Were they not cleansed yet because Christ hadn't appeared yet? Or is it just saying that idolatry was still among them?

Joshua 22:17 (KJV) Is the iniquity of Peor too little for us, from which we are not cleansed until this day, although there was a plague in the congregation of the LORD

3 Answers 3


Cleanse Yourself

On the surface, the answer is straight-forward: the people had not cleansed themselves by getting rid of the idols and/or jewelry of foreign gods.

Shortly after the incident at the Jordan, Joshua tells the people:

Now therefore fear the LORD and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD.
(Joshua 24:15 ESV)

And the people said to Joshua, “No, but we will serve the LORD.” Then Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the LORD, to serve him.” And they said, “We are witnesses.” He said, “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your heart to the LORD, the God of Israel.” (Joshua 24:21-23 ESV)

The word "cleansed" in Joshua 22:17 is טָהֵר first used in Genesis describing a similar situation:

And Jacob saith unto his household, and unto all who [are] with him, `Turn aside the gods of the stranger which [are] in your midst, and cleanse yourselves, and change your garments
(Genesis 35:2 YLT)

Of Jacob's instructions the Pulpit Commentary says:

Put away the strange gods - literally, the gods of the stranger, including most likely the teraphim of Laban, which Rachel still retained, and other objects of idolatrous worship, either brought by Jacob's servants from Mesopotamia, or adopted in Canaan, or perhaps possessed by the captives - that are among you, and be clean, - literally, cleanse yourselves. [Genesis 35:2]

Jacob's family needed to cleanse themselves by getting rid of their objects which served as idols:

And they give unto Jacob all the gods of the stranger that [are] in their hand, and the rings that [are] in their ears, and Jacob hideth them under the oak which [is] by Shechem;
(Genesis 35:4 YLT)

By ridding themselves of the idols and certain jewelry representing the gods of the stranger, they were cleansed. In Joshua, some of the people, like Jacob's household, had objects in their possession from Peor. The people knew they had not cleansed themselves:

Have we not had enough of the sin at Peor from which even yet we have not cleansed ourselves… (Joshua 22:17 ESV)

Unlike Jacob’s family, the people had not disposed of their idolatrous objects and as a result, they knew they were not cleansed. Shortly thereafter Joshua tells them to put aware the foreign gods among you; presumably they do and Joshua renews the covenant (Joshua 24:14-26).

The difficulty with this scenario is in the conquest of Jericho where Achan takes items and hides them in his tent. This causes the LORD to say:

Israel has sinned; they have transgressed my covenant that I commanded them; they have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen and lied and put them among their own belongings. Therefore the people of Israel cannot stand before their enemies. They turn their backs before their enemies, because they have become devoted for destruction. I will be with you no more, unless you destroy the devoted things from among you. Get up! Consecrate the people and say, ‘Consecrate yourselves for tomorrow; for thus says the LORD, God of Israel, “There are devoted things in your midst, O Israel. You cannot stand before your enemies until you take away the devoted things from among you.” (Joshua 7:11-13 ESV)

The only items which are removed are those found in Achan’s tent which had been taken from Jericho (not Peor). This implies there were no other items among the people.

There are several ways to reconcile the people having objects from Peor after Jericho:

  1. They had them when they entered the land and were considered their possessions, not devoted things which they had been instructed to destroy.
  2. They were disposed of but (some) went back (later) and recovered them.
  3. The cultic practices of Baal Peor were also followed in Canaan. When the people conquered those cities where they were not required to destroy everything, (some) people took new objects to replace the ones from Peor.

Regardless of whether the objects were original to event at Peor or replacements, their presence among the people recalled the events of Peor and the people knew they were not cleansed.

