Godliness Done God’s Way

15 “If a man has two wives, the one loved and the other unloved, and both the loved and the unloved have borne him children, and if the firstborn son belongs to the unloved, 16 then on the day when he assigns his possessions as an inheritance to his sons, he may not treat the son of the loved as the firstborn in preference to the son of the unloved, who is the firstborn, 17 but he shall acknowledge the firstborn, the son of the unloved, by giving him a double portion of all that he has, for he is the firstfruits of his strength. The right of the firstborn is his.

18 “If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they discipline him, will not listen to them, 19 then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, 20 and they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ 21 Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones. So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear.– Deuteronomy 21:15-21 ESV

Talk about extremes. These two short paragraphs contain some of the most antithetical statements regarding the raisings of sons you could ever hope to find. On the one hand, Moses provides God’s will concerning the proper designation of the firstborn son and the dispersal of the family inheritance. Then, without batting an eye, he shifts his focus to God’s divine disciplinary plan for a rebellious son.

One son receives a gracious gift he didn’t earn or rightfully deserve, just because he happened to be the first son born into his family. Yet, the other son earns himself a death sentence because of his unrepentant stubbornness and rebellion.

What a stark and disturbing contrast these two scenarios portray. But what an important reminder they provide of God’s unmerited grace and sovereign authority over the lives of men. Everything about the lives of the Israelites was to be dictated and determined by the will of God. As we have seen repeatedly, God left nothing to chance. Every phase of daily life fell under the auspices of God’s divine will. And in this passage, we see that God put a high priority on the relationship between parents and their children.

God considered the family unit as foundational to the overall health of the Israelite community. Marriage and child-bearing were essential contributors to the corporate well-being of the nation. Which is why God had provided the people of Israel with very detailed directions concerning marriage and family life. In these verses, Moses relays to the people of Israel God’s will concerning father’s and their sons. And he could not have chosen two more diametrically disparate scenarios to discuss.

But these two examples have more in common than we might imagine. Both involve a father and his son. God had ordained the father as the head of the household and had placed on him the responsibility of providing for the spiritual and physical well-being of his family.  God’s commands concerning faithfulness and obedience to His law were directed primarily at the head of the household. He held the father responsible for disseminating the law to his family and discipling them in it.

“Listen, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength. And you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today. Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up.” – Deuteronomy 6:4-6 NLT

And the father answered directly to God. He had to do things according to God’s will and was not free to parent according to some arbitrary set of self-imposed standards. So, when it came to the dispersal of the family’s inheritance, which was primarily tied to the land, God had a vital interest. After all, the land had been His gift to the people of Israel, and He had strong feelings about how it was to be managed.

While God never sanctioned polygamy among His people, it did take place. Even Abraham, the great patriarch of the Hebrew faith, had numerous wives and concubines. But God had made it clear to Abraham that Isaac, the son born to him through Sarah, was to be his heir. And when the time came, Abraham left his inheritance to Isaac.

Abraham gave all he had to Isaac. But to the sons of his concubines Abraham gave gifts, and while he was still living he sent them away from his son Isaac, eastward to the east country. – Genesis 25:5-6 ESV

Abraham did not have the right to award the inheritance to any son he chose. And this is what Moses states in the opening verses of this section of Deuteronomy. A father who happened to have multiple wives, could not decide to award the firstborn son of his favorite wife with the inheritance. That was not his decision to make. God had deemed the firstborn child of the first wife as the rightful heir. God had never intended for them to take on multiple wives, and just because they did does not mean they were now free to choose which firstborn they wanted to reward.

Man’s disobedience to God’s will always complicates things. A man with multiple wives and a growing household of children most likely thought of himself as being blessed by God. But his decision to conduct his life in direct opposition to God’s revealed will would end up producing strife, not peace. Every occasion in the Old Testament where we see one of God’s servants choosing to marry more than one woman, we get a glimpse into family dysfunctionality and discord. David’s multiple wives and the children they bore to him ended up wreaking havoc on his home and his kingdom. Stories of rape, incest, and fratricide fill the narrative of David’s life. All because he chose to let his passions control him.

But God has rules. The inheritance was not something to dole out based on favoritism or emotion. Just as Abraham had done nothing to deserve God’s promise of the inheritance, so the firstborn son was to be an undeserving recipient of God’s gracious gift. That was God’s plan and it was to be followed. The firstborn son did not have to be his father’s favorite. In fact, he didn’t have to do anything to earn the double portion, except to be the first to be born, a decision over which he had no control. His birth was the sovereign work of God Almighty.

But then, all of the sudden, Moses shifts gears. He goes from talking about a man who has complicated his life by having two wives to discussing a man who has a stubbon and rebellious son. Based on the description of this son and the God-ordained remedy for his behavior, this does not appear to be a simple case of childish disobedience. What we have here is a hardcore example of what the Bible describes as the stubborn 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

Whoever brings a fool into the world does so to his grief,
and the father of a fool has no joy.
– Proverbs 17:21 ESV

For fools speak foolishness
    and make evil plans.
They practice ungodliness
    and spread false teachings about the Lord.
They deprive the hungry of food
    and give no water to the thirsty. – Isaiah 32:6 NLT

In each of these verses, the Hebrew word translated as “fool” is nabal and it is most commonly used to describe the most dangerous type of fool. This individual rejects God and His ways. He is overly self-confident and close-minded. He is his own god, freely gratifying his own sin nature. It is his goal to draw as many others as possible into following his wicked ways. And, according to the Scriptures, only God can reprove a stubborn fool.

The son described in Deuteronomy 21:18-21 is incorrigible and beyond hope of redemption. He is ungodly and unwilling to repent of his ways. While his father and mother have tried to discipline him, he has consistently refused their efforts and stubbornly continued down his chosen path of rebellion against God. And, ultimately, that is what this is all about. His rebellion is against God, not his parents. And the punishment for his crime is divinely ordained: Death.

Notice that the punishment of the rebellious son was to be a public affair because the behavior of this individual had become a blight on the entire community. His personal choices had global implications. And God commanded that the evil be purged from their midst. Toleration of this kind of behavior was unacceptable. The cancer had to be removed. And while we may find this solution distasteful and harsh, it reveals just how seriously God viewed the presence of sin among His people.

This passage is not dealing with a disobedient 9-year-old. This most likely involves an adult child who has established a well-known track record of immoral and ungodly behavior that has left its mark on the community. And the parents, while probably reluctant to do so, were obligated to bring their rebellious son before the community so that divine discipline could be enacted.

What is interesting to consider is the unlikely, but possible scenario in which the rebellious son and the firstborn were one and the same. Ultimately, God was in control of all things. While the father was not free to award the inheritance to whichever son he chose, the son was not free to live however he wanted to. There were divine expectations on everyone. Life in God’s family was not to be a free-for-all, with everyone doing as they pleased. There were codes of conduct and God-ordained rules for every aspect of life, so that God’s people would reflect God’s glory to the world.

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

Advertisements

Wisdom For When You Need It

10 “When you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord your God gives them into your hand and you take them captive, 11 and you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and you desire to take her to be your wife, 12 and you bring her home to your house, she shall shave her head and pare her nails. 13 And she shall take off the clothes in which she was captured and shall remain in your house and lament her father and her mother a full month. After that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. 14 But if you no longer delight in her, you shall let her go where she wants. But you shall not sell her for money, nor shall you treat her as a slave, since you have humiliated her.” – Deuteronomy 21:10-14 ESV

The specificity with which God regulated the lives of the Israelites can be astounding and, in some cases, quite confusing and confounding. The degree to which God provided them with detailed rules and regulations governing virtually every area of daily life serves as evidence of His intimate concern for them as His people. God cared about every aspect of their existence, even providing them with guidelines to govern what He considered their more aberrant behavior.

