Strength for the Journey: “Shaping a Better God” – Numbers 31:1-20

chiseling godIdolatry is the single most talked about problem in all of Scripture – but you don’t hear it that much in the western church. When we do mention it, we picture some primitive tribe far away, not people we see every day. According to the Bible, most people are idolaters. Now, I readily admit that in the modern world of the west, most do not think of themselves as idolaters – but in the Biblical terminology that is exactly how they would be described. This isn’t a new problem, but one that accompanies the ages. It was John Calvin who wrote: “Everyone of us is, even from our mother’s womb a master craftsman of idols.”

We may not build elaborate temples and construct vast sacrificial platforms. We may not bow to a statue of some hideous creature or sumptuous human form, but each of us serves something with vigilant allegiance – even if it is ourselves. The Biblical definition for idolatry is “anything that takes God’s rightful place in our life as it regards our hungers, choices and desires.” For some it is money, for others an inordinate craving for the love of another. For some it is surely power. Some yearn deeply for success and will cast aside any principle for the perks of material gain. For some the driving hunger is fame. For some, every waking moment seems to be a search for sexual gratification. Some make a god of their career, while others exalt their body to serve the god of image and strength. To a great many in our culture, the god of comfort and pleasure demands our highest allegiance. I have to agree with Kyle Idelman who wrote: “Behind every sin struggle that you and I have is a false god that is winning the war in our lives.”

We must be careful not to allow other things to come between us and God. The Bible warns us in many places concerning this – but there is another “twist” on idolatry I want you to notice – our modern attempts to re-shape God into something that is more acceptable to our sense of fairness and justice. We began to see this in the last chapter, where we noted the “modern clash of culture” we have with the text of Scripture regarding the judicial responsibility of women (Numbers 30). We noted the unchanging principles of God’s Word are sometimes openly offensive to modern sensibilities, and that in our day the church is quickly succumbing to the need to be loved by the world rather than firmly committed to holding the treasure of the Creator’s words above all else. If you have been listening, you know the media LOVES any church that wants to update and re-think the Bible’s most clear statements to conform with the morals of modernity.

I don’t want to obfuscate and sound so theoretical I skirt needed discomfort, so let me say it plainly: Our culture is at war with the God of the Bible as He is presented in the text. They don’t WANT HIM. IF they want any god (and many do not), they want to be able to shape what He cares about. They want to tell Him what the Bible SHOULD say. They want to re-make the rules on marriage, finance, sexual behavior, honesty – all of it. The parts of the Bible about God’s love are no problem. The problem is all the other things God says… God the Sovereign is being demoted to God the elected… and there is a reason.

Many Christians simply don’t understand that from the opening line, the Bible is deeply offensive to the modern sensibilities of our culture. Its pages open with a simple claim: “In the beginning God created the Heavens and the earth.” If that claim is true – if God DID in fact create all that is and then defined its purpose (as the rest of Genesis 1 claims) – everything finds its real meaning and definition in Him. He defines justice. He defines goodness. He defines mercy. He defines truth. Even more offensive is the notion that in such a case, God isn’t forced to act according to modern man’s ever flexing sense of fairness… a truly burning offense to modern man. Our culture cries out for a creator that can be shaped! Our nation seeks a god that blesses us without questioning our gluttony for endless pleasures and encourages us without challenging our flexible morality and unrestrained perversions.

A God that pre-existed the material world, a God that created all things– is fundamentally at odds with the gods of modern men. Why? If God created, He was not a creation of good men – He is the author, not the tale. If God created, He has by definition a Sovereign right to be recognized as Who He is. He cannot be forced into rules that His creation attempts to subject Him to, nor can He be shaped by men’s thinking, for we were shaped by His hands. He is the Untamable God – the writer of a story in which we find ourselves characters.

Key Principle: God isn’t forced to act according to our sense of justice – He defines justice. He defines goodness. He defines mercy. He defines truth… This is the truly offensive word of the Bible to modern man.

Let me challenge you with a story from the Bible that will help us see even our own temptation to shape God. Like the last lesson – this one challenges our modern definitions of fair and just, and forces us to rethink how our minds have been pressed into the world’s mold. There is much in the passage, so we will deal with it in two parts – this is the first installment.

