And Israel abode in Shittim, and the people began to commit whoredom with the daughters of Moab.
And they called the people unto the sacrifices of their gods: and the people did eat, and bowed down to their gods.
And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying,
Avenge the children of Israel of the Midianites . . .
And they slew the kings of Midian, . . . Balaam also the son of Beor they slew with the sword.
Balak had hired Balsam the prophet to come from Aram in the East to curse the children of Israel encamped on the borders of his land. The attempt had been made and had failed utterly. Three times Balsam had fallen into prophetic ecstasy, and each time he had pronounced richest blessings upon Israel in the name of God. At first Balak was dismayed, but finally he became infuriated. Beating his hands together in fury he cried out, “I called thee to curse mine enemies, and, behold, thou hast altogether blessed them these three times. Therefore now flee thou to thy place: I thought to promote thee unto great honor; but, lo, the LORD hat11 kept thee back from honor.”
Balaam too was disappointed. He wanted the promised reward of Balak very badly. Lamely he could only reply, “Spake I not also to thy messengers which thou sentest unto me, saying, If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the commandment of the LORD, to do either good or bad of mine own mind; but what the LORD saith, that will I speak ?”
But that was not all. Before they realized it, Balaam was once again caught up in prophetic’ ecstasy, and he continued to speak, “And now, behold, I go unto my people: come therefore, and I will advertise thee what this people shall do to thy people in the latter days.” There followed what was by far the most remarkable prophecy of all. In it he foretold the coming of the Messiah as “a Star out of Jacob” and “a Scepter . . . out of Israel.” But even more it foretold that the coming of this Messiah would be to the judgment not only of Moab, Edom, Amalek, and other nations, but to the judgment of the future kingdom of Ashur (Assyria) and in fact the kingdom of the Antichrist. Israel through its king would dominate the history of the world until its end. When this prophecy was finished there was nothing more to be said. Balaam arose and went his way.
Balaam’s mind, would not allow him any peace over the whole matter, however. He was not used to failure, and this failure had been so utterly complete. Even as he left Balak his mind was trying to figure out why he did not succeed. As he rode his mind went back through all his old experiences in this line when suddenly there came to him a significant realization. All those nations which were cursed of God had been so cursed because they had given themselves to iniquity, idolatry and fornication. Yet in trying to curse Israel he had ignored the integrity of Israel’s religious life completely. All at once his mind was alive with things which he should have done. But maybe it was not too late, and he could recoup his losses still. Quickly he turned his beast about to return. But he did not go to Balak in Moab. The Moabites would not have the full confidence in him anymore that would be needed. Rather he turned to the wild; roving tribes of the Midianites. Although they had little to lose to Israel, they hated the Israelites with a zeal. In addition, they were morally indifferent enough to cooperate in this new plan and would be able to convince the Moabites to lend their cooperation too.
Soon he had returned to the princes of Midian and laid before them his plan. They in turn went with him to the princes of Moab to gain also their cooperation. The plan was very simple. Before they had tried to purchase the favor of Jehovah for themselves by the means of sacrifices and burnt offerings. That had, failed. It had not dimmed Jehovah’s favor in Israel. Now they would work to turn Israel away from Jehovah. If His people would be unfaithful to Him and His commandments, then surely God would curse them.
To the children of Israel it was a strangely new, and different experience that suddenly began to take place. Ever since their beginning as a nation they had been hated by everyone they met. The Egyptians had hated them, and when they lefty Egypt the new nations they met hated them just the same. They had become used to it and expected it wherever they went. It was, therefore, quite an unexpected, surprise when one day a group of young women of the Moabites and Midianites appeared at their camp with gestures of friendship and kindness. They came and mingled freely with the girls of Israel. It seemed almost too good to be true. The young women of Israel had never experienced such open friendliness from daughters of strangers. Day after day they came until the friendships became very firm. Soon it was not only the young women but also the young men of Israel who were entering into these friendships with the daughters of Moab and Midian. It was then that the situation took on a much more serious aspect.
