Shall We Condemn God for Bad Behaviour?

7678682874_37c388fb78_nI was planning on preaching on Deuteronomy 7:7-11, but verse 2 kept getting in my way. It is the kind of verse we Christians love to gloss over but the super-sceptics love to dwell upon. God’s people are almost ready to enter the Promised Land following their desert wanderings, but the question arises as to what should happen to the peoples who are already living in that land. Verse 2 tells us:

. . . and when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy. (Deuteronomy 7:2)

Ouch, that does not sound much like the “Jesus loves you” that we are used to. In fact it sounds like the kind of thing that would get a nation into deep trouble at the United Nations. It has caused many people to wonder if this God is credible. Can we believe in a God who commands destruction without mercy? Shall we love the LORD or shall we condemn Him as unjust and unworthy of devotion?

First off, let me recommend Paul Copan’s book “Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God.” Some of what follows here is written there but with greater depth and clarity. Let us consider the following points:

Strong language is used to make a strong point. Overstatement was a common practice in Biblical times and is found in the Bible. We still do it today, such as when I state that the Toronto Maple Leafs are going to destroy every team that stands between them and the Stanley Cup this year. Obviously I am overconfident, but more obvious is that there really will be no “destroying” going on. The language of destruction is used to make a point about winning. Here in Deuteronomy 7:2 there is a strong point being made: The best chance God’s people have of staying in a close relationship with the LORD is to have nothing to do with the people already living in the land. It would be too easy to write up treaties and be assimilated into those peoples. But then how well could God’s people keep the Law, especially the ten commandments which begin with the call for the people to have no other gods beside the LORD? Indeed the point is not so much the elimination of people, but the utter destruction of an abhorrent religion:

But this is how you must deal with them:break down their altars, smash their pillars, hew down their sacred poles, and burn their idols with fire. 6 For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession. (Deuteronomy 7:5-6)

If “destruction” is used to make a strong point, “driven out” better reflects the reality. The Bible itself sometimes asserts that the Canaanites will not be destroyed but rather “driven out.”

When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations–(Deuteronomy 7:1 NIV emphasis mine)

When the Lord your God thrusts them out before you, do not say to yourself, “It is because of my righteousness that the Lord has brought me in to occupy this land” (Deuteronomy 9:4 emphasis mine)

Additionally, not having aircraft or motorized vehicles, ancient wars did not rely on the lightning quick shock and awe attacks of today. There was time for people to flee. In fact the inhabitants of Canaan show up in the Bible after the days of conquest, so they were not utterly destroyed in a genocidal way we might have expected from the command of verse 2. Indeed our passage assumes that God’s people will be rubbing shoulders with the Canaanites in the days to come:

3 Do not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, 4 for that would turn away your children from following me, to serve other gods. (Deuteronomy 7:3-4)

There is no need for commandments about intermarriage if the people are utterly destroyed.

The command to destroy the Canaanites must be read in the context of the entire Bible. There is the promise made to Abraham in Genesis 12 that all the nations of the earth would be blessed through him. There are the laws God had already given that were designed to protect foreigners who may be poor and vulnerable. There is the book of Ruth where a foreigner is welcomed into God’s people and even becomes the great-grandmother of King David. There is the book of Jonah which challenges God’s people to allow or even expect God to love their enemies. There is the entire trajectory of the New Testament, where Jesus dies not just for the Jew; “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16); where the Holy Spirit is given to people from any background; where looking forward “there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:9) One cannot read the entire Bible without getting the impression that God’s love stretches far and wide.

