CLAIM: After the Israelite men fall into sexual immorality with the Moabite women, Moses orders their immediate execution (v.5). Later, when a man takes one of the women into his tent, Phineas throws a spear through the man and the woman’s stomach (v.8)! Why is the punishment so severe here?
RESPONSE: The sexual immorality with the Moabite women was not all that was going on here. The text explains that this was a gateway for the men to go and worship the gods of Moab (v.2). This was an ancient case of “flirt and convert.”
Critics often ask, “Well, what’s so wrong with worshipping the gods of Moab?” Historically and archaeologically, the answer is clear: Pagan worship at this time was severely cruel and unusual to human life. These were not simply innocuous belief systems back then. Instead, the Pagan gods encouraged human sacrifice and ritual prostitution (see comments on “What about the Canaanite Genocide?”).
In addition, human life was at stake here. God was bringing a plague on the people for following after other gods (v.8). If he didn’t give a deterrent, they probably would have gone hog wild. Therefore, there was sufficient reason to enact capital punishment for those who were disobeying. For further insight on this topic, see comments on “What about Capital Punishment?”