Tag Archives: israel

Practices for a blessed life [Deuteronomy 26-28]

7 Feb

Today we’re talking about practice.  At the time of the interview above, Allen Iverson was taking heat for skipping practice.  We’re going to find that being committed to practice can save us from a whole bundle of trouble.

Turn to Deuteronomy.26:16-19.  This little section at the end of chapter 26 will transition us to the conclusion of Deuteronomy. From chapter 10, 11 and 12 all the way through chapter 26, Moses has been retelling the stipulations of the treaty or covenant that God had made with the people of Israel.  Now here in 26:16-19 he adds a few words of review.

In Verse 16, God commands Israel to follow the law with all their heart and soul.

Next in Verse 17, Israel declares that YHWH is their God and they will obey him.

Then in 18, YHWH declares that Israel is his people who will obey him.

Finally, YHWH in verse 19 promises to honor Israel above all other nations, that they are holy to him.

So in just a few short words, they have a summary of their agreement with one another.  Israel will obey God as their only God, and God will honor Israel above all nations.  But notice what is central to this entire treaty.  Obedience.

It is obedience with heart and soul.  In this short section, look how many times obedience is mentioned.  I count seven, one of which is the very last phrase: “you will be a people holy to the Lord your God.”  That phrase doesn’t explicitly the word “obedience,” or even a synonym, but it is there alright because it is impossible for Israel to be holy without obedience. As we continue on, let’s keep this theme in mind: for Israel, obedience to God honors their relationship with him.

Turning to chapter 27, we discover that the short review we just read at the end of chapter 26 was not the end of the matter.  Not even close.

Read Deuteronomy 27:1-8. What we see here is a description of a memorial altar that God wanted the people to build. These are what some call stones of remembrance on which they wrote the law.  This is not the stone tablets on which were written the Ten Commandments.  Those were stored in the Ark of the Covenant.  These were to be memorial stones, a monument to help the people remember what is true.

In my family, my wife Michelle has stones of remembrance in our house.They are coffee mugs, each from a place we have visited. We need these reminders, as they help us remember the blessing of our travels. Do you have stones of remembrance? For ancient Israel, these monuments were designed to help them remember the covenant they made with God. 

Christians often display crosses to help us remember our relationship with Jesus.  Sometimes on necklaces.  Often on the walls of our homes and churches.  Some churches are built the shape of a cross.  These are monuments, big and small, to help us remember what Jesus did for us.  By amazing love, through his sacrifice, we can have forgiveness and hope and a home with God.  Furthermore, the cross reminds us that we are to live like Jesus, what some would call a cruciform, or cross-shaped life.  Christians are called to follow the way of Jesus.  In the midst of our busy lives, in the midst of the pressure from our culture to be consumers, to pursue entertainment, we can forget the mission of God’s Kingdom.  We can forget our calling.  Sometimes stones of remembrance can help remind us of what is true, and thus we can reorient our lives around the truth. I often think that life is a nonstop series of reorientation.  Because we so quickly forget. 

In Psalm 78:41-42 we are reminded that Israel forgot.  The psalmist tells us “They did not remember his power.”

What have you forgotten that you need to remember?  Do you need to look again at your stones of remembrance?  When I drink coffee in the morning from our mugs, I rarely think about the place names on them.  I just want to drink coffee!  I could make a practice of looking at the place name, thinking about our time there and praising God for all we experienced and learned. 

Do you have a practice of stones of remembrance?  While this law is not our law, we can see the wisdom in it.  You might want to start a practice of remembrance.

I love the practice that comes next.  Look at Deuteronomy 27:9. Moses and the priests tell all the people to be silent and listen.  This is another excellent practice to consider adding to our lives.  Again, it is not our law, but it is something that we would do well to add to our relationship with God.  In a relationship with someone, it is vital that we spend time listening to them.  If we don’t listen to them, our relationship with them will be likely be over pretty fast, or if it isn’t over, it will be miserable.  Likewise, we need to listen to God.  That means we need to take time and be silent.  Turn off the radio, the TV, the music.  Turn off the noise, and listen for God to speak.  In Israel’s case, they were to listen to two truths.  One at the end of verse 9, and one in verse 10.

In verse 9 they are to be silent and listen to the truth about their identity.  They are the people of the Lord their God.  They are not slaves in Egypt.  They are not a wandering people with no nation.  They are not weak.  They are not small.  There are numerous descriptions that they could be tempted to give themselves.  But the one truth about their identity is that they are the people of God.  They are in a special relationship with God.  It is a personal relationship with God.  God loves them.  That is their identity.

What is the truth about your identity?  We Christians, we disciples of Jesus, are loved children of God.  We need to be silent and listen to the truth of our identity.  We are not failures, we are not misfits, we are not pathetic, we ARE dearly loved children of God.  My suspicion is that most of us, me included, do not take enough time to be silent and hear that truth from God.

That is the first truth they are to listen to.  The second truth is found in verse 10. It is a repetition of what we have heard already in chapter 26:16-19: they are to obey God and follow his commands.  No surprise there.  But then the passage takes a turn, a turn that is very much connected to the idea of obedience.

