Numbers 25: What Plague?

“While Israel was staying at Shittim, the people began to have sexual relations with the women of Moab.”

You know you are in for an interesting afternoon when that is the first sentence of your Bible reading. “Shittim” is just fun to say (I actually got to read a passage from Joshua with that place in it in a room of about 400 people. That’s a lot of pressure to say it correctly!) and there is nothing like a super-blunt sentence about Moabite Sexcapades.

But if I am honest, Numbers 25 was a difficult chapter. Here’s why:

Divinely Sanctioned Murder

After his people yoke themselves to the Moabite god, Baal, He gets pissed. And rightly so. He has said as much many times before.

But his punishment just didn’t sit well with me.

“Take all the chiefs of the people, and impale them in the sun before the LORD, in order that the fierce anger of the LORD may turn away from Israel.”

It is one thing to kill someone with the sword. It is another entirely to put someone on a stick to rot in the sun. That’s just gross.

Then, when Aaron’s grandson, Phinehas, actually does it (by impaling not one, but two people on one spear, probably while they were “sexually relating”), God rewards him with an everlasting covenant of priesthood.

I just don’t know what to do with that!

That is cold-blooded, pre-meditated murder. And it is described as “manifesting such zeal on my behalf.”

Wait, When Did That Happen?

When Phinehas kills the two love-birds, we are told the plague stops.

But first it killed 24,000 people.

Cue the record scratch.

What? A plague? There was a plague? And it killed 24,000 people? How did I miss that? When did it start? Why did it start?

We have had two mentions of plagues before. One was localized on some bad spies. The other killed about 14,000 people before Aaron stopped it.

So what’s up with this one? It comes out of nowhere!

And While I’m At It . . .

srael has judges now? I thought that didn’t happen until, you know, Judges.

I know he got people to help him decide things way back in Exodus but this is the first time I have heard anything about the people in authority being called “judges.”


The man Phinehas kills takes in a Midianite woman. Is that the same as a Moabite woman?

And Moses’ father-in-law is a Midianite. Does anyone have a problem with that?

This is a weird chapter.

So what’s up?

People might not like me for saying this, but Numbers 25 feels like it was pieced together. It doesn’t seem to flow logically from the last chapter.

The plague story is extremely similar to the one in Numbers 16. It even has a priest making atonement for the people and stopping the plague. Except Aaron stopped it by waving incense. Phinehas stopped it by impaling a coupling couple.

Is it possible that this comes from another tradition and the people who finally combined all the material did their best to make it fit without significantly altering the material?

What do you do when you encounter chapters like Numbers 25?

9 responses

  1. Yeah this was an intense chapter. I think Phinehas is rewarded because this couple was blatantly and publicly going against God’s command. It would be similar to a modern pastor celebrating his adultery from the pulpit.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about God being the “blood thirsty” God so many call Him in the Old Testament. While I don’t think God has changed, His wrath has been poured out fully on Christ already. Jesus was impaled, he was stuck on a stick in public, and his blood fully paid the price for our sins. Because of that, God’s wrath is held at bay and everyone has a chance to repent and believe and be redeemed.

    The truth is, we actually all deserve public death, but Christ paid that price for us.

  2. There are a couple of books in the OT that go back and forth between events. Sometimes reading them it sounds like events repeated themselves numerous times, when they are all actually the same event. I don’t know why it’s this way, and I try not to question it.

    • From what I understand, this is basically because they were written by different authors and then pieced together later as best as they could. If I remember correctly, Genesis is thought, from writing style changes and similarities, to be written by 4 different people. Hence why we get things like 2 origin of Man stories, 4 different times Abraham makes a covenant with God, etc. The piecemeal nature of genesis calms down quite a bit, but not completely throughout the OT. I believe Judges, and to a slightly lesser extent Esther have multiple authors as well, Job has an intro and epilogue written much later, and Daniel is actually 2 different books. The first half is a narrative, the second an Apocalyptic poem.

      • That’s called the Documentary Hypothesis or the JEDP theory. It’s a fairly liberal way of explaining the authorship of the Pentateuch actually, and it assumes a lot. The majority of Bible scholars don’t agree with it. Also, it completely ignores the fact that the pentateuch tells us that it is mostly written by Moses. I think it’s best to remember that this is a nomadic people who communicated primarily through oral tradition. This means that as these oral traditions were written down by Moses or Aaron or Joshua it is very possible that the stories were blended for the sake of getting the point across. This is why the doctrine of inspiration is so important. Can God communicate his word to us in an effective way through a process like this? He’s God, of course he can.

  3. I’m searching for discussions about Numbers 25. You pretty much said what I questioned. Just seeing that I am not the only one lost and asking for more gives me comfort. LOL

  4. I enjoyed your blog and had the same questions myself. I read an interpretation that pointed out the people of Moab worshiped Baal, a fertility God. And by intermingling with the women of Moab, who probably saw sex as spiritual (my interpretation), the Israelite men began worshiping Baal and that angered God. Then later we read the “plague” was stopped by the spearing of the copulating couple (I hadn’t thought of that but I think ur right). I read an interpretation that an army against Isreal could not accomplish what Isreal managed to do to herself. I think looking away from God, worshipping another God and participating in sexual sin is the “plague” that spread among the Israelites. I’m a recovered addict so I think of alcoholism or addiction to outside things (like sex, gambling, eating, etc) as symptoms of playing God by seeking security from these things rather than seeking that from God. I can also see alcoholism as like a plague. I think God being angered by their disloyalty as petty myself. Is God petty and jealous?? But maybe he was angered in the way that I would be angered if one of my children participated in behavior that could harm them. It wouldn’t be about not listening to me, it would be about their welfare. I take issue with all the people God ordered the Israelites to murder before this. Where those people not children of God? When I talk to my Bible group they say Jesus is the one who allowed everyone to be a child of God. But that makes me think God didn’t do it right when he created the rules and Jesus had to come and change things. I don’t know. It’s confusing but I’m glad to read your confusion. I hope you are still seeking answers. Take care.

  5. The plague was the killing of those worshipping satan (as baal is satan). Plague = affliction/torment/curse. They worshipped satan by whoredom with the evil daughters of Moab and by sacrificing to satan (sacrificing people or what, we are not told) and by eating the sacrifices to satan and by bowing down to satan as in Numbers 25:1-2.
    To me, that seems to warrant physical and spiritual death. I wouldn’t be angry at God for killing me if I sacrificed someone or something to satan and ate of it and then bowed down and worshipped satan.
    It is justice for what God explicitly commanded them not to do and He did tell them the consequences in advance. Just like He commanded Adam and Eve before their sin.
    God always had heads of the father’s houses (judges). That was before Israel called for a king instead of God as their King. Hope this gives a new perspective. God be with you as He is.

  6. I cracked up laughing because, thinking it came from left field. Perhaps the one word was missing translated? Plague of sin?

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