When God told the priests to kill

After the Golden Calf episode, Moses received a word from God for the Levites.

Then he said to 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.’” The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died. Then Moses said, “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.” (Exodus 32:27-29, NIV)

Here is where I run into problems with some contemporary ways of reading the Bible.

I have a problem with the “three buckets” approach that reads of the Levites slaughtering 3,000 Israelites under the command of God and declares that this is not in keeping with the character of Jesus and must therefore be deemed not reflective of God’s character or will.

I have a problem with the historical-critical method that declares that this passage is really just a literary justification for the Levitical priesthood foisted on the people by religious elites in a time of social crisis or upheaval.

I even have a problem with the spiritual approach that teaches me to read in this text a call to cut out from my life everything at odds with worship of God.

I have a problem with all of these because they look at this text and flinch. They don’t start with the affirmation that God could and might and did do such a thing as order the killing of his rebellious and idolatrous people. I’m not sure what the motivation is that causes us to turn away from these parts of the Bible. And let’s be clear, there are lots stories like this one. I don’t know why we flinch, other than fear.

The God of Exodus 32 is dangerous. He is no butler waiting for our permission to enter the room and living only to serve our needs. The God of Exodus 32 is a dealer of life and death. Standing too close to that God is like walking on the edge of a high rooftop on a windy day or standing near the jaws of a wood chipper as it tears apart tree limbs. You can sense the danger in the pit of your stomach just by being there.

The biblical response to this fear is worship. Our response — so often — is to pretend Exodus 32 does not exist.

I understand the impulse to do that, but I don’t understand how we turn to the Bible once we’ve decided it is lying to us about who God is and what God does.

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12 thoughts on “When God told the priests to kill

  1. So let me try something with this, John, something I think you may agree takes the text very seriously.

    Remember back in verses 11-14, Moses interceded with God to back God off apparent plans to destroy all of the people and start over with Moses alone (verse 9).

    That intercession was successful. God did change God’s mind about the disaster God had in fact planned to enact (verse 14).

    Now, forward a bit to verse 19. Moses now sees what God had seen. And now Moses is red hot, ready to destroy as many people as possible for what they had done.

    Watch the narrative carefully in what follows. Nowhere does God directly speak until verse 33, after Moses (not God) called anyone “on the Lord’s side” (not specifically the Levites– who were not priests per se, by the way) who then enacted what Moses (not God directly) had commanded. Moses said, “Thus says the Lord” (verse 27) but nowhere do we have record of God actually saying a thing.

    When God does speak again, in verse 33 ff., God makes clear that it will be God, and not Moses, who will enact whatever appropriate punishment is due for their sin. And God never commends (or condemns) Moses for what Moses had done.

    It’s as if the wrath of God in verses 11-14 was somehow sort of transferred to or visited upon Moses once Moses saw what was actually happening. He took it upon himself in this state to visit disaster on the people by fomenting acts of civil terrorism. God did not stop this, but it’s not exactly clear that God either commanded or endorsed it directly.

    So yes, I agree, God is dangerous. Exodus reveals that point in spades! And it’s a serious mistake and misreading of the Bible to dismiss or discount that. One doesn’t mess with beings who open up seas, drown armies, and generate pillars of cloud and fire to lead a whole people. God is not safe. And in chapter 32, God was on the verge of going out of all bounds of goodness or wisdom had not Moses talked God down.

    One of my questions in this story is why anyone didn’t or maybe couldn’t successfully talk Moses down… unless the sense is that, after the fact, God sort of did talk Moses down from destroying himself, at least (the whole, If you don’t show mercy to them, then blot me out bit in verse 32) by making clear that God had the whole situation in control again, and would handle what needed to be handled.

    As for the Levites and their unquestioning allegiance and violence at Moses’s command, well, I think the Genesis narrative prepares us for this kind of thing, right, since it is the sons of Levi and Simeon who wreak vengeance on a whole village for the rape of their sister Diana. That act of excessive violence leads them to receive no inheritance of land from their father, Jacob. The Levites, however, as of this act, are named as “acolytes” in effect, channeling their ancestral violence away from revenge and toward the sacred violence necessary for sacrifices– in other words redeeming their violence for holy use for the good of the whole people. Having been put to violence in a “holy cause” (Moses claiming his authority to command was from God, though again God never said this in the narrative), they proved they could carry out this role.

    1. I do agree it takes the text seriously. Thank you. My main concern in the post had to do with various ways we dismiss the OT God and these actions.

      Your suggestion that Moses’ claim to speak for God might be false or misinformed remains troubling to me, in part because it is based on an argument from silence. Do we have any reason to believe Moses’ plain claim that he was speaking God’s words is untrue?

      I really appreciate the connection with the Levites in Genesis. That was not in my mind at all. Acolytes is undoubtedly a better word than priests, but did not occur to me while drafting. Would have made for a snappier headline, too.

      The theme of the domestication of the Levites is interesting, as well.

      Thanks for this.

      1. John,

        I get you may be troubled by an argument from silence. Let me suggest, however, that it is not really that in the context of how God and Moses interact in Exodus. We see Moses intentionally seeking out God and God speaking directly to Moses on multiple occasions in this chapter. God makes pretty clear what God intends to say and do, and more than once in this chapter, through direct conversations with Moses which we see and overhear. And if the NARRATOR of the story is to be believed, God had in fact relented on bringing disaster on the people (verse 14).

