God is no fan of religious syncretism and idolatry.

Most modern westerners want nothing to do with religion, but if they must have it, they much prefer syncretistic religion. They are happy to say all religions are the same, all religions lead to God, and we can pick and choose those bits from all religions that we happen to fancy.

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So they do not mind healthy doses of interfaith dialogue, and things like Chrislam. As to the former, see the 73 articles so far written on it here.

As to the latter, see this for starters.

No Christian who actually reads the Bible will ever be lulled to sleep by these false moves at religious peace and harmony. While we do want to get along with our non-Christian neighbours, that does NOT mean we should want to jump into bed with them, religiously speaking.

Just a few obvious passages – out of many – can be mentioned here to show that the one, true living God brooks no rivals, will not share his throne with another, and does not favour ecumenical shindigs that are little more than acts of idolatrous rebellions:

“You shall have no other gods before me.” Exodus 20:3

“I am the Lord; that is my name;
    my glory I give to no other,
    nor my praise to carved idols.” Isaiah 42:8

“Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’.” John 14:6

“Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols.” Acts 17:16

But since I am going through the Old Testament book of Numbers again, let me look briefly at a pretty strong text when it comes to things like religious syncretism and the like. It makes it quite clear what God thinks about these sorts of things. The first nine verses of Numbers 25 discuss Baal worship at Peor:

While Israel lived in Shittim, the people began to whore with the daughters of Moab. These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel. And the Lord said to Moses, “Take all the chiefs of the people and hang them in the sun before the Lord, that the fierce anger of the Lord may turn away from Israel.” And Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Each of you kill those of his men who have yoked themselves to Baal of Peor.” And behold, one of the people of Israel came and brought a Midianite woman to his family, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the whole congregation of the people of Israel, while they were weeping in the entrance of the tent of meeting. When Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose and left the congregation and took a spear in his hand and went after the man of Israel into the chamber and pierced both of them, the man of Israel and the woman through her belly. Thus the plague on the people of Israel was stopped. Nevertheless, those who died by the plague were twenty-four thousand.

And the last nine verses speak of the zeal of Phinehas:

And the Lord said to Moses, “Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy. Therefore say, ‘Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace, and it shall be to him and to his descendants after him the covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the people of Israel.’” The name of the slain man of Israel, who was killed with the Midianite woman, was Zimri the son of Salu, chief of a father’s house belonging to the Simeonites. And the name of the Midianite woman who was killed was Cozbi the daughter of Zur, who was the tribal head of a father’s house in Midian. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Harass the Midianites and strike them down, for they have harassed you with their wiles, with which they beguiled you in the matter of Peor, and in the matter of Cozbi, the daughter of the chief of Midian, their sister, who was killed on the day of the plague on account of Peor.”

Some obvious caveats

This is all pretty strong stuff so I must first state the obvious. I am of course not calling for idolaters and religious syncretists to meet a dire end as did these Israelites. The truth is, some things stay the same between the Testaments while some other things do not. The character of God is of course a constant. His holiness is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. His hatred of sin and idolatry will ever remain, as all of Scripture makes clear.

But the idea of capital punishment for any number of Old Testament crimes is another matter. I happen to think that utilising the death penalty today for things like murder is appropriate. However, here we had things like idolatry also meriting death.

While some Christians today (eg., theonomists) think the civil laws and penalties for ancient Israel apply to us today, most believers, including most in the Reformed camp, do not. That idolatry and the like is a serious sin is not in question. But whether secular governments today should be putting people to death for this sin is quite another matter.

But as always, we must take the spirit of the matter into consideration. It is quite clear that God is no fan of idolatry, idols, or religious syncretism. We should not be either. A bit of commentary on Numbers 25 can help to demonstrate this.

Roy Gane, like most commentators, reminds us of the importance of this story following on from the attempt of Balak to get Balaam to curse Israel in the three preceding chapters. He writes:

Balak and Balaam utterly failed to derail God’s people through a sophisticated and esoteric strategy of cursing (Num. 22-24), but the cow of idolatry succeeded because the way to a man’s heart has always been through his eyes and his stomach. The fact that apparently unattached women just happened to get close enough to the Israelite encampment to make their charms known and then invited the Israelites to their cultic banquet (25:1-3) betrays a strategy of seduction, employing allurements of sex and food (cf. 25:18).


