Strength for the Journey: “Hostile Takeover” – Numbers 25

Michael_Dell_2010How many of you own, or have owned a DELL computer? Any day now, Michael Dell will either maneuver to privately take back his computer company, or lose it forever. A meeting of Dell shareholders this week put off deciding on Mr. Dell’s $24.4 billion proposal to take the company private or financier Carl Icahn’s counteroffer. Icahn wanted to buy up the company and was rumored to be willing to chop it up and sell off the pieces. In some tough back room deals, that seems to have been abated, but some analysts think the danger still exists for a hostile takeover. I really don’t know what will happen to this once iconic computer hardware builder and his company. I DO know that hostile takeovers are a part of modern business.

I also know that, Biblically speaking, there is a battle for the future going on behind the ebb and flow of human history. God and his enemy are warring, until the time the Creator decides He has carried on long enough to show through history His flawless character and awesome nature. It is over, when the Creator says it is over. In the meantime, the enemy has been at work to discourage God’s people, embolden God’s enemies and disrupt God’s agenda – just as he has since he duped Adam and Eve in the garden. With each step of human history, God showed more of Who He is, and Satan did what he could to stop the flow and progress toward its unaltered end.

Our study of Scripture in the Book of Numbers has dropped us into a view of the enemy doing his work in classic form. By chapter 24, we saw the enemy at work, but as with most attacks, the demonic empowerment was masked by human players and activities. Yet, if you look closely at the account, it is not difficult to see that the devil left his fingerprints on the scene. The story since Numbers 22 has been about a small tribal desert kingdom called Moab, and their attempts to thwart Israel’s move into the lands promised to Abraham. That may sound like dry history – and it would be – but that isn’t all God exposed of the story. In fact, what he revealed was how the enemy works in the lives of believers, and in the lives of those who want to hinder them.

On the surface, Moab and its leader didn’t follow God, and they didn’t want to. They didn’t want God’s Word, and didn’t want to bless God’s people. They wanted the people of Israel stopped in their tracks and the God of Israel defamed and thwarted. Led by the chieftain named Balak, the leader of the Moabite warriors had joined forces with at least some of the Midianite tribes. These were the human “workers of distraction” – but the enemy of God was beneath the scene – working his deceptions.

We heard the serpent’s voice when Balak knew he couldn’t win if he stood “toe to toe” with Israel – so he tried to bribe a man of God. Israel was powerful and they were on the side with momentum. Balak tried an end run with a costly and elabortate religious deception inviting a known prophetic voice among God’s people to defect from the truth and speak lies. He offered to buy his voice, and when that didn’t work he tried to manipulate his understanding. When all else failed – he dismissed Balaam the prophet from his sight, disgusted that he couldn’t get what he wanted. Yet, he wasn’t done… What the enemy could not destroy in direct confrontation and manipulative confusion – he now attempted to destroy by offering enticements to compromise among God’s people.

Key Principle: When the devil cannot deceive believers with lies he will distract them with enticing playthings.

When God’s people have been entrenched in learning God’s Word, lies are harder to implant. Deception is tougher to pull off. That is one of the chief reasons we work hard in our respective ministries to explain the Word in such detail…Sometimes Satan tries to deceive anyway, but when he is unable to confuse followers of God with deception (because we have hidden the truth within), he will dangle before God’s people enticing distractions to compromise our walk and draw us away from forward progress in obedience. Numbers 25 uncovers two of the distractions the enemy uses to test God’s leaders, and to drag down God’s people.

Distraction of the Happy Holidays

Who doesn’t love a good holiday? When I think of holidays, I think of fun with family and friends, and I think of food… good food…lots of food. Apparently from the beginning of our text, so did the ancient followers of God – and the enemy knew that!

Numbers 25:1 While Israel remained at Shittim, the people began to play the harlot with the daughters of Moab. 2 For they invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. 3 So Israel joined themselves to Baal of Peor, and the LORD was angry against Israel.

The Slide of the People

The name of “Shittim” is Hebrew for the “acacia tree”, and marks the name of a village where the people were still encamped north of the Dead Sea and east of the Jordan – opposite Jericho and Gilgal. They seemed to be happy with their progress toward the land of promise, and they felt themselves to be in a reasonably secure position. Add to that, instead of constant fighting, the warriors of Moab and Midian hung back, deciding to trade with Israel, and then extend some friendly invitations to them to join in a feast in honor of their god, Baal of Peor.

