The sin of Baal-Peor
The machinations of Balaam and Balak culminated in the sin of Baal-peor. This was a low point in the history of Israel because it was in direct opposition to all that God had instructed in the previous books of the Pentateuch. He had made it very clear that the children of Israel were not to involve themselves with any outside nations, nor were they to involve themselves in any illicit manner with the women of those nations. Baal-peor, as recorded in Numbers 25:1, was a fertility cult and the children of Israel involved themselves in these evil religious practices. As a result, God's judgment fell severely on them. Since Balaam could not curse the Israelites, he evidently dreamed up this enticement so that the men would involve themselves in an illicit way with the women of Moab and thus bring God's curse upon them. Numbers 31:16 records, after the death of Balaam:
16 "Behold, these caused the sons of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to trespass against the LORD in the matter of Peor, so the plague was among the congregation of the LORD.
The account of the sin begins in 25:1:
1 While Israel remained at Shittim, the people began to play the harlot with the daughters of Moab. 2 For they invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. 3 So Israel joined themselves to Baal of Peor, and the LORD was angry against Israel. 4 And the LORD said to Moses, "Take all the leaders of the people and execute them in broad daylight before the LORD, so that the fierce anger of the LORD may turn away from Israel." 5 So Moses said to the judges of Israel, "Each of you slay his men who have joined themselves to Baal of Peor."
It seems, from a comparison of the census counts, that the Simeonites may have led in this licentious activity. We find that Numbers 1:23 records 59,300 numbered men in the tribe of Simeon, but Numbers 26:14 records only 22,200 for Simeon. We know from Numbers 25:9, that 24,000 died in the matter of Baal-peor, so a large portion of the 24,000 may have belonged to the tribe of Simeon. The rest of the missing men in the comparative census may have been lost in some other plague or judgment or through natural causes of death and disease.
In Numbers 26:55, God says that the land the people will inhabit in Canaan should be divided by lot, and that each family would receive their inheritance according to the names of the tribes of their fathers. By Numbers 26:64, there had been a new census, and among the numbered men there was not a single one (excluding the Levites) who had been present at the first numbering except Joshua, Caleb, and Moses. Verse 65 points out that this fulfilled the judgment God had pronounced at Kadesh-barnea that only Joshua and Caleb, of the numbered men, would survive the wilderness experience and enter the land.
From this point on, the activity is increasingly military in nature. With the end of the forty years in sight, they went up into Kadesh, circled around the south end of the Dead Sea and began to move through the land of their near relatives - the Moabites, the Edomites, and the Ammonites. Aaron had died and Moses, Joshua, Caleb and the Levites were the only survivors from the previous census. Their military activities began to result in conquered land east of the Jordan River. From their position at Kadesh, the natural route was the King's Highway, the main route from the rich copper mines at Eziongeber in the south to Syria in the north.2 They could follow this northward until they found a suitable place to turn westward into Canaan. But first, it would be necessary to get permission from the kings who ruled the small nations through which the highway ran. Unfortunately, they immediately ran into difficulty. Despite the appeal to kinship - the Edomites were regarded as having descended from Jacob's brother Esau - and the promise to stay on the highway and to touch nothing which belonged to the Edomites, the Israelites were refused passage. They did not feel ready to force their way through, so they decided to follow a circuitous route which would take them along the western border of Edom to the Valley of Zered, from which point they would circle Moab on the eastern side. When they came to the land of the Amorites, they sent messengers to King Sihon, asking for permission to pass through peaceably. Sihon not only refused, but sent his army out to attack Israel in the wilderness. The Israelites had avoided a fight whenever possible, but now they turned on Sihon's army and completely devastated it, taking possession of the whole Amorite Kingdom, including the capital city of Heshbon.
The next opponent was Og the King of Bashan. Og seems not to have given much trouble. In fact, we would probably never have noticed him if it were not for the fact that he slept in a bed that was thirteen feet long and six feet wide - truly a kingsize bed (see Deuteronomy 3:11). Thus, under the leadership of Moses and Joshua they defeated the Midianites, and among those slain in the battle was Balaam the diviner and prophet. Having conquered the two kings, Sihon and Og, they now controlled major geographic areas in the Trans-Jordan, Sihon's Heshbon in the south, and Og's Edrei in the north. As we read in Deuteronomy 1:3-41:
3 And it came about in the fortieth year, on the first day of the eleventh month, that Moses spoke to the children of Israel, according to all that the LORD had commanded him to give to them, 4 after he had defeated Sihon the king of the Amorites, who lived in Heshbon, and Og the king of Bashan, who lived in Ashtaroth and Edrei.
When Israel had thus established control over this Trans-Jordan area, a glance at the map explains why Moab expected to be the next victim of the invaders. When the Israelites camped in the plain of Moab across the Jordan River from Jericho, the Moabites began to groan that "this horde will now lick up all that is round about us, as the ox licks up the grass of the field" (22:4). This is why desparate Balak, the king of Moab, who knew his army would be no match for them under ordinary circumstances, hoped to drive them out with a little supernatural aid in the form of a curse delivered by the Mesopotamian diviner Balaam.
However, Israel was now established and chapter 32 records that Reuben and Gad saw the land was good, and they asked to have their inheritance east of the Jordan River. In addition, half the tribe of Manasseh also wanted to settle there. As a result, the eastern Jordan area, including the area called Gilead, became the inheritance of those two and one-half tribes. In the balance of chapter 32, we read that Moses instructed the two and one-half tribes (Reuben and Gad and half the tribe of Mannaseh) that they could occupy the Trans-Jordan area, but they could not stay there until their fighting men had crossed into the Cis-Jordan with the remaining nine and one-half tribes and helped them to occupy the land. Only then would they be allowed to return into the Trans-Jordan and settle permanently with their families. Chapter 33 contains Moses' written record of the route of the forty years of wandering. Verse 52 records God's command that they must drive out the inhabitants of the land and destroy their idols, images, and high places. If they are not driven out, verse 55 says, they "shall be pricks in your eyes, and thorns in your sides all the days of your lives. " This command includes a solemn warning. If they do not obey it, God said in verse 56, "I shall do unto you, as I thought to do unto them". Israel did not drive out the inhabitants. In fact, they adopted their religious practices to the extent that God later said they were worse than the Canaanites. As a result, He eventually drove out His own people from their land into dispersion and eventual captivity.
(Continued on page 499)