If Saul wasn’t allowed to offer sacrifices, why could David eat the consecrated bread?

This question was asked in a comment on my previous post.

Q. I agree with you that Saul was wrong to offer sacrifices, but I think you also need to explain how you see David eating the bread of the presence. (Jesus refers to this episode in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.) In both cases the royal/priest boundary was crossed.

You’re right that both Saul and David did things that only priests were supposed to do.  And as I observed last time, it was extremely important in ancient Israel that the monarchy and the priesthood not be combined. So we do need to account for why Saul is punished for his actions while David is not.

This issue arises again during the reign of Uzziah, and in his case, the nature of the offense is made very explicit:  “But after Uzziah became powerful, his pride led to his downfall. He was unfaithful to the Lord his God, and entered the temple of the Lord to burn incense on the altar of incense. Azariah the priest with eighty other courageous priests of the Lord followed him in. They confronted King Uzziah and said, ‘It is not right for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to the Lord. That is for the priests, the descendants of Aaron, who have been consecrated to burn incense. Leave the sanctuary, for you have been unfaithful; and you will not be honored by the Lord God.’”

For crossing the royal/priest boundary, Uzziah was struck with leprosy and he lived out his reign in seclusion, with his son acting in his place as regent.  For the same offense, Saul was rejected as king. So you’d think that God would have had as much of a problem with David eating the consecrated bread as He did with Saul offering sacrifices or Uzziah burning incense.  But instead, Jesus cites David’s actions as a precedent for his own disciples lawfully plucking and eating grain as they travel through a field on the Sabbath.  In Matthew and Luke, this incident is paired with a Sabbath healing episode, suggesting that David also provides a precedent for Jesus healing on the Sabbath.  In other words, his actions are seen as positive and exemplary, not negative and dangerous.

So what’s going on here?  I think the best explanation is that there is a distinction between the privileges of a priest and the functions of a priest.

One of the privileges of a priest is that “those who serve in the temple get their food from the temple, and . . . those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar,” as Paul observes in 1 Corinthians when arguing for his own right to be supported as an apostle. In other words, as Leviticus explains, once consecrated bread has been replaced with fresh bread and removed from God’s presence, it “belongs to Aaron and his sons, who are to eat it in the sanctuary area, because it is a most holy part of their perpetual share of the food offerings presented to the Lord.”  So no one but the priests had a right to this bread, as it was part of the priests’ support.  But Ahimelek the priest was nevertheless free to share this bread with David and his hungry companions–to “do good,” as Jesus put it, with the food at his disposal.  David was not arrogantly demanding priestly privileges for himself as king; he wasn’t even king yet at this point.  He was simply a hungry man asking for food and receiving it from God’s sanctuary.

By contrast, both Saul and Uzziah were usurping priestly functions, and in both cases it seems they were doing so as an assertion of their own expanded powers.  This, as I noted last time, threatened to assimilate the Israelite monarchy to the Canaanite priest-king or god-king model, and it could not be allowed.

There’s one more related issue that I’ll take up in my next post.  According to the book of Samuel-Kings, during his reign in Jerusalem, “David’s sons were priests.”  Was David trying to go through the “back door”  and set up a priest-king dynasty starting in the next generation?  I’ll explore that one next time.

Statuary, “David receives sacral bread from the priest Ahimelech,” in the Ceremoniall Hall of the Hradisko Monastery, Olomouc, Czech Republic. Sculptor: Josef A. Winterhalder, 1734.

How is it fair for God to “bring disaster on all people”?

Q. I recently had the opportunity to speak in my church. The theme of my message was, “God doesn’t do what is unjust.”  I talked about the great flood and how God rescued Noah from it because he was innocent, while the rest of the world was destroyed because they refused to believe and follow God’s words.  I also talked about the Sodom and Gomorrah episode and how those cities wouldn’t have been destroyed if there had been righteous people in them. I talked about Pharaoh, drawing on your blog post about why God hardens some people’s hearts. And finally I talked about Job, claiming that God Himself didn’t do those bad things to him, but Satan, with God’s permission.

