An Assault on a Promise to Abraham

For the sons of Judah have done evil in my sight, declares the Lord. They have set their detestable things in the house that is called by my name, to defile it. And they have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind. (Jeremiah 7:30-31)

Reading through the prophets you come across a long list of the sins of God’s people, a people who are called to be set apart from their neighbors, who are supposed to be a holy nation. To me, this one stands out among the rest. They have not only been guilty of evil, but they have done their evil in the house of God. They have built up Topheth for a horrifying practice, sacrificing their sons and daughters. These “sons of Judah” have sacrificed their own flesh in pagan practices by throwing their children into the flames.

Michelangelo’s depiction of Jeremiah from the Sistine Chapel.

How much sorrow must this cause our God? He has many times seen his people turn away from him, which causes him grief. But here the sin of the parents is to destroy their own children. Judah is taking the lives of God’s people and in so doing, upending the promises of God. They are no longer cherishing the promise of God to Abraham and his descendants. Instead they cast the promised children into this Valley of Slaughter.

God promised Abraham offspring so numerous they’d be impossible to count and Abraham longed for a child. Children were an honor and a blessing. But here in Jeremiah as descendants of Abraham receive this promise, they mock God and his promises. It is evil in God’s sight as they slaughter their own kin–something so far from God’s mind.

This is a clear reason why Jeremiah comes to preach judgment, and good reason that he is known as the weeping prophet (Jer 9).

Introduction to Deuteronomy

Deuteronomy is the fifth and final book the Pentateuch, so well done at making it this far. As you begin reading it, I thought I’d give you a bit of background.

Deuteronomy tells us in the opening line of its author, Moses. These first books are commonly called the Law of Moses and are attributed to him (eg. Matthew 19:7-8, Acts 3:22-23), but there is debate as to what exactly this includes. Due to some of the literary formatting and content such as an account of Moses’ own death, it is thought there is additional help from editors or authors to take the words of Moses and fit them into a greater narrative.

The book begins where the previous left off, and ends there as well, on the plains of Moab (Dt. 34). It is a time for Israel to prepare itself for what will come in Joshua, the delayed conquest of the land that God had promised them, and for Moses to transfer leadership and give his parting words. We find in Deuteronomy another instance of the Ten Commandments and a renewal of the covenant with God.

Moses empfängt die Gesetzestafeln, c. 840

Think about the overall story we’ve seen so far. God has made a world for us to live in and it was good. But we sinned. We disobeyed and turned from God, bringing sin into creation. Having been cast out of the garden, you’d think the people would be alone. Yet God does not forget humanity. He chooses for himself a people and calls Abraham out to be the father of many nations. As we read, it isn’t because he was a perfect man–nor was Isaac or Jacob, or the other so-called patriarchs. God chose us and he remains perfectly faithful as we are too often faithless.

God promises a land to his people, but there is an interlude in Egypt during which the Israelites are slaves. By God’s strong hand he delivers them from bondage, showing his might to Israel’s enemies. He guides them out of oppression toward a promise of a land to call their own. All along the way the people grumble and complain, looking back favorably on Egypt. Working through his servant, Moses, God disciplines his people, but never leaves us. He gives us laws to guide us and sets up camp right in the midst of the people.

He actively guides them to the doorstep of the promised land, a land the scouts see is full of milk and honey, but also of formidable enemies. So even though God has been with them from the time of Abraham and literally camps with them in the tabernacle, their fear overwhelms them and they reject God’s will. So the promised land remains for God’s people a promise, but for a new generation. They wander one year for every day the scouts were in Canaan. For forty years they continue in the wilderness until, at the end of Numbers, their great numbers camp again at the doorstep.

Moses knows he will not enter with them, only Joshua and Caleb have that privilege from the generation that disobeyed. Deuteronomy is the book that further sets the scene for the final transition that began with Abraham and will come to fruition with Joshua. Israel are a people of the promise. God told Abraham to leave the land he knew and follow, and the people have been following with the hope of a land to call their own. And now in Deuteronomy, they are almost there.

Grace Precedes Law

We finally come to the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20, a codified law for God’s people. To many, the law characterizes the Old Testament and the old covenant, and given its prominence not only here, but throughout the many books of the Old Testament, it isn’t hard to understand that view. But do not forget the preceding chapters and stories in Exodus and Genesis.

God graciously created this world and placed us in it. God has provided for a people that he chose for himself, not based on their superiority as a people, but because of his grace. God called Abraham out to be the father of many nations, made a covenant with him, and while Abraham struggles in his faith, God remains ever faithful. He protects his people, provides for them, and in Exodus we see how God set them free from the oppression in Egypt.

God did not come to Moses and deliver two tablets of stone and say, “Moses, deliver these to the people. Gather all the elders and proclaim this law to them, and let it be known that whoever keeps it perfectly will be rewarded. In five years, I’ll be back, and if you were good, I’ll have a chat with Pharaoh about letting you go.”

Instead God hears the cries of his people and frees them from Egypt. He sets them free, parts waters, gives manna from Heaven, and also as an act of grace, he then gives them this law. Grace precedes the law. The Israelites were never a people who earned or deserved God’s favor. They did not merit it. God chose them for himself, and in his grace saves them. The law follows as a way to live as God’s people, and a way to live well.

