One of the great depictions of American historical events is John Trumbull’s painting, Declaration of Independence, which hangs in the Rotunda of the United States Capitol. The scene captures the moment on June 28, 1776, when the five men who drafted the Declaration present their work to the Continental Congress. Of the 56 signers of the Declaration, 42 appear in Trumbull’s work, the others having died before he could obtain their images. The painting also depicts five men who did not sign, including Robert Livingston of New York. Livingston was one of the men who drafted the Declaration, but New York recalled him from the Congress before he could sign his work. In Trumbull’s painting Livingston appears in the center of the drafting committee, with Roger Sherman of Connecticut on his right and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia on his left. Americans may not remember the distinguished men from Connecticut and New York, but they do remember Jefferson and John Adams of Massachusetts, two future presidents. Jefferson and Adams embraced different visions of how to govern the infant American Republic, and even though they became political rivals, they remained friends until their deaths on the same day, July 4, 1826.
There is a legend that Jefferson paid Trumbull to paint his foot on top of Adams’, but it is only a legend. The two men’s feet are close together in the picture, and as time and dirt wore away at the painting it came to appear that Jefferson’s foot was resting on Adams’. That is not the only oddity in Trumbull’s work. Like many works of art it is not entirely accurate, but is effective in capturing the spirit of the moment and of the age. So also is 1776, a musical play which humorously explores the events during that fateful summer of American independence. Howard DaSilva dominates the film version with his portrayal of Dr. Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania. If we are to believe the movie, independence was Adams’ idea, and the declaration was expressed in Jefferson’s words, but it was Franklin who brought it into being with his wisdom, wit, and ability to achieve consensus. 1776 embellishes the story with fictional dialogue, but it captures a number of famous quotes by the Founding Fathers, including Franklin’s immortal words: “If we do not hang together, we shall most assuredly hang separately!”
Dr. Franklin spoke a warning to a people facing the threat of political extinction before they could become a nation. Long before Franklin uttered his warning, Yeshua of Nazareth spoke the same truth to the people He had come to redeem from the threat of extinction by the enemy of their souls:
And knowing their thoughts Jesus said to them, “Any kingdom divided against itself is laid waste; and any city or house divided against itself will not stand. (Matthew 12:25 NASB; see also Mark 9:38-40; Luke 9:49-50, 11:16-23)
In recent centuries Yeshua’s followers have emphasized His messianic work of offering redemption to the entire world by satisfying with His death the debt of sin which separates humanity from our Creator (Romans 3:21-31, 5:12-17; Colossians 2:13-14; I Peter 2:21-25). This worthy message is the foundation of the American Evangelical expression of taking Jesus as one’s personal savior. However, this emphasis overlooks a critical part of Yeshua’s work which is only now coming into focus: the national salvation of Israel. That is precisely what Yeshua’s disciples asked about in their last conversation with Him (Acts 1:6), understanding that the restoration of the entire nation is the great work of Messiah which He has yet to accomplish. Yeshua’s Apostles proclaim this message in the context that all who come to faith in Yeshua are made part of the nation of Israel, the vehicle YHVH has provided for all people of all nations to enter into His Presence for eternity (Exodus 19:5-6; Romans 9:1-11:36; Ephesians 2:1-22; Galatians 3:15-29; I Peter 2:4-10; Revelation 1:4-8, 5:9-10).
It is in this understanding that the Apostle Paul refers to Abraham as “our father” and to the ancient people of Israel as “our fathers” (Romans 4:1-12; I Corinthians 10:1-13). He makes these statements in letters to the largely non-Jewish congregations of Rome and Corinth, indicating that even though they may not be physical descendants of Israel’s tribes (although many of them likely were), their faith in Messiah Yeshua brought them into the nation, giving them the right to claim Abraham and his descendants as their ancestors. This is as true for us today in the 21st century as it was in for those of ancient times. We are part of Israel, and if we remain faithful to Israel’s God then we can expect to obtain an inheritance among the reconstituted Tribes on that day when He restores the entire nation to the entire land. Thus it is wise to study the record of Scripture and see what happened when YHVH formed this nation and prepared it to enter the promised inheritance the first time.
As we know well, that record includes a number of blots and stains. Our ancestors were not always obedient to the Lord, and suffered mightily for their rebellion. Yet in the end He prepared a people for this mighty work of entering the Promised Land and establishing a holy kingdom through which He would bless the entire world. That is the process we see in Pinchas (Phinehas, Numbers 25:10-29:40). This Torah portion picks up where the previous portion, Balak, ends. Phinehas, Aaron’s grandson, takes it upon himself execute Zimri, a leader of the tribe of Simeon, who has engaged in a blatant sexual relationship with Cozbi, a princess of the nation of Midian (Numbers 25:1-17). Is this murder? Phinehas acts without due process of law, executing the sentence of death on two adulterers just as Torah prescribes, but without the required investigation and trial (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 19:15-21, 22:22-30).
It is not murder. Phinehas acted properly, both righteously and in accordance with due process of Torah. The sin at Baal-Peor, the place where this occurred, was that the people of Israel had purposely engaged in idolatry and sexual immorality with the people of Moab and Midian, permitting their young men to accompany the young women of those nations in acts of pagan worship which featured sexual liaisons. The situation developed innocently enough in the interest of cultivating friendly relations, but in fact it was a ploy instituted at the advice of the prophet Balaam to cause the Israelites to abandon YHVH and incur His wrath. When the elders of the people failed to restrain their youth, the Lord Himself intervened and passed judgment. He Himself acted as an accuser of the people, having witnessed the lewd acts of His nation. This was no hidden sin; the people knew what was going on, but had done nothing to stop it. For that reason the Lord issued these instructions:
The Lord said to Moses, “Take all the leaders of the people and execute them in broad daylight before the Lord, so that the fierce anger of the Lord may turn away from Israel.” So Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Each of you slay his men who have joined themselves to Baal of Peor.” (Numbers 25:4-5 NASB)
Tragically, the leaders failed to take action. They could not, or did not, prevent Zimri from defying this order of the Lord and brazenly taking the Midianite princess to his tent. He did so even as the Lord had released a plague on the people which resulted in the deaths of 24,000 Israelites. The plague would have claimed even more lives had Phinehas not acted quickly, even as his grandfather Aaron had acted to stop another plague in the aftermath of Korah’s rebellion (Numbers 16:41-50).
The Lord’s actions may seem drastic to our modern senses, but let us consider the context. Israel is the people of the Living God. By this time, 40 years after the miraculous Exodus from Egypt, having witnessed countless miracles, astounding deliverance from powerful enemies, daily provision in the desert for millions of persons, the clear presentation of God’s standards of conduct, and the continuous ministrations of the Lord’s priests, the people had no excuse for rebellion. The presence of pretty young ladies from Moab constituted a test to see whether they would remain true to the Lord or follow the enticement of their eyes. Many of them failed the test, and the Lord had to take action. It was no more drastic than His action in taking the lives of Ananias and Sapphira, two disciples of Yeshua whose greedy hearts moved them to lie to the Holy Spirit even though they had witnessed the Presence of YHVH in their lives and understood the righteous requirements of the holy calling placed on them (Acts 5:1-11). The Apostle Peter, who witnessed their deaths, explains this principle of God’s justice:
Paul echoes this understanding in his admonishment to the Corinthian brethren:
But if we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord so that we will not be condemned along with the world. (I Corinthians 11:31-32 NASB)
Perhaps with this commentary by the apostles we gain a better understanding of YHVH’s astonishing pronouncement in recognition of what Phinehas had done:
Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Phinehas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, has turned away My wrath from the sons of Israel in that he was jealous with My jealousy among them, so that I did not destroy the sons of Israel in My jealousy. Therefore say, ‘Behold, I give him My covenant of peace; and it shall be for him and his descendants after him, a covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the sons of Israel.’” (Numbers 25:10-13 NASB, emphasis added)
What is this Covenant of Peace? Clearly it is something important, for God Himself promised it to Phinehas and his descendants. We find his descendants in the genealogy of I Chronicles 6:1-15. The most famous of them is Zadok, the priest who remained faithful to King David and to the son of David, Solomon (I Kings 1:1-53, 2:35). The faithfulness of the priests descended from Zadok resulted in the promise that they alone among the sons of Aaron would retain their status as priests in the Lord’s restored Temple in the Messianic Age (Ezekiel 40:45-46, 43:19, 44:15-31, 48:11). We may conclude, therefore, that the Covenant of Peace involves a priestly function, interceding for the people of Israel and perhaps for the world, and teaching the difference between the holy and the profane or common. And that is wonderful, if one is to be a priest. But what does it possibly have to do with the rest of us?