Part One: The Last Battle for Moses

The first half of the chapter is constructed as a record of four scenes:

• God commands Moses
• Moses passes marching orders to leaders
• Israel’s army routs Midian
• Moses meets the returnees

This is a story about a war. It is the plan and execution of a surprise attack, initiated by God against a devious enemy that had caused problems in the past for Israel. It is a tough story to read – with butchery and blood of men and women, and the enslaving of children. It is a frank look at the rugged and brutal existence of God’s people long ago… and it is not easy to seriously contemplate.

Scene One – God to Moses:

It opens with God talking to Moses. Take a moment and pull in your focus to listen to a short and direct command from God given millennia ago:

Numbers 31:1 The Lord said to Moses, 2 “Take vengeance on the Midianites for the Israelites. After that, you will be gathered to your people.

The opening line of the story is no doubt a summary of a longer conversation, but in the short two sentences we see the revelation of three facts:

First, God wasn’t willing to let the terrible abuse of His people by devious men who tried to destroy God’s plan in and through them remain unanswered.

When we read “take vengeance” as Christians, we are perhaps uncomfortable with a kind of call from God, since it seems contrary to the call of God to us – and it meant the brutal killing of human beings. Don’t you feel a reaction? Perhaps it will help if you recall the event that God was referencing in his command, and see if it puts this command in context. Numbers 25:1 reported: “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. 4 The LORD said to Moses, “Take all the leaders of the people and execute them 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.”

While observing this first fact – that God wouldn’t let the abuse go – it occurs to me that four ideas surface that we should take a few minutes to explore on the way to helping us make sense of this command of God for vengeance:

  • God called Moses in with the plan to pay back Midian for their sin. This wasn’t a political stunt, and it wasn’t done with a malicious heart on the part of Moses. Vengeance is God’s alone – and we are not to cook up ways to hurt people who hurt us. Moses was acting as the hand of God in a specific situation – and we aren’t Moses. We don’t have the history of the same kind of communion with God and don’t have the same responsibilities before God as he did.
  • We don’t recognize how hurt the people of Israel were concerning the resultant plague that decimated them, killing 24,000 of their family and friends (Numbers 25:9) directly because of that sin. These deceivers felt like cloaked terrorists, and the event felt like a 9/11 cataclysm to the people. America WANTED to fight after they were attacked. After Pearl Harbor, there was no ground swell of a peacenik American. When people are hurt and victimized, their sense of JUSTICE overwhelms them. God’s call probably satisfied many people who lost loved ones that were casualties of another’s misdeeds. Some of you may be keen to ask: “Wait! These didn’t die in an attack – the plague of the Lord took their lives. That isn’t the same thing!” (I want to address this, but I will do so later in the lesson).
  • We don’t recognize how deeply God abhors those who ensnare His people in idolatry and licentious living. To God, these tribesmen were like an ancient form of a street “drug pusher” – offering something free and getting people “hooked” – while steadily “milking” their life from them. If you have ever felt that there was a special place in Hell reserved for such people, you know a bit of the outrage of God over what they were doing. He HATES the deliberate perversion of a child. He DETESTS the beckoning of the tempter who creates enslaving pornography and traffics in human flesh of those held in bondage. He LOATHES the voices of those who arrogantly challenge His right to keep His people distinct from filth.
  • We must recognize that God worked with Israel in unique ways in the past in regards to national direction, and this view of “carnal warfare” is not the same in our nation and time in history. We follow a chosen value at Grace called “Non-resistance”. We are not pacifists, and do not believe that Jesus’ commands to individual believers translate to national instructions, but we do believe there is a profound difference in the way we should handle what our forefathers called “carnal strife” – fancy terms for “national wars”. Non-resistance in our doctrinal statement means essentially that we do not believe that our nation or our church are to involve themselves in battles that are designed to “carry out the Lord’s vengeance on them” as stated in Numbers 31:3. Serving in the country’s armed forces is not a problem for us – but it would be if our country tried to execute a war claiming it was the “arm of God”. In our time, we believe there is a distinction between the Kingdom “not of this world” that we serve, and the earthly kingdom to which we show allegiance as a matter of obedience to Romans 13 and those who are in authority. Our movement came from a time in European history when people were killing each other in the name of Jesus – and we don’t believe in that. We can and will defend our national interests as loyal citizens, but we will not defend the nation claiming it is “the command of the Lord” over another people. We make a distinction between our faith Kingdom and our earthly Kingdom that ancient Israel did not need to make.

