My Neighbour Wants to Know About the Old Testament Leviticus 19:19; Joshua 6:15-21
5/4/2019 3:28:19 AM
April 28, 2019
Rev. David Williams
Scripture: Lev 19:19; Josh 6:15-21
Dec 7, 1941- “A day that will live in infamy!” It was the day that Japan launched a surprise attack on the United States at Pearl Harbor, as well as in the Philippines and other locations. Why would it live in infamy? Because Japan had not issued a declaration of war to the US. They had recalled much of the staff in their embassy in Washington DC and, short staffed, the ambassadors were slow in decoding the message from Japan to declare war on the US. The plan was for them to issue a declaration of war mere hours ahead of time. Instead, they issued it the next day, after the attack. In the attack, over 2,000 Americans were killed and another 1100 wounded in Hawaii alone.
Why was this such a big deal? What’s the big deal about issuing a declaration of war? Cultures have rules about their interactions that they expect their neighbours to live by. This includes rules or expectations about warfare. This is one of the reasons that terrorism is such a problem- there is no governing political body with which to communicate, to negotiate with, etc. Today we are going to explore some different cultural expectations or understandings about warfare from cultures very different from ours!
We are starting a new series today, “My Neighbour Wants to Know.” The sermons in this series are all in response to questions submitted to me that people’s neighbours have either asked or may potentially ask. We had two questions about a specific element in the OT, and another more general question about the OT and its relevance today.
Two people asked about warfare in the OT: “Why God had people fight, kill and pillage in His name in the Old Testament?” And similar to that one, “How do we respond to the comment that the OT sounds like we have a bloody genocidal God as witnessed by the slaughter of the Caananites in the OT?”
A related, but more general question that came from an actual non-believing neighbour of someone in our church was, “Does the OT still apply in a modern society? Just in the past 100 years there's been a major shift in cultural norms. Some of these very old stories, many that may have positive morals, may not connect with the current/future generations.”
All three of these questions are excellent questions! We could, theoretically, spend more than a week on each one. However, we are going to blend the three questions together under the broader theme of how to interpret different passages in the Bible, not just in the OT, but the Bible as a whole. Our examples are from the OT, but the principles should apply to reading the NT as well!
The Bible was written for us, it was not written to us. The most recent parts of the Bible are almost 2,000 years old! The oldest parts were written down more than 3, 000 years ago and deal with issues more than 4,000 years ago! All in different languages than we speak, in different countries and within different cultures.
Anybody here enjoy Shakespeare? Anybody find Shakespeare hard to read? But Shakespeare’s works are only a few hundred years old and they were at least written in English!
All this means that when we come to the Bible we have to keep in mind the people it was actually written to. Who were they? How would they have read and understood the text?
When reading the Bible, we must take care to include its literary, historical, cultural and linguistic context. We should read poetry differently than narrative, and legal codes different than prophecy, etc. Some of this work is done by Bible translators, especially the linguistic elements, but we still need to do our due diligence if we are going to deal with the text appropriately. That’s why, when it comes to studying the text, we need to make use of tools like Bible dictionaries, commentaries and other resources, including pastors.
This doesn’t mean we have to have all these tools handy every time we read God’s Word. It means we need these tools when we want to study God’s word- when we want to understand it more deeply, when we have
questions about it, when others have questions about it, when we’re confused by it, etc.
In our first text, we read about a law that the Israelites should not mix things. The Israelites are not to mix different kinds of animals when it comes to mating. They’re not to mix crops in the same field. They’re not to mix different kinds of thread when weaving, at least for clothes. I’m not sure if they could use cloth made of two kinds of material to make a bag, or a curtain, or a rug.
The Israelites were to be God’s holy and pure people. Purity and holiness go together. So, as God’s pure people they were not to mix things together and make them impure. Purity had a double meaning. It was both a physical description of materials, but also a symbolic indication of religious purity and holiness.
External purity was to point to internal purity. -All of the various washing rituals, food laws, touching laws and mixing laws were supposed to be external reminders and signs of internal purity. As God’s holy people, the Israelites were to be holy and pure inside and their outside appearance and activity was to reflect that internal purity. It also served as a reminder to the Israelites that they were supposed to be different from the cultures around them. While there may have been some practical benefits to these laws, that was not their primary purpose. These laws were also part of God’s covenant with Israel. They were not intended for all people for all time, but rather for the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the Promised Land.
To answer one of our questions, the Old Testament is still relevant in terms of salvation history. It is relevant theologically, not legally. The Laws of the OT were never binding on non-Jews. They are not binding on Christians today. Rather, the OT’s value is in showing the long history of God’s activity to save people. It is not about providing morals for us today. Although there are examples of moral people in the OT, that is not the reason for God giving it to us. So we must be careful not to make the OT say today something it was never meant to say now or back then!
The Bible is God’s story of His loving pursuit of fallen people in order to reconcile them to Himself. The story begins with Creation, and then quickly moves to the Fall into sin and how that affects humanity and the world. From Genesis 3 onward, though, is the story of God’s redemptive plan being carried out, often by using broken tools, culminating in the coming of Jesus, his death and resurrection. This long “act” of the story is called the story of “Redemption.” Finally, looking forward, there will be a “Consummation” when Christ returns and everything is fixed. As we read the Bible, we must keep this idea in mind- it is GOD’s story of pursuing fallen people in order to reconcile them to himself and to solve the problem of sin.
The problem of sin is a serious problem, even for God. We see this in the tremendous lengths to which God had to go to save us from sin- Jesus, the Son of God, becoming human, dying on the cross, and being resurrected again! Wow! Not a simple solution. So, when we come to passages in the Bible that deal with sin, we have to realize that this is a tricky problem even for God. The questions of warfare, violence and even genocide in the Bible are difficult passages to handle.
