obedience

The Bar Is Raised

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 5:17-20 ESV

Jesus knows that what He is saying is going to be misunderstood and misconstrued by His hearers. He is well aware that the content of His message is going to sound controversial, even heretical to some. So, He takes just a few minutes to assure them that He is not promoting something contrary to their Scriptures, which is what He means by “the Law or the prophets.” His message was radical, but not in that sense. In fact, Jesus is about to show them that His words are well within the teaching of the Law, and His own life was a fulfillment of all the prophets had written. For Jesus, everything He had to say was based on a proper interpretation of Scripture and not in conflict with it.

Much of the opposition Jesus would face in His ministry would be due to a misunderstanding of the Scriptures on the part of the Jewish people. And their ignorance regarding their sacred writings was due to the teaching of their own religious leadership. Later on in His ministry, Jesus would confront the Jewish religious leaders – the scribes, Pharisees and teachers of the law – telling them, “You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! Yet you refuse to come to me to receive this life” (John 5:39-40 NLT). These men were renowned for their knowledge of God’s Word but were ignorant of its true meaning and content. Years later, Jesus would expose the Pharisees for their rampant abuse of God’s law.

“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.’ For you ignore God’s law and substitute your own tradition.” – Mark 7:6-8 NLT

For generations, these men had taken the Laws of God and interpreted them for their own benefit. They had twisted God’s words and added to them their own traditions and man-made laws designed to lessen God’s requirements. And as much as they may have known about the coming Messiah, they completely missed who Jesus was because He did not fit their interpretations and expectations. Years later, when Jesus had been resurrected and returned back to His Father’s side in heaven, Stephen would preach a powerful message to the Jews that would end up with his death by stoning.

“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.” – Acts 7:51-53 NLT

So, Jesus assures His listeners that He is not contradicting the Word of God, He is actually fulfilling it. The Jews saw the Law as an end unto itself. In other words, it was their ability to keep the Law that brought them approval by God. They understood that their capacity to live up to God’s law was what brought them God’s blessings. So, they developed workarounds and loopholes to make compliance easier. Jesus would accuse them of this very thing.

“You skillfully sidestep God’s law in order to hold on to your own tradition. For instance, Moses gave you this law from God: ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and ‘Anyone who speaks disrespectfully of father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say it is all right for people to say to their parents, ‘Sorry, I can’t help you. For I have vowed to give to God what I would have given to you.’ In this way, you let them disregard their needy parents. And so you cancel the word of God in order to hand down your own tradition. And this is only one example among many others.” – Mark 7:9-13 NLT

The law was intended to point the people to their need for a Savior. The law was holy, righteous, and impossible to keep. All it could do was expose sin, not remove it. No man, no matter how knowledgeable he was of the law, could keep it perfectly. That is, until Jesus came. The apostle Paul, a former Pharisee and an expert regarding the law, would make this point clear in his letter to the Galatians.

Why, then, was the law given? It was given alongside the promise to show people their sins. But the law was designed to last only until the coming of the child who was promised. – Galatians 3:19 NLT

Jesus claims that He did not come to abolish or do away with the law but to fulfill it. He didn’t come to refute what the prophets had said generations ago, but to bring about all that they had written. The Old Testament Scriptures, the Law and the prophets, pointed toward Jesus. They predicted His coming. They revealed the kind of life that God required, one that no ordinary man was capable of living. They showed the level of righteousness required for man to receive God’s approval. And Jesus, the Son of God, came to live that life and demonstrate that kind of righteousness in human flesh.

Taking a direct stab at the religious leaders in His audience, Jesus says, “So if you ignore the least commandment and teach others to do the same, you will be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 5:19 NLT). In other words, if you attempt to diminish, dilute or alter God’s requirements in any way, you have no part in His Kingdom. Obedience was the key – perfect obedience.

“But anyone who obeys God’s laws and teaches them will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven.” – Matthew 5:19 NLT

Then Jesus drops the bombshell that had to have left the heads of those in His audience spinning in confusion and disappointment.

“But I warn you—unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven!” – Matthew 5:20 NLT

What? Was He kidding? Had He lost His mind? How in the world could anyone be more righteous than the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees? These men were considered the spiritual elite of their day. They were the crème de la crème, the top dogs, the religious rock stars of Israel. But Jesus is speaking of a different kind of righteousness altogether. He is juxtaposing the external righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees with the internal righteousness that He came to bring.

Jesus is speaking of a different kind of righteousness altogether. He is juxtaposing the external righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees with the internal righteousness that He came to bring.

He is contrasting man-made righteousness with Spirit-produced righteousness, something that would be made possible after His death, resurrection, and the Holy Spirit’s coming. He is eliminating any prospect of self-righteousness altogether and revealing that His righteousness alone, which is superior to that of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, is what can make men right with God. Jesus is referring to an alien righteousness, a righteousness that comes from outside of oneself.

There are two kinds of Christian righteousness… The first is alien righteousness, that is the righteousness of another, instilled from without.  This is the righteousness of Christ by which he justifies though faith… – Martin Luther, Two Kinds of Righteousness

The righteousness of man won’t gain God’s approval because it is insufficient. Once again, Paul reminds us:

For if keeping the law could make us right with God, then there was no need for Christ to die. – Galatians 2:21 NLT

And he elaborates on this very same point in his letter to the Romans:

The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. He did this so that the just requirement of the law would be fully satisfied for us, who no longer follow our sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit. – Romans 8:3-4 NLT

The very next section of Jesus’ sermon is going to develop this idea of a superior righteousness. He is going to reveal that God’s requirements were more intense and demanding than His audience had ever dreamed. The kind of righteousness God required was unattainable by sinful men and women. Therefore, the list of blessings Jesus opened His sermon with was totally elusive and out of reach for the average Jew.

Or were they? This entire sermon is designed to set up what appears to be an irreconcilable problem, and then provide His audience with an unexpected solution. In fact, He will wrap up His sermon with these words:

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” – Matthew 7:13-14 ESV

And later on in His ministry, Jesus will reveal exactly what He meant by the narrow gate.

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

Attaining the blessings of God through human effort was impossible. Earning the approval of God through rule-keeping and self-discipline was not going to cut it. Even the religious leaders of Israel, with all their trappings of spiritual superiority, were wholly deficient in holiness – by God’s exacting standard. The apostle Paul, a former Pharisee himself, would later write: “…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 ESV).

But the good news was that God had sent His Son to be the Savior for all those who would recognize their sinfulness and relinquish any hope in their own self-righteousness.

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

Tempted Like Us

1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written,

“‘Man shall not live by bread alone,
    but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple 6 and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written,

“‘He will command his angels concerning you,’

and

“‘On their hands they will bear you up,
    lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”

7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. 9 And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written,

“‘You shall worship the Lord your God
    and him only shall you serve.’”

11 Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him. – Matthew 4:1-11 ESV

Matthew’s account of the temptation of Jesus is not just a retelling of the details surrounding the event. He has an ulterior motive, and it is the same one he has had from the moment he began His Gospel. Matthew intends to support Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God, the long-awaited Messiah, and the rightful King of Israel.

Immediately after His baptism by John, Jesus heard the following words from His Father in heaven: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17 ESV). God Himself acknowledges the deity of Jesus, presenting Him as His own Son and expressing His pleasure or satisfaction with Him. The descent of the Holy Spirit onto Jesus, in the visible form of a dove, was a sign of God’s approval of Him. And it was the Spirit who led Jesus “into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1 ESV). And Luke adds that Jesus was “full of the Holy Spirit” (Luke 4:1 ESV). The Son of God was filled with the Spirit of God. And this indwelling by the Spirit would allow Jesus to model the very lifestyle His death and resurrection would make it possible for all those who would eventually place their faith in Him. The same helper, comforter, and advocate who assisted Him in His earthly ministry would be available to all who became His followers.

And we should not overlook the fact that the Spirit of God led the Son of God from the banks of the Jordan into the Judean wilderness. This one who had allowed Himself to be baptized by John to “fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15), and who had received the approval of God, was now being led into the desolate wilderness. Why? Matthew provides us with the answer: “…to be tempted by the devil.” (Matthew 4:1 ESV).

