“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?