And Balak took Balaam to the top of Peor, overlooking the wasteland.
Mount Peor might not be one of the most well-known physical locations in the Bible, but it played a pivotal part in the history of the Israelites. Peor overlooked one of the resting points of the Israelites on the Exodus route, and gave its name to a settlement nearby, Beth-Peor (Deuteronomy 3). It was from this point that Moses had to ascend Mount Pisgah to overlook the promised land – and also learn the galling news that because of his earlier disobedience, he’d never get to enter it. The location of the mountain is unclear: it’s somewhere East of the lower reaches of the Jordan: at this time it was in the land of Moab, later part of Reuben’s inheritance.
Peor is first mentioned in connection to the notorious Balaam, a prophet who tried to take money to curse the Israelites but was pretty much humiliated, first by a donkey, then by his own mouth (full story in Numbers 22-24). He was led by Balak, king of Moab, to the top of the mountain overlooking the Israelite encampment to have a final go at cursing Israel – instead, he had no choice but to say God’s words prophesying not just the power of Israel but also the coming Messiah.
This all contrasts pretty sharply with the events following in which Israel falls for the first time to idolatry and immorality – they worship the local god, Baal Peor and fall so far into sexual problems that God sends a plague killing 24,000 of them. Thus the Peor “incident” became a reference point for Israel’s fall from favour with God, the starting point for their cycle of obedience and disobedience – Psalm 106 includes it in its rundown of Israel’s greatest screw-ups. Hosea defines it as a turning point:
“When I found Israel, it was like finding grapes in the desert; when I saw your ancestors, it was like seeing the early fruit on the fig tree.
But when they came to Baal Peor, they consecrated themselves to that shameful idol and became as vile as the thing they loved.”
Numbers 31:16 makes it pretty clear that although his tongue was held on the mountain at Peor, Balaam still managed to sow some pretty treacherous seed, tricking the Israelites into taking on board idolatrous practices. The theme picked up in the New Testament epistles condemns the immediate profit of disobedience to God that proved so tempting to Balaam (Jude 11; 2 Peter 2:15) – it reminds me of Jesus’ warning though: “For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and is himself destroyed or lost?” (Luke 9:25, NKJV). Balaam found this out in the most literal way. Revelation 2:14 also reminds us not to let ourselves slip into a similar trap as the Israelites.
What should have been a miraculous blessing for them at Mount Peor turned into a shameful mess that haunted them for years - it’s pretty clear that accommodating any sin is going to mess a Christian up. While God generally reserves the most dramatic judgements for the first incident in its environment of a particular sin (compare the plague and massacre here with Nadab and Abihu doing things their own way; or Achan holding on to the evidence of his guilt; or Ananias and Sapphira at the birth of the church); nevertheless as sinful people we have consequence stacked upon consequence of our actions – no wonder life is hard. Thank goodness then for Jesus’ offer to take our burden away completely:
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
Location: possible location as per Bible Geocoding