Sermons preached by Nathan Lewis at Evergreen Church in Beaverton and Chehalem Valley Church in Newberg, Oregon, 2006
“The Covenant: Just Government ” Deuteronomy 16:18 – 17:20
The law of God promotes justice. This is good news. In preparing the second generation of Israel to live in the Promised Land, Moses sets up a system of appeals. The first court of appeals is located in each town of every tribe. The people are to appoint judges and officers who will hear cases. They are to “judge with righteous judgment.�? This means that the judges and officers are to hear and decide cases according to God’s law. They are not free to judge according to what they personally believe to be true and fair. Such decisions would pervert justice. They are not free to judge according to some other national law. God’s people are to be ruled by God’s law. A judge is not to favor those he knows and loves. He is not to accept a bribe. To do so would pervert justice. The only path to justice is to judge according to God’s law. The only assurance of fruitful life in the Promised Land, generation after generation is to be governed by God’s law.
In Deuteronomy, we have discovered that the greatest threat to justice, in God’s view, is idolatry. In our pluralistic world, this may strike us as odd. What would you consider to be the biggest threat to justice? Think of the order of the Ten Commandments. The first and second commands promote the worship of God alone. The first four commands teach us how to love God first and then the final six instruct us to love one another. God’s law promotes justice by instilling in us a reverence of the one, true and holy God, the Lord of the Covenant. Justice flows from God and this justice is realized when we fear God.
As the people appoint local judges and officials, the first laws Moses mentions are prohibitions of idolatry. The Canaanites worshipped Baal the rain god as well as his sister, Asherah. The idol symbolizing her fertility was a living tree or a carved wooden pole. Idolatry is not merely replacing the one, true God with a false god. Idolatry can also be adding a false god to the true God. In the world of religion we call such idolatry syncretism, “the attempted combination of different systems of philosophical or religious belief or practice.�? The Church has been guilty of syncretism throughout history. Priests in Mexico proclaimed the Aztec’s “Virgin of Guadalupe�? to be none other than the Virgin Mary. The result of this syncretism was a mass conversion of Aztecs to the Roman Catholic Church. Moses prohibits the planting of an Asherah tree alongside the altar of the Lord God.
Dr. Elaine Pagels, Professor of Religion at Princeton Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian institution, advocates the dismantling of the ecumenical creeds, like the Apostles’ Creed and The Nicene Creed, so that those who believe that God is each person’s inner Self might be received as members of the Church alongside those who believe that God is distinct from ourselves. Pagels advocates the dismantling of distinctions and barriers between Christians and Buddhists. She is promoting syncretism. Moses, the great prophet of Judaism, the giver of God’s law, prohibits the planting of an Asherah tree alongside the altar of the one and only God.
Syncretism is one form of idolatry threatening justice. Syncretism introduces and establishes more than one system of justice. If one corpus of law is applied to one individual, but entirely different corpus of law is applied to another individual, justice is threatened. If one day one corpus of law is used but the following day it is replaced with an alternative corpus of law, justice is a joke. If one book of law is amalgamated with another, the possibility of conflicting laws and views of justice exist.
Another idolatry, namely, greed, also threatens justice. In (17:1) Moses prohibits the sacrificing of blemished animals to God. The firstborn and the best of the flock are to be chosen. We are to give our first and best to God. Greed would move us to given damaged goods to God. We will keep and sell for our own profit the best of our labors. But we will give the defects to God. Such a low view of God threatens justice. If we are willing to cheat God then we would be ready to cheat our neighbor. We would care very little about justice in court. Greed works against justice. A greedy person only cares about himself. But justice moves us to care for everyone one. We might have bread to eat, but justice demands that we care about the poor who do not have bread to eat. Justice requires that we remove the oppressor who prevents the poor from eating bread. You may think, “Aren’t we confusing justice with mercy?�? In God’s law justice and mercy meet.
In God’s law idolatry is punishable by death. Such a deterrent promotes justice. But you may think, “Such a harsh and irreversible penalty may also pervert justice. What if a person is wrongfully accused?�? To prevent wrongful accusation, the court is to administer the death penalty only when two or three witnesses supply proof of the idolatry. One witness supplying proof is not sufficient to ensure justice. The two or three witnesses must cast the first stones. This is also a safeguard for justice served. The law of God views idolaters to be the greatest threat to justice. Death removes the idolater from the community and thus justice maintains order, peace, and purity.
Moses supplies a court of appeals to maintain justice. In (8-12) we read of the Levitical priests acting as judges in the court of appeals. Local judges and officers must pass to this central court any difficult cases. If the local judges find it difficult to determine which kind of homicide a certain case involves, they must send the case to the central court. If the case involves conflicting rights of property or liberty, the case is sent to the central court. Was the assault accidental or intentional? The central court must decide.
Anyone who disobeys or deviates in the smallest way from the decision of this central court is to receive the death penalty. This person is obstructing justice. The highest penalty is to be administered to maintain and promote justice. Moses teaches that “presumption�? is an enemy to justice. When an individual presumes to know what is right and does what is right in his own eyes, justice is obstructed.
Prior to Israel crowning a king, the central court was advised by a judge. One of the Levitical priests was set aside to master the law and to guide in its administration. Some of you know from your study of the Bible that God viewed Israel’s request for a king to be rejection of himself as King, the ultimate Judge of his people. Nevertheless, God told Samuel to anoint a king, to fulfill the people’s request. God’s law gives detailed instruction to the king, to assure that the king serves justice. In Deuteronomy 17, we discover that God reserves the right to choose the king for Israel. He does so through his prophet. The king is to be a member of Israel, not a foreigner. The King must not use his office for the amassing of his personal estate. He must not acquire many horses, wives, silver, and gold. Such greed in such a high office threatens justice.
Not only the people, but the king himself must submit to the law. The Levitical priests must supply the king with the law of God. The king must write out his own copy. He must keep this hand-written copy with him and read it all the days of his life. By doing so he will learn to fear God and his fear of God will be manifest in obedience to the law of God. Such submission to the law of God will humble the king, reminding him that he is one among his brothers, fellow Israelites. He is to obey the law all the days of his life. Such a humble and obedient king, submissive to the law of God, shall promote justice.
What does justice have to do with the gospel? God reveals himself to us as a just God. His law and the penalties of the law reveal to us God’s demand for justice. The death penalty assigned to the crime of idolatry condemns every single one of us to die. This is the nature and purpose of the law. We need the law. It is good for us. Without it we would wink at our sin and understate our need for God’s mercy.
The gospel is not the message of God slapping our hands and chuckling at our little rebellions. The gospel is the message of God freeing us from the death penalty we deserve for committing high crimes against his holy law. We are guilty of syncretism, greed, and presumption. God has every right to maintain his justice by condemning us to death. To our surprise and relief, the apostle Paul writes to the church at Ephesus, “You were dead in your trespasses and sins….you were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy because of his great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved….�? Jesus Christ suffered our death penalty in his death upon the cross.
The king of Israel with the law of God daily before him is a beautiful picture of our Lord Jesus Christ, the true Son of David, the true King of Israel. The apostle Paul writes to the church at Galatia: “In the fullness of time, God sent his Son, born of a virgin, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.�? Jesus is the only king who has humbly submitted to the law all the days of his life. He is the king who humbly became one of us, to serve us. Jesus did not turn to the left or to the right, but rather he perfectly obeyed God’s holy law. In doing so, his reign as King of Kings and Lord of Lords is eternal. Moses writes in (20) that the king obeys the law “so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel.�? Paul echoes these words claiming Christ to be the fulfillment. We are all sons of God through Jesus Christ.
As we read the addresses of Moses reminding Israel of the covenant, we are reminded that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the covenant. He has come as the human party receiving upon himself the death penalty the law assigns to us in our sins. But he has also come as the one and perfectly righteous man who has obeyed every line of God’s law. He is the perfect King, who keeps the law ever before him, applying it not merely for his own good, but for the good of all of us. The heavenly Father, as the divine party rewards his Son with every spiritual blessing. He receives his Son into the heavenly courts and makes him Judge of the nations. All of these blessings including the perfect and final justice of the last day flow to us from Jesus Christ. And so, as we remember the covenant, we discover that God fulfills the entire covenant for us so that we might receive his loving kindness all the days of our lives and live in the house of the Lord forever. In Christ, justice and mercy meet and are applied to all of us who are united to him.
“The Prophet�? Deuteronomy 18
God has provided three offices to serve Israel: Prophet, Priest, and King. In Chapter 17, we have recently read of the King, who is to humbly serve his subjects. He is to submit to the law of God himself. In Chapter 18, Moses mentions the office of Priest. The Levitical priests are set aside from worldly cares. The rest of the people are to provide for the needs of the priests, whose inheritance is God alone. The priest is chosen by God to serve the people in the name of the Lord. The final paragraph of Chapter 18 presents the office of Prophet. God establishes all three offices for the good of his people.
In the middle of Chapter 18, Moses, preparing Israel to live in the Promised Land, once again instructs them to live blamelessly before God. The list of abominations is indeed one of the worst lists in the scriptures. God reminds Israel that he is purging the Promised Land of the people groups who have committed these abominations. All three offices are designed to help the people of God live pure and holy lives. The king, with the law of God daily before him, rules the people in justice. The priests intercede before God, making sacrifice for the sins of the people, leading them in repentance and reconciliation. The Prophet instructs the people by speaking the very words of God. Let us take a closer look at the office of Prophet as Moses presents it in (15-22).
The office of Prophet is to be filled by a member of Israel. Moses was a member of the tribe of Levi. Joshua, his successor, was of the tribe of Ephraim and Samuel, the prophet who anointed King David was also of the tribe of Ephraim. Like the kings and the priests, the prophets must not be foreigners. They must be members of the household of Israel. Though he is one among brothers, Israel is to listen to him. The prophet’s words are the very words of God.
The office of Prophet reminds us that God has condescended to his people. This means that he speaks and interacts with us in ways that we can understand and receive. God, the infinitely divine Person is otherworldly. He is transcendent, mysterious, and unapproachable. Moses reminds Israel of God speaking to her in the fire on the mountain. Israel begged for Moses to be the mediator between God and humanity. His voice was awesome, striking fear in the hearts of Israel. God agreed with Israel’s request and so he appointed Moses as prophet, to receive his word for the people and to deliver it in a human voice. Thus the message carried divine authority but it was offered through a human instrument. God had once again condescended to his creatures, his beloved children, like a father bending to his knee to whisper softly and simply into the ear of his precious daughter.
The office of Prophet also reminds us that God’s word is authoritative. The prophet by definition has the very words of God in his mouth. He is to speak God’s commands to the people and they are expected to follow those commands. God holds the person responsible who refuses to listen to the words of his prophet.
(Quotes regarding authority of God’s word)
The office of Prophet teaches us that God’s word accompanies God’s will and work in the world. God’s word reveals to us the divine will and unfolds for us God’s work in the world. The prophet must be careful to speak the very words of God. If the prophet speaks his own words pretending to speak God’s words, then he deserves the death penalty of the law. The prophets of old would say, “Thus says the Lord,�? then deliver the very words of God. Moses supplies a failsafe test of the prophet. If he is truly a prophet of God, then what he says in the name of the Lord shall surely come to pass. If his words do not announce the will and work of God, then he is to be put to death. He is a false prophet.
Moses was a true prophet of God. When God appointed Moses at the burning bush, Moses was troubled about his role as prophet. He said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?’ God said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I am who I am sent me to you. Say to this people of Israel, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered through out all generations.�? A true prophet speaks in the name of God. He speaks the very words of God.
God supplies Moses with his words for Israel: “The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, has appeared to me saying, “I have observed you and what has been done to you in Egypt, and I promise that I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt to the land of the Canaanites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, a land flowing with milk and honey.�? God said to Moses, “The people will listen to your voice.�? Moses was still troubled and said, “But they will not believe me or listen to my voice, for they will say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you.’ God gave to Moses the signs of the ten plagues poured out upon Egypt. These signs were effective but they were not the proof of genuine prophecy. The Egyptian court magicians were able to perform the signs alongside Moses. The signs were means of moving Pharaoh to release the people. The proof of genuine prophecy was that the words of Moses came to pass. God liberated Israel from slavery in Egypt and he did bring them to live in the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey.
Moses and Israel are now camping on the border of the Promised Land and Moses, the prophet, is delivering God’s words to Israel to prepare them to enter the land. Moses says, “And the Lord said to me, ‘They are right in what they have spoken. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.’�? Moses was a true prophet. These words came to pass. God raised up Joshua to succeed Moses. In one of his final addresses of Israel as prophet, Moses said, “I am 120 years old today. I am no longer able to go out and come in. The Lord said to me, ‘You shall not go over this Jordan. The Lord your God himself will go over before you. He will destroy the nations before you, so that you shall dispossess them, and Joshua will go over at your head, as the Lord has spoken.�? These words of Moses actually came to pass. He had been delivering the very words of God.
Joshua became the next prophet of Israel, the very words of God upon his lips. He was a prophet just like Moses. He was from among the brothers of Israel. Nearly every divine message he spoke, Moses had already delivered during his term as prophet. Joshua faithfully renewed the covenant by speaking the very words of the Lord, the very words Moses had spoken before him.
