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Should I Tempt You to Read the Book of Numbers?

This particular Sabbath School Lesson triggered all kinds of memories for me. It focuses on two major incidents: A) The idolatrous and adulterous orgy at Shittim (Num. 25) that resulted in 23,000 deaths by plague; B) the slaughter of the Midianite women and young boys (Num. 31).

My problem is that when it comes to readers of the Old Testament – and I am speaking first of all of believers – I see at least four different reactions. How many of them can I satisfactorily address in one Spectrum article?

1. Avoidance. I suspect this may be the most popular approach. I continue to be startled by how many thoughtful Adventists have tried to go back to the Old Testament in recent years, only to discover that they are horrified by what they find. Many no longer find the Bible meaningful devotionally. It has become simply “literature.”

2. Idealize. Some of the Old Testament stories are so horrific that I can scarcely imagine how they could be idealized. Surprise! It can be done. Check out The Clear Word (an English adaptation, rather than translation, of the Bible) and compare it with any standard Bible translation. If avoidance is the preferred approach, idealizing is the dominant practice.

3. Idolize. A small but vocal minority of believers revel in the powerful God of the Old Testament. For them, the Old Testament God is the real God who will smash his enemies and punish all sinners. They have plenty of key texts to make their case.

4. Realism. I rather arrogantly describe my approach as the “realistic” one, telling it like it is. Why should reading of the Bible be like attending a wedding or a funeral, events at which everyone “knows” things that are left unsaid?

Let me suggest a quick summary response to all four approaches, but with an eye on the last one, in particular. The hard truth is –– and it is a truth we need to say more loudly and more clearly –– that for many, reading Scripture devotionally is a far cry from studying it analytically. It is like the difference between the pain of taking a loved one to the doctor and the delight of a moonlight stroll. Those experiences are worlds apart; if the pleasure is to continue, however, the pain may also be essential.

But here again our responses to Scripture, to religion, to devotional practices, will differ radically. The pietistic side of me resonates with this turn of the century quote from P. T. Forsyth:

I do not believe in verbal inspiration. I am with the critics in principle. But the true minister ought to find the words and phrases of the Bible so full of spiritual food and felicity that he has some difficulty in not believing in verbal inspiration. [P. T. Forsyth, Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind (1907), 38; Eerdmans reprint, 26.]

One of my colleagues recently commented about my book Inspiration, “The problem with your book,” he said, “is that you cite too many examples.” That is a brave statement for an academic to express, for it sounds so unscholarly. Yet my devotional side knows that he is exactly right. The vast majority of people who want to be in touch with God don’t focus on the “problems” in Scripture.

If, however, you want to change the paradigm –– and that was certainly my goal with Inspiration –– then you multiply examples to show that the old model doesn’t work. But that can be risky; a doctor bringing an unwanted diagnosis can trigger anger instead of gratitude. So one looks for another doctor, rejecting the messenger instead of listening to the message.

But academics are academics because they revel in analysis, even when they are also devout believers. C. S. Lewis’ devotional preferences are revealing in that respect. One biography describes his reaction when he came across a copy of Brother Lawrence’s Practice of the Presence of God as he was cleaning out his father’s home: “It is full of truth,” he wrote to a friend, “but somehow I didn’t like it: it seemed to me a little unctuous. That sort of stuff, when it is not splendid beyond words, is terribly repulsive.” (Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper, C. S. Lewis: A Biography, 114).

That 1930 comment came within a year of Lewis’ conversion. Green and Hooper’s summary of Lewis’ settled view on devotional reading is worth noting:

The truth is that Lewis never got on well with purely devotional books. What he infinitely preferred were solid works of theology that he had to work at to understand. His attitude towards the two kinds of books is summed up in a preface he wrote some years later [1944] for a translation of St. Athanasius’s The Incarnation of the Word of God: “For my own part, I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books, and I rather suspect that the same experience may await others. I believe that many who find that ‘nothing happens’ when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.” (Green and Hooper, 115.)

