The Battle Against Moab

The Battle Against Moab

A sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Take all the leaders of the people and hang the offenders before the LORD, out in the sun, that the fierce anger of the LORD may turn away from Israel.” (Num. 25:4)

Our text for today tells about an incident that happened while the children of Israel were in the wilderness after leaving Egypt and just before they were going to enter the land of Canaan and attack Jericho. Almost everyone who had been a slave in Egypt had died, and the great majority of the people were now hardened by life in the wilderness, and the soldiers were well trained and prepared by Joshua and Moses. They were on the eve of becoming a great nation with a land of their own. They were encamped on the plains of Moab across the Jordan river from Jericho.

While they were camped in Moab, not everyone stayed in the camp. Some of the men wandered off and began to mix with the Midianites who lived there. Human nature being what it is, they found the Midianite women to be far more interesting and exciting than the women of their own nation, and the rituals for worshipping Baal seemed far more appealing than the constant sacrifices and obedience required by Jehovah. As punishment for this idolatry and disobedience, a plague was sent into the camp of Israel.

One of the effects that doing evil has on the mind is that it blinds the evil-doer to the effects of his evils. It never occurred to those who were worshipping Baal that their actions were causing misery to others by bringing a plague of sickness into the camp. And because it is also the nature of evil to try to infect others with the same evil, those who discovered the forbidden delights of Midian brought them back into the camp to share with others. Indeed, at the very moment that Moses was telling the other leaders of the children of Israel that it was God’s command that they should take the leaders of those who were following after Baal and hang them, so that the anger of the Lord might be turned away and the plague ended, that one of the men entered the camp and gave a Midianite woman to his brother as a gift in full view of the gathered leaders. With holy zeal the priest Phinehas took a spear and killed both the Hebrew man and the Midianite woman. This act of purification ended the plague that had killed 24,000 of the children of Israel. (Cf. Numbers 25)

At the Lord’s command, Moses gathered an army of 12,000, one thousand from each of the 12 tribes, and sent them against the Midianites with Phinehas leading the way. Phinehas took holy articles with him, and a trumpet. Their victory over Midian was decisive. They killed all the men and took the women, children, and livestock captive.

Moses was angry with them when they returned to camp, however, and ordered them to kill all the male children, and all of the women except those who were virgins. Everything else of the booty was to be purified by water, or fire. After they were purified, all the goods that were captured were divided equally between the soldiers and those who remained in the camp. Each group was then also required to give a portion of their spoils to the priests. (Cf. Numbers 31)

The final event of this series takes place when the tribes of Reuben and Gad went to Moses and asked that they be given their inheritance on the East or “other” side of the Jordan instead of in the land of Canaan proper. The reason they gave is that they were not farmers, but kept animals, and the plains of Moab were ideal for grazing. Moses, recalling that the children of Israel had been condemned to wandering in the wilderness for 40 years because the first set of spies sent into the land had been afraid to enter Canaan, was afraid that Gad and Reuben wanted to stay on this side of the river because they were afraid to fight the Canaanites, and Moses thought that if Jehovah discovered this, they would have to wander another 40 years. Moses was understandably upset. But, when the leaders of Gad and Reuben promised that they would send their fighting men along with the armies, and would fight until the whole land was conquered, and only then return to their homes, Moses was content, and gave his permission. (Cf. Numbers 32)

In the sense of the letter, this is a powerful story of the Lord’s care for, and guidance of the children of Israel through Moses. It stresses the importance of obedience to Divine Law, and shows clearly that there are dreadful consequences for those who commit evils that extend far beyond those who choose to do what is wrong and infects many others as well. In the spiritual sense, it is the sum total of our spiritual lives.

The doctrines of the New Church tell us that all the various nations that lived in the land of Canaan and the surrounding territories, correspond to all the various hereditary evils that each of us has. We can say that, in general, the story of the children of Israel’s conquest of Canaan is the story of our own life-long battle against the hereditary evils within our own minds and hearts. And, like the children of Israel, we will be able to defeat these enemies of spiritual life, only so long as we follow the Lord’s leadership. For as the children of Israel learned through much harsh experience, whenever they struck out on their own, whenever they relied solely on their own judgment, they failed.

However, in order to clearly understand the meaning of this particular story, we have to acknowledge the difference between an evil act and the desire for it. Moab represents the evil act itself, some act that is contrary to the Ten Commandments. “Daughters” in the Word stand for affections and delights, for obvious reasons. When the two are put together, as they are in this story from the Word, the result is that that daughters of the Midianites (who lived in Moab) represent the desire we feel to do what is evil, the lust in our hearts that continues to burn whether or not we actually do the evil thing.