God wouldn’t let it go, but there is more in this little reading of Numbers 31:1-2.

Second, Moses needed to care for the response and not let it pass to his successor. There would be plenty of fighting that Joshua needed to contend with – but God wanted this chapter finished by Moses’ administration. It wasn’t wise to place the clean-up operations on the shoulder of the new guy. As we slip out of a long-held role of leadership, sometimes we are tempted to “let things go” and not press to the final tape with our best efforts. It would have been easy to see how Moses could have felt it best not to “re-open a can of worms” and rather “let sleeping dogs lie” – the laissez faire (“leave it be”, literally “let do”) form of leadership. Because of that temptation, and because God wanted to balance the scales of judgment, He simply stepped in and instructed that Moses clean up this problem.

Third, this was the LAST big assignment Moses needed to face as leader. He would be “retired” after this war. Moses was probably looking forward to resting from the weight of the office, and since many of his friends were already gone, he probably knew it was time for a new leader. From what we can tell, the words of God didn’t threaten him, they comforted him.

Scene Two – Moses to Men:

There are more than two verses to consider in the story! Keep reading…The instruction firmly planted in his ears, Moses drew the people together and faithfully reported to him all that God told him to say:

Numbers 31:3 So Moses said to the people, “Arm some of your men to go to war against the Midianites so that they may carry out the Lord’s vengeance on them. 4 Send into battle a thousand men from each of the tribes of Israel.” 5 So twelve thousand men armed for battle, a thousand from each tribe, were supplied from the clans of Israel.

He told them to get ranked, dressed and ready for battle. He delivered the reason, just as God gave it to him – it was God’s idea, not his. The objective was given by the Most High, but the plan needed to be executed in their hands.

Scene Three – Men to War:

Gathered and ready, off they went to attack as they were told to do. They were strong physically, and walked with an emotional certainty knowing they were following the Lord’s command.

Numbers 31:6 Moses sent them into battle, a thousand from each tribe, along with Phinehas son of Eleazar, the priest, who took with him articles from the sanctuary and the trumpets for signaling. 7 They fought against Midian, as the Lord commanded Moses, and killed every man. 8 Among their victims were Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur and Reba—the five kings of Midian. They also killed Balaam son of Beor with the sword. 9 The Israelites captured the Midianite women and children and took all the Midianite herds, flocks and goods as plunder. 10 They burned all the towns where the Midianites had settled, as well as all their camps. 11 They took all the plunder and spoils, including the people and animals, 12 and brought the captives, spoils and plunder to Moses and Eleazar the priest and the Israelite assembly at their camp on the plains of Moab, by the Jordan across from Jericho.

Moses SENT them, but Eleazar the High Priest ACCOMPANIED them with articles from the Tabernacle – the silver trumpets used to call them to war from its doorway. The men apparently attacked the Midianite encampment with complete surprise – and the slaughter was thorough. Every fighting man of that tribal encampment was killed. Five chieftains were encamped there – though the text does not inform us why they were all in that one camp. It looks like a “pow-wow” was interrupted at just the right time!

Did you notice that Balaam the prophet was also with them? At the end of his time with Chief Balak, Numbers 24:25 recorded: “Then Balaam arose and departed and returned to his place, and Balak also went his way.” What was he STILL DOING IN THE MIDIANITE CAMP? Truthfully, we do not know. It could be that he returned to his tent at the end of Numbers 24 with the intent of going home, but decided to stay around and see how the whole thing worked out. Some have even suggested that he set out to return to Mesopotamia, but was again summoned by tribesmen that wished to hire his services. 2 Peter 2:15 certainly left the door open to that when it recorded his legacy as: “forsaking the right way, they have gone astray, having followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness.” I cannot prove it, but I suspect that he found himself seduced by the sensual cult that pervaded the camp of Midian, and he wasn’t willing to go back home.

