Walk in My Ways

37 The Lord said to Moses, 38 “Speak to the people of Israel, and tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a cord of blue on the tassel of each corner. 39 And it shall be a tassel for you to look at and remember all the commandments of the Lord, to do them, not to follow after your own heart and your own eyes, which you are inclined to whore after. 40 So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and be holy to your God. 41 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I am the Lord your God.”  Numbers 15:37-41 ESV

This is a rather strange and seemingly out-of-place passage. Why did God choose to give Moses these odd-sounding instructions at this particular point in time? It’s clear from the book of Deuteronomy that this was not the first time that God had issued this command.

“You shall make yourself tassels on the four corners of the garment with which you cover yourself. – Deuteronomy 22:12 ESV

But what was the purpose behind this non-negotiable piece of fashion advice? As the text points out, they were to serve as a kind of memory enhancer.

“When you see the tassels, you will remember and obey all the commands of the Lord instead of following your own desires and defiling yourselves, as you are prone to do.” – Numbers 15:39 NLT

As the old saying goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” The tassels were to be an ever-present visual reminder to keep the commandments of God. It would be like someone tying a string on their finger in order to remind them of something important.

“These tassels were to act as reminders to be totally loyal to the Lord…” – Gordon J. Wenham, Numbers, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries

It seems that every time an Israelite looked down at his feet, he would see the tassels and be reminded to “walk” according to the will of God. They would recall God’s command to their patriarch, Abraham.

“I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless…” – Genesis 17:1 ESV

The Hebrew word is הָלַךְ (hālaḵ), which can mean “to walk,” but can also refer to conducting one’s life. Abraham had been commanded to live his life blameless, in full view of God Almighty. There was to be no compartmentalization or hidden areas in Abraham’s life. No aspect of his life was off-limits to the all-knowing, all-seeing God. And God was demanding that Abraham live the same kind of life that Noah had lived.

Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God. – Genesis 6:9 ESV

And Noah was following the example of his ancestor, Enoch, who had also “walked with God” (Genesis 5:22). And when Jacob was blessing his son, Joseph, he spoke of how his father and grandfather had “walked” with God.

“The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life long to this day…” – Genesis 48:15 ESV

Because the tassels were located on the hem of the garment, they would be in clear sight every time an Israelite looked down to determine his or her next step. When the prepared to ascend a set of stairs, they would see the tassels and be reminded to consider their steps. When they looked down to assess the ground beneath their feet, the tassels would prompt them to take special care of their spiritual footing. They were not to stray from God. They were to remain on the straight-and-narrow.

The prophet, Isaiah, would later warn the people of Israel to watch their step.

Thus says the Lord:
“Stand by the roads, and look,
    and ask for the ancient paths,
where the good way is; and walk in it,
    and find rest for your souls.” – Jeremiah 6:16 ESV

They were to seek directions so that they might not take a wrong turn and end up in the wrong destination. But, sadly, Jeremiah points out that the people of Israel refused his advice.

“But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.’” – Jeremiah 6:16 ESV

They ignored the tassels, forgot to obey God’s commands, and ending up losing their way. And rather than seeking help, they stubbornly persisted in following their own misguided directions. The apostle Paul describes the destiny of all those who take their eyes off the tassels and forget to walk in obedience to God.

They are headed for destruction. Their god is their appetite, they brag about shameful things, and they think only about this life here on earth. – Philippians 3:19 NLT

In the book of Numbers, God warns what happens when His children follow their own desires: They end up defiling themselves. They replace God’s will with their own and step off the path that He has chosen for them. God’s choice of words is strong. He compares their disobedience to adultery or prostitution. The Hebrew word is זָנָה (zānâ), and it means “to be a harlot, act as a harlot, commit fornication.” And this description was meant to stand in stark contrast to their calling as God’s people. He had set them apart as His own, declaring them to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

“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.” – Exodus 19:5-6 ESV

There is a huge difference between a priest and prostitute, or there should be. And to drive home the concept of the priestly status, God commanded that they were to use blue threat to attach the tassels to their garments. Blue was the color of royalty and divinity and its presence on their garments would to signify their position as servants of the King. This symbolism would not have escaped them because the ark of the covenant, over which God’s glory rested, was to be covered with a blue cloth everytime it was transported (Numbers 4:6). According to God’s instructions, “a veil of blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen” was to hung between the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle (Exodus 26:31, 36). Even the robe of the high priest was to be made of royal blue (Exodus 28:31).

Each and every Jew was to consider themselves a priest of God and, as such, they were expected to live in obedience to His commands. The tassels were intended to serve as reminders of their status as His chosen people.

“The tassels will help you remember that you must obey all my commands and be holy to your God.” – Numbers 15;40 NLT

Their lives were to match their calling. Set-apart people are expected to live set-apart lives. Unlike the man who willingly violated the Sabbath and was stoned to death, they were to walk according to God’s commands. Each time they prepared to take a step, they would see the tassels on the hem of their garments and be reminded to tread carefully and obediently.

Not long before his death in the wilderness, Moses had delivered a lengthy and passionate speech to the people of Israel. Because of his own disobedience, he would not be entering the land of Canaan with them. So, motivated by his own failure to fully obey the Lord, he called the people to “walk” before the Lord all the days of their lives.

“You shall be careful therefore to do as the Lord your God has commanded you. You shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left. You shall walk in all the way that the Lord your God has commanded you, that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land that you shall possess.” – Deuteronomy 5:32-33 ESV

Moses longed for the people of Israel to enjoy all the blessings that God had in store for them. But he knew it would require obedience.

“And if you faithfully obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the Lord your God. – Deuteronomy 28:1-2 ESV

“The Lord will establish you as a people holy to himself, as he has sworn to you, if you keep the commandments of the Lord your God and walk in his ways.” – Deuteronomy 28:9 ESV

But Moses also warned them about the consequences of disobedience. Failure to “walk” with God would prove costly, even catastrophic.

“But if you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you.Deuteronomy 28:15 ESV

“All these curses shall come upon you and pursue you and overtake you till you are destroyed, because you did not obey the voice of the Lord your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes that he commanded you.Deuteronomy 28:45 ESV

It pays to obey. Walking the talk has its benefits. God wanted the Israelites to know that conducting one’s life in keeping with God’s commands wasn’t just good advice, it was a matter of life and death. And the Israelites received a much-needed reminder to consider the source of the commands they were called to keep.

