[Numbers 25] Trusting God in Thorny Places. In this chapter, the people of God encamp in a place filled with thorn trees oozing out sticky gum. It speaks of the thorny and challenging places we find ourselves in at times. In this case, the people fall into idolatry with a false god whose name means “dominative father.” Are you following a dominative, dictatorial leader who panders to your insecurities and weaknesses? This is a common temptation when we are in a season of difficulties, but in this chapter, we see a stark contrast to the kind of leadership God would rather choose for you in these difficult times.
[Num 25:1-18 KJV] 1 And Israel abode in Shittim, and the people began to commit whoredom with the daughters of Moab. 2 And they called the people unto the sacrifices of their gods: and the people did eat, and bowed down to their gods. 3 And Israel joined himself unto Baalpeor: and the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel. 4 And the LORD said unto Moses, Take all the heads of the people, and hang them up before the LORD against the sun, that the fierce anger of the LORD may be turned away from Israel. 5 And Moses said unto the judges of Israel, Slay ye every one his men that were joined unto Baalpeor. 6 And, behold, one of the children of Israel came and brought unto his brethren a Midianitish woman in the sight of Moses, and in the sight of all the congregation of the children of Israel, who [were] weeping [before] the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. 7 And when Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw [it], he rose up from among the congregation, and took a javelin in his hand; 8 And he went after the man of Israel into the tent, and thrust both of them through, the man of Israel, and the woman through her belly. So the plague was stayed from the children of Israel. 9 And those that died in the plague were twenty and four thousand. 10 And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, 11 Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, hath turned my wrath away from the children of Israel, while he was zealous for my sake among them, that I consumed not the children of Israel in my jealousy. 12 Wherefore say, Behold, I give unto him my covenant of peace: 13 And he shall have it, and his seed after him, [even] the covenant of an everlasting priesthood; because he was zealous for his God, and made an atonement for the children of Israel. 14 Now the name of the Israelite that was slain, [even] that was slain with the Midianitish woman, [was] Zimri, the son of Salu, a prince of a chief house among the Simeonites. 15 And the name of the Midianitish woman that was slain [was] Cozbi, the daughter of Zur; he [was] head over a people, [and] of a chief house in Midian. 16 And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, 17 Vex the Midianites, and smite them: 18 For they vex you with their wiles, wherewith they have beguiled you in the matter of Peor, and in the matter of Cozbi, the daughter of a prince of Midian, their sister, which was slain in the day of the plague for Peor’s sake.
In the previous few chapters, Israel has survived an all-out attempt by Balak and the prophet Balaam to curse the people in God’s name. Balak takes Balaam to several different places overlooking the encampment but is unsuccessful in bringing a curse over the twelve tribes. Soon they move from the wilderness of Zin, which means “a flat place,” to a place Shittim (after the Shittim or Acacia tree). What was Shittim like, and what can we learn from the perspective of a metaphor from this encampment and what happened there.?
The word “Shittim” means “meadow of the acacias.” The Acacia tree is tough and thorny, much of which was used to create the sacred artifacts in the tabernacle construction. It is described as a “large tree having the bark covered with black thorns from which a stick gum may be extracted. It has blackish pods, and the wood is very hard”. The people then transition from a “flat place” in Zin to a place characterized by large, thorny, sticky trees. In Isaiah 61:3 and many other places, people are referred to as trees. Have you had relationships in your life that can be described as thorny, sticky relationships? What is happening when in your life you are camped at Shittim? These trees were giant, so when the people camped here, they had to accommodate these trees in their midst, no doubt being stuck and getting the sticky gum upon their clothes and their tents as they were setting up camp. It doesn’t sound like a very comfortable place, does it not? Yet God led them here by the cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night.
What do thorns represent in the bible? Jesus spoke of thorns in the parable of the sower:
[Mat 13:22 KJV] 22 He also that received seed among the thorns is he that heareth the word; and the care of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, choke the word, and he becometh unfruitful.
Moving from the wilderness of Zin to this thorny place speaks of the believer coming from a time and season of stagnation when even the prophets around have tried to curse you, and yet you are receiving the seed of God’s word – trying to survive the process. What happens in this place with the word of God over your life? You can ask, “could this possibly be God’s will”? You see, the word is being choked by the thorns and thistles of problems, difficult people, unanswered prayer, challenging your trust in God, and God’s guidance – you think, “could God have possibly led me here”?
This is where you see doctrines of demons come forth, such as “God always answers prayer, but sometimes He says no…” These are the false doctrines of the flat and thorny places of life. In other words, God makes a positive, verifiable promise in His word, but in the thorny place, we start rationalizing away the blessing by convincing ourselves or being convinced that God cannot be relied on to do what He said and that is supposedly an acceptable thought which if you reject it you are considered rebellious or impious.
When this difficult time comes, the people fall into worship of an idol called “Baal-Peer.” Who was responsible for the idolatry that took place in the thorny place? The leaders. The leaders weren’t necessarily guilty of idolatry, but they tolerated it. Why? Well, look at how uncomfortable the people are here. It is understandable they might question God because look where He led them. The leaders to protect themselves from the distrust the people have toward God in this difficult situation; therefore, they make excuses and look the other way rather than loving the people and strengthening their faith. What is God’s response in v. 4? God commands Moses to execute these compromising leaders in open view of the people. Why? Weren’t they just trying to be tolerant and understanding? Where do your fidelities lie when people look to you in their suffering and struggles? Remember, your first commitment is to the Father. Rather than compromising, they should have guided and encouraged the people before the temptation to idolatry took hold.
Who was Baal-Peor? Baal is an idol that Israel fell into false worship. Baal means “dominative father.” Peor means “cleft.” He was a Canaanite god of protection and also sexual depravity. Remember Moses being hidden in the cleft of the rock by God? This is a perversion of that experience. It is false protection. People feel vulnerable; they are suffering; they don’t understand where they are in life, and they fall into the false security of a dominative spiritual leader. Much of this happens today in the church under the guise of “apostolic leadership.” Let me say this to you – a leader or pastor who asserts apostolic authority over you without apostolic power and apostolic humility is a Baal-Peor and should be rejected out of hand.
The heads of the families who were executed were killed because they knew if the people worshipped Baal-Peor that they would be able to dominate and make merchandise of them in their suffering without having to justify their authority before God in their lives. This is a typical attitude in Christian leadership today and, in some ways, is the foundation of the clergy-laity dichotomy.
We see then disobedient people and corrupt leaders? Where are the obedient ones? What should be done in times like then by those who desire to serve and honor God in these situations? In v. 6, a son of the High Priest takes a spear and impales a prince of Israel’s elders while he is in a very act of sexual sin. What a shocking turn of events. What can we learn from this violent episode? Whatever Phinehas’ thinking was for doing this, his loyalties toward God were clear. He was willing to put himself at risk on behalf of Israel’s honor and the honor of the one true God. When people are struggling and hurting, they often will come to their leaders and pour out their pain and frustration. We should never add burdens to them with criticism or lack of caring – but at the same time, we must remember who we serve. As one missionary apostle says, “you cannot move in pity.” There is a difference between human pity and godly compassion. Pity quenches the anointing. There is a difference between sympathy and pity. If you identify more with the people in their suffering than with God, who is God despite what may be going on in someone’s circumstance, then you are part of the problem and not part of the answer.
The leaders in Israel who lost their lives had stood mutely by when the people fell into idolatry. They paid with their lives. Many leaders and pastors lose out on God’s best because of compromised motives. The very positions they are protecting by their dominative leadership styles are lost to them because God will share His glory with no one, and He takes umbrage at leaders who will not lead even in times of difficulty when people are suffering. What happened after the leaders were beheaded and the idolaters executed as well? The plague stopped from the children of Israel, but only after 1000s died. Why did it happen? Because they were so godly? Because they were full of faith, but you can never understand why God allowed this to take place? No, the people’s sin was obvious as it may very well be in the sticky situation you might be in? Ask God to give you clarity.
What about leaders in these types of situations? What kind of a leader are you? Are you a loving leader setting a firm and positive example in times of suffering? Or do you look the other way to protect yourself from looking like you don’t have any answers? Do you ignore the wheelchair cases and pray for the person with a mild headache instead? That is a Baal-Peor tactic.
What is your response in times of suffering and difficulty? Are you looking for a Baal leader – a dominative father to tell you what to do and help you find someone to blame? Or are you quieting yourself before God and holding on to God’s promise amid a thorny and difficult situation? God’s covenant of peace is with those who will crucify pity, yet move in compassion and maintain their faith in God even in the dark and challenging hours.