The Scarlet Pagans?
So I am going to take you back a few chapters before getting to this week’s portion, Pinchas. In Numbers 15 we were given the commandment of tzitzit, the wearing of tasseled or fringed garments. The sages say that the reason the men of Israel were given this commandment was because, as translated into English, they were “whoring after their eyes.” Meaning that their eyes were leading them into immorality and that is what we will find in this week’s portion. It is said that because the men were going after foreign, pagan, idolatrous women they were commanded to wear these tassels on their garments so that they would see them and remember the commandments of God.
This week we have an interesting story in which a plague breaks out and before it is over, twenty four thousand people are dead. Why is this? Because the pagan women around the children of Israel were seducing the men and getting them to join in sacrifices to pagan idols.
So, a little background from my own country the United States of America. In the Unite States, scriptures like this where the people Israel were encouraged not to intermarry with people of other cultures were used by pastors and preachers as a way to advance racist and bigoted theologies.This is unfortunate because it is not at all about the race or culture of these women that made them bad for the men of Israel; it was their worship of pagan gods.
There is nothing in the bible that says it is wrong for people to intermarry with someone of another race or culture, as long as they are equally yoked in Messiah. But again, unfortunately this scripture was used to propagate theologies and doctrines of racism. I is not that the women were another race, they were of another religion and look what happens. They not only seduce the men of Israel into the immorality of adultery, but seduce them to participate in the worship of false idol gods.
It is a terrible situation and thus the plague breaks out. In our story one man – Pinchas, Phineas in English – takes it on himself to take a spear and go into the tent of Zimri. Zimri is a Jewish man who had taken a foreign woman into his tent in front of everyone. Pinchas took his spear and ran them both through and thus the plague is ended. The sages say that he not only ran them through but walked about the camp with the bodies still on his spear to show people what had to happen if they were disobedient to the Lord in this way. Now looking at scripture you could ask “wasn’t Zipporah, Moses’ wife, from a foreign culture?” In fact “wasn’t her father Jethro a high priest in this pagan religion?” You would be right, but there is a significant difference. The bible says that when Jethro heard of the miraculous things the God of Israel had done for his people against the Egyptians, he gave glory to Israel’s God. Jethro came along side Israel, became part of Israel, he joined the Jewish people and so did his daughter Zipporah. So you see these are people from a different culture, a gentile background, that joined with the Jews. The gentile women in our story were not trying to join with the Jewish people, they were trying to seduce the men into their religion; a big difference.
It is not what family you come from, it is not whether you are Jew or gentile, but whether you are following the God of Israel; following the Jewish Messiah. That is the appropriate question. It doesn’t matter the color of your skin, your accent or your native language. It doesn’t matter what your cultural background, we are one in the Messiah and we need to remember that, especially in today’s climate. What we must never compromise on is worship of the one true God. I don’t think you will ever be called on to defend your faith as Pinchas was but we need to stand up for what is right in our societies, in our cultures, in our nations because the word of God stands and we need to stand with it.
Shalom and Kol Tuv
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