Marriage Matters

13 “If any man takes a wife and goes in to her and then hates her 14 and accuses her of misconduct and brings a bad name upon her, saying, ‘I took this woman, and when I came near her, I did not find in her evidence of virginity,’ 15 then the father of the young woman and her mother shall take and bring out the evidence of her virginity to the elders of the city in the gate. 16 And the father of the young woman shall say to the elders, ‘I gave my daughter to this man to marry, and he hates her; 17 and behold, he has accused her of misconduct, saying, “I did not find in your daughter evidence of virginity.” And yet this is the evidence of my daughter’s virginity.’ And they shall spread the cloak before the elders of the city. 18 Then the elders of that city shall take the man and whip him, 19 and they shall fine him a hundred shekels of silver and give them to the father of the young woman, because he has brought a bad name upon a virgin of Israel. And she shall be his wife. He may not divorce her all his days. 20 But if the thing is true, that evidence of virginity was not found in the young woman, 21 then they shall bring out the young woman to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death with stones, because she has done an outrageous thing in Israel by whoring in her father's house. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.” – Deuteronomy 22:13-21 ESV

We once again find ourselves in difficult and, this time, delicate territory. In this section, Moses is going to address the God-ordained institution of marriage. As we have already seen, God places a high value on all human relationships, but the one between a husband and wife carry special significance to God. All the way back in the book of
Genesis, we have the record of God’s creation of the first man and woman. 

Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib, and he brought her to the man.

“At last!” the man exclaimed.

“This one is bone from my bone,
    and flesh from my flesh!
She will be called ‘woman,’
    because she was taken from ‘man.’”

This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one. – Genesis 2:22-24 NLT

From the very beginning, God considered the union between a man and a woman to be much more than a physical or biological transaction involving sexual intercourse. And Jesus Himself provides us with important clarification on God’s view regarding marriage. When asked by the Pharisees if a man could divorce his wife for any reason, Jesus replied:

“Haven’t you read the Scriptures?…They record that from the beginning ‘God made them male and female.’” And he said, “‘This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.’ Since they are no longer two but one, let no one split apart what God has joined together.” – Matthew 19:4-5 NLT

The marriage union was to be a permanent one. Jesus and His heavenly Father both saw the relationship between a husband and his wife as a mystical comingling of two into one. And the act of intercourse was a part of this union between the two, as each gave to the other the gift of their own body for the purpose of procreation, but also pleasure. That is why Paul warned the Corinthian believers about the danger of sex outside of the marriage context.

And don’t you realize that if a man joins himself to a prostitute, he becomes one body with her? For the Scriptures say, “The two are united into one.” – 1 Corinthians 6:16 NLT

Sex outside of marriage creates an insoluble bond between the two parties. Their physical union was intended to be the consummation of their spiritual union. And God saw their sexual intimacy as a joining together of two souls.

And Paul went on to explain how a husband and wife should view their sexual relationship. The ubiquitous presence of sexual immorality was a constant threat to the sanctity of the marriage bed, so Paul warned that the husband and wife were to view their bodies as belonging to each another, not to themselves. They had no right to share themselves with anyone else.

…because there is so much sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman should have her own husband.

The husband should fulfill his wife’s sexual needs, and the wife should fulfill her husband’s needs. The wife gives authority over her body to her husband, and the husband gives authority over his body to his wife. – 1 Corinthians 7:2-4 NLT

Which brings us back to these rather strange rules regarding marriage found in Deuteronomy. In the first case, Moses outlines a situation in which a husband accuses his wife of lying about her virginity. The circumstance seems to involve a newly married couple because the husband states, “I married this woman but when I had sexual relations with her I discovered she was not a virgin!” (Deuteronomy 22:14 NLT).

Basically, the man married the girl, decided he did not really love her, and then spread rumors that she had been sexual promiscuous before he married her. In other words, he was accusing her of adultery, a crime punishable by death. This accusation would not only ruin her reputation, but it would also result in her being stoned to death. And the sense of the passage is that the man was simply looking for a good reason to divorce his wife.

In His sermon on the mount, Jesus had this to say regarding divorce: “But I say that a man who divorces his wife, unless she has been unfaithful, causes her to commit adultery” (Matthew 5:32 NLT). It would have been easy for the man to level this accusation against his wife, providing him with a sure-fire excuse to divorce her. But Jesus would later provide further insight into the topic of divorce. At one point, He was asked by the Pharisees, “why did Moses say in the law that a man could give his wife a written notice of divorce and send her away?” (Matthew 19:7 NLT).

And Jesus replied to them, “Moses permitted divorce only as a concession to your hard hearts, but it was not what God had originally intended. And I tell you this, whoever divorces his wife and marries someone else commits adultery—unless his wife has been unfaithful” (Matthew 19:8-9 NLT). God never intended for divorce to be an option. But the provision was provided for in the case of unfaithfulness.

So, the scenario in Deuteronomy involves a man charging his wife of unfaithfulness based on his claim that she had not been a virgin. But Moses provides a strange but culturally acceptable means by which the woman could prove her innocence. It was a common practice in that day for the parents of the bride to place a special cloth on the couple’s bed the night the marriage was to be consummated. The purpose behind the cloth is simple, albeit a bit graphic. The cloth was collected by the parents after the wedding night and kept as proof of the woman’s virginity, the blood found on it providing evidence of her virginity.

The father of the bride could bring this cloth before the authorities to clear his daughter’s name and spare her from death. If the evidence was accepted, the husband was denied his request for divorce and required to pay a hefty fine to her parents. Not only that, he was obligated to remain permanently married to his wife. One of the things that is obvious in all of this is the young girl’s lack of input in all of this. She seems to have no say in any of it. Even the fine was paid to her parents, not to her. The only benefits she received was the clearing of her name and her release from the death sentence. She was still obligated to remain married to a man whom the text clearly states hated her.

But if the man’s charge against her proved to be true and no evidence was found of her virginity, she was to be stoned to death for the crime of adultery. Moses describes her actions as “an outrageous thing in Israel” and accuses her of “whoring in her father's house” (Deuteronomy 22:21 ESV). Prior to her marriage, she would have been living at home with her parents. And while under her father’s roof and protection, she would have committed an act of sexual immorality. This was unacceptable behavior under the Mosaic Law and punishable by death.

But what is the point behind all of this? As we have seen before, God had rules that governed virtually every aspect of life within the Israelite community. He cared deeply about their relationships and wanted all that they did to reflect their status as His chosen people. And because marriage was a God-ordained institution, He created rules to govern the conduct between a husband and a wife. Virginity was given a high priority by God because of the concept of union. Purity was and still is essential to God. Honesty and integrity are non-negotiable attributes that God demands of His people. This entire scenario involves different aspects of falsehood and deception. Either the husband falsely accusing his wife of adultery or the wife attempting to hide the fact that she was not what she claimed to be when he married her. None of this was God’s way. Marriage was too important. The marriage bed was too precious. The union between a husband and wife was too holy.

But the saddest part of this entire passage is the very fact that Moses even had to address this issue at all. It reveals the underlying nature of mankind’s sin problem. God had set apart the people of Israel as His own, but He was constantly having to put restrictions on their behavior to keep them from following their sinful inclinations.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

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 Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Courtesy and Common Sense

1 “You shall not see your brother’s ox or his sheep going astray and ignore them. You shall take them back to your brother. 2 And if he does not live near you and you do not know who he is, you shall bring it home to your house, and it shall stay with you until your brother seeks it. Then you shall restore it to him. 3 And you shall do the same with his donkey or with his garment, or with any lost thing of your brother’s, which he loses and you find; you may not ignore it. 4 You shall not see your brother’s donkey or his ox fallen down by the way and ignore them. You shall help him to lift them up again.

5 “A woman shall not wear a man’s garment, nor shall a man put on a woman’s cloak, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord your God.

6 “If you come across a bird’s nest in any tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs and the mother sitting on the young or on the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young. 7 You shall let the mother go, but the young you may take for yourself, that it may go well with you, and that you may live long.

8 “When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you may not bring the guilt of blood upon your house, if anyone should fall from it.

9 “You shall not sow your vineyard with two kinds of seed, lest the whole yield be forfeited, the crop that you have sown and the yield of the vineyard. 10 You shall not plow with an ox and a donkey together. 11 You shall not wear cloth of wool and linen mixed together.

12 “You shall make yourself tassels on the four corners of the garment with which you cover yourself.” – Deuteronomy 22:1-12 ESV

Let’s face it. These are some strange-sounding commands that appear to have little or nothing in common. They come across as a set of random rules dealing with a set of seemingly disconnected circumstances. After all, what does returning your brother’s lost ox have to do with building a parapet on your roof? And what do the verses which seem to be addressing cross-dressing have to do with the proper procedure for gathering eggs?

As Moses has revealed before, God was deeply concerned about all aspects of His chosen peoples’ lives. He has provided the Israelites with little leeway. And while many of these commands begin with the familiar phrase, “you shall not…,” they come across less as hard-and-fast prohibitions forbidding certain behaviors than they do as common-sense advice for living. And while, at first glance, they may appear to be somewhat heterogeneous in nature, they share a common theme.

Life within the nation of Israel was to be communal. God had declared the entire nation to be His chosen people. Each of the 12 tribes with each of their various clans formed a collective whole. And within that community, God expected His people to live together in unity, expressing their love for Him through acts of compassion and concern for one another.

Earlier on in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses gave the people of Israel the following command, which became the central part of the Shema, the daily prayer of the Jewish people.

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” – Deuteronomy 6:4-9 ESV

Love for God was a central tenet to the Hebrew faith. But that love had to have an outlet. It had to be expressed in acts of obedience. And many of the commands God gave to the people of Israel were other-oriented. In other words, they dealt with the interpersonal relationships between fellow Jews. The way they treated one another would be a powerful and visible expression of their love for God.

That is why, when Jesus was asked by the Jewish religious leaders to name the greatest of all the commandments, He stated: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment” (Matthew 22:37-38 NLT). But then, He quickly added, “A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:39 NLT). Then Jesus summed up His answer with the following point of clarification: “The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:40 NLT).

It is impossible to love God without expressing love for others. And the apostle John makes that distinction quite plain.

If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a fellow believer, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? – 1 John 4:20 NLT

That simple, yet profound message seems to be at the core of all the commands found in this section of Deuteronomy. For the most part, they are all horizontal and interpersonal in nature – they flow from one individual to another. And yet, they are concrete expressions of love for God. They display concern for His creation, whether it’s your brother who lost his ox, the ox itself, a bird in its nest, a guest in your home, or the animals used to plow your fields.

Verses 1-4 seem to be dealing with issues concerning common courtesy. If your neighbor has lost his ox, you should show concern. This is nothing more than the Golden Rule lived out in real life. Jesus Himself expressed this sentiment when He said, “Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12 NLT).

The Mosaic law put a high priority on the personal interactions between fellow Jews. In fact, Leviticus 19:18 contains the following command: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” That’s fairly straightforward and, apparently, not up for debate. To show disregard for your neighbor by neglecting to return his lost ox would be a blatant display of hatred toward God. That’s a convicting and condemning thought.

Even the verses dealing with women and men wearing the clothing of the opposite sex seem to be dealing with interpersonal relationships. It most likely has to do with deception. While there is an obvious moral component to these verses, the context has to do with love for one another. A woman dressing in the clothes of a man would have no implications unless her actions were meant to deceive others. She would be attempting to portray herself as something other than what she really was. And the same would be true of a man who dressed as a woman. For either to do so would be considered an abomination, a disgusting and immoral act. But again, the emphasis in the verses seems to be on the interpersonal relationships between individuals.

The inference seems to be that a woman who dresses as a man is trying to deceive others. She would be attempting to cover up her true, God-given identity, with a false one. And the same would apply to a man who dressed in a woman’s clothing.

Verses 6-7 veer in what appears to be a totally different direction, dealing with the collection of eggs found in a nest. This seems to deal with the proper treatment of God’s creation. God made man to be the steward over His creation.

“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” – Genesis 1:28 ESV

The plants, birds, and animals were to serve as sources of sustenance for mankind, but they were to be treated with proper care and concern. Man was not free to abuse God’s creation. So, if someone discovered a bird’s nest containing eggs or recently hatched chicks, they were free to take the eggs or chicks, but they were not to take the hen. This would allow the hen to produce future eggs. Proper care for God’s creation would have long-term benefits. “Do this so that it may go well with you and you may have a long life” (Deuteronomy 22:7 NLT).

The building of a parapet or safety wall around the roof of a home was just another common-sense practice that expressed concern for others. While it might require added construction expense, it would be the right thing to do. If it could prevent the inadvertent death of an innocent individual, any additional cost in money or time would be well worth it. What price can you put on a human life?

In verses 9-11, we have a series of commands prohibiting the mixing of seeds, animals, and fabrics. Again, at first blush, these rules seem odd and unnecessary to us. But they display God’s concern for every aspect of Israelite life. While these restrictions may come across as petty to us, there was a method to God’s seeming madness. All of these things are tied to the pagan practices of the Canaanites. So, while these restrictions have practical applications tied to them, they are really designed to separate the Israelites from the nations around them. The blending of two types of seeds was a common practice among the pagans, because they believed doing would have a mystical benefit to crop production. The combining of dissimilar things was thought to have magical benefits. But God would not allow the Israelites to do things the world’s way. And from a practical standpoint, the combining of these things was ineffective and unhelpful. An ox and donkey will not plow well together. Two different types of cloths will not wear well together. Two different types of seeds will produce a less-than-perfect harvest. So, the Israelites were to do things God’s way.

The final command contains a reminder, not a prohibition. This verse sums up all that Moses had just told them by reminding the Israelites to live their lives set apart unto God.

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Give the following instructions to the people of Israel: Throughout the generations to come you must make tassels for the hems of your clothing and attach them with a blue cord. When you see the tassels, you will remember and obey all the commands of the Lord instead of following your own desires and defiling yourselves, as you are prone to do. The tassels will help you remember that you must obey all my commands and be holy to your God.” – Numbers 15:37-40 NLT

Every area of their lives was to be different and distinct. From the way they treated one another to the way they interacted with God’s creation. As His chosen people, they were to live distinctively different lives – for their own good and His glory.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

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 Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Free From the Curse

22 “And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, 23 his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance.” – Deuteronomy 21:22-23 ESV

God’s rules regarding the corporate stoning of a morally and spiritually degenerate son are now followed by strict instructions regarding the public display of the dead man’s body. Once the guilty party was put to death, it was common practice to hang the dead man’s body from a tree as a visual demonstration of the consequences of sin. It was also meant to serve as a deterrent, a somewhat macabre but effective means of discouraging others to take the same deadly path. 

But God provided strict regulations concerning the disposal of the body.  It had to be removed from the tree and buried the same day as the execution. Otherwise, the curse of God, which resulted in the man’s death, would extend to the land. The public display of the man’s corpse was meant as a further means of humiliating and degrading the guilty one for his death-deserving sin. Even in death, he would be subjected to ridicule and scorn. The hanging of the body did not bring about the curse. It was a result of the curse that had deemed the man deserving of death.

The immediate burial of the body was essential in order to prevent ceremonial defiling of the land. Had the body been left hanging overnight, there is a greater likelihood that animals and birds would have desecrated the body, causing blood to spill onto the ground and essentially bringing the curse of the man upon the entire land. God had warned the Israelites about practicing the ways of the Canaanites. Their pagan, godless ways had literally cursed the land of Canaan, requiring God to ceremonially purge it by having the Israelites remove every vestige of Canaanite influence from the land.

“You shall not pollute the land in which you live, for blood pollutes the land, and no atonement can be made for the land for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of the one who shed it. You shall not defile the land in which you live, in the midst of which I dwell, for I the Lord dwell in the midst of the people of Israel.” – Numbers 35:33-34 ESV

This requirement to bury the dead man’s body was meant to keep the Israelites from following one sin with another. Once the man was executed for his sin, his body was to be displayed, but then properly disposed of, so that the curse of death could be removed.

