Read verses 1-3
Q: What is significant about “Shittim” in terms of Israel’s travels?
A: It is the very last place they will reside in the wilderness before embarking on the conquest of Canaan.
Q: How do we know that this event didn’t come about by chance, but was a specific plan of spiritual attack against Israel?
A: It’s later revealed that this came about on the advice of Balaam, the man who couldn’t curse Israel but apparently did not have any qualms in advising Israel’s enemies how to overcome them through spiritual corruption.
And Moses said to them, “Have you spared all the women? Behold, these caused the sons of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, so the plague was among the congregation of the Lord.”
— Numbers 31:15-16
Balaam’s specific actions are further documented...
But I have a few things against you, because you have there some who hold the teaching of Balaam, who kept teaching Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols and to commit acts of immorality.
— Revelation 2:14
Q: Who is “Baal of Peor”?
A: “Baal” means “lord” or “master” and “Peor” is a mountain in the region. The real name of this false god worshiped by the Moabites is “Chemosh” and “Baal-peor” describes a high place of Chemosh worship. The worship of Chemosh involved the worst kind of public, sexual practices. In other words, sexual immorality was an actual part of their worship.
Q: What is the key phrase in these verses that describes the Israelites both literally and spiritually?
A: “...the people began to play the harlot” (v.1) They are not just being literally unfaithful by engaging in sexual immorality with the Moabite women, but spiritually unfaithful to God in that the sexual enticement was a part of worshiping a false god. This is what is meant in v.3 by the phrase, “Israel joined themselves to Baal of Peor”; it was spiritual intercourse as much as earthly.
Q: How was this a test for Israel regarding the Promised Land?
A: They were experiencing the real dangers God had foretold of not completely destroying such influences, and in turn being enticed by them.
Point: What could not be accomplished by an attempt at war or effected by sorcery and divination, came about by sexual immorality. The attack is on one’s personal relationship with God.
Application: Have you ever known of a cult or false teacher that incorporates sexual practices into their overall teaching? (Examples are David Koresh, Jim Jones, etc.) False teachers justify the introduction of sinful practices into their congregations in the name of God and in the places that people meet in His name. They make it seem like a “natural” extension of worship and fellowship.