You have heard this before and you will no doubt hear it again. Idolatry was the greatest enemy of the spiritual life of the Jewish nation and the judges and Levites had to be alert enough to detect it and courageous enough to deal with it. And, they had to be careful they did not get sucked into idol worship either. The temptation was to place the things of pagan/Baal worship as close to the places the Israelites worshiped as possible. That way the Israelites could be enticed to worship both the Lord and pagan gods too. If the judges and Levites were devoted to the Lord, they would carefully investigate such practices, get the facts, condemn the guilty, and remove the idols from the land. It also meant removing the idolators from the land by stoning them to death. The people HAD to put the Lord first at all times. We can’t emphasize enough how unspeakably dirty and immoral the pagans and their worship were. There was blind superstition mixed with gross immorality. With human nature being what it is the Jews would be attracted to gods they could see and touch and ceremonies that appealed to their sensual appetites. This is why God wanted all of the pagans wiped out from the promised land…to prevent temptation from overtaking His people so that they would worship idols instead of Him.
Another thing you see in these readings is the different set of requirements for the leaders of the Israelites vs. the rest of the people. In looking at the instructions for the king in the last half of chapter 17, the general population has been instructed to write God’s Word on their door posts and wear scripture on their foreheads and hands. And they have been called to teach God’s Word to the next generation. Kings are also to write a copy of God’s Law and keep it with them at all times, learning to revere the Lord and follow the words of the Law. If he manages to do this, and not let his head swell with importance or pride, and he keeps his focus on the Lord, then, he and his descendants will reign a long time. But woe to those who forsake the Lord, His laws, and His Word.
Moses was also worried that the people would forget the Levites and fail to provide for them with their offerings. The reality is, if the people forgot the Levites that also meant they were not bringing offerings to the Lord. And that meant they were either not worshiping at all, or they were worshiping the pagan gods and idols. Moses is even specific about what parts of an animal the Levites/priests are to receive. They receive the shoulder, the jowls, and the inner parts. They also receive the first fruits of grain, new wine, and oil. And the wool from the first shearing of the sheep. This was God’s provision for the ones He had set aside to serve Him.
As I was reading today, I had an “Aha” moment. I have read scripture many times through, but in chapter 19 of today’s reading I came upon something I don’t remember reading before. As the Israelites move into the promised land, they are to set aside six cities of refuge, three on each side of the Jordan River. When you look at the territory God has promised to give the Israelites it extends East all the way to the Euphrates River and West to the Mediterranean Sea. However, we know the Israelites did not defeat that many nations and people. In fact, they didn’t defeat any more than they needed to, to be able to settle down. They never went any farther East than the tribes of Gad, Reuben, and the half tribe of Manasseh. But in the later part of chapter 17 God gave instructions that when the Israelites conquered more of the land AND the people are obedient, they are to add three more cities of refuge. That part I don’t ever remember reading before. We know they didn’t conquer more land. And they weren’t obedient for long either.
One of God’s prohibitions for the Israelites was that they were not to return to Egypt. We also see that every single part of Israel’s life is bound up with the Lord. Notice God already knows Israel will meet armies with much better weapons, greater numbers, and more advanced technology than they have. The Israelites were not entering the promised land as sightseers. They were entering as soldiers who would fight and take over possession of the land…with the Lord’s help. But they were not to worry because they have on their side something no one else has…the Lord. The priest will remind them of God and His power and might before they go into battle. And Moses reminds them it is not in their own strength they fight, but in the strength of the Lord. The Israelites were not to fear because God would fight with and for them. But there are different kinds of fear. There is fear that sends people into action. And there is fear that paralyzes people. That was the fear Moses was worried about for the Israelites. What is interesting is all the exceptions for serving. These were temporary deferments. The first involved a new house that hadn’t been dedicated yet. The family had not yet moved into their house and at that point the family needed the man more than the army did. He was given a year deferment. The second was having a new vineyard and not yet having a harvested a crop. Leviticus 19:23-25 reminds us that the owner of an orchard or vineyard could not harvest until the fifth year, but the deferment would not be that long. The vineyard was new to the man but not a new vineyard so he would be able to have one harvest and then his deferment would end. The third was a year-long deferment so a man could get married and spend the first year of his marriage with his wife.
These three exceptions are a sign that God really does want us to enjoy the common blessings in our lives…homes, harvests, and honeymoons. The military service was not to be an excuse for neglecting their families. The Lord wanted the people to have the right priorities in their lives. What good would military victories do if things were falling apart back home? The priests asked the men to look up and trust the Lord, and the officers asked them to look back and consider any unfinished business that would hinder them from doing their best. Being scared spitless was also a reason for deferment. Fear is contagious and the officers didn’t need an army full of men too afraid to fight. (Think the Israelites shaking in their armor in front of Goliath.)
When you stop and think about it, the church today is also engaged in battle. We are fighting the evil in the world and trying to fend off the evil one who is always crouching at the door like a roach, waiting to get in. But we are also the hands and feet of Jesus, the light of the world and salt. Like the Israelites, we do not fight these fights on our own. The Lord goes with us too, wherever He sends us. We are called to rely on His strength and lean into Him when the challenges seem insurmountable. Just like the Israelites.
In His Grip,
Pastor Matt W.