Walking in Faith

30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they had been encircled for seven days. – Hebrews 11:30 ESV

Moses was gone. An entire generation of Israelites had died during their forty years of wandering in the wilderness, all because they had refused to believe God and enter the land He had promised them. Their disobedience had brought God’s judgment and that generation would never enter the rest that God had promised to provide for them.

Now, Joshua led a new generation of Israelites into the promised land. They would not just waltz into the land and take over without a fight. The occupants of the land of Canaan were going to have a real problem with the descendants of Abraham showing up and making claims that the land belonged to them because Yahweh, their God, had given it to them. The land and all its provisions were not going to come without a fight. But God would give some important news to Israel’s new leader, Joshua.

When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand. And Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” And he said, “No; but I am the commander of the army of the Lord. Now I have come.” And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped and said to him, “What does my lord say to his servant?” And the commander of the Lord‘s army said to Joshua, “Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so. – Joshua 5:13-15 ESV

This occasion is reminiscent of Moses’ experience at the burning bush. Joshua, like Moses, had a personal and up-close encounter with God Himself in the form of a theophany. Joshua saw what he believed to be a man and this stranger announced himself as the commander of the army of the Lord. The word “commander” can be translated as “prince” or “captain.” Some believe that this “man” was actually the pre-incarnate Christ, and Joshua’s immediate reaction reveals his awareness that he was speaking with more than just a man. He fell on his face and worshiped. The very next chapter records the words that the commander of the army of the Lord shared with Joshua.

Now Jericho was shut up inside and outside because of the people of Israel. None went out, and none came in. And the Lord said to Joshua, “See, I have given Jericho into your hand, with its king and mighty men of valor. You shall march around the city, all the men of war going around the city once. Thus shall you do for six days. Seven priests shall bear seven trumpets of rams’ horns before the ark. On the seventh day you shall march around the city seven times, and the priests shall blow the trumpets. And when they make a long blast with the ram’s horn, when you hear the sound of the trumpet, then all the people shall shout with a great shout, and the wall of the city will fall down flat, and the people shall go up, everyone straight before him.” – Joshua 6:1-5 ESV

These instructions must have sounded strange to Joshua. The city of Jericho was the very first city they encountered after crossing the Jordan River and entering Canaan, it was well-fortified and heavily armed. Yet, the Lord was telling Joshua that He would give the city into their hands. But the conditions for achieving this victory were a bit odd.

The Lord was explicit in His details, leaving nothing to chance or to Joshua’s imagination. For six days, they would make a single circuit around the walls of the city. No arrows would be fired. No spears would be thrown. Imagine the reactions they would have gotten from the people inside the city and the soldiers looking down on this strange spectacle from the tops of the walls. Safely ensconced within their walled fortress,  the citizens of Jericho would have hurled taunts and rained down ridicule on the hapless Israelites as Joshua led them on the bizarre parade around the city walls.

The men of Israel would have struggled with feelings of shame and embarrassment as they marched in a silent column around the city, listening to their enemies question their sanity and manhood. Their swords hung at their side, unused. They were exerting their energy walking in circles rather than fighting their enemy. Under the direction of Joshua, the fighting men of Israel faithfully obeyed the instructions of the commander of the army of the Lord.

The armed men were walking before the priests who were blowing the trumpets, and the rear guard was walking after the ark, while the trumpets blew continually. – Joshua 6:9 ESV

No one said a word. No one fired off a single arrow. And in keeping with the commander’s instructions, no one could respond to the jeers and insults coming from behind the walls of Jericho. But the people of Israel continued to walk day after day for six days. But then the seventh day came.

On the seventh day they rose early, at the dawn of day, and marched around the city in the same manner seven times. It was only on that day that they marched around the city seven times. And at the seventh time, when the priests had blown the trumpets, Joshua said to the people, “Shout, for the Lord has given you the city. And the city and all that is within it shall be devoted to the Lord for destruction.” – Joshua 6:15-17 ESV

This day was going to be different. Six days of seemingly pointless activity were going to be followed by an incredible miracle from God. Just as they had the previous six days, the people marched in silence, but this time they circled the city seven times. And after their final trip around the city, “the people shouted, and the trumpets were blown. As soon as the people heard the sound of the trumpet, the people shouted a great shout, and the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they captured the city. Then they devoted all in the city to destruction, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys, with the edge of the sword” (Joshua 6:20-21 ESV).

For seven days they had walked and waited. For a solid week, they had done as they had been told. They had been faithful and obedient to the Lord’s command. That doesn’t mean they didn’t struggle with doubts or questions regarding the Lord’s plan. There was most likely a fair share of grumbling and grousing around the campfires at night. The people probably wondered if Joshua had really heard from God at all. There was probably a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking going on.

But they walked. For seven days they did as they had been told. Their walking was evidence that they were trusting God. They didn’t know exactly how the walls were going to fall because God had not explained that part of the plan. But they knew the role they were assigned to play. They were to march. They were to obey. And they were to wait on the Lord.

God’s plan required that their pride take a back seat. Their physical abilities had to be used for walking and not fighting. But as the author of Hebrews tells us, “by faith the walls of Jericho fell down.”

It wasn’t their faith that caused the walls to fall. That miraculous accomplishment was God’s doing. But their faith was instrumental in God’s power being unleashed and put on display. Had they stopped walking, the walls would not have fallen. Had they decided to take up their swords and attack the city in their own strength, the outcome would have been radically different.

Their faith was in God. Over a seven-day period, they maintained an “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1 ESV). They kept walking because they believed God would deliver a victory. They were convinced it would happen, not because they marched but because their God had promised it. Their marching was simply an expression of their faith in God. Sometimes trusting God requires us to step out – in faith – and walk in seemingly meaningless circles. We have to do what appears to be pointless and sometimes even ridiculous so that God can prove His faithfulness.

But if we truly trust God, walking and waiting is well worth the effort. He always comes through – in His way and according to His will. The walls will fall. The victory will come. The enemy will be defeated. And our obedience will further increase our faith in His power, provision, and protection.

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.

Future-Focused Faith

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. – Hebrews 11:8-10 ESV

The first four words of this section of Hebrews 11 are critical: “By faith Abraham obeyed.” It would be easy to put the emphasis on the latter half of the statement, making Abraham’s obedience the main point. But the author is simply attempting to provide further proof for the opening line of this chapter: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1 ESV). Abraham’s obedience, while important, is meant to take a back seat to his faith. It is a byproduct of his faith. As the author said in verse six, “without faith it is impossible to please God.”

We have to go back to the Old Testament book of Genesis to see the complete story of Abraham’s call and his subsequent obedience to that call. He was living in Haran with his father and the rest of his family. They had moved there from Ur. And it was while he was living in Haran that God came to Abram (his original name), and said, “Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:1-3 ESV).

What’s important to notice is that, according to the text, God had not given him the exact location of his final destination. Even the passage in Hebrews says that Abram “went out, not knowing where he was going.” This is an important part of the story. The extent of Abram’s knowledge was limited. He knew that God had called him and had promised to give him land and to produce from him a great nation. While these promises were substantial in scope, they were also a bit vague. Anyone would naturally want to know where and how. Where is this land you are giving me and how do you intend to produce a great nation from a man with a barren wife?

Abram would have had questions and concerns, yet he still obeyed God and did exactly as he was told. But the author’s emphasis is the faith that fueled Abram’s obedience. 

by faith Abraham obeyed. – Hebrews 11:8 ESV

He had no idea where he was going or how God was going to pull off what He had promised. Genesis tells us that Abram headed out, under the direction of God, and before long he found himself in the land of Canaan, a land occupied by none other than the Canaanites, the descendants of Ham, one of the sons of Noah.

Abram was a descendant of Shem, another son of Noah. So once he arrived at his final destination, Abram found the land already occupied by some distant family members. The author of Hebrews reminds us that “By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land” (Hebrews 11:9 ESV). Abram found himself living in a land that belonged to others, and its residents lived in well-furnished houses while his small family was relegated to the transient lifestyle of nomads, living in tents and constantly moving from one location to another.

They were little more than squatters and vagabonds who enjoyed no sense of stability or ownership, and this state of affairs would last for generations, spanning the lives of Isaac and Jacob. Abram had received a promise of land but he spent his entire life living like a stranger rather than an occupant. He never owned a home or lived within the secure walls of a city. In fact, the author of Hebrews states that during his entire tenure in Canaan, “he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10 ESV).

The Greek word the author uses is ekdechomai and it means “to look for, expect, wait for, await” (Greek Lexicon :: G1551 (KJV). Blue Letter Bible. Web. 4 Feb, 2016. <http://www.blueletterbible.org). Abram was waiting for, expecting, and anticipating something that had not yet come. He was eagerly and hopefully waiting for God to make his residence a permanent one. His understanding of the promise was that it would include a city made up of bricks and mortar, with walls, ceilings, and floors. Abram was eagerly anticipating the end of his nomadic existence spent living in tents.

But he had to wait, and along with having to deal with the existence of Canaanites, he had to endure the devastating impact of a debilitating drought. When he first arrived in the “promised land,” things were so bad that he was forced to take an unplanned detour to Egypt to seek food for his family. This was not what he had expected when he obeyed the call of God back in Ur. But through a series of unexpected but divinely ordained events, Abram arrived back in Canaan a wealthy man with an abundance of livestock. In fact, his flocks were so large that he and his nephew Lot had to part ways in order to keep from running into conflicts over pasturing rights. And when he gave Lot the first choice of land, his nephew chose the very best, leaving Abram with the less attractive portion. But Abram continued to trust God. He placed his hope and convictions in the promises of God. Even after Abram gave Lot the choice of the best land, God reconfirmed His promise to him.

Look as far as you can see in every direction—north and south, east and west. I am giving all this land, as far as you can see, to you and your descendants as a permanent possession. And I will give you so many descendants that, like the dust of the earth, they cannot be counted! Go and walk through the land in every direction, for I am giving it to you. – Genesis 13:14-17 ESV

According to God, the land was as good as his – all of it. Every square acre of it, including all of the land occupied by the Canaanites and by Lot belonged to Abram. He had yet to take possession of a single square inch of the land of Canaan but, according to God’s promise, it was all going to belong to his descendants. Abram placed his faith and hope in God and His word. The fact that he did not possess a permanent home or the deed to a piece of property did not diminish his belief that God was going to follow through on His promise. Abram lived with the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

Yet, the author states that Abram and all the others listed in chapter 11 “died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13 ESV). Theirs was a future-focused faith. It was based on a promise, and that promise was assured because the promise-maker was trustworthy. Abram knew that the promise of God was far greater and encompassed far more than just his individual blessing. God’s promise involved future generations and had far-reaching implications. Abram would never live to see the complete fulfillment of God’s promise. He would be long gone by the time his descendants faced another famine in Canaan and returned to Egypt. He would never live to see them multiply and grow to such a degree that Pharaoh would become fearful of them and decree a pogrom designed to exterminate them. He would not experience the joy of watching God set his descendants free from their captivity in Egypt and lead them back to the promised land. He would not enjoy the thrill of seeing them conquer the land of Canaan and make it their own. He would never see the rise of King David or view the splendor of Solomon’s grand kingdom. And he would never live to see the coming of the Messiah, the one through whom all the nations of the earth would be blessed.

But Abram believed. He had faith. He obeyed. He worshiped. He waited. And he left the future in God’s hands. He had future faith because he believed in an eternal God who never fails to keep His word or fulfill His commitments. And the apostle Paul would have us live by faith as Abram did.

…we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. – Romans 8:23-25 ESV

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.

And Now, the Bad News

14 “But if you will not listen to me and will not do all these commandments, 15 if you spurn my statutes, and if your soul abhors my rules, so that you will not do all my commandments, but break my covenant, 16 then I will do this to you: I will visit you with panic, with wasting disease and fever that consume the eyes and make the heart ache. And you shall sow your seed in vain, for your enemies shall eat it. 17 I will set my face against you, and you shall be struck down before your enemies. Those who hate you shall rule over you, and you shall flee when none pursues you. 18 And if in spite of this you will not listen to me, then I will discipline you again sevenfold for your sins, 19 and I will break the pride of your power, and I will make your heavens like iron and your earth like bronze. 20 And your strength shall be spent in vain, for your land shall not yield its increase, and the trees of the land shall not yield their fruit.

21 “Then if you walk contrary to me and will not listen to me, I will continue striking you, sevenfold for your sins. 22 And I will let loose the wild beasts against you, which shall bereave you of your children and destroy your livestock and make you few in number, so that your roads shall be deserted.

23 “And if by this discipline you are not turned to me but walk contrary to me, 24 then I also will walk contrary to you, and I myself will strike you sevenfold for your sins. 25 And I will bring a sword upon you, that shall execute vengeance for the covenant. And if you gather within your cities, I will send pestilence among you, and you shall be delivered into the hand of the enemy. 26 When I break your supply of bread, ten women shall bake your bread in a single oven and shall dole out your bread again by weight, and you shall eat and not be satisfied.

27 “But if in spite of this you will not listen to me, but walk contrary to me, 28 then I will walk contrary to you in fury, and I myself will discipline you sevenfold for your sins. 29 You shall eat the flesh of your sons, and you shall eat the flesh of your daughters. 30 And I will destroy your high places and cut down your incense altars and cast your dead bodies upon the dead bodies of your idols, and my soul will abhor you. 31 And I will lay your cities waste and will make your sanctuaries desolate, and I will not smell your pleasing aromas. 32 And I myself will devastate the land, so that your enemies who settle in it shall be appalled at it. 33 And I will scatter you among the nations, and I will unsheathe the sword after you, and your land shall be a desolation, and your cities shall be a waste.

34 “Then the land shall enjoy its Sabbaths as long as it lies desolate, while you are in your enemies’ land; then the land shall rest, and enjoy its Sabbaths. 35 As long as it lies desolate it shall have rest, the rest that it did not have on your Sabbaths when you were dwelling in it. 36 And as for those of you who are left, I will send faintness into their hearts in the lands of their enemies. The sound of a driven leaf shall put them to flight, and they shall flee as one flees from the sword, and they shall fall when none pursues. 37 They shall stumble over one another, as if to escape a sword, though none pursues. And you shall have no power to stand before your enemies. 38 And you shall perish among the nations, and the land of your enemies shall eat you up. 39 And those of you who are left shall rot away in your enemies’ lands because of their iniquity, and also because of the iniquities of their fathers they shall rot away like them. Leviticus 26:14-39 ESV

After having listed the manifold blessings that accompany obedience, God now addresses the less attractive topic of divine discipline for disobedience. In these verses, God provides a five-stage outline of how things will turn out for His people should they refuse to remain faithful to Him, and the list of potential judgments is grim and intended to deter them from considering disobedience as a course of action. God wanted them to understand the gravity of the situation. He had set them apart as His chosen people and made a binding covenant with them.

Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” – Exodus 19:5-6 ESV

This agreement between God and His people sometimes referred to as the Mosaic Covenant, was conditional in nature. In other words, it was binding and required the full compliance of both parties. Through their obedience to His covenant conditions, the Israelites would be guaranteed their status as God’s chosen people and assured of ongoing presence, power, and provision.

“If you walk in my statutes and observe my commandments and do them, then…I will make my dwelling among you, and my soul shall not abhor you. And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people.” – Leviticus 26:3, 11-12 ESV

But the people needed to know that there was a potential downside to this covenant that they had so eagerly ratified (Exodus 19:8). Failure to keep all the conditions of the covenant came with serious consequences, and the list of judgments God describes in these verses goes from bad to worse. It will begin with divine attacks on their bodies in the form of “wasting diseases” and assaults by their enemies that will leave them defeated and demoralized. Other nations will plunder their crops and treat the Israelites as little more than slaves. The land that God had given the Israelites as their inheritance would no longer provide for their needs. Instead, it would fall into the hands of their enemies, leaving God’s people defeated and destitute.

Continued rebellion will result in drought and famine, “making the skies as unyielding as iron and the earth as hard as bronze” (Leviticus 26:19 NLT). Rain will be withheld and crops will cease to grow. The fruitfulness of the land of promise will become a distant and fading memory. And yet God forewarns His people that this judgment will not produce repentance and obedience. Despite all that they suffer, they will continue to spurn His calls to obey, forcing Yahweh to punish them “seven times over” (Leviticus 26:18 NLT) for their sins. God vows to break their proud spirit and bring them to their knees. Yet, God predicts that His people will prove to be stubborn and unwilling to give up their rebellious ways. That will usher in the next phase of their punishment.

I will send wild animals that will rob you of your children and destroy your livestock. Your numbers will dwindle, and your roads will be deserted. – Leviticus 26:22 NLT

The creation itself will turn against God’s people. Not only will they face the threat of enemy attacks, but wild animals will rise up against them. Their lawlessness will result in chaos. No one will be safe. The first judgments primarily affected the fruit of their fields, but this punishment will target the fruit of the womb: Their children.

To grasp the full effect of this judgment, one must understand that God has always called His people to “be fruitful and multiply.” It was the command given to Adam and Eve and passed down to Noah and his sons. And while the Israelites had been slaves in Egypt, God had miraculously multiplied their number. But now, God was warning them that because of disobedience, they could expect to see their number diminish. As King Solomon would later record, children were to be seen as a gift from God.

Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord,
    the fruit of the womb a reward. – Psalm 127:3 ESV

But the Israelites needed to understand that their fruitfulness as a nation was directly tied to their faithfulness. At this point, it’s important to note what God said when He prepared to create man.

“Let us make human beings in our image, to be like us. They will reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the wild animals on the earth, and the small animals that scurry along the ground.” – Genesis 1:26 NLT

And God gave the first man and women a mandate:

“Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it. Reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the animals that scurry along the ground.” – Genesis 1:28 NLT

Now, in the case of His chosen people, God was warning that their fruitfulness and dominion over creation would come to an end should they choose to disobey His commands.

But God was far from done because He knew that His people would find it difficult to repent and return to Him. So, He outlines the next phase of His divine judgment. In response to their ongoing disobedience, God will get personally involved.

I myself will be hostile toward you. I will personally strike you with calamity seven times over for your sins. – Leviticus 26:24 NLT

God vows to deal with their rebellion on an intimate level, sending armies against them to mete out His divine judgment. If the people attempt to escape God’s wrath, they’ll only find themselves facing the devastation of a plague they can’t outrun. God’s judgment will be inescapable and unavoidable. God vows to inflict on the people of Israel what had been reserved for the nation of Egypt. This time, the plagues would be directed at God’s people, not their enemies. And God adds insult to injury by promising to destroy Israel’s food supply. No more protection. No more provision.

As the people of Israel heard Moses impart these dire warnings, they must have been dumbstruck and appalled at the severity of God’s words. But the worst was yet to come. In a foreshadowing of Israel’s less-than-stellar future, God predicts their stubbornness and obstinacy in the face of overwhelming judgment, and matter-of-factly states, “I will give full vent to my hostility” (Leviticus 26:28 NLT). And what He describes next is difficult to read and even harder to comprehend. Focusing His attention on the sin of idolatry, God promises to pour out His judgment with unfathomable and unrelenting fury. He describes Israelite cities filled with the destroyed altars of their false gods and the corpses of those who once worshiped them. Those left alive will have been taken captive by their enemies. But before their cities fell, the people of God would have resorted to cannibalism just to survive.

In the midst of their suffering and pain, the apostate people of Israel will attempt to call on God for rescue, but their efforts will prove too little, too late. He will not listen to their cries or accept their sacrifices for forgiveness and atonement. They will be forcibly removed from the land and returned to their former status as exiles and slaves. And God drops the final bombshell in His escalating prediction of future judgment.

“You will die among the foreign nations and be devoured in the land of your enemies. Those of you who survive will waste away in your enemies’ lands because of their sins and the sins of their ancestors.” – Leviticus 26:38-39 NLT

God was serious. His call to obedience was not a suggestion but a command. His blessings were real and fully realizable, but they would require obedience. And if His people chose to break their covenant commitment, they needed to understand that the consequences were equally real and worse than anything they could ever imagine.

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.

Guidelines for Living in a Fallen World

35 “If your brother becomes poor and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall support him as though he were a stranger and a sojourner, and he shall live with you. 36 Take no interest from him or profit, but fear your God, that your brother may live beside you. 37 You shall not lend him your money at interest, nor give him your food for profit. 38 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan, and to be your God.

39 “If your brother becomes poor beside you and sells himself to you, you shall not make him serve as a slave: 40 he shall be with you as a hired worker and as a sojourner. He shall serve with you until the year of the jubilee. 41 Then he shall go out from you, he and his children with him, and go back to his own clan and return to the possession of his fathers. 42 For they are my servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves. 43 You shall not rule over him ruthlessly but shall fear your God. 44 As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are around you. 45 You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their clans that are with you, who have been born in your land, and they may be your property. 46 You may bequeath them to your sons after you to inherit as a possession forever. You may make slaves of them, but over your brothers the people of Israel you shall not rule, one over another ruthlessly.” Leviticus 25:35-46 ESV

In this section, God deals with the issue of poverty among the people of Israel. It was an inevitable and unavoidable reality that some within the Israelite community would end up impoverished and in need of assistance. God has already addressed the future scenario of someone having to sell their land to pay off debts. Now, He deals with how the community was to respond to the less fortunate among them. The poor were to be treated fairly and with compassion.

“If one of your fellow Israelites falls into poverty and cannot support himself, support him as you would a foreigner or a temporary resident and allow him to live with you. – Leviticus 25:35 NLT

The Hebrew word that is translated as “brother” in the ESV is (‘āḥ), which can refer to a brother of the same parents, a half-brother, a member of the same clan or tribe, or, more broadly, a fellow Israelite. Since God’s focus throughout this chapter has been on the national celebration of the Year of Jubilee, it would seem that He is dealing with the much broader level of the Israelite community and not just a familial relationship. The same terminology is used in the book of Deuteronomy where God prohibits the Israelites from charging of interest to a “brother.”

“You shall not charge interest on loans to your brother, interest on money, interest on food, interest on anything that is lent for interest. You may charge a foreigner interest, but you may not charge your brother interest, that the Lord your God may bless you in all that you undertake in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. – Deuteronomy 23:19-20 ESV

It makes more sense to view this from the much broader perspective of the brotherhood that existed between all Israelites. As the chosen people of God, they were to care for their own. God expected His people to show mercy and extend grace to one another. The poor were never to be treated as second-class citizens or to be taken advantage of because of their unfortunate circumstances. Instead, the Israelites were to provide them with assistance which include food and shelter, as well as interest-free loans. God commanded that they treat these individuals like family.

“…show your fear of God by letting him live with you as your relative.” – Leviticus 25:36 NLT

God reminds His people that there was a time when they were poor and enslaved, but He had shown them mercy and graciously provided for all their needs.

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan and to be your God.” – Leviticus 25:38 NLT

When they were living as nothing more than slaves in Egypt, God treated them like family and provided them with freedom, food, and the promise of a land to call their own. He welcomed them with open arms and guaranteed them a part of His inheritance. Now, He was asking the Israelites to do the same with one another.

When the Israelites arrived in the land of Canaan, they would each receive their portion of the inheritance. But despite the graciousness and goodness of God, some would still end up in poverty. Human nature and sin would combine to create less-than-ideal outcomes that left some among the people of God destitute and desperate. Financial ruin would drive some to take drastic measures, such as selling themselves as servants to their wealthier Israelite neighbors. But God had already made provision for such circumstances in His diving of the Book of the Covenant.

“If you buy a Hebrew slave, he may serve for no more than six years. Set him free in the seventh year, and he will owe you nothing for his freedom. If he was single when he became your slave, he shall leave single. But if he was married before he became a slave, then his wife must be freed with him. – Exodus 21:2-3 NLT

And God would later reiterate this command and provide further conditions concerning the release of these indentured servants.

“If a fellow Hebrew sells himself or herself to be your servant and serves you for six years, in the seventh year you must set that servant free.

“When you release a male servant, do not send him away empty-handed. Give him a generous farewell gift from your flock, your threshing floor, and your winepress. Share with him some of the bounty with which the Lord your God has blessed you. Remember that you were once slaves in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you! That is why I am giving you this command.” – Deuteronomy 15:12-15 NLT

The Israelites were never to exploit the less fortunate among them. They were to recognize that the rich and the poor were all equal in the eyes of God. He showed no partiality but treated all His children fairly and justly, and expected them to do the same.

“For the Lord your God is the God of gods and Lord of lords. He is the great God, the mighty and awesome God, who shows no partiality and cannot be bribed. He ensures that orphans and widows receive justice. He shows love to the foreigners living among you and gives them food and clothing. So you, too, must show love to foreigners, for you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt. – Deuteronomy 10:17-19 NLT

God wanted the Israelites to remember that He considered each of them His servants and, as such, they were not to enslave one another. Pharaoh had attempted to enslave God’s people and suffered deadly consequences for his actions, and the people of Israel were not to avoid repeating his mistake. An indentured servant was never to be treated as a slave, and they could not be sold like property. While an individual was paying off his debt in the employment of a fellow Israelite, he was to be treated fairly and justly. And when the sabbatical year came, he was to be set free and provided with a generous gift to assist him in rebuilding his life within the community.

But in verses 44-46, God deals with the highly uncomfortable and unpopular topic of slavery. And, in this case, He is not talking about Israelites paying off their debts as indentured servants; He is dealing with foreign slaves.

“However, you may purchase male and female slaves from among the nations around you. You may also purchase the children of temporary residents who live among you, including those who have been born in your land. You may treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance. You may treat them as slaves, but you must never treat your fellow Israelites this way. – Leviticus 25:44-46 NLT

Passages like this one are difficult to reconcile and explain. They seem to fly in the face of our more modern and enlightened sensibilities. They appear to paint God in a negative light, portraying Him as supportive of the institution of slavery. But is God actually sanctioning the enslavement of human beings or is He attempting to regulate what had become a ubiquitous and inevitable part of the fallen world?

“Because men and women are sinners and live in a fallen world, such things as divorce, and we can add for our purposes, slavery, occur. It is sadly a part of the human experience, and the Bible sets out to first regulate treatment of slaves and the to set the grounds for slavery’s elimination. The Bible makes is clear that slaves were not mere chattel but had God-given protections and certain rights (e.g., Exodus 21:7-11). For example, a runaway slave from a foreign country was not to be returned to his master (Deuteronomy 23:15, 16). The motivation for gentler treatment of slaves was theological: The Israelites had once been slaves in Egypt whom God had delivered. The cruelty that they experienced in Egypt was not tolerated in Israel.” – Kenneth A. Matthew, Leviticus: Holy God, Holy People

Over the centuries, many have expressed disappointment and even disdain for the Bible’s lack of an outright ban on the institution of slavery. After all, in His declaration of the Decalogue, God clearly outlawed murder. But consider the fact that He did not prohibit war. In fact, God would later sanction and even participate in the battles between His people and the nations of the earth. God also declared the marriage union to be indissoluble and binding (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 9:5-6). Yet, despite God’s hatred for divorce (Malachi 2:16), He made concessions for it because He knew that, because of sin, it was inevitable (Deuteronomy 24:1-4). God, who never changes, did not alter His view on divorce but made provisions for its inevitable presence among His people. Because of their sinful natures, they would follow the ways of the world and choose to disobey His commands regarding everything from divorce, murder, sexual immorality, and slavery. And when these egregious activities showed up among His people, God provided guidelines for dealing with them. He did not eradicate all sin among His people but provided them with wise and righteous laws to regulate how they were to live in a fallen world filled with all kinds of ungodly temptations.

