Merry Christmas & Happy New Year!

We will not be posting any new studies from 21 December until 3 January. But you can find posts which you have missed since we started publishing in May.

  1. If you are using a computer, you can choose the post you want to read by looking on the right hand side of the webpage and choosing either ‘Studies’ (click on the drop down box to select a book of the Bible) or ‘Archives’ (click on the month and then date). Or you can type the Bible chapter you are looking for in the Search bar.
  2. If you are using a phone or tablet, you will find ‘Studies’, ‘Archives’, and ‘Search’ when you scroll to the bottom. (It might take a long time, depending on what kind of device you are using and its settings. Sorry, I am yet to figure out another way of doing it.) Click on the study or date you want, or type the chapter into the Search bar.
  3. If you get the posts into your email inbox, you can find the link at the bottom to get to the website, then go through the same processes listed above.

Deuteronomy 5:22-33

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In this section Moses tells the story of what happened next, after the giving of the ten commandments. First he reminds the audience of the context: the whole assembly of Israel heard the voice of God out of the fire which blazed on the mountains and all the smoky darkness. God then wrote the ten commandments on two tablets of stone and gave them to Moses.

The next few verses show the response of the people. They acknowledge that they have heard Yahweh, their God, and seen his glory and greatness. They appear to be amazed that it is possible for a human being to hear God speaking out of the fire and yet go on living. To continue hearing him, they believe, may mean death, so they would like to get out and leave Moses to it. They trust him to be their mediator, to listen to God speaking and then report it to them so that they can hear and do what is commanded.

With all this talk of terrifying fire, I can’t help being reminded of the fires that were raging in my home state this time last year. I have not personally experienced a bushfire, but reports indicate that it is extremely loud, like freight train or a helicopter. I don’t know what the people heard on the mountain, or whether it is even possible to hear God’s voice as is described here. But I believe this is the scene the scripture is conveying. Have a quick look at this to get an idea of the feeling.

Perhaps surprisingly, God is pleased with the people’s response and agrees to their request. He hopes that this heart of fear will stay with them forever, so that they are inspired to keep his commandments. God releases them to their camp, but Moses is to stay and listen to the rest of the commandments, statutes, and judgments. He will then teach these to the rest of the people, so that in keeping them they have a good, long life in the land they are about to enter and possess.

This seems a fairly simple passage to understand. We again here associate God with fire (cf 4:24). I don’t feel comfortable with this, but then, that is perhaps the point. Notice that he does not send sinners away from himself to hellfire, as we often imagine. The fire is with God, in God, God is the fire. He himself is the one to be feared. On the other hand, Moses stays with that fire and is not afraid. He is called to it. I am reminded of Hebrews 12:18-29. According to that passage, even Moses was trembling with fear, and yet in his trust he could stay and listen. We are to fear the Lord, and obey him, and the result is a good, long life in the land prepared for us.

Prayer: Forgive me, Lord God, for forgetting that you are a God to be feared and revered. As I honor you, help me to listen to and obey your commandments.

C.S. Lewis, Aslan not a tame lion, Aslan not safe but good | Lion artwork,  Lion hd wallpaper, Lion pictures

PS. We will be having a break from studies over Christmas. I will put a post up on Monday about how to review posts you have missed. Fresh material will return from 3 January.

Deuteronomy 5:6-21 (16-21)

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This is the second section of the ten commandments, about the relationships between people (see the post from two days ago to understand about the structure, if you missed that).

We begin with the people who are most important in our lives from birth: our parents. The verb usually translated as ‘honor’ can also mean ‘respect’, or more simply in a culture which is not based on honor and shame, ‘give due importance to’. There is no need to labor this point in an Asian – or indeed any non-Western – context, where honoring parents is as basic as mother’s milk. But Westerners need to hear it, especially those of us who have left our parents to serve in another country. How will we honor them as they deserve when we are far away? The significance of this commandment is underlined in the New Testament (eg Matt 15:4; Eph 6:2).