In verses 11-14 Moses tells the people that after they cross the Jordan River they are to gather together, the whole nation.  Remember that the entire book of Deuteronomy is Moses giving the people a second telling of the law before they take full possession of the Promised Land of Canaan.  They have just barely entered the eastern side of the Promised Land, had some battles, and set up camp.  The next step is the large scale invasion of the land on the western side of the Jordan River.  If you jump ahead into the next book of the Bible, the book of Joshua, you can read the story of this invasion.  For now, Moses is saying to them, when you do start the invasion, you will eventually come to two mountains facing each other.  Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim.  Six of the tribes, or half the nation, is to face Mount Ebal, and the other six tribes are to face Mount Gerizim.  In this ceremony, the one tribe, the Levites, the priestly tribe, was then to read a group of curses and a group of blessings. 

If you look at Joshua 8:30-35, you will see that the people actually did perform this ceremonial reading of the blessings and curses. The two mountains are fairly close together, and Joshua 8 tells us that they likely were in a large group with the Ark of the Covenant in the middle, and six tribes faced Ebal which is rocky and harsh, and six tribes faced Gerizim which is lush and fertile.  So they were essentially back to back.  Turn again to Deuteronomy 27-28, and we get to hear all the curses and blessings.  Scholars note that this was a momentous event in the life of the nation.  If you look on a map you will see the people are essentially standing in the heart of the land, with a very vivid image before them. “Disobey and you will be cursed, and go the way of rocky, harsh Ebal.  But obey and you will be blessed, going the way of lush, fertile Gerizim.”

First, let’s look at the Curses section: Deuteronomy 27:15-26, and we notice a pattern.  The Levites read the curse, and the people respond with “Amen!”  This is not like “Amen” at the end of a prayer, when we just tack the word onto the end without thinking about it.  Instead it is “Amen” when we agree with what has been said.  “Amen” means something like “True!” or “That is a trustworthy saying.”  Or as the kids say nowadays, “Facts!” 

So the Levites would read the curse, and all the people would say together, “Amen!”  That would be quite a powerful scene, wouldn’t it?  Imagine the sound of maybe a million people facing one mountainside, and another million facing the other mountain, hearing that crowd shout “Amen!” 

But what were these Curses that they were saying “Amen” about?  What kind of curse are we talking about here?  There are many ways to use the word curse.  Swear words or bad words comes to mind, but hat’s not the cursing here.  Or is this like a Satanic curse, like witchcraft or sorcery?  Is God putting an evil curse on people? 

Imagine a wizard with a wand, shooting out a magic power that binds up a person, like Sleeping Beauty cursed into a sleep that never ended until she was kissed by the prince.  Or like the man who was cursed to be in the form of a beast until the beauty truly loved him.  Is that the kind of curse God is doing?  Or is these curses in Deuteronomy 27 maybe referring to consequences or punishment? 

The verb itself is translated “to bind with a curse,” but what does that mean?  Is all hope lost for this person?  Can the curse be broken?  One author I read said that word “curse” means the person who commits the offense is “destined for divinely imposed disaster.”  So while the person is not zapped by a magic wand, they clearly don’t want to be in a position where they are destined for divinely imposed disaster. 

Take note of the curses, and what God says can get Israel in a position of being cursed.  In verse 15, it is idolatry.  In verse 16, dishonoring your parents.  In verse 17-19, three kinds of injustice.  In verses 20-23, four kinds of sexual impurity.  In 24-25 murder and bribery. Finally in 26, a concluding summary curse for not obeying the Law.  Then all the people cry out together, “Amen” affirming that they agree and they bind themselves to this covenant. So the curses are life choices that result in divinely imposed disaster.

That leads us to the Blessing section, Deuteronomy 28:1-14. These blessings are amazing!  Every part of Israel will be blessed.  God promises that if Israel is obedient he will honor them and lift them high and make everything go wonderful for them.  He will open the heavens, the storehouse of his bounty, for them.  Wow!  You almost feel a little embarrassed, or even guilty because Israel will be so blessed.  It reminds me of my daughter’s soccer games a few weeks ago when they were beating the other team so bad, the staff stopped keeping the score on the scoreboard.  When my daughter scored a goal I wanted to cheer for her, but the score was already something like 17-0, and we didn’t want to make the other team or their spectators feel bad, so I had to do a quiet cheer. 

It’s kinda like that with Israel.  If they obey God says they will be in a place of unimaginable blessing.  The nation of Israel would eventually see this blessing under the reigns of King David and Solomon.  People from foreign countries wanted to visit Israel to see with their own eyes the fabulous wealth and wisdom of the Israelite King.  They would come and actually experience Israel and King Solomon, and they would leave saying, “His wealth and wisdom are greater than I was told.” 

The collection of poems that we call Psalms starts with Psalm 1, a wisdom psalm that talks about these blessings and curses, and it points to another practice.  Basically the psalm says that if we follow the way of wickedness we will be cursed, but if we meditate on God’s Word and do what it says, we will be blessed.  We need to be a people, therefore, who practice meditation on his Word.  This meditation is more than reading. It is instead a deep thinking upon, a desire to understand and apply God’s teaching to our lives, and then to live them out. 

