Strength for the Journey: "Collision of Principle" – Numbers 36

Sebring accidentAt about 1 PM on Thursday, a Ford Focus was traveling southbound on U.S. 27 near Hammock Road, when it was struck by a northbound Jaguar. The Jaguar went on to strike two more cars, resulting in a pileup that lasted most of Thursday afternoon and probably spawned two more accidents on or near the detour route, which included Flare Road, Brunns Road and Hammock Road. At the scene, one man from Sebring was pronounced dead. His wife was airlifted and reports suggest she is still on life support. The Jaguar driver was transported to Highlands Regional Medical Center. As if that wasn’t enough, at around 2:30 PM, a three-car accident was reported at Heron and Pigeon, just a few blocks from the detour route. Still later, at about 6 PM, a four-car accident was reported at Heron and Hammock, which seems to have been related to the detour. Wow, for a small town, Thursday was a tough traffic day! We hurt for the family that lost a loved one, though we don’t know them. We can’t imagine how difficult this time is.

At the same time, these three collisions illustrate a truth: Collisions are seldom simple affairs, and are usually messy. Because the corner I live on is a reasonably high traffic zone, I have on three occasions gone out front and discovered substantial portions of automobile in my front yard. Ask anyone who has ever cleaned up after an automobile accident – they leave behind a mess! Even in cases where (thankfully) no one is hurt, the mess can be significant.

What is true of automobile collisions is also true of “truth principle” collisions. “What are they?” you ask. Truth collisions are times when two principles, both true, seem to crash into one another. Navigating the choices of the world isn’t all that simple, even with a careful look at it through the Biblical world view. As an avid student of the Bible, I still have to admit there are times when two Biblical principles can conflict and compete for value. So as not to confuse the issue, perhaps an example or two would help:

Take, for example, the case for civil disobedience in the Bible. God’s Word makes clear that He calls His children to respect and obey authorities that are placed over their lives.

In specific passages like Romans 13 we read: “1 Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.”

The timing of the command of God in this regard is quite significant, since Nero was ruling Rome, and NO HISTORIAN alive today would argue that he was a particularly good ruler. This wasn’t Paul shilling for Nero’s next election – this was the clear validation of a principle of respect for those in authority, and a clear call for loyalty for civil government by the Christian community of the first century.

Yet, the principle of Romans 13 isn’t the only principle a believer needed to take into account when dealing with civil authority. In other places, God also commanded us to obey Him above all others. When unjust authorities moved in ungodly ways, it brought people who loved God into conflict with the principle in Romans 13 and the two principles into conflict and collision.

Consider Daniel as he prayed. Daniel 6 unfolds the familiar story: Daniel 6:7 reminds us how Daniel was set up by jealous men before the king, and ended up in a lion’s den: “All the commissioners of the kingdom… have consulted together that the king should establish a statute and enforce an injunction that anyone who makes a petition to any god or man besides you, O king, for thirty days, shall be cast into the lions’ den. 8 … 9 Therefore King Darius signed the document, that is, the injunction. 10 Now when Daniel knew that the document was signed, he entered his house (now in his roof chamber he had windows open toward Jerusalem); and he continued kneeling on his knees three times a day, praying and giving thanks before his God, as he had been doing previously.

This isn’t an isolated case. Consider Peter and John as they preached. The authorities arrested them and subsequently released them with a stern command to cease preaching about Jesus in Jerusalem. They didn’t listen. In Acts 5:27: “When they had brought them, they stood them before the Council. The high priest questioned them, 28 saying, “We gave you strict orders not to continue teaching in this name, and yet, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” 29 But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. 30 “The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you had put to death by hanging Him on a cross. 31 “He is the one whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins. 32 “And we are witnesses of these things; and [so is] the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey Him.

The point of this lesson isn’t to bring a solution to the conflict of principle in issues of civil disobedience, but to establish that such conflicts exist. There are times when two principles of the Word of God seem to crash into one another. In each of the cases we just mentioned, God told His people in the passages two things – obey and respect authority (which appears in many ways throughout the Bible), and for His people to obey God before anything man would say to negate His Divine right to absolute obedience. Here then, is the obvious question “When two principles of the Word seem to collide, how do we know the right way to go?”

