Archive for February, 2012
Well, it’s leap day – February 29th. And on this day, I think it’s fitting that we read as Moses prepares the people of Israel for their own giant leap. The entire book of Deuteronomy is about preparing the people for that leap. This is Moses’ last will and testament – one meant to firm up the foundations of the Israelites so that they could not only receive their inheritance, but so that they could live wisely once they had received it.
In today’s reading, Moses reminded the Israelites of the commandments given to them by God and urged them to stay true to those commandments. Like a parent sending a teenager out on prom night, he reminded the people of all of the rules that they already knew and almost pleaded with them to just do what was right.
I get the sense that Moses was a little nervous about what would happen once he was gone. Actually, given the dead-on prophetic words spoken in the previous chapters, I think Moses knew exactly what would happen when he left and he was hoping that maybe a few parting words would stave off the inevitable.
And so, he gave them these instructions:
Hear, Israel, and be careful to obey so that it may go well with you and that you may increase greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, just as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, promised you. (Deuteronomy 6:3)
He was reminding people of God’s promise – something that we all need every now and then. You see, God has made incredible promises to us and he fully intends to keep them. But somehow, we forget. We forget that there is something greater out there that is ours if only we’ll take hold of it. There is something more to this life and the life to come than what we currently see or know. There is something “beyond” that will be ours if only we give ourselves over to God.
I am compelled this morning by the fact that God would eventually have to model that behavior to us in hopes that we would finally get it. Jesus would come to earth and, essentially, give himself over to us. He would allow us to do whatever we wanted with him – to use him, abuse him, toss him aside – in order that God’s plan could move forward. If we are willing to do the same, I can guarantee you that we will be treated much better by God than he was ever treated by us.
OK, I’ve gotta ask, what’s up with the “because of you” thing? Without going into discussion or debate about the infallibility of scripture, I would like to take Moses to task here. Twice in today’s reading and once in yesterday’s reading, Moses says that “because of you” (the Israelites) that God has kept Moses from entering the promised land. Though quick to point out all the reasons that the previous generation of Israelites were kept out of the land, Moses seems to gloss over the details around his own exclusion from the land.
If you remember, back in Numbers 20, God told Moses and Aaron that they wouldn’t be allowed to enter into the promised land for a very specific reason. It wasn’t because of some sin that the Israelites had committed. It was because of something that Moses and Aaron did. They failed to follow God’s instructions and elevated themselves in the process. (Click here to read the post about Numbers 20 again.)
Now, fast-forward to Moses’ retelling in Deuteronomy and instead of writing, “because I failed to follow God’s instructions,” or, “because of my sin and the sin of my brother,” Moses writes, “because of you” – not once, but three times:
Because of you the Lord became angry with me also and said, “You shall not enter it, either.” (Deuteronomy 1:37)
But because of you the Lord was angry with me and would not listen to me. (Deuteronomy 3:26)
The Lord was angry with me because of you, and he solemnly swore that I would not cross the Jordan and enter the good land the Lord your God is giving you as your inheritance. (Deuteronomy 4:21)
Now, let’s give Moses the benefit of the doubt and assume that he believed what he was writing – that he believed that the behavior of the people of Israel was reason he was being kept out of the promised land. Let’s assume that he is not trying to rewrite history, but, instead is convinced that this is entirely their fault. Let’s also give the Bible infallibility argument the benefit of the doubt and assume that, in God’s eyes, that the Israelites were, ultimately responsible for the fact that Moses wouldn’t be allowed to enter the land.
OK, now that Moses the historian and Moses the writer of God’s word are off the hook, let’s dig into Moses the human being and leader. If Moses were my friend and I read what he wrote in Deuteronomy, I might be forced to have a difficult conversation with him. I imagine it would go something like this:
Me: “Moses, I read that nice little history you wrote there and I only have one problem with it. You know how you kept saying that you aren’t going to be able to enter the promised land because of the Israelites?”
Moses: “Yeah, that’s how I understand it.”
Me: “As I recall, it was actually your actions that caused God to say that you wouldn’t enter the land.”
Moses: “Yeah, but I wouldn’t have acted that way if not for those whining, complaining Israelites.”
Me: “I get that, but aren’t we all responsible for our own actions? As a leader, isn’t that what you would tell people? Just because they pointed a finger at you doesn’t mean that you get to point a finger back at them, does it? Is that good leadership?”
And so on. And I’m sure that through my persuasive argument, Moses would see the light and rewrite the first four chapters of his book. (OK, maybe not, but that’s not the point!) The fact of the matter is that when we point fingers, there is often a bit of truth behind our accusation. Just like Moses, when I point a finger at somebody, my placement of blame is not completely unfounded. If I said that McDonalds made me fat, Starbucks made me a coffee addict or Diet Coke made me die a slow artificially sweetened death, that would be true…at least in part.
But what about the other part? What about my culpability in the matters? Does McDonalds force me to eat their food? Does Starbucks pour coffee down my throat? How about the Coca-Cola Company? Are they threatening to kill my family if I don’t drink their product? Of course not. In reality, I make my own choices. I choose to eat and drink what I want to eat and drink.
I also choose to respond to the actions of others in whatever way I choose. Nobody can force me to lose control. I lose control when my anger is not kept in check. And Moses had let his anger and frustration get out of control in Numbers 20. He let the people (and their own ignorance of God) get the best of him. He then responded in a way that pleased the people, but angered God. So, he had to deal with the consequences of that action.
