Conquest

(Joshua’s Victory over the Amorites, Nicolas Poussin, 1594-1665, oil on canvas, 97.5 x 134 cm)

Five books down.  Sixty-one to go.  If you’ve kept up with the Chronological Bible Reading Plan, you’re well on your way.  We’ve completed the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Number, and Deuteronomy) and, in terms of the story of the people of Israel, we find ourselves on the cusp of the Land of Canaan as we begin the book of Joshua.

Prior to the transition of leadership to Joshua, Yahweh revealed Himself to Moses and through mighty acts of salvation God redeemed His people out of bondage in Egypt.  Once emancipated, the people received the law at Sinai through which God established His covenant love for Israel.  Now, with Joshua at the helm, God is presented as the divine Warrior who carries His people into the Promised Land where they will find rest.

That sounds nice, right?

Yeah… until you get to the wholesale slaughter of the Canaanites, sparing not even woman or child.  What’s up with that?

Even the most seasoned Christian bristles at what initially appears to be divinely sanctioned barbarism used to expand Israel’s territory and annihilate anyone who stands in the way.  Surely it is examples like the ones found in Joshua that incite so many who are hostile to Scripture to accuse God of being blood thirsty, an ethnic cleanser, or, at the very least, bipolar (i.e. the God of the Old Testament is a God of wrathful judgment while the God of the New Testament is a God of gracious love).   Atheist Richard Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion, is famously quoted as saying, “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”  Try saying that ten times fast.

If you call yourself a Christian, you can neither downplay these issues with pat answers nor ignore them as inexplicable anomalies.  You see, truth without love is abuse.  Love without truth is neglect.  Jesus Christ, who is the very same God of the Old and New Testaments, embodies the Gospel as an alternative – a third way marrying truth and love in which God’s righteous judgment and His tender mercy exist in perfect harmony.

Therefore, as we seek to navigate the book of Joshua, it will be helpful to keep in mind a few key ideas.  First, God is Creator and therefore all that we see is His.  We are tenants and He is, quite literally, our landLord.  In other words, God owns first right to any and all land.  If He wants a particular geographic area for His purpose, it is well within His prerogative to seize it.  Second, all people are sinners.  Therefore, all people are worthy of the judgment of God who is perfectly righteous and holy.  The Pentateuch provides moral rationale for the destruction of the Canaanites.  Their wickedness was evident and judgment was just (Genesis 15:13-16; Leviticus 18:24-30; Deuteronomy 9:5).  Israel was the agent through which God’s judgment was administered and a vessel through which His righteous intentions were made clear.  Third, through the Mosaic covenant ratified at Sinai, membership in the people of God necessarily required dual obligations both to the “church” (faith in Yahweh) and the “state” (identity as an Israelite).  In this way, God instituted a theocracy for Old Testament Israel, one whose political and religious purity was to be preserved.  If unrepentant Canaanites were permitted to remain in the land, their influence would likely dangerously syncretize Israel’s life and worship (and eventually, in fact, it did).  Fourth, and finally, while the destruction of the Canaanites was stated unequivocally and uncompromisingly, God’s grace was always available to non-Israelites to surrender and live, especially through a genuine profession of faith (e.g. Rahab in 2:9; the Gibeonites in 9:1-27).  These four factors speak to the justice and rationale for the events that occur in this significant period of Israel’s history.

Before I wrap this up, we must consider the Christology present in the book of Joshua.  As we’ve seen before through Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Moses, many Old Testament characters serve to prefigure Christ in different ways.  The same is true for Joshua, whose name means “to rescue/deliver” (or, more literally, “he saves”).  Etymologically, Joshua = Jesus, so that’s convenient.  But more substantively, Joshua is significant because where Moses failed, Joshua secured victory much like Jesus, on a cosmic scale, succeeded where Adam failed.  Like Joshua, Jesus completed the Exodus in the fullest sense, not simply by capturing the Promised Land (Canaan) through battle, but by securing the Promised Rest (salvation) through bloodshed – His own.  Jesus is the Interceder par excellence.  Plus, the Son of God makes a cameo in Joshua 5:13-15, which is pretty cool (what is known in theological terms as a “Christophany”).

