June 19, 2007

Deuteronomy 8-10: You think you're so worthy?

Today's reading is Deuteronomy 8-10 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers a reminder to remember God and his power; a recap of the incident with the golden calf and the ten commandments; and a reminder of the major commandments God requires the Israelites keep.

These three chapters, Deut. 8-10, are a reminder that the Israelites were not as amazing as they gave themselves credit for. A brief summary of the main argument: you (the Israelites) are a stubborn, stiff-necked, rebellious people. Despite that, God has done wonderful things for you and brought you to a bountiful land, which you will conquer and possess. He does this not because of your righteousness, but because of the wickedness of the people already living there. Therefore, when you possess the land and live luxuriously, remember God and keep his commandments, lest you be destroyed.

The first thing we notice about this argument is that the Israelites, despite being God's chosen people, were not particularly righteous or holy, at least not according to Moses. He reminds them of their many acts of rebellion, most particularly of the incident with the golden calf. (Ex. 32) Moses reminds them that God wanted to destroy the entire people for this act of rebellion, and it was only through his, Moses', intervention that the people are alive at all.

Nor was the golden calf the only time the Israelites rebelled against God. Deut. 9:22-24 reminds them of other instances: Taberah (Num. 11:1-3), Massah (Ex. 17:1-7), Kibrothhattaavah (Num. 11:4-35), and Kadeshbarnea (Num. 13-14). Moses makes a point of reminding the people that they are "a stiffnecked people." (Deut. 9:6) Over and over during the time of their wanderings, the Israelites constantly challenged God and complained about their conditions. Despite God's miracles and signs, it seems that the Israelites were always comparing their harsh life in the wilderness to the stable life as bondsmen in Egypt.

Because of all this complaining and rebellion, the Israelites would seem unlikely candidates to possess the land of Canaan. And, in fact, the text confirms that this is so. Deut. 9:4-6 tells the Israelites that the reason they are about to possess the land, currently inhabited by nations much stronger than they are, is not because of their own righteousness. Instead, it is because of the wickedness of the nations already living there. The Israelites may be rebellious and stiff-necked, in other words, but the Canaanite nations were more-so.

This reminder of the nations' wickedness provides yet another opportunity for Moses to remind the people to keep to God's commandments and ways. After all, if God decided to wipe out the Canaanite nations, God could equally decide to destroy the Israelites if they don't keep God's commandments.

One would think, with all this emphasis on conquest and destruction, that the Israelites would certainly want to keep God's laws. What possible reason could they have for forgetting the God who brought them out of Egypt and into Canaan. The answer can be summed up in one word: decadence.

Deut. 8:6-20 paints a picture of the Israelites living in Canaan: eating the abundant crops, living in good houses, rich, and prosperous. In this situation, several generations after the conquest, the Israelites might start thinking to themselves that they were the ones who did it all; they built their wealth through their own means. It is in fact very common for people, raised from humble circumstances, to forget their benefactors, or for their children to believe that their family had always lived in luxury. This decadent lifestyle, Moses warns, could cause the Israelites to forget about God entirely, and to believe that they possess their wonderful land and riches because they deserve it.

Moses admonishes the Israelites to remember God and to keep his commandments. Deut. 10:12-22 gives a capsule summary of the things God requires: "to fear the LORD thy God, to walk in all his ways, and to love him, and to serve the LORD thy God with all they heart and with all they soul, to keep the commandments of the LORD, and his statutes, which I command thee this day for thy good." (Deut. 10:12-13, KJV) Furthermore, God requires that they continue the tradition of circumcision, love strangers, and worship God alone in completely monotheism. The text reminds them that God is lord of both heavens and earth (Deut. 10:14) and that he chose the Israelites (Deut. 10:15) and did "great and terrible things, which thine eyes have seen." (Deut. 10:21) In other words, God has given the Israelites everything they possess, and requires only that the Israelites remember their benefactor and praise him accordingly.

In these three chapters, therefore, Moses traces the progression of the Israelite mindset from rebellion to decadence, and he asks them to shun the latter. If they worship and follow God, they will thrive. If not, they will be destroyed. Through it all, the Israelites seem less like a chosen people than a rebellious rabble, who nevertheless will be given rewards because of promises made to their forefathers and because other nations are even worse than they are.

It hardly seems to be a promising beginning to the conquest of Canaan, but perhaps it's what the Israelites needed to hear.

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