Given that wide diversity of reactions, can I reach all four categories with this one article? Only if I can convince them that not everyone has to view the Old Testament in the same way. Ellen White to the rescue! She argues that the variety of writers represented in the Bible matches the variety of minds in our world. “The minds of people differ” she exclaims (Counsels to Parents and Teachers, 432). And again, “Our understanding of truth, our ideas in regard to the conduct of life are not in all respects the same…. The duties that one finds light are to another most difficult and perplexing” (The Ministry of Healing, 483).

And when I ponder how to approach this diversity, another sobering Ellen White quote comes to mind: “You need to educate yourself, that you may have wisdom to deal with minds,” she counsels one brother. “You should with some have compassion, making a difference, while others you may save with fear, pulling them out of the fire [Jude 22-23]. Our heavenly Father frequently leaves us in uncertainty in regard to our efforts” (3 Testimonies, 420 [1875]).

In short, the decision is mine, but with moderation, since “The Lord frequently leaves us in uncertainty…”; this leaves the door open for my brothers and sisters in Christ to disagree with my decision.

So now let’s take a crack at moving the three other positions toward realism. At the outset, I will be right up front with my approach to the violence attributed to God in the Old Testament. And with equal fervor I will contrast my approach with the traditional “theocracy” explanation.

* * *

As I see it, the violence attributed to God in the Old Testament is not so much a testimony to the power of God as it is a revelation of the violent attitudes of the people he wishes to meet, people whose attitudes toward authority have been horribly twisted by sin. With such an approach, contrary to first appearances, the Old Testament God is not a God with a short fuse, but is incredibly patient –– like Jesus.

Such an approach assumes that God desires to win the hearts of his people, not just frighten them into submission. He does indeed frighten them, for that is the only way he could win their respect initially. “All Israel shall hear and fear,” declares the book of Deuteronomy again and again (e.g. 13:11; 17:13; 19:20; 21:21; 31:13). God will win them with methods they can understand. The footprints of this all-powerful God are everywhere present in the psalms. “The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars…. He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox” (Ps. 29:5-6, NRSV). When it comes to being tough, Yahweh is a more than a match for any other warrior.

By contrast, the “theocracy” argument seeks to protect divine sovereignty by not questioning any aspect of divine activity. God was violent in the Old Testament because he was directly responsible for Israel.

If God does it, it must be right….

The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it….

In the traditional theocracy argument, all divine activity is given absolute status rather than seeing it as an adaptation to twisted human circumstances. I agree with theocracy supporters in affirming the conviction that the Lord does not “change” (Mal. 3:6). But where I part company with them is in my understanding of how God relates to human beings who certainly do change.

Shouldn’t an unchanging God seek to meet the needs of those who have fallen away from him? That’s why –– in the KJV Old Testament –– God “repents” far more often than humans do, but he does not repent as a mortal repents, for God never does anything wrong. When humans change for better or for worse, however, an unchanging God responds to their new position –– repents, as in the KJV –– or “changes his mind” in the NRSV.

In this connection, the juxtaposition of two verses in 1 Samuel 15 is striking, especially in the KJV. When Saul begs Samuel for a reconsideration of the judgment against him for failing to carry out the mandate against the Amalekites, Samuel responds: “The Strength of Israel will not lie nor repent: for he is not a man, that he should repent” (1 Sam. 15:29, KJV). But the same chapter concludes just a few verses later with this striking statement: “The LORD repented that he had made Saul king over Israel” (1 Sam. 15:35, KJV).


Now let’s turn directly to the troublesome chapters and sort out what is clear and what is not; what is troubling and what is helpful; what is enduring and what is shaped by culture.

Clarity #1: Sexual immorality is a dangerous departure from God’s will and often leads directly to religious apostasy.

Clarity #2: Both God and His human leaders must condemn rebellion against God’s law, and, as a last resort, separate the rebels from the faithful.

