In a Nutshell..
Read the passage here.
So, our story today takes place in light of last week’s passage where God (through Balaam) blesses Israel even in spite of their many failures. Essentially, there are four movements in the passage:
- vv. 1-3, we have the account of Israel’s sin. In this particular episode, Israel sins by bowing down before the Moabite gods.
- vv. 4-5, we get the judgement of that sin: those who turned their backs on God would be killed. This is later referred to as “the plague.”
- vv. 6-13, which could be further divided into 6-9 and 10-13. This details the episode with Phineas. 6-9 tells us about Phineas’ actions, and 10-13 tells us about God’s turning away His wrath because of the zeal of Phineas.
- vv. 14-18 describe the judgement on Midian. Midian is judged because…
As we consider this passage and where it’s situated in the narrative, we’re reminded of the themes we talked about last week: namely that redemption, salvation, is dependent on God’s grace. And we see throughout the biblical narrative that, in spite of their privileged position as God’s elect, Israel’s sin is pervasive. In fact, as many commentators seem to note, this scene seems remarkably reminiscent of the golden calf incident.
- In Exodus, when Moses is on the mountain receiving the word of God for Israel, the Israelites are at the foot of the mountain making a calf to worship instead of God.
- Here, when Balaam is on the mountain giving words of blessing over Israel – instead of the curses that Balak wanted – Israel is at the foot of the mountain giving themselves over to other gods, sacrificing and bowing down before the Baals of Peor.
Now I don’t want to ignore the significance of this passage in light of the narrative, that is, Israel’s journey. But I want to make note of something – something which probably isn’t the main “point” of the passage, but is interesting to me, at least.
Since the Exodus, throughout most of Israel’s journey to Canaan, there’s been very little interaction with other peoples. They pop up in the story, there are a few battles, but there’s not much going on between Israel and other people.
Here, for the first time, we see the danger, for Israel, that the influence of foreign peoples can have. What we’re talking about here is a collision of cultures. However, I don’t want to get too hung up on the term “culture,” because when we hear that word, we frequently align it with Canadian culture vs. American culture vs. Indian culture or African culture or Korean culture. A better term for this, I think, is worldview. How do we see and understand, and thus live out, how the world is made – the basic shape of reality.
Again, I don’t want to get too carried away with discussions of terminology. In order to understand this story, we have to remember that what God is doing is creating a people. The story of God’s redemption of creation, revealed in scripture and of which we are a part, has to do with the creation of a people that God blesses so that they can be a blessing to the world. It’s about the creation of a people who are called by His name.
It’s in this context, also, that we have to understand the passages where the Israelites are commanded to completely destroy other nations. And it’s in this context that we understand the Old Testament preoccupation with land – about Israel entering and obtaining the land. So, we read:
“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”Ephesians 6:12
My point, simply, is that it’s not about the people – in this case, the Moabites and the Midianites (Ruth was a Moabitess; Moses’ wife, Zipporah, was from Midian). It’s about being the people of God – being formed as the people of God – in a world that is decidedly not amenable, not friendly, to God’s people.
We’ve talked a lot about some of these cultural forces, the worldview issues that Christians might face. Some of the things we’ve talked about include individualism, relativism, tribalism – and we’ve talked about how these cultural forces (forces that are, to some extent, particular to the postmodern world in which we live) have infiltrated and infected the gospel.
I want to share some thoughts that arise out of the passage today. Specifically, I want to consider how and perhaps why the Israelites act in the way they did, even in light of the persistent grace that is demonstrated by God.
I want to emphasize that these are just personal reflections. They arise out of, what I hope is, a good reading of this passage, which is set in the context of the book of Numbers, which should be read in the context of the Pentateuch. But these are just my reflections on possible implications of the passage. They are not equal to the passage itself.
Though I don’t want to talk about specifics, over the past few years, we’ve talked on several occasions about the notion of rights. In short, I believe that our society – that is, western society – has a preoccupation with rights. And while I think this can be good, in a sense, I don’t really believe, or at least I’m not sure, that “rights” is a biblical concept. To put it another way, I’m not convinced, most of the time, that we derive our sense of “rights” from the bible – I think they tend to come from somewhere else. As I reflected on todays passage, I realized that “rights” is perhaps not the problem (though I still believe that the notion is sketchy). So for our discussion today, I thought I’d try to clarify or focus that line of thinking a little more.
To begin with, I want to reiterate once again that one of the defining themes in the OT story so far is God’s grace – that is to say, God’s sovereign election (or selection) of Israel to be His people. What we’ve seen is that God selected Israel, the family of Abraham, to be His chosen people. And what we’ve seen is that, despite Israel’s repeated rebellion and constant failures, God continues to bless them and continues to guarantee their future.
This isn’t to say that there haven’t been consequences for their sin – the most recent one we’ve seen is that an entire generation of Israelites would not enter the promised land. Nevertheless, Israel’s identity, and therefore their inheritance, is firmly established in God’s grace and mercy.
Now grace is an important concept for us. And it has to do with the notion that it all depends on God. Our salvation, our community, our present and our future is all because of what God has given. And God gives it, not because of anything that we have done – especially nothing that we have done (or could do) to earn it, but because of who God is; because of God’s character. And so, when we emphasize grace, we are focusing on the giver.
As human beings, however – as fallen, sinful, broken, selfish human beings – if we are consistently given something, especially if we keep receiving something that we have not earned, have not had to work for, then it’s not long before we start thinking of it as a right. And then it’s not long before we start thinking of it as a privilege. And when we think of something as a privilege, we forget about God’s grace.
Here’s what I mean. Firstly, by “privilege,” I’m not talking about privilege as in, “I’m privileged to be able to talk to you today.” I’m talking about the kind of privilege that thinks, “because I have money, or power, or position, I deserve to have more of a say (or I deserve whatever) than someone else.”
One of the topics that I look at frequently is that of “post-Christendom.” Post-Christendom is a term that refers to how Canada (also, Europe and the US) is becoming “less Christian.”
Firstly, I think there’s a problem with labelling it “post-Christendom” because it assumes that Canada was “Christian” in the first place. Studies have shown that the percent of Canadians that self-identify as Christian have (and are) declining. (However, I would argue that this is far from the same thing as confirming that Canada was “more Christian” in the past.)
I understand that Christians all over Canada are concerned with our country becoming “less Christian.” And don’t get me wrong, I am concerned that more and more Canadians recognize the lordship of Christ (though it is more accurate to say that I’m concerned that people recognize the lordship of Christ). And I’m saddened that declaring oneself a Christian in today’s society is more often seen negatively than positively.
We are fortunate to live in a country where we can express and experience our faith openly and, mostly, positively. And I understand that we are concerned that, in today’s world, this seems to be changing.
But I think the problem is that we, as Christians and as churches, are not so much concerned about losing Christ – we are not so much concerned about the lordship of Jesus and the glory of God. We are concerned about losing our privilege.
Now I don’t want to get too carried away. I’m not suggesting (or I’m trying not to) that this passage is about privilege. What I do think this passage is about is, in the face of a competing culture, with worldly voices ringing in their ears and temptation all around them, the people of Israel forgot how they got to where they were. They forgot upon whom their very lives depended. In our world, there are also all kinds of things trying to make us forget who we are. There are all kinds of things trying to make us forget whose we are.
One of the things that we are preoccupied with in this world is our rights. But concern for (particularly our) rights can quickly devolve into a sense of privilege. And privilege is concerned with what we are owed. But grace is about what we are given.
We are not a people of privilege. We are a people of grace. So let us walk and live according to that grace.