But during the sermon some people stared at me as if I were an atheist, as if I didn’t know what I was talking about!  And I have to admit, I still haven’t found a completely satisfying answer to this question:  “Does God do what is unjust?” My doubts increased when I read the place in the book of Jeremiah where God says “I will bring disaster on all people.” That doesn’t sound fair or just. I’m really confused about this, despite everything I shared with my church and despite what you wrote in your post.  I hope you can clarify this for me and for all of those who have the same questions.  Thank you in advance!

I have to admit that I share your serious concerns about what is sometimes called “divine violence” in the Bible—episodes in which God wipes out entire cities (Sodom and Gomorrah) or nations (Egypt, through the plagues) or even the entire world (in the great flood).  In the post you mentioned in which I talk about Pharaoh, quoting my study guide to Joshua, Judges, and Ruth, I call this issue “one of the greatest difficulties in the entire Bible for thoughtful, compassionate followers of Jesus.”

I won’t repeat here everything I say in that post, or in some of my similar posts (such as this one about the episodes of genocide in the Bible).  Instead, let me speak just to the passage you cited from Jeremiah, as a way of addressing a large subject by looking at a small aspect of it.

That passage comes at the end of one of the four major parts of the book of Jeremiah.  It was placed there because it contains a reference to Jeremiah’s words being recorded on a scroll, and this is how the book signals the conclusion of each its major parts.  But the passage also looks forward to the next part of the book, which contains the prophecies that Jeremiah announced against the surrounding nations over a period of many years.

In other words, even though God says in this passage that he is going to bring disaster on “all people” (in Hebrew, “all flesh”), the placement of this episode in the book shows that this phrase refers specifically to judgments that follow against various specific nations for their pride, injustice, and idolatry.  In this case we see that God is indeed doing what is just, by punishing these wrongs.

Moreover, as the passage also says, Jeremiah’s scribe Baruch (whom it addresses directly) will be spared from these judgments, in the same way that Noah was spared from the flood (as you observed in your sermon).  The passage is still something of a rebuke to Baruch, who has apparently been complaining about the sorrows and discomforts he has experienced because of his role as Jeremiah’s helper and scribe—particularly given the hostility Jeremiah has faced for his dire warnings to the Judeans.  God tells Baruch, in effect, “Don’t complain, what you’ve been going through is still a lot better than what the nations are in for when I finally judge them for their wrongs.”  Baruch, at least, will escape with his life, which is a lot more than many others will do.  So God will be fair and just to Baruch by sparing him from the judgment that’s about to come on these surrounding nations.

This is not a comprehensive solution to the problem of divine violence in the Bible—I think that thoughtful, careful readers will always be troubled about that—but I hope I’ve at least helped you with some of your concerns about that specific passage in Jeremiah.

d’Allamagna Giusto, “The Prophet Baruch,” from the Loggia d’Annunciazione

Why did God make people and angels who would fail and fall away?

Q. I have a friend who is wrestling with understanding how so many people and even angels could turn their backs on God. When you consider all the great names of the Bible, they usually come with some failures; 1/3 of the angels fell; Judas turned away from Jesus. My friend wonders not just at the failure and what that means for us who have never even walked with God like our forefathers, but also why God chose to create such fallible creatures, knowing He would have to destroy many if not most of them? He also asks why God didn’t protect Adam and Eve in the garden. Instead, He permitted Satan to hang out there. My friend is asking some honest questions that many people wrestle with, I think. I came across this blog and enjoy the well thought-out answers that you’ve written, so I thought I’d throw in these questions and see what comes back.

Thanks for joining in the discussions on this blog!

You said that you thought many people wrestled with the same honest questions as your friend, and I’d have to agree with you, as I’ve already had the challenge on this blog of trying to respond to some questions very similar to the ones he’s asking.

For example, he was concerned about why God would choose to create such fallible creatures, knowing He would have to destroy many if not most of them.  I’ve shared my thoughts on essentially the same question in this post entitled, “Why does God make people He knows are going to reject Him?

Your friend also asked why God didn’t protect Adam and Eve in the garden, rather than permitting Satan to hang out there.  I address that concern in my post entitled, “Why didn’t God protect the children he created from an evil being like Satan?

And as for why people who walked with God, and even angels who saw God face to face, could still fail and fall away, see these posts, for example:

How could God call David a “man after his own heart” when he committed adultery and murder?

Why did God create Satan?

