We’re adding a few chapters onto this week’s list to make up for a few that seem to have been dropped elsewhere, to keep up with the schedule in our bulletins.
Some significant developments occur in this section of the last book of the law, Deuteronomy:
- We get a glimpse of “the place the LORD your God will choose from among all your tribes to put his Name there for his dwelling.” That will be the temple in Jerusalem, from the time of King David and after. “To that place you must go; there bring your burnt offerings and sacrifices, your tithes and special gifts, what you have vowed to give and your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herds and flocks. There, in the presence of the LORD your God, you and your families shall eat and shall rejoice in everything you have put your hand to, because the LORD your God has blessed you (Dt. 11:5-7).” One reason for that is because a centralized worship will better avoid the danger of any of the many and various worship locations, on hilltops and under trees, becoming shrines to idols and places of human sacrifices, as had happened under Canaanite rule. Therefore….
…The Tabernacle is not forever, because Israel’s desert wanderings are not to be forever.
- “You are the children of the LORD your God…. you are a people holy to the LORD your God. Out of all the peoples on the face of the earth, the LORD has chosen you to be his treasured possession (Dt. 14:1-3).” This is a major rationale for the law and its many details, so that Israel might stand out among the nations as a testimony to her God. Its easy to see how that would be true in the Ten Commandments and in the sabbath and jubilee laws. Its a little harder for us, 35 centuries later, to see how that applies to the details of sacrifices or to civil codes around hair, dress, food and inheritance. But such details provide the context in which God asserts their identity and mission, as set apart for himself.
This rationale, if not the details, carries over into the New Testament, not just for Israel and the Jews, but for all in Christ (I Peter 2: 9-10). Our lives and relationships shall mirror to the world the nature of God.
- “There shall be no one poor among you (Dt. 15:4) ” and yet (seven verses later) “There will always be poor people in the land.” Another rationale for the law and its details was to address and overcome poverty, disparity and the exploitation of the poor and powerless, which the God of Israel finds as offensive as sexual immorality and idol worship. “Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.” Indeed, the Bible defines greed as idolatry (Col. 3:5), and Paul, in the NT, often uses social social justice-type language in regard to sexual morality, and addresses the two subjects back-to-back, seamlessly and interchangeably (I Cor. 6). In this way as well, God’s people would show themselves as God’s treasured possession and serve as beacons to the world.
What a difference this was between the laws of Israel and of Israel’s neighbors, especially oppressive Egypt and her client states in Canaan. Indeed, the worship and law of ancient, imperial and idolatrous states often reflected and reinforced the privileges of the ruling elite, to the point of divinizing and worshiping them. Canaanite law, in contrast to Israelite law, was much more lax, morally speaking, and rarely addressed social stratification, injustice and inequity the way Israelite law did.
Which leads to the rules for a king in Dt. 17. Compared to kingship in their neighboring states, Israelite kingship is severely constricted in scope and meaning. In effect, the human king stands before Israel’s divine king on the same level as every other human subject. For God alone is really Israel’s king. The human king is to be reminded of that every day by reading the law. He is even denied the customary attributes of priestly and religious power and titles, great wealth, large standing armies, pre-emptive attacks and land grabs beyond his borders, treaties with other countries, many horses (and therefore, chariots), and a harem. Thus another purpose of the Law of Moses: to make the members, families, clans, villages and tribes of Israel as self-governing as possible, or rather, as directly-governed by God and his law, with any authority above them as narrowly constricted in power and scope as possible. It was also to make these primary units as dependent upon God, as possible, rather than upon imperial, centralized power. The more that Israel failed in this matter, the more she needed—and suffered from—morally and spiritually renegade centralized power.
- That “You must purge the evil from among you,” is another, recurrent reason given in these chapters for some of the harsh and frightening prescriptions of the Law, especially the stoning of adulterers, idolaters and even irreparably disobedient and disrespectful children. The Law being our tutor for a specific time (before Christ, according to Paul in Galatians), it taught us precisely that we are incapable of purging our own evil from within and among ourselves. If that were within our power, none of us would be alive, including me. Nor would we need a Savior. Christians look now to Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, to purge us of evil within and among us.
Rules for going to war, in Dt. 20, remind Israel that it is God doing the fighting, not themselves. It is the other side, the enemy, that is understood to have standing, offensive armies, cavalry and chariots, not Israel. Israel is effectively just to show up and “mop up” once God has dispersed their enemies. Israel is further disadvantaged, in ordering the newly married, new homeowners and even the cowardly to go home, showing that warfare is a concession to Israel, and not its reason for being (unlike the hegemonic empires and their vassal states surrounding them). Faith, family, farm and jurisprudence are Israel’s mission. Its always possible for nations to sue for peace and join Israel and her God, with the exception of the Canaanites already in the land, for they are already resisting, and Israel’s God is effectively at war against their gods.
Another simple explanation for animal sacrifice in the Old Testament: animals were, in their agrarian day and place, the principal forms of wealth, with agriculture the basis of the economy. What coins and currency they had were derivative reflection of the fruitfulness of the land. Ghandi said that one of the seven deadly sins of the modern world was “religion without sacrifice.” For anyone to make a meaningful, hence sacrificial, expression of their faith, it had to be as costly as a first-born cow or a lamb with blemish.
This is a key Psalm for the New Testament. In verse 10 and the words, “you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay,” Peter and the early church saw prophecies or promises of Jesus’ resurrection (Acts 2). Could it have been a psalm for Levites, who had no inheritance as far as land was concerned, but for whom it could be said, “LORD, you have assigned me my portion and my cup; you have made my lot secure; The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance?” It also speaks to and for those in places where people still pour out libations and make sacrifices to gods and spirits, such as my friends in West Africa. The psalmist asserts, I will not pour out their libations of blood or take up their names on my lips,” because “You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.”
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