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There is more than one way to defeat the people of God.
Balak wanted Balaam to curse the Israelites (Num. 22-24). Under threat of divine sanction, Balaam stood fast and proclaimed only what God gave him to say. But here in Numbers 25 we discover a quite different tactic. Some of the Moabite women invited some of the Israelite men over for visits. Some of these visits were to the festivals and sacrifices of their gods. Liaisons sprang up. Soon there was both sexual immorality and blatant worship of these pagan gods (25:1-2), in particular the Baal (lit. Lord) of Peor (25:3). “And the LORD’s anger burned against them” (25:3).
The result is inevitable. Now the Israelites face not the wrath of Moab but the wrath of Almighty God. A plague drives through the camp and kills 24,000 people (25:9). Phinehas takes the most drastic action (25:7-8). If we evaluate it under the conditions of contemporary pluralism, or even against the nature of the sanctions that the church is authorized to impose (e.g., 1 Cor. 5), Phinehas’s execution of this man and woman will evoke horror and charges of primitive barbarism. But if we recall that under the agreed covenant of this theocratic nation, the stipulated sanction for both blatant adultery and for idolatry was capital punishment, and if we perceive that by obeying the terms of this covenant (to which the people had pledged themselves) Phinehas saved countless thousands of lives by turning aside the plague, his action appears more principled than barbaric. Certainly this judgment, as severe as it is, is nothing compared with the judgment to come.
But I shall focus on two further observations.
First, Moab had found a way to destroy Israel by enticing the people to perform actions that would draw the judgment of God. Israel was strong only because God is strong. If God abandoned the nation, the people would be capable of little. According to Balaam’s oracles, the Israelites were to be “a people who live apart and do not consider themselves one of the nations” (23:9). The evil in this occurrence of covenant-breaking is that they now wish to be indifferentiable from the pagan nations.
What temptations entice the church in the West to conduct that will inevitably draw the angry judgment of God upon us?
Second, later passages disclose that these developments were not casual “boy-meets-girl” larks, but official policy arising from Balaam’s advice (31:16; cf. 2 Peter 2:16; Rev. 2:14). We are treated to the wretched spectacle of a compromised prophet who preserves fidelity on formal occasions and on the side offers vile advice, especially if there is hope of personal gain.
One of the striking things about 1 Peter is how Christian conduct is tied to winning a hearing for the Gospel. We saw that theme in yesterday’s meditation. Christians are to live in such a way that even the pagans will be forced to glorify God (1 Pet. 2:12). It is God’s will “that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men” (1 Pet. 2:15). The same theme is developed in chapter 3. Wives with unbelieving husbands should so adorn themselves with a gentle and quiet spirit that their husbands “may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of [their] lives” (1 Pet. 3:2).
Similarly in 1 Peter 3:8–22. This passage includes one of the most difficult texts in the New Testament (1 Pet. 3:18b–21), one I cannot hope to broach here. But it also once again connects Christian conduct with Christian suffering and therefore with Christian witness. This does not mean that Christian conduct has a merely utilitarian function. Christians are not to act in godly ways simply because it increases their credibility for propagandistic purposes. There are many reasons for doing good. We were “called” to it (1 Pet. 3:9); doing good is constitutive of our very identity. Moreover, such behavior inherits blessing from God (1 Pet. 3:9–12). Apart from the horrible exceptions that arise out of corrupt regimes and renegades (all too many of them), a citizen doing good does not have to fear oppression from those in charge of criminal justice systems (1 Pet. 3:13). We ourselves ought to keep a clear conscience before the living God (1 Pet. 3:16). Above all there is the example of Jesus Christ (1 Pet. 3:17–18).
But in addition to all these reasons for living godly lives, Peter again connects conduct with witness. Even if we suffer unjustly, we will not live our lives in fear, as pagans must (1 Pet. 3:13). Rather, in our tears we will “set apart Christ as Lord” (1 Pet. 3:15); we will “sanctify” or “consecrate” Christ as Lord. And in this context, we will hear the apostolic injunction: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Pet. 3:15). This is similar to Paul’s “be prepared in season and out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2). Of course such readiness presupposes a heart attitude eager to bear witness and a commitment to grow in apologetic competence. As in so many other areas of life, we learn best how to do it by doing it. But Peter’s immediate point is that as we bear witness, we must do so “with gentleness and respect … so that those who speak maliciously … may be ashamed of their slander” (1 Pet. 3:15, 16).
25:1 While Israel lived in Shittim, the people began to whore with the daughters of Moab. 2 These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. 3 So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel. 4 And the LORD said to Moses, “Take all the chiefs of the people and hang1 them in the sun before the LORD, that the fierce anger of the LORD may turn away from Israel.” 5 And Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Each of you kill those of his men who have yoked themselves to Baal of Peor.”
6 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, while they were weeping in the entrance of the tent of meeting. 7 When Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose and left the congregation and took a spear in his hand 8 and went after the man of Israel into the chamber and pierced both of them, the man of Israel and the woman through her belly. Thus the plague on the people of Israel was stopped. 9 Nevertheless, those who died by the plague were twenty-four thousand.
10 And the LORD said to Moses, 11 “Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy. 12 Therefore say, ‘Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace, 13 and it shall be to him and to his descendants after him the covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the people of Israel.’”
14 The name of the slain man of Israel, who was killed with the Midianite woman, was Zimri the son of Salu, chief of a father's house belonging to the Simeonites. 15 And the name of the Midianite woman who was killed was Cozbi the daughter of Zur, who was the tribal head of a father's house in Midian.