Sin against God has always carried with it a curse. When Adam and Eve rebelled against God in the garden, their actions brought about a series of curses from God, including the entrance of physical death into the equation.

“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife
    and have eaten of the tree
of which I commanded you,
    ‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
    in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
    and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
    you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
    for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
    and to dust you shall return.” – Genesis 3:17-19 ESV

Adam’ sin brought a death sentence upon all mankind. It placed every single one of his descendants under a curse. And the apostle Paul goes out of his way to stress this sobering reality.

When Adam sinned, sin entered the world. Adam’s sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned. – Romans 5:12 NLT

For the sin of this one man, Adam, brought death to many. – Romans 5:15 NLT

For Adam’s sin led to condemnation… – Romans 5:16 NLT

For the sin of this one man, Adam, caused death to rule over many. – Romans 5:17 NLT

Yes, Adam’s one sin brings condemnation for everyone… – Romans 5:18 NLT

Because one person disobeyed God, many became sinners. – Romans 5:19 NLT

Don’t miss what Paul is saying. All mankind is under a curse and worthy of death. For all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glorious standard of righteousness (Romans 3:23). There is none righteous, no not one (Romans 3:10). 

It Israelites who stood back and threw the stones that took the guilty man’s life were no more righteous. They were no less deserving of death. Their sins, while perhaps less egregious, we no less worthy of death. Their very existence made them worthy of death because they stood under the same curse that had condemned Adam. But God didn’t require them to die. Instead, He had extended them mercy.

This brings to mind the encounter between Jesus and the religious leaders of Israel. The scribes and Pharisees, seeing Jesus visiting the Mount of Olives, dragged a woman whom they claimed to be guilty of the crime of adultery. They said to Jesus, “Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” (John 8:5 ESV).

And Jesus wisely responded to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7 ESV). And then John records, “when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him” (John 8:9 ESV).

There was no one in the crowd that day who could claim to be sin-free. The spiritual state of every single human being is that of a sinner who is deserving of death for their rebellion against a holy and righteous God. And that brings us to the vital link between this obscure regulation regarding the burial of an executed criminal and the remedy for the curse of death.

In his letter to the churches in Galatia, Paul provides us with a connecting point that makes this Old Testament passage relevant. He reminds his readers that the Jews, who were required to live according to the Mosaic law, were under a God-ordained curse if they didn’t keep the entire law perfectly.

For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” – Galatians 3:10-14 ESV

The painful reality was that no Jew had ever kept all of God’s law without fail. As a result, every single Jew stood condemned, cursed, and worthy of death.  And Paul points out that keeping the law was never going to make anyone right with God. It was an impossible standard for sinful men to keep.

Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.”But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” – Galatians 3:11-12 ESV

The law was the righteous standard provided by God, but no one was able to live up to that standard. And them, Paul provides the missing link.

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith. – Galatians 3:10-14 ESV

Jesus became the curse. He took on the sins of mankind and personally bore the full brunt of God’s righteous wrath against rebellious humanity. And His death was not by stoning. By time Jesus began His earthly ministry, the Romans had outlawed the Jewish practice of stoning because they wanted to control all forms of capital punishment. So, when Jesus was tried before the Sanhedrin, they needed to accuse Jesus of a crime that would warrant the Romans putting Him to death. They chose to accuse Jesus of claiming to be the rightful king of the Jews and of mounting an insurrection against the Romans. This resulted in Jesus being  “hanged on a tree” or crucified.

The prophet, Isaiah prophesied about Jesus and the death He would suffer on behalf of sinful mankind.

Surely he has borne our griefs
    and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
    smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
    and with his wounds we are healed. – Isaiah 53:4-5 ESV

With His death, Jesus provided a means by which sinful men and women could escape the curse of the law. By placing their faith in His personal sacrifice on their behalf, they could be freed from living under the looming curse of death associated with failure to keep God’s law.

In his first letter to the believers in Corinth, Paul provided another encouraging connection between Adam and Jesus.

So you see, just as death came into the world through a man, now the resurrection from the dead has begun through another man. Just as everyone dies because we all belong to Adam, everyone who belongs to Christ will be given new life. – 1 Corinthians 15:21-22 NLT

No one need die for their own sins anymore. God sent His Son to pay the penalty for every single violation of His law. But the gift of salvation made possible by Christ’s death and resurrection is only available to those who will accept it as what it is: A free gift made possible by God’s grace and received by faith alone in Christ alone. 

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

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 Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Godliness Done God’s Way

15 “If a man has two wives, the one loved and the other unloved, and both the loved and the unloved have borne him children, and if the firstborn son belongs to the unloved, 16 then on the day when he assigns his possessions as an inheritance to his sons, he may not treat the son of the loved as the firstborn in preference to the son of the unloved, who is the firstborn, 17 but he shall acknowledge the firstborn, the son of the unloved, by giving him a double portion of all that he has, for he is the firstfruits of his strength. The right of the firstborn is his.

18 “If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they discipline him, will not listen to them, 19 then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, 20 and they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ 21 Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones. So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear.” – Deuteronomy 21:15-21 ESV

Talk about extremes. These two short paragraphs contain some of the most antithetical statements regarding the raising of sons you could ever hope to find. On the one hand, Moses provides God’s will concerning the proper designation of the firstborn son and the dispersal of the family inheritance. Then. without batting an eye, he shifts his focus to God’s divine disciplinary plan for a rebellious son.

One son receives a gracious gift he didn’t earn or rightfully deserve, just because happened to be the first son born into his family. Yet, the other son earns himself a a death sentence because of his unrepentant stubbornness and rebellion.

What a stark and disturbing contrast these two scenarios portray. But what an important reminder they provide of God’s unmerited grace and sovereign authority over the lives of men. Everything about the lives of the Israelites was to be dictated and determined by the will of God. As we have seen repeatedly, God left nothing to chance. Every phase of daily life fell under the auspices of God’s divine will. And in this passage we see that God put a high priority on the relationship between parents and their children.

God considered the family unit as foundational to the overall health of the Israelite community. Marriage and child-bearing were essential contributors to the corporate well-being of the nation. Which is why God had provided the people of Israel with very  detailed directions concerning marriage and family life. In these verses, Moses relays to the people of Israel God’s will concerning father’s and their sons. And he could not have chosen two more diametrically disparate scenarios to discuss.

But these two examples have more in common than we might imagine. Both involve a father and his son. God had ordained the father as the head of the household, and had placed on him the responsibility of providing for the spiritual and physical well-being of his family.  God’s commands concerning faithfulness and obedience to His law were directed primarily at the head of the household. He held the father responsible for disseminating the law to his family and discipling them in it.

“Listen, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength. And you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today. 7 Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up.” – Dueteronomy 6:4-6 NLT

And the father answered directly to God. He had to do things according to God’s will and was not free to parent according to some arbitrary set of self-imposed standards. So, when it came to the dispersal of the family’s inheritance, which was primarily tied to the land, God had a vital interest. After all, the land had been His gift to the people of Israel. and He had strong feelings about how it was to be managed.

While God never sanctioned polygamy among His people, it did take place. Even Abraham, the great patriarch of the Hebrew faith, had numerous wives and concubines. But God had made it clear to Abraham that Isaac, the son born to him through Sarah, was to be his heir. And when the time came, Abraham left his inheritance to Isaac.

Abraham gave all he had to Isaac. But to the sons of his concubines Abraham gave gifts, and while he was still living he sent them away from his son Isaac, eastward to the east country. – Genesis 25:5-6 ESV

Abraham did not have the right to award the inheritance to any son he chose. And this is what Moses states in the opening verses of this section of Deuteronomy. A father who happened to have multiple wives, could not decide to award the firstborn son of his favorite wife with the inheritance. That was not his decision to make. God had deemed the firstborn child of the first wife as the rightful heir. God had never intended for them to take on multiple wives, and just because they did does not mean they were now free to choose which firstborn they wanted to reward.

Man’s disobedience to God’s will always complicates things. A man with multiple wives and a growing household of children most likely thought of himself as being blessed by God. But his decision to conduct his life in direct opposition to God’s revealed will would end up producing strife, not peace. Every occasion in the Old Testament where we see one of God’s servants choosing to marry more than one woman, we get a glimpse into family dysfunctionality and discord. David’s multiple wives and the children they bore to him ended up wreaking havoc on his home and his kingdom. Stories of rape, incest, and fratricide fill the narrative of David’s life. All because he chose to let his passions control him.

But God has rules. The inheritance was not something to dole out based on favoritism or emotion. Just as Abraham had done nothing to deserve God’s promise of the inheritance, so the firstborn son was to be an undeserving recipient of God’s gracious gift. That was God’s plan and it was to be followed. The firstborn son did not have to be his father’s favorite. In fact, he didn’t have to do anything to earn the double portion, except to be the first to be born, a decision over which he had no control. His birth was the sovereign work of God Almighty.

But then, all of the sudden, Moses shifts gears. He goes from talking about a man who has complicated his life by having two wives to discussing a man who has a stubborn and rebellious son. Based on the description of this son and the God-ordained remedy for his behavior, this does not appear to be a simple case of childish disobedience. What we have here is a hardcore example of what the Bible describes as the stubborn fool.

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”
    They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds;
    there is none who does good. – Psalm 14:1 ESV

Whoever brings a fool into the world does so to his grief,
and the father of
a fool has no joy. – Proverbs 17:21 ESV

For fools speak foolishness
    and make evil plans.
They practice ungodliness
    and spread false teachings about the Lord.
They deprive the hungry of food
    and give no water to the thirsty. – Isaiah 32:6 NLT

In each of these verses, the Hebrew word translated as “fool” is nabal and it is most commonly used to describe the most dangerous type of fool. This individual rejects God and His ways. He is overly self-confident and close-minded. He is his own god, freely gratifying his own sin nature. It is his goal to draw as many others as possible into following his wicked ways. And, according to the Scriptures, only God can reprove a stubborn fool.

The son described in Deuteronomy 21:18-21 is incorrigible and beyond hope of redemption. He is ungodly and unwilling to repent of his ways. While his father and mother have tried to discipline him, he has consistently refused their efforts and stubbornly continued down his chosen path of rebellion against God. And, ultimately, that is what this is all about. His rebellion is against God, not his parents. And the punishment for his crime is divinely ordained: Death. 

Notice that the punishment of the rebellious son was to be a public affair because the behavior of this individual had become a blight on the entire community. His personal choices had global implications. And God commanded that the evil be purged from their midst. Toleration of this kind of behavior was unacceptable. The cancer had to be removed. And while we may find this solution distasteful and harsh, it reveals just how seriously God viewed the presence of sin among His people.

This passage is not dealing with a disobedient 9-year-old. This most likely involves an adult child who has established a well-known track record of immoral and ungodly behavior that has left its mark on the community. And the parents, while probably reluctant to do so, were obligated to bring their rebellious son before the community so that divine discipline could be enacted.

What is interesting to consider is the unlikely, but possible scenario in which the rebellious son and the firstborn were one and the same. Ultimately, God was in control of all things. While the father was not free to award the inheritance to whichever son he chose, the son was not free to live however he wanted to. There were divine expectations on everyone. Life in God’s family was not to be a free-for-all, with everyone doing as they pleased. There were codes of conduct and God-ordained rules for every aspect of life, so that God’s people would reflect God’s glory to the world.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

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 Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Wisdom For When You Need It

10 “When you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord your God gives them into your hand and you take them captive, 11 and you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and you desire to take her to be your wife, 12 and you bring her home to your house, she shall shave her head and pare her nails. 13 And she shall take off the clothes in which she was captured and shall remain in your house and lament her father and her mother a full month. After that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. 14 But if you no longer delight in her, you shall let her go where she wants. But you shall not sell her for money, nor shall you treat her as a slave, since you have humiliated her.” – Deuteronomy 21:10-14 ESV

The specificity with which God regulated the lives of the Israelites can be astounding and, in some cases, quite confusing and confounding. The degree to which God provided them with detailed rules and regulations governing virtually every area of daily life serves as evidence of His intimate concern for them as His people. God cared about every aspect of their existence, even providing them with guidelines to govern what He considered their more aberrant behavior.

Not everything the Israelites did was approved of by God. They were His chosen people, but they found themselves living in a less-than-ideal environment, surrounded by hostile pagan nations and the constant temptation to assimilate the ways of their enemies. Moral compromise was an ever-present threat to their status as God’s people. And their obligation to keep God’s command to conquer and repopulate the land of Canaan was going to present them with a host of new and potentially dangerous situations that would test their allegiance to God.  

Israel’s efforts to subdue the land of Canaan was going to require many battles and result in the deaths of many enemy soldiers. These men would leave behind countless widows and unmarried daughters who would be hardpressed to find eligible husbands among their own people.  So, God provided a provision by which the Israelites could choose wives from among these women.

Now, it is important to remember that God had previously forbidden the Israelites from taking wives from among the nations of Canaan, and He had been very specific.

“When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are about to enter and occupy, he will clear away many nations ahead of you: the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. These seven nations are greater and more numerous than you. 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.” – Deuteronomy 7:1-4 NLT

So, it seems unlikely that God was now changing His mind and giving the Israelites permission to take wives from among the Canaanites. The more likely explanation is that God is referring to those non-Canaanite nations that occupied the outer edges of the land of promise. In those cases, God made a concession, allowing the men of Israel to choose a bride from among the widows and unmarried virgins. But God also provided rules for governing such behavior.

One thing to keep in mind is that God always had to consider the natural proclivity of His people to follow their basest instincts. He knew full well that the men of Israel, fueled by the lust of war, could easily find themselves driven by lust and tempted to rape the women of the nations they conquered. This behavior would have been unacceptable and deadly to the nation. So, God made accommodations to protect His people from themselves. An Israelite man could choose a bride from among one of these captured women, but only if he was not already married. And he had to follow God’s prescribed plan for assimilating the woman into his life and the community of Israel. There was to be a period of mourning for the woman, as well as a time of purification. Only then could the man properly and legally marry her.

God even provided rules for annulling one of these marriages. He knew that many of these men would marry for all the wrong reasons. Driven by the lust of the moment, some of the Israelites would soon discover that they had little in common with their new wives and their marriages would end in acrimony and strife. So, God provided rules for the dissolution of these failed marriages. God was not advocating for divorce, but simply preventing the Israelites from bringing shame to His name through the inappropriate treatment of these women. They could not be sold as slaves or treated as property. God required that these women be given their freedom. 

These verses raise all kinds of issues for us. We tend to view them through what we consider to be our more-enlightened mindset and judge them harshly. It appears that God is promulgating behaviors among His people that contradict His previously communicated laws and stand in stark contrast to His revealed character. But God was dealing with an extremely volatile, constantly changing environment involving sin-prone people who were facing real-life scenarios that presented never-before-seen dangers.

This was a nation in flux. Everything was new and evolving. Each sunrise would bring with it another opportunity to see God work or a temptation to cause Israel to fall. The people of God had no idea what was coming, but God did, and He was constantly making provision for the inevitable and unavoidable details of life that would come their way. 

God could have left all these matters unresolved and allowed the Israelites to figure it out as they went along. But that would have produced unacceptable consequences. Left to their own devices, the people of Israel would have listened to their own sin-prone hearts and done what was right in their own eyes. As the prophet, Jeremiah, so aptly put it, “The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is?” (Jeremiah 17:9 NLT).

Even David, the great king of Israel, would later lament the sorry nature of mankind.

They are corrupt, and their actions are evil;
not one of them does good!

God looks down from heaven
on the entire human race;
he looks to see if anyone is truly wise,
if anyone seeks God.
3 But no, all have turned away;
all have become corrupt.
No one does good,
not a single one! – Psalm 53:1-3 NLT

God cares enough about His people to protect them from themselves. Equipped with His omniscience, God was able to look ahead and prepare for the inevitable scenarios that were looming on the horizon. While the Israelites were going to find themselves constantly facing the unknown and dealing with the unexpected, nothing was going to take God by surprise. He already had plans in place, rules of engagement prepared, and codes of conduct outlined for each and every scenario His people would face. 

