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The Poor Thirty-Six

When we do something wrong, can others end up getting hurt because of our bad decisions?  You bet!  The number of fatalities each year caused by drunk drivers is testament to this.  But what about when we sin against God?  If you break His Law in such a way that it does not immediately spell injury to someone else (like murder), would God cause other people to suffer and die until you repented?  Be careful how quickly you answer that question. In the book of Joshua there is the well-known story of Israel's victory at Jericho, immediately followed by their defeat at Ai.  And most of us remember the reason for the defeat: a man named Achan had taken some of the forbidden spoils of Jericho that were to be totally devoted to destruction.  What we don't usually immediately consider, however, are those thirty-six men who died in the initial attack on the city of Ai (Joshua 7:5).  It is made clear to us that these men died because of the unrepentant sin of Achan (verses 11-12).  The sticky part of all of this is that those thirty-six men had no idea about what Achan had done.  One man sins against the Lord and thirty-six others who are unrelated to the sin pay with their lives.  Is this fair?

Some might be quick to point out passages like Ezekiel 18:1-4

The word of the LORD came to me: "What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, 'The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge'?  As I live, declares the Lord GOD, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die.

Isn't what God is saying in Ezekiel 18 a direct contradiction to what He did in Joshua 7?  Not when we rightly understand the sentiment that God is countering by telling Ezekiel that Israel shall no longer repeat their proverb.  The Israelites of Ezekiel's day were not taking responsibility for their own sin.  They were wailing and complaining that they were being punished for their fathers' sins while they themselves were innocent.  That was not the case.  God does not pour out wrath on innocent people (except for when Christ became sin for us).  If a person dies, it is because he was a sinner.

The thirty-six men who died in Joshua chapter 7 were not innocent men.  They had not personally committed Achan's sin, but they were guilty of sin all on their own.  God was not unjust in deferring His righteous judgment on them until the moment when it best suited His purposes.  In that case, it served as a clear indicator to the people of Israel that there was sin in the camp.

God is certainly within His rights to work things out in this way.  Since "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23), and since "the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23), that means every single human being is on death row, so to speak.  And the Righteous Judge can enact the sentence whenever He wants.  The condemned may cry, "Unfair!", but they would be wrong.

The scariest part of all of this to me, however, comes when I think about the church.  How many like Achan do we have secreting away their sins in our congregations?  Worse, how many in our churches are guilty of sins that we know ought to be disciplined by the church according to Matthew 18:15-20 and yet we do not because we are weak and cowardly, caring more about what men think of us than God?  How many of our churches experience stunted growth - a jarring halt to the conquest of the world with the Gospel - because of all of the forbidden spoil in our midst?

The Rock Was a Hard Place

From a human point of view, I want to compare Numbers chapter 20 to The Empire Strikes Back.  While that was certainly the best of the Star Wars movies, it was also one where everything went south.  The good guys lost in that movie at every turn.  That's the same sense you get when reading Numbers 20: Miriam dies in the wilderness of Zin, Moses is told that he will not get to enter the Promised Land, the Israelites' own kin will not allow them to pass through their land, and Aaron dies on Mount Hor.  It is one of the very darkest times in all of the Exodus journey. I say that my comparing this chapter to The Empire Strikes Back is from a human point of view, though, because Moses, Aaron, Miriam, and Israel are not the good guys, and the God who brought these hard times upon them for their sins is most certainly not analogous to some evil Empire.  Nevertheless, it is a miserable scene in the story of the lives of those whom God has redeemed from bondage, and we empathize with them in their sorrow.

One of the lessons that it would be good for us to learn from this account, however, is the same lesson that Moses had to learn the hard way.  It is often confusing to many students of the Bible as to why God reacted so harshly toward a man who had served Him so well (humanly speaking) throughout this whole ordeal.  How could God possibly tell Moses that he would never enter the Promised Land when he had been so meek and selfless to lead this hard-hearted multitude through years of self-inflicted wilderness wandering?  Was it truly all because of one thing that he said when he whacked a rock with his staff (Numbers 20:10-11)?

Let's examine the scene: the people are grumbling again.  It's the same old complaint that we have heard over and over: "Would that we had died in Egypt.  Why did you bring us here to kill us?  There is no water to drink."  Moses and Aaron fall to their faces before the Lord...again.  God tells them that He will graciously provide...again.  God tells Moses to strike a rock to bring forth water...again (cf. Exodus 17:6).  Then comes the deviation from the will of God: Moses does indeed strike the rock, but he adds, "Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you our of this rock?" (Numbers 20:9).

God's indictment against this statement of Moses was that he "did not believe in [Yahweh], to uphold [Him] as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel" (verse 12).  The holiness of God is one of His defining characteristics.  He is wholly "other", different, or set apart from His creation.  Moses infringed upon this holiness when he claimed to be the one who was bringing the water out of the rock: "Shall we bring water for you out of this rock?"  And as verse 13 makes plain, God showed Himself holy through the people in this instance when He forbid Moses from ever entering the very Promised Land that he was laboring to reach.