It is easy to miss the weight of those words. But it is essential that we understand what is happening in this scene. Jesus, the Son of God, who had just received the full approval of God, was led by the Spirit of God into the wilderness and for one solitary purpose: To be tempted by Satan. This is the one of whom John said: “he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie” (Luke 3:16 ESV). This is the one to whom God declared, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22 ESV). And yet, He is being led by the Holy Spirit into an encounter with Satan, whose very name means “adversary.”

This entire scene appears incongruous to us. It seems strange that God would send His own Son, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, into the wilderness to endure starvation and temptation at the hands of the enemy. Why would God willingly put His Son through such an ordeal? But that begs the question, why would God send His Son to die in the place of undeserving sinners? The temptation of Jesus was just one part of the divine agenda that God the Father had put in place before the foundation of the world. Peter reminds us that “God chose him [Jesus] as your ransom long before the world began, but now in these last days he has been revealed for your sake” (1 Peter 1:20 NLT).

Jesus came to this earth in the form of a man, and in that form, He would suffer and endure many trials and temptations, just as we do. The author of Hebrews describes Jesus as our High Priest, who “understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15 NLT). Jesus took on human flesh, so that He might be the second and final Adam, the one who would live in perfect obedience to God, through the power of the indwelling Spirit of God. And the apostle Paul reminds us of the ramifications of Adam’s disobedience and Jesus’ obedience.

For just as through the disobedience of the one man [Adam] many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of one man [Jesus] many will be made righteous. – Romans 5:19 NLT

Jesus had to be tempted and tested. He had to suffer and endure deprivations of all kinds. In order for Him to understand our weaknesses, He had to experience them for Himself. And the very first days of His earthly ministry were going to test whether He would continue to bring pleasure to His heavenly Father. Would He continue to fulfill all righteousness?

And you can sense that Satan had a strategy in mind. The temptations he threw at Jesus were well-planned and designed with Him in mind. And notice that Satan began his attacks by raising questions regarding Jesus’ identity.

“If you are the Son of God…” – Matthew 4:3 ESV

He had used a similar strategy with Eve in the Garden of Eden. He had begun his temptation of her with the words, “Did God actually say…?” He raised doubts concerning the word of God. He wanted Eve to doubt the fairness and faithfulness of God.

In his temptation of Jesus, Satan wasn’t trying to get Him to doubt His identity as the Son of God. He wanted Jesus to doubt God’s plans concerning His role as the Son of God. It had been God's plans from the beginning that Jesus would suffer and die. Don’t forget what Peter said: “God chose him [Jesus] as your ransom long before the world began.” Suffering was part of God’s plan for His Son, and Jesus knew it. He would later state, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 28:20 NLT). Jesus knew who He was, but He also knew why He had come. But Satan tried to get Jesus to consider a different way. He was offering Jesus an alternative plan.

And he began by appealing to Jesus’ physical needs. Matthew makes it clear that “after fasting forty days and forty nights, he [Jesus] was hungry” (Matthew 4:2 ESV). So, as Satan is so prone to do, he aimed his first salvo at this apparent point of weakness.

“If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” – Matthew 4:3 ESV

Satan was not questioning the identity of Jesus. He was attempting to get Jesus to operate outside of His God-ordained identity. In a sense, Satan wanted Jesus to prove who He was, but in a way that was not in keeping with God’s will. Satan’s appeal was aimed at what he knew was the human propensity for selfishness and self-centeredness. He wanted Jesus to use His divine power to meet His own needs. But that is not God’s plan for His Son. Jesus had been sent to serve others. He had been sent to offer His life as a ransom for many, not to use His divine powers and prerogatives to meet His own needs. And Jesus responded to the temptation by reminding Satan that obedience to the word of God was far more fulfilling than bread could ever be. 

Years later, the disciples would offer Jesus food to eat, and He would respond, “I have a kind of food you know nothing about” (John 4:32 NLT). And He would clarify His statement with the words: ““My nourishment comes from doing the will of God, who sent me, and from finishing his work” (John 4:34 NLT). Jesus was committed to doing the will of His Father, and He found obedience to be far more fulfilling than anything this world has to offer.

The second temptation was a poorly designed attempt to fast-track God’s plan for Jesus’ future glorification. Jesus had been sent by God to die on behalf of sinful mankind. And it would not be until after He had suffered and died, that Jesus would be raised to new life and experience the glorification God had planned for Him. But, once again, Satan offered an alternative plan.

“If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written,

“‘He will command his angels concerning you,’” – Matthew 4:6 ESV

Satan wanted Jesus to skip the part of God’s plan that involved dying and instead to focus on self-preservation and premature glorification.

“‘On their hands they will bear you up,
    lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” – Matthew 4:7 ESV

But Jesus saw through Satan’s ploy and knew this was less a test of Himself, than it would be a test of God. For Jesus to do as Satan said would have been a blatant testing of God’s will. Would He alter His plan by sending His angels to save His Son from an unplanned threat to His life that was outside of His will? Jesus was not about to test His heavenly Father. He knew the plan, and He was not going to deviate from it.

Finally, Satan offered Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world and their glory” (Matthew 4:8 ESV). What is going on here? First of all, Satan had the right to offer these things to Jesus because of his position as the prince or ruler of this world (John 14:30 ESV). The apostle John states: “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19 ESV). So, in a sense, Satan had to authority to offer Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and their glory, but he failed to understand that any authority he possessed had been given to him by God. He ruled and reigned by divine fiat. And, whether he realized it or not, Satan was offering Jesus what was already rightfully His.

But Jesus wasn’t fooled by or remotely interested in the offer made by Satan. He saw it nothing more than a thinly veiled ploy by Satan to get Him to commit spiritual adultery. Satan wanted Jesus to worship him rather than God. And in exchange for His betrayal of God the Father, Satan was offering Jesus that which already belonged to Him: the kingdoms of the world and their glory. He had nothing to give Jesus that was not already His. And Jesus let Satan know that worship of God and obedience to the will of God was His highest priority. He needed nothing else.

And with that, the temptations came to an abrupt halt. But Satan was far from finished. He had not given up. Luke tells us, “And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time” (Luke 4:13 ESV). The battle had just begun. The Son of God had arrived on the scene, and the spiritual war was about to go to a whole new level.

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

To Fulfill All Righteousness

11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; 17 and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” – Matthew 3:11-17 ESV

John was the opening act for the main attraction. He was the precursor to the primary player in God’s redemptive plan. His job was to prepare the people for the arrival of the anointed one of God. And no one knew this better than John. Luke records that many of those who were making their way to the Judean wilderness were doing so because they believed John might be the long-awaited Messiah.

…the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ. – Luke 3:15 ESV

But John quickly put these rumors to rest by stating, “I baptize you with water, for repentance, but the one coming after me is more powerful than I am—I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matthew 3:11 NLT). There was to be no confusion. John was not going to tolerate any misperception on the part of the people. He was not the Messiah. He could not offer the people of Israel salvation from their sins. All he could do was baptize them in water as a sign of their willingness to repent of their sins. But the true Messiah was coming to offer far more. And He would have a power far greater than anything John or the people of Israel could ever imagine. 

The Jewish people were very familiar with the prophetic passages found in the Hebrew Scriptures that told of the coming of the Messiah. They knew there were to be great signs and wonders associated with His coming. And John reminded them that the Messiah would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. This imagery was designed to tie Jesus to the words of God as spoken through the prophets.

“And it shall come to pass afterward,
    that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
    your old men shall dream dreams,
    and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female servants
    in those days I will pour out my Spirit.” – Joel 2:28-29 ESV

John wanted the people to know that the Messiah would bring the capacity for true life change. He would offer far more than repentance from sin. He would bring release from slavery to sin and the condemnation of death. But there was more. The Messiah would also bring judgment. He would separate between the holy and the common, the clean and the unclean. He would create a clear delineation between the sheep and the goats, the saved and the unsaved.

But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.

“Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.” – Malachi 3:2-5 ESV

John was prophesying about aspects of Jesus’ role as the Messiah that had long-term implications. These prophetic statements concerning the Messiah would not all take place at once – at the moment of His arrival. But they spell out the full scope of His redemptive role, from start to finish. Jesus was going to show up on the scene as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. But the day will come when He returns as the conquering King of kings and Lord of lords. His first advent was not as judge, but as the sacrificial offering to satisfy the just judgment of God Almighty. The second time He comes, He will appear as the judge of all mankind. The apostle John was given a preview of coming attractions when he saw and wrote about the Messiah and His second advent.

Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. – Revelation 19:11 ESV

Yes, Jesus came to make possible atonement for the sins of mankind. But the complete eradication of sin will not take place until He returns a second time. And John the Baptist knew that there was going to be far more to the ministry of Jesus than baptizing for the repentance of sin. He came to deal sin a death blow.

But before that happens, Jesus was going to have to do the will of His Father. And part of that will involved His incarnation, but also His submission to the Spirit’s leading in His life. Matthew makes it clear that “Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him” (Matthew 3:13 ESV). It was time, and Jesus, moved by the Spirit of God, knew where He was supposed to be and what He was supposed to do. He showed up that day in order to follow His Father’s preordained plan for His life.

John, recognizing the superior nature of Jesus, was reluctant to baptize one “whose sandals I am not worthy to carry” (Matthew 3:11 ESV). But Jesus responded to him with an interesting and somewhat cryptic statement: “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15 ESV). But what did Jesus mean by the phrase: “to fulfill and righteousness?”

It seems obvious that Jesus was not inferring that His baptism by John would somehow make Him righteous. This verse is not a reference to salvation, but to ethical righteousness, which has to do with doing that which is in keeping with the will of God. It was God’s will that Jesus be baptized and, in obediently doing what God had willed, John and Jesus would be acting righteously – in keeping with God’s desires.

God desired that Jesus be baptized, not as a sign of his repentance of sins, but as a way to validate the message and ministry of John, and to associate Himself with all those who had repented because the kingdom was at hand. The King was aligning Himself with His subjects. In allowing Himself to be baptized, Jesus was illustrating His complete submission to the will of His heavenly Father, something all those who would eventually come to faith in Him would do.

It is interesting to note that, upon His baptism, God validated and lauded Jesus’ actions by stating: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17 ESV). God affirmed the deity of Jesus. And He let all those who had witnessed the baptism of Jesus know that His Son’s actions had been pleasing because they had been in keeping with His will.

And the apostle John records that John the Baptist had been given a divine tip concerning the coming Messiah. He would know who He was based on the Spirit descending on Him in the form of a dove.

“I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.” – John 1:32-34 ESV

The Spirit’s presence and God’s own words both confirmed Jesus’ identity. He was the Son of God. And, as we have seen, that is one of the primary point Matthew was attempting to make with the writing of his Gospel account. Jesus’ identity as the Son of God had been firmly established from the moment the angel told the virgin Mary she was going to have a baby.

And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” – Luke 1:31-33 ESV

When Jesus was born, He came into the world as the Son of God. When He went to the temple at the age of 12, He had done so as the Son of God, which is why he had declared to his parents, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?” (Luke 2:49 ESV). Jesus had been the Son of God all those years He had worked alongside His earthly father, Joseph, in the family business. But the earthly ministry of Jesus began with His baptism by John. The Son of God, anointed by the Spirit of God, and validated by the words of God, officially launched His ministry to fulfill the will 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

There Is None Like God

23 And of Naphtali he said,

“O Naphtali, sated with favor,
    and full of the blessing of the Lord,
    possess the lake and the south.”

24 And of Asher he said,

“Most blessed of sons be Asher;
    let him be the favorite of his brothers,
    and let him dip his foot in oil.
25 Your bars shall be iron and bronze,
    and as your days, so shall your strength be.

26 “There is none like God, O Jeshurun,
    who rides through the heavens to your help,
    through the skies in his majesty.
27 The eternal God is your dwelling place,
    and underneath are the everlasting arms.
And he thrust out the enemy before you
    and said, ‘Destroy.’
28 So Israel lived in safety,
    Jacob lived alone,
in a land of grain and wine,
    whose heavens drop down dew.
29 Happy are you, O Israel! Who is like you,
    a people saved by the Lord,
the shield of your help,
    and the sword of your triumph!
Your enemies shall come fawning to you,
    and you shall tread upon their backs.” – Deuteronomy 33:23-29 ESV

The last two tribes to receive the blessing of Moses are those of Naphtali and Asher. Once Israel entered Canaan and began their conquest and occupation of the land, these two tribes would eventually settle in the northern region, encompassing the port cities of Tyre and Sidon, as well as Dan, the city that would become home to one of the golden calves set up by King Jeroboam in the northern kingdom of Israel.

These two tribes would eventually find themselves living on very rich and fertile land with Asher enjoying access to the Mediterranean Sea. The tribe of Naphtali would own the entire eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, providing it with easy access to fresh water and the abundance of fish it contained. The Dan River, emanating from Mount Herman, flowed into the Jordan and on to the Sea of Galilee, providing a ready source of fresh water year-round.  So, these two tribes enjoyed fertile land and access to ample natural resources. In his blessing of them, Moses made reference to their favorable circumstances, even before the Israelites had crossed the Jordan or the land had been allotted.

“O Naphtali, sated with favor,
    and full of the blessing of the Lord,
    possess the lake and the south.” – Deuteronomy 33:23 ESV

“Most blessed of sons be Asher;
    let him be the favorite of his brothers,
    and let him dip his foot in oil.” – Deuteronomy 33:24 ESV

This last phrase is likely a reference to olive oil, a symbol of blessing and prosperity. The land the tribe of Asher would occupy in Canaan was abundant in olive trees and this commodity would be in high demand among the other tribes, providing Asher with a lucrative market.

The blessing Jacob gave to Naphtali is a bit vague and difficult to understand.

“Naphtali is a doe let loose
    that bears beautiful fawns.”
– Genesis 49:21 ESV

Their designation as a “doe let loose” seem to convey a certain freedom they would enjoy as a tribe. And the second half of Jacob’s blessing can best be translated as “he gives beautiful words” (NET). The tribe of Naphtali would live in a large, fertile region of Canaan, and they would have a positive influence on the rest of the tribes.

But for all the abundance of their lands and the positive qualities associated with these two tribes, the book of Judges reveals that neither Naphtali or Asher were successful in driving out the inhabitants of their allotted territories.

Asher did not drive out the inhabitants of Acco, or the inhabitants of Sidon or of Ahlab or of Achzib or of Helbah or of Aphik or of Rehob, so the Asherites lived among the Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land, for they did not drive them out. – Judges 1:31-32 ESV

Naphtali did not drive out the inhabitants of Beth-shemesh, or the inhabitants of Beth-anath, so they lived among the Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land. Nevertheless, the inhabitants of Beth-shemesh and of Beth-anath became subject to forced labor for them. – Judges 1:33 ESV

God would bless them abundantly, but they would fail to live fully obedient to His commands. The phrase, “so the Asherites lived among the Canaanites” is meant to convey shock and surprise. They would directly violate the revealed will of God, choosing instead to compromise their convictions and maintain a relationship with their enemies that was based on convenience and concessions. The tribe of Asher was supposed to have become the new inhabitants of the land, but their refusal to eliminate the Canaanites, left them as interlopers in a land that God had provided as their inheritance.

And the author of Judges states that the tribe of Naphtali fared no better, choosing to live among the Canaanites rather than do as God said and eradicate them from the land. 

The book of Judges goes on to tell the story of a future leader from the tribe of Naphtali. This man’s name was Barak, and he had been commanded by God to raise an army of 10,000 men from the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun, in order to attack the Canaanites. But he refused. Instead, he waited for Deborah, the God-appointed judge over Israel to show up and lead the army. And when Deborah got word, she sent for Barak and questioned why he had refused to obey the Lord.

“Has not the Lord, the God of Israel, commanded you, ‘Go, gather your men at Mount Tabor, taking 10,000 from the people of Naphtali and the people of Zebulun. And I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin's army, to meet you by the river Kishon with his chariots and his troops, and I will give him into your hand’?” Barak said to her, “If you will go with me, I will go, but if you will not go with me, I will not go.”  – Judges 4:6-8 ESV

Deborah agreed to fight alongside Barak and his army, but she delivered some less-than-encouraging news.

“I will surely go with you. Nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.” – Judges 4:9 ESV

God gave them the victory that day, but it was at the hands of a woman named Jael. During the battle, Sisera, a Canaanite general fled from the scene and sought refuge in Jael’s tent. He begged her to keep watch while he rested in her tent, but instead, Jael took matters into her own hands – literally.

