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In Broad Daylight

Numbers 25:5-6a & 7-8a
And Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Each of you kill those of his men who have yoked themselves to Baal of Peor.” And behold, one of the people of Israel came and brought a Midianite woman to his family, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the whole congregation of the people of Israel. … When Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose and left the congregation and took a spear in his hand and went after the man of Israel into the chamber and pierced both of them, the man of Israel and the woman through her belly.

Numbers 25 takes a gruesome turn here that I find difficult to stomach, but the blow is softened when we realize just how brazen this idolatrous act really is. At first glance, I didn’t catch it. The ESV wording makes it sound like a Jewish man has simply fallen in love with a Midianite woman, brought her home to meet his parents, and Aaron’s grandson Phinehas kills them both in a fit of xenophobic rage. But because we know that Moses’ marriage to a Cushite woman was publicly blessed by God, we should translate the words ‘Midianite woman’ to ‘Baal-worshipping woman’ here. Once again, idolatry, not ethnicity, is the point.

Moses can’t believe his eyes. At the same time priests of God are administering punishment on their idolatrous kin, and at the same time family members are wailing in the streets, a guy named Zimri struts through town with his new lover, probably stepping over dead bodies along the way, probably flashing a revolting gesture toward Moses as he passes, as if to call out, “And what are you gonna do about it?!” See, if we don’t read this scene through the shock and awe in which Moses wrote it, we might mistakenly deem God’s reaction of holiness as more outrageous than Zimri’s act of rebellion. And there’s nothing more outrageous in all the world than a man calling holy what is detestable, and good what is evil, and God what is a devil.

Friend, may we always gasp with holy horror at the brazenness of idolatry in our own generation, and may we ever rise with the sword of the Word of God to pierce it.