“…then Moses stood in the gate of the camp and said, “Who is on the Lord’s side? Come to me.” And all the sons of Levi gathered around him. And he said to them, “Thus says the Lord God of Israel, ‘Put your sword on your side each of you, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill his brother and his companion and his neighbor.’ ” And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses. And that day about three thousand men of the people fell.” -Exodus 32:26-28
It is strange what fickle creatures we are. Faced with uncertainty, we often default to established patterns of behavior regardless of how destructive they are.
When most of us think about Pentecost, we think of rushing wind, and descending fire, and a strange convalescence of earthly language whereby people from all nations understood Peter in their own dialect. Most of us do not think of the death of three thousand Israelites who were executed for their idolatry. Yet, this is at the heart of Pentecost and, should we strip such an event from our memories, we strip much of the power of that fateful occurence in Acts 2. Pentecost, we often forget, found its origins as a Hebrew festival celebrating the giving of the Law. As far back as Exodus 20, God announced the core of moral obligation to the Israelites, as a divine voice bellowed forth the ten commandments from the midst of the flame enshrouding Mount Sinai. The people knew their God by now, having experienced His power in the plagues upon Egypt, the parting of the sea, manna in the desert, and now the all-consuming fire and reverberating voice-from-the-flame. God was real; God was powerful. And then, God called to Moses.
It is strange what fickle creatures we are. Faced with uncertainty, we often default to established patterns of behavior regardless of how destructive they are. It is for this reason that spiritual disciplines are so important – they help us establish Godly patterns to which we default in times of stress. The ancient Israelites, however, had not established such patterns for holy living. After twelve chapters in the absence of Moses, they defaulted instead to Hathor, the popular Egyptian cow goddess, or perhaps Apis, who is commonly represented by a bull. Hathor or Apis… who it was doesn’t matter; what matters is who it wasn’t. There, at the base of a mountain wreathed in flame, the one they were not worshipping was Yahweh.
There are consequences to divine infidelity. A treasonous violation of the Law (‘treason’ indeed, for the Israelites ultimately were usurping the authority of their King) must have ramifications, or the Law is without merit. Even so, Moses first offered up an opportunity for reconciliation: “Who is on the Lord’s side? Come to me.”
There were, unfortunately, those who refused. Despite the visible God upon the mountain before them, there were those who actively chose to rebel; who, for whatever reason, chose judgment over reconciliation. Judgment came. Three thousand perished. The law had come.
Fast forward with me a few thousand years. The cross had met the Law’s demand for justice, fulfilling it. Fifty days later, the remaining disciples were gathered together in one place, during the feast of the celebration of the giving of the Law. Suddenly, fire descended once more, as in the days of Sinai. This time, however, it was not the Law being given, but the Spirit of God. Whereas before, the Divine Mandate had been carved into tablets of stone, now the Divine Presence took root in hearts of flesh. Whereas before, the Lord empowered Moses to speak as His representative, now Peter took that mantle under the power of the Spirit. Whereas before, Moses had enunciated an offer for reconciliation, now Peter boomed forth a similar cry:
“And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” -Acts 2:40-41
…Grace has come.