Is God being manipulative when he says, “If you obey me, you will live”?
Is he being threatening? Why in the world would God say that? If you remove the Christian filter from your mind, you can read God as sounding an awful lot like an abusive boyfriend.
As we continue our study through Deuteronomy, we come to a passage where God says that. Jesus says it too. Let’s take a look. What are we to make of this?
In Deuteronomy chapter 4, verse 1, and we read the word “Hear”. “Hear” is the Hebrew word “Shema,” and Moses uses it many times in the next few chapters, the most famous occurrence is in chapter 6:4-9, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” That Shema is known as THE Shema, a kind of credal statement uttered by the people of Israel regularly still to this day. For them it is like the Apostles Creed or the Lord’s Prayer.
Shema means, “Hear, Listen, understand.” Moses is saying, “Pay attention, people! Important information is about to arrive. Listen up! You don’t want to miss this.”
And what is the important info Moses has for them? Well, there is a lot. Look at what he says in verses 1-5. They absolutely must get this because their lives literally depend on it. They need to hear the Law, and then follow and obey the law, he says, to live. To live!
And why? Because of verse 3. Moses basically says to the people, “You remember that situation at Baal Peor, right?” You can read all about what happened at Baal Peor in Numbers 25. It was a fairly recent event in the life of the nation, so Moses doesn’t need to retell it here in Deuteronomy 4. He just has to say, “You saw with your own eyes what the Lord did at Baal Peor.” What they saw would have been hard to forget.
The place was called Baal Peor because an idol to the Canaanite god Baal was there. Some of the people of Israel were enticed to worship it, probably because there was temple prostitution there. Some of the men indulged, which was bad enough, but they also participated in worship rituals, which included bowing down to the idol of Baal. Imagine God watching them. It was like a one-two punch to him. First punch in the gut when they participated in sinful things, second punch right across the face when they bowed down to Baal. How would you feel if you were God?
Betrayed. Angry. Jealous. Maybe all that, maybe more. God is a relational, emotional God, and Israel had really hurt him. We learn that thousands of the Israelites died that day as a result of their severe disobedience. Fast-forward to Deuteronomy 4, and the people Moses was talking to remembered that day. The lesson God taught on that horrible day in the life of their nation was one they wouldn’t forget anytime soon. Follow God’s Law and live. Disobey and die. It couldn’t have been more clear to them.
Moses also connects the obedience of the people to their ability to remain in the land. If the people obey, not only will they live, but they will also live in the Land. In chapters 1-3 we learned that some of the tribes, 2 ½ of them, had just received their allotment of land on the east side of the Jordan River. The rest had yet to cross the Jordan where they would receive their land.
They had come all this way from Egypt. Did they want to live in the Land? Yes, they absolutely did. So Moses reminds them that the promise of life and land was conditional. God’s love for them was unconditional, meaning it would never change. But life in the land was conditional; they could lose it. If they followed God’s law, and held fast to them, they had nothing to worry about.
This is an instructive word for us too. Jesus once said in John 14:15, “if you love me, obey my commands.” In our modern sensibilities, we bristle at the suggestion that we are to obey another person. It sounds demeaning or authoritarian. Parental. And to tie it to the idea of love sounds really manipulative. “If you love, you’ll do what I say.” If our friend was in a relationship with a person who said that, we’d tell them to break it off. So why does God say this to the Israelites, and why does Jesus say it to his followers? Are they manipulative? Are they being demanding?
Maybe. Some people sure think so. But I don’t. Instead, I believe God had the Israelites’ best interest in mind. Just like Jesus does for his followers. They know the best possible way to live. They are not just trying to twist people’s arms into praising them and following them. Instead they love us and want what the true good life for us. That good life is found in obeying them.
God’s call for obedience from his people is a wonderful balance of what is best for them, and what he desires most. Obey and live, rather than turning out to be manipulative, is actually life-giving, not just in the eternal sense, but in a well-rounded human way. Paul would go on to talk about the Fruit of the Spirit, and I believe that teaching is an example of why it is so important and amazing to follow the way of Jesus. Paul said in Galatians 5 that we walk in step with God’s Spirit, following his way, what will flow out of our lives are the best qualities of life: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”
Jesus often talked about how following his way leads to eternal life, but it also leads to a new kind of life in the here and now. Israel could access that life, God said, if they obeyed him. We can access that life, if we learn to follow the way of Jesus. What is that way? Read the stories of Jesus in four accounts of his life, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. What do you see?
If you want to learn to be his follower, comment below. I’d love to talk with you further. Take a look at what Paul says about following Jesus in the teaching right after the Fruit of the Spirit: “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.” Let’s talk about how to do that! Let’s talk about how to really live.