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Friday, August 1, 2014

Promises and Oppportunities - Deuteronomy 1-3

Deuteronomy 1-3

            Deuteronomy is a book written by Moses to call God’s people back to faithful service. The name Deuteronomy for the fifth book of the Old Testament comes from the Greeks naming it Deuteronomion, which means the second law or second statement. That does not mean God gave a new set of laws to the Israelites, but instead a restating of the original laws given. These laws came from God to Moses and the Israelites after they left Egypt. In Deuteronomy, Moses reapplied them to the people facing new circumstances after the rebelling generation died. Because these laws are restated and reapplied, theologians often call this a book of revival. Deuteronomy is a book of revival in that it calls the people to remember, reflect, and rededicate themselves to God and His will. The book has three parts - three sermons by Moses to the Israelites and the telling of Moses’ death. The three sermons highlight four themes – 1) God’s faithfulness and sovereignty, 2) The relevance of God’s laws for everyday life, 3) God’s blessing for faithfulness and judgment on faithlessness, and 4) Moses’ encouragement of the people to choose life. Most historians and theologians assume the writer of Deuteronomy is Moses, especially since Jesus mentioned it in Matthew 19:8 and Paul mentioned it in Romans 10:19. Of course, another person wrote the end of Deuteronomy about the death of Moses. The best estimate of the date of the book’s writing is around 1400 BC.

            These first three chapters remind us of Yahweh God’s choosing Israel as His people and God’s presence with them. Because of Israel being God’s chosen people, God established a covenant with them by which they were to live in faithfulness to Him. This covenant is called the Ten Commandments. God chose Israel and His adopted children of today to be part of what He is doing in the world. We must each choose if we will listen to and heed God - be faithful or rebel. This reflects upon our obedience to His Law and Himself. God expects His people to follow His leadership as He opens opportunities of service. How we respond to God determines our faithfulness or faithlessness and whether we will receive reward or judgment from God.

            In chapter one, Moses spoke to the Israelites in the Arabah, the desert, on the east side of the Jordon River. He told them God was sending them to the Amorites, their neighbors, the people in the Negev, the Canaanites and to the people in Lebanon, as far as the Euphrates River (vs. 7)  Moses reminded them of God’s promise to their fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He reminded them of their journey from Egypt, from the setting up of their governance (vs. 13-17) to their routing of the Amorites forty years later. Moses continued reminding them in the following verses of chapter one. When they arrived the first time at the hill country of the Amorites and God told them He had given that land to them, the Israelites trembled in fear. They chose to send spies into the land who returned saying, “It is good land that the Lord our God is about to give us” (vs. 25-26). Still they would not enter the land because of fear. The Israelites rebelled against the command of God though Moses encouraged them to be brave and strong in the Lord (vs. 26, 29-30). Moses reminded them of the times Yahweh God carried them throughout their exodus journey – as a father carries his child. God went before them in fire by night and cloud by day to show them the way (vs. 33). God became angry at the Israelites and swore an oath that none of that generation would see the Promised Land, except Caleb and Joshua (vs. 35-36). Even Moses would not see it because of God’s anger towards the Israelites (vs. 37). God did promise that the weak of that day would inherit and possess the land and that He condemned the others to wander in the wilderness for forty years (vs. 39-40). Only upon receiving God’s judgment did the Israelites act and try to fight the Amorites. They failed. God even warned them He was not with them in their attempt. Moses reminded them of this failure, their resultant tears, and the many days they remained in Kadesh Barnea (vs. 441-46). After the Israelites circled Mount Seir many days, the Lord told them to turn north. God was preparing the Israelites to take the Promised Land, to obey His voice and commands (2:1-3). Moses wanted them to remember God’s faithfulness to them and to His covenant. He wanted them to remember their rebellion and resultant failure. Only when the Israelites were defeated did they recognize their sin. How often do we not recognize our rebellion/sin until we are defeated? If we would remember God, His sovereignty and omniscience, His all-encompassing knowledge, then we would think twice about rebelling against His plans. God’s plans ultimately occur whether we follow Him or rebel. How much more pleasant it would be if we followed Him from the beginning.

            From chapter two through chapter three, God explained His plans to Moses for the taking of the Promised Land to give to His people, the Israelites. He told them to pass through the land of Esau, their brother, which is Edom, but do not to provoke them because they will be afraid of the number of Israelites (2:4-5). God gave the Edomites their land as a possession. He told the Israelites to buy their food and water from the Edomites. God told them to remember how He had been with them those forty years in the desert and they needed nothing. He provided everything they needed. As they approached Moab, God told them to do the same thing there as in Edom because He gave the descendents of Lot (the Moabites/Ammonites) their land as a possession (2:9, 19). (Remember Moab was the son of Lot’s daughter who caused Lot to become drunk and then lay with him.) As an aside, Moses recounted to the Israelites that God destroyed the giants from the land of Edom and Moab so Esau’s and Moab’s descendents could have the land as their possession (2:10-12, 20-23). We see that once the Israelites crossed the Arnon River, God gave the Promised Land to His people.

