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Numbers 14: In this wilderness they will come to their end. There they will die.
It sounds unfair, doesn’t it? God brings them out of Egypt, cares for them and leads them to the land he’s promised. Then, when they’re afraid of the giants of Canaan he dumps them. It sounds unfair; but it isn’t. Here’s what’s happening: he’s giving them their own way. They don’t want to listen to the pleading and encouraging word of Caleb and Joshua, they don’t want to follow the lead of Moses, and they don’t want to trust God. So God says, “Okay.” If they prefer to go back into the wilderness he’ll let them go. The result will be tragic, their bones scattered across the desert. But if they insist, he’ll let them have it their way. Even here there’s grace. Manna will continue to fall, their clothes won’t wear out, and God will still be their God. The words quoted above aren’t a death sentence. Rather, they’re a statement of reality. The Lord will patiently wait until these decision-makers have died off and then give the same command and make the same offer to their children. Passages like this define both free will and grace. On one hand, God won’t force us to obey him. On the other, he’ll never stop working in our lives, patiently calling us to himself and to his purposes for us.
Take Away: The Lord won’t negate our free will, even for our own good.
The reach of sin
2 Samuel 13: Kill him…and don’t be afraid.
When Nathan the prophet confronts David with his sin he not only tells him that the child of his illicit relationship with Bathsheba will die, but that there will be killing and murder in his family. This story about his daughter Tamar and sons Ammon and Absalom illustrates the truth of this statement by Nathan. It’s pretty ugly stuff. Ammon is in love with his half-sister Tamar. His first cousin Jonadab tells him to get her alone and force himself on her. Ammon takes Jonadab’s advice and ends up raping Tamar. When David hears what’s happened, he’s outraged, but does nothing about it. Could it be that his memory of his own relationship with Bathsheba stops him from acting? Technically, he didn’t rape Bathsheba, but when he sent for her on that terrible day, he did so with all the authority of the throne. She really couldn’t say “no” to the king. Beyond that, what David did went public. His family, including Ammon, knew all about it. Surely, knowing that his father took another man’s wife when he wanted her influenced his thinking in this. So Ammon rapes Tamar. When David fails to act, her full brother, Absalom decides to take matters into his own hands. He murders Ammon. Clearly, this isn’t a pretty story. No one in this incident except the victim is portrayed in a positive manner. David has repented of his sin and been forgiven by the Lord, but there are still consequences to his failure. This isn’t God punishing David by encouraging rape and murder in his family. Instead, it’s the outflow of David’s willful actions. Our actions have consequences, some reaching farther and into places we’d never imagine.
Take Away: Don’t underestimate your influence – for good or for bad.
Almost, but not quite
Judges 1: When Israel became stronger they put the Canaanites to forced labor, but they never got rid of them.
The failure of the army of Israel to purge the land of the Canaanites is mentioned in the Book of Joshua but becomes a major factor as I turn the page and begin reading the Book of Judges. Clearly, the army of Joshua has experienced unprecedented success. They arrive as underdogs in a new land occupied by fierce and evil people who have superior weapons and fortified cities. This is the home of the warrior-giants of the Bible. In spite of all that these children of ex-slaves cross the Jordan and win victory after victory to become the dominant force in the land. All in all, what they accomplish is quite impressive. It’s just too bad that they don’t do what the Lord told them to do and press on to complete victory. The book of Judges tells the story of the result of that failure. This is far from being anyone’s favorite book of the Bible. It is, though, a book in which the grace of God shines forth against the black background of so much spiritual failure.
Take Away: “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way.”
“Good enough” thinking isn’t good enough
Joshua 17: But they never did get rid of them.
