Righteousness, atonement and imputation are important but complex concepts to wrap our minds around. As Westerners, we are often in danger of distorting these important Biblical concepts by viewing them through our own cultural lenses and not through the cultural lenses of the Biblical authors who present these concepts to us.
In the twenty-fifth chapter of the book of Numbers, in the Old Testament, there is a very illuminating and grisly story concerning the subject of atonement and covenant righteousness and it would behoove us to try to understand it. Israel was in the wilderness after leaving the land of Egypt for the purpose of being united with their own God, Yahweh, in the desert. Yahweh was understood by Israel to be the one true God with dominion over all other so-called gods. Israel was supposed to worship no other god. The one true God had called Israel out of Egypt, slavery, and idolatry, to become the pure bride of Yahweh. But Israel had a very difficult time with this calling. Life was tough and having friends in high places that you could see was often times more alluring than trusting in the one true God whom you could not see. So, Israel “played the harlot” as Numbers 25 tells us, and made an agreement with the nations around them to be allies. We might shrug our shoulders at this. Don’t we all need allies? What is wrong with Israel striking strategic bargains with her neighbors? Well, the problem is that in order to strike these bargains, an agreement had to be made between the nations which was also an agreement between the different gods of those nations. There would be ceremonies of worship to unite the nations and their gods. Not surprisingly, this would involve sexual intercourse with the other nations, also indicating the union of the gods. The one true God of Israel could not abide by this and He was angry and allowed or caused a plague to break out among the people of Israel, killing 24,000 according to the book of Numbers. As an aside, I don’t think this plague should be seen as an arbitrary punishment. Many things happen in the intercourse between unfamiliar nations, not least, sexual intercourse. I suspect that this plague was directly attached to the lewd practices connected to the worship of the gods.
So, how was the wrath of God turned away? How was atonement made for the sin of Israel? It was not by the sacrifice of a morally perfect being (as atonement is usually presented to us) but by the grisly death of two idolatrous people. In order to quell the rebellion and restore a unified and pure worship of the one true God, Moses and the judges of Israel had planned on executing the leaders of the people who had participated in this unfaithfulness. But while Moses and the judges of Israel were weeping over the behavior of the people and planning their course of action, one brash Israelite openly escorted his Moabite woman to his tent. This was no ordinary Moabite woman either but the daughter of one of the leaders of the Moabite people. This was a bold, defiant act of sedition against the God of Israel. But the son of the high priest of Yahweh, Phinehas, followed the man and the woman to their tent and ran them through with a single spear. And the book of Numbers tells us that in this way Phinehas made atonement for Israel.
If we are in the habit of understanding atonement as the appeasing of the anger of God by God finally being provided with a morally perfect victim to pay for the sins of the nations, we will have a problem understanding this story from Numbers. Of course, it would be a mistake to start with the atonement of Jesus and then try to understand the atonement of Phinehas in that light anyway. That would be the wrong way around. We need to understand why Phinehas’ action brought about atonement and then we will be able to better understand how Jesus’ death brought about atonement.
We tend to think of atonement as being a means of payment for wrongdoing as though there is a certain amount of suffering that one could endure to make up for wrongs committed in the past. And if we can’t endure that amount of suffering or if our suffering isn’t acceptable to God because we haven’t lived a morally perfect life, then we need another being without sin to suffer for us. I’m not really sure why we think that scenario would work, but whatever the case, we should not consider atonement to be merely the paying of a debt. Atonement is also about fulfilling an obligation, removing an obstacle or completing a mission. The reason Phinehas’ action was considered to be an act of atonement is because he put an end to the action that was causing the grief. With a thrust of a spear, Phinehas stayed the tide of open rebellion among the people of Israel. The psalmist tells us that this action was
“...reckoned to him (Phinehas) as righteousness forever .” Psalm 106:30
The “righteousness” that the psalmist declares has been given to Phinehas is not a moral uprightness as though God doesn’t see any flaws in the moral makeup of the person Phinehas now that he has speared these two idolatrous people. It would certainly be a mistake to understand the declaration over Phinehas that way. The status of “righteousness” attributed to Phinehas is a declaration that Phinehas stands to benefit from the covenant between God and His people. Phinehas’ action with the spear displayed that he believed in the God Yahweh and that he was looking forward to what Yahweh would do for Israel rather than what the false gods of Moab could do. Like Abraham, Phinehas believed God, resulting in an action taken, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness or covenant faithfulness. What is the difference? The difference is a that this is not an issue of general morality but an issue of covenant keeping.
From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible is all about the covenant that God made with Abraham. The big question for humans to answer is whether or not we will benefit from this covenant. Do we want to be part of the renewed humanity? We must come into the covenant with God. And we do this through baptism (1 Peter 3:21). When we are baptized into Jesus we recognize 1. that Jesus is what God wants humanity to look like. We recognize 2. that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise to renew humanity and the entire cosmos, i.e. Jesus is God’s righteousness or covenant faithfulness. And 3. when we are baptized into Jesus, we are joined to Him so that His history becomes our history. He was faithful to the God of Israel even to the point of death and we identify with that past faithfulness agreeing that it is the covenant justice of God. And, 4. through baptism, we share His present resurrection life by the renewal of the Holy Spirit and a transformed, sanctified nature in the present. And through baptism we anticipate sharing the future of Jesus who is the means by which God will make all things new, not least our earthly bodies.
”So, then, if the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead lives within you, the one who raised the Messiah from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies, too, through the Spirit who lives within you.” Romans 8:11