Fast forward to the New Testament and the apostle Paul provides a new perspective on the issue of slavery based on the death and resurrection of Jesus. With Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross, He leveled the playing field, making salvation available to any and all, regardless of their ethnicity, gender, or social standing.

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. – Galatians 3:28 ESV

Paul did not call for the elimination of all slavery. It was an accepted part of the social fabric of his day. But Paul was not an advocate of the institution of slavery. Instead, he was a proponent of the gospel of Jesus Christ, which was accessible to all people from every walk of life.

It is interesting to note that God had allowed His own people to live as slaves for centuries before He released them from their captivity. And even after their miraculous deliverance from the evils of slavery, the Israelites would find it tempting to enslave others. Their release did not naturally create a revulsion for the institution of slavery. Just as they were predisposed to lying, cheating, sexual immorality, and idolatry, they would be drawn to the allure of slavery as a form of power and control. God knew His people would follow the ways of the world, so He provided them with stringent guidelines that were intended to separate them from all the other nations.

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.

The Right of Ownership

23 “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine. For you are strangers and sojourners with me. 24 And in all the country you possess, you shall allow a redemption of the land.

25 “If your brother becomes poor and sells part of his property, then his nearest redeemer shall come and redeem what his brother has sold. 26 If a man has no one to redeem it and then himself becomes prosperous and finds sufficient means to redeem it, 27 let him calculate the years since he sold it and pay back the balance to the man to whom he sold it, and then return to his property. 28 But if he does not have sufficient means to recover it, then what he sold shall remain in the hand of the buyer until the year of jubilee. In the jubilee it shall be released, and he shall return to his property.

29 “If a man sells a dwelling house in a walled city, he may redeem it within a year of its sale. For a full year he shall have the right of redemption. 30 If it is not redeemed within a full year, then the house in the walled city shall belong in perpetuity to the buyer, throughout his generations; it shall not be released in the jubilee. 31 But the houses of the villages that have no wall around them shall be classified with the fields of the land. They may be redeemed, and they shall be released in the jubilee. 32 As for the cities of the Levites, the Levites may redeem at any time the houses in the cities they possess. 33 And if one of the Levites exercises his right of redemption, then the house that was sold in a city they possess shall be released in the jubilee. For the houses in the cities of the Levites are their possession among the people of Israel. 34 But the fields of pastureland belonging to their cities may not be sold, for that is their possession forever.” Leviticus 25:23-34 ESV

As God continues to expand His regulations concerning the Year of Jubilee, He addresses the issue of land ownership. Keep in mind that this information reached the ears of the Israelites long before they ever entered the land of Canaan or took actual possession of it. They were still encamped at the base of Mount Sinai and had a long journey ahead of them. Currently living in tents, they could only speculate about the full impact these regulations would have on their lives. For four centuries, the Israelites had been living on land that belonged to the Egyptians. While they had prospered during their time in Egypt and grown in number, they never owned any property. In fact, during much of their time in Egypt, they had been forced to serve as slaves.

Now, as they stood in their temporary tent city, they must have been excited and a bit confused as they listened to the words of God delivered to them by Moses. The thought of owning their own property would have been music to their ears. But God’s discussions about the Year of Jubilee when property rights reverted back to the original owner must have been difficult to comprehend. But God attempts to assuage all their confusion by informing them that “the land is mine” (Leviticus 25:23 ESV). He wanted them to know that their inheritance of the land of Canaan was going to be less about ownership than about stewardship. The whole concept of an inheritance conveys the idea that God was graciously giving His chosen people the right to live in and care for the land that was rightfully His to give. It was His possession. That meant it did not belong to the Canaanites either. They were little more than squatters, having claimed the land as their own without ever consulting the One to whom it belonged.

Yet God was going to remedy the situation by evicting the illegal tenants and replacing them with His chosen people. But when the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob arrived in the land and took up residence in its cities, villages, and towns, they were to understand that the land remained God’s possession.

“The land belongs to God! The people of God did not own the land – or anything else for that matter. They were given the use of the land by God’s goodness and mercy. And so on the basis of this, no land could be sold forever (ṣmṯṯ in25:23 means “beyond reclaim’). With the sale of property they had to grant its redemption. This means that sellers always had the right to buy the property back whenever they were able to do so.” – Allen P. Ross, Holiness to the Lord: A Guide to the Exposition of the Book of Leviticus

While God remained the rightful owner of all the land in Canaan, He was going to allow the Israelites to treat the land as their own. During the 49 years the preceded each of the Jubilee years, the Israelites were able to transfer the rights to their allotted land. But He reminded them that they were “strangers and sojourners” (Leviticus 25:23 ESV). In other words, each of them was to understand that they were literal guests of the One to whom the land belonged.

God knew that the people would end up using the land for their own benefit. Some would attempt to profit from the sale of the land given to them by God. Others would prove to be poor stewards of their God-given resources and end up in poverty, and forced to sell their land to pay off debt. So, God wanted them to understand that, in His eyes, the land never really changed ownership because it all belonged to Him. That’s why God told them, “in all the country you possess, you shall allow a redemption of the land” (Leviticus 25:24 ESV). The New Living Translation puts it this way: “With every purchase of land you must grant the seller the right to buy it back.

God knew His people well. He understood that life was going to happen and that the Israelites would make poor decisions. Greed would prompt some to sell that which God had given them to steward. Consumerism and coveteousness would cause others to live beyond their means, resulting in debt and poverty. The psalmist reminds us that God gave the land to the people of Israel so that He might bless and enrich them.

Faithfulness springs up from the ground,
    and righteousness looks down from the sky.
Yes, the Lord will give what is good,
    and our land will yield its increase. – Psalm 85:11-12 ESV

Yet, the Israelites would end up treating the land as a commodity. Later in the book of Leviticus, God will assure His people that the land of Canaan will more than provide for all their needs.

“I will send you the seasonal rains. The land will then yield its crops, and the trees of the field will produce their fruit. Your threshing season will overlap with the grape harvest, and your grape harvest will overlap with the season of planting grain. You will eat your fill and live securely in your own land.” – Leviticus 26:4-5 NLT

The land wasn’t just a gift to be sold and bartered at will. It was God’s means of providing for the needs of His people. But God didn’t want His people to treat that gift with contempt by using it for dishonorable or purely selfish purposes. If a man found himself in a position where he was forced to liquidate his property to pay off debt, God provided a way for him to redeem what he had lost.

“If one of your fellow Israelites falls into poverty and is forced to sell some family land, then a close relative should buy it back for him. If there is no close relative to buy the land, but the person who sold it gets enough money to buy it back, he then has the right to redeem it from the one who bought it. – Leviticus 25:25-27 NLT

If this plan failed, God provided the Year of Jubilee as a way of redeeming the land and restoring it back to the one who had lost it. The one interesting exemption to all of this involved a house that lay in a walled city. Because the house did not include farmable land, it could only be redeemed within the first year after its sale. After that, it was a permanent possession of the new owner. The real focus of this passage is on arable land that was suitable for farming and capable of producing crops. The farmland of Canaan was intended to meet the needs of the people. It was to be considered communal land, with the edges of the fields reserved for the poor and needy of the community (Leviticus 23:22). When an Israelite sold his land, he was potentially jeopardizing the well-being of the entire community. God had intended the land to provide for the needs of all, not just its designated landowner.

In the case of the tribe of Levi, they were given their own exemption concerning houses owned in walled cities. As part of their designation as God’s priestly caste, they received the possession of homes located within cities belonging to the other tribes. In other words, they were given no land as their inheritance.

“Remember that the Levitical priests—that is, the whole of the tribe of Levi—will receive no allotment of land among the other tribes in Israel.…They will have no land of their own among the Israelites. – Deuteronomy 18:1, 2 NLT

In time, God would command the Israelites to set aside 48 cities within their allotted lands to serve as housing for the Levites.

“Command the people of Israel to give to the Levites from their property certain towns to live in, along with the surrounding pasturelands. These towns will be for the Levites to live in, and the surrounding lands will provide pasture for their cattle, flocks, and other livestock. – Numbers 35:2-3 NLT

And God provided the Levites with an exemption for these homes within walled cities. Unlike all the rest of the Israelites, the Levites would be given the right to repurchase any home they had sold – at any time.

“The Levites always have the right to buy back a house they have sold within the towns allotted to them. And any property that is sold by the Levites—all houses within the Levitical towns—must be returned in the Year of Jubilee. After all, the houses in the towns reserved for the Levites are the only property they own in all Israel. – Leviticus 25:32-33 NLT

God would care for the needs of His priests. He would ensure that they had a place to live and access to the farmland that surrounded these cities. God had given them no inheritance in the land, but He had provided for all their needs, even designating an area around each of the 48 cities to serve as pastureland for their flocks and farmland to raise crops.