“I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt that I might be your God. I am the Lord your God!”Numbers 15:41 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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.

 

Blessings and Obedience

15 And the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven 16 and said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, 18 and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.” 19 So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beersheba. And Abraham lived at Beersheba.

20 Now after these things it was told to Abraham, “Behold, Milcah also has borne children to your brother Nahor: 21 Uz his firstborn, Buz his brother, Kemuel the father of Aram, 22 Chesed, Hazo, Pildash, Jidlaph, and Bethuel.” 23 (Bethuel fathered Rebekah.) These eight Milcah bore to Nahor, Abraham’s brother. 24 Moreover, his concubine, whose name was Reumah, bore Tebah, Gaham, Tahash, and Maacah. Genesis 22:15-24 ESV

Abraham had fully intended to follow through with God’s command to sacrifice his son, Isaac. But God had graciously intervened and provided a ram to replace Isaac as the sacrifice. This imagery of a substitute is found throughout the Scriptures and foreshadows the coming of Jesus, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). In the book of Exodus, the Israelites were spared the devastating consequences of the final plague if they followed Yahweh’s command to sacrifice a lamb and place its blood on the doorposts and lintels of their homes (Exodus 12:7). He gave them detailed instructions for preparing and consuming the lamb and promised to spare their firstborn sons if they did as He commanded them.

“For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt. – Exodus 12:12-13 ESV

These Passover lambs served as substitutes for the people of Israel, providing a gracious and undeserved means of escaping the wrath of God. The Israelites had not earned God’s deliverance from judgment. While their suffering at the hands of the Egyptians was unwarranted, so was their salvation. God’s offer to spare them was in spite of them, not because of them. And God’s provision of a substitute for Isaac was not based on Abraham’s obedience or Isaac’s innocence. According to God’s Word, there is no one who stands before God as righteousness and deserving of His grace and mercy.

They are corrupt, and their actions are evil;
    not one of them does good!

God looks down from heaven
    on the entire human race;
he looks to see if anyone is truly wise,
    if anyone seeks God.
But no, all have turned away;
    all have become corrupt.
No one does good,
    not a single one! – Psalm 53:1-3 NLT

Don’t overlook the fact that God still required a sacrifice. He had demanded the death of Isaac but had willingly provided a ram to serve as the boy’s proxy. This ram, which appeared at just the right moment and had somehow been ensnared in a thicket, had been preapproved and preordained by God. Its sacrificial, substitutionary death provided Isaac with life. Once again, this scene foreshadows another Lamb whose life would provide victory over death and the grave.

“Worthy the Lamb for sinners slain,”
Cry the redeemed above,
“Blessing and honor to obtain,
And everlasting love.”

“Worthy the Lamb,” on earth we sing,
“Who died our souls to save;
Henceforth, O Death, where is thy sting?
Thy victory, O Grave?”

– James Montgomery, “Worthy the Lamb for Sinner’s Slain,” 1825, 1853

One can only imagine the extreme joy that Abraham experienced as he untied the ropes that held his son and embraced him in his arms. And on the altar he had constructed, Abraham and Isaac placed the body of the ram God had provided. This lifeless animal became a token of Abraham’s gratitude and an expression of his reverence for his gracious and merciful God.

And having completed the sacrifice, Abraham received a second message from the Lord.

“By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.” – Genesis 22:16-18 ESV

God reiterated the promise He had made when He called Abraham out of Haran.

Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” – Genesis 12:1-3 ESV

But this time, God seems to indicate that the blessings are conditional.

“Here again God promised Abraham that he would become the recipient of the covenant blessings. The covenant was not based on obedience, nor was the perpetuity of the covenant based on obedience—but rather the reception of covenant blessings was conditioned on obedience. Remember, an unconditional covenant may have conditional blessings.” – J. Dwight Pentecost, Thy Kingdom Come

God was recommitting Himself to His covenant obligations. He assured Abraham that He would do what He said He would do. He would make of Abraham a great nation, and Isaac would be the means through which that promise was fulfilled. But He was also reminding Abraham that the blessings associated with the covenant would be conditional. They would require obedience. In order for Abraham to experience the blessings of Canaan, he had been required to leave Haran and his kinsmen behind. God had forbidden Abraham from declaring Eliezer, his servant, to be his heir. And Abraham had been required to obey God’s command and disinherit Ishmael. The result of all of this was God’s commitment to bless Abraham through Isaac. Obedience always precedes blessing.

Centuries later, when the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were preparing to enter the land of Canaan after their 400-years of captivity in Egypt, Moses had delivered God’s clear call to obedience.

“And if you faithfully obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the Lord your God. – Deuteronomy 28:1-2 ESV

God had kept the promise He had made to Abraham nearly half a century earlier.

“Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation…” – Genesis 15:13-16 ESV

And God would ensure that Abraham’s offspring received the inheritance He had promised them. But to fully enjoy all the blessings the land had to offer, they would have to live in obedience to His commands. And Moses had been very specific.

“Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field. Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground and the fruit of your cattle, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock. Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out.” – Deuteronomy 28:3-6 ESV

The blessings were contingent upon obedience. And Moses made it painfully clear that disobedience would result in severe and costly consequences.

“But if you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you. Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the field. Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Cursed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock. Cursed shall you be when you come in, and cursed shall you be when you go out.” – Deuteronomy 28:15-19 ESV

They would find themselves living in the land of promise, but unable to enjoy all the blessings the land afforded. And Moses warned them that their continued failure to live in obedience would result in their eventual removal from the land.

“Whereas you were as numerous as the stars of heaven, you shall be left few in number, because you did not obey the voice of the Lord your God. And as the Lord took delight in doing you good and multiplying you, so the Lord will take delight in bringing ruin upon you and destroying you. And you shall be plucked off the land that you are entering to take possession of it.” – Deuteronomy 28:62-63 ESV

Abraham had been willing to obey the command of God and offer up his son as a sacrifice. And, according to God, Abraham’s obedience was the reason the blessings associated with the covenant would be fulfilled

“…because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore.” – Genesis 22:16-17 ESV

Abraham had not earned God’s blessings. God is simply stating that His blessings are always contingent upon obedience. Adam and Eve enjoyed the blessings of Eden as long as they obeyed God’s command to abstain from eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But as soon as they disobeyed God’s command and ate of the tree, they were cursed and eventually cast out of the garden. But their disobedience did not keep God from fulfilling His preordained plan to redeem the world through the seed of Adam and Eve. In fact, their disobedience set in motion the grand redemptive plan that God had put in place before the foundation of the world.

