As we have seen in Part 2 of Understanding the Old Testament, the traditional picture of Moses as the perfectly obedient servant of God is a flawed picture. In his handling of the command that God gave him to “hang all the heads of the people”, Moses was disobedient to the first commandment given to the descendants of Abraham in Genesis 18 that the faithful should intercede for those condemned by God. Beyond that baseline disobedience, Moses even disobeyed the direct command of God and killed those “joined unto Baalpeor” instead of “all the heads of the people” thus skillfully avoiding the repentance and forgiveness that God wanted to show the people of Israel.
Now it must be admitted that the story of Numbers 25 is somewhat unusual in that Moses was directly disobedient to the literal command given by God. This was not an accident. We chose to start with that case precisely because it illustrated an irrefutable disobedience by Moses. God said, “Kill all the judges that the nation might be spared the plague” and Moses “killed all the men joined unto Baalpeor and the nation experienced the plague”. If you cannot see that Moses was disobedient in this example, then you are not capable of reading or you are a Moses worshiping idolater who is incapable of accepting the truth.
Unfortunately, the other instances of Moses’ disobedience are not so obvious. In other stories, Moses obeys the literal command of God when God did not want literal obedience. Now this last statement is so shocking to most people that it requires powerful confirmation from the Scripture. For this reason, we need two new tools to help us to interpret the Old Testament.
The Divine Challenge
There is a great comic by Doonesbury that illustrates the “Challenge Method of Teaching”. In this method, the teacher says something controversial in the hopes that the students will become engaged. This is an extremely effective method of teaching because studies have found that when someone learns something by asking a question and following the logic that is used to answer it, they retain the answer longer and learn the material better. The method was almost certainly known to the Jewish rabbis that Jesus impressed while at the Temple in his youth:
After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. (Luke 2:46-47)
Because of the number of students in modern classrooms, the approach tends to be more dogmatic and “top down” where the teacher rambles on about a subject and the students take notes only regurgitating what they learn during a periodic exam. For this reason, modern people may not understand the challenge method of teaching when they see it, but it is a very well known technique and it is clearly used in the Scripture. Ironically, the best example of God using the challenge method of teaching is given by Moses in Exodus:
And the LORD said unto Moses, Go, get thee down; for thy people, which thou broughtest out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves: They have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them: they have made them a molten calf, and have worshiped it, and have sacrificed thereunto, and said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which have brought thee up out of the land of Egypt. And the LORD said unto Moses, I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiff-necked people: Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them: and I will make of thee a great nation. (Exodus 32:7-10)
Now God has given Moses a direct command. “Leave me alone” Does God want Moses to obey this command? Let’s see what happens:
And Moses besought the LORD his God, and said, LORD, why doth thy wrath wax hot against thy people, which thou hast brought forth out of the land of Egypt with great power, and with a mighty hand? Wherefore should the Egyptians speak, and say, For mischief did he bring them out, to slay them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth? Turn from thy fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against thy people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, thy servants, to whom thou swarest by thine own self, and saidst unto them, I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have spoken of will I give unto your seed, and they shall inherit it forever.
And the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people. (Exodus 32:11-14)
This is Moses’ high water mark and the most pleasing act of obedience that he ever performed. Reminiscent of Abraham’s intercession for Sodom and Gomorrah, Moses has knocked it out of the park and demonstrated why he was God’s chosen servant to lead the people of Israel out of captivity. How can we say that Moses was obedient to God when he directly disobeyed God’s command to “leave him alone”? Because Moses’ intercession demonstrated a knowledge of God’s heart and because he obeyed the primary command given by God in Genesis 18. When we look at other Old Testament stories, we must remember the challenge method of teaching used by God in many portions of Scripture.
But Jesus said unto her, Let the children first be filled: for it is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it unto the dogs.
And she answered and said unto him, Yes, Lord: yet the dogs under the table eat of the children’s crumbs.
And he said unto her, For this saying go thy way; the devil is gone out of thy daughter. (Mark 7:27-29)
And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also. And whither I go ye know, and the way ye know.
Thomas saith unto him, Lord, we know not whither thou goest; and how can we know the way? (John 14:3-5)
Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. (John 6: 53-54)
The Rosetta Stone of Righteous Behavior
As powerful as the challenge method of teaching is, the second tool that we are going to add to our arsenal is even more powerful still. As Christians, we know that Jesus Christ was perfectly obedient to the father in every possible way. When we interpret the stories of the Old Testament, then, we can use our knowledge of Jesus Christ, his character, his teachings and his actions as a “Rosetta Stone” to interpret things that we don’t understand. Working backward in this way may seem controversial to some Christians, but how could any true believer in Jesus Christ support an interpretation of the Old Testament that was contradictory to the teachings of Christ?
To illustrate how we will use this Rosetta stone, let us consider a story from the New Testament:
they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” (John 8:4-5 ESV)
In this story, we have a direct example of how to interpret Old Testament commands. In interceding for the woman and setting her free, we see Jesus illustrate perfect obedience to the entirety of the Old Testament law. As Jesus demonstrates, true and perfect obedience to the law requires one to understand, assimilate and prioritize God’s many commandments and decrees, not merely to woodenly follow a single command.
The only way that people who defend the traditional interpretation of the Old Testament can argue against this clear and direct example of the teaching of our Lord is by saying, “Oh that story isn’t really part of the Bible”. Given the power of this teaching, it is to be expected that its opponents in the early church (i.e. the Circumcision party and other like-minded people) would attempt to remove it from the Bible and the manuscript evidence bears witness to this attack. Nevertheless, the Bible says that “my sheep know my voice” (John 10:27) and I am persuaded that these are the words of my Lord. Even if this episode was not in the New Testament, however, it would not make any difference in the long run. Any comparison of the behavior of Christ to the behavior of Moses and the Old Testament prophets yields abundant evidence of the sins and disobedience of these men. The sins and disobedience of these men demolish the traditional view of their perfect obedience and requires a radically new interpretation of the stories of the Old Testament.
For two thousand years, the church of Jesus Christ has persistently interpreted the Old Testament as though Moses and the other Old Testament prophets were perfectly obedient like Jesus Christ. As we have seen in Numbers 25, this is obviously untrue. Moses was told to “hang all the heads of the people that the nation would be spared the plague” and he killed “all the people joined unto Baalpeor and the nation experienced the plague”. Subsequent examples of Moses’ disobedience, however, are much harder to see because Moses did carry out the literal commands of God. In order for us to see Moses’ disobedience more clearly, we have introduced two powerful new tools in our study of the Old Testament. As we continue to interpret Old Testament stories, we will bear in mind that God sometimes challenges the faithful with commands that are not meant to be obeyed and that Jesus Christ is the Rosetta Stone whose teachings and character can be used to understand the Old Testament.