Unfortunately, Balaam’s mission of perdition did not die with him. Peter refers to this prophet for profit as a paradigm of later false teachers who are immoral and greedy: “They have left the straight way and wandered off to follow the way of Balaam son of Beor, who loved the wages of wickedness” (2 Peter 2:15). In the Apocalypse, a letter to the Christian church at Pergamum includes the words: “Nevertheless, | have a few things against you: You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality” (Rev. 2:14).”


When it comes to the deceptive inroads of apostasy into the church, Christians may need to face corporate conflicts head-on. Like the proactive priest of Numbers 25, Jesus demonstrated this. When he drove out those engaged in business at the courts of the temple, “his disciples remembered that it is written: ‘Zeal for your house will consume me” (John 2:17). The rest of the verse from the psalm cited here reads, “and the insults of those who insult you fall on me” (Ps. 69:9). Like zealous Phinehas, Christ identified with God to the extent that there was no difference between defending the honor of God and that of himself.


When God’s people are in imminent danger of losing their connection with him, it may take the swift, accurately focused, decisive leadership of a faithful and wise (not fanatical and unbalanced) person to “spearhead” a defense. We are not living under a theocracy that metes out capital punishment, so a modern “Phinehas” must make his or her point verbally rather than with a spear. But there may be occasions that call for removing flagrant sinners from membership in the church so that the Lord’s honor, people, and work can be preserved (e.g., 1 Cor. 5).

And Iain Duguid says there are three lessons here for us:

In the first place, it shows us that sin is never a private thing. In our society we have elevated privacy into a fundamental human right, and most people regard consenting sexual relationships between otherwise uncommitted adults either as normal and appropriate or at least as no one’s business except those personally involved. Yet, in this case the sins of these particular individuals had ramifications for their whole families, and indeed for the whole covenant community. Sin is never a private matter: our sin affects other people, directly and indirectly.


Having said that, though, we also need to be clear that the primary issue in this story is not sex, but idolatry. The sex may lead to the idolatry, which is why intermarriage with the nations around them was forbidden to Israelites. However, the sin that resulted in the death penalty for so many people in Israel was not sexual immorality – it was idolatry. Israel’s abandonment of the true and living God was the crime that merited their death….

He continues:

The second thing that this chapter reminds us is, as we have seen so many times in the book of Numbers, that the wages of sin is death. In Israel’s experience this fact was literally true for the Simeonite and the Midianite woman. Their sin resulted in their death, just as the wider sin of the people resulted in the deaths of 24,000 people. Those who failed to believe in the wrath of God had its reality graphically demonstrated in front of their eyes. Their personal experience should also serve as a graphic picture to impress upon us this same spiritual truth.


Why do we need this truth repeated so often and so vividly? The answer is because the doctrine of the judgment of God is one of the fundamental target of the devil’s assault. He began to question it right away in the Garden of Eden when he said to Eve, “You will not surely die” (Genesis 3:4)….

And lastly:

Third, this passage reminds us that discipline pursued out of a passionate zeal for God’s honor is vital to the spiritual health of the community. When Moses and the other leaders in the community failed to act, the judgment on the people of God was profound. Only when one young man stood up and acted to do what the Lord had said and to remove the blight from the community was there a change in the people’s fortunes. It is important to note that Phinehas was not acting as a private citizen in executing God’s judgment. There is no support here for independent action against anyone we may believe to have offended God. There is no warrant in this passage for bombing abortion clinics or shooting evil men. As the son of Eleazar, Phinehas was in charge of the Levites who were responsible for guarding the sanctuary against defilement (1 Chronicles 9:20; Numbers 3:32). Taking action to defend the sanctity of the camp was thus part of his job description, and he fulfilled his duties faithfully as an officer of the people of God in dealing with this particular abomination.

These are important and sobering truths that we dare not shy away from.

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The Coincidence - a novel by Gabriel Moens

Bill Muehlenberg teaches ethics, apologetics and theology at several Melbourne Bible Colleges. His independent blog, Culture Watch, has over 5,000 articles commenting on the major cultural, social and political issues of the day. Bill's podcast is exclusively produced for Good Sauce readers and fans.

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