In choosing to obey God, Abraham received his son back. But even more importantly, Abraham secured the arrival of another “offspring” who would become a blessing to the nations. Abraham had no way of knowing what God had in store for him and his descendants. He could only take his son and return to his recently purchased property in Beersheba.

Moses closes out this chapter with a short genealogy of Abraham’s brother, Nahor. And his intent for including this list of obscure and difficult-to-pronounce names is simple. He is beginning to shift the focus from Abraham to Isaac. From this point forward, Moses will begin to chronicle the lives of Abraham’s descendants. And one name should stand out in the family tree of Nahor: Rebekah. Through a series of God-ordained events, she will become the wife of Isaac. And with their marriage, the stage will be set for Abraham to pass on his inheritance to his son, whose very life he owed to God.

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.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

Exodus Reversed

58 “If you are not careful to do all the words of this law that are written in this book, that you may fear this glorious and awesome name, the Lord your God, 59 then the Lord will bring on you and your offspring extraordinary afflictions, afflictions severe and lasting, and sicknesses grievous and lasting. 60 And he will bring upon you again all the diseases of Egypt, of which you were afraid, and they shall cling to you. 61 Every sickness also and every affliction that is not recorded in the book of this law, the Lord will bring upon you, until you are destroyed. 62 Whereas you were as numerous as the stars of heaven, you shall be left few in number, because you did not obey the voice of the Lord your God. 63 And as the Lord took delight in doing you good and multiplying you, so the Lord will take delight in bringing ruin upon you and destroying you. And you shall be plucked off the land that you are entering to take possession of it.

64 “And the Lord will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other, and there you shall serve other gods of wood and stone, which neither you nor your fathers have known. 65 And among these nations you shall find no respite, and there shall be no resting place for the sole of your foot, but the Lord will give you there a trembling heart and failing eyes and a languishing soul. 66 Your life shall hang in doubt before you. Night and day you shall be in dread and have no assurance of your life. 67 In the morning you shall say, ‘If only it were evening!’ and at evening you shall say, ‘If only it were morning!’ because of the dread that your heart shall feel, and the sights that your eyes shall see. 68 And the Lord will bring you back in ships to Egypt, a journey that I promised that you should never make again; and there you shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but there will be no buyer.” Deuteronomy 28:58-68 ESV

In this last portion of chapter 28, Moses makes an unmistakable link between the future state of Israel and their former condition in Egypt. In effect, he describes them experiencing a reverse exodus. More than four decades earlier, God had graciously delivered the people of Israel from their captivity in Egypt and led them to the land of Canaan – the land He had promised to give to the descendants of Abraham. Now, as Moses attempts to prepare the people to enter the land and conquer it, he warns them of the dangers associated with disobeying God’s commands. If they fail to keep God’s laws, they will experience a litany of curses that will leave them in a state of physical and moral degradation.

And Moses ends his bone-chilling description of the curses of God by letting them know that they will experience a complete reversal of fortunes, including their return to captivity in Egypt.

“And the Lord will bring you back in ships to Egypt, a journey that I promised that you should never make again; and there you shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but there will be no buyer.” – Deuteronomy 28:68 ESV

Think about how this news would have impacted the Israelites. They were standing on the border of Canaan, preparing to enter the land God had promised as their inheritance, and now Moses is telling them that failure to comply with God’s laws will result in their return to their former state as slaves in Egypt. But long before that happens, they will have to endure the same kind of pain and suffering the Egyptians had endured as a result of the ten plagues brought upon them by God.

“…the Lord will bring on you and your offspring extraordinary afflictions, afflictions severe and lasting, and sicknesses grievous and lasting. And he will bring upon you again all the diseases of Egypt, of which you were afraid, and they shall cling to you.” – Deuteronomy 28:59-60 ESV

God had punished the Egyptians for their refusal to let His people go. Repeatedly, Moses had appeared before Pharaoh, asking that he release the Israelites from their captivity. But each time, Pharaoh had refused. And his stubborn resistance to the will of God had been met with a series of plagues that grew in their intensity. Eventually, God brought upon the entire nation of Egypt the death of the firstborn, a devastating tragedy that struck every household, including Pharaoh’s.

And Moses warns that all this and more will happen to the Israelites – should they choose to live in rebellion to God.

One of the things we tend to overlook or downplay in these warnings from Moses is the extreme dichotomy they represent. Things would not be as they were meant to be. The promised land had been meant to be a place of rest. It was intended to be the polar opposite of their time spend in Egypt. In fact, when God had chosen Moses to be the one to deliver the people of Israel from captivity, He had told him:

“I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey…” – Exodus 3:7-8 ESV

Canaan was to be a place of fruitfulness, abundance, blessing, rest, and peace. And the first time thei Israelites had arrived at the border, they had chosen to reject God’s command to enter the land, out of fear of its inhabitant. And the author of Hebrews used that ocassion as a lesson for New Testament Christians.

“Today when you hear his voice,
    don’t harden your hearts
    as Israel did when they rebelled.”

And who was it who rebelled against God, even though they heard his voice? Wasn’t it the people Moses led out of Egypt? And who made God angry for forty years? Wasn’t it the people who sinned, whose corpses lay in the wilderness? And to whom was God speaking when he took an oath that they would never enter his rest? Wasn’t it the people who disobeyed him? So we see that because of their unbelief they were not able to enter his rest. – Hebrews 3:15-19 NLT

They were not allowed to “enter his rest.” Their rebellion resulted in their deaths in the wilderness. That generation would spend 40 years wandering in the wilderness, until each of them had died off, before the next generation would be given another opportunity to obey God and conquer the land.

And Moses has warned that second generation not to repeat the mistakes of their forefathers, or they too would find themselves being cast out of the land. They would go from enjoying God’s rest to experiencing slavery in Egypt again.

It was God’s will that the people of Israel “fear this glorious and awesome name, the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 28:58 ESV). And Moses reminds the Israelites, “the Lord took delight in doing you good and multiplying you” (Deuteronomy 28:63 ESV). But their disobedience would result in the polar opposite reaction from God.