More than we may imagine. Consider these passages from Isaiah and Ezekiel:
“For this is like the days of Noah to Me, when I swore that the waters of Noah would not flood the earth again; so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you nor will I rebuke you. For the mountains may be removed and the hills may shake, but My lovingkindness will not be removed from you, and My covenant of peace will not be shaken,” says the Lord who has compassion on you. (Isaiah 54:9-10 NASB, emphasis added)
I will make a covenant of peace with them and eliminate harmful beasts from the land so that they may live securely in the wilderness and sleep in the woods. I will make them and the places around My hill a blessing. And I will cause showers to come down in their season; they will be showers of blessing. Also the tree of the field will yield its fruit and the earth will yield its increase, and they will be secure on their land. Then they will know that I am the Lord, when I have broken the bars of their yoke and have delivered them from the hand of those who enslaved them. They will no longer be a prey to the nations, and the beasts of the earth will not devour them; but they will live securely, and no one will make them afraid. (Ezekiel 34:25-28 NASB, emphasis added)
My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd; and they will walk in My ordinances and keep My statutes and observe them. They will live on the land that I gave to Jacob My servant, in which your fathers lived; and they will live on it, they, and their sons and their sons’ sons, forever; and David My servant will be their prince forever. I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant with them. And I will place them and multiply them, and will set My sanctuary in their midst forever. My dwelling place also will be with them; and I will be their God, and they will be My people. And the nations will know that I am the Lord who sanctifies Israel, when My sanctuary is in their midst forever. (Ezekiel 37:24-28 NASB, emphasis added)
We may not know exactly what it is, but we do know from these words that YHVH plans to establish this Covenant with His entire nation of Israel at the time Messiah reigns over all the Tribes. Each of these passages deals with that promise, noting the rebellion of Israel and the resulting punishment, but concluding with the glorious restoration done not for our sake, but for the sake of the Lord’s great Name. If there were any doubt whether this applies only to the Jewish people, the passage in Ezekiel 37 helps our understanding. Those verses are the conclusion of the famous “Two Sticks” prophecy – the promised restoration of the House of Judah and the House of Israel, or Joseph, known as Ephraim, along with their companions who have come out of the nations. Thus it would seem that this Covenant of Peace does have something to do with all of us who are part of Israel. And it seems that we have a priestly function to perform. But what could that possibly be?
How about interceding for all the nations so that the Lord does not consume them? According to the rabbis, that is the purpose of offering 70 bulls during the seven days of the Feast of Sukkot (Tabernacles), followed by a single bull offered for Israel itself on the eighth day of the feast (Numbers 29:12–36). The bulls make an atonement for the nations who, in ignorance, persist in rebellion against YHVH. As we know, the blood of bulls and goats does not remove sin, for only the Blood of Messiah can do that. However, if a righteous man like Elijah can make effective prayers that the Lord hears and acts upon (James 5:16-18), what happens when a righteous nation does the same? Even Elijah had a crisis of faith when he fled from the wicked Queen Jezebel, but the Lord revealed to him that He had 7,000 faithful servants in Israel who had not bowed to Baal (I Kings 18:46-19:21). Those 7,000 surely interceded as well, ensuring that YHVH had mercy on Israel and on Judah, allowing even more people to come to repentance and escape eventual judgment. Why, then, would we find it hard to believe that the entire nation of Israel, restored into the favor of Almighty God, is destined to perform the same function for the nations of the earth? And if the offerings prescribed by the Lord on His designated feasts days are both a form of worship and a type of intercession, then it only makes sense that these 70 bulls offered at Sukkot are on behalf of those who, in the darkness of their souls, are unable as yet to draw near.
