In Numbers 25, the wayward Israelites are seduced by Moabite women and engage in their cultus, worshipping other gods:
25 While Israel was staying in Shittim, the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women,2 who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods. The people ate the sacrificial meal and bowed down before these gods. 3 So Israel yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor. And the Lord’s anger burned against them.
4 The Lord said to Moses, “Take all the leaders of these people, kill them and expose them in broad daylight before the Lord, so that the Lord’s fierce anger may turn away from Israel.”
And right here, we hit a problem that often comes up in discussion with non-Christians even today. Why cannot God simply forgive? Why do people have to die in order for the relationship to be restored?
I think they key is in verse 4, where God talks about himself in the third person “So that the LORD’s fierce anger may turn away.” It sounds almost as if God has no choice in the matter, as if he is saying, “The only way to resolve this is if you kill these leaders, otherwise I have no choice but to wreak a terrible havoc upon the people. And so he does. 24,000 of them die from a God-sent plague before the rot is stopped with the death of someone who flagrantly disobeys the command to stop having relations with the Moabite women.
What it looks like, and what I believe to be the case, is that God is subject to a code of ethics higher than himself. I realize that sounds heretical, so let me explain what I mean. God set up the moral fabric of the universe which is an expression of his own holy nature. One of the elements of this moral fabric is that humans should only worship their creator. There is actually nothing wrong with that thought, just as a manufacturer of a petrol/gas powered car insists that you should not put diesel in the tank. The wrong contents can spoil the engine. The wrong spiritual content can spoil an eternity. It is quite within God’s “rights” as it were, to insist that humans worship him only, since he is the only true Creator and designer.
For God to overlook such idolatry would mean then that he is contravening the laws of the moral universe which he himself has set in place. So, in a sense this code of ethics is not higher than God himself, but an external expression of who God is, pure and unadulterated. To overlook such a contravention would pollute his character.
To use a human analogy, imagine that I had dedicated my life to the eradication of lung cancer. And yet, my son decides to smoke cigarettes, and I say and do nothing about it. You would quite rightly doubt my “pure” commitment to the cause, if I were prepared to overlook someone acting in a way that has a high probability of creating the very thing I have given my life to eradicate. If I had to institute some severe punishment to ensure that my son never smoked again, I would do that, because the risk of leaving his behavior unchallenged is too great. Both my credibility and his health would suffer as a result.
For God, he is shepherding his people in this still somewhat new phase of being called out as a people of God, and living according to his statutes. To allow idolatry to go unchecked would offend his character and endanger his people. This cancer of idolatry, if unchecked, if not punished severely, could wipe out the uniqueness of the people of God, and the whole world would suffer because of it. God’s credibility and the health of his people are on the line. And they will never be “a light to the nations” or a “city on a hill” if this idolatry is not dealt with in a very serious fashion.
So then we move onto the second difficulty. If we concede that such sin cannot be ignored or tolerated, why is the punishment (24,000 dead from plague, plus the killing of the leaders) so severe?
And this takes us back to the moral structure of the universe once again. God had designed it in such a way that sin is resolved only by death. Lower level sin could be dealt with by an animal sacrifice, a small death. But as the story continues into the New Testament, sin is worldwide and heinous (read Romans 1 for a description). Both in scope and measure, sin is rampant. “Big” sin requires a big death, and so… Jesus.
God was not willing that any should perish, and so gave his Son, so whoever believes in Him, shall not perish but have eternal life.
We might shout “Unfair!” We might scream, “Too extreme!” but we have to admit this. As CS Lewis said, “God takes his own medicine.” We might not like the system, the sacrificial framework that God set up, but at least he has the courage and the consistency to allow his own Son to be part of it.
And surely that’s the point. We may rail against the system, we may dislike it or find it abhorrent, we may say the price for sin is too high… and it is. And that is why Jesus paid it, and we did not.
Be thankful for that today.