Commandment #5 is unique within this set. First of all, it is not a ‘Do not’, but rather is one of the few expressed in positive terms (cf Commandment #1 and Commandment #4). Secondly, it is the only one of the ten commandments expanded upon in terms of reward. (Commandment #3 was expanded on in terms of punishment, and Commandment #4 was expanded on in terms of reason; Commandment #2 was expanded on in terms of both punishment and reason.) The result of honoring parents is a good, long life in the land God is giving them.

Commandments #6-#10, on the other hand, are simply stated. They are also repeated frequently in the New Testament, particularly #6, #7, #9 and #10, which Jesus refers to in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:21-37). In fact, they are not very different from the Buddhist five moral precepts (except that the last in Buddhism is abstaining from intoxicants rather than from coveting). Jainism’s five vows are also extremely similar. Even the atheist Christopher Hitchens stated that human societies have always forbidden “perjury, theft, murder, rape” (Uncommon Knowledge, 2007). It would seem that all humans know that murder, sexual immorality, stealing, lying, and wanting what does not belong to you, at least in some interpretation, are wrong.

In this Deuteronomic list, sexual immorality is specified as adultery, that is, having sexual relations with someone who is not your covenanted spouse. Lying here is more particularly perjury, that is, answering falsely (note it is the same word as is usually translated ‘in vain’ back in verse 11) as a witness against a neighbor, presumably in a court situation. Jesus’ extension in his sermon on the mount is about something a little different, and it is also not generally lying (i.e. speaking falsely) which is prohibited here. The last commandment is interesting. While Jainism talks about a general ‘non-possessiveness’, Yahweh here commands against selfishly desiring a neighbor’s wife, servant, animal, or property. There are two different verbs used in verse 21, both with a similar meaning of desiring, longing for, craving, or lusting after. Sometimes these verbs are used with a positive sense in the Bible, but here the people are clearly being warned against falling into a trap of selfishness by which they could hurt both themselves and also someone else.

Application of this passage is simple: Honor your parents; don’t murder, commit adultery, steal, perjure yourself, or long for what isn’t yours. Read Matt 5:21-37 to take these a bit further; don’t be angry or hate, don’t lust or divorce, don’t swear to what you have no control over. In fact, love even your enemies.

Prayer: Lord God, forgive me for the times I have broken your commandments. Help me to honor my parents and to love my neighbors in every way. I swear allegiance to you alone.

Deuteronomy 5:6-21 (11-15)

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If you didn’t read yesterday’s post, you may want to start back there to get the flow of the whole ten commandments. Today we are looking at Commandments #3 and #4.

Verse 11 has been variously interpreted and most people ordinarily think it is something to do with not swearing, particularly not using ‘God’ or his name as an expletive. But I think it is something much more significant than that. To start with, the verb means to ‘bear’ or ‘carry’ and the phrase usually translated as ‘in vain’ means something like ‘worthless’, ’empty’ or ‘false’. So my understanding is that the commandment warns against branding ourselves as followers of God and yet not living like we are. In other words, and to turn it around to the positive, if we bear the name of God then we should bear fruit. The consequence is also specified in the negative: the person who bears God’s name falsely, Yahweh – the original owner of the name – will not acquit. Jesus spoke in this way several times (eg Matt 7:19-23). God does not want us to live a false life, where what we say does not match up with what we do. He wants those whose lives are stamped with his name to live with integrity.

Verses 12-15 are about keeping the sabbath day ‘for its holiness’. The explanation is sociologically fascinating, but before we get there, let us remember that ‘holy’ in the Bible most frequently means ‘set apart’, that is, different from the ordinary. This is the easiest way to both understand and apply these verses. God does not expect us to be extra pious, or only sing worship songs, pray, and read the Bible on that day; but simply to make it different from the other six days of the week. He is clear that six days of the week are for working, but the seventh day must be different as a day of rest. The word sabbath literally means ‘rest’ and is what God did after his work of creating the world (cf Exod 20:11).

Now, what I find amazing about this small passage is that this expectation of keeping one day per week for not working was for everyone in the household: male and female, slave and free, insider and outsider, even the livestock. There are some Orthodox Jewish households where they employ a Gentile for turning on the lights so that they do not break the commandment of not kindling a fire on the sabbath. But according to this verse, they have already broken the sabbath by asking someone else to do it. (Have a look at this article if you don’t believe this is a genuine issue for Orthodox Jewish people.) The Sabbath day was a weekly reminder, according to the Deuteronomic code of the Ten Commandments, that Yahweh had brought them out of slavery, and that they were to live in dignity and create dignity for others, even slaves and foreigners.

No one needs to work seven days per week. This can be confusing for people who are servants of God, because of course we don’t stop being God’s servants one day per week. But neither did the servants or working-animals of the ancient Israelites stop being who they were just because they weren’t working that day. Having a day of rest reminds us that God provides, just as in the provision of extra manna on the sixth day so that the Israelites didn’t have to gather it on the seventh (cf Exod 16). It reminds us that God is mighty and able, especially in those times that we are unable to save ourselves. Sometimes it doesn’t seem possible to stop our work after six days and more. But let us remember to regularly down tools and take a moment to reflect on the God who brought us out of slavery and dignifies our life with rest.

Prayer: Lord my God, forgive me for failing to stop and rest and reflect on who you are and what you have done for me. Forgive me for falsely bearing your name, when my life was empty of reflections of you. Help me to keep your commands: to bear fruit in keeping with my identity in you; and to remember that you have brought me out of slavery.

Deuteronomy 5:6-21 (6-10)

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This passage is a restatement of what has come to be known as ‘The Ten Commandments’, originally spoken as recorded in Exodus 20:2-17, on Mount Horeb. Here Moses is telling the story of what happened forty years ago, and reporting the law a second time (hence the title of the book, deutero meaning ‘second’, and nomos meaning ‘law’ in Greek). Remember, as we have learned already, this is a form of legal covenant, stating the relationship and obligations between the suzerain (lord) and his vassals.

It begins with a statement of who the lord is: Yahweh, God of Israel, who brought them out of slavery in the land of Egypt. This sentence indicates the identity of the suzerain and what he has done for the people. It establishes his side of the relationship. The following verses spell out what they do for him, or how they live, in return for what he has already done for them. It is important to recognize the sequence: God saved them, therefore they are obedient to him – not the other way around.

The ten commandments can be divided into two main sections: Verses 7-15 focus on their relationship with the Lord (commandments 1-4); Verses 16-21 focus on their relationships with one another (commandments 5-10). We will not cover all the verses in detail today, but give enough attention to each one over the coming few days. Although there are some arguments for a different system, I would number them this way:

  1. Do not have other gods besides me.
  2. Do not make images and worship them.
  3. Do not use God’s name vainly.
  4. Keep the sabbath holy.
  5. Honour your parents.
  6. Do not murder.
  7. Do not commit adultery.
  8. Do not steal.
  9. Do not lie.
  10. Do not want what someone else has.

Verse 7 is quite plain; literally it says, ‘There will not be for you other gods besides me.’ This verse does not categorically state that there are no other gods in existence. Rather, the Israelites are not to have any other god for themselves. Verse 8 expands on this idea, although I see it as a separate commandment. It is a repetition of what we already read last week in 4:16-18. Before I lived in Asia, it seemed to me that this point was laboured way too much in the Bible. Why all this talk about idols? It seemed a relic of the past, a commandment that was spawned by the ancient practices of the nations near Israel two millenia before Christ. But now that I see them on every corner, in front of every house, in every restaurant, I am reminded how relevant this commandment is even today in many cultures. Yahweh does not want his people bowing down to anything apart from himself. Even though the people may say that they are not really worshipping those idols, but that they are reverencing the ancestors or asking for blessings, or whatever other spin they may put on it- God does not want his own people bowing down before anything else apart from himself.

Yahweh describes himself as a jealous God, like a husband who does not like to see his wife even flirting with others. He goes on to say that he visits the iniquity of the fathers onto three further generations of his descendants. This seems unfair, unless you read the rest of the sentence: ‘of those who hate me’. That is, the children and grandchildren also continue in their rejection of God and therefore deserve to be rejected by him in turn; it is their choice not to be in a relationship with him. On the other hand, God’s love abounds to thousands of those who love him and keep his commandments. Here we must explain a bit about the precious Hebrew word hesed. This is the kind of love God has for his people: it is covenantal, faithful love, which follows through on its promises; it is merciful, kind and gracious love towards those who don’t deserve it; it is abundant and everlasting.

How am I going with keeping these commandments? I do not make any literal images and bow down to them. Tick. But are there other things or beings that slip into God’s place for me? Yahweh is the one who has saved me and brought me security. Do I sometimes turn to others for salvation and security? To myself? To my family? To education or work or money or possessions? I may not find myself bowing down to them, but are they taking the place of God in my life and squeezing him out? When I am in need, where do I turn? As God looks at my life, are there times I might be making him jealous?

Prayer: Lord, test my heart today, and see if there is any wicked way in me. Remind me of your goodness, your love, your kindness and your salvation. Forgive me for times I have turned away from you.

Deuteronomy 5:1-5

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This passage is at once simple and incredibly mysterious. On one hand it is plain: Moses called all the Israelites together and told them to listen, to learn and obey the commandments which he originally received at the Horeb mountain. On the other hand, it inspires questions: How was the covenant made with these current Israelites, and not with their fathers? How was it a face-to-face conversation if Moses was acting as an intermediary because they were afraid? How can it be described as ‘face-to-face’ anyway (those are the literal Hebrew words), when the LORD was in fact speaking out of fire? How could it be on the mountain but the Israelites would not go up the mountain? And hang on, these people Moses is speaking to right now were not even there, or were babies at the time! What is going on here? Is it a mistake of Moses, or of the editor?

It seems to me as a reader that Moses is intentionally bringing his audience into the moment, that they might hear the words as if they were spoken directly to them by God. He is not lying or stretching the truth when he says the covenant was not made with the fathers; this is a figure of speech to focus on the current generation by denying the significance or even the existence of the past generation. This people, known even now as the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, were to forget the past for this moment and hear the living word of God to them right now. It is as if the word itself is alive, born again in the new generation. It is not because of tradition that they are in relationship with God, because this covenant is made with them, not in a distant past. Moses is not taking them back to the mountain, but bringing the mountain into the present.

The grammar throughout the passage emphasizes this. Hebrew does not need pronouns, because they are understood from the form of the verb (like in Hindi and French and many other languages). Yet he uses the pronoun for ‘us’ in verse 3, to stress that the covenant is made ‘with us, we ourselves’. He also uses an unusual form of the verb (a participle, not very common in this style of speech) to talk about ‘speaking’ in verse 1 and ‘standing’ in verse 5. It is again to emphasize the ‘nowness’ of the action: right now I am speaking, right now I am standing. Moses stands in the gap between God and Israel to communicate his word; it is his face to Yahweh’s face. Fear is no barrier to receiving instruction from the LORD who consumes like fire.

Even today, this passage reminds us of the power of God’s word in the moment it is spoken (or read), that it is living and active. As the saying goes, God has no grandchildren, only children. The covenant is cut afresh with each generation, each person, you and me. We don’t, can’t rely on the relationship our parents or pastors had with the LORD, and the word that they heard spoken. It must be heard and learned anew, even if it comes via a mediator. In the turning of our ears and hearts to the LORD, he speaks to us face to face, even though we don’t see him with our eyes.

Prayer: Thank you, God, for the vitality of your word. You speak to me day by day, face to face. Open my ears to hear you and respond.

Catch-Up Day

There is no new reading today. You can get ready for next week by reading Deuteronomy 5 (or even 5-26!).

Or if you like, take the time to catch up on anything you have missed. It’s easier to find old posts or search for specific chapters using a computer or a tablet. The books we have studied so far are: Acts, Amos, Colossians, 1 Corinthians, and Daniel. These can be found in the Studies section by clicking on the drop-down ‘Select Category’. If you’re on a phone, you’ll have to scroll down down down to the bottom to find the studies, archives and search bar.

