We’ve seen a few judges already. Ehud killed Eglon in a sneaky way, freeing Israel from the Moabites. Some of the details of his escapade are not filled in. Ehud approached Eglon in his rooftop quarters. After sinking his dagger all the way into the hefty king, Ehud needed an escape route; the most likely route was through the septic drain of the upstairs privy.
Jael rescued Israel from Jabin and the Canaanites. Capitalizing on her families friendly relationship with Sisera, captain of the Canaanite armies, Jael offers some cover and rest. While Sisera sleeps Jael drives a tent stake through his head. With their commander gone, Canaan is easily defeated by Israel and, Deborah serves as a competent judge for 40 years of peace.
Next, God brings Gideon to free Israel from Midian. His campaign interests many. It is another unusual victory for Israel. If Ehud was a spy similar to Bond, Gideon emerges as an agent of psychological operations. He successfully raises a force of over 30,000 to battle Midian, but this is too strong a force for God. He wants Israel to know it is he, not Gideon or their own military prowess, which rescues his people. So God whittles the army to a mere 300. In the late night, or maybe early morning hours, the small army surrounded the camp of their enemy and launched a surprise attack. Their numbers hidden by the darkness and the surprise, the many trumpets causing confusion, and the torches enhancing it all, the Midianites don’t know what to do. In their confusion and fear, they even begin killing one another. Military tacticians should be studying this battle, and praying God would work on their behalf as he did for Gideon.
Now Israel even intermarries with their pagan neighbors. There is no longer any distinction between God’s people and the rest of the world. Of course this means they are easily lead into worshipping false gods. Of course this means there is going to be trouble. Few things splinter families like religion and politics. And Israel is now intricately torn on both accounts. God is angry with Israel because they have not stayed true to him and instead worship other gods. He is angry because they have not followed his directions. His hand is no longer with them but he allows the other tribes to conquer and oppress Israel.
But Yahweh does not completely abandon his people. When their oppression becomes too much and they remember God and call out to him, he brings a judge to rescue Israel and led them back toward worshipping him. The accounts of these judges are entertaining because they are stories of war, good vs. evil, and adventure. They are also entertaining because they are the tales of imperfect people, sometimes doing stupid things even as they emerge as God’s leaders.
What a picture of and lesson for the church today! How often do we, who are supposed to be a holy people, set apart and different from the world, look and act just like our neighbors? How many times do we cry out for God when things are difficult, only to push him to the back of our thoughts afterward?
These two chapters set the stage for all that follows. They tell us the situation with Israel – their plight to finish conquering and settling Canaan and what the new nation looks like in its early years. And, this picture is not a good one. From the beginning we see that the young nation, the people of Yahweh, are already forgetting their covenant promises. Their allegiance to God seems to last only as long as is needed to defeat the next army. They stopped short of driving out all the sinful people of the land, as God had commanded. They settled for allowing many to remain. Though Israel had been warned not to make alliances, they entered into treaties with their new neighbors. Even more, Israel was strictly told not make slaves of the people of Canaan. Slavery, like what they experienced in Egypt, was forbidden. But they do just this anyway.
The “holy” people are not longer holy. The word holy means set apart, separate, different and reserved for a special purpose. This was supposed to be Israel – set apart from all other nations, the people of the true God who stand as an example to everyone else. Instead, they quickly become just like all the peoples around them. The greatest sign of this, and perhaps the greatest sin of Israel, is that their zeal for God and their covenant relationship with him is not passed on to their descendants. Not only are they not upholding their promises, they haven’t raised their children to know or follow God. When Moses came to his last days, he led Israel in a renewal of their covenant with God. At the end of Joshua, this second leader does the same. But Judges tells us that after Joshua and the elders of his generation passed away, their children knew neither God nor what he had done. The older generation did not raise their children to worship God. They didn’t know why it mattered that they be holy. They weren’t raised to continue proper worship. They didn’t understand the history of their people or all God had done.
Moses’ address is meant to remind Israel of where they came from and how God has brought them into the promised land to make them a nation. His intent is to show Israel just who God is, how great he is and worthy of their worship and devotion. Moses wants Israel to know that they serve a faithful God, who keeps his promises and who directs world events towards his purposes. All of the Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible) serve to show that this is God’s world, which he created and which he still cares for and directs. And so, when Israel takes the land from the Canaanites (Amorites), it is not they who accomplish this but it is God himself. When great things happen in our lives, especially those that seem (or really are) impossible, we should recognize God’s hand at work for us. These are opportunities to remember him, to grow in devotion and faith to him, and to bring him glory. This is not time to inflate our own ego and wander from our loving and merciful Lord.
An often repeated criticism of the Bible is the God’s command to Israel that they completely destroy Canaan, and especially the people of Canaan. I can understand how this seems ruthless, and not the dictate of a truly loving God. But too often we take a myopic view of love. We think love only encompasses complete tolerance and a laissez faire approach in regards to the lives and actions of others, especially those we love. But the truth is that real love takes the hard road of calling out wrongs; it confronts sin and takes steps to help keep others from further harming themselves. God’s dealings with the Amorites in Canaan may seem the antithesis of love. But really he uses Israel as his tool to intervene and prevent them from further hurting themselves and other – a real act of both love and justice. He forewarned in his covenant to Abraham that the sin of the Amorites would, in about 400 years, reach its height and he would have to intervene, using Abraham’s descendants to drive them out (Genesis 15:16). We know today that the practices of the people of this land included rampant and widespread child sacrifice, prostitution, and divination. To feed their religious cults, these people also enslaved their neighbors and preyed upon others for human trafficking and as sex slaves. They were murderous and evil. For their own good, and that of others, God intervened to stop the sin of the Amorites from growing any deeper.
The two biggest events in the cultural consciousness of Israel are escaping Egypt and the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai. These two are, of course, closely linked. There is no Mt. Sinai without escape from Egypt. There is no real purpose to leaving Egypt without the establishment of the nation and her identifying cultural religion which began at Sinai. When God told Pharaoh he wanted his people to go out into the desert and be able to worship him, this is what he had in mind. At Sinai he taught them how to worship; he showed them how to truly become his people, a holy nation. Here there is some clarification that holy is not used in the sense of clean, faultless, or perfect. Holy means set apart, chosen for a special purpose. Israel is holy amongst all the nations; Christians are a holy people from all the world. Neither are chosen and set apart because there is anything special found in them, but for God’s reasons alone. And that event was forever seared into their memories – a smoking, fiery, thunder enveloped mountain from which God’s voice was heard booming across the plain. Much like at his first appearance to Moses, Yahweh appeared before Israel as a voice in a fire which burned but did not consume. The cornerstone of the law given then is the Ten Commandments. The first four of these specifically lay down the foundation for honoring God. The summary of these in Deuteronomy may sound familiar because they are what Jesus quoted, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and strength.”
From chapter 1 through 3, Moses says at least three times “because of you the Lord became angry with me”. I understand his thought process. The reference is to the instance at Meribah when Moses and Aaron struck the rock to bring forth water. Aaron died just after this and Moses was told he too would die before entering Canaan because their sin. It was the griping of the Israelites which upset Moses and caused him to strike the rock in anger instead of speaking to it. So, he feels it was their fault that God became angry with him. But I see still in Moses’ heart an arrogance, bitterness and unwillingness to forgive. He refuses to accept the blame for his part in the matter. Even now he refuses to see, or to admit, that his attitude was wrong. And he takes no blame for the words he spoke that day, taking credit for he and Aaron from providing water rather than giving the glory to God. There is a lesson for each of us in this. Moses is a good character lesson for accountability, humility, and forgiveness. There are consequences for our sins. But Moses never seemed repentant, not even in his last days, and so when he pleaded to enter Canaan, God was not tolerant – “that is enough!”
Deuteronomy means “repeating the law”, coming from 17:18 and the overall purpose of the writing which is to remind Israel of the covenant made with Yahweh (defined by and resting in the “law”) and to lead them in a covenant renewal. In the Hebrew Torah this book (like many others in our Bible) is known by a different name – ‘elleh haddebarim, “these are the words”. The names of the books in the Torah are usually taken from the first words in the writing. From the very beginning we see that Deuteronomy is the words of Moses to Israel at the end of his life and just before they prepare to cross the Jordan into the promised land. Most of his address is a review and reminder of their last 40 years, how they got where they are now, and what they are meant to be as the people of God chosen and bound in covenant with the one who revealed himself to Moses as Yahweh. This review must remind Israel of God’s faithfulness throughout these last 40 years, as well as their sin and rebellion against him.
The story of Balaam is entertaining and fascinating. But it’s the fiery serpents and the bronze snake that gets me. Israel complained about their situation and spoke against God and Moses (big surprise). This is one of the rare occasions when their complaint and anger is directed against God himself. Though their words against Moses are still but veiled rebellion against God. This time God takes action against his people. He sends “fiery” snakes with deadly venom. Possibly, these were saw-scale vipers (also called carpet vipers), found in the Middle East even today. This snake is reddish in color, known to leap 2-3 feet off the ground to attack, packs a powerful bite, and injects a deadly venom which causes internal bleeding and organ failure! As the snakes attack and kill, the people realize their error and acknowledge their sin against God. Moses is instructed to craft a snake, the likeness of their punishment, out of bronze (or maybe copper) and raise it on a staff for the infected to see. When they turn to gaze upon the metal snake they are healed from the sting of the real vipers.
We could talk for hours about the presence and history of snakes in folk-lore and pagan religions. Bronze snakes from ages gone are found across the Middle East and Africa. Egypt and some Canaanite religions included snakes and snake gods. In 1 Kings we learn that some Israelites continued to fashion and worship bronze snakes – a side cult carried on from this day. Flying snakes permeate ancient art, folk-lore and religions. Even more, the word used in the Hebrew, seraphim, is also used in other places associated with angelic beings. This would all be interesting to study further.
What I find truly fascinating is Jesus’ allusion to this account. He said just as the snake was lifted up in the desert, in the same way he must be lifted up (John 3:14). What a fascinating comparison! As Israel was struck by snakes, they looked up to a snake for salvation. Their healing came in one that was raised on a staff. Just as mankind is stricken by the consequence of sin, our salvation comes in looking upon sin on the cross. Our salvation is found in believing in the image, the ugliness, the darkness of sin and death.
They were tired. They were hot and dirty. They hated the desert. They had enough of walking around. They wanted a home and rest. There was no obvious, ready water supply. They did the one thing they have done most often and most heartily. They complained, and they opposed Moses and Aaron. These must be bad leaders. Maybe they aren’t really listening to God or following his directions. Why is following God so difficult? Why does he lead us to wastelands? Why do we have to give up comforts for him? Why does he speak through flawed humans? The questions and complaints could be endless.
But why did Aaron have to die? What did he do wrong? He and Moses both made two grave mistakes. Before too much longer, Moses will also suffer for this. The first was in action. God told them to speak to the rock. As God spoke the universe into existence, he would bring water through their speech. By speaking, no one could say there was a more natural explanation for this miracle. By speaking, the glory goes without question to God. But they also rebelled against God in their speaking. Moses and Aaron took the credit and the glory for themselves, “must we bring you water?” Moses spoke, but Aaron (as usual) is right there with him, in agreement and refusing to correct. Aaron pays now for their sin; Moses too will pay later.
We can be so thick-headed and weak! After all that God does, all the ways he shows his presence and his sovereign power, we still trust more what we think we see and know instead of the God of heaven and earth. Israel only provides a glimpse of us all. After everything they have been through, all the times God has saved them, provided for them, punished the rebellious, they still have no faith in him. The promised land was beautiful and offered much, but the people were large and the cities well built. They included Nephilim, descendants of Anak. Cities are built up and fortified, even the ones their ancestors knew as small. They trust what the spies saw and report, and turn against God – again! Moses, Aaron, Caleb and Joshua cannot persuade them to change their minds. Still the people decide to return to Egypt, and they talk about killing the four in their way.
We can understand God’s anger and disappointment. We see why he would want to start with a different group. We can sympathize with his confusion at their lack of faith in him. But how often do we also falter in our faith? How easily do we lose heart in the face of what we see and hear around us? But for Moses’ intervention, I wonder how the rest of the Bible would read? Moses pleaded for Israel and turned God’s wrath. He has come a long way as a leader and a mediator. But sin and rebellion against God must be dealt with. In this case, their punishment is 40 years of wandering in the desert. They have broken the covenant made with Yhwh and will taste the prescribed consequences. They will suffer just as they continually feared they would, for not trusting God. The ones brought out of Egypt will not see the land, rest, and peace promised; that blessing will be given to their children.
I don’t know that Moses wrote Psalm 90 at this point, but it definitely fits the occasion. Moses understands like few others how mighty God is.