God was leaving nothing to chance. And He was not going to allow the people of Israel to make things up as they went along. He was always one step ahead of them, preparing the path in front of them and providing an acceptable response for them. His goal was always their holiness. And while their circumstances were constantly changing and evolving, their God remained their constant and consistent ally in all the battles they faced. 

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

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 Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Guilt of Innocent Blood

1 “If in the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess someone is found slain, lying in the open country, and it is not known who killed him, 2 then your elders and your judges shall come out, and they shall measure the distance to the surrounding cities. 3 And the elders of the city that is nearest to the slain man shall take a heifer that has never been worked and that has not pulled in a yoke. 4 And the elders of that city shall bring the heifer down to a valley with running water, which is neither plowed nor sown, and shall break the heifer's neck there in the valley. 5 Then the priests, the sons of Levi, shall come forward, for the Lord your God has chosen them to minister to him and to bless in the name of the Lord, and by their word every dispute and every assault shall be settled. 6 And all the elders of that city nearest to the slain man shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the valley, 7 and they shall testify, ‘Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it shed. 8 Accept atonement, O Lord, for your people Israel, whom you have redeemed, and do not set the guilt of innocent blood in the midst of your people Israel, so that their blood guilt be atoned for.’ 9 So you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from your midst, when you do what is right in the sight of the Lord.” – Deuteronomy 21:1-9 ESV

The opening of this chapter sounds like the beginning of an Agatha Christie murder mystery. A traveler, walking across open land, inadvertently discovers the body of an unidentified dead man. The only evidence we’re given is that the man has been murdered. There are no other clues provided as to the identity of the deceased or his killer. Cue Hercule Peroit or Miss Marple.

But unlike one of Miss Christie’s novels, this story seems less focused on discovering the identity of the murderer than expunging the guilt of his actions. While everything in us screams for the guilty party to be exposed and justice to be served, God seems much more concerned about the corporate character of His people. An innocent life had been taken, and God was going to hold the entire community responsible. Yes, one man had sinned, but all would be culpable for his actions.

This idea of corporate culpability was one of the differentiating characteristics of God’s people. He viewed the Israelites communally and not just individually. They were His chosen people collectively and not independently.  They jointly shared His unique designation of them as His treasured possession, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:5-6). And all it took was one bad apple to spoil the bunch. A single man’s sin could contaminate the entire nation, replacing the blessings of God with His just and righteous judgment.

We will see this played out in the early days of Israel’s conquest of the land. In just their second battle, the Israelites will discover just how seriously God was about corporate culpability. After their miraculous defeat of Jericho, God had commanded the Israelites to destroy everything within the city’s walls, taking nothing as plunder.

“Do not take any of the things set apart for destruction, or you yourselves will be completely destroyed, and you will bring trouble on the camp of Israel. Everything made from silver, gold, bronze, or iron is sacred to the Lord and must be brought into his treasury.” – Joshua 6:18-19 NLT

And it seems that the people did as the Lord had commanded.

Then the Israelites burned the town and everything in it. Only the things made from silver, gold, bronze, or iron were kept for the treasury of the Lord’s house. – Joshua 6:24 NLT

But then we come to chapter seven.

But Israel violated the instructions about the things set apart for the Lord. A man named Achan had stolen some of these dedicated things, so the Lord was very angry with the Israelites. – Joshua 7:1 NLT

Don’t miss the significance of this verse. One man, Achan, violated God’s command, and, yet, the entire nation would be held responsible. Achan’s sin was unknown to Joshua and the rest of the camp. So, they planned their next conquest, setting their sights on the small town of Ai, assuming it would be a quick and easy victory. But to Israel’s shock and dismay, the much smaller army of Ai routed them.

The men of Ai chased the Israelites from the town gate as far as the quarries, and they killed about thirty-six who were retreating down the slope. The Israelites were paralyzed with fear at this turn of events, and their courage melted away. – Joshua 7:4-5 NLT

Joshua and the rest of the people were at a loss as to why any of this had happened. They could not understand how they had gone so quickly from victory to defeat. But God would not leave them in the dark for long.

“Israel has sinned and broken my covenant! They have stolen some of the things that I commanded must be set apart for me. And they have not only stolen them but have lied about it and hidden the things among their own belongings. That is why the Israelites are running from their enemies in defeat. For now Israel itself has been set apart for destruction.” – Joshua 7:11-12 NLT

And God revealed to Joshua the nature of their problem. “Hidden among you, O Israel, are things set apart for the Lord. You will never defeat your enemies until you remove these things from among you” (Joshua 7:13 NLT). Achan was eventually exposed and punished for his sin. But his individual actions had impacted the entire community. The whole nation had suffered because of his decision to disobey God.

So now,  when we read in Deuteronomy 21 of God holding an entire city responsible for the bloodguilt of an innocent man’s death, we can see what is going on. Discovering the identity of the murderer was less important than atoning for the sin committed. The victim’s death had left a stain on the entire nation.

God did not institute a plan for discovering the identity of the murderer. He did not form a posse or assemble a militia to seek out the guilty party. He provided a plan of atonement – a means by which the nation could receive forgiveness for the sin committed in its midst. Once it was determined which city was nearest the location where the dead man’s body was found, the elders and priests of that city were given explicit instructions to follow. They were to take a young cow that had never been used for plowing and take it into a nearby valley where its neck was to be broken. This young heifer was to serve as a substitute for the one guilty of the murder. Its life was given in exchange for the life of the one who had shed innocent blood. And the elders of that city were to wash their hands over the body of the heifer, pronouncing the innocence of the people and crying for God to accept their gift as atonement for the sin committed.

“Our hands have not spilled this blood, nor have we witnessed the crime. Do not blame your people Israel whom you redeemed, O Lord, and do not hold them accountable for the bloodshed of an innocent person.” – Deuteronomy 21:7-8 NLT

And Moses clearly states, “Then atonement will be made for the bloodshed. In this manner, you will purge out the guilt of innocent blood from among you, for you must do what is right before the Lord” (Deuteronomy 21:8-9 NLT).

It should be noted that God’s instructions concerning the atoning sacrifice are quite specific. The location for the sacrifice was to be “a valley with running water, which is neither plowed nor sown” (Deuteronomy 21:5 ESV). The sacrifice was to take place outside the walls of the city at a location where there was running water nearby, necessary for ceremonial cleansing once the animal was killed and its blood shed. The requirement that the ground be unplowed seems to an assurance that the shed blood is never stirred up or becomes capable of contaminating a future food source.

God’s primary concern was the restoration of Israel’s relationship with Him. As long as the innocent victim’s life was unatoned for, the entire nation stood guilty and condemned before God. The name of the one who committed the murder was unknown, but the guilt of his actions was more than familiar. The sin of the one contaminated the whole, and God expected them to purge the guilt from their midst.

The sin of Achan brought judgment upon the people of Israel. His selfish and self-centered disregard for God’s command had far-reaching implications and serious ramifications. God would not allow the people of Israel to turn a blind eye to the sin in their midst. It was to be taken seriously because its influence was deadly.

There is a powerful and sobering lesson for us to learn from all of this. God puts a high priority on community. As followers of Christ, we have been placed in God’s family. We are brothers and sisters in Christ and share a common identity as God’s children. And while each of us must take responsibility for our individual actions, we share a communal connection that should make the sins of the one a concern for us all.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

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 Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

My Ways Are Higher

10 “When you draw near to a city to fight against it, offer terms of peace to it. 11 And if it responds to you peaceably and it opens to you, then all the people who are found in it shall do forced labor for you and shall serve you. 12 But if it makes no peace with you, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it. 13 And when the Lord your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword, 14 but the women and the little ones, the livestock, and everything else in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as plunder for yourselves. And you shall enjoy the spoil of your enemies, which the Lord your God has given you. 15 Thus you shall do to all the cities that are very far from you, which are not cities of the nations here. 16 But in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, 17 but you shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the Lord your God has commanded, 18 that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the Lord your God.

19 “When you besiege a city for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them. You may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down. Are the trees in the field human, that they should be besieged by you? 20 Only the trees that you know are not trees for food you may destroy and cut down, that you may build siegeworks against the city that makes war with you, until it falls.” – Deuteronomy 20:10-20 ESV

Let’s face it, these are difficult verses to understand, let alone to justify. They deal with sensitive topics, and their content appears counter-intuitive and contradictory to our sense of fairness and ethics. This is one of those passages that cause many to reject the God of the Old Testament as antithetical to the loving, grace-giving, and merciful God of the New Testament.

But despite any reservations we may have with the more sinister portrait of God found in these verses, the Scriptures do not portray God as bipolar in nature. We may not like what we see. His actions may offend our more refined 21st-Century sensibilities, but the biblical portrait of God is designed to be taken in full, not in part.

The nature of God is complex and complicated. And mankind is at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to comprehending His wisdom or His ways. God, by the very nature of His being, is incomprehensible and beyond man’s capacity to understand. His own assessment of His transcendent nature is quite plain.

“My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord.
    “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.
For just as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so my ways are higher than your ways
    and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” – Isaiah 55:8-9 NLT

Even the psalmist understood that mere humans were at a distinct disadvantage when it came to understanding the ways of God.

When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers—the moon and the stars you set in place—what are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them? – Psalm 8:3-4 NLT

He was blown away that the God who created the universe and all it contains would even give a second thought to “mere mortals” like himself. But how quickly we more sophisticated and well-educated modern mortals attempt to judge God and hold Him accountable for His actions. And yet, the ancient prophet, Isaiah, would have us consider the danger of putting the God of the universe on trial, passing judgment on His behavior as if He somehow answers to us.

“What sorrow awaits those who argue with their Creator. Does a clay pot argue with its maker? Does the clay dispute with the one who shapes it, saying, ‘Stop, you’re doing it wrong!’ Does the pot exclaim, ‘How clumsy can you be?’” – Isaiah 45:9 NLT

These verses in Deuteronomy 20 must be read with the whole context of the biblical narrative in mind. The Bible is a single book written by a solitary author and tells a singular story. It is the revelation of God. On its pages are found a diverse and somewhat disparate compellation of images that, when taken together, provide a comprehensive portrait of God. As God, He is far from simple or simplistic in nature. His character is complex and multifaceted, yet never contradictory or conflicting. He is, at the same time loving, wrathful, holy, vengeful, kind, angry, just, condemning, forgiving, uncompromising, and compassionate.

So, when we read of God advocating the complete annihilation of a people group, we are tempted to react with shock and disdain. The image it portrays stands diametrically opposed to the one we have formed in our minds. But far too often, our image of God is a flawed and overly simplistic one, based on human reasoning and not divine revelation. We tend to paint God using a limited palette of colors, designed to cast Him in a way that mirrors our own nature and pleases our human sensibilities. We prefer a God who looks like us, acts like us, and can be fully understood by us. We are not comfortable with the apparent contradictions and contrasts that accompany a transcendent, incomprehensible God.

In these verses, God provides the Israelites with His rules regarding warfare. He has brought them to the land of Canaan and now it is time for them to inhabit the land He had promised to them as their inheritance. But to do so, they would have to remove the nations that currently occupied the land. And while we may find this as nothing more than a display of God-ordained ethnic cleansing, we have to be careful that we do not step into the very dangerous role of acting as God’s judge.

Our inability to grasp God’s ways does not give us carte blanch to judge His actions. As God said to His disgruntled and disenchanted servant, Job: “Do you still want to argue with the Almighty? You are God’s critic, but do you have the answers?” (Job 40:2 NLT).

In response to Job’s relentless questioning of His motives and methods, God went on to ask Job, “Will you discredit my justice and condemn me just to prove you are right?” (Job 40:8 NLT).

God was unsparing in His response to Job’s arrogant assault on His character, asking him, “Who is this that questions my wisdom with such ignorance?” (Job 42:3 NLT).

And, while we may find if offensive and incomprehensible that God would issue a command for Israel to put all the males of a city to the sword and to take all the women and children as captives, we must refrain from acting as God’s judge. When we hear Moses tell the Israelites: “in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction” (Deuteronomy 20:16 ESV), we naturally react with shock and dismay. But who are we to question the ways of God? What right do we have to judge the Almighty according to our limited wisdom and understanding? His ways are far beyond anything we could ever imagine or comprehend.

God was not asking the Israelites to approve of His methods. He was demanding that they trust His character and willingly rely on His track record of faithfulness. He had never let them down. He had never given them a reason to doubt His word or to question His integrity. And while we may not particularly like God’s methods or understand His ways, we have no right to act as His judge. This chapter of the story may not make sense to us. We may not see the method behind God’s seeming madness, but the Bible contains a story that has a beginning and an end. Every chapter and every verse in every book of the Bible paints a comprehensive picture of God’s redemptive plan for mankind. And this story, while sometimes a difficult read, ends very well.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

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 Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Rules Regarding Warfare

1 When you go out to war against your enemies, and see horses and chariots and an army larger than your own, you shall not be afraid of them, for the Lord your God is with you, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. 2 And when you draw near to the battle, the priest shall come forward and speak to the people 3 and shall say to them, ‘Hear, O Israel, today you are drawing near for battle against your enemies: let not your heart faint. Do not fear or panic or be in dread of them, 4 for the Lord your God is he who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies, to give you the victory.’ 5 Then the officers shall speak to the people, saying, ‘Is there any man who has built a new house and has not dedicated it? Let him go back to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man dedicate it. 6 And is there any man who has planted a vineyard and has not enjoyed its fruit? Let him go back to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man enjoy its fruit. 7 And is there any man who has betrothed a wife and has not taken her? Let him go back to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man take her.’ 8 And the officers shall speak further to the people, and say, ‘Is there any man who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go back to his house, lest he make the heart of his fellows melt like his own.’ 9 And when the officers have finished speaking to the people, then commanders shall be appointed at the head of the people.” – Deuteronomy 20:1-9 ESV

As has already been stated, God cared deeply for the people of Israel and left no area of their corporate life unregulated by His holy standards. From the foods they ate to the manner in which they worshiped Him, God provided clear and unequivocal guidelines for conducting their lives. Every moment of their day was to be focused on and governed by His law. And Moses had reminded them repeatedly to incorporate God’s commandments into every facet of their daily life.

“…you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today. Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up.” – Deuteronomy 6:6-7 NLT

In this chapter, Moses addresses what was about to become a major part of their existence as they entered the promised land. Canaan was filled with other people groups who were not going to welcome Israel with open arms. There was going to be warfare, and God had clearly communicated His expectations regarding Israel’s interactions with the pagan nations occupying the land He had awarded as an inheritance to Abraham.

“Speak to the Israelites and tell them, ‘When you have crossed the Jordan into the land of Canaan, you must drive out all the inhabitants of the land before you. Destroy all their carved images, all their molten images, and demolish their high places. You must dispossess the inhabitants of the land and live in it, for I have given you the land to possess it. …But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land before you, then those whom you allow to remain will be irritants in your eyes and thorns in your side, and will cause you trouble in the land where you will be living.  And what I intended to do to them I will do to you.” – Numbers 33:51-53, 55-56 NLT

Battle was going to become an unavoidable aspect of their everyday life. And what made this particularly challenging was that Israel had no standing army. There were no trained soldiers in their midst. All of the men who were old enough to fight had spent their entire lives wandering through the wilderness. Yes, they had fought and won a few battles on the east side of the Jordan, but for the most part, they were little more than shepherds and wandering nomads. And yet, God expected them to conquer the entire land of Canaan and dispossess long-entrenched kingdoms with standing armies and well-fortified cities.

But this passage reveals a great deal about the character of God. Moses will assuage the people’s fears by reminding them of God’s omnipotence.

“…let not your heart faint. Do not fear or panic or be in dread of them, for the Lord your God is he who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies, to give you the victory.” – Deuteronomy 20:3-4 ESV

They had no reason to fear because they had God on their side and He was going to fight on their behalf. They had a secret weapon that none of the nations living in the land of Canaan could hope to withstand. Their powerful armies and walled cities would prove no match for God Almighty. And Moses wanted the people to remember that the same God who had conquered the Egyptians some 40 years earlier was going to be fighting for them in the land of Canaan.

