April 16, 2012
Why should we read this book?
There are two reasons why we should read it and study it. First, at the heart of Christianity is a very personal relationship. Being a Christian is not going to church, reading a Bible or supporting missionaries; being a Christian is being in love with the Lord. The only point of singing hymns is that we are singing love songs. If we miss this, we miss everything.
So at the heart of the Bible is the very intimate, loving relationship between Solomon and a country girl.
The book adds a wider dimension to the portrayal of the relationship between God and his people. Sometimes in the Bible, God is spoken of as a husband and Israel as a wife. He courts her and marries her at Sinai when the covenant is established. When Israel goes after other gods, she is described as an adulteress.
This theme underlies the prophecy of Hosea. The Lord asks the prophet to find a prostitute in the street. He protests and asks God why. He is told to marry her, and she will have three children. She will love the first child, but not the second, and the third child, who won’t even be Hosea’s, is to be called ‘Not Mine’. God tells Hosea that she will return to life on the street in her old profession, leaving the three children with him. He is to find her, buy her back from the pimp who is controlling her and bring her back home, and then he is to love her again. Finally, God tells him to tell Israel that this is how God feels about them.
In fact, the whole relationship in the Old Testament between God and Israel is that of a husband whose wife behaves appallingly. He woos her, wins her, loses her, still loves her, and wants to get her back home again.
When we move to the New Testament, this same theme continues. Jesus is depicted as the bridegroom looking for a bride. On the last page of the Bible the bride is eager for the wedding and says ‘Come!’ She has made herself ready with white linen, which is righteousness. So the whole Bible is a love story from beginning to end.
The Song of Songs expresses this relationship. The words of the young man to the bride are the words that God says to us. Her replies are the sort of responses we can make. So it’s not an allegory, nor is it full of hidden meanings. ‘Pomegranates’ means ‘pomegranates’ and ‘breasts’ mean ‘breasts’. God means what he says, but it’s an analogy of the relationship that we can have with God.
We need to be careful in our interpretation. Our relationship with the Lord is not erotic, but it is emotional. Even though the song includes sexually explicit language, there is appropriate restraint. It doesn’t enter into the physical details that modern literature would.
Nevertheless, it is an emotional relationship. The story reminds us of the conversation between Jesus and Peter in Galilee after Jesus’ resurrection. Peter had denied the Lord at a charcoal fire in a courtyard, and the only other charcoal fire mentioned in the New Testament is a few weeks later, in Galilee. So Peter sees the fire and he remembers those awful moments. Yet Jesus doesn’t say how disappointed he is with him, nor does he exclude him from future service. No, he tells Peter that he can cope with him, provided that he is sure of one thing – that Peter loves him.
In the same way, the Lord doesn’t ask us how many times we have been to church or how many chapters of the Bible we have read this week. He asks us: ‘Do you love me?’ Jesus said that the law could be summarized as: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love really is as important as this.
Secondly, not only is your relationship with the Lord a very personal one; it’s also a very public one. Most people falling love with the Lord because they see him as their Shepherd, the One who will be with them in the valley of the shadow of death, the One who will lead them by the still waters and the green pastures. But at some stage after we have fallen in love with Jesus as our Shepherd, we discover that he is also a King! He’s the King of Kings, and we are his bride. We are going to reign with him and become his queen. So we are in very public view, which puts an extra responsibility on us. It would be nice if we could keep it private and return to the forests of Hermon, keeping our relationship with the Lord secret. It would save a lot of unpleasantness, criticism and exposure. But he wants us to remain in the spotlight, forever pointing to him as the source of our life and sharing with him the responsibility of reigning over the earth.
September 19, 2010
Before progressing any further, we must establish the distinction between occupation and subjugation. Occupation refers to places; subjugation refers to peoples. Whilst the land was theirs, since the people were subjugated, the Israelites still had much land to occupy. Much of the rest of the book is taken up with this process.
The allocation of land was decided by national lottery, leading some to believe that God sanctions the sort of lottery which currently operates in many countries, including Britain. There is, however, an important distinction to be understood. Lotteries are arranged so that humans cannot influence the outcome. Israel chose the lottery specifically so that God could influence the outcome. After all, if God could control the sun, this was nothing to him.