“The pastureland assigned to the Levites around these towns will extend 1,500 feet from the town walls in every direction.” – Numbers 35:4 NLT

The land was to be God’s gift to His people – ALL of His people. It was to be viewed as a source of provision, not a means of profit. It was to be treated with dignity and honor because it actually belonged to God. The people of Israel were never to forget that they were guests in this land. They had been graciously invited to share in the bounty and blessings of God’s possession and were never to forget that the land belonged to God, not them.

The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.
    The world and all its people belong to him. – Psalm 24:1 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.

The Sabbatical Year

1 The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall keep a Sabbath to the Lord. For six years you shall sow your field, and for six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather in its fruits, but in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath to the Lord. You shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap what grows of itself in your harvest, or gather the grapes of your undressed vine. It shall be a year of solemn rest for the land. The Sabbath of the land shall provide food for you, for yourself and for your male and female slaves and for your hired worker and the sojourner who lives with you, and for your cattle and for the wild animals that are in your land: all its yield shall be for food.Leviticus 25:1-7 ESV

The concept of rest is important to God. He established the seventh day of the week as the Sabbath, a day of rest when the normal activities of labor were set aside in order to worship Him.

“Remember to observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. You have six days each week for your ordinary work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath day of rest dedicated to the Lord your God. On that day no one in your household may do any work. This includes you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, your livestock, and any foreigners living among you.  For in six days the Lord made the heavens, the earth, the sea, and everything in them; but on the seventh day he rested. That is why the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and set it apart as holy. – Exodus 20:8-11 NLT

In a real sense, every day of the week was set aside for the worship of God, because sacrifices were made daily at the Tabernacle. But what set the seventh day apart was the complete cessation of work. Rather than performing their normal routines, the Israelites were to take 24 hours to rest in the provision of Yahweh.

The origin of the Sabbath day can be found in Exodus 16. One month after leaving Egypt, the people of Israel entered the wilderness of Sin and began to grumble about their lack of adequate food. They took their complaint to Moses and Aaron, who responded, “The Lord will give you meat to eat in the evening and bread to satisfy you in the morning, for he has heard all your complaints against him. What have we done? Yes, your complaints are against the Lord, not against us” (Exodus 16:8 NLT). And God delivered on that promise.

That evening vast numbers of quail flew in and covered the camp. And the next morning the area around the camp was wet with dew. When the dew evaporated, a flaky substance as fine as frost blanketed the ground. The Israelites were puzzled when they saw it. “What is it?” they asked each other. They had no idea what it was. – Exodus 16:13-15 NLT

God gave them exactly what they needed, but His gift came with conditions. Each family was told to “gather as much as it needs” (Exodus 16:16 NLT) but God put a limit of two quarts for each person in the household. And the text tells us that “Those who gathered a lot had nothing left over, and those who gathered only a little had enough. Each family had just what it needed” (Exodus 16:18 NLT). This gathering of food was to take place every day of the week, except for the seventh day. God had other plans for that day of the week.

On the sixth day, they gathered twice as much as usual—four quarts for each person instead of two. Then all the leaders of the community came and asked Moses for an explanation. He told them, “This is what the Lord commanded: Tomorrow will be a day of complete rest, a holy Sabbath day set apart for the Lord. So bake or boil as much as you want today, and set aside what is left for tomorrow.” – Exodus 16:22-23 NLT

There would be no gathering of quail or manna on the seventh day, but God made more than adequate provision for that day’s needs. He gave a double portion on the sixth day. Moses provided the people with clear instructions regarding the seventh day.

“Eat this food today, for today is a Sabbath day dedicated to the Lord. There will be no food on the ground today. You may gather the food for six days, but the seventh day is the Sabbath. There will be no food on the ground that day.” – Exodus 16:25-26 NLT

Yet, despite Moses’ warning, the people went out on the seventh day in search of food, only to find that none was there. They labored in vain. There was no need for them to search for food because God had already provided all that they needed. This led God to reiterate His regulation concerning the Sabbath.

“How long will these people refuse to obey my commands and instructions? They must realize that the Sabbath is the Lord’s gift to you. That is why he gives you a two-day supply on the sixth day, so there will be enough for two days. On the Sabbath day you must each stay in your place. Do not go out to pick up food on the seventh day.” – Exodus 16:28-29 NLT

God later codified this command by making it a permanent statute in the Decalogue. The seventh day was to be a perpetual and permanent law among His chosen people. By resting on the seventh day, the people were placing all their trust in God. They were acknowledging His role as their provider and resting in His promise to meet all their needs. And in Exodus 25, God expands the concept of sabbath rest to include the seventh year. But this command would not take effect until the people entered the land of Canaan. By articulating this new law while the people were still in the wilderness of Sinai, God was assuring them of His plans to fulfill the covenant promise He had made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He was going to keep His word and give them the land of Canaan as their inheritance, and when the arrived in the land, they would be expected to practice a sabbatical year.

“When you have entered the land I am giving you, the land itself must observe a Sabbath rest before the Lord every seventh year. For six years you may plant your fields and prune your vineyards and harvest your crops, but during the seventh year the land must have a Sabbath year of complete rest. It is the Lord’s Sabbath” – Leviticus 25:2-4 NLT

Just as He had met their needs in the wilderness by providing twice as much food on the sixth day of the week, so too He would meet their needs for every seventh year. This command must have sounded strange to the ears of the Israelites. The thought of allowing the land to sit idle for an entire year would have come across as odd and nonsensical. What would they do for food? How would they survive an entire year without doing their normal activities of planting, pruning, and harvesting? Yet God was simply taking the concept of the sabbath day and applying it on a much grander scale. What He would do in a week could be done in terms of years as well. But this command was going to require even greater faith on the part of the people.

What sets this command apart is its emphasis on the land itself. Not only were the Israelites to be the beneficiaries of the Lord’s gracious provision of rest, but so too was the land.

“…during the seventh year the land must have a Sabbath year of complete rest.” – Leviticus 16:4 NLT

The land must have a year of complete rest. – Leviticus 16:5 NLT

The land belonged to God and He was protecting it from overuse and abuse. In another sense, He was letting the Israelites know that He was their provider, not the land. He was the one who met all their needs. Their labor was not necessary. Their help was not needed. And to prove His point, God ordered that the people of Israel cease all labor during the seventh year.

Do not plant your fields or prune your vineyards during that year. And don’t store away the crops that grow on their own or gather the grapes from your unpruned vines. – Leviticus 25:4-5 NLT

Some Israelites probably saw this as a kind of extended vacation and looked forward to the arrival of that first sabbatical year. It’s safe to assume that others were perplexed by this command and worried about how they would survive an entire year without doing their part to cultivate and care for the land. God’s command must have come across as illogical and impossible to many of the Israelites. The whole concept of receiving something for doing nothing was as strange to them as it is to us. We live by the old adage, “You don’t get something for nothing.” We adhere to the idea that nothing is free in this life. Phrases like, “No pay, no play” and “No pain, no gain” permeate our vocabulary. In our world, everything comes with a price, so you have to either work, pay, or contribute something for anything you want to have.

But in God’s economy, things work differently. He told the Israelites that the land would meet all their needs without any help from them.

“The Sabbath of the land shall provide food for you, for yourself and for your male and female slaves and for your hired worker and the sojourner who lives with you, and for your cattle and for the wild animals that are in your land: all its yield shall be for food.” – Leviticus 16:6-7 NLT

Their lack of labor would have no impact on the fruitfulness of the land. Crops would continue to grow. Vines would still produce grapes. Trees would still yield more than enough fruit to meet their needs. Their flocks would find ample grass on which to feed and grow fat. The land belonged to God and He was its ultimate caretaker. This chapter points back to the early days of creation when God placed the first man and woman in the garden He had created for them.

Then the Lord God planted a garden in Eden in the east, and there he placed the man he had made. The Lord God made all sorts of trees grow up from the ground—trees that were beautiful and that produced delicious fruit. – Genesis 2:8-9 NLT

God had created the garden to meet the needs of man, and He gave man the responsibility of tending the garden.

The Lord God placed the man in the Garden of Eden to tend and watch over it. – Genesis 2:15 NLT

But Adam and Eve didn’t actually produce the fruit of the trees. They had not created the garden or any of the plants that existed within it. They were simply stewards of God’s creation. Their ability to work was never to be seen as the source of their sustenance. The garden belonged to God and He would use it to sustain and bless His children – as long as they obeyed.

And as long as the people of Israel kept God’s command regarding the sabbatical year, they would continue to enjoy His faithfulness as expressed in the fruitfulness of the land. Their needs would be met. While resting from their labors they would learn to rest in the provision of God, and He would not let them down.

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.

The Feast of Trumpets

23 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 24 “Speak to the people of Israel, saying, In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a day of solemn rest, a memorial proclaimed with blast of trumpets, a holy convocation. 25 You shall not do any ordinary work, and you shall present a food offering to the Lord.” Leviticus 23:23-25 ESV

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the end of the spring harvest season, God required that the field not be thoroughly gleaned of all produce. In order to provide for the poor and needy, He required all farmers to leave the corners and edges of their fields unharvested.

