Numbers 25:10-29:40: A ‘snake’ again becomes an icon of salvation

Serpents are quiet, cunning, quick to act when a threat is imminent. A serpent bought a curse on mankind (Genesis 3) and we now meet a “serpent” who boldly and decisively saved his people from those who would deceive them to destruction. Later, Eliyahu (Elijah) also learned that God’s preferred way to communicate with His people is not through thunder and lightning but a “still small voice.”

The Torah reading פינחס Pinchas (“Phinehas,” Numbers 25:10–29:40) starts with the culmination of the events in the prior portion (parashah). The culmination of Israel “playing the harlot” with idolatry ended when Pinchas (Phineas), Aaron’s grandson, speared a Shimonite chieftain and a Midianite chieftain’s daughter through with a spear. Both of them were mentioned by name so they were both people of reputation.

“While Israel remained at Shittim, the people began to play the harlot with the daughters of Moab.” (Numbers 25:1 NASB)

This event was so significant, it’s even spoken about in the book of Revelation (Jude 1:11; Revelation 2:14). We can miss the why if we don’t understand the why of the original event.

Many would say that this shocking incident was a profound overreaching. After all, they were just two consenting adults doing their own thing. What’s the big deal that Pinchas couldn’t wait until they were done? Why did Pinchas have to put an end to them right in the act?

We have to wrestle with this story’s significance. This section starts with rebellion and ends with how to reconnect with God.

What is your connection to the Lord? What is taking you away from your connection to the Lord? Do you notice how God is trying to make a connection with you?

We will see in this story of utter rebellion we also see a longing for connection and reconciliation.

The name of Pinchas has two main definitions in the lexicons:

One theory is that his name comes from a loan word from the Egyptian Pe-nehasi, which means black man. Some believe that he may have been dark skinned like the Nubians or Ethiopians.

Another theory is that his name means mouth of a serpent, referring to craftiness of speech. We also recall the bronze serpent, that healed the people when they looked upon it.

A serpent bought a curse on mankind and we now see a serpent who saves instead.

“Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Phinehas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, has turned away My wrath from the sons of Israel in that he was jealous with My jealousy among them, so that I did not destroy the sons of Israel in My jealousy. “Therefore say, ‘Behold, I give him My covenant of peace; and it shall be for him and his descendants after him, a covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the sons of Israel.’”” (Numbers 25:10–13 NASB)

How does violence bring peace? Phineas stopped the wrath of God. What is it that we actually face in this world? There are some who want to destroy society. They are picking apart and lashing out at whatever they can to bring chaos to society.

To restore order and to bring back peace, sometime peaceful people have to use violence to subdue the violent. If a body has cancer and it’s metastasizing, you can’t leave it alone. You have to stop it and take it out.

The Apostle Paul says that we are to take all thoughts captive and make them subject to the law of the Messiah (2Corinthians 10:5).

The Messiah is the King of Peace, the King of Righteousness. Revelations tells us He will come with a sword out of his mouth. His words bring a harsh result.

When do we do in ourselves when we see the Midianite enticements come into our lives, do we just let the come in unopposed, or do we send in for reinforcements?

Paul tells us in Romans 13 that God has delegated authority to governments. When God gives the sword to the authorities to keep order, sometimes they get it horribly wrong. In Israel’s history, King Solomon, the wise king, enslaved his people.

The American Revolution was founded on freedom, it can only be free if the individual people are self-governed. If people don’t govern themselves, than the controls and fences have to be put up by the government.

There were some societies that started change from the top down versus the bottom up. I would submit to you that those who saw change from the top down fared much better than those who saw change from the bottom down.

In America, our revolution started from the top down. The French Revolution started from the bottom up.

I can’t believe that the French people celebrate Bastille Day. That was one of the greatest disasters in French History. Although the king was thrown out, what came after it? The Reign of Terror and Napoleon. The French ended up right back where they started with a bloodbath in between.

The Jewish people put fences around the Torah, but you really have to be careful about what you put up as a fence and if you put up too many fences, you don’t bring people closer to God but push them away from Him.