Perhaps you and your friend can both read these posts and then discuss them together.  Maybe that will help address his concerns.  But please write back with any follow-up questions you have afterwards.  Thanks again for joining the conversation here.

Does God know in advance who will be the Antichrist?

This question was asked in a comment on my post entitled “Why Did God Create Satan?

Q. Wow I really love this article. For years I’ve been trying to make sense of two somewhat conflicting beliefs, (1) that we are made as an expression of God’s love and (2) that God made Satan knowing that he would turn on him and tempt Eve. I’ve often wondered if God makes the deliberate choice to not know what choices we will make. Being God he certainly has the option to make that choice if he wants to. My only thought that would seem to contradict this theory is that the Bible talks about the future Antichrist and it’s pretty clear about what choices he makes. What are your thoughts on this?

If God does know in advance what choices we’re going to make, then the creation of Satan certainly raises a great problem for the idea that God loves us and wants the best for us.  How could God create “such a monster,” as the questioner behind my original post put it, knowing what havoc he would wreak on humanity and the creation?

The solution I suggest is that God created not Satan but Lucifer, a great and glorious angel who had tremendous potential for good.  Because Lucifer had the freedom to follow God or not, what he would eventually choose was not knowable in advance—at least according to my understanding of freedom.  And not knowing what cannot be known is not a deficiency in omniscience or foreknowledge.

You’re suggesting a different solution:  God could know every choice in advance, but God chooses not to know, perhaps for the same reasons I describe in my original post, to allow true freedom so that true love will also be possible.  (Love that is compelled is not love.)

I think that both of these approaches work, so I just need to address what you’ve raised as a potential counterexample:  Isn’t it clear from the Bible that God knows in advance what moral choices the Antichrist is going to make—another “monster” whose choices will wreak havoc?

I’d say in response that I think we need to examine critically what we’ve been led to believe about what the Bible predicts regarding the Antichrist, that is, the person who will lead a worldwide rebellion against God at the end of history.

For one thing, the term “antichrist” is not used in the book of Revelation or in any of the other biblical passages that are typically understood as predictions of the end times.  It is used only in the letters of First and Second John, where it is defined as anyone who denies that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh.  This, John writes, “is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.”  In other words, for John, “antichrist” is not so much a future person, it’s a spirit that has already arrived.  We need to be careful not to come under its influence ourselves, but this does not mean that God knows in advance which specific people will choose to give in to its influence, not if their choices are truly free.

The Bible does speak under other names of a person whom interpreters often identify with a future “Antichrist.”  In Revelation he’s called the “beast.”  This seems to be an echo of the way this same figure is described in Daniel as one of the “kings” of a “kingdom” that’s represented symbolically in his vision as a “fourth beast.”

But I think it’s important to recognize that the initial application of the prophecies in both Daniel and Revelation must be made to the near future from the standpoint of those books, that is, to the time when they were written, or shortly afterwards.  This is simply responsible biblical interpretation, to ask first what a text would have meant to its author and its original audience.

In that light, as I explain in my study guide to those two books, and in this post, Daniel’s references to the “tenth horn” of the “fourth beast,” equivalent to the “little horn” of his next vision, must be associated primarily with Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who desecrated the Jerusalem temple in 167 BC.  Similarly, as also I say in the guide and in this post, Revelation’s frequent references to the “beast” must be understood as referencing initially the Roman emperor Domitian, who persecuted the followers of Jesus late in the first century AD.

At least according to the “preterist” approach I take to Daniel and Revelation (see the explanation of that term near the end of this post), any further fulfillments of these prophecies will occur in the future by analogy and redemptive-historical “deepening.”  (This is precisely the way that Jesus, according to Matthew, “fulfilled” Old Testament prophecies—not so much literally as typologically.  See this post for a discussion.)

As the conflict between good and evil reaches its culmination at the end of world history—the Bible certainly envisions that happening—somebody will take the lead in opposing God, and that person will gather followers from all over the world.  But I’m not convinced that it’s knowable right now who this person will be, as countless people will make innumerable choices between now and then.  Rather, as Jesus said to his disciples, “Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come.”  In other words, the leading astray may be inevitable, but the actual person who leads astray remains indefinite (“anyone”).