As always, please feel free to ask questions.  You can either email me directly (mike@citychurchstl.org) or, if you’d like to start a broader conversation, you can post a public comment/question here on the blog.  Thanks for reading.


Review

(Noon: Rest from Work (after Millet), Vincent van Gogh, 1853-1890, oil on canvas, 73 x 91 cm)

Alright, people.  Hang in there.  If you’re working through the Chronological Bible Reading Plan and you’ve come to the book of Deuteronomy, it means that you’ve successfully conquered Leviticus and Numbers and you are to be commended.  Take a moment to pat yourself on the back.  Or, if you’re as inflexible as me, pat yourself on the upper shoulder blade.

The title “Deuteronomy” comes from a Greek word meaning “second law.”  The book does not introduce new laws; it reiterates those that have already been given to Israel at Sinai.  Deuteronomy could be subtitled “farewell instructions for a nation.”  Picture Moses as a preacher and the book of Deuteronomy as a collection of sermons given to a generation of Israelites on the cusp of the Promised Land (their long-awaited rest; see van Gogh).  Remember, God’s people had been in the wilderness for 40 years.  The audience’s parents had all died there due to their disobedience to the covenant (except for Joshua and Caleb).  Even Moses was prohibited from entering into the promised rest (Deut. 3:23-28).  Joshua, who had remained faithful, was to succeed Moses as leader.  Therefore, here, in the plains of Moab, Moses preached a series of sermons to prepare and equip the Hebrew people for the conquest of the land under the leadership of Joshua.  Moses is the author of most of Deuteronomy (“most” because he surely didn’t record his own death – that would have been quite a trick).  The author who finished the book after Moses’ death was likely sanctioned by Moses to do so.

The structure of the book resembles that of a Near Eastern treaty which was meant as a guide for Israel to follow under Joshua’s leadership.  The following outline facilitated the work of God’s people to abide the covenant established under Moses:

  1. Preamble (1:1-4) – describing the God who established the covenant;
  2. Historical Prologue (1:5-4:43) – describing God’s past actions on behalf of the covenant people;
  3. Stipulations (4:44-26:19) – describing what God required of his covenant people;
  4. Blessings, Curses, Ratification (27:1-30:20) – describing how the covenant people’s actions would affect the way God treated the covenant people, and confirming that the covenant was in force;
  5. Succession (31:1-34:12) – describing the fact that Joshua would take over leadership of the covenant community when Moses died.[1]

There are a lot of different kinds of laws and rules in the book of Deuteronomy.  But it’s important to remember the point of it all.  The goal was not to create a litigious society of rigid regulation, but to emphasize that the ethical fabric of Israel’s theocracy was aimed at community holiness and wholeness.   Do not lose sight of the fact that for all of its legal conventions, the book of Deuteronomy ultimately addresses the most important reality of all – the condition of the human heart in response to God’s grace.  In fact, the heartbeat of the book is something called the Shema (“hear”).  It was Israel’s little creed and it is found in Deuteronomy 6:4-9, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

If you were to cling to one thing as you make your way through this book, let it be this: the covenant described in Deuteronomy is fulfilled in Christ, and the blessings offered are realized and furthered in Christ.  All Old Testament history points to Jesus and so the Messiah-to-come should always be on the forefront of our minds as we read Israel’s history.  As always, please feel free to ask questions.  You can either email me directly (mike@citychurchstl.org) or, if you’d like to start a broader conversation, you can post a public comment/question here on the blog.  Thanks for reading.


[1] From Ra McLaughlin, webmaster and Vice President of Curriculum, Third Millennium Ministries


Wanderings

(Moses Shown the Promised Land, Benjamin West; 1738-1820)

Have you ever been lost?  Really lost?  It’s a sinking feeling – to wander aimlessly.  It’s especially frustrating when you know you are in the vicinity of your destination.  All the more troubling when your own foolish stubbornness is the reason for your disorientation.  Such is the context for Numbers, the fourth book of the Pentateuch about the spiritual and geographical wanderings of the people of God.