Initially as I studied the blessings and curses in Deuteronomy 27 & 28,  I thought, “I love that he focuses on blessing second.  In other words, God finishes with a vision of how good things can be!!!”  But then in chapter 28, verse 15 arrives, and, surprise, we’re back at the curses.  Scan from verse 15 to the end of the chapter.  What do you notice? 

It is a long chapter.  He goes on and on and on about how awful it will be for Israel if they do not obey God. Did God get stuck a rut of curses?  We’ve already had curses back in chapter 27.  But now in chapter 28 there’s an explosion of curses.  Start with verses 15-19.  You’d think these four additional curses, along with what we already read in chapter 27 would give the people the idea that God really wanted them to obey, and if they didn’t obey, they were in big trouble. 

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  The picture God paints starting in verse 20 and continuing all the way to verse 68 is off the charts. 

Look at verse Deuteronomy 28:26 for example.  There God is telling Israel what will happen if they disobey him and then try to go to battle.  Read verses 26-29 and you’ll see what I mean.  It’s so bad it’s almost humorous.  I am not making light of it as this is serious stuff.  But my goodness, does it ever stop?  It gets disgusting and vile at some points.  Seriously.  And why? I think the point of it all is actually to totally revile the people.  If this was depicted on a video, most of us would have to turn our heads.  God is saying to Israel that if they disobey him, they will face utter and total ruin in every facet of their lives: nationally, individually, emotionally, physically, intellectually, and spiritually.  He covers it all. 

Right in the middle of this passage, though, God shares his purpose for this horrible news.  Look at verses 45-47. God wants Israel to be clear, abundantly, excruciatingly clear, of what is at stake here.  They are his people, and he is their God, and they will have such wonderful blessing if they obey him.  But if they don’t, it will be so, so bad for them.  The curses and the devastation that will erupt on them because of their disobedience will be a sign, for them and their descendants, not that God is brutal, but that Israel was unfaithful. 

Look especially at verse 47 which gives us another practice.  “Because you did not serve the Lord your God joyfully and gladly in the time of prosperity.”  God envisions for them the time of blessing in the Promised Land, and is saying that the time of blessing is when they should serve God joyfully and gladly.  That is a great message for us.  I know life in these United States has its really difficult aspects.  But we also have much blessing.  In the midst of blessing, we too must serve God joyfully and with gladness.  Yet how easy it is to complain and get fussy. 

I recently heard of a church that created a no complaining rule.  How about your church? Will you ban all complaining?  In Philippians 2:14-16, Paul says that we should do everything without grumbling and complaining because we hold out the word of life to the world around us.  Who in your community would want to be part of God’s Kingdom if the your church is known for being complaining and fussy?  Instead, let us serve God joyfully and gladly! Even when life gets tough, even when people tick us off.  Let’s be joyful in our obedience to God.

Sadly, Israel would totally throw their relationship with God in the trash.  They disobeyed so many times, and God allowed the consequences of their disobedience to fully impact them.  This happened periodically in the nation in small ways throughout their history, but the disobedience got so bad at that eventually, he allowed them to be defeated by foreign enemies and re-enslaved in those foreign lands.  Israel felt the divinely imposed disaster of the curse.

Look at Deuteronomy 28:68. That’s re-enslavement happened to Israel.  What we see, then, is that there is a side to this covenant that is conditional.  It is an If-Then statement.  If you obey, then you will be blessed.  If you disobey, then you will be cursed, and we see that throughout these chapters.  But there is also a side of the covenant that is unconditional.  Fast-forward with me through the centuries.  As I mentioned, Israel disobeyed and God allowed them to be captured and re-enslaved.  But God is faithful and forgiving.  Amazingly so.

One of Israel’s prophets, Zephaniah, depicts this.  In Zephaniah 3, God, after all that pain of Israel’s unfaithfulness and exile, comes back to them with a vision of grace and blessing for Israel.

“Sing, O Daughter of Zion; shout aloud, O Israel!  Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, O Daughter of Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy. The Lord, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm. On that day they will say to Jerusalem, “Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands hang limp. The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.”

Amazing, God’s faithfulness to Israel!  But how does this connect with the New Testament?

We are not Israel, and we are not under this covenant.  So first we must ask, what did this mean to them?  God faithfully loved and provided for Israel, he rescued them from slavery and set them on a path of freedom, gave them a land of their own, and promised to bless them if they obeyed.

Next we seek the underlying principle: When we obey God, we are following the best possible way to live.  This is not a promise of a perfect life, as if there will be no trials and struggles and difficulties for those who obey God.  Sometimes following God will make life harder. Think of those Christians around the world who are persecuted for following Jesus.  Think of the fact that following God means he asks us to practice self-control that we sometimes don’t want to use.  God calls us to restrain our lusts and desires, and not just indulge them, and that can be hard.  Clearly, God’s desires in all these blessings and curses is that he wants his people to experience blessing and he wants them to avoid curses!  He wants his people to have the best life possible.  So there is a sense in which he wants to entice them with a glorious vision of the blessed life, and he wants to caution them with a vision of the pain of the cursed life.  God wants to protect his people.