            The first lands to be conquered were on the eastern side of the Jordan River. The people who lived there at that time were the Amorites. We need to understand who the Amorites were to understand why God told them to kill all the people – men, women, and children. The Amorites, from about 2500BC (1200 years before the exodus), were the inhabitants of the larger part of Mesopotamia and Syria with their capital in Harran. Harran was near Ur, the place from where Abraham began his journey following God and the land of Shem, Noah’s son. About 2300 BC, the Amorites conquered and occupied northern Babylonia making Babylon their capital. This established their dynasty. Because the Amorites had a plan to conquer their inhabited lands, they determined to intermarry with the residents of those lands making the land truly their own. Many historians trace the Amorites back to Samu/Shem. In probability, Shem’s people lived in Ur and the Amorites intermarried with them. The Amorite dynasty included the lands of current day Iraq, Iran, Syria, Canaan, part of Turkey, and part of Egypt. Closer to the time of the exodus, the Hittites invaded Babylonia and the Amorite dynasty ended. The Amorite kingdom continued to exist to the time of the Israelite invasion of the Promised Land. Their kingdom is mentioned in the Egyptian records and the cuneiform of Tell el-Amarna Letters.[i]  As the time of the exodus continued to get closer, the Egyptians came into power and conquered Canaan, ending the government of Canaan by the Amorites. The Amorites still ruled eastward to Babylonia and south to the Arnon River. They became a vassal state of Egypt. Later, almost at the time of the exodus, the Libyans and people of the Aegean invaded the Egyptians, who had to withdraw their garrisons from southern Canaan cities. The Philistines took over southern Canaan and blocked the way from Egypt to rule north Canaan. At this time then, the Amorites overran the old Egyptian provinces on the east side of the Jordan River. Chieftain Og possessed Bashan, the upper part of the east Canaan lands while Chieftain Sihon conquered the northern part of Moab. Sihon aimed to take southern Moab then the Israelites’ conquest stopped him. With the fall of Sihon and Og, the Amorite kingdom disappeared.

            This political map was what the Israelites encountered when they began their push into the Promised Land. The Israelites may have feared the Amorites, known for their gigantism, but they learned in their forty years of wandering to trust and follow God. Their forty years of wandering was a time of dissension, rebellion, and sadness as Numbers tells us. In Deuteronomy 2, God was about to restore lost opportunities to a new generation, one that was willing to trust Him. The reluctance of the earlier generation and God’s judgment warned these new Israelites and warns us. When God leads, we must follow with faith. When opportunity to serve God arises, we should take it.

The military men and their generation from the first time God told them to enter Canaan, except Joshua and Caleb, died during their forty-year wandering. The first generation did not take the opportunity God gave them to see the Promised Land. By the time God told the Israelites a second time to enter Canaan, they stood at the border before Sihon’s land. The Israelites crossed into Edom from Kadesh Barnea and to Moab over the Zered River. As the Israelites sat at the border, Moses recalled to them twice, in verses fourteen and fifteen, what occurred to the earlier generation who rebelled and did not follow God into the Promised Land. Their fear kept them from entering and their faithlessness sealed their future to die in outside of God’s Promised Land. God always fulfills His promises. His will ultimately prevails. The Israelites of the next generation proved they were courageous enough to take advantage of this great opportunity – God was on their side so who could prevail against them. God showed them the Arnon Valley from Moab. He told them His plan to give the lands of Sihon to them. God said He would put the fear of the Israelites into the hearts of the Amorites (vs. 24-31).

            As He did for their journey through Edom and Moab, God told Moses to send messengers to King Sihon asking permission to travel in his land. God worked in Sihon’s heart. Sihon hardened his heart against the Israelites. God wanted Sihon to fight the Israelites so He could give Sihon’s land to the Israelites by conquering it (vs. 31). The Israelites trusted God’s promise that He would care for them. Their military men died in the wandering. At this point, only God could give the victory for the Israelites. Sihon called war on the Israelites and they battled at Jahaz. In the end, the Israelites won the battle. They killed all the people. Moses gave the glory to God in verse thirty-three when he said, “The Lord our God delivered him (Sihon) over to us and we defeated him with his sons and all his people.” Part of the Promised Land now belonged to the Israelites. In chapter three, we find the Israelites approached King Og the same way. A messenger went from the Israelites asking for passage through Og’s land. Og refused and determined to fight the Israelites. The Argob, Og’s kingdom, contained sixty fortified cities and many smaller towns. The Israelites killed all the people in Og’s kingdom and the Israelites took the cities and towns. We must see first that God determined the outcome of the battle before the first attack (3:3). God promised the victory and received the credit for the victory (vs. 2-3). Moses made sure the people recognized God as their victor in these battles. He reminded them by proclaiming the victory as God’s own. The Israelites continued success came from their continued faithfulness.

