Friday, January 16, Numbers 31:21-24

The reason this passage was chosen for our Narrative Lectionary reading was because it is about purifying things with fire and water. It relates to our main text in Matthew 3:1-17 because John the Baptist said that he baptized with water for repentance, but one would come after him (Jesus) who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. The point of all of this is that things need to be clean and pure.

That sounds really nice when you just say it. Things need to be clean and pure. But, think about what it takes to get things clean and pure. It takes fire and water. Fire burns things. Water drowns things. This is violent and painful. It is called purging, and it hurts.

I am struggling in this moment, as I write this devo, because I have a choice. I could focus only on the selected text and try to make this about getting rid of dirty thoughts in your mind, and Ignore the elephant in the room. Or, I could invite you to read all of Numbers 31 and scandalize you for a while.

OK, you probably just read it, so let’s deal with some harsh reality, shall we…

When you read Numbers 31 and other passages like Deuteronomy 20:16-18 you are faced with the fact that God ordered the Israelites to invade certain tribes and kill them all, including women and children. Why? So that these people would not be able to turn the Israelites to follow after their gods.

Whoa! Isn’t that genocide? Isn’t that the thing that the terrorists are doing right now? Isn’t that absolutely contrary to the teaching of Jesus, who taught us to turn the other cheek, love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us?


I want to say three things about this very difficult issue:

First, this is a big and complex issue that is way beyond the scope of a simple daily devo. So, we just have to be OK with sometimes feeling uncomfortable and not having air tight answers for everything. This reading the Bible thing is often messy. Don’t be too quick to judge.

Second, Moses and the children of Israel lived in a very different historical and cultural context than Jesus. And Moses and Jesus lived in a very different context from us. We must always take context into account when we read scripture. The days of Moses were brutal, violent days when tribes were constantly fighting against each other and every tribe believed they had a god that was their god and no one else’s god. It was a kill or be killed kind of world. God meets us where we are, people interpret God through their own lenses, and God-at-work-in-the-world looks different from culture to culture. Again, it is messy. Don’t be too quick to judge.

Third, the point of all of this comes back to purging, purification, and cleansing. The Midianites in Numbers 31 were a group of people that had lied, cheated, and stole from the Israelites. They were definitely “the wrong crowd” that would lead the children of Israel down a path that would take them away from God.

God is a loving parent who knows what is best for God’s children and places safeguards around them. God seeks to keep his children safe, pure, and clean, especially when the children are young and don’t know the difference between right and wrong on their own.

The nation of Israel was very young, very inexperienced, and lived in a different context, so their purging and safeguards looked different. Today, we live on this side of Jesus-in-history, the church is old and mature (or it should be, anyway), and our  purging will look different.

Yet, purging is still necessary. The simple question is still the same. What, or who, is in your life right now that is keeping you distracted from a life that is fully devoted to God? It needs to go. This is not a license to kill someone (seriously, it isn’t), but it is a challenge to purge your life of toxic relationships and habits that are destroying you and those around you.

This wasn’t an easy Devo to write. Purging isn’t an easy thing to do. The twelve step programs are helpful at this point. The first step is to admit that you have a problem. That’s called dying to your pride. Once you drown your pride in baptism, then you are ready to walk the path to freedom. This is a daily process. Talk to a trusted mentor about it today.


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