1 While Israel dwelt in Shittim the people began to play the harlot with the daughters of Moab. 2 These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate, and bowed down to their gods. 3 So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel. (Nm 25:1-3)
This text is very important in Scripture, but has some needful background we must review. In another essay, we read about the Mosaic covenant. In short, God established a covenant with Israel through Moses, establishing covenant laws which were short and sweet; the first born men of Israel were priests and Israel was God’s first-born among the nations, a nation of priests for all humanity. Immediately, the Israelites broke the covenant, worshipping a golden calf: a cult of Apis leftover from their Egyptian habits. The result was a disaster: God punished them by established new terms for the covenant, terms which were difficult, complicated and which resulted in the Levitical priesthood with all its rules.
As if that weren’t bad enough, later on the Israelites were afraid to enter the Promised Land because their spies reported the people living there were very strong; they did not trust that God would defend them as He had previously done so when they left Egypt. So, God punished them by refusing them entry into the Promised Land; He led them though the Sinai wilderness for forty years – enough time for all the adults to die off. Their children would inherit the Promised Land, not them. (cf Nm 13:25-14:35)
And so it went: forty years they journeyed through the Sinai wilderness until no one was left except the children (grown up), Moses, Caleb, and Joshua. Caleb and Joshua were spared the Lord’s punishment, but not Moses: he too was to die before Israel crossed the Jorden River and entered their Promised Land. Noe, that first generation had perished by the time Israel arrived in the plains of Moab, where the Lord instructed Moses to number the people in census. (Recall the Book of Numbers begins with a census taken of the first generation of Israel at Sinai.) The census at Moab was of the surviving second generation:
63 These were those numbered by Moses and Eleazar the priest, who numbered the people of Israel in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho. 64 But among these there was not a man of those numbered by Moses and Aaron the priest, who had numbered the people of Israel in the wilderness of Sinai. 65 For the LORD had said of them, "They shall die in the wilderness." There was not left a man of them, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun. (Nm 26: 63-64)
But something tragic happened in this place, called Peor, there in the plains of Moab just east of the Jordan river, just before Israel was to enter and take possession of the land God had promised. The tragedy was the Israelite men of this second generation broke the covenant as their parents had done at Sinai. As our original text above says, they were seduced by the women of Moab, and they worshipped the Moabite god, called Baal of Peor. Their parents had worshipped the golden calf; the children worshipped Baal. This second generation showed the pattern that Israel would continuously follow: they would not stay faithful to the Lord. God punished this second generation with a plague that took 24,000 lives. Then came the census. As we read elsewhere, the purpose of a census was to count the number of men ready for battle. It was a symbol that Israel did not trust God to defend them and so they would need to defend themselves.
At this point in the narrative, we move to the Book of Deuteronomy, from the Greek word meaning, “second law.” The first law after the golden calf incident was harsh and difficult. It was punishment for worshipping the golden calf. Next came a second law, worse than the first, for worshipping Baal. The entire Book of Deuteronomy is a speech by Moses to the Israelites, giving them a new law based on the first one, and exhorting them to obey it as the enter the Promised Land. This second law is the work of Moses, not of God. The prophet Ezekiel, in his review of this second generation, notes this second law was not good:
21 But the children rebelled against me; they did not walk in my statutes… 23 Moreover I swore to them in the wilderness that I would scatter them among the nations and disperse them through the countries, 24 because they had not executed my ordinances, but had rejected my statutes and profaned my sabbaths, and their eyes were set on their fathers' idols. 25 Moreover I gave them statutes that were not good and ordinances by which they could not have life. (Ez 20:21-25)
This second law of Moses was indeed not good, because of the hard-heartedness of Israel. Moses had to make concessions, knowing that Israel would fail. Later, Jesus ‘fulfilled’ this Deuteronomic Law by removing the hard-heartedness of His people through grace and re-stating the moral elements of this law in Christian terms. During His Sermon of the Mount (cf Mt 5:21-48), Jesus pronounced the Six Antitheses, a re-telling of certain of these moral laws. In each case, he said, “You have heard that it was said…” and He quoted from Moses’ Deuteronomy. Then He corrected Moses, “but I say to you…” and He gave a corrected version. An example:
38 "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' 39 But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; 40 and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; 41 and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you. (Mt 5:38-42)
This is a correction of Dt 19:21, where Moses permitted a law of retaliation. Another example:
3 And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, "Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?" 4 He answered… “So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder." 7 They said to him, "Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?" 8 He said to them, "For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. (Mt 19:3-8)
Here, Jesus states clearly that Moses allowed divorce “for the hardness of their hearts.” This is fairly the theme of Deuteronomy. The Law of Exodus did not allow divorce, so Israelite men sometimes murdered their wives to escape marriage. To avoid this greater evil, Moses’ Second Law permitted divorce. Here, Jesus states as much, but His real message was that divorce is not permitted of His followers.
Then, we should see the entire Book of Deuteronomy, the Second Law, as a further punishment of Israel, who were not faithful, stemming from the incident at Peor. Moses gave this Second Law to them and then he died. Then Israel crossed over into the Promised Land with their “not good” Law by which they “could not have life.” It was not until Jesus came and fulfilled the Law that God’s people could have life, the life of God Himself given to us in grace.