Atonement by Another

Atonement, כָּפַר [H3722-kaphar], means to cover. Literally to make atonement is to cover. At Baal Peor, Phinehas made atonement for the people of Israel by killing Zimri and Cozbi:

And the LORD said to Moses, “Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy. Therefore say, ‘Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace, and it shall be to him and to his descendants after him the covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the people of Israel.’” (Numbers 25:10-13 ESV)

While there is no mention of cleansing in this event, this would come when the annual Day of Atonement ritual was completed:1

For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you. You shall be clean before the LORD from all your sins. (Leviticus 16:30 ESV)

The Day of Atonement calls for four animals: one bull, two goats, and one ram. The bull is a sin offering for the High Priest and for his house. The goats are for the people. The ram is for a burnt offering. One goat is killed to make atonement for the Holy Place and for the Tent of Meeting. Then blood of the goat and bull is used to make atonement for the altar before the LORD. Then the second goat is presented live. The High Priest places both hands on the head of the live goat and by confessing all of the transgression and sins of the people, puts them on the head of the goat. Then the goat is led away into the wilderness. When the ceremony is completed, the people’s sins are both covered and carried away and they are cleansed.

In comparing the cleansing which results from the actions of the High Priest with that called for by Jacob, there are notable differences. In one the High Priest acts on behalf of the people; in the other the people act themselves. In terms of sin and idols, in one the sins are carried off by the live goat; in the other, the idols are removed by the people. In other words, on the Day of Atonement the sins would be carried off leaving the idols in their place.

Similarly at Baal Peor, Phinehas made atonement for Israel by killing Zimri and Cozbi. But what became of the idols? There is no mention of Phinehas taking them away or of the people getting rid of them. Given the events described in Joshua, we must assume some of the people kept them.

The events in Joshua underscore a difference between atonement and being cleansed. The annual Atonement will make atonement, but if a single person has decided to be joined to Baal of Peor and keep their idols, that person is not cleansed and the presence of even a single person’s idols impacts everyone (as Achan did at Jericho).

In the commentary on Joshua Carol Meyers says about verse 22:17:

Recalling the sin of Peor…marks the seriousness of their action by comparing it to a particularly grievous sin, where according to the notion of corporate responsibility, the sins of a few can bring punishment to the whole.

At Baal Peor Phinehas made atonement for Israel and the plague was stopped because of his actions. He was rewarded with a covenant of peace and a covenant of perpetual priesthood. Nevertheless, year later the foreign gods of Peor remained among the people causing them to recognize they had not cleansed themselves.

1. There is no record of any Day of Atonement ceremony being carried out. The assumption is they were done according to the law.
2. Carol Meyers, The Jewish Study Bible, Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 502

  • (+1) I will accept yours as the best answer, but can you please address the fact that they were atoned for through the actions of phinehas. Did that atonement cleanse them ?
    – diego b
    Jan 9, 2018 at 18:07
  • 1
    @diegob I added my thoughts on atonement. Jan 10, 2018 at 9:06

Interesting question...thanks.

  1. There is no doubt, for me, that the first Peor episode was atoned for (exceedingly).

a. Num. 25:3, "And Israel joined himself unto Baalpeor: and the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel.

b. Num. 25:13 - "And he (Phinehas) shall have it, and his seed after him, [even] the covenant of an everlasting priesthood, because he was zealous for his God, and made an atonement for the childrenn of Israel.

c. God then brought the plague (Num. 26:1); afterwards God killed Israelites 20 yrs and older by swallowing them up etc. (Num. 26:10).

  1. In Num. 31:15, God wants Israel to avenge the Midianites. (It doesn't say that God told Moses make the following decisions:)

a. Num. 31:15-18 - (15) And Moses said unto them, Have ye saved all the women alive? (16) Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the LORD in the matter of Peor, and there was plague among the congregation of the LORD. (17) Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. (18) But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.

So, I wonder if the "little/remnant" of Peor that was retained by keeping the virgins is what Phinehas could be referring to - that they had not yet been cleansed of them completely. Are the Israelites 'harboring evil' - any still 'receiving counsel from Balaam'? Is Phinehas questioning whether the tribes of Gad, Reuben, and Manasseh have succumbed - as seemingly evidenced by the building of a second altar?

More questions arose as I pondered these passages. (Not meant to be addressed in this thread.)

  1. Is there significance that Gad, Reuben and Manasseh teamed up?
  2. How is it that Reuben and Gad, in particular, had such great quantities of cattle (which prompted their separation from the whole)?
  3. With so many statutes that had to be obeyed, how could those outlying tribes keep making the trek back to 'Israel proper' to partake of feasts, sin-offerings, etc.
  4. If they did return for all of the requirements, why wouldn't that guarantee that the children of the tribes did not forget God? What need for an impotent altar? Was the 'reasoning' behind the second altar simply clever deceit?

Again, I appreciate the prompt to study these passages more deeply.

  • I agree that the scripture says an atonement was made for the children of Israel, it seems like the atonement was for them as a whole. So I don't see how it's talking about " the renment " of the virgins kept alive, because the children of isreal said WE are not cleansed until this day. And they obeyed Moses in keeping the virgins alive, so that wouldn't be wrong. If Moses was wrong for commanding that, then the Most High would punish Moses not the others, just like he did when Moses struck the rock twice when he was not supposed to
    – diego b
    Sep 2, 2017 at 4:24
  • @diego b - The Peor virgiin angle is the only one that, thus far, seems plausible (haven't read a commentary that gave a direct answer). Aaron wasn't punished for the golden calf - but perhaps Moses was told to say those things and it wasn't recorded. Sometimes God sees the heart and lets folks play out their waywardness. Separating from the main body of Israelites is suspect - as if God couldn't have provided for the excess cattle? Reuben's tribe being one of the 'defectors' maybe gives me more pause.
    – tblue
    Sep 2, 2017 at 4:50
  • But Aaron was called out on his sin. There was nothing said about Moses being in the wrong. Therefore I don't see it right condemn him as being the cause of the children of Israel not being cleansed.
    – diego b
    Sep 2, 2017 at 5:25
  • @diego b - No condemnation of Moses. Just found it noteworthy, objectively, that such high-impact orders weren't indicated to be from God. Moses' direction in this matter is quite odd, to me. The Israelites conquered a lot of peoples...where else do we hear this behavior? Not passing judgment, just investigating and trying to understand.
    – tblue
    Sep 2, 2017 at 6:21
  • Deut. 20:13-19 is a contender.
    – tblue
    Sep 2, 2017 at 6:59
  • an atonement is not effectual. An atonement is an expression of remorse and an appeal for forgiveness but does not "pay off" God. God must forgive sins. And God is faithful to forgive and not despise a contrite heart. But he does not owe forgiveness just because an atonement was made

  • Phineas was forgiven for was counted righteous because of his intervention and was "clean" from the whole affair. So when he said "we aren't clean yet" he could not have meant that God held him guilty:

Psalm 106: 30But Phinehas stood up and intervened, and the plague was checked. 31This was credited to him as righteousness for endless generations to come.

  • the NIV reads it as them not being clean yet from the idolatry:

New International Version Joshua 22:17 Was not the sin of Peor enough for us? Up to this very day we have not cleansed ourselves from that sin, even though a plague fell on the community of the LORD!

I think that may be the sense of it as Psalm 106 seems to place that sin in a continuing line of such national sins:

