Christianity and Islam: What American Christians need to know about Muslims

Numbers 25 and Interpreting the Qur’an

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.

2 comments on “Numbers 25 and Interpreting the Qur’an

  1. Mark
    May 10, 2017

    As far as application of Numbers 25; I think that since there is NO ONE who has seen God, face to face, on earth in 2017 (especially not one who God has called friend — Exodus 33:11) it is unlikely that 1) God will initiate a plague among His chosen people 2) identify the heresy that caused Him to do so and 3) Tell His friend that the idolaters must be killed.

    Also, the Bible did not advocate the action, the Bible chronicled the fact that GOD ordered the action.


    • John Herbst
      May 10, 2017

      Mark, thanks for your comments. I agree with everything you’ve written, except that I cannot say for sure that “No one has seen God face to face on earth in 2017.” First of all, I’m not sure what “face to face” means, since God is a spiritual being who does not need a human body. But whatever you mean by that expression, I’m pretty sure that a person CAN be allowed to see God that way, if God so desires. God has the power to do it, and God can certainly choose to allow it. I don’t know if this has happened in 2017 (I think probably not), but it certainly could have. People do make this claim: someone says, “I saw God face to face, and God told me to tell you to kill so-and-so, just as God told Moses in Numbers 25.”

      I’m glad that you put in the word “unlikely.” I think we agree that on one level God CAN do these things, even if they seem unpleasant. Basically, God can do whatever God wants to do. And that creates a problem for us. People today do claim sometimes that God tells them to personally kill people. I tend to think that they are mistaken, and that, for example, God did not want Scott Roeder to murder George Tiller. But I have to admit that the literal sense of Numbers 25 suggests that if God ordered Phinehas to kill people in Numbers (going through Moses), then God certainly tell a Christian to murder a doctor who does abortions.

      Things would be different if Numbers 25 said something like, “its OK to kill people ONLY if Moses says so.” But as you say, Numbers 25 chronicles things, without directly advocating anything. The question for the reader is, “what is the lesson?” I’m fairly sure that if George Roeder read this, he concluded “God wants me to kill a murderer.” That’s a pretty obvious interpretation. In fact, its pretty clear that the Zealots of Jesus’ day interpreted Numbers 25 in this way, that God wants his people to murder sinners.

      You are suggesting a condition, that we need a suitable prophet to confirm God’s wish. I tend to agree with you. But we must admit that Numbers 25 itself does NOT say that Moses’ authorization is required each time. So, one COULD interpret verse 5 to mean that Moses was simply telling everyone something they should have known already. Therefore, fairly interpreting Numbers 25 is a complicated matter (the point of my post).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


This entry was posted on May 8, 2017 by .
Onward in the Faith

A Christian blog and podcast by Ray Burns.

The Text in Context

Helping modern readers engage with ancient biblical texts

%d bloggers like this: