Friday, April 27, 2012

120427 - Numbers 15 - A Case of Attempted Jury Nullification

Friday SOAP: Does it seem like the Old Testament God is more wrathful, less gracious, than in the New Testament? Why is it seemingly so easy to see it that way? Is it God who changes, or is it a matter of perspective?

S: You shall have one law for him who does anything unintentionally, for him who is native among the people of Israel and for the stranger who sojourns among them. But the person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is native or a sojourner, reviles the LORD, and that person shall be cut off from among his people. Because he has despised the word of the LORD and has broken his commandment, that person shall be utterly cut off; his iniquity shall be on him.” While the people of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day. And those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation. They put him in custody, because it had not been made clear what should be done to him. And the LORD said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.” And all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him to death with stones, as the LORD commanded Moses. (Numbers 15:29-36)

O: We have come to an Old Testament portrayal of God at which many take offense. A young lady I once brought to Christ reported a remark from someone with whom she was sharing her faith: "Sadly it seems that much of the pain and suffering in the world is a direct result of coming to God... Numbers 15:32-36 is a particularly grievous example of the love of God. Here he commands that a poor man is stoned to death for collecting firewood on a Saturday." And supposedly, the ancient heretic Marcion specifically targeted this incident and used it as an example (contrasting with Mark 6:1-11) of the difference between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New. This passage still sounds harsh to our modern ears if it is read out of context. Yet Numbers 15:30 is quoted in the New Testament in Hebrews 10:28: Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Hebrews 10:28-31) Obviously the writer of the book of Hebrews didn't see as much disharmony between the Old and New Testament's portrayal of God.

A: And in fact, we only have to look in the context of both chapters to see that to create disharmony, we must leverage passages out of context in both testaments and exaggerate the wrath of the Old Testament at the expense of its portrayal of grace. We must also downplay the wrath of God portrayed in the New Testament. Hebrews 10 describes the fate of those who forsake the New Covenant after being shown that Christ fulfills the Old. No system of sacrifice remains for sins. (Heb. 10:26) In context, it's plain to see that the narrative in Numbers 15:32-36 is provided as an example of the violation of Numbers 15:30-31. Numbers 15:22-29 describes the remedy for those who sin accidentally, unwillingly. This is not the offense of our famous stick-gatherer. Since we don't know the rest of the story, we must infer by its placement here that this man defiantly tested the Law of the Lord by gathering sticks in violation of the Sabbath, presuming that such an "innocent" action would demonstrate how unenforceable such a law is. But he did not consider that Moses had direct access to God Himself, who examines the heart (Ps. 26:2; Jer. 17:10; Rev. 2:23) and would be aware of the secret rebellion of the one thinking to overthrow enforcement of the Law. The same thing is common in our day. Activist judges engage in something called "jury nullification" in which the penalty of a law they deem unjust is overthrown by virtue of the emotional appeal of a violator. At times it has been justly used, as in the case of fugitive slaves. At other times it has been misused, as in cases of crimes against blacks in the immediately post-Civil War South. All of this contrast is a clear reminder that God is consistent. He does not change. (Mal. 3:6; Heb. 13:8) He is not partial. He is unimpeachable. And the consequence of sin (Rom 6:23) is certain, regardless of the emotional appeal of the violator. (Rom. 3:19)

P: Father, it is my own way that is unequal. Remind me, show me, the secret rebellion in my own heart against you, so that it may be confessed and reconciled with the truth.


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