“…the Lord your God is with you, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” – Deuteronomy 20:1 ESV

But Israel’s God was not only powerful, He was also compassionate. He cared about His people and took into account their individual situations and circumstances. This passage paints a remarkable picture that blends God’s sovereignty and lovingkindness. He was their compassionate, caring King. And while He fully expected them to obey His commands and carry out His orders, He was not oblivious to their personal circumstances. He did not view them as cogs in a machine or mindless instruments in His all-powerful hands.

Warfare was going to be inevitable and unavoidable, but so was life. Between battles, men would be marrying, starting families, building homes, and establishing their lives in the new land. The final objective was for the Israelites to possess the land, not simply conquer it. Battle would be necessary, but only so the people of Israel could inherit and inhabit the land that God had given them.

So, God provided four mandatory exemptions from military service. When the time for battle arrived, if any man of fighting age met the requirements, he was to be released from his commitment to fight. God was well aware of the fact that death was a potential outcome for every man who went into battle, so He provided these gracious exemptions that seem to be aimed at younger men who were starting new lives in the land. The first exemption involved the dedication of a new home. If a man had recently built a home, but had not had time to properly dedicate it, he was dismissed from mandatory military service so that he could do so. There seems to be a religious connotation behind this directive because the Hebrew word for “dedicate” is khanakh and it is the same one used when referring to Solomon’s dedication of the temple. The home was an important aspect of Jewish life. It was a symbol of prosperity and the epicenter of life. For a man to die in battle without having dedicated his own home would have left his family without shelter. Since women were not allowed to own property, it is likely the house would have been sold to someone else, leaving the deceased man’s family destitute. So, God provides a gracious exemption.

The second case involves a man who has planted a vineyard, but has not yet had time to reap a harvest from it. He too is provided with an exemption from military service so he can remain home and harvest the fruit of his labors. Otherwise, he might die in battle, and someone else reap the benefits of all his efforts. Once again, it is likely that, with the man’s death in battle, his land would have become the property of someone else and his wife and children would have received no benefit from all his labor.

The third scenario deals with a man who has become engaged to be married. If there was a call for battle, this man was to be relieved of his commitment so that he might marry his bride and consummate his marriage. Otherwise, he could die in battle, and his betrothed become the wife of another man. Marriage and the family were important to God and vital to the well-being of the nation, so He ensured that these young men were protected and the sanctity of the family unit was preserved.

The final exemption is a somewhat surprising one. In this case, Moses instructed the military commanders to approach their troops and offer an exemption to anyone afraid of going into battle.

In addition, the officers are to say to the troops, “Who among you is afraid and fainthearted? He may go home so that he will not make his fellow soldier’s heart as fearful as his own.” – Deuteronomy 20:8 NLT

This seems like an odd and potentially risky proposition. After all, what man in his right mind would not be afraid of the prospect of going into battle? It seems that this question could have resulted in the mass exodus of every able-bodied man.

But the real point behind all of these exemptions is that the victory God has assured will be by His hands and not that of men. God did not need a large standing army. He did not require every able-bodied man in order to defeat the enemies of Israel. And if men were too fearful to fight alongside God, He would rather they return home than run the risk of them infecting the rest of the army with their fear and faithlessness.

This reminds me of another occasion when God exempted some of His troops from going into battle and used a handful of faithful men to accomplish a great victory. This story is found in the book and involves Gideon defeating an army of Midianites that “had settled in the valley like a swarm of locusts. Their camels were like grains of sand on the seashore—too many to count!” (Judges 7:12 NLT).

And to make matter worse, God had ordered Gideon to send home the vast majority of his troops, leaving him with a paltry force of only 300 men. But God had assured Gideon, “With these 300 men I will rescue you and give you victory over the Midianites. Send all the others home” (Judges 7:7 NLT). And God did as He had promised. He brought about a great victory. It was not the size of Gideon’s army that mattered. It was Gideon’s God.

God was not dependent upon Gideon and his troops. And God was not limited by the number of Israelites who showed up when they were called up for battle. The victory would be His regardless of the size of the army at His disposal. Israel’s God was great and gracious. He was caring and compassionate. And Moses wanted the Israelites to never forget that “the Lord your God is with you.”

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

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 Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Hear and Fear

14 “You shall not move your neighbor’s landmark, which the men of old have set, in the inheritance that you will hold in the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess.

15 “A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established. 16 If a malicious witness arises to accuse a person of wrongdoing, 17 then both parties to the dispute shall appear before the Lord, before the priests and the judges who are in office in those days. 18 The judges shall inquire diligently, and if the witness is a false witness and has accused his brother falsely, 19 then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. 20 And the rest shall hear and fear, and shall never again commit any such evil among you. 21 Your eye shall not pity. It shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” – Deuteronomy 19:14-21 ESV

Hear and fear. I love that phrase. It’s simple and succinct, yet speaks volumes. And its simplicity contains the entire essence of all that Moses is trying to tell the people of Israel. When reading books of the Bible that contain iterations of the Mosaic law, we tend to view them as nothing more than a compendium of rules and requirements placed upon the people of Israel by God.  Too often, we find these lists of laws to be tedious, woefully out-of-date, and of no value in our 21st-Century Christian context.

And that somewhat dismissive attitude causes us to miss the divine principle that undergirds each and every one of these imperatives given by God. These commands were never intended to be seen as rules just for the sake of having rules. As the apostle Paul wrote, “the law itself is holy, and its commands are holy and right and good” (Romans 7:12 NLT).

We have no cities of refuge, and we are not in violation of God’s law because of that fact. But we are expected to practice the divine principles that God infused into His command concerning cities of refuge. The designation of six special cities as places where those guilty of involuntary manslaughter could seek refuge was intended to ensure that justice took precedence over vengeance. In a nation where there was no police force, no established governmental structure, a limited judicial system, and a tendency toward the practice of vigilante-style justice, God provided the cities of refuge as a protective measure. And in doing so, He was promoting justice and the practice of mercy over unbridled and unwarranted retribution.

Every human being should care about those things because they are what God cares about. As the prophet Micah so aptly stated it, “He has told you, O man, what is good,
and what the Lord really wants from you: He wants you to promote justice, to be faithful, and to live obediently before your God” (Micah 6:8 NLT).

When reading the following phrase: “You shall not move your neighbor's landmark,” it can be easy to dismiss it as non-applicable to our current context. So, we dismiss it. But what was the principle contained within this divine prohibition? Was it just an arbitrary law restricting the moving of boundary markers, or was there something of greater import hidden within the law?

In the ancient world, land was at a premium and considered of great value. In a predominantly agrarian culture, land was one of the most valuable assets a man could own. It became a part of his identity. So, of someone clandestinely moved a marker that determined the boundary of a man’s land, it was an act of stealing. But not just his land – his value, worth, and identity. And when you consider that all of the land of Canaan had been divided up by God and apportioned to the various tribes, you begin to understand that there is an even more significant crime taking place here than that of land grabbing. It was a violation of God’s divine will.

In verses 15-21, Moses outlines the regulations concerning the use of witnesses in a civil dispute. This could apply to a case of someone accused of moving a boundary marker, or a Moses states, “any crime or for any wrong.”

The rule was simple. “Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established” (Deuteronomy 19:15 ESV). One witness would not suffice, because that would result in a stalemate, with one man’s word pitted against another. Again, don’t miss what is behind all of this. It has less to do with the crime committed than the means by which an accusation is to be leveled. God is putting safeguards in place to prevent false accusations that could result in inequitable or unjust outcomes.

In verse 16, Moses refers to “a malicious witness.” The Hebrew word is chamac, and it most often gets translated as “violent.” This is an individual who has evil intent. He is a false witness or a liar whose underlying motivation is to do harm to another. And Moses provides very specific instructions concerning this type of situation.

“If a malicious witness arises to accuse a person of wrongdoing, then both parties to the dispute shall appear before the Lord, before the priests and the judges who are in office in those days.” – Deuteronomy 19:16-17 ESV

It’s noteworthy that Moses refers to the accuser as a malicious witness even before the case has been heard by the authorities. For this person to level an accusation without the requisite second witness would have been an indication that his intent was evil. He had no corroborating witness to support his claim. You see this law played out in the trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin. The religious leaders were desperate to find at least two witnesses who could level the same charge against Jesus that might warrant a call for His execution.

The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were trying to find false testimony against Jesus so that they could put him to death. But they did not find anything, though many false witnesses came forward. – Matthew 26:59-60 NLT

And Matthew goes on to record that the Sanhedrin was finally able to get two of these false witnesses who collaborated their story and gave the chief priests and religious leaders what they had been looking for.

Finally two came forward and declared, “This man said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days.’” – Matthew 26:60 NLT

The witness of a single man was insufficient. And a man who could find no one else to collaborate his accusation was most likely a false witness. So, the accuser and the accused were to be brought before the authorities who were tasked to hear the facts of the case and make a judgment.

“The judges shall inquire diligently, and if the witness is a false witness and has accused his brother falsely, then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.” – Deuteronomy 19:18-19 ESV

Again, we have to consider the underlying principle behind all of these rules. Moses had provided the Israelites with God’s prescribed means for settling disputes among them, and He had told them undergirding principle behind it: Justice.

“You shall appoint judges and officers in all your towns that the Lord your God is giving you, according to your tribes, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment. You shall not pervert justice. You shall not show partiality, and you shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of the righteous. Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” – Deuteronomy 16:18-20 ESV

God wasn’t interested in judgment for judgment’s sake. He wanted righteous judgment. He demanded that justice be served. There was no place for false witnesses and maliciously motivated legal cases among His people. Moses had made it perfectly clear: “Justice, and only justice, you shall follow.”

Which brings us back to those three simple words: Hear and fear. All of these rules and regulations were intended to orchestrate and regulate the lives of the Israelites but, more than that, they were meant to instruct the people of Israel about the nature of their God. He was just, holy, and righteous in all His ways. He was set apart and distinct in nature. And He had called His chosen people to reflect the nature of His character by keeping His carefully crafted commands.

“Consecrate yourselves, therefore, and be holy, for I am the Lord your God. Keep my statutes and do them; I am the Lord who sanctifies you.” – Leviticus 20:7-8 ESV

God had set the Israelites apart as His own possession. And, in a sense, God had placed boundary markers around them, designed to restrict and regulate their behavior. Those commands or markers were God-ordained and not up for negotiation. But the people of Israel would find themselves constantly tempted to move God’s boundary markers, in a vain attempt to increase their own inheritance. When a man chooses to violate the commands of God, it is because He has determined that God is not just. He has concluded that God is holding out on him, denying him what is rightfully his. And his kind of behavior is unacceptable among God’s people. It reveals a heart that does not truly know and understand the unwavering, never-changing justness and righteousness of God.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

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 Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

 

 

Rules For Life and Death

1 “When the Lord your God cuts off the nations whose land the Lord your God is giving you, and you dispossess them and dwell in their cities and in their houses, 2 you shall set apart three cities for yourselves in the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess. 3 You shall measure the distances and divide into three parts the area of the land that the Lord your God gives you as a possession, so that any manslayer can flee to them.

4 “This is the provision for the manslayer, who by fleeing there may save his life. If anyone kills his neighbor unintentionally without having hated him in the past— 5 as when someone goes into the forest with his neighbor to cut wood, and his hand swings the axe to cut down a tree, and the head slips from the handle and strikes his neighbor so that he dies—he may flee to one of these cities and live, 6 lest the avenger of blood in hot anger pursue the manslayer and overtake him, because the way is long, and strike him fatally, though the man did not deserve to die, since he had not hated his neighbor in the past. 7 Therefore I command you, You shall set apart three cities. 8 And if the Lord your God enlarges your territory, as he has sworn to your fathers, and gives you all the land that he promised to give to your fathers— 9 provided you are careful to keep all this commandment, which I command you today, by loving the Lord your God and by walking ever in his ways—then you shall add three other cities to these three, 10 lest innocent blood be shed in your land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance, and so the guilt of bloodshed be upon you.

11 “But if anyone hates his neighbor and lies in wait for him and attacks him and strikes him fatally so that he dies, and he flees into one of these cities, 12 then the elders of his city shall send and take him from there, and hand him over to the avenger of blood, so that he may die. 13 Your eye shall not pity him, but you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from Israel, so that it may be well with you.” – Deuteronomy 19:1-13 ESV

God cares. That’s an extremely important theological insight that we too often overlook. Deism is a theological theory which views God as distant and disengaged from the world He created. He is seen as the creator, but He takes a hands-off approach when it comes to the management of His creation, allowing mankind the autonomy to determine its own fate.

But as this passage will clearly reveal, this view of God is far from biblical. The image of God gleaned from a reading of the Scriptures is quite different. He is not the giant clockmaker in the sky who wound up His creation and then left it to slowly wind its way into oblivion. No, the God of the Bible is fully engaged with His creation, and He is intimately involved in the lives of those who worship Him.

This section of the book of Deuteronomy contains a series of admonitions from Moses to the people of Israel, as he attempts to prepare them for their conquest of the land of Canaan. Much of what he is telling them is repetitive in nature. He is simply reminding them of their God-ordained responsibilities and challenging them to take the commands of God seriously. Because God cares. Their actions and attitudes matter to God. The way they live their lives is important to God because they are His representatives on this earth, bearing His name and intended to bring Him glory.

So, Moses reminds the Israelites that, upon entering the land of Canaan that God had given them as an inheritance, they were to set apart six cities within the territory as places of refuge. Even before they had stepped over the border into the land and fought their first battle, God provided a system designed to prevent the shedding of innocent blood.

God knew His people well, and He was fully aware that their sinful dispositions would cause them to engage in a wide range of unacceptable behaviors. That is why He had provided them with His law as a black-and-white compendium of rules to live by. He had also given them the sacrificial system as a means of receiving atonement for the sins they would inevitably commit. Again, because He cared for them.

And, when it came to the topic of murder, God had been quite specific.

“Whoever strikes someone so that he dies must surely be put to death. But if he does not do it with premeditation, but it happens by accident, then I will appoint for you a place where he may flee. But if a man willfully attacks his neighbor to kill him cunningly, you will take him even from my altar that he may die.” – Exodus 21:12-14 NLT

God was and is opposed to murder, the taking of innocent life. But He provided His people with much-needed legal clarification establishing the difference between premeditated murder and involuntary manslaughter. An important factor behind all of this was the law of retribution or what has come to be known as lex talionis. The familiar phrase, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is wrapped up in this law, and it was part of the Israelite justice system as outlined in the Mosaic Law.

But if there is serious injury, then you will give a life for a life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. – Exodus 21:23-25 NLT

The principle behind this system of justice was that the punishment must match the crime. It involved the concept of just retribution and was to be administered under a strict judicial system designed to see to it that proper steps were taken to ensure justice was meted out. Lex talionis was never intended to be some kind of vigilante justice system where people took the law into their own hands.

So, in the case of murder, God provided the Israelites with a way to keep them from following one form of injustice with another. As the saying says, accidents happen. God knew that there were going to be those occasions where life was taken unintentionally. He even gave an example.

“Suppose he goes with someone else to the forest to cut wood and when he raises the ax to cut the tree, the ax head flies loose from the handle and strikes his fellow worker so hard that he dies. The person responsible may then flee to one of these cities to save himself.” – Deuteronomy 19:15 NLT

No premeditation. No malice. But according to lex talionis, the relatives of the one murdered could demand a life for a life. They could seek retribution. They were even responsible by law to see that the life of their relative was avenged. But God was determined to keep His people from allowing their passion for justice to result in an even greater sin.

“You must not shed innocent blood in your land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, for that would make you guilty.” – Deuteronomy 19:10 NLT

The cities of refuge were set apart by God for the expressed purpose of providing a safe-haven for anyone who happened to commit involuntary manslaughter. It was going to happen, and God made provision for it. He knew His people well enough, and He loved them enough to provide them with a well-designed system for ensuring that justice was done.