Not everything the Israelites did was approved of by God. They were His chosen people, but they found themselves living in a less-than-ideal environment, surrounded by hostile pagan nations and the constant temptation to assimilate the ways of their enemies. Moral compromise was an ever-present threat to their status as God’s people. And their obligation to keep God’s command to conquer and repopulate the land of Canaan was going to present them with a host of new and potentially dangerous situations that would test their allegiance to God.

Israel’s efforts to subdue the land of Canaan was going to require many battles and result in the deaths of many enemy soldiers. These men would leave behind countless widows and unmarried daughters who would be hardpressed to find eligible husbands among their own people.  So, God provided a provision by which the Israelites could choose wives from among these women.

Now, it is important to remember that God had previously forbidden the Israelites from taking wives from among the nations of Canaan, and He had been very specific.

“When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are about to enter and occupy, he will clear away many nations ahead of you: the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. These seven nations are greater and more numerous than you. When the Lord your God hands these nations over to you and you conquer them, you must completely destroy them. Make no treaties with them and show them no mercy. You must not intermarry with them. Do not let your daughters and sons marry their sons and daughters, for they will lead your children away from me to worship other gods. Then the anger of the Lord will burn against you, and he will quickly destroy you.” – Deuteronomy 7:1-4 NLT

So, it seems unlikely that God was now changing His mind and giving the Israelites permission to take wives from among the Canaanites. The more likely explanation is that God is referring to those non-Canaanite nations that occupied the outer edges of the land of promise. In those cases, God made a concession, allowing the men of Israel to choose a bride from among the widows and unmarried virgins. But God also provided rules for governing such behavior.

One thing to keep in mind is that God always had to consider the natural proclivity of His people to follow their basest instincts. He knew full well that the men of Israel, fueled by the lust of war, could easily find themselves driven by lust and tempted to rape the women of the nations they conquered. This behavior would have been unacceptable and deadly to the nation. So, God made accommodations to protect His people from themselves. An Israelite man could choose a bride from among one of these captured women, but only if he was not already married. And he had to follow God’s prescribed plan for assimilating the woman into his life and the community of Israel. There was to be a period of mourning for the woman, as well as a time of purification. Only then could the man properly and legally marry her.

God even provided rules for annulling one of these marriages. He knew that many of these men would marry for all the wrong reasons. Driven by the lust of the moment, some of the Israelites would soon discover that they had little in common with their new wives and their marriages would end in acrimony and strife. So, God provided rules for the dissolution of these failed marriages. God was not advocating for divorce, but simply preventing the Israelites from bringing shame to His name through the inappropriate treatment of these women. They could not be sold as slaves or treated as property. God required that these women be given their freedom.

These verses raise all kinds of issues for us. We tend to view them through what we consider to be our more-enlightened mindset and judge them harshly. It appears that God is promulgating behaviors among His people that contradict His previously communicated laws and stand in stark contrast to His revealed character. But God was dealing with an extremely volatile, constantly changing environment involving sin-prone people who were facing real-life scenarios that presented never-before-seen dangers.

This was a nation in flux. Everything was new and evolving. Each sunrise would bring with it another opportunity to see God work or a temptation to cause Israel to fall. The people of God had no idea what was coming, but God did, and He was constantly making provision for the inevitable and unavoidable details of life that would come their way.

God could have left all these matters unresolved and allowed the Israelites to figure it out as they went along. But that would have produced unacceptable consequences. Left to their own devices, the people of Israel would have listened to their own sin-prone hearts and done what was right in their own eyes. As the prophet, Jeremiah, so aptly put it, “The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is?” (Jeremiah 17:9 NLT).

Even David, the great king of Israel, would later lament the sorry nature of mankind.

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

God cares enough about His people to protect them from themselves. Equipped with His omniscience, God was able to look ahead and prepare for the inevitable scenarios that were looming on the horizon. While the Israelites were going to find themselves constantly facing the unknown and dealing with the unexpected, nothing was going to take God by surprise. He already had plans in place, rules of engagement prepared, and codes of conduct outlined for each and every scenario His people would face.

God was leaving nothing to chance. And He was not going to allow the people of Israel to make things up as they went along. He was always one step ahead of them, preparing the path in front of them and providing an acceptable response for them. His goal was always their holiness. And while their circumstances were constantly changing and evolving, their God remained their constant and consistent ally in all the battles they faced.

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 Guilt of Innocent Blood

1 “If in the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess someone is found slain, lying in the open country, and it is not known who killed him, then your elders and your judges shall come out, and they shall measure the distance to the surrounding cities. And the elders of the city that is nearest to the slain man shall take a heifer that has never been worked and that has not pulled in a yoke. And the elders of that city shall bring the heifer down to a valley with running water, which is neither plowed nor sown, and shall break the heifer’s neck there in the valley. Then the priests, the sons of Levi, shall come forward, for the Lord your God has chosen them to minister to him and to bless in the name of the Lord, and by their word every dispute and every assault shall be settled. And all the elders of that city nearest to the slain man shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the valley, and they shall testify, ‘Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it shed. Accept atonement, O Lord, for your people Israel, whom you have redeemed, and do not set the guilt of innocent blood in the midst of your people Israel, so that their blood guilt be atoned for.’ So you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from your midst, when you do what is right in the sight of the Lord.– Deuteronomy 21:1-9 ESV

The opening of this chapter sounds like the beginning of an Agatha Christie murder mystery. A traveler, walking across open land, inadvertently discovers the body of an unidentified dead man. The only evidence we’re given is that the man has been murdered. There are no other clues provided as to the identity of the deceased or his killer. Cue Hercule Peroit or Miss Marple.

But unlike one of Miss Christie’s novels, this story seems less focused on discovering the identity of the murderer than expunging the guilt of his actions. While everything in us screams for the guilty party to be exposed and justice to be served, God seems much more concerned about the corporate character of His people. An innocent life had been taken, and God was going to hold the entire community responsible. Yes, one man had sinned, but all would be culpable for his actions.

This idea of corporate culpability was one of the differentiating characteristics of God’s people. He viewed the Israelites communally and not just individually. They were His chosen people collectively and not independently.  They jointly shared His unique designation of them as His treasured possession, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:5-6). And all it took was one bad apple to spoil the bunch. A single man’s sin could contaminate the entire nation, replacing the blessings of God with His just and righteous judgment.

We will see this played out in the early days of Israel’s conquest of the land. In just their second battle, the Israelites will discover just how seriously God was about corporate culpability. After their miraculous defeat of Jericho, God had commanded the Israelites to destroy everything within the city’s walls, taking nothing as plunder.

“Do not take any of the things set apart for destruction, or you yourselves will be completely destroyed, and you will bring trouble on the camp of Israel. Everything made from silver, gold, bronze, or iron is sacred to the Lord and must be brought into his treasury.” – Joshua 6:18-19 NLT

And it seems that the people did as the Lord had commanded.

Then the Israelites burned the town and everything in it. Only the things made from silver, gold, bronze, or iron were kept for the treasury of the Lord’s house. – Joshua 6:24 NLT

But then we come to chapter seven.

But Israel violated the instructions about the things set apart for the Lord. A man named Achan had stolen some of these dedicated things, so the Lord was very angry with the Israelites. – Joshua 7:1 NLT

Don’t miss the significance of this verse. One man, Achan, violated God’s command, and, yet, the entire nation would be held responsible. Achan’s sin was unknown to Joshua and the rest of the camp. So, they planned their next conquest, setting their sights on the small town of Ai, assuming it would be a quick and easy victory. But to Israel’s shock and dismay, the much smaller army of Ai routed them.