Finally how can we Christians apply this to our lives? Obedience starts with choosing to trust in and follow the way of Jesus.  His grace has forgiven all our sin.  But we don’t abuse his grace.  Instead we choose to obey.

Jesus taught us in John 14:15-24, “If you love me, keep my commands.” Paul likewise taught us in Titus 2:11-15, “God’s grace teaches us to say no to ungodliness, and to live holy lives.”

In another place Jesus also says, “my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”  Following the way of Jesus takes practice.  Self discipline.  One of my children is taking guitar class at school, and it is hard when you are first starting out to make your fingers work the strings.  In guitar class he is not saying “this yoke is easy and burden light.”  But ask me about how he uses the controller for his Xbox video games.  He has practiced that a lot, and his fingers fly over the controls with ease.

We can and should live a well-practiced life.  Practices or habits help us follow the way of Jesus.  They help us obey and live the life he desires for us. 

Can we learn God’s heart from a ritual for a dead body? [Crime & Punishment – Deuteronomy 21, part 3]

16 Jan
Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Imagine the scene. In ancient Israel, a murdered body is found in a field, and no one knows who committed the crime. Who should deal with the body, and how does God want the people to deal with the blood guilt? In this series we’ve been exploring the fascinating ritual God commands the people to follow. Read part 1 and part 2, covering verses 1-5, and the beginning of the ritual. What happens then in verses 6-9 is the remainder of the ceremony. Thus far, the nearby towns have measured the distance from the body to their towns. The closest town has jurisdiction, and the elders from that town must take a young heifer to a wadi with a flowing stream, and there they break the neck of the heifer with priests observing them. The elders, then, ritually wash their hands over the dead heifer and they recite a prayer to God declaring on behalf of the people that they are innocent, and they ask God to consider them now atoned for. 

This ceremony has led to some amazing speculation as to what was going on with all these unique features.  Ancient Rabbis, one scholar reports, said that “the ceremony [was] an act of punitive magic. A swarm of worms from the heifer finds the killer and seizes him so that the authorities can bring him to justice; [another Rabbi said] the worms themselves kill him.”[1]  Notice that the text says nothing about these magical worms!

So what is the meaning of the wadi with the stream, the heifer, the neck breaking and the hand-washing?  There are numerous views, and one scholar I listed above suggests that we should see the ritual “as a reenactment of the murder…, since it…suggests a reasonable explanation of why it must take place at a barren wadi: that is, so that the imitation blood guilt is kept far from civilization. Nevertheless,” the scholar says, “this view is far from certain.”[2]

But what is certain, is what happens at the end of the ritual.  The prayer.  By going through this ritual, verse 9 tells us, the people will have purged themselves and the land of guilt from bloodshed, declaring that they are innocent, and they are declared as having done what was right in God’s eyes. 

Fascinating ritual, isn’t it?  It is a unique section of Scripture, but what does it matter to us?  What do we see of God’s heart in this passage? 

Through it all, we see God’s heart for purity.  Even when a crime is committed and though they don’t know who the guilty party is, Israel still needs to atone for it.  Purity in the land, and purity in his people is vital before God.  Tomorrow we add to this theme in part 4 as we have two more illustrations of crime and punishment, through which we will learn more about God’s heart.


[1] Tigay, Jeffrey H. Deuteronomy. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1996. Print. The JPS Torah Commentary.

[2] Ibid.

The difficulties of holy war passages in the Old Testament [Christians & War – Deuteronomy 20, part 3]

9 Jan
Related image

In part 1 and part 2 of this series on Deuteronomy 20, we learned that Israel’s priests and army officers are to address the army before battle. Now God gives them some instructions about how to carry out battle. If you aren’t aware of these passages of Scripture, brace yourselves, as they can be shocking.

In verses 10-18, God refers to two kinds of enemies.  Those that are far away, and those nearby.  Israel was to handle them very differently.

First, in verses 10-15, when Israel goes to war against nations far away, make them an offer of peace, and if they accept, all the enemy’s people will be subject to forced labor and work for Israel.  Is God condoning slavery?

But if the people in the faraway nation refuse Israel’s offer of peace, and they engage Israel in battle, God says Israel is to lay siege to the city.  When God delivers the city to Israel, he says they should kill all the men, but keep everything else for themselves: women, children, animals, and possessions.  Do you feel like it is hard to read a passage like this where God is approving such devastation?  I really struggle with it.  But it is about to get worse.

Next in verses 16-18, God moves his focus from the nations far away, and now directs Israel’s attention to those enemies nearby. He is referring to the nations who currently lived in the Promised Land of Canaan that they were about to enter. About those nations, God says, kill them all, total destruction, period.  He also tells them why they are to take this severe action.  “To keep yourselves from worshiping their gods and sinning against God.”

Whew. Enslavement of people.  Total decimation in war.  This is isn’t the first time we encountered this concept.  It came up in 2017 when we studied Deuteronomy chapters 2, 3, and 7.  I remember thinking, at the time, how often should a pastor preach about Old Testament holy war?  I have wondered numerous times throughout this Deuteronomy series if I made a mistake choosing to preach through it.