God was not and still is not some distant deity, unconcerned, and uninvolved in the daily affairs of life. He is a God who cares and who intimately interacts with His creation. The level of detail involved in His law reveals just how well God knew the people of Israel. He left nothing up to chance. Even the cities of refuge are an illustration of just how deeply God cares about His people. He knew that His laws, while just, righteous, and holy, could be twisted and abused by His people. So, He provided clarification and installed safeguards to ensure that one sin did not lead to another. Life is important to God, which is why He provided a law against murder. But God also puts a high priority on justice. Those committing premeditated murder were to be dealt with quickly and severely.

But God’s justice is always balanced by His desire for mercy. So, He made provision for those who found themselves guilty of shedding innocent blood accidentally. Ultimately, this was all about the integrity of God’s name. The people of Israel were His chosen people, responsible for acting as His representatives on earth. And their actions would either glorify or bring shame to His reputation. Which is why He left nothing up to chance. He cared enough to create a plan for any and all scenarios the Israelites might encounter along the way. And Moses told them the motivation behind God’s actions: “so that it may go well with you” (Deuteronomy 19:13 NLT)

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

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 Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

 

 

A Prophet Like Me

15 “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen— 16 just as you desired of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God or see this great fire any more, lest I die.’ 17 And the Lord said to me, ‘They are right in what they have spoken. 18 I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. 19 And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him. 20 But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.’ 21 And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the Lord has not spoken?’— 22 when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.” – Deuteronomy 18:15-22 ESV

The preceding verses contain a God-ordained ban on “anyone who practices divination, an omen reader, a soothsayer, a sorcerer,  one who casts spells, one who conjures up spirits, a practitioner of the occult, or a necromancer” (Deuteronomy 18:10-11 NLT). There is a special significance to these particular pagan practices because they were often used as a means of discerning the future or of obtaining divine guidance.

According to the NET Bible Study Notes, divination was “a means employed to determine the future or the outcome of events by observation of various omens and signs.” An omen reader was, in essence, a fortune teller who supposedly possessed the power to predict the future based on the reading of signs. A soothsayer was someone who had the power to divine the future. The pagans believed that anyone who possessed the ability to cast spells could control the future. They also placed high stock in those who claimed to be able to communicate with the spirit world because these people could gain insights that were inaccessible to others. The term, “practitioner of the occult” is actually one word in Hebrew and it refers to a wizard or what we might refer to as a false prophet. The word actually means “knower” and is a reference to their knowledge or insight into the unknown. Finally, a necromancer was someone who had the ability to communicate with the dead.

All of these practices were closely associated with the pursuit of supernatural guidance or assistance. Which is why Moses bans their practice among the Israelites. The people of God were to have one source of divine input, and that was to be God Almighty, and God had chosen to communicate His will through Moses. With Moses having been banned by God from entering the land of Canaan, there was a greater-than-normal risk that the people of Israel would be tempted to use pagan practices to gain divine insight. So, speaking through Moses, God assured His people that He would continue to speak to them through men whom He would appoint. 

“The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you—from your fellow Israelites; you must listen to him.” – Deuteronomy 18:15 NLT

God would not leave them without a means of receiving His guidance and direction. And Moses reminded them that this promise of a God-appointed prophet was in keeping with the request they had made at Mount Sinai.

All the people were seeing the thundering and the lightning, and heard the sound of the horn, and saw the mountain smoking—and when the people saw it they trembled with fear and kept their distance. They said to Moses, “You speak to us and we will listen, but do not let God speak with us, lest we die.” – Exodus 20:18-19 NLT

The powerful manifestations of God’s glory had left the Israelites paralyzed by fear. So, they had demanded that Moses act as God’s mouthpiece, communicating His divine will and protecting them from God’s holiness. And God had given His divine approval of this plan, assuring Moses, “What they have said is good. I will raise up a prophet like you for them from among their fellow Israelites. I will put my words in his mouth and he will speak to them whatever I command” (Deuteronomy 18:17-18 NLT).

The prophet of God was required to speak on behalf of God, and was not allowed to communicate anything other than the word of God. In a sense, a prophet was like a preacher, disseminating divine wisdom to the people of God. He was expected to be a truth-teller, speaking only what He had received directly from God Himself. And since the prophet was God’s primary means of communication, the people were obligated to listen to and obey all that the prophet said. And Moses warned that God would hold the people personally responsible for refusing to heed the words of His prophets.

This dire warning would become particularly pertinent centuries later, when God sent His prophets to warn of coming judgment if they did not repent. God would even warn His prophet, Jeremiah, that his words would fall on deaf ears.

“Tell them all this, but do not expect them to listen. Shout out your warnings, but do not expect them to respond.” – Jeremiah 7:27 NLT

God would promise to give Jeremiah the words to speak, but also the strength to withstand the anger of the people when they chose to reject what he had to say.

“But you, Jeremiah, get yourself ready! Go and tell these people everything I instruct you to say. Do not be terrified of them, or I will give you good reason to be terrified of them. I, the Lord, hereby promise to make you as strong as a fortified city, an iron pillar, and a bronze wall. You will be able to stand up against all who live in the land, including the kings of Judah, its officials, its priests and all the people of the land. They will attack you but they will not be able to overcome you, for I will be with you to rescue you.” – Jeremiah 1:17-19 NLT

The role of the prophet was a divinely-appointed one, and while anyone could claim to be speaking on behalf of God, there were serious repercussions for those who did so and proved to be lying. They were to be put to death. And the litmus test for determining the veracity of someone’s claim to be a prophet was whether what they prophesied actually happened.

“…whenever a prophet speaks in my name and the prediction is not fulfilled, then I have not spoken it; the prophet has presumed to speak it, so you need not fear him.” – Deuteronomy 18:22 NLT

So, Moses assured the people that they would have no reason to seek the pagan forms of divination as a means of knowing the future. God would continue to speak to them through prophets whom He would appoint. Their only obligation was to listen to what the prophets had to say.

And, there is a final aspect to this passage that must not be overlooked. Two separate times Moses states, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you” (Deuteronomy 18:15 ESV). The tense is in the singular. And while the context of the verses clearly indicates that there would be many prophets who would follow Moses, there is a sense in which these verses predict the coming of a particular prophet, one who would show up in the same way that Moses had. This prophet would be a deliverer, just as Moses had been. He too, would be sent by God to rescue the people from captivity, but rather than deliverance from slavery in Egypt, this prophet would provide release from slavery to sin and death.

The author of Hebrews provides a comparison between Moses and this future deliverer/prophet who would be similar to, but greater than Moses.

For he has come to deserve greater glory than Moses, just as the builder of a house deserves greater honor than the house itself! For every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God. Now Moses was faithful in all God’s house as a servant, to testify to the things that would be spoken. But Christ is faithful as a son over God’s house. We are of his house, if in fact we hold firmly to our confidence and the hope we take pride in. – Hebrews 3:3-6 NLT

God promises to send “a prophet” who will speak on His behalf.

“I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him.” – Deuteronomy 18:18-19 ESV

The apostle John would later write of Jesus, the promised prophet of God:

He came into the very world he created, but the world didn’t recognize him. He came to his own people, and even they rejected him. But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God. They are reborn—not with a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan, but a birth that comes from God. – John 1:10-13 NLT

And John would later quote Jesus Himself as He provided clarification for what God had meant when He told the people of Israel that for all those who refused to believe His prophet, He would “require it of him.”

“God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him. There is no judgment against anyone who believes in him. But anyone who does not believe in him has already been judged for not believing in God’s one and only Son.” – John 3:17-18 NLT

God would not leave His people without direction. He would continue to guide them and provide for them. But they were obligated to obey the words of His prophets. And the day would come when He would send His final prophet, Jesus Christ, in order to deliver the most important message ever delivered by God through the lips of man.

“I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.” – John 14:6 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

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 Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

 

 

You Shall Be Blameless

9 “When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations. 10 There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer 11 or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, 12 for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord. And because of these abominations the Lord your God is driving them out before you. 13 You shall be blameless before the Lord your God, 14 for these nations, which you are about to dispossess, listen to fortune-tellers and to diviners. But as for you, the Lord your God has not allowed you to do this.” – Deuteronomy 18:9-14 ESV

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Which is to say that if someone mimics your actions or behavior, they are expressing admiration for you. And while there may be some truth to this idiom, in far too many cases, imitation can be a dangerous game to play. Failure to consider the character of the one you seek to emulate can result in far-from-flattering or beneficial outcomes. Seeking to pattern your life after someone else can be driven by all kinds of unhealthy motives. It is far too easy to focus on the external fruit of their behavior; such as success, wealth, and popularity, while failing to closely examine what they had to do to achieve those results. Did their path to success require that they cut corners, bend the rules, compromise their convictions, or sacrifice their integrity? Better yet, will imitating their lives require those things of you?

As the time approached for the people of Israel to enter the land of promise, Moses spent a great deal of time and energy attempting to prepare them for the formidable task that lay ahead of them. They were entering a new stage in their relationship with God that would be like nothing they had ever experienced before. Their faith in God would be tested in ways they could not even begin to imagine. Their willingness to remain faithful to God would come under constant attack. 

Compromise would become a daily temptation. Complacency would be a constant threat to their commitment to God. Remaining set apart to God would be far more difficult than they could know. Maintaining their distinction as God’s holy people was going to require diligence and a determination to remain uncompromisingly committed to Him. Moses had repeatedly communicated their unique status as God’s chosen people. 

“But the LORD has taken you and brought you out of the iron furnace, out of Egypt, to be a people of his own inheritance, as you are this day.” – Deuteronomy 4:20 ESV

“For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.” – Deuteronomy 7:6 ESV

“For you are a people holy to the LORD your God, and the LORD has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.” – Deuteronomy 14:2 ESV

“For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. – Deuteronomy 14:21 ESV

The Hebrew word for “holy” is qadowsh, and it means “sacred” or “set apart.” The Israelites had been separated out by God and consecrated as His possession. They belonged to Him. Like Adam and Eve, the Israelites had been created by God and set apart for His glory. But their status as His chosen possession was going to require that they live according to His holy standards. They were not free to live as they wished. They could not follow the ways of the world. And God expected them to make the land of Canaan a veritable island of holiness in the sea of wickedness that covered the world.

Three times in five verses, Moses uses the Hebrew word, tow`ebah, to describe the ways of the people occupying the land of Canaan. They were an abomination to God because their ways were morally repugnant to Him. Their behavior was unacceptable to a holy God. So, Moses warns the Israelites from following their “abominable practices.” And he makes it clear that anyone among the Israelites who imitates their ways will be “an abomination to the Lord.”

Rather than mimic the ways of the Canaanites, the people of God were to do everything in their power to remain set apart and distinct. Moses put it in very stark terms.

“You shall be blameless before the Lord your God.” – Deuteronomy 18:13 ESV

The Hebrew word for “blameless” is tamiym and it carries the idea of wholeness or completeness. It is the very same word God had used when addressing Abraham nearly half a millennium earlier.

When Abram was ninety-nine years old the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless.” – Genesis 17:1 ESV

While tamiym can be translated as “perfect” or “unblemished,” God was not demanding sinlessness from Abraham. But was expecting Abraham to live his entire life in keeping with His ways. Abraham was to live an integral or whole life, dedicated to God and set apart for His glory. And Moses was trying to convey the same thought to the people of Israel. He was not expecting them to remain totally free from contamination by the world. That would have been impossible, given their sinful natures and the ubiquitous nature of evil in the world. But Moses wanted them to fully understand just how dangerous compromise with the world would be.

And while most of the abominable practices that Moses pointed out had to do with witchcraft, sorcery, divination, and the occult, all of these things were associated with Canaanite religious practices. Moses knew that the Israelites would be tempted to weave these morally disgusting practices into their own worship of Yahweh. Compromise would be a constant threat for the Israelites, resulting in their failure to remain tamiym – unblemished and unstained by the world.

God expected His people to live as who they are: His chosen possession. Their lives were to reflect their unique status as His set-apart ones. Enjoying their status as God’s children came with a non-negotiable requirement that they honor the distinctiveness of their position by living holy lives.

There was no room for compromise or complacency. They were to share God’s disgust and disdain for the ways of the Canaanites. They were to resist exposure to and contamination by the abominable practices of the Canaanites. And they were to never forget that God’s will was the complete eradication of the Canaanites and their unholy ways from the land. 

When it comes to holiness, imitation of the world is not flattery, it’s idolatry. Compromising our convictions by copying the ways of the world is unacceptable for God’s people. We have been set apart. We belong to Him. As His children, we are to reflect His character and bring glory to His name by the way we live our lives – wholly unto Him. 

The religion of the Israelites was totally unique and prescribed by God. It was not the result of man’s imagination and was not to reflect the practices of the pagan nations of the world. God had set Israel apart positionally and practically. Their status as His people was to show up in everyday life, especially when it came to their worship of Him.

There are all kinds of religions in the world, but only one brand of religious activity is acceptable to God. And James describes this kind of religion in very plain terms.

Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you. – James 1:27 NLT

And, as Paul told his disciple, Titus, the people of God are still expected to live distinctively different lives, not emulating the ways of this world but reflecting our status as God’s chosen people.

For the grace of God has been revealed, bringing salvation to all people. And we are instructed to turn from godless living and sinful pleasures. We should live in this evil world with wisdom, righteousness, and devotion to God, while we look forward with hope to that wonderful day when the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, will be revealed. – Titus 2:11-13 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

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 Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

 

 

The Lord Is Their Inheritance

1 “The Levitical priests, all the tribe of Levi, shall have no portion or inheritance with Israel. They shall eat the Lord’s food offerings as their inheritance. 2 They shall have no inheritance among their brothers; the Lord is their inheritance, as he promised them. 3 And this shall be the priests’ due from the people, from those offering a sacrifice, whether an ox or a sheep: they shall give to the priest the shoulder and the two cheeks and the stomach. 4 The firstfruits of your grain, of your wine and of your oil, and the first fleece of your sheep, you shall give him. 5 For the Lord your God has chosen him out of all your tribes to stand and minister in the name of the Lord, him and his sons for all time.

6 “And if a Levite comes from any of your towns out of all Israel, where he lives—and he may come when he desires—to the place that the Lord will choose, 7 and ministers in the name of the Lord his God, like all his fellow Levites who stand to minister there before the Lord, 8 then he may have equal portions to eat, besides what he receives from the sale of his patrimony.” – Deuteronomy 18:1-8 ESV

The nation of Israel was made up of 12 tribes, but one of these tribes, the Levites, enjoyed a special relationship with God. They had been set apart by Him to care for the tabernacle and to minister to the spiritual needs of the people. But for us to fully understand the unique nature of their relationship with God, we have to go back and look at the history of this tribe. Their path to becoming God’s chosen ones has a rather surprising and bumpy beginning. 

Back in the book of Genesis, there is recorded an encounter between Jacob, the father of the 12 sons who would later become the tribes of Israel, and Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite. This story took place when Jacob was still living in the land of Canaan, long before the famine forced him and his family to seek food and shelter in Egypt.

The Genesis account relates that Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, went to visit some of the other young girls who lived in the area. “But when the local prince, Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, saw Dinah, he seized her and raped her” (Genesis 34:2 NLT).

When his lust turned to love for Dinah, he begged his father to seek permission from Jacob for her hand in marriage. But when Jacob’s sons “were shocked and furious that their sister had been raped. Shechem had done a disgraceful thing against Jacob’s family, something that should never be done” (Genesis 34:7 NLT).

Hamor, the father of Shechem, pleaded with Jacob to allow the marriage to take place. In fact, he suggested that their two families form an alliance by encouraging additional marriages between their sons and daughters.

“…let’s arrange other marriages, too. You give us your daughters for our sons, and we will give you our daughters for your sons. And you may live among us; the land is open to you! Settle here and trade with us. And feel free to buy property in the area.” – Genesis 34:9-10 NLT

Shechem begged Jacob and his sons to allow him to marry Dinah, promising to pay whatever they demanded as a dowry. Their response must have caught Shechem and his father off guard.

