Then an Israelite man brought to his family a Midianite woman right before the eyes of Moses and the whole assembly of Israel while they were weeping at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. When Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, saw this, he left the assembly, took a spear in his hand and followed the Israelite into the tent. He drove the spear through both of them—through the Israelite and into the woman’s body. Then the plague against the Israelites was stopped; but those who died in the plague numbered 24,000.
The LORD said to Moses, “Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, has turned my anger away from the Israelites; for he was as zealous as I am for my honor among them, so that in my zeal I did not put an end to them. Therefore tell him I am making my covenant of peace with him. He and his descendants will have a covenant of a lasting priesthood, because he was zealous for the honor of his God and made atonement for the Israelites.”
The name of the Israelite who was killed with the Midianite woman was Zimri son of Salu, the leader of a Simeonite family. And the name of the Midianite woman who was put to death was Cozbi daughter of Zur, a tribal chief of a Midianite family. (Numbers 25:6-15)
Giving into temptation doesn’t lead to happiness. Balak, the king of Moab, had asked Balaam to curse the Israelites. Instead, Balaam offered Israel repeated blessings. But he had told Balaam that he could harm Israel by sending women to seduce the Israelite men into idolatry (see Numbers 25:1-3, 31:15-16, Revelation 2:14).
When Phinehas, one of Aaron’s grandsons, witnessed an Israelite man taking a Midianite woman into his tent, he took direct action and killed them both with a single blow. The Midianites were allied with the Moabites. God praised Phinehas for his zeal and rewarded him with a promise: his descendents would always be priests before God.
Phinehas’ actions might seem disturbing to us, but as a priest, he was acting not as a vigilante, but as a representative of the people. The Israelites had made a contract with God that they would worship him alone and obey his regulations. The consequence of disobedience was severe. In fact, it was just this sort of disobedience that would lead God, a few hundred years later, to send Israel into captivity in Babylon. Phinehas was working to try to keep that from happening, just as a police officer might use deadly force if necessary to keep a criminal from harming someone.