As a result, I don’t believe the Bible actually predicts which specific person in the future will lead the opposition against God at the end of history.  And so what the Bible says about this future figure is not a counterexample to the idea that God does not know moral choices in advance because they are truly free and thus unknowable.  What we need to come to grips with is not God knowingly creating a monster, whether Satan or Antichrist, but God endowing us with such beautiful, terrible freedom.

“The Beast from the Sea,” medieval tapestry illustrating figures from the book of Revelation. This “beast” is typically identified with the Antichrist.

Why did Jesus agree to the demons’ request to go into the herd of pigs?

Q.  In the story where Jesus drives demons out a possessed man and into a herd of pigs, the demons implore him not to send them to the abyss. Why did Jesus have mercy on the demons? Does he feel compassion even towards those who are with the devil?

Also, though Jesus never sinned, why was it not wrong for Jesus to send the demons into the herd of pigs, thus driving the herd off a cliff, if he knew that it would cost the owner of the swine greatly to lose his whole herd?  Jesus could have just ordered the demons to the abyss, and that would not have cost the swineherd so much. Who knows, it might have ruined the swineherd’s livelihood and put him in great debt.  Why didn’t Jesus save the swineherd from losing all of his pigs, and keep the pigs from dying if he had the option to?

I personally don’t think that in this episode Jesus was showing mercy to the demons or having compassion on them.  The gospel writers typically tell us explicitly when Jesus is acting out of compassion (for example, “When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick”).  But there is no reference to this in any of the three parallel accounts of this episode, in Matthew, Mark, or Luke.  Rather, Mark and Luke say that Jesus “gave them permission” to enter the pigs, and Matthew says that he commanded the demons, “Go!”

So if Jesus was not motivated by mercy or compassion, what might have been his motive in agreeing to the demons’ request to enter the pigs?  I believe he did this not because the demons asked, but because when they asked, he recognized that it would be strategic for the proclamation of the kingdom of God if he agreed.

The fact that the entire large herd of pigs—two thousand, according to Mark—rushed down the bank and drowned in the lake shows that Jesus indeed cast a huge host of demons out of the afflicted man.  (They called themselves “Legion, for we are many”; a Roman legion had several thousand soldiers.)  Presumably if there had only been one demon, or just a few, only that many pigs would have rushed away.  But when thousands of pigs were affected, this was evidence of a very powerful exorcism, showing that the kingdom of God had indeed come with great power in the person and ministry of Jesus.

To answer the second part of your question, it may be that Jesus realized that such a demonstration would be worth making to everyone in the area, including the swineherd, even if it cost the swineherd his entire livelihood.  Jesus told the parables  of the hidden treasure and the pearl of great value to illustrate how finding the kingdom of God is worth giving up “everything we have.”  It’s a bit like when Jesus told his first disciples to “follow me” and they left behind their fishing boats and nets.  The one difference is that the disciples got to choose ahead of time to leave everything behind and follow Jesus, while the swineherd would have had to realize after the fact that losing everything was worth finding out about Jesus’ great power and love and choosing to follow him.

We don’t hear anything more about the swineherd in the story, but we do hear about the man who was delivered from the demons.  He wanted to leave his family, friends, and home country behind and travel with Jesus and his disciples proclaiming the kingdom of God.  But Jesus recognized that he would be a more strategic witness right there in his home country and so he told him, “Return home and tell how much God has done for you.”  Maybe Jesus had the same thing in mind for the swineherd, if he too realized that the kingdom he had just seen come in such great power, bringing  liberation, was worth everything to obtain.

James Tissot, “The Swine Driven Into the Sea,” c. 1886 (Brooklyn Museum)

Why doesn’t God actively judge today, as in the Bible?

This question, like the one I answered last time, was asked in a comment on my post about “Why did God create Satan?”

Q. If God is the same, yesterday, today and forever, why is He not dealing with our immoral, worldly society as He so often did in the Bible? Be it the flood, Sodom & Gomorrah, or any other references, He did not drag His feet, so to speak, and rendered swift judgment. The more I read the Bible, it seems like there are actually three different Gods in one, in the regard of how He was, is and will be.

At least as I understand it, the statement in Hebrews that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” was intended to encourage second-generation followers of Jesus to hold fast to the faith they had been taught by His first-generation followers. (Right before this statement the author says, “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.”) So this not so much an assertion that God, over the course of the whole Bible, has never changed the way He deals with humanity as it is a claim that we can continue to have confidence in the gospel, the good news about Jesus and what he has done for us, even though those who personally witnessed his earthly ministry have long passed away.