NIV Psalm 106 1Praise the Lord.a Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever. 2Who can proclaim the mighty acts of the Lord or fully declare his praise? 3Blessed are those who act justly, who always do what is right. 4Remember me, Lord, when you show favor to your people, come to my aid when you save them, 5that I may enjoy the prosperity of your chosen ones, that I may share in the joy of your nation and join your inheritance in giving praise. 6We have sinned, even as our ancestors did; we have done wrong and acted wickedly. 7When our ancestors were in Egypt, they gave no thought to your miracles; they did not remember your many kindnesses, and they rebelled by the sea, the Red Sea.b 8Yet he saved them for his name’s sake, to make his mighty power known. 9He rebuked the Red Sea, and it dried up; he led them through the depths as through a desert. 10He saved them from the hand of the foe; from the hand of the enemy he redeemed them. 11The waters covered their adversaries; not one of them survived. 12Then they believed his promises and sang his praise. 13But they soon forgot what he had done and did not wait for his plan to unfold. 14In the desert they gave in to their craving; in the wilderness they put God to the test. 15So he gave them what they asked for, but sent a wasting disease among them. 16In the camp they grew envious of Moses and of Aaron, who was consecrated to the Lord. 17The earth opened up and swallowed Dathan; it buried the company of Abiram. 18Fire blazed among their followers; a flame consumed the wicked. 19At Horeb they made a calf and worshiped an idol cast from metal. 20They exchanged their glorious God for an image of a bull, which eats grass. 21They forgot the God who saved them, who had done great things in Egypt, 22miracles in the land of Ham and awesome deeds by the Red Sea. 23So he said he would destroy them— had not Moses, his chosen one, stood in the breach before him to keep his wrath from destroying them. 24Then they despised the pleasant land; they did not believe his promise. 25They grumbled in their tents and did not obey the Lord. 26So he swore to them with uplifted hand that he would make them fall in the wilderness, 27make their descendants fall among the nations and scatter them throughout the lands. 28They yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor and ate sacrifices offered to lifeless gods; 29they aroused the Lord’s anger by their wicked deeds, and a plague broke out among them. 30But Phinehas stood up and intervened, and the plague was checked. 31This was credited to him as righteousness for endless generations to come. 32By the waters of Meribah they angered the Lord, and trouble came to Moses because of them; 33for they rebelled against the Spirit of God, and rash words came from Moses’ lips.c 34They did not destroy the peoples as the Lord had commanded them, 35but they mingled with the nations and adopted their customs. 36They worshiped their idols, which became a snare to them. 37They sacrificed their sons and their daughters to false gods. 38They shed innocent blood, the blood of their sons and daughters, whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan, and the land was desecrated by their blood. 39They defiled themselves by what they did; by their deeds they prostituted themselves. 40Therefore the Lord was angry with his people and abhorred his inheritance. 41He gave them into the hands of the nations, and their foes ruled over them. 42Their enemies oppressed them and subjected them to their power. 43Many times he delivered them, but they were bent on rebellion and they wasted away in their sin. 44Yet he took note of their distress when he heard their cry; 45for their sake he remembered his covenant and out of his great love he relented. 46He caused all who held them captive to show them mercy. 47Save us, Lord our God, and gather us from the nations, that we may give thanks to your holy name and glory in your praise. 48Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting. Let all the people say, “Amen!” Praise the Lord. Footnotes: a 1 Hebrew Hallelu Yah; also in verse 48 b 7 Or the Sea of Reeds; also in verses 9 and 22 c 33 Or against his spirit, and rash words came from his lips

  • there could also be an explanation in God describing himself as merciful to a thousand generations of god-fearers (such as Phineas) but not entirely clearing the guilty for 3 or 4 generations:

NIV Exodus 20: 3“You shall have no other gods beforea me. 4“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

  • @diegob This site is not a platform for debate. Comments may be used to request clarification or suggest improvements, but what you've done is stage a topical debate. That's not what comments are for. If you think this answer is wrong downvote it and (optionally) point out briefly why you think it doesn't properly answer the question. If you think you can do better, post an answer of your own.
    – Caleb
    Nov 3, 2017 at 7:16
  • 1
    Did ruminator complain to you? I should be able to keep my own comments on my questions if I wanted to. You shouldn't have the power to just delete them because of your opinion.
    – diego b
    Nov 3, 2017 at 7:31
  • The language of Joshua is cleansed, not forgive and cleansed is typically a consequence of following the prescriptions in the Law. Jan 2, 2018 at 2:42

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