Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Semi-Random Musings (25)

I have always liked the story of Phinehas, Aaron’s grandson. For the uninitiated, Phinehas was a young priest who took it upon himself to execute the son of a Simeonite tribal chief in the act of committing adultery with a Midianite woman by impaling the two on the same spear. As a child, I found his rather decisive move a bit daring (not to mention violent), but also commendable and brave.

After all, a spontaneous impalement is both unilateral and very final. It tends to inspire the neighbors to murmur things like “I say, old boy, don’t you think that’s a bit drastic?” Or worse.

But you can see the appeal for a young boy. It’s a story about standing up for what’s right even if you’re the only one doing it. Add to that God’s unqualified approval, and you have a real role model in Phinehas, though how best to apply that sort of zeal for the Lord in a local church setting has not always been obvious to me.

What escaped me as a child was that Phinehas was not being the least bit presumptuous. He was acting under orders. God had instructed Moses to take the offending leaders of the people and hang them in the sun before the Lord, and Moses had passed the instruction along to the judges of Israel, “Each of you kill those of his men who have yoked themselves to Baal of Peor.” The roles of priest and judge had sufficient overlap (think Eli or Samuel) that Phinehas could certainly have taken that as a matter of personal responsibility. Moreover, the killing was to be done by hanging, the Hebrew word for which also means “impaling”. So Phinehas did precisely what God and Moses instructed. He was acting under orders, not stepping out in presumption.

He was also acting compassionately. God’s wrath had been unleashed on the congregation, and his fellow Israelites were dying by the thousands from a plague. The problem had been diagnosed, and God’s solution given: kill the offenders to save the nation. Phinehas had been around when the fiery serpents plagued Israel in Numbers 21, and he knew that acting expeditiously saved lives and indecision cost them. Unlikely as it seems, that spear thrust was the kindest possible act he could have performed.

The only area in which we might consider Phinehas a tad forward was the fact that the chieftain he slew was not a Levite but a Simeonite. One wonders why the judges in Simeon were so slow to respond to God’s command ...

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I have always had a measure of difficulty understanding why God, knowing in advance every way in which Israel would stray from, ignore and violate his laws, would still choose such a nation for his own possession.

I need not have wondered. I just needed to read a little secular history to understand that as bad as Israel was, they were nowhere near as awful as everywhere else. For all their “civilization”, the Greeks and Romans institutionalized pederasty, mainstreamed sorcery, murdered their leaders with disturbing regularity, annulled marriages for political convenience, committed horrendous atrocities in vanquished cities and generally conducted themselves in such a way as to give the lie to the high-sounding ruminations of their philosophers and the veneer of nobility with which those civilizations are generally regarded. And the Greeks and Romans were greatly preferable to the Babylonians, Persians and especially the Assyrians. All these civilizations may have made great strides in war, mathematics, science, medicine, philosophy, architecture, art, music and other areas of human development, but their moral impoverishment is evident the moment you read their histories.

Secular history also makes sense of Habakkuk’s complaint, which basically boils down to the observation that God often used worse nations to discipline his own people. “Why do you idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he? Is he then to keep on emptying his net and mercilessly killing nations forever?” Habakkuk was not minimizing the wickedness of his own people. But he was right: the Chaldeans were indeed far more sophisticated in the arts of evil than even the wicked men of his own nation.

So, back to Simeon and Levi. The two brothers were also linked in avenging the rape of their sister Dinah by wiping out an entire village. Their reasoning: Shechem (the rapist) had done “an outrageous thing in Israel” for “such a thing must not be done”. Quite so. Their father condemned their violence, but I have always admired their intensely moral response to an outrage. It wasn’t just personal; the text makes clear their reaction was at least principled, if not particularly self-controlled. So, even before the Law of Moses was given to Israel, there were glimpses of a strong moral sense inculcated into Jacob’s family.

This sense of right and wrong pops up unexpectedly and shows itself even during the worst moments of Israel’s history, even if it led to wild inconsistency in practice. Judah finds out his daughter-in-law is pregnant and immediately pronounces judgment: “Bring her out and let her be burned.” Too bad he was the father, but there was definitely some standard of morality there that he was trying to apply to Tamar. Saul put all the mediums and necromancers out of the land, which made it difficult for him to find one when in desperation he broke his own edict. Oops. And even during one of the most ignoble reigns in Israel’s history, wicked Jezebel had to use a pair of liars to get Naboth executed. The queen could not simply order his death summarily. Rule of law still had to appear to be followed in Israel.

My favorite of all: when the high priest and his gang of murderous thugs send Jesus back to Pilate, the Gentile ruler has to come outside because they are so concerned not to defile themselves by entering the governor’s headquarters so they can eat the Passover. Later, the Lord’s body is not allowed to be left on the cross because of the day of Preparation and the coming Sabbath. This is all rank hypocrisy and meaningless nit-picking, but it shows that strong Jewish sense of rule-keeping which seemed to raise its head at the most inconvenient moments.

Unlike many nations, the Jewish moral sense was always well-developed, as the universal voluntary acceptance of the Law of Moses as their standard (“All that the Lord has spoken we will do”) attests. It all made good sense to them and appealed to their consciences as just and right. What they never considered was that with the “eyes like a flame of fire” in their midst, that law would have to be applied consistently and constantly, not just to their sinful neighbors but to them too.

No nation in history has ever been up for that.

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