The most severe danger we face in our spiritual lives is back-sliding, or profanation. We see a sin within ourselves, we manage to break its external hold on us, and we persevere in temptations until it no longer inflames us, and we thank the Lord for His help. It seems that the sin has been conquered. Perhaps we begin to think we are “safe,” that because we haven’t committed that particular sin in such a long time that it would be okay for us to just think about it for a little bit, to reminisce.

The hells are eternally vigilant. They are just waiting for just such a chance to rush in and bring new life to that evil desire. They are able to do this because no matter how many evils we put away through self-examination, repentance, reformation and regeneration, we will still have to deal with the fact that while we live in this world the loves of self and the world are dominant, and without the Lord’s constant vigilance and help, they would swamp us in an instant. The harlotry the men of Israel committed with the daughters of Midian represents this very profanation that happens when people allow themselves to be stirred by the memory of the delights of past sins.

When these things began to happen in the camp of Israel, the Lord told Moses to take the ringleaders of those who were following Baal, and hang them in the sun (text). Death by hanging represents the spiritual penalty for profanation, that is, eternal death. The text further states that they are to be hung in the sun because the sun of the natural world, being pure fire, represents, in this case, the love of self. Thus, the punishment of these men paints a picture for us of the spiritual consequences of allowing our loves of self and the world to push us into delighting in the memories of past sins which has the inevitable result of making them live once again.

The 24,000 people of Israel who died in the plague tell us what the spiritual result of such profanation is: 24,000 is a number that is made up of 12 and 2 and 1000. Everywhere in the Word, the number 12 means all the truths of the church. 2 has to do with the conjunction of good and truth, or the heavenly marriage, while 1000 is used with other numbers to tell us that the concept is to be thought of in its widest sense and greatest detail. Therefore, the number 24,000 means all the goods and truths of the church in their complex and detail. That 24,000 people died from a plague tells us that when we come into this state of harlotry, or profanation, all the states of good and truth that we have accumulated over the years are as dead to us. We no longer feel their delights, they can no longer sustain us. We are spiritually in the wilderness, and as if dead.

But we are not really dead, nor are we alone. The Lord is with us even then, and he speaks to us through the Word, represented here by Moses, and stirs within us something that yet remains true, that still respects what is holy. That spark of good that bursts forth as the anger of zeal to strike back and to kill the offending evil states is represented by Phinehas. And when Phinehas is allowed to act, to strike out for what is good and true, to restore order into our life and mind, it marks the beginning of our spiritual recovery. The Word tells us that at the moment that Phinehas struck out with his spear to kill the offending sinners, the plague was broken because the desire to live well and to do right had been born again into the mind and heart.

The Lord then told Moses to send the children of Israel to attack Moab because it was the people of Moab, the Midianites, that has caused the temptation. Therefore, in order to bring an end to these temptations in our own spiritual states, we must courageously go forth and attack the evils of our lives, and fight them as if our spiritual lives depended on it — for of course, they do.

In summary we can see that the idolatry in Moab is our hereditary tendency to take delight in various evils, even when they have been conquered and put off, which leads to states of profanation. The Lord tells us through the Word, or Moses, that we must fight against these things, and if we do, He will help us and we will conquer them. However, even though we have resisted the temptation to do what is evil, we are still left with the desire to do it. But if we recognize this, and do all we can to kill those desires within ourselves, they can be removed. Then comes the reward. Once we have won the battle, we are allowed to collect the spoils. When we are free from evil and its delights, we can do good works, and be useful to others, which brings all kinds of rewards represented by gold, silver, garments, cattle, and so forth. And even more to the point, when we have entered a state of good, even merely natural good, it is sufficient for us to receive our inheritance in heaven, as Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh received theirs in the land to the East of the Jordan. Of course, that is not the end of the story. If we continue to move from a natural life to a spiritual life, that is, as we cross the Jordan, we find ourselves repeatedly facing different Canaanite nations, which correspond to our different hereditary evils. There are more battles in store, but as long as we follow the Lord, and work with Him, the victory is assured, and we will draw closer to our spiritual home.

Perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from this story and the doctrines contained in its internal sense is that evil is not always hideous and disgusting. It does not always jump out at you as something frightening and dangerous. Rather, it can be, and often is, as beautiful and appealing as the daughters of Moab were to the men of Israel. The warning is clear. If we allow ourselves to be seduced by the apparent delights provided by the daughters of Moab, if we allow ourselves to slip back into previous states of evil, and revel in the memory of them, we could end up like the leaders of the children of Israel who were hanged in the sun. On the other hand, if we choose to allow the zeal of Phinehas to guide our spiritual lives, we can find ourselves with the spoils of spiritual battle, and an inheritance in the spiritual land of Canaan. The choice belongs to no one but ourselves, and it is made every moment of every day by way which we conduct our lives. AMEN.

