The Baal-Peor Incident in Numbers 25

The Baal-Peor Incident – Problems with Numbers 25

Who caused the Israelites to worship the false god of Baal of Peor: the Moabites or the Midianites? (Numbers 25:1-2 vs Numbers 25:16-18, 31:15-16)

Numbers 25:1-5 is a Yahwist text, and Numbers 25:6-18 is a Priestly account, which helps to explain the contradiction in this narrative, because the women engaging in intimate relations with the Israelite men are Moabites in Numbers 25:1 (J); but they are Midianite in Numbers 25:6; 31:1-16 (P). This change is consistent with other times when the Priestly author of the Biblical texts attacks the Mushite priesthood. 1 Defaming Midianite women is a denigration of Moses’ wife, who happens to be a Midianite (Exodus 2:16-21), which is something that the Priestly author does on occasion in these stories. 2

Similarly, the present story of the Israelites’ apostasy, following the cult of Baal at Peor doesn’t make much sense when compared to the positive representation of the Israelites as loyal to Jehovah throughout Numbers 21-24, as God granted them a victory against the Canaanites at Hormah, and against the Amorites in Moab, and again against the desired cursing of the Israelites by the Moabite king Balak.

From a religious or theological perspective, Numbers 25 seems to come out of nowhere, causing students of the Bible confusion. How do we read of the Israelites faithfully fulfilling God’s commands, having victory in Numbers 21, only to be cursed in chapter 25? It would seem that this story in Numbers 25 comes from another textual tradition, or that part of the story transitioning from faithfulness to apostasy has been removed from the text. These chapters (Numbers 22-25) can be difficult to delineate sources, yet when we read them, we can see contradictions and confusing parts due to their being spliced together from different sources. 3

Numbers 25 has a serious contradiction that should not be missed: there seem to be two oral traditions present in this text: an earlier version where the Moabites, specifically Moabite women, lead the Israelites to follow Baal, and a later reworking of this story where the Midianites replace the Moabites. This makes sense, as the Priestly author came later after the Yahwist textual tradition 4. The Priestly author made the case against Moses as the legitimate leader of the House of Israel, and one way he did this was to denigrate Midian, since Moses is married to a Midianite woman, Zipporah (Exodus 2:16-21). By belittling Midian, the author of the P text is lessening the status of Moses.

This account, what some call the “Baal-Peor incident”, places the role of the apostate women in different camps. Numbers 25:1-5 tell us that this affair only involves Israelites and Moabites, while in Numbers 25:16-17 and 31:15-16 these Moabites are changed to be Midianites who have led the Israelite men into apostasy. This story can be a bit confusing when in Numbers 25:1-8 we read that Phineas, a descendant of Aaron, thrusts a javelin through a man and a Midianite woman. The King James Version of the text doesn’t make much sense here, so I will refer to another translation which says, “and he came to the Israelite to the enclosure” (Numbers 25:8 – Enclosure = Hebrew “qubba”) which refers to the inner sanctum of the Tent of Meeting, or Holy Tabernacle. This is an allusion to an Israelite man having relations with a Midianite woman at the temple – scandalous indeed! 5

In this Midianite storyline given to us from the Priestly text, the Midiante women which led to the apostasy of Israel is given as the pretext to kill all Midianites except for the virgin girls (Numbers 31:1-20), while nothing is said about the Moabites, since the Moabite women narrative comes to us from a different textual tradition, the Yahwist, or the J author. To me this is evidence that the Priestly author reworked the material of the J text to fit his need to downplay or denigrate Moses.

As a side note, it is interesting to notice that the people are also mourning in Numbers 25:6. The text reads, “And, behold, one of the children of Israel came and brought unto his brethren a Midianitish woman in the sight of Moses, and in the sight of all the congregation of the children of Israel, who were weeping before the door of the tabernacle of the congregation.” Why were they mourning? This is another problem solved when we see that the Bible is put together using different sources. The last verse of the P narrative before this verse in Numbers 25 is Numbers 20:29, the conclusion of the account of Aaron’s death. It says, “And when all the congregation saw that Aaron was dead, they mourned for Aaron thirty days, even all the house of Israel.” After a four chapter interruption, P now continues where it left off: “all the congregation of the children of Israel were mourning.”