“The Lord will take delight in bringing ruin upon you and destroying you.” – Deuteronomy 28:63 ESV

God would leave the Israelites scattered, demoralized, oppressed, weary, and suffering from “a trembling heart and failing eyes and a languishing soul” (Deuteronomy 28:65 ESV). Their hearts will be filled with dread. Their lives will be marked by regret, loss, and a longing for each day to come to an end. But the nighttime will be no better. The hours will drag by as they long for the new day to dawn. Then the miserable cycle of frustration and despair will repeat itself.

And Moses ends this dismal list of curses with a bleak prediction of Israel restored to captivity in Egypt – right back to where they started. They will be forced to watch as the promised land fades into the distance as they make their way back to Egypt as slaves. They will endure the shame and humiliation of a reverse exodus. And their lives will once again be marked by bondage, not freedom. There will be no more rest. They will enjoy no more rewards or blessings from God. All because they decided to disobey the law of God.

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

How Low Can You Go?

52 “They shall besiege you in all your towns, until your high and fortified walls, in which you trusted, come down throughout all your land. And they shall besiege you in all your towns throughout all your land, which the Lord your God has given you. 53 And you shall eat the fruit of your womb, the flesh of your sons and daughters, whom the Lord your God has given you, in the siege and in the distress with which your enemies shall distress you. 54 The man who is the most tender and refined among you will begrudge food to his brother, to the wife he embraces, and to the last of the children whom he has left, 55 so that he will not give to any of them any of the flesh of his children whom he is eating, because he has nothing else left, in the siege and in the distress with which your enemy shall distress you in all your towns. 56 The most tender and refined woman among you, who would not venture to set the sole of her foot on the ground because she is so delicate and tender, will begrudge to the husband she embraces, to her son and to her daughter, 57 her afterbirth that comes out from between her feet and her children whom she bears, because lacking everything she will eat them secretly, in the siege and in the distress with which your enemy shall distress you in your towns.  Deuteronomy 28:52-57 ESV

These are disturbing verses. Their content is graphic and difficult to comprehend. And it is essential that we not forget the context. The people of Israel are poised to enter the land of Canaan and Moses has been addressing them for quite some time now. He has reiterated the law to them and reminded them of the blessings that will accompany obedience to God’s commands. But has also been warning them about the curses that will fall on them should they choose to rebel against God by disobeying His law.

But in these verses, Moses describes some very disturbing scenes that had to have left the Israelites appalled and shaking their heads in disbelief. They could never have imagined these kinds of things happening among their people. The graphic nature of Moses’ words would have been offensive and off-putting. Some probably accused Moses of resorting to scare tactics, using hyperbolic imagery in an attempt to goad them into fear-based compliance to God’s law. The thought of these kinds of hideous things happening among them would have been impossible to comprehend or even consider.

After all, Moses describes grotesque scenes of desperately hungry people resorting to cannibalism in order to keep from starving to death. The enemy has surrounded their city, creating a food-shortage within its wall and leaving the inhabitants with no food and little hope of survival. And this scene will be taking place all throughout the land of Canaan, as city after city comes under attack from a distant nation whom God will send against the people of Israel.

“The Lord will bring a nation against you from far away, from the end of the earth, swooping down like the eagle, a nation whose language you do not understand, a hard-faced nation who shall not respect the old or show mercy to the young.” – Deuteronomy 28:49-50 ESV

Once again, as far-fetched as all of this may have sounded to the people of Israel, Moses was actually providing a God-ordained glimpse into the future. He was revealing what will actually take place when the Assyrians come against the northern kingdom of Israel and, hundreds of years later, when the Babylonians sweep down on the southern kingdom of Judah. The dire circumstances Moses described would actually take place. And Moses would not be the only one to predict this unfathomable outcome. Hundreds of years later, the prophet, Jeremiah, would deliver the following warning from God to the people of Judah:

“And I will make this city a horror, a thing to be hissed at. Everyone who passes by it will be horrified and will hiss because of all its wounds. And I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and their daughters, and everyone shall eat the flesh of his neighbor in the siege and in the distress, with which their enemies and those who seek their life afflict them.” – Jeremiah 18:8-9 ESV

The book of Lamentations predicts this same implausible outcome.

Look, O Lord, and see!
    With whom have you dealt thus?
Should women eat the fruit of their womb,
    the children of their tender care?
Should priest and prophet be killed
    in the sanctuary of the Lord? – Lamentations 2:20 ESV

And the prophet Ezekiel would provide additional proof of God’s coming judgment.

“And because of all your abominations I will do with you what I have never yet done, and the like of which I will never do again. Therefore fathers shall eat their sons in your midst, and sons shall eat their fathers” – Ezekiel 5:9-10

That these atrocities actually took place is beyond debate. The Jewish historian, Josephus, records that, during the Roman siege of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, the city’s starving citizens resorted to eating their own children. He provides a detailed account of one such circumstance.

Among the residents of the region beyond Jordan was a woman called Mary, daughter of Eleazar, of the village of Bethezuba (the name means “House of Hyssop”). She was well off, and of good family, and had fled to Jerusalem with her relatives, where she became involved with the siege. Most of the property she had packed up and brought with her from Peraea had been plundered by the tyrants [Simon and John, leaders of the Jewish war-effort], and the rest of her treasure, together with such foods as she had been able to procure, was being carried by their henchmen in their daily raids. In her bitter resentment the poor woman cursed and abused these extortioners, and this incensed them against her. However, no one put her to death either from exasperation or pity. She grew weary of trying to find food for her kinsfolk. In any case, it was by now impossible to get any, wherever you tried. Famine gnawed at her vitals, and the fire of rage was ever fiercer than famine. So, driven by fury and want, she committed a crime against nature. Seizing her child, an infant at the breast, she cried, My poor baby, why should I keep you alive in this world of war and famine? Even if we live till the Romans come, they will make slaves of us; and anyway, hunger will get us before slavery does; and the rebels are crueler than both. Come, be food for me, and an avenging fury to the rebels, and a tale of cold horror to the world to complete the monstrous agony of the Jews. With these words she killed her son, roasted the body, swallowed half of it, and stored the rest in a safe place. But the rebels were on her at once, smelling roasted meat, and threatening to kill her instantly if she did not produce it. – Josephus, The Jewish War

So, there’s little doubt that the words of Moses were far from idle threats. God was deadly serious and wanted His people to know that a disregard for His holy law would result a breakdown of the social fabric of Israelite society that would be unimaginable and incomprehensible.

Josephus would go on to describe the scene that took place behind the walls of Jerusalem as “an act unparalleled in the history of either the Greeks or the barbarians, and as horrible to relate as it is incredible to hear.”

