In your mind, try to picture the situation. The Israelites were in the last year of their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. They had conquered mighty nations east of the Jordan River and were now peacefully camped on that side of the river. God’s people were now so close to entering the land which He had promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Sadly, at this late stage of their journey out of Egypt, thousands of them chose a path of rebellious behavior. They paid a huge price. Here is a portion of the record of this event that is found in Numbers 25:
(1) Then Israel remained in Shittim, and the people began to commit prostitution with the women of Moab. (2) They invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. (3) So Israel was joined to Baal of Peor, and the anger of the LORD was aroused against Israel. (4) Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Take all the leaders of the people and hang the offenders before the LORD, out in the sun, that the fierce anger of the LORD may turn away from Israel’ . . . (9) And those who died in the plague were twenty-four thousand.
So, there you have it. God’s people committed fornication and worshipped idols. Israel, what were you thinking?! There are numerous lessons that we can learn from these matters. Be sure of this: God wants us to know about and learn from the Israelites’ transgression at Baal of Peor. The Holy Spirit guided Paul to write about it to the church in Corinth, including it with a list of Old Testament events about which he said, “Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition . . .” (1 Corinthians 10:8,11).
First, although God has always wanted His people to show honorable conduct (1 Peter 2:12), it does not always happen. That truth does not in any sense prove that God is weak, nor does it mean that God’s people are without proper education about how to conduct themselves or lack adequate means to deal with and overcome temptation. Israel knew God’s will concerning fornication and idolatry. Their “wisdom” in the eyes of the world was to obey God (Deuteronomy 4:6). Unfortunately, in this case they chose to be foolish, and as always, God did not step in to override their freedom of choice.
Second, the Israelites accepted an invitation that they should have refused. Yes, the text says that the Moabites “invited” the Israelites to participate in sin, and they did just that. The devil will always try to make sin look appealing. We must learn to say, “No,” even as Joseph did when Potiphar’s wife tempted him on a daily basis (Genesis 37). Here is something to consider. Repeatedly in epistles that were written to Christians, New Testament writers taught and warned about the very sins that Israel committed in this instance, idolatry and fornication. Christians sometimes feel pressured to participate in these or others sins, but we must remain strong and not compromise with evil (1 Thessalonians 5:21).
Third, choices have consequences. The decision of some Israelites to worship idols and commit harlotry aroused God’s anger and brought about a plague which resulted in the death of 24,000 people (Numbers 25:3-9). The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23) and people reap corruption when they sow to the flesh (Galatians 6:8). For those in any generation who survive physically following their immoral practice of idolatry, fornication, or other sins, there is still this reality to face: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9,10). On the other hand, the plague at Peor ceased when Phinehas, the grandson of Aaron, showed a righteous zeal that caused the Lord not to consume the people and God blessed Phinehas and his descendants (read about it in Numbers 25:7-13). Yes, choices have consequences.
Fourth, there was a Balaam connection going on behind the scenes at Peor. Balaam was a prophet that the king of Moab had summoned to curse the children of Israel. Balaam instead pronounced blessings on God’s people, but in the end gave counsel to Moab’s king that helped to drag the Israelites into the dirt of sin. Numbers 31:16 reveals Balaam’s role, stating that certain women “caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to trespass against the LORD in the incident of Peor . . .” The New Testament message is that Balaam “taught Balak [king of Moab, rdc] to put a stumbling-block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality” (Revelation 2:14).
Balaam’s action was a factor in corrupting the children of Israel. The biblical text does not say that he himself committed fornication or worshipped idols at Peor. Nor did he directly encourage the Israelites to have a part in such deeds. What he did was suggest to a third party what he could do in order to bring about the downfall of Israel. It is wrong to do anything, either directly or indirectly, that encourages people to violate the will of God (Luke 17:1,2). Do not be a Balaam, who sold his soul because he “loved the wages of unrighteousness” ( 2 Peter 2:15).
Fifth, was there any good or encouraging news that came out of Israel’s sin with Baal of Peor? Thankfully, not everyone in the camp of Israel participated in those sins (Deuteronomy 4:3,4). This fact reminds us that it is possible to resist Satan and overcome the attraction to do what is wrong, even when those who surround us choose a course of sin.
— Roger D. Campbell
TRUTH is published monthly by the Klang church of Christ in order to help educate, edify, encourage, and equip the saints of God.