God had been very patient with the Canaanites, but his patience had run out allowing justice to be rolled out. When we hear about God’s people being told to destroy the Canaanites we might be under the impression that it would be like the nice people of Prince Edward Island being called to wipe out the nice people of New Brunswick. But ancient peoples were not that nice. In fact the rise of ISIS today gives us a glimpse of the kind of evil ancient tribal peoples could be capable of. Not too many of us would be sad to see ISIS destroyed. Actually ISIS displays better morals than the Canaanites for they know better than to sacrifice children in religious rites. The Canaanites had hundreds of years of descent into darkness, now it was time for God to express His justice through judgement. It is: “because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is dispossessing them before you.” (Deuteronomy 9:4)

God’s command to destroy the Canaanites should be read with this important truth in mind: God owes no person another minute of life. This is something we learn from the flood in Noah’s day which was not genocide, but the just judgement of God. The Bible teaches that the wages of sin is death, and in the flood the payment of those wages were brought forward. More accurately, those wages were no longer held back. God is holy. We are not. That anyone should live to see another day, another hour, another minute, is a sign of God’s grace and mercy. God would be just if even Noah and his family were not spared. They did not deserve life. None of us do. That we experience life at all is a sign of the grace of God.

That God’s people stood ready to enter the Promised Land was a sign of the grace of God. They did not show themselves worthy of the honour:

6 Know, then, that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to occupy because of your righteousness; for you are a stubborn people. 7 Remember and do not forget how you provoked the Lord your God to wrath in the wilderness; you have been rebellious against the Lord from the day you came out of the land of Egypt until you came to this place. (Deuteronomy 9:6-7)

So why was God being kind to Israelites? It was because of love:

7 It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples.8 It was because the Lord loved you . . . (Deuteronomy 7:7,8a emphasis mine)

Salvation begins, not with people and their righteousness, but with God and His love. Your salvation, and mine, begins not with our righteousness, but with God’s love.

And God was kind to the Israelites because of promise:

8 It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 7:8 emphasis mine)

God had promised Abraham a blessing and that all the nations of the earth would be blessed through him. This wee bit of justice poured out on the peoples of Canaan was part of a plan that would lead to a whole load of grace being poured out and made available to the whole world. The death and resurrection of Jesus is the single greatest focus of God’s blessing. But it is a long journey from the promise of blessing to Abraham to the fulfillment in Jesus. The destruction of the Canaanites is part and parcel of that journey to blessing.

What kind of God is it that calls for the destruction of people? The same God that was ensuring that we need not face destruction: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1) God’s nurture of His people through dark and dangerous places and times is part of the unfolding of His grace so that we will not face condemnation when we turn to Him in repentance.

Shall we condemn God for working out His purposes of salvation? We have no right to condemn God. He has every right to condemn us. But out of love He has made reconciliation possible.

If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33 Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. (Romans 8:31-34)

Unless noted otherwise all scripture references are taken from the NRSV.
photo credit: The Army via photopin (license)

Before You Take Another Step . . .

7239643828_9783b9d9ec_nThere is a God, but religion is for those who are into that kind of thing. Or so would say many people who go through life believing in God without much of an understanding of who God is. They believe that God exists with a kind of “there is Someone out there watching over us,” but as for being able to describe God, they would rather leave that for the fanatics. It is a bit like those who own a car, but leave the tinkering to the mechanic, or own a home, but leave the renovations to the handyman. As for knowing much about God, leave it to the pastors and Jesus-freaks. Leave it to the people who are “into” that kind of thing. But is this enough? Is wise to go through life with such an ambiguous sense of who God is and what God is like?

Following forty years of wandering in the desert, the people of God stand ready to enter the promised land. This is to be their next step, yet they are not quite ready just yet. Before they take this big step they must prepare their hearts and minds spiritually, which is why Moses gives a series of addresses, or sermons, which are collected together as the book of Deuteronomy. Part of what they need to hear is the following:

1 Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that the LORD your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy . . . You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. (Deuteronomy 6:1,5 emphasis mine)

Before God’s people can take the next big step, they must commit to loving God with all they’ve got and with all that they are. The first thing to note is that it is very difficult to love someone in such a way if you don’t know them. And we should note that in this very verse, God has already made clear who it is they must love. It is “The LORD” that is to be loved. Whenever we encounter “The LORD” all in capitals in our English Bible translations we must understand that this is standing in place of the name God has given for Himself. This name is considered so holy that God’s people, especially among our friends in Jewish circles, do not dare pronounce it. So we say “the LORD” instead. The point is that this is not God in some generic sense that is to be loved. This is a very personal God who has revealed Himself, making Himself known, even by name. God’s people will not be taking another step without committing to loving this very God they are in relationship with. There is no ambiguity at all here about who God is.