The point of the book of numbers was to prepare God’s people to enter the Promised Land – Canaan.  It’s a book about generational lessons.  In this case, Moses was urging the second generation of liberated Israelites to not make the same mistakes as the generation that preceded them.  We would do well to heed this warning in our day.  The Christian church is far from having arrived.  A’ la Bill Murray in the movie Groundhog Day, we seemingly keep stepping in the same puddles with each successive generation.  We continue to harbor cultural blind spots, exhibit missional lethargy, and generally possess a lack of zeal for the cause of Christ in the Kingdom of God.  Unfortunately for us twenty-first century Americans, the 20 and 30-somethings of our day are the most historically illiterate people… ever.  We know far less about our forefathers than our forefathers knew about theirs.  As a result, we are more likely not to learn from their mistakes due to our ignorance.

The book of Numbers picks up the story from the closing chapters of Exodus.  The story begins with God taking an inventory of Israel’s warriors, arranging the people’s camp, and orienting their travel plans.  Then, in Numbers 10, the people of God depart from Sinai on their way to the land of promised rest – Canaan.  Along the way, however, they must deal with the consequences of their own rebellion.  But where the first generation stumbled, the second generation would regroup to conquer the Promised Land.

The spiritual wanderings and rebellion of the people of God in the book of Numbers echoes the human condition of our day as well.  It’s a tremendously relevant book.  One of the only things that all human beings are universally good at is failing.  But be encouraged!  The book of Numbers is also full of hope, calling all faithful followers of God (of every generation) to start anew and trust God’s provision, protection, and promised peace.  In Christ, Christians are made new (2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15) – the old has gone, the new has come.  In the midst of our wandering, those who claim Christ are indelibly tethered to the One who finds the lost, rescues the destitute, and heals the sick.  He is our Great Redeemer and the One in whom our aimless wandering, hopelessness, and rebellion is answered.

As always, please feel free to ask questions.  You can either email me directly (mike@citychurchstl.org) or, if you’d like to start a broader conversation, you can post a public comment/question here on the blog.  Thanks for reading.


Sacrifice

(The Sacrificial Lamb, Josefa de Ayala; Portuguese, ca. 1630-1684)

They say that the state of Pennsylvania is the portion of the Appalachian Trail where boots go to die.  Its particularly rocky terrain and diverse geography are torture on bodies and footwear alike.  Similarly, it could be said that the book of Leviticus is the portion of Scripture where Bible reading plans go to die.  Its particularly foreign terrain (all those laws!) and obscure context present a real challenge to the reader’s sense of momentum coming out of the book of Exodus.  Having stated this, please… stick with it.  The going won’t be easy.  But hopefully, if we can gauge our expectations appropriately, we’ll be able to traverse these strange Levitical lands successfully.

Let’s establish at the outset that the cultural context of Leviticus is radically different than our own.  There is little in this book to which we in twenty-first century America will connect or relate.  As a result, we can expect to encounter laws and rituals in this book that are just plain weird.  But the point of these oddities was to rightly orient the life and worship of Israel in order to set them apart from the surrounding nations.

A former professor of mine (who happens to be a Leviticus scholar) used to regularly proclaim while teaching, “Context is king!”  This is especially true when reading Leviticus.  We must remember that what we encounter in this book is part of a much larger story, one rooted in the Exodus.  Author Collin Hansen summarized the backdrop of Exodus this way:

 In Exodus the Lord delivers his people from slavery with mighty signs and wonders (1-15) and brings them to Sinai (16-19), telling them there that they are to be His “kingdom of priests and holy nation.” He confirms their kingdom status by entering into a covenant with them as their king and giving them kingdom laws to follow (20-24). But that is not all! He is going to be a king who is near to them, dwelling in their very midst, and this is why He proceeds to give them directions for His tabernacle, His earthly palace (25-31, 35-40). And all of this leads to a very burning question if you’re an Israelite: How in the world can the holy and pure King of the universe dwell among His sinful and impure people?

The answer to that question is found in the book of Leviticus.  Leviticus taught the Israelites how to live in relationship with God and how to function within the covenant boundaries He established through Moses.  The book unveiled the intricate sacrificial system that ordered their worship.  It outlined the order of priests who interceded for them.  It taught them how to deal with impurity, what ceremonies and rituals were necessary in their annual worship cycle.   In short, Leviticus taught Israel how to live like a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6).