The men of Ai chased the Israelites from the town gate as far as the quarries, and they killed about thirty-six who were retreating down the slope. The Israelites were paralyzed with fear at this turn of events, and their courage melted away. – Joshua 7:4-5 NLT

Joshua and the rest of the people were at a loss as to why any of this had happened. They could not understand how they had gone so quickly from victory to defeat. But God would not leave them in the dark for long.

“Israel has sinned and broken my covenant! They have stolen some of the things that I commanded must be set apart for me. And they have not only stolen them but have lied about it and hidden the things among their own belongings. That is why the Israelites are running from their enemies in defeat. For now Israel itself has been set apart for destruction.” – Joshua 7:11-12 NLT

And God revealed to Joshua the nature of their problem. “Hidden among you, O Israel, are things set apart for the Lord. You will never defeat your enemies until you remove these things from among you” (Joshua 7:13 NLT). Achan was eventually exposed and punished for his sin. But his individual actions had impacted the entire community. The whole nation had suffered because of his decision to disobey God.

So now,  when we read in Deuteronomy 21 of God holding an entire city responsible for the bloodguilt of an innocent man’s death, we can see what is going on. Discovering the identity of the murderer was less important than atoning for the sin committed. The victim’s death had left a stain on the entire nation.

God did not institute a plan for discovering the identity of the murderer. He did not form a posse or assemble a militia to seek out the guilty party. He provided a plan of atonement – a means by which the nation could receive forgiveness for the sin committed in its midst. Once it was determined which city was nearest the location where the dead man’s body was found, the elders and priests of that city were given explicit instructions to follow. They were to take a young cow that had never been used for plowing and take it into a nearby valley where its neck was to be broken. This young heifer was to serve as a substitute for the one guilty of the murder. Its life was given in exchange for the life of the one who had shed innocent blood. And the elders of that city were to wash their hands over the body of the heifer, pronouncing the innocence of the people and crying for God to accept their gift as atonement for the sin committed.

“Our hands have not spilled this blood, nor have we witnessed the crime. Do not blame your people Israel whom you redeemed, O Lord, and do not hold them accountable for the bloodshed of an innocent person.” – Deuteronomy 21:7-8 NLT

And Moses clearly states, “Then atonement will be made for the bloodshed. In this manner, you will purge out the guilt of innocent blood from among you, for you must do what is right before the Lord” (Deuteronomy 21:8-9 NLT).

It should be noted that God’s instructions concerning the atoning sacrifice are quite specific. The location for the sacrifice was to be “a valley with running water, which is neither plowed nor sown” (Deuteronomy 21:5 ESV). The sacrifice was to take place outside the walls of the city at a location where there was running water nearby, necessary for ceremonial cleansing once the animal was killed and its blood shed. The requirement that the ground be unplowed seems to an assurance that the shed blood is never stirred up or becomes capable of contaminating a future food source.

God’s primary concern was the restoration of Israel’s relationship with Him. As long as the innocent victim’s life was unatoned for, the entire nation stood guilty and condemned before God. The name of the one who committed the murder was unknown, but the guilt of his actions was more than familiar. The sin of the one contaminated the whole, and God expected them to purge the guilt from their midst.

The sin of Achan brought judgment upon the people of Israel. His selfish and self-centered disregard for God’s command had far-reaching implications and serious ramifications. God would not allow the people of Israel to turn a blind eye to the sin in their midst. It was to be taken seriously because its influence was deadly.

There is a powerful and sobering lesson for us to learn from all of this. God puts a high priority on community. As followers of Christ, we have been placed in God’s family. We are brothers and sisters in Christ and share a common identity as God’s children. And while each of us must take responsibility for our individual actions, we share a communal connection that should make the sins of the one a concern for us all.

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

My Ways Are Higher

10 “When you draw near to a city to fight against it, offer terms of peace to it. 11 And if it responds to you peaceably and it opens to you, then all the people who are found in it shall do forced labor for you and shall serve you. 12 But if it makes no peace with you, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it. 13 And when the Lord your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword, 14 but the women and the little ones, the livestock, and everything else in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as plunder for yourselves. And you shall enjoy the spoil of your enemies, which the Lord your God has given you. 15 Thus you shall do to all the cities that are very far from you, which are not cities of the nations here. 16 But in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, 17 but you shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the Lord your God has commanded, 18 that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the Lord your God.

19 “When you besiege a city for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them. You may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down. Are the trees in the field human, that they should be besieged by you? 20 Only the trees that you know are not trees for food you may destroy and cut down, that you may build siegeworks against the city that makes war with you, until it falls.– Deuteronomy 20:10-20 ESV

Let’s face it, these are difficult verses to understand, let alone to justify. They deal with sensitive topics, and their content appears counter-intuitive and contradictory to our sense of fairness and ethics. This is one of those passages that cause many to reject the God of the Old Testament as antithetical to the loving, grace-giving, and merciful God of the New Testament.

But despite any reservations we may have with the more sinister portrait of God found in these verses, the Scriptures do not portray God as bipolar in nature. We may not like what we see. His actions may offend our more refined 21st-Century sensibilities, but the biblical portrait of God is designed to be taken in full, not in part.

The nature of God is complex and complicated. And mankind is at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to comprehending His wisdom or His ways. God, by the very nature of His being, is incomprehensible and beyond man’s capacity to understand. His own assessment of His transcendent nature is quite plain.

“My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord.
    “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.
For just as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so my ways are higher than your ways
    and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” – Isaiah 55:8-9 NLT

Even the psalmist understood that mere humans were at a distinct disadvantage when it came to understanding the ways of God.

When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers—the moon and the stars you set in place—what are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them? – Psalm 8:3-4 NLT

He was blown away that the God who created the universe and all it contains would even give a second thought to “mere mortals” like himself. But how quickly we more sophisticated and well-educated modern mortals attempt to judge God and hold Him accountable for His actions. And yet, the ancient prophet, Isaiah, would have us consider the danger of putting the God of the universe on trial, passing judgment on His behavior as if He somehow answers to us.

“What sorrow awaits those who argue with their Creator. Does a clay pot argue with its maker? Does the clay dispute with the one who shapes it, saying, ‘Stop, you’re doing it wrong!’ Does the pot exclaim, ‘How clumsy can you be?’” – Isaiah 45:9 NLT

These verses in Deuteronomy 20 must be read with the whole context of the biblical narrative in mind. The Bible is a single book written by a solitary author and tells a singular story. It is the revelation of God. On its pages are found a diverse and somewhat disparate compellation of images that, when taken together, provide a comprehensive portrait of God. As God, He is far from simple or simplistic in nature. His character is complex and multifaceted, yet never contradictory or conflicting. He is, at the same time loving, wrathful, holy, vengeful, kind, angry, just, condemning, forgiving, uncompromising, and compassionate.

So, when we read of God advocating the complete annihilation of a people group, we are tempted to react with shock and disdain. The image it portrays stands diametrically opposed to the one we have formed in our minds. But far too often, our image of God is a flawed and overly simplistic one, based on human reasoning and not divine revelation. We tend to paint God using a limited palette of colors, designed to cast Him in a way that mirrors our own nature and pleases our human sensibilities. We prefer a God who looks like us, acts like us, and can be fully understood by us. We are not comfortable with the apparent contradictions and contrasts that accompany a transcendent, incomprehensible God.

In these verses, God provides the Israelites with His rules regarding warfare. He has brought them to the land of Canaan and now it is time for them to inhabit the land He had promised to them as their inheritance. But to do so, they would have to remove the nations that currently occupied the land. And while we may find this as nothing more than a display of God-ordained ethnic cleansing, we have to be careful that we do not step into the very dangerous role of acting as God’s judge.