Deuteronomy 4:41-9

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There are two sections in this passage. The first (4:41-43) is a short passage that seems to have been dislocated from where it belongs, talking about the safe cities in the transjordan tribes’ lands. The second (4:44-49) is the introduction to the next section of the book, which is Moses’ longest speech, outlining the law for the Israelites in the promised land. We will look at them together because they are both narrative, rather than speech (and the first one is too short for a full post).

It feels quite a jarring disjunction, after the stirring climax to Moses’ first speech, to suddenly get to back to a narrator talking about distribution of land. This is the first time we have heard from the narrator since 1:5. It is not clear why the book is structured in this way. I can imagine the compiler of the book thinking, ‘Oh, Moses didn’t mention about the cities of refuge when he talked about the allocation of land for the transjordan tribes; I better just mention that before we get onto the law itself’. In one way, it increases the reader’s confidence that what we read in the Deuteronomic speeches could actually be Moses’ words verbatim, otherwise the editor could have just inserted what he thought was missing.

Moses spoke about the allocation of land on the east side of the Jordan River for two and half tribes (Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh) back in 3:12-20. Now the narrator mentions that for each of those tribal lands – we might call them states or provinces – Moses set apart a city. To these cities someone who had accidentally killed another could flee to save his own life from an avenger. We will hear more about this in 19:8-10. Essentially, we are seeing another example of God’s mercy lived out in his community. Duane Christensen (2001) writes that the city of refuge, “was not simply a place of safety. It was a place in which the manslayer made atonement for the deed of which he was guilty.”

In verses 44-49, the narrator re-sets the historical and geographical context for hearing the law that Moses is about to explain in detail from Chapter 5 to 26. It seems to be very important that the reader understands, as every idea is repeated: it is after going out of Egypt, after the defeat of Sihon and Og and the possession of their Amorite lands, in the valley east of the Jordan. This section also appears to re-state what the narrator had already established in 1:1-5, so it gives the impression of starting again. Perhaps the narrator’s intent is that the reader understands this is the same law that was given at Horeb, after going out of Egypt, restated for the new context of the promised land.

How could this re-reading of the law be relevant for us, 3500 years later? One possibility is that the law both stays the same and is adapted for new contexts. We will have to think about that as we read the following chapters. How does the law stay the same, and how does it change in each new place/period in which we live?

Prayer: Thank you Lord, that you are a God who reveals yourself and teaches your people how to live in every new context. Thank you also that you are a God of mercy and delayed judgment, giving those who have done wrong the opportunity to repent.

Note: We will not have a reading tomorrow, but will begin Chapter 5 fresh next week.

Deuteronomy 4:25-40

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We now get to the end of Moses’ first speech in Deuteronomy, and its climax. It is hard to know whether Moses is warning about the future or prophesying that it will happen, partially because of the simple grammar of the language and the ambiguity of one of its most common conjunctions, ki, which can mean ‘if’ or ‘therefore’ (as well as ‘for’, ‘because’, ‘that’, ‘surely’, and ‘when’, among other less frequent translations!).

Moses visualizes a time in the future when the people might forget the commandments and make an idol. If/when that happens, they will no longer possess the land which God promised them, but, according to the covenant they have sworn to, will be scattered into other nations, and only a few will survive. In these other lands they will worship man-made idols of wood and stone which have no life. Having just read Daniel together, it is impossible to miss the power of these words of Moses. It happened, just as he said it would.

But also, if the people return to Yahweh and seek him with all their heart and soul, just as Daniel did, and listen to his voice, then he will not abandon or destroy them completely as a people. God will not forget the covenant which he promised, even if the people do.

The most powerful idea in these verses is the representation of the character of Yahweh. He is a passionate God, passionate in both his anger and his love. He is faithful to all his promises. He is merciful. He is strong and powerful, demonstrated in the signs and wonders wrought to bring his people out of Egypt. Unlike the man-made gods, he sees, he hears, he consumes (like a fire, cf 4:24), he smells (cf Gen 8:21). He loves and he chooses. He gives instruction and inheritance, like a father to his children, so that things go well for them. There is no other god like Yahweh.