As for whether God deals with humanity differently now than He did in the Bible, here’s what I said about that in response to the question, “Does God change over the course of the Bible?”:

“From the start we see that God is consistent in his character qualities:  creative, loving, generous, merciful even in judgment, and so forth. But these qualities do seem to get expressed in different ways as the divine-human relationship unfolds over the course of the Bible.  . . . For example, when humans turn out to be so wicked, God regrets making them and destroys almost all of them through the flood.  But afterwards, recognizing that ‘every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood,’ he resolves never to destroy them all again.”

In other words, to use one of the examples you cited—the flood—God says explicitly in the Bible that He will not again respond to human wickedness the way He did at that time. I suggest in the same post I just quoted that “God himself actually changes in terms of how much relational experience He has with humans.” So it is not so much a case of there being three different Gods—a past judgmental one, a present merciful one, and a future judgmental one—but a matter of God’s relationship with us changing as it unfolds over history and experience.

The prelude to the gospel of John says that “the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” So we today are very blessed to live in a period of redemptive history when the mercy that is always balanced with justice in the character of God is at the forefront. But we must be careful not to presume on that mercy, but remember, in light of all the judgment passages you mentioned, as Peter writes in a long and unforgettable sentence (with which I will close):

“If God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, putting them in chains of darkness to be held for judgment; if he did not spare the ancient world when he brought the flood on its ungodly people, but protected Noah, a preacher of righteousness, and seven others; if he condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; and if he rescued Lot, a righteous man, who was distressed by the depraved conduct of the lawless (for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard)— if this is so, then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgment.”

Why didn’t God protect the children he created from an evil being like Satan?

This question was asked in a comment on my post about “Why did God create Satan?” It reflects the same concern as the person who asked the question I originally addressed in that post: If earthly fathers would do everything they could to protect their children from evil people, why didn’t God protect the children he created from an evil being like Satan?

Q. Even as an earthly father, if I had the ability to place my daughter in a perfect environment and allow her to be spotless and live forever, why would I ever create something evil to tempt her, all the while knowing she would give in?

I don’t believe that God deliberately and intentionally made a creature whose role would be to tempt humans to do wrong and so forfeit their innocence and their place in an earthly paradise. As I tried to explain clearly in my original post, I believe that God created Lucifer, not Satan, an angel with great powers and the awesome responsibility of choosing how to use those powers. There was as great potential for good as there was for evil. Unfortunately Lucifer fell through pride and so became Satan.

I also don’t believe that God knew in advance that Eve and Adam would inevitably give in if they were tempted and deceived. I believe they were given freedom that was so genuine that what they would ultimately choose was unknowable in advance.

I am aware of a stream within theology (technically known as “infralapsarianism”) that says God ordained the fall so that it would become the occasion for redemption. This is the felix culpa or “happy fall” idea expressed in the traditional Latin mass for the Easter vigil:
O felix culpa quae talem et tantum meruit habere redemptorem =
“O happy fault that merited such and so great a Redeemer.”
I personally see such serious implications for the character of God that I don’t celebrate the fall in these terms.

I’m rather what’s known as a “supralapsarian.” God did not ordain the fall, but once it happened, God worked from “above” it, not from “within” it, to bring about our redemption. For me this idea preserves God’s love and human freedom even while it correctly portrays God as the sole agent of our salvation.

I hope these further thoughts are helpful.

Why wasn’t Aaron punished for making the golden calf?

Q.  I have some questions about the golden calf episode.

First, when Moses asked who was “for the Lord” and the Levites came to him, he told them to “slay each his brother, his companion, and his neighbor.”  He said, “Consecrate yourselves each upon his son and brother that the Lord may bestow upon you a blessing.” I gather they were slaying fellow Levites as a consecration.  This is hard to understand.

I’m also wondering why Aaron wasn’t punished for his part in the episode. Moses asked him, “What did these people to to you that you caused them to commit such a great sin?”  And Aaron reported correctly, “They asked me to make gods for them because they did not know what had become of you.”  However, Aaron was not removed from his priesthood or slain. He just went on being the respected associate of Moses.

I find all this mysterious and hard to understand.

