In Part 1 of our Understanding the Old Testament series, we saw that there were two great divine imperatives that have been mostly ignored by the people of God. In Genesis 18, God gives the people of the Old Testament the command to intercede on behalf of condemned sinners in one of the most conspicuous places in the Bible. This occurs during God’s first face to face meeting with Abraham when Abraham illustrates how to keep “the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice.” when he intercedes for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. People in the Old Testament largely ignored this divine imperative and experienced the judgment that God had decreed for such behavior.
We also saw that God made an example out of the Apostle Peter at the Mount of Transfiguration so that the church would have no excuse for elevating the person of Moses to the same level as Jesus Christ. As can readily be discerned by examining the teaching of the historical church, the body of Christ has largely ignored this divine imperative. The traditional interpretation of the stories of the Old Testament are founded on the unshakable rock of the righteous actions of Moses and the Old Testament prophets.
In the remainder of this series, we are going to examine specific Old Testament stories and explain them in a way that is consistent with these two ignored divine imperatives. We will remember that the command of God to the descendants of Abraham was to intercede on behalf of condemned sinners and we will remember that the leaders of the nation of Israel were sinful men who did not understand God as well as those of us who have the teachings of Jesus Christ. We will start with a simple example from Numbers 25.
The Judgment of the Heads of the People
And the LORD said unto Moses, Take all the heads of the people, and hang them up before the LORD against the sun, that the fierce anger of the LORD may be turned away from Israel. (Numbers 25:4)
And Moses said unto the judges of Israel, Slay ye every one his men that were joined unto Baalpeor. (Numbers 25:5)
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. 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 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. Nevertheless, those who died by the plague were twenty-four thousand. (Numbers 25: 6-9)
So the traditional interpretation of this story is that God commanded Moses to hang all the heads of the people and faithful Moses complied. Because the people were still committing sin, the anger of the Lord was not turned away and a plague broke out in the camp. The plague was only stopped when Phinehas drove a spear through the back of a fornicating couple. Moses and Phinehas were the obedient heroes and everyone else was a sinner. God’s wrath against the sins of the nation is made manifest.
An Alternative Interpretation
To understand what I think is really going on here, you have to understand the importance of moral leadership. Whenever you have a political leader caught in a sex scandal where he has had a mistress, there are always people who defend that person saying, “What is the big deal? All he was doing was having a tender and emotionally intimate relationship with a consenting adult? It is none of our business.” While I might agree that the episode is none of our business, I cannot so easily minimize the impact.
When a young man sees an older man in a position of authority having sex with a multitude of partners, he reacts in accordance with the old adage, “Monkey see monkey do”. “If it is okay for him to do that”, the young man reasons, “it is okay for me to do this.” In this way, an affair between an older politician and a young intern can encourage public and drunken promiscuity at raves around the country.
Bearing the importance of moral leadership in mind, let us reconsider the story by looking at the exact sequence of events:
- God commands Moses to hang “all the heads of the people”
- Moses kills all the men who were “joined unto Baalpeor”.
- The whole congregation of Israel is weeping outside the tent of meeting because
- A plague is killing thousands of people in Israel
- A man takes a Midianite woman into his chamber for the purpose of fornicating with her.
- Phinehas drives a spear through the couple
- The plague stops after 24,000 people were killed.
So the command of the LORD was to “Take all the heads of the people and hang them up before the LORD”, but Moses kills all the men who were “joined unto Baalpeor”. Moses has done a little creative interpretation here. Why has he spared “all the heads of the people”? Let’s take a look at who these men were:
Moses chose able men out of all Israel and made them heads over the people, chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. And they judged the people at all times. Any hard case they brought to Moses, but any small matter they decided themselves. (Exodus 18: 25-26)
These men were hand-picked by Moses and they were his friends. When God orders them all to be hanged, Moses decides to spare his pals and kill the people who were “really at fault”.
Why was God so angry at the “heads of the people”? I believe that the entire nation of Israel was corrupt at this time. The “heads of the people” were having discreet affairs with Midianite women in the inner chamber while the young men were having public orgies while worshiping Baal. God saw that the heads of the people were leading everyone into sin and ordered that they be hanged. Moses showed partiality to his friends, reasoning that what God was really angry about was the people who were worshiping Baal. Because Moses did not recognize the importance of moral leadership and spared his friends, the anger of God was not turned away from Israel and a plague breaks out in the camp. God does not turn his anger away from Israel until Phinehas shows the entire nation that the discreet little affairs with Midianite women were the true cause of God’s anger.
Now this alternate interpretation makes a good deal more sense, but it doesn’t seem to have helped anything. Had Moses been completely obedient to the Lord, he would have killed all the heads of the people. Would this really have been any better?
What God Wanted to Happen
The vital distinction between the traditional interpretation of this story and the proposed interpretation is that Moses was disobedient. If Moses was disobedient, then we can ask a different question. What would perfect obedience have looked like? What did God want to happen in this story? Let us imagine the scenario:
Moses: “Now friends I have some bad news. God has ordered me to kill all of you guys. Evidently, he is extremely angry at you.”
Judge over the people: “Moses what are we going to do? How can we make this right with God?”
Moses: “Well, I have a plan. What we are going to do is go before the Lord and repent every man of the evil of his ways. God is angry that you are having affairs with Midianite women? We must repent. Let us go before the Lord in sackcloth and ashes and ask him to forgive us for our sins.”
Now what would have happened if these men had repented of their sins and gone before the Lord fasting and weeping and praying for forgiveness? I think we can get a clue when we look at another section of the Bible:
For word came unto the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him, and covered him with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste any thing: let them not feed, nor drink water: But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily unto God: yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands. Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not? (Jonah 3:6-9)
If God had mercy on the people of Nineveh for decades of evil, how much more would he have had mercy on his own chosen people? If Moses and the “heads of the people” had shown moral leadership, would not the rest of the nation have repented also?