Numbers 25:1-13 – Sin and Atonement: The Baal of Peor


Numbers 25:1-13


Israel sins by worshiping a foreign deity and having sexual relations with foreign women. Phinehas makes atonement by killing a guilty Israelite.


This story is significant because it marks the last of the deaths incurred by the faithlessness of the older generation. The final death is seen as an “atonement” for sin, and, from here on, the way is open to make a new census of the new generation (chapter 26) and to proceed to the land of promise.

The first sin in this story is the participation in the sacrificial worship of the “Baal of Peor” (or “lord of Peor,” a local deity). This idolatrous worship is described in terms similar to the earlier worship of the golden calf, and it is met with the same fate (compare Numbers 25:2-3 and Exodus 32:6, 10). 

The reader must be careful to note that the sin here is explicitly idolatry, and not relations with foreigners. Moses is, after all, married to a Midianite woman. The word used for “tent” in Numbers 25:8 that Cozbi the Midianite princess goes to with Zimri, and to which Zimri sought to bring his brothers, was not the normal word used for a private sleeping and dwelling space. Instead, this kind of tent, mentioned only here in all of Scripture, is primarily a religious structure. Sex was a pretext for idolatry. We will find out later that the crafty but unseeing Balaam, after he was unable to curse the Israelites with his words, instead counseled the Midianite and Moabite coalition to use the women’s sexuality to induce Israelite men to idolatry (Numbers 31:16). It was Israelite idolatry, rather than curses from foreigners, that would, at least temporarily, remove God’s protection. 

As in the calf incident, Moses urges that the guilty Israelites be killed (Exodus 32:27; Numbers 25:5). In Exodus, the killing of the guilty returns God’sblessing  upon Israel, and Moses attempts unsuccessfully to make atonement for the people (Exodus 32:29-35). In Exodus, the willingness of the Levites to execute judgment is the main cause of their election as the holy tribe (Exodus 32:26-29). In the Numbers story, the report of the dead does not come until later (25:9); the account is interrupted by the appearance of a single guilty man, murdered in the act of intercourse with a Midianite woman; his death at the hands of Phinehas turns away God’s wrath and makes atonement for the Israelites (25:10-13). Phinehas’ action, like that of the Levites earlier, was rewarded with a special covenant of holy service.  

The importance of this story is seen in the way it is remembered in later tradition (Deuteronomy 4:3; Joshua 22:17; Hosea 9:10; Psalm 106:28). Deuteronomy especially regards it as a watershed event: “You have seen for yourselves what the LORD did with regard to the Baal of Peor–how the LORD your God destroyed from among you everyone who followed the Baal of Peor, while those of you who held fast to the LORD your God are all alive today” (4:3-4). Because of this story, Phinehas will be remembered as one of the great heroes of Israel (see “The Phinehas tradition” in Introductory Issues).

The death and life issues in this story are fierce. Apostasy brings on God’s wrath, and a great plague that wipes out thousands. One individual sin is avenged in a grisly scene where the man and woman are run through with a spear, apparently during intercourse. Yet Phinehas’ action is seen to make atonement for the rest of the people, and the plagues are stopped. Indeed, all the Israelite deaths cease at this point in the book, and Israel can move on to the new land. Here, again, we see clearly the biblical teaching that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23)–not because God desires death, but because sinful acts have their own dire consequences. God allows a single death to make atonement for all, establishing through it a “covenant of peace” (Numbers 25:12), so new life can begin. Although a direct connection with this story is never made in the New Testament–no doubt because it would give false impressions of how God was at work in Jesus–nevertheless Hebrews does interpret Jesus’ death as that of a “high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17).