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Numbers

Blood Pollution

Procedural crime dramas like CSI may represent some of the most flagrant disregard for God's Law on display in our culture.  I'm not just referring to the fact that many of the episodes feature hookers or strip clubs; I'm referring to the ways that the forensic scientists go about identifying and prosecuting their suspects.  This is rarely if ever done on the basis of two or three witnesses as the Biblical Law demands, but is rather almost always accomplished by means of scientific study of the materials left at the crime scene. Now, we know from the Bible that God takes the issue of murder very seriously.  In Numbers chapter 35 we are given what is undoubtedly the most thorough and just system of dealing with the violent death of human beings that has ever been conceived.  And in that chapter, God makes plain the vital importance of solving a murder: "You shall not pollute the land in which you live, for blood pollutes the land, and no atonement can be made for the land for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of the one who shed it" (Numbers 35:33).  But how are these murders to be solved?  Verse 30 of the same chapter gives the answer: "If anyone kills a person, the murderer shall be put to death on the evidence of witnesses.  But no person shall be put to death on the testimony of one witness."

God's Law gives one and only one way to solve a murder: the evidence of witnesses; and there must be more than one.  It is significant that God does not include forensic evidence in His Law as permissible to convict a murderer.  Certainly such evidence existed in those days.  The Old Covenant Israelites were not complete simpletons that were unable to match a bloody hand to a bloody knife.  God just decided that He would not allow that kind of "testimony".  His reasons are certainly His own, but we know enough about how it is possible to "frame" innocent people for crimes using staged forensic evidence to give us some sort of explanation for not permitting this evidence at all.

In fact, one of the most telling stories involving a known murderer in the Bible also includes unmistakable forensic testimony, and yet he is not allowed to be put to death.  The story I am referring to is the very first murder ever: that of Abel by Cain.  There in Genesis chapter 4 we have again the polluting effects of the blood in the ground as God declares that the blood cries out to Him.  In addition, God places a mark on Cain that absolutely declares his guilt in the killing, and yet the mark also keeps Cain from being attacked and killed himself.

What is going on in that story?  Why doesn't God allow someone else to put Cain to death for his crime?  Did He change His mind between Genesis 4 and Numbers 35?  Absolutely not!  In fact, it is precisely because He has not changed His mind between those two occasions that He does not let anyone else put Cain to death for the murder of his brother.  There were no witnesses!  God is totally upholding every single detail of the Law of Numbers 35 that will be revealed in the future way back here in His encounter with Cain in Genesis 4.  We have reference to both the pollution of the ground with the blood and the implied necessity of capital punishment being carried out on the basis of witnesses.  God doesn't change His mind (Number 23:19) and His Law will never pass away until all is accomplished (Matthew 5:17-20).

Some might object: "But if we structured our laws like this, then some murderers might get away scott-free!"  This is where God expects us to trust Him to properly avenge (Deuteronomy 32:35).  God eventually drowned all of Cain's entire family tree in the flood.  He will not permit the wicked to evade just recompense for their evil deeds.  His Law, however, does prevent similarly wicked people from staging evidence to condemn the righteous.  His ways are perfect.  Our thinking is subject to our fallen nature.  So I think I'll just let Him decide how these things ought to be.  Just a warning to any future fellow jurors of any trial that I sit in on: if there is not testimony of two or more witnesses, I'm not voting "guilty".

Spit on My Face

Sin has farther-reaching consequences than we are probably comfortable with.  Many of us live under the Satanic delusion that if we indulge ourselves in some fleshly way or another and then immediately pray for forgiveness, that everything will be alright again.  God will take us back.  He won't remain angry at us.  After all, Christ took the wrath for that sin on the cross; as long as I'm truly sorry, God won't sustain the consequences of His displeasure. Once again, it was John Owen that opened my eyes to the falsehood of these thoughts.  Chapter 13 in Kapic and Taylor's edition of his Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers is entitled, "Do Not Speak Peace to Yourself Before God Speaks It, But Hearken to What God Says to Your Soul".  His point in this chapter is that the Christian who willfully sins ought not to kid himself that the relationship between him and God has been restored until God makes that plain.  He even goes so far to say that we can't even use the Scripture's promises of restoration for the repentant to assuage our souls before God has given the comfort Himself.

I don't mind admitting that I neither liked nor agreed with this chapter in Owen's work when I first read it.  Surely if we claim the Bible's promises of reconciliation, we will indeed be reconciled!