When a modern reader spots the word “harlot” they immediately conjure up sensual imagery – but that may not be at the center of the use of the term in Numbers 25:1. Remember the term “daughters” (banot) is not always a gender term, but often was used in antiquity to denote the people “beyond the wall” – or suburban commoners, as opposed to military and cultural elite. The use of the imagery sounds admittedly sexual, but it need not be understood that simply – since the case of harlotry seemed to be wrapped into the cultic worship of Baal. God often used this imagery for false worship, because idolatry apparently felt to Him as a faithful spouse would be on the discovery of the other’s unfaithfulness.

Note the slide into sinful idolatry – they didn’t get there without a process:

It started with idleness (“Israel remained” – 25:1): the people of God were not moving or fighting – they were resting and regrouping. This is often a time of real danger for God’s people. We saw it in the journey through the Sinai desert, and will see it again in characters like David – time off can be a problem to our discipline. When we are taken out of the strain of the battle, we can often vacation in our mind, our heart and eventually our morals. The most dangerous time may not be in the midst of the battle, but in the times of ease. If we forget our disciplines in the lazy days of summer, with little care for our armor and our prayer, we will find ourselves ill-equipped when the arrows fly. It is important to rest body, mind and spirit – but rest taken away from the source of our strength will not help us – it will deplete us. Take your rest while recalling His Words constantly, and sharing your thoughts with him repeatedly – and it will be rest indeed

• Next, in the state of undisciplined rest, the enemy planted invitation (“they invited” – 25:2). The enemy planted an enticement in the camp. To a casual observer, it may have looked like PROGRESS TOWARD PEACE, a time of cultural exchange and healthy dialogue – it was nothing of the sort. If you keep reading (verse 18) the text revealed that it was a trick put together by the same leaders that failed to stop Israel by other means in the past. It looked like peace – but it was a tactic of war. It sounded like harmony, but it was actually the hissing of a snake. The world is often inviting and very accepting of new people – because without standards there is no reason to hold back full partnership. Often when you want to do wrong, you will find it easy to find companions in the world. Yet, when the friends you find are not deeply bound to you – as the prodigal son found out when the money to finance his party ran out.

• In a short time, the people “ate” – and the participation step to the slide was engaged. It isn’t enough to watch – it is just a matter of time before we rationalize and then participate. This is the danger of entertainment patterns of the world. Hollywood deliberately and shamelessly offers a value system in their dramas and comedies. They are often the “Church of the Pagan Thinking” – and hapless believers sit in their indoctrinations without recognizing they are working hard to get people to believe a system of moral thinking that is very opposed to a Biblical world view. It isn’t intrinsically wrong to watch the movie – but it is VERY WRONG to watch it without guarding your mind and heart and questioning the value system behind the ideas put forward in the show or film. Participation leads to defection – because we fail to recognize the compromise of our lifestyle.

• Finally, comes the defection stage of the process. Verse 2 ends sadly: “they bowed down to their gods.” What started as an invitation ended as idolatry – and it happened quickly. That should be a warning to us to be ever so careful in our dealing with the world – whether by our social media on our phone, or by TV show in the living room. It can happen SO FAST, that we move from pure to poor – and it starts with releasing the disciplines of our mind and heart and drifting.

25:4 The LORD said to Moses, “Take all the leaders of the people and execute them [those involved in the idolatry – not the leaders!] in broad daylight before the LORD, so that the fierce anger of the LORD may turn away from Israel.” 5 So Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Each of you slay his men who have joined themselves to Baal of Peor.” …17 “Be hostile to the Midianites and strike them; 18 for they have been hostile to you with their tricks, with which they have deceived you in the affair of Peor …”

The Response of the Lord

God didn’t sit on the sidelines during this blatant idolatry – He demanded repentance of the people. He called on those in leadership to pay a price – personally involving them in publicly bloodying their hands with those who should have been monitored carefully under their care. Look at the penalties and let them sink in:

My sin draws a fierce reaction from God. If I really understood how much my sin offends, wounds and sickens my Master, I would probably be more careful about my walk. The writers of Scripture that focused on the reverence and fear of God were no doubt more careful to walk uprightly before Him. The words of men of God like Joshua (who was alive at the time of this event) remind: “Now, therefore, fear the LORD and serve Him in sincerity and truth; and put away the gods which your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD.” I long to understand the voice of the prophet Amos when he said: A lion has roared! Who will not fear? The Lord GOD has spoken! Who can but prophesy?”

