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Text: Numbers 25:1-18
Today’s reading contains just about all the elements one could fit into a “difficult passage.” There’s forbidden sex. There’s idolatry and sacrifices to the wrong god. There’s a treatment of foreigners, and specifically foreign women, as inherently dangerous. There’s Divine wrath which demands public executions. There’s a respected leader, Moses, ordering his people to kill their fellow Israelites. There’s a plague that wipes out 24,000 people, many of them no doubt innocent. There’s violent vigilante justice by a zealous individual, Phinehas, which apparently brings resolution to all the above problems. Phinehas is rewarded by the Lord with “a covenant of peace,” for him and his descendants. To top it all off, there is a final command from the Lord for Moses and the Israelites to keep harassing these foreign neighbors. Forgive me if I’ve failed to name another feature of the story you find particularly troubling.
Welcome to worship. Today’s lesson has been rated R.
This is indeed a difficult passage.
But, as we are committed to doing during this series, rather than cut this page out of the Bible or pretend like it’s not there, we’ll confront the story head on, wrestle around with it, and see what kind of blessing it has to offer. That phrase I’ve highlighted as the sermon title “A covenant of peace,” comes from the words spoken by the Lord to Phinehas after he kills the Israelite man and Midianite woman, Zimri and Cozbi. Posing it as a question is meant to highlight a topic of particular interest to us. A question which hangs over this entire text: In a violent world, what is it that makes for peace?
The passage is printed as an insert in the bulletins and I’d like to start by walking through the first half of the story as it’s told, at face value. In Jewish interpretation, this is called the pshat, the most literal meaning of the text, or the simple reading – although there’s nothing simple even with the simple reading.
The Israelites are staying at Shittim just as their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness are coming to a close. They are just at the edge of the Promised Land, about to make their move into this new place of settlement. But like just about every other group of people moving toward a new land, they are not the first ones to arrive. In this particular area there are Moabites, with their own culture and practices. In an event that echoes the earlier worshiping of the golden calf at the foot of Mt. Sinai, the Israelites are drawn into worship of a foreign deity; having sexual relations with Moabite women and eating the sacrificial food.
Verse 3 notes that the Lord’s anger was kindled against Israel. The literal Hebrew wording is that Yahweh’s nostrils burned against Israel. Yahweh’s response and remedy is to make a public display of the ring leaders, commanding Moses to impale all of them in broad daylight for everyone to see. This will turn away Yahweh’s anger. Restore order.
Does Moses do it? No. Rather than carry out this command, Moses orders the tribal leaders to each go out and kill any of the people who have betrayed their allegiance to the tribes and Yahweh. This potentially has an even more violent outcome since it is now out of Moses’ hands and in the hands of many different leaders to decide who are the guilty and who are the innocent.
Just as all this is breaking out, our attention is drawn to one Israelite, who we soon learn is named Zimri. In plain view of Moses and a large congregation, he brings into his family a Midianite woman, not to be confused with those Moabite women we’ve just heard about. Moses and this congregation were weeping, and Moses does nothing to stop Zimri and this Midianite, who is named Cozbi.
But someone does do something. Phinehas, the grandson of Moses’ brother Aaron, sees this, gets up by himself, leaves the congregation, gets a spear, and goes after this couple, finding them in their tent, most likely in a moment of sexual intimacy, killing them together with one strike of the spear through their bellies.
It’s an utterly chaotic story up to this point. The community is at the edge of the promised land, and they are also at the edge of things completely falling apart, the cohesiveness of the group shattered, nobody following orders from anybody, or staying within defined boundaries, people being accused and killed by their own people, the main leader in mourning, and finally a vigilante youth taking matters into his own hands in a religiously zealous act targeted at one couple.
In the ancient world a plague was used to refer to anything that threatened the integrity and well-being of a community. A defeat in battle, social chaos, or a physical epidemic all had the same effect of threatening the cohesiveness of the group. They didn’t have YouTube videos to go viral, but disruptive events and ideas could still spread like the plague. This whole story is one escalating plague and not until verse eight, after Phinehas’ action, is the plague stopped. 24,000 people are dead.
That’s the simple reading. Any questions?
I have few.
Not much later down the road the people of Israel will record and honor another story – of Ruth, woman from Moab. Ruth’s land of Moab is a refuge for an Israelite couple during a time of famine, and Ruth the Moabitess will return to Israel with her mother-in-law Naomi to eventually marry Boaz. Ruth the Moabitess will give birth to Obed, the father of Jesse, the father of David, who will become King David. Ruth the Moabitess is also an ancestor of Jesus. Question: Is the story of Ruth the Moabite woman told as an intentional counter-story to those which demonize foreigners?
Moses got married before he was the leader of his people, while he was taking refuge in the land of Midian. His wife, Zipporah, was the daughter of the priest of those people. Moses himself was married to a prominent Midianite woman. Question: Is this why Moses won’t carry out the killings himself, was weeping rather than out on the rampage, and is this why he did nothing when Zimri the Israelite and Cozbi the Midianite came by?
