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Baal Peor: Prostitution or Intermarriage?

baal-peor-prostitution-or-intermarriage

In 1 Corinthians 10:8, Paul said that we must not fornicate as some Israelites did, and 23,000 died. This referred to the Baal of Peor incident, where the Israelites committed fornication with the Moabite women and then sacrificed to their gods. Numbers 25 said that an Israelite, Zimri, brought a Midianite, Cozbi, to the camp. Meanwhile, Moses and the people wept at the tent [ohel] of meeting. Phineas went into the tent [Qubbah] and slew the couple. This turned away God’s wrath, but 24,000 died.

John Griffith claimed this verse shows it is “fornication still for us, under the Gospel” to marry members of “false churches.” If Numbers 25 refers to mixed marriages, then Christ himself calls exogamy fornication. In Revelations 2:14, Jesus said Balaam taught Balak to entice the Israelites, so they fornicated.

However, it is unclear whether Baal Peor included wedlock. The entire passage is confusing. It is uncertain whether Zimri and Cozbi were marrying or committing prostitution.

baal-peor-prostitution-or-intermarriage

So Many Questions

New Collegeville Bible Commentary: Old Testament, informed “There are more questions than answers in this story….. The plague…. comes as a surprise. When did it begin and why?” The commentary said most interpreters assume Zimri wed Cozbi and they were fornicating. However, the text doesn’t explicitly state either. The book also suggests that it is unknown whether the tent was part of the tent of meeting or a separate enclosure. It suggested that the tent [qubbah] in Numbers 25:8 was related to the tent shrines of nomadic Arabs, also called qubbah. If that was the case, Zimri might have “brought Cozbi in to perform a cultic ministry, pleading with God to end the plague just as Balak brought Balaam in to curse Israel.”

Victor P. Hamilton said Zimri unlawfully brought a Midianite into the inner room, probably for sex. He said, “The word in Hebrew for ‘inner room’ is used only here in the Old Testament. De Vaux… suggests that it may have been used for sacred prostitution.” He also said the act might have happened close to Israel’s sanctuary because of the tent of meeting reference.

David Weston Baker, Dale A. Brueggemann, and Eugene H. Merrill wrote a commentary on Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. They said the tent “may have even referred to her god’s tent-shrine…. If so, the sex there was not only promiscuous but also a pagan rite.”

So many questions. What did the word tent mean? Why was Cozbi a Midianite instead of a Moabite? Why did killing Zimri end the plague? When did the sickness start, and why did killing Zimri and Cozbi end it?

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Jewish Sources

Some Jewish sources reported the incident as prostitution and not intermarriage. According to Walter T. Wilson, Philo (born between 20 and 10 BC) describes the women as prostitutes. Later reiterations include harlotry as well. Balaam advised Balak to tempt the Israelites with prostitutes, who would sell the Israelites cheap cloth. (Tb Sanhedrin 106a (completed approximately 500 AD), cf. Bamidbar Rabbah, Midrash Tanchuma, Balak 18). In Targum Pseudo Jonathan (unknown date, could be as early as 361-363 AD), Balaam advised placing prostitutes in inns to sell underpriced food and drink instead of cloth.


Sanhedrin 106a said about Numbers 25:2, where the Moabites called people to bring offerings to their gods, "Rabbi Eliezer [lived around the mid to late first century to the second century] says: Naked women encountered them.” Rabbi Yehoshua, who lived around the same time, said the Israelite’s lust caused them to do something too graphic.

Pseudo Philo (dated in the first century) said Balaam advised Balak to adorn the most beautiful Moabite women with gold and jewels, and set them before the Israelites. In Ethnicity in the Ancient World, Erich Gruen stated this plan “has nothing to do with intermarriage, only with illicit fornication.”

Josephus, around 93 AD, connected intermarriage with this incident. In his story, Balaam advised Balak to send some of the most beautiful Moabite women to the Israelite camp and to company them when they sue their favors. After the men grew enamoured with them, they should leave. If the Israelites asked the ladies to stay, they shouldn’t consent until the Israelites agree to stop following God’s law and worship the Midianite and Moabite gods.

Sexual immorality could have begun before the intermarriage. Jonas E. Alexis said the Israelites became “blinded by lust and sexual immorality, they ‘fell into sedition’ and became ‘slaves’ of the Midianite women…”. Louis H. Feldman stated the women “at first surrender to the youths without any conditions; but once they perceive that the latter have been ensnared by passion, they, following Balaam’s advice, depart from them.” If this were the case, the premarital sex could have caused sexual immorality.

Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer 47 (dated between 8th and 9th centuries) says the Israelites “went beyond the camp of Israel and they saw the daughters of Midian, who had painted their eyes like harlots, and they took wives of them, and went astray after them.” However, in a textual note, Friedlander mentions that the first edition of the text didn’t have the entire section/story.

In the end, we can’t know whether the Israelites engaged in prostitution or mixed marriages. Some Jewish sources made it sound like prostitution. However, a couple did mention intermarriage. This should serve as a strong caution.

baal-peor-prostitution-or-intermarriage

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