This is all well and good, but what does it have to do with us?  Well, put simply, only when we begin to wrap our minds around the sacrificial system found in Leviticus will we be able to comprehend and appreciate the death of Christ which made purification for sins (Hebrews 1:3).  Leviticus helps us to understand fundamental concepts like atonement, sin, impurity, sacrifice, and priesthood – all of which are essential to our understanding of the Gospel which comes to fruition in Jesus, our great High Priest.

So, as you continue with the chronological Bible reading plan through Leviticus, keep your eye on the prize – and I don’t mean simply finishing the book.  I mean Jesus.  Look to Him – “the Founder and Perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”  As always, please feel free to ask questions.  You can either email me directly (mike@citychurchstl.org) or, if you’d like to start a broader conversation, you can post a public comment/question here on the blog.  Thanks for reading.


Exit

(Exodus 7:19 by Alyse Radenovic, acrylic on canvas, 16″x20″)

A burning bush, sorcery, plagues, a parted sea, mass emancipation, the ten commandments – the book of Exodus is nothing if not interesting.  The most interesting thing about the story of Exodus, however, is the way it anticipates Jesus.  From the very beginning, Moses acts as a type of Christ.  Both Moses and Jesus were spared death as infants under the tyrannical reign of no-good kings (Pharoah/Herod).  Both men’s mission was to rescue God’s people from bondage to slavery (Egypt/sin).  In preparation for their mission, both men withdrew in solitude to fast and pray for 40 days (mountain/wilderness).  Both men were scorned and rejected by their own people.  There are other noteworthy connections, but even these are sufficient to draw the reader into this unique period of Israel’s history.

Within the book itself there exist multiple layers of allusion.  For example, what happens to Moses early in his life foreshadows what happens to Israel.  In his book A House For My Name: A Survey of the Old Testament, Peter J. Leithart explains:

Everything that happens to Moses early in the book of Exodus will happen to Israel.  Moses is saved through the water, and the whole nation will be saved through the sea.  Jochebed places Moses in the “reeds” along the river (Exodus 2:3), and he will bring Israel through the “Sea of Reeds” (Exodus 13:18).  He flees to Midian, where he spends forty years (compare Acts 7:23 with Exodus 7:7), just as Israel will have to spend forty years in the wilderness because of her rebellion.  While Moses is among the Midianites, Yahweh appears to him in a burning bush on Mount Horeb (Exodus 3:1-2), just as the Lord will appear at Horeb to the whole nation after Exodus.  Moses is the head of Israel, and whatever happens to the head will happen to the body.” (page 77)

The story of the people of Israel under Moses is both captivating and fascinating.  But perhaps the most theologically poignant foreshadowing of all occurs in Exodus 20 with the Passover.  There we read of how through the tenth and final plague the wrath of God was kindled and His judgment swept through Egypt killing all firstborn children.  To be spared, the people of God were instructed to sacrifice a spotless lamb and mark their doorposts with its blood so that the Spirit of God would pass over them.  Pharaoh had enough and he released the Israelites to their freedom.  The Passover anticipates Jesus beautifully.

So, in consideration of the broader narrative of Scripture, Jesus, the Christ, not only reflects Moses in His role as Emancipator, but He also functions as the unblemished Lamb, sacrificing Himself and granting lasting salvation through His blood for all who would believe by grace through faith.  In Christ we see true deliverance, true obedience, and the true fulfillment of the law that was first given to Moses on Mt. Sinai.

I hope as you read through the book of Exodus you find it rich and engaging.  And as we continue to make our way through Scripture I want to invite you to ask questions along the way.  You can either email me directly (mike@citychurchstl.org) or, if you’d like to start a broader conversation, you can post a public comment/question here on the blog.  Thanks for reading.


Beginnings

(The Sacrifice of Isaac by Caravaggio, 1590-1610; oil on canvas)

Genesis (which means “origin”) is a book about beginnings.  Most importantly, the book of Genesis details the creation of the earth, the start of humanity, the introduction of disharmony, and the initiation of God’s plan of salvation that would see its culmination in Jesus Christ.  In this sense it is one of the most important books in the whole of Scripture.  Genesis forms the foundation upon which the rest of the Bible stands and it is the backbone of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy).  It is quoted 31 times in the New Testament (9 of which occur in the apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans).

