In the face of pandemic I’ve turned to meditating on scripture and intercession more than before. How can I pray for the people I love, the industries I know are vulnerable to situations such as these? How can I pray for my leaders and for the Church, who are on the frontlines? I’ve looked back to where in scripture the people of God were faced with a plague of some sort, and what wisdom is there to find. The bible story where a plague among the people of God and Godly action meet is the story of Phinehas.
His story is told in Numbers 25, with a bit of a recap in Psalm 106. Phinehas is the grandson of Aaron, a third generation priest from the priestly tribe of Levi. So, well versed in spiritual leadership. During Israel’s 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, some of the men began to marry Moabite women and participate in their worship of Baal of Peor. God told the Israelites not to marry the daughters of the nations in and around the Promised Land, nations that included Moab, because He knew the idol worship would come with the marriage. (Numbers 25:1-3)
Enough people got involved in this behavior to bring guilt on the whole nation. “So Israel was joined to Baal of Peor, and the anger of the LORD was aroused against Israel.” (Numbers 25:3 NKJV) God was angry at the idol worship, and the damage it brought into the hearts of His people. Turning to Baal of Peor meant turning away from God; turning to corruption and away from wholeness; turning to bondage and away from freedom.
Perhaps the men marrying Moabite women were bored of wilderness and holiness lessons. Perhaps they were hurting from the wilderness experience and just wanted to escape to the seeming security of the established Moab. Whatever the case, they brought sin and judgement from that sin into the community of Israel.
Judgement came in the form of capital punishment for the leaders of those in idolatry, and a plague of men turning on each other. Those who didn’t join themselves to Baal began to kill those who did join themselves to Baal. One guy decides to throw his new wife under the bus and surrendered her at the door of the tabernacle, maybe hoping to be spared for willingly giving her up. It is at this point we are introduced to Phinehas. (Numbers 25:4-6)
“Now when Phinehas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the preist, saw it, he rose from among the congregation and took a javelin in his hand,” he took down the man and his wife with the javelin, “So the plague was stopped among the children of Israel.” (Numbers 25:7-8 NKJV) When Phinehas saw this man bring his idolatry and disobedience right up to the front door of tabernacle, the precursor to the temple in Jerusalem, the dwelling place of the Ark of Covenant and the presence of God, he rose up in action. Phinehas removed the sin from before the presence of the LORD, and the plague was stopped.
The recap in Psalm 106 does a good job of boiling this story from Numbers into a concentrate of what’s important about it:
“They joined themselves also to Baal of Peor, and ate sacrifices made to the dead. Thus they provoked Him to anger with their deeds, and the plague broke out among them. Then Phinehas stood up and intervened, and the plague was stopped. And that was accounted to him for righteousness to all generations forevermore.” (Ps. 106:28-31 NKJV)
The people turned their hearts from the living God to dead idols and it brought death to them. But, we have a hero, a man of faith “stood up and intervened.” Death was stopped and life returned. What matters here is the state of our hearts, and whether we, the people of God, are willing to stand up and intervene on behalf of those around us.
I think it is interesting that we are faced with a plague of sorts during Lent. These weeks leading up to Easter are meant for fasting and reflection on the state of our hearts and communities so that the Holy Spirit might reveal sin lurking in the corners and under the surface of our perception. It is a time of repentance and preparation so we can be ready to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus and the salvation it brings us with pure hearts and clean hands (as the Psalmist puts it in Psalm 24).
The problem Israel had during the time of Phinehas was a problem of idol worship. The people needed to recognize their sin and repent. They needed to turn away from Baal and the distraction of Moab so they could turn back to God and back to His purpose and focus. They needed to remember who they were and who God is. In other words, they needed Lent.
We have Lent, we have Jesus, but do we have Phinehas-types? I find myself asking, how can I be a Phinehas during this time of uncertainty and isolation? How can I rise up in righteous action? Who can I stand up for? Granted, I’m sure a javelin won’t be involved, but there are other ways to honor the LORD. Jesus taught us a lot about how to live and act in righteousness. Most of it involved love, truth, compassion, and a consideration for others. These are all things that my family and community need right now.