Nicolas Poussin, “The Adoration of the Golden Calf”

I think it helps to realize, to begin with, that in this episode the Israelites didn’t believe they were worshiping a god other than Yahweh.  Rather, they thought they were still worshiping Yahweh, but they were now doing this as if He were a god like the ones the Egyptians and Canaanites worshiped.  Such gods had physical representations in the form of idols, and they were worshiped through immoral revelry.

The episode reveals that to this point the Israelites had been regarding Moses as the physical representation of Yahweh.  That’s why they spoke of him as the one who had “brought them up out of Egypt.” So when he was delayed on the mountain and the people didn’t know what had become of him, they wanted something else to represent Yahweh for them physically.  They “assembled against” Aaron (not just “gathered around” him) and told him to make them a god.  (The Hebrew word is ‘elohim, a plural form that most English versions translate as “gods,” but it should likely be taken as a “plural of excellence” meaning “God,” as the context seems to call for; see the translation note in the NIV.)

Under this pressure, Aaron makes a golden calf, and when the people see the finished product, they exclaim, “This is your God, Israel, who brought you up from Egypt!”  Going along with this identification, Aaron announces, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to Yahweh!”

Unfortunately, if Yahweh were indeed the kind of god who could be represented by a golden calf, then such a festival would involve immoral revelry.  Traditional English versions tend to translate the terms “play” and “dance” in the account with discreet literalism, but the NIV’s “revelry” and “running wild” capture the meaning well.

The people were so “out of control,” in fact, that “they mocked anyone who opposed them,” as a footnoted alternative rendering in the New Living Translation puts it.  Most versions say something like “they were a laughingstock to their enemies,” but as there were no enemies present to observe the incident, I think this NLT alternative captures the sense of the Hebrew term well, which refers literally to those who “stood against” them.

So the people were being recklessly indulgent and they would not listen to their leaders when they tried to restrain them.  it was a near-riot, and desperate measures were called for to prevent the situation from disintegrating completely.  (Otherwise the people might have turned violently against Moses and even killed him.)

And so Moses called out, “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me.”  In other words, “Whoever still respects my leadership and my revelation about what Yahweh is really like, I need your help right away!”  When the Levites rallied to Moses, he told them, ““This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.’”

This is actually characteristic language referring to all Israelites, not just Levites.  And it was only after the Levites did this to stop the situation from spinning completely out of control that Moses told them, ““You have been set apart to the Lord today, for you were against your own sons and brothers, and he has blessed you this day.”  In other words—in response to your first concern—Moses didn’t say to them, “God will bless you if you slay your fellow Levites.”  He said, after the fact, “Because you were willing to take the Lord’s side, even though this meant killing your fellow Israelites because they were rioting against Him, you have been set apart to the Lord.”  And that was the blessing—being set apart.  The blessing wasn’t something material that was promised in advance as a reward or incentive for taking up the sword.

In response to your second concern, I would suggest that Aaron was not punished for making the golden calf because he did this only when he was pressured by the people.  He may even have feared for his own safety and life if he refused.  He still should not have made the idol, but the responsibility was much more with the people than with him.  (This was a case similar to the one in which Miriam instigated a revolt against Moses’ leadership and enlisted Aaron to support her; she was punished but he was not, as I discuss in this post.)  The law of Moses would later distinguish between cases in which a leader sins and cases in which “the whole Israelite community” sins, and I think this was one of those latter cases.  In fact, the community was punished for their sin on this occasion not just by the Levites’ swords, but also through a plague that God struck them with afterwards.

I hope this explanation helps address your concerns.  But many aspects of the episode, including as the methodical slaughter of Israelites at God’s command, may still remain troubling and difficult to understand for thoughtful readers today.

Why was only Miriam punished with leprosy when she and Aaron rebelled against Moses?

Q. When Aaron and Miriam rebelled against Moses, why was only Miriam punished with leprosy?

“The Leprosy of Miriam,” woodcut from 1583 Bible.

The main explanation seems to be that Miriam was held more responsible because she instigated the challenge in the first place and then enlisted Aaron to support her.  There are two things in the text that show us this:
• Miriam is named before Aaron at the start of the account.  In every other place in the Bible where they are named together, including later in the same account, Aaron is mentioned first (conventionally, as the eldest brother in the family).
• The verb “speak against” is actually in the feminine singular in Hebrew:  “She spoke, Miriam, and Aaron, against Moses . . .”
Both of these things suggest, as I said, that Miriam originated the challenge and enlisted Aaron to support her, so she is held more responsible and given a greater punishment.  This shows us the fairness of divine justice.

