We’ve seen passages that have been interesting, and we’ve seen passages that have been profoundly boring. We’ve seen passages that have been refreshingly progressive, and, sadly, we’ve seen passages that have been horrifyingly xenophobic. Numbers 25 is the latter.
So the Israelites are loitering around in Shittim, bored, not much going on, and some of them start chasing after the local Moabite girls. These girls, they run with different gods and make theistic infidelity look mighty attractive, so the Israelites start sacrificing to the Moabite gods, specifically Baal.
God, of course, is mighty angry. He commands Moses to slaughter all the chiefs, killing them in place of their people. Moses, either disobeying God or deciding to play the over-achiever, calls up all his judges and tells them to each kill all of their men who have hung out with Baal.
The Midianite woman
While all this is going on – or possibly after – a Simeonite man by the name of Zimri, son of Salu, brought a Midianite woman to meet his family (presumably as a wife?). Her name was Cozbi – spelled with a Z and I to avoid confusion – daughter of Zur, prince among the Midianites.
This throws Phinehas, grandson of Aaron through Eleazar, into a rage. He leaves the Israelites to their weeping at the tent of meeting and follows Zimri back to his tent. There, presumably while Zimri and Cozbi were playing a Barry White album, Phinehas stabs them both with a spear.
This, of course, is very pleasing unto the Lord, and God decides to stop the heretofore unmentioned plague that he’d sent to kill the Israelites – but not before 24,000 people had already died.
So there’s some biblical morality for you – kill people, placate God.
As a reward for his double homicide, Phinehas is ensured a perpetual priesthood for himself and his descendants.
Just to round off the day, God tells Moses to go kill Midianites, “for they have harassed you with their wiles” (v.18). I’ve met a few cat-callers in the street who seem to have taken this view, and it ain’t pretty.
Wait, what happened to the Moabite women?
You may have noticed that we went from complaining about Moabite women to, very suddenly, being concerned about Midianite women. So what’s going on with that?
Well, seems like it’s political, yet again.
Way back in Exodus 2, Moses met and married a Midianite woman named Zipporah. This already led to some contention in Numbers 12. I think that the authors wanted to make very clear that – at least in this – What Would Moses Do does not apply.
As a closing note, Collins makes a very interesting point in A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible:
The Phinehas story underlines some of the fundamental tensions in the Priestly tradition. On the one hand, that tradition was characterized by respect for life, human and animal, as is shown by the prohibition against eating meat with the blood, and the account of creation in Genesis 1. On the other hand, the violence of Phinehas, like the summary executions of dissidents like Korah, shows an attitude of intolerance, where the demands of purity and holiness take precedence over human life. The intolerance shown in this story has its root in the certitude of Phinehas and those he represents that their way is God’s way. (p.83)