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Numbers 25:17-18 NIV

17 “Treat the Midianites as enemies and kill them. 18 They treated you as enemies when they deceived you in the Peor incident involving their sister Kozbi, the daughter of a Midianite leader, the woman who was killed when the plague came as a result of that incident.”

According to the narrative the men of Israel had already started sexual immorality with the moabite woman(Numbers 25:1) well before the Cozbi incident.It is said Moses had already began to kill the leaders when the plague had started

It seems Phinehas had stopped the plague by actually killing Cozbi and Zimri

Was it the Cozbi incident that triggered off the plague?

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Numbers 25

1 While Israel was staying in Shittim, the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with the daughters of Moab

One of them was Cozbi, the daughter of Zur, a tribal chief of a Midianite family. Zimri son of Salu, the leader of a Simeonite family, indulged in sex with her. Cozbi invited Zimri to her idol worship.

2 [The Moabite daughters] invited them to the sacrifices for their gods. And the people ate and bowed down to these gods. 3So Israel joined in worshiping Baal of Peor, and the anger of the LORD burned against them.

4The Lord said to Moses, “Take all the leaders of these people, kill them and expose them in broad daylight before the Lord, so that the Lord’s fierce anger may turn away from Israel.”

5So Moses said to Israel’s judges, “Each of you must put to death those of your people who have yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor.”

In addition to executions carried out by the judges on these leaders, God started a plague to kill other participants.

6 Then an Israelite man [Zimri] brought into the camp a Midianite woman [Cozbi] right before the eyes of Moses and the whole assembly of Israel while they were weeping at the entrance to the tent of meeting.

Zimri and Cozbi were the key players in this affair of sexual immorality and idol worship due to their respective leaderships in their tribes

7 When Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, saw this, he left the assembly, took a spear in his hand 8and followed the Israelite into the tent. He drove the spear into both of them, right through the Israelite man and into the woman’s stomach. Then the plague against the Israelites was stopped;

Zimri and Cozbi were representatives of the affair, killing them literally stopped the plague.

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If "the Cozbi incident" meant the death of Cozbi and Zimri, the incident was actually marked the plague ending, not triggered off the plague. Numbers 25:7-8 NIV read;

7 When Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, saw this, he left the assembly, took a spear in his hand

8 and followed the Israelite into the tent. He drove the spear into both of them, right through the Israelite man and into the woman’s stomach. Then the plague against the Israelites was stopped.

The scripture didn't have detail when did Cozbi and Zimri start their affair. Numbers 25:1 NIV read;

While Israel was staying in Shittim, the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women,

So we may deduce that Zimri was one of these men. Numbers 25:3 NIV further read;

So Israel yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor. And the Lord’s anger burned against them.

The scripture didn't mention when the plague started, but verse 3 "the Lord's anger" should be well described it. With this understanding, Cozbi and Zimri was just one pair of many who triggered off the plague. And fairly to say, it was not the death of them that the Lord lifted the plague, it was the zealous of Phinehas son of Eleazar caused the plague to stop. As the Lord said in Numbers 25:10-11 NIV

10 The Lord said to Moses,

11 “Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, has turned my anger away from the Israelites. Since he was as zealous for my honor among them as I am, I did not put an end to them in my zeal.

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We've seen two approaches to answers here: @Vincent Wong says it wasn't the death of Cozbi and Zimri that ended the plague; it was the zealousness of Phineas and Eleazar. @Toni Chan says "killing them literally stopped the plague."

New user @Mike brings the issue home when he says

this text is one of the most confusing texts for Christianity. Where is Christ in this text as scripture is supposed to point us to Him. Would Christ be commending this horrific act or would he lovingly forgive them especially at the tent of the meeting where people are seeking forgiveness.

Such questions bothered the early church too, so much so that in the 2nd century there was a significant movement, known as Marcionism, that rejected the Old Testament and even went so far as to say the the OT deity was a different being from the loving Father of Jesus Christ.

Religious tolerance, so absent in the OP's example, is a relatively recent phenomenon. Today, biblical critics, many of them sincere Christians, have taken the view that depictions such as the Cozbi affair come from writers who had a strongly nationalistic agenda. very different from the universalism of later prophets like Isaiah. Examples such as the one we are discussing should not, therefore, be seen as a true expression of God's attitude. This, of course, calls into question the infallibility of the Bible. But for some, this approach is preferable than trying to justify some of the reported attitudes of God in the Bible.

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Here is a take on this that's never been published. In fact, Zimri knew that there was a plague already happening and he understood that what he was about to do would result in death. However, he selflessly took one for the team by engaging in the public act with Cosbi, knowing this would result in a public execution and thereby Ending the Plague. This is the order of the narrative and makes as much sense as anything else since Zimri was a tribal leader and understood the ramifications but figured 24,000 had already died so he acted as a hero.

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