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For the week of May 24, 2014 / 24 Iyar 5774
Torah: Bemidbar/Numbers 1:1 - 4:20
Haftarah: Hosea 2:1-22 (English 1:10 - 2:20)

God Is Dangerous

But they shall not go in to look on the holy things even for a moment, lest they die. (Bemidbar/Numbers 4:20; ESV)

High Voltage graphicA friend of mine recently phoned me and asked how can we reconcile what appears to be two very different depictions of God in the Bible. He had just read the incident in the Torah where a man was executed for gathering sticks on the Sabbath (see Bemidbar/Numbers 15:32-36). To my friend, the God who would direct such a harsh consequence for a seemingly insignificant act is contrary to the version of God given us through Yeshua. How could the one who tenderly embraced children (see Mark 10:13-16) and called the weary to find rest in him (see Matthew 11:28-30) tolerate capital punishment for carrying sticks?

This is the age-old false dichotomy that claims the Bible portrays two different gods: The god of the Old Testament being a god of wrath and judgment; the god of the New Testament being a god of love and mercy (I am using a lowercase "g" for "god" here because I am referring to false gods who don't exist). While my friend doesn't believe in this two-god theory, the difficulty he was having is common.

The God of the whole Bible is a complex being. All through the whole Bible he is revealed to us as a God of love and mercy, wrath and judgment. He who cursed the world due to sin immediately determined to save it. In his dealing with human beings, his heart of longing for restoration and relationship pours forth from the Bible's pages. Yet his intense intolerance of evil, both its source and its ourtworkings are clear. God longs for his goodness to be experienced by his beloved creatures, but will in no way lightly put up with wrongdoing. The tension between God's determination to rescue his beloved creatures and the necessity to judge evil is found throughout. The Gospels' portrayal of God as demonstrated through Yeshua's actions and teachings is consistent with this. Yeshua, who can be so tender and welcoming, is also at times severely confrontational. Contrary to some people's perceptions, he didn't reserve his harsher statements for religious leaders alone; he had some pretty hard things to say to his followers as well. In the book of Acts, we read of the early experiences of the messianic community following Yeshua's return to heaven after his resurrection. God's plan of salvation is in full swing, yet in one case, we see a married couple struck dead due to their deceit (see Acts 5:1-11) and, in another, a man struck blind for opposing the preaching of the Gospel (see Acts 13:6-12).

So we shouldn't be surprised when we read in this week's parasha (English: Torah portion) the dire warning given to the Kohathites, one of the Levitical clans. They were responsible for the transporting of the sacred furniture of the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle). While they were to carry these items, if by any chance they looked at them, they'd die.

While, as I have tried to explain, harsh consequences for trespassing a God-given directive is found throughout all Scripture, we still may have trouble with God's treating people like this. Why is he so harsh at times? That he might punish the wicked we may be okay with, but this kind of thing? That he has rules regarding the holy items, no problem. His property, his rules; but death? And just for looking? Even by accident?

The truth is God is dangerous. I know we'd rather not think like that. We would rather stick with the image of Yeshua and the children. But when we insist on solely focusing on one aspect of God's character, no matter how true and wonderful it might be, we turn him into a caricature, perverting the reality of his complexity into an idol of our own making.

God is dangerous because he is the most powerful being in the entire universe. Have you ever seen one of those high voltage signs that are common around power stations-the signs with the lightning bolt and the falling man? The Mishkan should have had one of those signs. Every synagogue and church should have one of those signs. Bible covers should have that sign. Maybe I should design a t-shirt.

The God who forbade the Kohathites from looking at the holy articles hasn't changed. He is still dangerous. We still can't approach him on our terms without risking death. But he has made a way. Through the forgiveness available to all who put their trust in Yeshua we can now do what the Kohathites couldn't. But as we approach the dangerous, all-powerful God, let's remember who it is we are dealing with.

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