There are horrific stories in the Old Testament. Take for example the story of Israel making and then worshipping a golden calf, with all the sex that went with it. Unbelievable behaviour for anyone, let alone a freshly redeemed people. The danger of this to the nation, the wickedness and destructive violence of paganism in those days, is well documented. This was very serious.
But the reaction of God is also so striking. He immediately said to Moses that he would kill them all, saying he would start a new nation from Moses. Moses pleaded that God would repent of this harshness, as if Moses had more compassion. God agreed with Moses, though later Moses instructed that the Levites go through the camp and slay many of those involved in the idolatry. Three thousand died that day, some of whom had been brothers and family with the Levites who killed them. Then Moses said to the Levites, “You have served the Lord this day.”
We are unsure if it was 3,000, as the word use for thousand in the Hebrew text can mean unit or squad. However, this may correspond with the 3,000 who were added to life on the Day of Pentecost, the day the New Covenant was launched, on the same day of the year that Moses came down the mountain with the law. The law is a ministry of death; Jesus is a ministry of life.
The only thing easy with this passage in Exodus 32 is to make mistakes explaining it. So much is going on here. But it looks like God is the same as all the other gods of that day. “Someone has sinned; someone must pay.” “The way to overcome the evil of the day is through killing and more violence.” “The way to serve God, is to love him by killing your family.” Or even worse, we could say that God did this out of jealousy over the other gods. This of course is nonsense, but this is how it looks when reading other accounts similar to this in the ancient world. Gods were always jealous of each other and this was claimed to be the source of much of the fighting.
One thing is clear. This is not the Jesus of the Gospels. He didn’t round up idolaters and have them killed. He didn’t prosecute anyone by the law. He did the opposite. He freed people who had broken the law. And when his disciples wanted to act like Moses and the Levites and call down fire on sinners, Jesus rebuked them. He said such behaviour wasn’t at all from God. So what is going on here? How is it, that in Exodus God is saying these things, but Jesus tells us that this isn’t God, and that people who say and do such things, don’t even know God, but are rather unknowingly serving satan? And worse, Jesus says, they “are of their father, the devil.” Is this record in Exodus mistaken? Do we just throw it out, as the stories of men?
As I said, this is very complex. You may say you only like simple teaching, but this isn’t simple. You try taking a rebellious people out of slavery and see how you do! We are going to look again at some issues we covered in an earlier chapter, but go into them a bit more here.
First of all, the Hebrew people chose the law. This stems from the Garden of Eden, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The law they chose to live by, by which they accused God’s justice, was the same law that afterward accused them. Satan said he was leading them to freedom, but he was leading them to be false judges of the law, accusers of others. When Adam and Eve grasped at the law to accuse God, satan laughed. It was the same voice of accusation, now lodged within their conscience, that condemned them.
It wasn’t God who introduced law into the Garden. God warned us about the law. He spoke to Adam and Eve, like parents warning their children. Satan introduced law into this world, by using it to accuse God. Once man grasped it, satan would use our “awakened conscience” in humanity, to draw us to accuse and fight each other.
This guilt began to tear away at human life. Adam and Eve cut themselves off from God, whom they perceived as the source of their guilt. Next, Adam, accused his wife, transferring his guilt onto those around him. The wife did the same. Guilt produced accusation, which led to violence, in order to cleanse that guilt and rectify the perceived problem. We think we demonstrate our righteousness by condemning others. Violence brings appeasement to our conscience.
What a terrible captivity humanity is in! This is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching, about the speck in our neighbour’s eye; about the murderous legalism of the Pharisees. This is the slavery Israel was in when they came out of Egypt. From this human nature, satan wreaks havoc all through our relationships.
