500 years! What if God made you a promise; a promise to you, your family and descendants? How long do you think your family could stay faithful to God if it started to seem like his promise wasn’t coming through? 10 years? 50? How long could they make it after you passed away? What would you do to help prepare them to be faithful, even after you pass away?
That scenario is essentially the historical context of Deuteronomy. This is a story of a family that is waiting a long, long time for God to bring his promise to fruition. Let’s take a look:
In chapter 1, verse 8, we read God saying this:
“See, I have given you this land. Go in and take possession of the land that the LORD swore he would give to your fathers—to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—and to their descendants after them.”
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? Who are these guys? The Lord calls them the fathers of the nation of Israel. Let’s race through the history of Israel and see if we can place these guys.
First, there was Abraham. If you want to read his story in detail, start at Genesis 12. Here’s the gist of it: God promised Abraham that if he would leave his home in Haran and relocate to the land of Canaan, Abraham would be father to a great nation through whom God would bless the whole world, and his family/nation would be given that land.
So Abraham, his wife Sarah, and their household leave their home and travel to Canaan. But here’s the kicker: they have no kids. How are they going to be the parents of a great nation? Time drags on, and they get really old, but still they have no kids. It seems like this “great nation in a new land” promise is becoming a big sham. So Abraham, with Sarah’s permission, has a baby with Sarah’s servant girl Hagar, a son named Ishmael. Sarah becomes jealous and kicks Hagar and Ishmael out. God intervenes and arranges for Hagar and Ishmael to return to Abraham’s family. Ishmael himself would go on to become a great nation, the father of Arabia, but that is not the family/nation with whom God would keep his covenant promise to Abraham. 13 more years go by, and still Abraham and Sarah do not have an heir. They’re in their 90s now! God steps in, Sarah miraculously becomes pregnant in her old age, and they have a son, Isaac.
Isaac grows and marries Rebekah. You can read Isaac’s story starting in Genesis 21. They have twin sons, Esau the older and Jacob the younger. Jacob is sneaky and steals the birthright inheritance traditionally given to the firstborn, Esau. Esau, as you can imagine, is really upset, and Jacob has to flee the family. He travels to relatives where he meets his wife, Rachel.
At this point in Jacob’s story we’re now in Genesis 27. Jacob eventually starts to see the fulfillment of part of the promise God made to Abraham, to make his family into a great nation. How so? Well, Jacob has four wives who bear a total of 12 sons. Baby boom! God then gives Jacob a new name, Israel, and we’re at the point where the new family nation should be sounding familiar. Israel had 12 sons. The nation of Israel has 12 tribes. See where that is going?
Jacob/Israel eventually moves his 12 sons and their families to Egypt to avoid famine. 400+ years go by. During this time, Israel as a family nation grows exponentially, to the point where the Egyptian king, called the Pharaoh, feels threatened by them, so he enslaves them. He uses them to build great works of architecture. In the process he treats them horribly. You can read all about it starting in Exodus 1.
The people of Israel are slaves, oppressed, forced into grueling labor, dealing with genocide (because the Pharaoh was afraid they were getting too numerous). They cry out, and God sends a deliverer. This deliverer is a wild card, one of their own, Moses, who through a miracle grew up as a prince of Egypt. If you continue reading in Exodus, you’ll see that it takes a while, including some amazing meetings with God, for Moses to agree to this new national savior role. Eventually, though, he steps up.
Moses visits the Egyptian king Pharaoh, who he likely grew up with. Like the movies, some scholars believe Moses and Pharaoh would have considered themselves brothers or cousins. Now many years had passed, and imagine the awkward family reunion when Moses says to Pharaoh, “Let my people go.” If you are following along in Exodus, this story is found in Exodus 7. The Pharaoh is not keen on letting his massive labor force go, and he says, “Not a chance.” So God steps in again and sends plagues on the land, wrecking Egypt, and finally after the last plague results in the death of his firstborn son, the king bitterly sneers to Moses, “Get your people out of here.” The entire nation of Israel, likely over a million strong at this point, leaves and heads out through the Red Sea and into the desert. But the reality is that they are following a God they probably barely knew, a leader they weren’t sure they could trust, to an unknown destination.
That destination? The Promised Land. Canaan. They were headed back to the land God had promised their forefather Abraham about 500 years before. Will God keep his promise? Starting in Exodus 12:31 and continuing through Leviticus and Numbers, you can read how they follow God’s direction via a pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night, Moses leading them all the way. They have many adventures, many missteps. There is no way it should have taken 40 years. God allowed their journey to the Promised Land to take that long because of the nation of Israel’s disobedience.
That is the historical context for Deuteronomy. The nation of Israel has arrived on the border of Canaan, the Promised Land. The generation that left Egypt has given way to the next generation. The new generation of Israelites will be the ones who actually enter the Promised Land. Not even Moses will be joining them. Instead Moses sits down to remind this next generation of God’s promises and all the family nation has been through. More on that tomorrow as we dig into the book of Deuteronomy.