“…when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God.” – Leviticus 23:22 ESV

This was to serve as a kind of social lifeline for the less fortunate citizens of the community. Since the Israelites had no official welfare system, God provided them with a very practical way of meeting the needs of those who might otherwise starve without assistance. This also served as a powerful lesson to all Israelites that the harvest belonged to God. They were simply the stewards of the resources He provided, and there was no reason for them to hoard what God had given to the entire community. By allowing their poorer neighbors to glean grain from the edges of their fields, the Israelites were mirroring God’s care and concern for the needy among His people.

The Lord makes some poor and others rich;
    he brings some down and lifts others up.
He lifts the poor from the dust
    and the needy from the garbage dump.
He sets them among princes,
    placing them in seats of honor.
For all the earth is the Lord’s,
    and he has set the world in order. – 1 Samuel 2:7-8 NLT

If you help the poor, you are lending to the Lordand he will repay you! – Proverbs 19:17 NLT

Even before the Israelites arrived in the land of Canaan, God would remind them about their need to care for the poor among them.

“There will always be some in the land who are poor. That is why I am commanding you to share freely with the poor and with other Israelites in need.” – Deuteronomy 15:11 NLT

With the final feast of the spring harvest, there were no more festivals until the seventh month. The month Tishri marked the beginning of a new year in the civil calendar and it culminated with the Feast of Trumpets. This first day of the seventh month began a ten-day period of consecration and repentance before God. The Israelites were to assemble in a holy convocation, a sacred gathering in which they offered sacrifices to God. The book of Numbers provides more details concerning the events of that day.

“Celebrate the Festival of Trumpets each year on the first day of the appointed month in early autumn. You must call an official day for holy assembly, and you may do no ordinary work. On that day you must present a burnt offering as a pleasing aroma to the Lord. It will consist of one young bull, one ram, and seven one-year-old male lambs, all with no defects. These must be accompanied by grain offerings of choice flour moistened with olive oil—six quarts with the bull, four quarts with the ram, and two quarts with each of the seven lambs. In addition, you must sacrifice a male goat as a sin offering to purify yourselves and make yourselves right with the Lord. These special sacrifices are in addition to your regular monthly and daily burnt offerings, and they must be given with their prescribed grain offerings and liquid offerings. These offerings are given as a special gift to the Lord, a pleasing aroma to him. – Numbers 29:1-6 NLT

As the name implies, the Feast of Trumpets was marked by the “blast of trumpets” (Leviticus 23:24 ESV). There is no mention of the kind or number of trumpets used in this ceremony or who the musicians were. Some have speculated that the Israelites would have used a shofar or ram’s horn. But in the book of Numbers, Moses records instructions given to him by God for the creation of two silver trumpets that were to be used as a kind of mass communication device.

“Make two trumpets of hammered silver for calling the community to assemble and for signaling the breaking of camp. When both trumpets are blown, everyone must gather before you at the entrance of the Tabernacle. But if only one trumpet is blown, then only the leaders—the heads of the clans of Israel—must present themselves to you. – Numbers 10:2-4 NLT

The trumpets mentioned in Leviticus 23 were to be blown from morning until evening, serving to call the people to assemble but also as a “memorial” ( זִכָּרוֹןzikārôn) or remembrance. Since many of these feasts were designed to be celebrated once the people of Israel were safely ensconced in the land of Canaan, the blast of trumpets might be intended as a reminder of the victory God gave the Israelites in their first battle in the land. At the city of Jericho, God allowed the Israelites to defeat their enemy by providing them with a rather bizarre plan of attack that involved the blowing of horns.

“I have given you Jericho, its king, and all its strong warriors. You and your fighting men should march around the town once a day for six days. Seven priests will walk ahead of the Ark, each carrying a ram’s horn. On the seventh day you are to march around the town seven times, with the priests blowing the horns. When you hear the priests give one long blast on the rams’ horns, have all the people shout as loud as they can. Then the walls of the town will collapse, and the people can charge straight into the town.” – Joshua 6:2-5 NLT

Joshua led the people to obey the Lord and they were given a great victory that day. As the Israelites heard the blast of the trumpets on the first day of the seventh month, they were reminded of God’s grace and goodness. He had been with them from the very beginning, leading them out of Egypt and into the promised land. He had provided for all their needs, from food and clothing to victories over their enemies. And the Feast of Trumpets was to serve as the first day of a ten-day period of celebration that ended with a nationwide emphasis on atonement.

“Calling this occasion a memorial may have had the immediate significance of keeping in mind all that this festival signified. The trumpets awakened the people to the season of repentance and pardon and restoration.” – Allen P. Ross, Holiness to the Lord: A Guide to the Exposition of the Book of Leviticus

The trumpets were a call to spiritual renewal. They launched a season of restoration and much-needed revival among God’s people. As the harvest season so clearly illustrated, God had provided for all their physical needs and they had given Him thanks and offered Him sacrifices for His gracious provision. But with the Feast of Trumpets, the people were being reminded of their need for spiritual nourishment that would begin with atonement for their sins.

God was calling His people to assemble before Him so that He could offer them pardon for their sins – both corporately and individually. God would later warn His people about the danger of getting fat and happy once they arrived in the land. Prosperity could easily lead to apostasy.

“For when you have become full and prosperous and have built fine homes to live in, and when your flocks and herds have become very large and your silver and gold have multiplied along with everything else, be careful! Do not become proud at that time and forget the Lord your God, who rescued you from slavery in the land of Egypt. Do not forget that he led you through the great and terrifying wilderness with its poisonous snakes and scorpions, where it was so hot and dry. He gave you water from the rock! He fed you with manna in the wilderness, a food unknown to your ancestors. He did this to humble you and test you for your own good. He did all this so you would never say to yourself, ‘I have achieved this wealth with my own strength and energy.’ Remember the Lord your God. He is the one who gives you power to be successful…” – Deuteronomy 8:12-18 NLT

Full grain bins and full stomachs were of little use if their lives were marred by sin. If their affluence caused them to become self-sufficient, they were in danger. If they thought the blessings of God were a sign of their spiritual superiority, they were mistaken. The Feast of Trumpets served as a wake-up call, summoning the people of God to return to their sole source of spiritual renewal. Without God’s help, they would remain in their sins, unforgiven, and separated from Him, and no amount of physical resources could restore their spiritual health. That is why, on the tenth day of the seventh month, God called the people to enter a time of fasting. The focus would shift from bountiful harvests to sinful hearts. It was a time for soul-searching and sin-confessing. To remain in the land the people would need to remain in right standing with God. To continue to enjoy His blessings, they would have to receive atonement for their sins. And in a way, the blast of the trumpets foreshadowed a far greater victory than the one that took place at Jericho. God was about to defeat the one enemy the Israelites could never defeat on their own: Sin.

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.

Don’t Forget to Remember

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 10 “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you come into the land that I give you and reap its harvest, you shall bring the sheaf of the firstfruits of your harvest to the priest, 11 and he shall wave the sheaf before the Lord, so that you may be accepted. On the day after the Sabbath the priest shall wave it. 12 And on the day when you wave the sheaf, you shall offer a male lamb a year old without blemish as a burnt offering to the Lord. 13 And the grain offering with it shall be two tenths of an ephah of fine flour mixed with oil, a food offering to the Lord with a pleasing aroma, and the drink offering with it shall be of wine, a fourth of a hin. 14 And you shall eat neither bread nor grain parched or fresh until this same day, until you have brought the offering of your God: it is a statute forever throughout your generations in all your dwellings.Leviticus 23:9-14 ESV

God adds another element to His list of sacred days and observances, but this one would not go into effect until the people occupied the land of Canaan. This celebration was known as firstfruits, which in Hebrew (רֵאשִׁיתrē’šîṯ) translates as “beginning, first, or best.” It was to be held in the early spring at the beginning of the grain harvest, on Nissan 16, the third day after Passover, and the second day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. According to the book of Deuteronomy, the feast of firstfruits was intended to commence after the Israelites had brought in their first official harvest in the land God had promised as their inheritance.

“When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you as a special possession and you have conquered it and settled there, put some of the first produce from each crop you harvest into a basket and bring it to the designated place of worship—the place the Lord your God chooses for his name to be honored.” – Deuteronomy 26:1-2 NLT

God had promised to give them a land of fruitfulness and abundance. In his call of Moses, God had described the land in glowing terms:

“So I have come down to rescue them from the power of the Egyptians and lead them out of Egypt into their own fertile and spacious land. It is a land flowing with milk and honey—the land where the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites now live.” – Exodus 3:8 NLT

Now, from their vantage point at the base of Mount Sinai, the Israelites were being reminded by God that the land of Canaan would one day be theirs. Despite all the setbacks and difficulties they had faced up to this point, He was still going to honor His commitment to give them the land of Canaan as their inheritance. And when they got there, He expected them to express their gratitude for His goodness.

When they brought the first produce from each crop they had harvested, they were to present it to the priest at the Tabernacle and declare, “With this gift I acknowledge to the Lord your God that I have entered the land he swore to our ancestors he would give us” (Deuteronomy 26:3 NLT). The gift was meant to serve as proof of the fact that God had kept His word and that the land was just as He said it would be. In other words, God was faithful and the land was fruitful.

As part of the ceremony, the Israelites were to recount how God had miraculously delivered them from bondage in Egypt and delivered them to Canaan.

