Our passage today begins with yet another rebellion by Israel. We are told that they “began to whore with the daughters of Moab” (25:1) and “ate and bowed down to their gods” (v. 2). This, however, actually continues our story from yesterday. Our friend Balaam went back home after prophesying blessings over Israel (24:25). But that isn’t all he did. When we read of his encounter with Balak’s envoy of elders (22:5-21), we see that Balaam appears to listen to God first in his refusal (22:13) and then in his agreement (22:20-21). But things are not what they appear. While Balaam is reluctantly agreeing to the letter of the law (much like Israel in going up to take the land after God told them they could not), his obedience is purely external and not internal. This is why the Angel of the Lord opposes him, and says he is perverse (22:32).
So after adhering to the letter of the law in obeying God’s command and speaking words of blessing, we come to this incident with Israel and Moab and their gods. What could have incited Israel to do such a thing? Well, when we get to Numbers 31, we will see Moses refer to this incident:
Behold, these, on Balaam’s advice, caused the people of Israel to act treacherously against the LORD in the incident of Peor, and so the plague came among the congregation of the LORD. – Numbers 31:16 (ESV)
Balaam, obeying purely externals, had a corrupt heart towards God and His people. And while he did obey the letter of the command (he did not prophesy evil for Israel), he violated the spirit of the command. This is the kind of external obedience our Lord speaks against in the Sermon on the Mount. And as we will later see, God does kill Balaam by the sword (see Num 31:8).
Numbers 25:3 tells us that Israel worshiped “Baal of Peor.” A “Baal” (pronounced bah-ahl) was an ancient Canaanite fertility god (there was more than one, as different Canaanite communities had differing pantheons of gods, which is why this was “Baal of Peor” – see Judges 2:11 where there are multiple Baals), and was considered the supreme deity out of all gods. What is happening here is that since Moab and Midian could not defeat Israel in battle, they are trying to destroy them from the inside. The women enticed the men of Israel sexually (v. 1, 6), so the men bowed to their gods. This has been a tactic of Satan throughout history: if he can’t defeat God’s people, he will corrupt them. These are the dangers of the enticements of the world for God’s people.
And we see that God sent a plague among Israel (v. 9). The true plague was sin. And Phinehas, through his actions, stopped the plague (v. 8) and the death it caused. He was then given the perpetual high priesthood (v. 13). In this, Phinehas is a type of Christ Who stopped the plague of sin and death as our High Priest.
In chapter 26, we have the second census of the book, now of the next generation of Israelites. Note that Judah is still the largest tribe (and has increased in number). By contrast, Simeon has lost a significant amount of men, perhaps in part because of the plague just described (note 25:14 that the man killed was a Simeonite). This reduction of Simeon is perhaps a partial fulfillment of Jacob’s prophecy (see Gen 49:7). Note, however, that the total population of men in Israel has actually decreased (compare 1:46 and 26:51). In verse 65, we see that God’s promise about who would enter the land has come about.
Chapter 27 begins with the story of the daughters of Zelophehad, who had no brothers, and wanted an inheritance along with the rest of Israel so that their father’s name would not disappear (27:4). Here, God gives commands that no family would lose their inheritance (vv. 6-11). This introduces the concept of the kinsman redeemer, which points us forward to the redemption of Christ.
The chapter ends with God telling Moses that he is about to die (v. 13). Moses asks that another leader be appointed, that Israel would not be “sheep that have no shepherd” (a pointer to Christ – see Matt 9:36). Joshua will be invested with power from on high, and be ordained publicly so that he will be the shepherd. This points us forward to what happened with Christ at His baptism.
Chapter 28 begins the final commands of God to be mediated by Moses There are reminders of the daily offerings (28:1-8), the weekly offerings (vv. 9-10), the monthly offerings (vv. 11-15), and the yearly offerings (vv. 16-31 – and continued in chapter 29). The final commands (and reiterations of commands) serve as a final reminder that God is holy. That means that sin must be atoned for, and we see that this is to be done perpetually. This is meant to point us to the once-for-all atonement of Christ (go back and read Hebrews!).