I’m not going to rehash it here.   If you want you can read the post here in which I discuss options for interpreting these passages.  As you’ll read there, I don’t feel there is any satisfying way to understand these instances where God commands holy war leading to total decimation of foreign peoples. I do want to say this, though: war is always devastating.  Our nation has fought wars like our Civil War where we slaughtered each other.  And we’ve slaughtered other nations, including civilians in other nations, such as dropping atomic bombs on Japan.  I say that simply to bring up the reality that war is always awful. We need to remember that when we consider the question I’m going to ask now: how should Christians approach the concept of war? 

Can we find anything in Deuteronomy 20 that will help us? Take note that in Deuteronomy 20, Israel is making war.  They are going out and starting war.  They are about to enter into someone else’s land and try to capture it.  Is that right?  Why would God do that at all? 

Let’s quickly go back to Egypt 40 years before. At the time Israel was a nation of slaves.  God rescued them out of slavery in Egypt and when we hear that, we are cheering God.  Freedom for the enslaved.  Yes!  But that raises a huge logistical question: where would this nation go once they have been freed?  We’re talking about a nation that is likely a couple million people.  That’s enough people to fill a large city.   That many people need a land that can sustain them, so they can’t just go into the desert.  But the fertile land nearby, land that could provide for them, is already occupied.  Who is going to say, “2 million people, here you can have our land.  It’s all yours now, and we will just leave and say goodbye”?  Not going to happen.  It’s like the Syrian refugee migration in Europe.  It’s a massive logistical situation.

So what does God do?  God gives Israel a land that had been in their family history, the land of Canaan, the land where their forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob lived.  He calls it the Promised Land.  God is essentially saying, “Israel, I am returning land to you that was previously yours.”  But they lived in that land over 400 years before.  In 400 years time, when they were in Egypt, things had changed.  New peoples and towns and cities and nations lived in that land now.  So Israel wasn’t going to be able to walk back in and say, “Alright people, we’re back!  You can go away now.”  Nope.  It was going to be a fight.  Here’s the question, though.  Was that a just cause?  I don’t know that I can answer that.  Some say yes, and some say no.  Some might say, “Yes, that was their land originally, and they have every right to want it back, and to fight for it.”  Others might say, “No, that was 400 years ago.  I’m glad they are not slaves any longer, but they chose to leave Canaan looking for food in Egypt, and they have no right to now go back to Canaan and claim it as their own.”  Still another might remind us that God is involved, giving the land to them.  The whole earth is the Lord’s so he can give it to whomever he desires.  Still we have to ask: Is it right for God to have Israel totally decimate the people in the land so God can give it to them?  Is that just?  What kind of God would do that?  So we are back to that difficult issue. How should Christians think about war?

Frankly, I don’t find any material in Deuteronomy 20 that is helpful to Christians who are seeking to form a distinctly Christian viewpoint on war. Instead Christians must head over to the New Testament, and that is where we are going next, in part 4.

The danger of echo-chambers [God’s heart for people to find the truth, part 1]

26 Nov

Photo by Joe Taylor on Unsplash

Have you heard of “echo chambers”? I was listening to a podcast this week where a guy said that in our day and age, especially because of the many, many choices we have for news, and because of social media, that Christians too often live in an echo chamber. 

 Echo chambers are rooms where you can talk and hear the sound waves of your voice bounce off the walls and repeat over and over so you hear an echo, echo, echo, echo.  We do this in life too, especially with the news, when we listen to one viewpoint over and over.  For example, if you believe that one particular news outlet is biased, you might decide to never listen to or read any reports from that news outlet.  What happens is that we tend to load our social media feeds with producers of news that tend to agree with us.  Or we watch TV news shows that affirm our beliefs. Usually this falls along political lines.  It doesn’t matter if you are conservative, progressive, or liberal, it is human nature to want to be affirmed. But that can create an echo chamber in our lives, where we almost always, or maybe only, listen to what we already believe.  We don’t listen to other points of view and actually become insulated from hearing them at all. 

Here’s the thing: Christians should not be in an echo chamber.  Instead Christians should be people who are able to evaluate multiple points of view with a Kingdom perspective!  The question, then, for Christians is, where do we find this truth? 

As we will see in Deuteronomy 18, God was also very concerned that Israel would be able to find the truth too. 

In the last few months studying Deuteronomy, we’ve seen laws about worship, food, holidays, governance, generosity, and time and time again, God tells Israel that they are not to be like the nations around them.  Israel is to be different because they follow God.  God wants Israel to be different because he loves them and has a heart for justice, for human flourishing. In the nations surrounding Israel, there is much injustice.  So Israel must look different.

Once again in Deuteronomy 18, we see God warning Israel about the temptation to be like the selfish, destructive nations around them, because those nations had many detestable practices. 

Look at what he says in Deuteronomy 18:9-14.  Verse 9 tells us that in the Promised Land of Canaan, the land Israel was about to enter and take over, there were nations who did all kinds of detestable practices. 

I tried to imagine how it would feel for the people of Israel to enter into this foreign land and see all these different kinds of practices. 

