Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Leviticus 26

Leviticus 26: Rewards for obedience, and punishments for disobedience

Synopsis

The book of Leviticus, almost in its entirety, has been concerned with rules and regulations. In this chapter, God outlines for the Israelites what will happen to them if they obey those rules, and what will happen if they don’t.

First, however, He begins the chapter by reminding them of some rules He has already given them:

Do not make idols or set up an image or a sacred stone for yourselves, and do not place a carved stone in your land to bow down before it. I am the LORD your God.

Observe my Sabbaths and have reverence for my sanctuary. I am the LORD.

(verses 1–2)


God then outlines for the Israelites what will happen if they obey Him, if they “follow [His] decrees and are careful to obey [His] commands” (verse 3):
  • He will send rain in its season
  • The ground will yield its crops, and the trees will bear fruit
  • Their threshing will continue until the grape harvest, and the grape harvest will continue until planting—this part isn’t as immediately accessible, to me, not knowing much about farming
  • The Israelites will have all the food they want
  • They will live in their land in safety
  • There will be peace in the land. Verse 6 says “and you will lie down and no one will make you afraid,” which I think is a nicely poetic phrase.
  • God will remove “savage beasts” from the land (verse 6)
  • The sword will not pass through their country
  • When the Israelites pursue their enemies, the enemies will fall by the sword before them
    • Verse 8 says “Five of you will chase a hundred, and a hundred of you will chase ten thousand, and your enemies will fall by the sword before you.”
  • The LORD will be favourable toward the Israelites
  • They will be fruitful, and increase their numbers
  • He will keep His covenant with them
  • It is mentioned, above, that they would always have plentiful food to eat; this gets repeated in verse 10: “You will still be eating last year’s harvest when you will have to move it out to make room for the new.”
  • The last piece I’ll put here verbatim:

    I will put my dwelling place among you, and I will not abhor you. I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt so that you would no longer be slaves to the Egyptians; I broke the bars of your yoke and enabled you to walk with heads held high. (verses 11–13)
When it says that “the sword will not pass through your country,” I don’t think this means that the Israelites will not go to war with anyone—especially since the next few promises deal with what will happen when they do go to war. So I interpret this to mean that even when they go to war, it will be war fought in other countries, not on their own soil.

Also, in the last bullet point above, God promises not to “abhor” His people. This is not just fanciful language; it’s quite literal. If there is one thing we should have come to understand, from reading the book of Leviticus up to this point, it’s that God demands holiness from His people, and His people are constantly going to be coming back to Him, trying to make atonement, when they don’t live up to His high standards. Really, there is no reason, aside from His grace, why He should have put up with the Israelites in their sin, nor why He should put up with modern-day Christians, in ours. It’s only because of the death of Christ, on our behalf, that He puts up with any human—B.C. or A.D.

So those are the promises for the Israelites, if they obey their God. You can’t help but imagine the nation of Israel becoming a paradise on Earth, if they followed all of God’s commands properly. There would always be food to eat, they would never lose battles to their enemies, etc.

Next, God outlines what will happen to the Israelites if they don’t follow Him properly. But this section is put forth a bit differently; above, God outlined all of the things that He would do for the nation of Israel, if they followed His commands, whereas in this next section, He outlines the punishments for disobedience, but He does so in phases. “If you disobey Me, I’ll do this; if you still disobey Me, I’ll do this next thing; if you still continue to disobey Me, I’ll do that…”

I’m going to break with tradition, a bit, for this section, and not write it out point-by-point in the blog. I’m doing so because I want you to read it yourself, from verses 14–39. I’m doing this partially because I want you to get the full impact of God’s words—instead of my watered down version—but also because I want you to be able to read the poetry in this section. Above, I pointed out the phrase “you will lie down and no one will make you afraid,” which I think is very poetic. This section, in which God outlines His punishments for the Israelites, is full of such poetry. Things like

…I will bring upon you sudden terror, wasting diseases and fever that will destroy your sight and drain away your life. You will plant seed in vain, because your enemies will eat it. (verse 16b)

and

I will break down your stubborn pride and make the sky above you like iron and the ground beneath you like bronze. (verse 19)

So if you haven’t already, go off, now, and read verses 14–39.

