Sunday, March 06, 2016

When Being On God's Side Means Breaking Bonds With Loved Ones

3,000 Israelites Killed – by Israelites!
Exodus 32:25-29: Now when Moses saw that the people were out of control – for Aaron had let them get out of control to be a derision among their enemies – then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me!” And all the sons of Levi gathered together to him. And he said to them, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Every man of you put his sword upon his thigh, and go back and forth from gate to gate in the camp, and kill every man his brother, and every man his friend, and every man his neighbor.’” So the sons of Levi did as Moses instructed, and about three thousand men of the people fell that day. Then Moses said, “Dedicate yourselves today to the Lord – for every man has been against his son and against his brother – in order that He may bestow a blessing upon you today.”
There is no way to avoid this passage of Scripture even though I do not recall ever hearing a sermon on it; I am sure there have been many.  Either way you cut it, it’s a difficult passage to deal with. Let’s dissect it carefully.
The human author (Moses) sees the people out of control.  In fact, some versions of this text actually say “naked” rather than “out of control”. There are different opinions as to whether this referred to the fact that the people were indeed reveling in a way that was not controllable or descent, or they were in fact stripped of their clothes mimicking those non-Israelites who used to perform some of their religious rituals naked, or whether it meant they had been made ‘naked’ of their adornments (ear-rings and such) as they had given them to Aaron to make the golden calf. [I remember, humorously, the days of my youth when I always wanted my wife to wear earrings as I felt that a woman was never fully dressed without them – I never knew then that my subconscious thinking on the matter may have come from this verse.]
Aaron had let the people get out of control “to be a derision among their enemies”. The word derision can be translated as mockery or ridicule or victim of disrespect. Other versions translate this phrase as “shame, weakness, amusement, laughingstock”. Of course, Aaron did not have this outcome in mind, but the consequence of what he abetted certainly pointed to that kind of possible reaction from the Israelite enemies. We, too, often engage in, or lend our hand to, activities for which we do not in advance consider the consequences. How many times do we say to our children or other adults in our lives, “Did you ever stop to think of the implications of that action before you did it?”  And often the sheepish answer is “No, I did not.” I think that one of the marks of maturity both as simply a human being, but especially as a Christian, is that we take the time to stop and consider the implications of not only our actions, but our words. And admittedly, we cannot do that easily by ourselves and without practice and even correction from the Holy Spirit. Henry Kissinger in his 2015 book, World Order, refers to the fact that, in this age of technology we live in, we seem to be missing the wisdom in all the knowledge that we possess or have ready access to. As people of God, we need to realize and take advantage of the fact, that this true ‘wisdom’ that others lack, is available to us.
So Moses stood at the ‘gate’ of the camp. Some may wonder why the Israelites in the middle of a desert had a ‘gate’ to their camp.  Commentator Robert Jamieson answers that for us by indicating that the camp is supposed to have been protected by a rampart after the attack of the Amalekites who are mentioned in Numbers but relating to events prior to this one recorded here in Exodus 32.
If you are a leader and you have a declaration to make, then you have to go to a place where you will be heard – you have to get to the gateway of the community. Interestingly, the word ‘gate’ occurs 275 times in 220 verses in the New American Stand Bible (NASB). This makes for a most interesting study. Much of Biblical history takes place at the various city or camp gates. And Jesus Himself in the New Testament speaks metaphorically of His people entering His Kingdom and gaining our salvation by going through a “narrow gate”.
So at the gate of the Israelite camp, Moses instructs them to go towards him if they are truly for the Lord and to stay away from him if they are not. Can you picture the scene? Can you sense the feelings of the ringleaders? Perhaps it was anger. Can you imagine the shame of the those that were truly sorry for what they had done? Can you feel the confusion of those that were caught in the middle of the argument, not knowing now which way to move? This is indeed a position that many have found themselves in over the centuries – circumstances in which they have to choose between one leader and others, between one thing and another, between a friend and a brother, between a parent and sibling, and so on.  There are seldom any easy choices. The only thing we have going for us is to stick to the higher principles involved – to our beliefs about God and His characteristics which He etched into our hearts at creation.
And yet somehow, many manage to push those higher moral values aside at times like this, and opt for what is immediately more convenient, easier, safer, more socially acceptable. And so it was with the Israelites.  Of the twelve tribes in the camp, only the Levites gathered towards Moses. All the others kept their distance. It seems to be a common theme in life that only a minority get it right no matter what the issue is. Those who are indeed on the Lord’s side are almost always fewer in number.
[The thought occurred to me that had Moses asked, “Who is on my side?” instead of what he did ask, “Who is for the Lord?”, he may have had more people join him.  It is easier for people to gather around a human leader they can see and hear, than God who is Spirit and must be worshipped in spirit. So it is with political leaders today – people rush to vote for them because of how well they come across in their personality rather than the principles they stand for. This was the case of Dr. Ben Carson in the 2016 American Republican Nomination race – while his ideals for America were perhaps the godliest of the bunch, many people, while liking him as an individual, felt he did not have the personality to be president. Calling men (and women) to follow God is a most difficult task; one in which Christ Himself did not score one hundred percent as many rejected even His message.]