Have you ever been to a foreign country where Christianity is not the dominant religion?  It is an eye-opening experience.  When I was in Guyana, India, Nepal, Cambodia and Malaysia, I encouontered a bit of this. I saw numerous temples and flags and statues devoted to the gods of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. It was certainly very interesting, for example, visiting a Buddhist temple in Cambodia, talking to a Muslim Imam in Guyana, and watching Hindus enter their temples in India.  I felt uncomfortable, and yet curious, but I didn’t feel tempted to give my life to those religions. 

So from my vantage point, it seems like Israel would not be tempted to get into all those detestable practices, especially because they have God on their side. Why would they ever think of anything else?  Well, God knows his people.  Consider that slave mentality could be a factor here. They were slaves 400+ years in Egypt, and thus it would be very unlikely that in the 40 years since they left Egypt that they would have removed this mentality from their way of thinking.  Slaves did as their rulers told them.  God knows, therefore, that his people could be tempted by the powerful nations around them to fall back into that slave mentality. 

Tomorrow we’ll look at the detestable practices people in other nations used to gain knowledge and power, practices that God wants Israel to have nothing to do with.

Supreme Courts and Presidents [God’s heart for good government, part 3]

14 Nov
Photo by Claire Anderson on Unsplash

God wants there to be supreme courts and presidents.  Really?  Well, kind of.  In this series, we are studying Deuteronomy 17, seeking God’s heart for good government, and we move from what God instructed Israel to do with local governance to what he wanted for their national governance: supreme courts and presidents!

In Deut. 17:8-20, he describes a unique system in which priests and a judge form a national-level law court with the responsibility of providing rulings on the most difficult cases (bloodshed, law suits, and assaults are the three examples given), cases that the lower courts were unable to decide.  It seems this high court, located in the city of God’s choosing, was to be like our supreme court.

What do you think of the fact that this high court was to be comprised mostly of priests?  In verse 12 we read about “the priest there ministering to the Lord,” which might be a reference to the high priest of the land. So this high court had heavy hitters. The judge of the land, and maybe the high priest, and then perhaps also an unnamed number of other judges. What that means is that Israel’s high court includes both the civil and religious leaders.

To our American ears, it might sound odd when we read that Israel was to have priests on its high court.  Can you imagine if our Supreme Court included religious leaders?  But for Israel it makes sense, because the priests were the ones who knew the Law the best.  We see this in verse 10 where God says they were to decide these hard cases, and in verse 11, as they were to teach people the law.

Then the people were to absolutely follow the decision of the court. No wavering. Look at the penalty for those who disobeyed! Verses 12-13 say it is the death penalty.  In our view this might seem insane.  As I’ve mentioned in previous posts in our study of Deuteronomy, I’m glad we Christians are under a new covenant.  We also need to remember that it wasn’t some random law that Israel was following.  Whose law governed their land?  God’s law.  The priests and judges were not making up new laws and asking the people to follow them. They were simply deciding cases, based on God’s law.  Their government was a theocracy, meaning God was at the top, God was ruler.  When people disobeyed what this high court decided, they were disobeying God.  That’s bold disobedience, and it was to be taken seriously.  Again, I am so glad the church is not under this covenant. 

So far in this series we have seen God’s desire for Israel to have local courts, and a high court, and now we have one higher level to go: the King, which is described in Deuteronomy 17:14-20.

This section envisions a time in the future when Israel is settled in the land and wants a king, “like all the nations around” them.  Warning. Warning! Warning.  We should be seeing warning signs in this verse.  What warning sign?  That phrase “like all the nations around us.”  What is wrong with that?  Israel was NOT to be like the nations around them.  We have seen that in previous posts.  They were not to worship in the detestable ways of the nations around them. 

And here is the kicker.  They shouldn’t be asking for a king because they already had a king!  Who was their king?  YHWH, God was their king.  This section is just a few verses long, but it points to something that is going to have significant consequences for the nation.  God knows this.  Let’s just jump ahead into the future and see what happens.

We’re traveling to a time about a couple hundred years after Deuteronomy 16. The book of Joshua comes right after Deuteronomy and tells the story of the conquest of the Promised Land, led by Joshua who took over for Moses.  The people settle down, and after Joshua dies, we read in next book, the book of Judges, that there are a series of judges who become the top leader of the nation.  One of those judges was a guy named Gideon who won an amazing battle, and the people wanted to make him king. In Judges 8:23 we read that Gideon was not a fan of that idea and instead responded, “the Lord will rule over you.”  That’s right, Gideon!  The people had a strong desire to have a king like the nations around them. Gideon might have tamped down that desire for the time being, but it would return.

Then maybe another hundred years or so after Gideon, in the days of the very last judge who would rule over Israel, a guy named Samuel, the people were again asking for a king.  I encourage you to read 1 Sam. 8:4-9.  Did you hear how God felt about this idea?  He felt rejected! Israel doesn’t need a king because they have God, the one true king.  The same goes for us, as we Christians worship God alone, and and we do not worship human leaders.

