First, I have often wondered why Moses even bothered to take one last opportunity at the end of his life to instruct the Israelites. After all, for forty years they had been rebellious and stiff-necked. They had repeatedly disobeyed, complained, grumbled, and gone their own way. Not only that but as he says in verse 21, “The Lord was angry with me because of you and he solemnly swore that I would not cross the Jordan and enter the good land the Lord your God is giving you as you inheritance. I will die in this land; I will not cross the Jordan; but you are about to cross over and take possession of that good land.”
I would have been upset. I might even have washed my hands of them as being hopeless but he doesn’t. He says one last time what he has been repeating for 40 years. “Be careful not to forget the covenant of the Lord your God that he made with you.” That is either stubbornness, foolishness, or faithfulness. To repeat over and over again what people are determined to disobey.
We want to be influencers. We want people to listen to us. We want to see lives changed and people making wise choices. We want them to stop doing what is foolish and self-destructive and reform their ways. What we forget is Moses likely wanted the same but while he is revered as the one who brought the Law and brought them to the brink of the Holy Land they almost always chose to ignore him. Sometimes our responsibility is to constantly remind people of their obligations and duties even if we are totally disregarded.
Second, he tells them not to add or subtract from the law that has been given. How quickly they disregarded that! Over time there were 631 laws and commandments to be followed. It was no problem to subtract. Just the opposite. There were even hundreds if not thousands of rules and restrictions called “gezeirah” or fences to keep people from getting close enough to the law to break it. For example, the law was not to work on Sabbath. The gezeirah said that one should not even touch a tool or instrument (even a pencil) just in case one forgot it was the Sabbath and did something considered work. Of course, there were probably those – like today – who are motivated by finding loopholes in the law so even more restrictions had to be made to protect people from themselves.
I’ve talked before about Lord Moulton’s essay on the Law of Obedience to the Unenforceable . On the one hand there is total license without any law or restrictions. That is chaos. On the other hand there is total law with no choices or latitude for judgement. Everything is regulated. Between them there is the area he calls the domain of obedience to the unenforceable where we choose to obey because there is a commonly accepted standard or ethic and that “true civilization is marked by what citizens know to be right and wrong, without needing a secular law to tell them.” But the danger is in that ethic slowly disappearing and everything must be defined as lawful or not lawful. Everything must be in a contract. We do not trust. A civilization loses its foundation when there is no more trust in people doing what they know to be right – even when there is no specific law against it or requirement to do it. The more we depend on, “But there is no specific law against it” the closer we are to the loss of freedom. The decrease in trust only means the increase in regulations.
But people need to be taught those virtues. They do not come naturally and if we do not teach them then we will gradually move toward chaos or control. While South Pacific is one of my favorite musicals, I think one of the best songs is naive about human nature. It assumes that children will gravitate naturally toward being virtuous and need to be taught to be otherwise:
You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a different shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!
That’s not been my experience. Just the opposite. The virtues do not come naturally. They must be taught and that is what God is saying through Moses.
Third, God does not give the law as a burden or as an end in itself. The intent of the law is the creation of a people who are unique in all the world. Following the law is not intended for slavish obedience but as what Paul calls a pedagogue or tutor. Paul is writing in Galatians about the role of the Law as pedagogue. In Greek culture, the pedagogue was in charge of the child’s moral welfare. His duty was to help the child acquire the qualities essential to manhood. He took the child to and from school but he was not the teacher. He was in charge of the child’s safety until he grew up. He was a hedge from harm – both to the child and to keep the child from harming himself or others.
But, what if the child could not turn loose of the pedagogue or if the pedagogue tried to keep the child or even become the teacher? That would be unnatural and strange. There was a certain period of time and a certain role the pedagogue had in the life of the child. But his role was not to tie the child to him forever. The child was meant to outgrow the pedagogue. He would be grateful but would have acquired what was needed to be an adult. He no longer needed his protector.
Of course, people who have become experts are often unwilling to accept change. People who are good at something want to become even better and not start over. I think that is why Jesus told the disciples in Luke 22 that they were to be beginners – the word is neoteros – as it keeps us humble and open to new ideas.
One of my favorite authors, Clayton Christensen, died this week. His book that made the biggest impression on me is “The Innovator’s Dilemma”. He writes about the tendency of companies wanting to become even better at what they do well and to serve their customers with an ever wider assortment of products. In doing so, they ignore the new markets and turn them over to small start-ups that they ignore until they wake up and discover those start-ups have captured their market share. They focused on customers who could not afford the quality products but who found the new products cheaper and “good enough”. He called that disruption when a small company first attracts non-customers and then begins to gobble up existing customers. “For years, companies like Blockbuster and Kodak have been punching bags for disruption. It’s easy to mock their executives (“How could they be so stupidly blind?”) but the issue wasn’t their smarts. It was precisely because their executives were so smart and knew their business so well – that they didn’t consider the alternatives.”