In some Christian circles today, both of these clarities would be questioned, even by those who claim a high view of Scripture. We shall return to that point. But first we must address the issue of culture, and here I make my own judgments based on a variety of sources and reasons.

Culture #1: The violent punishments meted out for religious and civil disobedience were shaped by a violent culture, a culture by no means unique to Israel.

Culture #2: Attitudes toward women, treating them as subservient to men, were shaped by a male-dominated culture, the inevitable result of sin.

Culture #3: Attitudes toward marriage were twisted as a result of sin, obscuring the purity of the ideal affirmed elsewhere in Scripture.

I continue to marvel at how the violent, self-centered nature of sin allows current cultural deviations to shape Christian thinking about God and Scripture, even overturning some of the clearest teachings of Jesus. By contrast, those inclined to idealize Scripture, often seek to impose on the biblical narratives greater clarity, greater purity than the narratives actually support. Ironically, some of the most significant departures from the teachings of Jesus come from those who claim to be supporters of a “high” view of Scripture. We are so easily blinded by our own views. The ideal of Acts 15:28 should always be our goal, so that every decision will seem “good to the Holy Spirit and to us.”

ADAPTING TO HUMAN CULTURE: Learning from Archaeology and Ellen White

While the well-intentioned purpose of the theocracy argument has been to preserve God’s sovereignty, it has led to justifying all kinds of evil in the name of God, including ethnic cleansing. In this connection one nineteenth-century archeological discovery towers above all others in illuminating the violent side of the Old Testament. Discovered in 1868, the Moabite Stone (Mesha Stele) celebrates the victory over Israel of King Mesha of Moab (in ca. 850 BCE) and his “dedication to destruction” of a whole Israelite town in honor of his god, Chemosh.

The key word is cherem. It refers to the total (sacred) destruction of a town or a people. It lies behind at least three of the most jarring stories in the Old Testament:

A. Jericho and Achan in Joshua 7. Jericho had been “dedicated to destruction” [cherem]; all the booty was dedicated for sacred purpose; but Achan broke the rules, leading to the defeat of the whole community; the matter was only put right when Achan and his entire family were stoned to death. “Then the LORD turned away from his burning anger” (Josh 7:26, NRSV). H. Wheeler Robinson articulated the idea of “corporate personality” as a way of explaining ancient way of corporate thinking, a sharp contrast with our individualism. Typically we attempt to give an individualist reading to the story, justifying the killing of the children because they were in on the secret. Read Joshua 7. Even the animals were killed. Individualism is nowhere in sight. If you were part of the community you lived and died with the community.

B. Jabesh-Gilead in Judges 21. The wild narrative of the dismembered concubine in Judges 19-21 is what I have called the worst story in the Old Testament (see chapter 6 in Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?). Cherem plays a key role in the story when Israel “discovered” that they needed wives for the surviving Benjamites after Israel had avenged the death of the concubine. To supply the need, Israel dedicated the whole town of Jabesh-Gilead to destruction because it had not responded to the call to arms. But the virgins were spared from the cherem for sacred purpose, namely, to become wives of the Benjamites. Thus they satisfied the desperate need triggered by Israel’s rash oath not to provide wives to the Benjamites.

C. Amalekites in 1 Samuel 15. Through Samuel, God commanded Saul to wipe out the Amalekites entirely. The CEV is vivid enough: “Go and attack the Amalekites! Destroy them and all their possessions. Don’t have any pity. Kill their men, women, children, and even their babies. Slaughter their cattle, sheep, camels and donkeys” (1 Sam. 15:3). Just to add frosting to this grim cake, Samuel with his own sword atoned for Saul’s neglect: “And Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the LORD in Gilgal” (1 Sam. 15:33, NRSV).

And this is where my vivid memories kick in, for when I was reading through the Bible in the Contemporary English Version I discovered that I had forgotten how violent Numbers 31 actually was. When I read about Moses’ angry command to kill the non-virgin women along with all the baby boys, I picked up The Clear Word to see how it handled the verse.