“You must then say in the presence of the Lord your God, ‘My ancestor Jacob was a wandering Aramean who went to live as a foreigner in Egypt. His family arrived few in number, but in Egypt they became a large and mighty nation. When the Egyptians oppressed and humiliated us by making us their slaves, we cried out to the Lord, the God of our ancestors. He heard our cries and saw our hardship, toil, and oppression. So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand and powerful arm, with overwhelming terror, and with miraculous signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land flowing with milk and honey! And now, O Lord, I have brought you the first portion of the harvest you have given me from the ground.’” – Deuteronomy 26:5-10 NLT

The gift of firstfruits was meant to be an expression of thanksgiving, but also an acknowledgment of God’s sovereignty over all things. Not only did they belong to Him but so did the land in which they lived and all the produce it provided. By giving to God the best of what the land had given them, they were declaring their allegiance to Him. Their fruitfulness had been the result of God’s faithfulness.

As part of the ceremony, the Israelites would place their gift before the Lord, then bow down and worship Him. Only after celebrating the goodness and graciousness of God could the people rejoice in the bounty of the harvest He had given them.

Afterward you may go and celebrate because of all the good things the Lord your God has given to you and your household.” – Deuteronomy 26:11 NLT

The Leviticus passage adds another vital element to the ceremony. The Israelites were also to bring a sheaf of grain gathered from the first harvest in the land. What is interesting to note is that the Israelites were forbidden to eat “any bread or roasted grain or fresh kernels on that day until you bring this offering to your God” (Leviticus 23:14 NLT). As they presented the best of their grain to God, they would be in the midst of a fast. It was not until they had demonstrated their gratefulness to God and given Him the best of all that they had gathered that they could break their fast and enjoy the blessings He had bestowed upon them. God had to come first.

Along with these offerings, the Israelites were to sacrifice a one-year-old unblemished lamb as well as a burnt offering. This was accompanied by a grain offering consisting of four quarts of choice flour moistened with olive oil. The lamb and the grain offering were burned on the altar and the smoke would rise as “a pleasing aroma to the Lord” (Leviticus 23:13 NLT). The final part of the ceremony was “one quart of wine as a liquid offering” (Leviticus 23:13 NLT). In a sense, the people were serving God a sacred “meal” to celebrate all that He had done for them. It was a visible expression of thanksgiving to their divine provider and protector.

The real purpose behind this ceremony was to remind the people of Israel that they were completely dependent upon God at all times. Even in the midst of fruitfulness, they were expected to maintain their faithfulness to God and never allow His gracious gifts to distract from their reliance upon Him. In fact, Moses would later warn the Israelites of the dangers the bounty of Canaan would present.

“When you have eaten your fill, be sure to praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. But that is the time to be careful! Beware that in your plenty you do not forget the Lord your God and disobey his commands, regulations, and decrees that I am giving you today. For when you have become full and prosperous and have built fine homes to live in, and when your flocks and herds have become very large and your silver and gold have multiplied along with everything else, be careful! Do not become proud at that time and forget the Lord your God, who rescued you from slavery in the land of Egypt.” – Deuteronomy 8:10-14 NLT

If they weren’t careful, God’s blessings could actually become a curse. The fruitfulness of the land could end up making the Israelites self-sufficient rather than God-dependent. As their crops grew, their flocks expanded, and their fortunes improved, they might be tempted to see themselves as the masters of their own fates. The real threat they faced in the promised land was not the Canaanites but spiritual apathy brought on by physical prosperity.

Moses would go on to warn the people of the dual perils of affluence and forgetfulness.

“Do not forget that he led you through the great and terrifying wilderness with its poisonous snakes and scorpions, where it was so hot and dry. He gave you water from the rock! He fed you with manna in the wilderness, a food unknown to your ancestors. He did this to humble you and test you for your own good. He did all this so you would never say to yourself, ‘I have achieved this wealth with my own strength and energy.’” – Deuteronomy 8:15-17 NLT

Forgetfulness would be a real and present danger. If they weren’t careful, their wilderness experience and God’s miraculous provision all along the way could become a fading memory. Once they arrived in Canaan and got settled in their new homes, their success in the land could produce gratefulness and a greater dependence upon God or it could result in an unhealthy sense of self-reliance. That’s why Moses warned them: “Remember the Lord your God. He is the one who gives you power to be successful, in order to fulfill the covenant he confirmed to your ancestors with an oath” (Deuteronomy 8:18 NLT).

God’s blessings were intended to produce greater dependence upon Him. By giving God the firstfruits of their harvest, the Israelites would be acknowledging their reliance upon Him. He had blessed them with freedom, and soon He would bless them with land, houses, fields, flocks, and vineyards. Their days as slaves and nomadic wanderers would be far behind them. But that would become the greatest test of their allegiance to God. Forgetfulness would lead to ungratefulness and ungratefulness would eventually result in unfaithfulness.

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.

The Loss of God’s Presence

1 The Lord said to Moses, “Depart; go up from here, you and the people whom you have brought up out of the land of Egypt, to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘To your offspring I will give it.’ I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.”

When the people heard this disastrous word, they mourned, and no one put on his ornaments. For the Lord had said to Moses, “Say to the people of Israel, ‘You are a stiff-necked people; if for a single moment I should go up among you, I would consume you. So now take off your ornaments, that I may know what to do with you.’” Therefore the people of Israel stripped themselves of their ornaments, from Mount Horeb onward.

Now Moses used to take the tent and pitch it outside the camp, far off from the camp, and he called it the tent of meeting. And everyone who sought the Lord would go out to the tent of meeting, which was outside the camp. Whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people would rise up, and each would stand at his tent door, and watch Moses until he had gone into the tent. When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent, and the Lord would speak with Moses. 10 And when all the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance of the tent, all the people would rise up and worship, each at his tent door. 11 Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. When Moses turned again into the camp, his assistant Joshua the son of Nun, a young man, would not depart from the tent. – Exodus 33:1-11 ESV

Israel’s ill-advised decision to abandon God proved to be far more costly than they could ever have imagined. Three thousand of their own kinsmen died as a result of their leadership role in the rebellion, while an undisclosed number of other Israelites lost their lives in the plague that God sent among them. These divine judgments must have left the people of Israel in a constant state of fear and anxiety. Had God’s wrath been satisfied or were more deaths to be expected? And would they be next? Yet the greatest judgment was yet to come, and it would appear in an unexpected form.

God commanded Moses to break camp and begin the next phase of the journey to Canaan. Their time at Sinai was complete. They had the Decalogue, the Book of the Covenant, and God’s plans for the Tabernacle. Now, it was time to complete their quest for the promised land. But notice how God changed how He referenced the people of Israel. He told Moses to depart and to take “the people you brought up from the land of Egypt” (Exodus 33:1 ESV). He no longer refers to them as His “treasured possession” (Exodus 19:5 ESV). Rather than “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6 ESV), they are simply “the people” whom Moses brought out of Egypt. Their decision to abandon God has dramatically altered their relationship with Him.

God will keep the covenant promise He made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Canaan will become the Israelite’s homeland, and to bring that outcome about, God will drive out all the inhabitants who currently occupy the land. He promises to send an angel ahead of them, who will “drive out the Canaanites, Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites” (Exodus 33:2 ESV). But the announcement about this divine agent is markedly different that what God had told them prior to their debacle with the golden calf.

“Behold, I send an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. Pay careful attention to him and obey his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression, for my name is in him. – Exodus 23:20-21 ESV

Earlier, God had promised to send His angel to accompany them on their way to Canaan. He was to guide and guard them as they traveled. But the angel’s presence had come with conditions.

“But if you carefully obey his voice and do all that I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries. – Exodus 23:22 ESV

And God had told them that their conquest of Canaan would require the destruction of all the inhabitants, the elimination of every idol, and complete allegiance to Him.

“When my angel goes before you and brings you to the Amorites and the Hittites and the Perizzites and the Canaanites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, and I blot them out, you shall not bow down to their gods nor serve them, nor do as they do, but you shall utterly overthrow them and break their pillars in pieces. You shall serve the Lord your God…” – Exodus 23:23-25 ESV

But the people’s rejection of God at Sinai proved to be catastrophic and in ways that were completely unexpected and unnerving. God informed Moses, “I will not travel among you, for you are a stubborn and rebellious people. If I did, I would surely destroy you along the way” (Exodus 33:3 NLT).

And God had Moses command the people to remove all their fine clothes and expensive jewelry. They would no longer be allowed to adorn themselves with the trinkets and treasures they had brought with them from Egypt. This prohibition seems to have direct ties to Aaron’s request for the Israelites to donate all their gold earrings so that he could make them a false god (Exodus 32:2-3). God wanted nothing to do with their fancy ornaments and fine clothing because they served as reminders of their rejection of Him. So, he told them, “You are a stubborn and rebellious people. If I were to travel with you for even a moment, I would destroy you. Remove your jewelry and fine clothes while I decide what to do with you” (Exodus 33:5 NLT). And this command would remain in effect all the way to their arrival in Canaan.

But the most devastating part of God’s message was His decision to rescind the promise of His divine presence. Back in chapter 25, Moses recorded God’s plans for the Tabernacle.