It seems that once we realize that the J narrative came before the P text, that we can see that the original story had the villains of this story be Moabites, only to have the Priestly author change this to the daughters of Midian, as a way of denigrating Moses, as this author has in other texts (see footnote 1). Textual changes like this can make the Bible very confusing, but once we see that these texts were put to paper by schools or authors that were human, with human agendas, we see the Bible more clearly. It is human. It has the fingerprints of humanity all throughout. Despite this, it also contains inspirational truths about Christ throughout it as well.


1. The Mushites were Levitical priests who traced their lineage and authority back to Moses. I would suggest that this body of cultic professionals were what scholars call the “Mushite priests” (from the Hebrew muši, “[ones from] Moshe/Moses” found in Exodus 6:19; Numbers 3:19, 26:58 and elsewhere). This group, which some scholars believed may have controlled some of the major sanctuaries in the north during the early Israelite period, housed priests who claimed descent from Moses. There are other scholars who make a case that these Mushite priests were out of power (see 1 Kings 12), and that they wrote in the hope that the non-Levite priests of the north in Israel would be rejected, and their group would be installed into positions of power. See Friedman, Who wrote the Bible? P. 70-75.

2. In P we read stories that put Moses down, or make Moses appear less than Aaron. Exodus 6:30, a P text, says that Moses is of “uncircumcised lips”. In P Aaron is Moses’ older brother, in P, Moses’ staff is actually Aaron’s staff as well. The Priestly author is very interested in elevating Aaron to a superior position to Moses, thereby establishing the legitimacy of the family of Aaron and its priestly interests.

3. The Bible with Sources Revealed, p. 280. Richard Friedman states: The Balaam episode is perhaps the hardest section in the Torah in which to delineate sources. Most scholars regard this three-chapter story as a composite: first, because they think of the accounts of repeated sets of ambassadors to Balaam as a doublet; and second, because they think there is a contradiction in the story when God tells Balaam to go with the Moabites but then is angry at him for going. I am not at all certain that these things are evidence of two sources. The several embassies to Balaam, each composed of more distinguished ambassadors, may well be the original progression of the story. And the confusion over God’s sending Balaam and then being angry at him is surprising but still understandable as a single author’s development, and it is not easily resolved by separating this section into two sources in any case. Evidence of language is a strong marker of sources than these considerations. The vast majority of the terms and phrases here that are identical with a particular source are typical of E, while only three are typical of J. And there is a particular cluster of terms and phrases here that are also found in Exodus 10 (E). And the deity is referred to as God (Elohim) in narration here seven times. I therefore have marked the story as wholly E, except that I have marked those three J passages so that one can observe them and make of it what one will.

4. Victor Hurowitz, P – Understanding the Priestly Source, Bible Review, June, 1996. Hurowitz writes: No modern scholar would venture a Mosaic date for the Priestly literature. This material contains certain historical allusions that cannot predate the divided monarchy (the united monarchy, after King Solomon’s death in about 920 B.C.E., broke into two kingdoms—Israel in the north and Judah in the south). In P, for instance, Aaron is married to the sister of a prince of Judah, indicating some relationship between the priestly family and the royal family or house of David (Exodus 6:23): Thus the story must postdate the beginning of the Davidic monarchy and cannot reflect the desert period. In a list of men assigned to divide up the land, the representatives of the tribes of Judah, Simeon and Benjamin are not called nesi’im“chieftains,” while the heads of the other tribes do bear this title. This dichotomy may reflect the divided monarchy in which Judah, Simeon and Benjamin constituted the southern kingdom. Also, the Tabernacle, which is at the center of the Priestly source, is …a kind of pre-monarchic Tent of Meeting overlaid by the image of the Jerusalem Temple; thus the P source must have come after Solomon built the Temple. See also: Richard Friedman, The Bible with Source Revealed, p. 27: “It reveals that P was composed later than JE, that it was composed by someone who was familiar with J and E in their combined form, and it indicates that P was composed as an alternative to that JE version of Israel’s story. It was a retelling of the story in terms that were more suitable to the Aaronid priesthood.”

5. The Bible with Sources Revealed, 288. Friedman writes: That is why it must be a priest who goes in after them, and that is why he can execute them on the spot, with no trial: this is what is done to a nonpriest who enters the Tent of Meeting. This also explains why there is a plague that has seemingly come from nowhere. P says earlier that a plague came if the people came too close to the holy zone of the Tent of Meeting: “so there will not be a plague in the children of Israel when the children of Israel would come near to the Holy” (Numbers 8:19)


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3 Responses to The Baal-Peor Incident in Numbers 25

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