Our inability to grasp God’s ways does not give us carte blanch to judge His actions. As God said to His disgruntled and disenchanted servant, Job: “Do you still want to argue with the Almighty? You are God’s critic, but do you have the answers?” (Job 40:2 NLT).

In response to Job’s relentless questioning of His motives and methods, God went on to ask Job, “Will you discredit my justice and condemn me just to prove you are right?” (Job 40:8 NLT).

God was unsparing in His response to Job’s arrogant assault on His character, asking him, “Who is this that questions my wisdom with such ignorance?” (Job 42:3 NLT).

And, while we may find if offensive and incomprehensible that God would issue a command for Israel to put all the males of a city to the sword and to take all the women and children as captives, we must refrain from acting as God’s judge. When we hear Moses tell the Israelites: “in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction” (Deuteronomy 20:16 ESV), we naturally react with shock and dismay. But who are we to question the ways of God? What right do we have to judge the Almighty according to our limited wisdom and understanding? His ways are far beyond anything we could ever imagine or comprehend.

God was not asking the Israelites to approve of His methods. He was demanding that they trust His character and willingly rely on His track record of faithfulness. He had never let them down. He had never given them a reason to doubt His word or to question His integrity. And while we may not particularly like God’s methods or understand His ways, we have no right to act as His judge. This chapter of the story may not make sense to us. We may not see the method behind God’s seeming madness, but the Bible contains a story that has a beginning and an end. Every chapter and every verse in every book of the Bible paints a comprehensive picture of God’s redemptive plan for mankind. And this story, while sometimes a difficult read, ends very well.

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

Rules Regarding Warfare

1 When you go out to war against your enemies, and see horses and chariots and an army larger than your own, you shall not be afraid of them, for the Lord your God is with you, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. And when you draw near to the battle, the priest shall come forward and speak to the people and shall say to them, ‘Hear, O Israel, today you are drawing near for battle against your enemies: let not your heart faint. Do not fear or panic or be in dread of them, for the Lord your God is he who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies, to give you the victory.’ Then the officers shall speak to the people, saying, ‘Is there any man who has built a new house and has not dedicated it? Let him go back to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man dedicate it. And is there any man who has planted a vineyard and has not enjoyed its fruit? Let him go back to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man enjoy its fruit. And is there any man who has betrothed a wife and has not taken her? Let him go back to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man take her.’ And the officers shall speak further to the people, and say, ‘Is there any man who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go back to his house, lest he make the heart of his fellows melt like his own.’ And when the officers have finished speaking to the people, then commanders shall be appointed at the head of the people.– Deuteronomy 20:1-9 ESV

As has already been stated, God cared deeply for the people of Israel and left no area of their corporate life unregulated by His holy standards. From the foods they ate to the manner in which they worshiped Him, God provided clear and unequivocal guidelines for conducting their lives. Every moment of their day was to be focused on and governed by His law. And Moses had reminded them repeatedly to incorporate God’s commandments into every facet of their daily life.

“…you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today. Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up.” – Deuteronomy 6:6-7 NLT

In this chapter, Moses addresses what was about to become a major part of their existence as they entered the promised land. Canaan was filled with other people groups who were not going to welcome Israel with open arms. There was going to be warfare, and God had clearly communicated His expectations regarding Israel’s interactions with the pagan nations occupying the land He had awarded as an inheritance to Abraham.

“Speak to the Israelites and tell them, ‘When you have crossed the Jordan into the land of Canaan, you must drive out all the inhabitants of the land before you. Destroy all their carved images, all their molten images, and demolish their high places. You must dispossess the inhabitants of the land and live in it, for I have given you the land to possess it. …But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land before you, then those whom you allow to remain will be irritants in your eyes and thorns in your side, and will cause you trouble in the land where you will be living.  And what I intended to do to them I will do to you.” – Numbers 33:51-53, 55-56 NLT

Battle was going to become an unavoidable aspect of their everyday life. And what made this particularly challenging was that Israel had no standing army. There were no trained soldiers in their midst. All of the men who were old enough to fight had spent their entire lives wandering through the wilderness. Yes, they had fought and won a few battles on the east side of the Jordan, but for the most part, they were little more than shepherds and wandering nomads. And yet, God expected them to conquer the entire land of Canaan and dispossess long-entrenched kingdoms with standing armies and well-fortified cities.

But this passage reveals a great deal about the character of God. Moses will assuage the people’s fears by reminding them of God’s omnipotence.

“…let not your heart faint. Do not fear or panic or be in dread of them, for the Lord your God is he who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies, to give you the victory.” – Deuteronomy 20:3-4 ESV

They had no reason to fear because they had God on their side and He was going to fight on their behalf. They had a secret weapon that none of the nations living in the land of Canaan could hope to withstand. Their powerful armies and walled cities would prove no match for God Almighty. And Moses wanted the people to remember that the same God who had conquered the Egyptians some 40 years earlier was going to be fighting for them in the land of Canaan.

“…the Lord your God is with you, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” – Deuteronomy 20:1 ESV

But Israel’s God was not only powerful, He was also compassionate. He cared about His people and took into account their individual situations and circumstances. This passage paints a remarkable picture that blends God’s sovereignty and lovingkindness. He was their compassionate, caring King. And while He fully expected them to obey His commands and carry out His orders, He was not oblivious to their personal circumstances. He did not view them as cogs in a machine or mindless instruments in His all-powerful hands.

Warfare was going to be inevitable and unavoidable, but so was life. Between battles, men would be marrying, starting families, building homes, and establishing their lives in the new land. The final objective was for the Israelites to possess the land, not simply conquer it. Battle would be necessary, but only so the people of Israel could inherit and inhabit the land that God had given them.

So, God provided four mandatory exemptions from military service. When the time for battle arrived, if any man of fighting age met the requirements, he was to be released from his commitment to fight. God was well aware of the fact that death was a potential outcome for every man who went into battle, so He provided these gracious exemptions that seem to be aimed at younger men who were starting new lives in the land. The first exemption involved the dedication of a new home. If a man had recently built a home, but had not had time to properly dedicate it, he was dismissed from mandatory military service so that he could do so. There seems to be a religious connotation behind this directive because the Hebrew word for “dedicate” is khanakh and it is the same one used when referring to Solomon’s dedication of the temple. The home was an important aspect of Jewish life. It was a symbol of prosperity and the epicenter of life. For a man to die in battle without having dedicated his own home would have left his family without shelter. Since women were not allowed to own property, it is likely the house would have been sold to someone else, leaving the deceased man’s family destitute. So, God provides a gracious exemption.

The second case involves a man who has planted a vineyard, but has not yet had time to reap a harvest from it. He too is provided with an exemption from military service so he can remain home and harvest the fruit of his labors. Otherwise, he might die in battle, and someone else reap the benefits of all his efforts. Once again, it is likely that, with the man’s death in battle, his land would have become the property of someone else and his wife and children would have received no benefit from all his labor.

The third scenario deals with a man who has become engaged to be married. If there was a call for battle, this man was to be relieved of his commitment so that he might marry his bride and consummate his marriage. Otherwise, he could die in battle, and his betrothed become the wife of another man. Marriage and the family were important to God and vital to the well-being of the nation, so He ensured that these young men were protected and the sanctity of the family unit was preserved.

The final exemption is a somewhat surprising one. In this case, Moses instructed the military commanders to approach their troops and offer an exemption to anyone afraid of going into battle.

