Preamble to the Covenant
Purpose of Deuteronomy
Moses and the Israelites are encamped in Moab at the base of Mt. Pisgah facing the Promised Land. Nearly 500 years earlier God had promised Abraham that his descendants would be His chosen people. He also informed Abraham that his descendants would one day be as numerous as the sand on the seashore and as the stars in heaven. After they spend a period of 430 years of captivity in Egypt, God would lead them back to the land of Canaan which He would give to them as an inheritance. Well, the fulfillment of that promise has now arrived. They spend the last 40 years wandering around in the wilderness, after God has delivered them from the Egyptians; a new generation has arisen which will now experience the fulfillment of God's promises to Abraham.
Although God chose the Israelites to be His people and although they are now poised to inherit the land God had promised them, the question remains as to what kind of people they are supposed to be. We can all inject different content into what it means to be God's people (normally it means that people are to be like us); God, therefore, needs to inform His people what kind of people He expects them to be if they are going to live like His people. Deuteronomy provides the answer to that question.
Literary Form of Deuteronomy
Deuteronomy has the same form as the ancient covenants (contracts) rulers would make with their subjects. These contracts/covenants are specifically called "suzerainty treaties, that is treaties between a suzerain (monarch) and his vassals. At the beginning of the treaties or covenants, the ruler would list all the wonderful things he had done for his people; for example, he would claim that he had provided them protection, land, food, etc. In response to what he had done for his people, he expected the people to be his loyal subjects by rendering a yearly tribute to him and by obeying the laws he legislated. Their response to him was not to be based solely upon the fact that he was lord but upon the different things he had done for them. The same is operating here in God's covenant with Israel. God is not telling them to obey Him simply because He is Lord of heaven and earth. Instead, He will first remind them of all the wonderful things He had done for them, and because He had done these things for them, He was expecting their unqualified allegiance and obedience.
As a side note, we need to remember that the same is operating in a Christian's relationship with God. During the Lord's Supper after Jesus broke the bread, He took the cup of wine and said, "This is My blood of the covenant" (Matt. 26:28). Jesus is saying that God is in a covenant-type of relationship with His people. God does not command us to obey Jesus simply because He is Lord of the universe; rather, He expects us to be His people because of the great love Jesus poured out upon us on the cross in order to give us eternal salvation.
FROM EGYPT TO KADESH-BARNEA (1:1-46)
After Moses led the Children of Israel out of Egypt, he first brought them to Mt. Sinai where God delivered to them His laws and instructed them what kind of sanctuary he wanted them to construct. Afterwards, He led them to Kadesh-Barnea from where God wanted to begin the conquest of the Promised Land. Before arriving at Kadesh-Barnea though, Moses had the daunting task of acting as judge for the hundreds of thousands who made up the nation of Israel. Upon the advice of his father-in-law Jethro, Moses divided up the nation of Israel into units of 50's, 100's, and 1,000's. Over each unit he placed a judge who would be responsible to hear cases between the people. There would be a judge over 50 people, then a judge over 100 to serve as a type of appellate judge, then a judge of a thousand, etc. Moses then would hear only the most troublesome cases whose judgment eluded the rest of the judges. He would serve as a type of Supreme Court.
At first glance this episode seems irrelevant to the flow of Deuteronomy. Actually, though, this episode shows that God had indeed fulfilled His promise to Abraham. He had promised Abraham that He would make of him a great nation whose inhabitants would be as numerous as the sand of the seashore and as the stars of the heavens. The fact that there were so many people that Moses could not judge them all pointed to the fulfillment of this promise. God had multiplied the people to such an extent that Moses could not judge them all.
Next, Moses led the people to the southern tip of the Holy Land, Kadesh-Barnea. From there the Israelites would begin the conquest of Palestine. Upon the request of the Israelites, though, Moses delays the conquest until he sends out a representative from each of the 12 tribes (12 spies in all) and receives a scouting report. Upon their return, the spies report that they had good news and bad news. The good news is that the land is everything God has promised them: it is truly a land flowing with milk and honey. The bad news is that the inhabitants of the land are giants who live in fortified cities. (One such giant named Og was so big that he was buried in a sarcophagus which measured 13 1/2 by 6 ft. According to the spies, the situation is hopeless.
When the people receive the scouting reports, they head right to their tents and begin to murmur against God and Moses who had led them there. (They were unraveling the organization God had imposed upon the people.) Apparently, they thought, this God they served was actually an evil God who was intent upon destroying the people. Out of mock concern, they claim that they cannot embark upon this conquest because of the harm which would befall the women and children. No, they will not go.
From the Book of Numbers, we see that God is exasperated with the people when they refuse to follow His leadership into the Promised Land. He is exasperated because this is the 10th time the people have rebelled against God since He led them out of Egypt. Ten times He had showed them His greatness by sending the 10 plagues upon the nation of Egypt. How had they repaid Him? With ten instances of rebellion. Well, their rebellion was complete. They had rebelled for the final time. As punishment, God declared that their children whom they were so worried about and not they would enter the Promised Land. The very ones they had expressed concern for would actually benefit and inherit the landóthey got what they wanted, just not in the way they wanted to receive it. For the next 40 years, though, they would simply wander in the wilderness until all those 20 years of age and older perished. The only 2 exceptions were to be Joshua and Caleb.
From this passage we see the need of making the most of the opportunity. Whenever God speaks to us, we need to respond immediately and positively. I have found it really interesting that in the past several years when I've gone to high school football games that I will see people in the stands who seldom if ever grace the doors of the church. When you talk to them about coming to Bible study and worship, they claim that they hate going to church without their spouse or that they are always too tired to go to Bible study and worship on Sunday morning. But do you know what? Those same people will drive one hour plus to a game (even without their spouses), arrive 30 mins. ahead of time in order to get their refreshments, yell like crazy in cold or hot weather for another 1 1/2 hours, then turn around and drive another hour back home. They will spend 5 hours in all kinds of weather conditions going to a game which may be exciting but be of zero eternal significance; yet when Sunday morning comes, they cannot drive 10 mins. to the church, participate in an hour's worth of Bible study, and an hour's worth of worship. They then wonder why they don't experience God's blessings in their lives. By all means go to football games and to other sporting events; however, we all need to get our priorities straight and take advantage of the opportunities when God speaks to His people.
When the people hear this verdict, they swiftly change their minds and decide that they will follow God after all and conquer Canaan. By the time they change their minds though, it is too late. God has already rendered judgment, and He is not going to change it. They claim, though, that God will be with them since they are going to fulfill His will. Moses claims that such an act will be disastrous. God is not going to be with them; therefore, they will suffer great tragedy if they pursue this course. Many of the people embark upon the conquest only to suffer a tremendous defeat. The Canaanites drive them all the way to the north of the Promised Land (Mt. Hermon). For the next 40 years, the Israelites wander around in the wilderness until that generation 20 years of age and older perish.
Unfortunately, some of us fall into the same trap these Israelites fell into. They did something spiritual which God told them NOT to do. Sometimes God's people substitute a religious act for obedience to God (a sin Saul was guilty of). They may pray the best prayers, sing the loudest, and condemn sin to the strongest; yet they fail to obey God in the way they treat others or spend their time and money. True spirituality is nothing less than a complete submission to God's will and not some performance of a religious act which may benefit us.
TRAVELS THROUGH TRANSJORDAN (2:1-3:29)
That generation has now perished, and now it is time for the children of Israel to occupy the land. This time though, the Israelites are not going to conquer the land from the south but from the east. The Israelites will attack and split the country right in 2, thereby cutting off communications and munitions supplies between the northern and southern parts of the Holy Land. The Israelites head north by going first through the land of Edom, then Moab, and lastly Ammon. In each case, God commands Moses not to attack the people of these 3 countries. Instead, Moses is to ask them for food and water which he will pay for. If they refuse, the Israelites are simply to by-pass them. God gives 2 reasons. First, the Israelites were blood-relatives of these 3 groups of people. Abraham was the father of Isaac who in turn was the father of Esau and Jacob. Jacob was the father of the Israelites, while Esau was the father of the Edomites. This made the Edomites and Israelites cousins. The Israelites were likewise related to the Moabites and Ammonites. Abraham the father of the Israelites was the uncle of Lot the father of Moab and Ben-Ammoni. (If you read the story of the birth of Moab and Ben-Ammoni, you will see that the Moabites and Ammonites qualifies as weird relatives of the Israelites, weird but nevertheless still relatives.)
On the other hand, when the Israelites came to the land of Sihon and Og, they were to follow a different course of action. Moses was to ask Sihon and Og for safe passage and also for food and water supplies; however, when Sihon and Og refused and wanted to engage the Israelites in battle, Moses was to take them on. Sihon and Og apparently thought that the Israelites were basically patsies because they refused to fight the Edomites, Moabites, and Ammonites. Both kings challenged the Israelites to battle, and both were decisively beaten. Their defeat was significant because these 2 kings were considered the most powerful to the kings ruling over Canaan and Transjordan. This victory would send a shudder down the spines of the Canaanites. If these 2 kings were unable to defeat the Israelites, the remaining Canaanite kings were in dire straits.
