Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at sacred-texts.com
The Lord had defended His people Israel from Balaam's curse; but the Israelites themselves, instead of keeping the covenant of their God, fell into the snares of heathen seduction (Num 25:1, Num 25:2). Whilst encamped at Shittim, in the steppes of Moab, the people began to commit whoredom with the daughters of Moab: they accepted the invitations of the latter to a sacrificial festival of their gods, took part in their sacrificial meals, and even worshipped the gods of the Moabites, and indulged in the licentious worship of Baal-Peor. As the princes of Midian, who were allied to Moab, had been the advisers and assistants of the Moabitish king in the attempt to destroy the Israelites by a curse of God; so now, after the failure of that plan, they were the soul of the new undertaking to weaken Israel and render it harmless, by seducing it to idolatry, and thus leading it into apostasy from its God. But it was Balaam, as is afterwards casually observed in Num 31:16, who first of all gave this advice. This is passed over here, because the point of chief importance in relation to the object of the narrative, was not Balaam's share in the proposal, but the carrying out of the proposal itself. The daughters of Moab, however, also took part in carrying it out, by forming friendly associations with the Israelites, and then inviting them to their sacrificial festival. They only are mentioned in Num 25:1, Num 25:2, as being the daughters of the land. The participation of the Midianites appears first of all in the shameless licentiousness of Cozbi, the daughter of the Midianitish prince, from which we not only see that the princes of Midian performed their part, but obtain an explanation of the reason why the judgment upon the crafty destroyers of Israel was to be executed upon the Midianites.
(Note: Consequently there is no discrepancy between Num 25:1-5 and Num 25:6-18, to warrant the violent hypothesis of Knobel, that there are two different accounts mixed together in this chapter-An Elohistic account in Num 25:6-18, of which the commencement has been dropped, and a Jehovistic account in Num 25:1-5, of which the latter part has been cut off. The particular points adduced in proof of this fall to the ground, when the history is correctly explained; and such assertions as these, that the name Shittim and the allusion to the judges in Num 25:5, and to the wrath of Jehovah in Num 25:3 and Num 25:4, are foreign to the Elohist, are not proofs, but empty assumptions.)
Shittim, an abbreviation of Abel-Shittim (see at Num 22:1), to which the camp of the Israelites in the steppes of Moab reached (Num 33:49), is mentioned here instead of Arboth-Moab, because it was at this northern point of the camp that the Israelites came into contact with the Moabites, and that the latter invited them to take part in their sacrificial meals; and in Jos 2:1 and Jos 3:1, because it was from this spot that the Israelites commenced the journey to Canaan, as being the nearest to the place where they were to pass through the Jordan. זנה, construed with אל, as in Eze 16:28, signifies to incline to a person, to attach one's self to him, so as to commit fornication. The word applies to carnal and spiritual whoredom. The lust of the flesh induced the Israelites to approach the daughters of Moab, and form acquaintances and friendships with them, in consequence of which they were invited by them "to the slain-offerings of their gods," i.e., to the sacrificial festivals and sacrificial meals, in connection with which they also "adored their gods," i.e., took part in the idolatrous worship connected with the sacrificial festival. These sacrificial meals were celebrated in honour of the Moabitish god Baal-Peor, so that the Israelites joined themselves to him. צמד, in the Niphal, to bind one's self to a person. Baal-Peor is the Baal of Peor, who was worshipped in the city of Beth-Peor (Deu 3:29; Deu 4:46; see at Num 23:28), a Moabitish Priapus, in honour of whom women and virgins prostituted themselves. As the god of war, he was called Chemosh (see at Num 21:29).
And the anger of the Lord burned against the people, so that Jehovah commanded Moses to fetch the heads of the people, i.e., to assemble them together, and to "hang up" the men who had joined themselves to Baal-Peor "before the Lord against the sun," that the anger of God might turn away from Israel. The burning of the wrath of God, which was to be turned away from the people by the punishment of the guilty, as enjoined upon Moses, consisted, as we may see from Num 25:8, Num 25:9, in a plague inflicted upon the nation, which carried off a great number of the people, a sudden death, as in Num 14:37; Num 17:11. הוקיע, from יקע, to be torn apart or torn away (Ges., Winer), refers to the punishment of crucifixion, a mode of capital punishment which was adopted by most of the nations of antiquity (see Winer, bibl. R. W. i. p. 680), and was carried out sometimes by driving a stake into the body, and so impaling them (ἀνασκολοπίζειν), the mode practised by the Assyrians and Persians (Herod. iii. 159, and Layard's Nineveh and its Remains, vol. ii. p. 374, and plate on p. 369), at other times by fastening them to a stake or nailing them to a cross (ἀνασταυροῦν). In the instance before us, however, the idolaters were not impaled or crucified alive, but, as we may see from the word הרגּוּ in Num 25:5, and in accordance with the custom frequently adopted by other nations (see Herzog's Encyclopaedia), they were first of all put to death, and then impaled upon a stake or fastened upon a cross, so that the impaling or crucifixion was only an aggravation of the capital punishment, like the burning in Lev 20:14, and the hanging (תּלה) in Deu 21:22. The rendering adopted by the lxx and Vulgate is παραδειγματίζειν, suspendere, in this passage, and in Sa2 21:6, Sa2 21:9, ἐξηλιάζειν (to expose to the sun), and crucifigere. ליהוה, for Jehovah, as satisfaction for Him, i.e., to appease His wrath. אותם (them) does not refer to the heads of the nation, but to the guilty persons, upon whom the heads of the nation were to pronounce sentence.