The curses of God would render every man and woman into selfish and self-protective beasts whose only concern would become their own personal survival. Love of God and love of others would be the farthest thing from their minds. The thought of a killing and consuming her own child is beyond comprehension. But the judgment of God against the repeated rebellion of His people would be so severe that the unthinkable would become commonplace. What was once immoral would become acceptable and unavoidable.

The Israelites, who at one time had enjoyed special status as His chosen people, would eventually become guilty of committing some of the most heinous and morally repugnant acts ever committed by humanity. And as Moses has pointed out, it will begin with their decision to disobey the commands of God. The “tender and refined” among them would become the cold-hearted and callous. Rebellion against God is downward spiral with a trajectory that is difficult to reverse. And these mind-boggling, sensibility-shocking descriptions of the once-law-abiding Israelites resorting to cannibalism may be difficult to comprehend, but they would be the unavoidable outcome of a willful choice to reject the will of God by disobeying the law of God.

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

From Bad to Worse

25 “The Lord will cause you to be defeated before your enemies. You shall go out one way against them and flee seven ways before them. And you shall be a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth. 26 And your dead body shall be food for all birds of the air and for the beasts of the earth, and there shall be no one to frighten them away. 27 The Lord will strike you with the boils of Egypt, and with tumors and scabs and itch, of which you cannot be healed. 28 The Lord will strike you with madness and blindness and confusion of mind, 29 and you shall grope at noonday, as the blind grope in darkness, and you shall not prosper in your ways. And you shall be only oppressed and robbed continually, and there shall be no one to help you. 30 You shall betroth a wife, but another man shall ravish her. You shall build a house, but you shall not dwell in it. You shall plant a vineyard, but you shall not enjoy its fruit. 31 Your ox shall be slaughtered before your eyes, but you shall not eat any of it. Your donkey shall be seized before your face, but shall not be restored to you. Your sheep shall be given to your enemies, but there shall be no one to help you. 32 Your sons and your daughters shall be given to another people, while your eyes look on and fail with longing for them all day long, but you shall be helpless. 33 A nation that you have not known shall eat up the fruit of your ground and of all your labors, and you shall be only oppressed and crushed continually, 34 so that you are driven mad by the sights that your eyes see. 35 The Lord will strike you on the knees and on the legs with grievous boils of which you cannot be healed, from the sole of your foot to the crown of your head.” Deuteronomy 28:25-35 ESV

Let’s face it, bad things happen. Calamity comes to everyone because it is no respecter of persons. And while God had promised that obedience to His law would bring blessings, He had never said that their lives would be trouble-free, disease-resistant, peace-filled, or painless. There would still be plenty of difficulties because they lived in a fallen world. They would still be required to offer sacrifices because they would continue to sin and need atonement.

So, when Moses discusses the curses that will come upon the people of Israel for what appears to be their stubborn and ongoing disobedience to God’s law, he makes sure they understand that this will be difficulties and trials on steroids. These will not be your everyday, run-of-the-mill troubles that are a normal part of everyday life on this planet. No, they will be extreme, and like nothing they have ever experienced before. There will be no relief or escape. They will feature the worst kind of suffering one can image and then take that suffering one step further.

Look closely at how each curse is described. God was going to personally see to it that Israel lost battles against their enemies. That was nothing new for Israel because they had already been defeated at Ai. But Moses describes a demoralizing rout that has the Israelites scattering in seven different directions in an attempt to save their lives. And the failure of the Israelite army will be so catastrophic that it will leave other nations in terror. The fall of Israel at the hands of their enemy will create a sense of fear among the other nations of the region, as they anticipate their own defeat against the same foe. History records that, eventually, Israel was roundly defeated by the Assyrians and Judah fell to the Babylonians. And both of these nations left a wake of destruction in their path, as they ransacked kingdom after kingdom, sending shockwaves of terror among the nations that remained.

And Moses lets the Israelites know that their defeat will be complete, with no one escaping. Their bodies will lie scattered on the ground and become “food for all birds of the air and for the beasts of the earth” (Deuteronomy 28:26 ESV). No burials or memorials and no one to mourn their deaths. In fact, there will be no one left to scare off the carrion or scavenging dogs. This defeat will not only be demoralizing, but it will also be devasting and irreversible.

Next, Moses reveals that the Israelites will suffer from boils and tumors, just like the ones that God brought upon the Egyptians as part of the ten plagues. God will use the very same diseases that forced the Egyptians to release His people from captivity as a form of punishment for their disobedience. And, once again, Moses takes the suffering a step further, stating that there will be no healing from the pain and itching. These diseases will be permanent and untreatable, with no hope of relief or chance of restoration. And, perhaps as a result of the unrelenting agony caused by the boils and tumors, the people of Israel will suffer from madness, loss of sight, and confusion of mind. Their diminished mental capacity and blindness will leave them incapable of living normal lives, which will result in financial ruin. And, as before, Moses takes his message of doom to another level by warning them, “you shall be only oppressed and robbed continually, and there shall be no one to help you” (Deuteronomy 28:29 ESV). Just when they think it can’t get any worse, it will.

Next, Moses uses a series of short scenarios to further illustrate the devastating consequences of disobedience to God’s law. He begins with a case of betrothal. A man who experiences the joy of finding a woman to whom he becomes engaged will end up watching another man sleep with her. He will never have the privilege of consummating his own marriage. This most likely describes the grim reality of war. This man will have to watch as his betrothed is raped by an enemy soldier. And as if that was not enough, he and his future wife will never know the joy of living in the house he built for them. They will never enjoy the fruit of the vineyard he planted. And the ox he used to till his fields will be slaughtered and eaten by his enemies. His donkeys and sheep will become plunder, and his children will be taken as slaves. But it will get worse. This man will be left longing for his family but will find no one to help him. His loss will be great, and there will be no relief in sight.

All of these things will come upon the Israelites at the hands of a single nation that will leave them “only oppressed and crushed continually” (Deuteronomy 28:33 ESV). God will use this nation to bring about His judgment upon His own people. But it will be their own fault. Their decision to disobey God’s commands will result in their own destruction. And the books of the prophets of God are filled with calls for the people of Israel to repent and return to Him. God will repeatedly issue His compassionate offer of restitution if His people will only repent of their ways. But they won’t, and all that Moses describes in these verses will take place.