But Jael the wife of Heber took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand. Then she went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple until it went down into the ground while he was lying fast asleep from weariness. So he died. - Judges 4:21 ESV

As with the rest of the blessings Moses gave, they reveal that God was going to use these tribes in ways they could not imagine or fully predict. Even the blessings pronounced by Jacob hundreds of years earlier would be fulfilled, but in ways that he could have never understood. These blessings say far more about the sovereignty of God than they illuminate the future of the various tribes. Both Jacob and Moses knew that God was the key to whether Israel survived or thrived.

That is why Moses closes up this section with an emphasis on God and His greatness.

“There is no one like the God of Israel.
    He rides across the heavens to help you,
    across the skies in majestic splendor.
The eternal God is your refuge,
    and his everlasting arms are under you.
He drives out the enemy before you;
    he cries out, ‘Destroy them!’” – Deuteronomy 33:26-27 NLT

All the great things Moses had to say about the tribes were meant to reflect on the goodness of God. He is the one true God who operates from His heavenly kingdom, from where He controls all the affairs of earth. He was going to help Israel by providing them with refuge and driving out the enemies before them. But as Judges 1 reveals, the tribes of Israel would doubt the word of God, refusing to do their part in the elimination of the Canaanites. And their failure to remove the pagan nations from their midst would end up diluting their effectiveness and diminishing their faithfulness.

As Moses wraps up his oration to the people of Israel, his last will and testament, he reminds them that God was their help and hope.

So Israel will live in safety,
    prosperous Jacob in security,
in a land of grain and new wine,
    while the heavens drop down dew.
How blessed you are, O Israel!
    Who else is like you, a people saved by the Lord?
He is your protecting shield
    and your triumphant sword!
Your enemies will cringe before you,
    and you will stomp on their backs!” – Deuteronomy 33:28-29 NLT

They could trust God. And, as long as they did, they would experience the blessings of God. His provision and protection, as well as their prosperity, were tied to their trust in God. As long as they stayed fully reliant upon His power and fully committed to keeping His commands, they could enjoy His favor and faithfulness. But time would reveal that each of the tribes would turn their backs on the very one who had saved them and was ready, willing, and able 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

Faithful to the End

18 And of Zebulun he said,

“Rejoice, Zebulun, in your going out,
    and Issachar, in your tents.
19 They shall call peoples to their mountain;
    there they offer right sacrifices;
for they draw from the abundance of the seas
    and the hidden treasures of the sand.”

20 And of Gad he said,

“Blessed be he who enlarges Gad!
    Gad crouches like a lion;
    he tears off arm and scalp.
21 He chose the best of the land for himself,
    for there a commander’s portion was reserved;
and he came with the heads of the people,
    with Israel he executed the justice of the Lord,
    and his judgments for Israel.”

22 And of Dan he said,

“Dan is a lion’s cub
    that leaps from Bashan.” – Deuteronomy 33:18-22 ESV

Zebulun and Issachar were sons of Jacob by Leah, and their allotments of land in Canaan shared a common border. So, Moses addresses these two tribes with a combined blessing.

Moses refers to Zebulun “going out” and Issachar “in your tents.” It seems that one tribe would become traders, going out in ships and returning with foreign goods and profits from their journeys. Yet the tribe of Issachar would remain in their tents, living a more agrarian and settled life.

But with their location between the Mediterranean Sea and the Sea of Galilee, they would “draw from the abundance of the seas.” And Zebulun, in particular, would benefit greatly from its access to Sidon. They would eventually establish commercial links to the Phoenicians, and become profitable traders all along the Mediterranean coastline.

In his blessing of Zebulun, Jacob had prophesied of the tribe’s close association with the sea.

“Zebulun shall dwell at the shore of the sea;
    he shall become a haven for ships,
    and his border shall be at Sidon.” – Genesis 49:13 ESV

It is important to note that the land the tribe of Zebulun occupied would become part of region known as Galilee. And the book of Isaiah predicts that the day would come when Zebulun and its neighboring tribe, Naphtali, would experience days of darkness and despair. They, along with the other tribes of the northern kingdom, would be conquered by the Assyrians and taken into captivity. But God had good news for them.

Nevertheless, that time of darkness and despair will not go on forever. The land of Zebulun and Naphtali will be humbled, but there will be a time in the future when Galilee of the Gentiles, which lies along the road that runs between the Jordan and the sea, will be filled with glory.

The people who walk in darkness
    will see a great light.
For those who live in a land of deep darkness,
    a light will shine. – Isaiah 9:1-2 NLT

Out of the land of Galilee would come the long-awaited Messiah. God would send His Son as the light of the world, piercing the darkness of sin and offering a means by which fallen mankind could be restored to a right relationship with Himself.

Concerning Issachar, Jacob had seen his son’s occupation as a laborer, working the land and, as Moses later put it, benefiting from “the hidden treasures of the sand.” But Jacob also predicted the future Issachar and his brothers would experience as slaves of the Assyrians.

“Issachar is a strong donkey,
    crouching between the sheepfolds.
He saw that a resting place was good,
    and that the land was pleasant,
so he bowed his shoulder to bear,
    and became a servant at forced labor.” – Genesis 49:14-15 ESV

When it came to his son, Gad, Jacob had little to say.

“Raiders shall raid Gad,
    but he shall raid at their heels.” – Genesis 49:19 ESV

It seems that Gad, a relatively small tribe, would find itself under constant attack by marauding bands of brigands and opportunists. We know from Judges 1, that none of the tribes were successful in removing the Canaanites from the land. So, there were always remnants of these enemies wandering throughout the land, wreaking havoc on unsuspecting villages and towns belonging to the Israelites. And because Gad as relatively small, they were an easy target. But Jacob predicted that the descendants of Gad would give as well as they took.

Moses adds another element to his blessing of the tribe of Gad, by recognizing God’s blessing of them. They were awarded “the best of the land” – a reference to the land of Gilead on the eastern side of the Jordan. Long before the people of Israel crossed the border into Canaan, the tribes of Gad, Manassah, and Reuben had requested to settle the rich pasture land lying outside the land of promise. And Moses gave them permission to do so as long as they agreed to help the remaining tribes conquer and settle the land of Canaan. They did so and were awarded the land of Gilead as their inheritance. Moses honors them for the commitment to keep their word.

“…he came with the heads of the people,
    with Israel he executed the justice of the Lord,
    and his judgments for Israel.” – Deuteronomy 33:21 ESV

When Jacob blessed his son, Dan, he paints a rather disconcerting image of his future. He describes him as a judge of his people, but also as a serpent or poisonous snake.

“Dan shall judge his people
    as one of the tribes of Israel.
Dan shall be a serpent in the way,
    a viper by the path,
that bites the horse’s heels
    so that his rider falls backward.
I wait for your salvation, O Lord.” – Genesis 49:16-18 ESV

The book of Judges clarifies this rather conflicting image by telling us, “Now in those days Israel had no king. And the tribe of Dan was trying to find a place where they could settle, for they had not yet moved into the land assigned to them when the land was divided among the tribes of Israel” (Judges 18:1 NLT).

They had been allotted land in Canaan and, while it was small in size, it was very fertile. But, like all the other tribes, Dan had failed to drive out the Canaanites and so they never fully occupied the land given to them by God.

The Amorites pressed the people of Dan back into the hill country, for they did not allow them to come down to the plain. – Judges 1:34 ESV

So, rather than obeying the command of God, they decided to search for other lands in which to settle. They set out five spies who came back with a report of a possible spot for resettlement.

So the five men went on to the town of Laish, where they noticed the people living carefree lives, like the Sidonians; they were peaceful and secure. The people were also wealthy because their land was very fertile. And they lived a great distance from Sidon and had no allies nearby. – Judges 18:7 NLT

This news prompted the Danites to send 600 men to attack Laish and take the land as their own. But on the way, they decided to steal a Levite who was serving in the household of an Israelite named Micah. We know from the text, that Micah had employed this Levite to serve as his personal priest and that Micah and his neighbors were idolatrous. When the Danites stole the young Levite, they also took the false gods Micah worshiped, which cause he and his neighbors to chase down the Danites and beg for their return.

