Yet another chapter about Israel’s rebellion, this time committing sexual immorality with Moabite women and worshiping their gods. The text specifically says they worshiped the Baal of Peor. Baal was a Canaanite god of fertility, thus involved sex and prostitution. Of course God’s anger burned against them, and they must die. God sends a plague and 24,000 more die. Rebellion against God is getting costly.
Within the story is a different kind of atonement, to say the least. Because of the plague and evil that has been done, the people go before the Tent of Meeting and are weeping. Then right in front of them, Moses and “the whole assembly,” an Israelite man brings a Midianite woman into his tent obviously to have sex with her. Aaron’s grandson, Phinehas, sees this and takes matters into his own hands. He follows the man into the tent with a spear and drives it through the man into the women in flagrante delicto. Again the Bible pulls no punches, tells it like it is. It even tells the names of the man and woman who were killed. God calls this act an atonement, a payment for sin, and the plague that struck the people is stopped. As the Lord says, here was a man that “was as zealous as I am for my honor among them,” and that satisfied God’s wrath.
It’s strange that some guy driving a spear through two people having sex would atone for sin, but only if you reject something I’ve said and we see over and over again in these first five books of the Bible: the wages of sin is death. We may not like that. We may prefer the wages of sin were some lesser penalty, but when Satan’s lie won out, that “You will not surely die,” the die, so to speak, was cast.
We should think of this more clearly, more in accord with revealed truth than what seems right to us. If we did that, we would acknowledge that God could kill every human being and be completely just in doing so. None are without guilt. We may think it unfair that we inherent Adam’s sin and guilt, our sin nature, but what we think of it doesn’t really matter, does it. We all know we live in a moral universe, where right and wrong exist. We have a conscience, every human does, and we all know we fall short of our own standards, let along the perfect and holy standards of God. We also know that wrong must be paid for (human laws of the state are a simple example). We simply cannot escape this fundamental fact of reality; we cannot explain it away.
So the beauty of this gory story where 24,000 people die of a plague because of rebellion against God and the worship of idols, and where two people are run through with a spear, is that God in his mercy allows atonement for sin at all! That is the way to think rightly about sin and death and God’s justice; his mercy always wins out or none of us would exist. This should lead, with Paul, to doxology, not with having a “problem with the God of the Old Testament.” Those who have such a “problem” have swallowed Satan’s lie hook, line and sinker, that we are basically like God, and we can determine good and evil. So instead of letting God’s revelation be our standard of truth, we in our arrogance think we can sit in judgment upon it.
Once God’s anger is turned away from the Israelites, he makes a “covenant of peace” with Phinehas and his descendants:
13 He and his descendants will have a covenant of a lasting priesthood, because he was zealous for the honor of his God and made atonement for the Israelites.”
The wage, death, was paid. It is a good thing to be zealous for the honor of our God. Those who think the OT God is not worthy of our worship and honor, well, I just feel sorry for them. They miss a truth that is so grand, so amazing, so incredible: that our God is a God of mercy and grace and love, that he wants a relationship with us, we sinful human beings, that he initiated the relationship when we were hiding from him, running the other way, cursing him as an enemy. Yes, Rob Bell, love wins, not because God made salvation possible for all, or that all will be saved, but that Jesus came to “save his people from their sins.” The God of the Old Testament, the living God himself, is our Savior!
Chapter 26 is another census after the 40 years in the desert when the previous generation died. This is also of men 20 years old or more, and is a similar number as the first one, over 600,000. A not insubstantial number of people, well over a million, will enter the promised land.