God didn’t choose the law for Israel, they chose it for themselves. When Moses went into Egypt to call Israel out, immediately the elders of Israel began to accuse him. The law, accusing others, was their bread and butter. After God delivered them through the Red Sea, immediately they went straight back to their accusations. They said they had no bread and no water, and that God had brought them to the wilderness in order to kill them. Satan had filled their hearts with accusations against God. He said God had fallen short of righteousness and justice in how he was treating Israel. And Israel bought it, because judging others in this way, by the law and guilt in their own conscience, was all they knew.
This brings us to the general things Jesus was speaking about: those who live by the law, die by the law. “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone,” Jesus said to the Pharisees stoning the woman. That is, if we condemn others by the law, like the woman caught in adultery, then the same law will condemn us. It’s just a matter of time. Or, as Paul said, the letter of the law kills. If we want law to judge others, then the law kills us.
Welcome to Sinai, what man chose in the Garden!
So this brings us back to Moses on the mountain with God. Israel were having an idolatrous orgy in the valley. Satan steps in, to put God’s justice on trial. But the real work of satan is in our human heart. The risk here is unreasonable human retribution, followed by war.
This is what God is really trying to stop here. He was acting to save Israel from the law. We don’t normally think of this background issue. We just see “God’s wrath.” But what if God did nothing? What would have been the result of one group in Israel going into such rampant idolatrous orgy? It would have led to catastrophic infighting between the tribes, murder on a horrendous scale, and the destruction of the nation. Satan would have had a “hay day.”
Satan says to God, “You say they are your people, that you have the right to redeem them and carry them out of Egypt, to serve you in the Wilderness.” What is satan’s claim? It is that Israel accuses others by the law and now this law must judge them. “The law owns them and must have its way with them.” We know this is the background, because this is shown to us in Job. Satan accuses God of unjustly saving Job, claiming that Job didn’t love God. Satan did the same later, when Israel returned from Babylon to Jerusalem. He accused Joshua, the priest, saying Israel had not kept God’s covenant, so God had no right to save them.
In the Wilderness, satan’s accusations were true. God, if he is just, must act. He must take down his hedge and allow satan to destroy them. This is what “wrath” means. It means the judgement of the law. It doesn’t mean that wrath is in God’s heart towards his people. It is the wrath of the law, of satan’s accusation. On the contrary, what is in God’s heart, is love for his people. He has pity on their fallenness and their ignorance, just as Jesus showed on the cross: “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” This is what is in God’s heart all the while, not just on the New Testament. And we know this by what God did on the mountain next.
God said to Moses, “My wrath must strike the people and kill them all. I will start a new nation from you.” Wow, I would think about that! “These rotten people have caused me all this trouble. Now I get to be the head of the new nation. This makes me the top person in God’s program, the most important, not just the servant of the promises to Abraham.” But Moses said no. He said this would bring discredit to God, for the pagans would say God brought his people out from Egypt, but couldn’t look after them in the Wilderness. Satan’s accusation against God, that all the people had accepted and were repeating, that God brought Israel out of Egypt to kill them, would succeed.
In replying to God this way, Moses, acting oppositely to how satan would interpret Moses’ personal interest, changes everything. God had a man whose selfless motives could not be accused. God could answer Moses’ prayer, save his people and be just in doing so. Moses’ intercession saved Israel from the law. All the time, Israel was saying that God was trying to kill them, and all the time, behind the scenes, God was doing all he could in a court of law, the court that Israel set up themselves, to save them. But this would only work for so long. If Israel refused to be transformed, the law would eventually succeed against them. Intercession can’t be sustained on its own forever.
Let’s trace again the work of the law in the human conscience and society from early times. What does it say? It says, “The sinner must be destroyed.” Cain was afraid people would avenge his killing of Abel. Either it’s in his conscience, or he has seen human society already practices this kind of “legal retribution.” By the time of Lamech, the vengeance of the law has grown to highly destructive proportions; “If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times.” (Gen 4:24)
If I kill a man, then the people from his village would come out and kill 77 people in my village. This keeps on growing. We can see that legal retribution didn’t come from God. Instead of God demanding the death penalty for Cain, he protected Cain, hoping for his salvation. We will look at this more in the next chapter.