Question: How do you stop a plague? Why was it the zealous action of one lone individual, Phinehas, directed at one couple, Zimri and Cozbi, that brought all the chaos to a hault? Question: Why is it that when society is at its most fragile point that we are most susceptible to rallying around those who are the most zealous? Why does this simple formula seem to work time after time to restore social order: 1) Someone utterly convinced of the righteousness of their cause + 2) a common enemy onto whom we can project all our collective anxiety. That’s all you need. It doesn’t matter who the leader is, but the more certain they are, the better. It doesn’t matter who the enemy is, there just has to be one. It could be the foreigners, it could be the Communists, it could be the terrorists, it could be the Jews, the immigrants, the liberals, the conservatives. The Moabites, the Midianites. It could be any of these. It has been all these. It’s simple. And it works. Because “we” can finally agree that “they” are to blame. Chaos averted. “The plague was stopped among the people.” Number 25:8
Question: Why does Yahweh seem to be the scariest character of all? Is this a story like that of Abraham haggling with the Lord to save the people of Sodom in which we must demand that the Lord find another way to make peace?
The rabbis have wrestled with this text as well, many of them going beyond the pshat, the plain reading. One of the more creative interpretations comes from the Polish Rabbi Mordechai Leiner. Rabbi Leiner argued that Phinehas is misguided in his zeal, and missed the opportunity to follow the deeper Divine will. Rabbi Leiner proposed that Zimri and Cozbi, the Israelite and Midianite, were soul-mates, and that their coming together was an act of tikkun, of healing the cosmos, since they were trying to bring together in their union, and overcome the hostilities between, their two peoples. Phinehas judges them as violating God’s law but they are actually achieving God’s greater law. They make their partnership known, as it says in verse 6, “in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the whole congregation of the Israelities,” and thus offer a new picture of community.
In this reading, the covenant of peace that Yahweh grants to Phinehas is shown to be only temporary and fleeting as the Israelites are immediately plunged back into hostilities with the Midianites. Yahweh would have rather granted a new covenant of peace through the way of Zimri and Cozbi.
A Christian reading of the text adds another important element. Throughout his ministry and especially toward the end of his life Jesus seems to be especially aware of this dynamic that has been the glue that has held people together over the millennia. As long as we have a common enemy, some kind of outsiders, we can be united as insiders. It’s a way of being that depends entirely on there always being outsiders, and there always being violence directed toward a particular group of people. One of the ways of understanding Jesus’ death is that he was intentionally occupying the space of the outsider, the one who is the target of all of our wrath, the rejected one, the stone the builders rejected. In voluntarily occupying this space, Jesus turns the whole system on its head, causing us to see not from our perspective as the insiders trying to hold things together, but from the perspective of the outsider. From that point on Christ is forever identified not with the in group, but with the poor, the prisoner, the foreigner, the outcast. Christ is the one with the spear pointed at him, not the one holding the spear. Jesus undoes our violent way of making peace, and calls into being this fragile community that defines itself in an entirely different way; that loves even its enemies.
A final question we could ponder is where we might locate ourselves within this story in Numbers 25. I wonder if some of us feel that we are with Moses and the congregation weeping by the tent of meeting. Things seem to be coming undone all around us. A literal plague is taking the lives of thousands of West Africans and raising anxiety in our country. Our nation is engaged in perpetual war against an elusive enemy that has the religious zeal of Phinehas himself. Our natural environment is strained and the future is uncertain. Moses weeps. He can’t follow the old way of wrath, but he can’t yet see a new way forward. He is praying. He is calling on Yahweh to be the Lord of justice and mercy.
I wonder if some of us identify positively with Phinehas. He is violent, indeed, but at least he does something when the rest of the congregation seems to be paralyzed. Gandhi would often say that it was much easier to make a violent person be actively nonviolent than it was to make a passive person stand up for what is right. Phinehas may be misguided, but in his mind he is doing what has to be done in the moment. We can be grateful for youthful passion to do what is right, and we can learn together how to best direct that passion for the common good.
And I wonder if some of you are attracted to these mysterious characters of Zimri and Cozbi. One of the beautiful things about the Hebrew text, which the rabbis use with great creativity, is that it is so sparse on details, and thus provides space for us to imagine worlds of possibility between the lines. Perhaps they were soul mates, and perhaps they felt that they were following the deeper law of God in their coming together, trespassing social boundaries for a higher good. They were not trying to save the world, but within the bonds of their own relationship, they could enact the kind of world they hoped for. They formed their own covenant of peace even though no one else could see it yet.
One thing we will resist doing, is that we who have come to know Christ, can no longer think of the world as a place of insiders and outsiders. As soon as we try and capture Christ in our inside group, he jumps outside of our boundaries and eludes our grasp. The risen Christ invites us to live out of a different space, and accompanies us in a covenant of peace that no longer needs enemies in order to hold things together.