These curses are not a form of hyperbole or exaggeration on Moses’ part. They are prophetic pronouncements concerning God’s judgment. So, when Moses says, “the Lord will strike you on the knees and on the legs with grievous boils of which you cannot be healed, from the sole of your foot to the crown of your head” (Deuteronomy 28:35 ESV), he is not issuing idol threats. He means it. And, as before, this warning of grievous boils will be far worse than they can imagine. They will cover the Israelites from head to foot, and they will not respond to any form of treatment or remedy. Repeated disobedience to God’s commands will bring devastating and debilitating consequences that will leave the people of Israel without hope and devoid of help. And Moses is just getting started.

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

A Reversal of Fortunes

15 “But if you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you. 16 Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the field. 17 Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. 18 Cursed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock. 19 Cursed shall you be when you come in, and cursed shall you be when you go out.

20 “The Lord will send on you curses, confusion, and frustration in all that you undertake to do, until you are destroyed and perish quickly on account of the evil of your deeds, because you have forsaken me. 21 The Lord will make the pestilence stick to you until he has consumed you off the land that you are entering to take possession of it. 22 The Lord will strike you with wasting disease and with fever, inflammation and fiery heat, and with drought and with blight and with mildew. They shall pursue you until you perish. 23 And the heavens over your head shall be bronze, and the earth under you shall be iron. 24 The Lord will make the rain of your land powder. From heaven dust shall come down on you until you are destroyed.” Deuteronomy 28:15-24 ESV

Obey God, and things will go well with you. That is the basic message behind verses 1-14. But, at any point, should you choose to disobey God, you can expect things to take a decidedly different turn – for the worse.

Over the next 54 verses, Moses is going to provide a detailed explanation of the curses that will fall on the people of Israel if and when they choose to disobey God’s laws. And the first part of the list contains a very noticeable and intentional contrast to the blessings outlined in verses 1-14. Moses basically removed the word, “blessed” and replaced it with the word, “cursed.”

Your towns and your fields
    will be cursed.
Your fruit baskets and breadboards
    will be cursed.
Your children and your crops
    will be cursed.
The offspring of your herds and flocks
    will be cursed.
Wherever you go and whatever you do,
    you will be cursed. – Deuteronomy 28:16-19 NLT

Things would go from good to bad. Fruitfulness would turn to barrenness. Productivity would languish. Prosperity would greatly diminish. And the doom and gloom would follow them wherever they went. There would be no escape. They could disobey God, but they would never be free of His just and righteous punishment.  As the blessings would be a constant reminder of His power and presence, so would be the curses. To disobey God is to act as if God does not even exist or, if He does, He lacks the power to do anything about your disobedience. That’s why King David described the one who chooses to disobey God as a fool.

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is none who does good. – Psalm 14:1 ESV

Another psalmist echoed David’s sentiments when he wrote:

In the pride of his face the wicked does not seek him;
all his thoughts are, “There is no God.” – Psalm 10:4 ESV

But Moses makes it clear that the people of Israel can run from God, but they will find no place to hide. He will find them and punish them for their sins. They can act as if there is no God, but that will do nothing to eliminate the wrath of God against them for their rebellion.

“The Lord will send on you curses, confusion, and frustration in all that you undertake to do, until you are destroyed and perish quickly on account of the evil of your deeds, because you have forsaken me. – Deuteronomy 28:20 ESV

Moses promises three things: mĕerah, mĕhuwmah, and mig`ereth. These three alliterative Hebrew words each have significant meaning and, together, they paint a bleak image of the results of God’s curses. The first word, mĕerah, is not the same one used for curses throughout this passage. That word is ‘arar. The kind of curses to which Moses refers in verse 20 seem to be the byproducts or outcomes of God’s original imprecations. The fruitlessness and barrenness brought on by God will result in further, more advanced problems, like hunger and starvation. The inability to bear children will result in smaller family units and a diminishing population. Things will go from bad to worse.

And this will bring with it mĕhuwmah, a word for turmoil, confusion, or disquietude. Anxiety and lack of peace will be the order of the day. Which reminds me of the phrase:

Know God, know peace. No God, no peace.

The curses of God will leave the people of Israel in a state of confusion and unrest. Moses uses the same word used to describe a rich man who has everything but lacks a fear of God.

Better is a little with the fear of the Lord
    than great treasure and trouble [mĕhuwmah] with it. – Proverbs 15:16 ESV

The third word Moses uses is mig`ereth, which means “rebuke” or “reproof.” The ESV and NSRV translate this word as “frustration.” Its only occurrence in the Bible is in this verse, so its exact meaning is difficult to nail down. But it seems that these three words are meant to convey the outcome or result of the curses of God. So, it makes more sense to see it as the byproduct of God’s rebuke or reproof, which would be feelings of frustration and confusion. The root word for mig`ereth is ga`ar and it is used by the Psalmist to describe the reproach and contempt felt by those who arrogantly disobey God.

You rebuke the arrogant, the cursed,
Who wander from Your commandments.
Take away reproach and contempt from me,
For I observe Your testimonies. – Psalm 119:21-22 NASB

God’s curses will have long-lasting and debilitating consequences. They will leave the people of Israel in a confused and perplexing state, facing the unrelenting rebuke of their God and the reproach of their enemies.

And just so the people of Israel fully understand the severity of these curses, Moses describes them as being accompanied by pestilence, wasting disease, “and with fever, inflammation and fiery heat, and with drought and with blight and with mildew” (Deuteronomy 28:22 ESV). Not exactly a pleasant proposition. His curses will prove to be all-consuming, bringing His full wrath to bear until, as Moses so unapologetically puts it, “you are destroyed” (Deuteronomy 28:24 ESV).

This will not be a temporary or partial rebuke. It will be comprehensive and complete, leaving the formerly chosen people of God devastated and utterly destroyed. And in the following verses, Moses will describe with painstaking detail how the destruction will come. Every area of Israelite life will be impacted. They will experience curses, confusion, and frustration from all sides. Their enemies will defeat them. Diseases will consume them. Oppression and injustice will plague them. Enslavement will eventually befall them. And all as a result of disobedience to God’s law.