Before long the young women of Moab and Midian were inviting the young men of Israel to their homes. There they were treated with the utmost hospitality even to the point of being invited to take part in their religious ceremonies and festivities. This was for the men of Israel a new and entirely different experience. The religious worship of these nations had little resemblance to the solemn ceremonies of Israel which were used in the worship of Jehovah. They were more pageants of sheer pleasure, dedicated to the heathen god Baalpeor. In them carnal lust knew no bounds even to the point where the women openly prostituted themselves in the name of Baalpeor. This all could only have shocked the moral senses of the Israelites. But they had gone too far in their friendships to draw back. Soon many of them were engaging in these heathenish ceremonies with carnal abandonment.
It seemed that Balaam had at last calculated correctly. Through friendship Israel had been beguiled into such sin as was abhorrent to its God. The people had made themselves unsavory in His sight until His fierce anger was kindled against them. Suddenly there was sweeping through the camp a great plague, threatening to destroy the nation. It was the righteous anger of God expressing itself against Israel’s sin.
For Moses and the people the whole situation had developed quite without their realization. They had hardly seen the danger in the proffered friendship of the girls of Midian and. Moab. Before they were aware of it many of their men had fallen deeply into sin and the wrath of God was kindled against them. Only after the killing plague was upon them did they stop to take notice of what was being done, and then they hardly knew what to do, about it. It was God who finally came to Moses and told him how Israel might yet be saved from destruction. “Take all the heads of the people, and hang them up before the LORD against the sun, that the fierce anger of the LORD may be turned away from Israel.”
With a heavy heart Moses called together the heads of the people and passed on the command which God had given him, “Slay ye every one his men that were joined unto Baalpeor.” The command came as a shock. It seemed almost too much. Those who had sinned were many, and they came from almost every, family in the nation. Could they turn their own swords against their own flesh? And not only that, once slain the bodies had to be hung up before the sun as a sign that they were considered accursed. In shocked silence the people stood around in groups without courage to proceed.
It was then that the extent to which sin had permeated Israel suddenly came to light. At the very time when the plague of judgment was devastating the nation because of its sin, Zimri, a young prince of the tribe of Simeon, entered the camp; and with him he had a young Midianitish woman named Cozbi. His intentions were very evidently immoral. He made no secret of it. It was as though he openly was challenging the validity of God’s law and its moral standards. While all the people looked on he led the heathen woman into the chambers of his own tent.
It was Phinehas the grandson of Aaron who was shocked into action. With such audacious sins being practiced openly in the camp, it was no time to hesitate for lack of courage. In righteous indignation he took a javelin and followed the couple into the tent. Without mercy he struck them both through with the javelin so that they died.
This was the sort of righteous courage from which Israel could take an example. In recognition of it God caused that the plague of destruction should be immediately stopped within the nation. Even more He established with Phinehas an everlasting covenant of peace. His seed would inherit the covenant of an everlasting priesthood.
But the matter of this sin was still not settled. Also the Midianites who had instigated the whole affair under the leadership of Balaam had to be punished. The following instructions were issued to Moses by God, “Vex the Midianites, and smite them: for they vex you with their wiles, wherewith they have beguiled you in the matter of Peor, and in the matter of Cozbi, the daughter of a prince of Midian, their sister, which was slain in the day of the plague for Peor’s sake.”
The preparations for obeying this command were necessarily slow and difficult. Israel had never before stood before the need of engaging offensively in battle. First a numbering of the people had to be taken and it had to be determined which of the men were able to go out into battle. When this was finally accomplished, God commanded Moses to take one thousand men from each tribe to fight against the army of Midian: It must have seemed like a hopelessly small force; but this would only serve to establish the better that the strength of Israel was in its God.
Into the battle came the armies of Midian with five kings at their head. Also with them they took Balaam the son of Beor. We may well imagine that it was not by choice on his part; but the Midianitish kings were still of the feeling that Balaam had within him the power to bless their every effort. By forcing him to take part in the battle, they thought to insure his blessing upon them and their fighting.
What Balaam had forgotten was the vision of the angel that accompanied him from Aram. It had warned him that in all that he did God’s angel would be there to judge him with righteous judgment. As long as he had not misrepresented God’s word to Balak he had remained untouched. But what he had not taken into consideration was when he had plotted to beguile Israel into sin, God’s judgment would fall not only upon those who sinned but also upon the one who led them that way. He had succeeded in bringing God’s wrath upon Israel, or at least upon the sinners in Israel; but at the same time he made himself guilty and ripe for judgment. Without his own choice he was carried into battle, and with the five kings of Midian he perished. It was the angel of judgment working righteousness over the wicked.