16 And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 17 “Harass the Midianites and strike them down, 18 for they have harassed you with their wiles, with which they beguiled you in the matter of Peor, and in the matter of Cozbi, the daughter of the chief of Midian, their sister, who was killed on the day of the plague on account of Peor.”
68:1 God shall arise, his enemies shall be scattered;
and those who hate him shall flee before him!
2 As smoke is driven away, so you shall drive them away;
as wax melts before fire,
so the wicked shall perish before God!
3 But the righteous shall be glad;
they shall exult before God;
they shall be jubilant with joy!
4 Sing to God, sing praises to his name;
lift up a song to him who rides through the deserts;
his name is the LORD;
exult before him!
5 Father of the fatherless and protector of widows
is God in his holy habitation.
6 God settles the solitary in a home;
he leads out the prisoners to prosperity,
but the rebellious dwell in a parched land.
7 O God, when you went out before your people,
when you marched through the wilderness, Selah
8 the earth quaked, the heavens poured down rain,
before God, the One of Sinai,
before God,1 the God of Israel.
9 Rain in abundance, O God, you shed abroad;
you restored your inheritance as it languished;
10 your flock2 found a dwelling in it;
in your goodness, O God, you provided for the needy.
11 The Lord gives the word;
the women who announce the news are a great host:
12 “The kings of the armies—they flee, they flee!”
The women at home divide the spoil—
13 though you men lie among the sheepfolds—
the wings of a dove covered with silver,
its pinions with shimmering gold.
14 When the Almighty scatters kings there,
let snow fall on Zalmon.
15 O mountain of God, mountain of Bashan;
O many-peaked3 mountain, mountain of Bashan!
16 Why do you look with hatred, O many-peaked mountain,
at the mount that God desired for his abode,
yes, where the LORD will dwell forever?
17 The chariots of God are twice ten thousand,
thousands upon thousands;
the Lord is among them; Sinai is now in the sanctuary.
18 You ascended on high,
leading a host of captives in your train
and receiving gifts among men,
even among the rebellious, that the LORD God may dwell there.
19 Blessed be the Lord,
who daily bears us up;
God is our salvation. Selah
20 Our God is a God of salvation,
and to GOD, the Lord, belong deliverances from death.
21 But God will strike the heads of his enemies,
the hairy crown of him who walks in his guilty ways.
22 The Lord said,
“I will bring them back from Bashan,
I will bring them back from the depths of the sea,
23 that you may strike your feet in their blood,
that the tongues of your dogs may have their portion from the foe.”
24 Your procession is4 seen, O God,
the procession of my God, my King, into the sanctuary—
25 the singers in front, the musicians last,
between them virgins playing tambourines:
26 “Bless God in the great congregation,
the LORD, O you5 who are of Israel's fountain!”
27 There is Benjamin, the least of them, in the lead,
the princes of Judah in their throng,
the princes of Zebulun, the princes of Naphtali.
28 Summon your power, O God,6
the power, O God, by which you have worked for us.
29 Because of your temple at Jerusalem
kings shall bear gifts to you.
30 Rebuke the beasts that dwell among the reeds,
the herd of bulls with the calves of the peoples.
Trample underfoot those who lust after tribute;
scatter the peoples who delight in war.7
31 Nobles shall come from Egypt;
Cush shall hasten to stretch out her hands to God.
32 O kingdoms of the earth, sing to God;
sing praises to the Lord, Selah
33 to him who rides in the heavens, the ancient heavens;
behold, he sends out his voice, his mighty voice.
34 Ascribe power to God,
whose majesty is over Israel,
and whose power is in the skies.
35 Awesome is God from his8 sanctuary;
the God of Israel—he is the one who gives power and strength to his people.
Blessed be God!
15:1 An oracle concerning Moab.
Because Ar of Moab is laid waste in a night,
Moab is undone;
because Kir of Moab is laid waste in a night,
Moab is undone.
2 He has gone up to the temple,1 and to Dibon,
to the high places2 to weep;
over Nebo and over Medeba
On every head is baldness;
every beard is shorn;
3 in the streets they wear sackcloth;
on the housetops and in the squares
everyone wails and melts in tears.
4 Heshbon and Elealeh cry out;
their voice is heard as far as Jahaz;
therefore the armed men of Moab cry aloud;
his soul trembles.
5 My heart cries out for Moab;
her fugitives flee to Zoar,
For at the ascent of Luhith
they go up weeping;
on the road to Horonaim
they raise a cry of destruction;
6 the waters of Nimrim
are a desolation;
the grass is withered, the vegetation fails,
the greenery is no more.
7 Therefore the abundance they have gained
and what they have laid up
they carry away
over the Brook of the Willows.
8 For a cry has gone
around the land of Moab;
her wailing reaches to Eglaim;
her wailing reaches to Beer-elim.
9 For the waters of Dibon3 are full of blood;
for I will bring upon Dibon even more,
a lion for those of Moab who escape,
for the remnant of the land.
3:1 Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, 2 when they see your respectful and pure conduct. 3 Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear—4 but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious. 5 For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, 6 as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.
7 Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you1 of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.
8 Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. 9 Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing. 10 For
“Whoever desires to love life
and see good days,
let him keep his tongue from evil
and his lips from speaking deceit;
11 let him turn away from evil and do good;
let him seek peace and pursue it.
12 For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous,
and his ears are open to their prayer.
But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.”
13 Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? 14 But even if you should suffer for righteousness' sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, 15 but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, 16 having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. 17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God's will, than for doing evil.
18 For Christ also suffered2 once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which3 he went and proclaimed4 to the spirits in prison, 20 because5 they formerly did not obey, when God's patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. 21 Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.