Balak, the king of Moab, was concerned about the threat the Israelites posed to his kingdom after their defeats of the Amorites and Bashan.
He called on Bilaam, the soothsayer, to curse the people of Israel but Bilaam was unable to do so, and blessed them instead. His blessing is now the well known prayer “Ma Tovu Ohalecha Yaacov- How goodly are your tents…..”.
Targum Yonatan was quoted by R’ Munk as inferring from the blessings what the curses might have been. The intention might have been to wish that there were no houses of prayer, or that the metaphoric cedars could be uprooted, but the blessing praised the tents and the cedars by water. The intention might have been to point to Israel’s small numbers and their origins as slaves in Egypt, but the blessing referred to G-d’s bringing them out of Egypt, “according to the power of his loftiness”. Bilaam went on to say that Israel’s enemies are the enemies of G-d and “He will consume the nations that oppress Israel”. Bilaam ended with “those who bless you are blessed and those who curse you are cursed”. According to Rashi, Bilaam told Balak that he could not defeat Israel militarily but that he could weaken Israel by seducing them into debauchery.
The priestesses of Baal-Peor invited the Jews to join in their worship which included debauchery. R’ Munk wrote that the daughters of Moab were indiscriminate whereas the daughters of Midian selected the leaders. Cozbi, the daughter of Zur, turned to Zimri, a prince of the tribe of Simeon. A plague began and 24,000 people died. When Pinchas saw what was happening and that Moshe had not acted to stop the unacceptable behaviour, Pinchas took the law into his own hands and killed Cozbi and Zimri. Pinchas’ act was zealous, an act rarely permitted and R’ Chiskia taught that such an act is only permitted on the spur of the moment, from sacred indignation at seeing a sin committed. The plague was stopped, and the people’s hearts opened to G-d, but their weakness towards sin did not disappear.