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Barnes' Notes on the Bible
1And Israel abode in Shittim, and the people began to commit whoredom with the daughters of Moab.
The records of the neighboring cities of the plain, and the circumstances of the origin of Moab (Genesis 19:30 ff) suggest that the people among whom Israel was now thrown were more than ordinarily licentious.
2And they called the people unto the sacrifices of their gods: and the people did eat, and bowed down to their gods.
And they called - i. e., "the daughters of Moab called."
3And Israel joined himself unto Baalpeor: and the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel.
Joined himself - i. e., by taking part in the sacrificial meals as described in the last verse. Compare Exodus 34:15; 1 Corinthians 10:18. The worship of Baal was attended with the grossest impurity, and indeed partly consisted in it Hosea 4:14; Hosea 9:10.
Baal-peor - i. e., the Baal worshipped at Peer, the place mentioned in Numbers 23:28 (compare Baal-meon, Numbers 32:38). (The identification of this god with Chemosh in Numbers 21:29 is now given up.)
4And the LORD said unto Moses, Take all the heads of the people, and hang them up before the LORD against the sun, that the fierce anger of the LORD may be turned away from Israel.
Take - i. e., assemble the chiefs of the people to thee (compare the phrase "took men," in Numbers 16:1). The offenders were to be first; slain by the hands of "the judges of Israel" Numbers 25:5, and afterward hung up "against the sun" (i. e., publicly, openly; compare 2 Samuel 12:12) as an aggravation of their punishment. This would be done by impaling the body or fastening it to a cross. Compare Deuteronomy 21:23 note, and 2 Samuel 21:9.
5And Moses said unto the judges of Israel, Slay ye every one his men that were joined unto Baalpeor.
6And, behold, one of the children of Israel came and brought unto his brethren a Midianitish woman in the sight of Moses, and in the sight of all the congregation of the children of Israel, who were weeping before the door of the tabernacle of the congregation.
A Midianite woman - literally, "the Midianite woman," the particular one by whom he had been enticed (compare Numbers 25:15 and Numbers 31:18). Her high rank proves that Zimri had not fallen in with her by mere chance, but had been deliberately singled out by the Midianites as one whom they must at any price lead astray.
Weeping before the door of the tabernacle - The plague Numbers 25:9 had already broken out among the people: and the more God-fearing had assembled at the door of the tabernacle of God (compare the marginal reference.) to intercede for mercy, when Zimri committed the fresh and public outrage just described.
7And when Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose up from among the congregation, and took a javelin in his hand;
8And he went after the man of Israel into the tent, and thrust both of them through, the man of Israel, and the woman through her belly. So the plague was stayed from the children of Israel.
Into the tent - The inner recess in the tent, fashioned archwise, and appropriated as the sleeping-chamber and women's apartment.
9And those that died in the plague were twenty and four thousand.
Twenty and four thousand - Paul 1 Corinthians 10:8 says "three and twenty thousand," following probably the Jewish tradition which deducted one thousand as the number slain by the hands of their brethren.
10And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
11Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, hath turned my wrath away from the children of Israel, while he was zealous for my sake among them, that I consumed not the children of Israel in my jealousy.
Hath turned my wrath away - The signal example thus made of a leading offender by Phinehas was accepted by God as an expiation (literally in Numbers 25:13 "covering;" see the note at the typical significance Leviticus 1:4), and the exterminating wrath which had gone forth against the whole people was arrested Psalm 106:30.
The act of Phinehas must be regarded as exceptional. It was an extraordinary deed of vengeance, justified by the singular atrocity of the crime which provoked it; but it does not confer the right to every man to punish summarily any gross and flagrant breach of divine law committed in his presence. Compare the act of Mattathias (1 Macc. 2:24-26).
The act was its own justification. Its merit consisted in the evidence it gave that the heart of Phinehas was right before God. He was "zealous with God's zeal," and abhorred the presumptuous wickedness of Zimri, as God abhorred it. He therefore risked his own life by dealing according to their deserts with two influential and defiant evil-doers; and his act, done in the face of Moses and the people, and for them, was accepted by God as a national atonement; and rewarded by the people (compare the leadership assigned to him in Numbers 31:6; Joshua 22:13).
12Wherefore say, Behold, I give unto him my covenant of peace:
My covenant of peace - Equivalent to "the covenant of My peace." God established with Phinehas in particular that covenant which He had made generally with all his people; and among its blessings peace is especially mentioned, because of the peace between God and the congregation which Phinehas had brought about. As an additional gift there is assigned to him and his seed forever the office of peace-making, the legitimate function of the priesthood (compare Ephesians 2:14); and the covenant was thus to him a covenant not only of peace but of life (compare the marginal reference). Phinehas became highpriest after the death of his father Eleazar, and the office, with a short interruption from the days of Eli to those of David, when for unknown reasons it was filled by the descendants of his uncle Ithamar, was perpetuated in his line; nor indeed is it known to have departed from that line again until the typical priesthood of the sons of Aaron was merged in the actual priesthood of the Saviour of mankind.
13And he shall have it, and his seed after him, even the covenant of an everlasting priesthood; because he was zealous for his God, and made an atonement for the children of Israel.
14Now the name of the Israelite that was slain, even that was slain with the Midianitish woman, was Zimri, the son of Salu, a prince of a chief house among the Simeonites.
15And the name of the Midianitish woman that was slain was Cozbi, the daughter of Zur; he was head over a people, and of a chief house in Midian.
16And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
17Vex the Midianites, and smite them:
18For they vex you with their wiles, wherewith they have beguiled you in the matter of Peor, and in the matter of Cozbi, the daughter of a prince of Midian, their sister, which was slain in the day of the plague for Peor's sake.