(i) The east bank
The land itself is fascinating, and Joshua records how it was surveyed. The same size as Wales, it is the only green part of the Middle East. The Arabian desert lies to the east, the Negev desert to the south. The rain comes from the Mediterranean.
Moses had promised that the Reubenites, the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh would be given fertile land east of the Jordan, providing they helped in the battle for Canaan. Joshua honoured this pledge.
Throughout the division of the land, the key word was ‘inheritance’. The land was an inheritance for Israel, not just for a while, nor just for the lifetime of the victors, but as a permanent home to pass on to their descendants.
(ii) The west bank
At Gilgal: 21⁄2 tribes
Caleb was one of the spies who had given a positive report about the land when the 12 spies were sent in 45 years before. Now, at the age of 85, we read that he was just as strong as he had been at 40. He approached Joshua and asked that he might be allowed to take the hill country that he had been promised all those years before. Joshua blessed him and gave him the town of Hebron.
The daughters of Manasseh reminded Joshua of Moses’ promise to give them land too. The people of Joseph claimed to be too numerous for the land they were given and so were also allotted forested areas to clear.
The book outlines in considerable detail the towns and villages that were allotted to each tribe, with occasional reference to other matters. We read, for example, of the Israelites’ failure to defeat the enemy when Judah could not dislodge the Jebusites in Jerusalem.
At Shiloh: 8 1/2 tribes
Several tribes remained without allotted land, so each tribe selected men to survey the territory in order to divide it further.
(iii) Special cities
There were six special cities of refuge, three on each side of the Jordan, where those guilty of manslaughter could flee when they were chased by those intent on revenge. Within Jewish law there was a distinction between accidental, unintentional killing and premeditated killing. These cities enabled the law to be applied.
When the land had been allotted, the text makes it clear that the Levites received no land as such, no specific territory. We are told that the Lord was their inheritance – serving God was sufficient for them. Of course, the individual Levites had to live somewhere and towns with pastureland were allotted to them, scattered amongst the other tribes.
(iv) The altar on the east bank
Towards the end of Joshua we are told how a potential tragedy was averted. When the two and a half tribes returned across the Jordan to their territories on the east bank, Joshua urged them to be careful to love God, walk in his ways and obey his commands. However, no sooner had they arrived home than they built an altar at Peor, by the Jordan. The other tribes regarded this as idolatry and immediately declared war. Fortunately, they decided to talk before the first blow was struck. The ‘guilty’ tribes claimed that the new altar was their way of remembering that they were still part of God’s people on the other side of the river. This pacified the concerned tribal leaders and war was avoided.
The last two chapters are a moving finale to the book. Joshua was conscious of his advancing years. He knew he was going to die soon and so wanted to make provision for the future of the nation.
It is important to note that whilst Moses appointed Joshua as his successor, Joshua did not appoint a successor for himself. This may seem strange, but from then on the job of leadership could not be left to just one man. The leadership needs were different, the people were scattered across the land, and one man could not lead properly with so much ground to cover. So Joshua passed on his commission to them all.
Joshua’s message was very firm: God had promised not only to bless them when they obeyed but to curse them when they disobeyed. God had brought them into the land as he had promised, but they must obey the law if they were to experience his continued favor.
Joshua gave all the credit for Israel’s possession of the land to God. Although he had led the people, he recognized that God had fought for them and they should be grateful to him for their success. He concluded his speech by asking the Israelites to take an oath of loyalty to God.
The final chapter is in an altogether different style. Here Joshua speaks in the first person singular as he does in the previous chapter, but this time ‘I’ means God. His last message is prophecy and is understood as such by the people.
First God reminds the people of all he has done for them. There is no mention of Joshua’s role.
Now Joshua speaks, urging the people to fear God, serve him, be faithful and throw away any other gods. Then he speaks for himself and his household, saying, ‘We will serve the Lord.’
The people agree to follow God with Joshua, who sets up a stone of witness. Three times the people declare, ‘We will serve the Lord.’
The last verses of the book record three burials: the burial of Joshua, the burial of Joseph’s bones and the burial of Eleazer. For 40 years they had carried with them a coffin containing Joseph’s bones, because his dying wish was to be buried in the Promised Land. Now at last the bones could be laid to rest in the land Joseph had looked for.