Because I feel it inappropriate, I will not graphically remind you of the cultic practices, except to say they were sensual and orgiastic. The women captured by Israel’s raiders were some of the same enchantresses from the “cultic orgy” of Numbers 25 that drew them into trouble with God and His Word. It is also important to mention that the so-called “towns” or “cities” Israel burned in verse ten were “encampments” and “maqads” or safe havens – cave structures that stored food and water for the journey through their surrounding territory. Moses was trying to make it clear that every Midianite in the area was taken, and the raiders checked carefully the region around the camp. What they brought back was a rich trove of stored materials, and a certainty that there would be no immediate counter-attack.

Scene Four – Moses Met Returnees:

Collecting the spoils of the encampments in the region, and the supplies of the maqads, they returned to Moses – with flocks, herds, plunder, women and children. The reading that follows is a bit jarring:

Numbers 31:13 Moses, Eleazar the priest and all the leaders of the community went to meet them outside the camp. 14 Moses was angry with the officers of the army—the commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds—who returned from the battle. 15 “Have you allowed all the women to live?” he asked them. 16 “They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful to the Lord in the Peor incident, so that a plague struck the Lord’s people. 17 Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, 18 but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man. 19 “Anyone who has killed someone or touched someone who was killed must stay outside the camp seven days. On the third and seventh days you must purify yourselves and your captives. 20 Purify every garment as well as everything made of leather, goat hair or wood.

The record of the return reveals that Moses looked at what they brought back. He was, no doubt, relieved to see them all come home. Any leader would be. He walked out of the camp to meet Eleazar the High Priest, and address the commanders of the tribal warriors of Israel. As he saw them, dirt and blood still dried on their skin and tunics, his eyes scanned the crowd. He saw the spoils of silver and gold, the trinkets and treasures of a people now defeated and dispatched. Then the smile slipped from his face… His mouth dropped open. Could it be? Were the very women that stood before him those who had seduced the children of Israel and brought about the idolatry and plagues a short time before? What had his army done? Why had they let them live? Here is the question at the heart of the narrative’s application for our study.

When my unbelieving friends want to criticize the Bible, verses like the one we just read are the very ones they use. They sound barbaric. Any Pastor would rather avoid these texts and hide inside the warmth of the Gospels or the reasoned argumentation of the Apostle Paul. This record is sickening to anyone who is not calloused. We are speaking of the death of women and children. How can this be in our Bible?

Despite what my students may say, I am not an un-compassionate man. Seriously, I ache when I see scenes from Damascus today, or Egypt, or Libya, or Afghanistan or Iraq. I cannot easily endure the sight of killing – and I have seen it before, and handled fallen bodies with my own hands. When you really look at war, you learn that, up close, all wars seem like crimes – regardless of the point. Who can take the life of a child and not be changed forever by the taking? I watched in horror as the footage was released of those who were painfully gasping for breath as they suffered the effects of Sarin nerve gas in Syria.

You see, the burning desire for God to fit into our feelings, our inner barometer of justice – makes us vulnerable to a sinful reshaping of God. Do you recall the key principle I cited for the study?

“God isn’t forced to act according to our sense of justice – He defines justice. He defines goodness. He defines mercy. He defines truth… This is the truly offensive word of the Bible to modern man.”

Let’s remember when we read of this tale that God was leading the people through the journey to the Promised Land. They were following Him when the enemy attacked through a slick traveling preacher named Balaam and his suggestion to win their hearts through sinful compromise. He may have sounded like a man of god, but the rattle of a snake was present behind his voice. He didn’t seem like such an offensive character – he was not a vulgar and boisterous man. He did not stand on the hillside shouting obscenities to his foes. He sat in a meeting, and quietly planned seduction and destruction of God’s people. He laid out the plans with care and shared with tribal chiefs how they could make God’s people GIVE THEM a victory they knew they could not TAKE by force. That’s the way the enemy really works most effectively. Why assault us openly when he can lull us into conformity and then force us into slavery?

