Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Numbers 25:13 and Jealousy for God

Number 25

25 While Israel lived in Shittim, the people began to whore with the daughters of Moab. 2 These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. 3 So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel. 4 And the Lord said to Moses, “Take all the chiefs of the people and hang them in the sun before the Lord, that the fierce anger of the Lord may turn away from Israel.” 5 And Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Each of you kill those of his men who have yoked themselves to Baal of Peor.”

6 And behold, one of the people of Israel came and brought a Midianite woman to his family, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the whole congregation of the people of Israel, while they were weeping in the entrance of the tent of meeting. 7 When Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose and left the congregation and took a spear in his hand 8 and went after the man of Israel into the chamber and pierced both of them, the man of Israel and the woman through her belly. Thus the plague on the people of Israel was stopped. 9 Nevertheless, those who died by the plague were twenty-four thousand.

10 And the Lord said to Moses, 11 “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. 12 Therefore say, ‘Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace, 13 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.’”

14 The name of the slain man of Israel, who was killed with the Midianite woman, was Zimri the son of Salu, chief of a father's house belonging to the Simeonites. 15 And the name of the Midianite woman who was killed was Cozbi the daughter of Zur, who was the tribal head of a father's house in Midian.

16 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 17 “Harass the Midianites and strike them down, 18 for they have harassed you with their wiles, with which they beguiled you in the matter of Peor, and in the matter of Cozbi, the daughter of the chief of Midian, their sister, who was killed on the day of the plague on account of Peor.”

If the story was read today it would read, "Moab Seduces Israel."

It shocks us. For the readers of the book of Numbers, in the chapters leading up to Numbers 25, we have been on the mountain heights with Balaam, surveying Israel from a distance and hearing about how blessed they are. In Balaam’s oracle they are “a people dwelling alone, and not counting itself among the nations” (Num. 23:9). They see neither misfortune nor misery, for the Lord their God is with them (Num. 23:21). No sorcery or divination could succeed against Israel, for the Lord had blessed them, and he would not change his mind (23:20, 23). These people are “the upright,” among whom it would be a privilege to die (Num. 23:10). Out of this chosen nation, the glorious messianic King would rise to bring salvation for his people and judgment on all of God’s enemies (Num. 24:17–24). This is the glorious, ideal picture of Israel.

In Numbers 25, however, we descend from the lofty heights of Balaam’s prophecy to the harsh reality of the defiled people of God in the valley below. Far from being “the upright” who remain separate from the nations, the men of Israel engaged in sexual immorality with Moabite women (Num. 25:1). This initial sin led naturally to the further step of joining in the Moabites’ sacrifices and entering into a covenant with the god of Moab, Baal of Peor (Num. 25:2-3). What is more, this incident involved more than a little compromise on the part of one or two individuals. It was “the people” as a whole who went after Moabite women; it was “the people” who partook of the sacrifices and worshiped their gods; all “Israel” joined themselves to Baal of Peor (Num. 25:1–3).

Moses makes it worse by only selectively disciplining individuals. As so often happens when there is no discipline among God’s people, sin became more and more flagrant. In fact, so confident that no one is really going to charge and enforce discipline, in front of the eyes of everyone an Israelite man—the son of a leader of the Simeonites (Num. 25:14)—brought a Midianite woman to his family to consummate their marital relationship. Clearly he had discerned that there was no willingness among the leadership to enforce the death penalty that had been announced for those who linked themselves with the Midianites and their gods; so he flaunted his sin in front of everyone. He thought he could sin boldly and there would be no consequences for his actions.

But someone was there who was jealous for the glory of God.

Phinehas took a spear, followed the man and his new Midianite wife into the tent, and ran both of them through with it. He thus checked or stopped the plague which had already claimed 24,000 lives. Phinehas could not stand the status quo. He was consumed with the glory and holiness of God. And Yahweh clearly approved of Phinehas’ actions since He promised him a covenant of peace and perpetual priesthood. He had made atonement for the sins of the sons of Israel.

This passage reminds us that discipline pursued out of a passionate zeal for God’s honor is vital to the spiritual health of the community. When Moses and the other leaders in the community failed to act, the judgment on the people of God was profound. Only when one young man stood up and acted to do what the Lord had said and to remove the blight from the community was there a change in the people’s fortunes. It is important to note that Phinehas was not acting as a private citizen in executing God’s judgment. There is no support here for independent action against anyone we may believe to have offended God. For example, there is no warrant in this passage for bombing abortion clinics or shooting evil men. As the son of Eleazar, Phinehas was in charge of the Levites who were responsible for guarding the sanctuary against defilement (1 Chronicles 9:20; Numbers 3:32). Taking action to defend the sanctity of the camp was thus part of his job description, and he fulfilled his duties faithfully as an officer of the people of God in dealing with this particular abomination.

Of course, an individual Phinehas here and there cannot atone permanently for a people whose entire history was a long series of compromises. Throughout the Old Testament we see this same truth over and over: the people who were chosen by God for blessing repeatedly turned that blessing into a curse through their rebellion and idolatry.

We are no different.

For Israel (and us) to be saved, they needed something more than a little touching up around the margins of their lives. They needed something better than moral instruction: this people had by now already had God’s Law for forty years, and they were no better off than the day when they first received it. Clearly, the Law is unable to transform us. What they and we both need is a covenantal substitute, a new Israel, who completely fits the description of the brochure and thereby earns God’s blessing on behalf of his people. We need someone who is always righteous, always faithful, always true.

That new Israel, according to the New Testament, is Jesus Christ, the one who came and lived the only life that has ever truly been free from spiritual adultery. His zeal for the Lord’s house certainly sometimes made him an uncomfortable companion. In John 2 he made a whip of cords in order to drive out those who had turned the temple into a marketplace (John 2:17). His disciples immediately thought of Psalm 69:9: “Zeal for your house has consumed me.” Yet it was that same zeal for God’s glory that would ultimately take him all the way to the cross in the ultimate judgment on sin. There, instead of piercing the guilty sinners and putting them to a deserved death, God pierced his own innocent Son in our place. Through his death, Jesus made atonement for all of his people. By pouring out his anger on his own Son, God turned his anger away from us, enabling us to live under his blessing. Our sin was put to death in Jesus, and his zeal for God’s glory was credited to us, making us acceptable in God’s sight.

Jesus Christ is the greater and better Phineas. He was jealous for the glory of God and gave His life, a ransom for many, that we might glorify the Lord of Glory by the sacrificial gift of His own righteousness. He imputed righteousness to us that we might glorify Him.

Let us then be jealous for the glory of God.