In the next post, we’ll turn back to Deuteronomy 17, and what we’ll see is that God knows the people will ask for a king, so perhaps he can set some laws in place to help this king idea turnout different from the nations around them. What God will say about the king is shocking.

Giving our firsts to God [God’s heart for the holidays, part 1]

5 Nov
Photo by Ferenc Horvath on Unsplash

In your mind, can you recite the cycle of national holidays that tell the story of America. Get out a piece of paper, or start typing in a document.  See if you can list out our holidays.  Here’s a hint: where do you think we should start?  July 4th, of course!  There would be no America without it.  Independence Day!  Now see if you can work your way around the calendar.  What comes after July 4th? Don’t peek below!  List your guesses, then come back here and see how you did.

Ready to check your work?  After July 4th, the next American holiday is Labor Day and then we have Columbus Day, Veterans Day, and Thanksgiving.  A couple months later we observe Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday, then Presidents Day, and finally, Memorial Day.

How did you do?  Get them all?  Include some that I didn’t?  We’ll get to that just below.  For now, look at the holidays I listed.  Think about how these holidays describe the major events in the history of our nation. Every year, then, we have regular markers to help us remember our American story. Of course we could throw a few more in there such as Flag Day and Emancipation Day, which are not considered official federal holidays, but definitely point to important elements of our national story.  In more recent decades, we could point to D-Day and 9/11, which continue to tell that story.

But as I said above, there are a bunch of holidays I skipped!  I didn’t include them because those holidays have nothing to do with America. Instead they are holidays that could be celebrated around the world.  New Year’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, Mother’s & Father’s Day, and the biggest holiday of them all, Christmas.  Even these non-American holidays are important to us because of their meaning.

So let’s step back a bit, and think: What do all these holidays tell us?  Humans are a people who love to remember and celebrate. We love to mark birthdays and anniversaries.  My congregation, Faith Church, for example, just had a wonderful celebration of our 50th anniversary.

As we continue our study through Deuteronomy, we are going to see that God also loves to celebrate special days, embedding special days into the covenant law that he had with Israel.  I encourage to open a Bible as you keep reading this post.  Turn to Deuteronomy 15:19.  In this series of posts, we’re going to study Deuteronomy 15:19 through 16:17, and it is all about holidays. Just as our American holidays tell the story of America, so Israel’s holidays tell the story of their nation.

In Deut. 15:19, notice that God doesn’t start with holidays.  Instead he starts with some instructions that will apply to the celebratory ritual included in many of Israel’s holidays and feasts, the ritual of sacrificing to God. Go ahead and read 15:19-23. Did you notice that this section is basically saying that firstborn animals are to be set aside for sacrifice.

If you have children, think about the birth of your first.  How did it feel?  My guess is that it was a day of extreme emotion.  There is a major excitement about the first of anything.  Not just the birth of children, but also your first day on the job, your first time playing on a sports team, or your first time volunteering at school or at church. You’re more nervous, more emotional, and more intense about it, because is new, just like a firstborn.

Let’s be clear, firstborns are not more special than other kids.  They are just new, they’re first, and we parents of firstborns have no idea what we’re doing, so we feel more emotional about them.  Every single step along the way is a first for the firstborn, and it is a first for their parents.  We’ve walked through the emotional firsts of the first day of kindergarten, then middle school, dances, sports, high school, driving, dating, college…and a couple months ago my wife and I experienced another first with when our firstborn got engaged! What a joyful, exciting first that has been!

But travel back with me to the moment of the birth of the firstborn.  When a first child is born, in the midst of that intense emotion, the temptation is to think, “I did that, I own that, I created that, and it is mine.” 

But what does God say to Israel?  “Dedicate the firstborn to me.” 

He isn’t talking about children, by the way.  He is talking about animals.  “Set the firstborn animals apart,” he says, “and don’t work them in the fields, but reserve them for sacrifices to the Lord during the holiday, at which time you will eat them in the presence of the Lord.”  This means Israel was to have an attitude of giving back to the Lord first.  They were not to see themselves as the creator or owner of their firstborn animals.  They were to see God as the provider, God as the one who was responsible for the blessing of a firstborn. Thus they release that firstborn to God.

We can carry this principle over to the church.  We Christians are people who give God our firsts, and not just in finances, but also in our time, in our gifts and abilities.  We see his Kingdom as the priority, because he is the foundation and the cause of all the blessings we have.  We are simply stewards, or managers, or what God owns.

Paul talked about this in 1 Cor. 10:31,when he said, “Whatever you do, whether you eat or drink, do it all for the glory of God.”  How are you doing with living to the glory of God?  How are you doing seeing yourself as a steward?  Or do you have a too-tight hold on your life, on your children, on your possessions, on your time, on your talents? 

Check back in tomorrow as we begin to look at the special holidays God proclaimed for Israel, how sacrificing the firstborn occurred on a holiday, and how Christians can learn some important principles from Deuteronomy 15 and 16. 

What can satisfy the soul? part 2

23 Oct
Photo by James Coleman on Unsplash

You are what you worship.  Agree?  Disagree?  If I had said, “You are what you eat,” that would be a bit easier to agree with.  Food goes in, metabolizes, fuels and shapes the body.  You actually are what you eat.  But what about worship?  Does worship have the same affect on us as food? 