Then, with Micah’s idols and his priest, the men of Dan came to the town of Laish, whose people were peaceful and secure. They attacked with swords and burned the town to the ground. There was no one to rescue the people, for they lived a great distance from Sidon and had no allies nearby. This happened in the valley near Beth-rehob.

Then the people of the tribe of Dan rebuilt the town and lived there. They renamed the town Dan after their ancestor, Israel’s son, but it had originally been called Laish. – Judges 18:27-29 NLT

Years later, God would divide the kingdom of Israel in two, creating Judah in the south and Israel in the north. The Danites would play a huge part in the eventual fall of the northern kingdom of Israel. In 1 Kings 12:25-33, we have the account of King Jeroboam who, fearing that the citizens of the northern kingdom would travel to Jerusalem in the south in order to worship God, decided to erect two altars in the north of Dan. Not only that, he erected a golden calf at each location, creating his own false gods and an entire religious system of his own design.

Interestingly enough, all Moses had to say about Dan was “Dan is a lion’s whelp, That leaps forth from Bashan” (Deuteronomy 33:22 NLT). Bashan was located near Laish, the town that the Danites conquered and occupied. The description of Dan as a lion’s whelp or cub is intended to portray that tribe as impetuous and undisciplined. It lacks wisdom and the skills acquired by age and experience. The Danites would steal land not given to them by God. They would steal a Levite and make him their personal priest, something God never commanded. And, on top of all that, they would steal idols and set them up as their gods. Eventually, under the poor leadership of Jeroboam, they would create their own religion and erect their own altars to false gods, leading to their eventual judgment by God.

Each of these tribes, Zebulun, Issachar, Gad, and Dan, had been set apart by God as His own. But they had all failed to live up to God’s standards. They had proven to be unfaithful, disbelieving, and disobedient. But even their wickedness would not keep God from displaying His faithfulness. Out of the darkness of Zebulun a great light would shine. The book of John records the arrival of this great light in the form of Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Savior of the world.

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. – John 1:9-13 ESV

Even though darkness reigned, the light penetrated the darkness. Even though the tribes of Israel proved unfaithful, God proved Himself to be faithful to keep His word.

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

Joshua and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

23 And the Lord commissioned Joshua the son of Nun and said, “Be strong and courageous, for you shall bring the people of Israel into the land that I swore to give them. I will be with you.”

24 When Moses had finished writing the words of this law in a book to the very end, 25 Moses commanded the Levites who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, 26 “Take this Book of the Law and put it by the side of the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, that it may be there for a witness against you. 27 For I know how rebellious and stubborn you are. Behold, even today while I am yet alive with you, you have been rebellious against the Lord. How much more after my death! 28 Assemble to me all the elders of your tribes and your officers, that I may speak these words in their ears and call heaven and earth to witness against them. 29 For I know that after my death you will surely act corruptly and turn aside from the way that I have commanded you. And in the days to come evil will befall you, because you will do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger through the work of your hands.” – Deuteronomy 31:23-29 ESV

The commissioning of Joshua by God seems a bit anticlimactic, doesn’t it? It takes just one verse to record the whole affair. There were no animals sacrificed, no anointing oil poured over the head of Joshua. A comparison between his commissioning and that of Aaron reveals some remarkable and glaring contrasts.

And Moses brought Aaron and his sons and washed them with water. And he put the coat on him and tied the sash around his waist and clothed him with the robe and put the ephod on him and tied the skillfully woven band of the ephod around him, binding it to him with the band. And he placed the breastpiece on him, and in the breastpiece he put the Urim and the Thummim. And he set the turban on his head, and on the turban, in front, he set the golden plate, the holy crown, as the Lord commanded Moses. – Leviticus 8:6-9 ESV

And he poured some of the anointing oil on Aaron’s head and anointed him to consecrate him. And Moses brought Aaron’s sons and clothed them with coats and tied sashes around their waists and bound caps on them, as the Lord commanded Moses. – Leviticus 8:12-13 ESV

Yet, all Joshua got as a word of encouragement from God: “Be strong and courageous, for you shall bring the people of Israel into the land that I swore to give them. I will be with you” (Deuteronomy 31:23 ESV).

But even these words of encouragement and affirmation had to come across as a little underwhelming to Joshua. After all, he had just heard God say that the people of Israel would prove to be rebellious and unrepentant, earning them the full weight of the curses Moses had warned them about. So, while God provided Joshua with the assurance that he would be successful in his new role as leader of the people of Israel, it had to have been bitter-sweet news to his ears. Yes, Joshua would accomplish his God-given assignment and lead the people into the land of Canaan, but how could he forget the fact that they would not be allowed to stay there. The day would come when they would be destroyed by their enemies and taken as captives to foreign lands.

And even after his rather abrupt and abbreviated commissioning, Joshua had to hear Moses repeat the warning God had delivered to them in the tent of meeting.

“I know how rebellious and stubborn you are. Behold, even today while I am yet alive with you, you have been rebellious against the Lord. How much more after my death!” – Deuteronomy 31:27 ESV

Put yourself in Joshua’s sandals. He has just been commissioned the new leader of the people of Israel and yet when he and Moses step out of the tent of meeting, he doesn’t even get an introduction. There is no official announcement of the leadership transition from Moses to Joshua. It’s almost as if Joshua simply stood in the background, eyes wide with shock and surprise. He had just seen the Shekinah glory of God, heard the voice of God, and was still digesting the devastating news from God that the nation of Israel would end up back in captivity one day. And just as he is about to take over the reins of leadership, he has to sit back and hear Moses accuse the people of being rebellious and stubborn.

And Moses wasn’t done. He had one more punch to the gut he wanted to deliver.

“I know that after my death you will surely act corruptly and turn aside from the way that I have commanded you. And in the days to come evil will befall you, because you will do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger through the work of your hands.” – Deuteronomy 31:29 ESV

I can’t help but imagine how Joshua felt as all this transpired. Here he was getting ready to lead the people of Israel into the promised land, not exactly an easy task, and Moses was busy stirring up and offending them. On top of that, Joshua had just been informed that, while the whole conquest-of-the-land initiative would be a success, it would prove to be shortlived and irrelevant. 

This is probably not the way Joshua had envisioned his tenure as the shepherd of Israel beginning. This entire section of the book of Deuteronomy is weighted with a dark sense of foreboding. This should have been one of the most eagerly anticipated events in Israel’s long and storied history as they prepared to cross over the border and begin their conquest of the land promised to them by God centuries earlier. But rather than joy and celebration, the occasion was marked by sadness and disappointment. The party balloons had popped. The candles on the cake had blown out.

And Moses told the people that the law itself would bear witness against them. He instructed the Levites to “Take this Book of the Law and put it by the side of the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, that it may be there for a witness against you” (Deuteronomy 31:26 ESV). His handwritten copy of God’s commandments would be a constant presence among the people, practically screaming out its judgments against them every time they violated its contents.

Moses assembles all the elders and officers of the 12 tribes and calls heaven and earth to witness against them. But what does this mean? How do the heavens and the earth bear witness against the nation of Israel? Well, in the opening stanza of the song that God gave Moses, we read these words: “Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak, and let the earth hear the words of my mouth” (Deuteronomy 32:1 ESV).

Moses was going to sing the words of God’s song to the people, and the first words would be addressed to the heavens and the earth. It is as if God is saying, “If you won’t listen, creation will.” The rest of the creative order will hear the commands of God and bear witness against the Israelites for their stubborn refusal to do as He has said.

In a sense, Moses is saying that the heavens and earth will still remain, even after the Israelites are long gone. The sun, moon, and stars will still be in the sky long after Israel is exiled from the land of promise. They will look up from their new home in Babylon and see the same unchanging scene in the heavens, but they will be in captivity. The land of Canaan will remain right where it was when they left. Nothing will change about it except the identity of those who occupy it. The earth will keep spinning. The sun, moon, and stars will keep shining. Canaan will remain a land flowing with milk and honey. But the fate of the Israelites will be markedly different than it had been.

“…in the days to come evil will befall you, because you will do what is evil in the sight of the Lord.” – Deuteronomy 31:29 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

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

Choose Life

11 “For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. 12 It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ 13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ 14 But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.