1st Lesson: Num 25

Now Israel remained in Acacia Grove, and the people began to commit harlotry with the women of Moab. {2} They invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. {3} So Israel was joined to Baal of Peor, and the anger of the LORD was aroused against Israel. {4} Then the LORD said to Moses, “Take all the leaders of the people and hang the offenders before the LORD, out in the sun, that the fierce anger of the LORD may turn away from Israel.” {5} So Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Every one of you kill his men who were joined to Baal of Peor.” {6} And indeed, one of the children of Israel came and presented to his brethren a Midianite woman in the sight of Moses and in the sight of all the congregation of the children of Israel, who were weeping at the door of the tabernacle of meeting. {7} Now when Phinehas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose 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 body. So the plague was stopped among the children of Israel. {9} And those who died in the plague were twenty-four thousand. {10} Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: {11} “Phinehas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the children of Israel, because he was zealous with My zeal among them, so that I did not consume the children of Israel in My zeal. {12} “Therefore say, ‘Behold, I give to him My covenant of peace; {13} ‘and it shall be to him and his descendants after him a covenant of an everlasting priesthood, because he was zealous for his God, and made atonement for the children of Israel.'” {14} Now the name of the Israelite who was killed, who was killed with the Midianite woman, was Zimri the son of Salu, a leader of a father’s house among the Simeonites. {15} And the name of the Midianite woman who was killed was Cozbi the daughter of Zur; he was head of the people of a father’s house in Midian. {16} Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: {17} “Harass the Midianites, and attack them; {18} “for they harassed you with their schemes by which they seduced you in the matter of Peor and in the matter of Cozbi, the daughter of a leader of Midian, their sister, who was killed in the day of the plague because of Peor.” Amen.

2nd Lesson: John 15:1-17

“I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. {2} “Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit. {3} “You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. {4} “Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. {5} “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing. {6} “If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned. {7} “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you. {8} “By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be My disciples. {9} “As the Father loved Me, I also have loved you; abide in My love. {10} “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love. {11} “These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full. {12} “This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. {13} “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends. {14} “You are My friends if you do whatever I command you. {15} “No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you. {16} “You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask the Father in My name He may give you. {17} “These things I command you, that you love one another. Amen.

3rd Lesson: AC 10652.

And his daughters commit whoredom after their gods, and make thy sons commit whoredom after their gods. That this signifies in this manner the profanation of good and of truth, is evident from the signification of “committing whoredom,” as being unlawful conjunction (of which above, n. 10648); from the signification of “his daughters,” or the daughters of the inhabitant of the land, as being the affections of evil; from the signification of “their gods,” as being the falsities of the affections of evil conjoined with truths, for by “their gods” are meant the gods of the daughters of the inhabitant of the land conjoined with sons of the Israelitish nation (see just above at n. 10651), which conjunction is the profanation of good; and from the signification of “making thy sons commit whoredom after their gods,” as being the conjunction of truth with falsities, which is the profanation of truth. (That “gods” denote falsities, see n. 4402, 4544, 7873, 8867; and that “sons” denote truths, n. 489, 491, 533, 1147, 3373, 4257, 9807, 10490.)

[2] These things are so said because the first conjunction of the affections of evil with truths, which is signified by “taking the daughters of the inhabit of the land for thy sons,” is not as yet profanation; but the second conjunction is profanation, because this takes place when evil is applied to truth, and truth to evil, which is done by means of a wrong interpretation of truth, and the application of it to evil, and thus by the insertion of the one into the other. From this, truth no longer remains truth; but is killed and profaned.

[3] This profanation is also signified by “the whoredom of the people with the daughters of Moab,” of which we read in Moses:-

Israel settled in Shittim, where the people began to commit whoredom with the daughters of Moab, and they called the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people did eat, and bowed themselves down to their gods. Therefore Jehovah said unto Moses, Take all the heads of the people, and hang them up to Jehovah before the sun. And the people were smitten; and there died from this plague twenty-four thousand (Num. xxv. 1, 2, 4, 5, 9);

by “Moab” are signified those who adulterate goods (n. 2468, 8315); and by his “daughters,” the affections of this evil; and by “whoredom with them,” profanation; consequently the penalty was the hanging of the heads of the people before the sun, and the death of twenty-four thousand. For the sun of the world denotes the love of self (n. 10584); “hanging before it” denotes the total extinction of heavenly good; and “twenty-four thousand” denotes all the truths and goods of truth in the complex, in like manner as “twelve thousand” (n. 2089, 3913, 7973); their death denotes the extinction of all truths. This takes place with those who profane. Amen.

Copyright © 1982 – 2008 General Church of the New Jerusalem.
Page constructed by James P. Cooper
Page last modified September 27, 2009

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