All week long we are seeking to answer the question, “What can satisfy the soul?”  Clearly, food satisfies a hungry belly.  Food is also a delight to the tongue, and for many food is emotionally satisfying.  Have you ever heard of the phrase, “stress eating”?  But no matter how much food we eat, there is no perfectly satisfying meal, as within hours we’re hungry again. 

But what about worship?  Does worship shape us?  Does it satisfy?  Is it true that “you are what you worship?”  It’s an intriguing question, and the answer to that question is at the heart of what God is saying to the people of Israel as we continue studying Deuteronomy 12. 

As we saw yesterday in our first post on Deuteronomy 12 & 13, God has to be strict about requiring Israel to worship him and him only. This is why the very first thing he says, in chapter 12 verses 2-3, is that Israel is to destroy any and all pagan centers of worship and idols in the Promised Land.

That might sound harsh.  But again, remember the slave mentality? If you don’t know what I mean by “slave mentality,” please pause this post and read What can satisfy the soul? part 1 as there I explain what I think was going on in the hearts and minds of the nation of Israel.

It seems to me that what God is saying to Israel here is that sometimes it is best to take drastic action in your life.  I once encountered a situation like this in my own life. It was the summer after my freshman year of college, and I was going through what I call my adult conversion, where for the first time, I was totally surrendering my life to God, to follow his ways.  I looked at the many verses in the New Testament like Philippians 4:8 where one of the earliest followers of Jesus, a guy named Paul, says, “whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things,” and I wanted to follow that.

One area where I was allowing impurity into my life, and my thoughts, on a regular basis, was the music I listened to.  So some church friends and I got together, and a bunch of us agreed that this was a concern.  We went through our music collections, grabbed anything that we felt we needed to get rid of, and we threw it into a 50 gallon drum, poured gas on it, and lit it on fire.

I will tell you that Michelle and I have, in the years since, bought some of that music back, thinking, “Why did I get rid of that one, there was nothing wrong with that????”  So maybe I was overzealous.  I will admit it.

But at the time it was absolutely the right thing to do.  I would do it again, and I would recommend others of you to do the same.  Who wants to have a bonfire?  Get rid of the porn, get rid of stuff that tempts you, get rid of stuff that is holding you back.  Sometimes you need to take drastic action to break the power of the stuff that has a hold of you.

Also what we see in Deuteronomy 12 is the concept of being set apart.  God wanted Israel to live a different way, which was a far better way, than the way of the pagan nations around them.  If the people of Israel, who had a slave mentality, were to be set apart to follow this new way of God, the major first step was that they needed to remove the pagan false gods.  Look at verse 3, at how specific God is, when he says that he wants the names of those other false gods to be wiped out. That’s not just removing an idol, that is removing the memory of that false god.  Verses 1-3, therefore, show us clearly that Israel was to be set apart, different, following Yahweh, the one true God.

He adds to this in verses 4-6 saying that they must not worship in their way, they must worship in God’s way, and they must worship in God’s place.

Notice that he never names the place.  That should jump at out you, because there was a place. The tabernacle. They had been using it for a long time by this point.  Because he doesn’t mention the tabernacle, because he uses the generic word “place,” that means he wants them to have a different focus.  The tabernacle, or the temple that would follow, or the city of Jerusalem where it would be located, those are place names.  God, because he doesn’t use a place name, intends the focus not to be on the place, but for the focus of their worship to be where?

On him!  God wants their focus to be where it should be, on him.  He knows how easily people become enthralled with buildings and cities and places, and how our hearts and minds can get caught up in the wrong things. He knows how especially starry-eyed we become with the work of our own hands.  You know the emotional boost you get when you make, create or fix something?  It is a human tendency, and the feeling would only be more intense for Israel, considering their journey from slavery to independence.  God is quite aware that Israel, when entering the Promised Land, will be very tempted by their victory, their success, and be lured away from him.

Because of that temptation, he wants them to be very aware that the place of worship is not so important, as is the fact that he will be there.  His name will be there.  This is why he tells them to wipe out the places of worship and even the names of the false gods, and focus solely on God and his name.

God continues in this vein in verse 7. Worship in the presence of the Lord.  Be there, eat there, rejoice there.  Why? Because God has blessed them.  Which is a tie-in back to chapter 11 which we studied last week. Remember that? Obedience brings blessing.

Verses 8-14 describe that the people of God are not to do as they see fit, they are not to worship how they want.  Instead they must worship God’s way.  Again, God must be the focus of their worship.

We can learn from this too.  We need to focus on worshiping God, and in his way.  The conclusion is that worship does shape us.  In a very real, physical and emotional way, we are what we worship. God is saying to Israel, if you do you take drastic action to clear away false worship from your land, you could easily be tempted to indulge in what is false, and that will destroy you.  Place your focus, therefore, on God.  Worship him.  God isn’t saying that we will become gods.  But the more we focus our lives on him, the more we worship him, the more like he we are inclined to be.  He does want to shape us to be conformed to the image of Jesus.  So I urge you to consider what it might look like for you worship Jesus more?