Light from the Sidra


Numbers 25:10-30:1(29:40).Haftarah:1 Kings 18:46-19:21

Many years ago, an advert appeared in our local paper announcing the opening of a “Christian Spiritualist Church”. The public was invited to attend, said the advert, and there would be time for members of the public to ask questions. Believing that the labels “Christian” and “spiritualist” were contradictory I had a lot of questions, so I decided to go along. I expected to find myself sitting around a table in a darkened room with a group of elderly spinsters but the room was brightly lit and there were about a hundred people, mostly middle age. To cut a long story short, my questions ruined their evening and the congregation queued up to inform me I was the rudest and most disagreeable person they had ever met. The last person to approach me was a man who angrily declared: “Listen. I’m Jewish, and I come here!”

“Then you should be ashamed of yourself”, I replied.

He looked puzzled so I elaborated: “You belong to the most blessed nation in the world. The Creator of the universe has entered into a covenant with you and has given you his truth to you in the Torah and through the Hebrew prophets. By consulting mediums, you’ve forsaken your God and turned to lies and falsehood.”

Asher Norman, in his book 26 Reasons Why Jews Don’t Believe in Jesus, rightly identifies idolatry as a sin for Jews. Paradoxically, he maintains that idolatry is not a sin for Gentiles. According to the Hebrew Scriptures, however, the only deity anyone should worship is the one true God (Psalms 97:7; 115:2-8; 135:15, etc). Nevertheless, idolatry is a particularly serious sin for a Jew.

Balaam had been restrained by God from cursing Israel; indeed, God turned his curses into blessings. Not willing to return home empty-handed, it seems (according to Number 31:16) that he advised Balak about how he could turn God against them.

The women of Moab invited the Israelite men to a religious feast in honour of the Canaanite fertility god Baal. According to the Canaanites, imitation was not only the sincerest form of flattery but also the sincerest form of religious worship people, so the worship of Baal took the form of an orgy. Israel’s worship of the Baal of Pe’or involved not merely physical fornication; idolatry for the Jewish people was first and foremost an act of spiritual adultery. Once again, the anger of Israel’s God was roused against his people and once more the people were in mortal danger.  

To turn away the wrath of God, the heads of the people – the ringleaders of the rebellion – were to be hung or impaled, and the people themselves were to kill everyone they knew who had been involved in the religious orgy. Comparatively few Israelites had responded to the invitation but no Israelite was an “island, entire of self”. The rebellion of one man (Genesis 3) brought judgement on the whole creation; and the sin of one Israelite could result in disaster for all Israel (Joshua 7).

The icing on the cake of Israel’s rebellion was provided by Zimri ben Salu. Even as the people wept in penitence before the tabernacle, Zimri slipped into his tent with Kozbi, the daughter of the Midianite nobleman Tzur.

Pinchas saw the event, took a spear and killed Zimri and Kozbi while they were engaged in an amorous embrace. For his zeal for Yahweh, Pinchas was given God’s “covenant of shalom”, a covenant of “everlasting priesthood”. By killing the guilty couple, Pinchas effected atonement for the Israelites.

The Haftarah is 1 Kings 18:46–19:21, the account of Elijah’s confrontation with the prophets of Baal, and it is an interesting parallel. However, a better Haftarah choice might have been 2 Samuel 21:1-14.

According to Jewish anti-missionaries, there are no examples in the Tanakh of atonement being effected by the shedding of human blood. A plague that killed 24,000 Israelites was halted only because the ringleaders of the rebellion were hung (the Hebrew word yaqa is better translated (impaled), as were Zimri and Kozbi. Their deaths were an atonement (kaphar) for the people.

In 2 Samuel 21, the hanging of seven descendants of Saul is accepted by God as an atonement for Saul’s slaughter of the Gibeonites. God accepted the atonement and stopped the famine that had come on Israel as a result of Saul’s sin.

Atonement by the shedding of human blood occurs in the Hebrew Scriptures. It is not a “Christian” concept.

Once again, we see the Messianic hope is alive and well even in Israel’s darkest periods. We are again reminded of the promise given by God in Gan Eden that “the seed of the woman” would defeat the serpent but at the expense of being bitten on the heel by the serpent. The Messiah would redeem Israel through suffering, as it were, a venomous snake bite. Uncomfortable as that thought might be, God has provided no other way to redeem Israel and the world.

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