Key Principle: The application principles of God’s Word are complex and can appear to conflict with other principles. When that happens, the Lord has a way to help us discern His higher values.

The Situation (36:1)

Numbers 36 offered at the end of the journey with Moses’s leadership an important example of facing the collision of principles. The story needs a proper staging to make sense. Look at the opening verse, as we begin to discern seven principles to evaluate God’s direction in difficult and conflicting areas like these:

First, the Authority Principle

Our story opens with a group bringing a grievance to Moses:

Numbers 36:1 The family heads of the clan of Gilead son of Makir, the son of Manasseh, who were from the clans of the descendants of Joseph, came and spoke before Moses and the leaders, the heads of the Israelite families. 2 They said, “When the Lord commanded my lord to give the land as an inheritance to the Israelites by lot, he ordered you to give the inheritance of our brother Zelophehad to his daughters.

The authority the presented the case to was the one that God placed in their lives. They recognized the authority involved and took the problem to the authority (36:1). They sought Moses and the tribal elder’s instruction, because these were the men that held the God-given authority in such spiritual matters. As part of the authority principle, they acknowledged the Word came from the Lord, not from men (36:2).

There are difficulties in discerning Scripture, and there will always be. God carved out a system in each age whereby people who truly desire to follow Him could search answers from leaders who were given their position by God, and were subsequently acknowledged by men. Leaders of the community of God’s people were to be wise men, but also Biblically knowledgeable. In the church such things were cared for by a call for ELDERS in places like 1 Timothy 3:1-7.

Without belaboring the point, let me mention something the family heads did NOT do: They didn’t ask the Midianites, Egyptians or Canaanites. They didn’t expect the WORLD to tell them what God thought about His own commands. Far too many believers today come to a difficult place of discernment in their walk, and turn to sources like an intelligent friend at work, or a website or blog by an unknown author to get answers to serious Biblical issues. I am not saying that Google somehow represents evil, but it may offer more confusion than help. If you have a serious medical issue, I suggest a doctor that you choose, and a second opinion behind that if you feel it necessary. I do NOT suggest diagnosis by WebMD – even though sources like that have their uses. If you observe such sites carefully, they warn they are NOT a replacement for a medical practitioner.

Not only did they NOT ask the WORLD, they found those who carefully sought God and His Word for the answers. In the same way, you may CHOOSE the local church you participate in, but one part of that choice should SURELY be: “Do they have Elders that can handle the Scripture well.” I mention this because I have been stunned to hear people who increasingly admit they attend places where they don’t have such confidence.

Just a short time ago, I was counseling someone who asked a complicated question from the Word. I prodded them to tell me what counsel they received from their own church leaders. They flatly admitted to me: “I can’t ask them. I know them all pretty well, and they don’t really have much knowledge of that depth in the Word.” I wanted to ask, but out of politeness just couldn’t, “Why are you going there?” My point is simple: You can choose what spiritual community you are a part of. In our area there are a number of good choices. When you choose, make sure it is based on more serious considerations than just programming and personality – make sure they can handle the Word well. Serious times are coming, and serious voices need to emerge. The authority principle is simply this: When conflicts arise in the Word, take them to Elders who have been noted for their knowledge and careful study of the Word.

Second, the Clarity Principle

Watch closely as the men present their Scriptural conflict to the tribal authorities. They said:

Numbers 36:3 Now suppose they [the daughters of Zelophehad] marry men from other Israelite tribes; then their inheritance will be taken from our ancestral inheritance and added to that of the tribe they marry into. And so part of the inheritance allotted to us will be taken away. 4 When the Year of Jubilee for the Israelites comes, their inheritance will be added to that of the tribe into which they marry, and their property will be taken from the tribal inheritance of our ancestors.

