The Bible is filled with memorable, fantastical, wonderful, often troubling stories, but always stories that reveal God’s deeper truth. Today’s Old Testament passage is one of them – it is one of the most troubling in all of scripture. After Moses catches the people worshipping the idol, he confronts Aaron, who had helped the people make the idol. Today everyone is held accountable, and it appears to our eyes to be brutal tactics.
Moses calls the sons of Levi and says “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, `Put your sword on your side, each of you! Go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbor.’” They did as he commanded, and Moses declares that now the possibility of atonement for their sins is possible.
What amounts to the slaughter of 3,000 of the Israelites is somehow part of God’s plan. What bothers me most is these folks don’t even have the Ten Commandments yet and somehow they are accountable to them. Moses was just coming down the mountain with them. And then this? What is going on?
It is a reminder that this story is for our reproof, education, and memory. It is not about actual events. (OK, don’t freak out at this point…read on!)
Some have argued this is a passage about the Levis being consecrated for cultic service here, later to take on the rites of the temple sacrifice. Others have said this is about the “ordination” of all the people, almost literally a baptism by blood.
To me this is a fantastical story about God’s expectations of all of us. After Moses heads back up the mountain, God declares, “Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book.” The Lord does not strike them dead in the here and now. In that sense, the Lord has more compassion and forgiveness than Moses, only plaguing the people because they had made the path. And so, with talk of “the day will come when they will get their punishment” God clears lays out expectations of work and worth. In other words: Following God is a matter of life and death.
Some people ask me if I believe Adam and Eve existed, and whether all of the Bible is true. Once again I answer with the same answer as here: “I believe God provides us with fantastical stories about God and God’s wishes. They all contain truth for our lives. So, yes!” And so did Adam and Eve actually exist as two individual people? That is not the point! And neither is whether or not God stamped out 3,000 of his own people here. The point is that this story is a wake up call, and it is a memorable story to show that God can do what God wants, and we need to walk in the ways of the Lord.
I can just imagine Moses 20 years after this happened saying, “Remember the day we had that blood bath because you people were idiots? Don’t make me get out my sword again!” I am sure the people were listening. This story provides a wake-up call to many generations.
What a story!