“While Israel lived in Shittim, the people began to @#!*% 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” (Numbers 25:1-2). Do you remember Exodus 32, when the divine instructions for the tabernacle given on Mount Sinai ended with the revelation of idolatry with the golden calf? Here Yahweh’s glorious blessings announced on the top of Peor end with the revelation of a new idolatry: “So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel” (Numbers 25:3).
Yahweh’s wrath will bring an end to the leaders of Israel: “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’” (Numbers 25:4). And while Moses and the Israelites weep at the entrance to the tabernacle over Israel’s sin and the arrival of this death sentence, an unbelievably shameless event takes place: “And behold, one of the people of Israel came and brought a Midianite woman to his family, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the whole congregation of the people of Israel” (Numbers 25:6).
Notice that the Midianites were in league with the Moabites in their desire to curse Yahweh’s people (Numbers 22:4, 7). They did not agree with the praise of Yahweh that Jethro, a Midianite priest and the father-in-law of Moses, declared in Exodus 18. Now they present the Israelites with the temptation that Yahweh warned them about decades before: “You shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God, lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and when they @#!*% after their gods and sacrifice to their gods and you are invited, you eat of this sacrifice, and you take of their daughters for your sons, and their daughters @#!*% after their gods and make your sons @#!*% after their gods (Exodus 34:14-16). And the undeniable truth of these words shone forth when, before the eyes of all Israel in anguish from Yahweh’s punishment, this young Israelite man and his idolatrous girlfriend, without tears or shame, stride to their family tent as if nothing was wrong, as if their private actions had no impact on the congregation.
We saw a brief mention of Phinehas a long time ago; he is the son of Eleazar, the new high priest, and Aaron’s grandson (Exodus 6:25). When he spears the couple, it is believed that they were in a compromising position. What we can say with certainty is that this action done in zeal for Yahweh’s holiness saved the people: “Thus the plague on the people of Israel was stopped” (Numbers 25:8).
Just as the Levites were dedicated to Yahweh because of their zeal in the episode of the golden calf (Exodus 32:29), Phinehas was singled out for a special covenant by Yahweh, a covenant of peace and perpetual priesthood, “because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the people of Israel” (Numbers 25:13). And Yahweh hands out not only a perpetual covenant with Phinehas but also a decree against the Midianites: “Harass the Midianites and strike them down, for they have harassed you with their wiles, with which they beguiled you in the matter of Peor” (Numbers 25:17-18). We’ll see the fulfillment of this decree in Numbers 31.
This decree against the Midianites is the most immediate motive for the second census of Numbers 26: “Take a census of all the congregation of the people of Israel, from twenty years old and upward, by their fathers’ houses, all in Israel who are able to go to war” (Numbers 26:2). But its focus is not just war against the Midianites but also the future wars to take the land from the Canaanites and distribute them to the Israelites: “The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Among these the land shall be divided for inheritance according to the number of names. To a large tribe you shall give a large inheritance, and to a small tribe you shall give a small inheritance; every tribe shall be given its inheritance in proportion to its list’” (Numbers 26:52-54).
At the same time, the census motivates the petition of Zelophehad’s daughters in the first part of Numbers 27. Yahweh decides in their favor that yes, in situations where there is no son to receive an inheritance for the next generation, the daughters can receive it to carry on its possession within the family.
The census also indicates the coming-of-age of the next generation to receive Yahweh’s blessing in accordance with his decree in the Desert of Paran: “But your little ones, who you said would become a prey, I will bring in, and they shall know the land that you have rejected” (Numbers 14:31). Now the census informs us: “These were those listed by Moses and Eleazar the priest, who listed the people of Israel in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho. But among these there was not one of those listed by Moses and Aaron the priest, who had listed the people of Israel in the wilderness of Sinai. For the LORD had said of them, ‘They shall die in the wilderness.’ Not one of them was left, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun” (Numbers 26:63-65).
But there is another unfinished matter, the prohibition of Moses and Aaron to enter the Promised Land (Numbers 20:12-13). Aaron died on Mount Hor, but Moses still is leading the people. Today’s reading also prepares the people for this last step by informing Moses that his death soon will take place, and Yahweh selects Joshua as the leader for the new generation (Numbers 27:12-23).
Today’s reading indicates a decisive step for the fulfillment of Yahweh’s promises. Despite the sin of Baal-peor and Yahweh’s just punishment of His people, nobody can stop the grace with which He will bless His people, not Balaam, not the king of Moab, not even the sin of His people. Yahweh is just and zealous for His holiness… and His mercy is unstoppable.