Furthermore, this call to love is introduced with an emphasis on the identity of God:

4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. 5 You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. (Deuteronomy 6:4-5 emphasis mine)

In order to love the LORD, you must know the LORD. Notice that Moses does not say, “There is a God” which ends up being a rather vague statement, but rather and more specifically, “The LORD is our God.” And it is “the LORD alone” who is our God, not some other god. The identity of God is not in question for God’s people as they prepare for their next step. There is no ambiguity at all here about Who God is.

Furthermore, in knowing the Lord God’s people will fear the Lord:

1 Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that the LORD your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, 2 so that you and your children and your children’s children may fear the LORD your God all the days of your life. (Deuteronomy 6:1-2 emphasis mine)

You cannot fear, or give the highest reverence and honour to, God if you have an ambiguous idea of who God is. As they stood ready to enter the promised land, God’s people knew exactly whom they were to fear.

Furthermore, in fearing the LORD God’s people will obey the LORD:

1 Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that the Lord your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, 2 so that you and your children and your children’s children may fear the Lord your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long. 3 Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has promised you. (Deuteronomy 6:1-3 emphasis mine)

You cannot obey God if you have a vary vague notion of who God is. As they stood ready to enter the promised land God’s people knew exactly whom they were to obey, and what laws He had given.

Furthermore, in loving, knowing, fearing, and obeying the LORD, God’s people will commit to always readying the next generation for the same:

6 Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7 Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 8 Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, 9 and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:6-9)

You will be of no help to the next generation in learning to love, know, fear, and obey God if your knowledge of Him is very vague. As they stood ready to enter the promised land, God’s people knew exactly whom they were to nurture their children’s faith in.

As they stood ready for the next step, God’s people had a very specific knowledge of God. He is the One who rescued them from Egypt, He is the One who led them these last forty years, He is the One who revealed His name to them, He is the One who revealed His law to them, He is the One who is keeping His covenant promises. He is the One who will go with them into the promised land. He is the Creator. No ambiguous knowledge of God here.

And we know even more about God today. He is the One who came to us in Jesus Christ to teach us how to live, to show us how to love, to redeem us through His death, to give us hope through His resurrection, and to call us through His Spirit. There is so much more we could say about the identity of God, but I will just refer you to the entire Bible to find out more. For now, let me encourage you to not take another step in life without first taking a leap into the arms of Jesus. There is no need to go forward with an ambiguous sense of who God is. You can forward in relationship. You might leave fixing cars to mechanics and renovations to a handyman, but don’t leave knowledge of God to those who are “into that kind of thing.” You are the car in need of repairs, you are the renovation project. God is the mechanic, God is the handyman. Don’t take another step without leaping into His arms. You can face each step ahead, even if that step is forward into death, with God’s presence, with a knowledge of God, knowing and experiencing His power and love.

 

All Scripture references are taken from the NRSV
photo credit: Lynn Canyon Suspension Bridge via photopin (license)

Thank God for Rules

8973254409_430d9524d5_nMany people gather around the traditional turkey dinner on Thanksgiving with a custom of each person sharing something to be thankful for. These can be somewhat predictable, with family, friends, God’s goodness, health and chocolate often on the list. Rarely, if ever, will someone say they are thankful for rules. Why is that? There are three reasons:
  • We value individual liberty and freedom. Rules are seen to push against freedom.
  • We fear judgementalism. Those who do not like rules may feel that those who do are judgemental.
  • We value self-esteem and self-confidence. Consistently being poor at keeping rules can make one feel like a bad person.

Since we do not seem to like rules very much, why are we talking about them on Thanksgiving? Why are we thinking of God’s law, and why are we focusing in on the Ten Commandments? It is partly because I have begun a sermon series on Deuteronomy and didn’t want to leave it for Thanksgiving. However, I was intentional in getting the Ten Commandments to land on this particular weekend. Why? Because the God’s law is something we can be truly grateful for.