In addition, the officers are to say to the troops, “Who among you is afraid and fainthearted? He may go home so that he will not make his fellow soldier’s heart as fearful as his own.” – Deuteronomy 20:8 NLT

This seems like an odd and potentially risky proposition. After all, what man in his right mind would not be afraid of the prospect of going into battle? It seems that this question could have resulted in the mass exodus of every able-bodied man.

But the real point behind all of these exemptions is that the victory God has assured will be by His hands and not that of men. God did not need a large standing army. He did not require every able-bodied man in order to defeat the enemies of Israel. And if men were too fearful to fight alongside God, He would rather they return home than run the risk of them infecting the rest of the army with their fear and faithlessness.

This reminds me of another occasion when God exempted some of His troops from going into battle and used a handful of faithful men to accomplish a great victory. This story is found in the book and involves Gideon defeating an army of Midianites that “had settled in the valley like a swarm of locusts. Their camels were like grains of sand on the seashore—too many to count!” (Judges 7:12 NLT).

And to make matter worse, God had ordered Gideon to send home the vast majority of his troops, leaving him with a paltry force of only 300 men. But God had assured Gideon, “With these 300 men I will rescue you and give you victory over the Midianites. Send all the others home” (Judges 7:7 NLT). And God did as He had promised. He brought about a great victory. It was not the size of Gideon’s army that mattered. It was Gideon’s God.

God was not dependent upon Gideon and his troops. And God was not limited by the number of Israelites who showed up when they were called up for battle. The victory would be His regardless of the size of the army at His disposal. Israel’s God was great and gracious. He was caring and compassionate. And Moses wanted the Israelites to never forget that “the Lord your God is with you.”

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

Hear and Fear

14 “You shall not move your neighbor’s landmark, which the men of old have set, in the inheritance that you will hold in the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess.

15 “A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established. 16 If a malicious witness arises to accuse a person of wrongdoing, 17 then both parties to the dispute shall appear before the Lord, before the priests and the judges who are in office in those days. 18 The judges shall inquire diligently, and if the witness is a false witness and has accused his brother falsely, 19 then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. 20 And the rest shall hear and fear, and shall never again commit any such evil among you. 21 Your eye shall not pity. It shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” – Deuteronomy 19:14-21 ESV

Hear and fear. I love that phrase. It’s simple and succinct, yet speaks volumes. And its simplicity contains the entire essence of all that Moses is trying to tell the people of Israel. When reading books of the Bible that contain iterations of the Mosaic law, we tend to view them as nothing more than a compendium of rules and requirements placed upon the people of Israel by God.  Too often, we find these lists of laws to be tedious, woefully out-of-date, and of no value in our 21st-Century Christian context.

And that somewhat dismissive attitude causes us to miss the divine principle that undergirds each and every one of these imperatives given by God. These commands were never intended to be seen as rules just for the sake of having rules. As the apostle Paul wrote, “the law itself is holy, and its commands are holy and right and good” (Romans 7:12 NLT).

We have no cities of refuge, and we are not in violation of God’s law because of that fact. But we are expected to practice the divine principles that God infused into His command concerning cities of refuge. The designation of six special cities as places where those guilty of involuntary manslaughter could seek refuge was intended to ensure that justice took precedence over vengeance. In a nation where there was no police force, no established governmental structure, a limited judicial system, and a tendency toward the practice of vigilante-style justice, God provided the cities of refuge as a protective measure. And in doing so, He was promoting justice and the practice of mercy over unbridled and unwarranted retribution.

Every human being should care about those things because they are what God cares about. As the prophet Micah so aptly stated it, “He has told you, O man, what is good,
and what the Lord really wants from you: He wants you to promote justice, to be faithful, and to live obediently before your God” (Micah 6:8 NLT).

When reading the following phrase: “You shall not move your neighbor’s landmark,” it can be easy to dismiss it as non-applicable to our current context. So, we dismiss it. But what was the principle contained within this divine prohibition? Was it just an arbitrary law restricting the moving of boundary markers, or was there something of greater import hidden within the law?

In the ancient world, land was at a premium and considered of great value. In a predominantly agrarian culture, land was one of the most valuable assets a man could own. It became a part of his identity. So, of someone clandestinely moved a marker that determined the boundary of a man’s land, it was an act of stealing. But not just his land – his value, worth, and identity. And when you consider that all of the land of Canaan had been divided up by God and apportioned to the various tribes, you begin to understand that there is an even more significant crime taking place here than that of land grabbing. It was a violation of God’s divine will.

In verses 15-21, Moses outlines the regulations concerning the use of witnesses in a civil dispute. This could apply to a case of someone accused of moving a boundary marker, or a Moses states, “any crime or for any wrong.”

The rule was simple. “Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established” (Deuteronomy 19:15 ESV). One witness would not suffice, because that would result in a stalemate, with one man’s word pitted against another. Again, don’t miss what is behind all of this. It has less to do with the crime committed than the means by which an accusation is to be leveled. God is putting safeguards in place to prevent false accusations that could result in inequitable or unjust outcomes.

In verse 16, Moses refers to “a malicious witness.” The Hebrew word is chamac, and it most often gets translated as “violent.” This is an individual who has evil intent. He is a false witness or a liar whose underlying motivation is to do harm to another. And Moses provides very specific instructions concerning this type of situation.

“If a malicious witness arises to accuse a person of wrongdoing, then both parties to the dispute shall appear before the Lord, before the priests and the judges who are in office in those days.” – Deuteronomy 19:16-17 ESV

It’s noteworthy that Moses refers to the accuser as a malicious witness even before the case has been heard by the authorities. For this person to level an accusation without the requisite second witness would have been an indication that his intent was evil. He had no corroborating witness to support his claim. You see this law played out in the trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin. The religious leaders were desperate to find at least two witnesses who could level the same charge against Jesus that might warrant a call for His execution.

The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were trying to find false testimony against Jesus so that they could put him to death. But they did not find anything, though many false witnesses came forward. – Matthew 26:59-60 NLT

And Matthew goes on to record that the Sanhedrin was finally able to get two of these false witnesses who collaborated their story and gave the chief priests and religious leaders what they had been looking for.

Finally two came forward and declared, “This man said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days.’” – Matthew 26:60 NLT

The witness of a single man was insufficient. And a man who could find no one else to collaborate his accusation was most likely a false witness. So, the accuser and the accused were to be brought before the authorities who were tasked to hear the facts of the case and make a judgment.

“The judges shall inquire diligently, and if the witness is a false witness and has accused his brother falsely, then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.” – Deuteronomy 19:18-19 ESV

Again, we have to consider the underlying principle behind all of these rules. Moses had provided the Israelites with God’s prescribed means for settling disputes among them, and He had told them undergirding principle behind it: Justice.

“You shall appoint judges and officers in all your towns that the Lord your God is giving you, according to your tribes, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment. You shall not pervert justice. You shall not show partiality, and you shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of the righteous. Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” – Deuteronomy 16:18-20 ESV

God wasn’t interested in judgment for judgment’s sake. He wanted righteous judgment. He demanded that justice be served. There was no place for false witnesses and maliciously motivated legal cases among His people. Moses had made it perfectly clear: “Justice, and only justice, you shall follow.”

Which brings us back to those three simple words: Hear and fear. All of these rules and regulations were intended to orchestrate and regulate the lives of the Israelites but, more than that, they were meant to instruct the people of Israel about the nature of their God. He was just, holy, and righteous in all His ways. He was set apart and distinct in nature. And He had called His chosen people to reflect the nature of His character by keeping His carefully crafted commands.