Numbers 12 changed my mind.  In that chapter, Miriam sinned when she spoke against Moses.  Her pride welled up and produced fruit when she grew tired of Moses' continual leadership and desired some spotlight for herself as well.  In punishment for this sin, she was struck with leprosy.  We are told in verse 11 that Aaron, and most likely Miriam as well, immediately sought forgiveness.  Moses himself even dropped to his face in that very moment to plead with Yahweh on her behalf.  God's answer to Moses' prayer ought to give us a chill: "If her father had but spit in her face, should she not be shamed seven days?  Let her be shut outside the camp seven days, and after that she may be brought in again" (Numbers 12:14).

Would it change how readily you give into the temptation of the Devil or your own wicked heart (James 1:14) if you knew that the fracture in your relationship to God after the fact would last for a week or more?  It should!  Life stinks when we have no joy and peace in serving the Lord.  Satan knows that.  He is ever your enemy.  When he overcomes your will with temptation and you take a bite of what he has offered, his weapons tear through your soul.  You have just invited the assassin into your home, and he is not interested in merely giving you some morsel that you desire so that you can indulge and then immediately fly back to God.  He knows, even if you don't, that God's displeasure at your transgression will not be immediately over.  One of the Enemy's greatest lies is to tell you that you can sin and then go immediately to the Father for a restored peace.

Don't get me wrong here.  I'm not talking about ultimate forgiveness for sins.  That's Christ's work.  I'm talking about peace and blessedness.  If you want to be greatly used of God tomorrow, then don't indulge in presumptuous sin today.  If you want to experience the joy and peace of salvation this month, then don't give into the temptation to willfully violate God's commands under some kind of illusion that you can simply ask for forgiveness and be immediately and totally restored.

We need to fear the shaming spit of our Father and let that fear drive us toward a more serious pursuit of holiness.  I don't like the way the worldlings live.  I've tasted the joy and beauty of living in God's peace and I don't want to go back, even for a week.  Start counting the costs of sin and let that steep price-tag allow you to pass right on by without even taking the offered temptation off of the shelf for a look.

The Sin-Killer

You want to know how cool the Bible is?  It has a story about a guy who rams a spear through two people having sex.  And on top of that, God is so pleased with this action that He makes an eternal covenant of peace with the killer right there on the spot.  The young killer's name was Phineas (yes, I would love to name a son after him), and his story is found in Numbers 25. Now, I have already written about my sick tastes in being drawn to stories like this (see previous blog post here), so I won't do so again here.  Instead, I want to focus on why God was so pleased with what happened.

One commandment that God repeatedly gives His people is that they should not intermix with unbelievers.  Israel was to remain separate from the nations around them, and God's reasoning behind commanding this was that shackling yourself in marriage to an unbeliever is about the most sure way to corrupt your faith that can be found (Exodus 34:12-16).  If you marry a pagan, it is very likely that he or she will eventually lead you off into some aspect or another of paganism.  Thus, in the New Testament as well, those in the church are given the command to not be unequally yoked with unbelievers (2 Corinthians 6:14).  To do so is purely disobedient and utterly foolish, no matter what kind of ridiculous excuse the believer gives about "evangelistic dating" or whatever.

Well, in Numbers 25, this was exactly the way that Satan was ambushing the people of God.  He sent a bunch of hot Moabite girls into the camp and all of the stupid Israelite guys were chasing after them.  Then, when they invited the boys to the sacrifices of their gods, these lust-sick idiots went right along with them.

In judgment of these acts, God told Moses to "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" (Numbers 25:4).  So, Moses gives the order to the judges of Israel.  And while they are standing there discussing this, and while the godly ones were weeping at the entrance of the tent of meeting because of the sad state of the people, a fool named Zimri walks by with a Moabite whore named Cozbi, giggling and making googly-eyes at each other as they made their way toward Zimri's tent (okay the giggling and googly-eyes aren't in the text, but you get the picture).  At this point, Phineas, the grandson of Aaron, grabs a spear and follows them into the bedroom where he shish-kabobs them right there on the spot in the act (Numbers 25:7-8).

God's pleasure with this act of justice is made immediately known.  He tells Moses that Phineas has turned back His wrath against the people of Israel, and He gives as His reason for this that "[Phineas] was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy" (verse 11).  Apparently this is a similar case to what I wrote yesterday: if we will uphold God's holiness in our lives, then He will not have to show Himself holy in judging us.  Likewise, if we show His jealousy for the righteousness of His people in our lives, then He won't have to show it in judging us in that jealousy.

Phineas, then, becomes the model sin-killer for us.  The tabernacle used to sit in the middle of the Israelite camp, but in the New Covenant each believer becomes the temple that houses the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19).  And just as the godly ones were weeping at the tabernacle for the sin that was in the camp, when we bring sin into our lives it grieves the Holy Spirit who dwells within (Ephesians 4:30).  So we need to become like one who would take up the spear and put sin to death with God's jealousy for His Name.  We need to be ruthless in the way that we stomp out disobedience in our own hearts.  Let this young man be a role model to you and look on your sins not as delicious distractions that you would hate to lose, but as an enemy in the camp who needs to be killed violently and immediately.