As the people of Israel prepared to enter the land of promise, things should have been looking up for them. They were about to inherit the land God had promised to Abraham. After a four-century delay, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were about to occupy the land flowing with milk and honey. But their occupation of the land would come with conditions. They were going to have to obey the commands of God. It was that simple. And this section of Deuteronomy contains God’s clear and compelling warning of just how serious He was about their adherence to His commands. He has Moses spend what appears to be an inordinate amount of time communicating the consequences that accompany obedience and disobedience. And the two lists are meant to be dramatically and deliberately different. There should be no confusion. The Israelites will have no excuses. They will not be able to say, “We didn’t know!” They will not be able to claim ignorance. By the time Moses is done, the list of curses will be long and unmistakably clear.

“…if you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you. – Deuteronomy 28:15 ESV

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

It Pays to Obey

1 “And if you faithfully obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the Lord your God. Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field. Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground and the fruit of your cattle, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock. Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out.

“The Lord will cause your enemies who rise against you to be defeated before you. They shall come out against you one way and flee before you seven ways. The Lord will command the blessing on you in your barns and in all that you undertake. And he will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. The Lord will establish you as a people holy to himself, as he has sworn to you, if you keep the commandments of the Lord your God and walk in his ways. 10 And all the peoples of the earth shall see that you are called by the name of the Lord, and they shall be afraid of you. 11 And the Lord will make you abound in prosperity, in the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your livestock and in the fruit of your ground, within the land that the Lord swore to your fathers to give you. 12 The Lord will open to you his good treasury, the heavens, to give the rain to your land in its season and to bless all the work of your hands. And you shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow. 13 And the Lord will make you the head and not the tail, and you shall only go up and not down, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you today, being careful to do them, 14 and if you do not turn aside from any of the words that I command you today, to the right hand or to the left, to go after other gods to serve them. Deuteronomy 28:1-14 ESV

Obedience has its benefits. Ten times in 14 verses, the words blessed, bless, and blessing occur. And while God had the Levites begin this solemn ceremony by reciting a list of 12 curses, the next words out their mouths were all about the goodness and graciousness of God that accompanies obedience to Him.

This section opens up with the qualifying statement, “if you faithfully obey…” In Hebrew, it is actually one word: shama`. And that one word carries the connotation of hearing with the intention of obeying. God’s commands were not to go in one ear and out the other. They were to be carefully heard and faithfully obeyed. To hear God’s law but disregard it would not only be disobedience but a sign of disrespect for God. To reject His holy and righteous law would be to reject Him. And such behavior would result in curses. But for the one who faithfully heard and obeyed, there would be unprecedented blessings.

But there is a second qualifying statement that accompanies this list of blessings. Not only were the Israelites to faithfully obey God’s law, but they were also to be “careful to do” all that He had commanded. In Hebrew, that little phrase is shamar `asah, and it adds another level of commitment to the Israelites’ observance of God’s law. The first word carries the idea of keeping or guarding. It paints a word picture of someone building a hedge of thorns around something in order to protect it. They were to keep and preserve God’s law like a beloved garden or a flock of lambs.

But the second word, `asah, adds an important next step. It means “to work” or “ to do.” What good would it be to build a hedge around a garden but to never work that garden so that it produced fruit? What a waste of time it would be to place your sheep in a fold you have built to protect them, but then fail to care for them. God wanted His people to guard His law as if it was their most precious possession. But He also wanted them to do what it said. He wanted them to do the work of keeping His law.

And if they did, they would reap the rewards that come with obedience. And God went out of His way to clarify just how great their reward would be.

“…the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth.” – Deuteronomy 28:1 ESV

God would make the people of Israel the most exalted nation on all the earth. And this promise of prominence is repeated in these verses for added emphasis.

“The Lord will cause your enemies who rise against you to be defeated before you.” – Deuteronomy 28:7 ESV

“The Lord will establish you as a people holy to himself…” – Deuteronomy 29:9 ESV

“And all the peoples of the earth shall see that you are called by the name of the Lord, and they shall be afraid of you.” – Deuteronomy 28:10 ESV

“And you shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow. And the Lord will make you the head and not the tail…” – Deuteronomy 28:12-13 ESV

Prominence, power, prosperity, and a preferred position as His holy possession. All of it would be theirs if they would only obey His law. And God gave them a long list of practical outcomes that would accompany their obedience. They would experience His blessings in every area of their lives. Whether they lived in the city or the country, His blessings would find them. His blessings would take the form of fruitful families, flocks, and farms. When they sat down to eat, there would always be plenty of food. When they traveled, the blessings of God would go with them.

In battle, they would always be victorious. In farming, they would always be productive. In business, they would always be prosperous. Their families and flocks would be large. Their reputation as a holy people, set apart by God, would spread and their success would be proof that their God was both great and good. Even the pagan nations would marvel at the many blessings enjoyed by the people of Israel. The kinds of outcomes described in these verses were exactly what the pagan nations looked for from their own gods. They saw their false gods as the distributors of everything from rain and sunshine to fruitfulness and prosperity. Their worship was a constant exercise in attempting to placate and please their fickle and penurious gods. So, when they witness all the blessings coming to the Israelites, they would automatically know the source was divine. And they would be jealous.

But there is a caveat that runs throughout these verses, and it must not be overlooked. The blessings of God were directly tied to the obedience of His people.

if you faithfully obey…” – vs. 1

if you obey the voice of the Lord your God…” – vs. 2

if you keep the commandments of the Lord your God and walk in his ways.” – vs. 9

if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God.” – vs. 13

if you do not turn aside from any of the words that I command you today…” – vs. 14

This was a conditional covenant. They had to do their part. If they wanted to enjoy the blessings of God, they were going to have to hear and obey His law. Obedience was the key to His blessings. And obedience was going to require that they trust Him. Because everything was going to cause them to doubt the veracity of God’s word and the reality of His blessings. They would be tempted to take shortcuts. They would find themselves wanting to compromise their convictions and to copy the behavior of their pagan neighbors. God’s law would eventually become burdensome to them. All His rules and regulations would begin to feel stifling and restrictive. And the enemy would begin to cause them to question God’s will, filling their minds with the same question he raised to Eve in the garden: “Did God actually say…?” (Genesis 3:1).

That is why Moses had them write the law on stones and build a memorial. It’s why they were to conduct this ceremony between Mount Elba and Mount Gerizim. They were to remember exactly what God said and never forget it. They were to teach God’s law to their children. They were to memorize it, memorialize it, and make every effort to live by it. Otherwise, they would find themselves disobeying it. And disobedience would result in curses, not blessings.

