Gleanings from the Bible: Deuteronomy

I am not going to get into a discussion as to whether Deuteronomy is to be ascribed to Moses (with a postscript added about his death) or to those who returned from Exile over four hundred years before Christ, except to note that there are some noteworthy arguments for both positions.

What is of concern is, in that on the brink of the Promised Land with the second reminder of the law, we have the commands of God to execute judgement on the inhabitants of the land – which from our perspective looks a lot like genocide (Deut 9:1-3)!

Let me make some observations about this ‘invasion’.

  1. It is easy for us, those who live in relatively peaceful circumstances with a well- developed justice system and numerous options for dealing with criminals, to judge earlier societies (and even current ones existing in different circumstances from ours) through the lens of our own experience.
  2. I note that the inhabitants of Canaan worshipped gods in ways which are universally abhorrent, notably including the horrific sacrifice of children! (Deut 12:31)
  3. Despite the evils perpetrated through these religions it is also obvious that they had a seductive influence on the Israelites, demonstrated through the era of the Divided Kingdom (see 1 & 2 Kings). Israel, who was supposed to be a good example of God’s good laws to the surrounding nations, allowed the surrounding nations to entirely corrupt her.
  4. Today we recognise the concept of a “Just War,” one feature being a conflict waged in defence of others. We also recognise (though this has proven less easy to justify in practice) that a pre-emptive strike may save more lives in the long run. The commands in Deuteronomy, to kill the inhabitants of Canaan can only be justified if they are from the Creator God who knows all things and is God of all nations. They are not an excuse for power hungry conquerors. Rather they were specific commands, for a specific purpose, at a specific time!
  5. During the conquest of Canaan it is interesting to see that there was still mercy for individuals who put their trust in the God of Israel.
  6. I note then the way in which God’s commands to Israel are circumscribed (this includes all God’s commandments not just those concerning war):-
    1. Israel was not to fail to keep the commands, nor to add to them! (Deut 4:2)
    2. By keeping God’s commands Israel would demonstrate the greatness of God (Deut 4:6-8).
    3. Israel is warned that judgement also awaits her if she steps out from under God’s rule. (Deut 4:25ff)
    4. God’s desire is to see his people prosper. (Deut 5:29)
    5. God’s love for Israel was not because they were numerous but out of faithfulness to the promises given to their forbears. (Deut 7:7-9)
    6. The reason for the invasion:-Deut 9:4-5 NIV  After the LORD your God has driven them out before you, do not say to yourself, “The LORD has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness.” No, it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is going to drive them out before you. It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations, the LORD your God will drive them out before you, to accomplish what he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
    7. Deuteronomy 20 gives some specific instructions concerning war and should be understood in the light of the other observations made here.

A Few Other Notable Laws

  • The Cancelling of debts and the exhortation to give generously in order to reduce poverty (Deut 15).
  • The freeing of servants and provision for them (Deut 15)
  • The exhortation to follow justice (Deut 16:18-20)
  • The “eye for an eye” law limiting revenge and acting as a deterrent (Deut 19:16-21)

There are, of course, many more laws because “Deuteronomy” is literally the second (account of the) law. Some of the laws I have mentioned before. They presented a code which was head and shoulders above the laws of the city kingdoms Israel would replace and a limitation on the excesses of behaviour that existed generally. But they also presented a challenge, a choice between life and death. To choose life was to keep God’s law and teach it to one’s children, but death and destruction came through neglecting, not just the law but more importantly, God who had instituted it for their survival and prosperity. The history of Israel reveals the outworking of those choices, as does the history of the world!

Gleanings from the Bible: Leviticus

Leviticus isn’t a book that most people rush to read first. I have rarely heard it preached because I think many people believe it to be irrelevant. So I came to it again expecting to have a struggle concentrating. In fact, on the contrary I found it quite fascinating and enlightening.

For a start, its main theme is holiness, which isn’t a popular subject these days but is most certainly a great challenge – one to sort out the men from the boys and the women from the girls! Much of it has ritual and symbolic value which was to constantly remind Israel, in every part of their daily lives, of God’s holiness and their holiness as a nation. It was particularly concerned with worship, the way in which Israel could relate to God through the Levitical priesthood.

Here, holiness embraces various related concepts. God is holy because he is righteous, pure, just separate from and above the “gods” of the other nations, and so on. Israel is holy because she has been chosen by God as his own people for the special purpose of witnessing to the world about him and being a blessing to others (11:44-45). Holiness is reflected in what might be termed normal and by “normal” I mean, “as God intended things to be”. Thus everything associated with worship had to be as perfect as possible, whether the sacrifices or the priests who carried them out. In the text it gives rise to the expressions “clean” and “unclean”.   This “separating out” of a holy people, Israel, and the selection of whole and perfect things becomes an expression of God’s Kingdom, and it is ratified through the Covenant (with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and then at Sinai with the giving of the Ten Commandments).

So the Law is instituted to keep this special relationship in focus by ritual and by behaviour – by ceremonial and by moral law.

Despite its unpopularity  I have come across references to Leviticus more recently in the debates by atheists and with relation to homosexuality. The first lampoon the book because of its draconian punishments and incomprehensible instructions (in the sense that they find it hard to discover the reasoning behind many of them). With regard to the expressions of homosexuality, Levitical proof texts have been used by those both for and against its normalisation.

Draconian laws?

I have mentioned this topic already. Israel is at a fragile time in her formation and there is a great deal at stake. She is surrounded by nations whose religious practices were absolutely abhorrent. They were hard times and the discipline reflected that.

I am reminded of an occasion in Matthew’s Gospel (chapter 19) where Jesus says to the Pharisees, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not the way from the beginning.” Jesus gets to the purpose of the law and promotes the next step.

Incomprehensible laws?

It takes some reading to understand the relevance of some of the laws, even as they applied back then. This is where it’s important to distinguish between those that had ceremonial or ritual significance and those that affected God and human relationships. The fact that they are often written up side by side shouldn’t make the distinction too difficult. For example chapter 19 gives a list of various laws. Respecting father and mother relates to stable families. Do not steal, lie and deceive establishes a stable society, as do respecting the disabled and elderly, loving one’s neighbour and practising justice and honesty. “Do not wear clothing of two kinds of material” obviously has to do with a symbolic expression of purity, to remind the wearer that he or she is set aside for one God – Yahweh! Australia has State of Origin rugby matches between Queensland (maroon) and New South Wales (blue). The supporters show who they belong to by wearing the colours of one or the other – but not both!

Laws against homosexuality?

There is no doubt that chapter 18:22 states, “do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman.” One argument goes that this is not relevant because other laws such as the clothes woven of two types of material are no longer directly binding, and they all come as a package – take it or leave it. But it should be noted that the law about homosexuality is part of a chapter that also deals with incest, bestiality and child sacrifice and, as I have already mentioned, I believe that we can discriminate between a ritual and a moral law.

On the other hand it is not quite the knockdown argument against all homosexuality that some Christians claim it to be. In the first instance it addresses homosexual practice, not the condition of being homosexual. But also many argue that what is on view here is homosexual excess, temple prostitution and the like, especially with reference to 18:24 where the debased practices of the nations are on view.

There are other arguments associated with these verses and indeed other verses in the Bible which deal with this extensive subject and there is not space to deal with them properly here.

What’s Good about Leviticus?      

Where do you start? Chapter 19 (already mentioned) is full of good and relevant commandments. But here’s another: “Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner”

“Eye for an eye, tooth for tooth” (24:17-22 – it included the foreigner) sounds as if it’s advocating revenge but actually, for that time, limited it, in a world where vengeance usually escalated out of control. However Jesus would later refine it further.

Allowing the land to rest (25) was to ensure that soil could regenerate and/or as reminder of the Sabbath principle, while the Year of Jubilee meant that families would not be permanently dispossessed.

In summary

It has been said that the direct relevance of Old Testament laws for Christians is determined by whether they are reaffirmed in the New Testament.  However the principles behind the ritual laws do still apply. Christians are still called to be a holy people in the sense that we are to live for God’s Kingdom and reflect the moral character of God in what we say and do. These are not a once-on-Sunday phenomenon but everyday expressions in the way we live and relate to God and to others.