15 “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. 16 If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. 17 But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, 20 loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.” – Deuteronomy 30:11-20 ESV

As Moses wraps up his message to the people of Israel, he boils down all that he has said as a choice between two options: Life and death. And all they had to do to determine their preferred outcome was either obey or disobey. It was that easy. In fact, Moses tells them, “this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you” (Deuteronomy 30:11 ESV). The Hebrew word is pala'  and it literally means “not too wonderful.” But, in this context, it conveys the idea of something not being too difficult to understand or do. God’s law was not intended to be some mysterious divine dictate that was unapproachable and unachievable. It had not required a trip into the heavenly realms to discover its secrets. God had required a lengthy trip across the ocean in order to discover His hidden commands.

God had personally delivered His commands, dictating them to Moses, who then communicated them to the people of Israel. That’s why Moses reminds them, “No, the message is very close at hand; it is on your lips and in your heart so that you can obey it” (Deuteronomy 30:14 NLT).

Now, Moses was not insinuating that adherence to God’s law was going to be easy. But he was saying that the decision whether to obey or disobey should be a simple and non-debatable one.

“See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil.” – Deuteronomy 30:15 ESV

Who in their right mind would choose death over life? What would possess anyone to opt for curses when they could enjoy the blessings of God? Well, the sad fact is, mankind has been making what is clearly the wrong choice since the beginning. The book of Genesis records the first choice between life and good, death and evil, that man was ever given by God. God had made man and placed him in the garden of Eden, where he was surrounded by the goodness and glory of God’s creation. Immediately after creating man, God had deemed all that He had made as “very good.” It was physically and morally perfect and devoid of any hint of evil. And in this pristine and perfectly flawless environment, Adam was given a choice by God.

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” – Genesis 2:15-17 ESV

Adam had options. He could obey God and refuse to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, or he could disobey and suffer death. And we all know how the story went. In the very next chapter of Genesis, Eve encounters Satan, who has disguised himself as a serpent, just another innocent creature made by God. And Satan begins a dialogue with Eve designed to confuse her understanding of God’s command. He infers that God had denied them access to the fruit of all the trees of the garden. But Eve corrects this misconception, clearly revealing her understanding that there was only one tree that was off-limits – the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Eve restates God’s warning: “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die” (Genesis 3:3 ESV). She clearly understood that this tree was off-limits. But Satan immediately raised doubts concerning God’s words and the purposes behind His ban on the fruit of this particular tree.

But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” – Genesis 3:4-5 ESV

God had warned that death would be the outcome if they disobeyed His command. Yet Satan flatly contradicted God’s word, stating instead that enlightenment would be the result of their decision to eat the fruit of the tree. Their eyes would be opened, and they would be like God, knowing good and evil.

Like the fruit of the tree, that Eve found “a delight to the eyes,” the words of Satan sounded appealing to her ears. What God had banned, the enemy promoted. And the rest is, as they say, history.

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. – Genesis 3:6 ESV

She took and ate. She made her choice. And in doing so, she choice death over life. But not just physical death. She and her husband would experience spiritual death – a permanent loss of fellowship with God. They were cast from the garden and from God’s presence. She and her husband had made a choice and that simple decision would have long-term ramifications that would impact all their future descendants.

Fast-forward to the day when Moses stood before the people of Israel, presenting them with yet another simple, yet sobering choice.

If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.” – Deuteronomy 30:16 ESV

If you obey…then you will live. It’s that simple. That doesn’t mean it will be easy. But the choice is simple and clear. No ambiguities. No hidden agendas. And just so they understand their options, Moses points out their only other choice.

“But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish.” – Deuteronomy 30:17-18 ESV

No one in their right mind would read these two choices and their associated outcomes and have any difficulty determining which one made the most sense. It’s obvious. Obedience brings life and the blessings of God. Disobedience brings death and the curses of God. Who would be crazy enough to choose the latter over the former?

The answer is, everyone who has ever lived. As Paul so succinctly puts it: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 ESV). Ever since the garden, mankind has been choosing the forbidden fruit and its tempting offer of godlikeness. There is something appealing about disobedience. It seems to give us power and control. By doing that which God has commanded us not to do, we somehow believe we become the masters of our fate and the captains of our soul. God say’s, “No!” and we say, “Yes!” 

It’s a simple choice. But behind it lies a complex set of calculations and false assumptions. The enemy is the one who wants to confuse and over-complicate God’s commands, twisting our Father’s desire to bless us into a some kind of evil attempt to deny us what is rightfully ours: Godlikeness.

It is interesting to notice how the enemy makes choice the goal, when God focuses on the outcome of the choice. Satan makes it all about the ability to choose between good and evil. But God is all about blessing and life. Satan wants you to believe that you have a right to choose. But God’s desire is that you choose what is right. Because he longs to bless you. Even Moses places the emphasis where it belongs – on the outcome: “life and good, death and evil.”

They say that life is about choices. But really, life is about just two choices. Whether to obey or disobey God. And years later, long after the people of Israel had occupied the land of Canaan, Joshua, the successor to Moses, would offer the people of Israel another version of the choice.

“But if you refuse to serve the LORD, then choose today whom you will serve. Would you prefer the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates? Or will it be the gods of the Amorites in whose land you now live? But as for me and my family, we will serve the LORD.” – Joshua 24:15 NLT

Joshua had made his choice. He had decided to go with God. He had determined that life and good were preferable to death and evil. A commitment to God and His ways made sense. By choosing to follow and serve God, he knew he was choosing life.

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

The Secret Things of God

16 “You know how we lived in the land of Egypt, and how we came through the midst of the nations through which you passed. 17 And you have seen their detestable things, their idols of wood and stone, of silver and gold, which were among them. 18 Beware lest there be among you a man or woman or clan or tribe whose heart is turning away today from the Lord our God to go and serve the gods of those nations. Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit, 19 one who, when he hears the words of this sworn covenant, blesses himself in his heart, saying, ‘I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart.’ This will lead to the sweeping away of moist and dry alike. 20 The Lord will not be willing to forgive him, but rather the anger of the Lord and his jealousy will smoke against that man, and the curses written in this book will settle upon him, and the Lord will blot out his name from under heaven. 21 And the Lord will single him out from all the tribes of Israel for calamity, in accordance with all the curses of the covenant written in this Book of the Law. 22 And the next generation, your children who rise up after you, and the foreigner who comes from a far land, will say, when they see the afflictions of that land and the sicknesses with which the Lord has made it sick— 23 the whole land burned out with brimstone and salt, nothing sown and nothing growing, where no plant can sprout, an overthrow like that of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim, which the Lord overthrew in his anger and wrath— 24 all the nations will say, ‘Why has the Lord done thus to this land? What caused the heat of this great anger?’ 25 Then people will say, ‘It is because they abandoned the covenant of the Lord, the God of their fathers, which he made with them when he brought them out of the land of Egypt, 26 and went and served other gods and worshiped them, gods whom they had not known and whom he had not allotted to them. 27 Therefore the anger of the Lord was kindled against this land, bringing upon it all the curses written in this book, 28 and the Lord uprooted them from their land in anger and fury and great wrath, and cast them into another land, as they are this day.’

29 “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” – Deuteronomy 29:16-29 ESV

This section is book-ended by two phrases that provide us with the context of all that Moses has to say in-between. He begins with the words, “You know…” and then ends by talking about “the secret things…” which belong to the Lord. Moses realized that there were many things that God had left unrevealed to the people of Israel. There were a great many divine truths of which they were ignorant. As God would later say of Himself: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9 ESV).

Man in limited in his knowledge. He can’t know the future. He can predict and prognosticate, but it all ends up being little more than speculation or wishful thinking. Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, warned against such vain speculation.

Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring. – Proverbs 27:1 ESV

James provides even greater detail regarding man’s arrogant attempt to plan for the future, basing his decisions on things he cannot know or control.

Look here, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we are going to a certain town and will stay there a year. We will do business there and make a profit.” How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone. What you ought to say is, “If the Lord wants us to, we will live and do this or that.” Otherwise you are boasting about your own pretentious plans, and all such boasting is evil. – James 4:13-16 NLT

The Israelites had no idea what their future would look like. But they did know what God had done in the past and what He had commanded them to do in the present. And Moses had provided them with ample warning regarding what would happen should they choose to disobey what the did know – all that God had told them to do.

The generation to whom Moses was speaking had not grown up in Egypt. They had not experienced the pain and suffering of captivity in a foreign land. But they knew all about the details concerning Israel’s 400-plus years of slavery. They were also very well aware of the idolatry that ran rampant in Egypt because their parents had told them stories of the countless gods the Egyptians worshiped, including the Pharaoh himself. 

Even during their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, the Israelites had been exposed to one nation after another where they discovered the names of even more false gods and witnessed new forms of pagan worship. So, by the time the got to Canaan, they were highly familiar with idolatry, which is why Moses warned them to avoid that temptation like a plague.

“Beware lest there be among you a man or woman or clan or tribe whose heart is turning away today from the Lord our God to go and serve the gods of those nations.” – Deuteronomy 29:18 ESV

And they were to take this warning seriously, keeping an eye out for anyone who might consider abandoning the one true God for a false god. All it would take was one man or woman to throw a wrench into God’s plans for the entire nation. The covenant God had made with them was communal in nature, and adherence to it was to be a community-wide affair. If even one individual took the attitude, “I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart” (Deuteronomy 29:19 ESV), the whole nation would suffer the consequences.

They knew better. God had warned them repeatedly that the entire nation would be held accountable. They had seen what had happened when Achan had disobeyed God and taken treasure from the city of Jericho and had buried it in his tent. His hidden sin had resulted in Israel’s unexpected defeat when they attacked the city of Ai. God had held the entire nation culpable until they had dealt with the sin in their midst.

Moses makes sure the people understand the gravity of allowing disobedience in any form or fashion to infect the camp.

“The Lord will never pardon such people. Instead his anger and jealousy will burn against them. All the curses written in this book will come down on them, and the Lord will erase their names from under heaven. The Lord will separate them from all the tribes of Israel, to pour out on them all the curses of the covenant recorded in this Book of Instruction.” – Deuteronomy 29:20-21 NLT

They knew better and couldn’t claim ignorance as an excuse. And they could know for certain that future generations would reap the consequences of their present mistakes.

“Then the generations to come, both your own descendants and the foreigners who come from distant lands, will see the devastation of the land and the diseases the Lord inflicts on it.” – Deuteronomy 29:22 NLT

They might not be able to predict the future, but they could certainly influence it by choosing to disobey God in the here-and-now. Their present disobedience would bring future destruction to the land that will leave even the pagan nations scratching their heads in wonder and asking, “Why has the Lord done thus to this land? What caused the heat of this great anger?” (Deuteronomy 29:24 ESV).

And the answer to their questions will be a simple one: “It is because they abandoned the covenant of the Lord, the God of their fathers, which he made with them when he brought them out of the land of Egypt, and went and served other gods and worshiped them, gods whom they had not known and whom he had not allotted to them” (Deuteronomy 29:25-26 ESV).

There was a lot the Israelites didn’t know. As they stood on the edge of the land of Canaan preparing to enter in and conquer the nations who occupied it, their minds were filled with questions of all kinds. How would it go? Would they be successful? How long would it take? Would they die in battle? Would the nations living in the land prove to be too strong?

A million doubts, fears, and concerns had to have crossed their minds. Moses must have seen the apprehension in their eyes, which is why he told them, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God…” (Deuteronomy 29:29 ESV). Rather than wasting time worrying about the unknown and the unrevealed, Moses wanted them to focus on what they did know: “the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever” (Deuteronomy 29:29 ESV). They knew the law of God. Moses had just gone over it in detail. They knew all about the blessings that would come with obedience and they were more than familiar with the curses that would come upon them if they disobeyed.

They knew what God had done to free them from captivity in Egypt. They knew He had promised to give them the land of Canaan as their inheritance and was getting ready to do so. They knew all about idols and the constant threat these false gods would pose, tempting them to abandon God and forget His commands. They knew they had to enter the land and eliminate the nations who lived their, along with all their idols, altars, and shrines. They knew they had to remain faithful if they wanted to be fruitful. They knew that God would not tolerate sin the camp or allow even one case of disobedience to go unpunished.

God had told them all they needed to know. They had no reason to worry about the future, unless they decided to live disobediently in the present. They knew that God expected them to be faithful. And if they did what God wanted, they could know that He would do all that He had promised.

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

From Bad to Worse

25 “The Lord will cause you to be defeated before your enemies. You shall go out one way against them and flee seven ways before them. And you shall be a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth. 26 And your dead body shall be food for all birds of the air and for the beasts of the earth, and there shall be no one to frighten them away. 27 The Lord will strike you with the boils of Egypt, and with tumors and scabs and itch, of which you cannot be healed. 28 The Lord will strike you with madness and blindness and confusion of mind, 29 and you shall grope at noonday, as the blind grope in darkness, and you shall not prosper in your ways. And you shall be only oppressed and robbed continually, and there shall be no one to help you. 30 You shall betroth a wife, but another man shall ravish her. You shall build a house, but you shall not dwell in it. You shall plant a vineyard, but you shall not enjoy its fruit. 31 Your ox shall be slaughtered before your eyes, but you shall not eat any of it. Your donkey shall be seized before your face, but shall not be restored to you. Your sheep shall be given to your enemies, but there shall be no one to help you. 32 Your sons and your daughters shall be given to another people, while your eyes look on and fail with longing for them all day long, but you shall be helpless. 33 A nation that you have not known shall eat up the fruit of your ground and of all your labors, and you shall be only oppressed and crushed continually, 34 so that you are driven mad by the sights that your eyes see. 35 The Lord will strike you on the knees and on the legs with grievous boils of which you cannot be healed, from the sole of your foot to the crown of your head.” Deuteronomy 28:25-35 ESV

Let’s face it, bad things happen. Calamity comes to everyone because it is no respecter of persons. And while God had promised that obedience to His law would bring blessings, He had never said that their lives would be trouble-free, disease-resistant, peace-filled, or painless. There would still be plenty of difficulties because they lived in a fallen world. They would still be required to offer sacrifices because they would continue to sin and need atonement.

So, when Moses discusses the curses that will come upon the people of Israel for what appears to be their stubborn and ongoing disobedience to God’s law, he makes sure they understand that this will be difficulties and trials on steroids. These will not be your everyday, run-of-the-mill troubles that are a normal part of everyday life on this planet. No, they will be extreme, and like nothing they have ever experienced before. There will be no relief or escape. They will feature the worst kind of suffering one can image and then take that suffering one step further.

Look closely at how each curse is described. God was going to personally see to it that Israel lost battles against their enemies. That was nothing new for Israel because they had already been defeated at Ai. But Moses describes a demoralizing rout that has the Israelites scattering in seven different directions in an attempt to save their lives. And the failure of the Israelite army will be so catastrophic that it will leave other nations in terror. The fall of Israel at the hands of their enemy will create a sense of fear among the other nations of the region, as they anticipate their own defeat against the same foe. History records that, eventually, Israel was roundly defeated by the Assyrians and Judah fell to the Babylonians. And both of these nations left a wake of destruction in their path, as they ransacked kingdom after kingdom, sending shockwaves of terror among the nations that remained.

And Moses lets the Israelites know that their defeat will be complete, with no one escaping. Their bodies will lie scattered on the ground and become “food for all birds of the air and for the beasts of the earth” (Deuteronomy 28:26 ESV). No burials or memorials and no one to mourn their deaths. In fact, there will be no one left to scare off the carrion or scavenging dogs. This defeat will not only be demoralizing, but it will also be devasting and irreversible.

Next, Moses reveals that the Israelites will suffer from boils and tumors, just like the ones that God brought upon the Egyptians as part of the ten plagues. God will use the very same diseases that forced the Egyptians to release His people from captivity as a form of punishment for their disobedience. And, once again, Moses takes the suffering a step further, stating that there will be no healing from the pain and itching. These diseases will be permanent and untreatable, with no hope of relief or chance of restoration. And, perhaps as a result of the unrelenting agony caused by the boils and tumors, the people of Israel will suffer from madness, loss of sight, and confusion of mind. Their diminished mental capacity and blindness will leave them incapable of living normal lives, which will result in financial ruin. And, as before, Moses takes his message of doom to another level by warning them, “you shall be only oppressed and robbed continually, and there shall be no one to help you” (Deuteronomy 28:29 ESV). Just when they think it can’t get any worse, it will.

Next, Moses uses a series of short scenarios to further illustrate the devastating consequences of disobedience to God’s law. He begins with a case of betrothal. A man who experiences the joy of finding a woman to whom he becomes engaged will end up watching another man sleep with her. He will never have the privilege of consummating his own marriage. This most likely describes the grim reality of war. This man will have to watch as his betrothed is raped by an enemy soldier. And as if that was not enough, he and his future wife will never know the joy of living in the house he built for them. They will never enjoy the fruit of the vineyard he planted. And the ox he used to till his fields will be slaughtered and eaten by his enemies. His donkeys and sheep will become plunder, and his children will be taken as slaves. But it will get worse. This man will be left longing for his family but will find no one to help him. His loss will be great, and there will be no relief in sight.

All of these things will come upon the Israelites at the hands of a single nation that will leave them “only oppressed and crushed continually” (Deuteronomy 28:33 ESV). God will use this nation to bring about His judgment upon His own people. But it will be their own fault. Their decision to disobey God’s commands will result in their own destruction. And the books of the prophets of God are filled with calls for the people of Israel to repent and return to Him. God will repeatedly issue His compassionate offer of restitution if His people will only repent of their ways. But they won’t, and all that Moses describes in these verses will take place.

These curses are not a form of hyperbole or exaggeration on Moses’ part. They are prophetic pronouncements concerning God’s judgment. So, when Moses says, “he Lord will strike you on the knees and on the legs with grievous boils of which you cannot be healed, from the sole of your foot to the crown of your head” (Deuteronomy 28:35 ESV), he is not issuing idol threats. He means it. And, as before, this warning of grievous boils will be far worse than they can imagine. They will cover the Israelites from head to foot, and they will not respond to any form of treatment or remedy. Repeated disobedience to God’s commands will bring devastating and debilitating consequences that will leave the people of Israel without hope and devoid of help. And Moses is just getting started.

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

Deadly Serious About Marriage

22 “If a man is found lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman. So you shall purge the evil from Israel.

23 “If there is a betrothed virgin, and a man meets her in the city and lies with her, 24 then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones, the young woman because she did not cry for help though she was in the city, and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.

25 “But if in the open country a man meets a young woman who is betrothed, and the man seizes her and lies with her, then only the man who lay with her shall die. 26 But you shall do nothing to the young woman; she has committed no offense punishable by death. For this case is like that of a man attacking and murdering his neighbor, 27 because he met her in the open country, and though the betrothed young woman cried for help there was no one to rescue her.

28 “If a man meets a virgin who is not betrothed, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are found, 29 then the man who lay with her shall give to the father of the young woman fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife, because he has violated her. He may not divorce her all his days.

30  “A man shall not take his father’s wife, so that he does not uncover his father’s nakedness.” – Deuteronomy 22:22-30 ESV

God had provided Israel with laws concerning every aspect of life, including marriage. And, because God knew the hearts of His people, His laws covered virtually every conceivable circumstance that might arise. He knew that, in their fallen state, they would be constantly tempted to find loopholes that would allow them to circumvent His laws. That’s why the Mosaic Law contains such explicit instructions regarding the sexual relationship between a man and a woman.

“If a man seduces a virgin who is not betrothed and lies with her, he shall give the bride-price for her and make her his wife. If her father utterly refuses to give her to him, he shall pay money equal to the bride-price for virgins.” – Exodus 22:16-17 ESV

For one thing, these kinds of laws reveal God’s perspective on marriage. His chosen people were not free to let their base sexual passions dictate their behavior. Physical desires, while instilled by the Creator, were not to dictate human interaction. The fall had damaged mankind, leaving behind a natural proclivity to serve self at all costs. And the unequivocal prohibitions God gave the people of Israel were designed to curb their predisposition to allow their basest needs to drive their behavior. So, two of the ten commandments God gave to Moses contained restrictions regarding marriage and sex.

“You shall not commit adultery.” – Exodus 20:14 ESV

“You shall not … covet your neighbor's wife.” – Exodus 20:17 ESV

These two commands are inextricably linked. Coveting, the attraction to something you do not possess can quickly move from an emotional appetite to a physical action to satisfy that appetite. While the concept of coveting is not always negative, in this context, it carries the idea of desire for something that is off-limits. It is a greed-driven craving for that which has been forbidden. If you covet your neighbor’s wife, it won’t be long before that inappropriate desire manifests itself in action, and the coveting takes the form of adultery.

So, here in Deuteronomy 22, we find Moses providing additional instructions regarding marriage and sex. The very fact that God had Moses go into such great detail reveals the extent of Israel’s love affair with sin and selfishness. 

In verses 22-30, there are five specific scenarios outlined that deal with the unseemly topics of adultery and rape. That God had Moses go into such vivid detail reveals the extent of human sin and its infectious nature. While the people of Israel had been set apart by God as His chosen possession, they still suffered from the effects of the fall and were going to find themselves constantly struggling to stifle their naturaul inclination to satisfy self at all costs.

First of all, adultery was a serious matter punishable by death. The marriage union was not something to be taken lightly or treated flippantly. When God said the two shall become one, He meant it. And while man’s sin nature would constantly entice him to replace God’s will with his own self-centered desires, there would always be consequences – deadly serious consequences.

Marriage was so important to God that even the betrothal or engagement stage of the marriage union was protected by His laws. The betrothal period was considered sacrosanct and was to be treated with an appropriate degree of reverence. Even though the betrothed couple had not yet consummated their marriage, they were considered as one in the eyes of God. They were bound together by a covenant agreement. So, if it was discovered that a betrothed woman had sexual relations with a man other than her husband-to-be, she was to be put to death, along with her partner.

But Moses provided a mitigating circumstance. What if the woman had been unwillingly raped by another man? He paints the scenario of a man sexually assaulting a woman in the middle of nowhere, where her screams for help go unanswered. In that case, the man is to be stoned to death for rape and the woman is to be exonerated.

Then, Moses provides one final case involving a man who forcibly rapes an unbetrothed virgin. In this instance, the man is responsible to marry the woman and to pay a proper dowry to her parents. In God’s eyes, the man is guilty of having stolen something of great value: the young woman’s virginity. But he is also guilty of depriving the girl’s parents of their right to a dowry. In the ancient economy, a daughter could bring a family much-needed revenue in the form of money or livestock. A son could work in the fields and help maintain the family’s resources, He could also inherit all that belonged to the family, ensuring that the legacy of his father was continued. But a daughter brought value to the family through marriage. So, if a man raped a virgin, he was obligated to marry her and to provide her family with an appropriate dowry to compensate for his sin.

The final case most likely involves a son marrying his own stepmother. The text describes her as “his father’s wife,” not as his own mother. So, it seems that the circumstance to which Moses refers involves a son marrying the widow of his deceased father. This was considered to be a case of incest, even though the woman was not his actual birth-mother. While the Mosaic Law allowed for a widow to remarry, it was not appropriate for a son to marry his widowed step-mother. Moses describes it as “uncovering his father’s nakedness.” 

The apostle Paul had to address this very issue taking place within the church in Corinth.

I can hardly believe the report about the sexual immorality going on among you—something that even pagans don’t do. I am told that a man in your church is living in sin with his stepmother. You are so proud of yourselves, but you should be mourning in sorrow and shame. And you should remove this man from your fellowship. – 1 Corinthians 5:1-2 NLT

God has standards. And He requires that His people live up to those standards. As a holy and righteous God, He cannot allow those who bear His name to conduct themselves according to their own whims. Their sin natures will always lead to moral compromise and result in the defamation of God’s reputation. As His image-bearers, they were to honor His reputation through the way they conducted their lives.

The righteous behavior of God’s people is designed to display His righteousness to the world. They are to outwardly manifest His holiness through their willing obedience to His divine decrees. The laws governing their behavior came from a holy God. Their adherence to those laws was to be a visible expression of their love for Him. 

Jesus told His disciples, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15 ESV). Their obedience was less about displaying their own righteousness, than about expressing their love for the One who is righteous. Living set-apart lives, according to the righteous standards of a holy God, is a tangible way in which the people of God display for their love for Him.

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