Reflection for Today ▶️ ⏹️

Section of a Roman erotica fresco, circa 80 AD, recently restored

And Israel abode in Shittim, and the people began to commit whoredom with the daughters of Moab. And they called the people unto the sacrifices of their gods: and the people did eat, and bowed down to their gods. And Israel joined himself unto Baalpeor: and the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel.
Numbers 25:1-3

The story of Balak and Balaam in the previous three chapters paints a picture of Israel as a mighty race of warriors, too strong to be defeated in battle, and too protected to be brought down by curse. Here we see a different Israel, a nation made vulnerable by sexual passion. It is not explicit if this was a new strategy by Balak, or simply a natural outcome of instinct, but clearly where the Israelites could not be conquered in battle (by men) they seem to now be conquered in leisure (by women). Not only were they unfaithful to their cult by taking gentile partners, but in order to seduce the women they agreed to worship with them at the pagan alter of Baal, thus turning their back on God. God responds by bringing a scourge on His people, wiping out twenty-four thousand of them before Phinehas ends it by murdering Zimri, son of the Simeonite chieftain and Cosbi, a Midianite princess.

The episode can be considered a prototype for the story of Elijah, set several centuries later, both featuring Baal as a symbol of unfaithfulness, with Phineas, Zimri and Cosbi representing respectively Elijah, Ahab and Jezebel. Both Elijah and Phineas are zealots, priests willing to murder, and the stories raise conflicting ideas about the nature of God and his relationship with violence.1 It also brings to light our own inner conflicts, our own imperfections.

The opening verses of chapter 25 illustrates once again the vulnerability of Israel, this time made more poignant by the contrast with the previous episode where they are shown as indomitable. This same theme of course is echoed later, and more personally in the story of Samson.2 We all have our weaknesses which—although we may be successful in disguising for a time, or that get relegated by our generally honourable and upright dispositions—will inevitably surface under trying conditions. The entire Old Testament can be seen as the story of a people trying to walk a righteous path and continuously failing, being drawn away from God by greed and hedonistic temptation. It is the prophets, the zealots who guide, or at least attempt to guide the people back to the righteous path. The story of this tribe is for each our own personal story. We may wonder then, who today are our prophets, and are they true or false? Navigating the ever-complex moral and ethical landscape of the 21st century is a journey inadvisable to take alone.

1 See The Zealot by Jonathan Sacks, July 2012
2 Judges, chapters 13-16