This story is significant because it marks the last of the deaths incurred by the faithlessness of the older generation. The final death is seen as an "atonement" for sin, and, from here on, the way is open to make a new census of the new generation (chapter 26) and to proceed to the land of promise.
The first sin in this story is the participation in the sacrificial worship of the "Baal of Peor" (or "lord of Peor," a local deity). This idolatrous worship is described in terms similar to the earlier worship of the golden calf, and it is met with the same fate (compare Numbers 25:2-3 and Exodus 32:6, 10). As in the calf incident, Moses urges that the guilty Israelites be killed (Exodus 32:27; Numbers 25:5). In Exodus, the killing of the guilty returns God's blessing upon Israel, and Moses attempts unsuccessfully to make atonement for the people (Exodus 32:29-35). In the Numbers story, the report of the dead does not come until later (25:9); the account is interrupted by the appearance of a single guilty man, taken in the act of intercourse with a Midianite woman; his death at the hands of Phinehas turns away God's wrath and makes atonement for the Israelites (25:10-13).
The importance of this story is seen in the way it is remembered in later tradition (Deuteronomy 4:3; Joshua 22:17; Hosea 9:10; Psalm 106:28). Deuteronomy especially regards it as a watershed event: "You have seen for yourselves what the LORD did with regard to the Baal of Peor--how the LORD your God destroyed from among you everyone who followed the Baal of Peor, while those of you who held fast to the LORD your God are all alive today" (4:3-4). Because of this story, Phinehas will be remembered as one of the great heroes of Israel (see "The Phinehas tradition" in Introductory Issues).
The death and life issues in this story are fierce. Apostasy brings on God's wrath, and a great plague that wipes out thousands. One individual sin is avenged in a grisly scene where the man and woman are run through with a spear, apparently during intercourse. Yet that death is seen to make atonement for the rest of the people, and the plagues are stopped. Indeed, all the Israelite deaths cease at this point in the book, and Israel can move on to the new land. Here, again, we see clearly the biblical teaching that "the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23)--not because God desires death, but because sinful acts have their own dire consequences. God allows a single death to make atonement for all, establishing through it a "covenant of peace" (Numbers 25:12), so new life can begin. Although a direct connection with this story is never made in the New Testament--no doubt because it would give false impressions of how God was at work in Jesus--nevertheless Hebrews does interpret Jesus' death as that of a "high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people" (Hebrews 2:17).
25While Israel was staying at Shittim, the people began to have sexual relations with the women of Moab. 2These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. 3Thus Israel yoked itself to the Baal of Peor, and the Lords anger was kindled against Israel. 4The Lord said to Moses, Take all the chiefs of the people, and impale them in the sun before the Lord, in order that the fierce anger of the Lord may turn away from Israel. 5And Moses said to the judges of Israel, Each of you shall kill any of your people who have yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor.
6 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. 7When Phinehas son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he got up and left the congregation. Taking a spear in his hand, 8he went after the Israelite man into the tent, and pierced the two of them, the Israelite and the woman, through the belly. So the plague was stopped among the people of Israel. 9Nevertheless, those that died by the plague were twenty-four thousand.
10 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 11Phinehas 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. 12Therefore say, I hereby grant him my covenant of peace. 13It shall be for him and for his descendants after him a covenant of perpetual priesthood, because he was zealous for his God, and made atonement for the Israelites.
New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org