Of course, for Moses, the finger pointing didn’t really get him anywhere. Sure, it might have made him feel better and the Israelites feel worse, but, in the end, the result was the same for Moses. He wouldn’t get to enter into the promised land. The same is true for us. Making accusations and excuses for our actions doesn’t really accomplish anything. Instead, it blinds us to our own inadequacy and robs us of an opportunity to grow and mature. As we point the finger at someone else for our mistakes, we miss out on the chance to be a better person. For that, we have no one to blame but ourselves.
The book of Deuteronomy is like a Cliff’s Notes version of Exodus and Numbers. In it, Moses starts off by giving the Israelites a brief overview of where they’ve been followed by further explanation of where they’re going and of the laws that they are to follow once they get there.
In these first two chapters, there are a lot of “places” that we need to digest, as Moses walks us through the journey of the Israelites through the wilderness. Now, they say a picture’s worth a thousand words, so I’m about to greatly exceed my word count for the day, but I received a link to this map the other day that made this reading a whole lot more vivid to me. Take a look at the map, and go back and read the passage again. It’s amazing to think about all that this journey entailed. (Deuteronomy 1 picks up on the right-hand side of the map, starting at the bottom.)
The concept of having cities of refuge is an interesting one to me. I would love to understand a little more about how these cities worked. At first glance, they seem to be the first example of an “innocent until proven guilty” system of justice. And yet, there are a lot of assumptions that have to be made in order for this system to work.
First, you are only eligible to go to the city of refuge if you accidentally killed someone. My question is this: who decides whether or not you killed them accidentally. You’re supposed to go to the city of refuge to avoid the avenger of blood (sounds like a comic book character) but if you kill someone and say it was an accident, is that enough to qualify you for entry? Or does someone have to be a witness to the fact that it was an accident?
Second, what if you happen to be the unluckiest person in the world and not only kill someone, but kill them at a party where the avenger of blood also happens to be hanging out? Do you just have to hope you can outrun that guy to the nearest city of refuge? It seems like there are a few issues with the system and yet, that is the system that was set in place in Israel.
I also have to wonder about the prophetic implications of these cities of refuge. I mean, everywhere we look in the Old Testament, we find prophetic glimpses of the future coming kingdom. So, do these cities of refuge reflect that future reality? Perhaps. It seems likely, but all I can think of right now is how “in line” these cities were with God’s overall commandments and justice system for the Israelites.
Throughout the chapters that we’ve read thus far, we’ve seen God deal with sin in two ways: If the sin was committed intentionally and it harmed another person or dishonored God, God dealt with it then and there. However, if the sin was unintentional or if it was the byproduct of some other action, there was a system in place (a standard ritual) to receive forgiveness for that sin. Clearly, God makes a distinction between the sinful act and the motive behind that act – punishing the motive more immediately than the sin.
More than anything, I think this tells us something about the nature of God – something that Jesus would point out during his ministry. God is not nearly as interested on the outside as he is on the inside. He cares more about why we do something than he does if or when we do it.
So, as you join with me on this journey through the Bible, we would all be wise to remember our motives for doing this. Because, whether good or bad, it is the motive that matters. I hope you’re in this with me for the long haul and I pray it’s for all the right reasons!
By my count, there are 41 camp sites listed in Numbers 33. Even if that’s all of them and even if you consider that they were spread out over 40 years, that’s a LOT of moves. And, as I mentioned in a previous post, the generation of people that were entering the promised land had been on the move their entire lives. In fact, I wonder if they could even fathom the idea of settling in a land.
This was a group of people whose identity was wrapped up in their journey. If they stopped “going,” would they stop being Israelites? I mean, Israel was known as the group of people who had God on their side. They tore through the land defeating every enemy along the way. But who would they be once they settled in their own land?
The answer that we know, of course, is that they would be the people who would deliver the hope of the world. But for these Israelites, it must have seemed like a bittersweet ending. No longer would they have to beg for food and water. No longer would they have to get up and move on someone else’s whim. They would finally have a home. But they were losing their way of life.
Did they know how to have a home? Did they know how to settle down? Or were they like the perpetual bachelor that just can’t ever seem to dial it back enough to make a long-term relational commitment? Were they going to continue to wage war even when it wasn’t necessary? Were they going to be paranoid about someone stripping them of their land, even though they knew that God had given it to them?
The truth, which we’ll read later, is that this was, indeed, a tough transformation for the Israelites. Moreover, I contend that it’s a tough transition for us. One of the most unsettling things about turning your life over to Jesus – of taking up residence in his promise – is that everything you thought you knew goes out the window. The Kingdom of God has been described as an “upside-down kingdom.” It’s a place where “business as usual” won’t cut it – where autopilot won’t work.
And so, we must transition. Sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes, it’s a welcome change. All the time, it’s an incredible departure from what we are used to. That’s why it’s so tough to follow God and to actively live in his kingdom. And yet, we find that if we’ll just surrender our assumptions and our way of doing things, that God will replace those thoughts and actions with a fresh set of ideas and steps that we never considered.
He just has a way of reminding us that we don’t have to roam any more. We have arrived at his promise. All we have to do is go and live in it.