Fences are bad if they keep people who want to approach God and whom God wants to come to him separated.

We need to pay attention to what actually brings peace. Peace is not just the end of hostilities. Sometimes, it’s just a brief pause so the opponents can reload their guns. Just not having aggression doesn’t mean peace or shalom.

Another thing we see in this reading is the second census. What is the difference between when God calls for a census v. when people call for a census?

Moses and Aaron did not call for this census. It’s important for the people not to number themselves. Usually a census is for one of two reasons: to raise an army or to apportion land.

When we review these numbers, we notice the ups and downs in each tribe.1

Tribe Numbers 1–2 Numbers 26 Change
Reuben

46,500

43,730

2,770

Shimon (Simeon)

59,300

22,200

-37,100

Gad

45,650

40,500

-5,150

Yehudah (Judah)

74,600

76,500

1,900

Issachar

54,400

64,300

9,900

Zebulun

57,400

60,500

3,100

Yosef: Ephraim

40,500

32,500

-8,000

Yosef: Manasseh

32,200

52,700

20,500

Ben Yamin (Benjamin)

35,400

45,600

10,200

Dan

62,700

64,400

1,700

Asher

41,500

53,400

11,900

Naphtali

53,400

45,400

-8,000

Total

603,550

601,730

-1,820

Levi

22,300

23,000

700

Reuben only had a net change of about 27 people after 38 years in the wilderness. But Shimon, wow, lost 37,000 in population over the 38 years. Yehudah is now the largest tribe. The tribe of Manasseh nearly doubled in size over the same period.

The source of the reduction in the census of Reuben is the rebellion of Korah in Numbers 16.

If we look back at the rebellion in Numbers 16, it was lead by the Levite/Koathite family of Korah and a Natan and Abiram from the tribe of Reuben. They did not consider Moses and Aharon legitimate leaders.

Korah was from the Kohat family of Levi, responsible for carrying the “most holy things” of the Sanctuary (Numbers 4:1–20), but they couldn’t touch them or see them in operation.

Aharon and his sons would cover and uncover these items.
Korah and others from Levi with him resented that they couldn’t serve as priests too.

“ ‘You have gone far enough, for all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is in their midst; so why do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?’” (Numbers 16:3 NASB)

Moshe responded, prostrating before the LORD in reverence to his authority:

“ ‘Tomorrow morning the LORD will show who is His, and who is holy, and will bring him near [] to Himself; even the one whom He will choose, He will bring near to Himself. Do this: take censers for yourselves, Korah and all your company, and put fire in them, and lay incense upon them in the presence of the LORD tomorrow; and the man whom the LORD chooses shall be the one who is holy. You have gone far enough, you sons of Levi!’ ” (Numbers 16:5–7 NASB)

Moshe repeats Korah’s phrase back to him as a warning: רַב־לָכֶם rav-lachem, literally, “much for you,” i.e., “it’s too much for you.

Korah was permitted to carry the most holy things of the Temple, which help the people draw near to God and they were quibbling about who should be in charge? The Lord is the one who brings people near to Him. It is the Lord who decides who can come near.

The budding of Aaron’s rod brought made that point even more obvious that Aaron was His choice as High Priest. The question is: Do we accept God’s authority to choose His own representatives?

The people of God have struggled with understanding what God is doing. When you read the book of Jonah and see how the people of Nineveh repented more quickly than the people of God did. The Israelites had the temple and they weren’t as “in tune” with God as the people of Nineveh.

But “The sons of Korah, however, did not die” (Num. 26:11).

“ ‘Fathers shall not be put to death for their sons, nor shall sons be put to death for their fathers; everyone shall be put to death for his own sin.’ ” (Deuteronomy 24:16 NASB)

Do we learn from history? Do we learn from the mistakes of our fathers? The apostles and prophets were there to remind people what happened to prior generations.

The generation curse is not scripturally supported but if you don’t learn from their mistakes, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy to fall into those mistakes.

Korah, Dan and Abiram died with their families when the ground opened up, and 250 other leaders of the people offering incense were burned up as part of the rebellion. But those clans had years to recover some of their numbers before this second census.