When God promised to raise up a prophet like Moses from among the brothers of Israel, he was promising Joshua. But he was also promising the great and final Prophet, Jesus. It is no coincidence that Joshua and Jesus are the same name, meaning “the Lord saves.�? Jesus, the final great prophet rose from among the brothers of Israel. He was of the tribe of Judah. Recorded in John 8, a crowd of Jews accused Jesus of being a demon possessed Samaritan, but Jesus claimed to not only be a son of Abraham, but to be the great “I am.�? As the great and final Prophet of God, he did not merely speak in the name of the infinite “I am,�? but claimed to be the infinite “I am.�? Jesus prophesied the will and work of God saying “Destroy this temple and in three days I will build it up again.�? Jesus was scorned by his brothers, taken for a false prophet predicting the demolition of Herod’s temple. But Jesus was prophesying his own death and resurrection. The religious leaders charged Jesus with blasphemy and called for his death as a false prophet. But every word Jesus spoke was the word of God. It was God’s will that his Son should suffer. It was the work of God to raise the Son from the dead.
Most of the world is willing to claim Jesus as a prophet of God. Mohammed believed Jesus to be a great prophet like Moses. The Dali Lama believes Jesus to be a great prophet, whose words should be considered. The apostles of the New Testament claim that Jesus is not merely a prophet. He is not merely the Prophet to whom all other prophets have pointed. He is the One and Only Person to hold all three divinely established offices: Prophet, Priest, and King. He is not only the Prophet who is greater than Moses, but he is the Great High Priest. Jesus is not a member of the tribe of Levi, a high priest merely in succession of Aaron, Moses’ brother. Jesus is the High Priest after the order of Melchizedek, that ancient and mysterious priest who was the king of Salem, the city of peace. As the great High Priest, Jesus not only offered the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the people, but he offered his own life, a sacrifice to satisfy God’s wrath for sin.
On the third day God the Father raised his Son to new life. This Jesus ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father. In heaven he is enthroned as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Just as God promised to David, the king of Israel, “I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.�? These words God spoke to David and the prophet, Samuel recorded them, delivering them faithfully to Israel. Samuel was a true prophet. His words are the very words of God. How do we know him to be a true prophet? His words have come to pass. Jesus, the Son of David, has been enthroned forever. He is the Prophet, Priest, and King. Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s will and work for our salvation.
“The Covenant: Cities of Refuge�? Deuteronomy 19: 1-14
In several of his addresses, Moses reminds Israel that God is giving to her the land. Israel is receiving from God cities and houses built by nations God has cut off and dispossessed. Moses repeats this act of God for at least two reasons. The first reason is that Moses intends for Israel to remember the covenant God has struck with her. God demands obedience. If Israel obeys, she will receive God’s blessing. If she disobeys, then God will apply the curses of the covenant, cutting Israel off, just as he has dispossessed these other nations.
The second reason is that Moses is protecting Israel from thinking that she is giving up some of her own, hard-earned possessions to follow God’s law. Moses reasons: “God freely gave to you all of the land, cities, and houses, and so, it is no sacrifice on your part to set aside three or six of these cities for the purpose of sanctuary.�? Israel shall possess the land and in it she must live according to God’s law.
It is not a burden or a sacrifice to live according to God’s law. There’s a little surveying work to be done and we must think about our neighbor, who may be in a bit of trouble. We freely and gladly extend God’s kindness to one another. Has a person, who has extended kindness to you made you to feel as if you owed him? The only person we owe is God, who has given to us everything we possess.
These laws of the cities of refuge reveal to us the heart of God. The law has clearly displayed divine justice. But the law also clearly presents to us God’s loving kindness. At the center of the covenant is the Hebrew concept of “hesed,�? the loving kindness of God. The law of God protects God’s vulnerable children.
The law of God distinguishes between murder and manslaughter. Murder involves the intentional killing of a person while manslaughter is the unintentional killing of a person. If the intention in killing is hatred, then murder has been committed. But if a person has no ill intent in his heart and kills another, he has not committed murder. Moses gives a perfect example of manslaughter. Two men are logging together. One man’s axe head flies off its handle, hits the other man, killing him. The first logger may have been negligent to maintain his axe, or it may have been that the ax was flawed or simply worn out. In any of these cases, the intent of the first logger was not to kill his fellow worker.
This man needs protection from the dead man’s family. What if a family member pursues him to avenge the death? How difficult it is for third parties to sort out manslaughter from murder. Family members at home hear of the death of their loved one. They say to each other, “Bob never liked our brother. All these years they’ve been working together in the woods and Bob has been waiting for an opportunity to knock him off. Bob waited until they were working alone together on some forested ridge. He made it look as if a flying axe head hit our brother, but we know that he crept up behind him and bludgeoned his skull.�? Some people quickly accuse in this way as they are under the influence of shock and grief. One of the more manly among them will embark upon a mission to avenge his brother’s blood. Bob needs sanctuary and God’s law provides it for him. Israel is to distribute cities of refuge evenly throughout the land, so that a person who needs sanctuary may reach safety before an avenger overtakes him.
In all of his addresses Moses never misses an opportunity to exhort Israel to be careful to obey all of God’s commands. Moses instructs Israel to set aside three cities of refuge reminding the people that God has promised to expand Israel’s boundaries in the future. When he does, three additional cities of refuge must be set aside. Moses tells Israel that God’s promise to expand the land is contingent upon her obedience.
This is a matter of stewardship and is identical in principle to Jesus’ parable of the three stewards. The two stewards who faithfully invested their master’s money were given even more money to invest. The third steward, fearful of making a poor investment, buries his master’s money in the ground, and so he is dispossessed, cut off from his master. If Israel faithfully invests in obedient living in the land, then God, her master, will give her more land. In all of the land, small or large, God’s kindness is to be evenly distributed. Protection of the weak and vulnerable is to be provided throughout God’s land.
God’s law indeed promotes justice. Anyone who commits murder must be punished. A murderer may seek to take advantage of God’s kindness. He may flee to a city of refuge feigning innocence. After all, in many cases it is difficult to sort out manslaughter from murder. The judicial system described in Chapter 17 will decide the innocence or guilt of this person. In our text (12), Moses mentions the elders of the man’s city. They act as the first court. At the gate of each city in Israel, the elders, appointed as the local judges, would hear the cases involving the residents of their city. If a case proved too difficult for them to decide locally, including murder cases, these local judges were to refer it to the central court comprised of Levitical priests.
So much of Israel’s system has influenced our judicial system today. We have courts of appeal and we distinguish between manslaughter and murder. But we have come to the part in our text that shows a difference between our two systems of justice. If the elders, the local judges, find the man who has fled to a city of refuge to be, in fact, a murderer, they are to hand him over to the avenger of blood, a family member of the dead person. In our system, we commit the murderer into the hands of the state. While we may view this to be a significant difference, in theory, it may be a progression: we see our governmental systems to be instruments of the people, comprised of us to serve all of us.
God is merciful and his law is laced with loving kindness and tender mercies. However, justice is served and human pity may prevent divine justice from returning a community to peace and order. Moses says, “Your eye shall not pity the murderer, but you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from Israel, so that it may go well with you.�?
The laws of the cities of refuge reflect one of powerful images we have of God. The sons of Korah wrote in Psalm 46, “God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble.�? Martin Luther based his hymn upon Psalm 46, “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing. Our helper he amid the flood, of mortal ills prevailing.�? God is our protection; he is our sanctuary. No matter where we find ourselves in this world, God is as near to us as a city of refuge was near to the Israelite in need of sanctuary.
Solomon wrote, “The Lord is a strong and mighty tower; the righteous run in and are glad.�? How is it that we have found refuge in God? How are we assured that we will not be snatched from safety, declared to be murderers and handed over the avengers of blood? Are we truly among the righteous deserving of God’s kindness and protection? The answers to all of these questions are found in Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.
Jesus Christ, who knew no sin, became sin for us. He was handed over to the avengers of blood in our place. He was dispossessed, cut off, and hurled outside the city gates to be crucified. He suffered the death penalty due us. In doing so, he has satisfied God’s justice and has won for all of us the right to freely enter the kindness and protection of our loving God. As we run into the refuge of God, we pass through the gates with the name of Jesus Christ stamped on our passports. When you are questioned at the city gates you respond, “I’m with Jesus.�? Indeed all of us who are united to Jesus, united to him in death and resurrection, are kept safe in the love of God forever and ever. Amen.
“The Covenant: Innocent until Proven Guilty�? Deuteronomy 19: 15-21
We have observed how similar is the judicial system of ancient Israel to our present judicial system. One of the greatest safeguards to our freedom is the American rule that a person is innocent until proven guilty. Most of the present world does not enjoy such a freedom. The Old Covenant laws, outlined by Moses, provide this protection. God’s law maintains a person innocent until proven guilty.
In (15) we read that two or three witnesses are required to prove a person guilty of a crime. This law is not concerned with the number of witnesses who testify, but rather, it is concerned with the number of witnesses furnishing compelling testimony to the crime. One witness testifying truthfully to the crime committed is not sufficient unto indictment of any criminal. Two witnesses, and in some cases, three witnesses each separately testifying to the identical proofs are sufficient. This is what Moses means by saying, “On the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established.�? To hear all of the witnesses necessary to actually find two who agree in testimony supplying sufficient proof of the crime committed by the person accused takes some time and labor. But all of the work and all of the time it takes to make sure that justice is served is worth it. God’s law seeks to protect the innocent by viewing anyone accused of a crime innocent until proven guilty.
The law of God protects the accused person against a false witness. If a witness enters the court testifying falsely, seeking to harm the accused, he could receive the very sentence he was seeking to be applied to the accused. The judges are to “inquire diligently,�? hearing both parties in the dispute. It is the diligent inquiry that irritates many of us. It is not unusual for hearings of a case to span several years in our courts. When a judge or an attorney requests further information, it is easy for us to think that someone is stalling justice. But in a system that seeks to protect the innocent who has been wrongfully accused, such a request for more information is appropriate. When a case is appealed to a higher court, we may think that justice is being obstructed. But in a system that considers a person innocent until proven guilty, such an appeal may be necessary. Many of us have thought that a case dragging out in court is merely the plan of lawyers to make more money. But those who love the justice and mercy of God may take as much time as is needed to convince judge and jury of the innocence of the accused.
It takes time to sort out the lies of a malicious witness. Some of us are masters of deceit. Some of us can even beat the lie detector machine. Some of us are jaded to the point that we think nothing of raising the right hand, swearing to tell the truth and nothing but the truth “so help me God,�? then committing perjury. I wouldn’t be surprised if perjury were committed daily in some courtroom in our great nation. Human nature, so prone to the sins of the lips, supports my assumption. And so, the judges of Israel were instructed to inquire diligently, hearing both sides of a case, examining and cross-examining witnesses, to determine the truth.
We should be patient for the truth to come to light. We should be slow to judge, remembering that a false witness may appear to be telling the truth. The accused may appear to be guilty, but in the end we are surprised to discover that he was framed. Some of us will have to wait until the final Day of Judgment when the highest court of appeal, the very bench of God, will expose the truth. In the meantime, the law of God, outlined by Moses, promotes truth and justice as perfectly as any system can produce in this fallen world.
Perhaps you have noticed thus far in our study of Deuteronomy that the law of God comes with stiff penalties. The witness who commits perjury is handed the sentence he was seeking for the accused. For example, if the false witness is testifying to murder, which would be punished by death, the false witness would be put to death for committing perjury. This law served as a deterrent to the treachery of deceit in the court of law. Moses says that this law purges the evil from the community. With such stiff penalties fewer people will be willing to falsely testify against their neighbor. If a person is caught lying in court and is severely punished, other people in the community will think twice about committing perjury. In this way, the community will be free of evil. In this way the law of God promotes peace and purity. Just as he has said regarding the murderer, Moses now says regarding the false witness, “Your eye shall not pity him.�?
The penalties of God’s law seem to be so strict. Like the Code of Hammurabi, the law for penalties matching the crime is this: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot. Before we conclude: “Let’s do it,�? we should pause to think a bit about this law of punishment fitting the crime. I have less of a problem with life for life, than I do with eye for eye, or tooth for tooth. Think about it. Try to envision yourself participating in the carrying of such penalties – an eye for eye! Is this not barbarism?
Those of us who long for justice to establish peace and order in our communities might jump the interpretive gun at this point and conclude: “All we have to do is apply more of the Old Covenant Law to our present situation. What we need are stiffer penalties. If we only followed the Mosaic rule: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot – fewer crimes would be committed. There is some truth to this, but it is not the entire truth presented by the Holy Scriptures for us to apply in our present situation. We must read the Bible in its entirety, discovering what Jesus and his apostles have to say on this topic before we join the Muslim nations who still chop off the hands of thieves in the 21st century.
Jesus, in his “Sermon on the Mount,�? recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say to you, ‘Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and dod not refuse the one who would borrow from you.�? No wonder the Jewish leaders thought Jesus was destroying the law! Jesus had assured them, “I have not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish them, but to fulfill them.�? Indeed Jesus did fulfill the Law and the Prophets. He was able to say that the harsh penalties of the law may be lifted in Christian charity only because he was headed to the cross to suffer in our place the harsh penalties of the law. In this world, as far as Jesus is concerned, we may establish civil laws including harsh penalties, but in doing so we must, in some way, reflect the end of all penalties in the death of Christ Jesus. His death upon the cross has changed everything. His death has fulfilled and satisfied the harsh penalties of the law. A society, government, a nation seeking to reflect the way of Jesus Christ, must take the charity of Christ into consideration. All of us in our individual, family, church, and corporate behaviors should express in some way, if we be Christians, the self-sacrificing love of Christ Jesus, who was led like a lamb to the shearers, not uttering a cry or protest, innocently suffering at the hands of evildoers.