Be careful when simplistically dividing the Old and New Testaments as though one were law and the other grace, as though grace were absent in the beginning. The Bible is a book that reveals to us who our God is, and we see he is and always has been a God of grace.

Look Out for Joseph

We finish Genesis reading about Joseph and we learn that he was more than just a stylish dresser. Pay close attention to him and how he differs from previous characters of the book. Whereas Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob/Israel were blessed in many ways, but continued to mix their faithfulness with sin, Joseph’s situation is very different. He is hated by his brothers, thrown into a pit, sold to slavery, and labors in a foreign land, and how does he respond?

Others couple God’s explicit blessings with their own mistakes. Abraham is concerned for his safety so he lies about Sarah, multiple times. Jacob is characterized by his trickery in order to receive further blessings. But, Joseph in the midst of trials and difficulties exhibits strong character.

He brings in a different pattern, so pay attention to him and how he acts, regardless of the circumstances, as we finish Genesis.

The Story So Far, Week 2

We are almost at the end of another week of reading and it has been another week packed full of stories from Genesis. We talked during our reading group about the continuing journey of Abraham and focused a good deal about Jacob/Israel.

One thing that struck me that connects Genesis and John was the hard truth Jesus speaks about how many events in life are there to bring glory to God. What makes this hard is that these events may not be what we find enjoyable.

Jesus heals a blind man in John 9, and people wondered who sinned to bring about this man’s blindness. Jesus’ response is that he did not sin, nor his parents, rather he was born blind so that the works of God might be displayed in him. Surely this man rejoiced at being healed by Jesus, but it must be difficult to look back on years of blindness that were in service of bringing glory to God.

Jesus’ friend Lazarus is sick and his sisters urge Jesus to come quickly to help. Jesus does not hurry and instead stays two additional days before setting out. He says to his disciples, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” The illness does lead to death, but that death is not final as Lazarus is raised from the dead. Again a seemingly tragic event turned around to bring glory to God.

Back in Genesis, Abraham is tested by God as God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. It is a devastating task set before Abraham. But as he is faithful and obedient to God, Abraham learns more clearly just how perfect God’s provision is and God receives glory in providing a ram.

Difficult conditions and tests of life are still difficult for us, even if they do ultimately give glory to God. But this is one of the hard truths of faith that we are always trying to better accept and understand. We are not our own and our lives are to be like living sacrifices, pleasing to God (Rom 12).

It helps me to remember that what God doesn’t require from Abraham, God has done himself. God has given us his only Son. God has endured the greatest sacrifice for our sake. Therefore if my life can in some way bring glory to the one who has brought life for me, I hope and pray that I can do so joyfully.

The Story So Far, Week 1

Here we are almost at the end of our very first week, so I thought I’d take a bit of time to reflect on what we’ve gone through so far and share some of the questions that sprang up during our two reading groups from Wednesday and Thursday.

Genesis always brings up questions about some of the mysterious characters we find in its chapters. The Nephilim were brought up in both groups, and I came prepared with the conclusive response: we just don’t know. There are some theories you can easily search and find on the internet, but we can’t be certain. Sometimes we need to be accepting of mystery and recognize we may not be able to know all things in all ways. But this story is just another example in Genesis about how creation continued to break from the perfect vision God had for it in the opening chapters. Adam and Eve seek to be like God, knowing good and evil. In their pride and disobedience they sin against God and their curse affects all creation. Adam and Eve were “fruitful and multiplied,” but Cain and Abel continue in their pattern of sin. Cain was jealous of his brother and resented God’s favor, so he killed Abel. Wickedness spread over the world as God’s order was resisted and people sought to be their own Lord. The Nephilim fall in line with that, and their entry into the story comes just before the flood, in which we see that God is not detached from his creation. All these rejections of him and his purposes for creation and the way in which his perfect creation is being perverted saddens God. It says in Genesis 6 that God is grieved.

God made this world and declared it good. He intended for us to be in relationship with him, and for that relationship to be ordered properly. But we see in Genesis that our sin distorts that relationship and in fact breaks it. There are many examples of the ways in which humanity disobeys and too often seeks to take the place of God or do the work that God alone can do.

The restoration of this relationship is another work that God alone can do. We turn to John and see again that God is not detached from creation, rather God did the unbelievable. God came into this fallen, wicked world in order to save it. There is a work that he alone could do, so to complete that work Jesus Christ came to us. Jesus Christ in John is shown to be greater than all that came before him, for he alone is the one sent from God, and in fact he is God.

Another mysterious figure is Melchizedek in Genesis, and later in the book of Hebrews Jesus is compared to him. But just as when he is compared to Jacob or Abraham in John, Jesus is seen as one who is even greater when he is compared to Melchizedek . Melchizedek is a priest and king who blesses Abraham, signifying a place of honor over Abraham. But Jesus is the one priest who we now have, who is even greater still. As you read through the Old and New Testaments together you will see the way that Jesus fulfills the signs, symbols, and actions of the Old and how he always does so in a way that is greater. The old is but a shadow of the reality that is in Christ (Col 2:17). We see that exemplified as well in John 3 as Jesus compares himself with a snake lifted up by Moses that brought healing (Numbers 21:8-9), yet Jesus brings healing in a more amazing way and the life he gives is eternal.

If you’ve had more questions or have insights from this last week, I’d love to hear from you. I’m praying for you as you continue this journey. I hope week one has been a joy.