One of the things the enemy has effectively erased in many if not most of the believers I have known in my life is the FEAR of a HOLY GOD. Jonathan Edwards’ view of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” has become such an old school understanding of God that few really ever FEAR God. Some even teach that it is not healthy to do so. Interestingly, Paul argued that such fearlessness was a sign of one who was pagan in Romans 3:18 when he said “THERE IS NO FEAR OF GOD BEFORE THEIR EYES.”

To think that my sin is not an affront to God’s absolute holiness is nonsense. To think that because “I am saved by grace” such a blatant mutiny of heart against God causes Him no pain is dim-witted. It is what God referred to as spiritual unfaithfulness – the term harlot is used. What will help me more than a constant excuse of “human fallibility” or “calling on grace as a means of license” is to deliberately place God HIGH ABOVE everyone else – to see Him as Supreme and worthy of obedience. Fear of God isn’t a bad thing – because reducing Him to another friend without that balancing truth of His awesome power can easily lead to casual sinfulness.

My sin forces leaders to deal with me. How heavy was Paul’s heart dealing with Demas or Alexander the Coppersmith? The enemy uses even the believers to hurt other believers in their defections from God. I LOVE to be with men and women of God that are on fire for Jesus – but I am wearied by the number of defections from the Word both in teaching and in lifestyle that spoil the sense of safety in a circle of believers. We must remember that when we openly sin – we force other believers to defend, rebuke and otherwise drain their resources.

My sin defames the people of God. Imagine what the people of Moab thought of Israel after they partied together. Do you think the testimony of God was marred by their compromise? Of course you do – and you are right. Participation in behaviors that dishonor and displease God pull down His Holy name and confuse the world around us about what we really believe, and how much we really believe it.

When my sin is dealt with, it makes my God look mean – and the world watches. A disobedient child puts the parent and their response on display. In the same way, a disobedient believer challenges God to deal with them. When He does, the world responds as though God is unloving and mean – when the very opposite is true.

Let’s try a different strategy. Let’s recall often in our day that God is there and He is paying attention to what I am thinking about, to what I want, to what I am laughing at, to what I am watching. Let’s them imagine that He is TRULY HOLY, and that we belong to Him! Will that help me walk with Him? I think it might!

Distraction of Brazen Disobedience

The narrative of the “Distraction of the Happy Holiday” was lumped together with a second event I am calling the “Distraction of Brazen Disobedience” for a didactic purpose – God wanted to make clear how each attack was related and how bother were just another form of the attack we have observed through Balak in the case of Balaam in Numbers 22-24. This distraction method is an effective ploy the enemy uses in dealing with God’s people and their forward progress. The next example of this “places a shock value” into the story.

Have you ever been sitting in a public place and literally SHOCKED by the outrageous outfit someone was wearing? Have you ever been speechlessly STUNNED by the embarrassingly immodest dress of someone that walked by you? If you have, you will understand the SHOCK VALUE of brazen disobedience, and the distraction of this ploy will be obvious to you.

Numbers 25:6 Then behold, one of the sons of Israel came and brought to his relatives a Midianite woman, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of all the congregation of the sons of Israel, while they were weeping at the doorway of the tent of meeting. 7 When Phinehas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he arose from the midst of the congregation and took a spear in his hand, 8 and he went after the man of Israel into the tent and pierced both of them through, the man of Israel and the woman, through the body. So the plague on the sons of Israel was checked. 9 Those who died by the plague were 24,000. …17 “Be hostile to the Midianites and strike them; 18 for they have been hostile to you with their tricks, with which they have deceived you … in the affair of Cozbi, the daughter of the leader of Midian, their sister who was slain on the day of the plague because of Peor.”

