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). As in the calf incident, MosesProphet who led Israel out of Egypt to the Promised Land and received the law at Sinai More urges that the guilty Israelites be killed (Exodus 32:27; Numbers 25:5). In Exodus, the killing of the guilty returns God’s blessingBlessing is the asking for or the giving of God's favor. Isaac was tricked into blessing Jacob instead of his firstborn Esau. At the Last Supper Jesus offered a blessing over bread and wine. To be blessed is to be favored by God. More upon Israel, and Moses attempts unsuccessfully to make atonement for the people (Exodus 32:29-35). 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, taken 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).
The importance of this story is seen in the way it is remembered in later tradition (Deuteronomy 4:3; JoshuaThe successor of Moses, Joshua led the Israelites into Canaan More 22:17; HoseaProphet to the northern kingdom who married a prostitute to show God's relationship to a faithless Israel More 9:10; PsalmA psalm is a song of praise. In the Old Testament 150 psalms comprise the psalter, although some of the psalms are laments and thanksgivings. In the New Testament early Christians gathered to sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. More 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 that death 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 “covenantA covenant is a promise or agreement. In the Bible the promises made between God and God's people are known as covenants; they state or imply a relationship of commitment and obedience. More 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 priestThe high priest was the most powerful priest in the temple in Jerusalem. The high priest Caiaphas held the office during the trial of Jesus. Later, in the New Testament book of Hebrews, the role of merciful high priest is ascribed to the resurrected Jesus. More in the service of God, to make a sacrificeSacrifice is commonly understood as the practice of offering or giving up something as a sign of worship, commitment, or obedience. In the Old Testament grain, wine, or animals are used as sacrifice. In some New Testament writings Jesus' death on the cross as the... More of atonement for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17).