After the Flood, God acts to limit this human retribution. This is where the principle of charam begins. We will look at this further below, but charam means “devoted to God.” God takes violence into his sanctuary to limit it, he ritualises it, to curtail human vengeance. For example, after the Flood, God allows meat eating, but hallows the animal’s blood.
“And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” (Gen 9:3-6)
After the Flood, God specifically addressed the violence of man, especially the shedding of blood, and God made the act sacred. The blood of the animals belongs to God. As hollowed, blood shouldn’t be shed in a random fashion. The creation in general is to be treated with care, not exposed to human destruction, like it was before the Flood. When an animal is killed, it is to be seen as a sacrifice, its blood is to devoted to God, to ensure respect for the animal.
God began to bring the human practice of vengeance and sacrifice under his control. Killing of animal flesh, for eating and sacrifice, no doubt was being practiced widely before the Flood, but it had never been sanctioned by God.
It is in this context of hallowing the death of the animals, that God also hallows the death of a man. God says, that man is made in the image of God. God brings this crime of murder under his control expressly for the first time, in order to manage the level of vengeance that the crime causes. Retributive violence against man was to be curtailed. Vengeance was to stop at the person who committed the crime. God sanctioned retribution for murder, because of the hardness of man’s heart, and to keep man’s retribution to an absolute minimum.
Ancient historians tell us that this vengeance for murder, was to be carried out by the next of kin of the murderer, like an honour killing. The family of the one who committed the murder, was to retaliate against their family member for the crime. This was to pre-empt greater violence occurring against their community from others, like when Dinah was raped in Shechem and the sons of Jacob killed all the men of the town. To stop this severe brutality, which men regularly carried out, the family of the offender was to “cleanse” the crime, before the killing spread to far more people. If it spread, anger and anger would escalate, with vengeance and much greater vengeance.
God didn’t bring in a “death penalty” as a law for the world. He brought in measures to curtail human violence. And he did this by hallowing the violence. The person who committed the crime was to be charam, devoted to God. And the meaning of charam was a vengeance that was limited in scope, not subject to the whims of human violence and wrath. If man must take vengeance, then God would oversee the vengeance to limit it. This doesn’t mean the death penalty is God’s will. God overthrew the vengeance in our hearts through his cross. We look at this in another chapter.
When Israel committed idolatry in the Wilderness, Moses ordered a similar charam. It was a controlled retribution to cleanse the sin. Not to cleanse the anger from God’s heart, but from man’s. It was an honour killing. The Levites killed their own kinfolk. This limited the repercussions of the sin within Israel, to cut off tribal warfare.
We often see tribal warfare breaking out in Israel when sins of this nature were committed, especially in the book of Judges. Sometimes these acts almost destroyed the entire nation. See Judges 9, 12, 19, 20, 2 Sam 20, 21, for example. Once almost the whole tribe of Benjamin was wiped out when one man’s concubine was raped and killed. In modern society we fail to see what is in the background to texts like these.
But the vengeance didn’t come from God, and he didn’t specify how may would be killed. That was all decided by the Levites who participated. They were cleansing their own family, under the law, and they would decide when the anger of their own people would be appeased. They killed 3,000 and that number was governed by the satisfaction of their own hearts. They knew that would be enough to quell the violence in everyone’s hearts. They probably did far more than enough.
After the killing, God said he would work to make atonement for Israel’s sin. This atonement was to avert national catastrophe, to satisfy human bloodlust. God would keep working with Israel to limit their destruction, wars and national demise, anytime great sins broke out amongst them. God was working to save their nation, not to punish it.
This is what charam means; it is an atonement to limit human vengeance. God would introduce many ways that atonement would work without violence, and this was the way he was leading the 52 world through the law and through Christ; to bring us to a way of atonement that is fully free of violence.
