I am continuing with the story Peter introduced as his example of how foolish -and- dangerous the false prophets were in the first century church. Yesterday, Balaam spoke by the power of God, however reluctantly and unwillingly. Today, Balaam attempts to have his revenge on God’s people.
Before he headed home, Balaam must have given some advice to Balak, once Balaam realized that he had forfeited his reward. We find out what he suggested from the other places in scripture that you and I looked at this past week.
Balaam was not able to curse Israel, but he knew how to defile God’s people and seduce them into sin so awful that Jehovah would certainly judge them.
Maybe it had been their trip to Peor that had given him the idea. Balaam suggested to Balak—and to the Moabite and Midianite princes—they should put together a feast in honor of Ba’al, there at Peor, and invite the tribes of Israel to attend.
The feast would of course include all the rituals attendant to the worship of Ba’al, not just the pageantry, the food, and the wine.
But also the sex.
Of course, since the Moabites were brothers, and the Midianites had been allies years before through Moses’ in-laws, the Israelites were already warmly disposed towards them, and accepted their invitation.
While Israel was staying at Shittim, the people began to have sexual relations with the women of Moab.
These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods.
Thus Israel yoked itself to the Baal of Peor, and the Lord’s anger was kindled against Israel.Numbers 25:1-3 (NRSV)
Can you see why this story also needs telling? It goes straight back to what Peter was so concerned about with the false prophets among the new Christians.
Because Balaam’s insidious plan worked perfectly.
Some Israelite men became sexually involved with Moabite women who then invited the men to come to their religious feasts. In order to please these women, the men did come, and did eat at the feast. They even went through the rituals of worship.
Chemosh was their chief god, but Ba’al was more fun. He was their fertility god, provider of rain, abundant harvest, and abundant flocks. Since he was the god of fertility, worship of him involved religious prostitution.
God’s Righteous Wrath
God sent a plague that infected the people who had become involved with this spiritual apostasy and sexual adultery.
Balaam may have thought he had finally found a way to manipulate God, get his money, and get his pride back.
What happened next makes for some grim reading. For God instructed Moses to purge the camp of all those who had turned from God and given themselves heart, soul, strength, and mind to the people and gods of Moab.
It had to be done.
Like a cancer, the defilement of those who had gone to Peor was about to metastasize and defile the entire encampment of God’s people. In fact, even as Moses was meeting with the judges and the priests, and the people had begun to weep because of the plague spreading like wildfire, and this latest awful news of God’s punishment,
Just then one of the Israelites came and brought a Midianite woman into his family, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the whole congregation of the Israelites, while they were weeping at the entrance of the tent of meeting.Numbers 25:6 (NRSV)
It became the catalyst
This was the whole point of ritual prostitution. One had sex in the holy place before Ba’al. So this guy was going to bring these practices back into the camp, into God’s holy place. He was flaunting his new-found worship practices in front of everyone, bringing it right into the church, so to speak, his flagrant sexual and spiritual sin.
It is an exact corollary to what Peter—and Jude—were speaking in such strong terms against. It was the Gnostic cancer, threatening to infect the entire church.
One Levite was incensed with jealousy for God, Phinehas, Aaron’s grandson. He was so zealous for God’s honor, he took a spear, went into the tent of meeting, and speared them both to the ground as they were engaged in the act of intercourse.
Then God said something remarkable about what Phinehas had done
“Phinehas son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the Israelites by manifesting such zeal among them on my behalf that in my jealousy I did not consume the Israelites . . . he was zealous for his God, and made atonement for the Israelites.’”God, Numbers 25:11, 13 (NRSV)
Reminder of God’s Divine Work
Though neither Peter nor Jude were suggesting anything of the kind, their readers would remember Phinehas and his zeal for the Lord. His uncompromising, unswerving devotion to God, and to the sacredness of what it meant to belong to God, was what Peter and Jude sought for the Body of Christ.
Balaam had advised Balak that the best way to destroy the Israelites was through corrupting them and enticing them away from the worship of God. The consequences were more disastrous than any curse Balaam could have come up with. Eventually Ba’al worship did bring about the downfall of Israel, as they were deported from the Promised Land a thousand years later.
Even today, you and I have seen one spiritual leader after another exposed in public spectacle, their ministry undermined, their credibility ruined, their careers destroyed by the corruption of their morals and the subtle shift from worship of God to worship of something or (more often) someone else (such as themselves).
No one is immune to seduction.
God instructed Moses to now view the Midianites as enemies of Israel and in just a few chapters, God’s judgement would fall not only on the Midianite princes who seduced Israel, but also on Balaam who had started it all.
God’s people are vulnerable to being seduced into worshiping something else.
You and I are vulnerable, capable of truly awful sin.
Which is why Peter began his letter the way he did.
[The Lord’s] divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.
Thus, he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature.
For this very reason, you must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love.
For if these things are yours and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.
For anyone who lacks these things is short-sighted and blind, and is forgetful of the cleansing of past sins.
Therefore, brothers and sisters, be all the more eager to confirm your call and election, for if you do this, you will never stumble.
For in this way, entry into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be richly provided for you.
Therefore I intend to keep on reminding you of these things, though you know them already and are established in the truth that has come to you.2 Peter 1:3-12 (NRSV)
It seems right to remember this together at regular intervals.
[Idolatry with Baal-peor | A print from the Phillip Medhurst Collection of Bible illustrations in the possession of Revd. Philip De Vere at St. George’s Court, Kidderminster, England. Philip De Vere, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons]