No idle thing: Deuteronomy 4

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Today’s reading: Deuteronomy 3-4.

God knows this about us: we are idol-makers. God said it and I know it’s true, but I still struggle to understand why we are so bent on doing it. I do understand why he hates it. It’s in-your-face rejection by those who know him best.

You saw no form of any kind the day the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below. And when you look up to the sky and see the sun, the moon and the stars–all the heavenly array–do not be enticed into bowing down to them and worshiping things the LORD your God has apportioned to all the nations under heaven. Deuteronomy 4:15-19

God’s list of things people idolize include men and women, the created things of this earth, and all the heavenly bodies. These things have a form that can be modeled, but God is spirit and has no form. If we try to make a form or picture of God, we immediately begin to limit what is limitless and make physical what is supernatural. Michael Card wrote, “we’ve made you in our image so our faith’s idolatry.” He means that we can remake God into our own idea of what he is like, and end up worshiping something completely different than the true God.

Why do we do it? God made us to worship. He created us for devotion, and if we fail to worship the Creator we will, by nature, seek out something else to adore. But why do we abandon God and focus on created things rather than the creator?

  • We long for a God that is tangible
  • We want a master that lets us do what we want to do
  • Like the Israelites, we aren’t satisfied or contented with God
  • Our faith is too weak to keep hold of the supernatural God

Between bookends of his warning against idolatry, Moses mentions again his own failure that will keep him out of the Promised Land. “God was angry with me because of you,” he tells the people. I wonder if there was anything of idolatry in Moses’ failure. He labored with love for the Israelites. Did he idolize them? Or was there something about his role as their leader that he idolized? God called Moses the most humble man on earth, but perhaps pride found a way in at Meribah where Moses struck the rock.

What do you adore instead of God? Why do you think people are so quick to worship some created thing rather than the Creator? Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.

Idolatry is when you become the source of your own joy. Poverty of spirit is a wonderful thing. Paul Washer

We always pay dearly for chasing after what is cheap. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Whatever controls us is our lord. The person who seeks power is controlled by power. The person who seeks acceptance is controlled by acceptance. We do not control ourselves. We are controlled by the lord of our lives. Rebecca Manley Pippert

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Here be giants: Deuteronomy 1-2


Today’s reading: Deuteronomy 1-2.

Our imagined obstacles are the worst ones. What else has such power to immobilize us without lifting a finger? Like the threatening dragons on the edges of the old maps, they strike fear by reputation alone. The Israelites had their giants to kill, and some were not so imaginary, but they were all puny in comparison to God’s power.

As Deuteronomy opens, Moses begins to recount the story of Israel’s journey through the wilderness. The entire book is styled after an ancient treaty, and in such treaties the history of the relationship between the king (God) and his servant (Israel) is always given at the start. Moses reminds the people how their needs overwhelmed him and prompted him to recruit elders to help him judge the people. What he told the elders is a fitting battle-cry for the whole nation:

Do not be afraid of any man, for judgment belongs to God. Deuteronomy 1:17

Now the real battle is about to begin, and once again the nation needs a reminder that they should not fear any man or giant since God will determine the outcome. Part of Israel’s history was their failure to invade the Promised Land when they first spied it out 38 years earlier. The fear of giants motivated many of the Israelites then. Now they are at the back door of that same territory, and Moses tells them about some of the giants who have lived there. The ancient word for giant was rapha, or Rephaim, meaning terrible ones.

There were the Emim who lived in Moab. They had been driven out many years before. There were the Horites who were conquered by the descendants of Esau. The Zanzummim were another tribe of giants who had been eliminated by the Ammonites. Then there were the Avvites who were removed by the ancestors of the Phillistines when they came up out of Egypt into the coastal plain of Canaan. All of these tribes are compared to the giant Anakim who would soon be defeated by Joshua. Moses writes that Og, king of Bashan, was among the last of these giants (Rephaim), sleeping on a bed that was thirteen feet long.

The Israelites had already defeated Og and his kingdom. Most of these giants had been eliminated by other nations. Perhaps some Anakim remained, but Moses was telling the people that their days were numbered. He reminded them of recent victories over Sihon, king of Heshbon, saying, “not one town was too strong for us. The LORD our God gave us all of them.”

Each of us face real and imagined giants. Who are the Rephaim in your life? Their reputation is mighty, but God is even stronger. Do you struggle against addictions, or financial problems, or strained relationships? God stands at the ready to battle alongside you. Are you overwhelmed by fear or anxiety? Do you see no way out? Remember these things about your fight:

  • God is greater than whatever problem you face
  • The giants in your life are already defeated in God’s eyes
  • God has been working to defeat your giants before you even knew about them

In the days of Abraham, five hundred years before the time of Deuteronomy, kings came from the east to battle against Sodom and Gomorrah. But along the way God used them to begin removing the giants that would one day stand in the way of the Israelites.

Kedorlaomer and the kings allied with him went out and defeated the Rephaim in Ashteroth Karnaim, the Zuzim in Ham, the Emim in Shaveh Kiriathaim and the Horites in the hill country of Seir. Genesis 14:5-6

We struggle in life against big and little problems. “Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upwards.” “In this world you will have tribulation.” But as God will soon tell Joshua, “be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.” As God reminds us through Jesus, “fear not, for I have overcome the world.” Just as he began dealing with the giants long before the Israelites came along, so God is already working on the giants standing in your way.

Running for refuge: Numbers 35


Today’s reading: Numbers 35-36

Blood feud. Picture the Hatfields and McCoys. Consider the long hatred between modern Israel and some of its neighbors. Someone gets hurt or killed, and the family won’t rest until the other side suffers a similar loss. Ancient Israel made this practice of retribution the responsibility of the Goel or avenger. Remember the kinsman-redeemer? This is the same man, but now he must seek revenge rather than redemption. You’ve heard, and perhaps seen first-hand, how this can cause an unending cycle of violence. In wisdom God establishes a better plan: the cities of refuge.

‘When you cross the Jordan into Canaan, select some towns to be your cities of refuge, to which a person who has killed someone accidentally may flee. They will be places of refuge from the avenger, so that a person accused of murder may not die before he stands trial before the assembly. These six towns you give will be your cities of refuge. Give three on this side of the Jordan and three in Canaan as cities of refuge. These six towns will be a place of refuge for Israelites, aliens and any other people living among them, so that anyone who has killed another accidentally can flee there. Numbers 35:10-15

Note that these refuges are established for those who commit non-premeditated murder or who cause accidental death. Anyone accused of murder could flee to the refuge city for a hearing, but the law assumes that the man who purposefully commits murder will be found guilty and be executed. Guilt must be proven by the testimony of two or more witnesses. And what happens to the man who caused death but did not commit premeditated murder? He is spared but must remain in the city. If he leaves the city he may be lawfully executed by the Goel/avenger. Only when the high priest dies can the accused leave the city and be free from attack by the avenger.

Consider the benefits of this plan:
–the accused receives a hearing
–the accused is removed from the community that sought his life
–action is postponed so that passions can cool
–there is an opportunity for redemption/release

Through all this procedure God maintains the high value of life. He condemns purposeful killing, and the consequences of accidental death are not ignored. God says that shedding blood defiles and pollutes the land. Once again, his law show us something important about his character.

In years to come the Israelites came to see God himself as their refuge. For those of us who live under his covenant of grace, Jesus has become our city of refuge where we run to find escape from the death penalty of our sin. But our waiting is over, for the great high priest has already died to set us free.

“To the city of refuge!” This is a picture of the road to Christ Jesus. It is no roundabout road of the law; it is no obeying this, that, and the other; it is a straight road: “Believe, and live.” It is a road so hard, that no self-righteous man can ever tread it, but so easy, that every sinner, who knows himself to be a sinner may by it find his way to heaven. No sooner did the man-slayer reach the outworks of the city than he was safe; it was not necessary for him to pass far within the walls, but the suburbs themselves were sufficient protection. Learn hence, that if you do but touch the hem of Christ’s garment, you shall be made whole; if you do but lay hold upon him with “faith as a grain of mustard seed,” you are safe. Only waste no time, loiter not by the way, for the avenger of blood is swift of foot; and it may be he is at your heels at this still hour of eventide. Charles Spurgeon

Looking back to move ahead: Numbers 33


Today’s reading: Numbers 33-34.

Sometimes we ignore our past because we are so preoccupied by the present, or because we want to forget some of its painful events. But God keeps reminding his people, and us, to look back and remember so that we can celebrate all that God has done in our lives.

At the LORD’s command Moses recorded the stages in their journey. This is their journey by stages… Numbers 33:2

Moses lists the forty-odd places that the Israelites camped during their forty years in the wilderness. The list isn’t exhaustive. There are a few other places mentioned elsewhere, and there might have been others not important enough to write down. Some of the names are familiar. Some are unknown. Here are a few of them:

  • Succoth. Literally, booths. Their first night on the road out of Egypt, camping in makeshift shelters. It’s also a name for the Feast of Tabernacles.
  • near Migdol. Up against the Red Sea. Water before them and Pharaoh’s chariots closing in upon them. God delivers them by parting the sea.
  • Marah, where the water was too bitter to drink until God told Moses how to make it sweet.
  • Desert of Sinai, including Mt. Sinai, where God gave them the Law.
  • Kibroth Hattaavah, the “graves of lusting” where many who were dissatisfied with manna died when they gorged themselves on the quail that God sent.
  • Kadesh-Barnea, the oasis where the Israelites first camped as they spied out the Promised Land, rejecting the call of Joshua and Caleb to invade. Nearly forty years later the Israelites return to Kadesh as the older generation dies out.
  • Mount Hor, where Aaron died.
  • the plains of Moab, where Balaam blessed them but taught the Midianites how to entice them to sexual immorality and idolatry.

As Samuel would later tell the Israelites, set up a stone of remembrance, Ebenezer, so that you will recall how God helped you, and know that the LORD brought you all this way. Each of us needs to set up our own monuments that remind us how God helped us. Certainly we want to remember the victories God gave us. As for our failures, we need to remind ourselves that even then God was working to forgive us and get us back on the road. Moses’ list recalls every place that God camped with them, giving them victory and retrieving them from defeat.

The forty-two stations named in Numbers 33 as camping places for the children of Israel on their way to Palestine, while they cannot all of them be identified, can be determined in sufficient numbers to show that it is not a fictitious list, nor a mere pilgrim’s diary, since the scenes of greatest interest, like the region immediately about Mount Sinai, are specially adapted to the great transactions which are recorded as taking place. Besides, it is incredible that a writer of fiction should have encumbered his pages with such a barren catalogue of places. But as part of the great historical movement they are perfectly appropriate.  George Frederick Wright, in The Testimony of the Monuments to the Truth of the Scriptures by R. A. Torrey


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Settling for less: Numbers 32


Today’s reading: Numbers 31-32.

It’s time for a little theologeography. That’s my portmanteau for the study of geography in the Bible. The Israelites have made it right next to the border of the Promised Land. They are camped to the east of the Jordan River and just above the Dead Sea. Everything they have heard about and been promised for generations lies across the Jordan to the west. Now, suddenly, two of the tribes – Reuben and Gad – decide they want to settle in this Transjordan land rather than across the river.

So they came to Moses and Eleazar the priest and to the leaders of the community, and said, “Ataroth, Dibon, Jazer, Nimrah, Heshbon, Elealeh, Sebam, Nebo and Beon– the land the LORD subdued before the people of Israel–are suitable for livestock, and your servants have livestock. If we have found favor in your eyes,” they said, “let this land be given to your servants as our possession. Do not make us cross the Jordan.” Number 32:2-5

They liked what they saw in the Transjordan, also known as Gilead and Bashan. It’s the western part of modern-day Jordan. Apparently it was beautiful pasture land. In years to come people would speak of the “balm of Gilead” and talk about how fat the cows of Bashan grew. Reuben and Gad were cattle herders, and this looked like the perfect place to raise their animals. There was nothing wrong with the land, but it wasn’t what God had planned for them.

Moses was concerned that they were taking the easy way out in order to avoid the fight for Canaan. The men of Reuben and Gad agree to accompany the other tribes into the Promised Land to help secure it for Israel, and Moses lets them have the Transjordan territory. At the last moment half of the tribe of Manasseh steps up and asks for the same terms. Apparently there was some friction within the Manasseh tribe that led to this split.

And what was the result? I’m not an expert, but it looks like the tribe of Reuben became Bedouins herding their cattle across the undeveloped land of Gilead. Gad became a tribe of fighters that often needed to use their skills because of their exposed position on the flank of Israel. Apparently these tribes were among the first to go into exile when Israel was conquered. As we continue to read through the Bible, I’ll keep my eye out for Reuben and Gad to see how they fared.

Why do we settle for less than God’s best?

  • Because we like to take the easy way
  • Because something else looks better to us than what God recommends
  • Because we want it now, not later
  • Because we lack faith that the better exists

So we may settle for relationships that are not ideal for us, because we don’t trust God to provide the better one. We take the path of less resistance rather than fighting for what is right. We accept a less intimate knowledge of God rather than working harder to get close to him. What have you settled for, rather than pressing on to win what God wanted for you? In my own life I can see how I have shrunk back from disciple-making to enjoy a quiet, introspective life. The good news is that it’s not too late. We can all continue on our Promised Land journey. Let’s cross the Jordan today.

Here is a proposal made by the Reubenites and Gadites, that the land lately conquered might be allotted to them. Two things common in the world might lead these tribes to make this choice; the lust of the eye, and the pride of life. There was much amiss in the principle they went upon; they consulted their own private convenience more than the public good. Thus to the present time, many seek their own things more than the things of Jesus Christ; and are led by worldly interests and advantages to take up short of the heavenly Canaan. Matthew Henry

The Reubenites and Gadites would have been unbrotherly if they had claimed the land which had been conquered, and had left the rest of the people to fight for their portions alone. We have received much by means of the efforts and sufferings of the saints in years gone by, and if we do not make some return to the church of Christ by giving her our best energies, we are unworthy to be enrolled in her ranks. Others are combating the errors of the age manfully, or excavating perishing ones from amid the ruins of the fall, and if we fold our hands in idleness we had need be warned, lest the curse of Meroz fall upon us. The Master of the vineyard saith, “Why stand ye here all the day idle?” What is the idler’s excuse? Personal service of Jesus becomes all the more the duty of all because it is cheerfully and abundantly rendered by some. The toils of devoted missionaries and fervent ministers shame us if we sit still in indolence. Shrinking from trial is the temptation of those who are at ease in Zion: they would fain escape the cross and yet wear the crown; to them the question for this evening’s meditation is very applicable. If the most precious are tried in the fire, are we to escape the crucible? Charles Spurgeon

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True to your word: Numbers 30


Today’s reading: Numbers 28-30.

God holds us accountable for keeping our word because he is a promise-keeping God. By learning what he celebrates we learn who he is. His condemnation of one who doesn’t keep a vow tells us something about the importance of honesty and faithfulness, but it tells us more about God’s character.

This is what the LORD commands: When a man makes a vow to the LORD or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said.  Numbers 30:1-2

God wants us to be like him; he made us in his image, after all. We act like God when we are true to our word. It’s important that God be trustworthy for many reasons, but to suggest a few:

  • He must be faithful to his word if we are to expect answers to prayer
  • He must be reliable if we are to count on him for salvation
  • He must be unchanging if we are to know how he wants us to live
  • He must prove trustworthy if we are to love him instead of fearing what he may do to harm us

Our truthfulness should begin with God. If you make a promise to God, keep it. Did you say you would attend church regularly? Then go. Did you vow to give back to God financially? Don’t fail to do so. Did you say you would pray more, read the Bible regularly, obey God’s commands? Be faithful.

We should be honest with others because our truthfulness or lack of it reflects back on God – our maker and the one we are supposed to look like. I think Jesus was talking about our honesty with others when he said we should not make oaths at all but just let our yes be yes and our no be no. Matthew Henry said, “The worse men are, the less they are bound by oaths; the better they are, the less there is need for them.” Sometimes we swear to make someone believe we are more trustworthy. Instead, our history of reliability should make these oaths unnecessary.

What causes us to break our promises? I’ll venture that we often do an unconscious calculation that we will reap more benefit in the short-term, and that it is not so likely that God will hold us accountable in the long run. If so, our math is all wrong. God has promised that he will hold us to account, and he will remember the promises we make. Numbers drives home the point that God values truthfulness and will discipline us if we break our word.

How about you? What causes you to keep or break your promises?

The daughters’ request: Numbers 27

9884245355_31b39899c6_n Today’s reading: Numbers 26-27.

The daughters of a dead man named Zelophehad have a request. In a male-dominated society where only the men can inherit property, they want an exception. Their father had no sons. The share of the Promised Land their father’s family would have received will go to another family – unless God intervenes. So they say, “why should our father’s name disappear from his clan because he had no son? Give us property among our father’s relatives.” And God agrees. Perhaps he agrees because he is a promise-keeping God who had guaranteed this family a share in the Promised Land. Perhaps it’s because he cares for women as well as men. Perhaps he has other reasons.

God’s ruling gets clarified a little later. In order for the women to inherit the land, they must marry men from their own tribe. This will keep their tribe’s allotment of land from being passed to another tribe and thereby diluted. But more is at stake here than land. Remember the daughters’ desire that their father’s name not disappear? In a way the men who marry these women become the adopted sons of the dead father, carrying on his name.

Now fast forward some 1300 years to the time of Jesus’ birth. Joseph, of the tribe of Judah, is Jesus’ legal though not physical father. Joseph’s genealogy (in Matthew 1) contains a kink, however. Descended from King David through Solomon, one of Joseph’s ancestors was Jeconiah (also called Jehoiachin), and God cursed Jeconiah because of his disobedience as king.

Is this man Jehoiachin a despised, broken pot, an object no one wants? Why will he and his children be hurled out, cast into a land they do not know? O land, land, land, hear the word of the LORD! This is what the LORD says: “Record this man as if childless, a man who will not prosper in his lifetime, for none of his offspring will prosper, none will sit on the throne of David or rule anymore in Judah.”  Jeremiah 22:28-30

Jeconiah’s curse looks like a barrier to Jesus inheriting his forefather David’s throne. But Luke’s gospel contains another geneology, one that many consider to be Mary’s geneology with Joseph as the adopted son of Mary’s father.

And Jesus himself was beginning about the age of thirty years: being (as it was supposed) the son of Joseph, who was of Heli, who was of Mathat, …  Luke 3:23

In this geneology, Jesus descends not through Jeconiah, but through David’s son Nathan. Remember those brotherless daughters of Zelophehad? Mary appears to have been in the same situation (picture Jesus telling Mary, as he died on the cross, that John would be taking care of her from now on). She also qualified for the female inheritance since she was marrying Joseph who was from her same tribe.

No doubt there is a little speculation here, but is looks like God’s provision for a family without sons paved the way for Jesus to avoid a curse and inherit David’s throne. One more reference for those who think this only applied to property. In the book of Ruth, the namesake character becomes a widow when her Jewish husband dies. Though a foreigner, she moves to Bethlehem with her mother-in-law and soon becomes engaged to Boaz, her family’s kinsman-redeemer. Listen to what Boaz says as he redeems Ruth:

Moreover Ruth the Moabitess, the wife of Mahlon, have I purchased to be my wife, to raise up the name of the dead upon his inheritance, that the name of the dead be not cut off  from among his brethren, and from the gate of his place: ye are witnesses this day. Ruth 4:10

Jesus would see the dead name of his mother’s family raised up, and thereby become heir to the throne of David. Jesus would see much more than a dead name raised up, as he himself rose from the dead on the third day after his crucifixion. And so we see another example of how even small, obscure details play an important part in God’s plan.

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