Led by Moses, the children of Israel had come to the border of the land Canaan, and pitched their tents in the plains of Moab, a place called Shittim (acacia grove), along the Jordan River. The Moabites were descendants of Lot, nephew of Abraham and spoke a language almost identical to the Hebrew, but they were idolaters.
Although the national god of Moab was Chemosh (Numbers 21:29), Baal-peor, or Baal of Peor was the most popular god of all gods of the peoples of that region, represented by a bull, symbol of strength and fertility and considered the god of rain and crops. Because it was so popular, the name Baal came to be often used generically for all the gods of the locality.
Balak, the king of Moab, fearful that Israel might go forward in war against his people, hired a man from Mesopotamia named Balaam, renowned as having supernatural powers, to curse the Israelites. But the LORD intervened and dictated to Balaam what to say.
In fear of the true God, Balaam said the words which the LORD commanded him to speak, which were a blessing to Israel. Later we learn that Balaam counselled Balak to infiltrate Moabite women into the camp of the Israelites, in order to marry their men and introduce idolatry so as to distance them from the LORD who protected them (Numbers 31:16, Revelation 2:14).
The greatest danger that the people of Israel had to face was not the armies of the peoples who inhabited the promised land, but the corruption from the religions and customs of the Canaanites. Corruption occurred when they fell into the temptation of the flesh, the desire to sit down to eat and drink and rise up to play (1 Corinthians 10:7, Exodus 32:6,19). Through the centuries, after entering the promised land, the people of Israel allowed themselves to be overcome again and again by this temptation, finally succumbing completely, which as a nation resulted in their losing their land and being dispersed throughout the world (Psalm 106:40-41) .
This temptation comes in various forms within the Christian area, and is a major factor in the removal of sound doctrine and faithfulness to the Gospel of Christ. It covers the religious exploitations in churches, on radio, on television, in the so-called prosperity gospel; in worship services, where what is worshipped are only the emotions, with deafening instrumental music, coming to the absurdities of the "Toronto blessing", insane behaviour, etc., and financial exploitation by false shepherds. It is the corruption of the Gospel. What is least found in this environment is the pure teaching of God's Word.
The women of Moab went to the camp of Israel at the behest of Balak, practised immorality with some of their men (1 Corinthians 10:8), and led them to idolatry. The anger of the LORD was kindled against the people again because of this. He commanded Moses to publicly hang all the leaders of the movement to worship Baal. Moses obediently summoned the judges (the seventy - chapter 11), and ordered each to kill the men in their charge who had succumbed to the idolatry of Baal-peor. It was necessary to take this radical measure to eliminate the contamination that had spread like the plague among the people. There were a great number of them, as twenty-four thousand died, of which twenty-three thousand in one day (1 Corinthians 10:8).
This was the effect of the doctrine of Balaam on the people of Israel. Our LORD teaches us in the book of Revelation, that the same doctrine was held by some in the church in Pergamos, which is also a warning for us today (Revelation 2:14). As with Israel at that time, the church cannot be bothered by outsiders because it is protected through the hands of God, even when persecuted and martyred, but can be subverted by marriage with the world.
Historically, the church of Pergamum ("much wedding") represented the time when the world united with the church. The world entered in a massive flood, and the devil took control. The previous violent persecution had only strengthened it, but with the entrance of the world it lost all its spiritual life, as we see later in Thyatira, Sardis and Laodicea.
While the people wept before the tabernacle, the son of one of the leaders of the Israelites brought a Midianite woman, the daughter of the leader of one of the Midianite tribes (allied to Moab), presented her to his brethren in the sight of Moses and all the people for all to see and led her into his tent. Like the Israelites, the Midianites were the descendants of Abraham, but through Midian ("Fight"), the fourth son of his concubine and second wife Keturah (Genesis 25:2, 1 Chronicles 1:32), while the Moabites were descendants of Lot (Genesis 19:37). Moses married a Midianite woman, having lived among them for forty years. It is understandable, then, that the Israelites and particularly Moses would have sympathy for them, although they were idolaters.
Phinehas, the grandson of Aaron, immediately went after that couple and executed them with a javelin. God delights to pursue his love for many in exchange for the loyalty of a few. This act symbolized the righteous rejection by the true Aaronic priesthood of the practice of idolatry by the people of Israel, thus making atonement for the nation. The LORD was pleased with the action of Phinehas, and His anger against the people ceased, preventing further deaths.
Because of his zeal for his God, so great as to boldly execute a prince of Israel who challenged His authority, the LORD honoured Phinehas by giving him His covenant of peace: an everlasting priesthood to him and his descendants.
But to the people of Israel the LORD commanded through Moses to harass the Midianites and attack them because of their collusion with the Moabites to lead them to idolatry, and because of the deception of Cozbi ("misleading"), the daughter of Zur, a Midianite chief. We must also act firmly against all that tempts us to sin even though for some reason it might have our sympathy. It is a good example for us, for we often have to face the world and gain the displeasure of others in our zeal to serve and be faithful to our God.