God told the people not to marry outside of Israel. A look ahead at 25:14 explains that a man named Zimri, son of Salu the Simeonite defied that order, and took Cozbi, daughter of the chieftain Zur of Midian. When God told them how to interact with the people of the land they were going to see, He said in Deuteronomy 7:3 “Furthermore, you shall not intermarry with them; you shall not give your daughters to their sons, nor shall you take their daughters for your sons. 4″For they will turn your sons away from following Me to serve other gods; then the anger of the LORD will be kindled against you and He will quickly destroy you.” In short, Zimri son of salu “BLEW OFF” GOD’S WORD.

Note that Zimri didn’t just disobey – he FLAUNTED disobedience. Flagrant personal disregard for God’s Word is dangerous, but not nearly as dangerous as PUBLIC DISPLAY of disobedience. Look at the description:

• Brought her to his relatives (25:6).
• In the sight of Moses (25:6).
• In the sight of the congregation (25:6).
• At the doorway of the tent of meeting (25:6).

Zimri didn’t make a quiet mistake – he made a flagrant, public, disgusting confrontation with God at the place where God met Israel. That was his plan. It was an attack against the Lord’s Word, and it was a huge distraction to God’s leaders. I truly believe that Moses’ jaw dropped at HOW DEFIANT this action was in front of him. I don’t think his relatives knew how to respond! I suspect the whole of the congregation was so stunned, no one was sure what to do next.

By reading in the end of verse 8 and the beginning of verse 9, more of the context of that day becomes clear. The people of Israel were gathering at the Tabernacle, but the place was filled with sadness and sickness. People were dying in large numbers, and the people were heart-sick. A plague filled the camp, and the people were seeking God and trying to figure out what would abate His wrath.

In walked an Israelite man who simply and publicly snubbed God’s Word and defied God’s authority in his choice of a spouse.

If Zimri were alive today, he would say things like: “It isn’t anybody’s business who I sleep with but mine!” His life, he thought, was his own. God was about to show him that his life was also going to be short-lived. I don’t know how God could make it clearer

Sitting in a group of people near the door of the Tabernacle was Phinehas, son of Eleazar, grandson of Aaron – a priest who knew God’s law. He didn’t appear to be “on duty” that day – he was “in the midst of the congregation” when he responded. He “arose” – suggesting that he was sitting down when Zimri strolled up to the door of the tent of meeting. He grabbed a spear from someone nearby, perhaps a guard who was standing near the silver trumpets placed at the gate for an emergency war alarm – we simply don’t know. What is clear is that Phinehas had the presence of mind to deal with the problem promptly and powerfully. He didn’t think, he stood strongly for the Lord in the face of open defiance. He chased Zimri and Cozbi and thrust the spear into both of them.

I know what that sounds like when you read it out loud. It sounds mean and savage. It is clearly an unusual story set in a very specific time and place – and not one I want people to think is generally acceptable to God. I don’t want someone taking out sharp objects and looking for sinners in the sanctuary – that isn’t how it works. While I want that to be clear – I also want it clear that everything we are being fed in modern Christian media seems to be saying only one thing: LOVE THEM WITHOUT QUESTIONING WHAT THEY ARE DOING. A twisted pagan definition of tolerance is overtaking our sense of care about how GOD FEELS when flagrant violations are routinely left to pass as acceptable. I have observed in Israel for thirty years this thinking: if we keeping supporting the guy that totally despises us, someday they will grow friendly to us. I have some news, and I don’t mean to be abrupt – they won’t. They won’t love you because you let them walk all over TRUTH as you sit quietly amidst the flowers and think warm thoughts.

We must be loving, and we must be kind – but we must NOT begin to think that such love and kindness cannot challenge flagrant violations of moral truth. We need to deliberately challenge the thinking that Love, or for that matter real tolerance means never telling someone they are wrong. Here is the truth: Tolerance of Biblically defined “immorality” will increasingly lead to intolerance of Biblically defined “morality”. The emboldened pagan will not allow a voice that says they are wrong. Count on it. Backing up and conceding will get us nothing when it comes to truth.

I keeping hearing that the best way we can represent Jesus is BE LIKE HIM. Usually is it followed by an analysis of a morally soft mind that calls us to LOVE and LISTEN and ACCEPT – but that isn’t the Jesus of the Bible.