And this section ends with a description of the greatest form of disobedience: Idolatry. If the people turned their away from God’s law, they would end up pursuing other gods. Failure to obey God ultimately leads to unfaithfulness to God. Rejection of God’s law leads to spiritual adultery. But why would God’s people turn to a false god when the one true God was the only source of blessing? Because their disobedience would lead to curses, which would cause them to seek the help of false gods. They would turn to the gods of their enemies rather than willingly obey the God of their ancestors. And as the Bible painstakingly reveals, that would be the less-than-flattering fate of the people of God.

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

The Law and Blessing.

30 At that time Joshua built an altar to the Lord, the God of Israel, on Mount Ebal, 31 just as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded the people of Israel, as it is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, “an altar of uncut stones, upon which no man has wielded an iron tool.” And they offered on it burnt offerings to the Lord and sacrificed peace offerings. 32 And there, in the presence of the people of Israel, he wrote on the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he had written. 33 And all Israel, sojourner as well as native born, with their elders and officers and their judges, stood on opposite sides of the ark before the Levitical priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, half of them in front of Mount Gerizim and half of them in front of Mount Ebal, just as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded at the first, to bless the people of Israel. 34 And afterward he read all the words of the law, the blessing and the curse, according to all that is written in the Book of the Law. 35 There was not a word of all that Moses commanded that Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel, and the women, and the little ones, and the sojourners who lived among them. Joshua 8:30-35 ESV

ten_commandments-720x340Joshua and his forces have just defeated and captured the city of Ai. The men of the neighboring city of Bethel, who had joined forces and fought alongside Ai, were also defeated. So, in essence, the Israelites now had three cities they had conquered in their relatively short tenure in the land of promise. And now, Joshua leads the people to a place called Mount Ebal, where he builds an altar to the Lord. What is going on here? What prompted Joshua to do this? Was it simply because they had enjoyed two rousing victories over their enemies and he wanted to express thanks to God?  And why would he choose to travel all the way north to Mount Ebal in order to build his altar there? This would have entailed a 30-mile journey on the part of the people, so Joshua must have had a good reason for making this arduous trip immediately after a major military engagement against the city of Ai.

To understand what is going on in this passage, we must recall the instructions that Moses had given to the people of Israel concerning their entrance into the land of promise. He had been very specific, providing them with detailed instructions as to what they were to do as soon as they crossed over the Jordan. But it would appear that the people of Israel were behind schedule, having taken time to capture Jericho and Ai before they actually obeyed what Moses had told them to do.

1 Now Moses and the elders of Israel commanded the people, saying, “Keep the whole commandment that I command you today. And on the day you cross over the Jordan to the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall set up large stones and plaster them with plaster. And you shall write on them all the words of this law, when you cross over to enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you, a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your fathers, has promised you. And when you have crossed over the Jordan, you shall set up these stones, concerning which I command you today, on Mount Ebal, and you shall plaster them with plaster. And there you shall build an altar to the Lord your God, an altar of stones. You shall wield no iron tool on them; you shall build an altar to the Lord your God of uncut stones. And you shall offer burnt offerings on it to the Lord your God, and you shall sacrifice peace offerings and shall eat there, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God. And you shall write on the stones all the words of this law very plainly.” – Deuteronomy 27:1-7 ESV

Mount Ebal was located near a place called Shechem, a site with historical and religious significance for the people of Israel. It was at Shechem that Abraham had built an altar to the Lord after having arrived in the land of Canaan for the very first time.

Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. – Genesis 12:6-7 ESV

So, Joshua’s selection of Shechem and Mount Ebal were not arbitrary. He was following the commands of Moses and replicating the actions of Abraham, the great patriarch of the people of Israel. On this site, Joshua and the people of Israel renewed their covenant with God, recommitting themselves to keep His law and live as His people in the land He had provided for them. They built an altar to the Lord God, the God of Israel. This monument built of stones would be a tangible representation of Israel’s presence in the land and their dedication to worship their God as opposed to the many false gods of the inhabitants of Canaan.

The people erected an altar to God and offered sacrifices on it. But, in addition, Joshua “wrote on the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he had written” (Joshua 8:32 ESV). This seems to indicate that Joshua wrote the law on the stones of the altar, not two tablets of stone as Moses had done. And while it is not clear what the text means by “the law of Moses,” it is possible that Joshua wrote the entire contents of the Book of Deuteronomy. The text states that, once Joshua had written the law on the stone, “he read all the words of the law, the blessing and the curse, according to all that is written in the Book of the Law” (Joshua 8:34 ESV). The blessing and the curse is a reference to the content found in chapter 28 of Deuteronomy. In that chapter is spelled out all that God will do for the people of Israel if they remain obedient to His law and all that He will do to them if they choose to disobey. They had already learned a painful, yet invaluable lesson about obedience in their initial defeat at the hands of the people of Ai. They had failed to keep God’s command regarding the plunder from Jericho and had suffered because of it. Now, with the building of the altar and the recitation of the law of Moses, the people were receiving a powerful reminder that their hope of receiving blessings from God while in the land was directly tied to their willingness to live in obedience to His law. And God had made it very clear what would happen to them if they chose to disobey.

15 “But if you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you. 16 Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the field. 17 Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. 18 Cursed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock. 19 Cursed shall you be when you come in, and cursed shall you be when you go out. – Deuteronomy 28:15-19 ESV

Their ability to conquer the land was dependent upon their willingness to obey God. He would bless them beyond measure, if only they would obey Him without question. This ceremony was more than just a religious ritual. It was a solemn and sobering reminder that their God was serious about obedience. He was a holy God who demanded that His chosen people live lives that would be set apart and distinctively different than those of the people living in the land. He had given them His law in order that they might live in keeping with His divine will. The law was to regulate all their behavior and all their relationships, including their relationship with God Himself. God had not left it up to their imagination. Right and wrong was not going to be a subjective issue for the people of Israel, because God had established an objective, black-and-white criteria for life and godliness.

With the reading of the law, the people of Israel received a much-needed reminder of their covenant commitment to God. Nothing had changed since God had given the law at Mount Sinai all those years before. The original tablets of stone, on which were written the commandments of God, were still in the ark of the covenant. His law had led them across the wilderness and over the Jordan. It had gone before them as they marched around the walls of Jericho. Now, they saw it written on the stones of the altar at Mount Ebal. And it would remain there, a permanent memorial, visible to Israelites and Canaanites alike, declaring the holiness of God and His unwavering demand that His chosen people live according to His will.

“Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” – Leviticus 19:2 ESV

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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