A Scandalous Story

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scandalousadjective |  scan·dal·ous
offensive to propriety or morality

When was the last time you observed something that truly offended you? When some moral ideal deep within you was violated and you felt angry? Can you think of a time when such a reaction lead you to action?

Let me share a story, straight out of the Bible, that may make some of you a little uncomfortable.

At this point in the Old Testament story God has miraculously freed the nation of Israel out of slavery from Egypt and lead them to worship him in the desert. He and the people make a covenant pledge solidifying their relationship to each other. This reality is simply staggering— God, as part of his plan from all history— has chosen a people to get his creation project back on track. Sin, you see, spoiled the pinnacle of his creation— mankind. We were created to live on earth, yet with intimate union with God. He gave man freedom to rule the earth and develop it, and placed that freedom under the bounds of his leadership. At the core of the story of Adam and Eve eating forbidden fruit is the reality that they rejected the authority of God and all humanity has been living under the consequences of people living outside of God’s leadership.

So, God has this nation of former slaves that he’s going to set apart to reveal himself to and to make a light to the rest of the world that desperately needs to know who God really is. Unfortunately the repeated problem demonstrated in the Old Testament book called Numbers is that by and large, God’s chosen people chose their old life over a life under God’s leadership. Imagine a convicted death row inmate on the day of execution having the Governor show up and invite him to follow him to the courthouse to sign pardon papers but the inmate choses to follow the executioner instead. This picture gets close to the horrible propensity of God’s people to chose death instead of life.

[1] While Israel lived in Shittim, the people began to whore with the daughters of Moab. [2] These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. [3] So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel. [4] And the LORD said to Moses, “Take all the chiefs of the people and hang them in the sun before the LORD, that the fierce anger of the LORD may turn away from Israel.” [5] And Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Each of you kill those of his men who have yoked themselves to Baal of Peor.”

Numbers 25:1-5

God chose a nation to set apart from the rest of the world so that he could establish a foothold in our broken world as part of his plan of salvation. Israel was to be set apart and receive the blessing of relationship and knowledge of God. They were to be a light to the rest of the world. At the beginning stages of this journey the people didn’t trust God enough to follow him into the land he told them to go. In fact, the repeated theme is one of rebellion against God and the leadership he had appointed. You can read that story in Numbers 11-26. The fact of the story, revealed by a census taken in chapter 1 and a second in chapter 26 reveals that God eliminated a whole generation before he could proceed to the next step of the people’s journey.

This particular episode is one stunning example of some of the people’s blatant rejection of God’s authority. Then, in the midst of God’s clear judgement upon the people who were breaking from his commands, even while Moses’ men are rounding up others for execution, one guy flaunts his sin in front of everyone.

[6] And behold, one of the people of Israel came and brought a Midianite woman to his family, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the whole congregation of the people of Israel, while they were weeping in the entrance of the tent of meeting.

So everyone sees this. One man found the actions so scandalous, he took radical action.

[7] When Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose and left the congregation and took a spear in his hand [8] and went after the man of Israel into the chamber and pierced both of them, the man of Israel and the woman through her belly. Thus the plague on the people of Israel was stopped.

Some of you are thinking, what in the world? What do I do with that story? Well, let me add to what may be a tension for some of you.

[10] And the LORD said to Moses, [11] “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. [12] Therefore say, ‘Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace, [13] 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.’”

Maybe you find it challenging to think of God being jealous and wrathful. In our culture today, most people believe in “god”, but most people don’t have a biblical view of God. What they believe isn’t the God who revealed himself in the Bible. In fact, this story may sound scandalous to many. And I mean that by the definition above. God’s actions in this passage may offend our sense of propriety or morality.

But what if… What if God’s actions in this story were not just wrathful, but also gracious? What if the actions of the people in this story warranted much worse, and God’s response demonstrates his loving mercy? Your point of view has much to do with your view of sin and your view of God.

There’s a word used at the end of verse 13: atonement.

Understanding atonement requires an understanding of God’s original, good creation, the pinnacle of which is his creation of man in his own image. Then this good creation is spoiled by the sin of man. From the point of Genesis 3:15 onward, God reveals his intentions to redeem mankind. This redemption, however, will require sin to be dealt with. Atonement is a payment for sin through sacrifice and offering which somehow covers over that sin.

Atonement rings a scandalous tone in the moral ears of our culture. We like a God who is loving, but don’t know how to reconcile love and judgement. If we think of sin, we think only of hurts and hangups but not also of definite moral lines that we knowingly and willfully cross. We’re okay with forgiveness of sins, but not with judgement of sin.

Between now and Easter I will write more on this scandalous idea of atonement. If we don’t understand the need for God’s wrath to be turned away, we won’t appreciate the Cross of Christ. We won’t understand why he is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. And at best, we will always be confused at why God’s love for us required the death of his own Son.

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