The Israelites had a constant problem. Despite the presence of Yahweh in many forms, and in their witnessing His awesome majesty, the children of Israel simply couldn’t help themselves. They seemed to have an irresistible urge to follow any god but the One who actually delivered them from slavery.
While in Moabite territory, the Israelites once more fell into disobedience. It’s not clear how much they were aware of King Balak’s attempts through the prophet Balaam to curse them. Perhaps they didn’t care. The men of Israel had long ago been infested with the desires and lusts of the pagan gods of Egypt. They acted out in the flesh what they had acquired in their hearts. We saw this occur when Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments in the incident of the golden calf (Exodus 32). Here again we see a similar embracing of sinful cravings in Numbers 25:1-3:
While Israel lived in Shittim, the people began to whore with the daughters of Moab. These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel.
The men of Israel lusted after the beautiful pagan women of Moab. As inevitably happened, the women corrupted the men in two ways:
- They lured them into sinful sexual relations contrary to God’s Word
- Through seducing them to engage in these immoral acts, the women confused the minds and hearts of the men to follow after their god, a direct violation of the 1st of the Ten Commandments
By yielding to their flesh, the Israelites yoked themselves to Baal. Any pagan god named Baal or Ba’al was one whom people worshiped as owner, master, or lord (Strong’s Concordance #1167). Thus, the men of Israel were declaring that Baal owned them and not Yahweh. As is typical in these incidents, God didn’t take this well. For every man involved, we see in Numbers 25:4:
And the Lord said to Moses, “Take all the chiefs of the people and hang them in the sun before the Lord, that the fierce anger of the Lord may turn away from Israel.”
After Israel’s judges had done this, while the people were still grieving both their disobedience to Yahweh and the loss of their brothers, one man defied the Lord and His authority. In plain sight of the people, Zimri took his Midianite consort, Cozbi, to his tent – the implication being that he was going to continue having sexual relations with her.
That act apparently triggered an immediate response from God in letting loose an affliction upon the Israelites. It was only the swift action of the priest Phinehas in killing Zimri and Cozbi that halted the plague, but only after 24,000 people had instantly died.
God made it clear that Phinehas had saved the day when He told Moses in Numbers 25:11:
“Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy.”
God’s jealousy was for His people. He knew that when they acted against His commands, bad things would happen as a result, both naturally and through His judgments upon them. We also see that when one man stands against the forces of darkness, what a difference that can make. In fact, Phinehas’ resolve made such an impression on God, that He showered him with His goodness, as seen in Numbers 25:12-13:
“Therefore say, ‘Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace, and it shall be to him and to his descendants after him the covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the people of Israel.’”
Phinehas wasn’t yoked to Baal. He was yoked to Yahweh. God was his Lord and his King – his Master. For that faithfulness – what we call believing loyalty – God poured out blessings that will last in perpetuity.
Should not each one of us have the zeal for God that Phinehas did? Should we not also be jealous for His Name – the Name above all Names – in the same way as this ancient Israelite priest? Can you imagine how each of our lives would change for the better if we also exhibited the believing loyalty that pleases God to the very bottom of His inexhaustible and loving heart?