Moses once again stood between God’s people and God’s judgment and turned down God’s offer to make him the founder of a new nation (Exodus 32). Moses intercedes for the people based on the character and glory of God.
READ NUMBERS 14:13–24
There are a couple of very basic God-principles contained within these few short verses, and we’ll discuss them both. And the first one is included in Moses plea to God not to destroy the people.
Moses pleads with God not to annihilate the guilty adults of Israel. And, he uses the same basic argument to talk God out of destroying the entire Hebrew race mainly, as he used back in the Golden Calf incident when God determined to do the same thing.
And, the argument was that when all the people of the Gentile nations heard about God destroying the very people, He had raised up, the nations of the world would determine it was because God was not ABLE to do what He had promised. The promise was to give Israel the land of Canaan. Therefore, they would think that the God of Israel was a rather impotent God.
God responds to Moses plea in verse 20, by saying that He will relent and do as Moses asked, and pardon the people of Israel. What we’re dealing with here is the matter of repentance of God’s people: how to obtain it, and God’s reaction to it.
And this is certainly something that ought to interest every Believer in the God of Israel, and especially those who call upon the name of His Son, Messiah Jesus.
Unlike the religions of their neighbors, the rituals of Israel were not operating and fruitful merely by observing them. While the desired ceremony can be carried out precisely by a priest, that does not equal automatic forgiveness.
Rather forgiveness is another step if you would. Believer and priest perform the ritual as ordained, but God then takes the final action of accepting (or not) the ceremony and granting a pardon.
And this is something that has become lost time and time again within Judaism, yet at the same time if you asked a Jew that merely by performing a ritual was he forgiven, usually he would say, “no.”
So forgiveness is a divine decision and is not brought about only by the observance of a ritual. Equally, so it is not enough to only hope and pray for forgiveness, man must submit himself to God, agree that he has wronged the Almighty, and then present an honest and sincere inner resolve to avoid that sin from here forward.
The Psalms especially show us that confession and true repentance must be part and parcel with any advance towards God (usually using prayer) asking for pardon. If the heart is not involved, if the conscience is left out, then no level of sacrifices, wailing, bitter tears, being prayed over by others, pleading, and monetary payments or tithing, fasting, or any other physical act will matter before God.
So there must be both internal change and outer behavioral modification; remorse must always be followed with deeds. And the works and actions must be observed on two levels: the ceasing of evil works and the doing of good works.
Let me say that another way: when it comes to repentance and forgiveness man has his part, and God has His. Man’s part consists of far more than private prayer or walking an aisle for public recognition. God’s part is to observe the person and make a judgment: is this man sincere enough to diligently exert effort to change his actions and have his heart transformed? If the answer in God’s perspective is yes, that forgiveness is granted; otherwise, it is not and the man’s status before God as being out of favor remains.
Note this as well: Moses could sway the Father. And this is a great and awesome principle for the people of God to grasp. Intercessors and Mediators can curb divine retribution. The implications of this are larger than we have the time to explore, here, today.
But, catch this: this means that God is interactive with those who He has set in charge of things. All things are not necessarily decided in advance. God may KNOW all things in advance, but His plans and intents can be altered and moved when certain righteous men approach Him and ask for mercy and grace.
As the greatest Mediator who ever lived once said, while He was in the throes of death on that cross: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” One has to assume that Jesus knew full well that God was about to condemn those who had put His son to death, and so He asked for mercy for them. Your intercessory prayer counts. You can influence God provided of course that what you ask is within His will.
The good news is that we are not hapless Marionettes, being manipulated by the Creator, only dancing to a long ago predetermined tune. Otherwise, where is the “relationship”? When one is a robot and the other it’s operator, there is no connection. There must be a give and take, a meaningful communication between the two parties, for there to be a genuine relationship and I wish I had understood that when I was a much younger man.
I don’t know how far I want to get into it, but there is a second rather significant theological principle that is revealed and demonstrated here in this dialogue between Moses and God; one that is rarely discussed in a modern Church setting. And, the rabbis call this the principle of vertical retribution.
The concept is this: that God may, in His will, move the punishment a father is due, to his offspring. Or he may take mercy due to a father, and give it to his descendants. And, we find this principle in play in Numbers 14 when we hear Moses say to God in verse 18:
‘The Lord is slow to anger and filled with unfailing love, forgiving every kind of sin and rebellion. But he does not excuse the guilty. He lays the sins of the parents upon their children; the entire family is affected—even children in the third and fourth generations.’
In case it hasn’t struck you, yet, as to what Moses is asking, he is asking God to transfer some or all of the retribution due to the adult Israelites for their rebellion, to their children and their children’s children. Say what? Yes, that is the case.
This vertical retribution concept was around long before Israel and Moses. We found mention of it in ancient Hittite documents when King Mursilis quoted as saying:
“And so it is, the sins of the father have come upon the son; and so my father’s sins have come upon me.”
The idea is that an innocent party bears the divine punishment in place of the guilty party; but the parties are of the same family, just different generations. We cannot get away from this principle in the Bible.
- Noach declares a curse upon his grandson, Canaan, for what Canaan’s father, Ham, did. Vertical retribution.
- Ahijah the prophet says that the sins of Jeroboam will be placed upon the head of his son, Abijah (1 Kings 14). Vertical retribution.
- We’re told that the sins of Baasha will be visited upon his son Elah (1 Kings 16). Vertical retribution.
And, there are many more places in the Holy Scriptures that quote this same idea that the sins of the father will be visited upon his children, down to the 3rd and 4th generation.
In addition to punishment, though, mercy can also be passed forward. Listen to Psalm 103:17-18:
“But the loving-kindness of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting to those who reverence him; his salvation is to children’s children of those who are faithful to his covenant and remember to obey him!”