So a triple funeral rounds off this book. We are told that as long as Joshua and his generation of leaders lived, the people were faithful to God. When the next generation grew up, however, things went badly wrong.
It is possible to sum up the lessons of the book of Joshua in two simple phrases:
* Without God they could not have done it.
* Without them God would not have done it.
These are two very important lessons. It is easy to put all the responsibility on God or to put it all on ourselves. The Bible has a balance: without God we cannot do it, but without us he will not do it. The change of verb is significant – it is not that without us he cannot, it is that without us he will not. If Joshua and the people of Israel had not cooperated with God, their entry into the Promised Land would not have happened, and yet without God and without his intervention, they could not possibly have done it.
April 12, 2010
(from Unlocking the Bible by David Pawson)
There were a number of individuals who let God down throughout the book of Numbers. The most outstanding was a man called Korah. We find Korah leading a rebellion because he was angry that the priesthood should be exclusively the right of Aaron and his family. Others joined him in this subversion, and soon there were 250 gathered together, challenging the authority of Moses and the priesthood of Aaron. The rebels said they could not believe that God had chosen Moses and Aaron and were critical of their failure to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land.
Then with great drama, Moses told the people to keep away from all the rebels’ tents. Fire came down from heaven, struck their tents and destroyed them all. Korah saw it coming and ran away with a few of his followers, but they were swallowed up on some mud flats. (In the Sinai Desert there are mud flats which have a very hard crust but are very soft underneath, like thin ice on a pond. They are like a treacherous swamp or quicksand.)
Despite all this, some of the psalms are written by the sons of Korah. This man’s family did not follow him in his rebellion, and his children later became singers in the temple. We do not need to follow our parents when they do evil.
Korah is mentioned in the book of Jude in the New Testament as a warning to Christians not to question God’s appointments and become jealous.
Moses then announced that they needed to test whether God had chosen him and his brother for these positions. He told the leaders of the twelve tribes to get hold of twigs from the scrub bushes in the desert. They were to lay these twigs in the holy place before the Lord all night. In the morning Aaron’s stick had blossomed with leaves, flowers and budding fruit. The other twigs were dead. From then on they put Aaron’s rod inside the ark of the covenant as God’s proof that Aaron was his choice and not self-appointed.
The people as a whole were problematic, as well as some individuals. Acts tells us that God endured their conduct for 40 years in the wilderness. Numbers says that the whole people failed except for two – two out of more than 2 million, not a high proportion. The people had one general problem and failed on three occasions of particular note.
The general problem with the people was ‘grumbling’. You need no talent to grumble, you need no brains to grumble, you need no character to grumble, you need no self-denial to set up the grumbling business. It is one of the easiest things in the world to do.
The people thought that because God was in the tabernacle, he did not know what they said when they went to their own tents. What a big mistake! They grumbled about the lack of water, they grumbled about the monotonous food. It says they grumbled because they could not have garlic, onions, fish, cucumbers, melons and leeks as they had in Egypt. God heard their grumbling and responded accordingly. Soon he sent them quails to supplement their diet of manna – so many that they lay 1.5 metres thick, covering 12 square miles of ground! The people went out to gather the quail, but while they were still eating the meat, God struck them with a severe plague because they had rejected him.
Grumbling probably does more damage to the people of God than any other sin.
OASIS OF KADESH
The first particular occasion for failure was when they arrived at the last oasis, 66 miles south-west of the Dead Sea (today called Ain Qudeist) in the Negev Desert. They were told to send 12 spies, one from each tribe, to spy out the land and return to tell the whole camp what it was like. They spent 40 days in the south around Hebron and also travelled up to the far north, and they found it a very fertile land. But the conclusion of their report was negative. They spread the rumor that the land would devour them. They would rather go back to Egypt.
Two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, said that God was with them and there was nothing to fear. They agreed that the land was well fortified and that it was inhabited by much bigger people. We know from archaeology that the average height of the Hebrew slaves was quite small compared to the Canaanites. They agreed too that the walls around the cities provided an obstacle. But they argued that God had not brought them this far to leave them in the desert. They told the people that God would carry them on his shoulders (just as a small boy might feel like a giant on the shoulders of his father).