It’s not God’s anger that is being averted by the killing of 3,000 in Exodus 32, but human anger. God takes our anger and sin and ritualises it, makes it charam, a divine punishment, a controlled sentence, to stem the violence, to make atonement within our relationships, to save us from the gross wrath or vengeance working in our own hearts. He saves us from the law. It is not God’s punishment, but God sanctifying and supervising human revenge to limit its destruction. Remember, he didn’t punish Cain.
The law makes atonement for human violence, for the hardness of our hearts. The law does this by prescribing attornments, or deaths, on a limited basis, to appease the satan who works within us. This is why the law is “a ministration of death.” (2 Cor 3:7) It is news of death. It is not God’s will for mankind. It didn’t come because it is what God wanted for man. It came because man listened to satan and took his accusative nature. The law came to curtail satanic wrath working in our lives.
The experience of Israel’s idolatrous orgy in the Wilderness passed into their law. In Deut 13, it was said that if a township went into similar idolatry, the next of kin were to kill the inhabitants and pile up their properties and burn them as charam, an offering to God. The law was clear, that careful investigation was to be made, to limit wrath to the perpetrators of the crime, rather than the former random vengeance. This action was to prevent tribes taking the law into their own hands and instigating widespread civil disturbances, using such events as excuses for their own political ambitions. The law of charam was to cut off this kind of human behaviour.
God made the act sacred to stop the violence spreading throughout the nation. Making it sacred also meant that God took our sin into himself. He was owning the sacrifice dedicated to him. He would become that sacrifice himself, to replace those enemies we were formerly executing. If God sets up a system of atonement, then he can step into that system, as the sacrifice, as the charam, and take away the vengeance that is in our hearts. God, far from being the one who demands bloodlust, is the one who gives himself as a victim of our own wrath, when we nail him to a cross, to remove wrath from us. How can we hate our brother, when God gave himself as charam for us?
The purpose of charam was to reconcile Israel, not with an angry God, but with themselves, to heal the fabric of their nation, to stop sin from destroying the body politic. Charam was necessary because of the wrath that works within the human heart. The wrath is the way of man, of our cultures, and God condescended, to lead us towards his kingdom, instead of allowing us to destroy ourselves altogether. We see that the “anger of God” is to work out a plan for our salvation, not from our enemies of the flesh, but from our enemy within.
These laws were given because of the hardness of men’s hearts. Man wants sinners destroyed:
• God ritualized the vengeance, or makes it sacred, to limit bloodlust
• Then he replaces the human execution in time with animal sacrifice
• Then he replaces as sacrifice that in time with himself on the cross
… to fully heal our hearts of vengeance, and to take away all human violence from the earth. This is charam, that starts after the Flood, that continues in Israel’s history, and is seen in Joshua’s occupation of Canaan. But we will discuss this occupation below.
There are many examples of laws that weren’t God’s heart. Deut 21:10-14 says that when Israel went on raids they could kidnap foreign women and bring them home as wives. If they didn’t like the women in the morning, they could send them away. But they must not otherwise mistreat the 53 women. We know God’s will is one man and one woman, caring for each other. This law didn’t reflect the heart of God, except in that it sought to limit the harm man did. Fallen man is going to behave this way towards women anyway, so at least laws like this limited the effects of such destructive behaviour. This is similar to charam. Patriarchy is in no way God’s will. Neither is charam part of his creation or gospel.
What have we learned about charam? It is a principle of God that limits the violence and vengeance within the human heart by controlling it. God controls it by dedicating punishments meted out to himself, where he can place limitations upon the terms of its use. This way the wrath between communities can be appeased and peace can ensue.
This may help explain the charam command when Israel came into the Promised Land. This is about the killing of the occupants of the land, as a dedicated offering to the Lord. We know two obvious reasons for this. One is, God was judging the people for their idolatry. We know how wicked and widespread this was. God was cleansing the land of horrific, life destroying practices. The other reason was so that this idolatry wouldn’t pollute Israel, as they took up settlement in the land.