But the chapter doesn’t end there. God doesn’t just warn the Israelites what will happen to them, if they don’t obey Him, and then let them worry about the future; He also gives them hope, even at the end of this section:

But if they will confess their sins and the sins of their fathers—their treachery against me and their hostility toward me, which made me hostile toward them so that I sent them into the land of their enemies—then when their uncircumcised hearts are humbled and they pay for their sin, I will remember my covenant with Jacob and my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land. For the land will be deserted by them and will enjoy its sabbaths while it lies desolate without them. They will pay for their sins because they rejected my laws and abhorred my decrees. Yet in spite of this, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them or abhor them so as to destroy them completely, breaking my covenant with them. I am the LORD their God. But for their sake I will remember the covenant with their ancestors whom I brought out of Egypt in the sight of the nations to be their God. I am the LORD. (verses 40–45)

I realize I keep going on about the poetry in this section, but I love the poetry in this passage, too.

Thoughts

There is another, longer, passage, in Deuteronomy, where God does the same thing: outlines rewards for obedience, and punishments for disobedience. We’ll get to that much later.

It probably won’t come as a shock to you when I say that the Israelites didn’t obey God properly, and that the punishments outlined here did in fact happen to them. The nation of Israel was eventually split into two countries—Israel and Judah—and they were eventually conquered by other nations, and taken from their homeland. (Of course, as promised by God, they eventually came back to their land, too.)

As mentioned earlier, it’s very natural, when reading this chapter, to think to yourself “Why didn’t the Israelites just obey God, so they could live in paradise? Why did they have to be so stubborn, in disobeying Him?!?” There are a couple of answers to this, that I would put forth.

First, if you’re a Christian—or even if you’re not, I guess—you could very easily direct the same question at yourself. You know what God demands of you, and you know that you don’t live up to His requirements. Why do you lie? Or steal? Or download pornography from the internet? Or do the myriad other things you do, that are in contradiction to His commands? (I know we’re all tempted by different things; maybe you do some of the things I just said; maybe you do all of them; maybe you don’t do any of them, but there are other sins that tempt you. The point is, we all sin and fall short of the glory of God.) It’s easy to condemn the Israelites for using dishonest scales, while at the same time cheating on our income taxes…

But that brings me to the second point: God knows our weaknesses. He knew that the Israelites were going to let Him down, and that the punishments outlined were going to happen. So why did He bother with this chapter at all? Why bother to outline for the Israelites what would happen if they obeyed, and what would happen if they didn’t, when He knew that they wouldn’t? I think the answer, at least in part, goes back to God’s nature. When we read the Old Testament, when we read these promises from God to His people, we get a sense of the importance of holiness. We get a sense that obeying God—which, really, is trying to be like God—is something that He takes seriously. We also, however, get a sense of his longsuffering, and patience. God could have told the Israelites “if you sin, I’ll cut you off, and that will be that.” But He didn’t. He even gave them multiple chances; “if you sin, I’ll punish you, and if you continue to sin I’ll punish you more, and if you continue to continue, I’ll punish you even further.” You get the sense, when reading this chapter, that the punishments are always designed to teach the Israelites a lesson, to bring them back closer to God.

And, most importantly, this chapter illustrates that, all else aside, God kept His covenant with the Israelites not because of their obedience, but because of His promise. It’s true, for the specifics, there is a contract involved: If they obeyed, He would do X, Y, and Z, but if they disobeyed, He would do A, B, and C. But the main promise—He would be their God, and they would be His people—He intended to keep, no matter what. That part of the promise wasn’t part of a contract, it was simply a promise, and God always keeps His word. So even if—or rather, when—the Israelites disobeyed, to the point that they would have to be punished, they would still remain God’s people. Because that part wasn’t up to them, it was up to Him.

God has also promised that my relationship with Him will never end. I may sin, and put a rift between us; I may hurt Him by disobeying His commands, nor not striving to be like Him, but regardless of what I do, I’m one of His chosen ones, and that will not, cannot, change, because it’s in His power, not mine.

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