If you’ve been keeping up with the chronological Bible reading plan, you have recently resumed reading Genesis, starting in chapter 12 with the call of Abram.  An overview of where we’ve been and where we’re headed might help orient you amidst all of the names, places, and plot developments in this rich historical book:

Where we’ve been:

  1. Genesis 1-2  God the Creator makes the world and everything in it
  2. Genesis 3:1-6:4  God judges sinners justly and establishes Himself as Savior of His people
  3. Genesis 6:5-11:9  God punishes rebellion and rewards repentance

Where we’re headed:

  1. Genesis 11:10-25:18  God covenants with His people and promises to bless them (He would make them a great nation [Israel] in a great land [Canaan] where they would be a blessing to the nations)
  2. Genesis 25:19-28:9  God provides for His people through faithfulness to His covenant promises
  3. Genesis 28:10-36:43  God elects and protects
  4. Genesis 37-50  God accomplishes His purposes despite man’s rebellion and disobedience

Genesis is a colorful and interesting story spanning roughly 2 millennia of history.  It is not intended to be an exhaustive record of everything that happened or exactly how it came to be.  Rather, Genesis is a story about God, the problem of sin, and God’s solution to that problem – an unfolding plan of redemption through a particular family (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph).  The author was Moses and the audience was the people of Israel after their exodus from Egypt (about 1445 B.C.).  The context of the primary audience is important in considering the key themes that thread throughout the book (nation, land, blessing, covenant, obedience, and worship to name a few).

Something that will be helpful to keep in mind as you read: anytime one of the leaders of God’s people acts foolishly, selfishly, or disobediently (e.g. Abraham concealing Sarai’s identity in Egypt in Genesis 12:10-20) the reader should identify with him/her.  In other words, in Scripture, when a follower of God screws up, the reader should read from the perspective of the guilty party (rather than God who is righteous).  At times it can be easy to assume the place of judge against the follies and waywardness of the Bible’s main characters, but only God is Judge.  The reader never escapes the lessons of Scripture – and Genesis is full of them.  I hope you find the journey rich and compelling.


A Helpful Guide To Reading Scripture

You may recognize the image above as the cover art for Neon Bible, indie-rock band Arcade Fire’s sophomore album released in the spring of 2007.  It is a great album.  Recorded in an old church, many of the songs possess a tone of spiritual angst and searching.  The title track pulsates with mellow, cryptic, and unnerving lyrics that leave the listener wondering, “What does it mean?

Sometimes – perhaps more often than we’d like to admit – this is our experience when reading Scripture.  At times, the language and style of writing is cumbersome, the context is foreign, and the purpose of a given passage is not always immediately clear.  And so we are left wondering, “What does it mean?

Inquiring as to the meaning of Scripture is fundamental to our understanding of God.  But the search for knowledge can become discouraging if the means (the Bible) seem only to frustrate the end (one’s relationship with God).  Rather than feel defeated, we must simply learn how to read, interpret, and apply Scripture.  Like any fruitful discipline, it is a skill that requires practice, dedication, and patience.

The following guidelines have been adapted from Tim Keller, a pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.  They may be helpful to you as you learn how to read Scripture.  These four points will frame your time of study, meditation, and prayer as you work through a given Bible passage.

  1. Adoration – How can I love God on the basis of this passage? What is in here that I can praise Him for?
  1. Repentance (through which we ask for forgiveness) – How do I fail to realize this truth in my life?  What wrong behavior, harmful emotions or attitudes result when I forget this?
  1. Gospel Thanks – How can I thank Jesus as the ultimate revelation of this attribute of God (point #1) and the ultimate answer to this sin or need of mine (point #2)?
  1. Aspiration – How does this show me what I can be and/or what I should do?  How would I be different if this truth were powerfully real to me?

This is not the only way to study the Bible, just one example.  But my hope is that through it you will be able to develop the skill of relating to Scripture as nourishment, not mere information.  If you have any questions or comments, please don’t hesitate to post them here or email me directly (mike@citychurchstl.org).