5. End of Wanderings

Meditations in Deuteronomy : 5 :  End of Wanderings

(Focus: Deut 2:1-23)

Deut 2:1-3 Then we turned back and set out toward the desert along the route to the Red Sea, as the LORD had directed me. For a long time we made our way around the hill country of Seir. Then the LORD said to me, “You have made your way around this hill country long enough; now turn north.

There are parts of Scripture which, to be honest, are not as alive and vibrant as others. In other words, the temptation may be there for us to think they are boring and uninteresting, but the truth is that, All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” (2 Tim 3:16) So what is this present, apparently mundane passage from verse 1 to verse 23 of Deuteronomy going to tell us?

Moses reminds Israel of the consequence that followed their disobedience and refusal to enter the land forty years ago. So they “turned back and set out towards the desert.” What a contrast. Instead of entering the land of plenty, they were going to live in the desert for forty years.  So, “for a long time” they wandered in the desert until the Lord had decreed the time was up. Now Moses is going to cover the period between leaving the desert wanderings and arriving where they are now – and there are some significant things that happened during that time. We’ll only cover the first of them in this meditation.

Observe the instructions that the Lord had given them: “Give the people these orders: `You are about to pass through the territory of your brothers the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir.’”(v.4)  So, to approach Canaan from half way up the Jordan they have to pass through the lands of various other peoples,  but look what the Lord says about them: “They will be afraid of you, but be very careful. Do not provoke them to war, for I will not give you any of their land, not even enough to put your foot on. I have given Esau the hill country of Seir as his own. You are to pay them in silver for the food you eat and the water you drink.’” (v.4-6)  Summarised, the Lord’s instructions are that you are to respect and honour them. They will be afraid of you but you are not to provoke them to fight you for I will not support you. In fact you are to honour them and pay for any food or water you take from their land.

Sometimes people think the Lord was looking for any excuse to deal violently with any godless peoples, but this passage shows that this is just not so! In case Israel feel negative about paying the inhabitants, the Lord reminds them that they have plenty: “The LORD your God has blessed you in all the work of your hands. He has watched over your journey through this vast desert. These forty years the LORD your God has been with you, and you have not lacked anything.” (v.7)

Thus Moses then reminds them how they passed peacefully through the first lands: “So we went on past our brothers the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir. We turned from the Arabah road, which comes up from Elath and Ezion Geber, and travelled along the desert road of Moab.” (v.8)   Note also, in the light of our earlier considerations in these meditation, the geographical locations that tie this all into history.

We then find the same instructions were given by the Lord to pass peacefully through the land of the Moabites: “Then the LORD said to me, “Do not harass the Moabites or provoke them to war, for I will not give you any part of their land. I have given Ar to the descendants of Lot as a possession. (v.9). That was the second nation they were to pass through without provoking war. But it goes on: When you come to the Ammonites, do not harass them or provoke them to war, for I will not give you possession of any land belonging to the Ammonites. I have given it as a possession to the descendants of Lot.” (v.19)   So there was a third nation through whose land Israel had to pass without giving cause for attack.

So three times the Lord had instructed them to pass through lands without attacking the peoples there. Israel were NOT on a ‘kill anyone in sight” campaign!   God was NOT bringing judgment on these three people groups and so Israel had passed through these countries without upset.

So why was Moses reminding them of this?   First because it had happened! This was part of their recent history.   It showed that they were not total isolationists, they were not enemies of every nation.   No, they had passed peacefully through these three areas without there being war.   God’s intent was not willful destruction.   Where there were nations to be fought against, there was a reason for it.  Where a nation did not rise up against them, they were not to fight it.  This further historical recollection should give a further dimension of understanding to who they were and what they did.  The lesson is, let the Lord lead and often the outcome will be peace.