• He didn’t agree with Satan’s challenge to his identity – He answered with Scripture (Mt. 4:10).
• He didn’t just heal people, He told them to repent – and change their behavior! (Mt. 4:17).
• He didn’t just accept good behavior –He challenged the hearts of people (Mt. 5:20).
• He didn’t play nice with other speakers who didn’t represent God well – He called then false talkers and ravenous wolves (Mt. 7:15).
• He didn’t accept part-time and fair weather disciples but told them nothing was more important – and they should put every other goal, and every other relationship behind the call to listen and obey Him (Mt. 8:20).

I don’t want to sound belligerent – I DO love people. At the same time, there is a soft-headed notion of Jesus that doesn’t represent His HOLINESS. I don’t serve a toothless lion of the tribe of Judah. I serve a Savior who is both powerful and pointed in His demand that we not place other agendas before Him.

Results of Vigilance to Follow God’s Word

Obviously, there are blessings to obeying God, and there are serious consequences for ignoring His stated commands and creating our own moral system in replacement of His Word. Just to reinforce the point – let’s look at both sides:

Blessings of Obedience

Numbers 25:8b “…So the plague on the sons of Israel was checked. 9 Those who died by the plague were 24,000. 10 Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 11 “Phinehas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, has turned away My wrath from the sons of Israel in that he was jealous with My jealousy among them, so that I did not destroy the sons of Israel in My jealousy. 12 “Therefore say, Behold, I give him My covenant of peace; 13 and it shall be for him and his descendants after him, a covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the sons of Israel.‘”

Count the blessings:

1. The death by plague was stopped by God above (25:8-9).
2. The wrath of God was turned away from His people (25:11). Don’t forget – the wrath is not simply “anger” in the human sense of the term – the words don’t really do justice to God’s way of working. God was INCENSED with the mutiny, and its judgment demonstrated graphically there were those who would boldly stand up for the right thing.
3. God had occasion to reward the man who stood up for right (25:11-12).
4. God offered a man who committed a violent act a future of peace (25:12).
5. The sin of Israel was atoned (covered- 25:13).

Consequences of Compromise

25:8 and he went after the man of Israel into the tent and pierced both of them through, the man of Israel and the woman, through the body.14 Now the name of the slain man of Israel who was slain with the Midianite woman, was Zimri the son of Salu, a leader of a father’s household among the Simeonites. 15 The name of the Midianite woman who was slain was Cozbi the daughter of Zur, who was head of the people of a father’s household in Midian. 16 Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 17 “Be hostile to the Midianites and strike them; 18 for they have been hostile to you with their tricks, with which they have deceived you in the affair of Peor and in the affair of Cozbi, the daughter of the leader of Midian, their sister who was slain on the day of the plague because of Peor.

Face the consequences of sinful compromises:

1. A man was compelled to take the life of two other people – and that was not easy then, or now (25:8).
2. Two people faced being stabbed in public before their families (25:8).
3. Two families mourned their children’s death (25:8).
4. Two people were forever remembered in defiance in God’s Word (25:14-15).
5. Hostility and a state of war was created by the exposing of the plot to compromise Israel (25:17-18).
6. The landscape was filled with graves of a plague (25:18).

Is it not ever so clear that the wages of sin is DEATH? Is it not equally clear that standing up for God and His Word may not be easy , but in the long run it will be better not only for the one who stands up, but for the whole community?

We must remember that the current wind that calls for the church to roll over on sin and immorality is a hot wind that will decimate the landscape of our country. Divorce broke down the family. Sexual promiscuity will break down individual identity and moral constraints that come with loving bonds. Stiffen your resolve to stand up for truth by standing strong in your own family, and lovingly prepare now to catch those tiny souls that are about to swept under by the currents of arrogant godless men and women. The pressure to accommodate to a new standard of wickedness in order to keep us more popular or relevant has the scaly skin of a snake hanging upon them – and we must not be duped.

Step away from the compromise of moral truth in your own heart and life. God sees it, and God knows what we are entertaining ourselves with. Remember…

When the devil cannot deceive believers with lies he will distract them with enticing playthings.