Israel

The God Behind the Blessing

6 “Let Reuben live, and not die,
    but let his men be few.”

7 And this he said of Judah:

“Hear, O Lord, the voice of Judah,
    and bring him in to his people.
With your hands contend for him,
    and be a help against his adversaries.”

8 And of Levi he said,

“Give to Levi your Thummim,
    and your Urim to your godly one,
whom you tested at Massah,
    with whom you quarreled at the waters of Meribah;
9 who said of his father and mother,
    ‘I regard them not’;
he disowned his brothers
    and ignored his children.
For they observed your word
    and kept your covenant.
10 They shall teach Jacob your rules
    and Israel your law;
they shall put incense before you
    and whole burnt offerings on your altar.
11 Bless, O Lord, his substance,
    and accept the work of his hands;
crush the loins of his adversaries,
    of those who hate him, that they rise not again.” – Deuteronomy 33:6-11 ESV

Moses begins his pronouncement of blessings on the 12 tribes with Reuben. This is in keeping with Reuben’s position as the first-born son of Jacob. And Moses seems to echo the sentiments of Jacob when he bestowed the following blessing on Reuben hundreds of years earlier:

“Reuben, you are my firstborn, my strength,
    the child of my vigorous youth.
    You are first in rank and first in power.
But you are as unruly as a flood,
    and you will be first no longer.
For you went to bed with my wife;
    you defiled my marriage couch.” – Genesis 49:3-4 NLT

Reuben had sinned against his father and against God, having slept with his father’s concubine Bilhah. This was a crime punishable by death, and yet, Reuben was allowed to live. But as the words of Jacob reveal, Reuben and his descendants would pay for dearly for his sin. The Reubenites would be one of three tribes who asked for and receive land on the east side of the Jordan, choosing to settle outside the land of promise. In time, they would lose their prestige, fading in prominence and number. It is interesting to note that the tribe of Reuben produced no judges, prophets, or rulers. In spite of his sin, Reuben was allowed to live, but his descendants would never enjoy fulness of life.

Moses deviates from Jacob’s order of blessings by skipping over the tribes of Simeon and Levi and focusing on Judah. And Moses’ blessing, while shorter in length, contains some of the same thoughts as those expressed by Jacob. Both men saw Judah as the preeminent tribe among the 12. Jacob had predicted Judah’s rise to prominence, describing his son as a young lion that grabs its enemies by the neck. Jacob mentions the king’s scepter and the ruler’s staff, symbols of power and authority, and states that from this tribe will come one to whom these things rightfully belong.

“Judah, your brothers will praise you.
    You will grasp your enemies by the neck.
    All your relatives will bow before you.
Judah, my son, is a young lion
    that has finished eating its prey.
Like a lion he crouches and lies down;
    like a lioness—who dares to rouse him?
The scepter will not depart from Judah,
    nor the ruler’s staff from his descendants,
until the coming of the one to whom it belongs,
    the one whom all nations will honor.
He ties his foal to a grapevine,
    the colt of his donkey to a choice vine.
He washes his clothes in wine,
    his robes in the blood of grapes.
His eyes are darker than wine,
    and his teeth are whiter than milk.” – Genesis 49:8-12 NLT

This prophetic statement concerns the coming Messiah, Jesus Christ. Jesus was born of the tribe of Judah and was a descendant of King David. The scepter and the ruler’s staff belong to Him. And in John’s vision of Jesus recorded in the book of Revelation, he describes Jesus as “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David” (Revelation 5:5 ESV). Obviously, the tribe of Judah would play a significant role in God’s plan of redemption for the world. It would be through this tribe that the Savior would come. And Moses, seeming to understand the future significance of this tribe, pronounces a blessing, asking God to protect and provide for them.

The great king David would come from the tribe of Judah. And it would be he who elevated the nation of Israel to greatness, establishing them as a major political and military force in that region of the world. And after God eventually divided the kingdom of Israel in half, the southern portion would take on the name of Judah, further enhancing this tribe’s prominence among the 12.

Next, Moses turns his attention to the tribe of Levi, and he has much more to say about this tribe than Jacob did. Not only that, his words concerning Levi are much more positive than those of Jacob.

“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 had a reason to be upset with these two sons. They had brought shame to the house of Jacob by their deceitful treatment of the Hivites. The story is a complicated one, but involves the rape of their sister, Dinah, by “Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the land” (Genesis 34:2 ESV). Rather than seeking revenge for the rape of his daughter, Jacob determined to make a treaty with the Hivites, agreeing to allow intermarriage between their two nations, in direct violation of God’s command. Jacob’s sons demanded that Jacob require the circumcision of all the males among the Hivites as part of the agreement. When the Hivites had agreed and followed through on their commitment to be circumcised, Levi and Simeon “took their swords and came against the city while it felt secure and killed all the males” (Genesis 34:25 ESV). And rather than bless them, Jacob had issued a curse, predicting their ultimate dispersal among the rest of the tribes of Israel. And little did he know, that is exactly what would happen. But not as he suspected.

The book of Exodus records a seminal event in the history of Israel. Moses had been on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments from God when he received the news from God that things were not going well back in the camp of Israel. Moses descended the mountain only to find the people of Israel reveling before the golden calf they had constructed in his absence. While he had been on Sinai receiving God’s law, the people had been in the valley worshiping a false god they had made with their own hands. After destroying the idol they had made, Moses turned his anger against the people of Israel.

So he stood at the entrance to the camp and shouted, “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 tribe of Levi stepped up and used their swords to defend the integrity of God’s name and mete out His justice and judgment against all those who had participated in the idolatry and spiritual adultery. And as a result of their efforts, the Levites were set apart for the service of the Lord. They would become the priestly order, tasked with representing the rest of the tribes before the Lord and for the care and transport of the tabernacle. And when the nation of Israel conquered the land of Canaan, the Levites would not be given land as an inheritance but would be given cities scattered throughout the tribes of Israel, in fulfillment of Jacob’s words.

The Levites had used treachery and deceit to repay the Hivites for the rape of their sister, but they had been motivated by a desire to avenge her mistreatment. They had also stood opposed to the treaty their father had made with the Hivites, knowing that it was improper for them to intermarry with these uncircumcised pagans. But while their hearts had been in the right place, they had taken matters into their own hands and violated the treaty their father had made. Yet, hundreds of years later, God would redeem the Levites, raising them up and using them to serve as His agents of judgment against their own brothers and sisters.

And Moses blesses them for their role as God’s intercessors. They had been used by God to avenge His holy name and mete out His judgment against the wicked at Sinai. And they had been set apart as priests, teaching Israel God’s laws, and offering sacrifices on their behalf so that they might remain in a right standing with God. At Sinai, the Levites had shed the blood of their brothers and sisters in order to assuage the righteous anger of God. But in the tabernacle, they would spill the blood of innocent bulls and goats, pouring it out as a sacrifice to God on behalf of the sins of the people.

From the days of Jacob to the time of Moses, God was working behind the scenes,  orchestrating events in such as a way that every blessing bestowed by each man would be fulfilled. But these blessings were not the words of men. They were the Spirit-inspired will of God. Neither Moses or Jacob fully understood the full import of their words or the exact nature of their outcome. But God did. He was and is sovereign over all. And while the tribe of Reuben would settle outside the land of promise, they would assist the rest of the tribes in conquering and possessing their inheritance. And God would raise up the tribe of Judah, allowing them to produce the future Messiah, the Savior of the world. The Levites, while cursed by their father for their deceit, would be redeemed by God and used to carry His tabernacle, communicate His law, and care for the spiritual needs of His people.

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

No Empty Words

39 “‘See now that I, even I, am he,
    and there is no god beside me;
I kill and I make alive;
    I wound, and I heal;
    and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.
40 For I lift up my hand to heaven
    and swear, As I live forever,
41 if I sharpen my flashing sword
    and my hand takes hold on judgment,
I will take vengeance on my adversaries
    and will repay those who hate me.
42 I will make my arrows drunk with blood,
    and my sword shall devour flesh—
with the blood of the slain and the captives,
    from the long-haired heads of the enemy.’

43 “Rejoice with him, O heavens;
    bow down to him, all gods,
for he avenges the blood of his children
    and takes vengeance on his adversaries.
He repays those who hate him
    and cleanses his people's land.”

44 Moses came and recited all the words of this song in the hearing of the people, he and Joshua the son of Nun. 45 And when Moses had finished speaking all these words to all Israel, 46 he said to them, “Take to heart all the words by which I am warning you today, that you may command them to your children, that they may be careful to do all the words of this law. 47 For it is no empty word for you, but your very life, and by this word you shall live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess.” – Deuteronomy 32:39-47 ESV

This was no vapid ditty to be sung with a light heart or whistled absent-mindedly as one walked along their merry way. This was a poem containing the words of God and they were powerful and portentous. As God had told Moses, this divine ode was intended to act as a witness against the Israelites, testifying in advance to their future disobedience and unfaithfulness.

And while this song might be best classified as belonging to the blues genre, it contained more than a hint of hope and a glimpse of God’s gracious compassion and goodness. Yes, He was going to punish Israel for their spiritual adultery, but He also reveals that He will one day redeem and restore them. He will keep His covenant promises. While they would prove to be unfaithful and disobedient, God would never fully forsake them. There would be ramifications for their unfaithfulness and unrepentance though.

“I will hide my face from them;
    I will see what their end will be,
for they are a perverse generation,
    children in whom is no faithfulness.” – Deuteronomy 32:20 ESV

The end would come, in the form of the Assyrians and Babylonians.

“Outside, the sword will bring death,
    and inside, terror will strike
both young men and young women,
    both infants and the aged.”
– Deuteronomy 32:25 NLT

But God would repay these nations for their role in Israel’s demise. God, “the Rock,” would pour out His vengeance and wrath upon all those who took advantage of His people.

“I will take revenge; I will pay them back.
    In due time their feet will slip.
Their day of disaster will arrive,
    and their destiny will overtake them.”
– Deuteronomy 32:35 NLT

And all of this will be possible because God is God. There are no other gods beside Him. He has no competition. The nations of the earth are no threat to Him. The kings of the earth are set on their thrones by Him. The plans of all men are established by Him.

“Look now; I myself am he!
    There is no other god but me!
I am the one who kills and gives life;
    I am the one who wounds and heals;
    no one can be rescued from my powerful hand!”
– Deuteronomy 32:39 NLT

This message is an integral part of the song. God’s sovereignty and power were non-negotiable and non-debatable aspects of His character. That is why God could demand that Babylon and Assyria call on “their rock” and see what good it would do them. They would be left all alone and at the full mercy of “The Rock” of Israel.

But notice what God declares about Himself. He kills and He gives life. He wounds and He heals. He has the power to remove or to restore, and the choice is completely His. He can bring the full force of His wrath to bear or He can choose to extend His grace and mercy, bringing healing and wholeness. It is completely up to Him.

And God warns, “when I sharpen my flashing sword and begin to carry out justice” (Deuteronomy 32:41 NLT), you better watch out because He finishes what He starts.

“he will avenge the blood of his children;
    he will take revenge against his enemies.
He will repay those who hate him
    and cleanse his people’s land.” – Deuteronomy 32:43 NLT

This news was meant to cause rejoicing among the people of Israel. This was the upbeat portion of the song that was intended to bring a smile to the face of God’s people, even in light of all the dire predictions of doom and gloom. While the message of this poem contained ample cause for sadness, it also provided a reason for rejoicing.

God wins. He will avenge His people. He will repay their enemies. He will accomplish His plan concerning the people of Israel – in spite of their unfaithfulness and His well-justified punishment of them. And after Moses taught the words of this song to the people, He commanded them to burn them into their collective memory.

“These instructions are not empty words—they are your life! By obeying them you will enjoy a long life in the land you will occupy when you cross the Jordan River.” – Deuteronomy 32: 47 NLT

All that Moses had taught them, which included the laws of God and the words of this song, were to be recalled, recited, and revered. From the promise of blessings and the warning of curses to the assurance of His presence and the threat of His abandonment, all of these matters were to be passed down from generation to generation. They were to remember the ways and the words of God. They were to teach them to their children. And, more importantly, they were to obey the words of God.

The promised land lay before them. But so did the decision to either obey and disobey God. They had been warned what would happen if they disobeyed. They had even been told that they would disobey. But God assured them that His will would be done, with our without them. His redemptive plan would be accomplished in spite of them, not because of them. Why? Because He alone is God.

“Look now; I myself am he!
    There is no other god but me!” – Deuteronomy 32:39 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

When All Is Lost, God Is Near

28 “For they are a nation void of counsel,
    and there is no understanding in them.
29 If they were wise, they would understand this;
    they would discern their latter end!
30 How could one have chased a thousand,
    and two have put ten thousand to flight,
unless their Rock had sold them,
    and the Lord had given them up?
31 For their rock is not as our Rock;
    our enemies are by themselves.
32 For their vine comes from the vine of Sodom
    and from the fields of Gomorrah;
their grapes are grapes of poison;
    their clusters are bitter;
33 their wine is the poison of serpents
    and the cruel venom of asps.

34 “‘Is not this laid up in store with me,
    sealed up in my treasuries?
35 Vengeance is mine, and recompense,
    for the time when their foot shall slip;
for the day of their calamity is at hand,
    and their doom comes swiftly.’
36 For the Lord will vindicate his people
    and have compassion on his servants,
when he sees that their power is gone
    and there is none remaining, bond or free.
37 Then he will say, ‘Where are their gods,
    the rock in which they took refuge,
38 who ate the fat of their sacrifices
    and drank the wine of their drink offering?
Let them rise up and help you;
    let them be your protection!’” Deuteronomy 32:28-38 ESV

Israel had enemies. From their days of captivity in Egypt to their journey to the promised land, the people of God had found themselves opposed by foreign nations. Even on the eastern side of the borders of Canaan they had been forced to fight the forces of  Og and Sihon, two Amorite kings who had refused to allow the Israelites to pass through their land. But God gave the Israelites victory over these enemies, allowing the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh to settle there.

And there would be plenty of other enemies on the other side of the Jordan, once the Israelites crossed over and began their conquest of the land of Canaan. There would always be enemies of God and His people. And the song God had given to Moses to teach to the people of Israel contained foreboding warnings about future enemies who would defeat the Israelites and take them captive. They would be used by God to punish the Israelites for their persistent and unrepentant rebellion against Him.

But God had a message for these nations. Rather than understand their role as His divine instruments of judgment, they would take credit for the conquest of God’s people, even bragging about their victory and robbing God of glory.

“Our hand is triumphant,
    it was not the Lord who did all this.” – Deuteronomy 32:27 ESV

But God had news for these arrogant and pride-filled upstarts.

“…they are a nation void of counsel,
    and there is no understanding in them.
If they were wise, they would understand this;
    they would discern their latter end!” – Deuteronomy 32:28-29 ESV

God describes them as clueless. When the day came and they defeated the people of God, they would consider their conquest the byproduct of their own military prowess. These two nations, Assyria and Babylon, would each enjoy unprecedented success, conquering much of the known world and being used by God to punish His rebellious people. Assyria would conquer the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BC. And 136 years later, in 586 BC, the Babylonians would conquer and destroy the city of Jerusalem, leaving the temple of God in ruins.

But God points out the obvious. The only explanation for the future success of the Assyrians and Babylonians would be because God ordained it. The eventual fall of the Israelites would be because “their Rock had sold them, and the Lord had given them up” (Deuteronomy 32:30 ESV). Neither the Assyrians or Babylonians would be  able to take credit for the destruction of God’s people. It would be the work of God’s hand, not the result of their superior military strength.

The enemies of Israel would find their victories to be a walk in the park, with one of their soldiers giving chase to 1,000 Israelites, and two putting 10,000 to flight. In other words, their battles would be ridiculously lopsided. But, strange as it may seems, the reason behind their success would be the God of Israel.  And God lets them know that their gods would be no match for Him.

For their rock is not as our Rock;
    our enemies are by themselves. – Deuteronomy 32:31 ESV

They were on their own. Their false gods would prove powerless before God Almighty because they were lifeless. And after self-congratulating themselves for having defeated the forces of Israel, these two nations would find themselves having to answer to God for their actions. Why? Because these pagan nations were no better than Sodom and Gomorrah. They were equally as wicked, like vines branching off of the original plant and producing the same evil fruit.

And God reveals that He already has plans in store for them. He is going to use them to punish His rebellious children, but then He is going to repay them for their involvement.

“I will get revenge and pay them back
at the time their foot slips;
for the day of their disaster is near,
and the impending judgment is rushing upon them!” – Deuteronomy 32:35 NLT

These nations will destroy Samaria and Jerusalem. They will enslave the citizens of Israel and Judah. But they will have to answer to God for their actions. And, one day, God will turn the tables, reversing the fortunes of Israel and extending once again His mercy, grace, and love.

The Lord will judge his people,
and will change his plans concerning his servants;
when he sees that their power has disappeared,
and that no one is left, whether confined or set free. – Deuteronomy 32:36 NLT

Just when things look like they can’t get any worse, God will step in and rescue His chosen people. He will remember and redeem them. He will redeem them from captivity yet again. And He will mock the mighty nations of Assyria and Babylon, challenging them to seek help and hope from their false gods.

“Where are their gods,
the rock in whom they sought security,
who ate the best of their sacrifices,
and drank the wine of their drink offerings?
Let them rise and help you;
let them be your refuge!” – Deuteronomy 32:37-38 NLT

And their calls for help will go unheard and unheeded because their gods are false. The Assyrians and Babylonians would one day find themselves on the wrong end of the world-domination game. They would become the conquered rather than the conqueror. Their 15-minutes of fame would come to an abrupt and ignominious end. Because their false gods would fail to rise up, rescue them, and provide refuge for them. But Israel would experience the gracious hand of God Almighty. Right when their strength is gone and all hope is lost, their God will show up, and He “will vindicate his people and have compassion on his servants” (Deuteronomy 32:36 ESV).

The Righteous Wrath of God

19 “The Lord saw it and spurned them,
    because of the provocation of his sons and his daughters.
20 And he said, ‘I will hide my face from them;
    I will see what their end will be,
for they are a perverse generation,
    children in whom is no faithfulness.
21 They have made me jealous with what is no god;
    they have provoked me to anger with their idols.
So I will make them jealous with those who are no people;
    I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation.
22 For a fire is kindled by my anger,
    and it burns to the depths of Sheol,
devours the earth and its increase,
    and sets on fire the foundations of the mountains.

23 “‘And I will heap disasters upon them;
    I will spend my arrows on them;
24 they shall be wasted with hunger,
    and devoured by plague
    and poisonous pestilence;
I will send the teeth of beasts against them,
    with the venom of things that crawl in the dust.
25 Outdoors the sword shall bereave,
    and indoors terror,
for young man and woman alike,
    the nursing child with the man of gray hairs.
26 I would have said, “I will cut them to pieces;
    I will wipe them from human memory,”
27 had I not feared provocation by the enemy,
    lest their adversaries should misunderstand,
lest they should say, “Our hand is triumphant,
    it was not the Lord who did all this.”’ – Deuteronomy 32:19-27 ESV

We love to talk about God’s love, mercy, and grace. And while these divine characteristics are essential to understanding His nature and bring us great comfort, they can also paint a rather one-dimensional image of God. An overemphasis of these positive aspects of God’s character can cause us to downplay His righteous anger and just judgment. This is one of the reasons so many people find such a disparity between the Old and New Testaments. They see conflicting images of God portrayed and choose the kind and compassionate God of the New Testament over the harsh and seemingly heartless God of the Old Testament.

But there is only one God, and He is unchanging in His nature. Yes, we may prefer to dwell on His more loving and father-like characteristics, but that does not mean He is incapable of displaying anger or dispensing harsh justice when necessary. And while the Old Testament is the primary place where this darker side of God’s character is displayed, it does not mean He has mellowed with time. Here are just a few reminders of God’s unchanging nature.

“For I the Lord do not change…” – Malachi 3:6 ESV

Of old you laid the foundation of the earth,
    and the heavens are the work of your hands.
They will perish, but you will remain;
    they will all wear out like a garment.
You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away,
    but you are the same, and your years have no end. – Psalm 102:25-27 ESV

And there countless passages in both the Old and New Testaments that reveal the righteous indignation of God.

“I, the LORD, will punish the world for its evil and the wicked for their sin. I will crush the arrogance of the proud and humble the pride of the mighty.” – Isaiah 13:11 NLT

In the greatness of your majesty you overthrow your adversaries;
    you send out your fury; it consumes them like stubble. – Exodus 15:7 ESV

“Now I will soon pour out my wrath upon you, and spend my anger against you, and judge you according to your ways, and I will punish you for all your abominations. 9 And my eye will not spare, nor will I have pity. I will punish you according to your ways, while your abominations are in your midst. Then you will know that I am the Lord, who strikes.” – Ezekiel 7:8-9 ESV

But when he [Jesus] saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” – Matthew 3:7 ESV

But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed. – Romans 2:5 ESV

And in this portion of the song given by God to Moses, the anger of God is clearly revealed.

“They have made me jealous…” – vs. 21

“…they have provoked me to anger.” – vs. 21

“…a fire is kindled by my anger…” – vs. 22

“…I will heap disasters upon them…” – vs. 23

“I will spend my arrows on them…” – vs. 23

“I will send the teeth of beasts against them…” – vs. 24

Not exactly the kind of sentiments you might find on a Hallmark card. These are clear expressions of God’s anger against the people of Israel and the tangible means by which He intends to manifest His indignation. He even goes so far as to say that He would have completely “cut them to pieces” and wiped them “from human memory” (Deuteronomy 32:26 ESV), but He knew their enemies would have taken credit for it.

God knew that, if He completely destroyed His people, their enemies would arrogantly assume that they were the ones responsible for Israel’s demise.

“Our hand is triumphant,
    it was not the Lord who did all this.” – Deuteronomy 32:27 ESV

And God hates the prideful and arrogant as much as He does the unfaithful and spiritually adulterous. He was not about to give the pagan nations the pleasure of taking credit for something He had done. They were simply instruments in His hands, doing His bidding and acting as His servants. Neither Babylon or Assyria, whom God would use to punish His rebellious people, could take credit for their success. God would raise them up and use them to accomplish His divine will by meting out His just and righteous judgment against His chosen people.

And God points out that His anger was brought on by the actions of those whom He had redeemed and rescued from slavery. His own adopted children had spurned His love and thrown His mercy and grace back in His face through their unfaithfulness.

They stirred him to jealousy… – vs. 16

They sacrificed to demon… – vs. 16

You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you… – vs. 19

…and you forgot the God who gave you birth. – vs. 19

And God makes His damning assessment of His rebellious people.

“…they are a perverse generation,
    children in whom is no faithfulness.” – Deuteronomy 32:20 ESV

What God describes here is serial apostasy. This is not a case of the occasional failure to remain faithful, but of the habitual and willful refusal to follow God’s will. This song is revealing what will become Israel’s because of Israel’s faithlessness.

God will spurn them and hide His face from them. Why? Because that is exactly how they will treat Him. They will turn their backs on Him, choosing instead to worship false gods and demons. They will hide from Him, attempting to disguise their spiritual infidelity and mask their apostasy by feigning faithful adherence to His laws. And so, God will give them a taste of their own medicine. But when God hides His face, the consequences are devastating. When He spurns them, they will experience a form of loss they could have never imagined or anticipated.

God warns of disasters, hunger, plagues, and pestilence. He describes suffering caused by “the teeth of beasts” and “the venom of things that crawl in the dust” (Deuteronomy 32:24 ESV). He foretells of death brought on by the sword and arrows. And no one will be spared. Young men and women will suffer. The nursing child and the old man with gray hair will each endure the same fate. There will be no mercy shown and no grace given.

And while we might not like this image of God, we cannot assume it is somehow incorrect or inconsistent with His character. He is God. And He is fully righteous. All that He does is right, just, and good. In fact, the opening stanza of this poem declared the justice of God.

“The Rock, his work is perfect,
    for all his ways are justice.
A God of faithfulness and without iniquity,
    just and upright is he.” – Deuteronomy 32:4 ESV

He is not the one we should judge. He does not deserve our criticism and, most certainly, does not merit our disdain.

“They have dealt corruptly with him;
    they are no longer his children because they are blemished;
    they are a crooked and twisted generation.” – Deuteronomy 32:5 ESV

God had poured out His love, mercy, and grace upon the people of israel. He had redeemed and rescued them from captivity in Egypt. He had led them across the wilderness and put up with their repeated displays of ingratitude and constant bickering and complaining. He had brought them to the border of the land of promise and watched as they stubbonrly refused to enter in because they didn’t believe He would see them through.

And now, as the next generation stood at the very same border, preparing to enter into the land under the leadership of Joshua, God was informing them that their unfaithfulness would continue. They would conquer the land, but would never enjoy victory over their own apostasy. They would experience the power and presence of God, but would constantly turn their back on Him, seeking instead to give their affections to and place their hopes in false gods.

But God had long ago warned them about what He would do if they proved unfaithful.

“You must not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any other gods. I lay the sins of the parents upon their children; the entire family is affected—even children in the third and fourth generations of those who reject me. But I lavish unfailing love for a thousand generations on those who love me and obey my commands.” – Exodus 20:5-6 NLT

We might not like reading about God’s anger. We may find His judgment difficult to understand or justify. But it is the righteous judgment of God that makes the grace and mercy of God so meaningful. The fact that God would spare a remnant of the people of Israel so He could send His Son as their Messiah, shows us just how loving He really is. If we do not understand how just God is in judging those who reject Him and rebel against Him, we will never fully appreciate the value of the mercy and grace He offers. God has chosen to provide justification in place of judgment. He has made a way for sinful men and women to enjoy exoneration rather than condemnation. He has made a way possible for those dead in their trespasses and sins to experience forgiveness and eternal life. And it was all made possible through the death, burial, and resurrection of His Son.

But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. – Romans 5:8 NLT

It is not until we fully understand the justice of God’s wrath, that we will fully appreciate the joy of God’s love.

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

Set Apart By God

10 “He found him in a desert land,
    and in the howling waste of the wilderness;
he encircled him, he cared for him,
    he kept him as the apple of his eye.
11 Like an eagle that stirs up its nest,
    that flutters over its young,
spreading out its wings, catching them,
    bearing them on its pinions,
12 the Lord alone guided him,
    no foreign god was with him.
13 He made him ride on the high places of the land,
    and he ate the produce of the field,
and he suckled him with honey out of the rock,
    and oil out of the flinty rock.
14 Curds from the herd, and milk from the flock,
    with fat of lambs,
rams of Bashan and goats,
    with the very finest of the wheat—
    and you drank foaming wine made from the blood of the grape.

15 “But Jeshurun grew fat, and kicked;
    you grew fat, stout, and sleek;
then he forsook God who made him
    and scoffed at the Rock of his salvation.
16 They stirred him to jealousy with strange gods;
    with abominations they provoked him to anger.
17 They sacrificed to demons that were no gods,
    to gods they had never known,
to new gods that had come recently,
    whom your fathers had never dreaded.
18 You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you,
    and you forgot the God who gave you birth.” – Deuteronomy 32:10-18 ESV

The Lord’s song continues. It recounts how God discovered Jacob and his family, the nation of Israel, in Egypt, a desert land. God rescued the descendants of Jacob from their captivity in Egypt, where they had served as the slaves of Pharaoh for hundreds of years. God had heard their cries of despair and had sent Moses to be their deliverer. 

During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew. – Exodus 2:23-25 NLT

The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saw the plight of His chosen people and responded with compassion. He protected them like a mother eagle would its chicks. Using Jacob as a synonym for Israel, the poem describes how God cared for His own.

“he encircled him, he cared for him,
    he kept him as the apple of his eye” – Deuteronomy 32:19 ESV

Centuries of captivity in a foreign land had not changed God’s feelings about Jacob and his descendants. The circumstances surrounding their years in Egypt were not to be seen as proof of God’s abandonment of them. The promise He had made to Abraham still held. In fact, it was during their stay in Egypt that the family of Jacob increased in number from just over 70 people to a great nation numbering in the millions.

But the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them. – Exodus 1:7 ESV

And this meteoric growth was exactly what God had promised Abraham so many years earlier when He had called out of Haran.

I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you.” – Genesis 12:2-3 NLT

God had kept His promise. But His ways are not man’s ways. His methods don’t always make sense to us. The nation of Israel was born out of adversity. It grew up in the context of slavery and servitude. It was a nation in bondage, enslaved by the enemy and incapable of delivering itself from its predicament.

And it was in the midst of their darkest moment that God stepped in and did for them what they could not do for themselves. He delivered them from bondage. He set them free from captivity. And their rescue is indicative of what God has done for all those whom He has rescued from slavery to sin.

When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. – Romans 5:6 NLT

But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. – Romans 5:8 NLT

Paul describes us as having been “slaves to sin” (Romans 6:20). And Jesus said, “everyone who sins is a slave of sin” (John 8:34 NLT). But He has set us free. And “if the Son sets you free, you are truly free” (John 8:36 NLT).

The Israelites were set free from slavery in Egypt. God guided them out of their captivity, having delivered from the oppressive hand of Pharaoh. And when they left the land of Egypt, they did so with God alone as their guide and companion, having left the false gods of the Egyptians behind them. And God led them, fed them, and protected them all the way through the wilderness. But more than that, He taught them about obedience and faithfulness, using trials and difficulties to increase their trust in Him.

“Remember how the Lord your God led you through the wilderness for these forty years, humbling you and testing you to prove your character, and to find out whether or not you would obey his commands. Yes, he humbled you by letting you go hungry and then feeding you with manna, a food previously unknown to you and your ancestors. He did it to teach you that people do not live by bread alone; rather, we live by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. For all these forty years your clothes didn’t wear out, and your feet didn’t blister or swell. Think about it: Just as a parent disciplines a child, the Lord your God disciplines you for your own good.” – Deuteronomy 8:2-5 NLT

God was gracious and good to the people of Israel, providing them with an abundance of blessings in the form of tangible and practical resources intended to prolong and improve life.

…produce of the fields
…honey for from the cliffs
…olive oil from the hardest of rocks
…butter from the herd
…milk from the flock
…the fat of lambs
…rams and goats of Bashan
…the best of the kernels of wheat
…the juice of grapes

Even in the wilderness, they enjoyed the blessings of God. They ate well and were well-cared for by God. Even their wilderness experience was better than the years they had spent in captivity in Egypt. Walking with God in the wilderness is always better than living in slavery without Him.

God had set apart Israel as His own precious possession. They had done nothing to earn or deserve His gracious deliverance of them. And Moses had made this point quite clear earlier in the book of Deuteronomy.

“For you are a holy people, who belong to the LORD your God. Of all the people on earth, the LORD your God has chosen you to be his own special treasure.

“The LORD did not set his heart on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other nations, for you were the smallest of all nations! Rather, it was simply that the LORD loves you, and he was keeping the oath he had sworn to your ancestors. That is why the LORD rescued you with such a strong hand from your slavery and from the oppressive hand of Pharaoh, king of Egypt.” – Deuteronomy 7:6-8 NLT

The blessings of God were undeserved. His love for them was not based on any inherent worth in them. And He would continue to love them, in spite of them.

But this song was intended to bring witness against the Israelites, convicting them of their unfaithfulness to God. And to do so, it accentuates the unmerited favor of God. When they had been helpless slaves, God heard their cries and rescued them. He set them free from their oppression and misery, making them His own chosen possession, “the apple of his eye” (Deuteronomy 32:10 ESV). But would they remain so? Were the Israelites going to honor the one who set them free by keeping His commands and living in obedience to His will for them?

Even as they stood on the edge of the promised land, preparing to cross over and claim it as their own, God was revealing the sad truth about their fate. They would become slaves yet again. The people whom God had set free would once again find themselves living in bondage and surrounded by false gods and foreign overlords. They had been set apart by God but would choose not to live that way. They had been made His precious possession but would end up as little more than the property of their enemies. And the next verses of the song will explain how this dramatic change in circumstances will happen.

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

Guilty As Charged

30 Then Moses spoke the words of this song until they were finished, in the ears of all the assembly of Israel:

1 “Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak,
    and let the earth hear the words of my mouth.
2 May my teaching drop as the rain,
    my speech distill as the dew,
like gentle rain upon the tender grass,
    and like showers upon the herb.
3 For I will proclaim the name of the Lord;
    ascribe greatness to our God!

4 “The Rock, his work is perfect,
    for all his ways are justice.
A God of faithfulness and without iniquity,
    just and upright is he.
5 They have dealt corruptly with him;
    they are no longer his children because they are blemished;
    they are a crooked and twisted generation.
6 Do you thus repay the Lord,
    you foolish and senseless people?
Is not he your father, who created you,
    who made you and established you?
7 Remember the days of old;
    consider the years of many generations;
ask your father, and he will show you,
    your elders, and they will tell you.
8 When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance,
    when he divided mankind,
he fixed the borders of the peoples
    according to the number of the sons of God.
9 But the Lord’s portion is his people,
    Jacob his allotted heritage.” – Deuteronomy 31:30-32:9 ESV

At long last, Moses delivers the words of the song that God had given him. This powerful piece of poetry is really a prophetic oracle, contrasting the greatness and faithfulness of God with the wickedness and faithlessness of His chosen people. God had told Moses that its words would act as a witness against the people of Israel.

“Now therefore write this song and teach it to the people of Israel. Put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for me against the people of Israel.” – Deuteronomy 31:19 ESV

Every time they heard or recited its words of themselves, they would be convicted and reminded of the cause of their well-deserved guilt and shame. This poem pulls no punches. It is merciless in its exposure of Israel’s unprecedented treatment of their God. The prophet, Jeremiah, would later declare the absurd nature of Israel’s mistreatment of Yahweh, declaring on His behalf, “Has a nation ever changed its gods
(even though they are not really gods at all)? But my people have exchanged me, their glorious God, for a god that cannot help them at all!” (Jeremiah 2:11 NLT)

This poem contains a powerful indictment of Israel’s response to their gracious, all-powerful God. It paints a startling picture, detailing the shocking nature of their future treatment of Yahweh. And the words of this poem, given to Moses by God Himself, are intended to juxtapose Israel’s former glory as God’s children with their future status as abandoned orphans. 

“…they are no longer his children because they are blemished;
    they are a crooked and twisted generation.” – Deuteronomy 32:5 ESV

But the opening stanzas of this poem focus on God. He is hailed for His greatness, described as The Rock, and regaled for the perfection of His work and the justice of His ways. He is a God marked by faithfulness and devoid of any iniquity. He is just and upright in all that He does. And these descriptions are meant to make Israel’s decision to reject God all that more egregious. Why in the world would they choose to disobey and abandon a God as great as Yahweh? And this theme of God’s greatness and Israel’s undeserved status as His children is echoed throughout the Old Testament.

“For what great nation has a god as near to them as the LORD our God is near to us whenever we call on him?” – Deuteronomy 4:7 NLT

“How great you are, O Sovereign LORD! There is no one like you. We have never even heard of another God like you! What other nation on earth is like your people Israel? What other nation, O God, have you redeemed from slavery to be your own people? You made a great name for yourself when you redeemed your people from Egypt. You performed awesome miracles and drove out the nations and gods that stood in their way. You made Israel your very own people forever, and you, O LORD, became their God.” – 2 Samuel 7:22-24 NLT

And yet, the words of the song condemn them: “They have dealt corruptly with him” (Deuteronomy 32:5 ESV). And their treatment of God makes no sense. It is unparalleled in its absurdity and stupidity. What would possess them to turn their backs on a God as good and great as Yahweh? Why would they ever walk away from a relationship that provided them with so many blessings?

Their decision to abandon God makes no sense. There is no reasonable explanation that can justify their actions. Which is why they are described as crooked and twisted. In the Hebrew language, these two words are rich in meaning. They describe someone who is deceitful and perverse in heart. They are crafty and adept at twisting words and modeling behavior that is meant to deceive. They can’t be trusted.

Also, they’re foolish and senseless. Only a fool would turn his back on the one true God. Which is exactly what King David wrote in his psalm.

Only fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, and their actions are evil; not one of them does good! – Psalm 14:1 NLT

The Hebrew word translated as “senseless” is actually the word for “wise.” But it can also mean “wily, shrewd, cunning.” In other words, they are marked by human wisdom. But the Scriptures have much to say about such individuals, and none of it is good.

There is more hope for fools than for people who think they are wise. – Proverbs 26:12 NLT

What sorrow for those who are wise in their own eyes and think themselves so clever. – Isaiah 5:21 NLT

The way of a fool is right in his own opinion… – Proverbs 12:15 NLT

And these foolish, in all their self-inflated wisdom, have to answer the question: “Is this how you repay the Lord?” (Deuteronomy 32:6 ESV). If they were as smart as they thought they were, would they really want to treat God so flippantly and irreverently?

He is their Father and the one who created them. They owe their very existence to Him. And all they had to do was look back over their long and storied history as a nation to find proof of God’s goodness and greatness. They could ask their fathers and the elders of their people, and they could regale them with stories of God’s mighty acts on behalf of Israel. In fact, if the people of God had been faithful, they would have been sharing the stories of God’s greatness with each successive generation. The psalmist describes this process of cross-generational instruction which was intended to teach the children all the amazing stories of God’s past actions on behalf of His people.

Pay attention, my people, to my instruction!
Listen to the words I speak!
I will sing a song that imparts wisdom;
I will make insightful observations about the past.
What we have heard and learned—
that which our ancestors have told us—
we will not hide from their descendants.
We will tell the next generation
about the Lord’s praiseworthy acts,
about his strength and the amazing things he has done. – Psalm 78:1-4 NLT

But the people of Israel seem to have suffered from both short- and long-term memory loss. They didn’t pass on the stories of God’s mighty acts. They failed to tell the next generation of the Lord’s praiseworthy acts and the amazing things He has done. Which is why the book fo Judges opens up with the sad statement:

…another generation grew up who did not acknowledge the LORD or remember the mighty things he had done for Israel. The Israelites did evil in the LORD’s sight and served the images of Baal. They abandoned the LORD, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of Egypt. – Judges 2:10-12 NLT

How easy it is to forget the goodness and greatness of God. How quickly God’s people can find themselves losing the memory of God’s past activity in their lives. And forgetfulness leads to faithlessness. Our failure to recall God’s faithfulness in the past results in a tendency to doubt God for the future. We can even lose the ability to recognize His activity in the here-and-now. And when we do, we begin to act as if there is no God. And, in doing so, we become fools.

As the poem of God points out, the descendants of Jacob were going to forget who they were. They would lose sight of their unique status as God’s chosen people, living in the land He had graciously apportioned to them. Their privileged position as His treasured possession would become a distant memory, causing them to seek and to serve false gods.

But the song is far from over. God’s indictment of His people is far from finished. Their abandonment of Him would be complete, and His discipline for their treachery would be fully justified.

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

Not Exactly Music to the Ears

14 And the Lord said to Moses, “Behold, the days approach when you must die. Call Joshua and present yourselves in the tent of meeting, that I may commission him.” And Moses and Joshua went and presented themselves in the tent of meeting. 15 And the Lord appeared in the tent in a pillar of cloud. And the pillar of cloud stood over the entrance of the tent.

16 And the Lord said to Moses, “Behold, you are about to lie down with your fathers. Then this people will rise and whore after the foreign gods among them in the land that they are entering, and they will forsake me and break my covenant that I have made with them. 17 Then my anger will be kindled against them in that day, and I will forsake them and hide my face from them, and they will be devoured. And many evils and troubles will come upon them, so that they will say in that day, ‘Have not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us?’ 18 And I will surely hide my face in that day because of all the evil that they have done, because they have turned to other gods.

19 “Now therefore write this song and teach it to the people of Israel. Put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for me against the people of Israel. 20 For when I have brought them into the land flowing with milk and honey, which I swore to give to their fathers, and they have eaten and are full and grown fat, they will turn to other gods and serve them, and despise me and break my covenant. 21 And when many evils and troubles have come upon them, this song shall confront them as a witness (for it will live unforgotten in the mouths of their offspring). For I know what they are inclined to do even today, before I have brought them into the land that I swore to give.” 22 So Moses wrote this song the same day and taught it to the people of Israel. – Deuteronomy 31:14-22 ESV

There is no way to escape the fact that this is a sad section of Scripture. Moses has finished his address to the people of Israel, having recounted the law and warned them to stand by their commitment to keep it or face the consequences. He has given a copy of the law to the priests and elders, telling them to recite it before the people every seventh year as part of the annual celebration of the Feast of Booths. He has gone into great detail about the blessings and the curses, making sure the people were fully aware of just how serious God considered His covenant relationship with them.

Moses knows he won’t be going into the promised land. God has denied him that privilege because of his own failure to treat God as holy before the people. But, that has not kept Moses from doing everything in his power to prepare the people for their entrance into the promised land, including his selection of Joshua as his successor and their leader.

But as Moses and Joshua make their way into the tent of meeting so that God can commission Israel’s new shepherd, Moses has no way of knowing the news that awaits him. After reconfirming the fact that Moses will die outside the land of promise, God informs the two men that Israel will fail to keep their covenant commitment to Him. And, as a result, they will experience all the curses Moses warned them about.

“…this people will rise and whore after the foreign gods among them in the land that they are entering, and they will forsake me and break my covenant that I have made with them.” – Deuteronomy 31:16 ESV

God didn’t sugarcoat HIs message. He didn’t preface His remarks with a more positive spin, telling Moses and Joshua that there would be a period of relative obedience followed by the joy of His blessing. No, He cut to the chase and delivered the devastating news that Israel will prove to be unfaithful and, as a result, God’s “anger will be kindled against them in that day” (Deuteronomy 31:17 ESV).

As Moses and Joshua stood before the shekinah glory of God, in the form of the pillar of smoke, they must have been shocked at the message they heard. This was to have been a day of gladness and joy as the people prepared to enter the land promised to them by God more than half a century earlier. Moses and the people of Israel had waited a long time to get to this point, and now God was delivering the far-from-encouraging news that their stay in the land of promise would be temporary and would not end well. 

God warns that they will experience “many evils and troubles” and be devoured. He will end up forsaking them and hiding His face from them. Why? Because they will forsake Him and break the covenant they made with Him. They will worship false gods.

And yet, when it all happens, they will end up blaming God for all their problems, claiming that He has abandoned them.

“Have not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us?” – Deuteronomy 31:17 ESV

But in charging God with abandonment, they will be leaving out an important detail concerning their circumstances.

“I will surely hide my face in that day because of all the evil that they have done, because they have turned to other gods.” – Deuteronomy 31:18 ESV

They will be guilty of having left God, not the other way around. And God’s response will be exactly what He said He would do if they proved unfaithful to Him. This will not be a knee-jerk reaction on God’s part. Their abandonment by God and the destruction they will suffer as part of His judgment of them, will follow the pattern of curses outlined by Moses in this very same book.

And, as odd as it may sound, the text says that God taught Moses a song and instructed him to teach it to the people. What a strange scene this is. God has reminded Moses that he’s going to die. He’s confirmed that the people will prove to be rebellious and be cast out of the promised land. And poor Joshua, who was about to take over the reigns of leadership, had to sit back and hear this dispiriting news. He had to wonder why he was taking over the captaincy of what appeared to be a sinking ship.

To matters worse, God had written a song that would function as a witness against the nation of Israel, every time they sang it. The words of this God-ordained tune would convict and condemn the people, accentuating their personal culpability and God’s justice in bringing His judgment against them.

The rebellion of the people of Israel was assured. It wasn’t a matter of if they would rebel, but only a matter of when. It was inevitable and unavoidable. And God makes that point painfully clear.

“…when I have brought them into the land flowing with milk and honey, which I swore to give to their fathers, and they have eaten and are full and grown fat, they will turn to other gods and serve them, and despise me and break my covenant.” – Deuteronomy 31:20 ESV

Again, think about how this news must have hit Joshua. He hadn’t even officially taken over the leadership role from Moses and he was being told that his efforts would end in failure. Oh, they would make it into the land. They would even enjoy all the fruitfulness the land had to offer, but rather than being motivated to serve and love God out of gratefulness, they would respond to His goodness with unfaithfulness. And God warns that the song He has written will live in the collective memory of their children, long after the nation has fallen prey to their enemies and experienced the full force of God’s righteous judgment.

God knows the hearts of men. And His all-knowing nature allows Him to see the outcome of events before they have even happened. He knew what Israel was going to do. He was not going to be surprised by their rebellion, because He had already planned for it.

“For I know what they are inclined to do even today, before I have brought them into the land that I swore to give.” – Deuteronomy 31:21 ESV

God already knew that, even before the Israelites had crossed the border into the land of promise, they would one day cross it again as captives. They would walk in as free men and conquerors, but years later they would leave as slaves and the conquered. All because they had failed to remain faithful to God.

And this sad section of Deuteronomy ends with Moses teaching the words of God’s song to the people of Israel. We’re not told the words of the song, but they must have mirrored God’s pronouncement of unfaithfulness and future destruction. This poem or song would haunt the Israelites for generations to come. But it was meant to be a memorable song that would stick in their minds and act as a reminder of their need for faithfulness. And, no doubt, it was sung with great gusto over years. But it would not be until the Israelites had failed to remain faithful and fallen to the Assyrians and Babylonians, that the words of this song finally hit home. Only then would the meaning behind the lyrics make sense. But it would be too little, too late. And the singing would be replaced with the sounds of moaning and despair.

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

Read It and Keep It

9 Then Moses wrote this law and gave it to the priests, the sons of Levi, who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and to all the elders of Israel. 10 And Moses commanded them, “At the end of every seven years, at the set time in the year of release, at the Feast of Booths, 11 when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God at the place that he will choose, you shall read this law before all Israel in their hearing. 12 Assemble the people, men, women, and little ones, and the sojourner within your towns, that they may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God, and be careful to do all the words of this law, 13 and that their children, who have not known it, may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God, as long as you live in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess.” – Deuteronomy 31:9-13 ESV

Moses is about to commission Joshua as his official replacement. But before he conducts that auspicious ceremony where he will turn over the leadership of the people of Israel to his successor, Moses called together two other groups of God-appointed leaders. One was the priests, who were all members of the tribe of Levi. God’s appointment them as priests is recorded in the book of Numbers.

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Bring the tribe of Levi near, and set them before Aaron the priest, that they may minister to him. They shall keep guard over him and over the whole congregation before the tent of meeting, as they minister at the tabernacle. They shall guard all the furnishings of the tent of meeting, and keep guard over the people of Israel as they minister at the tabernacle. And you shall give the Levites to Aaron and his sons; they are wholly given to him from among the people of Israel. And you shall appoint Aaron and his sons, and they shall guard their priesthood. But if any outsider comes near, he shall be put to death.” – Numbers 3:5-10 ESV

The tribe of Levi had been set apart by God as substitutes for the firstborn sons of Israel. As a result of His sparing of all the firstborn male Israelites during the final plague in Egypt, God had claimed them as His own. They were to be dedicated to Him. But He later appointed the Levites to serve in this role. They would be the tribe from which the priestly order would come – the men who would serve in the tabernacle and offer sacrifices to God on behalf of the people. So, these men played an important role in the lives of the Israelites.

The second group of leaders Moses called upon was comprised of the elders of Israel. Back during the days when Israel was making their way from Egypt to the land of Canaan, Moses had become overwhelmed by the weight of his leadership responsibilities. So, God had provided him with a solution.

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Gather for me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them, and bring them to the tent of meeting, and let them take their stand there with you. And I will come down and talk with you there. And I will take some of the Spirit that is on you and put it on them, and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, so that you may not bear it yourself alone. – Numbers 11:16-17 ESV

The nation of Israel had grown too large for one man to lead them effectively. So, God provided Moses with a system for delegating authority among a group of well-qualified men. Their job was to come alongside Moses and to help him bear the burden of the people. And as Moses, prepared to turn over leadership to Joshua, he wanted the sons of Levi who served as priests and the elders of Israel to understand that they would play an important role in the future of the nation.

Moses provided them with a copy of the law and with instructions to guard and protect it. This document was going to be vital to the nation’s spiritual well-being. It would be the key to Israel experiencing the blessings of God. And Moses instructed these men to set aside a day every seventh (sabbatical) year on which they would call for a national assembly and read the law in the hearing of the people.

“At the end of every seventh year, the Year of Release, during the Festival of Shelters, you must read this Book of Instruction to all the people of Israel when they assemble before the Lord your God at the place he chooses.” – Deuteronomy 31:10-11 ESV

It was essential that the people remain well-educated concerning the content of God’s law. Not long after Moses had received the law from God, he had told the people of Israel:

“…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. Tie them to your hands and wear them on your forehead as reminders. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” – Deuteronomy 6:6-9 NLT

And God had given a command concerning the kings who would eventually reign over the nation.

“…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. 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, 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 17:18-20 ESV

By commanding the audible recitation of the law every seventh year by the priests and elders of Israel, Moses was ensuring that the people would have a regular reminder of their commitment to the law. Not only that, he tied it to the annual Feast of Booths, which was a commemoration of Israel’s release from captivity. As part of the feast, they constructed temporary “booths” or “tabernacles” meant to remind them of the years their ancestor spent wandering in the wilderness of their way to the land of promise.

The feast was timed to occur immediately after the fall harvest, and it was accompanied by sacrifices, offered in thanksgiving to God for His gracious provision. It was at this joyous occasion that the law was to be read aloud to the entire population of Israel “at the set time in the year of release, at the Feast of Booths” (Deuteronomy 31:10 ESV).

And Moses commanded that this solemn convocation was to include “the people, men, women, and little ones, and the sojourner within your towns, that they may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God, and be careful to do all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 31:12 ESV). No one was to be left out. And an important byproduct of this event was the instruction of their children regarding the law of God. 

“Do this so that your children who have not known these instructions will hear them and will learn to fear the Lord your God.” – Deuteronomy 31:13 NLT

And this reading of the law was to take place every seventh year for as long as the people of Israel lived in the land of Canaan. And since God had promised the land to them as a permanent possession, that means Moses expected the priests and elders to see their commitment to holding this solemn assembly as perpetual and never-ending in nature. 

It’s interesting to note that, by spacing this reading of the law at seven-year intervals, there would have been thousands of 7-year-old children attending the festival who had born into the Jewish community during the gap years. These children would have been mature enough to hear the law and understand it. So, if they had not had parents who taught it to them, they would at least hear it for themselves on their 7th birthday and every seventh year after that.

To say that the law was important to God would be a vast understatement. He cared greatly about His law and was adamant that His people know it and obey it. He wanted them to live their lives by it. He demanded that they be committed to it. He wanted the leaders of His people to be the protectors and disseminators of it – for generations to come. And this law was not just a list of rules to keep. It was written documentation of the commitment the people of Israel had made. They had promised to keep all the commandments of God, and He was not going to allow them to forget the nature of that commitment.

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

It’s All About God

1 “And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you, 2 and return to the Lord your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, 3 then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you. 4 If your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there the Lord your God will gather you, and from there he will take you. 5 And the Lord your God will bring you into the land that your fathers possessed, that you may possess it. And he will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers. 6 And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live. 7 And the Lord your God will put all these curses on your foes and enemies who persecuted you. 8 And you shall again obey the voice of the Lord and keep all his commandments that I command you today. 9 The Lord your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all the work of your hand, in the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your cattle and in the fruit of your ground. For the Lord will again take delight in prospering you, as he took delight in your fathers, 10 when you obey the voice of the Lord your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes that are written in this Book of the Law, when you turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.” – Deuteronomy 30:1-10 ESV

When studying a book like Deuteronomy, with its emphasis on the covenant and God’s expectations that the people of Israel know and keep the commands associated with that covenant, it is easy to place all the emphasis on man. After all, their future seems to be in their own hands. If they would simply keep the requirements of the law as God had commanded and as they had agreed to do, all would go well. They were the masters of their fate. Their decision to obey God’s law would bring blessing. Their choice to disobey would bring the curses of God.

And even a cursory study of Israel’s history would seem to indicate that they chose to take the latter path. After entering the land of promise, the general pattern of their corporate existence was that of disobedience and rebellion. Yes, there were moments when they adhered to God’s commands and experienced His blessings. But, for the most part, they proved to be far less compliant, earning themselves a reputation for unfaithfulness and a designation by God as an adulterous generation. And, eventually, all that God had warned them about happened. They ended up in captivity. It began with the split of the kingdom immediately after the reigh of King Solomon. His failure to remain faithful to God, evidenced by his construction of shrines to the false gods of his many wives, resulted in God dividing the once-powerful kingdom his father David had built.

The northern kingdom of Israel would be plagued by a long line of disobedient and idolatrous kings who would lead the nation into further rebellion against God. And, just as Moses had warned, the people would find themselves conquered and taken captive by the Assyrians.

The southern kingdom of Judah would take a bit longer to experience the same fate, but eventually, they too would suffer defeat at the hands of a foreign power. In their case, it would be the Babylonians, who would destroy the capital city of Jerusalem, demolish the temple, and haul the brightest and best of Judah back to Babylon as slaves.

That’s the less-than-flattering picture of Israel’s history, after they had conquered and possessed the land of Canaan. But in this chapter of Deuteronomy, Moses is still addressing them prior to their entrance into the land. And he tells them that, even if they should fail to obey God and one day find themselves living in captivity in a foreign land, they can still be restored. All they have to do is repent.

“…return to the Lord your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul…” – Deuteronomy 30:2 ESV

Once again, it would be easy to read this and put all the emphasis on the Israelites. All they had to do was repent and return to God. The ball would be in their court. The responsibility would be theirs. And Moses makes it clear what the outcome of their decision to repent will be:

“…then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you.” – Deuteronomy 30:3 ESV

Repent and be restored. That seems to be the gist of what Moses is telling them. The reward for their repentance will be their return to the land of Canaan.

“…the Lord your God will gather you…” – Deuteronomy 30:4 ESV

“…the Lord your God will bring you into the land that your fathers possessed…” – Deuteronomy 30:5 ESV

But while a study of Israel’s history does reveal that they were eventually returned to the land of Canaan, it doesn’t seem to be because of a spirit of corporate repentance among the people. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah indicate that only a small remnant of the people was willing to make the journey back to Judah when given permission by the Persian king, Cyrus. The vast majority of the people made the decision to remain right where they were, choosing the comfort of captivity over the prospect of a long and arduous trip back to their homeland where they would find their capital city and temple in a state of ruins.

There was no corporate repentance and the people of Judah had in no way shown that they had returned to the Lord with all their hearts and souls. And yet, God graciously returned a remnant to the land.

And Moses went on to explain in great detail what else God would do for His rebellious and unrepentant people.

“…he will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers…” – Deuteronomy 30:5 ESV

“…the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.” – Deuteronomy 30:6 ESV

“…the Lord your God will put all these curses on your foes and enemies who persecuted you.” – Deuteronomy 30:7 ESV

The Lord your God will make you abundantly prosperous…” – Deuteronomy 30:9 ESV

“…the Lord will again take delight in prospering you…” – Deuteronomy 30:9 ESV

The emphasis is on what God will do for them. He is the main focus of this chapter. God will do for them what they could have never done for themselves. He will restore them to the land, not because they have displayed a heart of repentance, but because He is a faithful, covenant-keeping God. And don’t miss what the result of God’s faithfulness will be.

“…you shall again obey the voice of the Lord and keep all his commandments that I command you today.” – Deuteronomy 30:8 ESV

Their obedience will be the result of God’s work, not their own decision to repent and return. The truth is, the people of Israel have yet to repent and return to God. Even after He graciously orchestrated their release from captivity in Babylon and allowed them to enter the land of Canaan once again, they never fully returned to Him with all their hearts and souls. Yes, they eventually rebuilt the city of Jerusalem, restored the temple, and reinstituted the sacrificial system. But they remained a disobedient and rebellious nation for generations to come. Jesus would even say of the people of Israel:

“You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote,

‘These people honor me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me.
Their worship is a farce,
    for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.’” – Matthew 15:7-9 NLT

When Jesus showed up on the scene, the people of Israel were living in spiritual darkness. The apostle John describes Jesus as the light of the world who penetrated that darkness, but the “people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (John 3:19 ESV). And despite Jesus’ offer of salvation, “his own people did not receive him” (John 1:11 ESV). In fact, they would be ones to demand His crucifixion and death. 

But God is not done with His people. And so much of what Moses is describing in chapter 30 of Deuteronomy has to do with God’s future restoration of the people of Israel. It has not yet taken place. They are still in a state of rebellion, exhibiting unrepentant hearts and a stubborn unwillingness to turn to Him as their sole source of help and hope. But the prophet Isaiah tells of a day, yet future, when God will change all that. One day He will redeem and restore His chosen people and return them to the land and reclaim them as His own. But it will all be the result of His divine mercy and grace.

“Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Lord God, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.” – Ezekiel 36:22-28 ESV

It’s all about God. He is the faithful one. He is the covenant-keeping God who never fails to do what He has promised to do.

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

Exodus Reversed

58 “If you are not careful to do all the words of this law that are written in this book, that you may fear this glorious and awesome name, the Lord your God, 59 then the Lord will bring on you and your offspring extraordinary afflictions, afflictions severe and lasting, and sicknesses grievous and lasting. 60 And he will bring upon you again all the diseases of Egypt, of which you were afraid, and they shall cling to you. 61 Every sickness also and every affliction that is not recorded in the book of this law, the Lord will bring upon you, until you are destroyed. 62 Whereas you were as numerous as the stars of heaven, you shall be left few in number, because you did not obey the voice of the Lord your God. 63 And as the Lord took delight in doing you good and multiplying you, so the Lord will take delight in bringing ruin upon you and destroying you. And you shall be plucked off the land that you are entering to take possession of it.

64 “And the Lord will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other, and there you shall serve other gods of wood and stone, which neither you nor your fathers have known. 65 And among these nations you shall find no respite, and there shall be no resting place for the sole of your foot, but the Lord will give you there a trembling heart and failing eyes and a languishing soul. 66 Your life shall hang in doubt before you. Night and day you shall be in dread and have no assurance of your life. 67 In the morning you shall say, ‘If only it were evening!’ and at evening you shall say, ‘If only it were morning!’ because of the dread that your heart shall feel, and the sights that your eyes shall see. 68 And the Lord will bring you back in ships to Egypt, a journey that I promised that you should never make again; and there you shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but there will be no buyer.” – Deuteronomy 28:58-68 ESV

In this last portion of chapter 28, Moses makes an unmistakable link between the future state of Israel and their former condition in Egypt. In effect, he describes them experiencing a reverse exodus. More than four decades earlier, God had graciously delivered the people of Israel from their captivity in Egypt and led them to the land of Canaan – the land He had promised to give to the descendants of Abraham. Now, as Moses attempts to prepare the people to enter the land and conquer it, he warns them of the dangers associated with disobeying God’s commands. If they fail to keep God’s laws, they will experience a litany of curses that will leave them in a state of physical and moral degradation.

And Moses ends his bone-chilling description of the curses of God by letting them know that they will experience a complete reversal of fortunes, including their return to captivity in Egypt.

“And the Lord will bring you back in ships to Egypt, a journey that I promised that you should never make again; and there you shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but there will be no buyer.” – Deuteronomy 28:68 ESV

Think about how this news would have impacted the Israelites. They were standing on the border of Canaan, preparing to enter the land God had promised as their inheritance, and now Moses is telling them that failure to comply with God’s laws will result in their return to their former state as slaves in Egypt. But long before that happens, they will have to endure the same kind of pain and suffering the Egyptians had endured as a result of the ten plagues brought upon them by God.

“…the Lord will bring on you and your offspring extraordinary afflictions, afflictions severe and lasting, and sicknesses grievous and lasting. And he will bring upon you again all the diseases of Egypt, of which you were afraid, and they shall cling to you.” – Deuteronomy 28:59-60 ESV

God had punished the Egyptians for their refusal to let His people go. Repeatedly, Moses had appeared before Pharaoh, asking that he release the Israelites from their captivity. But each time, Pharaoh had refused. And his stubborn resistance to the will of God had been met with a series of plagues that grew in their intensity. Eventually, God brought upon the entire nation of Egypt the death of the firstborn, a devastating tragedy that struck every household, including Pharaoh’s.

And Moses warns that all this and more will happen to the Israelites – should they choose to live in rebellion to God.

One of the things we tend to overlook or downplay in these warnings from Moses is the extreme dichotomy they represent. Things would not be as they were meant to be. The promised land had been meant to be a place of rest. It was intended to be the polar opposite of their time spend in Egypt. In fact, when God had chosen Moses to be the one to deliver the people of Israel from captivity, He had told him:

“I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey…” – Exodus 3:7-8 ESV

Canaan was to be a place of fruitfulness, abundance, blessing, rest, and peace. And the first time thei Israelites had arrived at the border, they had chosen to reject God’s command to enter the land, out of fear of its inhabitant. And the author of Hebrews used that ocassion as a lesson for New Testament Christians.

“Today when you hear his voice,
    don’t harden your hearts
    as Israel did when they rebelled.”

And who was it who rebelled against God, even though they heard his voice? Wasn’t it the people Moses led out of Egypt? And who made God angry for forty years? Wasn’t it the people who sinned, whose corpses lay in the wilderness? And to whom was God speaking when he took an oath that they would never enter his rest? Wasn’t it the people who disobeyed him? So we see that because of their unbelief they were not able to enter his rest. – Hebrews 3:15-19 NLT

They were not allowed to “enter his rest.” Their rebellion resulted in their deaths in the wilderness. That generation would spend 40 years wandering in the wilderness, until each of them had died off, before the next generation would be given another opportunity to obey God and conquer the land.

And Moses has warned that second generation not to repeat the mistakes of their forefathers, or they too would find themselves being cast out of the land. They would go from enjoying God’s rest to experiencing slavery in Egypt again.

It was God’s will that the people of Israel “fear this glorious and awesome name, the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 28:58 ESV). And Moses reminds the Israelites, “the Lord took delight in doing you good and multiplying you” (Deuteronomy 28:63 ESV). But their disobedience would result in the polar opposite reaction from God.

“The Lord will take delight in bringing ruin upon you and destroying you.” – Deuteronomy 28:63 ESV

God would leave the Israelites scattered, demoralized, oppressed, weary, and suffering from “a trembling heart and failing eyes and a languishing soul” (Deuteronomy 28:65 ESV). Their hearts will be filled with dread. Their lives will be marked by regret, loss, and a longing for each day to come to an end. But the nighttime will be no better. The hours will drag by as they long for the new day to dawn. Then the miserable cycle of frustration and despair will repeat itself.

And Moses ends this dismal list of curses with a bleak prediction of Israel restored to captivity in Egypt – right back to where they started. They will be forced to watch as the promised land fades into the distance as they make their way back to Egypt as slaves. They will endure the shame and humiliation of a reverse exodus. And their lives will once again be marked by bondage, not freedom. There will be no more rest. They will enjoy no more rewards or blessings from God. All because they decided to disobey the law 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

How Low Can You Go?

52 “They shall besiege you in all your towns, until your high and fortified walls, in which you trusted, come down throughout all your land. And they shall besiege you in all your towns throughout all your land, which the Lord your God has given you. 53 And you shall eat the fruit of your womb, the flesh of your sons and daughters, whom the Lord your God has given you, in the siege and in the distress with which your enemies shall distress you. 54 The man who is the most tender and refined among you will begrudge food to his brother, to the wife he embraces, and to the last of the children whom he has left, 55 so that he will not give to any of them any of the flesh of his children whom he is eating, because he has nothing else left, in the siege and in the distress with which your enemy shall distress you in all your towns. 56 The most tender and refined woman among you, who would not venture to set the sole of her foot on the ground because she is so delicate and tender, will begrudge to the husband she embraces, to her son and to her daughter, 57 her afterbirth that comes out from between her feet and her children whom she bears, because lacking everything she will eat them secretly, in the siege and in the distress with which your enemy shall distress you in your towns.”  Deuteronomy 28:52-57 ESV

These are disturbing verses. Their content is graphic and difficult to comprehend. And it is essential that we not forget the context. The people of Israel are poised to enter the land of Canaan and Moses has been addressing them for quite some time now. He has reiterated the law to them and reminded them of the blessings that will accompany obedience to God’s commands. But has also been warning them about the curses that will fall on them should they choose to rebel against God by disobeying His law.

But in these verses, Moses describes some very disturbing scenes that had to have left the Israelites appalled and shaking their heads in disbelief. They could never have imagined these kinds of things happening among their people. The graphic nature of Moses’ words would have been offensive and off-putting. Some probably accused Moses of resorting to scare tactics, using hyperbolic imagery in an attempt to goad them into fear-based compliance to God’s law. The thought of these kinds of hideous things happening among them would have been impossible to comprehend or even consider.

After all, Moses describes grotesque scenes of desperately hungry people resorting to cannibalism in order to keep from starving to death. The enemy has surrounded their city, creating a food-shortage within its wall and leaving the inhabitants with no food and little hope of survival. And this scene will be taking place all throughout the land of Canaan, as city after city comes under attack from a distant nation whom God will send against the people of Israel.

“The Lord will bring a nation against you from far away, from the end of the earth, swooping down like the eagle, a nation whose language you do not understand, a hard-faced nation who shall not respect the old or show mercy to the young.” – Deuteronomy 28:49-50 ESV

Once again, as far-fetched as all of this may have sounded to the people of Israel, Moses was actually providing a God-ordained glimpse into the future. He was revealing what will actually take place when the Assyrians come against the northern kingdom of Israel and, hundreds of years later, when the Babylonians sweep down on the southern kingdom of Judah. The dire circumstances Moses described would actually take place. And Moses would not be the only one to predict this unfathomable outcome. Hundreds of years later, the prophet, Jeremiah, would deliver the following warning from God to the people of Judah:

“And I will make this city a horror, a thing to be hissed at. Everyone who passes by it will be horrified and will hiss because of all its wounds. And I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and their daughters, and everyone shall eat the flesh of his neighbor in the siege and in the distress, with which their enemies and those who seek their life afflict them.” – Jeremiah 18:8-9 ESV

The book of Lamentations predicts this same implausible outcome.

Look, O Lord, and see!
    With whom have you dealt thus?
Should women eat the fruit of their womb,
    the children of their tender care?
Should priest and prophet be killed
    in the sanctuary of the Lord? – Lamentations 2:20 ESV

And the prophet Ezekiel would provide additional proof of God’s coming judgment.

“And because of all your abominations I will do with you what I have never yet done, and the like of which I will never do again. Therefore fathers shall eat their sons in your midst, and sons shall eat their fathers” – Ezekiel 5:9-10

That these atrocities actually took place is beyond debate. The Jewish historian, Josephus, records that, during the Roman siege of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, the city’s starving citizens resorted to eating their own children. He provides a detailed account of one such circumstance.

Among the residents of the region beyond Jordan was a woman called Mary, daughter of Eleazar, of the village of Bethezuba (the name means "House of Hyssop"). She was well off, and of good family, and had fled to Jerusalem with her relatives, where she became involved with the siege. Most of the property she had packed up and brought with her from Peraea had been plundered by the tyrants [Simon and John, leaders of the Jewish war-effort], and the rest of her treasure, together with such foods as she had been able to procure, was being carried by their henchmen in their daily raids. In her bitter resentment the poor woman cursed and abused these extortioners, and this incensed them against her. However, no one put her to death either from exasperation or pity. She grew weary of trying to find food for her kinsfolk. In any case, it was by now impossible to get any, wherever you tried. Famine gnawed at her vitals, and the fire of rage was ever fiercer than famine. So, driven by fury and want, she committed a crime against nature. Seizing her child, an infant at the breast, she cried, "My poor baby, why should I keep you alive in this world of war and famine? Even if we live till the Romans come, they will make slaves of us; and anyway, hunger will get us before slavery does; and the rebels are crueler than both. Come, be food for me, and an avenging fury to the rebels, and a tale of cold horror to the world to complete the monstrous agony of the Jews." With these words she killed her son, roasted the body, swallowed half of it, and stored the rest in a safe place. But the rebels were on her at once, smelling roasted meat, and threatening to kill her instantly if she did not produce it. – Josephus, The Jewish War

So, there’s little doubt that the words of Moses were far from idle threats. God was deadly serious and wanted His people to know that a disregard for His holy law would result a breakdown of the social fabric of Israelite society that would be unimaginable and incomprehensible.

Josephus would go on to describe the scene that took place behind the walls of Jerusalem as “an act unparalleled in the history of either the Greeks or the barbarians, and as horrible to relate as it is incredible to hear.”

The curses of God would render every man and woman into selfish and self-protective beasts whose only concern would become their own personal survival. Love of God and love of others would be the farthest thing from their minds. The thought of a killing and consuming her own child is beyond comprehension. But the judgment of God against the repeated rebellion of His people would be so severe that the unthinkable would become commonplace. What was once immoral would become acceptable and unavoidable. 

The Israelites, who at one time had enjoyed special status as His chosen people, would eventually become guilty of committing some of the most heinous and morally repugnant acts ever committed by humanity. And as Moses has pointed out, it will begin with their decision to disobey the commands of God. The “tender and refined” among them would become the cold-hearted and callous. Rebellion against God is downward spiral with a trajectory that is difficult to reverse. And these mind-boggling, sensibility-shocking descriptions of the once-law-abiding Israelites resorting to cannibalism may be difficult to comprehend, but they would be the unavoidable outcome of a willful choice to reject the will of God by disobeying the law 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

Disobedience, Discipline, and Destruction

36 “The Lord will bring you and your king whom you set over you to a nation that neither you nor your fathers have known. And there you shall serve other gods of wood and stone. 37 And you shall become a horror, a proverb, and a byword among all the peoples where the Lord will lead you away. 38 You shall carry much seed into the field and shall gather in little, for the locust shall consume it. 39 You shall plant vineyards and dress them, but you shall neither drink of the wine nor gather the grapes, for the worm shall eat them. 40 You shall have olive trees throughout all your territory, but you shall not anoint yourself with the oil, for your olives shall drop off. 41 You shall father sons and daughters, but they shall not be yours, for they shall go into captivity. 42 The cricket shall possess all your trees and the fruit of your ground. 43 The sojourner who is among you shall rise higher and higher above you, and you shall come down lower and lower. 44 He shall lend to you, and you shall not lend to him. He shall be the head, and you shall be the tail.

45 “All these curses shall come upon you and pursue you and overtake you till you are destroyed, because you did not obey the voice of the Lord your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes that he commanded you. 46 They shall be a sign and a wonder against you and your offspring forever. 47 Because you did not serve the Lord your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart, because of the abundance of all things, 48 therefore you shall serve your enemies whom the Lord will send against you, in hunger and thirst, in nakedness, and lacking everything. And he will put a yoke of iron on your neck until he has destroyed you. 49 The Lord will bring a nation against you from far away, from the end of the earth, swooping down like the eagle, a nation whose language you do not understand, 50 a hard-faced nation who shall not respect the old or show mercy to the young. 51 It shall eat the offspring of your cattle and the fruit of your ground, until you are destroyed; it also shall not leave you grain, wine, or oil, the increase of your herds or the young of your flock, until they have caused you to perish.”  Deuteronomy 28:36-51 ESV

How much worse can it get? Evidently, much worse. Because Moses is far from done with his compilation of curses that will come upon the Israelites should they fail to obey God’s commands. And for anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of Israel’s history, his list has gone from premonitory to prophetic. These are no longer warnings concerning what might happen, but bold predictions of what will be.

Look at the specificity of Moses’ warning. He speaks of a king who will reign over Israel - a man whom they will appoint. What makes this significant is that there has been no talk of a king before. Israel was a theocracy, with God as their sovereign King. And yet, Moses describes their chosen king being taken into captivity by a previously unknown nation. This was going to be a human king whom they appointed as a replacement for God. And that is exactly what happened hundreds of years later when the people of Israel demanded that the prophet, Samuel, choose a king for them.

“Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.” – 1 Samuel 8:5 ESV

This took place after the period of the judges, when the people of Israel had repeatedly rebelled against God and suffered many of the curses Moses had warned them about. Each time they rebelled, the judgment of God came and they would cry out to God. He would respond by sending a judge to rescue and rule over them. This would result in a brief period of repentance and renewal, but was always followed by more rebellion. And the cycle would repeat itself. But eventually, the people demanded a king, a man who would rule over them just like the kings who reigned over all the other nations. And God made it  clear to Samuel that, in demanding a king, the people were rejecting Him.

“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 8:7 ESV

It wasn’t that God had never intended for Israel to have a king. It was that their timing was poor and their motivation was wrong. Earlier in the book of Deuteronomy, God had told the people of Israel that the day would come when they would demand a king, but He also told them that the man  would have to meet certain requirements.

“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,’ 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.” – Deuteronomy 17:14-15 ESV

The man who served as king would be chosen by God and would have to be knowledgeable of and obedient to His law.

“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. 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, 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 17:18-20 ESV

But, here in chapter 28 of Deuteronomy, Moses describes a future scene where the king of Israel is being deported as a slave to a foreign country. The nation of Israel has fallen and the king is just one more captive being transported out of the land of promise by his conquering foes. And all because he failed to keep the words of the law and the statutes God had given them.

And in the new surroundings of their captivity, the Israelites will “shall serve other gods of wood and stone” (Deuteronomy 28:36 ESV). Having rejected God and His law, they will find themselves worshiping the false gods of their enemy. No longer set apart as God’s chosen people, living in the land of promise, they will experience the pain of captivity yet again. It will be Egypt all over again. Rather than being the prized possession of God, Moses warns them they will “become an object of horror, ridicule, and mockery among all the nations to which the Lord sends you” (Deuteronomy 28:37 ESV). And even in captivity, things will go from bad to worse. The curses will continue.

They will continue to experience fruitlessness and lack of productivity in their agricultural pursuits. Due to insects and disease, their harvests will be small. Any children they bear in captivity will end up as slaves. Rather than enjoying their former status as God’s chosen people, they’ll find themselves living in abject poverty while the non-Jews among them experience prosperity. Being a Jew will become a liability, not an asset. 

And Moses makes clear why these things will happen: “because you did not obey the voice of the Lord your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes that he commanded you” (Deuteronomy 28:45 ESV). It all hinges on their decision to disobey God’s law. Their disobedience will not only bring God’s discipline, it will ultimately result in their destruction. Disobedience, like cancer, has a way of spreading and growing, eventually infecting the entire body. The decision to rebel against God produces subsequent acts of rebellion, hardening the heart and producing a stubbornness that makes repentance increasingly more difficult.  And the just and righteous judgment of God requires that He discipline rebellion quickly and decisively.

Moses warned that the curses he was discussing would come as a result of disobedience, but he added that they would serve as proof of their failure to serve God with joy and gladness of heart.

“All these curses shall come upon you and pursue you and overtake you till you are destroyed…Because you did not serve the Lord your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart. – Deuteronomy 28:45, 47 ESV

And their disobedience will result in God’s discipline and, ultimately, their destruction. God will not relent until they repent. The curses will continue and increase in intensity until Israel is completely destroyed. Moses drives that point home four different times in seven verses.

…till you are destroyed. – vs. 45

…until he has destroyed you. – vs. 48

until you are destroyed. – vs. 51

…until they have caused you to perish. – vs. 51

The sad reality will be that, in spite of God’s generosity, kindness, and compassion, the people of Israel will fail to respond to Him in gratitude, joy, and gladness. And, while Moses will go out of his way to warn the people about the judgments of God that come on all who disobey Him, the people of Israel will regularly and repeatedly prove to be unfaithful. And as this passage points out and history will prove true, Israel will suffer the consequences.

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 Reversal of Fortunes

15 “But if you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you. 16 Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the field. 17 Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. 18 Cursed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock. 19 Cursed shall you be when you come in, and cursed shall you be when you go out.

20 “The Lord will send on you curses, confusion, and frustration in all that you undertake to do, until you are destroyed and perish quickly on account of the evil of your deeds, because you have forsaken me. 21 The Lord will make the pestilence stick to you until he has consumed you off the land that you are entering to take possession of it. 22 The Lord will strike you with wasting disease and with fever, inflammation and fiery heat, and with drought and with blight and with mildew. They shall pursue you until you perish. 23 And the heavens over your head shall be bronze, and the earth under you shall be iron. 24 The Lord will make the rain of your land powder. From heaven dust shall come down on you until you are destroyed.” – Deuteronomy 28:15-24 ESV

Obey God, and things will go well with you. That is the basic message behind verses 1-14. But, at any point, should you choose to disobey God, you can expect things to take a decidedly different turn – for the worse.

Over the next 54 verses, Moses is going to provide a detailed explanation of the curses that will fall on the people of Israel if and when they choose to disobey God’s laws. And the first part of the list contains a very noticeable and intentional contrast to the blessings outlined in verses 1-14. Moses basically removed the word, “blessed” and replaced it with the word, “cursed.”

Your towns and your fields
    will be cursed.
Your fruit baskets and breadboards
    will be cursed.
Your children and your crops
    will be cursed.
The offspring of your herds and flocks
    will be cursed.
Wherever you go and whatever you do,
    you will be cursed. – Deuteronomy 28:16-19 NLT

Things would go from good to bad. Fruitfulness would turn to barrenness. Productivity would languish. Prosperity would greatly diminish. And the doom and gloom would follow them wherever they went. There would be no escape. They could disobey God, but they would never be free of His just and righteous punishment.  As the blessings would be a constant reminder of His power and presence, so would be the curses. To disobey God is to act as if God does not even exist or, if He does, He lacks the power to do anything about your disobedience. That’s why King David described the one who chooses to disobey God as a 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

Another psalmist echoed David’s sentiments when he wrote:

In the pride of his face the wicked does not seek him;
all his thoughts are, “There is no God.” – Psalm 10:4 ESV

But Moses makes it clear that the people of Israel can run from God, but they will find no place to hide. He will find them and punish them for their sins. They can act as if there is no God, but that will do nothing to eliminate the wrath of God against them for their rebellion.

“The Lord will send on you curses, confusion, and frustration in all that you undertake to do, until you are destroyed and perish quickly on account of the evil of your deeds, because you have forsaken me.” – Deuteronomy 28:20 ESV

Moses promises three things: mĕerah, mĕhuwmah, and mig`ereth. These three alliterative Hebrew words each have significant meaning and, together, they paint a bleak image of the results of God’s curses. The first word, mĕerah, is not the same one used for curses throughout this passage. That word is 'arar. The kind of curses to which Moses refers in verse 20 seem to be the byproducts or outcomes of God’s original imprecations. The fruitlessness and barrenness brought on by God will result in further, more advanced problems, like hunger and starvation. The inability to bear children will result in smaller family units and a diminishing population. Things will go from bad to worse.

And this will bring with it mĕhuwmah, a word for turmoil, confusion, or disquietude. Anxiety and lack of peace will be the order of the day. Which reminds me of the phrase:

Know God, know peace. No God, no peace.

The curses of God will leave the people of Israel in a state of confusion and unrest. Moses uses the same word used to describe a rich man who has everything but lacks a fear of God.

Better is a little with the fear of the Lord
    than great treasure and trouble [mĕhuwmah] with it. – Proverbs 15:16 ESV

The third word Moses uses is mig`ereth, which means “rebuke” or “reproof.” The ESV and NSRV translate this word as “frustration.” Its only occurrence in the Bible is in this verse, so its exact meaning is difficult to nail down. But it seems that these three words are meant to convey the outcome or result of the curses of God. So, it makes more sense to see it as the byproduct of God’s rebuke or reproof, which would be feelings of frustration and confusion. The root word for mig`ereth is ga`ar and it is used by the Psalmist to describe the reproach and contempt felt by those who arrogantly disobey God.

You rebuke the arrogant, the cursed,
Who wander from Your commandments.
Take away reproach and contempt from me,
For I observe Your testimonies. – Psalm 119:21-22 NASB

God’s curses will have long-lasting and debilitating consequences. They will leave the people of Israel in a confused and perplexing state, facing the unrelenting rebuke of their God and the reproach of their enemies.

And just so the people of Israel fully understand the severity of these curses, Moses describes them as being accompanied by pestilence, wasting disease, “and with fever, inflammation and fiery heat, and with drought and with blight and with mildew” (Deuteronomy 28:22 ESV). Not exactly a pleasant proposition. His curses will prove to be all-consuming, bringing His full wrath to bear until, as Moses so unapologetically puts it, “you are destroyed” (Deuteronomy 28:24 ESV).

This will not be a temporary or partial rebuke. It will be comprehensive and complete, leaving the formerly chosen people of God devastated and utterly destroyed. And in the following verses, Moses will describe with painstaking detail how the destruction will come. Every area of Israelite life will be impacted. They will experience curses, confusion, and frustration from all sides. Their enemies will defeat them. Diseases will consume them. Oppression and injustice will plague them. Enslavement will eventually befall them. And all as a result of disobedience to God’s law.

As the people of Israel prepared to enter the land of promise, things should have been looking up for them. They were about to inherit the land God had promised to Abraham. After a four-century delay, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were about to occupy the land flowing with milk and honey. But their occupation of the land would come with conditions. They were going to have to obey the commands of God. It was that simple. And this section of Deuteronomy contains God’s clear and compelling warning of just how serious He was about their adherence to His commands. He has Moses spend what appears to be an inordinate amount of time communicating the consequences that accompany obedience and disobedience. And the two lists are meant to be dramatically and deliberately different. There should be no confusion. The Israelites will have no excuses. They will not be able to say, “We didn’t know!” They will not be able to claim ignorance. By the time Moses is done, the list of curses will be long and unmistakably clear.

“…if you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you.” – Deuteronomy 28:15 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

It Pays to Obey

1 “And if you faithfully obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. 2 And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the Lord your God. 3 Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field. 4 Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground and the fruit of your cattle, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock. 5 Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. 6 Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out.

7 “The Lord will cause your enemies who rise against you to be defeated before you. They shall come out against you one way and flee before you seven ways. 8 The Lord will command the blessing on you in your barns and in all that you undertake. And he will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. 9 The Lord will establish you as a people holy to himself, as he has sworn to you, if you keep the commandments of the Lord your God and walk in his ways. 10 And all the peoples of the earth shall see that you are called by the name of the Lord, and they shall be afraid of you. 11 And the Lord will make you abound in prosperity, in the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your livestock and in the fruit of your ground, within the land that the Lord swore to your fathers to give you. 12 The Lord will open to you his good treasury, the heavens, to give the rain to your land in its season and to bless all the work of your hands. And you shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow. 13 And the Lord will make you the head and not the tail, and you shall only go up and not down, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you today, being careful to do them, 14 and if you do not turn aside from any of the words that I command you today, to the right hand or to the left, to go after other gods to serve them.” – Deuteronomy 28:1-14 ESV

Obedience has its benefits. Ten times in 14 verses, the words blessed, bless, and blessing occur. And while God had the Levites begin this solemn ceremony by reciting a list of 12 curses, the next words out their mouths were all about the goodness and graciousness of God that accompanies obedience to Him.

This section opens up with the qualifying statement, “if you faithfully obey…” In Hebrew, it is actually one word: shama`. And that one word carries the connotation of hearing with the intention of obeying. God’s commands were not to go in one ear and out the other. They were to be carefully heard and faithfully obeyed. To hear God’s law but disregard it would not only be disobedience but a sign of disrespect for God. To reject His holy and righteous law would be to reject Him. And such behavior would result in curses. But for the one who faithfully heard and obeyed, there would be unprecedented blessings.

But there is a second qualifying statement that accompanies this list of blessings. Not only were the Israelites to faithfully obey God’s law, but they were also to be “careful to do” all that He had commanded. In Hebrew, that little phrase is shamar `asah, and it adds another level of commitment to the Israelites’ observance of God’s law. The first word carries the idea of keeping or guarding. It paints a word picture of someone building a hedge of thorns around something in order to protect it. They were to keep and preserve God’s law like a beloved garden or a flock of lambs.

But the second word, `asah, adds an important next step. It means “to work” or “ to do.” What good would it be to build a hedge around a garden but to never work that garden so that it produced fruit? What a waste of time it would be to place your sheep in a fold you have built to protect them, but then fail to care for them. God wanted His people to guard His law as if it was their most precious possession. But He also wanted them to do what it said. He wanted them to do the work of keeping His law.

And if they did, they would reap the rewards that come with obedience. And God went out of His way to clarify just how great their reward would be.

“…the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth.” – Deuteronomy 28:1 ESV

God would make the people of Israel the most exalted nation on all the earth. And this promise of prominence is repeated in these verses for added emphasis.

“The Lord will cause your enemies who rise against you to be defeated before you.” – Deuteronomy 28:7 ESV

“The Lord will establish you as a people holy to himself…” – Deuteronomy 29:9 ESV

“And all the peoples of the earth shall see that you are called by the name of the Lord, and they shall be afraid of you.” – Deuteronomy 28:10 ESV

“And you shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow. And the Lord will make you the head and not the tail…” – Deuteronomy 28:12-13 ESV

Prominence, power, prosperity, and a preferred position as His holy possession. All of it would be theirs if they would only obey His law. And God gave them a long list of practical outcomes that would accompany their obedience. They would experience His blessings in every area of their lives. Whether they lived in the city or the country, His blessings would find them. His blessings would take the form of fruitful families, flocks, and farms. When they sat down to eat, there would always be plenty of food. When they traveled, the blessings of God would go with them.

In battle, they would always be victorious. In farming, they would always be productive. In business, they would always be prosperous. Their families and flocks would be large. Their reputation as a holy people, set apart by God, would spread and their success would be proof that their God was both great and good. Even the pagan nations would marvel at the many blessings enjoyed by the people of Israel. The kinds of outcomes described in these verses were exactly what the pagan nations looked for from their own gods. They saw their false gods as the distributors of everything from rain and sunshine to fruitfulness and prosperity. Their worship was a constant exercise in attempting to placate and please their fickle and penurious gods. So, when they witness all the blessings coming to the Israelites, they would automatically know the source was divine. And they would be jealous. 

But there is a caveat that runs throughout these verses, and it must not be overlooked. The blessings of God were directly tied to the obedience of His people.

if you faithfully obey…” – vs. 1

if you obey the voice of the Lord your God…” – vs. 2

if you keep the commandments of the Lord your God and walk in his ways.” – vs. 9

if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God.” – vs. 13

if you do not turn aside from any of the words that I command you today…” – vs. 14

This was a conditional covenant. They had to do their part. If they wanted to enjoy the blessings of God, they were going to have to hear and obey His law. Obedience was the key to His blessings. And obedience was going to require that they trust Him. Because everything was going to cause them to doubt the veracity of God’s word and the reality of His blessings. They would be tempted to take shortcuts. They would find themselves wanting to compromise their convictions and to copy the behavior of their pagan neighbors. God’s law would eventually become burdensome to them. All His rules and regulations would begin to feel stifling and restrictive. And the enemy would begin to cause them to question God’s will, filling their minds with the same question he raised to Eve in the garden: “Did God actually say…?” (Genesis 3:1).

That is why Moses had them write the law on stones and build a memorial. It’s why they were to conduct this ceremony between Mount Elba and Mount Gerizim. They were to remember exactly what God said and never forget it. They were to teach God’s law to their children. They were to memorize it, memorialize it, and make every effort to live by it. Otherwise, they would find themselves disobeying it. And disobedience would result in curses, not blessings.

And this section ends with a description of the greatest form of disobedience: Idolatry. If the people turned their away from God’s law, they would end up pursuing other gods. Failure to obey God ultimately leads to unfaithfulness to God. Rejection of God’s law leads to spiritual adultery. But why would God’s people turn to a false god when the one true God was the only source of blessing? Because their disobedience would lead to curses, which would cause them to seek the help of false gods. They would turn to the gods of their enemies rather than willingly obey the God of their ancestors. And as the Bible painstakingly reveals, that would be the less-than-flattering fate of the people 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

The Curses

11 That day Moses charged the people, saying, 12 “When you have crossed over the Jordan, these shall stand on Mount Gerizim to bless the people: Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, and Benjamin. 13 And these shall stand on Mount Ebal for the curse: Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali. 14 And the Levites shall declare to all the men of Israel in a loud voice:

15 “‘Cursed be the man who makes a carved or cast metal image, an abomination to the Lord, a thing made by the hands of a craftsman, and sets it up in secret.’ And all the people shall answer and say, ‘Amen.’

16 “‘Cursed be anyone who dishonors his father or his mother.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’

17 “‘Cursed be anyone who moves his neighbor’s landmark.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’

18 “‘Cursed be anyone who misleads a blind man on the road.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’

19 “‘Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’

20 “‘Cursed be anyone who lies with his father's wife, because he has uncovered his father’s nakedness.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’

21 “‘Cursed be anyone who lies with any kind of animal.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’

22 “‘Cursed be anyone who lies with his sister, whether the daughter of his father or the daughter of his mother.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’

23 “‘Cursed be anyone who lies with his mother-in-law.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’

24 “‘Cursed be anyone who strikes down his neighbor in secret.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’

25 “‘Cursed be anyone who takes a bribe to shed innocent blood.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’

26 “‘Cursed be anyone who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’” – Deuteronomy 27:11-26 ESV

In this passage are recorded the words of Moses instructing the Israelites to conduct a special ceremony in conjunction with the construction of the memorial and the altar to God. Moses had made it clear that these things were to be high priorities, having instructed the people to complete them “on the day you cross over the Jordan to the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Deuteronomy 27:2 ESV). The inscribing of the law onto the plastered stones, the building of the altar to God, and the offering of sacrifices to Him were all to be completed within the first 24 hours of their arrival in the land. And verses 11-26 contain one more important task the people were obligated to complete that very first day.

As soon as they crossed over the Jordan, Joshua was to divide the tribes into two separate groups. One group was to stand on Mount Ebal, while the other was to make their way to Mount Gerizim. The Levites would stand in the valley between the two mountains and shout out the blessings and curses that would come with their decision to keep or disobey the law of God.

The fulfillment of this order from Moses is recorded in the book of Joshua.

At that time Joshua built an altar to the Lord, the God of Israel, on Mount Ebal, just as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded the people of Israel, as it is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, “an altar of uncut stones, upon which no man has wielded an iron tool.” And they offered on it burnt offerings to the Lord and sacrificed peace offerings. And there, in the presence of the people of Israel, he wrote on the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he had written. And all Israel, sojourner as well as native born, with their elders and officers and their judges, stood on opposite sides of the ark before the Levitical priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, half of them in front of Mount Gerizim and half of them in front of Mount Ebal, just as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded at the first, to bless the people of Israel. And afterward he read all the words of the law, the blessing and the curse, according to all that is written in the Book of the Law. There was not a word of all that Moses commanded that Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel, and the women, and the little ones, and the sojourners who lived among them. – Joshua 8:30-35 ESV

But it is important to note that this event took place after the Israelites had won a victory against Jericho, an endeavor that took six days to complete. This was followed by an attempt by the Israelites to defeat the city of Ai. But because of sin in the camp, the Israelites were routed by the people of Ai. After several days of delay, during which Joshua ascertained the guilty party and had him executed, the Israelites finally defeated the city of Ai. But more than a week had passed since they had entered the land. It was after their destruction of Ai and its inhabitants that Joshua finally got around the carrying out the instructions given to them by Moses.

When Israel had finished killing all the inhabitants of Ai in the open wilderness where they pursued them, and all of them to the very last had fallen by the edge of the sword, all Israel returned to Ai and struck it down with the edge of the sword. And all who fell that day, both men and women, were 12,000, all the people of Ai. But Joshua did not draw back his hand with which he stretched out the javelin until he had devoted all the inhabitants of Ai to destruction. Only the livestock and the spoil of that city Israel took as their plunder, according to the word of the Lord that he commanded Joshua. So Joshua burned Ai and made it forever a heap of ruins, as it is to this day. And he hanged the king of Ai on a tree until evening. And at sunset Joshua commanded, and they took his body down from the tree and threw it at the entrance of the gate of the city and raised over it a great heap of stones, which stands there to this day. – Joshua 8:24-29 ESV

One of the things Moses had repeatedly warned the people about was the need for them to obey God completely. He had clearly warned them, “You shall therefore obey the voice of the Lord your God, keeping his commandments and his statutes, which I command you today” (Deuteronomy 27:10 ESV).

And yet, just days after having entered the land and after having experienced a miraculous victory over the city of Jericho, God accused the entire nation of unfaithfulness.

“Israel has sinned; they have transgressed my covenant that I commanded them; they have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen and lied and put them among their own belongings.” – Joshua 7:11 ESV

While it turned out that one man was guilty of the crime, God held the entire nation accountable. And until Achan was exposed as the guilty party and dealt with accordingly, God’s judgment would hang over every single Israelite. God warned them that they must deal with the sin in their midst, or they would continue to fall before their enemies.

“Therefore the people of Israel cannot stand before their enemies. They turn their backs before their enemies, because they have become devoted for destruction. I will be with you no more, unless you destroy the devoted things from among you.” – Joshua 7:12 ESV

Once Achan and his family were eliminated, the curse was lifted and the people enjoyed a great victory over Ai.

So, when Joshua finally got around to carrying out Moses’ instructions regarding the memorial of stones, the building the altar to God, and the recitation of the blessings and the curses, he had the full attention of the people. They had just seen first-hand what happens when anyone disregards or disobeys God’s commands. Thirty-six Israelites had needlessly died in battle against Ai because Achan had chosen to disobey God.

The recitation of the blessings and curses was intended to remind the people of Israel of just how serious God was about obedience. The people would have walked anywhere from 20 to 25 miles to get from Ai to Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim, in spite of their weariness after two battles.

Their defeat against the city of Ai was a powerful reminder of just how dependent they were upon God and how vital the link was between their obedience to God and their future success in the land. If they chose to disregard God’s laws and do things their way, they would find themselves isolated and alone, fighting battles without the assistance and power of God. 

There are 12 curses listed in this section, perhaps as a recognition of the 12 tribes of Israel. The list appears to be rather random, dealing with everything from idolatry to lack of love for one’s neighbor. The diversity of the offenses seems intended to represent the broad application of the law to every area of daily life. Any form of disobedience was going to bring the curse of God against them. It was not the significance or seeming magnitude of the transgression that mattered. It was the disobedience itself.

Dishonoring your mother and father, moving a neighbor’s boundary marker, taking advantage of a blind person, or failing to show justice would all result in a curse upon the nation. And with the reading of each successive curse, the people were to shout their affirmation by saying, “Amen!” This word in Hebrew simply means “So be it!” The people of Israel were affirming their understanding of the curse and acknowledging that God was just and righteous in His pronouncement of it. The punishment fit the crime.

Disobedience of God’s holy law was going to have consequences. He had given them free will to obey or disobey, but their choice would not be without ramifications. And as we will see in the next section of verses, the decision to obey God always delivers a far better outcome.

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

Obedience and Blessing

12 “When you have finished paying all the tithe of your produce in the third year, which is the year of tithing, giving it to the Levite, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, so that they may eat within your towns and be filled, 13 then you shall say before the Lord your God, ‘I have removed the sacred portion out of my house, and moreover, I have given it to the Levite, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, according to all your commandment that you have commanded me. I have not transgressed any of your commandments, nor have I forgotten them. 14 I have not eaten of the tithe while I was mourning, or removed any of it while I was unclean, or offered any of it to the dead. I have obeyed the voice of the Lord my God. I have done according to all that you have commanded me. 15 Look down from your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless your people Israel and the ground that you have given us, as you swore to our fathers, a land flowing with milk and honey.’

16 “This day the Lord your God commands you to do these statutes and rules. You shall therefore be careful to do them with all your heart and with all your soul. 17 You have declared today that the Lord is your God, and that you will walk in his ways, and keep his statutes and his commandments and his rules, and will obey his voice. 18 And the Lord has declared today that you are a people for his treasured possession, as he has promised you, and that you are to keep all his commandments, 19 and that he will set you in praise and in fame and in honor high above all nations that he has made, and that you shall be a people holy to the Lord your God, as he promised.” – Deuteronomy 26:12-19 ESV

In verse 10, Moses instructed the people of Israel to bring their firstfruit offerin and “set it down before the Lord your God and worship before the Lord your God.” So, the offering was to be considered a form of worship. But there was more to the worship of God than the bringing of the required tithes and offerings. God was looking for sacrifice that was accompanied by a heart that reflected a love for God and others. Years later, the prophet, Amos would record God’s words of condemnation directed at the disobedient people of Israel.

“I hate all your show and pretense—
    the hypocrisy of your religious festivals and solemn assemblies.
I will not accept your burnt offerings and grain offerings.
    I won’t even notice all your choice peace offerings.
Away with your noisy hymns of praise!
    I will not listen to the music of your harps.
Instead, I want to see a mighty flood of justice,
    an endless river of righteous living.” – Amos 5:21-24 NLT

So, after reminding the people of Israel to bring the firstfruits of their very first harvest to the Lord, Moses adds another important point of reminder. He reiterates God’s earlier command to provide a special offering designed to care for the poor and needy among them. This regulation was covered in chapter 14 of Deuteronomy.

“At the end of every three years you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in the same year and lay it up within your towns. And the Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance with you, and the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, who are within your towns, shall come and eat and be filled, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands that you do.” – Deuteronomy 14:28-20 ESV

And Moses wants the people to keep this important command, because it would not only not their willingness to obey God, but would express their love for the less fortunate among them. Every third year, the firstfruits offering, which was intended as a form of provision for the Levites, was to be shared with the down and out, “so that they may eat within your towns and be filled” (Deuteronomy 26:12 ESV). God made provision for the destitute, the weak, and the foreigners living among the Israelites. No one was to be overlooked. And because of their obedience to this command, the Israelites would be able to declare their faithfulness to God.

“I have removed the sacred offering from my house and given it to the Levites, the resident foreigners, the orphans, and the widows just as you have commanded me. I have not violated or forgotten your commandments.” – Deuteronomy 26:13 NLT

Moses wanted each and every Israelite to be able to state their obedience to God, having refrained from any temptation to withhold their tithes and offerings. It was important that they be able to declare their innocence from having misused of misappropriated the offerings God had demanded for the Levites, the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow. No excuses for disobedience would be accepted. There would be no rationale that would forestall God’s judgment for failure to keep His command.

For the Israelites to expect God to bless them, they would first have to obey Him.

“I have obeyed you and have done everything you have commanded me.  Look down from your holy dwelling place in heaven and bless your people Israel and the land you have given us, just as you promised our ancestors—a land flowing with milk and honey.” – Deuteronomy 26:14-15 NLT

Which is why Moses so forcefully reminds his audience to do exactly what God has told them to do. He commanded them to “keep these statutes and ordinances” and he added the important qualifier, “something you must do with all your heart and soul” (Deuteronomy 26:16 NLT). God was looking for heartfelt obedience, not just mindless, meaningless rule-keeping. He expected His people to put their hearts and souls behind their actions.

As we have discussed before, God had set the people of Israel apart as His own. They belonged to Him and were to reflect their unique status as His chosen people.

“…today the Lord has declared you to be his special people (as he already promised you) so you may keep all his commandments.” – Deuteronomy 26:18 NLT

And when they faithfully kept His commands, Moses promised them that God would bless them.

“Then he will elevate you above all the nations he has made and you will receive praise, fame, and honor. You will be a people holy to the Lord your God, as he has said.” – Deuteronomy 26:19 NLT

God wanted the Israelites to be a blessing to others. He demanded that they take care of the needy among them. He would bless them so that they might be a blessing. And the more they blessed others, the more God would continue to bless 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

And You Shall Rejoice

1 “When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance and have taken possession of it and live in it, 2 you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from your land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket, and you shall go to the place that the Lord your God will choose, to make his name to dwell there. 3 And you shall go to the priest who is in office at that time and say to him, ‘I declare today to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our fathers to give us.’ 4 Then the priest shall take the basket from your hand and set it down before the altar of the Lord your God.

5 “And you shall make response before the Lord your God, ‘A wandering Aramean was my father. And he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. 6 And the Egyptians treated us harshly and humiliated us and laid on us hard labor. 7 Then we cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. 8 And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders. 9 And he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 And behold, now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which you, O Lord, have given me.’ And you shall set it down before the Lord your God and worship before the Lord your God. 11 And you shall rejoice in all the good that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house, you, and the Levite, and the sojourner who is among you.” – Deuteronomy 26:1-11 ESV

Moses has finished reviewing all the rules and regulations intended to govern and guide the lives of the Israelites. Now, he provides them with instructions regarding the first harvest they will enjoy in the new land. Moses opens this section with the word, “when.” There was no question in his mind as to whether the Israelites would occupy the land. It was God’s will and it was going to happen. One generation had delayed the promise through their disobedience, but what God had ordained was going to happen. And Moses wanted the people to understand that God’s faithfulness was going to require an expression of gratitude on their part.

Once they settled in the land and began to cultivate it, they were to follow Moses’ instructions: “you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from your land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Deuteronomy 26:2 ESV). Essentially, this would be the first of the firstfruits. The offering of the firstfruits was to be a regular occurrence in Israel and was intended to accompany every single harvest. But this command from Moses seems to be a unique offering that was specifically tied to the very first harvest in their new homeland. It was to be a special occasion, marking their official inheritance of the land of promise.

At this point in the their story, not only would the houses and towns be theirs, but they would reap the benefit of the fruit of the land. Back in the early chapters of the book of Deuteronomy, Moses had told the people what God was going to do for them.

“The LORD your God will soon bring you into the land he swore to give you when he made a vow to your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is a land with large, prosperous cities that you did not build. The houses will be richly stocked with goods you did not produce. You will draw water from cisterns you did not dig, and you will eat from vineyards and olive trees you did not plant.” – Deuteronomy 6:10-11 NLT

And, because God is a promise-keeping God, the day was going to come when they would feast from the vineyards, orchards, and fields they had inherited as part of that promise. When they did, Moses told them they would need to express their gratefulness to God by offering Him the firstfruits of all they had harvested. This offering would not only be an expression of thanksgiving but a demonstration of their faithfulness. By giving God the first and the best of their harvests, they would be displaying their trust in His ongoing provision of all their future needs.

As part of the process of offering God the firstfruits of their harvest, the people of Israel were to recite the following phrase: “A wandering Aramean was my father. And he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous” (Deuteronomy 26:5 ESV). This would be a direct reference to Jacob, who is referred to as an Aramean because he spent much of his early days in the region known as Paddan-aram. It was there that he married his wives and began his family. Eventually, Jacob would end up in Egypt, a guest of his long-lost son, Joseph, who had become the second-highest-ranking official in the land. When Jacob and his extended family arrived in Egypt, they were just over than 70 in number, but by the time they left some 400 years later, they would have numbered in the millions.

A significant part of the firstfruits offering was the importance that they recognize and remember all the suffering that had proceeded God’s deliverance. Their arrival in the land of promise had been prefaced by four-centuries-worth of trials and difficulties. But their ancestors had cried out and God had heard them and sent them a deliverer in the form of Moses. And Moses himself reminds the Israelites of what God did to free them from their bondage in Egypt.

“…the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders. And he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” – Deuteronomy 26:8-9 ESV

And it was their remembrance of God’s gracious actions in the past that was to drive their display of gratitude in the future.

“‘And behold, now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which you, O Lord, have given me.’ And you shall set it down before the Lord your God and worship before the Lord your God.’” – Deuteronomy 26:10 ESV

Their giving of the firstfruits of their harvest would be a form of worship. It would honor God for all that He had done and prove their commitment to trust Him for all their future needs. He was and is a good God. He had kept His promise and delivered them to the land just as He had said He would. And as long as they continued to rely upon Him and reverently worship Him, He would continue to meet their needs for generations to come.

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

Immodesty, Dishonesty, and Perversity

11 “When men fight with one another and the wife of the one draws near to rescue her husband from the hand of him who is beating him and puts out her hand and seizes him by the private parts, 12 then you shall cut off her hand. Your eye shall have no pity.

13 “You shall not have in your bag two kinds of weights, a large and a small. 14 You shall not have in your house two kinds of measures, a large and a small. 15 A full and fair weight you shall have, a full and fair measure you shall have, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. 16 For all who do such things, all who act dishonestly, are an abomination to the Lord your God.

17 “Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt, 18 how he attacked you on the way when you were faint and weary, and cut off your tail, those who were lagging behind you, and he did not fear God. 19 Therefore when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget.” – Deuteronomy 25:11-19 ESV

As has been the case throughout this section of Deuteronomy, verses 11-19 of chapter 25 contain additional regulations that appear to have no rhyme or reason to them. Not only do they seem to lack any common thread of logic, at least one of them deals with what would appear to be a highly unlikely scenario and a heavy-handed form of punishment (excuse the pun).

Moses brings up the case of a dispute between two men. In Hebrew, the phrase describes “a man and his brother.” So, it is unclear as to whether this involves two sons of the same mother or two Israelites. But in either case, the scenario Moses paints involves a conflict between two men that has resulted in the throwing of punches. In other words, the dispute has gone from verbal to physical. Now, this would not have been a rare occurrence in Israel. Men will be men, and anger has a way of getting out of hand. But Moses introduces another actor to the drama whose actions complicate the scene and require the divine regulation that follows. The point of the passage is not the bare-knuckles brawl between the two men, but the indelicate behavior of one of their wives. Moses describes her involvement this way: “the wife of the one draws near to rescue her husband from the hand of him who is beating him and puts out her hand and seizes him by the private parts” (Deuteronomy 25:11 ESV).

Now, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to figure out what is going on here. And many of the modern translations of the Scriptures provide much more specific wording to get the point across: “genitals” (NASB, NRSV, TEV); “sex organs” (NCV); “testicles” (NLT). Suffice it to say, the woman’s efforts to aid her husband involve what would have to be considered as immodest and indecent behavior. While we might want to say that the heat of the moment provides ample justification for her actions, Moses obviously disagrees. He provides no excuse for the woman’s behavior, demanding instead that her hand be cut off as punishment for her actions.

It would appear that the fight involves a non-life-threatening confrontation. One man is beating another. There are no swords drawn. Death is not imminent or even intended. But the woman, in an attempt to come to the aid of her husband, commits an act of indecency that could actually result in permanent physical harm to her husband’s adversary. By grabbing the man’s genitals, she would likely incapacitate him, giving her husband the upper hand in the fight, but she also risks doing irreparable damage to the man’s reproductive capacities. And this seems to be the point of the passage and the reason behind the severe punishment demanded by Moses.