The pessimistic arguments of the other 10 spies were more persuasive, however. The crowd actually wanted to stone Moses and Aaron for bringing them all this way. It had been just three months since they had left Egypt, but they were prepared to kill Moses and Aaron for bringing them out of slavery! They preferred to trust in what the 10 spies saw and said. They took the majority verdict, which in this case was contrary to God’s intentions.
The contrast in the two reports is remarkable. The 10 men said they were not able to take the land and that was that; Joshua and Caleb said, ‘We can’t, but God can’. This was not merely positive thinking but a willingness to see the problems as opportunities for God.
As a result of the faithless outlook of the majority, God swore that not one of that generation would ever get into the Promised Land – except Joshua and Caleb. We are told that he swore by himself, because there is no one else higher by whom he could swear.
They had been spying out the land for 40 days, so God said that for every day they had spied out the land and come to the wrong conclusion, they would spend one year in the wilderness. He made the punishment fit the crime. This event becomes the hinge of the book of Numbers, just a third of the way through. Had they obeyed God, the rest of the events in the book would never have taken place.
THE VALLEY OF ‘SCORPIONS’
The next time the people tested God and failed came after a magnificent victory over the Canaanite king of Arad.
They made their way back down into the deep valley of Arovar, also known as the ‘valley of the scorpions’. It is just below Mount Hor and is well known for its scorpion and snake population. Once again the Israelites grumbled against God, returning to the theme of the poor diet, saying they would prefer to return to Egypt rather than remain in the desert.
This time God punished them by sending snakes so that many were bitten and died. Realizing their sin, they asked Moses to intercede for them. God did not stop the snakes, but he sent a cure for the snakebites. Moses set up a copper snake on a pole on the top of the mountain looking over the valley. If anyone was bitten by a snake, they could look at that copper snake on the pole and would not die. All they needed was faith to believe it would work.
PLAIN OF MOAB
The third and final crisis came when they got to the plains of Moab. They achieved a number of victories along the way. They wanted to use a main route through Edom. Their request was denied, despite their historical links (Edom was descended from Esau, Jacob’s brother). A battle ensued and God gave them victory over Edom and Moab, so they were feeling confident. They camped by the Jordan looking across to the Promised Land.
But there was opposition to their advance on Canaan. The people of Ammon and Moab, owning land bordering the Promised Land, decided to disrupt their plans and hired a soothsayer from Syria to achieve their aim.
This soothsayer from Damascus was named Balaam. He had built a reputation for seeing the defeats of the armies he had cursed. But he had never been asked to curse Israel, for, as he actually explained to those who hired him, he could only say what God gave him to say! It was customary for a soothsayer to curse the opposition prior to a battle and so Balaam was asked to pronounce ill words upon the Israelites. His motive was purely the fee he would be paid. However, he proved to be unable to utter curses against Israel and ended up blessing her instead. He was unable to help himself!
Balaam announces that God will bless and multiply Israel – a prediction about King David and the son of David. So we have an amazing account of a non-believer prophesying a blessing upon Israel.
The account also tells the extraordinary story of the talking ass who refuses to advance when he sees an angel in his path. After Balaam beats the ass for refusing to move, the ass finally tells him why he is not moving! (Those who question whether this took place forget that animals can be possessed by evil spirits and good spirits. The serpent in the Garden of Eden and Jesus sending demons into the pigs are two biblical examples.) The message is clear: the animal has more sense than Balaam!
It is a sad story because of the sequel. Balaam finally realized how to obtain money from the kings of Ammon and Moab. He told them to forget about cursing but instead to send some of their pretty girls into the camp to seduce the Israelites. As this was prohibited by the law, most of the illicit sex took place outside the camp. But one man, Zimri, had the affront to bring a girl to the very door of the tabernacle.
Seeing this awful act, a man named Phinehas pinned the couple to the ground with a spear. Thereafter he was given a perpetual priesthood for himself and his family. He was the only man to defend God’s house against what was happening in God’s sight. The judgement may seem harsh, but remember that the Israelites were heading for the Promised Land. One of the worst features they would find there would be immorality. There were fertility goddesses, occult statues and phallic symbols, and all kinds of licentious behavior. They needed to realize that such things were abominations before God.