The judges were to put to death every one his men, i.e., such of the evil-doers as belonged to his forum, according to the judicial arrangements instituted in Ex 18. This command of Moses to the judges was not carried out, however, because the matter took a different turn.
Whilst the heads of the people were deliberating on the subject, and the whole congregation was assembled before the tabernacle, weeping on account of the divine wrath, there came an Israelite, a prince of the tribe of Simeon, who brought a Midianitish woman, the daughter of a Midianitish chief (Num 25:14), to his brethren, i.e., into the camp of the Israelites, before the eyes of Moses and all the congregation, to commit adultery with her in his tent. This shameless wickedness, in which the depth of the corruption that had penetrated into the congregation came to light, inflamed the zeal of Phinehas, the son of Eleazar the high priest, to such an extent, that he seized a spear, and rushing into the tent of the adulterer, pierced both of them through in the very act. הקּבּה, lit., the arched, or arch, is applied here to the inner or hinder division of the tent, the sleeping-room and women's room in the larger tents of the upper classes.
Through this judgment, which was executed by Phinehas with holy zeal upon the daring sinners, the plague was restrained, so that it came to an end. The example which Phinehas had made of these sinners was an act of intercession, by which the high priest appeased the wrath of God, and averted the judgment of destruction from the whole congregation ("he was zealous for his God," ויכפּר, Num 25:13). The thought upon which this expression is founded is, that the punishment which was inflicted as a purifying chastisement served as a "covering" against the exterminating judgment (see Herzog's Cyclopaedia).
(Note: Upon this act of Phinehas, and the similar examples of Samuel (Sa1 15:33) and Mattathias (1 Macc. 2:24), the later Jews erected the so-called "zealot right," jus zelotarum, according to which any one, even though not qualified by his official position, possessed the right, in cases of any daring contempt of the theocratic institutions, or any daring violation of the honour of God, to proceed with vengeance against the criminals. (See Salden, otia theol. pp. 609ff., and Buddeus, de jure zelotarum apud Hebr. 1699, and in Oelrich's collect. T. i. Diss. 5.) The stoning of Stephen furnishes an example of this.)
Twenty-four thousand men were killed by this plague. The Apostle Paul deviates from this statement in Co1 10:8, and gives the number of those that fell as twenty-three thousand, probably from a traditional interpretation of the schools of the scribes, according to which a thousand were deducted from the twenty-four thousand who perished, as being the number of those who were hanged by the judges, so that only twenty-three thousand would be killed by the plague; and it is to these alone that Paul refers.
For this act of divine zeal the eternal possession of the priesthood was promised to Phinehas and his posterity as Jehovah's covenant of peace. בּקנאו, by displaying my zeal in the midst of them (viz., the Israelites). קנאתי is not "zeal for me," but "my zeal," the zeal of Jehovah with which Phinehas was filled, and impelled to put the daring sinners to death. By doing this he had averted destruction from the Israelites, and restrained the working of Jehovah's zeal, which had manifested itself in the plague. "I gave him my covenant of peace" (the suffix is attached to the governing noun, as in Lev 6:3). בּרית נתן, as in Gen 17:2, to give, i.e., to fulfil the covenant, to grant what was promised in the covenant. The covenant granted to Phinehas consisted in the fact, that an "eternal priesthood" (i.e., the eternal possession of the priesthood) was secured to him, not for himself alone, but for his descendants also, as a covenant, i.e., in a covenant, or irrevocable form, since God never breaks a covenant that He has made. In accordance with this promise, the high-priesthood which passed from Eleazar to Phinehas (Jdg 20:28) continued in his family, with the exception of a brief interruption in Eli's days (see at 1 Sam 1-3 and Sa1 14:3), until the time of the last gradual dissolution of the Jewish state through the tyranny of Herod and his successors (see my Archologie, 38). - In Num 25:14, Num 25:15, the names of the two daring sinners are given. The father of Cozbi, the Midianitish princess, was named Zur, and is described here as "head of the tribes (אמּות, see at Gen 25:16) of a father's house in Midian," i.e., as the head of several of the Midianitish tribes that were descended from one tribe-father; in Num 31:8, however, he is described as a king, and classed among the five kings of Midian who were slain by the Israelites.
The Lord now commanded Moses to show hostility (צרר to the Midianites, and smite them, on account of the stratagem which they had practised upon the Israelites by tempting them to idolatry, "in order that the practical zeal of Phinehas against sin, by which expiation had been made for the guilt, might be adopted by all the nation" (Baumgarten). The inf. abs. צרור, instead of the imperative, as in Exo 20:8, etc. על־דּברף, in consideration of Peor, and indeed, or especially, in consideration of Cozbi. The repetition is emphatic. The wickedness of the Midianites culminated in the shameless wantonness of Cozbi the Midianitish princess. "Their sister," i.e., one of the members of their tribe. - The 19th verse belongs to the following chapter, and forms the introduction to Num 26:1.
(Note: In the English version this division is adopted. - Tr.)