Upon the defeat of the 2 kings, the Israelites completely annihilated any and everything associated with these 2 kingdomsówomen, children, older men, animals, and material possessions. While such conduct may seem harsh to us today, we need to remember that the Israelites were engaged in Holy War. God had told Abraham that He had timed the occupation of Canaan by the Israelites so that the sin of the people living in Canaan would be complete (Gen. 15:16). By this, God meant that the Canaanites had regressed spiritually to such a point that they were beyond any hope of redemption. They had crossed the line to where they were even worse than animals. They were completely annihilated because that is what they behavior actually deserved. To defend them is basically to call God's justice into question.
But why total annihilation? Why did the children have to die? Because of the permeating influence of sin and its consequences. One of the many lies to come out of the 60's was that as long as what I did didn't affect anybody else, I should be able to do it. What's wrong with this statement is the underlying assumption that there are some things I can do which will not affect others. For example, during the early 80's, gay men were running off to Haiti engaging in sex with consenting Haitian men. What's wrong with that? They were all consenting adults. Little did they realize that because of Haiti's contacts with Africa, many of the Haitian men were already infected with the AIDS virus. As a result, these men returned to the U.S. spreading the virus around the rest of the gay population and unknowingly passing it onto straight people by contaminating the U.S.'s blood supply when they donated blood at blood banks. Many innocent hemophiliacs perished because of what the gays did with other consenting adults. We don't live in a vacuum; therefore, everything we do affects somebody else. The children, livestock, and possessions had to be destroyed in order to protect the Israelites from the influences of these people. Unfortunately, the Israelites failed to carry out this principle at all times and, as a result, fell into idolatry and suffered catastrophe after catastrophe.
This lesson is one of the harshest in the Bible; however, note that although God had refused to let those 20 years of age and over enter the Promised Land, He was nevertheless still keeping His promise to Abraham. It was just that their children instead of them would experience the blessings of the promise. God in effect was giving His people a second chance. Whatever else God is, He is definitely a God of second chances.
My family has really been blessed by the God of second chances. Around 38 years ago, my mom on a Sunday morning stood in the hall facing the 2 rooms where my younger brother and youngest sister were sleeping. It was time to get them up for church, and if things were like the past few weeks, she was going to have a fight on her hands. Her husband didn't go to church. The four older children she had raised up in church were no longer involved in church. Why then bother with the 2 youngest since they would most likely turn out like the 4 older ones?
What is so wonderful about God, though, is that neither He nor she gave up. Today my older brother is a deacon at a church in El Campo, TX. At the age of 50 he used to teach the oldest ladies' class in the church. (That is one of the most Christ-like things I think I've ever heard of.) All those ladies have now either passed away or are in a nursing home. Every Sunday morning before SS., he and his wife visit those ladies in the nursing home and then return to teach the singles' class. My oldest sister and her husband are pillars of the church in Lancaster. That church would suffer seriously if they heft. Although my youngest sister passed away, my younger brother is back in church in north Dallas.
Probably the most wonderful change has occurred in my middle sister, Linda. She and her husband had been involved with their 2 daughters at Champion Forest Baptist Church in Houston. Thirteen years ago her older daughter committed suicide. Understandably, this took a terrible toll upon her. Three weeks after her daughter's death, she went to the front of the church to rededicate her life to the Lord. When she walked up to the pastor who had assisted in the burial of her precious daughter, he did not even recognize her. She felt right then that the minister had not been genuinely concerned about her and her loss 3 weeks ago since he did not even remember her. It took a long time before she was willing to return to church. God, though, persisted. A few years ago, Linda went back to church, to Second Baptist in Houston, where she has really flourished under Beth Moore Bible studies.
This past September, her husband George had to leave for Chad, Africa, for an assignment with an oil company. He is not due to return until the middle of December. As Thanksgiving approached, Linda felt a deep sense of anger because he would not be with her at Thanksgiving, much less the fact that he was out in Chad basically alone during the holiday season. She went to church that next Sunday and began sharing her anger with one of her friends at the church. She was angry because George, the rock of her life, was not going to be with her. As she shared this, though, God spoke to her right then: "But, Linda, I want to be the Rock of your life." At that point, Linda let go and let God become the Rock of her life. In place of that anger, God gave her a deep sense of joy and peace.
Linda shared that story with the 28 members of our family on Thanksgiving Day. Afterwards, we all prayed for George's safety and also for him a deep sense of God's presence and love. We had worship right there in my mother's living room on a Thursday evening. How many other families had that kind of Thanksgiving? It's all because God is the kind of God who gives people second chances.