“We couldn’t possibly allow this, because you’re not circumcised. It would be a disgrace for our sister to marry a man like you!  But here is a solution. If every man among you will be circumcised like we are, then we will give you our daughters, and we’ll take your daughters for ourselves. We will live among you and become one people.” – Genesis 34:14-16 NLT

It was all a ploy designed to provide an opportunity to seek revenge against the Hivites for the rape of Dinah by Shechem.

Shechem convinced all the men in his family to undergo the rite of circumcision by promising them that this alliance with the family of Jacob would have long-term benefits. But just three days after the men had undergone the procedure, and while they were still recovering, Simeon and Levi “took their swords and entered the town without opposition. Then they slaughtered every male there, including Hamor and his son Shechem. They killed them with their swords, then took Dinah from Shechem’s house and returned to their camp” (Genesis 34:25-26 NLT).

Simeon and Levi were the full brothers of Dinah, having been born to Jacob’s wife, Leah. Their close relationship with their sister must have motivated the extreme nature of their response. But while they were the two sons of Jacob responsible for slaughtering all the men of the Hivites, their 10 brothers took full advantage of their actions by plundering all the wealth of the town, even taking all the wives and children of the Hivites as plunder.

When news reached Jacob of what Simeon and Levi had done, he was appalled.

“You have ruined me! You’ve made me stink among all the people of this land—among all the Canaanites and Perizzites. We are so few that they will join forces and crush us. I will be ruined, and my entire household will be wiped out!” – Genesis 34:30 NLT

And years later, when Jacob was on his death bed and pronouncing blessings upon his 12 sons, he would have this to say about Simeon and Levi:

“Simeon and Levi are two of a kind;
    their weapons are instruments of violence.
May I never join in their meetings;
    may I never be a party to their plans.
For in their anger they murdered men,
    and they crippled oxen just for sport.
A curse on their anger, for it is fierce;
    a curse on their wrath, for it is cruel.
I will scatter them among the descendants of Jacob;
    I will disperse them throughout Israel.” – Genesis 49:5-7 NLT

Jacob pronounced a curse on these two sons and their descendants. Even years after the slaughter of the Hivites, Jacob recalled the treacherous and deceitful nature of their actions. But fast forward to the day when Moses descended from the top of Mount Sinai with the tablets containing the Ten Commandments in his hands. He arrived back in the camp of Israel only to find them worshiping a false god in the form of a golden calf. In his anger, Moses called out to the people:

“All of you who are on the Lord’s side, come here and join me.” And all the Levites gathered around him.

Moses told them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Each of you, take your swords and go back and forth from one end of the camp to the other. Kill everyone—even your brothers, friends, and neighbors.” The Levites obeyed Moses’ command, and about 3,000 people died that day.

Then Moses told the Levites, “Today you have ordained yourselves for the service of the Lord, for you obeyed him even though it meant killing your own sons and brothers. Today you have earned a blessing.” – Exodus 32:26-29 NLT

The Levites redeemed themselves. The tribe that had been under their father’s curse for their slaughter of the Hivites were used by God to enact His judgment against the wicked and unfaithful among the Israelites. They became God’s instruments of justice. And, as a result of their faithful service to God, He set them apart and ordained them for His service.

While Jacob pronounced a curse on the descendants of Levi, decreeing that they would be scattered among the other tribes, God turned this curse into a blessing. He would graciously provide for the needs of the Levites, rewarding them with 48 cities in which to live, scattered among the other 11 tribes of Israel.

“Six of the towns you give the Levites will be cities of refuge, where a person who has accidentally killed someone can flee for safety. In addition, give them forty-two other towns. In all, forty-eight towns with the surrounding pastureland will be given to the Levites. These towns will come from the property of the people of Israel. The larger tribes will give more towns to the Levites, while the smaller tribes will give fewer. Each tribe will give property in proportion to the size of its land.” – Numbers 35:6-8 NLT

While Jacob’s curse would ultimately be fulfilled, God sovereignly orchestrated events in such a way that the tribe of Levi would prosper as a result of its fulfillment. It recalls another interaction between Jacob’s sons and their long-lost brother, Joseph. Out of jealousy over his close relationship with their father, they had sold him into slavery. But years later, when Jacob had become the second-highest-ranking official in Egypt, and his brothers found themselves standing his presence, he told them:

“You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people.” – Genesis 50:20 NLT

God had been working behind the scenes, orchestrating events so that the treachery of Joseph’s brothers would result in good, not evil. And, in the same way, God used the Levites, who had been cursed by their very own father, to bring about good among the people of Israel. He would redeem and restore them, setting them apart for His use. And God would provide for their needs. While they would never own a single acre of land in Canaan, God would make sure they had cities and homes in which to live and plenty of food to eat. He would be their provider and protector. But even more importantly, He would be their inheritance.

“They shall have no inheritance among their brothers; the Lord is their inheritance, as he promised them.” – Deuteronomy 18:2 ESV

At one point, the Levites had been cursed and condemned. But they had answered the call of Moses and avenged the glory of God. They had aligned themselves with the righteous cause of God Almighty, and He had graciously redeemed and restored them.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

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 Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

 

 

A King Whom God Will Choose

14 “When you come to the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you possess it and dwell in it and then say, ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,’ 15 you may indeed set a king over you whom the Lord your God will choose. One from among your brothers you shall set as king over you. You may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother. 16 Only he must not acquire many horses for himself or cause the people to return to Egypt in order to acquire many horses, since the Lord has said to you, ‘You shall never return that way again.’ 17 And he shall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away, nor shall he acquire for himself excessive silver and gold.

18 “And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests. 19 And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, 20 that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel.” – Deuteronomy 17:14-25 ESV

In yesterday’s post, we saw that a day would come when the people of Israel would reject God as their rightful King and demand that He provide them with a human king. They would make their request known to Samuel, the prophet of God.

“…you are now old, and your sons are not like you. Give us a king to judge us like all the other nations have.” – 1 Samuel 8:5 NLT

Samuel would find their demands offensive, but God would command him to do exactly as they had requested.

“Do everything they say to you,” the LORD replied, “for they are rejecting me, not you. They don’t want me to be their king any longer. Ever since I brought them from Egypt they have continually abandoned me and followed other gods. And now they are giving you the same treatment. Do as they ask, but solemnly warn them about the way a king will reign over them.” – 1 Samuel 8:8-10 NLT

It would be easy to assume that God was simply acceding to their demands and giving them just what they had asked for: A king to judge us like all the other nations have. But that would be a false assumption. As today’s passage indicates, God knew that the day would come when the people would ask for a king.

“When you come to the land the Lord your God is giving you and take it over and live in it and then say, ‘I will select a king like all the nations surrounding me…’” – Deuteronomy 17:14 NLT

God knew in advance what the Israelites were going to do and he had already planned for it. In fact, God let them know the kind of king they should select.

“…you must select without fail a king whom the Lord your God chooses. From among your fellow citizens you must appoint a king.” – Deuteronomy 17:15 NLT

Notice God’s stipulation. He was more than willing for them to select a king for themselves, but it was going to have to be the man He chose. This man would have to have God’s blessing, and he would have to meet God’s standards, which included Israelite citizenship. No non-Jew was to rule over God’s people. And, while they would demand a king just like all the other nations, God was not going to allow this man to emulate the ways of these foreign potentates. 

“…he must not accumulate horses for himself or allow the people to return to Egypt to do so…” – Deuteronomy 17:16 NLT

Stables filled with fine horses might characterize the kingdoms of other rulers, but God was going to expect His king to remain set apart, wholly distinct from all other human-appointed rulers. This would include a ban on accumulating wives and concubines, a typical manifestation of royal power and privilege.

“…he must not marry many wives lest his affections turn aside, and he must not accumulate much silver and gold.” – Deuteronomy 17:17 NLT

The people were going to demand that they be given a king who looked like every other king. They would be thinking in terms of power, position, and prominence. The kind of king they had in mind would have all the familiar trappings of kingship, much like Pharaoh had enjoyed.

But God was not interested in placing the care of His chosen people in the hands of just any king. There would be rules and requirements involved. This man would have to rule and reign according to God’s will. He would have to obey God’s commands. But to do so, he would have to be intimately familiar with those commands, which is why God commanded:

“When he sits on his royal throne he must make a copy of this law on a scroll given to him by the Levitical priests. It must be with him constantly and he must read it as long as he lives, so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and observe all the words of this law and these statutes and carry them out.” – Deuteronomy 17:18-19 NLT

A godly king would need to know God’s law. And he would have to rule over God’s people in a way that reflected his knowledge of God’s will. There was no place for pride or arrogance. God’s chosen king would serve as His representative, treating the people of God with the same care and concern He would. And if he did, God promised that “he and his descendants will enjoy many years ruling over his kingdom in Israel” (Deuteronomy 17:20 NLT).

But years later, when the people of Israel would bring their demand for a king to Samuel, God would warn them that He was going to give them exactly what they were asking for. He would give them a king just like all the other nations.

“This is how a king will reign over you,” Samuel said. “The king will draft your sons and assign them to his chariots and his charioteers, making them run before his chariots. Some will be generals and captains in his army, some will be forced to plow in his fields and harvest his crops, and some will make his weapons and chariot equipment. The king will take your daughters from you and force them to cook and bake and make perfumes for him. He will take away the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his own officials. He will take a tenth of your grain and your grape harvest and distribute it among his officers and attendants. He will take your male and female slaves and demand the finest of your cattle and donkeys for his own use. He will demand a tenth of your flocks, and you will be his slaves. When that day comes, you will beg for relief from this king you are demanding, but then the LORD will not help you.” – 1 Samuel 8:11-18 NLT

Their preferred version of a king would end up coming back to haunt them. God warned them that He would give them exactly what they demanded. He would give them their hearts desire, even though it would not turn out well for them in the long-run. But, in spite of God’s warning, they would refuse to relent on their demands.

“Even so, we still want a king,” they said. “We want to be like the nations around us. Our king will judge us and lead us into battle.” – 1 Samuel 8:19-20 NLT

God was not opposed to Israel having a king. In fact, He would eventually give them David as their king, a man after His own heart. But before David reigned over Israel, they would suffer under the lousy leadership of Saul, a man who would end up being a king just all the other nations had. And David’s own son, Solomon, would end up disobeying God’s commands, eventually amassing a harem consisting of “700 wives of royal birth and 300 concubines” (1 Kings 11:3 NLT). And most of his wives would be foreign-born and idolaters. They would eventually lead him astray, causing him to forsake God and set up idols all throughout his kingdom. And for this indiscretion, God would split his kingdom in half, forming the two nations of Israel and Judah.

It was not that God was against Israel having a king, it was that He preferred a king who shared His heart. He wanted a man who would rule and reign as God’s representative, shepherding His sheep as David would eventually do.

With upright heart he shepherded them and guided them with his skillful hand. – Psalm 78:72 ESV

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

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 Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

 

 

Purge the Evil

8 “If any case arises requiring decision between one kind of homicide and another, one kind of legal right and another, or one kind of assault and another, any case within your towns that is too difficult for you, then you shall arise and go up to the place that the Lord your God will choose. 9 And you shall come to the Levitical priests and to the judge who is in office in those days, and you shall consult them, and they shall declare to you the decision. 10 Then you shall do according to what they declare to you from that place that the Lord will choose. And you shall be careful to do according to all that they direct you. 11 According to the instructions that they give you, and according to the decision which they pronounce to you, you shall do. You shall not turn aside from the verdict that they declare to you, either to the right hand or to the left. 12 The man who acts presumptuously by not obeying the priest who stands to minister there before the Lord your God, or the judge, that man shall die. So you shall purge the evil from Israel. 13 And all the people shall hear and fear and not act presumptuously again.” – Deuteronomy 17:8-13 ESV

It would appear from these verses that the Israelites were to establish a system of judicial oversight where cases that fell outside the scope of the local judges. These more difficult cases were to be taken to the city in which the tabernacle would be set up, and presented to a judicial panel comprised of Levites and appointed judges. These men were assigned to task of adjudicating these these cases and their decisions were to be considered binding and final. They were to function as a kind of Supreme Court for the nation of Israel. 

The size of the panel is not clarified, but it consisted of at least one Levite and a judge. The Levite was there in his function as a priest of God. He was responsible for applying the law of God to the matter in dispute. The judge provided an additional set of ears to hear the facts of the case and to assist in determining a just and righteous settlement.

The verdict passed by this God-ordained court was to be accepted and carried out by all those involved. There was no appeal process available.

“You must carry out the verdict they announce and the sentence they prescribe at the place the Lord chooses.” – Deuteronomy 17:10 NLT

The Levites and the judge who sat on the panel were not responsible for enforcing the verdict, the people were. It was their responsibility to carry out whatever judgment was assessed – to the letter.

“After they have interpreted the law and declared their verdict, the sentence they impose must be fully executed; do not modify it in any way.” – Deuteronomy 17:11 NLT

The verdict was to be based on the Mosaic law, so this ensured that any decision arrived at had the full backing of God Almighty. Anyone who dared to reject the decision of the court stood opposed to God and faced the full wrath of His judgment.

“Anyone arrogant enough to reject the verdict of the judge or of the priest who represents the Lord your God must die. In this way you will purge the evil from Israel.” – Deuteronomy 17:12 NLT

This sounds harsh to our modern sensibilities, but God was determined that Israel have a clear set of moral, legislative, and judicial guidelines by which to live. But those guidelines would mean absolutely nothing if the people were not held accountable to adhere to them. Laws that can be easily broken, with no threat of reprisal or punishment, are not laws at all. They are little more than suggestions, easily avoided or simply ignored altogether. Laws that lack enforcement are no more dangerous than a lion lacking teeth and claws. A judicial verdict that fails to be carried out has no weight. And the court that deliberates and delivers such a verdict ends up having no power to determine the well-being of a nation. 

But if failure to carry out the verdict of the court was followed by capital punishment, “Then everyone else will hear about it and be afraid to act so arrogantly” (Deuteronomy 17:13 NLT). Adjudication requires prosecution. For a verdict to carry any weight, it must be enforced. And refusal to follow the will of God’s appointed judges was going to bring His wrath. He would not tolerate disobedience, because disobedience was nothing less than rebellion against His will. And like any other sin, rebellion was an infectious disease that could spread among the people, if left unchecked. That’s why God demanded that they “purge the evil from Israel.”

They were to take rebellion seriously and deal with it immediately. To not do so would create an environment where everyone did what was right in his own eyes. All God-ordained authority would eventually become impotent and useless. And the people would end up ruling their lives according to their own personal standards. Rules would become purely subjective, determined by the individual. And the day was going to come when this very thing happened in Israel.

After the period of time in Israelite history when God had appointed men and women to act as His judges, the people of Israel would reach a point when they would no longer accept these leaders. And the book of Judges matter-of-factly states: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6 ESV).

It was a time when autonomy ruled the land. There were no more judges and the people were doing what they deemed best. It proved to be an immoral time marked by spiritual anarchy. The people were not content to live by God’s law or to abide by the decisions of His judges. Self-rule was the law of the land and it had created an atmosphere marked by rebellion and rampant godlessness.

And it all begins when we fail to heed God’s call to purge the evil from our midst. Sin left unchecked and unpunished doesn’t go away, it grows. It spreads and eventually infects the entire camp. So, God demands that we take it seriously and deal with it decisively. Tolerance of sin sounds like the loving thing to do, but it actually results in death and destruction. So, God made it clear that the death of the one was to be preferred to that of the many. So, “purge the evil from Israel. Then everyone else will hear about it and be afraid to act so arrogantly” (Deuteronomy 17:12-13 NLT).

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

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 Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

 

 

An Abomination to the Lord

1 “You shall not sacrifice to the Lord your God an ox or a sheep in which is a blemish, any defect whatever, for that is an abomination to the Lord your God.

