Christianity and Islam: What American Christians need to know about Muslims
I’m teaching a Master’s level course in New Testament, so this week I’m writing about a passage that I will be discussing in class. Numbers 25 is in the Old Testament, but it is important for New Testament studies because the Jewish people of Jesus’ day were thinking about its message. Numbers 25 is important in the 21st century also – not so much for what it teaches, but instead for helping us to understand something crucial about interpreting unpleasant passages in the Bible and the Qur’an.
While Israel was staying in Shittim, the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods. The people ate the sacrificial meal and bowed down before these gods. So Israel yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor. And the Lord’s anger burned against them.
The Lord said to Moses, “Take all the leaders of these people, kill them and expose them in broad daylight before the Lord, so that the Lord’s fierce anger may turn away from Israel.”
So Moses said to Israel’s judges, “Each of you must put to death those of your people who have yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor.”
Then an Israelite man brought into the camp a Midianite woman right before the eyes of Moses and the whole assembly of Israel while they were weeping at the entrance to the tent of meeting. When Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, saw this, he left the assembly, took a spear in his hand and followed the Israelite into the tent. He drove the spear into both of them, right through the Israelite man and into the woman’s stomach. Then the plague against the Israelites was stopped; but those who died in the plague numbered 24,000.
The Lord said to Moses, “Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, has turned my anger away from the Israelites. Since he was as zealous for my honor among them as I am, I did not put an end to them in my zeal. Therefore tell him I am making my covenant of peace with him. He and his descendants will have a covenant of a lasting priesthood, because he was zealous for the honor of his God and made atonement for the Israelites.”
Many Christians are surprised to find this passage in the Bible. I’ve never heard anyone preach on it, or even teach it. The reason is obvious: when Phinehas takes the law into his own hands, killing a man and a woman who at the worst are engaged in sexual relations, God says, “great job!” In other words, the message seems to be that when we see people doing wicked things we should attack and execute.
I don’t know of any Jewish or Christian community which has ever actually encouraged individual Jews or Christians to individually murder immoral people. I certainly don’t know any pastor who teaches that God wants Christians to kill those who commit sexual sins. Yet if we take the Bible seriously, we have to take problematic passages seriously, too: we must obey the teaching or come up with a good reason for not obeying.
One common Christian response is that the New Testament message of love overrules the Old Testament idea of punishment. But this general idea is not so simple. The New Testament never quite says “don’t take the law into your own hands.” Instead, Jesus says this:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” (Matt. 5:17-18).
In other words, Jesus clearly states that the lessons of the “Law” (which his audience understood to include Numbers 25) are still valid. This means that unless Jesus himself overrules Numbers 25 (and other uncomfortable passages), God expects Christians to obey them. We can’t pick and choose what we like!
So how do Christians get out of obeying the teaching of Numbers 25? Again, in practice most Christians just ignore the passage. But where pressed directly, Christians (including me) will use some complicated method to explain that Jesus did not really mean that Christians should kill people who do immoral things. We teach that God actually does not want us to take the law into our own hands.
If you’ve read many of my posts, you can see where this is leading. Any fair comparison shows that the Bible has many more uncomfortable passages than does the Qur’an. The Old and New Testaments contain numerous passages which clearly promote genocide, infanticide, slavery, and the abuse of women.
Does this mean that Christianity teaches these things? Of course not! We Christians accept the Bible as God’s Word, but our understanding of God’s character does not allow us to interpret the Bible in a way which might cause us to imitate the violence of Phinehas.
The next time someone shows you an unpleasant verse from the Qur’an and states “this is what Islam teaches,” think for a minute about how you might explain biblical authority to a Muslim who reads Numbers 25 and Matthew 5:17-18. If your answer is complicated, then maybe you should accept a “complicated” explanation about the qur’anic text from a practicing Muslim.
A Christian blog and podcast by Ray Burns.
Helping modern readers engage with ancient biblical texts