Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Putting God's priorities first (Num 25)

Dr. Paul Manuel—2018

It is appropriate to honor those who are above you or older than you, at least listen to them:
An elderly man strode into his doctor's office and said, "Doc, my druggist said to tell you to change my prescription and to check the prescription you've been giving Mrs. Smith." "Oh, he did, did he?" the doctor shot back. "Since when does a druggist second guess a doctor's orders?" The old man replied, "Since he found out I've been on birth control pills for the last two months."
It is appropriate to honor those who are above you, as Phinehas does in being "Zealous for God's Honor."

As Israel makes its way from Egypt to the Promised Land, the nation encounters several obstacles. Some obstacles are direct, like that from the Amorites, who attempt to stop Israel's passage by using its army. Other obstacles are indirect, like that from the Moabites, who attempt to slow Israel's passage by using prophetic intervention through Balaam. Still other obstacles are even more insidious, like that from the Midianites, who attempt to subvert Israel's progress altogether by inviting the people to a seemingly innocuous celebration.

People in general want more out of life than what they currently have, and they look for what they lack in various places outside themselves, often resorting to some form of religion. God satisfies that need for all people who look to Him. Unfortunately, some people look elsewhere, even to gods of their own making, a practice that achieves some popularity even among God's people, those who should know better. Worshiping idols rarely stops with paying homage to them. Released from the moral constraints that come with worshiping the true God, idol worshipers are free to indulge themselves in any way they please, which they do.

I. Idolatry is rampant in Israelite society (Num 25:1-5).
A. The people adopts foreign influences.
Num 25:1 While Israel was staying in Shictim, the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, 2 who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods. The people ate and bowed down before these gods. 3 So Israel joined in worshiping the Baal of Peor. And the LORD'S anger burned against them.
Adam and Eve receive no prohibition against idolatry, neither does Noah or the Patriarchs. In fact, idols are a common part of early households for generations:
When Laban had gone to shear his sheep, Rachel stole her father's household gods. (Gen 31:19)
Jacob said...to all who were with him, "Get rid of the foreign gods you have with you, purify yourselves, and change your clothes. (Gen 35:2)
Joshua said to all the people... "Long ago your forefathers, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the River and worshiped other gods." (Josh 24:2)
Not until after Israel's departure from Egypt does God state directly His disapproval of idol worship:
You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them. (Exod 20:3-5)
Even after the exodus, some in Israel return to idolatrous practices, leading Joshua to call for repentance: "Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped beyond the River and in Egypt" (Josh 24:14b).

Here at Shictim, the Israelites resume behavior their new Moabite friends encourage. Some of God's people even prostrate themselves "before these gods" (v. 2). The objects of worship these gatherings promote is probably two-fold: Chemosh, the national Moabite deity, and "Baal" (v. 3), a local Canaanite deity. What makes idolatry distasteful to God, in addition to the rivalry it presents, is the "sexual immorality" (v. 1) it promotes, having none of the moral constraints that God expects.
B. The Lord punishes foreign influences.
Num 25:4 The 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." 5 So Moses said to Israel's judges, "Each of you must put to death those of your men who have joined in worshiping the Baal of Peor."
God is not at all happy with Israel's behavior and instructs Moses to execute everyone who participated in this pagan celebration, an assignment he delegates to the tribal leadership. This is similar to what Moses did after the golden calf incident, which also involved pagan revelry:
"This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: 'Let each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor." (Exod 32:27)
While other cultures have no problem with idolatry, idolatry is a capital offense in Israel which explains God's harsh response here.

Application: This is a classic case of peer pressure, of imitating another's influential behavior. Peer pressure can be good or bad depending on the direction the influence exerts. Nevertheless, peer pressure is not an excuse for behaving in a particular way. Every person is responsible for his own actions, and God will mete out reward or punishment accordingly:
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. (2 Cor 5:10)
Consequently, you must choose your associates well so that you get the most positive benefit from their company. As Paul warns, "Do not be misled: 'Bad company corrupts good character" (1 Cor 15:33).