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.

Wash the Dead Off

Death is ugly and strange.  It is not at all a natural part of life like the unbelieving world wants everyone to accept.  It is a violent separation of material and immaterial that was brought into the world as a curse for disobedience, and it is an ever-present reminder of the foulness of that transgression of God's command. The Old Covenant Israelites had some interesting practices when it came to dead folks.  They weren't really supposed to touch them.  If an Israelite did touch a dead body, he was ceremonially unclean for seven days (Numbers 19:11).  That means that he couldn't take part in any of the feasts, sacrifices, or special rituals at the tabernacle or temple.  For this reason, those who had more responsibilities in the cultic worship - like the Levites and priests - had to live by even stricter commands involving the touching of dead bodies (Leviticus 21:1-4).

This foulness of death was considered so potent that even if you just happened to be in the same tent with someone when he or she died, you were to be unclean for seven days (Numbers 19:14).  And not only that, but any uncovered container was considered unclean as well (verse 15), which meant breaking them if they were earthenware, or scrubbing them if they were brass, and all food or drink inside had to be thrown away (Leviticus 11:33-34).

At this point we have to ask, "What's the big deal?"  Why would I have to pour my coffee out and break the mug if I just happened to be sitting by someone's bedside when he died?  Why would I have to wash myself with water mixed with ashes from a burnt red heifer (Numbers 19:1-13)?  It's not because they believed that the body released pathogens at the moment of death or anything like that.  It's simply because death is  the punishment for sin (Genesis 2:17, Romans 6:23).  And every time an Israelite came into contact with this constant reminder of God's wrath, the encounter would start a seven-day reflection on the difference between God's holiness and man's sinfulness.

What is significant about all of this for New Covenant Christians is how closely related all of these Old Testament cleansing rites are to the baptism of the New Testament.  Ezekiel 36:25-27, in speaking of the New Covenant promises to God's people, uses the imagery of purification from uncleanness to illustrate the new birth: "I will sprinkle clean water on you , and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses...And I will give you a new heart, and I new spirit I will put within you."  This is the very thing that is pictured in Christian baptism.

How can we who died to sin still live in it?  Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?  We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life (Romans 6:2-4)

Those who came into contact with the evidence of God's judgment were to wash with "living" water (the actual Hebrew wording of Numbers 19:17) mixed with the ashes of a sacrifice made outside the camp in order to be cleansed from the taint of death.  Likewise, we who have placed our faith in Christ are to be baptized in order to show our identity with His death which was carried out for us outside the camp (Hebrews 13:12).  But in baptism, the sacrifice is also mingled with "living water" (John 4:14), for we are raised from it in newness of life.  In this one act, we show that Christ has cleansed us from the ultimate effects of the curse, for we will one day rise just as He did.  When we plunge someone into the waters of baptism, we are proclaiming to the world that Christ has washed the death off of that person and now the person is clean in God's eyes and able to come into His presence for worship.

The Meek Will Win

Have you ever noticed that those who are loudest are almost always the ones who are wrong?  I love that point in any argument where the losing side gets mad and starts yelling.  I consider that a "pin" in the confrontation - that person has just been beaten, even if he or she doesn't know it or won't accept it yet. And what's true for private dialogue is also true for wider media coverage.  Have you ever lamented the fact that it seems like the screaming God-haters get more media attention than level-headed Christians with thoughtful and biblical answers for what they believe?  Where are the Christian voices?  Who is screaming back?

The reality of the situation is that we don't scream back.  Whatever motivates the pure vitriol of those who hate God (oh look at me pretending like I don't know what that is: Satan + a cold dead heart incapable of godly wisdom), the Christians are just not motivated in the same way.  We don't mind arguing for what we believe to be the truth, but the majority of us who call ourselves "Christian" (I can't include Fred Phelps here) aren't going to organize a hateful rally just to call the other side stupid.

And that bothers some of us.  We get tired of seeing the lies of the Enemy paraded around in public with no Truth stomping them down.  We see the incredibly foolish holes in the world's system of belief.  We see the gross inconsistencies.  We know the very truths that they need to understand in order to be free from deception, but the winning side is soft-spoken while the losers get very loud.

I saw this situation in Moses' life this morning while reading in the book of Numbers.  In chapter 12 of that book, Moses' brother, Aaron, and his sister, Miriam, get a little put-out with Moses' Cushite wife, Zipporah.  So they start complaining and saying, "Has the LORD indeed spoken only through Moses?  Has He not spoken through us also?" (Numbers 12:2).  Here comes the loud, public opposition towards the one who has been calmly and quietly right throughout the whole Exodus ordeal.

