We must not gratify evil desire and indulge in immorality
as some of them did—
and twenty-three thousand [suddenly] fell dead in a single day!
Paul is addressing the Church in the important city of Corinth. This ancient city was known for its commercial success. For centuries it had dominated the east-west trade route with its flow of merchandise, and it celebrated its ethnic diversity as travelers from the known world inevitably found their way to the thriving metropolis.
The New King James version of the Bible says that "Corinth's commercial success was rivaled only by its decadence. The immorality of Corinth was so well known that Aristophanes, a comic playwright of ancient Athens, coined a Greek verb, meaning to act like a Corinthian as a synonym for sexual immorality." In addition, the Corinthians were famous for calling attention to their lewdness through their worship of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty. (She is also known by the Roman name Venus, and is ultimately the same spirit as Semiramis, the wife of Nimrod, who was known as the "Queen of Heaven". She is a major deity used by Satan throughout the ages to tempt mankind away from God).
Although the city of Corinth was famous for its idolatry and sexual immorality, it was also an important and strategic location for dispersing the Word and the transforming power of Jesus Christ. Paul spent 18 months in Corinth establishing and grounding the Church. The Jews in the synagogue rejected his message, so he took it to the Gentiles, with some measure of success. But the Church in Corinth was seriously troubled. Besides reflecting the multiple nationalities of the city, the Corinthian Church also demonstrated some of Corinth's immorality. And our Scripture today voices Paul's concern about a repetition of God's judgment against such immoral behavior in the past.
This verse, 1 Corinthians 10:8, actually refers to a passage in Numbers 25:1-9. It recounts that while God is giving the law to Moses, the people are down the hill worshipping a golden calf through idolatry and sexual immorality. It tells the tale of the people of Israel "playing the harlot" with the women of Moab; and how easily they "ate and bowed down to Moab's gods". It is the age-old story of being tempted into idol worship of the things of the world, and Satan's seduction through lust.
I can't help but look upon this Biblical scene and think of the recent revelations concerning Ashley Madison, the website whose slogan is "Life is short. Have an affair". The site entices people to cheat on their spouses; to openly commit adultery under the guise that their identities will remain private... sshhh, no one will ever know. Yet, this week the site was hacked by someone, or group of someones, who threaten to reveal the identities of 33 million subscribers in 46 countries. If this happens, it may well have the same effects that God's judgment had on the Israelites after their idolatry and immorality was exposed.
In the Bible, "the Lord said to Moses, Take all the leaders or chiefs of the people, and hang them before the Lord in the sun [after killing them], that the fierce anger of the Lord may turn away from Israel." The Israelite judges are then commanded to "slay the men who joined themselves to Baal Peor". They did so, and 23,000 died that day!
Now, we need to understand that, yes, Baal Peor was a false god and worship of it was idolatry in God's eyes. But it is so much more! The Moabite god, Baal Peor, was depicted either as a beautiful naked woman or a bearded demon with open mouth, horns, and sharply pointed nails (the open mouth being an indicator of the sexual rites used to worship him). St. Jerome reported that statues of Baal-Peor he encountered in Syria depicted the god with a phallus in his mouth. Furthermore, the name of this false Moabite god means "gaping, wide, and consuming". I'm sure you can see the implications for sexual immorality with both men and women in this description.
This is the warning Paul is giving the Church members in Corinth. He is saying, "Don't be tempted to make the same mistake as the ancient Israelites and succumb to the lustful appetite that comes from worshipping this false goddess in the current Corinthian culture... [the Israelites'] destruction was swift and complete in a plague of death, and so will yours be."
I would daresay that the same advice holds true for today's immoral worshippers of the idolatrous company Ashley Madison. If the hackers follow through on their promise, and millions of credit card transactions, names, and addresses are released, the destruction of marriages, careers and reputations will be swift and complete. Life as they know it in this world will be destroyed. But as Paul warns, it is God's ultimate judgment in the next life that they should fear.