In some movies when certain people appear on screen or when certain words are said we hear the background musical score take on an ominous tone. That’s what we ought to hear when the phrase, “they never did get rid of them” or something similar is read concerning the occupation of Canaan by the various tribal groups. As happens in those movies, what sounds pretty innocuous in the Book of Joshua becomes deadly serious as we continue reading into the Book of Judges and beyond. So far as the Israelites under Joshua’s leadership are concerned it’s not a big deal. Their opposition is defeated. There are no more armies to fight. A few stubborn hold outs won’t give up and move away, but they’re submissive and provide reliable slave labor. Out on the edges of the land there are still serious enemies, but they have great respect for the power of the army of Israel and aren’t a threat. Israel will leave them alone if those unfriendly neighbors will leave them alone. After a generation of war it’s time to build houses and plant crops and adapt to a more peaceful life. Again, it seems reasonable, practical. However, it’s not what the Lord told them to do. Their failure is going to cost their descendants dearly. It will all be quite clear as I continue into the Book of Judges and beyond. I think we all live in danger of “good enough” thinking. What’s good enough for me right now may not have the momentum to carry through the next rough spot that’s over the horizon. I need to let this passage remind me to pay careful attention to the Lord’s direction on my life and not substitute my so-called wisdom for the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Take Away: “Good enough” isn’t good enough until we’ve do all the Lord has told us to do.
It makes sense
Joshua 8: There wasn’t a word of all that Moses commanded that Joshua didn’t read to the entire congregation.
There’s both good news and bad news. The good news is that the Israelites have just won their second major victory. The bad news is that because of Achan’s sin, that victory was preceded by their first defeat. In spite of the clear statement of the Law Achan’s greed led to the deaths of several. Now, Achan, and those close to him, have paid for his sin with his own lives and the humiliation dealt the army of Israel has been erased by the total destruction of Ai. Joshua wisely calls for a time out. The people gather at the twin Mounts of Ebal and Gerisim and Joshua has half the people turn their backs on one of the mountains and the other half turn their backs on its twin. Then Joshua gives them a refresher course on God’s Law. The blessing of the Law is represented by Gerisim and the curse of the Law is represented by Ebal. Clearly, Joshua wants the people to remember that what they’re doing in Canaan isn’t all about combat and conquest. If they don’t remain firmly connected to the Lord God their future is bleak. Their only hope is to remain on the “blessing” side of things. This isn’t magic. In fact, it’s quite practical. Life works better for those who live in a consistent relationship with God than it does for those who reject him and live by some other standard. I realize that there’s more in play here, but I can’t help but note that the bottom line is based on plain good sense.
Take Away: There’s a way of life that is blessed by the Lord.
Achan lied and men died.
Joshua 7: Israel has sinned: they’ve broken the covenant I commanded them.
Jericho’s defeated and destroyed. Now their attention’s on a much smaller, less fortified place, Ai. An armed force of 3000 is sent to do battle at Ai, more than enough to win an easy victory. However, it doesn’t work that way. The people of Ai rise up and rout the larger Israelite force. How could that happen? They not only have superior numbers, but God is on their side. Right? Wrong! They go to Ai without God and are defeated there. Dismayed by what’s happened on his watch Joshua goes to the Lord. He’s told that there’s sin in the camp. As long as there’s sin there’ll be no help from God. You see, sin is always serious in the eyes of the Lord. Beyond that, my sin impacts others in unexpected ways. Achan thinks that God won’t notice and that his intentional disobedience of the Lord’s command will have no consequences. Instead, because of his sin, God withdraws his blessing and over 30 men die. In our western culture, we like to think it’s every man for himself. Had an American written this story, Achan, and maybe family, would have died for his sin in tragic poetic justice. Everyone else would have gone on with “business as usual.” Here we see a different picture. “Achan lied and men died.” Is it possible that some churches struggle because there’s hidden sin in the camp? And why stop at the church? What does this story say to me as an American? A country where babies by the millions are aborted, where immorality is the accepted mode of behavior? Am I really free to stand back from that and be dismayed, expecting the judgment of God to only fall on “them?”
Take Away: Our lives are interconnected, what I do impacts others, maybe many others.