4. Failure to Enter

Meditations in Deuteronomy : 4 :  Failure to Enter

(Focus: Deut 1:19-46)

Deut 1:19-21 Then, as the LORD our God commanded us, we set out from Horeb and went toward the hill country of the Amorites through all that vast and dreadful desert that you have seen, and so we reached Kadesh Barnea. Then I said to you, “You have reached the hill country of the Amorites, which the LORD our God is giving us. See, the LORD your God has given you the land. Go up and take possession of it as the LORD, the God of your fathers, told you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.”

The next ‘historical reminder’ we find Moses bringing to Israel, as they wait in the area to the east of the Jordan getting ready to enter the Promised Land, is in respect of their spectacular failure to enter the land forty years ago. Now you might think that Moses was trying to build their faith in preparation for entering the Land  and so it would be prudent to forget this particular episode, but instead, I suggest, Moses uses it as a blunt reminder to Israel of the consequences of not obeying the Lord.

In the chapters of this book we are going to find countless exhortations to obey the Lord.  As far as Moses is concerned, obedience is the all-important issue for the life and very existence of Israel in the years to come. We cannot emphasise that enough, for it is something that many today almost think is an optional thing.  No, in the kingdom of God obedience to God is always the all-important thing!  The other side of this particular coin, is a recognition of the consequences of disobedience – hence this passage running from verse 19 to the end of chapter 1 is vitally important. We may prefer to forget our past failures, but the Lord allows us to remember them simply as a means of helping us avoid them in the future.

The story may be summarised as follows: after travelling from Sinai, Israel reached the southern borders of the Land at Kadesh Barnea, and so Moses had instructed them to go in and take the Land. Putting together this account and that found in Numbers 13 it would appear that the people suggested sending in spies, Moses took it to the Lord, and He confirmed it as a course of action. The spies went in and when they returned came back with a mixed report: “Taking with them some of the fruit of the land, they brought it down to us and reported, “It is a good land that the LORD our God is giving us.” (v.25) That was the good news, but the bad news was that some of them reported, “The people are stronger and taller than we are; the cities are large, with walls up to the sky. We even saw the Anakites there.” (v.28)

This caused much doubt among the listeners and so Moses had sought to encourage them: “Then I said to you, “Do not be terrified; do not be afraid of them. The LORD your God, who is going before you, will fight for you, as he did for you in Egypt, before your very eyes, and in the desert. There you saw how the LORD your God carried you, as a father carries his son, all the way you went until you reached this place.” (v.29-31) but it was to no avail: “In spite of this, you did not trust in the LORD your God, who went ahead of you on your journey, in fire by night and in a cloud by day, to search out places for you to camp and to show you the way you should go.” (v.32,33)

As a consequence of this the Lord swore, “Not a man of this evil generation shall see the good land I swore to give your forefathers, except Caleb son of Jephunneh. He will see it, and I will give him and his descendants the land he set his feet on, because he followed the LORD wholeheartedly.” (v.35,36)  Because of that Israel felt the better course was to go into the land. Note; they did not repent – that is clear by the language: Then you replied, “We have sinned against the LORD. We will go up and fight, as the LORD our God commanded us.” So every one of you put on his weapons, thinking it easy to go up into the hill country.” (v.41)

The Lord saw that this was a self-centred response and warned them against doing it but when they continued they were severely beaten by the inhabitants of the land. The result was that they had wandered in the desert for forty years!

Now within this story are some very obvious lessons. First, as stated before, when God instructs, we are to obey. Maturity means we realise that whatever God instructs is for our good. We don’t need to question it; we can trust Him. Second, when we disobey – and realise our folly – we should not turn back and do what it was for our own benefit. That is self-centred and godless. Instead we should genuinely repent, confess our sin and declare our sorrow and our willingness to do God’s will – because it is HIS will!  Third, we need to realise that whatever the Lord calls us to do necessitates involving Him in it. Without Him we cannot do it. Jesus said to his disciples, “apart from me you can do nothing.” (Jn 15:5)

These are key lessons for the Christian life as well as for the life of Israel over three thousand years ago. We should learn from their mistakes. Moses recounted that episode so that they would learn – but they so easily forgot it. May we not do the same!