Truly, this description is unlike any other god of any other religion that I have ever come across – and I have studied many. He is not unknowable or impersonal. He is not fickle or nepotistic. Some people suggest that Yahweh is a god of the Jewish imagination, a made-up god just like the others, though not having a form. If that is true, how is it that he, or that faith in him, has endured so long? Know today, and take to your heart, that Yahweh is God, and there is no other (4:39). No other god is like him, and no other people has experienced such great events in their existence as a community as Israel. He reveals himself to people in word and in deed.

Prayer: Lord, you alone are God. Thank you that you are merciful; forgive me for turning away from you and your commands, and help me to turn towards you. Speak to me and show me who you are, so that I may worship you alone.

Deuteronomy 4:10-24

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In this section, Moses notes a specific law – the first and second of the decalogue – and stresses the importance of obedience to it. He also sets the context for the creation and keeping of that law.

In the first five verses (10-14), Moses recounts the day the law was given at the mountain of Horeb (known elsewhere as Sinai). The mountain was blazing with fire, but all was thick gloom and darkness as a result of the cloud of smoke. At God’s command, Moses has gathered the people of Israel so that he can speak his word to them. His desire is that the people revere him, honor and fear him as awesome (in the original literal sense of the word), and teach this reverence to their children. Moses asserts, importantly, that the people saw no form, but only heard the voice of God; this is crucial for understanding the law about making images.

Yahweh made a covenant with the people of Israel that day. As you may already know, many ancient kings made covenants with the people they reigned over; covenants stipulated the rules of the relationship, acknowledging the lord-vassal or patron-client social structure, whereby the lesser promised to serve the greater, and in return come under his protection and care. In Yahweh and Israel’s case, the covenant was divinely inscribed on tablets of stone, and Moses was tasked with teaching its details – the statutes and judgments – that the people were to follow in the land.

The next five verses (15-19) outline the law against worshipping anything apart from Yahweh, the God of Israel. They saw no form of the divine, and they are not to be seduced into making an idol in the form of anything he created – note the reverse list of creation, from male and female, to beasts, birds, creeping things, and fish – nor into worshipping the heavenly bodies, which were also created by him and apportioned to all (cf Gen 1:16-27). Many contemporary nations worshipped the sun and moon, not least of all Egypt. This was definitely not, however, for those who followed the law of Yahweh.

Instead, with a cute word play on the letters kh-l-q (which means ‘apportioned’ in verse 19), Yahweh has taken (l-q-kh) Israel out of the sun-worshipping iron-smelting furnace of Egypt, to be the people of his own inheritance (n-kh-l), and to receive and enter the good land across the Jordan as an inheritance (n-kh-l). Note also the repeated use of ‘pass over’ (which is lost in most translations when they use ‘cross over’ instead) in verse 22, again recalling the exodus (Exodus 12-14). Moses is not passing over from Egypt to Canaan, but is already dead, metaphorically, because of God’s anger on account of the Israelites; but the people are passing over to take possession of the good land.

Nevertheless, Moses warns, they must be careful not to forget the covenant and so make an idol. For Yahweh is a consuming fire, like they saw on the mountain, a jealous God who will admit no rival to his affections.

We see many idols and images worshipped here in Asia – in the country where I live, it is usually the image of a man, Buddha, but frequently a woman, a monkey, or an elephant. However, I believe most people who are reading this post have little trouble rejecting the seduction to worship these idols. We are more likely to be seduced by our culture into honoring other things above God: financial security, comfort and convenience, our own children, fame and recognition. These may be good things, but they must never take the place of God in our lives. We must not forget the covenant God has made with us; we belong to him, he is our Lord, we are his servants, all we have we owe to him. This is the rule for entering in and living in the land that God has prepared for us.

Prayer: Lord God, forgive me when other things take the place that you deserve. Please remind me continually of your word so that I might be obedient to it.

Mount Doom - Wikipedia
Another LOTR reference: Mount Doom. This is how I imagine Horeb on the day the law was given.