2 “If there is found among you, within any of your towns that the Lord your God is giving you, a man or woman who does what is evil in the sight of the Lord your God, in transgressing his covenant, 3 and has gone and served other gods and worshiped them, or the sun or the moon or any of the host of heaven, which I have forbidden, 4 and it is told you and you hear of it, then you shall inquire diligently, and if it is true and certain that such an abomination has been done in Israel, 5 then you shall bring out to your gates that man or woman who has done this evil thing, and you shall stone that man or woman to death with stones. 6 On the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses the one who is to die shall be put to death; a person shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness. 7 The hand of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.” – Deuteronomy 17:1-7 ESV

One of the reasons God instructed the people of Israel to elect judges and officials in each of their communities was to protect against idolatry. As time passed and each of the tribes began the process of possessing the land allotted to them, it would become increasingly more difficult to police the activities of the people, especially their natural tendency to worship false gods. So, Moses expected these appointed officials to judge the actions of those who violated God’s laws concerning idols and idol worship. Moses had clearly communicated God’s restrictions, which were nothing more than an elaboration on the first commandment.

“You must never set up a wooden Asherah pole beside the altar you build for the Lord your God. And never set up sacred pillars for worship, for the Lord your God hates them.” – Deuteronomy 16:21-22 NLT

This section is all about proper worship – the kind of worship that is acceptable by God. He has not left it up to mankind to decide how, when, or who to worship. The form of Israel’s worship is just as important to God as the focus of their worship. Not only were they prohibited from worshiping false gods, they were denied the freedom of worshiping the right God in the wrong way. 

“You shall not sacrifice to the Lord your God an ox or a sheep in which is a blemish, any defect whatever, for that is an abomination to the Lord your God.” – Deuteronomy 17:1 ESV

They were not allowed to borrow and incorporate elements from the pagan religions around them in the worship of God. Asherah poles were off limits. These wooden totems were dedicated to the worship of Asherah, a Canaanite fertility god who was considered the wife or sister of another one of their deities. God had strictly forbidden the Israelites from incorporating these kinds of pagan rituals and forms in their worship of Him.

But God would also not allow the Israelies to use proper forms of worship in the wrong way. They couldn’t bring their sick or blemished animals and offer them as sacrifices to God. That was unacceptable worship. He described these kinds of sacrifices as “abominations.” The Hebrew word is tow`ebah and it refers to “a disgusting thing (morally).”

Someone who offered a blemished lamb as an offering to God was technically obeying the command of God. But he would be violating the intent behind the command. The sacrifice was meant to cost the one offering it. By sacrificing an unblemished, perfect lamb, the worshiper was giving the best of what he owned. He was dedicating to God the animal that would have made the best breeding stock. In doing so, he would be placing his faith in God to provide for his needs.

But that unblemished animal was also intended to represent the idea that God’s forgiveness and atonement from sin required a sacrifice that would be acceptable to Him. It had to satisfy His demand for holiness or imperfection. The lamb was acting as a substitute for the sinful human being was offering it. It stood in the place of the sinner, acting as his proxy or replacement.

Because demanded that His people worship Him in a way that reflected His holy and righteous character. They had to honor Him for who He was and all that He had done. And beyond worshiping Him in the wrong way, the most egregious sin they could commit would be failing to worship Him at all. Which is why Moses provides these future judges of Israel with instructions about dealing with idolators. He describes idolatry as doing “evil in the sight of the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 17:2 NLT). It was considered a violation of the covenant the Israelites had made with God. And just so they knew what kinds of actions constituted idolatry, Moses spelled it out: “they might serve other gods or worship the sun, the moon, or any of the stars—the forces of heaven—which I have strictly forbidden” (Deuteronomy 17:3 NLT).

Moses commands these future judges to investigate thoroughly any reports of this kind of behavior among the people. If they find the reports to be true, the violator is to be dealt with quickly and severely.

“…the man or woman who has committed such an evil act must be taken to the gates of the town and stoned to death.” – Deuteronomy 17:5 NLT

Once again, Moses refers to this kind of behavior as tow`ebah – an abomination. God sees idolatry as disgusting and unacceptable. And those who practice idolatry, because they are guilty of failing to remain set apart unto God, are to be set apart from the community by taking them outside the gates of the town, and then executed.

While this sounds like harsh and unusual punishment to our modern ears, we must understand that it was intended to act as a purifying and preserving agent among the Israelites. Sin of any kind, in left unchecked, would act as a cancer among the people, eventually infecting the entire community and resulting in the judgment of God. The death of one, while difficult for us to understand, was to be preferred to the ultimate judgment of God against the entire community.

The death of Jesus incorporates both illustrations used in these verses. First of all, He became sinless Lamb of God who offered His life as the sacrifice for the sins of mankind. He became the unblemished substitute who gave His life so that others could live. The apostle Paul points out the vivid contrast between Adam, the first man, and Jesus, the God-man.

When Adam sinned, sin entered the world. Adam’s sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned. – Romans 5:12 NLT

In other words, Adam’s sin spread to all mankind. His disobedience brought the curse of sin and death onto all humanity. But Paul goes on to explain that Jesus offered a permanent solution to the sin problem created by Adam.

Now Adam is a symbol, a representation of Christ, who was yet to come. But there is a great difference between Adam’s sin and God’s gracious gift. For the sin of this one man, Adam, brought death to many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of forgiveness to many through this other man, Jesus Christ. – Romans 5:14-15 NLT

God would not allow the sin of Adam to permanently destroy His creation, so He sent His Son as the sinless sacrifice to atone for the sins of man.

Adam’s sin led to condemnation, but God’s free gift leads to our being made right with God, even though we are guilty of many sins. For the sin of this one man, Adam, caused death to rule over many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of righteousness, for all who receive it will live in triumph over sin and death through this one man, Jesus Christ. – Romans 5:16-17 NLT

God takes sin seriously. Because He is holy, God must punish those who commit sin, and the Bible clearly states that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). But God graciously offered His Son as the payment for man’s sin debt. He offered His life as a substitute for sinful man. And while the death of the sinner stoned outside the gates of the city had no atoning value, it would prevent further infection of the community.

The judges of Israel were to treat sin with a seriousness and soberness that reflected God’s hatred for it. But they were to be careful to ensure that any accusations concerning idolatry were fully investigated and thoroughly proven so that no one was punished unjustly. And just to make sure that no one would be tempted to use a false accusation of idolatry in order to enact vengeance against another, Moses commanded, “never put a person to death on the testimony of only one witness. There must always be two or three witnesses. The witnesses must throw the first stones” (Deuteronomy 17:6-7 NLT).

One man could not falsely accuse another. There had to be corroborating witnesses. And it was these men who had to cast the first stone to take the life of the guilty party. This added feature was intended to place the heavy burden of taking the life of the accused on the heads of those who brought the charges. If they had lied, they would be responsible before God for the death of an innocent man.

God considers the worship of false gods to be disgusting and unacceptable. But even the worship of the right God in the wrong way is equally repugnant to Him. Man’s worship is the greatest gift he has to offer. God doesn’t need our gifts. He doesn’t require our sacrifices. What God is looking for is true worship. As the prophet Micah so aptly put it:

What can we bring to the LORD? Should we bring him burnt offerings? Should we bow before God Most High with offerings of yearling calves?

Should we offer him thousands of rams and ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Should we sacrifice our firstborn children to pay for our sins?

No, O people, the LORD has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. – Micah 6:6-8 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

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 Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

 

 

Righteous Judgment. Perverted Judgment.

18 “You shall appoint judges and officers in all your towns that the Lord your God is giving you, according to your tribes, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment. 19 You shall not pervert justice. You shall not show partiality, and you shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of the righteous. 20 Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

21 “You shall not plant any tree as an Asherah beside the altar of the Lord your God that you shall make. 22 And you shall not set up a pillar, which the Lord your God hates.” – Deuteronomy 16:18-22 ESV

Reliable leadership is essential for a family, a religious community, a company or a nation. Without proper leadership, you end up with chaos and confusion, which ultimately leads to anarchy. So, as Moses continues to outline God’s holy expectations for the people of Israel, he begins to focus his attention on the vital role and responsibility of leadership within their community. Yes, God was their final authority, but He had established a hierarchy of leadership, delegating certain responsibilities to others, like Moses, whom He would hold accountable for the welfare of His people.

As God’s chosen people, the nation of Israel was expected to reflect His character, both on an individual and corporate basis. Each family within the community was to operate according to God’s commands, with children honoring their parents and father’s and mother’s leading their children in the ways of the Lord. Every member of the community was expected to keep the sabbath holy. They were each obligated to obey the commands of God and live in unity as the people of God. But every organization, no matter how large or small, needs effective leadership to survive and thrive.

So, Moses provided them with God’s plan for overseeing what would quickly become a rapidly expanding populace scattered throughout the land of Canaan.

“Appoint judges and officials for yourselves from each of your tribes in all the towns the Lord your God is giving you…” – Deuteronomy 16:18 NLT

Once the tribes began to conquer and settle the land, the once-unified nation would find itself dispersed into 12 different communities separated by distance and requiring localized leadership. One man would not be able to oversee such an extensive and far-spread domain. Even during the days of the kings of Israel, there would be a need for delegated power dispersed throughout the kingdom in order to assure proper application and enforcement of the king’s wishes.

But in these early days of Israel’s existence, they were to be a theocracy living under the authority of God, their sovereign Lord and King. He was to be their final authority in all things. And He would appoint men to serve as His representatives, leading and judging the people on His behalf and according to His divine will. But the day was going to come when the people of Israel expressed their weariness with God’s way of doing things. They would reject His divinely appointed leaders and demand to have a king just like all the other nations. In other words, they would jettison the governing model of a theocracy for a human monarchy, which would eventually devolve into an oligarchy.

The book of 1 Samuel records the fateful day when the people of Israel issued their demand for a king, and God made clear that they were really rejecting Him as their King.

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah and said to him, “Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.” And Samuel prayed to the Lord. And the Lord said to Samuel, “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.” – 1 Samuel 8:4-7 ESV

But at this point in the book of Deuteronomy, the people were still preparing to enter the land. They found themselves in need of God’s help, so they were still willing to allow Him to lead. But God knew that it would only be a matter of time before they required more hands-on leadership. So, He commanded Moses to have the people appoint or elect judges and officials who would provide localized leadership within their various land allotments.

These men would provide a vital role, exercising their divinely-appointed authority to provide wise judgment and ensure righteous justice within the various tribes. But this was not be the first time this form of delegated authority had been seen in Israel. All the way back in the days when they were traveling from Egypt to the land of Canaan, Moses had instituted a similar program, under the wise counsel of his father-in-law, Jethro.

Jethro had witnessed Moses attempting to single-handedly trying to mete out judgment and justice for the people. His son-in-law was spending all day, everyday, listening to the cares and concerns of the people and trying to provide wise counsel and direction. But Jethro saw that this was unsustainable, so he gave Moses a bit of sage advice.

“This is not good!” Moses’ father-in-law exclaimed. “You’re going to wear yourself out—and the people, too. This job is too heavy a burden for you to handle all by yourself. Now listen to me, and let me give you a word of advice, and may God be with you. You should continue to be the people’s representative before God, bringing their disputes to him. Teach them God’s decrees, and give them his instructions. Show them how to conduct their lives. But select from all the people some capable, honest men who fear God and hate bribes. Appoint them as leaders over groups of one thousand, one hundred, fifty, and ten. They should always be available to solve the people’s common disputes, but have them bring the major cases to you. Let the leaders decide the smaller matters themselves. They will help you carry the load, making the task easier for you. If you follow this advice, and if God commands you to do so, then you will be able to endure the pressures, and all these people will go home in peace.” – Exodus 18:17-23 NLT

And this is exactly what Moses is directing the people to do. But he provides an important caveat, telling the people that the men they choose as leaders were to “judge the people with righteous judgment” (Deuteronomy 16:18 ESV). Not only that, they were to “never twist justice or show partiality” (Deuteronomy 16:19 NLT).

God was looking for righteous and just men. He wanted individuals who would reflect His character and uphold His divine expectations for justice and mercy. God was not going to put up with any form of corruption, such as the acceptance of bribes. There would be no room for partiality or favoritism. These men were to be impartial and fair, representing each of the people under their care equitably and justly. And Moses made it clear that their adherence to God’s requirements would bring His blessings.

“Let true justice prevail, so you may live and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” – Deuteronomy 16:20 NLT

God has a strong dislike for lousy leadership. He holds those in positions of authority to a high standard and expects them to take their responsibilities seriously, approaching their roles with a soberness that is influence by a healthy fear of His holiness.

And these men were not just responsible for settling civil disputes. They were to guard against any kind of idolatry among the people of Israel. Unfaithfulness to God was the greatest temptation the people were going to face. Their personal disputes and disagreements would prove miniscule and pointless when compared with their failure to remain faithful to God. So, Moses warns these leaders to watch out for any kind of idolatrous activity among the people. If they saw it, they were to deal with it immediately. God expected these men to deliver righteous judgment among His people and He demanded that they dispense equitable justice. But more importantly, God required His leaders to require holiness and faithfulness from the people. These men would be acting as representatives of God. And, as such, they were expected to love what He loves and hate what He hates. They were to judge according to God’s standards, not their own. They were to mete out God’s brand of justice, not their own. And if they did, God would bless the nation. 

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

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 Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

 

 

Something Worth Celebrating

9 “You shall count seven weeks. Begin to count the seven weeks from the time the sickle is first put to the standing grain. 10 Then you shall keep the Feast of Weeks to the Lord your God with the tribute of a freewill offering from your hand, which you shall give as the Lord your God blesses you. 11 And you shall rejoice before the Lord your God, you and your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant, the Levite who is within your towns, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow who are among you, at the place that the Lord your God will choose, to make his name dwell there. 12 You shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt; and you shall be careful to observe these statutes.

13 “You shall keep the Feast of Booths seven days, when you have gathered in the produce from your threshing floor and your winepress. 14 You shall rejoice in your feast, you and your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant, the Levite, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow who are within your towns. 15 For seven days you shall keep the feast to the Lord your God at the place that the Lord will choose, because the Lord your God will bless you in all your produce and in all the work of your hands, so that you will be altogether joyful.

16 “Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Lord your God at the place that he will choose: at the Feast of Unleavened Bread, at the Feast of Weeks, and at the Feast of Booths. They shall not appear before the Lord empty-handed. 17 Every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the Lord your God that he has given you.” – Deuteronomy 16:9-17 ESV

Moses has been reminding the people of their obligation to offer the appropriate sacrifices at the appropriate time and place. Now, he is going to elaborate on the particular feasts and festivals at which these various offerings were to be made.

“All the firstborn males that are born of your herd and flock you shall dedicate to the Lord your God. You shall do no work with the firstborn of your herd, nor shear the firstborn of your flock.You shall eat it, you and your household, before the Lord your God year by year at the place that the Lord will choose.” – Deuteronomy 15:19-20 NLT

There were seven annual feasts as prescribed by God. In the Spring of each year, the Israelites were to celebrate the feasts of Passover, Unleavened Bread, First Fruits, and Weeks. An additional four feasts were to be held in the Fall. These included the Feast of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths. These annual events were, in part, commemorations or memorial celebrations, intended to help the Israelites retain the memory of God’s miraculous intervention in their lives. But they were also to be annual occasions when the Israelites could offer thanks to God for all that He had done in providing for their needs over the preceding year.

These feasts or festivals were closely tied to the annual spring and fall harvests and were timed to remind the Israelites of God’s faithful protection and provision. But, there is something even more significant about these annual celebrations that is often overlooked. They were intended to serve as prefigurement or foreshadowing of something or someone to come. The Messiah. Each of these annual feasts present a glimpse into the redemptive work of Jesus. And while the Israelites would not have recognized these signs, those of us on this side of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection are able to look back and see how the saving work of Jesus was foretold in this seven festivals.

One of the first things we should notice is the inclusive nature of these events. They were non-discriminatory and intended for everyone in the camp.

“Celebrate with your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, the Levites from your towns, and the foreigners, orphans, and widows who live among you.…” – Deuteronomy 16:11 NLT

“This festival will be a happy time of celebrating with your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, and the Levites, foreigners, orphans, and widows from your towns.” – Deuteronomy 16:14 NLT

No one was to be left out. The invitation to participate in the joy of the celebration was extended to all. It reminds me of the invitation offered by Jesus:

“Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.” – Matthew 11:28-30 NLT

Notice how Jesus incorporated agricultural terms in his invitation. Just as the feasts were tied to the annual harvest and provided the people a much-needed respite from their work of providing for their basic needs, Jesus offered mankind rest from the back-braking work of trying to earn righteousness through self-effort. And this invitation was offered to every individual with no strings attached or restrictions based on ethnicity, gender, or social status.