7. To Gideon

“God turned up” Meditations: 7 :  To Gideon

Judg 6:11,12 The angel of the LORD came and sat down under the oak in Ophrah that belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, where his son Gideon was threshing wheat in a winepress to keep it from the Midianites. When the angel of the LORD appeared to Gideon, he said, “The LORD is with you, mighty warrior.”

There are, I think, three sorts of people: the people who live in the past, the people who struggle in the present, and the people who live for the future. The people who live in the past tend to be those for whom the past has been painful and the pain or even, perhaps, the guilt of the past blights the present. They just cannot seem to let go the past. A good dose of amnesia might help!  Some people live in the past because it was better than the present and they have difficulty letting go the past and living in the present. The people who struggle in the present tend to almost be overwhelmed by the problems of life in this fallen world. Every day is hard graft. The people who live for the future have caught a vision and are going for it. It is probably true that some of us have elements of past, present and future motivating us. Gideon was a past and present person and God was just about to make him a future person.

When we first encounter Gideon he is definitely a present person. He’s threshing wheat in a winepress. Now normally you tread grapes in a wine press; it is a hollowed out area where you collect juice. A threshing floor was an open place where the husks could be blown away. The reason Gideon wasn’t threshing his wheat in the open was because the country kept getting invaded by Midianites. It was one of those down times for the nation that are recorded in Judges, when the people had turned from God and so He had stepped back and let them be disciplined by enemy invaders. When they cried out, the Lord raised up a new leader-deliverer.

In response to the angel, Gideon shows he is also a past-person: But sir,” Gideon replied, “if the LORD is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders that our fathers told us about when they said, `Did not the LORD bring us up out of Egypt?’ But now the LORD has abandoned us and put us into the hand of Midian.” (Judg 6:13). The trouble about looking back to the past is that so often we forget bits of it and only have a distorted view of it. Gideon knows that in the past the Lord did great things for Israel, which makes the present seem even worse. It is good to remember what God has done in the past if we use it to generate faith for today but the feeling Gideon was left with was, the Lord has abandoned us. Hold on Gideon, that’s only half the picture. If you knew all your history you would know that God had spoken of blessings and curses for Israel (Deut 28), the former following obedience and the latter following disobedience, and it’s easy to move from one to the other.

But we haven’t yet picked up on a most crucial thing, the angel’s description of Gideon: “The LORD is with you, mighty warrior.” Hold on, there must be a mistake; I’m not a warrior, let along a mighty one! No, but you are going to be. Ah, there’s that future dimension which only the Lord tends to see. We just see ourselves in the light of our past failures and present struggles but the Lord sees what He can do with us, and in Gideon’s case He can take this cowering, fearful individual and turn him into a mighty warrior.

Gideon is going to take some convincing of this. “The LORD turned to him and said, “Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand. Am I not sending you?” (v.14) What is the Lord saying? Go with the strength you have? “But Lord,” Gideon asked, “how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.” (v.15) But I haven’t got any strength? No, but you will have as soon as you start doing what I tell you because I will equip you. That is what is implied behind the words, “Am I not sending you?” i.e. if I send you I’ll give you everything you need to do the job. It’s not a case of what you have now, but what the Lord will give you as you get on what He’s given you to do. Yes, it’s all in the future and so, yes, that’s what faith is about – getting on and doing what He said in the confidence that those the Lord calls, He equips.

Surely this is what is behind every first encounter with the Lord. He comes to a nobody but He sees that He can make this person a somebody. The Lord knows the future and He knows what He can achieve given the human He has before Him.  Moses might have argued and argued why he wasn’t up to it, but he did end up actually doing it. Abram might have tripped over his feet half a dozen times, but he got there in the end. Jacob might have been a twister for a long way along the path, but he got to the place of faith in the end. Joseph might have completely misunderstood the message, but God’s plan got him there in the end. So if you’re in hiding from the enemy, it may be time to come out and have an encounter with God – if you want Him to use you that is! You may not think it, but He can get you ‘there’ in the end!