Numbers 25-30, II Timothy 1-4
This one can bother people.
A man ran after two sinners and killed them. He and his offspring were blessed for it. What?
What made this right? What’s the difference between holy zeal, and personal vengeance against people who don’t fall in line – when the person avenging is obviously a fallen sinner just like everyone else?
In a different context with a different heart, the exact same act would have been murder, and Pinehas would have gotten the death penalty himself. No blessing for him and bad repercussions for his posterity.
Our children deal with this confusion sometimes. Touching certain objects, taking charge of certain tasks, and saying certain things, aren’t always the right things to do, depending on the context. Even if the parents are as consistent as humanly possible in their rules, jerking their siblings’ hand away from toys isn’t the same as jerking the same hand in the same manner away from a closing door. They have to learn to hear the parents’ instructions in the moment.
Adults deal with this seemingly grey area, as well. Withdrawing from gossip or unhealthy conversation may be the way to honor YHWH, or it may be a cover to rationalize spiteful, self-righteous behavior towards others. Which is it? When is the same behavior right or wrong?
Back to Pinehas… no, we need to go back further.
King Balack was afraid of Yisrael, and hired Bilam to curse them to ensure his victory. It didn’t work. YHWH had blessed them, and curses could not come against them. The Enemy tried another way. If Yisrael could not be cursed by others, they could be persuaded to curse themselves. They whored physically and spiritually, inviting the corruption of the flesh they were supposed to keep set apart, and dabbling in idolatry, turning back on the covenant they made with YHWH.
Covenants were more than contracts. You couldn’t call it off. When one party betrayed a covenant, it was death. Both parties walked between divided animals or over a threshold running with blood to signify the severity of their agreement. (The Passover blood on the door lintel made sense.) In Israel’s case, though, YHWH took on the whole responsibility. When he made the covenant with Abraham, he put Abraham into a deep sleep, and only His Own presence passed between the pieces. Abraham bears some consequences, but YHWH bears the ultimate price.
So when Yisrael had reestablished this covenant and then cheated on The LORD, the nation was not completely wiped out. His grace pardoned anyone willing to cleave to Him again. He took on the responsibility. Eventually, He would come down to pay the ultimate price on behalf of anyone willing to join this covenant.
The camp was still holy, though, and holiness consumes the evil in its presence. Plague broke out and thousands were dying. In Numbers 25:4&5, He declared the penalty to put an end to the evil threatening to ruin Yisrael beyond recovery. If they failed to survive now, the promise to Abraham would be broken and there wouldn’t be the bloodline promised to produce the Messiah.
Even in the face of this destruction, Zimri flaunted his sexual immorality in the face of his brothers as they were dying. He was part of the cause of their demise and had no heart to stop. He hated his true God and his brothers. Cozbi was just as heartless.
Phineas saw all of this, knew what YHWH commanded of him, and obeyed. Because of his zeal, the plague ended, and no more was added to the 24,000 death toll.
The lesson I see this year is that as much as you familiarize yourself with the Word, the rules, the principles, or the theology, obedience to Yahweh at every step is dependent upon listening to His voice in that moment. We can’t figure Him out; he is infinite. Like any wise teacher, He only tells us what we need to understand as we need it. We get our daily bread, not a winter’s supply for us to try to ration ourselves. Obeying by spirit alone can lead us astray. Obeying by truth alone makes us our own gods. We must obey both in Spirit and in Truth.
Read the Word. Learn all you can. Yet as you live out today, listen to our Heavenly Father closely, because He understands the context in ways His children have yet to grasp. Trust Him!