This is what happened with the Pharisees. They were the best at something about to be obsolete. They were unwilling to turn loose or adapt. They were blind to people like Paul who went after the non-customers and soon took away their business.
God did not intend for the Law to enslave but to lead the people toward what would make them “a light for the Gentiles.” Being in bondage to the Law was not the light God intended. What was that unique calling of this peculiar people? Wisdom and understanding. A God who is near. Righteous laws and decrees.
“See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the Lord my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him? And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today?”
Nothing could have been further from the experience of the nations that surrounded them. The word for wisdom can also include shrewdness. But wisdom and understanding had become totally shrewdness and expedience. The reward was for cleverness and not wisdom. Jesus tells us to be shrewd but also to be innocent. All innocence had been lost and wisdom had become just a matter of manipulating people. That is why an example of true wisdom and understanding would be so unusual. Who could imagine anyone wanting to be truly wise and understanding instead of totally shrewd?
What would be unusual about having their gods near them? For the worship of idols people would make treks to special places or high hills and mountains. The gods were removed from the people and often totally uninterested in anything but the sacrifices. They were dumb and silent – no matter how much the people did to get their attention. There were no limits. Parents even gave up their children to the fires hoping to please the unpleasable gods.
You’ve heard of Deism or the belief that God created the world, set in motion the natural laws and then removed himself. He does not intervene. There are no miracles. God is distant. He is not near. This is the way many in the world see God. He is distant and detached. We are responsible for making our own way. They can be the best of people as were many of our Founders as Deists.
There are those who have stopped believing that God is near and that gives them license to do what they please. God is not paying attention. In Psalm 94 David writes:
How long will the wicked be jubilant?
They pour out arrogant words;
all the evildoers are full of boasting.
They crush your people, Lord;
they oppress your inheritance.
They slay the widow and the foreigner;
they murder the fatherless.
They say, “The Lord does not see;
the God of Jacob takes no notice.”
Take notice, you senseless ones among the people;
you fools, when will you become wise?
Does he who fashioned the ear not hear?
Does he who formed the eye not see?
Does he who disciplines nations not punish?
Does he who teaches mankind lack knowledge?
The Lord knows all human plans;
he knows that they are futile.
Or in Psalm 14:
The fool says in his heart,
“There is no God.”
They are corrupt, their deeds are vile;
there is no one who does good.
The Lord looks down from heaven
on all mankind
to see if there are any who understand,
any who seek God.
All have turned away, all have become corrupt;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.
Even though Paul uses these verses from Psalm 14 to show that all mankind is under sin and in need of a savior, there can also be the thoughts of the cynic and the one who says everyone is corrupt. There are none who are righteous so what does it matter what I do? There will be no judgment and my corruption is normal. This is just the way the world is. No one can judge me because none have the right.
This is what happens in a world where God is distant and disconnected.
But that is not us, is it? We believe he is near through his Word, his Church, and his Spirit. He is present when we celebrate communion. He is present when we come together. He is present when we study his word. We sometimes forget how unusual that is for a world whose gods are distant, uninterested, unfeeling, and unforgiving.
They will be unique in that they are a nation of laws and not of men. They are unique in the world because they believe the law is based on certain fundamental principles and there is no favoritism. There is no bending them to the will of an individual or powerful individuals. That would have been common in the nations surrounding Israel. There were codes made by men that were easily ignored or abused but there were no commandments that were more powerful than rulers. Such a nation would be considered strange and unusual. What would it be like to be a nation of laws and not of men? What would it be like for everyone to be equal under the law.
So, the combination of wisdom and understanding, nearness of God, righteous decrees and a body of laws would set them apart. That was the whole purpose of obedience. That is what God wanted them to become. He wanted them to become a people who would surprise the world not by their slavish obedience to rules but by being wise and understanding. A people of righteous laws they did not create for their own purposes. It is easy to enslave people to rules. That’s just what the Pharisees and lawyers did over time but they missed the real opportunity. They missed the point of discipline and obedience entirely. It was to become a nation considered great even by the pagans.
Finally, Moses assures them and us that the end result of disobedience is always idolatry. We want a god we can see. We want a practical religion and a religion that has our interests in mind and shares our values. We want a religion that passes laws we support and opposes those we don’t. We want a religion that gets results and is not just pie in the sky. We want a religion and gods who make us feel in control and even in the majority. We want a religion that only confirms what we already believe and does not make us uncomfortable or cause us to question our own values. In other words, we want gods who endorse what we already want to do. We want gods we can see and who look like us. We want gods who punish people who disagree with us and reward those who don’t. We want gods who do not call us idolaters but who call us righteous and faithful. We want gods who reward the worst in us. We want gods who turn us into people we never thought we could become – until we do.
We are not Israel but perhaps the principles are the same. We can believe laws are good. We can believe wisdom and understanding are virtues. We can believe God is near. If these are true of us then we will as a church and perhaps even as a nation be something extraordinary – a light to the world.