Now whenever I check The Clear Word, I do so with certain pangs of guilt, for, as I understand it, Dr. Blanco originally wrote The Clear Word as a devotional exercise over a period of some ten years, never intending to publish it. He was, so he told one of my colleagues, simply seeking to re-tell the Bible story as Jesus would tell it. I don’t want to criticize him for something that was not intended to be an accurate translation. But The Clear Word, which has become massively popular among Adventists, illustrates what happens when we are not clear about the difference between devotion and analysis.

In short, instead mandating the death of all the baby boys (“kill every male among the little ones,” NRSV), The Clear Word has Moses commanding the army to “execute every adult male that’s left.” I checked the original and several other standard translations. None of them comes close to suggesting that Moses commanded the death of adult males. Then I slipped over to 1 Samuel 15 to see how Dr. Blanco dealt with the Amalekite cherem. There he drops out the babies and adds another category of animals! In a later revision he added the babies back in 1 Samuel 15, but apparently was still unwilling to have Moses kill the baby boys in Numbers 31.

The official study guide struggles mightily with this narrative, attempting to justify the death of the non-virgins. But it says not a word about the command to kill the baby boys. It does point us to “the revelation we have of God as revealed to us through Jesus Christ” (comments for Thursday, December 10). Amen. It also says that we simply must “accept that there are things we don’t understand from our perspective, things not revealed to us” (ibid). True enough.

But one thing that should be perfectly clear is that the standards of justice in the Old Testament have been horribly twisted as a result of sin and God must work within that framework. The Moabite Stone tells us that cherem was not God’s idea at all. It was part of that culture within which God had to work. That’s not a mystery. That’s perfectly clear.

But now let’s look at how Ellen White deals with the issue of divine “adaptation.” I only know of one clear passage in her writings where she strongly affirms that God must work within the understanding of the people in their own day. It is found in Patriarchs and Prophets, 515, where she interprets God’s purpose in establishing the cities of refuge (cf. Numbers 35). Behind the plan for the cities of refuge lurks the violent custom of private vengeance, a custom which flies in the face of virtually every principle of our modern understanding of justice. Here is the crucial quote, with the key lines highlighted.

The appointment of these cities had been commanded by Moses, “that the slayer may flee thither, which killeth any person at unawares. And they shall be unto you cities for refuge,” he said, “that the manslayer die not, until he stand before the congregation in judgment.” [Num. 35:11-12] This merciful provision was rendered necessary by the ancient custom of private vengeance, by which the punishment of the murderer devolved on the nearest relative or the next heir of the deceased. In cases where guilt was clearly evident, it was not necessary to wait for a trial by the magistrates. The avenger might pursue the criminal anywhere, and put him to death wherever he should be found. The Lord did not see fit to abolish this custom at that time; but he made provision to insure the safety of those who should take life unintentionally. (Patriarchs and Prophets, 515)

Ellen White is arguing that God was willing to work within the bounds of a horrific custom, being incredibly patient, allowing his people to advance step by step until they could see more clearly the goodness of God as more fully revealed in Jesus.

However, Ellen White’s decision to argue for such “adaptation” did not come quickly or easily for her. The 1890 quotation in Patriarchs and Prophets is the first and only such quotation that I know of. In most cases she simply skips the really tough stories of the Old Testament. The story of the dismembered concubine in Judges 19-21, for example, and the story of blood guilt for Saul in 2 Samuel 21 are two almost uncanny examples. If one visually scans the Scripture index of the old 3-volume Ellen White index, one finds no serious discussion of Judges 19-21. And every single chapter in 1 and 2 Samuel is represented –– except 2 Samuel 21, the story of bloodguilt for Saul. She simply skips it

In connection with that principle of patient adaptation, nowhere is it more clearly laid out than in this remarkable quotation in the context of health reform as she cautioned those who wanted to move more quickly than the group itself could move:

We must go no faster than we can take those with us whose consciences and intellects are convinced of the truths we advocate. We must meet the people where they are. Some of us have been many years in arriving at our present position in health reform. It is slow work to obtain a reform in diet. We have powerful appetites to meet; for the world is given to gluttony. If we should allow the people as much time as we have required to come up to the present advanced state in reform, we would be very patient with them, and allow them to advance [21] step by step, as we have done, until their feet are firmly established upon the health reform platform. But we should be very cautious not to advance too fast, lest we be obliged to retrace our steps. In reforms we would better come one step short of the mark than to go one step beyond it. And if there is error at all, let it be on the side next to the people. – Testimonies 3:20-21 [1872]


Finally, we must note some of the astonishing effects of modern culture on the wonderful ideals taught by Jesus. I will cite three.

1. Evangelicals and Sexual Standards. One of my colleagues has taught the class “Introduction to Adventism” for the School of Pharmacy at Loma Linda University. It is designed to meet the needs of those who are not familiar with Adventism. Many of these students come from independent evangelical congregations in Southern California and are not afraid to express their convictions. Thus they were critical of my colleague as a “dangerous” liberal when he explained the Adventist understanding of the non-immortality of the soul –– no eternally burning hell –– and the Adventist conviction that heathen who have never heard the name of Christ can still be saved (cf. Desire of Ages, chapter 70). But he was stunned when he explained the Adventist understanding of the biblical position on sexuality. All of a sudden he was the old fogey. “You can’t apply those standards today,” they said. In other words, they had completely bought into the modern secular view of sex as entertainment.

2. Forgiving your enemies. As I was preparing this commentary, a member of my Sabbath School class pointed me to the existence of a “conservative” movement of lay Bible translators ( They argue that Jesus’ cry on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34, NRSV) is a “liberal” insertion into our Bible and that it does not belong in the Gospel. The textual evidence, is somewhat mixed to be sure. But this is an astonishing development. Strident religious attitudes, reinforced by the Taliban and other Moslem extremists, have tempted some Christians to react in kind and to overlook some of the most powerful aspects of Jesus’ teaching. In this case, Jesus’ saying simply illustrates and reinforces his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. How would this “conservative” movement deal with “Love your enemies” (Matt. 5:44)? I don’t know, but I would like to find out.

3. Killing your enemies. Some months ago I was in conversation with a former Adventist who now identifies with the ex-Adventist movement spearheaded by Dale Ratzlaff’s Proclamation. This former Adventist was pressing me about the “truth” of Ellen White’s comments on the ministers who rejected the 1844 message. I noted that given the alternatives at the time, I could see how she would take such a stance.

“That’s not what I said,” he replied firmly. “Is her statement true?”

My response was to try to turn the tables with a biblical example, asking about the cherem pronounced against the Amalekites. Scripture is clear: kill “men, women, children, even the babies” (1 Sam. 15:4, CEV). “Is that story true?” I asked.

“I have an answer that works for me,” he replied.

“And that is? I returned.

“Given the emphasis on jihad in Islamic circles today,” he said. “God may find it necessary once again to command the death of men, women, children, even the babies.”

I could scarcely believe my ears. A Christian who claims a high view of Scripture is saying that the Christian response to Islamic jihad would be a Christian jihad? It would correlate with the statement in national media by the Southern California fundamentalist, John MacArthur, who announced to the world: “God commanded Saul to kill the Amalekites, let’s go get the Iraqis.”

* * *

The Old Testament story is thoroughly immersed in a culture that was contrary to God’s will. But so is our story. Just as ancient Israel was powerfully tempted to capitulate to their culture, so we are tempted to capitulate to ours.

The solution? Focus on the story of Jesus and meet together as the believers did in Acts 15 until our conclusions seem “clear to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28). We look forward to God’s new world, where no one hurts anyone and where no babies will ever be killed, certainly not at God’s command.

That new world lies ahead of us. By God’s grace, let’s do everything in our power to make this world as much like that world as we possibly can.

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