 I must make a point at this place in our study. Many people throughout history say God is a killing God and they refer back to the taking of Canaan for the Israelites. We need to go back to Deuteronomy 20:16-18. God told them to kill all the people when taking over the land so they would not bow to the gods of Canaan. Moses said it this way,

Only in the cities of these peoples that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not leave alive anything that breathes. But you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittite and the Amorite, the Canaanite and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, as the LORD your God has commanded you, so that they may not teach you to do according to all their detestable things which they have done for their gods, so that you would sin against the LORD your God. [NASB]

In Genesis 15:16, the Amorites are evil, so their destruction was God’s judgment upon them. Destroying the city’s inhabitants was not normal for Israelite warfare in the Bible. The time of God giving them His Promised Land was unique and crucial. The conquering of the lands from other nations was a fulfilling of God’s promise to Abraham and judgment upon the people of the other nations for worshipping false gods.

            After Og’s defeat, Moses distributed the land on the east side of the Jordan River to two and a half tribes - Reuben, Manasseh, and Gad. The men of these two and one half tribes pledged an oath to battle with the rest of the Israelites until the Israelites conquered all of the Promised Land, after which they could return to the east side to plant, shepherd, and be with their wives and children (3:12-20). Before the Israelites crossed the Jordan River, God told Moses he would not enter the Promised Land because he did not quell the rebellion of the Israelites when they did not enter the Promised Land forty years prior. He did tell Moses Joshua would lead them into Canaan. Moses charged Joshua not to fear the people and to remember God was the One fighting for them (vs. 21-22, 28). After Moses pleaded with God an additional time to let him cross into Canaan, God’s anger rose and He commanded Moses never to speak of it again (vs. 26). He did allow Moses to see the land from the top of Mount Pisgah/Mount Nebo, near the valley opposite Beth-Peor where the Israelites encamped.

            You may be wondering what this story has to do with us. How does God’s working in 1400 BC have anything to do with today? We need to consider a few things. God’s will ultimately prevails. He gave a promise to Abraham many generations before the exodus of the Israelites. God always fulfills His promises. I think of a time when I attended church during my university years. One day while listening to the preacher, I felt God calling me to serve Him. I gave my life to serve Him on that day when I was twenty-one years old. God promised to provide what I needed. God did not whisk me away at once to a foreign country. He did remind me that He called me several times during the next years. I continued my studies and graduated. God provided a good job, house, and car for me. I was happy and settled into adult life. Nine months after I bought the house, God called me again, this time to seminary - one-step closer to ministry. Now, twenty-seven years later, I can say I have been serving in full-time ministry to Him for the last fourteen and one-half years. God’s promise to use me for His service is fulfilled. He has always provided what we needed. God’s will prevailed. He is persistent and perfect. God’s purpose will occur.

Maybe you feel you missed an opportunity to do what God asked you to do, like the first Israelites of the exodus as they faced God’s gift of the Promised Land. Maybe fear kept you from doing what God asked the first time - fear of moving to a new city or job. You can return to God, recognize His will, and give Him your life to do what He wants. God will take you for His purposes whenever you give your life to Him. Remember, we each have responded to some of God’s challenges with fear and disobedience. These three chapters of Deuteronomy remind us that God has a wonderful way of giving us fresh opportunities. When we are ready to follow God no matter what He asks of us, He is ready to use us for His purposes. We each can redeem the past by seeing the opportunities God puts before us and claiming God’s promise, just as the second generation of Israelites did. Our faithfulness to God has a cumulative effect. The more often our decisions reflect God’s will, the easier it will be to follow when God calls us to something next time and the more we will discover blessings in our lives. We might not see the blessings immediately, but God works in His own way and time. He rewards faithfulness. He just asks that we trust Him, stay faithful, and act with courage.

            Life brings changes and challenges. These changes and opportunities are chances to serve, walk, and learn with God, not just to receive things from Him. When we see them as opportunities, we will start to see God’s hand leading. We can enjoy being a part of what God is doing around us. How, then, can we be more responsive to God in our surroundings and circumstances? Consider these:

  1. Do not let past failures decide your worth in serving God. We each miss some of God’s opportunities. Accept God’s offer and take the opportunity to walk with Him.
  2. Look at changes as times for exploring new ways to serve and work with God.
  3. Determine where God is leading by reading the Bible, praying, meditating on His Word, listening to sermons and Sunday School lessons, and talking with other Christians.
  4. Trust that God will give you what you need to do His will and follow His plans. The Israelites trusted Him and He gave them courage. We demonstrate trust by being willing to go into areas we have never been. God does not back out on His plans and leave a person stranded. He is faithful to His children and His promises. God promises He will be with us wherever He leads us (Deuteronomy 31:6, 8: Joshua 1:9; Hebrews 13:5).

God gave the Israelites a new opportunity to trust Him and claim His promises. This second time facing the Promised Land, they trusted Him and He gave them the land He promised. What has God been saying to you lately? Do you need to step out in faith and trust to follow Him in a new opportunity? Remember, God is always faithful and He loves you. He will never fail you.

Trust Him.

Step out in Faith in God.

[i]         A. H. Sayce. W. B. Eerdmanns Publishing, 1939. Amorites from (accessed July 21, 2014).