II. Promiscuity is public in Israelite society (Num 25:6-15).
A. Phineas intercedes for Israel's survival.
Num 25:6 Then an Israelite man brought to his family a Midianite woman right before the eyes of Moses and the whole assembly of Israel while they were weeping at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. 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 through both of them—through the Israelite and into the woman's body. Then the plague against the Israelites was stopped; 9 but those who died in the plague numbered 24,000.
In flagrant disobedience of God's prohibition against intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews, "an Israelite man" takes "a Midianite woman" (v. 1):
When you choose some of their daughters as wives for your sons and those daughters prostitute themselves to their gods, they will lead your sons to do the same. (Exod 34:16)
Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods, and the LORD's anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you. (Deut 7:3-4)
Phinehas is a priest. He sees the potential this plague has to destroy the nation, and he takes a bold step that stops the outbreak. His action, though radical, accords with God's revealed will about foreign liaisons, and it serves as a reminder that the highest value in His economy is not life but holiness, which this unnamed Israelite man violated when he disobeyed God. Another reason for this priest's action is not for the nation's benefit but for the Lord's, to highlight His character:
B. Phineas intercedes for God's honor.
Num 25:10 The LORD said to Moses, 11 "Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, has turned my anger away from the Israelites; for he was as zealous as I am for my honor among them, so that in my zeal I did not put an end to them. 12 Therefore tell him I am making my covenant of peace with him. 13 He and his descendants will have a covenant of a lasting priesthood, because he was zealous for the honor of his God and made atonement for the Israelites." 14 The name of the Israelite who was killed with the Midianite woman was Zimri son of Salu, the leader of a Simeonite family. 15 And the name of the Midianite woman who was put to death was Cozbi daughter of Zur, a tribal chief of a Midianite family.
While God does not command Phinehas to take this step, He does commend the priest for doing so. Not only does the quick action by Phineas stop the plague, it secures for his family a central role in the priestly lineage: "He and his descendants will have a covenant of a lasting priesthood" (v. 13). It also appeases the Lord's wrath ("made atonement" v. 13) over this affront to His holiness. "Here it is established that, henceforth, the high priest would come from the descendants of Phinehas" (Ashley 1993:523).

Both deceased individuals were prominent members of their respective clans. The man was "the leader of a Simeonite family" (v. 14). The woman was "daughter of...a tribal chief of a Midianite family" (v. 15).

Application: You may think that your particular sin—whatever it may be—is harmless, "a victimless crime" (oxymoron), but all sin has consequences, especially for the responsible party. God's forbearance may enable the guilty to escape His wrath in the current life, but the guilty will not be so fortunate in the next life: As Paul writes, "we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad" (2 Cor 5:10). You will be accountable for all your sin, but for those who belong to God, that accountability is paid in full by "the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29).

III. Victory is promised in Israelite society (Num 25:16-18).
  • The nation defeats its enemies.
Num 25:16 The LORD said to Moses, 17 "Treat the Midianites as enemies and kill them, 18 because they treated you as enemies when they deceived you in the affair of Peor and their sister Cozbi, the daughter of a Midianite leader, the woman who was killed when the plague came as a result of Peor."
The wrong the Midianites commit in seducing the Israelites to worship false deities does not escape the Lord's notice. He not only sees it, He punishes it. Although the Midianites probably suffer from the same plague. God has more punishment in store for them—complete military defeat at the hands of those they deceived:
Moses said to the people, "Arm some of your men to go to war against the Midianites and... carry out the LORD's vengeance on them" ....They burned all the towns where the Midianites had settled, as well as all their camps. (Num 31:3, 10)
This is further fulfillment of the promise God made to Abraham: "I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse" (Gen 12:3). The Midianites are some of the many people on the curse side of that equation.

Application: God may never call you to take a stand for His people, but your disposition will be evident in your attitude toward anti-Semitism, a reprehensible prejudice that rears its ugly head even in America. Your attitude is also evident in the doctrinal opinions you adopt, some of which may replace the descendants of Abraham with the Church as the new people of God (e.g., Amillennialism). Whatever your political or theological views, be sure they reflect God's views, especially about His people, "the apple of his eye" (Zech 2:8):
"This is what the LORD says: 'If you can break my covenant with the day and my covenant with the night, so that day and night no longer come at their appointed time, then my covenant with David my servant—and my covenant with the Levites who are priests ministering before me—can be broken and David will no longer have a descendant to reign on his throne. I will make the descendants of David my servant and the Levites who minister before me as countless as the stars of the sky and as measureless as the sand on the seashore." ..."This is what the LORD says: 'If I have not established my covenant with day and night and the fixed laws of heaven and earth, then I will reject the descendants of Jacob and David my servant and will not choose one of his sons to rule over the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. For I will restore their fortunes and have compassion on them." (Jer 33:20-22,25-26)
When many in Israel are heading in the wrong direction, moving away from worship of the true God and worshipping idols instead, one man steps forward to stop the plague of judgment and reverse the nation's spiritual decline. The priest Phinehas is "Zealous for God's Honor," and he demonstrates what it means to put God's priorities first.

For the Footnotes and Bibliography see the pdf here.

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Jim Skaggs