Here is the fearsome principle that we need to learn: if we will not show the Lord to be holy in all that we do and say, He will show Himself as holy by the way that He judges us.  This is precisely what is happening in the eternal punishment of the unbelievers (read: hell).  If they will not bow to His authority and power in life; if they will not acknowledge Him as Lord and confess Him before men, then He will show Himself holy in them by judging them with "everlasting punishment" (Matthew 25:46).  He will get the praise that He deserves one way or another: either from the voluntary praise of our lips or from the glory of displaying His justice in punishing our sins.  Either way He looks glorious and we get humbled.

So let us endeavor with all of our might to show Him as holy and majestic with all of our thoughts, all of our words, and all of our actions.  I don't know about you, but I want to make it to the Promised Land.  Forgive me, Lord, for ever stealing any of the glory that You deserve.  Crush my pride by the most severe means, as long as I can proclaim by my life that You are holy.

Carrot & Stick

This should come as no shock to those who have had some experience wrestling with him, but the Serpent is a sly character.  Just look at his tempting of Eve: in one sense, he didn't really say anything that wasn't true (they didn't physically die, they did become like God, knowing good and evil), but in reality, he completely perverted the truth.  And it was his questioning of the authority of God to command His creatures that led to the downfall of the human race and the imprisonment of the universe in shackles of death and decay.  And this maliciously genius Enemy has been tirelessly working at that same end ever since that day. One of the areas where his influence can be painfully and powerfully felt involves the promised blessings and curses from God toward obedience and disobedience to His commands.  Chapters in the Old Testament like Leviticus 26 or Deuteronomy 28 sound downright barbaric to our modern sensibilities.  "I'll make you eat your babies"!!?? (Leviticus 26:29)  I mean, who says that!?  These judgments are harsh!  A lot of churchgoing "Christians" don't want to have anything to do with a God like that.  It's better to just not read the Old Testament at all (and there are many denominations that don't).  No, when bad things happen, these folks would much rather chalk it up to "chance" and let God be the one who says, "There, there", and pats them on the back and makes it all better.  He wouldn't do the kinds of things written in those Old Testament books; He's all about love and compassion.

And there we see the Dragon at work yet again.  He takes some things that are certainly true about God: His goodness, His compassion, His love, grace, and mercy, and then uses these qualities to question God's authority to judge wickedness.  "Did God really say He would destroy you in wrath if you disobeyed?  No, that won't happen!  He's all about love!"

Those of us who know the tricks of the Accuser would expect this kind of ploy.  We might even be used to blocking this punch, but the Devil has another fist, and his use of it goes largely unnoticed.  Satan doesn't just attack God's promised curses for disobedience, he also calls into question God's promised blessings for obedience.

The first part of Leviticus chapter 26 and the first part of Deuteronomy 28 both deal with the amazing blessings that God will shower on His people if they obey Him.  They are just as beautifully wondrous as the curses are shockingly horrific.  There God promises rain in season, increased yield of field and orchard, overabundance of food, peace and security, the absence of dangerous animals from their land, absolute military victory, fruitful child bearing, and even the very presence of God Himself in their midst.  These are great things, and even the folks who don't like the Old Testament don't mind reading passages like this.  But the place where the Snake has inserted his lie is in the fact that these are blessings for obedience.

"We don't believe in a works-based salvation!  It's all of grace!"  Such might be the cry of many Christians if you started telling them that they should diligently obey all of God's commands in order to be blessed.  The last thing that Satan wants us to believe is that we will be happier and more content if we seek to obey all of God's laws, and so here he has used another deception, confusing our unworthiness to receive the gift of salvation with the Bible's teaching that God expects good works on the part of those who have been saved.  It's true that we can't work for salvation.  We are dead in our trespasses and sins until God makes us alive together with Christ - quite apart from our own working (Ephesians 2:1-10).  But once God has saved us by His grace, He absolutely expects diligent and faithful obedience to His commands out of us (James 1:22).

You see, both of these attacks - attacks against the understanding that God pours out wrath on disobedience and against the understanding that God pours out blessings for obedience - seek to lead us away from a careful attention to God's commands.  If something bad happens, it isn't because you disobeyed, and if something good happens, it isn't because you were obedient.  We need to throw off this deceit of the Enemy and strive to work hard in obedience to receive God's blessings and avoid His wrath.  It is absolutely good and right and biblical to do so.

The Holy Horror Show

"Lay your hand on his head and kill him...""Flay him and cut him in pieces..."

"Bring the blood and throw it against the wall..."

"Wring off his head..."

"Tear open his chest..."

"Stack his head on top of his fat..."

"Wash the entrails and stack them with the rest..."

"Burn it all...It is a pleasing aroma."

After reading the instructions on how to offer a sacrifice in the first few chapters of Leviticus, I wonder if an Israelite would have been grossed out in the slightest by watching even our most gruesome horror movies.  This is macabre stuff!  It becomes even more horrifying when you try to put all the images, sounds, smells, and details together in your head to create a decent picture of what it must have been like to be there.