Her response would not only be considered indecent and improper, but it would also be deemed an excessive form of retribution. It is interesting to consider the lex talionis or laws concerning retaliation.  They are found throughout the Pentateuch:

…if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. – Exodus 21:23-25 ESV

If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him. – Leviticus 24:19-20 ESV

Your eye shall not pity. It shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot. – Deuteronomy 19:21 ESV

It would appear that Moses is citing a case where the woman’s actions did not result in permanent damage to the man’s genitals. If it had, according to the lex talionis, the law of retribution, her husband would have to suffer a similar fate. But since the wife was the one guilty of committing the crime, she would be the one to suffer the punishment. And, in this case, Moses prescribes the punishment as the cutting off of her hand. There is no tit-for-tat retribution involved. Which seems to suggest that her actions had no long-term or permanent impact. But she would suffer the consequences of her actions nonetheless. She had intended to do harm and her actions could have had serious repurcusions that left a man incapable of having children. This was a serious crime in God’s eyes, and it came with serious consequences.

And, as he seems prone to do, Moses suddenly shifts his attention to less dramatic matters, focusing his attention on dishonesty. He mentions the use of different measures. This is a reference to the scales used in buying and selling. Since Israel was predominantly an agrarian society, when produce was sold, it was placed on one side of the scale and the form of payment was placed on the other. A bag of wheat equaled a certain amount of coin. So, if you had two different forms of measurement, it essentially meant you had false scales and an intent to cheat the one with whom you were conducting business. The prophet, Micah, records the words of God concerning those who would do such a thing.

Shall I acquit the man with wicked scales
    and with a bag of deceitful weights? – Micah 6:8 ESV

And the book of Proverbs provides further insight into God’s perspective on dishonesty in business.

The LORD detests the use of dishonest scales, but he delights in accurate weights. – Proverbs 11:1 NLT

And God had provided the Israelites with His laws concerning the matter.

“Do not use dishonest standards when measuring length, weight, or volume. Your scales and weights must be accurate. Your containers for measuring dry materials or liquids must be accurate. I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” – Leviticus 19:35-36 NLT

Accuracy and honesty are important to God. He is a just and righteous God who expects His people to treat one another with love and respect. To cheat someone is nothing less than an outward display of hate for them. It is to rob them of what they are rightfully due. And, in cheating someone, you are setting yourself up as god, establishing your own rules and establishing your will as greater than God’s. But Moses makes it painfully clear that “all who do such things, all who act dishonestly, are an abomination to the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 25:16 ESV).

Finally, Moses brings up God’s commands concerning Israel’s relationship with the Amalakites. In the book of Exodus, there is a story describing Israel’s first encounter with these people. They appeared on the scene at a place called Rephidim, launching an unprovoked attack on the Israelites. While Joshua did battle with the Amalakites, Moses stood on a nearby hill, holding up the staff of God as a symbol of God’s presence and power. As long as he held the staff aloft, the Israelites prevailed. But as the battle raged on, his arms grew weary and Aaron and Hur were required to assist him in keeping the staff aloft. Eventually, the forces of Israel prevailed and God made a pronouncement concerning the Amalakites.

“Write this as a memorial in a book and recite it in the ears of Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.” And Moses built an altar and called the name of it, The Lord Is My Banner, saying, “A hand upon the throne of the Lord! The Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.” – Exodus 17:14-16 ESV

Now, Moses is reminding the Israelites that they were to fulfill God’s will concerning the Amalakites. There were to be no compromises or concessions made. God had decreed that the Amalakites were to be blotted out and He fully expected His people to carry out His wishes.

Hundreds of years later, when Saul had been appointed the first king of Israel, God reiterated His will that the Amalakites be wiped out.

“Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’” – 1 Samuel 15:2-3 ESV

But Saul failed to obey God’s command.

But Saul and the people spared Agag and the best of the sheep and of the oxen and of the fattened calves and the lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them. All that was despised and worthless they devoted to destruction. – 1 Samuel 15:9 ESV

And as a result of Saul’s disobedience, God rejected him as king. This man had chosen to partially obey, making compromises and concessions that were unacceptable to God. And Samuel, the prophet of God, delivered the following indictment against Saul.

“Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices,
    as in obeying the voice of the Lord?
Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice,
    and to listen than the fat of rams.
For rebellion is as the sin of divination,
    and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of the Lord,
    he has also rejected you from being king.” – 1 Samuel 15:22-23 ESV

Saul had chosen to act perversely. According to dictionary.com, someone who acts perversly is “willfully determined or disposed to go counter to what is expected or desired.” He did not do what God had told him to do. But God considers obedience far better than sacrifice. As Jesus told His disciples, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15 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

Protections For Man and Beast

1 “If there is a dispute between men and they come into court and the judges decide between them, acquitting the innocent and condemning the guilty, 2 then if the guilty man deserves to be beaten, the judge shall cause him to lie down and be beaten in his presence with a number of stripes in proportion to his offense. 3 Forty stripes may be given him, but not more, lest, if one should go on to beat him with more stripes than these, your brother be degraded in your sight.

4 “You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain.

5 “If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead man shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her as his wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. 6 And the first son whom she bears shall succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out of Israel. 7 And if the man does not wish to take his brother’s wife, then his brother’s wife shall go up to the gate to the elders and say, ‘My husband’s brother refuses to perpetuate his brother’s name in Israel; he will not perform the duty of a husband’s brother to me.’ 8 Then the elders of his city shall call him and speak to him, and if he persists, saying, ‘I do not wish to take her,’ 9 then his brother’s wife shall go up to him in the presence of the elders and pull his sandal off his foot and spit in his face. And she shall answer and say, ‘So shall it be done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.’ 10 And the name of his house shall be called in Israel, ‘The house of him who had his sandal pulled off.’” – Deuteronomy 25:1-10 ESV

It would be difficult to ignore the extreme specificity of many of these laws. Moses brings up a wide range of scenarios that deal with some of the most peculiar and particular situations imaginable. In these ten verses alone, he shifts from talking about just punishment for the guilty to the proper treatment of domesticated animals.  Then, seemingly out of nowhere, he brings up the law concerning levirate marriage.

While these three topics appear to have no common link to bind them together, they each fall under the overarching topic of justice. God demanded that His people live together in a society marked by justice and righteousness. It was essential that they treat one another well, exhibiting respect and reverence for every one of God’s chosen people, regardless of their social status or financial condition. God even placed a high regard on the ethical treatment of animals, expecting His people to care for them as exactly what they were: Blessings or gifts from His gracious hand.

In the case of a dispute between two individuals, they were instructed to go before the appointed judges and present their evidence. The judges were charged with acquiting the innocent and condemning the guilty. In prosecuting the case, if it was determined that the guilty party’s crime required a public beating as punishment, there were to be limits placed on the number of stripes delivered. The punishment must fit the crime. There was to be no abuse of the guilty through excessive discipline. In fact, Moses indicated that no more than 40 stripes or lashes were to be allowed. Obviously, this is dealing with crimes undeserving of capital punishment. But the guilty were to be justly tried, convicted, and disciplined for their crimes. But it was important that criminals not be degraded through excessive and unnecessary punishment. Even while meting out justice, the judges of Israel were expected to treat the guilty with dignity and respect.

At this point, Moses makes another one of his seemingly awkward transitions as he shifts his focus from dealing with criminals to the proper care of farm animals. Oxen played a vital role in the agrarian culture of the Israelites. In this case, they were used to tread the grain in order to separate the wheat from the husk. The basic idea was that, if the ox was forced to tread the grain, it should also be allowed to graze at it labored. Even animals should be treated fairly.

The apostle Paul would use this very law as an argument for the financial support of those who were called by God as ministers of the gospel.

For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not certainly speak for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop. If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we even more? – 1 Corinthians 9:9-12 ESV

He would bring this topic up again in his first letter to Timothy.

Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.” – 1 Timothy 5:17-18 ESV

According to Paul, the underlying principle behind this law had to do with fairness. A criminal was to be treated with dignity and respect, and so was a common farm animal. There was no place for abuse or mistreatment of man or beast.

In the third scenario, Moses brings up the case of a woman whose husband dies unexpectedly. This law deals with what has become known as the levirate marriage. This term comes from the Latin word levir, which refers to a husband’s brother. If a man died without having an heir, his widow could appeal to one of his unmarried brothers, requesting that he marry her. The purpose behind this union was to preserve the  deceased man’s legacy through the birth of a son who would bear his name.

It seems clear from the text that this regulation concerned two brothers who shared the same home. And since the Mosaic law prohibited polygamy, it would seem obvious that the brother of the deceased would have to be unmarried to fulfill his commitment to the widow. But if the man was unwilling to marry his dead brother’s wife, there was a process she was to follow. She was to take the matter before the elders of the city, who were then required to approach the reluctant brother and give him a second opportunity to do what was right and just. Should he persist with his refusal to marry her, the woman was required to  “go up to him in the presence of the elders and pull his sandal off his foot and spit in his face” (Deuteronomy 25:9 ESV). And this physical display of humiliation was to be accompanied by a verbal curse: “So shall it be done to the man who does not build up his brother's house” (Deuteronomy 25:9 ESV).

From that point forward, the brother would be forced to carry the reputation of one who refused to do the right thing. He had shown justice to his widowed sister-in-law. And this was a serious issue in the culture of that day, because a widowed woman was considered damaged goods. She would have a difficult time finding a husband and, in most cases, would end up living in poverty. So, for this brother to shirk his responsibility to perpetuate his brother’s name was a serious issue that could have dire consequences for the widow.

As with the other scenarios covered in this section, this is all about justice. God was extremely concerned about how His people treated one another. They were not free to do as they wished. Yes, the brother could refuse to marry his widowed sister-in-law, but not without consequences. A man could refuse to allow his ox to eat from the grain it was threshing, but this would be considered inhumane and limit the effectiveness of the animal.  A guilty man could be given more punishment than he deserved, but it would be unjust and, ultimately, non-productive.

God had His ways of doing things and He expected His people to abide by His will. If they did, it would go well with them. If they refused, they would have to reap the results of their stubbornness. Ultimately, all their behavior, whether good or bad, reflected back on God because they were His chosen people. They represented Him on earth and all that they did was intended to reflect His glory. Which is why Moses spent so much time addressing these highly specific situations that dealt with every area of daily life. Nothing is unimportant to 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

Laws Concerning Justice

14 “You shall not oppress a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your brothers or one of the sojourners who are in your land within your towns. 15 You shall give him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets (for he is poor and counts on it), lest he cry against you to the Lord, and you be guilty of sin.

16 “Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin.

17 “You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow’s garment in pledge, 18 but you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this.

19 “When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. 20 When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over them again. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. 21 When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not strip it afterward. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. 22 You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this.” – Deuteronomy 24:14-22 ESV

Over in the book of Amos, the prophet records some powerful and passionate words of indictment against the people of Israel, and they are from the lips of God Himself.

“I hate all your show and pretense—
    the hypocrisy of your religious festivals and solemn assemblies.
I will not accept your burnt offerings and grain offerings.
    I won’t even notice all your choice peace offerings.
Away with your noisy hymns of praise!
    I will not listen to the music of your harps.
Instead, I want to see a mighty flood of justice,
an endless river of righteous living.”– Amos 5:21-24 NLT

This message from the Almighty came hundreds of years after Moses and the Israelites had stood on the border of Canaan preparing to possess the land. Generations of their descendants would come after them, but they would fail to live according to all the rules and regulations Moses had so painstakingly taught to their forefathers.

God had desired for His people to obey His laws so that their lives might be marked by justice and righteous living. And that is what this section of Moses’ speech to the people of Israel is all about. He is calling them to practice justice and to display righteousness in their daily interactions with one another. As we have seen, community was and is important to God. He desires the His people conduct themselves in a way that reflects not only a love for Him but a love for one another. In fact, as the apostle John reminds us, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20 ESV).

Even the great king, David expressed his understanding of God’s desire for unity among His people.

How wonderful and pleasant it is when brothers live together in harmony! – Psalm 133:1 NLT

In this section of Deuteronomy 24, Moses is going to discuss the poor and needy, the innocent, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. In each case, he is addressing those within the community of Israel who represent the helpless or vulnerable among them. No Israelite was to take advantage of the less fortunate. And to help them refrain from doing so, Moses reminded them of their own history of suffering as slaves in Egypt.

“Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I am commanding you to do all this.” – Deuteronomy 24:18 NLT

They were to never forget that their ancestors had been forced to make bricks without straw. They had been mercilessly and harshly treated by the Egyptians for more than four centuries. So, as they prepared to enter their own land, provided for them by God, they were to conduct themselves according to God’s laws, not according to worldly standards or some sin-saturated impulse based on selfish ambition.

If they had a hired servant, they were to pay them their wages – in full and on time. And Moses emphasizes the worker who is poor and dependent upon his daily wages for survival. The disadvantaged are always easy to oppress. They have not recourse and no one to stand in their corner to support them. But Moses wanted the people of Israel to know that God was an advocate for the needy. He would see that they received justice, one way or another. Which is why Moses warned the Israelites to treat their poorer servants fairly, “Otherwise he will cry out to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty of sin” (Deuteronomy 24:15 NLT). 

And while on the topic of sin and guilt, Moses turns his attention to the proper administering of justice for sin.  A father was not to be held responsible for the sins committed by one of his adult children.  And no child was to be punished for the sins of his father. This would be a form of revenge, rather than justice. The guiltless and innocent would be suffering unjustly and unnecessarily. Each individual was to be held accountable for their own sins. And you can see why this law would be necessary. If a case came up where the perpetrator of a crime could not be found and punished, it would be tempting for the victim to demand that a someone pay the criminal’s sin debt. But this would not result in a just and righteous outcome. Instead, it would cause the innocent to suffer unjustly.

And justice was to be a high priority among the people of Israel because it was important to God. Which is why Moses told them, “You must not pervert justice due a resident foreigner or an orphan…” (Deuteronomy 24:17 NLT). And to make sure they understood what he meant by justice, Moses gave the example of someone taking a widow’s garment as collateral on a loan. You don’t punish the innocent and you don’t take advantage of the helpless. These kinds of things were not to be done among God’s people. It was unacceptable behavior.

The Israelites were always going to have the poor and needy among them, and this group would be made up of fellow Israelites as well as immigrants from other nations. And in a nation with no welfare system, it was necessary that the people understand their role in the care for the less fortunate among them. And one of the ways in which God provided for the needs of the poor was through the annual harvest.  As God blessed His people with abundant crops, they were to share their bounty with the less fortunate among them. So, each harvest, when the Israelites reaped their fields, any sheaves of grain that were inadvertently left behind were to remain there as gifts to the poor. And when they went to gather olives or grapes, they were commanded to leave some of the produce behind as a gift for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. God had promised to bless them with plenty of crops as long as they remained faithful to Him. And when He blessed them, He expected them to share that blessing with the less fortunate among them. And, once again, Moses used their former status as slaves in Egypt as a source of motivation.

According to the prophet, Amos, God wanted “to see a mighty flood of justice, an endless river of righteous living.” He greatly desired that His people display His righteousness through their interactions with one another. They were His chosen possession and He had set them apart from all the other nations on earth so that they might model what true righteousness and justice looks like. The greatest sacrifice the people of Israel could make would be to give up their rights for one another. They could prove their love for God by selflessly loving the less fortunate among them. They could display their honor and reverence for God by willingly and eagerly dispensing justice to all those around them. The prophet, Micah reiterates the words recorded by Amos, reminding God’s people of their responsibility to act as agents of justice in this world.

“With what shall I come before the Lord,
    and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
    with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
    with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
    the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O man, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God? – Micah 6:6-8 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