The suffering of Christ includes his indictment by false witnesses. Matthew writes in his Gospel, in Chapter 26, “Now the chief priests and the whole Council were seeking false testimony against Jesus that they might put him to death, but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. At last two came forward and said, “This man said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and to rebuild it in three days.’ And the high priest stood up and said, ‘Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?’ But Jesus remained silent. And the high priest said to him, ‘I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.’ Then the high priest tore his robes and said, ‘He has uttered blasphemy. What further witnesses do we need? You have now heard his blasphemy. What is your judgment?’ They answered, ‘He deserves death.’ Then they spit in his face and struck him. And some slapped him saying, ‘Prophesy to us, you Christ! Who is it that struck you?’�?
Jesus Christ willingly suffered the slander of false witnesses and the injustice of a corrupt court. Yet his death as the “sin-bearer�? has afforded us God’s peace and purity far beyond what the law can give to us. Regardless of the situation, even in the face of evil men who seek to rob us of our lives, we may, like Christ Jesus, return evil with good. Like the apostles, even in the face of unjust death, we may find occasion to proclaim the gospel rather than complain about misrepresentation.
The apostle Peter wrote in his first Epistle, “Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called…Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.�? Peter instructs us to use occasions of injustice as opportunities to proclaim the gospel. The defense we make in this situation is a presentation of the hope we have in Christ Jesus, our risen Lord.
Peter does not prohibit our establishing of a just judicial system reflecting the goodness of the law. He simply recognizes that we are not always in the controlling seats of power in our community, in our world, in our age. Sometimes we are among the common class and the marginalized and the persecuted. In whatever circumstances we find ourselves, we have the high calling to follow Christ Jesus. No one can prohibit our returning love when hatred is unleashed upon us. No one can prevent us from returning a kind word to our slanderers. No one can separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus, our Lord. The more we regard Christ the Lord as holy, the clearer our enemies will see Christ in us and ask us concerning the hope we have in Christ. Then, no one will prevent us from proclaiming the gospel.
In times of peace and purity produced by justice, we are free to live for Christ Jesus and to live like Christ. In times of distress and evil produced by injustice, we are equally free to live for Christ Jesus and to live like him. As we do so, people observing us will discover that we regard Christ the Lord as holy and they will ask about the hope we possess – Jesus Christ, the hope of glory. Amen.
“The Covenant: Rules of War” Deuteronomy 20
As we read Deuteronomy, we discover how different ancient life was from our experience. We loathe the dust of nomadic life. Our stomachs turn at the thought of mass animal sacrifices. It is nearly impossible for us to imagine the voice of God, like thunder, speaking from the mountain. The ancient Near East seems to be quite removed from our experience. Nevertheless, some things never change. Human nature and relationships are remarkably similar to our experience. The Ten Commandments are surprisingly relevant today. Sadly, we discover another similarity. In Moses’ day, nations would war against other nations. Today, approximately 3,400 years later, we still go to war. Moses devotes his address recorded in Chapter 20 to the rules of war codified in God’s holy law.
Moses begins by encouraging Israel to take courage in God, who sends his chosen people into war. Israel is to remember that God liberated her from Egypt. The army of Israel is to listen to the priest who speaks of God going into battle with his people, giving them the victory over the enemy. With such an introduction, Moses makes us wonder, “How do we know that we are fighting a war God has directed us to fight?�? The answer supplied to us in the whole of Deuteronomy concerns the covenant. We know that we are God’s people through the covenant he has contracted with us. The covenant presents God’s holy law as the basis for all life and behavior. God says, “If you obey my commands then I will bless you, but if you disobey my commands then I will curse you.�? God is the party of the covenant who has the authority to make the law and to enforce it. He is the party who makes the promises and keeps them in his infinite faithfulness. The human race is the second party to the covenant who has the duty of living according to the divine law and the privilege of receiving the blessings promised in the covenant. Any group living within this covenant has assurance that she is the people of God. Her enemies are God’s enemies. He will go with his people into battle. He will be their God and they will be his people.
In Chapter 20 Moses presents the historic foundation of this covenant. Israel is to remember the foundation of the covenant as she goes to war, taking courage from it. The foundation is God’s redemption of Israel. How does Israel know that she belongs to God and that he goes with her into battle? She is to remember God liberating her from Egyptian oppression. God has not freed Israel from Egypt only to let her die in the wilderness. He has redeemed her from slavery so that she might enter the Promised Land to live in freedom.
The Bible is the story of God redeeming his people. When we have read the entire story, we discover that God has not only redeemed us from our earthly oppressors, but he has freed us from the great enemies, sin and death. At the climax of human history, the Son of God became flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld his glory. Jesus Christ lay down his life for our freedom from sin and death. The Father in heaven raised his Son to new life so that all of us who put our faith in him might have life eternal.
Such a view of war is quite controversial in our present world. If God is on our side, then he must not be on the side of those we fight. The Muslims claim that God is on their side and the Christians claim that God is actually on their side. Who is right? Isn’t war wrong for both sides? Why would a loving God associate himself with human war? Actually, war is not the problem. If we were to end all wars, an appropriate goal for humanity, we would find ourselves at negotiating tables where the problem would still exist. Is God on our side or does he sit on the other side of the table? Most of the world fights for water rights. Is God on the side of those who presently control water rights? Or is he on the side of those who are starving to death? Moses has a strong confidence that God is on the side of his covenant people, whom he has redeemed from slavery in Egypt. The apostles seem to have a strong confidence that God is on the side of his covenant people, all of those who have by faith become united to Jesus Christ, in his death and resurrection.
The first rules of war listed by Moses are the rules of valid excuse from joining the army. He lists four excuses: 1) If a man has built a house and has not yet dedicated it, then he is exempt from joining the army; 2) If he has planted a vineyard and has not yet reaped a crop, then he is exempt; 3) If a man is engaged to be married and the wedding has yet to take place, then he is exempt; and 4) If a man lacks courage and by joining the army he would spread fear among the ranks, then he is exempt. What do you think of these excuses? Do you think that these are good reasons for exemption? These certainly communicate that there are other important pursuits in life other than war. These certainly promote freedom of conscience and take into consideration human weakness. These also certainly present going to war as an honorable sacrifice of peaceful and fruitful life. Those who choose to go to war do so for the freedom and benefit of those who stay behind.
Not only for the ancient world, but also in our 21st century world, these rules of war are amazingly founded upon freedom. Moses does not sound like a hawk. Neither does he sound like a pacifist. The second rule of war illustrates God’s heart for peace. War is not the only way to solve the problems we encounter in this world. Only when other means and attempts fail do we come to it.
Moses instructs Israel to offer terms of peace to any city prior to waging war against it. If the city agrees to peace, then Israel is to make the residents of that city her servants. God’s law does not advocate slavery. We have already read in Deuteronomy the carefully clear prohibitions against slavery. Israel is to remember her 400 years of slavery in Egypt and God’s liberating her from it. She is to remember and then refrain from enslaving anyone else. The law outlines indentured servitude, allowing a person to work, to gain training and security toward the owning of his own land. In a short seven years, a hard-working person may be free to build his/her own estate.
What is this forced labor of an enemy city that agrees to peace? Is this servitude functional slavery? It is nothing of the sort. Peace comes through order and accountability. The city against whom Israel is to war is a city that has been living outside of God’s covenant. Israel offering peace is God’s kind invitation to this city to enter into his covenant. The city may reform and join the covenant community. For it to do so, the city must come under the authority of God. Israel is not to enslave her. The city has been enslaved in her sins. The first step out of slavery is forced labor as servants of those who have the power to free and establish the city according to the covenant.
If the city refuses these steps to peace, then Israel is to destroy it, putting all of the males to death. Israel is to take the women, children, livestock and all possessions as plunder. For Israel, the taking of plunder, meant bringing these people and possessions into relationships of responsible and pure stewardship. God prohibited the raping of the women, but he did encourage the inclusion of them into the covenant community. The law prevents the enslaving of the children, but it promotes the employing of the children as servants until they mature into freedom. The possessions may be enjoyed as gifts from God’s hand.
Any of us who had difficulty with these rules of war and peace must first consider how it is that we would bring about peace and order in a vile city, a chaotic nation, and fallen world. What is your plan for peace? Human history proves that calling us to peace or writing, or even singing about peace does not work. There must be a plan, a method involving authority, power, and control.
There is an exemption to these rules of peace and plunder. Several times in his addresses, Moses has mentioned these six nations that are so consumed in their evil that they deserve utter destruction. God has clearly called for the destruction of the Hittites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. Israel is to destroy these groups, men women, children, and cattle. In Chapter 18, Moses has listed the abominations of these nations: child sacrifice by fire, divination, fortune telling, omens, sorcery, charming, channeling, wizardry, and necromancy. Together, these practices describe for us what we would call occult practices.
When you read the Bible, with whom do you associate? Do you see yourself as a member of chosen Israel or do you ever consider yourself to be among the six wicked nations? Actually, we can benefit and grow spiritually by placing ourselves in both groups. As we confess that we deserve God’s punishment, we are moved to repentance. As we discover God’s love for us, we are moved to gratefulness.
Once we have allowed this bombshell to explode in our hearts and our minds, completely decimating any personal defense we would offer before God, then we are able to hear the gospel at the ground zero of our shattered hearts. If you have committed these abominations, the gospel announces a way to your purity, protection and freedom. If you have merely committed petty sins, mostly hidden in your mind and heart, the gospel announces to you the same remedy for your estrangement from God. Through Jesus Christ, we have forgiveness of our sins.
The final rule of war listed in Chapter 20 may catch us by surprise. Out of all of the possible rules that God could include in his law, why does he include this one? This rule protects the fruitful trees of the besieged city. War according to God’s law is to be waged with minimal destruction. Human life is not to be taken unnecessarily. But God’s law is also concerned with the other parts of his creation. God’s holy law protects trees! Moses reminds Israel that the trees are not to blame for the war. Who is to blame? Humanity, the chief and glory of God’s creation. Some trees may be cut for war. No tree that is good for food may be cut for war. The armies of Israel may eat the fruit of trees in the battlefield, but them must not destroy these trees.
God’s redemption in the end is his renewal of all his creation. Thus the law and the gospel move us to value all life, human and inhuman. The main reason Moses supplies here for the preservation of the fruit trees is that they sustain humanity. Trees are good for us. The trees and humanity are interdependent upon one another. God’s creation is not a mish mash of creations thrown together – trees, iguanas, diamonds, and humans. All created things are interconnected, supporting one another, together glorifying the Creator of all things.
According to God’s law, war is not the destruction of a city or a nation, but the subduing of a city or nation. The goal of any war according to God’s law is the renewal of a city and nation who would glorify God. Such a city will need fruit trees as well as a good government. Chapter 20 supplies any conquered people both these good gifts from God. In time, a conquered city, agreeing to peace on God’s terms, will, through servitude, gain freedom, enjoying the fruit of the trees unscathed during battle. This is how war and the gospel are related. War, governed by God’s law, destroys evil, liberates the oppressed, and subdues the rebel. The gospel does the same. The gospel announces God’s destruction of evil, his universal freedom, and his subduing of human hearts. Will it take a war to turn us around, or will we gladly and swiftly embrace the gospel? Are we a city who submits to terms of peace or are we a city who defies the covenant, saying, bring on the war? The Lord of the Covenant, Jesus Christ, the Redeemer is offering to us the way of peace in the gospel. Let us accept the offer and avoid war. We will become servants of God, submitting to his covenant. In doing so, we are choosing the path of freedom and peace. Amen.
“The Covenant: God’s Unique Law” Deuteronomy 21
The form of the Covenant God contracted with Israel was that of the older Hittite suzerain treaties between a King and his vassals. Similarly, the very laws of the Covenant follow in the traditions of the Code of Hammurabi and the Hittite laws of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries BC. Some of the laws in the Five Books of Moses are identical to these earlier collections of laws. However, there are some significant differences. These differences are published in G.T. Manley’s “The Book of the Law: Studies in the Date of Deuteronomy.�?
The first difference is that the name of Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, appears 189 times in Deuteronomy. While men of power and authority have written these earlier laws, Moses claims that God himself has delivered the laws of Deuteronomy to Israel. Such a claim is accompanied by the history of the Book of Genesis, presenting God to be the Creator, initiating the form and law of the covenant in seed form prior to Hammurabi and Hittite nation.
The second difference is that the laws of Deuteronomy are presented in a moral language and context. The code of Hammurabi is legal and secular in content and tone. The law of God, instead of coldly presenting an offence and its penalty, presents the offence within its moral context. The penalty often comes with a moral reason attached to it. Moses does not simply list and categorize laws. He adds exhortations, warnings, promises, and historical narrative. Hammurabi’s code is a list of rules, but Deuteronomy is a series of addresses in which Moses presents God’s law to Israel. The suzerain treaties of the Hittites, are straight forward contractual documents. While their form is latent in Deuteronomy, Moses, representing Yahweh, is presenting to Israel so much more than a contract. He is offering himself and the redemption of the entire world.