Well before you were able to walk your spotless lamb anywhere near the place of sacrifice, you would have seen the column of greasy smoke reflecting the hellish light of a large bonfire somewhere below.  The screams of dying and frightened animals would no doubt fill the air.  Somewhere, you probably had to jump over or slog through a little stream of blood and gore flowing from the place.  Then you catch a glimpse of it through the gate: fire!  In the flames you can see heads with eyeballs melting in their sockets, burning lumps of slimy fat, kidneys and intestines hanging half over the side of the altar.  And there are priests with blood-stained clothes (so much blood!) slinging buckets of the stuff against the walls of the grill.  Another one snatches a bull close to him as he slashes its throat and one more spray of blood erupts over the scene.

This is hell.  There is no other word for it and there is no other concept in the human imagination that better fits the description of what is going on here.  Just inside the court of the Jewish temple and tabernacle stood a gate to hell.

What was this awful place doing there?  Why in the world did God demand that such a thing ever be a part of His holy worship?  To answer those questions, it is necessary to also imagine what laid beyond the altar of sacrifice.

On the other side of the court stood the Holy Place - the tabernacle or temple itself (depending on where we are in our imagination: the desert or the city of Jerusalem).  This was a palace of heart-stopping beauty.  Literally no expense was spared on the construction of either place.  They were buildings so full of gold and light that our eyes would be quite possibly completely overwhelmed at the sight.  And in there in the midst was the Holy of Holies - the very place where God set His presence and met with His people.  This was heaven.  No more beautiful or holy a place has ever existed in the history of the world.

And yet to draw near to heaven meant that one must first deal with hell.  The burning altar stood between you and the golden palace, and someone or something had to go into that fire before you could proceed.  This was because of a breach of God's Law.  The One who created the universe (including you) gave instructions for how His creatures were to behave and you disobeyed those instructions.  That horrible fire speaks of what you deserve: the end that God has appointed for His enemies.  But He has also made a gracious provision for you.  Another can go into the flames in your place!  Bring a lamb without blemish.  It will go into that hell that you see instead of you, allowing you to pass on by on your way to the glory beyond.

This is the gospel - written with bold bloody letters right at the start of one of the most unread books in the Old Testament.  It is possible for a spotless Lamb to suffer the holy wrath of God so that the wicked sinner can enter His presence.  "Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!"  That was the way that John the Baptist introduced his crowd to Jesus in John 1:29.  Ultimately, none of those bloody animal sacrifices actually removed the guilt of sin from those who offered them (Hebrews 10:4).  Their purpose was to teach people the horrible price of sin and to prepare us to understand what it was that Jesus was doing when He died - the spotless for the blemished - on the cross.

The Language of Pain

Someone somewhere said that the only language that God can speak that most people will understand is pain.  In other words, human beings don't seem to pay much attention to God when things are going really well, but they are all ears when their world gets turned upside down. The prophet Isaiah echoes this sentiment:

My soul yearns for you in the night; my spirit within me earnestly seeks you.  For when your judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness.  If favor is shown to the wicked, he does not learn righteousness; in the land of uprightness he deals corruptly and does not see the majesty of the LORD.  (Isaiah 26:9-10)

The unbeliever who has everything that he wants has no desire to pay attention to God.  Why would he?  If he acknowledged that there is an Almighty God that owns and controls the universe, then he would have to obey that God's rules, and that might mean a reduction in his current satisfaction with his own life and possessions.  So if he does claim to believe in a god, he makes his god distant: one who for the most part leaves him alone, but one who would certainly approve of his life choices.

All that changes when pain and trauma take over a man's life.  When the things or the people that he once delighted in are suddenly taken from him, when sickness or injury wracks his body and he worries for his life, or when he loses the ability to support himself he suddenly begins to cast about looking for answers.  Situations like this cause him to begin to worry about his ultimate future, and it is at this point that many people want to know about the true God who is revealed in the Bible.

I don't mean to suggest that this process is random and outside of God's control - as if a spiritually dead man under his own power could "pull himself up by his bootstraps" and come to faith simply because of pain.  Rather, it is God who uses pain to break us of our pride and arrogance as He draws us to Himself by the life-giving power of the Spirit.  So, while it is true that pain by itself will not automatically create a disciple of the Lord Jesus, suffering is a common method that God uses to call His own into faith.

And since that is the case, we ought to realize that hard times in our nation (like some of the current economic crisis) are actually times when God is most at work, rather than the other way around.  When all things run smoothly, the wicked run swift to their own demise.  We ought to be eternally grateful for some judgment in this life that prevents us from experiencing judgment in the age to come.

So when hard times come to those that we love, we need to look for ways to maximize on the loud voice of the Lord that they are hearing.  Take every opportunity to make the truth of the gospel known so that those trying times may be seen in retrospect as refining fires rather than burning judgments.  Also, though, when hard times and pain hit those of us who are believers, we need to take the time to try to trace the hand of the Lord in our suffering: to find out what He may be teaching us.  But even if we can't see it, we still need to trust His word that He is making something good in us (Romans 5:3-5, 8:28).