Baal was the Canaanite god of fertility and agriculture. Baal-Peor was this same god who was worshiped in Moab centered at Peor. Numbers 25 records Israel betraying the Covenant in some way that concerned Peor. How should we understand this? Is it possible that worship of Baal-Peor is simply worship of Yahweh under a different name, as at least one critic has claimed? If so, how do we explain the 24000 Israelites who lost their lives through execution or a plague? How should we then interpret the war between Israel and Midian that developed afterward?
Sometimes it is difficult for modern readers to wrap their minds around some of the things we read in the Old Testament. It is a modern idea that church and state are separate entities. In the ANE culture if the Amorites fought and defeated Moab (as Scripture records Sihon, king of the Amorites, having done to Moab in Numbers 21:26), it meant that the gods of the Amorites were stronger than the gods of Moab, and the victorious king often had the gods of the defeated nation carried away to the temple of the victor’s main god (Daniel 11:8; cf. 1Samuel 4:11; 5:1-2). Nevertheless, Israel was never commanded to do such things. Rather the gods of the nations who fell in battle were to be destroyed with their temples (Deuteronomy 12:2-3). Israel was to behave differently, because his God, Yahweh, could not be characterized in the same manner as the gods of the nations were known. He was different; therefore, his people were to act differently (cf. Leviticus 11:44-45).
Baal was the chief god of the Canaanites, and Moabite worship of him was centered at Mt. Peor (Baal-Peor). The problem of worshiping other gods was bad enough, but what God (Yahweh) was particularly concerned about was the rituals associated with the worship of Baal and the gods of Canaan. Leviticus 18 records what God had commanded Israel to do, pertaining to their faithfulness to him, and it also listed what they were not to do, as that pertained to how the nations worshiped their gods (including Baal). Israel was not to live as the Canaanites (and other nations) lived, but were to keep Yahweh’s decrees and ordinances (Leviticus 18:1-5). Baal worshipers practiced incest (Leviticus 18:6-18), promiscuity (Leviticus 18:19-20), child sacrifice (Leviticus 18:21), homosexuality (Leviticus18:22) and bestiality (Leviticus 18:23). Such practices were detestable to the Lord (Yahweh) but were practiced by the nations in worship of their deities.
The book of Numbers records how Israel abandoned their covenant with Yahweh by becoming “joined” with Baal-Peor (Numbers 25:3). What we find here (Numbers 25:1-3) is very similar to what is earlier recorded in Exodus 32 where, while Moses was up on Mt. Sinai for 40 days, the Israelites made gods of gold and rose up to “play” – indicating the manner of worship they had learned in Egypt. In other words they engaged in ritualistic sexual activity with one another (Exodus 32:6).
“Among the Israelites, then, the Midianite and Moabite women continued to prostrate themselves in Baal worship, imitating fertility rituals. And one day, as all the Israelites were gathered in front of the tabernacle confessing their sin, the son of one of the leaders in the tribe of Simeon paraded before them with a Midianite woman, headed for his tent. Reading the situation clearly, Phinehas swung into action. By the time he reached them in the back (bedroom) part of the tent, the couple were already involved in sexual intercourse.” (Hard Sayings of the Bible; page 169)
“By bringing a Midianite woman to his family, this man was encouraging all of his male kin to participate in this forbidden ritual—even though the people were supposed to be repenting for their previous idolatry. The ‘chamber’ into which they enter appears to be in the sacred enclosure and therefore suggests ritual intercourse…” (The IVP Bible Background Commentary—Old Testament. Walton, Matthews, & Chalvalas. IVP:2000)
Thus, Israel “joined” with or became “yoked” with Baal-Peor by participating in ritual worship of the deity. Israel may have only been interested in sex and marrying these women, but the women caused them to behave in such a manner that what they were doing was not so much as engaging in promiscuity, as they were joining with Baal-Peor in a covenant ritual. Hence, God’s (Yahweh) charge that the Midianites had “deceived” Israel into doing what they had done concerning Peor (Numbers 25:16-18).
 This study is based upon a much larger study of Glenn Miller’s who hosts the Christian Think Tank website. His study can be found HERE. Although I have based my study on Glenn Miller’s, he may not fully endorse my conclusions or my interpretation of his work. The reader should consult Glenn’s studies and draw his own conclusion.