While my wife remembers most of our wedding gifts from sixteen plus years ago and can identify items around the house that were gifts, I can identify very few. Typical man perhaps? But one I do remember. A plain black power drill. I can remember it partly because among all the gifts which tended to be quaint items, or kitchen items and the like, the drill stood out like a sore thumb. I remember it because it was from my parents. I also remember it because it is the wedding gift that over the years I have been most grateful for. A strange gift at the time perhaps? Best wedding gift ever in the long run! My parents knew what they were doing. We may think that rules make a strange gift from God. But they are a great gift in the long run. God knew and knows what He is doing in giving them! So in what ways are the rules a gift that we can be grateful for?

As the people of God stand ready to enter the land God has promised to them, Moses reminds them of the ten commandments God had given them earlier. Let’s take a look at the first group of the ten commandments:

6 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 7 you shall have no other gods before me.
8 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 9 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me, 10 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
11 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
12 Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you . . . (Deuteronomy 5:6-12 emphasis mine)
These are rules given to help the people of God honour God. Remember that God is Creator, God is Sovereign. To honour God is truly important. To be given guidance on how to do that is priceless. Such guidance is a wonderful gift.
Let us consider the last group of the ten commandments:
16 Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God commanded you, so that your days may be long and that it may go well with you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
17 You shall not murder.
18 Neither shall you commit adultery.
19 Neither shall you steal.
20 Neither shall you bear false witness against your neighbour.
21 Neither shall you covet your neighbour’s wife . . . .
Neither shall you desire your neighbor’s house, or field, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour. (Deuteronomy 5:16-21 emphasis mine)
These are commandments that help us to honour one another. Keeping in mind the violence of the world that led to the flood in Noah’s day, and also the violence still in the world in the days of Moses, to be given guidance on how to honour one another is a gift. Indeed the good relationships that would be found among God’s people if they keep the law would be noticed by the neighbouring nations:
5 See, just as the Lord my God has charged me, I now teach you statutes and ordinances for you to observe in the land that you are about to enter and occupy. 6 You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!” 7 For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? 8 And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today. (Deuteronomy 4:5-8 emphasis mine)
Not just the Ten Commandments, but the entire Law was a wonderful gift of God in guiding His people toward good relationships.
So far we have considered God’s law as being a gift to his people as they prepare to enter the promised land. But are rules a gift for Christians today? Some have said that Christians are not about the rules, but only about grace. Let us consider the following:
First, in following Jesus in the way of the cross, the Christian is to live out a wonderful ethic of love. Some see this as contrasting to a way of rules as given in the Old Testament. However, this is not a contrast, as the law and love belong together. Remember the words of Jesus:
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17-20)
How can we have a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees when they were known to be the best at knowing, keeping, and enforcing the rules? By coming at the rules from a place of love and practicing them for the sake of love. The religious leaders were practicing the rules for the sake of religion, but the Christian is to be ethical, living out the rules, as a means of loving God and loving others. God’s law helps the Christian know how to express love. What a gift!
Second, the Christian finds in the Old Testament rules foundational teaching on what pleases and honours God. We are not required to become Jewish in becoming a Jesus follower, and so there are many customs and laws that are not binding, especially with regards to dietary restrictions and the like. However, we do see in the Old Testament law what pleases God and what does not. We still learn from them practical advice on how to honour God and how to honour others. What a gift to have such guidance!
Third, the rules open our eyes to our need for salvation, and our need for a Saviour. I know I am speeding on the #2 highway, not just because of the number the needle my speedometer is pointing to, but because there is a posted limit as to what that needle should be pointing to. We become very aware of our shortcomings in keeping the rules when the rules are posted for us in black and white. As Paul writes: “Yet, if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’” (Romans 7:7 NRSV). In becoming aware of our lack with regard to the rules, we become aware of our need for grace. In becoming aware of our need for grace we are awakened to the wonderful joy of knowing salvation in Jesus. The Holy Spirit convicts and encourages all along this journey. The rules, in being a part of that journey toward salvation are a real gift!
So when we think of the things we can be grateful for, I hope that we can all thank God for rules!
All scripture references are taken from the NRSV.