And now we come to where one can be greatly flummoxed by the text. Moses tells the Levites to go throughout the camp with swords at their sides and kill their brothers, friends, and neighbors – assumedly those that did not declare being for the Lord. Wow. It seems when God’s laws have indeed been violated, there is a time to take up the sword figuratively if not literally. One example of this is Franklin Graham’s speaking out boldly against the decision by the Charlotte, North Carolina council to push transgender washrooms in the city and indicating that the fight is not over yet. He called the ordinance ‘wicked and filthy’ – strong words for an evangelist these days, yet exactly what needed to be said.
Robert Jamieson suggests that in actual fact the non-Levites were separated into two divisions, and those who were the boldest and most obstinate in vindicating their idolatry were put to death, while the rest, who withdrew in shame or sorrow, were spared. The great number of Israelites that were in the wilderness gives some credence to this possibility. In support of this, commentator David Guzik adds, “It seems that the sin of Israel at the golden calf involved more than these 3,000 people. Yet these were undoubtedly those most flagrant in their idolatry and immorality, or these were the leaders of the sinful conduct.”
Nevertheless, as Jamieson points out the “zeal and courage of Moses was astonishing, considering he opposed an intoxicated mob”. Guzik says, “In this case, siding with the LORD meant siding against some people. Those who were more interested in siding with all people could never do what these Levites did.”
Moses chose to deal with the sin of his people publicly as a testimony against such sin. And as Matthew Henry believes, whenever the issue came up again with respect to the Israelite sin of worshipping a golden calf, at least they could say justice was executed on the evildoers. Henry also goes on to say that this difficult task of killing their neighbors and brothers was given to the Levites as a punishment to them as well for not stepping in earlier to prevent the sin. Guilty by association is sometimes indeed the case.
The question may arise as to the number that were actually killed that day – why only 3,000 when many more were likely involved in the ‘golden calf reveling’? Matthew Henry suggests that the key to that question is that Moses directed them to go “through the camp” implying up and down the streets of the camp, and not in the actual tents the Israelites were living in.  He posits that “it might be hoped that those who had retired into their tents were ashamed of what they had done, and were upon their knees, repenting.” The implication being that those who are marked for ruin and punishment are only those who persist in their sin and not ashamed. An interesting thought, but the fact is that we do not know for sure if that was the case or not.
The other thing we do not know and some may wonder is how did the Levites manage to pull this off against a crowd that may have been so enraged at the idea of their ‘golden calf idol’ being burned as it was by Moses? That is indeed a valid concern.  Why did they not fight back and why was there no record of Levites being killed in opposition? Again Henry theorizes that “a sense of guilt disheartened the delinquents, and a divine commission animated the executioners.” The Levites may have been charged up by Moses’ direction to “Consecrate yourselves to day to the Lord, that he may bestow a blessing upon you.” This Henry contends, intimates to them “they now stood fair for preferment and that, if they would but signalize themselves upon this occasion, it would be construed into such a consecration of themselves to God, and to his service, as would put upon their tribe a perpetual honor.” All they had to do was rise to the opportunity given them to claim it. And we remember too that the Levites were the ones who were to assist in the offering of sacrifice to God and now this included services of divine justice. Henry concludes, “Those that are to minister about holy things must be not only sincere and serious, but warm and zealous, bold and courageous, for God and godliness. Thus all Christians, but especially ministers, must forsake father and mother, and prefer the service of Christ and his interest far before their nearest and dearest relations; for if we love our relations better than Christ we are not worthy of him.
There is no doubt that being a true servant and worshiper of the Almighty sometimes requires us to break bonds with those that are otherwise very close to us. We need to remember that God did not intend it that way nor does He rejoice in the need for this to happen. He would much prefer all mankind – including those brothers, friends, neighbors of yours and mine – to love and serve Him. But with our free will, mankind is free to choose to do so or not. And when others make the choice to be ‘contrary’ or ‘anti-God’, we as believers are required to be on the Lord’s side. All of us, at various points in our lives, and with varying degrees of intensity, will be required to set aside relationships and even perhaps take action against those that, in the absence of our godly responsibility, we would prefer not to oppose.
How does one prepare for that? The concluding part of the passage, provides the answer. We are to dedicate ourselves to the Lord. We are to be aware of our responsibility and service and loyalty to Him. We are to see such occurrence not so much as what it means for those who oppose God, but what it means for us and our own relationship to God. We are to see this is an opportunity to serve God; perhaps a test about our own faith and preparedness for greater service and in preparation of a greater blessing to be bestowed upon us. And at the same time, because we now live after the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross, we are to take any such action with love towards those who do oppose Him. That’s a tall order, but it is doable.

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