So what is wrong with this? Well, is this the God Jesus showed us? He said he didn’t come to condemn, but to save. He did not judge and kill sinners in the land, but died for them instead. He did not call his followers to judge and kill sinners, but to love and serve them instead. So we can’t follow what Israel did in the Promised Land and say we are serving God. And we can’t call on God to judge others either, because he didn’t act against anyone in the Gospels.
And we know from Jesus that God’s judgement isn’t God killing people The blind man wasn’t blind because of God; the Tower of Siloam didn’t fall on people because of God. When Rome destroyed Jerusalem, it wasn’t God who did it. The destruction of Jerusalem wasn’t God’s punishment for the killing of Jesus. Jesus forgave them for that. It was what Jerusalem did to itself, because they wouldn’t repent. All these things came from man’s own works, from man’s own wrath.
And God isn’t calling us out of the world, so that the sinners won’t pollute us. He is calling us to go into the world, to shine our light in the midst of sin. Jesus visited the homes of sinners, he didn’t destroy them. If we were in Canaan today, God would send us into their homes to share his forgiveness and love, to give our lives as a true witness of the love of God. God hasn’t called us to destroy sinners, as the law demands, but to serve them.
So why charam in Canaan? Because Israel was under the law, not because God put them under the law, but because this was their condition. And under the law, the destruction of sinners is demanded, no by God, but by man. Remember Cain again, whom God didn’t avenge, but man did, seven times.
This law works within the hearts of sinners, so that human vengeance would overflow in the land. It would become like Lamech’s seventy-seven. And if the idolatry of the land affected Israel, then vengeance would overflow throughout their people as well, and fill the whole land with destruction. The land would be filled with violence, from top to bottom, and the nation of Israel could not exist. This was Israel under the law.
So since there is going to be violence, God devotes it to himself and controls it. He establishes a system to atone for violence in the land. It’s a system of vengeance that the people themselves know and had been practicing. But God restrains it significantly. This works in different ways:
• Controlled eradication of idolatry
• A system of animal sacrifice to take away guilt and wrath
• Laws of kindness towards the foreigner and poor, to alleviate suffering and wrath that comes into through social estrangement.
… these are the ways God sought to take violence out of the land.
We won’t speak in detail of the limited nature of this killing in Canaan:
• It was limited to the fortress cities of the land. “City” then meant military fortress. And they were small cities. They were able to march slowly, with the priests, around Jericho seven times, before completing the battle in one day.
• Peace and repentant surrender was offered before the wars. See Deut 2:26, this was in the designated land of Israel and a pattern for the Canaan conquest.
• The language of Moses and Joshua was hyperbole, according to the normal ancient rhetoric on war. It didn’t literally mean every man, woman and child was killed. This is clear within the text itself. Joshua said he had killed every man, woman and child, and then told Israel not to marry and of the men, women or children. The same with the Amalekites Saul “devoted to destruction.” They appear repeatedly in scripture after that. The hyperbole means that not one was able to stand against Israel. There is no evidence of genocide.
• The point here is how God made the killing sacred and thus controlled, to atone, to hinder a greater wrath, in his attempt to renew the land through his people, who had no interest in saving lives or caring for their enemies at all. God greatly limited the killings by doing this.
• See also Deut 7:2-5, which clearly uses the same hyperbolic language, and where the point being made in the eradication of the main centres of idolatry in the land, to stop Israel mimicking idolatry and then wrath overflowing through the nation. The main point is not killing the people.
I guess the whole point is that charam didn’t work, until God took it into himself through the cross. When Jesus came, he found this vengeance still lodged firmly in the hearts of his people. The Pharisees used this charam principle to condemn and forsake others. Instead of seeing charam as human vengeance, they saw it as God’s own nature, the way he wanted them to treat sinners. So, in not visiting sinners and not helping those in need, but seeing the poor as cursed of God, to be charam, they failed to heal their land, and brought it into civil war and destruction. By not serving and loving others, they produced a lust for vengeance in others that filled the nation.