And for all who accepted the gracious invitation of Jesus Christ, they became part of an all-inclusive family comprised of people from all walks of life. The apostle Paul describes them this way:

There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. And now that you belong to Christ, you are the true children of Abraham. You are his heirs, and God’s promise to Abraham belongs to you. – Galatians 3:28-29 NLT

For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. – Romans 10:12 ESV

The imagery associated with these annual events is closely tied to Jesus. From the unblemished Passover lamb to unleavened bread, these Old Testament types foreshadow the Messiah, the sinless Son of God. Leaven was a symbol of sin and the Israelites were to spend seven days purging any leaven from their homes. But Jesus came as the sinless Lamb of God who made possible forgiveness for sin – once and for all. 

At the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths, the Israelites were instructed to build temporary shelters in which they were to live during the days of the festival. These structures were intended to remind them of their nomadic existence during the days of the exodus. But they are also a foreshadowing of something greater to come. With His arrival on earth, Jesus became Immanuel, literally “God with us.” He came to tabernacle among His people and to provide a means by which they could enjoy a permanent and eternal existence with God the Father. No more temporary shelters. No more wandering in the wilderness of sin. God has a permanent place of shelter and refuge planned for all those who place their faith in His Son.

I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. – Revelations 21:3 NLT

“I will make my home among them. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” – Ezekiel 37:27 NLT

These feasts were temporary occasions and the Israelites were required to observe them on an annual basis. But the sacrifice of Jesus was once-for-all, providing a permanent means of salvation for all who who accept His gracious invitation. No more feasts and festivals were necessary. No more sacrifices were required. There was no more need to remove the leaven of sin or to find the spotless lamb to offer as atonement for that sin. Jesus became the sole source of redemption. And the celebration of these annual feasts was one day replaced by a much more simple, yet highly significant event that would commemorate His death on man’s behalf. 

At the Feast of Passover, Jesus would gather with His disciples in the upper room and share the Passover meal with them. But during their celebration of that annual event, Jesus would institute another, much more important, celebration which would take its place: The Lord’s Supper.

…the Lord Jesus, on the night He was betrayed, took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” In the same way, after supper He took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes. – 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 NLT

Moses said of the Feast of Tabernacles, “This festival will be a time of great joy for all” (Deuteronomy 16:15 NLT). But it is the sinless sacrifice of Jesus that provides true cause for joy and celebration. His death made man’s restoration with God possible. His sacrifice provides all who accept it with complete forgiveness from sin and the replacement of their guilty verdict with the announcement of their justification before God. And that is truly cause for celebration.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

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 Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

 

 

Never Forget

1 “Observe the month of Abib and keep the Passover to the Lord your God, for in the month of Abib the Lord your God brought you out of Egypt by night. 2 And you shall offer the Passover sacrifice to the Lord your God, from the flock or the herd, at the place that the Lord will choose, to make his name dwell there. 3 You shall eat no leavened bread with it. Seven days you shall eat it with unleavened bread, the bread of affliction—for you came out of the land of Egypt in haste—that all the days of your life you may remember the day when you came out of the land of Egypt. 4 No leaven shall be seen with you in all your territory for seven days, nor shall any of the flesh that you sacrifice on the evening of the first day remain all night until morning. 5 You may not offer the Passover sacrifice within any of your towns that the Lord your God is giving you, 6 but at the place that the Lord your God will choose, to make his name dwell in it, there you shall offer the Passover sacrifice, in the evening at sunset, at the time you came out of Egypt. 7 And you shall cook it and eat it at the place that the Lord your God will choose. And in the morning you shall turn and go to your tents. 8 For six days you shall eat unleavened bread, and on the seventh day there shall be a solemn assembly to the Lord your God. You shall do no work on it.” – Deuteronomy 16:1-8 ESV

Moses has been reminding the people of their obligation to offer the appropriate sacrifices at the appropriate time and place. Now, he is going to elaborate on the particular feasts and festivals at which these various offerings were to be made.

“All the firstborn males that are born of your herd and flock you shall dedicate to the Lord your God. You shall do no work with the firstborn of your herd, nor shear the firstborn of your flock.You shall eat it, you and your household, before the Lord your God year by year at the place that the Lord will choose.” – Deuteronomy 15:19-20 NLT

The first, and most important one, was the Feast of Passover. This yearly celebration was instituted while the people of Israel were still in Egypt and was closely associated with the final plague: The death of the firstborn. On the night the very first Passover was held, God spared all those whose homes were marked by the blood of an unblemished lamb. This sign, placed on the doorposts of their homes in an act of faith, provided those inside with protection from the judgment of God. Their homes were “passed over” by the Death Angel and their firstborns were spared. And God had told the people that this momentous event was to be celebrated on an annual and perpetual basis for generations to come.

“This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations, as a statute forever, you shall keep it as a feast.” – Exodus 12:14 ESV

Passover began with the sacrifice of the lamb and the sprinkling of its blood, followed by a meal at which the lamb was to be eaten

“They shall eat the flesh that night, roasted on the fire; with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted, its head with its legs and its inner parts. And you shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. In this manner you shall eat it: with your belt fastened, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. And you shall eat it in haste. It is the Lord's Passover.” – Exodus 12:8-11 ESV

The consumption of the lamb was to be followed by the Feast of Unleavened Bread, a seven-day-long period of time in which all leaven, a symbol of sin, was removed from the homes and from the diets of the Israelites.

“For seven days no leaven is to be found in your houses. If anyone eats what is leavened, that person will be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether he is a sojourner or a native of the land. You shall eat nothing leavened; in all your dwelling places you shall eat unleavened bread.” – Exodus 12:19-20 ESV

And Moses had instructed the people to faithfully observe this God-ordained series of celebrations and commemorations each and every year.

“You shall observe this rite as a statute for you and for your sons forever. And when you come to the land that the Lord will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this service. And when your children say to you, ‘What do you mean by this service?’ you shall say, ‘It is the sacrifice of the Lord's Passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he struck the Egyptians but spared our houses.’” – Exodus 12:24-27 ESV

Now, some 40 years later, the Israelites were preparing to enter the land and Moses reminded them once again of their obligation to keep these important feasts and festivals. But it was important that the Israelites not allow these holy days to devolve into nothing more than glorified holidays. They were intended to be commemorations or memorials of all that God had done for them. They were meant to be links to the past, reminding the people of God’s greatness and goodness. And as each successive generation found itself further and further from the original Passover, it was going to be essential that the memory of God’s gracious deliverance be retold and their gratitude for His kindness be rekindled.

That’s why Moses was so emphatic in his reminder that they keep these feasts. He knew that, once they arrived in the land, they would be tempted to leave the past behind. As they acclimated to their new home, they would find their former condition as slaves a distant and quickly fading memory. These feasts were meant to be reminders of God’s deliverance and a constant call to remain faithful to Him alone. The removal of the leaven would provide a visual lesson of the ever-present and pervasive nature of sin. It would always be with them. And while God had delivered them from slavery and provided the land of Canaan as their inheritance, they were to keep themselves holy and totally dedicated to God.

“Seven days you shall eat it with unleavened bread, the bread of affliction—for you came out of the land of Egypt in haste—that all the days of your life you may remember the day when you came out of the land of Egypt.” – Deuteronomy 16:3 ESV

There is a sense in which God’s people are to live with their heads on a swivel, constantly looking back in an effort to recall the past and all that God has done, but also looking forward in faith, eagerly anticipating all that God has promised to do.

The apostle Paul was constantly reminding the churches to which he wrote of their past condition, prior to their coming to faith in Christ.

Some of you were once like that. But you were cleansed; you were made holy; you were made right with God by calling on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. – 1 Corinthians 6:11 NLT

He told the believers in Ephesus:

Once you were dead because of your disobedience and your many sins. You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil—the commander of the powers in the unseen world. He is the spirit at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God. All of us used to live that way, following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature. By our very nature we were subject to God’s anger, just like everyone else.

But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!). – Ephesians 2:1-5 NLT

Looking back is an essential part of the Christian’s growth experience. If we fail to remember our pre-salvation condition, we will end up taking our faith for granted. The miracle of our spiritual transformation will lose its impact. The sacrifice that Jesus made on our behalf will tend to diminish in its value. But if we recall the helplessness and hopelessness of our former condition, the grace and mercy of God will retain its glory and wonder.

God had miraculously and graciously liberated the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt. He had faithfully led them through the wilderness and placed them on the edge of the very land He had promised to give them as their inheritance. But it was going to be vital that they remember their past. These annual feasts and festivals were to be celebrations and commemorations. They were intended to be times of rejoicing and recalling, feasting and reflecting.

When it comes to the goodness and graciousness of God, forgetfulness is a dangerous tendency that is to be avoided at all costs. That’s why Moses was constantly reminding the Israelites to never forget. Because he knew that forgetfulness would ultimately lead to unfaithfulness.

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

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

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 Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

 

 

The Firstborn

19 “All the firstborn males that are born of your herd and flock you shall dedicate to the Lord your God. You shall do no work with the firstborn of your herd, nor shear the firstborn of your flock. 20 You shall eat it, you and your household, before the Lord your God year by year at the place that the Lord will choose. 21 But if it has any blemish, if it is lame or blind or has any serious blemish whatever, you shall not sacrifice it to the Lord your God. 22 You shall eat it within your towns. The unclean and the clean alike may eat it, as though it were a gazelle or a deer. 23 Only you shall not eat its blood; you shall pour it out on the ground like water.” – Deuteronomy 15:19-23 ESV

Moses returns to a subject that he had brought up earlier: The offering of the firstborn.

“There you will bring your burnt offerings, your sacrifices, your tithes, your sacred offerings, your offerings to fulfill a vow, your voluntary offerings, and your offerings of the firstborn animals of your herds and flocks.” – Deuteronomy 12:6 NLT

“But you may not eat your offerings in your hometown—neither the tithe of your grain and new wine and olive oil, nor the firstborn of your flocks and herds, nor any offering to fulfill a vow, nor your voluntary offerings, nor your sacred offerings.”  – Deuteronomy 12:17 NLT

“Bring this tithe to the designated place of worship—the place the Lord your God chooses for his name to be honored—and eat it there in his presence. This applies to your tithes of grain, new wine, olive oil, and the firstborn males of your flocks and herds. Doing this will teach you always to fear the Lord your God.” – Deuteronomy 14:23 NLT

But what is the offering of the firstborn and why was it so important? To understand its significance we have to look back to the book of Exodus and the final plague that God brought upon the people of Egypt.

And that night at midnight, the Lord struck down all the firstborn sons in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sat on his throne, to the firstborn son of the prisoner in the dungeon. Even the firstborn of their livestock were killed. Pharaoh and all his officials and all the people of Egypt woke up during the night, and loud wailing was heard throughout the land of Egypt. There was not a single house where someone had not died. – Exodus 12:29-30 NLT

This devastating event took place in conjunction with the establishment of the Passover. God had warned the people of Israel that He was bringing judgment upon the land of Egypt and He had mercifully provided the people of Israel with a means of avoiding His wrath. When His judgment came, it would be non-discriminatory, bringing death to the firstborn of every family living in the land of Egypt, whether Egyptian or Jew. Even the animals belonging to the Egyptians and Jews would suffer under God’s judgment…unless. 

The truth was that all deserved God’s judgment. Even the Israelites had long ago abandoned their worship of Yahweh for the false gods of Egypt, and they stood fully condemned before God. But He provided them with a means of escaping His judgment – if they would trust His word and obey His command.

“Announce to the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each family must choose a lamb or a young goat for a sacrifice, one animal for each household. If a family is too small to eat a whole animal, let them share with another family in the neighborhood. Divide the animal according to the size of each family and how much they can eat. The animal you select must be a one-year-old male, either a sheep or a goat, with no defects.

“Take special care of this chosen animal until the evening of the fourteenth day of this first month. Then the whole assembly of the community of Israel must slaughter their lamb or young goat at twilight. They are to take some of the blood and smear it on the sides and top of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the animal. That same night they must roast the meat over a fire and eat it along with bitter salad greens and bread made without yeast. Do not eat any of the meat raw or boiled in water. The whole animal—including the head, legs, and internal organs—must be roasted over a fire. Do not leave any of it until the next morning. Burn whatever is not eaten before morning.” – Exodus 12:3-10 NLT

As long as the Israelites did exactly as God had commanded them to do, the firstborn of their families and flocks would be spared. The blood of the lamb, sprinkled on the doorframes of their homes, would cause the Death Angel to “pass over” them. They would be spared the judgment of God.

And the Israelites, having followed God’s instructions, were preserved by God, while the Egyptians suffered tremendous loss of life. And devastated by the loss of his own son, Pharaoh finally relented and allowed the Israelites to leave. And God commanded the people of Israel:

“Dedicate to me every firstborn among the Israelites. The first offspring to be born, of both humans and animals, belongs to me.”  – Exodus 13:2 NLT

God had spared from death the firstborn among the Israelites and, therefore, considered them as belonging to Him. But later on, God would set apart the tribe of Levi as the surrogates or stand-ins for the rest of the firstborn of Israel.

“Look, I have chosen the Levites from among the Israelites to serve as substitutes for all the firstborn sons of the people of Israel. The Levites belong to me, for all the firstborn males are mine. On the day I struck down all the firstborn sons of the Egyptians, I set apart for myself all the firstborn in Israel, both of people and of animals. They are mine; I am the Lord.” – Numbers 3:12-13 NLT

The tribe of Levi would serve in the place of all the firstborn of Israel, and from within the Levites would come the priests who served in God’s tabernacle. They would dedicate their lives to the service of the people of God.

But the firstborn of the animals would always belong to God and He required that the people of Israel dedicate them to Him through sacrifice. It was to be an act of obedience and gratitude to God for His having spared them during that fateful night when the Death Angel passed over all the homes in Egypt. As long as the firstborn lamb or bull was alive, they were to be preserved for God. The Israelites were not allowed to shear their wool for clothing. They could not use a firstborn bull to pull a plow. These animals were to be seen as the permanent possessions of God.

And all of this foreshadows another firstborn who would also be dedicated to God and destined for sacrifice. Jesus Christ is described by the apostle Paul as “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (Colossians 1:15 ESV).

Elsewhere Paul writes that “Jesus gave his life for our sins, just as God our Father planned, in order to rescue us from this evil world in which we live” (Galatians 1:4 NLT). Jesus was the sinless lamb of God, who offered His life as a substitute for sinful mankind. He stood in our place. He took the punishment we deserved. And when we place our faith in Him, the wrath of God passes over us. His blood, sprinkled on the doorframes of our hearts, serves as a payment for our sin debt, satisfying the just and righteous wrath of God and allowing us to enjoy new life, rather than death.

And as a result of our faith in Christ, we become the firstborn, dedicated to God for His service. Paul makes this point perfectly clear in his letter to the Romans.

For God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his Son, so that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. – Romans 8:29 NLT

We belong to Him. We are His holy possession and our lives are to be dedicated to His use.

Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body. – 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 NLT

The Levites became the firstborn of God, serving in the place of all the other Israelites whom God had deemed as His own. They sacrificed their lives in service to God on behalf of all the people of God. And the firstborn bulls, sheep, and goats were dedicated to God, reserved for His use and destined to give their lives in worship of Him.

But today, those of us who are in Christ, enjoy a relationship with God due to the substitutionary death of the firstborn, the sinless Lamb of God. And now, we find ourselves living as the Levites did, set apart by God for His glory. And Peter would have us remember that we are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (1 Peter 2:9 ESV). We belong to Him. Our lives are to be set apart unto Him. We are not our own, but we belong to God, having been bought by Him at a very high price: The death of His own sinless Son.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

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 Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson