Friday, October 29, 2010

Who Is God?

If you have been following along, you have noticed how so far Deuteronomy has been a cross between largely a history lesson for and a plea to the Israelites. That plea is coming from Moses, and has regarded following God's Law to attain righteousness and killing all of the Promised Land's present occupants. In this study, we are getting back to God and history again, and find out more about God's true nature.

Who Is God?
People of faith say that you can learn about God through His Word, the Bible. With each Bible study, the picture of God becomes clearer, and so far it is turning out to be rather a scary image. Deuteronomy 8 paints another portrait, displaying even more who God is.

Moses begins by telling the Israelites again to obey all of God's laws (Deuteronomy 8:1). Then the discussion turns into another history lesson, but this lesson has a spin to it. Take Deuteronomy 8:2, for instance:
“Remember how the LORD your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep His commands.” NIV
As the story goes, God did indeed lead the Israelites in the desert for 40 years, but it was not to test them. As we learned in a previous study, their 40 year sojourn was to punish them (Numbers 14:32-34) despite having already been forgiven by God (Numbers 14:20).

Perhaps more interesting is the part about testing the Israelites to see if they would obey God's commands. The implication is that they did pass this test, and so God will let them enter the Promised Land. However, during that time they ignored God's law about circumcision (Joshua 5:2-8). Plus, it was evident that they did not continue obey God's commands as they were entering the Promised Land, such as when Achan angered God by taking some plunder for himself after the conquest of Jericho (Joshua 7:1). So this “test” was effectively meaningless.

Moses continues on in Deuteronomy 8:3-4 with slightly less spin:
He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. Your clothes did not wear out and your feet did not swell during these forty years.” NIV
This episode with the manna occurred in Exodus 16, which was a month and a half after they had left Egypt (Exodus 16:1). The Israelites complained of having nothing to eat (Exodus 16:3), despite having left Egypt with large flocks of livestock (Exodus 12:38). At that time, God had said that the miracle of the manna would let the Israelites know that God was God (Exodus 16:11-12).

Together, the Exodus story and this latest spin send a message that God is saying “you are only alive because I am letting you live.” While technically true (or at least true to the Biblical text), it does not really confer a sense love. Believers could argue that it displays love in the form of mercy, but that does not stand up to honest scrutiny. When have you told someone you love that they are only alive because you are allowing them to live?

Keep in mind that prior to the manna episode, the Israelites had been “humbled” already when they were led into the desert for three days without water, and had to complain to God in order to get some. So this was a redundant lesson.

Also, keep in mind that we already know that this humbling experience did not stop the Israelites from turning away from God's laws, making it appear to be an inadequate effort on God's part, which calls into question His omniscience of both the future and human nature in general. Perhaps if God had tried an approach of love as opposed to system authoritative fear, it would have gone better. Why? Think about the next verse, Deuteronomy 8:5:
“Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so the LORD your God disciplines you.” NIV
If children are not disciplined when they break the rules, then they will have a tendency to disregard the rules. Plus, as noted in the study about the teaching of the Law, Proverbs 13:24 and Ecclesiastes 8:11-12 point out that laws without timely enforcement are useless.

Now under the system of authoritative fear, if God slacks off on His parental discipline, from person to person or from generation to generation, we would naturally expect the Israelites to stray from God's Law, just like we see how parenting with little or no rule enforcement leads to unruly kids. Well, obviously God did slack off, and thus the Israelites did stray.

What follows in Deuteronomy 8:6-18 is largely a plea by Moses for the Israelites not to forget God when they get to the Promised Land. When they become lavishly wealthy in this new land, they might begin to think that it was through their own effort. So Moses tells them to remember that God is the one who gives them the ability to become wealthy, in keeping with His covenant (Deuteronomy 8:18). That verse could have a few different meanings, including the idea that prosperity preachers use that if you are wealthy, it is because God is blessing you for doing the right things. Yet this could also simply be interpreted that God had given them this rich Promised Land; a land where anyone could prosper.

Ending the chapter, we neatly summarize God's position. Deuteronomy 8:19-20 states:
If you ever forget the LORD your God and follow other gods and worship and bow down to them, I testify against you today that you will surely be destroyed. Like the nations the LORD destroyed before you, so you will be destroyed for not obeying the LORD your God.” NIV
Cause. Effect. Turn away from God, and your nation will be destroyed and taken by invading armies.

Yet we find that God is slack in His discipline. The prime example is King Manasseh of Judah, as recorded in 2 Kings 21. He was the most evil king which the Israelites had ever had, doing even greater evils than the pagan nations before them. Yet he reigned for 55 years without God's discipline, with the exception of God's confirmation that their nation would be destroyed for these evils. And it would. About 55 years after King Manasseh's reign.

As before, God is not showing the face of love, at least not love as we know it. When have you ever threatened to kill the one you love if they stopped obeying you?

So who is God? What do we learn about Him in perspective of these verses and the events which would follow? God is your Heavenly Father; but that father is one who motivates through life-threatening fear instead of love, who lays down the Law and threatens punishment for breaking it but then essentially walks away from enforcement for generations, only to come back later inflamed in wrath because His children have become disobedient. God is far from being an exemplary father, although you could use Him as an example of what not to do...

Friday, October 22, 2010

Kill Them All

At this point in Deuteronomy, Moses is continuing his affirmation of the faithful foundation of the Israelites by reminding them of what God has done for them in the past (bringing them out of Egyptian slavery) and what God will do in the near future (bringing them into the Promised Land). So the Israelites are to show their appreciation to God and to become righteous in His eyes through obeying His laws in the Promised Land, but that is not all that they need to do in the Promised Land...

Kill Them All
Hosea 6:6, which Jesus quotes in Matthew 9:13 and Mathew 12:7, states that God really wants mercy, not sacrifice. Of course, that seems more than a little contradictory considering the many different sacrifices God demanded through His Law. Also consider that God required the sacrifice of Jesus in order to be fully merciful. So even in the epitome of God's mercy, Jesus, there was a required sacrifice. It is really a mixed message, like going to war to promote peace.

Our study in Deuteronomy 7 is a study of sacrifice through war and mercy withheld, as per the will of God. Starting off with Deuteronomy 7:1:
When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you-” NIV
We see here that God is going to drive out these nations, but as you continue to read the Bible, you find out that the Israelites themselves had to do at least some part of the actual driving out, such as in the conquest of Ai (Joshua 8). Maybe that means that God will help the Israelites drive out these nations. Yet it seems that even God's help is not an assurance of victory (Judges 1:19).

Perhaps more interesting is that God will drive out seven nations “larger and stronger” than the Israelites. In Numbers 26:51, we find that there were 601,730 Israelite men (20 years old or older). Conservatively add one woman per man plus a couple of children and you have an Israelite population of over 2.4 million people total. Yet there were seven larger nations to be driven out! Let us put this in perspective.

Most historians would say this is supposed to be around 1400 BC +/- 200 years. There were roughly 45 million people on earth in 1400 BC. So according to this verse, at least 16.8 million, or about 37% of the world's entire population lived in and around the land we now call Israel. To add perspective, consider that an estimated 7.6 million people live in Israel today, which is roughly the size of New Jersey, in our times where farming and sanitation techniques are advanced enough to support that population density.

Back to the heart of the matter, we find the fate of these supposed 16.8 million men, women, and children in the next verse. Deuteronomy 7:2 continues:
“and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. ” NIV
The Hebrew word châram is used to denote this total destruction, which is a word typically used for irrevocable sacrifices made to God in which the object of sacrifice is completely destroyed, such as by fire. Deuteronomy 7:16 reiterates:
You must destroy all the peoples the LORD your God gives over to you. Do not look on them with pity and do not serve their gods, for that will be a snare to you.” NIV
In case these references are not completely clear, we will flip ahead to Deuteronomy 20:16-17 which speaks of this subject again:
“However, in the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the LORD your God has commanded you.” NIV
Show no mercy. Show no pity. Do not leave alive anything that breaths, from the sheep in the pasture to the baby in the slave's arms. Genocide. Kill them all.

Why? Why should they kill them all? In a future study of Deuteronomy 9, we will come to discover that the Israelites will be enacting God's wrath on these nations.

This sets an incredibly disturbing precedent. Someone who thinks that they hear from God suddenly feels justified and compelled to eliminate an entire race or nation of people. This is the great evil of a theocracy.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Show and Tell

Deuteronomy so far has largely been a review of previous events, during which we discovered the age of culpability and what God considered to be the condition of not lacking anything. As Moses was about to begin to reviewing the laws from God, he spoke of how important it was to obey them without adding or subtracting from them.

In Deuteronomy 5, Moses tells the story of receiving the popular version of the Ten Commandments, though (accurately) not calling them the Ten Commandments. This preamble to the review of the Law is only about halfway complete, so it is time to stress the importance of knowing God's laws...

Show and Tell
God had a Plan. Given the fallibility of man, it was perhaps one of the best plans possible, at least in theory. The Israelites would have to obey God in the Promised Land in order to be blessed by Him without making a mockery of God. To obey God, they needed to know His Law, and know it well.

In Deuteronomy 6, Moses tries emphatically to impress upon the Israelites the importance of knowing God's commands, decrees, and laws. He tells them that they will live long lives and will prosper in the Promised Land if they obey (Deuteronomy 6:1-3). He pleads that they should love only God, and love Him with all their heart, soul, and strength (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). In Deuteronomy 6:6, God says through Moses:
“These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts.” NIVLink
You may remember in a previous study where God said not to follow your heart, so this should not be taken to mean “put God's commandments in your heart along with what you believe to be good versus bad.” Instead, you could think of it in one of two ways: that God's laws effectively become your heart, giving you the guidance as to what is good versus bad, or that you should set your heart, your inner and deepest desire, to obeying God's laws (Psalm 40:8).

This is particularly interesting, because there are prophesies, such as Jeremiah 31:33, where God said that He would write His Law in the Israelites' hearts. Christianity likes to distort these prophesies, suggesting instead that these prophesies mean that believers will know to do good once they love Jesus in their hearts, or such similar semantics. However, consulting how this phrase was first used in the original text here in Deuteronomy 6:6, as well as reading the prophesies in the full context (such as including Ezekiel 37:24 which effectively claims that God's laws will persist), it becomes clear that the prophesies are for a literal return to God's Law.

Moving on, God through Moses then said this of God's laws in Deuteronomy 6:7-9:
“Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the door frames of your houses and on your gates.” NIV
The idea was complete immersion in the Law. Talk about the Law constantly. Put the Law where you will see it. Wear the Law on you.

Also, you had the responsibility to teach your children how to treat slave women, how God spreads disease and mildew as punishment, why you should avoid wearing blended fabrics, how blasphemers should be killed, and all of the other perfect commandments of God (Psalm 19:7). This responsibility was to be carried out every day.

Such a system was the best way to ensure that everyone knows the Law of God. However, laws without timely enforcement, particularly on the part of God, are bound to be cast aside and ignored. This fact is even recorded in the Bible in verses such as Proverbs 13:24 and Ecclesiastes 8:11-12, and clearly from Ecclesiastes 8:11-12 God was slack in His discipline. By God's delay of justice, He chose to let the system of the Law fail, to let sin thrive through His inaction.

In the remainder of this chapter, Deuteronomy 6:10-25, Moses continues to plea with the Israelites to remember, respect, and fear God, and to obey His laws. They should be careful not to rebel, specifically like when they “rebelled” for being thirsty and wanting water at Massah (Deuteronomy 6:16), or else God would kick them out of the Promised Land.

At the end of this chapter, we find a particularly revealing verse. Deuteronomy 6:25 states:
“And if we are careful to obey all this Law before the LORD our God, as He has commanded us, that will be our righteousness.” NIV
Yes, spitting in the face of Christianity, Moses claims that you could indeed be righteous by following God's Law. From what the Bible teaches, earning this righteousness did not necessarily mean following the Law perfectly. While it seems that possibly there were perfect followers (Psalm 119:1, Psalm 119:34, Psalm 119:51), a shining example of being imperfect yet righteous was King David, who God considered to be as someone who had followed all of His laws well enough (2 Chronicles 7:17-18). This is despite the fact that David had committed adultery Bathsheba and then had her husband killed (2 Samuel 11-12). If David could find such favor with God through a desire to follow His Law yet despite his heinous sins, then clearly the Old Testament taught that you could be imperfect and yet righteous in God's eyes.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Faith of Poverty

Progressing through the Sermon on the Mount in the Book of Matthew, we have learned many things. We have learned that Jesus wants people to obey God's laws, and that Jesus wants to extrapolate the laws because He (as God) did not fully communicate what they meant the first time. We learned that Jesus does not want you to vow even though God did. We learned that Jesus wants you to willingly submit to and forgive injustice as opposed to seeking justice. And we have learned that Jesus wants you to be private in your religious and charitable acts, and wants you not to ask for specific things when you pray.

Now Jesus will speak of how to live your life, in the brief remaining time that is left...

The Faith of Poverty
If your doctor were to tell you that you had only one week left to live, your priorities, what you choose to do in that week, would probably not be the same as when you thought that death was far off. And if you knew that all of eternity was waiting on the other side of that death? Well, that would carry its own set of priorities.

Lucky us, Jesus realigned our priorities in the Sermon on the Mount. Let us consult what He says.

Picking up just after the previous study, in Matthew 6:19-21 Jesus said that you should store up eternal treasures in Heaven instead of temporal treasures on earth, and thereby align your heart with God. This seems to propose a binary selection: choose Heaven or choose earth. Is that an accurate interpretation, or a little too far reaching? We will find the answer as we keep reading.

In Matthew 6:22-23, Jesus said that if the eyes are good, you will be full of light, but if the eyes are bad, you will be in great darkness. What is meant by the eyes? It is the same metaphor we use today: focus. In other words, where you direct your attention and your life will yield either light (righteousness) or darkness (sin). This message is part of the surrounding context.

In Matthew 6:24, Jesus continued the thought, saying that no man can serve both God and money. Because you cannot really “serve” money, perhaps a better rendering is that no man can pursue (or from above, focus on) both God and money. Luke 16:13-15 captured Jesus saying the same phrase in the presence of the Pharisees, who supposedly “loved money.”

Collectively, Matthew 6:19-24 are unanimously speaking against the pursuit of any earthly wealth. While Matthew seems to suggest that it is an either/or choice between God and wealth, Luke's parallel passage muddies the question, making you wonder rather if it is a less-encompassing choice between the loving money and loving God that is really at the heart of Jesus' message.

Fortunately, Jesus provided additional context to clarify the message; context which is largely ignored by Christianity.

Continuing on in Matthew 6:25-34, and considering the parallel passage of Luke 12:22-31, Jesus' message becomes remarkably clear. The birds (ravens) do not sow, reap, or store food, and yet God feeds them. God clothes the grassy fields with beautiful lilies, even though the grass will not last. By contrast, you (believers) are more valuable to God than birds and you have an eternal soul, and so you will be even better fed and adorned by God.

This providence is not through your own labor, but rather by God's grace. That is why twice in each account (Matthew 6:25, Matthew 6:31, Luke 12:22-23, Luke 12:29) it says that you should not concern yourself with what you eat or what you wear.

The key to understanding this passage is that God “will” feed and clothe you, as in the future tense. This is not to be construed as happening in this temporal life, but rather in the next eternal one. Why? Matthew 6:33 (and similarly in Luke 12:31) states this:
“But seek first His Kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” NIV
In other words, when you inherit God's Kingdom, then you will also be well fed and richly adorned at that time. So focus all of your attention and effort on entering God's eternal Kingdom, not on making a living in this world.

Some have twisted the meaning of Matthew 6:33 to be a justification for becoming wealthy while in the service of God. That is so far from the meaning as to spit in God's face. We can be further assured of the true meaning by continuing on in Luke's account, which circles back to the treasures in Heaven theme. Luke 12:32-34 reads:
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the Kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in Heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” NIV
You cannot possibly build up financial wealth on earth when you sell all of your possessions to give to the poor. Following that logic, you cannot possibly build up financial wealth on earth in true service to God.

A true Christian, a Christ-follower, will live at or near the poverty level, not sowing, reaping, or storing wealth on earth, but rather just living day by day. For those who believed that God's eternal judgement was right around the corner, such a prospect was hard to swallow but tolerable given such an imminent reward.

Now, about twenty centuries later, Christianity has come to realize that the end is not near, and that neglecting the accumulation of at least some financial wealth can be disastrous for you and your family. So this teaching is largely put aside, or simply recast as a message about the love of money.

One final note to consider: Messages like these, even if they are recast as being just about the love of money, likely help to propagate and perpetuate poverty to some extent. How? Study and meditate on those verses, then ask yourself this question: Where does it say or imply that you should at least work to provide yourself and your family with the basic needs before seeking God's Kingdom?

It is perhaps the great irony that the closer to poverty a believer is, the more alluring the promise of an enriched eternal afterlife becomes, and so the desire to change dissolves. So Christianity turns the words of Jesus in Matthew 26:11 and Mark 14:7 into a self-fulfilling prophesy: You will always have the poor with you.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Law Makes an Impression

In Deuteronomy, after briefly recounting some of the history of the Israelites' trek through the desert, during which we discover the age of culpability and what God considers as the condition of not lacking anything, Moses begins to review the various commandments of God, but not without an appropriate preamble about the Law...

The Law Makes an Impression
Christianity has a lot to say about God's Law, such as the reason for it (Romans 5:20-21, Galatians 3:19, Hebrews 10:1), as well as arguments about why (Matthew 5:19, James 1:22-25, James 2:10, 1 John 3:4-6) or why not (Romans 3:27-28, Romans 7:1-6, Galatians 5:4, Hebrews 7:18-19) to continue obeying every commandment in the Law. Modern theology often presents the opinion that the Law was so stringent that nobody could follow it, and to that effect it illustrated the need for God's mercy through Jesus. Yet that is not at all how we see the Law presented in the Old Testament.

For God's opinion on the Law, a good place to start is Deuteronomy 4. Let us dive right in with Deuteronomy 4:1-2, where Moses tells the Israelites of God's Law:
“Hear now, O Israel, the decrees and laws I am about to teach you. Follow them so that you may live and may go in and take possession of the land that the LORD, the God of your fathers, is giving you. Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the LORD your God that I give you.” NIV
Do not add or subtract from it? That is a fine principle under laboratory conditions, but in the real world civilizations change. Advancements in technology and process mandate updated laws. Just think of all of the laws which had to be created for the internet. Or perhaps even more significant, think of the huge advancement which was made in establishing copyright and patent laws. Yet the person, or deity, who created these laws had no concept of the changes which would occur and no ways to protect intellectual property. God thought that this was a complete set of laws, and all you would ever need.

Deuteronomy 4:3-4 reminds the Israelites how God killed all of those Israelites who worshiped Baal at Baal Peor, even though we learned that God stopped killing the guilty people because He was so impressed by Phinehas's vigilante-extremist actions.

After another pleading to obey the law (Deuteronomy 4:5), in Deuteronomy 4:6-8 Moses reveals the purpose of the Law.
“Observe [the laws] carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, "Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people." What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the LORD our God is near us whenever we pray to him? And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today?” NIV
From this viewpoint, the Law, as practiced by the Israelites, was to showcase God on earth. It was to demonstrate that, unlike man-made idols, the God of the Israelites is a real and wise God. It was to make other nations realize that their gods were fake, and that they should seek the wisdom, guidance, and providence that only the one true living God could provide. It is no surprise that this same sentiment is echoed in the prophesies of a reunited Israelite nation, such as in Isaiah 2:3, Isaiah 51:4, and Micah 4:2; an inconvenient truth for Christianity.

To the charge that the Law was too stringent to obey, this claim can only be made by ignoring parts of the Bible. After all, why would God plead so often for His people to obey the Law if He knew that was impossible to do, such as in Joshua 1:8, 2 Kings 17:13, and Ezekiel 20:19? Also, there are major people which would have to be ignored, such as King Josiah from 2 Kings 22-23. So such a claim simply falls apart when considering the entire Bible.