Let’s recall when we encounter this story that God directed the assault on the people and that God had the absolute right to do so. That is where the real justice issue plows into our culture. It is that same sense of justice that is causing the modern “church of tolerance” so pervasive in our day – to reshape the Bible on a narrative on the mention of Hell. It offends an American culture that doesn’t truly accept authority – even from a Creator. In our culturally accepted arrogance, we feel qualified to shake our fist at Heaven itself and demand that God get into the box of our sense of fairness. He can’t kill if we don’t think He has that right. He can’t demand a man to take his only son and place him on an altar and sacrifice him at God’s call. God doesn’t really OWN people – He isn’t really ENTITLED to do as He pleases with my life… do you see where this is going?

Here is the crux of the struggle. A believer cannot truly make sense of God’s commands if they don’t remember God’s position as Creator, Master and Sovereign.

When we compromise on the Sovereignty of God, we destroy the Bible. We declare God subject to human will. We make Him answerable to US and not us to HIM. We draw back in fear of rejection or hunger for acceptance from a broken and temporary world and do not represent the God Who is not intimidated by the strongest of men. We stand, like David’s brothers, quaking before a defiant Goliath as he mocked the God of Abraham.

I simply argue that I cannot make the God of the Bible palatable to the arrogant voices of modernity. I have no way to bend God so low as to serve men’s pleasures, or to flex His sayings to make what is popular right. If the work of the shepherd in a church is going to be measured in terms of common popularity, I suspect those of us standing with the plain reading of the text will not be deemed successful this side of Heaven. No matter. All I can do is be as kind as possible, but be true to the Word as well.

Given time, people will re-write and explain away every counter-cultural statement of the Bible – including the Gospel itself. I like something Pastor Tim Keller wrote: “The universal religion of humankind is: We develop a good record and give it to God, and then he owes us. [God should weigh out the good I have done in my life and let me into Heaven.] The gospel is: God develops a good record and gives it to us, then we owe him (Rom. 1:17). [God sent His Son to save us.] In short, to say a good person, not just Christians, can find God is to say good works are enough to find God. You can believe that faith in Christ is not necessary or you can believe that we are saved by grace, but you cannot believe in both at once. So the apparently inclusive approach is really quite exclusive. It says, “The good people can find God, and the bad people do not.” But what about us moral failures? We are excluded. The gospel says, “The people who know they aren’t good can find God, and the people who think they are good do not.” Then what about non-Christians, all of whom must, by definition, believe their moral efforts help them reach God? They are excluded. So both approaches are exclusive, but the gospel’s is the more inclusive …. It says joyfully, “It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been at the gates of hell. You can be welcomed and embraced fully and instantly through Christ.” (taken from “Preaching Today”).

One who embraces the God of the Bible recognizes a truth the world is blinded to. They grasp that there is no compassion in man greater than compassion found in man’s Creator – He invented love, He invented care. God didn’t ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac without a plan to save both of them. God’s compassion was so great that HE GAVE HIS SON. He sent Jesus. He allowed Him to be nailed to a Cross. Then, in the midst of the agony and tears, God did the unthinkable. He left Jesus there. He allowed Jesus to experience the utter anguish of Hell – the separation from God Himself. Jesus had existed as ONE with the Father throughout the ages back to eternity. On a terrible early afternoon outside of Jerusalem as the sky grew dark, God turned His back on His Son. The separation tore at the universe on a molecular level. Jesus’ great punishment was not simply that He was stripped of His clothes in a body beaten nearly beyond recognition. His profound punishment was not simply that his skin was torn through by the piercing nails into his flesh. These things were horrible, but paled in comparison to the absolute horror of the tearing away of His Father.

Hell is exactly that. It is, at its essense, the removal of God’s presence. All the grace, gentleness and love evacuates like the day’s heat in the cloudless desert. The cold settles and the darkness envelopes the soul. The physical pains are real and descriptive, but the separation from God is the reason the thirteeeth century poet Dante Alighieri placed above the gates of Hell these words: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”. Jesus did that for me and you – because that was required to save us from our mutiny.

You can try to make God fit into your mold – but God’s face will be shaped in your heart to look like your own. America is suffering from a need to have a man-like Christ in the place of a Christ-like Christian.

God isn’t forced to act according to our sense of justice – He defines justice. He defines goodness. He defines mercy. He defines truth… This is the truly offensive word of the Bible to modern man.