One additional possibility to consider is that God spared Aaron specifically so that he could intercede as Israel’s high priest, approaching Moses with a renewed recognition of him as God’s representative, to ask forgiveness for Miriam’s sin and for his own:  “Please, my lord, I ask you not to hold against us the sin we have so foolishly committed.”  If Aaron had been struck with leprosy, he would not have been able to function as a priest according to the laws in Leviticus.  So God may have spared him in mercy specifically so that he could intercede for sin in this way as a priest. (It’s Moses who actually prays for Miriam’s healing).  We see that God’s very judgments are tempered with mercy, even if this sometimes makes them seem unfair.

Sparing the high priest so he could intercede for sin is a bit like the way God spared King David from direct personal punishment after he sinned by taking a census of his fighting men.  God may have spared David because the people still needed a king to rule their nation and lead their armies. When David saw the plague that was striking down the people, he recognized his own responsibility and prayed, “I have sinned; I, the shepherd, have done wrong.  These are but sheep.  What have they done?  Let your hand fall on me and my family.”  But instead of afflicting David directly at that point, God in mercy ended the plague entirely.

This is a warning to people in vital offices:  You may be spared immediate personal judgment not because you are entirely innocent, but because God still needs someone in your role and you’re not bad enough yet to be removed from it!  Aaron should not have concluded that he was less deserving of some punishment than Miriam for the same revolt, even if not the same punishment. Leaders today who “think they are standing firm” should “be careful that they don’t fall.”

Did Jephthah really sacrifice his daughter?

Q. Did Jephthah really sacrifice his daughter?  Or is the other point of view correct that says that she lived her life as a virgin and in that sense was sacrificed?

George Elgar Hicks, “The Lament of Jephthah’s Daughter”

Unfortunately Jephthah most likely did sacrifice his daughter after he vowed to make a burnt offering of “whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph.”  The author of Judges includes this story as one of several horrific examples of what happened in the days when “Israel had no king” and “everyone did as they saw fit.”  These examples support the overall argument of the book, that the people need a king to help ensure that they will know God’s law and follow it.  As I explain further in my study guide to Joshua, Judges, and Ruth:

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It wasn’t unusual for an Israelite who was counting on the LORD to make a vow, as Jephthah does.  This was a promise to acknowledge God publicly when he brought deliverance.  Vows like this are described often in the Psalms, for example, in Psalm 66:  “I will come to your temple with burnt offerings and fulfill my vows to you—vows my lips promised and my mouth spoke when I was in trouble.”

There would have been nothing wrong with Jepthah’s vow if he had only known the law.  Moses allowed the Israelites to offer anyone or anything they wanted to the LORD in payment of a vow, but it specified that if they dedicated a human being, they had to “redeem” that person by offering the value of their labor instead.  (These regulations are found at the end of the book of Leviticus.)  Jephthah should have paid ten shekels of silver into the LORD’s treasury, rather than sacrificing his daughter as a burnt offering.  But by now the Israelites were so used to Baal-worship, which included human sacrifices, that they were actually prepared to offer human sacrifices to the LORD–even though he had expressly forbidden them in the law.  And so Jephthah’s daughter suffers a horrific fate.

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After offering this explanation, I then make these further reflections on the story of Jephthah:  “However, apart from his ignorance of the law and these tragic consequences, Jephthah is in other ways an exemplary judge.  He continually acknowledges the LORD as the one who delivered Israel in the past and who should be trusted to do so again.  The narrative says that the ‘Spirit of the LORD’ was on him, and that ‘the LORD gave [the Ammonites] into his hand.’  The book of Hebrews names him as a hero of the faith.”

In light of these observations, I ask these questions in the guide:

• Was Jephthah the best man he could have been, given his nation’s state of spiritual decline?  Or could he have been better?  If so, how?

• What consequences do you see in your own culture of an ignorance of God’s ways?  What activities are accepted, perhaps without question, that God doesn’t want people to practice?

What would you say in response to these questions?