Monday, March 12, 2007

The Generation That Seeks Your Face (Numbers 25-30)

What happens next is so sudden that we may easily overlook the gravity of it. It’s the most serious offense Israel has committed since the Golden Calf – and is perhaps even worse than that. While the nation is camped on the outskirts of Moab, they begin “to whore after the daughters of Moab.” We read:
These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor.
I don’t know if the Bible is speaking only figuratively of the men taking Moabite concubines and being influenced to worship their god Baal, or whether they go off to enjoy genuine cult prostitution. Probably a good deal of both.

A plague from the Lord now threatens to wipe out the people. While Moses and the judges of Israel are deliberating what to do, an Israelite man walks by arm-in-arm with his new Midianite companion. It’s impeccable timing. Aaron’s grandson Phinehas jumps up, grabs his spear, and impales both unfortunate souls with one furious thrust.

The Lord is both shocked and delighted by this display of enthusiasm:
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. Therefore say, ‘Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace, 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.
It’s hard for us to get too excited about such savage zeal, and rightly so. Our world is full of violent men who kill for the glory of God without a second thought. But, though Pinehas may legitimately bring to mind modern images of a Pakistani man murdering his sister for marrying a Hindu, we should try to remember where we are in the story.

Compare Pinehas and Baal with Aaron and the Golden Calf. Aaron capitulates to their idolatry, while the young Pinehas makes a firm example for all the people to see. Here we get a sense that this new generation has at least something beyond the weak, whiney and fickle character of their parents.

Jacob saw long ago that Levi had a violent streak in him, and cursed him and Simeon for it. But we’ve seen time and time again that God is seeking a people that is audacious, reckless, tenacious, and passionate in their pursuit of his promises. As long as there’s virtue in the wood itself, he’ll smooth out the rough edges in time.

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