To get a handle on them, we must remember sin is a very serious problem. For God, sin is like toxic waste to us. He doesn’t want to have anything to do with it. God finds sin so disgusting, he does not want to even be near it. This is why God has to root out sin in the Promised Land if he is to dwell there with his people. This is why he had so many reminders in the Law about purity.
When we read passages about God telling the Israelites to annihilate the Canaanites, we must think in terms of the toxicity of sin and God’s desire to eradicate it. If you had clothes that were radioactive, you’d burn them! Sometimes, God burns the toxic sin from a city or country.
Now, that being said, we must also take into account standards of warfare in the ancient world!
We’re going to approach an answer to the question of God condoning or even demanding violence in the OT in times of war from several different angles: First we will look at the cultural context of these wars. Second, we will look at theological reasons for the wars. Finally, we will abstract a few levels and look at the problem of evil and justice. First, cultural questions:
All wars in the ancient world were theological as well as political. When your people beat my people in battle, it is “clear” to everyone involved that at least on that day, or in that location, your gods were more powerful than my gods. All people in the ancient world were religious. There was no “separation of church and state”. If
your people and my people were in conflict, there was a parallel conflict in the spiritual realm between your gods and my gods. So part of the total annihilation of the Canaanites was to demonstrate God’s complete dominance over the pagan Canaanite gods like Baal and Moloch. Worshipping other gods is a manifestation of our rebellion against the one true God. So God determining to annihilate such worship is reasonable. This is part of the difficult problem of sin and a sign of just how seriously God takes sin!
Many commanders “dedicated” the spoils of war to their god as a burnt offering. So when God tells the Israelites to do the same, he is working within the cultural context of the time. It may be something we don’t understand, or find distasteful, but it was completely normal and even expected at the time. Two thousand years from now, some people might not get why the US was so upset Japan attacked without a formal declaration of war. But at the time, it was expected. It is interesting to note the mercy offered in Deut 20- there the Israelites are told to offer cities the chance to surrender before they attack! Not expected
From a religious or moral perspective, Canaanite religions were horrible. One of the reasons God wanted to eradicate the Canaanites and their religious practices was because they were so detestable. Deut 18:9-13 is one of the passages of “thou shalt not…” commands God gives the Israelites. This is one of the instances in which he then makes it clear that this list of “Do nots…” is a list of what the Canaanites have been doing for years. The list includes witchcraft and divination, but also child sacrifice!
I had a church history prof who told us about visiting an archaeological site in which they had discovered the site of child sacrifices to Moloch. The pit was 12 feet deep and the size of a football field! And they were using it to kill children for worship! There is also evidence that they would tie a woman’s legs together when she was about to give birth. The delivery would then kill her!
God’s battle against sin included eliminating a culture that was not only horrendous, but would potentially infect his holy people with terrible ideas! (As it did if you read the OT carefully!)
I want to take a step back for a second and examine this question from a different direction. We are never satisfied with how God deals with the problem of evil. Many people complain, “How can a good, all powerful God allow so much evil to go unchecked?” We see evil around us or experience it ourselves, and we wonder where God is? BUT then, we turn to passages in the OT like Joshua 6 and we complain, “How could God be so ruthless? How could he command the destruction of entire towns or cities?” Well, we can’t have it both ways!
We cannot complain that God doesn’t do enough to fight evil and then complain when he deals with evil harshly. God makes it clear that he is calling for the eradication of the Canaanite people because they are to utterly evil! How do you feel about murdering children? What about murdering children and calling it worship? How do you feel about sexually abusing women, even if they are just “slaves”? How do you feel about temple prostitution? God hates these things! And he hates it when we rebel against him, replace him with vile idols and then engage in vile practices in the name of worship!
And sometimes God gets fed up and after repeated attempts to call people to repentance, he deals with them as they deserve. Treason is a capital offense- it deserves the death penalty. We have all committed high treason against the King of Kings! We all deserve instant death for our sins. The amazing thing is not that God sometimes punishes people harshly, but that he restrains himself out of love, grace and compassion! 2 Pe 3:9 talks about God delaying the return of Christ so that more people might come to repentance and be saved. God’s desire is to reconcile us to himself! That is his loving pursuit of fallen people. But God is always within his rights to carry out sentence on us for our sin!
Why does all this matter? How do we apply this? What are we to do?
Part of the application of this sermon is to inform you, to equip you, to prepare you to answer questions people have about the Bible. I hope that I have done so!
It is also a reminder or a refresher on a series we did 3 years ago on How to Read the Bible. We must remember how to treat the Bible well if we are serious about it being God’s word!
The Bible was written for us, but not to us. Read the Bible well. Equip yourself to read it well, taking into account the people it was actually written to! What would they have understood it to mean? The Bible is not a handbook on how to live life. That’s false! Rather, the Bible is the story of God’s loving pursuit of us, fallen people, in order to reconcile us to himself! Take hope in that and see where God’s love comes shining through.
Sometimes what we read shows our fallenness shining through!
Don’t be afraid to talk about Jesus. Be equipped to answer questions. You don’t have to have an answer for every possible question someone might ask! But you can be equipped to share general principles, like the Bible being written for us but not to us, or the story of God’s loving pursuit of fallen people. When you’re asked a difficult question, you can begin to answer along the lines of, “Yes, I know the OT can seem very confusing. That’s a really good question! Let’s see if we can get a handle on this.”
Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know, but I can find out.” As you share your faith, as you share the story of God’s loving pursuit of you, of how he has reconciled you to Himself, you will inevitably encounter questions you can’t answer! That’s ok! Don’t try to fake it. Don’t make something up. Have the humility to admit you don’t know, but the diligence to say you will find out. Then come see me and I will help you find answers.
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