Note as you were reading how carefully the problem was presented. In only a few words they framed the problem clearly, placing two principles of God’s Word that seemed in conflict in opposition to one another (36:3-5). Perhaps you missed what the conflict was all about:

On the one hand, the division of the land for the inheritance in Numbers 27 forced an inequity – those who were inheriting women without male heirs were left out. They complained to Moses and God made sure they were given their land rights. The principle of equity was upheld. On the other hand, the land rights were transferred from a woman to a man in marriage, because God’s principle of male priesthood over a family and its possessions was another value the Word taught. Because the women who had an inheritance were sure to marry, these two values of the Word were set to cause conflict.

When the women married, their land rights would be ceded to their husbands – and that had the potential of expanding the land allotment for some tribes by marriage and disrupting the long-term land apportionment among the tribes – another principle for God’s Word. With a conflict such as this – the whole map of the tribes could change in a few generations! God’s inheritance for a tribe could easily be eroded by means of marriages!

The clarity principle isn’t about the problem – but how the problem is posed. Note what they men of the tribes of Joseph did. They carefully outlined exactly what they were facing in the problem and why it was a problem to them. They were specific about the principles involved, and drew a line from the conflict to the confusing results. Moses and the tribal leaders were not entertaining some interpersonal slight, nor was the problem a simple administrative snafu – the issue was a conflict derived from the revealed Words of God. In short, after finding the right authority to present the case to, the men carefully highlighted the Biblical problem to their leaders.

Third, the Sovereignty Principle

The men of God knew they were facing something difficult, and they did what men and women of God should always do:

Numbers 36:5 Then at the Lord’s command Moses gave this order to the Israelites…

Can you see how the leader took the problem to the Lord before he spoke (36:5a)? Moses spoke at the Lord’s command. What a refreshing approach to spiritual problem solving! I cannot share clearly enough how self-dependent we have become in our day. Because we have the ability to network information, we often think in “crowd speak” – the language of the many. Got a question, there are a thousand sources for the answer. We have so many possibilities that are so immediate and seem so adequate, we don’t feel ill-equipped WITHOUT CONSULTING GOD. How can that be?

The Sovereignty Principle is this: God’s Word cannot be discerned without God’s Spirit, and a humble recognition of God’s right to make the rules. We are flawed, He is perfect. We are weak, He is unfailing. We are easily confused by emotions, personal sentiments that cloud clear judgment. God, the author of all truth, is not swayed and not fickle. When we want to know what HE thinks, it is always best to ASK HIM.

Fourth, the Acknowledgement Principle

The very first thing that Moses did when God gave him direction was point out the case was complicated, and God would solve it:

Numbers 36:5b “…“What the tribe of the descendants of Joseph is saying is right.”

The leader responded openly that a problem existed and God would address it (36:5b). The worst thing a leader can do is TRY TO SOLVE A PROBLEM BY IGNORING IT. Moses knew the men had a reasonable issue, and he made sure they knew that he knew.

Fifth, the Priority Principle

As Moses spoke, he needed to make sure the people knew which of the two conflicting principles took priority over the other. Numbers 36 continued:

Numbers 36:6 This is what the Lord commands for Zelophehad’s daughters: They may marry anyone they please as long as they marry within their father’s tribal clan. 7 No inheritance in Israel is to pass from one tribe to another, for every Israelite shall keep the tribal inheritance of their ancestors.

Moses explained the prescription that made clear the higher value principle (36:6-7). The land inheritance had to be protected above the freedom of the women to marry any man of their own choosing.

Here is an essential principle for today’s conflict: God can limit who you can marry. The mantra of “we cannot choose who we love” is increasingly confusing LUST with LOVE. We need to be careful as believers not to fall into the trap out of soft-headed concern and miss-framed benevolence toward people, by opening for them choices that God did not give them. Since I am reading his biography, let me echo a voice of a now with Jesus brother:

Nothing can be more cruel than the leniency which abandons others to their sin. Nothing can be more compassionate than the severe reprimand which calls another Christian in one’s community back from the path of sin.” ― Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community

Let me follow that up with another of his writings that also reminded me not to stop speaking truth even when bullied by lobbying on every hand in our public presentation:

The messengers of Jesus will be hated to the end of time. They will be blamed for all the division which rend cities and homes. Jesus and his disciples will be condemned on all sides for undermining family life, and for leading the nation astray; they will be called crazy fanatics and disturbers of the peace. The disciples will be sorely tempted to desert their Lord. But the end is also near, and they must hold on and persevere until it comes. Only he will be blessed who remains loyal to Jesus and his word until the end.” ― Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

As a follower of Jesus, you have made a choice to let Him lead. Would the One who wrote that light and darkness should have no fellowship together call you to marry one who is not a believer in Jesus? Do you REALLY believe that God would tell you to find someone who loves you deeply, but does not LOVE HIM, and marry them? In truth, God has the right to tell His people what they can and cannot do in every intimate area of life!

Think about the Priority Principle for a moment. It means that though both the inheritance rights of the women were important to God, they were not as important as the principles of maintaining the boundaries God set for the tribes. God wanted the tribes to maintain their size and shape. When two principles are in conflict, God will sort out in the rest of His revealed Word what He cares about more. Because that process is potentially dangerous, your choice of leadership becomes increasingly more important. As the curtain draws on moral thinking in our country, many so-called spiritual leaders will fold on issues of truth. Life will get more complex, as wrong is increasingly defined as right. It will take greater adeptness in the Word and greater sensitivity to the Spirit in the days ahead to get the right answer on conflicts, because many of the choices people will make were never contemplated by the believing community in the past – with good reason.

Sixth, the Direction Principle

Moses offered God’s response to the problem in clear terms that everyone could understand. He said:

Numbers 36:8 Every daughter who inherits land in any Israelite tribe must marry someone in her father’s tribal clan, so that every Israelite will possess the inheritance of their ancestors. 9 No inheritance may pass from one tribe to another, for each Israelite tribe is to keep the land it inherits.

It is important to note the solution was clear and measureable so obedience would be obvious (36:8-9). When people have wrestled with conflicting principles, it is essential that seek God for clear lines, so that obedience may be openly understood. When the standards are blurred, even those who are living outside the problem are affected. Because we are in a relationship with God, it becomes increasingly important for us to UNDERSTAND WHAT HE CARES ABOUT when moving forward from a time of conflicted values. Note that when you read the end of the book of Numbers, the inheritance principles are repeated. Moses is not stuttering, he is making sure there is absolute clarity with regards to the answer to the query brought to him. The people of God must be clear and concise on the truth – and not get so wrapped in the theory of a relationship, we don’t truly follow God.

Look at verse nine. It begins with forceful language – NO INHERITANCE MAY PASS… There is a refreshing sense of clarity, and a resounding tenor of command – DO NOT DO THIS. When the voices of the church are muddled because we do not have those most capable to answer the question out front, obedience and disobedience is a muddy mess.

In the UK last week, a prominent “so called evangelical” wrote a five page article explaining that since the “law was done away with in Christ”, he was dropping his stand for traditional marriage between one man and one woman – based on the fact that laws such as those found in Leviticus 18 were “nailed to the cross”. His evidence?

There is only one only scripture that used the terminology “nailed it to the cross” if you were reading from the AV or NKJ, as it appears the writer was. That passage is found in Colossians 2:13-14: “And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross“.

The reasoning appeared to have been this: We were alienated in our lost-ness from God because of the Law. When Jesus came, He nailed that Law to the cross and His death replaced any need we as believers have for the Law. Look carefully at Colossians 2, because that is NOT AT ALL what the text truly said. The Pastor saw two conflicting principles: our call as believers to be loving and kind as opposed to our standards of marriage that exclude how some people feel. He felt in conflict. His reach for the Bible took him to a passage that concluded the Cross cancelled the need to stand by the principles found in the Torah concerning marriage.

