Torah Portion for week 39: Numbers 19:1 – 22:1
Chukat (Ordinance of)
Was Paul wrong about the law? A huge challenge for understanding Paul’s writings is his view of the law, more specifically, the Mosaic covenant with its commandments. While affirming that the law is holy, righteous, and good, Paul also argues that the law brings wrath and death. In Romans 7:11, he writes, “For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.” Likewise, in Romans 4:15, he writes, “For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.” What is more, it is clear from Romans 10 and Galatians 3, that he regards a life of faith and a life of works under the Mosaic Law as two opposing principles. He even writes in Galatians 3:12 that “the law is not of faith.” How did Paul, a Hebrew of Hebrews and a Pharisee of Pharisees, come to such conclusions? Surprising as it might sound, the answer is simple: Paul came to these conclusions by reading the story of the giving of the law within its larger narrative context. As we will see in this week’s Torah portion, Paul’s theology of the law comes from Moses!
To set the stage for this week’s Torah reading, it’s important to rewind the Torah story a bit to remember Israel’s response to God’s great miracle at the Red Sea, before the law was given. In Exodus 14:31 we read, “Israel believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.” Israel left Egypt in faith. Once the sea closes in on their enemies, however, Israel’s complaining begins and continues all the way to Mount Sinai. After several difficult weeks in the desert, Israel comes to Mount Sinai to meet with God. And in Exodus 19:9, God explains the purpose for his spectacular mountain-top appearance to Moses in the sight of all the people: so that Israel will believe forever. Sinai’s goal was faith!
In Numbers 10:11, we learn that Israel spent nearly one year at Mount Sinai. ONE YEAR! Has their Sinai experience changed them? Do they leave the mountain with greater faith, more obedience? Sadly, if you compare their journey in the desert to Mount Sinai in Exodus 15 – 18 with their journey in the desert away from Mount Sinai in Numbers 11 – 21, you’ll notice that Israel commits the same exact sins. They are still complaining. But here’s the catch. Before the law was given, God overlooked Israel’s sins. Once Israel received the law, however, the same exact sins are punishable by death. In fact, thousands of Israelites are put to death once the law has been given.
What about Israel’s faith after Mount Sinai? Has Israel’s time at Sinai achieved its stated goal? Does Israel believe forever? Tragically, the Torah teaches that Israel, Moses, and Aaron, in spite of having spent one year at Mount Sinai, could not enter the promised land. Why? Because they didn’t believe. In Numbers 14:11 God asks, “How long will they not believe in me?” And in Numbers 20:12, the Lord says to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” In short, the Torah teaches us that Israel’s experience at Mount Sinai did not produce faith. Rather, the giving of the law results in wrath and death. Our brief study of this week’s Torah portion in the light of its larger context shows us that Paul’s understanding of the law is in fact, quite Mosaic!