The tribe of Shimon, however, lost nearly 63% of its numbers over more than 38 years since the first census.

Some speculate that the judgment of Numbers 25 also fell on Shimon, and it didn’t have time to recover as Reuben did.

What is work as it relates to the sacrifices, the Shabbats and the Feasts? There are two Hebrew words that are usually translated as “work” in English. We see the phrase “laborious work” which is מְלֶאכֶת עֲבֹדַת mᵉleʾḵeṯ ʿᵃḇōḏaṯ.

Let’s break this down. The Hebrew word for work is מְלָאכָה melaʾkhah (H4399) which means “work, business, task, assignment” This is the root word for melek, which is the title used for angels and kings. They are servants to make sure God’s will is done on earth.

The Hebrew word that we translate as “laborious” is עֲבֹדַת ʿavodat (עבדה, H5656) which means “service, worship.”

Laborious work is work that is part of a task or assignment. This phrase is used in:

  • Ex. 36:1, 3
    • “work in the construction [or service] of the sanctuary”
  • Lev. 23:7-8, 21, 25, 35-36
    • “you shall not do any laborious work”
    • “you shall not do any laborious work of any kind” (first day of Sukkot)
  • Num. 28:18, 25-26; 29:1, 12, 35
    • “you shall not do any laborious work”
  • 1Chron. 9:13; 28:13, 20; 2Chron. 24:12
    • “the work of the service of the house of the LORD”

God’s call to approach is not just for elite families, but for all people. In 1 Kings 18-19, we read a similar story to what we see in today’s reading. Elijah encountered a real crisis in leadership.

“Elijah came near to all the people and said, “How long will you hesitate between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him.” But the people did not answer him a word.” (1 Kings 18:21 NASB)

After Elijah’s great victory on Mt. Carmel, he flees from Ahab and Jezebel and fled from them without even packing himself any provisions. He traveled for 40 days to Mt. Horeb, after the angel had given him some food.

It’s the opposite of the story of Yeshua’s temptation in the wilderness when He was fed by angels after his 40 days of testing.

“So He said, “Go forth and stand on the mountain before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD was passing by! And a great and strong wind was rending the mountains and breaking in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of a gentle blowing. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave. And behold, a voice came to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”” (1 Kings 19:11–13 NASB)

When God spoke at Mt. Horeb during the Exodus, He spoke in the wind, the earthquake and fire yet here, He speaks quietly. When someone speaks quietly, you have to work to listen to their message. God reassures Elijah that there will be 7,000 who reject the baals and follow YHVH alone.

As we read about the handoff of leadership from Moses to Joshua is similar to what we see with Elijah to Elisha and from Yeshua to His apostles. When someone lays hands, it’s not just a tap, but there is a weight that comes with it. You lean into the person you are laying hands upon. The leader leans upon the successor so they understand the weight of leadership they are taking up on.

At Pentecost in Acts 2, it was not just a passing of leadership from one person to another but from one person to 120.

“As they were going along the road, someone said to Him, “I will follow You wherever You go.” And Jesus said to him, “The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” And He said to another, “Follow Me.” But he said, “Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father.” But He said to him, “Allow the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim everywhere the kingdom of God.” Another also said, “I will follow You, Lord; but first permit me to say good-bye to those at home.” But Jesus said to him, “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”” (Luke 9:57–62 NASB)

Elijah presented Elisha’s with a similar call. What we see when presented a choice, Elisha basically walked out on a limb and cut it off behind him. He was all-in to follow Elijah and Elijah gave his mantle of authority to Elisha.

We can encounter these passages and remember that even in “long winded” passages, God’s still small voice can speak to us.

Summary: Tammy

Banner Photo: Snakes are cautious creatures but will strike with veracity if they feel threatened. Photo by Krys Squires/Freeimages.com under Creative Commons License


  1. Lancaster, Daniel. “Pinchas.” Torah Club: Depths of the Torah. Vol. 5. Marshfield, Mo.: First Fruits of Zion, 2010. p. 1129. 

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