanctuary of Baal on the top of Mt. Peor: see on Numbers 22:41; Numbers 23:14.
4. The heads] the ringleaders. Hang them up] Some shameful form of execution, followed by impalement: see on Deuteronomy 21:22.
6-18. The zeal of Phinehas in slaying with his own hand an Israelite and his Midianitish concubine is rewarded with the promise of the permanence of the priesthood in his family: cp. Exodus 32:26-29 and notes there.
This incident while related to the foregoing is distinct from it. Literary evidence shows that Numbers 25:6-18 are from a different source from Numbers 25:1-5. Observe that in the one case the punishment is slaughter (Numbers 25:5), and in the other plague (Numbers 25:9), and that the source of temptation in the one case is Moab and in the other Midian: see on Numbers 25:16-18.
6. Were weeping] on account of the plague (Numbers 25:8).
8. There is no previous mention of a plague having broken out, and the word can hardly apply to the slaughter in Numbers 25:5. We are here dealing with a separate incident.
11. Zealous for my sake] lit. ’jealous with my jealousy.’ God, as the Redeemer of Israel, has a special claim upon their reverence and affection. When they turn to other gods His love is wounded, and He is jealous with a holy jealousy: see on Exodus 20:5.
13. An everlasting priesthood] Phinehas succeeded to the high priesthood after his father’s death (Judges 20:28), and the succession remained in his family till the time of Eli, wheh it passed for some reason to the house of Ithamar. Solomon, however, restored the high priesthood to the descendants of Phinehas (1 Kings 2:35). This action of Phinehas in defending the purity of the religion of Israel at a critical moment was rewarded, not only with this blessing from the Lord, but with the grateful admiration of succeeding generations. In Psalms 106 we read that his zeal was ’counted unto him for righteousness unto all generations for evermore,’ words which St. Paul applies to Abraham himself (Romans 4:22; Galatians 3:6;). In Sirach 45:23-26 he is called the ’third in glory’ after Moses and Aaron, and his example is quoted in 1 Maccabees 2:26. So blessed is the memory of the just.
16-18. Commandment is given to vex the Midianites (i.e. count them as dangerous adversaries) and to smite them. For its fulfilment see Numbers 31. Injunctions like this, which were ordered to be carried out with extreme severity, were given in the interests of Israel and the purity of religion and morals. In no other way could that ’separateness’ be maintained which Balaam recognised as one of the distinctions of the Israelites (see on Numbers 23:9). For the Christian parallel see 2 Corinthians 6:14-18 and cp. Numbers 5:29, Numbers 5:30.
The omission of any reference to the Moabites in this passage bears out what is said above as to the different sources of Numbers 25:1-5 and Numbers 25:6-18.
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Dummelow, John. "Commentary on Numbers 25". "Dummelow's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/