“Consecrate yourselves, therefore, and be holy, for I am the Lord your God. Keep my statutes and do them; I am the Lord who sanctifies you.” – Leviticus 20:7-8 ESV

God had set the Israelites apart as His own possession. And, in a sense, God had placed boundary markers around them, designed to restrict and regulate their behavior. Those commands or markers were God-ordained and not up for negotiation. But the people of Israel would find themselves constantly tempted to move God’s boundary markers, in a vain attempt to increase their own inheritance. When a man chooses to violate the commands of God, it is because He has determined that God is not just. He has concluded that God is holding out on him, denying him what is rightfully his. And his kind of behavior is unacceptable among God’s people. It reveals a heart that does not truly know and understand the unwavering, never-changing justness and righteousness 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

 

 

 

You Shall Be Blameless

“When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations. 10 There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer 11 or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, 12 for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord. And because of these abominations the Lord your God is driving them out before you. 13 You shall be blameless before the Lord your God, 14 for these nations, which you are about to dispossess, listen to fortune-tellers and to diviners. But as for you, the Lord your God has not allowed you to do this. – Deuteronomy 18:9-14 ESV

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Which is to say that if someone mimics your actions or behavior, they are expressing admiration for you. And while there may be some truth to this idiom, in far too many cases, imitation can be a dangerous game to play. Failure to consider the character of the one you seek to emulate can result in far-from-flattering or beneficial outcomes. Seeking to pattern your life after someone else can be driven by all kinds of unhealthy motives. It is far too easy to focus on the external fruit of their behavior; such as success, wealth, and popularity, while failing to closely examine what they had to do to achieve those results. Did their path to success require that they cut corners, bend the rules, compromise their convictions, or sacrifice their integrity? Better yet, will imitating their lives require those things of you?

As the time approached for the people of Israel to enter the land of promise, Moses spent a great deal of time and energy attempting to prepare them for the formidable task that lay ahead of them. They were entering a new stage in their relationship with God that would be like nothing they had ever experienced before. Their faith in God would be tested in ways they could not even begin to imagine. Their willingness to remain faithful to God would come under constant attack.

Compromise would become a daily temptation. Complacency would be a constant threat to their commitment to God. Remaining set apart to God would be far more difficult than they could know. Maintaining their distinction as God’s holy people was going to require diligence and a determination to remain uncompromisingly committed to Him. Moses had repeatedly communicated their unique status as God’s chosen people.

“But the LORD has taken you and brought you out of the iron furnace, out of Egypt, to be a people of his own inheritance, as you are this day.” – Deuteronomy 4:20 ESV

“For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.” – Deuteronomy 7:6 ESV

“For you are a people holy to the LORD your God, and the LORD has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. – Deuteronomy 14:2 ESV

“For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. – Deuteronomy 14:21 ESV

The Hebrew word for “holy” is qadowsh, and it means “sacred” or “set apart.” The Israelites had been separated out by God and consecrated as His possession. They belonged to Him. Like Adam and Eve, the Israelites had been created by God and set apart for His glory. But their status as His chosen possession was going to require that they live according to His holy standards. They were not free to live as they wished. They could not follow the ways of the world. And God expected them to make the land of Canaan a veritable island of holiness in the sea of wickedness that covered the world.

Three times in five verses, Moses uses the Hebrew word, tow`ebah, to describe the ways of the people occupying the land of Canaan. They were an abomination to God because their ways were morally repugnant to Him. Their behavior was unacceptable to a holy God. So, Moses warns the Israelites from following their “abominable practices.” And he makes it clear that anyone among the Israelites who imitates their ways will be “an abomination to the Lord.”

Rather than mimic the ways of the Canaanites, the people of God were to do everything in their power to remain set apart and distinct. Moses put it in very stark terms.

“You shall be blameless before the Lord your God.” – Deuteronomy 18:13 ESV

The Hebrew word for “blameless” is tamiym and it carries the idea of wholeness or completeness. It is the very same word God had used when addressing Abraham nearly half a millennium earlier.

When Abram was ninety-nine years old the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless.” – Genesis 17:1 ESV

While tamiym can be translated as “perfect” or “unblemished,” God was not demanding sinlessness from Abraham. But was expecting Abraham to live his entire life in keeping with His ways. Abraham was to live an integral or whole life, dedicated to God and set apart for His glory. And Moses was trying to convey the same thought to the people of Israel. He was not expecting them to remain totally free from contamination by the world. That would have been impossible, given their sinful natures and the ubiquitous nature of evil in the world. But Moses wanted them to fully understand just how dangerous compromise with the world would be.

And while most of the abominable practices that Moses pointed out had to do with witchcraft, sorcery, divination, and the occult, all of these things were associated with Canaanite religious practices. Moses knew that the Israelites would be tempted to weave these morally disgusting practices into their own worship of Yahweh. Compromise would be a constant threat for the Israelites, resulting in their failure to remain tamiym – unblemished and unstained by the world.

God expected His people to live as who they are: His chosen possession. Their lives were to reflect their unique status as His set-apart ones. Enjoying their status as God’s children came with a non-negotiable requirement that they honor the distinctiveness of their position by living holy lives.

There was no room for compromise or complacency. They were to share God’s disgust and disdain for the ways of the Canaanites. They were to resist exposure to and contamination by the abominable practices of the Canaanites. And they were to never forget that God’s will was the complete eradication of the Canaanites and their unholy ways from the land.

When it comes to holiness, imitation of the world is not flattery, it’s idolatry. Compromising our convictions by copying the ways of the world is unacceptable for God’s people. We have been set apart. We belong to Him. As His children, we are to reflect His character and bring glory to His name by the way we live our lives – wholly unto Him.

The religion of the Israelites was totally unique and prescribed by God. It was not the result of man’s imagination and was not to reflect the practices of the pagan nations of the world. God had set Israel apart positionally and practically. Their status as His people was to show up in everyday life, especially when it came to their worship of Him.

There are all kinds of religions in the world, but only one brand of religious activity is acceptable to God. And James describes this kind of religion in very plain terms.

Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you. – James 1:27 NLT

And, as Paul told his disciple, Titus, the people of God are still expected to live distinctively different lives, not emulating the ways of this world but reflecting our status as God’s chosen people.

For the grace of God has been revealed, bringing salvation to all people. And we are instructed to turn from godless living and sinful pleasures. We should live in this evil world with wisdom, righteousness, and devotion to God, while we look forward with hope to that wonderful day when the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, will be revealed. – Titus 2:11-13 NLT

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 King Whom God Will Choose

14 “When you come to the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you possess it and dwell in it and then say, ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,’ 15 you may indeed set a king over you whom the Lord your God will choose. One from among your brothers you shall set as king over you. You may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother. 16 Only he must not acquire many horses for himself or cause the people to return to Egypt in order to acquire many horses, since the Lord has said to you, ‘You shall never return that way again.’ 17 And he shall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away, nor shall he acquire for himself excessive silver and gold.

18 “And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests. 19 And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, 20 that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel. – Deuteronomy 17:14-25 ESV

In yesterday’s post, we saw that a day would come when the people of Israel would reject God as their rightful King and demand that He provide them with a human king. They would make their request known to Samuel, the prophet of God.

“…you are now old, and your sons are not like you. Give us a king to judge us like all the other nations have.” – 1 Samuel 8:5 NLT

Samuel would find their demands offensive, but God would command him to do exactly as they had requested.

“Do everything they say to you,” the LORD replied, “for they are rejecting me, not you. They don’t want me to be their king any longer. Ever since I brought them from Egypt they have continually abandoned me and followed other gods. And now they are giving you the same treatment. Do as they ask, but solemnly warn them about the way a king will reign over them.” – 1 Samuel 8:8-10 NLT

It would be easy to assume that God was simply acceding to their demands and giving them just what they had asked for: A king to judge us like all the other nations have. But that would be a false assumption. As today’s passage indicates, God knew that the day would come when the people would ask for a king.

