WHERE DID THEY GO? Where did this all happen? Due to difficulties in locating all the places named and described in Exodus and Numbers, there are three different ideas floating around as to where the route of Israel’s desert sojourn was, and where these places were: a northern route along the Mediterranean, a central route through the Sinai Peninsula, and a southern route which actually would have take the Israelites into the Arabian peninsula. Not having been there, I won’t weigh in on which one is more likely.
For maps of Israel’s 40-year sojourn, and the allotment of the land by tribes, check out: http://www.bible-history.com/maps/route_exodus.html.
Central to this section is Israel’s conflict with Midian, or Moab. Moses’ (first?) wife was from this region, and Jethro, his father-in-law and a priest among these people, had given Moses some good counsel. But now Moab is standing firmly in the way, seeking to block Israel’s advance. After watching Israel’s 38 years of apparent wandering in the desert, the fear of the Lord has worn off and Egypt’s vassal states assume they can keep the Israelites in the desert forever, if not by direct conflict, then by temptation and enticement away from their patron God. Thus the moral/spiritual meltdown around the cult of Baal-Fegor, probably a fertility idol, complete with the sacred female prostitutes (25: 1-3). It nearly worked, and the cult could be uprooted from Israel’s ranks only at terrible cost of something approaching civil war and the deaths of 24,000.
This is the story behind the war of vengeance and near-extermination against Moab, and laws regarding the spoils of war (Numbers 31), meant to prevent Israel from going to war for their own economic enrichment, as their neighborings states often did. For the modern reader, especially one of pacifist, Anabaptist sensibilities, these stories of Holy War, of merciless killing, both of fellow Israelites and their neighbors, including noncombatant women and children, raise some serious issues, to say the least. It doesn’t seem to square with the peace teachings of Jesus. Greg Boyd, pastor of Woodland Hills, has done much writing and thinking on this matter, which you can peruse at http://www.gregboyd.org/. Our church’s member, Philip Friesen, has also written a book on this matter, The Old Testament Roots of Nonviolence. I’ll come back to this issue several times as we encounter it again throughout the Pentateuch and the books of Joshua, Kings and Chronicles.
Suffice it to say, for the moment, that Jesus himself treats these documents as foundational to his identity and mission. They were authoritative, even sacred, to him, so they should be for his disciples, as well. They inform our understanding of him and his mission, as well as vice versa. So we must let them question us, as well as us questioning them. The Old Testament presumes that the Giver of life has the right to take it back when it is being misused by injustice, idolatry or violence. We must deal with it. That does not give us the right to make ourselves agents of God’s judgment, because “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (including ourselves) and “the wages of sin is death.” So we come to the Old Testament as those over whom the sword is poised.
Euro-American pioneers who claimed the right and precedent of the Exodus to drive out and exterminate Native Americans put themselves in the wrong part of these stories. So did the White South Africans, and other European colonialists in Asia, Latin America and Africa. We Christians are most definitely not to claim the mantle of God’s conquering warrior people in our relations to non-Christians and other cultures and nations. In Romans 9-11, Paul tells us that we, the Gentiles, are the wild branch grafted into the tree of Israel, i.e., that we are, in effect, the pagan nations faced with the inevitable coming of new management who would do well to sue for peace and submit ourselves to Israel’s God and his merciful covenant, unlike what Moab and other tribes and nations did. Then we will discover how gracious, patient, merciful and compassionate is this warrior God. As someone else has said, “If God is ‘a consuming fire (Heb. 12:29),’ he is a fire that burns cooler and sweeter the closer we approach him.” More thoughts on Old Testament holy war and Jesus’ assertive non-violence in posts to come.
A powerful and intriguing summary statement of the relationship between God, God’s law and God’s land is posted at the end of Numbers 35: ” ‘Do not pollute the land where you are. Bloodshed pollutes the land, and atonement cannot be made for the land on which blood has been shed, except by the blood of the one who shed it. Do not defile the land where you live and where I dwell, for I, the LORD, dwell among the Israelites.’ ” Here is an interesting angle on sacrifice, especially that of Jesus, God’s final and perfect Passover Lamb, the sacrifice which perfects and completes what the recurrent sacrifices of ancient Israel could not complete (Hebrews 9-10). But what does this say about the history of bloodshed on our own soil, whether that of the Native American, driven out by bullet and bayonet, or of the African slave and his descendant, by the lash or by lynching? Again, this does not obligate us to capital punishment, because the blood sacrifice of Jesus pays for all. Yet we can say that the land remembers what we try to forget. The seeds sown by bloodshed in one generation will bear fruit for generations to come, until we too offer the atoning sacrifices of confession, repentance, reconciliation and restoration.