To fantasize about a relationship with an imaginary man, whether he is the character in a Harlequin romance or a romanticized figment of an imagination that retains all the parts of a husband that are liked while discarding all the bits that are disliked, is still being unfaithful to the husband God has given you. A faithful wife is committed to one man: the man she is married to - not the man down the street or the man in her head.
The Bible uses the imagery of the marriage relationship to describe our relationship with God. Israel, in the Old Testament, is often portrayed as an unfaithful wife. She "plays the harlot" with other gods. For example, in Numbers 25, the metaphor of harlotry is used to describe Israel having an affair with the gods of the Moabites. In that chapter God is depicted as the jealous husband. The hero in the story is a man called Phinehas who runs a spear through a couple whose relationship combines sexual immorality with religious idolatry. Remember: previous blogs have highlighted that unrighteousness (perverted behavior) is related to and rooted in ungodliness (perverted beliefs about God).
As we read a story like the one that unfolds in Numbers 25, we may have two conflicting responses. Firstly, we think how terrible Israel was to get involved in all that idolatry and immorality - especially when they had just received God's amazing blessing in the prophecy of Balaam in the previous chapters. We're shocked at their appalling sin.
But secondly, we are shocked at the gruesome response to that sin. We feel that it is terrible that the hero is a man like Phinehas slaughtering this coupled couple with a single thrust of his spear. We recoil at the idea that his action was heroic because he mirrored the jealousy of God - for we don't like the notion that God is jealous. Especially when that jealousy was expressed earlier in the chapter by Israel's unfaithful tribal chiefs being impaled and hung up in the sun as a warning, and 24,000 people died of a plague. It took that gory spear thrust to stop the plague and make atonement for the people. Phinehas was rewarded for his actions with the promise of a perpetual priesthood for his descendants.
What dynamic is at play in this emotional conflict we struggle with as we read the Phinehas story?
We are like the unfaithful wife referred to at the start of the blog. Being good Christian people we are horrified at the thought of having an affair with another man. How terrible that Israel deserted her husband, Jehovah, and jumped into bed with with Baal. But then we start to muse on the things about our divine husband that we don't like - and begin to imagine him as a different kind of being. One without the anger, without the jealousy, without the uncompromising holiness. Just unconditional love. And before we know it we're worshiping a different god, our fantasy god - not the god of the Moabites down the street but the god in our heads. Having an affair with another god. It's not a real one made of stone or wood, but an imaginary one - god as we would like him to be, rather than God as he is. Fantasizing. Virtual spiritual adultery.
So, ironically, we find ourselves in exactly the same place as the idolatrous Israelites whom we mentally despise. And it will take a terrible thrust of the spear to nail our idolatry.
Fortunately the Old Testament always points us to Jesus. Jesus does not alter the revelation of who God is. God is still holy, jealous and burning with wrath. But Jesus is a better Phinehas. Yes - he radically nails sin and is rewarded with an eternal priesthood for his jealous defense of God's holiness as he restores the shattered covenant. But Jesus is not just the priest with the spear; he is the sacrifice who is speared. The one who does the nailing is the one who is nailed. He perfectly upholds the true revelation of the true God as he thrusts his spear to burst the bubble of our imaginary fantasy God. But he receives that spear thrust into his own side as he takes the punishment that our covenant unfaithfulness deserves. There's hope for adulterous idol worshipers - and for romantic fantasizers worshiping adulterated mental images of God.