When you come to the land the Lord your God is giving you and take it over and live in it and then say, ‘I will select a king like all the nations surrounding me…’” – Deuteronomy 17:14 NLT

God knew in advance what the Israelites were going to do and he had already planned for it. In fact, God let them know the kind of king they should select.

“…you must select without fail a king whom the Lord your God chooses. From among your fellow citizens you must appoint a king.” – Deuteronomy 17:15 NLT

Notice God’s stipulation. He was more than willing for them to select a king for themselves, but it was going to have to be the man He chose. This man would have to have God’s blessing, and he would have to meet God’s standards, which included Israelite citizenship. No non-Jew was to rule over God’s people. And, while they would demand a king just like all the other nations, God was not going to allow this man to emulate the ways of these foreign potentates.

“…he must not accumulate horses for himself or allow the people to return to Egypt to do so…” – Deuteronomy 17:16 NLT

Stables filled with fine horses might characterize the kingdoms of other rulers, but God was going to expect His king to remain set apart, wholly distinct from all other human-appointed rulers. This would include a ban on accumulating wives and concubines, a typical manifestation of royal power and privilege.

“…he must not marry many wives lest his affections turn aside, and he must not accumulate much silver and gold.” – Deuteronomy 17:17 NLT

The people were going to demand that they be given a king who looked like every other king. They would be thinking in terms of power, position, and prominence. The kind of king they had in mind would have all the familiar trappings of kingship, much like Pharaoh had enjoyed.

But God was not interested in placing the care of His chosen people in the hands of just any king. There would be rules and requirements involved. This man would have to rule and reign according to God’s will. He would have to obey God’s commands. But to do so, he would have to be intimately familiar with those commands, which is why God commanded:

“When he sits on his royal throne he must make a copy of this law on a scroll given to him by the Levitical priests. It must be with him constantly and he must read it as long as he lives, so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and observe all the words of this law and these statutes and carry them out.” – Deuteronomy 17:18-19 NLT

A godly king would need to know God’s law. And he would have to rule over God’s people in a way that reflected his knowledge of God’s will. There was no place for pride or arrogance. God’s chosen king would serve as His representative, treating the people of God with the same care and concern He would. And if he did, God promised that “he and his descendants will enjoy many years ruling over his kingdom in Israel” (Deuteronomy 17:20 NLT).

But years later, when the people of Israel would bring their demand for a king to Samuel, God would warn them that He was going to give them exactly what they were asking for. He would give them a king just like all the other nations.

“This is how a king will reign over you,” Samuel said. “The king will draft your sons and assign them to his chariots and his charioteers, making them run before his chariots. Some will be generals and captains in his army, some will be forced to plow in his fields and harvest his crops, and some will make his weapons and chariot equipment. The king will take your daughters from you and force them to cook and bake and make perfumes for him. He will take away the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his own officials. He will take a tenth of your grain and your grape harvest and distribute it among his officers and attendants. He will take your male and female slaves and demand the finest of your cattle and donkeys for his own use. He will demand a tenth of your flocks, and you will be his slaves. When that day comes, you will beg for relief from this king you are demanding, but then the LORD will not help you.” – 1 Samuel 8:11-18 NLT

Their preferred version of a king would end up coming back to haunt them. God warned them that He would give them exactly what they demanded. He would give them their hearts desire, even though it would not turn out well for them in the long-run. But, in spite of God’s warning, they would refuse to relent on their demands.

“Even so, we still want a king,” they said. “We want to be like the nations around us. Our king will judge us and lead us into battle.” – 1 Samuel 8:19-20 NLT

God was not opposed to Israel having a king. In fact, He would eventually give them David as their king, a man after His own heart. But before David reigned over Israel, they would suffer under the lousy leadership of Saul, a man who would end up being a king just all the other nations had. And David’s own son, Solomon, would end up disobeying God’s commands, eventually amassing a harem consisting of “700 wives of royal birth and 300 concubines” (1 Kings 11:3 NLT). And most of his wives would be foreign-born and idolaters. They would eventually lead him astray, causing him to forsake God and set up idols all throughout his kingdom. And for this indescretion, God would split his kingdom in half, forming the two nations of Israel and Judah.

It was not that God was against Israel having a king, it was that He preferred a king who shared His heart. He wanted a man who would rule and reign as God’s representative, shepherding His sheep as David would eventually do.

With upright heart he shepherded them and guided them with his skillful hand. – Psalm 78:72 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

 

 

 

Purge the Evil

“If any case arises requiring decision between one kind of homicide and another, one kind of legal right and another, or one kind of assault and another, any case within your towns that is too difficult for you, then you shall arise and go up to the place that the Lord your God will choose. And you shall come to the Levitical priests and to the judge who is in office in those days, and you shall consult them, and they shall declare to you the decision. 10 Then you shall do according to what they declare to you from that place that the Lord will choose. And you shall be careful to do according to all that they direct you. 11 According to the instructions that they give you, and according to the decision which they pronounce to you, you shall do. You shall not turn aside from the verdict that they declare to you, either to the right hand or to the left. 12 The man who acts presumptuously by not obeying the priest who stands to minister there before the Lord your God, or the judge, that man shall die. So you shall purge the evil from Israel. 13 And all the people shall hear and fear and not act presumptuously again. – Deuteronomy 17:8-13 ESV

It would appear from these verses that the Israelites were to establish a system of judicial oversight where cases that fell outside the scope of the local judges. These more difficult cases were to be taken to the city in which the tabernacle would be set up, and presented to a judicial panel comprised of Levites and appointed judges. These men were assigned to task of adjudicating these these cases and their decisions were to be considered binding and final. They were to function as a kind of Supreme Court for the nation of Israel.

The size of the panel is not clarified, but it consisted of at least one Levite and a judge. The Levite was there in his function as a priest of God. He was responsible for applying the law of God to the matter in dispute. The judge provided an additional set of ears to hear the facts of the case and to assist in determining a just and righteous settlement.

The verdict passed by this God-ordained court was to be accepted and carried out by all those involved. There was no appeal process available.

“You must carry out the verdict they announce and the sentence they prescribe at the place the Lord chooses.” – Deuteronomy 17:10 NLT

The Levites and the judge who sat on the panel were not responsible for enforcing the verdict, the people were. It was their responsibility to carry out whatever judgment was assessed – to the letter.

“After they have interpreted the law and declared their verdict, the sentence they impose must be fully executed; do not modify it in any way.” – Deuteronomy 17:11 NLT

The verdict was to be based on the Mosaic law, so this ensured that any decision arrived at had the full backing of God Almighty. Anyone who dared to reject the decision of the court stood opposed to God and faced the full wrath of His judgment.

“Anyone arrogant enough to reject the verdict of the judge or of the priest who represents the Lord your God must die. In this way you will purge the evil from Israel.” – Deuteronomy 17:12 NLT

This sounds harsh to our modern sensibilities, but God was determined that Israel have a clear set of moral, legislative, and judicial guidelines by which to live. But those guidelines would mean absolutely nothing if the people were not held accountable to adhere to them. Laws that can be easily broken, with no threat of reprisal or punishment, are not laws at all. They are little more than suggestions, easily avoided or simply ignored altogether. Laws that lack enforcement are no more dangerous than a lion lacking teeth and claws. A judicial verdict that fails to be carried out has no weight. And the court that deliberates and delivers such a verdict ends up having no power to determine the well-being of a nation.

