There are some hard readings on the docket this week - but don't get discouraged. God is still at work!
We will finish Deuteronomy, Joshua, and half of Judges this week; the twelve tribes will move from Mount Nebo into the land of Canaan, conquer the Canaanites, and redistribute the territory among themselves, as God promised them all the way back in Genesis.
As we saw much of last week, Deuteronomy makes up the constitutional code of the nation of Israel, and as such it's filled with the laws of the land - the moral standard by which Israelites and the sojourners in their midst are expected to live, and the consequences of failing to do so. Sometimes these consequences seem incredibly harsh; false prophets, idolators, people who defy the judgments of the priesthood, prophets who misrepresent the Word of God, harlots, adulterers, and rapists are all condemned to execution for their crimes. With each of these laws comes a recurring phrase: "Purge the evil."
Thus you shall purge the evil from among you. The rest will hear and be afraid, and will never again do such an evil thing among you. Thus you shall not show pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.
I've never really liked reading this part of the Bible. I have a very strong sense of justice (sometimes maybe too strong), but still I find in my heart a little bit of outrage at the audacity of God to be so merciless.
What about the families of these people? What about their children? Or what if they might have repented if given the chance, if death had not been so immediate a punishment?
In Joshua 7 we read a case study that made the reality of these laws all too colorful - when Achan contaminates the holiness of Israel with forbidden riches from the pagan city of Ai. Achan and his entire family are stoned to death and burned with fire for his sin. It's horrifying - it seems brutal, and even unjust. It seems to stand opposed to who God should be.
And yet - God is not defined by who I think He should be.
God is who He is.
And even in the destruction of the household of Achan, even in the swift punishment of capital crimes, even in the purging of evil from Israel, both God's grace and God's justice are at work in perfect harmony.
When He saw the sin of Achan, God said to Joshua,
Israel has sinned, and they have also transgressed My covenant which I commanded them. And they have even taken some of the things under the ban and have both stolen and deceived. Moreover, they have also put them among their own things. Therefore the sons of Israel cannot stand before their enemies; they turn their backs before their enemies, for they have become accursed. I will not be with you anymore unless you destroy the things under the ban from your midst.
Reading this, I've always mentally emphasized the part that says, "Therefore the sons of Israel cannot stand before their enemies." The link between disobedience and failure to succeed in God's will has been abundantly clear throughout the whole first five books of the Bible - God has said again and again that He WILL give the Promised Land to Israel, they only need to uphold the covenant and walk forward in faith. Obey and succeed, or disobey and fail and get punished to boot. That's how I've always subconsciously read the Law.
That's probably also why passages like this have always seemed unfair, overbearing, and inconsistent with the character of God.
But this time I noticed something different.
God says, "I will not be with you anymore unless you destroy the things from the ban from your midst."
I will not be with you anymore.
You see, it occurred to me that if I believe that the direct consequence of sin is punishment and failure, then I must believe that the direct reward of righteousness is happiness and success.
But failure to conquer the land, failure to stand in victory over the Canaanites, was never the real consequence of Israel's sin. Nor is the attainment of the promise the reward of their obedience.
The true, just consequence of sin is this: "I will not be with you anymore." It is the loss of intimacy with God - the breach of relationship, the hiding from His face in the Garden just like Adam did.
Everything else, every other effect of sin - death, punishment, failure - is just a byproduct.
Likewise, the true, just reward of righteousness is relationship with God.
God says "Purge the evil from among you" not because He delights in catching you when you screw up, but because He earnestly longs to be with you, and He cannot coexist with evil.
He longed so much for this intimacy with humanity that He flooded the entire earth, saving only a family of eight.
He longed so much for this intimacy with Israel that He decimated the nation of Egypt, wrote an elaborate covenant of relationship, set up an entire system of animal sacrifice, and fearlessly cut down the sprouts of wickedness that threatened their relationship from within.
He longed so much for this intimacy with you that He allowed His own body to be broken and ravaged and stretched across the sin-abyss that stood in the way.
At the same time, our God is changeless. He will not - cannot - sacrifice the integrity of His character in order to circumvent the obstacle of sin in a way that's comfortable to us. The tragedy of Achan's punishment may never be fully comfortable or understandable to me, but neither was it careless or needlessly brutal on the part of God.
At the end of Joshua 5, as Israel prepares to go out to battle in Canaan for the first time, Joshua meets a mighty warrior. He asks, "Are you for us or for our adversaries?" The warrior says only, "No; rather I indeed come now as captain of the host of the LORD."
Is God for us, or for our enemies? Neither - God is for Himself. It is we who must pick a side. Even as the saved of His blood, it's still our choice to consecrate ourselves every day - to purge the evil from ourselves no matter what it takes, or risk going forward without Him. His presence is the only reward worth pursuing, just as His absence is the only punishment worth fearing.
Joshua: God of the Land
Total read time for the book of Joshua: 1.75 hours
Judges: God of the Rebels
Total read time for the book of Judges: 1.75 hours