“…let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst.” – Exodus 25:8 ESV

And when Moses had descended from Mount Sinai, he brought those plans to the people of Israel. But now, the construction of the Tabernacle was put on hold. The place of God’s presence would not be built. Up until that moment, Moses had been accustomed to meeting with God at a place called the Tent of Meeting. This was another structure that was located on the outskirts of the camp where Moses would intervene on behalf of the people.

Whenever Moses went out to the Tent of Meeting, all the people would get up and stand in the entrances of their own tents. They would all watch Moses until he disappeared inside. As he went into the tent, the pillar of cloud would come down and hover at its entrance while the Lord spoke with Moses. – Exodus 33:8-9 NLT

The Tabernacle had been designed to replace the Tent of Meeting. It would become the new dwelling place of God among His people. But their actions at Sinai had changed all that.

“The significance of this turn of events cannot be stressed too highly. The whole purpose of the Exodus was for God and his people to be together. God’s presence with them will be firmly established in the proposed tabernacle. By saying, ‘go ahead, but you’re going without me,’ the events of the previous thirty-one chapters are being undone. This is not merely a setback; it means the end of the road.” – Peter Enns, Exodus

This announcement left the people in a state of mourning. They were shocked and dismayed to find out that Yahweh would no longer dwell in their midst. They did as God had said and removed their fine clothes and expensive jewelry. They went into a state of mourning and tried to assuage the anger of their unhappy God with their outward display of contrition. But the damage had been done. Their rejection of God had been costly. They were now facing the prospect of traveling all the way to Canaan but without God in their midst. Their decision to replace Yahweh would haunt them for some time to come, and only time would reveal whether they learned the lesson God intended for them.

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.

A Land of Their Own

20 “Behold, I send an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. 21 Pay careful attention to him and obey his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression, for my name is in him.

22 “But if you carefully obey his voice and do all that I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries.

23 “When my angel goes before you and brings you to the Amorites and the Hittites and the Perizzites and the Canaanites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, and I blot them out, 24 you shall not bow down to their gods nor serve them, nor do as they do, but you shall utterly overthrow them and break their pillars in pieces. 25 You shall serve the Lord your God, and he will bless your bread and your water, and I will take sickness away from among you. 26 None shall miscarry or be barren in your land; I will fulfill the number of your days. 27 I will send my terror before you and will throw into confusion all the people against whom you shall come, and I will make all your enemies turn their backs to you. 28 And I will send hornets before you, which shall drive out the Hivites, the Canaanites, and the Hittites from before you. 29 I will not drive them out from before you in one year, lest the land become desolate and the wild beasts multiply against you. 30 Little by little I will drive them out from before you, until you have increased and possess the land. 31 And I will set your border from the Red Sea to the Sea of the Philistines, and from the wilderness to the Euphrates, for I will give the inhabitants of the land into your hand, and you shall drive them out before you. 32 You shall make no covenant with them and their gods. 33 They shall not dwell in your land, lest they make you sin against me; for if you serve their gods, it will surely be a snare to you.” – Exodus 23:20-33 ESV

After giving Moses the content of the Book of the Covenant, God assured His chosen leader that he would not be alone. The task of leading the Israelites would not be an easy one and the added responsibility of administering the law of God was going to make Moses’ job even more difficult. So, God informed Moses that he would have divine assistance.

“I am sending an angel before you to protect you on your journey and lead you safely to the place I have prepared for you.” – Exodus 23:20 NLT

The Hebrew word for angel is מַלְאָךְ (malʾakh) which means “messenger” or “angel.” This was not the first time that God had employed an angel to serve as protection for His people. When the Israelites first departed Egypt, they were confronted by Pharaoh and his army at the western shore of the Red Sea. With their backs against the unpassable sea and their eyes looking at the 600 chariots of Pharaoh bearing down on them, the people panicked and began to complain to Moses about their dire predicament. But God responded by placing His angel between the Israelites and the Egyptians.

Then the angel of God who was going before the host of Israel moved and went behind them, and the pillar of cloud moved from before them and stood behind them, coming between the host of Egypt and the host of Israel. And there was the cloud and the darkness. And it lit up the night without one coming near the other all night. – Exodus 14:19-20 ESV

We are not told whether the angel was visible to the human eye, but his presence held off the Egyptian forces all during the night, giving the Israelites time to cross the parted Red Sea. And in the morning, when the Egyptians attempted to pursue their prey, ‘the waters returned and covered all the chariots and charioteers—the entire army of Pharaoh. Of all the Egyptians who had chased the Israelites into the sea, not a single one survived” (Exodus 14:28 NLT). And the remaining Egyptians who had not pursued the Israelites watched in horror as their comrades drowned in the waters of the Red Sea, and they responded in fear.

“Let us flee from before Israel, for the Lord fights for them against the Egyptians.” – Exodus 14:25 ESV

There are those who believe that this angel was actually the Lord Himself. Moses describes the defeat of the Egyptians as having been the work of Yahweh.

…just before dawn the Lord looked down on the Egyptian army from the pillar of fire and cloud, and he threw their forces into total confusion. He twisted their chariot wheels, making their chariots difficult to drive. – Exodus 14:24-25 NLT

In the book of Joshua, there is another incident involving a divine being. On this occasion, Joshua encounters what appears to be an armed soldier.

When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand. And Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” And he said, “No; but I am the commander of the army of the Lord. Now I have come.” And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped and said to him, “What does my lord say to his servant?” And the commander of the Lord‘s army said to Joshua, “Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so. – Joshua 5:13-15 ESV

Whether these appearances are divine manifestations of God Himself or references to angelic beings is impossible to tell. But God is clearly telling Moses that he will have divine assistance and guidance along the way. He will not be alone in his administration of the law and his leadership of the people of Israel. But this “angel of the Lord” must be obeyed.

Pay careful attention to him and obey his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression, for my name is in him. – Exodus 23:21 ESV

This angel would serve and act on behalf of God, bearing the full weight of Yahweh’s name. So, Moses and the people were expected to obey the angel as they would the Lord. And if they did, they would enjoy God’s blessings.

“…if you are careful to obey him, following all my instructions, then I will be an enemy to your enemies, and I will oppose those who oppose you. – Exodus 23:22 NLT

The angel would lead the people to Canaan, then provide them with victory over the nations that occupied the land. But God expected His people to completely annihilate the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites, and Jebusites. They were to clean house, purging the land of all its former occupants. There was to be no compromise or concessions made. And God gave His reasons for demanding the total extermination of the Canaanite population.  

“You must not worship the gods of these nations or serve them in any way or imitate their evil practices. Instead, you must utterly destroy them and smash their sacred pillars.” – Exodus 23:24 NLT

God knew that if the Canaanites were allowed to live, they would lead the Israelites astray. Their pagan practices would become a temptation to God’s people, causing them to stray from their covenant commitment to Him. God would later reiterate this command as the people prepared to enter the land of Canaan.

“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. This is what you must do. You must break down their pagan altars and shatter their sacred pillars. Cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols. For you are a holy people, who belong to the LORD your God. Of all the people on earth, the LORD your God has chosen you to be his own special treasure.” – Deuteronomy 7:22-26 NLT

God demanded undivided allegiance from His people. In return for their faithfulness, He would bless them beyond belief. He would make them fruitful and prosperous in the land.

I will bless you with food and water, and I will protect you from illness. There will be no miscarriages or infertility in your land, and I will give you long, full lives. – Exodus 23:25-26 NLT

And He promised to drive all the inhabitants from the land. Despite their military superiority, the nations of Canaan would prove no match for the Israelites. But God would not eliminate them all at once. The process of conquering and occupying the land would take years. That would prevent the land from becoming desolate and overrun by wild animals. It would take time for the Israelites to acclimate to their new surroundings, so God provided a strategy that would allow their occupation of the land to take place over time.

“I will drive them out a little at a time until your population has increased enough to take possession of the land.” – Exodus 23:30 NLT

But in time, the Israelites would find themselves the proud possessors of the land of promise. God would give them the entire land of Canaan, “from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, and from the eastern wilderness to the Euphrates River” (Exodus 23:31 NLT). But within this vast and fertile territory, God expected His people to serve Him alone. There would be no place for unfaithfulness and no room for the false gods of the Canaanites.

“Make no treaties with them or their gods. They must not live in your land, or they will cause you to sin against me. If you serve their gods, you will be caught in the trap of idolatry.” – Exodus 23:32-33 NLT

God promised victory but demanded obedience. He offered to bless His chosen people but they were obligated to remain faithful to Him alone. And since the eradication of the Canaanites would take time, God knew that His people would face a constant temptation to compromise their convictions by assimilating the false gods of their pagan neighbors. Intermarriage with the occupants of the land would sound appealing and profitable. Adopting the ways of the Canaanites would make good sense. And peace treaties would always be more attractive than the prospects of war.  So God laid down the law. He completely prohibited any thought of compromise on the part of His people. They were His chosen people and they were expected to live distinctively different lives from the rest of the nations of the world.

“…you are a holy people, who belong to the LORD your God. Of all the people on earth, the LORD your God has chosen you to be his own special treasure.” – Deuteronomy 7:26 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.