        What we’d expect to see in the way these interactions between God and Moses occur here, IF any FURTHER change of mind had occurred, would be some further direct conversation and/or comment from the narrator that this had happened. And that is notably absent.

        So the best we can say (and what I was trying to say) is we simply don’t know where Moses’ claim “Thus says the Lord” comes from. It appears to come from nothing at all God had said when the two of them actually talked. God doesn’t even refer to it directly later in the chapter when they talk again. What this leads me to think is Moses certainly believed his call to incite civil terrorism on his own people was in accordance with God’s will. But I think that narrative leaves quite open the possibility that Moses’s belief in this regard was not informed by anything God directly told him. In other words, it may well have Moses’s own conclusion, founded or otherwise, rather than God’s explicit direction.

        Again, I’m not trying to defend God or Moses or anyone else here. I’m just trying to take my cues from how the story is told to get a handle on what it intends– and to take those cues and that story seriously. And my overall reading leads me to conclude that it is simply not terribly clear that or to what degree Moses’s call for civil terrorism represented God’s explicit direction– or even to what degree its narrator or the larger narrative community believed it was. At the very least, this is not unambiguous.

        1. “Civil terrorism” strikes me as a loaded term.

          I hear your point that the narrative is not unambiguous.

        2. It is loaded. But I’m not sure how else to describe an action where you send out people to slay their families and other members of their own people (“civil”) that inflicts vengeance and inspires fear (“terrorism”), and what’s more, all in the name of a divine cause.

          Do you have a better descriptor? I’d certainly be open to considering one.

          Meanwhile, I don’t know that we should flinch from implicating Moses, or possibly even God if God actually directed this, in what our culture would use a term like “civil terrorism” to describe.

          God isn’t safe.

          Neither was Moses.

          And neither was/is Jesus– though I don’t believe we can lay any such acts of violence at his hands.

  2. God is not safe. Neither is God a terrorist. This is not a word that I would ever use to describe God or ever affirm is a proper description of God.

    Others words? Wrath. Punishment. Retribution. I’m sure there are others that could be used.

  3. To be clear, I would not call God a terrorist.

    Moses in this situation– a bit more iffy. The label isn’t that off, really. I mean, don’t terrorists typically claim their acts of terror are endorsed, commanded, or made necessary by their god or ideology? And don’t they often frame that necessity in terms of becoming agents of the wrath, punishment, or retribution of their god, or in the case of ideologies, something like historical necessity (as their ideology defines it)?

    The question left open in Exodus 32 is how God is implicated in what Moses did– if at all.

    Maybe we need a better way of parsing and describing intentional outbreaks of fear-inspiring violence than what now may be a bit of a catch-all in “terrorism.”

  4. In all of this, I am in no way making any sort of argument that should be seen as anti-Semitic, or anti-Jewish. I am generalizing nothing. I am simply trying to wrestle with the text and the specific sets of actions it describes in its time and place, bringing admittedly 21st century cultural/historical lenses to the task that I have no easy way to remove.

  5. A very enlightening post, as is the discussion that follows; some very good and interesting points are made.

    God is dangerous. One of the things that makes Him dangerous to us is that He does things we just can’t figure out. We can’t box Him in and we can’t domesticate Him, try as we will to reinterpret and twist the Scriptures in order to try to cage Him in and limit Him to what we understand and are at least relatively comfortable with.

    No, Taylor, that wasn’t aimed at you. If anything, it was aimed at the kinds of approaches and methods John mentioned in the opening post. You may well have a point about the possibility that God did not tell Moses to do what he did.

    However, I’m just not seeing it; I’m not seeing reason enough to believe that when Moses said “Thus says The Lord”, it didn’t come from God.

    For me, this is one of those cases where I don’t understand why God did what I believe He did according to these verses, but I trust Him anyway.

    I’m glad God is dangerous. It reminds me that He is the Creator and I am the created, that He is all-knowing and all-wise, and my own understanding is very limited.

    God is love. Sometimes, love is dangerous. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life” (Jn 3:16). Loving God with all we are, and loving others as much as we love ourselves, can also be dangerous, even if we are not risking our lives just because we love and believe in Christ, as many are, daily.

  6. Although the discussion of Moses’ actions and whether or not they were inspired is quite interesting, it is moot in terms of the point that John is making. In Exodus 32:35, God sends a plague upon the people as punishment for their sin of making and worshiping the golden calf. It is not as dramatic as Moses and Levites punishing the Israelites. However, it quite possibly killed at least as many Israelites and reinforces John’s point regarding the dangerousness of God and how seriously He takes sin. Even if we conclude that Moses’ actions misinterpreted God’s will, scripture tells us that God still killed some of the Israelites for their idolatry. We tend to look away from these passages because we are in a sin denying culture and many in our church, both laity and clergy don’t want to consider what scripture says about the seriousness of sin. We want to focus on the loving, comforting aspects of God and soft pedal or completely deny his wrath and justice. When we do that, it weakens the church.

    1. AND it’s important we not limit this to “The God of the Old Testament”– as we have witness in Acts of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11) dying on the spot when confronted about their lies about what they had given. The text strongly implies they were literally slain in the Spirit– i.e., the Holy Spirit killed them.

      God is God. We are not. Vengeance belongs to God, not to us.

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