But if failure to carry out the verdict of the court was followed by capital punishment, “Then everyone else will hear about it and be afraid to act so arrogantly” (Deuteronomy 17:13 NLT). Adjudication requires prosecution. For a verdict to carry any weight, it must be enforced. And refusal to follow the will of God’s appointed judges was going to bring His wrath. He would not tolerate disobedience, because disobedience was nothing less than rebellion against His will. And like any other sin, rebellion was an infectious disease that could spread among the people, if left unchecked. That’s why God demanded that they “purge the evil from Israel.”

They were to take rebellion seriously and deal with it immediately. To not do so would create an environment where everyone did what was right in his own eyes. All God-ordained authority would eventually become impotent and useless. And the people would end up ruling their lives according to their own personal standards. Rules would become purely subjective, determined by the individual. And the day was going to come when this very thing happened in Israel.

After the period of time in Israelite history when God had appointed men and women to act as His judges, the people of Israel would reach a point when they would no longer accept these leaders. And the book of Judges matter-of-factly states: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6 ESV).

It was a time when autonomy ruled the land. There were no more judges and the people were doing what they deemed best. It proved to be an immoral time marked by spiritual anarchy. The people were not content to live by God’s law or to abide by the decisions of His judges. Self-rule was the law of the land and it had created an atmosphere marked by rebellion and rampant godlessness.

And it all begins when we fail to heed God’s call to purge the evil from our midst. Sin left unchecked and unpunished doesn’t go away, it grows. It spreads and eventually infects the entire camp. So, God demands that we take it seriously and deal with it decisively. Tolerance of sin sounds like the loving thing to do, but it actually results in death and destruction. So, God made it clear that the death of the one was to be preferred to that of the many. So, “purge the evil from Israel. Then everyone else will hear about it and be afraid to act so arrogantly” (Deuteronomy 17:12-13 NLT).

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

 

 

 

Righteous Judgment. Perverted Justice.

18 “You shall appoint judges and officers in all your towns that the Lord your God is giving you, according to your tribes, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment. 19 You shall not pervert justice. You shall not show partiality, and you shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of the righteous. 20 Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

21 “You shall not plant any tree as an Asherah beside the altar of the Lord your God that you shall make. 22 And you shall not set up a pillar, which the Lord your God hates. – Deuteronomy 16:18-22 ESV

Reliable leadership is essential for a family, a religious community, a company or a nation. Without proper leadership, you end up with chaos and confusion, which ultimately leads to anarchy. So, as Moses continues to outline God’s holy expectations for the people of Israel, he begins to focus his attention on the vital role and responsibility of leadership within their community. Yes, God was their final authority, but He had established a hierarchy of leadership, delegating certain responsibilities to others, like Moses, whom He would hold accountable for the welfare of His people.

As God’s chosen people, the nation of Israel was expected to reflect His character, both on an individual and corporate basis. Each family within the community was to operate according to God’s commands, with children honoring their parents and father’s and mother’s leading their children in the ways of the Lord. Every member of the community was expected to keep the sabbath holy. They were each obligated to obey the commands of God and live in unity as the people of God. But every organization, no matter how large or small, needs effective leadership to survive and thrive.

So, Moses provided them with God’s plan for overseeing what would quickly become a rapidly expanding populace scattered throughout the land of Canaan.

“Appoint judges and officials for yourselves from each of your tribes in all the towns the Lord your God is giving you…” – Deuteronomy 16:18 NLT

Once the tribes began to conquer and settle the land, the once-unified nation would find itself dispersed into 12 different communities separated by distance and requiring localized leadership. One man would not be able to oversee such an extensive and far-spread domain. Even during the days of the kings of Israel, there would be a need for delegated power dispersed throughout the kingdom in order to assure proper application and enforcement of the king’s wishes.

But in these early days of Israel’s existence, they were to be a theocracy living under the authority of God, their sovereign Lord and King. He was to be their final authority in all things. And He would appoint men to serve as His representatives, leading and judging the people on His behalf and according to His divine will. But the day was going to come when the people of Israel expressed their weariness with God’s way of doing things. They would reject His divinely appointed leaders and demand to have a king just like all the other nations. In other words, they would jettison the governing model of a theocracy for a human monarchy, which would eventually devolve into an oligarchy.

The book of 1 Samuel records the fateful day when the people of Israel issued their demand for a king, and God made clear that they were really rejecting Him as their King.

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah and said to him, “Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.” And Samuel prayed to the Lord. And the Lord said to Samuel, “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.” – 1 Samuel 8:4-7 ESV

But at this point in the book of Deuteronomy, the people were still preparing to enter the land. They found themselves in need of God’s help, so they were still willing to allow Him to lead. But God knew that it would only be a matter of time before they required more hands-on leadership. So, He commanded Moses to have the people appoint or elect judges and officials who would provide localized leadership within their various land allotments.

These men would provide a vital role, exercising their divinely-appointed authority to provide wise judgment and ensure righteous justice within the various tribes. But this was not be the first time this form of delegated authority had been seen in Israel. All the way back in the days when they were traveling from Egypt to the land of Canaan, Moses had instituted a similar program, under the wise counsel of his father-in-law, Jethro.

Jethro had witnessed Moses attempting to single-handedly trying to mete out judgment and justice for the people. His son-in-law was spending all day, everyday, listening to the cares and concerns of the people and trying to provide wise counsel and direction. But Jethro saw that this was unsustainable, so he gave Moses a bit of sage advice.

“This is not good!” Moses’ father-in-law exclaimed. “You’re going to wear yourself out—and the people, too. This job is too heavy a burden for you to handle all by yourself. Now listen to me, and let me give you a word of advice, and may God be with you. You should continue to be the people’s representative before God, bringing their disputes to him. Teach them God’s decrees, and give them his instructions. Show them how to conduct their lives. But select from all the people some capable, honest men who fear God and hate bribes. Appoint them as leaders over groups of one thousand, one hundred, fifty, and ten. They should always be available to solve the people’s common disputes, but have them bring the major cases to you. Let the leaders decide the smaller matters themselves. They will help you carry the load, making the task easier for you. If you follow this advice, and if God commands you to do so, then you will be able to endure the pressures, and all these people will go home in peace.” – Exodus 18:17-23 NLT

And this is exactly what Moses is directing the people to do. But he provides an important caveat, telling the people that the men they choose as leaders were to “judge the people with righteous judgment” (Deuteronomy 16:18 ESV). Not only that, they were to “never twist justice or show partiality” (Deuteronomy 16:19 NLT).

God was looking for righteous and just men. He wanted individuals who would reflect His character and uphold His divine expectations for justice and mercy. God was not going to put up with any form of corruption, such as the acceptance of bribes. There would be no room for partiality or favoritism. These men were to be impartial and fair, representing each of the people under their care equitably and justly. And Moses made it clear that their adherence to God’s requirements would bring His blessings.

“Let true justice prevail, so you may live and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” – Deuteronomy 16:20 NLT

God has a strong dislike for lousy leadership. He holds those in positions of authority to a high standard and expects them to take their responsibilities seriously, approaching their roles with a soberness that is influence by a healthy fear of His holiness.

And these men were not just responsible for settling civil disputes. They were to guard against any kind of idolatry among the people of Israel. Unfaithfulness to God was the greatest temptation the people were going to face. Their personal disputes and disagreements would prove miniscule and pointless when compared with their failure to remain faithful to God. So, Moses warns these leaders to watch out for any kind of idolatrous activity among the people. If they saw it, they were to deal with it immediately. God expected these men to deliver righteous judgment among His people and He demanded that they dispense equitable justice. But more importantly, God required His leaders to require holiness and faithfulness from the people. These men would be acting as representatives of God. And, as such, they were expected to love what He loves and hate what He hates. They were to judge according to God’s standards, not their own. They were to mete out God’s brand of justice, not their own. And if they did, God would bless the nation.

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