Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Promised Land

After such a long time reading in Genesis, reading Exodus really felt like it flew by. Of course, we skimmed through some sections of Exodus, sections I hope you’ll go back to at a later date to read. It is interesting, if sometimes strange and confusing to read the instructions for the tabernacle and worship, plus the whole law and Sabbath instructions for Israel. But try to imagine it this way. What if you had to write down a very, very thorough description of how our church was built, what worship furniture sat where, what the altar and paraments and pulpit looked like, what actions the pastor and assisting minister and other worship participants took when they worshipped on Sunday mornings. I imagine you would quickly discover that such instructions and descriptions would take up many pages of a notebook. The conclusion of Exodus is like that, but on an even grander scale.

Next, you come to two books that are very important in Scripture, but also difficult to read straight through. Leviticus is a book for worship, and an instruction manual for clergy. It contains detailed instructions on how to offer sacrifice, how to ordain leaders, distinctions between clean and unclean things (because in ancient Israel, clean and unclean was an important part of proper worship). The only section of Leviticus we are reading are the instructions for the Year of Jubilee. These were early laws that helped establish justice, keeping people from being permanently wealthy or permanently poor. If a book on worship and sacrifice interests you, consider taking the time in the next two weeks to page through and read larger sections of this book.

Numbers is also a book of profound importance that is sometimes tedious to read (Holy Scripture is not holy on the basis of how fascinating or exciting it is). It’s a genealogy and numbering of God’s people who were in the wilderness wandering. It also tells many stories from their 40 years of wilderness wandering. It records how the Israelites, rather than being gracious for God liberating them from Egypt, grumbled and openly rebelled against God.

For the next two weeks, we are reading substantial sections of Deuteronomy and Joshua. Deuteronomy is basically three long sermons that Moses preaches to the people before they go into the Promised Land. They are speeches or sermons, and they do a number of interesting things. First, they recount the history of what God has already done—the giving of the 10 commandments and the great commandment (Deut. 5-6), the story of the Israelites rebellion and the commands of God (Deut. 1-4), various laws and instructions for the people (Deut. 5-25), and finally a sermon on life or death (Deut. 30) and the great song of Moses (Deut. 30-32). This book also records the death of Moses, the last event and chapter of these five books, the Pentateuch.

Since Moses is assumed to be the author and editor of all five of these books, it is appropriate that the last book is his sermon, and the last few chapters record his death. We cannot speak of the Torah without speaking of Moses. We cannot speak of Moses without speaking of the Torah. They are inextricably bound together.

Maybe the most important sentence in the whole of Deuteronomy, important at that time and still important today, for our own faith and for inter-religious dialogue, is this, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (6:4). This is the first and greatest commandment, and all other commandments are linked to it. When we begin recognizing other gods than the true God, then we also at the same time fall into the other sins catalogued in Scripture.

Finally, during these weeks we read incredibly dramatic history, the story of Israel going into the Promised Land. Joshua is chosen as Moses successor, and he is the one who leads the Israelites into victory over their enemies. Chapters 1-11 are the “book of war,” the story of the Israelites first spying on and then taking over the land. Chapters 12-24 record the distribution of this land to the twelve tribes of Israel. It is worth looking at a good map to see how the land is divided up among the twelve tribes—Simeon in the south, Judah just north of it, Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh along the eastern flank, Dan, Benjamin, Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar, and Zebulun all crunched into the space between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean, and finally Naphtali and Asher in the far north.

Consider reflecting during your reading on these themes: success and failure, grumbling and rebellion immediately after liberation and freedom; right worship and church leadership; the grand story of Moses and what we need to keep remembering of him; the importance the greatest commandment, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind,” and another like it, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” for your own life.

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