They failed to see that God was leading them to Christ, so that he may take our violence out of our hearts altogether, but instead they relished the violence that God allowed Israel to commit under the law, due to the hardness of their hearts.
The point, again, is that the charam principle didn’t work. Israel killed sinners under the law, killed the idolaters in the land, the adulterers and others, but notwithstanding all this, it didn’t save Israel. It didn’t change their hearts. Israel still went into idolatry and were in the end banished from the land themselves. Destroying sin in others didn’t save them, didn’t protect them from sin in themselves. The law of “destroy the sinner”, which was in humanity from the fall, and which God curtailed through his sacred dealings with them, didn’t heal their land.
What was needed was not a limited vengeance upon the enemy, to satisfy the heart of man, but a new heart altogether. What was needed was not a curtailing of Lamech’s vengeance, but a new Lamech. Our take on this today is often the opposite to what Jesus said. We say charam didn’t work, not because it didn’t heal the violent vengeful nature of the human heart, but because Israel failed to 55 execute charam fully. They disobeyed and left some of the sinners alive, who later led Israel astray. Israel, we say, should have killed more sinners, all of them. Well, this is what the law required. If Israel was going to live under the law, they had to fully carry it out. If we live by the law, then we must kill all who fail under the law, or they will infect us. We still go by this principle today, cleansing our fellowships. That is the way of the law. In the end it brings death to everyone, because that is the only answer it has. Its solution is death, not healing. It is an instrument of vengeance. Even if it tries to limit vengeance and control it, vengeance is still its message.
So this is how we read Paul, saying to the Corinthians, “Take out the leaven that is among you.” When we look closely at Paul, he wasn’t saying to condemn the person who was the bad leaven, but to heal and restore the person. And this happened. In Second Corinthians, we see this man restored. So what Israel wasn’t able to do with sinners in the land, God was doing in the Roman community through the church. He was calling his people to serve and help restore sinners, not kill or forsake them.
Jesus didn’t preach charam. He didn’t preach “destroy the sinner.” He preached “support the sinner.” If we have an orchard of fruit trees and some of the trees are faulty and weak, then the law says slay them. This is how we often deal with each other, even, or sometimes especially, in the church. This is the problem with an un-renewed Christian, a Christian whom Christ hasn’t transformed; we behave this way towards those who fall. Jesus said, “Tie a stick next to the tree to support it. Take out the weeds around it. Put in some fertilizer. Help it. Tie yourself to that person and support them, until Christ is formed in them.” This is what everyone in the church should be doing with fallen believers, and with our “enemies” outside the church, even with those in “Canaan.”
“Moreover, I gave them statutes that were not good and rules by which they could not have life.” (Ezekiel 20:25) This wasn’t because God was evil to them, but because of the stubbornness of our own hearts. These laws were to limit our death, not to lead us to life.
Jesus took away the Old Testament principle of charam. Many still hold onto it today. The terrorist group, Boko Haram (same root word), uses this principle as an excuse for self-centred violence. Christians use it as an excuse to condemn their enemies, instead of loving them. And we take this principle from the Old Testament, by not understanding what God is doing there, and by failing to reconcile that with the God revealed through Christ on the cross.
The Sermon on the Mount overthrew charam. It revealed that charam isn’t of God. Now Christ calls us to follow the true God, as revealed in him, and not the false god revealed in our own human religions and nature.
In conclusion, what we see again in this area of violence, is God’s accommodation of humanity. He starts where we are in our own violence and bloodlust and dedicates it to himself. In this way he can put controls upon it and contain it. Then he can come in the flesh and enter into this religious system of violence, and in suffering, forgive us. This is to expose our vengeful cultures and natures, our condemning systems under the law, and release us from them, setting us free. God accommodated us in of fallen violence so he could lead us out of it into his kingdom of peace.
Be careful of law, it leads to murders of different kinds. Instead, take up your cross.