When we come to this understanding we realize that the inheritance of the Promised Land is not so that God’s people may live happily ever after (although that is a blessed result of this process), but so that we may have a base from which to perform this holy calling. Everything must be done in order, and thus the Lord established the rules of inheritance for His people, taking care not to exclude the daughters of men who had no sons (Numbers 27:1-14). That was the case of the daughters of Zelophehad of the tribe of Manasseh. In normal circumstances they would have married and become part of their husbands’ households, taking a new identity even as we, the bride of Messiah our King, take on His identity. That new identity would not diminish the identity of their father’s house, for it is sons who have the task of carrying on the family name. Yet if there are no sons, then the daughters have the responsibility to continue the name of their father. To look at it another way, the role of daughters in uniting with men of another household and taking on their identity does not diminish their status as human beings created in the image of Holy God. The different roles of women and men do not translate into a difference of status, for neither is inferior to the other. This is something the Apostle Paul stated unambiguously, noting that male, female, slave, free, Jew, and Greek are all one in Messiah (Galatians 3:27-29).
Sadly, some among the people of Israel were not prepared to accept these things. The tribe of Simeon in particular were not ready to submit to the judgments of God when His justice required the execution of one of their princes. They were not alone; others in various tribes seemed to take issue with the holy reaction of YHVH against the rebellion at Baal-Peor, and apparently they opted to leave the camp and create a new reality of their own. Such is the conclusion we draw in comparing the census of the tribes conducted immediately after the Baal-Peor incident (Numbers 26:1-56) with the census conducted 39 years earlier (Numbers 1:1-46).
The numbers show that something strange happened not only to the tribe of Simeon, but to the entire Camp of Reuben. Why would Reuben, Simeon, and Gad lose nearly 30% of their combined strength, and Simeon lose over 60%? This occurred over a period when most of the other tribes gained in numbers. Perhaps the Baal-Peor incident is the answer. It is possible that over half the people of Simeon chose to leave the nation of Israel rather than submit to what they regarded as an outrage and an insult to their tribal honor. If so, then they preferred to renew their rebellion against the Lord rather than submit to His judgment, and in the process they took thousands with them from other tribes. This fits with the impetuous, violent nature of Simeon as revealed in Scripture (Genesis 34:1-31, 49:5-7), and it is a tragedy of immense proportions. After 40 years of trials in which this younger generation had at last come to the threshold of inheriting the promises their parents had rejected, these Israelites chose to disqualify themselves rather than enter into the Kingdom. Some may have repented later and come back, but the damage was done. In a sad commentary on the future of Simeon, I Chronicles 4:27 relates that not all of their family multiplied like the sons of Judah. In other words, Simeon was blessed as part of the nation, but not blessed to the fullness, quite possibly because of a continued resistance to the ways of the Lord.
And without Simeon at full strength, the nation suffered. We learn in Numbers 27:15-23 that YHVH designated Joshua of Ephraim to succeed Moses in leadership of the nation. It is no coincidence that Joshua’s name in Hebrew is Yehoshua, or Yeshua, the very same name as the Son of David Who completed that Messianic mission of redeeming the nation. Joshua did not do away with the commandments of Moses, but followed them in His governance of the tribes and exhorted the people to remain true to the Torah YHVH had given through Moses (Joshua 23:1-13). In the same way, Yeshua of Nazareth continued in the commandments of Moses, exhorting His followers to remain true to the Torah (Matthew 5:17-19, 23:1-3, 26:59-61; Mark 14:55-59; John 5:45-47). There is a reason for this. If the nation is to succeed, it must have a single standard of conduct. If there is no single standard, then the nation is divided as every person does what is right in his or her own eyes. Each division represents a diminishing of strength and a compromise with destiny, ultimately resulting in failure of our national purpose and a blot on the Name of our God. That has been the history of Israel from its inception. The question before us in this generation is whether we will choose to continue down that path, or finally walk into the fullness of our national destiny.