Monday, October 17, 2011

Two Mountains

I woke up early, but not so early that the sky should still look like the bottom of an ink well. Why is it still black outside? When do we 'fall back' an hour so that we wake up after the moon has gone to bed? In the inky darkness, I prayed for my friend with the broken pelvis and the one recovering from pancreatic cancer, and the new friend about to go under the knife for thyroid cancer. When I finished praying, the dog was still snoring, and the sky was still black, but I couldn't sleep. So I got up and read through the chapter I had left off in my last Bible reading. I can't remember ever noticing this before, although surely I have heard a sermon about it at one time or another and just don't recall. In Deuteronomy 27, as the Israelites have finally reached the Promised Land, crossed the River Jordan, and are now ready to drink  the long awaited milk and honey, God tells them to separate into two groups. One group is to stand on Mount Gerizim, and the other group is to stand on the adjacent Mount Ebal. The groups are separated by parentage- the Gerizim group are the children of Rachel and Leah, the lawful wives of Jacob. The Ebal group are children of the slaves of Jacob's wives. There is also Reuben,who committed an inexcusable offense and is lumped with these children born not of lawful wives. At any rate, the Gerizim group are told to bless the people, and the Ebal group to pronounce curses.  The Levites first remind the people of the laws they must obey or be cursed, and then the pronouncement of real curses gets underway. In the next chapter, the people are reminded of 54 verses of curses for various disobedient acts, but only 14 verses of blessings. The message is pretty clear....we are inclined to mess up and need powerful disincentives not to do so. I find this curious in many ways.

First of all, this is not the general philosophy of our society. I think we tend to want to shower with blessing, affirmation, positive reinforcement, ignore bad and accentuate good. I am not against any of this, by the way, but am seeking to understand something I never thought much about from God's perspective (as best as a finite, mortal, limited being can understand infinite, immortal, unlimited spirit.) We tend to excuse and rationalize bad behavior and understand compassionately its source. We are not big on consequences or punishment. We tend to look on ourselves as well-intentioned, but not always able to be good because of all the terrible obstacles that are put in our paths.

On the other hand, God seems to have a rather different view, at least in this portion of the Bible. The reminders of how we need to behave are quite lengthy and the immediate consequences of disobedience are not pleasant: pestilence, famine, disease, barrenness, sword, destruction and exile. Like any good teacher, God does indeed start with the list of blessings for obedience, but there are only 14 verses worth. Then He terrifies with 54 verses of really horrific outcomes of disobedience. This is not a God inclined to excuse or ignore bad behavior. And it is fairly clear that He felt the need to remind them strongly of what the Law required of them. Despite the reminders, if you read the whole story, you see that obeying the Law perfectly is impossible. We humans do not seem to be inclined naturally to obedience, or righteousness. We seem to prefer to take care of Number One, that all important ME, and if that means it is necessary to push Grandma over on the way, well so be it. God doesn't seem to feel we will follow the right way without a whole bunch of road signs to steer us... And 54 verses of reminders of what happens when we take a wrong turn. And a further caveat is added- if we disobey even one little portion of the law, we are held accountable for all of it, according to James 2:10.  Ouch.

So the groups on the two mountains are shouting out blessings and curses, while the people mill about, absorbing the message. Since the groups are the full population of Israelites, that means none are in the valley. They are standing on one hill or another. I think the message is clear. They are either blessed, or cursed. There is no in between.

But there is a mediator. Fortunately, in the midst of all this cursing, there is the reminder that after the people, who will sin, have been persecuted, dispersed, enslaved, and at times nearly annihilated, God will bring them back to him. They will be restored, prosper, and return to God. He tells us in Deuteronomy 30:6, that He will circumcise their hearts that they will love Him with all their heart and soul...and live. Again, this is a section I have never paid a lot of attention to, but it is rather startling. The people knew about physical circumcision as an outward sign of their allegiance to God, but what is this symbolic circumcision? (At least, they are hoping it is symbolic...)  Later, the circumcision of the heart is mentioned again, in the New Testament by Paul in the book of Romans. It will be "by the spirit", and the law will be written on our hearts. Our conscience, molded and tugged by the Holy Spirit, will be our guide. And Jesus takes the curses of our disobedience on Himself. We no longer need to stand on a mountain quivering as the curses cascade around us. Jesus will now be the infinite source of blessing. It is interesting that the people in Deuteronomy 10 are told to "circumcise their hearts", but apparently, they are to do this themselves. They are still bound by the law, by the impossible task of following God perfectly on their own power. In the New Testament however, God will circumcise their hearts. The struggle to do ends, and we can just be. We rest secure, redeemed forever.

I finished my study of those verses, and glanced outside. The day had appeared somehow. The night and the moon were gone. It is the beginning of a new day, a better day, I hope.

Ephesians 1:3

  3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.

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