Now, part of this principle of Vertical Retribution is that under certain circumstances, the punishment due to someone essentially postponed until a later time. In Bible terms, deferred to an upcoming generation. And, that certain case that legally allows God to delay the punishment is the repentance and contrition of the one who has committed the sin.
So, if a father commits a sin, and then repents, acknowledged his wrong-doing, and asks for mercy, then God may, in His mercy, pass that punishment forward to a later generation.
Listen to the case of Ahab in 1Kings 21:29:
“Because Ahab has humbled himself before Me, I will not bring the disaster in his lifetime; I will bring the disaster upon his house in his son’s time.”
So, what Moses is asking of God is to show mercy towards the adult parents who rebelled against Him, by postponing the punishment due to the guilty parties. And, God kind of meets Moses halfway; He says that He will not summarily destroy those guilty parents, but in a postponed retribution He also will NOT permit those who committed this great sin against Him to ever enter the Promised Land.
Their sin is so great, AND they have shown NO remorse or contrition, that they will have to bear at least some of the punishment. So, they will die natural deaths, in time, out in the desert wilderness, with the penalty being that they’ll never personally inherit the Promised Land.
Further, in verse 32, however, there is another penalty to be paid, and it is the offspring of these guilty adults who will also pay the price for their parents’ rebellion. As it says:
“But you (you adult Israelites), your carcasses will fall in the desert; and your children will wander about in the desert for 40 years bearing the consequences of your prostitutions until the desert eats up your carcasses.”
So, the punishment for the guilty was both postponed and at least partially realized, and the remainder placed upon the innocent children of Israel.
Now, let me talk about one other interesting aspect of this principle, and we’ll move on. And, it resides in the word “pardon” or “forgive” which we find in verse 19. In that verse Moses says to God:
“Please forgive (pardon) the offense of this people according to the greatness of your grace, just as you have borne with this people from Egypt until now.”
Pardon, or forgive, misses the full richness and impact of the original Hebrew word used here: Salach. Moses requests “Salach” from the Lord. And, though it does mean, “pardon” or “forgive,” Salach is a divine kind of pardon or forgiveness that is not available from a human. That is, we would never hear of a man pleading for Salach from another man. Salach, by definition, is an act of God.
Further, the word Salach carries with it the idea that what is pardoned is ONLY the PUNISHMENT for the sin, but the offense itself is NOT pardoned. Further, there is an element of healing and reconciliation involved in the meaning of the word Salach.
So, when Moses asks God for Salach, and God says, OK, I give you Salach, what is happening is that God is saying He will pardon the punishment for the rebellions (by postponing it). And He will allow a continued relationship between those people who committed the rebellion and Himself.
Even more, the reconciliation contained with the essence of the word Salach points to the continuation of the Covenant made on Mt. Sinai. What a great mercy hidden in the meaning of all this!
Further, in verse 19 when Moses asks that God would grant Salach “according to your great kindness,” the English word kindness really misses the mark. In Hebrew, Moses says, “according to your great Chesed.” The significance is that Chesed does NOT refer here to kindness, but rather to the God’s steadfast commitment to the covenants and promises He has made to Israel.
In fact, the Hebrew word Chesed, as used here, is almost a direct synonym for the word B’rit, which means covenant. So, Moses is beseeching God’s mercy “according to your great covenant.”
So, the total of what Moses pled with God for (on behalf of rebellious Israel), and what God granted, was that God would divinely pardon the punishment that was due to the Israelite adults for their rebellion, and that God would allow reconciliation with the people of Israel.
And even more, that God would continue to honor the covenants He had made with Israel and allow Israel to maintain their relationship with Him. It was understood, however (and hear this please), that the sin, the iniquity of the people for what they had done would remain against them. Israel would continue as guilty people, and that guilt would NEVER leave them and that they’d always have to answer for this offense before God.
Understand, this deal between God and Moses regarding this particular rebellion. It is but an example of the principle of Vertical Retribution. And, the principles behind this example are demonstrated in several other Bible stories.
Now, I went through all that as a means to point out the difference between the kind of forgiveness or pardon available to humanity before the advent of Christ, as opposed to after.
This long explanation was intended to demonstrate the difference between the type of Salach (the pardon, the forgiveness) that comes from the Father through our Mediator Yeshua HaMashiach (Jesus Christ), and the kind of Salach (pardon, forgiveness) that came to Israel by means of their Mediator Moses. Under Moses, the relationship with God could continue, and God would postpone the punishment and not destroy the guilty; but the sin itself, and all the guilt associated with it remained forever.
Under Christ, punishment is STILL due to the guilty party; but the penalty due to the guilty party is borne instead by Jesus; more importantly, the sin itself is ALSO pardoned. The iniquity and the guilt of the sin are forgotten and dissolved.
And this is one of the reasons that Paul, who understood well this principle of Vertical Retribution, called the New Covenant a better covenant. Because the New Covenant did things the earlier covenant could not do, because it was not designed to do it.
No earlier Covenant saved because they weren’t designed to save; they were intended for other purposes. And, forgiving BOTH the punishment AND the sin itself was one of the great features of the New Covenant.
So, resuming Numbers 14, God announces that while He will not immediately destroy the rebels, as a consequence for their great apostasy they will not ever be allowed to enter the Promised Land. And, the Lord defines the group that shall not enter as those 20 years of age and up. Why that group? Because they were the army, the fighting men, but they had refused to fight.
In verse 24, God makes an exception. He says that Caleb, one of the two scouts who said that Israel should stand on God’s promises and immediately take on Canaan, will be allowed to go into the land. Later, God makes specific mention of Joshua, as another that will be permitted to enter Canaan, because he too argued for Israel to go forward against Canaan.