Deuteronomy 13-17: A Godly Nation
March 19, 2020
TODAY'S BIBLE READING:
There is a lot of material in these massive chapters. To begin, the possibility of a false prophet is raised (13:1-5). How are they to tell who is false and who is genuine? One test is doctrinal. Are they teaching people to follow other gods (13:2)? If so, they are a false prophet however impressive their miracles may still be. Over and over again, the Bible puts little stock in gifts themselves as a sufficient test of the validity of a prophet or Christian leader; instead faithfulness of doctrine and godliness of character are the prevailing identity markers. This then slides into a fairly lengthy diatribe against idol worship (13:6-18). It is very clear that worshipping other gods is no light matter—and once again the the theocratic nature of the nation-state of Israel appears in the judiciary sentences that are envisioned, sentences that would be highly inappropriate for a New Testament church who renders to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s and lets God be the Judge in the judgment to come. Discernment and church discipline, though, are still required, as well as discipleship and teaching against heresy and for what is good.
The prescription against a certain way of cutting your hair appears very odd (14:1), until one remembers that the context is idolatry and what Israel is being told is that they are not to dress or put on the vestments of idol worshipers. It would be a confusing signal today for a Christian to put on a burka, for instance.
There has been much discussion down through the years about the rationale behind the food restrictions (14:3-21). I am told that there are medical grounds for not eating poorly cooked pork and other animals here prohibited, and the case has been made that the rationale is to prevent sickness in a situation where cooking standards were lower than in the modern West. However, Jesus “declares all foods clean” (Mark 7:19), and in Acts, Peter similarly acts on the prompting of God (Acts 10), so it appears that these restrictions were further ways of indicating that God’s people were different from those who worshiped idols.
We move then to matters of finances and business. Generosity is encouraged strongly, and a principle of loaning which allows those under a heavy burden of debt a “jubilee” to get out from underneath the sometimes crushing weight of such debt. The poor are addressed, with two apparently contrary principles: “there will be no poor among you” (15:4), and “there will never cease to be poor in the land” (15:11). The first is quoted in the New Testament with reference to the briefly idyllic New Testament church community in Acts (Acts 4:34), and the second when Jesus commends the sacrificial and pricey gift offered to him in worship before his death (Matt. 26:11). It appears, then, that the New Testament church is a further fulfillment of the ideal of God’s people taking care of each other in spiritual community, but as the ongoing story of Acts itself indicated, that completion is yet waiting for a further horizon finally fulfilled in the return of Jesus Christ.
Prescriptions are given for slavery (15:12-18), another sore point for many a reader. It is essential to note that this “slavery” is not what we mean by slavery. First, it is impermanent, and when the time of “slavery” ends, the “owners” are told to “furnish him liberally” with gifts (15:14). They are to remember that they were slaves in Egypt (15:15), and not treat anyone like they were treated. However, sometimes people do get into financial trouble and “indentured servitude” (as it was called in Europe) is a far from ideal, but one-step back from full slavery. It is certainly nothing like antebellum slavery with its racist driving reality and vicious evil. Here it is even envisioned that a servant who is being paid in keep and care rather than in salary might decide to remain permanently with the family (15:16-17).
Chapter 16 goes once more through the different feasts, as Moses teaches on these important rhythms for the ancient worshiping community that are fulfilled in Christ. Idolatry is once more railed against in chapter 17, with instructions given about ensuring that justice is appropriately done in the nation of Israel.
It ends with the king (17:14-20). Moses foresees a time when they will want a king, like the other nations, and this is a legitimate desire. But the king is not to behave like the other nations’ kings. He is not to enrich himself at the expense of his people, make faithless trade deals with pagan nations, or copy his behavior after their kings. He shall also not acquire a harem, or many wives, a rule that Solomon manifestly disobeyed to his own failure (1 Kings 11). In particular, he is to make for himself a copy of the law. This is no photocopy or email transcript. He is literally to write down word for word in his own prized possession the whole book of the law. The act of doing so would itself impress the truth upon him, and having done it he shall read God’s Word all the days of his life. Oh give us leaders like these! In this act of submission to God—the only true guard against dictatorship is the sovereignty of God—this king will be humble. And this will be to his blessing, the length of his reign (humility tends to diffuse jealousy), and the blessing of his own children after him.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Josh Moody (Ph.D., University of Cambridge) is the senior pastor of College Church in Wheaton, IL., president and founder of God Centered Life Ministries, and author of several books including How the Bible Can Change Your Life and John 1-12 For You.
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