There are two profound problems with this approach:

First, it discounts the fact that all Scripture is profitable for teaching the truth (2 Timothy 3:16). The Bible isn’t in two parts – an old part and a new part that cancels the old part. It is TRUE that Hebrews 8 and 9 clearly argued that the New Covenant of God cancelled the Old one. Yet, if you look at the writing of the passage, the reference is to ATONEMENT, not books of the Bible. In short, Hebrews said that Jesus replaced animal sacrifice, not that Colossians replaced Numbers. The fact is that we have studied for ten years together the principles that are found in the Hebrew Scriptures. NO, we don’t kill a goat to make God happy, but we DO depend on the principles of every one of the sixty-six books for direction. That is why we study them all, and not just the New Testament.

Second, if what he said was true, if the CROSS eliminated the Law, it eliminated ALL laws regarding things like bestiality. There are only four passages in the Bible that speak of it – and none are in the New Testament. They are ALL in the Law. If the law regarding homosexuality in Leviticus 18 is tossed aside at the Cross, what happens to the other laws in the same passage? Are we now allowed sex between blood relatives (cp. Lev. 18:6)? How about incest with a parent (18:7)? Can we marry our sisters now? (18:17). Do you see the problem? Christians that have been poorly taught to toss out the Hebrew Scriptures because they aren’t “under the Law” open the flood gates to every kind of impurity.

Third, it is not at all what Colossians 2 actually says. The NASB translation of the Colossian 2:14 passage is much clearer: “14 having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.. (Colossians 2:14, NASB). Jesus didn’t cancel out the principles of the Law, He took away the obligation we have to pay for the charge of unrighteousness, because His righteousness has replaced our unrighteousness. We don’t have an indictment against us anymore, because it has been satisfied.

But, didn’t Galatians 3:13 say that: “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). Sure it did! The CURSE of the LAW was the penalty – not the LAW ITSELF. Jesus paid it all. I don’t owe it anymore. I don’t worry about the indictment of sin found in the Law to keep sacrificing – my “one size fits all” sacrifice of Messiah paid it all.

Not to over press the point, but how could it have truly condemned me if God doesn’t think it is so heinous that it no longer applies?

My point is not to make every student a “legal expert” in the Bible, but rather to show the severe danger when the Bible is poorly handled by big-hearted but soft-minded men. People need decisive direction that reflects what God’s Word actually says – and much more as the time of His return approaches.

Seventh, the Blessing Principle

Finally, we see the people blessed and happy in obedience. The Book of Numbers recorded:

Numbers 36:10 So Zelophehad’s daughters did as the Lord commanded Moses. 11 Zelophehad’s daughters—Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milkah and Noah—married their cousins on their father’s side. 12 They married within the clans of the descendants of Manasseh son of Joseph, and their inheritance remained in their father’s tribe and clan. 13 These are the commands and regulations the Lord gave through Moses to the Israelites on the plains of Moab by the Jordan across from Jericho.

As always, obedience brought blessing and order, and made even clearer God’s highest value in the case submitted (36:10-13). We need to keep saying it aloud, because our voices get shouted down in the world – there is MORE THAN LIMITATION that comes from the command of God – there is RICH BLESSING.

The world is very good at marking out the BENEFITS of doing what men want to do. Believers often recoil and do not make the case plain concerning the BENEFITS of obedience.

1 Kings 17 recalls the journey of Elijah from the brook with the ravens to Zarephath, where he met a widow who was about to prepare a “Last Supper” before her food ran out entirely. Elijah told her to trust God and he would keep the flour and oil coming until the drought was ended – and He did. Trust paid off. Following God’s Word kept her alive when others were starving.

Later, the protégé of Elijah, the younger man Elisha faced a woman who was starving. Her husband had died after serving the Lord faithfully for many years (2 Kings 4). Elisha told her to go a collect up from her neighbors as many jars as she could. She obeyed, and found that each was filled with oil! The more jars she had collected, the more God could bless her! Obedience brings blessing. Profound obedience brings profound blessing!

Not everything in the Scriptures is that simple. Sometimes the principles of one passage seem to collide with another – but God has provided seven important principles to help us consistently answer the problem.

The application principles of God’s Word are complex and can appear to conflict with other principles. When that happens, the Lord has a way to help us discern His higher values.