But the Bible tells us something very valuable about Moses at this point when it says, "Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all the people who were on the face of the earth" (Numbers 12:3).  This is valuable because it immediately reminds us of the one place in the Bible where the word "meek" sticks out like a sore thumb: Matthew 5:5, "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth."  What does that word "meek" mean when it is applied to Moses?  It means that he was quietly and calmly right when his enemies got loud and obnoxious.  In fact, he was always on his face in prayer to God when the people railed against him.  And how did that work out for him?  Did it work out like Matthew 5:5?

As the scene plays out in the rest of Numbers 12, it is God Himself who defends the authority and honor of Moses over the people of Israel.  He claims Moses as His own special servant and bitterly rebukes the two siblings, even afflicting Miriam with seven days of leprosy for the outburst.  Moses does no screaming here; he throws no punches.  God fights for him.

This is a great encouragement to me, because though I believe that Christians ought to always have an answer for the hope that we have in Christ (1 Peter 3:15), we clearly are not called to fight the enemies of the Truth with the same feverish hatred that they show for us.  We can be calmly confident of the truth of the revelation that God has given us in the Scriptures, and after sufficiently defending such truths, we can rest our case and let God take care of the rebuke towards those who get loud in their error.  And we can be confident that we will win.  We will inherit the earth.  The Truth of God will triumph through those who hold firmly to it in the face of all the Devil's fury.

Changing Places

If I were to get pulled over for speeding, I could not get away by telling the police officer to give my ticket to someone else.  As the one who deserves the penalty, I am in no way authorized to suggest a transference of that penalty.  Likewise, in a human court of law, the judge cannot sentence an innocent person for the crime of the guilty party.  That is not within his domain of authority.  The state has authorized him to try cases and mete out appropriate punishments, but since he is neither the offended party or the one who makes the laws that he enforces (I guess we're not talking about Supreme Court justices here), he cannot simply reassign just penalties wherever he likes. The situation is a lot different when I'm the offended party.  If someone harms me or my property, I have a right to either press charges or not, but I still don't have the right to shift who I press the charges against.  If one person steals my television, I can't insist that someone else take the blame.  That is because I have not been wronged by the other person, and so it would not be just to swap the penalty.  Also, I'm not the one who has made the law, so I can't change how the penalties are carried out.  I'm under someone else's authority on this matter.

God does not operate under these considerations, however.  That is simply because He is the One who has both crafted all of the laws and the One who has been offended by the breaking of those laws.  All of the authority to decide what ought to be done at that point belongs to Him.  As the Owner and King of everything, He can do whatever He wants with His property.

I was reminded of this as I read Numbers chapter 3 this morning.  When God freed the people of Israel from their slavery to the Egyptians, He told them that all of their firstborn males would be devoted to Him.  This was because God had killed all of the firstborn of Egypt, but spared the Hebrews.  So, instead of killing the Hebrew children, He demanded that they be devoted to Him and then redeemed by a sacrifice in their stead.  As the Lawmaker, He could demand an animal sacrifice in place of a human death.  And then in Numbers 3:11-13, He declared that all of the males of the tribe of Levi would be His instead of the firstborn males from the other tribes.  He switched out the requirement again, and once again He had every right to do so because He made the requirement in the first place, and all of those who were affected belonged totally to Him since He had "bought" them by saving them in the Exodus.

And of course, this is exactly what happened at the cross in the death of Jesus Christ.  Since God is the One who made the laws that were broken by sinful humanity, He, as the offended party, has the both the right to dictate the terms of the punishment and the right to call for a substitute to receive the penalty if He so desires.  The only other consideration is that since God is perfectly just, the penalty that is meted out must not be lessened or redundant with some other penalty.  All just penalties must be fully endured for the sake of justice.  In other words, He couldn't just double up the penalty on one who is already guilty in order to redeem somebody else.  You can't set one murderer free by killing another murderer twice.  Justice would not be done.

So the penalty must fall on One who does not deserve a penalty on His own.  But if there was such a person outside of God Himself, then God would be unjust in transferring the sins of disobedient humanity to that one.  No, the only solution is for the Judge Himself, the offended party and the Maker of the laws, to accept on Himself the punishments for the disobedience of His own rules.  If He has to be just and He wants to redeem the guilty, then this is the only choice.  And so Christ, the eternal Image of God - His manifestation - took on mortal flesh to be able to receive the blow from God's wrath that we deserved.  It is simultaneously the infinitely perfect display of love, justice, mercy, wrath, righteousness, and grace.  Hallelujah!  What a Savior!