Burden and Strife

“At that time I said to you, ‘I am not able to bear you by myself. 10 The Lord your God has multiplied you, and behold, you are today as numerous as the stars of heaven. 11 May the Lord, the God of your fathers, make you a thousand times as many as you are and bless you, as he has promised you! 12 How can I bear by myself the weight and burden of you and your strife? 13 Choose for your tribes wise, understanding, and experienced men, and I will appoint them as your heads.’ 14 And you answered me, ‘The thing that you have spoken is good for us to do.’ 15 So I took the heads of your tribes, wise and experienced men, and set them as heads over you, commanders of thousands, commanders of hundreds, commanders of fifties, commanders of tens, and officers, throughout your tribes. 16 And I charged your judges at that time, ‘Hear the cases between your brothers, and judge righteously between a man and his brother or the alien who is with him. 17 You shall not be partial in judgment. You shall hear the small and the great alike. You shall not be intimidated by anyone, for the judgment is God’s. And the case that is too hard for you, you shall bring to me, and I will hear it.’ 18 And I commanded you at that time all the things that you should do.” – Deuteronomy 1:9-18 ESV

Moses is standing on the edge of the land of Canaan, addressing the next generation of Israelites who have arrived at the border and are facing the prospect of have to do what their predecessors had failed to do: Enter the land.

As part of his speech to the people, Moses recounts their journey from Mount Sinai, where God had made His covenant with them. It was there that God had given them His law and had instructed them, “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodcus 19:5 ESV).

Unlike the covenant God had made with Abraham concerning the land, this covenant, sometimes referred to as the Mosaic Covenant, was bilateral and conditional. In other words, it was a covenant that required a commitment from both parties. Each had to keep their end of the agreement. If the people obeyed God’s law, He would bless them. They would be His chosen possession. But if they failed to obey, there would be serious ramifications. 

And Moses subtly reminds them that God had kept His covenant commitment to Abraham. He had promised to make of Abraham a great nation and all they had to do was look around for the proof of God’s faithfulness.

“The Lord your God has multiplied you, and behold, you are today as numerous as the stars of heaven.” – Deuteronomy 1:10 ESV

God had greatly prospered them. In fact, in the opening verses of the book of Exodus, Moses provides the historical context that when Jacob and his family had fled to Egypt to escape the famine in Canaan, there had been seventy of them. But by the time Joseph had died and God sent Moses to deliver the people from their captivity in Egypt, we’re told that the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them” (Exodus 1:7 ESV).

The faithfulness of God to keep His covenant commitment to Abraham was clearly visible in the sheer number of Israelites who stood before Moses that day. He reminded them that their God had kept His word and had made them exceedingly fruitful. So much so, that the people in Canaan feared the people of Israel, even before they set foot in the land. When Joshua eventually sent two spies to reconnoiter the city of Jericho, a resident of the city confessed to them:

I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that the fear of you has fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away before you. For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you devoted to destruction. And as soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for the Lord your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath.” – Joshua 2:9-11 ESV

God had multiplied them. He had delivered them from captivity. He had led them across the wilderness; feeding, clothing, and protecting them along the way. And He had given them victories over their enemies on the east side of the Jordan. Now, it was time to cross over and take possession of the land.

But there was a problem. God’s blessing had become a burden for Moses. There were so many of them, that he was overwhelmed. But it wasn’t their numbers that was the cause of his headaches. It was their tendency to whine and complain. In fact, Moses put it even extremely blunt terms: “But you are such a heavy load to carry! How can I deal with all your problems and bickering?” (Deuteronomy 1:12 NLT).

This had been a problem from day one. Ever since Moses had led the people out of Egypt, they had displayed a strong propensity to express their displeasure. They complained about anything and everything – from the manna and quail God miraculously supplied for food to the man God had provided to lead them. And Moses reminded them that there had been a day when his father-in-law had given him some wise counsel. He had advised Moses to “choose from the people capable men, God-fearing, men of truth, those who hate bribes, and put them over the people as rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens” (Exodus 18:21: NLT). And Moses had done just that.

But while the people had agreed with the decision made by Moses, it’s clear that they continued to grumble and dispute. Even with the apppointment of additional judges, there were too many disputes to handle. And this speaks volumes regarding the spiritual state of the people of Israel. They were a disgruntled people because they were a disobedient people.

Jesus summed up the entire law with the following statement: “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40 NLT).

The people of Israel were failing to live up to the law of God. They were not loving Him or loving one another. They were too busy disputing and disagreeing with one another. And their lack of love for one another was a reflection of their lack of love for God. The apostle John put it this way: “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates a fellow believer, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see?” (1 John 4:20 NLT).

Moses had clearly and repeatedly  communicated God’s expectations. But he was so busy handling disputes and disagreements among the people that he had been forced to appoint additional “referees” to deal with the volume of issues taking place. How in the world were they going to possess the land if they couldn’t even get along with one another? What good were their formidable numbers going to be against their enemies if they couldn’t even stop from fighting among themselves?

The promised land lay before them. But their greatest obstacle wasn’t going to be the occupants of the land. It was going to be the members of their own faith community. What God had intended as a blessing, they had turned into a burden. Rather than enjoying the camaraderie of godly community, they experienced conflict and strife. And, instead of Moses spending his time leading the people in battle against their enemies, he was wasting his time solving disputes among brothers.

And, as we’ll see, the track record of God’s people was far from stellar. There were other issues that Moses will raise as he recaps the less-than-flattering history of Israel to this point. The promised land lay spread before them but a litany of broken promises lay behind them. Were they ready to change? Were they prepared to obey God and keep His commands? He was faithful. But would they be?

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson




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