The social differences range from subtle to staggering. The Code of Hammurabi assumes a strict class system. The laws of Deuteronomy provide liberties for men, women, children, slaves, foreigners, and the oppressed.
These differences can be seen in the laws recorded in Deuteronomy 21. The first set of laws in this chapter concern the closing of a murder case in which the murderer is unknown. Clearly, the ultimate authority behind these laws is the “Lord God.�? The judges, elders, and priests have been “chosen�? by the Lord God to do his work in resolving such cases.
The language of the law is highly moral. The elders pray on behalf of the entire community, “Accept atonement, O Lord, for your people Israel, whom you have redeemed, and do not set the guilt of innocent blood in the midst of your people Israel, so that their blood guilt be atoned for.�? Moses supplies the moral reason for such a prayer: “So you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from your midst, when you do what is right in the sight of the Lord.�?
God’s law holds the covenant community responsible. If no one confesses to the murder, then the nearest city must conduct these detailed rituals of atonement. This city must bear the cost of sacrificing a prime animal. They are not to sacrifice a worn out beast of burden, but a young one with full potential of productive labor. There is no shedding of blood in this ritual. The heifer’s neck is to be broken, not slit. The leaders, professing their innocence in the murder, wash their hands in a pure source of water. They wash their hands, pouring the pure water over them and onto the heifer as they audibly testify, “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it shed.�?
This is a most curious atonement ritual. The law of God requires the shedding of blood for the remission of sins. But in this case, the murderer is unknown, and so the innocent leaders, representing the city, beg God’s atonement without the shedding of blood.
The second set of laws in this chapter concern the taking of female captives in war. Once again, God is the giver. In this case, he has given victory to Israel, and thus, he has given the female captives into the care of Israel. The prevailing practice among ancient peoples was to rape and kill captive women. But God’s law goes a few moral steps beyond other ancient codes to protect these women. If an Israelite man desires to take a captive woman as his wife, he must put her through a purification rite, which is hygienic on the surface, but morally symbolic. The second moral comment is the allowance of her mourning the death of her parents, enemies of God and Israel, but nonetheless, human beings made in the image of God.
(13) preserves the ancient practice of sexual intercourse as the consummation of any marriage. The man, not having seen the captive woman for one month, during her purification and mourning rites, enters her presence to consummate the marriage. At that point he has a choice. He may either consummate the marriage or send her away. Perhaps in the mirth of victory he has been blinded in his mind and heart concerning his delight in this woman. With a month to think it over without her visual presence, he is given the opportunity to make a final decision. If he chooses not to consummate the marriage, then he must release her, a free woman. He may not profit from her and he must not enslave her. In these instructions we see the staggering social difference between the ancient laws and practices and God’s law.
In the third section, the law concerns inheritance rights of the firstborn. This law has the specific context of polygamy. God’s law brings his covenantal promises to bear in less than perfect lives and situations. God’s law in no way commands or condones polygamy. These laws state that in the case of a polygamous family, the inheritance rights of the firstborn must be upheld. Indeed polygamy has produced the common problem of favoritism. Inheritance rights are not to be dispensed according to favoritism but instead by birth order.
Ironically, these laws are related to God’s redemption of us by providing the lineage of Jesus. God redeems us through his provision of the firstborn Son of all creation. This only begotten Son, Jesus, is born through a line preserved, not through the obedience of these inheritance laws, but in spite of them. Abraham’s firstborn son is Ishmael. His mother is the unloved handmaiden of Abraham’s beloved wife, Sarah. Ishmael receives a blessing and inheritance from his father, but he does not receive the double portion. Sarah gives birth to Abraham’s second son, Isaac, and God recognizes him to be the promised son. Of course, Sarah is Abraham’s first wife and only wife during her life.
Isaac is tricked by his wife, Rebecca, and second son, Jacob, in giving his blessing to Jacob rather than to his firstborn, Esau. Esau scorns his inheritance, trading it to Jacob for a bowl of lentil stew. God changes Jacob’s name to Israel. The name of God is thereafter, “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.�? And so, in its unfolding, God’s redemption clearly communicates its foundations in the gracious work of God.
The fourth section of the chapter concerns the rebellious son. None of the ancient codes tolerated a rebellious son. Such behavior was punishable by death. This is the only section of the law in chapter 21, in which the name of God is not listed. The language strongly presents human responsibility and culpability. God is not to be blamed for rebellion, even among children. The verbs describe an ongoing rebellion, not one rebellious act or word followed by repentance and then another rebellious act or word several days later. Rather the verbal constructs help us to identify a son who maintains as his prevailing behavior stubbornness and rebellion. The law considers that the parents have attempted over an extended period of time to properly discipline this son with the intent of bringing him around to repentance and reconciliation. In the end, when all measures have been exhausted, the parents seize their son and present him to the elders at the gate of the city. They testify to his rebellion and give specific proofs of it, proofs readily observed by others in the city – gluttony and drunkenness. He eats his parents’ food and drinks their wine, but he refuses to honor them. His penalty is death by stoning.
Moses adds the moral reason to the law once again: “So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear and fear.�? This law has disturbed me for many years. I cannot imagine participating in such a stoning. It is not that I have never encountered rebellious boys who are good for nothing in my community. Indeed, some worthless fellows live proximate to my home and have caused no end of grief for parents, grandparents, neighbors, and strangers. Every so often, western civilization produces a lost generation. Millions of rebellious, worthless children produce nothing but scorn for their elders all the while freeloading off of them. Nevertheless, I cannot imagine taking even one these outside the city and stoning him to death.
Socially the law of God is once again staggering. The social ramifications of these laws are difficult for all of us who have a hint of rebellion in us. My problem with the stoning of a rebellious son is not unrelated to my personal problems with authority. Meredith Kline has focused some of his study of Deuteronomy on the limitation of family authority. God’s law is unique among ancient laws is clearly drawing the line between the institution of family and state. The family, in the case of a rebellious son, does not have the right to deliver the death penalty. Instead they must hand him over to the elders at the city gate to be fairly tried.
There is one good reason why we no longer stone our rebellious sons in the covenant community. God’s redemption of his rebellious children has culminated in his perfectly righteous Son suffering the death penalty for rebellion as a substitute for us. Though God the Father may harshly discipline us as an act of tough love, his wrath for rebellion has been satisfied in the death of Jesus Christ. God the Father did not allow his righteous Son to decay in the tomb. But he raised him from the dead on the third day and this Jesus has ascended into heaven, seated at the right hand of the Father. From this position of all power and authority, Jesus shall come to judge the living and the dead on the last day. The final judgment is pending. At the final court of appeals, those of us who are united to Jesus Christ by faith will be welcomed into God’s eternal glory forever. But those who have maintained their rebellion until the end will meet the death penalty once again.
God has performed a grand display of his grace and justice in lifting up his Son to die upon the cross. Who would see this display and continue in rebellion? If any of us today maintain our stubbornness and rebellion, we have a judgment pending that may send us to our deaths. But if we repent of our sins and claim the shedding of Christ’s blood as sufficient atonement, we will certainly be found righteous in Christ on the final day.
The fifth law in this chapter concerns the hanging of criminal. This law is peculiar to Deuteronomy, not mentioned by Moses in his other presentations of the law. Peter Craigie, of the University of Calgary, notes in his commentary on Deuteronomy that the hanging in the ancient world and listed in our text was not the execution of the criminal, but rather, the display of the criminal having been put to death by some other means. A common practice in the ancient world was the display of dead criminals, not hung by a noose, but tacked to a wooden post. This horrific, visual display served as a deterrent to crime and a reminder that justice had been served. As Israel wandered in the wilderness and passed through the lands of other nations, she would have seen these cursed displays over and over again along roadsides. As Moses prepares Israel to enter the Promised Land, he delivers God’s law to them teaching them to be distinct from the surrounding nations. In the Promised Land, such a display may last only for the remainder of the execution day. By sundown, the body must be removed and buried. The Promised Land must not be defiled by the rotting corpses of criminals hung in public view.
When Jesus was taken outside the gates of Jerusalem to be crucified, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea gained permission to remove his body from the cross and to bury him before the end of the day. Years later, as the apostle Paul reflected upon the death of Christ Jesus in parallel to this law in Deuteronomy, he preached the gospel concisely to the Church at Galatia: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us – for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’ – so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.�?
The sacrificial lamb points to the shedding of Christ’s blood to atone for our sins. The hanging of the cursed criminal points to Jesus as our substitution, becoming a curse for us so that we might receive the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, his holy temple.
“The Covenant: Marriage�? Deutereonomy 22
God does not change. He is the same yesterday, today and forever. God’s law does not change. Jesus did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. Jesus said, “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.�?
None of Moses’ five books present the entire law of God. Genesis contains a bit of it. Exodus presents the law of God for the first generation of Israel liberated from Egypt, wandering in the wilderness. Leviticus presents ceremonial laws to govern worship. Numbers repeats some of the law. Deuteronomy is a collection of addresses Moses delivered to the second generation of Israel preparing her to enter the Promised Land. In his addresses, Moses gives the law, not in its entirety, but selectively, choosing to list laws particularly pertinent to governing Israel in this new chapter of life in the Promised Land. This helps us to understand these lists of various and miscellaneous laws in Deuteronomy. The first eight laws listed in Chapter 22 do not seem to be presented thematically. Why does Moses throw these together?
How are these laws useful to us? Before we start to apply them, we should remember the centrality of the Ten Commandments and ask the question: Under which of the Ten do these various laws belong? Does this particular law direct us to love God or to love our neighbor? Most of the miscellaneous laws fall nicely into place. But some of the laws in Chapter 22 are among those that defy categorization according to the Ten Commandments.
May we extrapolate principles from these laws to apply in our present situations? Are we allowed to husk each law of its cultural and historical aspects, preserving the kernel, the enduring principle? Perhaps the Ten Commandments are the abiding law of God and these miscellaneous laws served only Israel at a particular time in her history. What are we to do with them? If Christ has fulfilled the law, may we identify how each of these laws has been fulfilled in Christ, and return our gratitude and glory to him and be done with the obeying of it? These are all complex questions but we must sort them all out before we complete our study of Deuteronomy.
The first six laws in Chapter 22 make us good for our neighbor and for all creation. The first law teaches us to respect and care for our neighbor’s property as if it were our own. We are to be helpful to our neighbors. The second law teaches us to distinguish between the genders in the clothing we wear. To blur the distinctions between the genders is an abomination to the Lord! God seems to think that clothing is important, especially in relation to the difference between male and female. This law goes back to the creation of humanity. God made Man in his own image, male and female.
The third law protects animals. If this law would be followed, then fewer species would become extinct. The mature bird would lay more eggs. We would have our eggs to eat and eggs to incubate. We would take the chicks to raise so that the species would propagate and be of greater use to the human race. Such care and management comes from one of the first laws God gave to Mankind, known as the cultural mandate. It is as enduring as the Ten Commandments.
The fourth law protects people. The homes Israel would build in the Promised Land would have flat roofs used as living space – a great place for a BBQ on a summer evening. This is a safety law. A railing must be installed around the perimeter of the flat roof to prevent someone from falling.
The fifth law goes in two directions. The first is the prevention of crossing two seeds, thus producing an inedible crop. Anyone who has planted zucchini too close to pumpkin or gourds has discovered the outcome. The second direction is the prevention of one crop choking out another. Planting crops between vines may drain the soil of nutrients needed by the vines. Competing root systems could be a problem. The sixth law protects animals from injury. An ox is of greater size and strength than a donkey. The farmer must care for his beasts of burden. He is not to abuse his animals.
The seventh law is, “You shall not wear cloth of wool and linen mixed together.�? Quite a few people in cyberspace seem to know what this law means and how to apply it. Some insist that God is prohibiting the manufacturing of low quality fabrics. Others boldly claim that this law doesn’t apply to Christians. Matthew Henry wrote that this law prevents our mingling with the heathen, even mimicking their superstitions. Josephus, the Jewish historian, followed rabbinic teaching of his day citing that mixed fabrics were reserved for the garments of the priests. Some of the rabbinical teaching suggests that sheep were the sacrifice of Abel and that linen was the sacrifice of Cain and so the mixture of these two in fabric would be symbolically detestable. Personally I don’t know what to think. The Jewish commentary reminding us that the law of God is good for us, bringing grace into the mundane details of everyday life is a good place to begin. For the life of me, I can’t position this particular law in the flow of redemptive history, or categorize it under one of the Ten Commandments. I’m not sure that I can convincingly explain to you how Jesus Christ has fulfilled this law. I don’t know what to do with it.
Thankfully, the eighth law is a repetition of the law recorded in the book of Numbers. In this earlier work of Moses, he gives a reason for Israel to affix tassels to the four corners of her garments. These tassels would remind Israel “to remember all of God’s commandments, to do them, not to follow after her own heart and her own eyes.�?
The remaining laws in Chapter 22 are thematically arranged. They concern marital relationships. These laws protect the institution of marriage, thus protecting those who enter into marital union. A hateful husband who falsely accuses him wife of promiscuity is heavily fined and beaten publicly. A wife, who has been promiscuous and has feigned virginity on her wedding day, is stoned to death. A man who commits adultery with another man’s wife is put to death along with the woman. If a man engages in sexual intercourse with a woman, who is engaged to be married, then both of them shall be publicly put to death.
These laws protecting marriage include the rape laws. God’s law protects the helpless, the defenseless. If a man rapes a woman engaged to be married, he is to be put to death. In the city, the cries of the victim would prove her innocence and expose his crime. If he engages in sexual intercourse with an engaged woman, in the country, out of range of witnesses, then he is guilty of rape whether or not she protests and he is to be put to death. Moses makes it clear that the woman is innocent in these cases and she must not be put to death.
In any of these situations, in the city or the country, if a man rapes a woman who is not engaged to be married, and they are discovered, then the man must pay the bridal price and take the woman as his wife with no possibility of divorcing her. The prohibition of divorce in this situation as well as in the case of the hateful husband, who falsely accuses his wife of promiscuity, is designed to protect the wife from abandonment and destitution. Ironically, if the marriage is troubled, especially at its inception, the right to divorce is barred.
The death penalty is assigned in cases of a man ignoring the marital vow and relationship. But in the case of a man engaging in pre-marital sex with a virgin, the result is marriage. The death penalty is not assigned. Indeed no penalty or stigma is mentioned. The man must pay the bride price and immediately the woman becomes his wife, they having already consummated their marriage. The only right this husband gives up is the right to divorce.
If only virgins today had as much protection as the virgins in Moses’ day! These laws not only protect the woman’s body but they dignify the woman’s life. In our world, sex no longer consummates the holy estate of matrimony, but instead it is a casual past time between two consenting individuals. Which view and practice dignifies humanity?
The final marriage law prohibits a man from marrying his father’s wife. This law is part of a cluster of incest laws listed elsewhere in the Books of Moses. Why did Moses list this particular one in Deuteronomy? Perhaps he thought that this particular law would prevent the biggest temptation to incest facing the second generation entering the Promised Land. The first generation dying in the wilderness may have produced a number of second marriages, men marrying second-generation women. To secure land and to preserve family position, a man might be tempted to marry his stepmother, who might be closer to his age than she was to his father’s age. The law allows this woman to live securely in the home of her deceased husband, without fear of her stepson violating her body and rights to property. This law prevents the complication of family relationships, inheritance laws and most importantly the dignity due parents.
What do these laws of marriage and miscellaneous laws about caring for neighbors and all creation have to do with the gospel? The law commands us to live for the good of others, even birds and guests at our home for a BBQ. God’s grace gives to us the incredible capacity to treat the world around us with the kindness of Christ Jesus, who gave his life for us. Christ redeeming us from sin and death impacts our behavior and even informs the way we dress. Christ redeeming us impacts our relationships. We respect the marital union, we dignify and protect the woman, and we honor our father even after he has died. In all of these cases, the gospel is lived out by those of us who obey these commands. To disobey these marriage laws produces shame, victimization, and defilement. The gospel introduces and maintains true freedom in our lives. We enjoy this freedom in relationships right down to our hunting for eggs in a marsh. All human dreams of kindness toward one’s neighbor, proper care of animals, safety in our homes and work places, productivity in the work place, and right relationships are outlined in the law of God and realized in gospel living.
The gospel declares how it is that we have been made right with God through the work of Jesus Christ. Being made right with God moves us toward being right with one another. The gospel moves us to being right with animals and vineyards. The law describes and commands order, peace, freedom, protection, and dignity into our lives. The gospel brings order, peace, freedom, protection, and dignity into our lives.
“The Covenant: Access to the Assembly of the Lord” Deuteronomy 23:1-8
In 1970 The Five Man Electrical Band sang:
Sign Sign everywhere a sign Blocking out the scenery breaking my mind Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign
And the sign said long haired freaky people need not apply
So I tucked my hair up under my hat and I went in to ask him why
He said you look like a fine upstanding young man, I think you’ll do
So I took off my hat I said imagine that, huh, me working for you
Sign Sign everywhere a sign Blocking out the scenery breaking my mind Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign
And the sign said anybody caught trespassing would be shot on sight So I jumped on the fence and yelled at the house, Hey! what gives you the right To put up a fence to keep me out or to keep mother nature in If God was here, he’d tell you to your face, man you’re some kinda sinner
Sign Sign everywhere a sign Blocking out the scenery breaking my mind Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign
Now, hey you Mister! can’t you read, you got to have a shirt and tie to get a seat You can’t even watch, no you can’t eat, you ain’t suppose to be here Sign said you got to have a membership card to get inside Uh!
Sign Sign everywhere a sign Blocking out the scenery breaking my mind Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign
And the sign said everybody welcome, come in, kneel down and pray But when they passed around the plate at the end of it all, I didn’t have a penny to pay, so I got me a pen and a paper and I made up my own little sign I said thank you Lord for thinking about me, I’m alive and doing fine
What do you think should be the rules for access into the church? Do you find, at first glance, these laws in Deuteronomy 23 to be strange access codes?
The Assembly of the Lord was the whole of Israel. This people group was defined by God’s covenant. God lived in the midst of his people, their very tents pitched around his central tent, the tabernacle. The Assembly of the Lord was structured by all three human institutions: family, state, and church. The highest expression of the Assembly of the Lord was its corporate gathering to worship Yawheh, the One True God, who would descend in glory upon his tabernacle. These laws of access apply to this corporate worship. There are other laws for access elsewhere in the Books of Moses. This selection is certainly a strange one.
What kind of a God would command his people to exclude others according to these laws? In our world we hesitate to even ask the questions necessary to discover whether or not a person fits these excluded categories. It’s none of our business. What kind of a God makes these laws our business? The short answer offends many a person, but here it is: A holy God has given these exclusionary laws with the purpose of setting apart to himself this select group of people, Israel.
The common thread running through this list of exclusions is the seeming unfairness of them. The first law excludes men with maimed genitalia. The verbs of the law, “crushed�? and “cut off�? do not seem to refer to birth defects. They may refer to self-mutilation, which most men would readily agree is a very small and rare occurrence. The Bible includes references to the enemies of Israel maiming captives of war in this manner. Their purpose was to prevent the propagation of Israel. Historic evidence of such maiming as rites of passage for priests of near eastern religions also exists. Yawheh, the God of Israel, chose circumcision as the sign to set apart the males of the Assembly of the Lord. This sign stops short of the crushing and cutting off prohibited in this law. And so, the vast majority of men excluded by this law would be victims in war. Why would victims be excluded from the Assembly of the Lord?
The second law excludes the children born to forbidden unions. The actual Hebrew word is related to the language of incest. The law also prohibited Israelites marrying into other religions and the six wicked nations surrounding Israel. Today we are learning to correct our reference to such children. For a long time we have referred to them as “illegitimate children.�? But the children have no control over who conceives them. They are not illegitimate. If anyone is, it would be the parents. This law thus becomes a stiff deterrent to any Israelite who would be tempted to enter into an incestuous relationship or marry a Canaanite. If a child is born of such a union, the child would be barred from the Assembly of the Lord. I think that it would be fair to bar the parents. But is seems unfair to bar the child.
The third law denies access to the Ammonites and the Moabites. For ten generations, no member of these two nations may enter the Assembly of the Lord. Any member born into these ten generations is barred forever! Once again I can understand denying access to the first generation which treated Israel poorly. But it does not seem fair to punish the sixth generation, living 240 years after the fact, let alone the tenth generation living 400 years later. What was the crime committed? They refused to feed Israel as she traveled through their lands. Israel was two million strong. Imagine the amount of bread and water needed to feed them for two weeks, or two years! Imagine the trampling of plants, the trash, and the noise of such a human herd traipsing through one’s land! But the real reason these two nations refused to aid Israel was hatred of her. They hire Balaam, the maverick prophet to curse Israel. God intervened and turned Balaam’s curse into a blessing of Israel. This divine behavior is central to God’s character and work. For his children he turns curses into blessings. This is known as God’s grace. Why doesn’t this gracious God teach Israel to extend grace even to her enemies? Why does he say, “You shall not seek their peace or their prosperity all your days forever�?? Does not Jesus say, “Love your enemies�?? In light of Jesus’ teaching, this exclusion of Ammon and Moab seems to be unfair.
Finally, the exclusions relax and Moses ends this section with a hint of gracious welcome. Israel is to welcome the Edomite. Israel is to welcome the Egyptian after three generations pass. Surprise of surprise! If God were teaching Israel to hold a grudge, he would certainly bar Egypt. While Ammon and Moab treated Israel poorly, they did not enslave Israel 400 years. Yahweh, the holy God of Israel is a gracious God and here we see the beginning streams of the Gentiles welcomed into the Assembly of the Lord. Why not start with Egypt? Today, the Coptic Evangelical Church of Egypt (Synod of the Nile) has four presbyteries, 300 congre- gations, and about 300,000 members. This church was started by the United Presbyterian Church of North America in the late 19th century. It is a member of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches.
Wait, wait, wait a minute. What do Egyptian Christians have to do with the Assembly of the Lord in Israel? What do these laws of access to the tabernacle have to do with the church? Are not these laws of exclusion in such stark opposition to the wide open doors of the church that we can dismiss them, ignoring them? What do these exclusionary laws have to do with the gospel?
These laws are all together important to the gospel. These laws of exclusion present a holy God who has every right to disassociate from a crushed, twisted, hateful humanity. For God, this is not a matter of fairness to individuals. It is a matter of justice upon an entirely fallen human race. God’s law makes this quite clear and maintains this holy separation right up to the climax of redemptive history, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God has chosen the black backdrop of exclusion to display brilliantly the light of his glorious gospel. The death of Jesus Christ made a way for a holy God to embrace broken humanity. As Jesus died upon the cross, the veil in the temple between the exclusive Holy of Holies and the outer courts, including the Court of the Gentiles, was ripped in two. The light of day invaded the sacred space and the glory of God poured out to bless all nations of the world. The ancient promise of the Covenant given to Abraham stands: “All nations of the earth will be blessed through you.�?
The apostle Paul presents Jesus Christ as the true Isaac, the true Israel. He teaches us that the true seed of Abraham is Jesus Christ. All who have the faith of Abraham are the true children of Abraham. In his letter to the church at Rome, in chapters 11-12, Paul addresses in depth the connection between Old Covenant Israel and the New Covenant Church. Through out history, God has maintained the Assembly of the Lord. As his redemptive work has progressed, the gathering of people groups has increased. The watershed was Jesus Christ, so much so that the apostle John makes no theological apology for writing that Jesus has atoned for the sins of the world. The apostle Peter describes the New Covenant Church, that is the Christian Church, to be the true temple of living stones.
This is the continuity of the Assembly of the Lord.
Paul writes to the Church at Ephesus, “The mystery hidden for ages is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.�? The growing number of Egyptian Christians today is directly connected to the law and promise of God. The covenant God has sealed in Christ Jesus has produced the church, the Assembly of the Lord in every age.
What kind of a God delivered these exclusionary laws to Israel? The same God who has made a way for all of us to enter the Assembly of the Lord through Jesus Christ, our one and only Mediator between God and us. He welcomed the Ethiopian Eunuch into the Assembly of the Lord, through Christ. He has welcomed countless children born into broken families. Open wide the doors of the Church! Welcome all the broken people of this world. Welcome those who hide it well along with those who wear it on their sleeves. Here is a trustworthy statement, “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners of whom I am the foremost.�?
“And the sign said everybody welcome, come in, kneel down and pray But when they passed around the plate at the end of it all, I didn’t have a penny to pay, so I got me a pen and a paper and I made up my own little sign I said thank you Lord for thinking about me, I’m alive and doing fine.�?
“The Covenant: Clean Camp, Clean Relationships”
Deuteronomy 23: 9-25
We are accustomed to thinking of the holiness of God in lofty terms. When we think of our holiness, we most likely think of virtuous living. We think that our holiness is defined by moral purity. But God’s law found in Deuteronomy 23 defines our holiness in part to be hygienic, to be environ-mental purity! One of the main points of our entire study of Deuteronomy is that God’s law is good for us, addressing every area of our lives. Now it must be said that God’s holiness informs all areas of our lives. God’s holiness is not merely about our spirits or our minds. It is also about our bodies and the environment. God’s holiness informs our basest and most regular bodily functions.
In light of this comprehensive holiness, the Church not only proclaims the gospel to developing nations, but she also relieves the needs of the poor. Some of this relief ministry is education towards clean water. In many impoverished communities worldwide, a stream, river or lake is the sewage system. The Mennonite Church of Canada is one of hundreds of missions involved in teaching communities in developing nations how to dispose of sewage so that their water sources might be pure. U2 fans have collected $80k this year for Bono’s Birthday Fundraiser to provide clean water in African communities. The project in Zimbabwe includes this goal: To improve sanitation facilities and school attendance through provisions of block grants to two schools for construction of improved ventilation pit latrines. When my grandparents moved to Ethiopia in the early 1930’s to serve with Sudan Interior Mission, their first project was to open a health clinic. People ask me, “Was your grandfather a doctor?” When I tell them that he was an ordained minister, they are perplexed. Why would a minister open a health clinic? At first the clinic only offered basic treatment and education, including the teaching of villagers to bury their excrement instead of dumping it into bodies of water. Of course, we publish about mass conversions, miraculous healings, and encounters with witch doctors. But part of the story of God’s holiness informing our lives includes the stories of providing clean water by properly disposing of bodily waste. With our flush toilets and honey buckets at every public event, we may take for granted the cleanliness commanded in the Law of God.
Once again, the Law of God prohibits slavery. The people of God are commanded to harbor escaping slaves, hosting them, catering to their wishes, instead of returning them to their masters. We are not to play party to oppression. The human being has been made in the image of God and we, who have received true freedom from God through Jesus Christ, should be the first to promote human liberty. Promoting human liberty, then, is part of our personal and corporate holiness.
The next laws against prostitution are related to this slavery law. Prostitution, though many claim it to be a profession, is truly oppression. Cult prostitution is oppression sponsored by religion, masquerading as spiritual ritual. God’s law is not anti-sex. Rather it is anti-slavery. The related law prohibits prostitutes and pimps from contributing their profits to the temple treasury. God’s law is certainly not anti-giving. But God’s law is against the worshipping community profiting from the oppression of women and children. (By the way, the dog, mentioned in (18) is Hebrew slang for a young male prostitute or a pimp.) Slavery in any form, including prostitution, is an abomination to the Lord. An abomination is an object of intense dislike or disapproval. In other words, not only does God view slavery to be harmful to us, but also, because of this harm to us, he hates it.
Andrew Cockburn’s groundbreaking article in National Geographic recently focused worldwide attention on the enslaving of women for prostitution. His article begins with these words, “There are more slaves today than were seized from Africa in four centuries of trans-Atlantic slave trade.” Kevin Bales of Free the Slaves estimates that 27 million people are enslaved in the world today. 10% to 15% of these slaves are kidnapped women and girls trafficked from one country to another for prostitution. OPB recently aired a documentary on the Turkish/Ukrainian connection, the kidnapping of Ukrainian women trafficking them to Istanbul and enslaving them as prostitutes. The United Nations has published a report in 2005 titled, “Have You Seen My Mother?” It alerts nations to this Turkish/Ukrainian connection, estimating that 765k is collected on each prostitute annually, for a total of $360 million profits annually for the Turkish mafia ring. BBC News has reported that Amnesty International has published this past Thursday an alarming report titled: “So Does That Mean I Have Rights? Protecting the Human Rights of Women and Girls Trafficked for Forced Prostitution in Kosovo.” Amnesty International reports that the 40,000 UN troops in Kosovo keeping peace since the late 1990’s have fueled the sex trade. If these troops were removed, the prostitution ring in Kosovo would collapse, losing most of its client base.
God’s Law prohibits this kind of oppression. God’s Law protects the woman and the young girl from being trafficked in this way. God’s Law prevents gangs of men from giving money to the Church to silence the Church, stopping her from speaking out on these issues. If we are truly a holy people of God, should we not oppose such slavery?
Another form of slavery develops through usury. As sisters and brothers we should not charge interest for loaning money , food, or anthing. We may charge interest on loans made to foreigners, that is, to anyone who is not a member of the worshipping community. It is not a crime to charge a reasonable interest on money loaned. Notice that you are not required to loan money to a fellow member of the worshipping community. But if you choose to do so, you should offer the money interest free. In this way, no one is enslaved to a brother or sister. What if a brother comes to you and says, “Freud’s Bank will lend me $30k at 10% interest. Would you consider lending me the same amount at the same interest or lower? I would rather pay you the interest.” I don’t see how such a proposal would break this law since it is an offer coming from the one who is qualified to receive a loan.
The next issue of holiness addressed in these miscellaneous laws is that of holy speech. As Jesus said in summarizing these laws, “Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes,’ and your ‘no,’ be ‘no.’” Some religious people believe that making a vow displays their superior spirituality. Some person might think, “I am capable to make a vow and keep it.” But God’s Law reminds us that if we break a vow made before God, we are guilty of sin and so, it would be better for us not to make a vow in the first place. Making a vow to the Lord is voluntary and so there is no pressure on us to do so. But the breaking of a vow is a serious matter. Personal holiness, then, includes our speech, especially our promises made to God.
The two final laws of this section concern the eating of your neighbor’s grapes and grain. If you are in your neighbor’s vineyard, you can only eat so many of his grapes. You may pluck a few heads of grain and sample your neighbor’s bounty, but you can’t stuff your gunnysack full of his grapes or harvest a quantity of his grain. Your neighbor’s livelihood depends upon his crops. Personal holiness includes our respecting of our neighbors’ property.
God’s law shows us how to maintain a clean camp and clean relationships. A clean environment is important to God and commanded of us. A world free of all forms of slavery is important to God and commanded of us. Faithful speech is important to God and commanded of us. Good neighborly relationships are important to God and commanded of us. I now have a clearer understanding about how to live a holy life. I agree with all of these laws governing a life of holiness. Now, Lord Jesus Christ, spiritually empower me to live such a life. Without your empowerment, I am unable to do so. Jesus, in your grace, strengthen me.
Dear friends, if you have broken any of these laws as I have done many a time, receive with gladness this good news: We have an advocate in God’s courtroom. The apostle John wrote these comforting words: “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not only for ours only but for the sins of the whole world.” Jesus, the propitiation for our sins means that his death has satisfied God’s justice. United to Christ Jesus we are no longer targets for God’s wrath.
“The Covenant: Divorce”
The prevailing view today is that divorce is on the rise, and that in our lifetime the institution of the family has been assaulted like never before in human history. While I do believe that the institution of marriage and family is presently in trouble, allow me to paint a slightly different historical assessment: The institutions of marriage and family have been in deep trouble from the very beginning of time. Some of us cringe at the no-fault laws in Oregon. But in the great Egyptian Empire in Moses’ day, the laws allowed a husband to divorce his wife on account of her bad breath. If the choices are no-fault laws or the citing of petty imperfections, I’ll choose no-fault. The first century laws of the Roman Empire presented marriage as the intent of two people to live together. Divorce was simply a declaration of the husband’s desire to no longer live with his wife. This declaration need not occur in a court of law, but before any seven witnesses. Therefore, divorce was common practice.
In the 16th Century the Council of Trent summarized the Church’s oversight of marriages as early as the 2nd century. The Council then insisted upon a priest presiding over the marriage ceremony and his publishing of records in the parish of both bride and groom. This Council was the first in Church history to ban divorce, calling it and all sorts of grounds for it anathema. Divorce must have been a common part of Medieval life. Marriages and families must have been in crisis back in the good ol’ days of knights, ladies, lords, and kings. Remember Camelot?
Also in the 16th Century, John Calvin’s Geneva transformed the Western concept of sex, marriage, and family life. Calvin made marriage and divorce, children’s welfare matters of both the Church and the State. Calvin’s Geneva was the beginning of the State’s involvement in domestic life. 16th Century Geneva, Switzerland was an amazing place, the cutting edge of social history – home to the first public colleges and hospitals. It was also home to a City Council that crafted hundreds of civic laws. And so, we live in a world in which every institution seeks to help us when our marriages go sour. Our families get involved, the Church factors in, and the State hauls us into court. This is our particular social context, our grid through which we view and interpret the ancient laws recorded by Moses.
Moses led Israel out of Egypt, a society quite similar to our present civilization. God redeemed his people from more than one kind of bondage. In the wilderness, God gave to his people laws to protect and to expand their freedom. Moses delivered these addresses compiled in Deuteronomy to prepare Israel to return to civilization, to the highly developed cities of Canaan. These Fertile Crescent nations were a bit twisted, especially when it came to family matters. The Canaanite treated a woman as if she were a piece of farmland or a beast of burden. God gives to Moses these divorce laws in Deuteronomy 24: 1-4 to protect Israel from the oppressive practices of Egypt, Canaan, Moab, and other surrounding nations. These people groups allowed husbands to divorce their wives for no reason at all, with no legal record and no obligation to care for the wife and the children.
This is the reason for Moses’ opening clauses, “When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her….” This was the common practice surrounding Israel. A Canaanite man wakes up in the morning, tethers his cow, sells her at market, returns to his farm to harvest his grain, drops by the tent to eat his mid-day meal, disapproves of his wife’s cooking and rashly divorces her with a verbal dismissal. Ho hum, another day in the life of a Canaanite man, all in a day’s work. Moses makes divorce a written, legal action for the protection of the woman. This is groundbreaking. Moses makes divorce a matter of civic law. Remember, Moses is a key catalyst in changing his culture from an oral tradition to a written tradition. By requiring a written certificate, the divorce and its grounds is a matter of public record. Everyone in the community will know if the man divorced his wife because of her bad breath, or poor cooking skills. He must supply his wife with the certificate. It is in her possession so that she has proof of the divorce and its grounds. It protects her from rumors of adultery. Such rumors could prevent her from remarriage not to mention family and friends shunning her rendering her completely destitute. The legal writing of the certificate takes time. The common, oral dismissal would nearly immediately land the wife out of the tent and on to the streets. The written dismissal gives her a few days, if not a few weeks to arrange for help. The certificate is proof that she may legally remarry.
Verses one through four are one long sentence. The second part for our consideration is the clause in (2) “If she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house….” The usual course for a destitute woman, especially with children, would be to find a man who would marry her and care for her needs. The Bible includes the book of Ruth, the beautiful story of Boaz falling in love with Ruth, a destitute woman, providing for all of her needs through the institution of marriage. But Boaz is one in a thousand. Most suitors interested in a woman with a certificate of divorce do not have love in mind. The chances of a woman who possesses a bill of divorce receiving another one were high. Moses protects the Israelite woman from being used and abused in the institution of marriage.
In a good number of cases, an older man may be willing to marry a younger woman who has a certificate of divorce and so Moses includes, “and if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled.” Why would the first husband who divorced this woman for indecency have interest to marry her again? Perhaps her second and older husband, who died, generously willed a certain amount of property to her for her care. If the former husband remarries her, this property would become his property. Perhaps he would remarry her out of guilt – a bad recipe for marriage. The purpose of this legal clause is to protect the woman from being traded back and forth like a donkey. God’s law makes it clear that a woman is not an animal. She is not a piece of property owned by her husband. The third point Moses makes in these laws, then is that the dignity of the woman must be preserved.
How has this woman been defiled? She was defiled when her first husband divorced her for having bad breath. Even though the certificate gives her legal permission to remarry, what does such a petty dismissal do to the esteem of this woman created in the image of God? She snores at night. She talks too much. She’s a bad cook. She is beginning to sag and wrinkle. She is consumed with caring for the children. She has too much influence in my life. She holds me accountable. I’ve lost interest in her. I am the lord of this household. Who cares about her dignity, her esteem, her feelings, her destiny? This is the defilement. God’s law protects and expands the dignity of the woman. Every so often a particular husband in our worshipping community says to me, “The older my wife becomes, the more attracted I am to her. I am enjoying growing old with her. Each year we live together, the more I discover how much she compliments me, how much she completes me, how much she has to offer, how beautiful she is to me.” God bless you, brother. You have not defiled your wife but instead you have crowned her with love, honor, dignity, and glory.
Moses concludes, “And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance.” Once again, God’s transformation is comprehensive. God’s working in our personal lives is connected to his working in our marriages and families. His work in our marriages is connected to his work in the larger community. His work in all of us is connected to his renewal of the earth, the entire world. No husband may say, “My dear wife, I am divorcing you so that I have the time and resources to save Africa from AIDS and Malaria.” If the husband is called to such noble mission he must win his wife’s participation. He must say, “My dear wife, let’s go save Africa.” He must not abandon her for a higher calling.
Now we must attend to Jesus’ commentary on our text. When the Jewish leaders asked Jesus, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” Jesus said, “Because of the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wives….” This is Jesus’ commentary on the entire Law of God – it exposes the hardness of our hearts, our desperate need for the Holy Spirit to warm and soften our hearts. The Gospel tells us how we may be transformed from the stony coldness that results in divorce to the warm love that results in a fruitful relationship. God’s law provides for divorce and when a man divorces his wife, he and all who know him must face the desperate nature of human relationships apart from God’s freedom and love. The Gospel proclaims that Christ Jesus, our bridegroom’s perfect fidelity to us, his bride, the Church, showers all of our relationships, even our marriages with a self-sacrificial and pleasing love ‘til death us do part.
“The Covenant: Kind Justice”
Deuteronomy 24: 5 – 25:4
In a number of our English translations, the editors have organized sections under descriptive headings. Most of these headings I find to be helpful. Our text for this morning is titled, “Miscellaneous Laws.” I do not find this title to be particularly helpful. The editors are uncertain as to how Moses has organized these sections. Perhaps he has simply thrown some laws together, uncertain himself as to how to categorize them. Moses is ancient. His writing and his addresses do not conform to Western models, Classic or modern. Some of the confusion of categorization results from us thinking that his writing is a book of case law. At least we would expect Moses to categorize all of these detailed laws under the Ten Commandments. But he does not attempt such nice and neat organization. Do these addresses in Deuteronomy show to us an aging Moses who loses his train of thought from time to time, rambling from one law to another? Some of the most beautiful and most powerful writing of all Scripture comes from Moses. Psalm 91 is sheer poetry. “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.’” David, the great Psalmist repeated the beautiful and powerful imagery of Moses. Some of the well-turned phrases of Moses in Deuteronomy are fine prose – “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.” Listen to these words of Moses: “But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.”
These miscellaneous laws before us are actually organized loosely around the theme of God’s kind justice. Divine justice is not merely played out on an epic scale, God causing wars to cease and bringing the kings of the earth to their knees. God’s justice is worked out in the details of our daily lives, in our primary relationships, in our mundane work. Divine justice is not merely raw power and impersonal authority. It is also kind and personal.
Firstly, God’s justice is kind to newlyweds. The groom is exempt from military service or any other public duty for the first year of his marriage. God’s justice promotes freedom to enjoy the marital relationship. How many brides have questioned God’s justice as they receive written notice of their husbands dying on the battlefield months after the wedding? The law of God prevents this tragedy, caused by mere human beings who ignore kind justice.
Secondly, God’s justice is kind to the hard working person. The man who borrows money to open a flourmill relies on the mill to turn a profit providing for his family’s needs. The lender must not take the millstone as the pledge for the loan. If he took the stone, how would the miller turn a profit to repay the loan? How would the miller feed his family? The kind justice of God promotes hard, productive work. The lender must promote and protect such honest industry.
Thirdly, God’s kind justice prevents the trafficking of people. This is a good example of the death penalty promoting the kindness of God. Kidnapping a brother and selling him into slavery is a grave injustice. To do so for money is proof of the total depravity of humanity. In our present world, trafficking has escalated as I have recently and painfully illustrated. Trafficking is out of control. Who will protect the helpless, the destitute, and the desperate? God is the protector of such people.
Fourthly, God’s justice is kind to the person who contracts a communicable and life threatening disease. The quarantine laws in Leviticus protect the community from spreading communicable diseases and so God’s justice is kind to the entire community. But Moses asks Israel to remember particularly Miriam’s case. It is her case that reminds us that God’s justice, though harsh for a time results in his kindness toward us. Miriam rebelled against her brother Moses questioning his divine call to be prophet mainly because she disapproved of his marriage to the Cushite woman. God inflicted Miriam with leprosy. Her brother, Aaron, who also rebelled alongside her, begged God for mercy, confessing their foolishness and sin. Then Moses cried out to God begging for his mercy, asking God to heal his sister. God heard these cries and his response is one of kind justice. God replies, “If an earthly father, spit in the face of his daughter, she would be shamed for seven days, not the rest of her life. Quarantine Miriam outside the camp for seven days. After that time she may return to the camp.” In other words, God cleansed her of the leprosy after seven days. God’s justice, though harsh for a time results in his kindness toward us.
Fifthly, God’s justice is kind to the poor. The person who lends money to a neighbor must not go inside the house to collect the pledge. There are at least to reasons for this law: 1) In Moses’ culture, the neighbor would be obligated to play host to anyone coming into his home, providing a meal and even entertainment. If this person has borrowed money from his neighbor, he may not be in the best position to play host. In entering the home, the lender adds to the problem of his neighbor’s debt; 2) If the lender collects the pledge of the loan in the home, the transaction would be private and thus both parties could be tempted to lie about the transaction. But if the lender collects the pledge in public, witnesses would testify to it.
The lender who accepts from a poor man his cloak as the pledge, must not keep it overnight. He must return it to the poor man. This law gives us a peak into the definition of poor in God’s law. The cloak is the only article of clothing this man owns. It doubles as his blanket as he sleeps. For a lender to reflect the kind justice of God in this way is righteousness in God’s sight!
Sixthly, God’s justice is kind to the employee. An employer must pay his employees in a timely fashion. They depend on this payment to live. This law is presented in an agrarian economy, but may apply to any employment. God’s law requires daily payment of poor and needy laborers, those who do not have other resources to fall back upon. Failure to pay wages daily is considered by God’s law to be oppressive. The law applies to fellow Israelite employees as well as employees that are not of the household of Israel.
God’s justice is kind to the individual. God’s law usually promotes, if not assumes corporate responsibility. The family is a unit, the tribe is a unit, and Israel altogether is the covenant community. But God’s law does protect the individual. A father may not be punished for crimes his child has committed. A child may not be punished for crimes a father has committed. Each individual is responsible for his own sin. This works against the all too familiar judgment: “Those Lewis’s are a bad lot – the whole of them. There’s not a good apple in the bunch. The apple doesn’t fall to far from the tree. Hang them all.” The scripture includes instances when an entire family or nation is punished as one group. But the scriptures also teach that each of us is responsible for our own actions.
God’s justice is kind to the foreigner, to the orphan and to the widow. In Moses’ day the foreigner, the orphan, and the widow were all poor and needy people. Once again Moses calls Israel to remember her past, her slavery in Egypt and to treat others with kindness, especially the poor and the oppressed. The gleaning laws provide food for these poor people. Poor people are able to glean grain, olives, and grapes. They are not denied the basic components of the Mediterranean diet – bread, oil, and wine.
God’s justice is kind to the guilty person. If the sentence is beating, then no more than 40 lashes may be administrated. The reason given for this limit is that to beat the person more would be degrading. The beating must be conducted in the presence of the judge who delivered the sentence. This is indeed a kind justice. While many have focused on the amount of beating an average human body may suffer short of expiring, God’s law focuses once again upon the dignity of humanity, made in the image of God. This law limiting the beating to 40 lashes is not designed to beat him an inch of his life, but to stop short of degrading one made in the image of God.
Finally, God’s justice is kind even to our animals. We treat our animals kindly and justly because God’s law commands us to do so.
If God’s justice is kind, then, what is the difference between his kind justice and his mercy? God’s mercy is divine kindness and help, which we do not deserve. But God’s kind justice is commanded of us in his holy law. Some of God’s justice is administered in this world through us, through our relationships, to one another. The justice required of us neighbor to neighbor, sister to sister, spouse to spouse is kind justice. The prophet Micah wrote, “He has shown thee, O man, what is good and what the Lord requires of you – to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
The central event of human history was a moment bereft of kind justice. Men who knew God’s law committed inhumane crimes against the Son of God while men who knew the laws of Man joined them in their treachery to nail an innocent man to a Roman cross. The raw, unfiltered justice of God, in the form of wrath was poured out upon Jesus Christ, the perfect representative of humanity and divine Savior of the world. God’s justice in the form of leprosy inflicting Miriam was nothing compared to the hell Jesus suffered in our place. In kind justice, God stopped short of spitting in Miriam’s face. But the heavenly Father turned away his smiling face from his suffering Son so that the full shame of death might inflict him. Thus, God’s justice has been satisfied and his mercy flows to all of us who put our faith in Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit of Christ applies this grace to our lives so that we might live dispensing the kind justice of God to one another.
“The Covenant: Preserving Family Lines”
Deuteronomy 25: 5-10
Skeptics often accuse the biblical authors of contradicting themselves. For example, Moses wrote twice in the book of Leviticus the prohibition of a man marrying his brother’s wife. Later, in Deuteronomy 25, Moses allows a man to marry his brother’s wife. The two laws recorded in Leviticus 18: 16 and 20:21 prohibit adultery, both brothers living, at least one, if not both brothers married. In Deuteronomy 25, the law applies to a most specific situation in which a brother has died.
The brother who is commanded to marry his brother’s widow is a single man. How do we know this to be the case? The law of God does not contradict itself and the law has already clearly prohibited polygamy. In Deuteronomy 17, God prohibits polygamy of kings. The law of God graciously protects individuals who are members of polygamous families, but such protection in no way condones the polygamy. Therefore, the man commanded in Deuteronomy 25 must be a single man.
Moses lists several details that restrict the context of this law. Firstly, this law only applies to brothers “who dwell together.” As Meredith Kline has observed, this refers to brothers who shared the same estate. If both brothers were married, then they would form separate estates for the benefit of their children. This law applies to brothers, without children, connected to each other in the estate of their parents.
Secondly, Moses applies this law only to cases in which the married brother dies before his wife has conceived a child. Once again, Kline observes that “son” here refers to a child male or female. In Numbers 27, God’s law reveals its uniqueness among the ancient laws by giving inheritance rights to daughters. If the wife of the deceased brother had given birth to a girl, then this daughter would inherit her parent’s estate and there would be no need for the single living brother to marry the widow.
Thirdly, Moses shows the purpose of this law to be the preservation of the family line. In (6) Moses clarifies the gender of the child who shall bear his father’s name and preserve his family’s place in the covenant community. The widow, remarried, may give birth to several girls and the father and mother may freely name those girls. But the first son that is born of this marriage must be given the name of his mother’s first husband, the deceased brother of his father. The son’s name thus is a memorial to the deceased and a preservation of the family line. As J.Gresham Machen has brilliantly illustrated in a complex presentation in his book “The Virgin Birth of Christ,” this preservation of the family line was not merely a matter of property rights and inheritance. It was ultimately a matter of producing the Messiah. Machen illustrates how the law here in Deuteronomy 25 explains what some think to be a contradiction, if not a glitch in the geneology of Jesus.
Fourthly, Moses makes it clear that this law is not mandatory. A single brother may refuse to follow this law but he must pay the price of public shame. The widow has the right to haul him before the elders of the community. If he refuses to take the widow as his wife in the presence of the elders, then she has the right to remove his sandal and spit in his face. The entire community has the right to refer perpetually to this man and to his household as “The house of him who had his sandal pulled off.” (Don’t allow Monty Python to get a hold of this material.) This custom may seem ludicrously funny to us but in its context it was a matter of public shame.
This is clearly a portion of the law whose enduring application concerns the preserving of family lines in Israel toward the coming of the Messiah. To seek to pull personal application for our relationships from this text is to wade in a swamp of hidden sinkholes and the muck and mire of trite and false piety. The moral of this law is not: treat your relatives with kindness. The moral is not: Those who fail to preserve the name and honor of others deserve public shame. These attempts at making every line of scripture personally applicable render the Holy Word of God trite, derailing the very words of God from their primary and central purpose of delivering and announcing the Messiah.
Our Westminster Confession instructs us to compare scripture with scripture as an accurate method of biblical interpretation. There are at least two Old Testament passages that we must consider in relation to Deuteronomy 25: 5-10. The first passage is in the first book of Moses, at Genesis 38. The story is a typical Bible story, presenting to us broken people tangled in twisted relationships in desperate need of God’s grace and mercy. Judah’s firstborn son, Er, was wicked and so, God ended his life. Judah commanded his son, Onan, to perform the duty of a brother-in-law, to raise up offspring for his deceased brother. Onan knew that the offspring would not be his, and so, each time he entered the widow, Tamar’s tent, he would spill his seed on the ground. God judged Onan to be wicked and ended his life.
As you can imagine, people have listed several actions of Onan as his sin. What precisely was wicked in Onan’s behavior? He prevented the preserving of the family line of his brother. He did so deceitfully. If the patriarchal custom was preserved in the laws finally recorded by Moses, then Onan could have publicly refused to assume the responsibility of preserving the family line by marrying Tamar. He may have suffered public shame, but he would have been free of the duty. Instead, Onan married Tamar and pretended to fulfill his duty. In the privacy of the tent, he came as close as a man can to completing the duty, purposely stopping short. His deceit would prevent his brother’s line from continuing. In time, he could accuse Tamar of being barren. He could appeal to his father: “Your firstborn son’s wife is barren and thus it is impossible to preserve his line. I am the second son. Allow me to divorce Tamar and to marry the wife of my choosing and preserve our family line. Give to me and to my descendents the inheritance reserved for the firstborn.” Onan’s sin was a further development of Abraham and Sarah’s sin, not to mention the sin of Jacob. Onan painfully illustrates how it is that the sins of the fathers visit their children and grandchildren, often escalating in deviation.
Nevertheless, the sins of families, generation after generation cannot prevent God’s delivering of the Messiah. In spite of the sins of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, God preserved the family line and in the fullness of time, a virgin gave birth to the incarnate Son of God.
The second story in the Old Testament directly connected to Deuteronomy 25: 5-10 is the Book of Ruth. Ruth, born a Moabite, marries a son of the tribe of Judah, a resident of Bethlehem. Her husband dies and she returns to Bethlehem with her mother-in-law, Naomi, both widows. Through the gleaning laws, she happens to find herself in the fields of Boaz, who happens to be a relative of her deceased husband’s family. Boaz says to Ruth: “Now it is true that I am a redeemer. But there is a redeemer more closely related to you than I.” The next morning, Boaz arranges for the closer redeemer and himself to meet before the ten elders of the city. Boaz offers the role of redemption to the other man and testifies that if the man declines then he shall redeem the estate himself. Such a redemption is attractive because Noami owns land in Bethlehem. Upon her death, the land would go to Ruth. But as we know, the redemption is not primarily about land – it is about preserving the family line through marriage and the conception of an heir. The land secures this heir’s place in the covenant community.
The closer redeemer declines Boaz’s offer claiming that he would impair his own inheritance, meaning that he is presently married with children. This unnamed man takes off his sandal and gives it to Boaz, giving him the right to redeem the estate. Boaz does so and marries Ruth.
What a beautiful story! Instead of a widow dragging a man to the city elders, Boaz, the redeemer arranges a meeting with the elders on behalf of the destitute women. Instead of a widow taking off the sandal of a man who refuses to redeem, a man legitimately obligated in the covenant community offers his sandal to an eligible redeemer. Instead of a widow spitting in the face of a man who will be henceforth publicly shamed with his entire household, a single man publicly declares the restoration of an estate and takes his vows to marry a widow.
Boaz, restores the family line. His wife, Ruth, gives birth to a son. Surprisingly he is not named for the deceased first husband of his mother. Instead, the women of Bethlehem, having seen the grandmother, Naomi’s bitterness transform to joy as she held the baby on her lap, give him the name Obed, meaning “servant.” His first service was to follow in the footsteps of his father, to bring joy to the women of the family. Obed became the father of Jesse, who became the father of King David. God promised King David that a son in his family line would eternally reign on his throne. The preserving of the family line was complete when the virgin Mary gave birth to a son and Joseph, her husband, named the baby, Jesus, meaning “he saves.”
This is as practical as the Bible gets. God has established his law to preserve the family lines of Israel so that a Redeemer would be born, not only named, “He saves,” but delivering the salvation we so desperately need.
“The Covenant: More Case Law”
Deuteronomy 25: 11-19
David Jackman, of the Proclamation Trust in London, describes the Book of Exodus as “central to the Old Testament Scripture and is the essential primer in covenant theology.” He then describes Deuteronomy as “a series of expository sermons preached on the Torah, before the entry to the land.” While the vast majority of the laws Moses presents in Deuteronomy come straight from Exodus, the Book of the Covenant, several laws are case laws unique to Deuteronomy.
The first case law in (11-12) is one of these unique case laws. Gerhard von Rad writes, “The regulation in these verses go back to a particular legal case, and people have certainly been justified is enquiring why the decision based on such a peculiar case had to be raised to a law of general validity.”
Gerhard von Rad also notes that the punishment of cutting off the hand, while frequently mentioned in the Code of Hammurabi, is only mentioned in God’s law in this one case law.
The second law in (13-16) is also listed in Leviticus 19:36 in these few and general words: “You shall do no wrong in judgment, in measures of length or weight or quantity. You shall have just balances, just weights, a just ephah, and a just hin. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” In Deuteronomy Moses provides more specific language. Over the years, Israel, like all of humanity, had found little, technical ways around these laws in Leviticus. For example, it is quite possible that a merchant would say to himself, “My scale is just and each weight I use on the scale is just. But the law doesn’t say that I can’t have more than one size of weights. I will put in my bag a small weight that is quite dense and thus weighs more than this larger weight that is quite light. The illusion will give to me an advantage.”
As Moses supplies more details, we learn that we must obey the spirit and the intent of God’s law refraining from finding loopholes. Moses, quite early in ancient history, provides for Israel a standardized weight and measuring system. The purpose of this system was to promote honesty.
The details help us to be honest in our dealings with each other. The details should never prevent us from behaving honestly in every area of our lives. If any of us are concerned about the growing number of laws governing us today, we should consider that the abominable practice of finding loopholes in present laws is one of the largest contributing factors to the writing of more laws.
The third law for our consideration this morning is the command to remember. This command is a recurring theme in Deuteronomy. As Israel enters the Promised Land, resting from her wilderness wanderings, wars, and hardships, she is to remember the redeeming work of God on her behalf. At first glance it appears as if Moses is quite emotionally upset about Amalek. First he commands Israel to remember the atrocities of Amalek. Then, he tells Israel to blot out the memory of Amalek, only to conclude that Israel should never forget Amalek. What did Amalek do that was so upsetting to Moses?
He attacked Israel at her weakest point. Israel was exhausted and Amalek’s forces came from behind, picking off the stragglers. Amalek was acting more like a hyena that a king. He did not wage war against the weary warriors of Israel, but instead his soldiers killed the sick, the elderly, and perhaps the children at the back of the line. Bottom line = Amalek did not fear God. Ironically, Amalek attacked the end of the line the furthest point from the pillar of fire and the cloud, the visual manifestations of God at the front of the line.
In Exodus 17: 8-16 Moses recorded a narrative of Amalek’s attack against Israel. The Amalekites attacked Israel at Rephidim, the southernmost and isolated location on the Sinai Peninsula on her way to Mt. Sinai. Israel was hungry, thirsty, and tired. Some of Israel knew that a more direct route to Canaan was far to the north. For some crazy reason, Moses was leading them south on a peninsula to some mountain to meet God. Is not Yawheh present with us wherever we go? Must we go south to go north. Trapped on the peninsula Amalek attacks.
Moses instructs Joshua to rally Israel to fight Amalek in the morning. Moses, Aaron, and Hur climbed a hill where Moses lifted his hands toward heaven. As long as his hands were uplifted, Israel prevailed in battle. But whenever Moses became weary, and his hands dropped, the Amalekites would prevail. Aaron and Hur had Moses sit on a rock and they held up his hands one on each side of him. They did so until sunset when Joshua led Israel to victory over Amalek.
The Lord told Moses to write this narrative in a book as a memorial and to recite it to Joshua. God promised to blot the memory of Amalek from under heaven. What does God mean when he commands Israel, “You shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.”? Israel is to never forget that Amalek is God’s and thus her enemy. The written record and the recitation of it will help Israel to remember. Beyond this remembrance, Israel is to destroy everything of Amalek – all memorials, artifacts, tributes, cities, cultural contributions. The only preserved legacy of Amalek is to be this written condemnation of him and his army. Israel is to never forget.
Should not Israel forgive and forget? This command to remember, to never forget, is not designed to fuel Israel’s hatred and bitterness. Rather its purpose is to keep Israel mindful that God has liberated her from her enemies and given to her rest in the land. We should also remember God’s freeing of us from our enemies, from everything that entangles us. As we rest in God, enjoying his good gifts and blessed life, we should never forget that he has subdued all enemies under his feet.
For us who are united to Jesus Christ, God’s conquering of our enemies does not stop with mere human tormenters. In Jesus’ death and resurrection, the head of Satan, the great and fallen angel, has been crushed. The great enemy Death has been vanquished. The apostle Paul exclaims, “Death is swallowed up in victory! O Death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting? The sting of death is sin and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Amalek separated the stragglers at the back of the line from Israel. He hewed and hacked them to pieces leaving them to rot in the hot desert sun. But for those of us who are in Christ Jesus, Paul writes, “We are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Amen.
“Remembering the Covenant: Thanksgiving and Charity”
How has God revealed his Law to us? God wrote the Ten Commandments on stone tablets, giving them to Moses to deliver to Israel. God continues to speak to Moses, his prophet throughout the wilderness wanderings of Israel. At the end of his life, Moses addresses Israel, camped on the borders of the Promised Land. His sermons at this time apply the Law of God to Israel’s lifestyle in the Promised Land. Through Moses’ writings, the Law of God unfolds. The addresses of Deuteronomy refine the Law with details, and with purpose statements. These addresses instruct a new generation of Israel, helping her to understand the Law of God, especially its purposes. Deuteronomy 26 is the conclusion of Moses’ address on Covenant living. Moses concludes this address by calling Israel to give to the God who has graciously given the Law and all good gifts to her. The appropriate response to the giving of the Law is to worship the Giver of the Law, to express gratitude to the God who has presented a plan for his dwelling in the midst of his people.
In this final portion of his address, Moses instructs Israel in offering to God the tithe of the first fruits. Some Bible students read through the five Books of Moses counting every instance in which Moses commands a tithe, counting each instance as a separate tithe. In fact, Moses is not adding a tithe upon a tithe in Deuteronomy 26, but rather, he is adding more detail to the existing tithe laws. The additions concern a special ceremony of remembrance every three years along with purpose statements offered to help Israel understand the purpose of the tithe.
When Israel enters the land, she is to incorporate this special ceremony into her calendar, every third year. In (12) we discover that Israel has been commanded to offer the tithe of first fruits every year as Moses has presented in Deuteronomy 14. Every third year, members of the household of Israel are to place a token amount of this tithe in a basket and bring it to the tent of meeting, handing the token to the priest, who sets all of the baskets before the altar of God. What is the purpose of this ceremony?
The purpose of the ceremony is to provide a liturgy of grateful remembrance (1-11). As a person hands to the priest a basket laden with fruits and vegetables, oil and grain, he is to recite these words of remembrance. This historic summary begins with Jacob, the wandering Aramean. This is a reference to the region where Jacob wandered with his flocks during the years his sons were born and raised. The drought brought Jacob and his family to a desperate low point, but God, in his providence, brought the family into Egypt under the care of Jacob’s son, Joseph. After Joseph’s death, a new Pharaoh rose to power, enslaving Israel, bringing her to an even lower point. But God saw her plight and liberated her from 400+ years of bondage. God guided Israel through the wilderness into the Promised Land, a fruitful land. What is the appropriate response to such a historical summary? The best response is offering to God the tithe of the first fruits, to worship God through this ceremony of remembrance. The basket is a token of the tithe. The tithe is a token of God’s abundant provision of the harvest.
This liturgy spoken as the baskets are collected at the altar is the beginning of the corporate worship followed by a time of rejoicing. This rejoicing, most likely a feast, includes the households of Israel, including the tribe of Levite and including the sojourner. The sojourner, that is a foreigner, is defined not so much by race as by creed. The sojourner was not admitted to the corporate worship at the tent of meeting. But the law provided for the sojourner to participate in the festivities, the fellowship of God’s people. By Jesus’ day, the temple included several courts. Only the High Priest was allowed in the most holy court. Only the priesthood was allowed in the court housing the altar. Only Jewish men were allowed in the Men’s court of prayer and only Jewish women were allowed in the Women’s court of prayer. The largest court at the perimeter of the temple grounds was the Court of the Gentiles. Anyone could enter this court to hear the Holy Scriptures expounded, to pray, to feast, to learn how to become a member of the worshipping community.
This special ceremony teaches us to reflect upon God liberating us from bondage and providing our needs. Our liturgies must include reflection on the history of God’s kindness to us. This special ceremony also teaches us to make room for those who have yet to join the worshipping community so that they might see the goodness of God and join us in time to return our thanksgiving to God.
The purpose of the tithe of first fruits is to provide for the basic needs of the Levite, the sojourner, the orphan, and the widow (12-15).
God did not apportion land to the tribe of Levite. Instead, he scattered the Levites among all the towns of Israel. While the other tribes farmed the land and raised flocks, the Levites were set aside to develop the worshipping community of Israel. Thus, the Levites had need of food and so, the Law provided for them through the tithe of the first fruits. The sojourner, a newcomer to the Promised Land, would have basic needs unmet. Ownership of land was a rare opportunity for someone who was not a member of the tribes of Israel. The Law of God assured that no one would go hungry in the Promised Land. The Law of God wholly provided for the orphan and the widow, both severed from the usual means of provision, caused by the death of parents or spouse. In the Promised Land, street urchins would be signs of blatant and communal disobedience of God’s law. Widows homeless and hungry would be a serious indicator of Israel neglecting the Law of God.
The offering of the tithe of first fruits is followed by a liturgy, aiding the community in worship of God. The first part of this prayer to God is a statement of obedience – “I have given my tithe.” The worshipper has not been prevented from offering his tithe, even by a good excuse, like a death in the family. He has not broken any other laws in offering the tithe. He has offered the tithe as an act of worship of the one, true God. To offer a portion of his tithe to the dead would be an act of worship of his ancestors, a typical pagan rite from ancient times as well as in our present world. The second part of the prayer is a request of God to richly bless his people.
Moses concludes his sermon, a very long sermon presenting God’s law for covenant living, with the closing remarks found in (16-19). The first significant point of Moses is that Israel is to be careful to obey these laws “with all your heart and with all your soul.” Obedience begins within us. Our minds receive the Law of God and assent to living according to them. Our wills choose to obey. The Holy Spirit of God must soften the center of our being, what we call our hearts, so that we are inclined to choose to obey. The Holy Spirit must nourish and inspire our souls so that we are assured that our life calling and desires are to obey God. Holy thoughts, words, and behavior all flow from this internal working of the Holy Spirit.
Secondly, Moses required some form of corporate, public, and audible response to his sermons. In response, Israel has declared that she would follow God, obey his holy Law. Israel publicly declared that God has spoken to her. What has God spoken to Israel? God has spoken his Law, but he has spoken more comprehensively. He has spoken his Law within the context of speaking his whole covenant.
Thirdly, Moses reminds Israel that God has declared to her the covenant. What is the covenant? It is God formally declaring his people to be his treasured possession, that he has kept all of his promises to them and has commanded them to keep all of his commandments. God has set his people in praise, fame, and honor above all other nations. But he has promised them an even greater distinction – he has promised to set them apart in holiness – to reflect the very glory, purity, and goodness of God.
How has God spoken this covenant to his people? Through his prophet, Moses. We live in the last days of God’s redemptive work on earth. The author of the Book of Hebrews, another long sermon included in the Bible, begins his sermon where Moses concluded his own. The latter day preacher begins with these words: “Long ago, at many times and in many different ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.” This Son of God, our Lord Jesus is greater than Moses, worthy of more glory than Moses. Israel heard God’s voice through Moses. In these last days, we hear God’s voice through his Son, our Lord Jesus.
When we offer our tithes to God in worship, we are returning our thanksgiving and extending charity to those in need. We are also glorifying Jesus Christ, the One worthy of more glory than the great prophet, Moses. When we care for the minister set aside to serve the worshipping community, we are glorifying Jesus Christ, the only Head of the Church, our Good Shepherd, the King of heaven and earth. When we care for the sojourner, we are glorifying Christ Jesus, who has broken down the wall between Jew and Gentile, welcoming every people group to worship him in Spirit and in truth.
When we care for the orphan and the widow, we glorify Jesus, who expressed compassion and mercy for those in need. The Law commands us to glorify God. The Gospel frees us to do so. In time, as the Gospel works its way down into our souls and our hearts, we will begin to live more and more to the glory of God.